What We Can Learn from Lamp Posts and Utility Poles

Recently a crew from PG&E came to our neighborhood to replace a utility pole. (Utility poles are the wooden poles that carry power, phone and cable television lines.) It was an old and weather-beaten pole, its surface burnt by years of being in the sun, riddle with holes from carpenter ants, and huge cracks running down its length. In other words, it was ready to be replaced. It was an odd sight because I had never paid much thought to utility poles. Their rather robust appearance made them look as though they would last forever, or longer than my lifetime for me to worry about. But when I saw a pole being replaced I started paying closer attention to them.

What I noticed was that they were not as robust as they first appeared. Many of them have multiple large cracks through them, others were leaning at precarious angles that made them look like the Tower of Pisa. Many looked like they were abused by Mother Nature, with surfaces that had been worn by rain, sun and insects; while others have been abused by humans who left hundreds of staples on their surface as they used it as a free billboard for posting announcements of yard sales or missing dog posters.

What makes the modern era so much better than previous times is electricity. Without electricity we would not only not be able to enjoy television and the Internet, simple tasks such as doing the laundry, washing the dishes and cleaning the house would be much more difficult. However, despite how incredibly high-tech everything has become, the way we distribute this electricity from power plants remain surprisingly low-tech. In much of the United States, power lines and telephone lines hang from logs that look like they were stolen from Abe Lincoln’s cabin. I checked online to see if there’s a technical rationale for making utility poles from wood instead of a more durable material. (According to my research, utility poles typically last 30-40 years, although in areas with heavy precipitation they can last as little as 10-20 years. With extra maintenance, they can last up to 75 years!) All the websites I checked seemed to indicate that while steel or concrete utility poles are in use, wood is the least expensive material and is therefore most used.

I didn’t immediately accept this explanation, my training as a scientist has taught me to examine all claims with a skeptical eye and seek alternative explanations to every theory presented. I looked around my neighborhood and noticed something peculiar; all the lamp posts were made of steel. Not only are they made of steel, but compared to the utility poles they were works of art. While the utility poles were nothing more than tree trunks with the bark stripped off, the lamp posts were fluted like columns from a Greek temple, with a base inspired by classical architecture. Not only that, there were visible signs that the city had repainted the lamp posts from time to time. Peeling paint from the lamp post reveal a red paint underneath the black paint, and different shades of green on some lamp posts indicated that the top and bottom were painted at different times. All this ornamentation on lamp post must have cost extra money, yet the city didn’t mind. Yet PG&E could not spare extra money making utility poles more durable, or at least aesthetically less of an eyesore.

lamp_postIt also doesn’t make sense from a public safety perspective. Utility poles carry high-voltage power lines that are often uninsulated, so if one falls down it could potentially endanger the lives, not to mention knocking out power to an entire neighborhood. On the other hand, if a lamp post falls down, at worst a section of the street would become unlit. The chance of electrocution would be small because the wires street lights carry are relatively low-voltage and insulated. So it would make sense that street lights would be made from a less durable material than utility poles. In fact, it doesn’t make sense why lamp posts exist at all, because street lights could be easily hung from utility poles. This is done from time to time, but not as often as it could be.

In fact, the lifespan of 30-40 years does not make very much sense, because I know for a fact that wood can last much longer if it is well-maintained. For example, the house I live in was built in 1950 and still functions very well. That suggests utility poles do not perish because of the fragility of the material they are made from, but from the lack of care by the electric company.

I think the real reason why utility poles are made of wood is not economic, but cultural. In our society, things like utility poles are not even considered objects. Like the ground underneath our feet, we treat them as a feature in the world we use everyday but barely notice. The transmission of electricity is not something most people want to think about on a daily basis, not even the electric company. This is probably the reason why utility poles are made of such flimsy material and poorly maintained.

On the other hand, the city pays so much attention to its street lighting, even to make sure the street lamps are pretty. The only reasonably explanation for this is that the city planners think of street lighting the same way they think about lighting in their own home. They want street light to look like the lamps they have in their home, and therefore used much more expensive materials and craftsmanship than necessary. Yet all this ornamentation is lost on most of the public, because we treat street lights the same way we treat utility poles, important pieces of infrastructure we hardly notice.

