Archive for January, 2009

Vampire robots in love

Saturday, January 31st, 2009

I’ve noticed a recent trend in films – “boy meets girl” stories where the boy isn’t really a boy, or the girl isn’t really a girl, and there is no real possibility of a sexual relationship. I’m thinking in particular of “Twilight”, “Wall-E”, and “Let the Right One In”. In each case you have the classic pairing off of two characters – the “boy” and the “girl” – who meet and gradually realize, in spite of their enormous differences, they are meant for each other.

Except that in these stories, the boy isn’t really a boy, or else the girl isn’t really a girl, or neither. The boy might be a vampire, or the girl, or the girl might be a vampire who isn’t even a girl vampire, or both of them might be robots. Not really either a boy or a girl – just a robot.

And yet they assume these clear and unambiguous gender roles in their relationship with each other, they circle around each other, go through the elaborate dance of romance and seduction, and finally pair off.

But in each case, in spite of the happily ever after, there’s no sex between them. Lots of sexual tension, but no sex. I wonder whether there is some pattern here. Perhaps it is a sign of the times.

Prejudice is a fractal

Friday, January 30th, 2009

I realized today, in a conversation about prejudice, that it naturally structures itself as a fractal. In some societies, white people discriminate against black people, while lighter skinned blacks look down upon darker skinned blacks.

Religions descriminate against each other, while within each religion people divide themselves into denominations and subdenominations, each believing that theirs is the one true way to connect metaphysics with ethical guidance.

It would be interesting to plot the fractal nature of this strange structure. Patterns might emerge. Perhaps if we could teach these patterns to children, they would learn to see the absurd humor in such behavior, and this nonsense would no longer continue to repeat itself in generation after generation.

Illusory memories

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

Much ink has been spilled lately over the question of illusory memories. Studies continue to show that memories that have been cleverly implanted by a resourceful researcher seem to be indistinguishable in our minds from the real thing.

When I think of this, my mind goes back to the masterful moment in Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” when Deckard pores lovingly over old photos, a drink in his hand, while sad theme music by Vangelis plays on the soundtrack. The audience suspects what Deckard does not – that his entire past might be only a clever fake, and the people in his treasured photos merely hired help from a casting agency.

And such musings lead to an odd question: To the man who truly believes he is the Emperor Napolean wrongly locked up in a sanitarium, does it make any difference at all whether his beliefs are true or false? And if Deckard is indeed merely a replicant with falsely implanted memories, does this fact even matter to the reality of his own experience? To him the resulting emotions are just as real and vivid in both cases – the joys as high, and the sorrows as devastating.

Perhaps we live in a world of illusory memory far more than we are comfortable admitting – and maybe that’s ok. Perhaps that teddy bear from our childhood really was blue, not brown, no matter what everyone else says.

Have you ever wondered, as you have thought back fondly on a particular day in the park, or a favorite conversation with a childhood friend, that you might have conjured it all up out of your own head, because that’s the way it was supposed to happen?

I know I have. But how could we ever know?

News about news

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

There was an editorial in the “New York Times” today saying that as newspapers move from paper to on-line, their revenue stream is becoming woefully too small to support proper news-gathering. The editorial proposed that in order to survive, news sources will need to move from a for-profit model to a non-profit endowment model (like museums).

So here we have an actual example of an important real-world activity – sources for trusted news gathered by trained and seasoned professionals – that is clearly of benefit to society, and yet for which (it is claimed) there is no way to survive on-line in a free market economy.

I am struck by the magnitude of the issues suggested by this possibility. Are we really entering an age, thanks to changes wrought by the culture and distribution model of the web, in which the gathering and reporting of expert knowledge is not economically sustainable?

And if so, should we be panicking?

Worlds apart

Tuesday, January 27th, 2009

After Manooh suggested looking at http://www.papermint.com, I spent some time on the site. It’s a fascinating experiment, and I think it brings into focus a number of the questions I was raising the other day.

You can create characters there, go shopping, meet other people, play various games. Very impressive. And its very impressiveness raises questions about the limitations of such experiences, and whether those limitations are intrinsic.

We as individuals are not the movies we see, the books we read, or the sum total of the entertainment we consume. Each of us – each individual – contains a complex assortment of competing values and desires, and our own particular kind of yearning for transcendence. As Walt Whitman said: “I am large. I contain multitudes.”

When we get together in person we have heated discussions about things we care about. Not just aesthetic questions and discussions of books and movies, but also social issues – income disparity, prejudice in all its dizzying array of forms, reproductive issues, the relationship between a society and its recent immigrants.

We try to work through, in our discussions, why we like or have faith in certain people or collective movements, while distrusting others.

An on-line world like Papermint is, by design, a place to get away from such discussions, and therefore to get away from ourselves in all of our messy completeness.

