Archive for December, 2008

Unblog

Thursday, December 11th, 2008

I realized that after a while I started to divide my life into these two categories: the friends I actually see in person from time to time, and my “electronic friends” who exist in my life either entirely, or almost entirely, because they check into this blog, leave comments and engage in discussions. From time to time I might exchange a private email with such a friend, but it’s still an electronically mediated exchange.

Of course there are friends and relatives from my physical-world life, my “unblog”, who also participate in this blog. Many of them know each other, or have worked together, or have shared a drink at a party or two. I also have two physical-world friends who for years have had a seriously intense animosity between them, and yet they each contribute comments here fairly regularly.

I also have two cousins – brothers – two wonderful men, each of whom I adore, and each of whom I see at least once a year, who seem to be separated from each other by something beyond animosity, some mysterious and powerful mutual trauma. They have not spoken to one another for – quite literally – years. And yet they both comment on this blog fairly often.

So there’s the mix: Complex, irrascible, fascinating humans, some in my life physically, and others electronically. But today there was a startling, and quite wonderful, cross-over. I received a Federal Express package, and it turned out to be a holiday gift from a friend I know almost entirely from her comments on this blog. I have grown to like her very much over these months. But I had always, without really thinking about it, placed her in the category of “electronic friend” – that strangely post-millenial disembodied category of being.

But this gift, this lovely old-fashioned wooden puzzle that now sits on the table before me, is so much the antithesis of the electronic, such an affirmation of our underlying physical connection with things. At the end of the day, these minds of ours are not abstract thought machines, but are attached to physical bodies – in all their beauty, strangeness and fragility. And knowing this, really knowing it, is incredibly important.

And so the simple act of receiving a wooden puzzle has made me feel closer to this friend in a way that could never have been achieved by even the most eloquent torrent of electronic words. A doorway has opened between us, in the unblog.

Birds of a feather

Wednesday, December 10th, 2008

Today is Emily Dickinson’s birthday, as I suspect some of you already knew. What better occasion could there be to indulge in a little comparative literature – a sort of “call and response” between two great literary originals. So in honor of the Belle of Amherst on her birthday, I humbly present one of my favorites among her many poems. Followed, in the interest of literary diversity, by a response from New York’s own Woody Allen.

First, this lovely poem from Dickenson called “Hope is the thing with feathers”:

HOPE is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I ’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

 

That was beautiful, wasn’t it?

 

And now the response, courtesy of Mr. Allen:

Emily Dickinson said, “Hope is the thing with feathers. How wrong she was! The thing with feathers turns out to be my nephew. I must take him to a specialist in Zurich.”

Working R.

Tuesday, December 9th, 2008

The age-old question – it came up today in conversation, and I wonder whether there is any resolution to be had. Is it wise for people who are in a Relationship (notice the capital ‘R’) to try to work together? Yes, I know that it’s a question without an answer – or rather, it has many different answers, since every situation is different – but the question still seems worth pondering. There may be important principles and ideas going on here beneath the surface.

The most obvious thing – almost the first thing – that came up when we discussed this today – was the question of sexual tension. Very often people who are attracted to each other but who are not in a Relationship will find themselves working together, and this will create sparks that feeds into the work. In the performative arts, audiences can pick up on that kind of energy, even when it has been transmuted by the creative process.

It’s safe to say that this kind of sublimated sexual energy is prone to occur when one or more of the collaborators is either married to somebody else or is in some equivalent sort of monogomous relationship. In other words, not available.

On the other hand, there have been well known examples of bona fide couples that have been able to share their mutual fire with the world through their art: Lunt and Fontaine, Bogart and Bacall, Burns and Allen, to name a few.

I think of such people, and I become inspired by the thought that love can be the fuel for creative passion, without needing to be sublimated. But then I think of Ben Affleck and J.Lo, and I just get depressed.

Pataphoria

Monday, December 8th, 2008

‘Pataphysics has fascinated me ever since childhood, when it was suddenly thrust into my innocent and unprepared young mind by our old friend John Lennon.

