Inviting in the vampire

August 19th, 2019

There is a well-known tale about vampires. They cannot enter your home unless you invite them in.

I love the idea of this as a metaphor. It applies to so many things in real life.

In a work environment, you don’t end up with dysfunctional people who will destroy your professional team from within unless you agree to hire them. If you are the person responsible for that team, and you let in one of those people, then the bad things that happen to productivity and morale are your fault.

Similarly, the citizens in a democracy are free to elect a weirdly incompetent self-absorbed fascist who promotes racism. But if those citizens do invite in the vampire, they shouldn’t expect it to end well.

Just saying.

Binary thinking considered harmful

August 18th, 2019

People are able to discuss some topics rationally. But shift the conversation to other topics, and pretty much everybody seems incapable of holding a meaningful discussion.

Let’s take two examples: “intelligence” and “racism”. When we discuss the general topic of intelligence, we don’t reduce the conversation to “this person is smart and that person is stupid.”

We all know full well that intelligence is on a continuum, and most people are at least somewhat aware that it is multi-dimensional. You can be a straight A student and yet be lacking in emotional intelligence.

You can be a genius at musical composition, yet terrible at analytic reasoning, or vice versa. A great writer may be a terrible conversationalist.

Nobody thinks any of this is strange or contradictory. After all, we spend much of our day parsing the varying categories of intelligence of the many people we meet, work alongside or happen to be related to.

Yet when you say the word “racism”, people seem to lose all ability to make such fine distinctions. People simply classify other people into the bin “racist” or “non-racist”.

In reality, there is no bright red line separating “racist” from “non-racist”. There are, in fact, many different kinds of racism, and everybody’s racism is on a multi-dimensional spectrum.

But that’s not how we talk about it. In fact, we don’t even seem to have the language for talking about those many subtle distinctions.

In the case of racism, I find this to be quite discouraging. After all, how can we work on the corrosive and pernicious problem of racism if we don’t even have meaningful language by which to discuss it?

Today in L.A.

August 17th, 2019

nice day in L.A.
except for the strange and absence
of any weather

Something really new

August 16th, 2019

Every once in a while somebody invents a new art form, and does a really good job of it. It doesn’t happen too often, so when someone manages to do it, you sit up and take notice.

I am about half way through George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, and I am realizing that I am in the presence of such an accomplishment. I suppose that technically it is a novel, since it tells a single fictional story of book length.

But calling Lincoln in the Bardo a novel is like calling Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective a TV miniseries. On some technical level you might be sort of right, but you would also be completely missing the point.

I wonder how many clear-cut cases there are of a truly new form being introduced into popular culture, with the result being a spectacularly successful work of genius.

I can’t think of very many.

The difficulty of doing nothing

August 15th, 2019

When things go terribly wrong, we feel we need to do something. Not just something, anything.

Yet sometimes what the situation really calls for is to do nothing. Absolutely nothing. Nada.

And that can be hard, because all our lives we are taught that when something happens, we need to do something in response.

Consequently, to respond by doing nothing is infinitely more difficult. Even when it is the only correct thing to do.

Postponing the trade war

August 14th, 2019

There is something wonderfully funny about the fact that the ongoing U.S. trade war against the People’s Republic of China is being hastily postponed. This week our federal government decided that for most consumer goods the trade war would not officially begin until after December 15.

Yes, it is true that China is a potentially fearsome opponent. After all, its population is nearly 1.4 billion.

China also has a Gross National Product of more than $1.2 trillion. It has been a formidable nuclear superpower for well over half a century, at any moment able to unleash weapons of mass destruction easily capable of wiping the entire human race off the face of this planet.

Yet none of this matters. The White House knows all too well that there is a far greater and more formidable power at work here.

It is a demonic force of unstoppable vengeance, one whose dreadful wrath, once unleashed, would be even more awesome and profoundly terrifying than the combined military might of all the nuclear capable nation states on Earth.

I am speaking, of course, of Christmas shoppers.

The movie that ruins the book

August 13th, 2019

We’ve all had the experience. They are going to make one of your favorite childhood books into a movie. You are excited — finally your treasured tome will become a part of the larger popular conversation.

Then you go to see it, and your heart sinks. They’ve turned a brilliant jewel into another example of stupid Hollywood treacle.

The worst part about it is the realization that future generations of children will never read this book. Because the terrible movie will replace the great book in the awareness of the populace. Sigh.

For me this happened when they made a movie from the first book of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. If you actually read that book — The Golden Compass — then you know what a masterpiece it is, and you have probably gone on to happily devour the second and third books.

But if all you saw was the movie, then there may be nothing I can say that will get the bad taste of that film out of your mouth. A terrible aesthetic crime was committed against you, and you may not even realize it.

A friend of mine told me today that this happened to her with Inkheart. I never read Cornelia Funk’s novel, but I did see the movie, and I thought it was a train wreck.

My friend told me that when she saw the film — after having read and fallen in love with the book — she had pretty much the same reaction that I did when I saw The Golden Compass: A deep sadness that another brilliant novel had been buried under the weight of a terrible Hollywood adaptation.

Have you ever had a favorite book that was similarly destroyed along the way to the big screen?

Future movie production

August 12th, 2019

Today on our Future Reality Lab blog I wrote a post describing my take on what will and will not (and in fact cannot) happen as film production continues to evolve and to embrace ever improving digital technologies and practices.

The post is called The limits of digital production.

Puppet party

August 11th, 2019

We all love a good costume party. They give everyone a chance to indulge together in harmless fantasy of being a superhero, or a cartoon character or cereal box, or whatever, while continuing to hang out with each other as ourselves.

I think of this now because I’ve been having discussions with people about the use of costumes and puppetry in theater, and how the relationship between costumes and puppets might change if theater is performed in virtual reality.

Usually we know the difference between costumes and puppets in the theater. A costume is worn by an actor as part of their performance. A puppet is operated by a puppeteer who is not generally considered part of the drama — even when in plain view.

Of course sometimes the two concepts can be blurred. Julie Taymor, to give just one example, has made a career out of doing just that. Yet for the most part they are distinct.

But let us consider a future in which theater is performed in VR. An actor might be able to embody an octopus or a giant snake.

In VR theater, it will become possible for the concept of costumes and puppets to be blurred. And yet it seems to me some fundamental distinction may remain.

After all, we all love a good costume party. But nobody goes to a puppet party.

Humor and suffering

August 10th, 2019

Mel Brooks once defined the difference between comedy and tragedy like this:

“Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”

Most of us understand what he was getting at. We never laugh at good fortune. We only laugh when something goes wrong. But to be funny, things need to go wrong in the right way.

When I think of the jokes I find really funny — I mean sidesplittingly funny — they always involve something terrible happening. I would never want to be the person in the joke that the terrible thing happened to.

Yet when I tell such a joke well, everybody feels immense pleasure. I think there is something profound in this contradictory connection between misfortune and pleasure, but I am not entirely sure I understand the nature of that connection.

Can there, in fact, be true humor without an element of misfortune? Can the two ever actually be disentangled?