Wednesday, February 22, 2017


To be published in Dark Mountain: Issue 11

The checkerspot is only a small butterfly, measuring about two inches across. Its coloring is rather plain, consisting of blacks and browns stippled together in a fairly prosaic pattern. Does this ordinary appearance mean that before the people came its profound role linking deeply disparate worlds was an ordinary occurrence? I do not know, but I have watched them for decades in the green foothills of the San Francisco Peninsula for good reason. Each Butterfly necessarily reminds me of the deep connections at play in the natural world, the world of reality, the world of songs and wonder.I know of no other creature who so subtly signals that there is an earthquake fault in the area. Did the Ohlone Indians know this?
The vanishing populations of the checkerspot butterfly are now making their last stand in isolated stretches of the San Andreas Fault, whose great tectonic shifts have brought unforgettable seismic shudders at various points through history. Why would this butterfly be found fluttering near earthquake faults? The answer shows how deeply connections can run in the natural world, unbeknownst to almost every typer and texter in nearby Silicon Valley.
For supper (and at tea time as well) the checkerspot dines on a particular type of Indian paintbrush, a stubbly, purplish flower well known to the indigenous Ohlone peoples. And that type of owl's clover requires the presence of serpentine in the soil, exuded by a metamorphic rock only found in the high pressure, high temperature pressure cookers of earthquake faults. This means that the shrewd butterfly watcher can use the checkerspot as a signal that an earthquake fault is certainly nearby. For as the checkerspot moves from flower to flower it weaves together the allegedly disconnected worlds of biology (butterflies), botany (Indian Paintbrush), and geology (serpentine). I know of no other species which so clearly links these three very different worlds.
And it is vanishing.
Paul Ehrlich (who became famous for his discussions of the perils of overpopulation) also devoted much of his life to the study of the checkerspot. Several years ago he declared that, after decades of well-intentioned struggle and study, the checkerspot could no longer be found on the Stanford University lands of Jasper Ridge. Had generations of enthusiastic biology students inadvertently trampled its sacred grounds?
This is not a topic discussed in polite company here. How could so many liberal ecologists be so mistaken?
With no checkerspots to be found at Stanford, [CC1] I moved on to the crew of those calling themselves "naturalists" at Edgewood County Park, who have collectively spent hundreds of hours interfering[CC2] in the private lives of a crashing checkerspot butterfly population there. I arrived at the latter stages of that scandal, not long after they had released a large number of checkerspot caterpillars they had kidnapped from a Coyote Valley location which would all too soon be subdivided into a housing development. To the surprise and grief of the sincere ecological meddlers commanding the dog and pony show there, the Edgewood checkerspot population declined even further.
They said they had no idea why.
"Why did you bring so many caterpillars?," I asked.
"We wanted to bring as many as we could," was the response.
"I'm concerned that you brought so many that they all starved."
Stone silence.
"I hope not," was the subdued reply.
"Oh," said I. A social butterfly I am not.
At any rate, I absolutely deny any and all allegations that in my explorations of thousands of acres of wild, undeveloped areas elsewhere along the Peninsula I have found another, thriving, colony in one of the happiest moments of my life. Even if I had, rest assured I would tell no other person where they might be.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Einstein's Damp Dream

I refer to the gorgeous green landscape immediately below.

I very much enjoy flying and soaring through these folded green worlds much as a stunt pilot would, and then outputting the series of images from that fantastic voyage to Adobe After Effects for others to enjoy.

One method to help visualize how to do so is to drape the most beautiful high definition nature scene you can find inside of a sphere, using After Effects.  Systematic but fascinating warpings will now permeate your gorgeous image, the opposite of what Gerardus Mercator wrestled with while trying to properly map our curved planet onto a flat surface.

I enjoy using one or more cameras available within After Effects to explore and record the fantastic flights possible within these painted spheres, as a stunt pilot might.

If you puncture this sphere with your airplane, and have placed a larger sphere similarly draped with a different landscape outside, it makes for quite the viewing experience, similar to the image immediately below.

This image depicts a shepherd reframing his understanding of the world:

This process of recording what a small aircraft might see if it were exploring the interior of a painted sphere is similar to the "Ken Burns effect" in filmmaking.  In this Ken Burns effect, the viewer traverses along an X-Y grid to intimately explore an old photograph that tells a story.

The 25-second portion of the video immediately below, from 5:09 to 5:36, is my favorite example of this effect.  It's from the 1957 Canadian film "City of Gold" that inspired Ken Burns to showcase this technique in his later career as a documentary filmmaker.

CLICK HERE to view excerpt from City of Gold that inspired Ken Burns (from 5:09 to 5:36)

In contrast to this two-dimensional Ken Burns effect, the pastoral sojourns I describe here occur within 3D space.