It may all be Yoko’s fault. The cross-cultural relationship between John Lennon and Yoko Ono was an intriguing phenomenon. Once upon a time, countless milliions of Beatles fans became incensed when their beloved Beatle royal was distracted from his art by Yoko. But of course it was all perfectly symmetric. From the point of view of the high art world, it was Ono who was the royal in the marriage – a high priestess of the radical Fluxus movement deigning to share her incandescent intellect with a mere pop star.

The truth, of course, was that they each influenced the other in wondrous ways. Once John began spending time with Yoko, he started sneaking high art concepts into the songs. Hence my introduction in childhood to music concrète in the form of “Revolution 9” – not a genre that anybody would have expected to show up on a pop album in 1968.

And hence John Lennon’s shout-out to Alfred Jarré’s ‘Pataphysics movement in the opening verse of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”. It took me many years to realize that other people didn’t know about ‘Pataphysics. For some reason I had just assumed that if something showed up in the lyrics of a Beatles song then everybody would know about it.

Case in point: Several years ago my friend Jon and I took a subway ride uptown to see the french philosopher Jean Baudrillard, who was giving a talk at Columbia University. When Baudrillard mentioned ‘Pataphysics, and asked who was familiar with the term, I raised my hand, assuming everyone else would as well. After all, who doesn’t listen to the Beatles?

Yet it turned out that in a room filled with several hundred Columbia students, only a few of us were conscious of the existence of ‘Pataphysics. Of course pretty much everyone in that room had heard of ‘Pataphysics, since they had all heard the lyrics to “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”. But apparently almost nobody knew they had heard of it.

What could be more perfectly pataphysical: An idea that everyone has heard about is an idea that nobody has heard of.

Space invaders

Sunday, December 7th, 2008

There are lines.

We don’t always know where they are. We usually don’t even realize they are there. But every once in a while they get damaged, and then we realize that they are the very lines that we use to trace the boundaries of ourselves, and the contours of each other. We often don’t notice when these lines begin to bend. But the moment they are broken, we suddenly see them with stark clarity.

Some years ago a good friend of mine, a very kind and gracious woman, suggested that we have a book club. I thought it was a splendid idea. She suggested we hold it in my apartment. Since my apartment is much bigger than hers, the suggestion made a lot of sense to me. I was looking forward to an opportunity to invite some interesting people over, and to having conversations about some of the great literary works. Or even, occasionally, not so great literary works, just to mix things up a little.

I’m pretty easy going with the whole visitor thing. I have only one rule in my apartment: People need to take off their shoes. I’m pretty sure it’s a legacy from the time when I’d had a girlfriend with a Japanese background. We started the tradition when she moved in, and I continued it after she moved out. I like the idea of the formal separation of inside and outside space.

The first meetings of the book club were interesting. I remember some very intense conversations over Moby Dick. It’s a big and messy book, which swings around in a lot of directions. If you haven’t read it, I can tell you that it’s far more than just a tale of poor obessed Ahab. We had great debates about just what Melville was up to.

As time went on, the cast of characters of the club changed – new people came in, old people dropped out. My apartment became a kind of ritual gathering place, a backdrop that people took for granted. They would come in, take their shoes off, array themselves about the couch and chairs, and take turns holding forth on whatever book we’d all just read the week before. In most peoples’ minds the apartment was, I think, simply the place where they went for the book club. In the evolving culture of the group, the notion that somebody actually lived there seemed to grow abstract.

None of which bothered me, at least on a conscious level. I liked and trusted my friend, the one who had started the book club, and so I sort of mentally tuned out the occasional rough or quirky characters who would show up in the mix from time to time. This went on for quite a few months, and I think I just integrated the weirdness of it all into my life. It became something I stopped thinking about consciously, like a strange street sculpture or boarded-up old storefront that you walk past every day without really seeing anymore.

Then one day a man came to the meeting who had never before attended. When somebody told him he was supposed to take off his boots (it wasn’t me – interestingly, it was never me after the first few meetings), he just looked at them like they were crazy. “That’s ridiculous,” he said in an insulted tone, and went to take his seat in the living room.

