You could do that

I just saw the very last evening of the week long Toy Theatre Festival, which means I’ve just seen about twenty miniature puppet shows by various artists. There is a warmth and love from audience to performer that pervades these shows which is quite different from anything you generally feel in a movie theatre or at a Broadway show. I now realize that part of my brain has been working away trying to understand this feeling. I think I’ve got it.

When you see a film, or traditional theatre, there is a definite sense of being on the outside looking in. You are aware that you are seeing an experience which took entire teams of experts, undoubtedly belonging to many different unions, with a budget that far exceeds any amount of money that has ever passed through your own mortal hands. All of this reinforces your position as anonymous consumer: you are merely a recipient of somebody else’s massive effort, a villager greeting the victorious army as it rolls into town with its banners waving and its massive tanks on the roll.

Miniature puppet theatre is different. The materials are simple and inexpensive. You can get by with a make-shift foam core proscinium arch and some pieces of painted cardboard on sticks. The real magic resides in the story you tell and your sense of timing in the telling. The audience is perfectly willing to enter the “magic circle” where disbelief is suspended – in fact, they are far more likely to do so – precisely because your puppets are so disarmingly simple and childlike. And therein lies a deeper truth.

I would argue that an audience for miniature puppet theatre is charmed by the clear implication that they themselves could make such shows, should they so wish. Of course the reality is different. Budget or no budget, you need talent and aesthetic judgement to put on a show. Great theatre is great storytelling, and that’s a skill that most people lack.

But the illusion is there. And what is puppetry, after all, if not a masterful illusion?

The last sentence is actually invisible.

It’s a kind of literary game.
Sentences must have exactly six words.
Apparently someone wrote a whole book!
The New Yorker reviewed it recently.
The reviewer played the same game.
All his sentences had six words.

What about five word sentences?
Could that also be expressive?
Or would it become restrictive?
Guess you’d have to try.
It never hurts to experiment.

Four might be hard.
There aren’t enough words.
Gets way too terse.
Sounds like bad Hemingway.

Three is ridiculous.
It becomes constricting.
Words fail me.

Feeling uncomfortable.
Getting nervous.


Human first

I spent the day today at the annual end-of-year symposium of the Human Computer Interaction Lab (HCIL) at the University of Maryland. All three of the Lab’s successive directors – Ben Shneiderman, Ben Bederson and Allison Druin – were there, and they are all good friends of mine. Ben Shneiderman founded the lab in 1983. He is one of the fathers of the field of HCI research, and is a font of wisdom on many subjects. Ben Bederson, with whom I’ve been friends since he was in grad school, took over the lab directorship in 2000. Allison, who is married to Ben Bederson, became the lab’s director in 2006. I actually know Allison the longest of the three. I have had lots of time to talk with all three of them in the last twenty four hours, which has been great fun.

The wonderful thing about the HCIL, as Allison pointed out today, is that it puts the “human” first. Much of computer science research seems to forget that there are such things as humans. Instead it seems to be a quest for a kind of abstract algorithmic purity, as though computer science were merely a branch of mathematics. The HCIL people have been way ahead of the curve in recognizing that the real power of computers comes when we find ways to interweave that power with the complementary power of the human mind. Computation is indeed enormously powerful, but computation that augments human thought is downright transformative. And to achieve that, you’ve got to understand human thought.

This is rather tricky for many academics, because it requires bridging the large gap in scientific subcultures between computer science on the one hand, and psychology on the other. It’s very hard to get academic recognition when any given reviewer of your manuscript is not going to understand half of what you are saying. To me the people at HCIL are visionary because they recognized, a full quarter of a century ago – long before it was fashionable – the need to reconcile these two parts of the problem.

And they are still at it. Only now the world is starting to catch up.

Train of thought

I spent several hours today on a train – several blissful hours. I am struck by how different trains are from other modes of transportation. There is something soothing and meditative about train travel. The ride is smooth and graceful, there is plenty of room for each passenger, and you can get up and walk around if you like. If you’re hungry, just wander over to the diner car, and pick up a snack or a meal.


