Archive for July, 2008

No choice

Friday, July 11th, 2008

Bernadette made a wonderful point in her comment yesterday: Perhaps the difference between prison and meditation simply comes down to volition. Meditation is a voluntary – a choice – whereas prison is the absence of all choice.

In retrospect, I should probably not have been so flip in throwing around such a potent word as “prison”. Most of us take our freedom for granted. Within certain bounds imposed by economics and practicality, we go where we want, when we want, and we don’t give much thought to this precious freedom.

But of course freedom can be taken away. Reasons vary, from medical to political, but in many ways the result is the same. Does anyone have any direct experience with this? Is there somebody you know, someone close to you, who has had their freedom, their very control over their own life and destiny, taken away?

Off the grid?

Thursday, July 10th, 2008

The younger you are, the more likely you are to be plugged into the grid of information technology on a fairly constant basis. If you’re not surfing the web or reading/writing email, you’re sending text messages or just talking on your cell phone (which seems so old fashioned now, doesn’t it?).

Will there come a day when all of this will be such an intrinsic part of people’s lives – will in fact be something they’ve never experienced being without – that it will feel physically uncomfortable for them to unplug?

Or is that just an illusory fear, based on a misunderstanding of the human mind? I was talking with a friend about this today, a fellow “knowledge worker” who is generally plugged in all day long. I asked him when was the last time he was off the grid. I mean really off the grid – no internet or texting or even phone.

He told me it was the time he went camping last year. I asked whether he had felt strange or uncomfortable. He told me that actually it hadn’t been a problem, because he’d been too busy to be uncomfortable. That makes sense to me. You’re always doing something when you go camping, and the constant physical activities – hiking, setting up your tent, gathering wood, making a fire, cooking – are very pleasant ways to occupy your brain, to feel it working together with your body. And that, after all, is the function for which the human brain has been optimizing throughout all stages of human evolution.

My friend also said that if he were cut off from the grid but then had nothing to do all day except sit around, that would be uncomfortable.

And that also makes sense. After all, down through the ages, long before people had the Web or texting or cell phones, they’ve had all kinds of equivalent information-rich activities to occupy their time: dancing, talking, playing sports, walking through the park, painting a picture, picking out a tune on the piano or zither. We’ve always been on the grid – it’s just been a different grid.

But being forced to just sit around all day with nothing to do? Well that’s also an age-old concept, equally immune to technological change. It’s called prison.

Not exactly spam

Wednesday, July 9th, 2008

This blog gets a lot of automated spam pretending to be comments, which needs to be filtered out. This is not surprising. These days, pretty much any site that looks like a blog will get lots of spam.

The spam is not really a problem, and I don’t think much about it. It’s just noise, formless and without meaning. For those spam comments that my filter doesn’t automatically trap, WordPress lets me pick through pending comments from unknown sources and mark each one as “Approve”, “Spam”, or “Delete”. My general custom is to choose “Approve” if the comment is from a human, and “Spam” otherwise.

But every once in a while a comment arrives which is recognizably human, but also kind of nuts. It’s not exactly spam, but also not exactly legit. My guess in these cases is usually that somebody has arrived at my blog through some sort of RSS feed, without the context of my other blog posts.

The other day I got one of these, a sort of political hate screed that seemed to be based upon a set of obviously sincere and intensely felt passions, but that also seemed to make quite a few uninformed assumptions about me. Reading it, I felt as though my little blog had wandered into a battlefield where guns were already blazing long before my arrival, and where they would continue to blaze long after I’d wandered off.

Curious to see whether it was possible to break through, to move beyond the level of rhetoric, and seeing that the writer’s email address was listed with his comment, I decided to start a dialog with this person. I sent him a long and respectful email, pointing out places where he and I might actually agree, and trying to see whether we could work through the issues together.

I eagerly awaited his response. After all, why not try to extend a friendly hand across a cultural divide? Why not try to use the internet as a way to reach out to one’s fellows, to seek common ground?