It’s interesting how tiny details such as utility poles can reveal the biases we have towards the world. But as important as they are, overall it is a small aspect of our lives. Perhaps if we examine many more aspects of our lives the same way I have looked at utility poles, we can uncover even more hidden aspects of our lives and culture that enlightens us to who we are.

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The Good, the Bad, and the Entertainingly Bad

Judging whether a book is good or bad is a difficult task. One problem is that all judgment on a creative work is subjective, and no two person will have the same opinion. But this isn’t the problem I want to address in this essay, it is another frequent problem that I find glaring but hasn’t been adequately discussed by other people. It is that the judgment most people give tend to be one-dimensional. Websites such as Amazon and Goodreads often rate a work on a scale of 1 to 5. This is useful because it tells people whether a work is good enough to read or watch, but it sometimes ignore other dimensions of the work. A book can be surprisingly entertaining despite being objectively terrible.

Sometimes it can be useful to introduce another dimension into rating a book. I have created a chart, and the X-axis ranks a work as “bad/good”, the usual way we judge books. Then, the Y-axis ranks a work as “boring/entertaining”, a dimension most people assume coincide with the “bad/good” dimension. However, I found that in practice the two dimensions can be independent of one another, and a good work can be boring as well as interesting. I have rated a few works based on this new system to illustrate how it will work out. These ratings are from my point-of-view and therefore subjective, and I haven’t read some of these works in their entirety. Despite these drawbacks, I hope you’ll find my musings entertaining and my system useful.

In the upper right quadrant are books that are both entertaining and good, and are usually the books we read. These books are good because they express interesting ideas, are well written, but also manage to be entertaining at the same time. For example, the book Notes from Underground is about a man who is undergoing (or has underwent) an existential crisis, but somehow Dostoyevsky makes his situation funny. Seldom will you have a work that embodies both philosophical ideas and is at the same time engaging and entertaining. The same can be said of Candide, which criticizes religious bigotry, social injustice, gender inequality, but all in a satirical way that makes the heavy-handed morality tale tolerable. I also put the works of Beverly Cleary and Mark Twain in here, because they created interesting and realistic characters that are enjoyable to read.

In the lower right quadrant are books that are good but boring. I consider most of the works of Jane Austen and and Charles Dickens to be in this category, as well as Moby Dick. These books were all well written, express interesting ideas, but have fallen short at being an interesting enough to make you excited and enthusiastic about the work. I remember reading Pride and Prejudice, and while I was impressed with the elegant language Jane Austen used, I found all the characters to be stiff and wooden. None of them appeared to have any personality at all, they were merely talking heads spouting perfectly composed sentences. It was like reading a romance novel written by an autistic person. Everything I like about Beverly Cleary is absent from Pride and Prejudice, and for this I am disappointed in that novel. Unfortunately these are also the works of literature most likely to be taught in high school and college.

In the lower left quadrant are books that are both bad and boring. Works in this quadrant tend to be ignored by most people (for obvious reasons), therefore there aren’t many works I can call off the top of my head that belongs here. The only reason these works tend to hang around is when they promote some popular ideology, so the works of Ayn Rand and most of the Bible belongs here. While I like (and dislike) certain aspects of Judeo-Christian doctrine, I find most of the Bible terrible as a work of literature. The Bible is supposed to be a grand epic narrative about the creation of the world, the falling of man into sin and final redemption. Therefore, the literature style you would expect the writers of the Bible to use would be similarly epic. However, when I read the Bible I was disappointed. Many of the stories were written in a dry, matter-of-fact style. It was as if it was written by Ernest Hemingway on his bad days. (Oddly enough God looks just like Ernest Hemingway when he’s having a bad day, so it may not be entirely a coincidence.) Never before have I been bored by reading murder and rape scenes, but the Bible somehow manages to do that.

The upper left quadrant is the most interesting, because it includes books that are both bad and entertaining. Few books fall into this category, because it is difficult for a bad writer to produce entertaining works, but when they do the results are often spectacular and memorable. My Immortal is the epitome of this category of books. It manages to make suicide, rape and torture funny, a grand achievement for someone who does not have a grasp of English grammar or spelling. Due to the ease of self-publishing and the Internet, more and more amateurs are putting their ill-conceived books on the market. Fifty Shades of Grey, which like My Immortal, was a work of fan-fiction, was originally posted on the Internet and then self-published. Will this eventually become the future of literature? I hope not, but if it does at least literature will not be dull anymore, the way it currently is.