It’s as though trains are an alternate vision of the world, one where things have gone right. None of the huge carbon footprint of automobile and air travel, no going through security with your shoes off or needing to deal with road rage. Just a lovely Victorian idea of getting from one place to another, suitably updated for our twenty first century world.

One thing that always strikes me about the Europeans, as compared to us Americans, is how much they really appreciate the magic and beauty of train travel. To go from Paris to Marseilles in the TGV is to discover a nation that, at least in this one regard, genuinely likes itself. Our own AMTRAK, on the other hand, lives somewhat the life of an orphan, needing to get by on borrowed track, disparaged by those in power, Harry Potter and Cinderella rolled into one.

Perhaps, with the high price of oil, this might now change – after so many decades of neglect, our nation might once again embrace its locomotive self. I’m going to try not to get my hopes up, lest I be disappointed. But I can dream, can’t I?

Not remarkable

I was surprised that people thought I was describing something exceptional in yesterday’s post. In fact I was merely reporting something completely unexceptional, something that happens every day here. Of course people jumped in to help that old man. New Yorkers are very practical people: If there’s a problem we can solve, we generally prefer just to solve it.

For example, if there is a parent with a baby carriage at the bottom of the subway steps, someone will immediately offer to pick up one end and help carry it to the top. Afterward the volunteer is more than likely to forget that s/he even did it. That’s just the way things work in this city.

My friend Jon pointed out to me today that the misconception that New Yorkers are indifferent might come from the fact that (with so many people in such a small space) people here have a very good B.S. filter. You just know, in much less than a second, when somebody is about to come on to you and pretend they need a handout. You can feel the sense of practice in their pitch, even before they open their mouth.

But a legitimate problem, like this ninety-something year old man needing to get from point A to point B, is a whole different thing. People are actually relieved to be able to do something to help make this town a more manageable place.

I am aware that there are places in the world where jumping in to help an old man get somewhere he needs to go is considered remarkable. But New York City isn’t one of them.

Recently, on the subway

Recently, on the subway, a little old man walked into our crowded rush hour subway car. He must have been in his nineties, and he was walking very slowly, leaning on his cane and balancing carefully with each step. I stood up to give him my seat. He thanked me in a thick Russian Jewish accent, the kind you don’t hear so much anymore, and then asked me how far it was to Grand Central Station.

I explained to him that it was three stops. I continued to stand by, hovering over him worriedly, wondering how he was going to make it out the door at Grand Central during rush hour without getting knocked over. As we pulled into 33rd Street I told him it was the next stop after this one. He slowly and carefully pulled himself up out of his seat, so he’d have plenty of time to make his move, and I helped him up, holding him firmly by one arm to steady him until he was fully on his feet.

As it happened, a woman got on at 33rd Street, a large black woman probably in her mid forties. She saw this little old man standing there precariously with his cane, and she told him, somewhat concerned, that he shouldn’t get up so soon, he should wait until it was closer to his stop. I told her that I was looking out for him. She said “Oh, are you with him?” And I replied “No, I’m just looking out for him.” We smiled at each other, and she moved on into the car.

A few moments later, still smiling, she turned back toward me and said “I’ll fight you for him.” I laughed and said “Well, we can share, right?” Just then the subway pulled into Grand Central. The woman and I both watched with trepidation as the little old man slowly made his way out of the subway car and onto the platform. While the doors were still open, I saw him ask a young woman in her twenties how to get to the main concourse of Grand Central.

I’m pretty sure the young woman had been planning on boarding our subway car. But instead, sizing up the situation, she said to the old man “I’ll take you there.” As the subway doors closed, I could see her start to walk with him toward the stairs leading up and out of the subway, as he slowly and carefully made his way to the next part of his journey.

You’re innocent when you dream

Have you ever had a dream, which you completely forget about until suddenly it pops into your head much later? Well, I had an experience like that today: I was visiting my parents, sitting at their kitchen table (I mean in real life – we haven’t gotten to the dream yet) when suddenly I realized that last night I’d had a vivid and somewhat disturbing dream.

In the dream I was answering the phone, and a familiar voice – a man’s voice – said “Guess who?” I actually manage to guess – it was the voice of my former therapist. By the way, for those of you who don’t know, in New York City it seems that everybody has a therapist. I did have one for a while, but I stopped a number of years ago – I wasn’t really getting very much out of it. Although I could be in denial about that – how would I know, right?