Eventually the response came back: Mailbox unavailable: user unknown. And so I did something I rarely do: I made use of that third option. Going back to the pending comments page, I hit “Delete”.

Playing “Hacking the Novel”

Tuesday, July 8th, 2008

Getting back to my Playing “Hack the Character” theory from January 9, let us say for the sake of argument that I am on to something here in asserting that mainstream narrative fiction is actually a form of game – and that our pleasure from reading such fiction derives largely from exercising our skills of psychological analysis and empathy as we “level up” within this game.

A corollary to this theory is important to reiterate here: that the author of a well structured novel (or film or play) continues to increase the difficulty of these exercises as the plot progresses. Earlier chapters are introductory puzzles that train the reader on how to analyze the story’s characters. The real puzzles – the ones that provide the greatest rewards – come later in the novel, once the reader is able to play at a higher level.

My question for today is this: Is there a way to emphasize or to underline for the reader the game-play aspect of this experience, while maintaining the pleasure of being carried along by masterful storytelling? I’m not thinking here of interactive fiction per se, in which you the reader choose alternate paths for the characters and plot to take.

Rather, I’m thinking of some sort of reward system that you are explicitly aware of, so that as you read the novel you are acknowledged for having a depth of understanding of the characters’ conflicts and motivations, for being able to understand what a character is likely to do next – perhaps even before he or she does.

There might even be an opportunity for group game-play here. As multiple readers work their way through the narrative, they can play this game together, cooperatively or competitively, or both.

I realize that there are parallels here between these notions and recent serialized narratives on TV such as Lost. But I see at least one difference: Lost is trying to maximize the unpredictability of its plot turns and twists – to maximize surprise by throwing viewers off and keeping them always guessing, even at the expense of character continuity and consistency.

I’m thinking of something closer in spirit to the works of Jane Austin, where the entire edifice is built upon characters who hold together over time: The more you know about them, the more substantial they become. Eventually the reader achieves a sort of knowing and confident intimacy with such characters as Emma Woodhouse or Elizabeth Bennet.

I’m curious to know what people think. Is this an interesting direction, or should we just let well enough alone, and let the novel be the novel?

Viam universae carnis

Monday, July 7th, 2008

I’ve only been not eating meat for about a year, so there are things about the experience that still surprise me. After all, it’s a voluntary cultural shift away from a majority to a minority subculture. I’ve deliberately placed myself into an outsider group, and of course when you do something like that you end up seeing things in ways that can surprise even yourself.

I had this experience of surprise upon reading a recent article by Virginia Heffernan about YouTube in the New York Times Magazine. The article started from the observation that YouTube has distinguished itself from other video aggregation sites by banning pornography. This was a daring move because porn is traditionally a huge money maker in all media – from books to films to video tapes to the internet, porn has always made money.

Porn tends to crowd other topics out, but that doesn’t happen on YouTube. Heffernan points out that the absence of a focus on flesh allows YouTube to be much more interesting than other sites, since different topics can rise to the top, like the recent hugely popular video featuring a little kid excited about getting a new toy, or a series of possibly fake videos showing how to use cellphones to pop popcorn. Or whatever other topic the user community decides to rally around and contribute videos to on any given day.

While I was reading this, I had the nagging feeling that there was something familiar about it. And then it hit me: I’d had quite a similar experience when I started to eat vegan. Before, although meals had various ingredients, they were primarily about the meat: the steak or burger, the fish or the chicken. Everything else was built around that one thing. Sure, there was often a vegetable, maybe a potato, but this was really a side issue. Other ingredients were even called “sides”.

Now it doesn’t work like that for me. A meal tends to have all kinds of different ingredients, and each one can take a turn as the star of the show: fruits, soybeans, avocados, nuts, potatoes, salads, chickpeas, rice, barley and other grains, and so forth, as well as all of the many things that can be baked, steamed, chopped, mixed and otherwise devised from such ingredients.

