Camouflage

October 30th, 2014

The other day I saw a small contingent of soldiers walking through New York Penn Station. Presumably they had arrived and were on the alert in response to some potential threat to our safety, so I was glad they were there.

But it occurred to me how odd it is to see soldiers in full camouflage in the heart of one of the world’s most urban locales. In the context of New York City, camouflage clearly does not serve to disguise. In contrast, it does precisely the opposite.

And I realized that this is exactly the point. The soldiers were meant to stand out, and this was achieved by virtue of outfits that make no sense at all, if those outfits are taken literally.

In a situation like this, we are being asked not to take the appearance of these soldiers literally. Rather, we are being asked to see them symbolically, as conveyers of an age-old message: “My very appearance reminds you of the jungle, with all its untamed terrors, so you will remember that I am your defense against the darkness your city lights cannot reach, and that which lies beyond.”

Not a bad message really, as camouflaged messages go.

Soft instruments

October 29th, 2014

Today I attended a very nice tribute to Marvin Minsky, an all day event inspired by his ability to improvise music in the style of Beethoven.

There were many interesting intellectual discussions over the course of the day. One that stood out concerned the relationship between composing and improvising. Some thought that they are on a continuum, others contended that improvising is a subset of composing, and one person asserted that they have absolutely nothing to do with each other.

One thought that occurred to me is that our notion of “musical instrument” might be too restrictive. Generally we think of the “instrument” as the physical object you interact with to perform music, such as a piano or a guitar.

But if we look at how we use these instruments, we can see that their physicality is not their essential feature. Rather, their essential feature of a musical instrument is the fact that it has been carefully constructed beforehand, as a mechanism to support musical performance.

But by this token, shouldn’t we include any computer software that is written for a similar purpose? Perhaps a program that helps us create trills, or progressions around the circle of fifths, or just a temporary transposition to the minor.

In the broader sense, anything that has been created beforehand, which then supports a real-time performance, is a kind of instrument.

One might say that if it exists as an object in the physical world, then it is a “solid instrument”. But if it exists only as a digital object, a thing of code and algorithm, then we might as well call it a “soft instrument”.

The square root of ocean

October 28th, 2014

This evening a friend told me that the number of molecules of water in a teaspoon is, more or less, about the same as the number of teaspoons of water in the ocean.

I am completely entranced by this idea. In some very real sense, a teaspoon is the midpoint between an ocean and all of that ocean’s molecules of water.

Some of you are no doubt thinking of “Cosmic View”, the brilliant book by Kees Boeke that was later so beautifully adapted by Charles and Ray Eames into their “Powers of Ten” films. Both the book and the films that followed were tours de force of exposition, spanning the full scale of our Universe.

But for me, the teaspoon image is powerful precisely because it is so simple. I hold an ordinary teaspoon in my hand, filled with a small quantity of water. On one side of me is the mighty ocean. On the other side, an equal distance away, lies the mysterious nanoscopic world of molecules.

What could be more lovely?

The proximity of great comedy to tragedy

October 27th, 2014

The other day I saw “Galaxy Quest” again. I had not seen it since it first came out in theaters, fifteen years ago. To say that it holds up over time would be an understatement.

I think there really are only a handful of movies that I consider perfect, in that they set out to accomplish something worth striving for, and they achieve it with spectacular precision and effectiveness. “Casablanca” is one, as is “The Seven Samurai”. I would definitely put “Galaxy Quest” into that rarefied category.

Watching it this time, I already knew everything that would happen, and therefore I could focus on structure, timing, variations in dramatic tension, and how these all worked together to produce a perfect cinematic result.

And I realized something I hadn’t seen the first time around: Much of the comedy in “Galaxy Quest” comes from the proximity of tragedy. The characters you care about are essentially all tragic figures, lost and bitter souls who have missed their chance at happiness in life. They don’t start out liking themselves very much.

In their hero’s journey to redeem themselves — essentially to win back their lost souls — they encounter many terrible dangers. The potential for unspeakable horror lurks just around the corner, sometimes even showing up rather explicitly on screen.

It is the very fact that the stakes are so high, the characters are so believably drawn, so real to us, the possibility of tragic outcome so palpable, that makes the comedy so funny. Through the beautiful alchemy of storytelling, we transmute into laughter the tension of seeing people as flawed as we are — people who could very well be us — going through hell and coming out the other side.

I think Chekhov was on to something. *†

* “Galaxy Quest” also, by the way, adheres impressively to the principle of “Chekhov’s gun”.

No, not that Chekov. The other one.

The thirty year echo

October 26th, 2014

A friend who had read yesterday’s post pointed out to me, quite correctly, that there was a history of serious grown-up television well before the 1970s.

I had been well aware of the “Goldedn age of television” in the 1950s, which included such programs as Playhouse 90 (“Requiem for a Heavyweight”, “Judgment at Nuremberg” and quite a few other brilliant broadcasts), but I had decided not to mention them because this early trend toward serious adult content hadn’t lasted. By the 1960s it was mostly gone, except in little isolated bits and pieces, such as moments in “The Twilight Zone”.

Yet now that I think about it, the parallel to the history of VR is uncanny. About thirty years before now, Jaron Lanier was pushing hard for Virtual Reality. His company VPL was quite the thing in its day, with people heralding VR in 1986 as the next wave of computer graphics.

A few years after that came Fakespace Labs, in which Ian McDowall, Mark Bolas and others produced extremely high quality VR, albeit at extremely high prices.

I wonder whether there is some pattern here. If you look at any given cultural shift that suddenly appeared and took the culture by storm, perhaps you can often find an echo of it thirty years earlier.

If so, then maybe we should call this principle the “thirty year echo”.

Continuum hypothesis

October 25th, 2014

It could be argued that TV as a medium for conveying fictional narratives began to grow up in 1971, when Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin introduced “All in the Family”. Within a year, Larry Gelbart had come out with “M*A*S*H”, and there was no looking back: TV was now a medium to engage in a non-trivial way with grown-up issues of the day.

A decade later, Steven Bochco brought us “Hill Street Blues”, which dropped the other shoe. For the first time, a dramatic series on American television was treating its audiences like grown-ups (as film had learned to do a full half a century earlier). There is a direct line from the moral complexity, narrative sophistication and multi-layered characters of “Hill Street Blues” to “The Sopranos”, “The Wire”, and other TV shows that are now replacing what had been the exclusive domain of film with a serious long-form alternative.

Yesterday I spoke of a divide between VR sorts of experiences that take you to another world, and AR sorts of experiences that provide an enhanced view into the world of here and now. Television, with its rapid production cycles, is much more amenable than cinema at being an AR sort of experience, capable of addressing cultural, political and ethical issues in an immediate way, while those issues are still in the headlines.

Yet we now see, with the maturing of television as a narrative medium, that it is also capable of filling the role of serious literature.

I wonder whether we will eventually see this sort of continuum between VR and AR, as both mature into serious media for narrative storytelling. At first, VR will be the continuation of the novel and the movie — a way to take you to other places and times, to tell stories of far-off worlds.

AR will start out as the continuation of the magazine or daily news feed, a way to stay connected and up to the minute with the world around you.

Yet eventually, as new generations of artists gradually learn to master the demands of these future media, VR and AR will merge, and we will see a blurring of the lines between alternate worlds and the one we are in.

Which wouldn’t be that surprising, when you think about it. After all, to be human, with our fabulous brains and our gift for language, is to exist in a world of symbolic meaning and make-believe, superimposed at every moment on the physical world that happens to house our bodies.

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.

Banana

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.