Sunday, June 27, 2010

Technology and sport

This is a day of poor judgments in soccer. Both of the World Cup matches today involved goal-related bad calls. Would England or Mexico have won if the referees' decisions were correct? Probably not. But it was disheartening to see injustice breaking the equilibrium and ruining the chemistry in the teams.

England vs. Germany, 38th minute. A shot by England's Frank Lampard hit
the crossbar and bounced half a meter into the goal. But it was disallowed.

Argentina vs. Mexico, 26th minute. Argentina's Carlos Tevez scored the
first goal of the game on a play that appeared offside from all angles live.

It's not the first time blown calls have happened in soccer. Now-coach Maradona's "Hand of God" goal in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final against England is a classic. What really bothered me today was FIFA's long resistance to technology. Instant replays showed the world the truth but the referees could still deny and their decisions stood. Refs are human beings, and human beings make mistakes. But does that mean we just have to embrace human imperfection as part of the game? Why don't we do something about it?

The relationship between technology and sport makes me think of swimming. To me, the ban of "sharkskin" swimsuits makes sense because the whole point of a race is to challenge the limit of what the human body can do. "Sharkskin" technology enhances the body and the result is in principle no different from a genetically altered creature. But when it comes to the literally "technical" aspects such as judgment accuracy and hard evidence, technology should be encouraged. I remember in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Michael Phelps won the men's 100m butterfly gold by 1/100 of a second. There's no way bare eyes could tell this. If technology brings us precision and justice, why not?

Friday, June 25, 2010

Public Playground 1

It's really moving! That's my first reaction when I walked towards PS1 and saw from the outside the swaying rods beyond the walls. When the renderings first came out, people started to question how much the poles can really move. As the design developed, SO-IL worked with structural engineer Buro Happold and decided to use windsurf tendon joints to allow maximum flexibility in all directions. It's exciting to see this really works and SO-IL has successfully delivered what they proposed within budget and schedule.

What SO-IL provided is a interactive instrument for people to play, rather than a finite form to look at. (Well, it is nice to look at too.) I saw people vigorously shaking the poles and causing waves on the net, taking their shoes off and jumping into the pool, or kicking balls in the sand pit as if on a beach. The indeterminate structure invites endless inventions of new games. Here, the architects have let loose the final product and become choreographers of situations, or literally, for pole dances.

In the smaller courtyard, the eight poles are equipped with accelerometers. The motions of the poles are measured and translated into tones specifically composed for the installation: rapid and shallow movements create locally oscillating tones, while large, tilting movements create ripples of sound throughout the courtyard. The installation engages the visitors to participate in rich sound experiments. And, there's also an app for that!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Chaos generated by chaos

I have to say the Starn twins' "Big BambĂș" on the rooftop of the Met was a big disappointment. Thousands of interlocking bamboo poles are tied together with nylon rope, forming a vast and seemingly chaotic structure. I was trying to find some decipherable principles to grasp onto, but there's none.

It's interesting to see this in the process of writing the last post. If money amplifies people's unconscious emotional volatility, art is the venue where people deliberately exploit the irrational dimension of spontaneous actions. The so-called "moments of genius" provide a good excuse for random and unmindful practice. But is that really what creativity is about?

I'm not saying we should abandon intuition in the process of creation. But rigor is essential to any meaningful exploration. Big BambĂș takes its inspiration from scaffolding in Asia, but what's the logic of scaffolding construction? Would the columns be hanging and not touching the ground? The piece is meant to resemble a cresting wave, but why can't I see signs of the underlying principles of hydrodynamics? Perhaps it's more exciting to experience through the elevated pathways. But if the pathways are supposed to work as urban arteries, do they have the same rationale as street layouts in cities? Maybe I am being a bit too harsh. All I want to say is, no matter how ingenious the gut feelings are, one still need some justifiable grounds to be truly creative. To put it in a banal way, there should be a balance between sense and sensibility.

Fat tails

Reading Niall Ferguson's narration on the history of finance, I saw many almost con-like well-planned inventions that have advanced the system of money to more sophisticated levels, and at the same time devastating moments of human spontaneity that shook our world with bubble bursts and crises. The stock markets, for example, are mirrors of an amplified tendency of overreacting. When prices start to go up, people rush to go in and buy more as if possessed by a collective euphoria - what Alan Greenspan called "irrational exuberance." But if any bad news surfaces, people can flip overnight from greed to fear, selling and withdrawing, causing a dramatic plunge on a global scale.

In statistics, the graph of a "normal distribution" looks like a classic bell curve, with higher probability clustered around the mean and fewer instances towards the extremes. Many natural and physical phenomena, such as human heights and laser light intensity, seem to follow this principle. But the movements of stock market prices are more results of human emotional volatility than rational science of "normal." Prices can surge up steeply one day, and drop with extreme abruptness the next. Statisticians call this distribution with higher likelihood at the extremes "fat tails."

Fat tails imply risks. Things can go extraordinarily well, or terribly wrong. And it's hard to predict. Today you have a winner, and tomorrow you could have a crisis. Impulsive decisions and mood swings push things to extremes, jumping inconsistently between one end to an other. It is almost impossible to understand or follow or react. That's why the rocket science of the Black-Scholes pricing model did not succeed. Maybe the only way to deal with subjective irrationality is guesswork, which by definition gives you 50% chance.

Some say stress or anxiety is the source of poor decisions. People under stress may swing between the poles of mania and depression, suffer from perceptual narrowing that prevents them from seeing the big picture, dramatize trivial happenings that should be expected normally, or even distort reality through denial and fabrication. Is there a way to pull the fat tails back to the mean? I would say: "Calm down."