Now the mix of ingredients and flavors in my meals has become more of a conversation among equals. With one category of things off my plate, I find my experience of food to be much richer and more interesting – I am generally noticing and discovering a greater variety of flavors and textures at mealtime than I ever have before.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not talking here about politics, or religion, or ethics/morality, or any of those things, just as I’m not saying there is anything wrong with people watching porn if they want to. I’m just looking at this from the aesthetic angle.

There are a lot of people who, when surfing the Web, cheerfully embrace that song from Avenue Q: “The Internet is for Porn”. And there are a lot of people for whom a meal is mainly about the consumption of flesh. I realize that at least when it comes to meals, I am in the distinct minority here.

But I’ve looked at food from both sides now, and I can report that once flesh is on your table, it tends to crowd out everything else; when you take that one thing off your table, a meal can become about many more things. Eating vegan is the YouTube of diets.

On the nature of Love

Sunday, July 6th, 2008

I was talking with a friend today about Love. Not love for mom and dad, or love for your puppy, but romantic sexual love, the kind that grips you, hits you hard and takes you over body and soul, throws you against the wall and says “Hello there big fella!” You know, Love.

I have a theory about romantic love, which addresses that big question: Why is it that with all of the rational thinking enabled by these big brains of ours, in spite of the fact that humans can create computers, send people into space, sequence the genome, solve Fermat’s last theorem and write Goethe’s Faust, we remain fairly irrational when it comes to who we want as a mate?

All throughout history people have chosen the most unlikely of significant others, in ways that completely defy any rational sense of group identity, upward mobility or social self-preservation. Slave owners have fathered children with their slaves, kings and queens have fallen for commoners, soldiers in wartime time have found their brides in the ranks of their sworn enemies. Just what was going on there with Romeo and Juliet, Pyramus and Thisbe, Woody and Soon-Ye? Clearly not social convenience.

My theory is that this is the way we are wired because it is the only way that the species could have survived. If, for a moment, you stop looking at humans as individuals, and instead look at us as carriers of DNA, then we, like all creatures, would have evolved in whatever way maximizes the chance that this DNA will continue to be around to replicate itself.

There clearly came a point in our evolution, sometime in the last few million years, when we developed an enormously expanded facility to use our brains for spoken language and physical invention. One would think that this would greatly expand the ability of some within society to devise various kinds of advantage in control over upward mobility and social status, and therefore in access to mates.

Were we truly able to use these powerful brains of ours to game the system, then a relatively small number of individuals could very well skew the gene pool, diverting mates away from all others. Given the nature of DNA and natural selection, this would result in a weakening, not a strengthening, of our genes, and therefore in our species’ fitness for survival. Smaller gene pools are bad, given the nature of mutation and recombination. It would be as though the fate of our species rested on the fitness of an inbred royal family, which is not a particularly fruitful strategy!

In fact, the greatest opportunities for useful genetic mutations to emerge and to take root throughout the population is to keep the selection process recombining as broadly as possible. You want those genes bouncing around like popping popcorn, forming themselves into all sorts of combinations, because there is no way to know how genes might work in combination. Genes and their mutations are so interdependent in their effects, that the only laboratory that really works for testing them is the one we call life.

And so, the set of mental traits that has won out, that has stood the test of survival by passing its DNA on through generation after generation, is the one that doesn’t permit us to exert too much conscious control over how we recombine our genes. Ergo: people fall in love with the darnedest partners.

Like all genetic selection, the resulting behavior is somewhat messy, being the result of an accretion of various small jags and sidesteps in brain development over a long period of time. So it readily shows up in situations where individual gene selection is not served, including attraction between two people of the same gender and two people who are both well beyond their child-bearing years. These are side benefits, which might very well happen to produce deep and profound connections between individuals. From the point of view of the DNA, the only thing that matters is the effect on total gene propagation and recombination produced by the aggregate behavior of the population.

This makes for much more thrilling romance novels, and of course it also ensures that there will continue to be a thriving and healthy set of people around to read those novels, down through the centuries.

