A map in thought

July 4th, 2015

Today I wanted to explain an idea I had for a mechanical linkage to a colleague. So I did what I often do: I wrote a little animated diagram in Javascript, posted it to as a web page, and sent him a link.

The animated diagram communicated the idea just fine, but there was one interesting thing about the process. When I think about how much time I spent, maybe 20 minutes of it was on making a working diagram. But then I spent another two hours or so polishing it up.

And here’s the interesting part: Almost none of that time was spent making a functional difference to the animated diagram itself. Most of the changes I made would be completely invisible to anybody looking at the diagram.

But internally, the changes were enormous. In place of that first messy, overlong, ad hoc jumble of code, I ended up with a much smaller, clearer and streamlined program.

I realized at some point that I was engaged in creating two different works. Of course there was the visible animated diagram that anybody would see if they followed the link to the web page.

Yet there was also a second creation behind that first one: A story in code, told as elegantly, succinctly and gracefully as I could tell it.

But who was the audience for this second work? Surely not just myself. If I knew for certain that I would be the only person who would ever look at that code, I would have left it in its early, messier incarnation, and moved on.

No, the audience was for that future collaborator out there, whoever or wherever they might be, who cares deeply not just that something works, but about the ideas that make it work — and where those thoughts might lead. It was important to me to leave a clear trail to follow, a map in thought, so that this person could pick up the trail and continue the journey, perhaps to places I might never think to go.


July 3rd, 2015

Today, when I looked at the title of yesterday’s post, “Futurepedia”, I realized that I had created a frankenword. “Frankenword” is, as many of you know, a modern colloquialism for a portmanteau — a new word formed from two or more existing words that have been mashed together.

And then I thought that maybe it might be cool to start a Wikipedia of frankenwords. That is, an on-line crowd-sourced encyclopedia devoted to words that are mash-ups of other words.

Of course part of the fun would come when contributors start to create their frankenwords, just so they can add them to the Frankepedia. Which would be just fine with me. The world needs more neologicians.

Then I started to think that what we really need is an on-line crowd sourced encyclopedia devoted to ideas that have been raised to their meta-level. Like the reasoning process in the previous paragraphs that took me from a “Futurepedia” to a “Frankepedia”.

We could call this a “Metapedia”. And I guess it would need to contain an entry on Metapedias.


July 2nd, 2015

As long as we are talking about the future, I wonder whether there is any reasonable way to create an interesting taxonomy of possible futures. The trivial statement on this subject might be: “Any future is possible, therefore all futures must be considered.”

But that’s not a very interesting view. Some possible futures are highly unlikely. In the next few years we will probably not invent time travel, the faster than light drive, or antigravity. I’m not saying these things are impossible. Just that, based on what we currently know, they are highly improbable.

But some other things, such as the likely effects of global warming, or the continuing influence of Moore’s Law on our daily life, are much more understandable. And these factors could be used to sketch out a sort of rough road map of possible futures.

Perhaps we need a kind of Wikipedia of the future. A set of reference pages that people can turn to, or add to, so that we can build a collective consensus as to what might be in store for us. And maybe even be able to do something about it.

Is that asking too much?

The future of ghosts

July 1st, 2015

Speaking of ghosts, I am struck by how well immersive virtual reality lends itself to ghost stories. And I don’t mean the sort of thumb twiddling VR that’s currently being pushed by certain large companies, where you sit all day in front of a computer.

I mean the kind of VR that we are prototyping at NYU, where you get up on your feet and wander around the real world, a world with actual doors and desks and physical things — except that the real world has been utterly transformed, made to look like another place entirely, a place where magic is possible.

An analogy we’ve been using in our discussions here is with Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More. That’s an immersive non-linear narrative experience in which you wander — with your physical body, and on your own two feet – through a mysterious hotel where fragments of connected stories are taking place all around you.

Since Sleep No More uses traditional technologies, those stories can only be acted out by physical present performers and dancers. But what if that restriction were lifted?

The result would be a powerful medium for telling fantastical stories — ghost stories in particular. Creatures could materialize right in front of you, characters could walk through walls or float though the air, mirrors could cast altered reflections — or reflections from another room entirely.

We all have our own ghost stories to tell. And we may just be about to get a better way to tell them.

Seeing ghosts

June 30th, 2015

Today, unexpectedly, I ran into somebody I hadn’t seen in twelve years. When we had last seen each other, things were not ok between us. In fact, things were very not ok between us. And after that, there was no communication at all.

To see this person again after so much time, without warning, was a strange feeling, and not a pleasant one. I was filled with an odd combination of shock, fear and surprise. Pretty much what I imagine it might be like to see a ghost.