At that moment something in me woke up – suddenly, forcefully. That was the last day the book club ever met in my apartment. I told my friend that I was dropping out of the club. I think I told her that I simply had no time, had become too busy, something gracefully vague and suitably delicate.

I have no idea whether she continued the book club elsewhere. I never asked her.

The first digital character

Saturday, December 6th, 2008

Sometimes you’ve just gotta take a break and post something completely silly. Sorry folks, but sometimes you just gotta… :-)

Speaking of digital characters, I guess you could say that the role of Thing in The Addams Family represents the first example of an entirely digital character on television. And that was way back in 1964! I mean, it’s not his fault that we’ve changed the definition of “digital” in the last forty four years.

And I guess you could also say, by the same token, that the Golem in ancient Jewish folklore was the first character who ever got clay feet.

Eve was the first woman who ever had an Adam’s apple.

Whereas Adam was the first man who ever raised Cain.

Cain himself was the first character who ever did something not because he was able to, but because he wasn’t Abel.

Meanwhile, in another pantheon, Samson was the first performer ever to bring down the house.

And Narcissus was the first character who was really into self-reflection.

Midas was the first character who turned out to be a real ass (although Bottom and Pinocchio both eventually continued this proud tradition).

But Echo has them all beat: she was the first character ever to go to pieces just because of a critical Pan.

Hmm, I may have just created a new (and entirely unnecessary, I hasten to add) genre of bad jokes. Can anybody think of any more of these?

Avatar

Friday, December 5th, 2008

In a computer game or on-line virtual world, an “Avatar” is a representation of you. For example, Mario and Lara Croft are avatars, because they are supposed to be you in the game world – on a psychological level the idea is that they are doing what you would do if you were a mustachioed plumber or a superhero chick in each game’s respective fantasy world.

This is in contrast to a “Non-player character”, which simulates other people in the fantasy world. Like all those nice people you run over with your car (or who get out of the way just in time) in Grand Theft Auto. Or the undead fiends who run at you and try to eat you before you blow them away in Doom and its many progeny. Those are all NPC’s. You don’t control them because they are not representations of you.

Avatars – representions in a game of oneself – are powerful, but I’ve always found them to be a bit problematic. There is something uncanny about them. Yes, I understand that is supposed to be “me” in the computer, but it’s also a thing that’s clearly not alive – in some ways it’s more like the little car or thimble that you march around a Monopoly board than like a representation of self.

I got into a conversation today about what would be the perfect avatar. I mean in an ideal virtual world in which there were no technology limitations. Let’s say it’s fifty years in the future – the year 2058 – and you are playing a computer game. By then games will have moved way beyond the technical hurdles of today, such as realistic simulation of human movement, or accurate speech recognition. In this future game world, what should your game avatar be like?

I would argue that the ideal is what you’d get if you had an actual trained actor – a real human being – there in your computer. The actor could have super powers, if that’s what the game called for, but the important thing is that he/she would be able take stage directions flawlessly.

For example, if I’m racing through the city of Metropolis, in the middle of chasing after Bizarro Superman, and then I realize that it’s getting late, and that I have to get to the bank vault before it closes to retrieve my stash of purple Kryptonite, I would probably want my avatar to look at his watch with concern, and convincingly portray somebody who is genuinely worried that he might not make it to the bank on time.

Today’s avatars do nothing like this. They will do what you tell them to, but they never convincingly express an impression of humanity, a sense that “this is me in this game world, feeling all of the feelings I would feel at this point”.

I’m not suggesting that we will get to the point where avatars will become indistinguishable from real people. What I’m saying is that as a design target, as something to shoot for while we continue to develop these curious virtual creatures, the figure we should keep in mind to guide us is a real person – a trained actor – trying their best to follow our narrative direction while expressing the appropriate emotions.

When I am able to buy into my avatar’s performance – his performance as me – the way I now suspend my disbelief while watching a great actor in a movie, then I think games will start to engage us and to move us in new and far more powerful ways.