All this makes for lots of fun, and stunning video as well.  I have dubbed this the "Matt Dubuque effect" simply because I could find no name for it; I seem to have been the first to both codify and use it.

Perhaps this is not so; I am not sure.  That is not important to me.

What is important is the beauty of the ride when flying through high definition nature scenes in this way.  I believe watching it in iMax would transform lives in a positive manner.

I composed and copyrighted a short film about this topic.  It's called "Einstein's Damp Dream".  What I do in this film follows.

The film occurs within a large sphere whose interior consists of all the pixels from the following nature image I captured near Silicon Valley:

In this film, Einstein's little airplane explores the inside of this lovely sphere.  The little plane takes off from the runway I have painted with Photoshop brushstrokes on the right hand side of the image, and soars above the bushes and trees into the lovely blue sky.

After my first flight inside this sphere, I felt a little giddy.  I wondered what the Wright Brothers felt like after their first flight.  I felt I was experiencing a direct visual insight into properly understanding that curvature described by Einstein's theory of general relativity where the fourth dimension of time warps our perception of space.

As we fly in our little airplane through these lovely vistas, and occasionally swoop down to see a particularly lovely aspect of what we see below, tiny spheres of dreamy opacity begin to flow by. These spinning spheres have various images rotating upon them as they sail by.  Soon, an apparition of the following equation appears, constructed from carved blocks of stone:

This equation describes the angle that light is deflected when it encounters a particular mass, where the distance "r" measures the separation between the light and that which it illuminates, given how gravity "G" constantly behaves and "c" is the speed of light within a vacuum.  

Other images and scratchy audio recordings from Einstein's past continue to stream by on the left during our flight.  Perhaps an old Rudy Vallee or Enrico Caruso recording is appropriate here, with images of an RCA doggie victrola as well.

This short film reaches its climax when the memorable and pouty image of Marilyn Monroe drifts by, luridly blowing kisses at him, which we have generated using CGI.  That image, distorted by the curvature of Einstein's space time sphere within which we are flying, looks something like this:

I chose this image as the culmination of Einstein's damp dream because Marilyn stated that Albert Einstein was the sexiest man she had ever met.  In response, it seems logical to conclude that Mr. Einstein may have recollected his memories of her with fond affection.

The film ends as our little aircraft returns to its painted runway and taxis to a stop.

I have explored all the techniques described here (and mastered some of them) during the "Engineer" portion of my "Artist, Engineer, Surgeon" journey.  This film was born then as well.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

"Don't Just Do Something, Stand There: The Four Types of Uncertainty

"Don't just do something, stand there!" is a famous saying among surgeons.

Surgeons, inculcated in adhering to that portion of the Hippocratic Oath instructing them to "do no harm", are instructed to think before they cut.   An emergency room surgeon doesn't just begin carving away until she has a more educated perspective on whether it is the gall bladder or the pancreas that has caused this patient to arrive in the emergency room today.  Although surgery of a purely exploratory nature is sometimes required, a key point remains that a critical path towards "doing no harm" mandates informed cutting to the extent practicable, given the current circumstances.

This "don't just do something, stand there!" aphorism applies to foreign policy as well. Presidents from both parties have told us that "doing nothing is not an option" as we hurtle towards yet another military engagement distant from our shores.

This is false. We can indeed include "doing nothing" as an option, and sometimes the most competent approach is to not just do something, but to stand there.

What is it that surgeons do during this period of just "standing there" that precedes making that first incision on the belly of their patient?

One thing they do in these contexts is to systematically reduce uncertainty. Surgeons learn that, even if it is a mystery to the lay person, there are four types of uncertainty.

The four types of uncertainty are as follows:
  • the "known knowns"
  • the "unknown knowns"
  • the "known unknowns"
  • the "unknown unknowns".
Surgeons systematically reduce each of these four types of uncertainty while they simply "stand there". 

Doing so causes them to make more informed decisions, which reduces lawsuits and unfavorable patient outcomes.

Learn to distinguish the differences among these four types of uncertainty. Most of the chattering classes are only aware of the fourth type ("unknown unknowns"), popularized by Donald Rumsfeld.

However, Rumsfeld's problems in Iraq did not arise from the "unknown unknowns". Rather, they arose from his mistakes surrounding his "known knowns", i.e. those "undeniable" facts about which he claimed complete certainty. Rumsfeld's failure to investigate the actual veracity of his "known knowns" was a major factor contributing to the various adverse scenarios that occurred after that invasion. 

For example, one of Rumsfeld's fallacious "known knowns" was the "slam dunk" "objective fact" that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.  Whether this was in fact true was never competently explored, despite having teams of UN weapons inspectors on the ground that would have provided a definitively negative answer, had Bush's emergency surgery upon Iraq been postponed for a few months.

