Historical perspective

October 24th, 2014

The other day I used LSD as a way to describe the differing philosophies behind Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality. Actually, this part of a longer discussion.

Earlier this week, my friend Carl Rosendahl described his interesting perspective on a fundamental difference between movies and television. By the 1950s, motion pictures were completely dominating popular culture. Going to the flix would set you back only a nickel, and people were going pretty much every day.

Then TV came along, and the number of movies seen per year by the average American plummeted drastically. With people staying at home for their everyday viewing, movies had to become bigger and more expensive to remain relevant, as they transformed from an everyday experience to a once a week treat.

A key difference between the two media, Carl pointed out, is that movies are about visiting another world, whereas TV contains a strong element of the here and now. Sports, TV news, talk shows, talent shows, and now reality TV, these are all windows into the actual world as it is happening right now (although not always very good windows).

And that lines up nicely with the VR versus AR dichotomy. People like being transported to another world. But they also like being connected to other people. Providing a shared mass focus on the real world — whether we are watching the first human walking on the moon or a beloved president getting shot — is a very effective way to accomplish that.

To a first approximation, the novel or theatrical play, which presents a window into a make-believe world, is an obvious precursor to the movies, and therefore to the “Turn on, tune in, drop out” ethos of Virtual Reality, as opposed, say, to the newspaper or magazine. But the divide is not always to simple.

After all, novels and plays can also be vehicles for agit-prop, which tilts things more toward the “Be here now” philosophy of Augmented Reality. For example, it could be argued that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, ostensibly a fictional narrative in novel form, had a decisive impact on the political events of its day.

Out of the frying pan

October 23rd, 2014

This evening I went to an event that turned out, alas, to be a kind of infomercial. What I had believed would be a discussion about interesting and important ideas was revealed to be pure self-congratulatory hagiography.

There is nothing pretty about watching people brag in public. But it’s worse than that. It can change the way you think about those people, diminishing them in your eyes.

It all made me very sad. So when the friend sitting next to me said she was cutting out to meet somebody, I jumped at the chance to go with.

It turned out that she was meeting two young people — a man and a woman in their early twenties — pitching their start-up ideas in the lobby of an extremely upscale hotel. They were both very nice looking young people, with beautiful hair and excellent clothing.

But I found what they had to say very unsettling. In terms of my evening, it was a case, I am afraid, of jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.

I listened carefully, attentively, trying to understand what I was hearing. The best I could make out from the young woman’s pitch was that she wanted to design clothes that helped to save the planet, in the form of stylish undergarments targeted to rich people, made from exciting materials like orange peels.

It’s possible that this would all have made sense if I had been able to hear her story completely through. But it was not to be. Within a few minutes the young man, who had great hair, kind of took over the conversation.

He was very proud of the fact that he had raised $250,000 in about two weeks, by pitching an idea for a news digest that would replace text headlines with pictures — because pictures are more suitable for the SnapChat generation, as he explained it.

The young man’s tale touched on a journey to India, bonding with a young boy who had recently died of cancer, being embraced by an impoverished family that subsisted on about $100 every three months, and winning a heroic battle with life threatening illness.

All of this as a way to pitch a concept for a news reader that doesn’t require anyone to, you know, actually know how to read. Did I mention he had great hair?

I realized by this point that I had fallen into a kind of cartoon version of New York. It was like that party scene from Annie Hall in which we find ourselves in a bizarro version of Los Angeles, where Diane Keaton gets seduced by a sleazy Hollywood producer, and Jeff Goldblum forgets his mantra. Except this was the New York version.

Here we were, standing in the lobby of a hotel where the cost of a room for a single night could feed that poor Indian family for about a year, and we were being told about adorable little children dying of cancer, as a part of a pitch to raise seed round financing for a product to help young people avoid ever having to learn to read.

All I could think of were those recent movies about pretty young people turning into blood sucking vampires — you know, the ones starring Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson — and how everybody thinks those movies are complete fantasy.

But based on what I saw this evening, I would say those movies are documentaries.


October 22nd, 2014

Being a typical New Yorker, I raced out of my apartment this morning just in time to make it to my first meeting of the day. Since I hadn’t had time to prepare a proper breakfast, I grabbed a banana for the walk to work.