Democracy in action

Thursday, December 4th, 2008

Democracy works in many ways, some of them sillier than others. Today my friend Cynthia sent me the following link to a musical comedy written and performed by Jack Black, John C. Reilly and friends, a little bit of protest theatre called:


Prop 8: The Musical

 

Whatever your views on this issue, you might appreciate the sheer nuttiness of the venture. Rather than march in the streets, hurl accusations, shout angry slogans or call for boycotts of their cultural opposites, these people have chosen to put on funny costumes, find a willing orchestra, and do a little song and dance.

Imagine if the world worked this day. If rather than brutally mowing down innocent civilians with semi-automatic weapons in the streets of Mumbai, Muslim terrorists had to form a kickline and sing their protests along the street, while dodging motorcycle rickshaws. Or if American soldiers in Iraq and their Shia insurgent enemy were required to reenact the Sharks/Jets song-and-dance from “West Side Story”.

Call me crazy, but I think Jack Black and his friends might just be on to something here.

Good guys

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008

Has anybody noticed the similarity between Daniel Craig’s James Bond and Russell Crowe’s Maximus in “Gladiator”? In a sense they are selling the same soap: You’ve got a brooding, tragic guy, who is clearly a man’s man. Men respect him, women draw to him like flies. He’s a guy who understands that he has responsibilities, a code of honor he must live by. But at heart he’s really good at one thing: Killing people. Not just killing people, but killing lots and lots of people. He kills efficiently, balletically, forehand, backhand, left and right. He could probably kill just fine with his eyes closed. It’s what he does.

But so far we’re describing lots of action heroes. What sets these two apart, what makes them brothers under the skin, is that both Craig’s and Crowe’s action heroes are very sorrowful that they have to kill all those people. A lot of time is spent in both movies on loving closeups of the hero’s face, brooding, looking inward, searching his tormented soul, a soul which is tough on the outside but tender as a little fluffy bunny on the inside. Because he feels really sad that he needs to spend the rest of the time wielding a big weapon, like a Ninja from hell, causing buckets of blood to spurt from the freshly dismembered bodies of his opponents. Really, really sad.

I think we’re supposed to see the poetry within the wistful, ruefully contemplative eyes of these two men. We’re supposed to feel their pain. And it’s important that we do. Because if we can all get together and feel their pain, then we will realize that deep down they are not killers of countless people, on a scale so large that it borders on the obscene. No, we can forget about the body count, the holes through bleeding torsos, the body parts flying off in all directions, that hired guard unlucky enough to work for the wrong side who ends up blinded, convulsing, screaming in agony and maimed for life because in one scene he happened to be in our hero’s way.

Instead we remember that melancholy look in the hero’s eyes, his poetically regretful gaze, his soft inward sigh at the burden he must carry. And we realize that it’s ok, that we don’t need to worry about all of those casually severed body parts and brutally hacked off limbs.

Because this is the good guy.

My amoeba

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008

I got into a conversation yesterday about amoebae, in which I confessed to having always been fascinated by these little critters. For one thing, an amoeba multiplies by dividing, which appeals to the punster mathematician in me. For another, all members of an amoeba species have the same genetic makeup. After all, when two amoebae split, they each retain the original DNA.

And this last point leads to another wonderful paradoxical question: Is a species of amoebae a collection of some of the world’s tiniest animals, or is it actually a single geographically distributed individual, which would make it one of the world’s largest individual creatures on earth?

I was inspired by these musings to try to make an animated amoeba. Nothing like the real one, which is all gnarly with weird little textured spots, but rather a sort of cartoon version, an impression of an amoeba to match the not very accurate image of an amoeba that I’ve carried around in my head since I was about seven years old.

In my typical fashion, I made my amoeba friend last night as a Java applet. If you have a Java-enabled Web browser, you can play with it for yourself. It just kind of hangs out in its space, until you drag your mouse near it, and then it tries to chase your mouse cursor.

I have a sort of “amoeba-cam” trained on it, a camera that is always centered on the amoeba. Otherwise it might just ooze right out of the applet frame and devastate the countryside.

You can play with my new little friend here.