Archive for February, 2008


Saturday, February 9th, 2008

Tonight I went to a really interesting party, filled with New York artists. The conversation was intelligent, there were people from around the world, the wine flowed freely, and it was all music for the soul. The most interesting person there, to me, was a lovely woman named Sarah. She was not one of the “guests” but rather was helping out with the party. We started talking, and somehow our conversation ended up roaming to all sorts of topics. And the more we talked, the more I realized how interesting she was to talk with. And gradually I realized that although I didn’t know her, I was somehow starting to be able to trace out the contours of a fascinating mind, somebody I would be able to speak with about all kinds of topics, and each of those topics would be new and exciting.

It’s amazing when that happens, when unexpectedly you meet somebody that you resonate with, and you realize just how unbounded and non-linear human minds are. We randomly meet people as we go about our lives, and then every once in a while we run into somebody who wakes us up, makes us realize that the potential of these minds of ours is infinite, and that sharing and exploring this beautiful infinity is the supreme joy of being alive.

And so tonight i am happy.

The Heleniad, canto the second, part the third

Friday, February 8th, 2008

Ah, another Friday. Please forgive my terrible french, but a poem must speak to its muse, and this week my muse is in Paris. :-)

"Je parlerai en français
C'est la langue de la vérité
Pour vous dire ce que je sais"
Ainsi le démon a dit

"Il est temps pour vous d'entendre
C'est le moment de comprendre
Vos rêves que je veux prendre"
Alors le démon a ri

La jeune fille a pensée
"Dix-sept ans" a-t-elle répété
"Cela fait beaucoup d'années
Et la vie est brève"

Le garçon a dit "Mon amour
Je te parle de tout mon coeur
Tu sais que je t'adore
Est ce que tout était un rêve?"

En un jour une vie peut changer
Tout est ré-arrangé
Un rêve est dérangé
Et l'amour s'est dissout

Le nuit était très sombre
Le monde était dans l'ombre
Qu'est ce qui est dans un nombre?
Tristement, peut-être tout.

Future imperfect tense

Thursday, February 7th, 2008

I see Caroline’s point about the non-time traveler having little or no power to sway the group. I was thinking not so much of his power in society, but rather of his obligation to his own convictions. In other words, not what can he do, but rather what must he do.

After all, even the time traveler needs to proceed carefully, in that his best strategy to effect abolition probably involves stealth. My own current opinion is that the most effective way to work toward the abolition of slavery, in a society that does not yet realize there is a problem, is to work toward transforming the means of production, so that the ruling class no longer finds slavery to be in its economic self-interest.

I am fairly certain that if you reach people in their wallets, then their hearts and minds will follow (apologies to LBJ). I think history is fairly consistent on one point: Within a generation after any exploitive practice is no longer useful to a ruling class, many people in that class will find said practice to be morally repugnant, and will wonder how their forebears ever could have been so thoughtless and cruel.

Small detour

Wednesday, February 6th, 2008

Just taking a small detour today from the recent time-traveler discussion thread, to share a wonderful video that my friend Andy brought to my attention the other day.

I had been fretting that the attack on the World Trade Center might mean something very different to folks who don’t live in New York. It turns out that our friends at The Onion were waaaaay ahead of me on this one:

“Country Music Stars Challenge”


Present imperfect tense

Tuesday, February 5th, 2008

I completely agree with Sally’s comment. She totally saw where I was going with this: People in that society don’t know any better – how could they? In contrast, for the time traveller from the future simply to accept slavery, given what he knows, would be monstrous. He does not have the option of ignorance.

Strategically, I also wholeheartedly agree with Sally that the time traveller (assuming he cannot leave) is obligated to work toward emancipation in the most effective possible way, rather than flaming out in anger or merely freeing a few individual slaves to assuage his conscience.

Now that we’ve established that, let’s ask a slightly harder question: Suppose an individual has come to realize that slavery will no longer be prevalent in another fifty years. Perhaps he has unique insight into a coming shift in technology that is difficult or impossible for his peers to understand, such as a new kind of mechanization that will take the place of slave labor.

Is he in the same situation as our errant time traveller?

Past imperfect tense

Monday, February 4th, 2008

Suppose you are an errant traveller through time, and your malfunctioning time machine has just sent you back into the past, to an era when pretty much nobody questioned the institution of slavery – and you happen to be of the right ethnic group not to find yourself enslaved.

Presumably you would want to fit in. But you find that all the people you meet socially have slaves. And those people think you should have slaves too, like any “normal” person.

The problem is, you know something they don’t: That at some point in the future the entire concept of slavery will be considered abhorent. But you can’t tell people that. You can’t even tell people where you’re from, because they will just think that’s crazy talk.

As far as society is concerned, the problem is you. You know something nobody is supposed to know yet. So what do you do? Do you take on slaves and try to treat them really nicely? Do you refuse to have any slaves, and risk being a social outcast?

Family values

Sunday, February 3rd, 2008

Recently I have been thinking about the doctrine of “family values”, heavily promoted in parts of the U.S., that elevates the family unit above individual choice. I had always assumed that this doctrine was mainly a way of expressing disapproval of people with certain sexual orientations, or of poor women who get abortions (rich women will always be able to get abortions. The “Right To Life” legislation proposed by those who promote “family values” would, practically speaking, only affect women who have few resources).