Back in January I quoted Schopenhauer: “A man can do whatever he wants, but he cannot want whatever he wants”. When it comes to True Love, our old friend Mr. Darwin might be able to tell us why.

Second-hand memories

Saturday, July 5th, 2008

My mother once told me that there was a period of time, when I was somewhere between two and three years old and our family was living in a small apartment in the Bronx – one of those old New York apartments with the really high ceilings – when she started to observe a puzzling phenomenon: Every day the ceiling in the bathroom would become wet. There didn’t seem to be a leak from upstairs, just that wet ceiling every day, way up overhead, beyond reach.

As my mother tells it, one day she was wondering aloud what might be causing this strange phenomenon, when my little self piped up brightly “I show you mommy!” Apparently, I then proceeded to clamber up and stand on the toilet seat. From there I reached over, turned on the tap in the sink full blast, and carefully stuck one little forefinger into the emerging stream of water. This caused a high powered jet of water to shoot straight up and douse the ceiling.

I have no memory of doing any such thing, but my mother is very clear and confident in her memory of it. And that makes sense – from her perspective this event would have been very funny, whereas I wasn’t old enough yet to be in on the joke, so it wouldn’t have been likely to stand out in my memory. Although the whole episode certainly suggests that I was some kind of little scientist, even way back then.

Such indirect memories fascinate me, because they operate by reflection, ping-ponging from one person to another. I now have a very vivid picture in my mind of this event – a picture that was almost certainly planted there years later, from my mom’s description. It’s strange, isn’t it? I “remember” something from my own life only because my mother did. I wonder how many of our memories are really second-hand, and yet over the years have become transformed in our recollection, until we can actually see them in our mind’s eye?

Independence Day

Friday, July 4th, 2008

It’s a holiday name with odd and unexpected associations, isn’t it? The very word seems to pull you in two opposite directions at the same time. On the one hand “independence” – which in this case refers to our nation’s declaration in 1776 of its separation from England – is a statement that one is standing proudly alone, equal to any, subservient to none.

But the very fact of declaring independence suggests a kind of existential dependence, one that can never be erased. We remain the progeny of England, a self-professed derivative culture, and we can never escape this identity.

This dependency shows up on superficial levels. We still speak English, after all. Also, unlike most of the world, and in defiance of all reason, we still measure everything in “miles” and “pounds” rather than kilometers and kilograms. But the real dependencies are deeper and more profound.

For example, more than most modern democracies, we still expect our our president to take on much of the role of a king. Oh, of course we don’t say it – that would be bad form. But it is a tendency that we have distinctly inherited from old mother England.

Flag, Jasper Johns, 1954-55

Until recently, this has been largely a ceremonial distinction. Americans adored Jack Kennedy, who played the part of young king perfectly, with his princely looks and perfect grooming, his regally poised and beautiful wife, his grand balls where the likes of Pablo Casals and Leonard Bernstein would perform for the royal court (ie: the White House) as powerful lords and lovely ladies attended their king and queen, all dressed in full formal splendor.

Since 1963 there has always been a palpable sense of disappointment in the country that this heady feeling of Camelot has never again been duplicated, a sense of innocence lost, from which the country has still not recovered.

But recently the notion of king has taken on a new and more ominous meaning. The infamous signing statements of the G. W. Bush administration – the self-declared license to creatively reinterpret congressional laws in any way the executive sees fit – have been a hallmark of the last seven years. Somehow this complete transformation of our system of government, essentially an assertion of monarchist powers, went largely unnoticed until 2006.

That was the moment when, in one such signing statement, our president reserved for himself the right – in a remarkable defiance of law – to secretly wiretap the citizenry without judicial oversight.

This is why it is important for a nation to not go too far in romanticizing national pride, to not become lost within its own fantasies of itself and its entertainingly charismatic leaders.

It’s all fun and games until somebody loses a democracy.