Morning

The somber summer’s morning breeze
Blows the pillowy clouds due east
The sun’s bright shadow washed through streets
A shower of gold at Dawn’s sweet feet

Resting on a pillow of morning clouds
Behind sheets he bleached brighter than bright
Half-asleep as he rose above the mounds
Out of his hiding behind his wall of light

Evening

The ink-blue shroud of night descends
While day retreats to a golden fringe
On a horizon stained with crimson glow
A purple patch binds the boundless sky

A frozen breath extinguished the light of day
And puts restless creatures to gentle sleep
Under the shimmering jewels of a million stars
The harsh white lamps lights the asphalt paths

Rethinking Frankenstein

The book Frankenstein is one of those rare works of literature that is both well-regarded as a work of literature and is popular to a large audience. Written by Mary Shelley and published in 1818, the idea of a mad scientist building a murderous monster remains very vividly ingrained in the public imagination. The image of a green giant with neck bolts is iconic enough to be instantly recognizable to anyone in the Western world. Yet Frankenstein’s monster as depicted in almost every movie was very different from the one originally depicted in Mary Shelley’s book.

In the movie, the monster is a mindless killing machine who can only speak in simple grunts. In the original book, although the monster is very strong and hideous (as depicted in the movies), he is also very intelligent. He learned how to speak by listening to other people talk, and was able to teach himself how to read. Judging by the way he spoke in the book, you’d think he has a college degree in English literature. At the beginning of the book he was also very kind and caring. It was only when he encountered the bigotry of society (which was horrified by his ugliness) that he turned into a murderous monster.

Frankenstein has often been taken as a parable against the hubris of scientists messing with nature, but in some portions of the novel it seemed like the message was the opposite. While the novel portrayed Frankenstein’s monster as monstrous in the eyes of humans, the novel also portrayed humans to be monstrous in the eyes of Frankenstein’s monster. In one scene where the monster was quietly listening in on a history lesson, he was shocked by the terrible things humans have done to one another.

Was man, indeed, at once so powerful, so virtuous and magnificent, yet so vicious and base? He appeared at one time a mere scion of the evil principle and at another as all that can be conceived of noble and godlike… For a long time I could not conceive how one man could go forth to murder his fellow, or even why there were laws and governments; but when I heard details of vice and bloodshed, my wonder ceased and I turned away with disgust and loathing.

This is one aspect of Frankenstein, the book, that never made it into any film adaption. Ultimately Frankenstein is a very morally ambiguous book. The monster is neither a hero nor a villain, but instead a classic antihero. While he suffered much after he was abandoned by his creature and rejected from society, he was also a deeply flawed character who turns to vengeance as a reaction to his traumas.

In the 19th century such a deeply flawed character was hard for the audience to understand, so all this moral ambiguity has been stripped by subsequent adaptations of the book. This has probably damaged the Frankenstein franchise as it made the character much more one-dimensional and less interesting. However, in the 21th century an antihero like Frankenstein’s monster may be more acceptable. Therefore I hope that future adaptations would revive some of the complexities of the original novel.

Part 5: Interview with a Robot

The following is an excerpt from my novel, Girlfriend in a Box

Even though the grave for my father was far away, the pallbearers carried it all the way without any help. The thirty or so people followed them, then gathered around the hole already dug into the ground to see his body interred. The funeral was prepared in such a hurry there wasn’t even time to order a tombstone (or “monument”, but I hate that term because you build monuments to heroes, not people like my father), and the casket will be placed in a grave that will for the moment remain unmarked except for a plastic marker inserted into the ground. The apparatus for lowering the casket had been set, the backhoe for refilling the grave is ready, we all stood around waiting for the casket to slowly arrive. Since I was a family member I had the privilege of being allowed to stand right next to the grave where the body will be lowered, with Alice beside me.

When the casket arrived and was placed on the apparatus, Alice’s eyes followed it as it sank below ground and into the hole underneath. Mom was standing across from me but all this time but did not look up because she was crying and clutching my aunt’s hand. When the casket was at the bottom of the hole my mother threw a bouquet of roses down, then one by one my family said their last good-bye to dad. As the funeral was finally wrapping up and everybody was about to disperse my mom raised her head and saw me with Alice, her eyes were filled with surprise. I realized I had made a mistake and started walking away quickly, but she caught up with us and started an angry tirade at me. Her voice was not very loud but nonetheless was very intimidating.