But recently my views have been changing as to this doctrine’s real significance, ever since I had a debate over lunch with a conservative friend on the subject of compulsory voting. In some other countries, including Brazil and Iceland, you aren’t given the option not to vote. If you don’t vote, you have to pay a fine.

I argued that this would be good policy for our country. He dismissed the idea out of hand. After all, he argued, aren’t you just adding noise to the system by having people show up at the pollls who don’t give a damn?

After I’d had some time to mull over his answer, I got to thinking about the laws in Illinois and some other parts of this country that bend over backwards to make it more difficult for poor people to vote. And then I realized that (although he didn’t say it, and I’m guessing he never would), he was talking about poor people.

There is a big gap in our nation between the theory and practice of universal suffrage – in theory everybody could vote, but in practice we often make it rather difficult for poor people to vote: They need to take time off from work, without a culture that encourages employers to give time off, and then they need to take the bus to an often far-away voting place. On top of that, there are often onerous requirements for ID, which then can’t be challenged without taking another day off from work, and thereby running the risk of getting fired.

And that’s what made me realized that I when I was talking to my friend about compulsory voting, I had really been thinking mostly about the effect it might have on poor children. Let’s say you’re a poor kid, and your parents have given up – they don’t bother to vote, since they don’t believe that there is any point in their participating in a system that is so slanted against them.

In my view of what this country should and could be, we would reach out to that child, and tell her that every generation provides a new opportunity to get it right, to be a better democracy. Compulsory voting would help with this. In order to get elected, politicians would be forced to pay more attention to the opinions of young people who have grown up poor.

That’s when I started rethinking the effects of “family values”. The very phrase suggests that the natural unit in our society is not the individual but the family. And that distinction ties in with this other issue, the one of universal suffrage.

In some societies, citizens look at children from poor families and are appalled that those children might not get the same health and education advantages as children from better off families. If only for reasons of pure self-interest, one would think it would be logical for a society to do its best to nurture all potential new talent, to find its next Einsteins, Edisons, Marie Curies, wherever they may be. Once you let a child grow up with inadequate education and health care, there’s a really good chance you’ve doomed that child to mediocrity as an adult.

But of course if you are among the better off in society, there is a downside to nurturing the potential of poor children: those children might grow up to compete in the marketplace with your own child. And here is where the doctrine of “family values” seems to take on another aspect: It allows its proponents to pay lip service to upward mobility, while making sure the playing field remains unlevel.

After all, if we define the societal unit as the family, not the individual, and if we’ve given up on the parents, then substandard education and health care for a child in that family is, by definition, not society’s problem. It’s God’s will, the “sins” of the fathers, in the purest Calvinist sense: Children of poor parents are supposed to be poor. After all, since the family is sacred, placing individual potential over the sanctity of the family unit would be, uh, immoral.

Fractal narratives

Saturday, February 2nd, 2008

My screenwriter friend Andy and I were talking yesterday about story-as-game – the topic that I touched on in my January 9th post Playing “Hack the Character”. Andy mentioned that even when you read a book, you still have that choice about when to turn the page. You can read slowly and linger over the cadence of the words, or you can flip pages rapidly, racing through the story.

I found myself wondering what would be an analogous choice for interactive media. One possibility presents itself: The interactive narrative that gives you just two choices: (i) continue on with the current scene, or (ii) move on to the next scene.

Let’s define “scene” as continuous action: The characters inhabit continuous space and time. Within a scene, characters may leave or enter the action, or may continuously wander from one location to another, but they do it while you watch. A different scene is defined as a discontinous break in time or place.

The general idea is that while you choose to continue watching a scene, you are expressing interest in a particular window into the story world: These characters at this place and time. When you switch scenes, you are choosing to jump to a different window into the evolving plot and character arcs (eg: “Earlier the previous evening” or “Meanwhile, somewhere in New Jersey”).

Of course the content would need to be designed with this mutable quality built in. A scene would need to make sense whether it goes on for one page or twenty. Writing this way would be tricky – but I don’t think impossible.

Also, the choice of how long to let a scene run would influence what comes next. It might not be desirable to repeat information in a later scene that was already revealed in a long earlier scene.

This style of interaction roughly corresponds to looking at a narrative as a fractal that can be viewed at various levels of detail. To let a scene go on longer is to expand the fractal, delving deeper into one place/time in the story world.

The Heleniad, canto the second, part the second

Friday, February 1st, 2008

A new month, and as it happens, a Friday. This week our epic poem takes an ominous turn:

Moments may sway us, but kisses betray us, 
For fate won't obey us, and oft goes astray

Twas fateful that meeting, two hearts fiercely beating
But alas, joy is fleeting when stolen away

In a turn most appalling the darkness came calling
For a curse was befalling, a thing of their fears

And a figure demonic - it was almost iconic -
In voice monotonic said: "Seventeen years!"

It was all rather vexing, and sorely perplexing,
This grim specter hexing their love most sublime

"What be you?" they wondered, then the night air was sundered
As the dark figure thundered: "The demon - of Time!"