Racing down the stairs with banana in hand, my multitasking began. By the time I was out on the street I had already peeled the banana, and I was mostly finished eating it even before I made that first left turn at Washington Square.

I was ready to discard the empty peel well before I passed the first garbage bin out on the street. On some level I think I was quite pleased with the efficiency of my banana meal.

After all, how many people manage their first meal of the day, start to finish, without losing even a second out of their schedule? Tossing the peel into the trash, I happened to glance into the bin.

There was nothing in it at all, except for other people’s discarded banana peels.

Roman vérité

October 21st, 2014

Ah, another year, and another invitation to write a novel for National Novel Writing Month. Ten days until November first. Ten days to mull it over.

Most novels, I am led to believe, are the result of much planning ahead, writing and rewriting, editing and reshaping. But I have a thing about NaNoWriMo.

I always take it as a challenge to try to write a novel by simply plunging ahead, starting on the first of November and writing linearly, day by day, until I get to the end of the month. It’s a crazy way to write a novel, I know.

Yet you can think of it as a separate genre, a sort of roman vérité. Like the relationship between playwriting and improv, or between a symphony and a jazz session. The novel written straight ahead, one foot in front of the other, is its own art form.

I’m not saying it’s a superior art form, just a different one. In some years the ideas flow, the character arcs soar, and the whole thing resolves into a novel. In other years it all just crashes down with a resounding thud.

Either way, I’m usually just as surprised as everyone else.

The acid test

October 20th, 2014

Timothy Leary and Ram Dass (the former Richard Alpert) were key pioneers in research into the use of LSD as a mind-expanding drug. As you are probably aware, this history of LSD since then has been spotty, both in the medical and legal senses.

LSD has been variously described as a way to experience the world around you as a way to go on a “trip” to an alternate reality, and as a way to enhance your perception of the world around you. Which brings us up to the now.

There is a lot of debate these days about whether the future will belong to Virtual Reality or to Augmented Reality. The former is generally billed as a trip to an alternate reality. When you don your Morpheus or Oculus or similar device, you are transported to another world — a world of infinite possibility, as its proponents promise. Kind of like LSD.

Augmented reality promises something quite different. It holds out the hope of enhancing the world that we physically inhabit, transforming it in all sorts of ways but not taking us away from it. The promise is that the place where we actually are will become more vividly present. Kind of like LSD.

These two opposing visions are nicely encapsulated by the most famous utterances of the two great pioneers of LSD research, respectively:

Timothy Leary said “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”

Ram Dass said “Be here now.”


October 19th, 2014

Last night I went to a beautiful concert that consisted mainly of sacred chants. The event was very much participatory — the audience was encouraged to join in.

It was one of those deeply emotional experiences where you feel transported out of yourself. By the time we got to the closing number, with everybody in the audience standing up, linking hands and swaying slowly from side to side while we lost ourselves in the music, the experience was completely heavenly.

And yet part of me resisted. Even though I knew that these were kind folk, who believed in peace and gentleness of people toward each other, a corner of my mind held back.

And that’s because on some level I just don’t trust the transcendent experience of losing oneself in a group, even when I believe in the underlying cause that brought everyone together. There is always a part of my mind that wants to stay awake, so that I can make sure that I have not lost my judgement.

I had something like this experience at the end of Barack Obama’s acceptance speech in 2008. Don’t get me wrong — I was very happy that he won the election. Yet at the end of his speech, when he led everyone in a chant, I felt myself pulling away.

The mental state of being lost in a group transcendent experience might be one of the most pleasurable of human emotions. Yet when we are in this state, when we give ourselves over completely to the group identity, we are unable to ask hard questions about what it is, exactly, that we are saying.

Maybe I am just being too cautious in my resistance to enchantment. But then, there is something to be said for erring on the side of caution.

Tone mapping

October 18th, 2014

This blog tends to mostly sunny, with some light showers and the occasional storm cloud. Other blogs, such as one of my favorites by my friend Michael Wahrman, are much darker and more sardonic, with refreshingly dyspeptic views of humanity and its foibles.

Sometimes you are in the mood for a certain kind of take on reality. Maybe you’re in a foul mood and you need a little uplift, or perhaps at other times you feel the need for a little ballast in the form of a well aimed cutting satire.