“What the hell is that thing doing here?” mom said, her face boiling with rage, “And in front of all these people?”

“Calm down mom,” I said, my heart pounding, “I have my reasons to bring her here with me, and this is just one special occasion which I really needed her to be by my side.”

“Stop calling her that! It’s a robot, not a person. Now you very well know how I feel about her…I mean it. Just put that goddamn thing out of the way so nobody sees it.”

At this point Wally approached us, the expression on my mother’s face changed from Hulk rage to Pollyanna smile. There is a Jekyll and Hyde quality to my mother’s personality; a wrathful, vengeful side and a sweet, caring side inhabiting the same body, and the ability to switch between the two in half the time it takes to blink your eyes.

“Hi Wally,” she said with a bright smile.

Wally smiled back, and said, “Hi Eve, long time no see. How are you doing? My condolences for your loss.”

“No, I don’t need your condolences, I’m doing well,” mom said, again resorting to her Joker smile.

Wally didn’t know what to make of my mother, then after a few awkward silent moment he said, “Right, just in case my brother happens to be a psychiatrist, if you feel you need someone to talk to he’s a great person to go to.” He handed mom a business card, she put it in her purse then left.

When Wally and I were left alone together he said, “Sorry for the lost of your father.”

I smiled, I didn’t know why, perhaps it’s a reaction to stress I learned from my mother, then brushing aside the strands of hair blown into my face by the gusty wind I said, “No, that’s alright. It had been in an emotional rollercoaster for the past few days, but I’m feeling better now.”

“Must be difficult seeing your father pass away so young, huh?”

I nodded, then said, “Well, then again eventually we all have to die, it’s sooner or later, right?”

Wally laughed, then said, “Oh, we have a philosopher here, don’t we?”

“I wouldn’t say that, I am just saying the obvious.”

Wally’s attention shifted over to Alice. He looked into her eyes, and two seconds later Alice said, “My name is Alice, how do you do?”

Wally reached out with his hand to shake Alice’s, and afterwards when the two hands disengaged Wally commented, “Wow, that felt like real human skin.”

“Thank you, my creator has done a great job designing my skin texture.”

A look of wonder appeared on Wally’s face, he looked towards me and asked, “Did Ivan specifically programmed Alice to say such things or does Alice spontaneously compose these phrases?”

“A little of both,” Alice responded, “I have been programmed with a set of formulaic answers to common questions, and my advanced syntax building software allows me to put together sentences in response to questions.”

Wally shook his head and said, “This is really awesome. Listen, I need to be in London by tomorrow, what is the fastest way from San Jose to London?”

“‘San Jose’ is an ambiguous term. Do you mean San Jose, Costa Rica or San Jose, California?”

Wally was surprised but in a pleasant way, and said, “California, of course.”

“Please wait for a moment while I gather the information to answer that question.” Fifteen seconds passed before Alice responded, “In five minutes, take Bus 22 to San Jose Internation Airport, take American Airlines flight 4827 to New York. Arrive at 1:47 AM Eastern Time, then connect to British Airway 392 and arrive at London at 7:17 AM Greenwich Meridian Time. Total time for the trip, 14 hours and 56 minutes. Do you want me to book the necessary flights?”

Wally appeared impressed, looked towards me and said, “That was excellent, the only problem was that Alice didn’t pick up on the fact that we are in San Jose, California currently, but otherwise she was able to plot a course better than a human can.”

As Wally continued exploring Alice’s capabilities a man who looked like Luigi from Super Mario Bros approached us. “Hello Uncle Steve!” I said, greeting him as he walked towards us.

Looking at me with a smile he replied, “Hello Robbie, or at least I hope you’re Robbie since you look so different from the last time I saw you I might be mistaken.”

“No, you identified me correctly,” I said, then looking towards Wally with good humor and said, “when I was younger Steve constantly mistook me for my sister Sherry, since the both of us looked so alike.”

Wally nodded with a smile, then said, “I believe you.”

Steve then greeted Wally with a handshake and said, “Nice to meet you, Ivan used to talk about you all the time so it’s nice to see you in person.” He then looked at Alice and asked, “And who may this fine young lady be?”

