MARIANO TOMATIS

WONDER INJECTOR

Italian writer and magician
working for a better Rule #34:
«If it exists, there is magic of it.
If not, let’s make it!»

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 2014 (36)

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WHAT IS SCI FOO?

Science Foo Camp (or “Sci Foo”) is an invitation-only gathering organized by Digital Science, O'Reilly Media, and Google, with support from Nature. The 9th edition of Sci Foo takes place on 8-10 August 2014 at the Googleplex in Mountain View, CA. Lord Martin Rees has defined it as “a sort of mini Woodstock of the Mind”. Participants include researchers, writers, educators, artists, policy makers, investors, and other thought leaders, all doing groundbreaking work in diverse areas of science and technology.

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Failure Is An Option

Unearthing failures in a land of winners

Posted on thursday 14 august 2014• Written by Mariano Tomatis

Changing perspectives is the main road to the discovery of hidden, valuable stories.

During a stop on my way to San Francisco, at the Detroit Metro Airport I stumbled into Gene Kranz’s famous motto “Failure Is Not an Option” (1) on a teachforamerica.org billboard. I immediately took note of the quote because — on the contrary — my trip in the States was focused on finding, sharing and celebrating shining, epic, memorable failures.

Banned from the Banned Toy Museum

I spent my first night in Burlingame, where I had planned to visit the local Banned Toy Museum, displaying toys taken off the market because they were a serious safety hazard, or because they were offensive.

The Banned Toy Museum is hosted inside the Museum of Pez Memorabilia, 214 California Drive, Burlingame (CA).

Unfortunately it was close for holidays — and it was sadly ironic to be “banned from the Banned Toy Museum”!

I would have liked to honour Steve the Tramp — a veritable symbol of failure: the action figure from the 1990 film Dick Tracy was pulled off the shelves due to its insulting package. Being a homeless, Steve was labeled

ignorant bum with cauliflower ears, dirty and scarred from a life on the streets. You’ll smell him before you see him.

Banning an already banned figure sounds doubly cruel, and in my wet dreams I see one million Steves assaulting Barbie & Ken’s Glamour Camper, in a lysergic, revolutionary revival of the Matrix Reloaded assault by the Agent Smith and his countless clones.

Failure in Science

My lightning-talk (ispired by this routine by Pete Holmes) was focused on granting a value to the concept of not-knowing and Stuart Firestein’s (great) session “Failure and its importance to the success of science” dug deeper into the idea of getting an improved and more thoughtful ignorance (SEE HERE HIS AMAZING WORK).

Although Magic and Science are very different disciplines, our disclaimers have been strikingly similar. I warned the audience:

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating ignorance nor supporting irrationality. When I perform a magic trick, I am offering you an opportunity to foster a detached credulity, that state of mind in which you are ready to don and doff the awareness that it is just an illusion.

During an interview on the topic, Stuart noted:

But I don’t mean stupidity. I don’t mean dumb. I don’t mean a callow indifference to facts or data or any of that. I mean a really thoughtful kind of ignorance, a case where we just simply don’t have the data. It’s not that you individually are dumb or ignorant, but that the community as a whole hasn’t got the data yet or the data we have doesn’t make sense and this is where the interesting questions are. (2)

In reviewing Stuart’s book Ignorance: How it drives science, Brian Clegg commented:

The interesting part and the fundamental heart of science is not about what we know, but about what we don’t know and where we want to look next. (3)

My beloved spitting preacher

At the end of Science Foo Camp 2014 I left Palo Alto to share with some roommates an apartment in San Francisco. The (wonderful) metropolis does not hide its city-for-rich-people status — and in order to unearth its minor stories of failures I have read The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac. In its pages I met

A big fat woman like Ma Rainey [...] standing there with her legs out-spread howling out a tremendous sermon in a booming voice that kept breaking from speech to blues-singing music, beautiful. (4)

Kerouac had met here in Portsmouth Square Plaza, the Chinatown park — a place I visited to pay my respects to the Ma-Rainey-like woman.

Me in Portsmouth Square Plaza, San Francisco (14 August 2014).

I liked the outlandish description of her given by the writer:

This woman, who was such a great preacher, was not preaching in a church [...] because every now and then she just simply had to go sploosh and spit as hard as she could off to the side in the grass “And I’m tellin you, the Lawd will take care of you if you recognize that you have a new field... Yes!” — and sploosh, she turns and spits about ten feet away a great sploosh of spit.

I share Kerouac’s enthusiasm when he confess his friend Japhy:

See she couldn’t do that in a church, that’s her flaw as a preacher as far as the churches are concerned but boy have you ever heard a greater preacher?

I fell in love with such a woman, whose big heart would have been banned from official churches just because of her inconceivable flaw. And even if her skills had never been recognized at large, I find it difficult to label her preaching as a failure.

_________________

(1) Gene Kranz, Failure Is Not An Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond, Simon & Schuster, New York 2000.

(2) Stuart Firestein: “Ignorance: How It Drives Science”, American University Radio, Washington DC.

(3) Brian Clegg, “Review of Ignorance: How it drives science by Stuart Firestein”, Popular Science, 22 July 2012.

(4) Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums, 1958 (Chapter 16).

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