I wonder whether it would be possible, using advanced techniques of machine learning, trained by the vast crowd-sourced corpus of the Web, to give a color or tone to any given post, so that a prospective reader could see at a glance what he or she might be in for.

I myself would be very interested to see such a “view from 50,000 feet” of my own blog, to gain some high level perspective on how my own mood and attitude may have changed here and there over these last months and years. It would be interesting to try to correlate those tonal shifts with events in my own life — or the lives of the people I love.

Generalizing, maybe we could all apply such a tool, if it existed, to our own emails, posts and tweets, to gain some insight into our own ever-shifting internal landscape of emotion over time, and perhaps learn a little more about ourselves, and how we cope with the winds of change in our lives.

Unexpected graciousness

October 17th, 2014

I flew on JetBlue last night, and had one of those mildly unfortunate experiences we’ve come to expect in air travel: The plane sat on the tarmac at JFK for a long time waiting for a cleared runway — a bit too long, as it turns out. While we were waiting, the pilot “timed out” — exceeding the amount of time he could spend, under FAA regulations, before taking a break between flights.

This added nearly two hours to the flight time, since we needed to go back to the gate, locate a different pilot, and then wait for all the paperwork to be done. If we had taken off five minutes sooner, we would have saved those two hours.

On the other hand, if our first pilot hadn’t “timed out” while waiting for that runway slot, the plane might have been flown across the country by a very tired pilot. So the way things work out was probably for the best.

I didn’t think much of this at the time. In recent years, air travel has become one long exercise in patience and acceptance of inconvenience. On the way off the plane, I joked about it to the flight attendants — I complimented the airline on providing “the greatest number of pilots I’ve ever had on a flight.”

But then today I got a very nice email from JetBlue apologizing for the inconvenience, and offering a $50 credit toward any future JetBlue flight. So I started investigating on-line, because I was curious to see whether they were obligated to do this.

And no, it turns out they are not. This was just their way of apologizing for customer inconvenience, even though nothing that had happened was actually their fault.

I wish more companies were so gracious to their customers!

The sliding scale of cultural relevance

October 16th, 2014

Since I am watching “The Gilmore Girls” fourteen years after its debut, of course I am looking for signs of creeping cultural senescence. So far, while the references to TV shows and hit songs is highly out of date (eg: today, Rory’s friend Lane would probably not be so eager to hang with M. Night Shyamalan), but the cultural sensibility is very up to date.

The further you go back in TV history, the harder it can be to connect. I’ve watched episodes of “I Married Joan” and “December Bride” on YouTube, and it feels as though I am looking into another universe. “Star Trek the Next Generation” seems decisively dated, and the original “Star Trek” even more so (in some ways, at least).

I wonder whether there is a way to quantify this. Can we attach some sort of score — perhaps based on a form of crowd-sourcing, to how up-to-date is the sensibility of a show?

On the other hand, it’s clearly not a linear scale. For example, I’m not sure, even centuries from now, Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” will ever seem entirely irrelevant.

Out of sync

October 15th, 2014

I’ve just started watching “The Gilmore Girls”. Yes, I know, this is something that people were excited about fourteen years ago, and that hasn’t even been on the air for the past seven years. You might very well ask where I’ve been all that time.

The answer is, I really don’t know. It seems I’m out of sync. Not having a television (for me it’s all Netflix) I pretty much missed the original phenomenon, except as heresay. Then last night, being curious, I clicked on it. And was instantly smitten.

Most TV shows are pretty badly written, so it was a revelation to see something so consistently well penned. It has carefully wrought relationships, truly witty banter, honestly earned irony (as opposed to cheap snark), and genuinely multi-dimensional characters, who also happen to actually be literate and well read.

Although I was mildly taken aback when Lorelai, in the third episode, referred to a male massage therapist as a “masseuse”. I hope it was an isolated lapse.

Other than that, I am completely in awe. Amy Sherman-Palladino, where have you been all my life? And where are you now?

Well, actually, I know where she is now. Resting up after her latest series “Bunheads”, which starred Sutton Foster, so I’m sure it was also wonderful. Alas, it is not on Netflix. :-(