Another fallacious "known known" of Rumsfeld's analytical framework was that the Iraqis would welcome us with flowers and jubilation.  This too was not fact, but rather wishful thinking.

Similarly, President Obama's failure in 2011 to address his "known knowns" at the beginning of the Syrian uprising (such as "we are sure al Qaeda will be unable to secure a foothold in Syria" and "we can trust the Saudis to tell us who the good guys are") substantially contributed to the various adverse scenarios we face there today.

In a crisis situation that may present itself to an emergency room surgeon, focusing on the third type of uncertainty denoted by "known unknowns" is likely the most highly leveraged technique for making informed decisions in a hurry. Systematically and relentlessly reducing the uncertainty surrounding your "known unknowns" can deeply inform your understanding across several axes of description.  If you only have time to reduce one type of uncertainty, it is typically competent to focus on this one.

For example, one thing you may know you do not know (a "known unknown") is whether this patient is a diabetic.  Is there a way to find out through the next of kin?  That may change the probabilities as to whether it is his pancreas acting up, rather than his gall bladder.

Additionally, another "known unknown" to address is whether that patient was on any medication prior to presenting in the emergency room.  If so, he may require a reduction in the amount of anesthesia administered, so that you reduce the likelihood of killing him on the operating table. You know you do not know this. It is a "known unknown". Try to reduce the uncertainty around this "known unknown" and other instances of that particular type of uncertainty while you are "standing there".

Systematically reducing the four types of uncertainty prior to jumping headfirst into a major life decision promotes more informed decisionmaking and better outcomes.

It's what you do while you are doing nothing, just standing there.

Reduce the four types of uncertainty before you insert your scalpel into the patient.

"Don't just do something.  Stand there!" I have found framing my experience as a surgeon, rather than an artist or engineer, to be profoundly helpful.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Leonardo da Vinci: The Difference Between an Artist and an Engineer

We've been blessed throughout history with so many great artists.  Some of my favorites include Vincent van Gogh, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Monet, Picasso, Diebenkorn, James Caldwell and Magritte. Your favorites will of course vary from mine.

What do these artists all have in common?

That they all spent the greater part of a lifetime trying to perfect their painting skills and techniques is not in dispute.  They spent far more than the "10,000 hours" that Malcolm Gladwell describes as being necessary to become truly proficient at a new skill.  

And many of them died deeply frustrated at their failures to reach their personal artistic goals.  Van Gogh always intended to revolutionize the painting of portraits.  But despite his landscapes of jaw dropping splendour, comparatively few portraits of his survived.

But what if you could paint masterpieces as a hobby, in your spare time, casually, when the mood struck you?  What if you could paint masterpieces as a sideline, while keeping your day job as an architect, an anatomist, a designer of weapons, a civil engineer and philosopher?

That would be quite a feat.  And this is exactly what Leonardo da Vinci did.  Leonardo never regarded himself as a painter; rather he regarded himself as a scientist, an architect, an engineer and more. Painting was just one of those things he did on occasion.  He enjoyed it, but by no means did it define his entire life.

How is it that Rembrandt and van Gogh and Picasso spent lifetimes trying to perfect their art, whereas da Vinci routinely painted masterpieces in his spare time?

In my parlance, the reason is that van Gogh and the others pursued their painting as an "artist" would; i.e. the beauty comes first, sacrifice all for the beauty, follow the beauty wherever it goes, etc.

I don't think that's how da Vinci went about painting his masterpieces.  If you recall his drawings and workups prior to his actual paintings, they were very much studies in engineering; a series of symmetrical shapes, arcs, cotangents, etc. all meticulously measured and laid out much like a blueprint.

Da Vinci approached painting as an engineer would, in an extraordinarily disciplined, rigid and systematic fashion.

And he painted masterpieces as a hobby.  Hey look, I painted the Mona Lisa.  Wow, I painted The Last Supper.  Do you like it?

For the first part of my life, up until May, 2013, I approached everything in life as an artist would.  I wasn't focused on accumulating hoards of cash or material trappings; rather I was focused on the creation of beauty in its various forms, be it through the creation of music or the cultivation of learning.

But in May, 2013, I realized that for me this was an inferior approach.  I wanted something better.

Drawing on my insight about Leonardo, I decided to approach everything I did as an engineer might; break it down into its component moving parts; analyze it carefully before jumping in; a meticulous attention to analytical detail, etc.

And my life improved dramatically.  In six short weeks I progressed from being terrified at the thought of creating 3-D graphics for my film to pioneering some 3D techniques in Adobe After Effects and feeling comfortable creating rotating video cubes with a different video on each facet that would move within a large 3D theatre illuminated by many different videos on each of the theatre walls.

I learned how to "learn how to learn" as an engineer would.

Life was good.  The transformation from artist to engineer went well.

The transformation later from engineer to surgeon was even better.