Encounters at the end of the world

Thursday, July 3rd, 2008

Watching Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World I find myself thinking about Pixar’s Wall-E, seen only the day before. In the Pixar film, a plucky little robot pursues what seems like a fool’s dream, following his heart against impossible odds. Of course in the end he triumphs over the Universe. In this mad pursuit he is considerably helped by the fact that the “Universe” is actually the result of a screenplay by Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter, neither of whom is in the business of creating meaningless universes.

Now, seeing Herzog’s Encounters the very next evening, I am starkly reminded of the extent to which narrative films in this country are all fundamentally about the same topic. Namely, the fantasy that reality makes sense: If you can only manage to follow your dreams, then the Universe will bend itself to reward your efforts.

This is, of course, the theme at the core of thrillers and romantic comedies. It is a belief in miracles, a belief in an underlying pattern to things. It is a belief in God.

Herzog is up to something quite different. He believes very much in the power and majesty of our passionate pursuit of impossible dreams, but that’s where he stops. Herzog tells us that in the face of such intensity of purpose, the Universe responds with nothing but an indifferent shrug. No miracles, no underlying pattern, no God.

There is a direct line between Herzog’s heroes: Aguirre with his search for El Dorado, Fitzcarraldo hauling his ship over the mountain, and the fearless little penguin who marches disturbingly toward the mountains in Encounters. The brave little bird is resolute, unwavering, utterly disconnected from reality. It is clear to me that if Klaus Kinski were alive today, Herzog would have cast him as that penguin.

Of course, unlike Andrew Stanton, Herzog generally takes his subjects from life. There really was an historical Aguirre, and a Fitzcarraldo. And that crazily obsessed penguin in Encounters is no mere actor, but the real deal.

I wonder how much of our nation’s culture, our very ability to perceive reality, has been crippled by our need to shape experience into a narrative, to run like the wind because a breeze might stir a rainbow.

Perhaps we should not entirely lay the blame for the Iraqi war, and the approximately 100,000 innocent Iraqi civilians whose lives it has so far taken, upon our impetuous president and his advisers.

Perhaps the fallacy that led us to this juncture, that allowed a make-believe cowboy to sell us a view of the real world as the OK Corral, has been trained into us by countless films and television specials: That a brave little robot, if he can only believe, if he can only follow his heart, will inevitably triumph, because he is not alone: The Universe (or Jesus or Buddha, take your pick) loves him.

Only as I now type this do I remember that Herzog started his film with scenes of the Lone Ranger. While I was watching the movie, this scene confused me. Now I think I know exactly what he was up to.

Because a breeze might stir a rainbow

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2008

I went to see the newly opening Pixar film Wall-E, having heard great things. Because the film was directed by Andrew Stanton (Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille and more), I was quite prepared to like it. But I was not prepared to be completely swept off my feet. There are portions of this film that are among the most lovely I have ever seen in the cinema, animated or not. And there is so much here that is aimed squarely at thoughtful and descriminating adults, including a strong political message that dares to not flatter its audience. Quite the opposite, in fact.

It is exciting to see Pixar going decisively into the direction of making a more grown-up film. The first fifteen minutes or so of this movie must surely rank as the bravest experiment we’ve seen from a major U.S. animation company since Walt Disney himself dared to work with Oskar Fischinger on the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor that opened the original Fantasia (and even nearly dared to trust him).

Sadly, we have so many animated films coming at us today that have banished the words “subtlety” and “abstraction” from their vocabulary. The philosophy these days seems to be that if you refrain from shouting loudly at the audience with literal-minded idiocy for even one second, everyone will pick up their collective popcorn and leave the theatre. And here we have Pixar going bravely in the opposite direction, ratcheting down the cuteness, trusting the audience with moments of subtlety and stillness, daring to allow the cinema screen to be filled with silence and sheer beauty.

I hope that they continue along these lines, that they gradually work their way to making a film that is not even – gasp – a comedy. I know that Ed Catmull and his crew have it in them to do so. The fact that this film is going to be a huge hit – I can say this in advance because audiences are not stupid, despite much of Hollywood’s apparent belief to the contrary – will surely help. Then at long last America might very well get its Miyazaki. At long last American animation might begin to grow up.