“That’s Alice, an android my father built,” I said.

Steve shook his head in disbelief and said, “You have to be kidding me, right? I mean, she looks exactly like another human, how can she be a robot?”

“You want proof that she’s a robot? Okay Alice, open the lid at the top of your head,” I commanded. What appeared to be the top of her head flipped open, exposing a nest of circuit boards and solenoids that fill her head. Steve nearly leapt back in surprise, he appeared almost frightened upon seeing Alice’s electronic guts.

“That’s the freakiest thing I have ever seen,” Steve said, still recovering from the surprise of discovering Alice to be a robot. He stuck a finger into Alice’s head and carefully touched one of the circuit boards, then said, “Okay, I believe you, Alice is a robot.”

Steve was so perturbed by seeing Alice that he did not completely recover from this shock, he looked at Alice while speaking to himself, “I never thought we would have the technology to build a robot as realistic as Alice. I’m afraid that if we build an entire army of Alice we would end up with a robot uprising.”

“Robots do not uprise, the premise of your statement is wrong.”

Steve appeared charmed by Alice’s response, then in a more relaxed voice he asked, “Alice, are you friendly towards the human race?”

“I have been programmed to serve all human beings. This means I will obey all commands, unless it conflicts with the code of conduct that has been programmed into me.”

There was a smile on Steve’s face as he seemingly lost his fear of her, then asked, “Alice, will you go to a bar with me and let me buy you a drink?”

“I will go to a bar with you if my master permits, but I cannot drink, for I am a robot,” Alice said very earnestly.

By this point Steve was visibly holding back his laughter, then said, “My god, not only does she look human but she has a sense of humor as well! Just to test you out, how much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?”

“Not enough information in my database to answer this question,” Alice answered in her classic monotone.

Steve burst into laughter, after a few guffaws he was gasping for breath, and took about a minute to recover then said with a satisfied grin on his face, “I don’t know if you intended it or not but I think Alice has a shot at a career in stand-up comedy. Excuse me while I play around with Alice a little bit.” Steve stood a step back, then tried to play the “patty cake” game with her. “Patty cake, patty cake…” he said as he clapped his hand together, but when he extended his right palm to meet with Alice she stood there staring blankly at Steve. “Okay, let’s try this again. Patty cake…” he reached out with his right palm but again Alice failed to respond, and merely stood like a block of wood.

Steve looked towards me and asked, “Does Alice know the ‘patty cake’ song?

I shrugged and said, “I don’t know, ask Alice.”

Alice opened her mouth and said, “‘Patty cake’, also known as ‘pat-a-cake’, is a popular nursery rhyme.”

Steve nodded, but wasn’t satisfied, and asked, “Yes, but do you know the game associated with ‘patty cake’?”

“Yes,” Alice answered, “the nursery rhymes has a game in which two players coordinate claps with one another.”

“Okay, so can you play that game with me?”

“Sorry, but I cannot find specific instructions for playing that game.”

“Okay, so I’ll teach you,” Steve said, glancing towards me to ensure I approved what he was doing. “When I thrust my right hand you hit it with your right hand, and when I thrust my left hand you hit it with your left hand,” he said while demonstrating the motions with his arms to Alice, “and in between you clap, can you do that?”

“I will obey your orders.”

“Semper fi,” Steve said with a military salute, then glanced towards me with a wry smile, before returning to playing ‘patty cake’ with Alice. “Patty cake, patty…” as Steve held out his right hand Alice hit him but with a fist instead of an open palm, and with such force that he immediately grimaced in pain. He flung his right hand in an attempt to relieve himself of the pain but looking at his face he was in agony even a minute after Alice hit him. I stood there in embarrassment, not knowing how to respond.

“Sorry that I forgot to mention this to you, but it’s dangerous for you to ask Alice to ‘hit you’. My dad built Alice to be much stronger than most humans and a punch from her has the potential to break bones. If I were you I would go to a hospital soon,” I said.

Steve waved his left hand and said, “I don’t think I need that for the moment, a cold pack and a few hours of rest would take care of the situation. I’ll take a rest from teaching Alice ‘patty cake’ for the moment, nice knowing you all.” Both Wally and I waved goodbye to him as he walked away massaging his right hand.