Anyway, in the dream my former therapist (who in the dream has moved to California, which is where he is calling from) explains to me that my psychiatric chart was sent to him, and based on his assessment of it, he’s going to need to prescribe medication for my mental condition.

I remember feeling very disappointed in the dream that I needed drugs to have normal mental functioning. Disappointed in myself, as though I had failed one of life’s important tests. In my real life I’ve never been on any such drugs, and yet it never occurred to me in the dream to question his decision.

Of course later, sitting at my parents kitchen table when the dream popped back into my head, my first thought was how absurd the whole thing was – of course I wouldn’t have just accepted such a diagnosis. But that’s the difference between reality and dream reality, isn’t it?

My main take-away from this experience is the following question: Is there a different person there in our heads, the one who is dreaming the dreams? I mean, clearly the reactions, decisions, and possibly the values of the dream self are quite at variance from those of the waking self. Is there an identifiable person – a different and specific person – within our head when we dream? Or do we just float along, rudderless, without measureable personality of any kind, a leaf on the wind?

Any opinions?

Under the radar

Yesterday I went to a miniature puppet show in Brooklyn. Well, actually, eight miniature puppet shows in Brooklyn, at the Toy Theatre Festival at Saint Ann’s Warehouse. One of the pieces was truly spectular, several were well characterized by the phrase “oh, get over yourself already”, and the rest were somewhere inbetween: Interesting, not necessarily successful on their own terms, but containing some exciting ideas to mull over.

I realized after seeing all this puppetry, so soon after having seen Tan Dun’s The First Emperor, that I want to write a puppet opera. It’s really the only rational response, isn’t it?

During several performances I found myself sitting next to a young Vietnamese woman. We struck up a conversation, and afterward ended up taking the same subway back to Manhattan. Ikuko makes little zines, and she gave me one. Each zine is made by folding an ordinary piece of 8.5 &#215 11 paper into the shape of a little booklet with eight pages. You can print anything on the zine just by printing onto that one sheet – pictures, story, poetry. Ikuko’s zine was a self-illustrated story-poem that was really lovely.

The moment she gave it to me, I was suddenly struck by the anti-capitalist slant of these little zines, and the fact that this quality renders them virtually invisible. Generally speaking, anything in our society that does not make money for somebody is off-limits to mainstream media. The Soviet Union had Tass and Pravda, which operated under strict marching orders from the Soviet party, and we have CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, The New York Times, TIME and NewsWeek, and so on, which are governed by rule of what might be called the “American Politburo”: If it’s not likely to make money for anybody, it is generally not mentioned.

So anything like the little gathering I went to last week to make puppets, no matter how many millions of people might end up engaging in such an activity, is generally off-limits to American new organizations. After all, there isn’t really any way for somebody to make milllions of dollars from people sitting around making puppets out of spare socks.

Which is a shame, because making and giving away little paper zines is an act of pure joy: You just design them, print them, fold them, and give them to your friends. Anybody can get in the game – no need for capital investment, just flair and imagination. Of course if you know to look for them, the Web is filled with such things – but you have to know to look.

What would it take for a society to publicly celebrate such acts of individual creation through its broadcast media? I find myself wondering whether the idea of broadcast mass media and individual not-for-profit inventiveness are fundamentally incompatible. Could the former ever really celebrate the latter, or would that be a contradiction in terms?

Scenes from the novel XII

The words upon the door looked ancient. They were in fact far more ancient than they appeared, for their author had long since turned to dust. The seekers understood that they were looking at a puzzle, and that they could not pass until they had worked out the key:

As night descends, the subtle decree
The tide once forged from fragrant desire
Resplendent jewel, thrust from the fire
Beckons to yonder perilous sea
His uncouth dominion, his freighted expanse,
When the wise be foolish, no sacred vow
Could lay across that wrinkled brow
The wage of fortune’s circumstance
Forged in shadows of rising dread
Engraved upon a pomegranate seed
The tenets of mercy, the scripture of need
And so fortune’s fool is paid instead

    If truth ye seek, not knowing why
    Search the dark and glowing eye