I felt, in that one moment, the accumulated weight of more than a decade of unresolved emotions, an accordion-like compression of countless hours of agonized soul searching.

I don’t think I showed outwardly any of the complex emotions I felt. It was a very brief encounter.

Being human is complicated, and sometimes difficult. How much simpler to be a blue balloon, floating through the city, breezing in and out of subway cars, with not a care in the world.

Blue balloon

June 29th, 2015

Today, as I was waiting for the express train uptown, I saw a blue balloon wander onto the platform. I’m not sure where it came from — it may have sailed across the tracks.

It was one of those helium filled toy balloons, except that this one was clearly nearing the end of its aerial life. It was hovering about two or three feet in the air, just high enough to lift most of its string.

After I got on the train, I saw, to my surprise, the same balloon floating up the aisle toward me. Along with the other passengers, I watched, astonished, as it meandered here and there, wandering from person to person. Then, as the doors were about to close, it drifted toward the door nearest to me. I thought for a moment it would stay with us, but at the very last second, just as the doors were closing, it darted out, dragging its string behind, and was gone.

As the train pulled out of the station, I found myself grinning. I looked around to see whether anybody else was as enchanted as I was. An older hispanic man, wearing a fedora, was also smiling ear to ear. He and I made eye contact.

“It came in that door over there,” he said to me, pointing excitedly, “drifted up the aisle toward us, then scooted out this door here.”

“Maybe,” I suggested, “it was waiting for the local.”

Fiction versus nonfiction

June 28th, 2015

We all love a good novel, a compelling play, a movie that transports us to another world. Stories are the life blood of entertainment, and often of art.

One of the key elements of a work of fiction is that it is, indeed, fiction. There was no actual historical Hamlet, or Elizabeth Bennet, or Holden Caulfield. These people never existed, except in the mind of a brilliant author.

Of course there are also stories out there about real people. Stories about people like Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Albert Schweitzer. These tales of challenge and accomplishment in the real world have their own appeal.

Yet it seems that as a general rule we prefer the fictional characters, the heroes who emerge from the fevered brain of an inspired author.

What is it about us that makes us more willing to recognize truth when it is contained in a story about made up people?

Pretty darned cool

June 27th, 2015

The Supreme Court decision was pretty darned cool. It doesn’t happen too often, but every once in a while, love and understanding can win out over fear.

It’s also good to know, amid all the violence and hatred in the world, that this planet can sometimes become a slightly more caring and civil place to live.

I think I’ll give our President the last word on this, since he said it so well yesterday, in a different, much sadder context:

“Justice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other; that my liberty depends on you being free, too.” — Barack Obama, in his eulogy for Reverend and Democratic state Senator Clementa Pinckney, Friday, June 26, 2015

Non-colocated intersubjectivity

June 26th, 2015

“Intersubjectivity” has many meanings. I like the definition once proposed by Mark Rothko, in the context of live performance: that I know that you know that I am performing for you.

Note that this definition encompasses all of theatre, and none of cinema, all live musical performances, but no musical recordings. It invokes the virtuous cycle between performer and audience. The interaction between the one and the other creates a sort of infinite loop of emotional feedback.

Today during a wide-ranging lunch conversation with Dakota Powell, I had occasion to bring up Rothko’s definition. She has been a pioneer in creating live theatre that transcends physical locality. In her work, actors in one geographic location are projected — in real time — to another location, and audiences therefore respond to performances that are co-located in time, but not in space.

One of the problems with this sort of thing has been the difficulty of providing proper audience feedback to remotely located performers. When you are acting from far away, it can be hard for you to have a good back-channel from the audience.

Recent developments in virtual and augmented reality might change this. Once we have the ability to provide rich audience feedback to actors who are performing in real time, but from a distance, then we will be able to extend Rothko’s notion of intersubjectivity.

“Theatre”, in the full sense of that word, will no longer be restricted to a single geographic location. Rich live performances, informed by audience response, will be able to span the globe.


June 25th, 2015

I am disturbed by the sheer diversity of young terrorists living within our nation’s borders. Only a matter of days before Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to death for his participation in the horrific bombing at the Boston Marathon, Dylann Root murdered nine fellow Americans in cold blood in a church.

Both young men are 21.

Although both crimes are monstrous, there are differences. For one thing, Tsarnaev actually managed to apologize for his crime. I know that’s not much, but at least it shows he is aware of the horror and pain that he caused. I somehow doubt, based on what I’ve learned so far, that we will ever hear an apology from Dylann Root.

There is a cruel irony in the fact that America, which celebrates diversity, manages to contain such a diversity of terrorists, all of whom seem to be motivated by a hatred of diversity.