There are text forums that touch on the hard issues, but existing embodied on-line experiences seem to go for the opposite – for fun and fantasy, for the “magic circle” of play, where actions do not require consequences.

Is this simply the way it has to be? Is quasi-physical on-line embodiment necessarily limited to ways of escaping from the difficult issues of real life?

The pleasure of company

Monday, January 26th, 2009

We all have times when we like to be by ourselves, crawl into our own little cave and shut out everything and everyone. That said, there is nothing quite like the delectable feeling of having just the right person there with you.

There doesn’t need to be going on. They can be curled up quietly reading the newspaper over there on the couch while you (for example) are writing your blog. It’s amazing how this sense of sharing space – just a quiet moment – can make everything more lovely, until life itself becomes more sweet.

It’s one of the great blessings of existence – that we can derive so much pleasure simply from the company of each other.

Worlds to come

Sunday, January 25th, 2009

I’ve been thinking about how I look at the world differently since writing about it publicly every day, and of the other parallel cultures that have been wrought by cyber-technology, including “Twitter”, texting, and all the various and sundry social networks. One of the strange things about “Facebook” and its various cousins is that there is no real sense of a shared space, a living room where we can all sit by the fire and feel like we’re hanging out and spending time together. It all still feels very much like mutual shouting-out from across the street.

I realize that we are still in an early stage of all this, where things are sorting themselves out. It’s a bit like those very first years of cinema, at the start of the silent era, before the emergence of anything like the psychological realism and focus on character that we now take for granted on our movie screens.

I can’t help thinking that we are gradually building toward something more.

The pseudo-geographical shared worlds that I know of still all seem bereft of something essential. “Worlds of Warcraft” – like “Everquest” and similar fantasy-novel inspired game worlds – is mostly about directed heroic quests out of Tolkien, without the intense focus on subtle emotions and relationships that made us really care about Bilbo, Frodo, Sam and company.

“Second Life” seems to be mostly about real estate and strange erotic dress-up, and a lot of people protending that they don’t mind the jerky emotionlessness of the experience – the complete lack of the sort of sensuality that we demand of, say, movies or paintings.

“The Grand Theft Auto” series, as well as the “Half Life” worlds, are wonderful things, in all their aggressive splendor, but they are clearly not attempts to build on-line community outside of the shared thrill of shooting and fighting your way through game levels. I mean, would you really want to develop your close personal relationships in a place where your brains could be splattered against the wall at any moment- and where knowing that such possibilities are actually very much the point?

Will Wright and colleagues attempted to put “The Sims” on-line, but that didn’t turn out all too well. Somehow the origins of those characters as animated figures in a virtual doll house kept getting in the away of supporting an illusion that they are really us.

There are literary cyberworlds, but one hungers for a visual component, a space – something with the sort of sensuality and mystery that comes to mind when I think back on the original “Myst”.

It might make sense to first try to describe such a shared on-line world, even before trying to build it. I suspect some of the key components for building such a place are still missing – notably the ability of on-line characters to convey subtle emotions in a way that convinces for any extended period of time – so there’s probably still lots of time to have the conversation now, to prepare for what will undoubtedly be lots of work to do later.

Bathroom humor

Saturday, January 24th, 2009

We were having dinner this evening with my brother’s family – including two of my nephews. In their typically high spirited adolescent way, the boys managed to turn the conversation toward bathroom humor.

My sister-in-law, not wanting to stifle their young minds entirely by ending the discussion, but wishing to maintain some propriety in the converstion, pointed out that in Japan there are water closets that can flushed via one of two buttons – labeled number one and number two. Not surprisingly, each button indicates the relative force required. As in “was this a number one, or was this a number two?” All in the spirit of providing a more eco-friendly appliance, less wasteful of water and kinder to our planet.

I was impressed with my sister-in-law’s cleverness. She had deftly turned what might otherwise have been a crude and inappropriate conversation into a thoughtful treatise on helping the environment.

At which point I decided to join in. Although I’m not really sure how much help I provided. I told the assembled family about the time back when I was a counselor at a summer sleep-away camp. In the week before the campers were due to arrive, we counselors would spend time bonding with each other and learning the rules of running a summer camp, while the older and more experienced counselors would impart their wisdom to the younger first-timers.

At one orientation talk, the head counselor patiently explained to us that campers are sometimes uncomfortable about using certain words. So he suggested that when a camper asks permission to leave his bunk bed in the middle of the night to answer the call of nature, it mght be best to ask, as gently as possible, “is it a number one, or a number two?”

At which point one of the counselors in the back – more experienced than most – helpfully interjected that in his years on the job he’d heard every possible description. “One kid last year,” he added, “had two threes and a five!”

The posture dialectic

Friday, January 23rd, 2009

Not surprisingly, my countless hours hunched over a computer year after year finally caught up with me recently. I ended up developing neck problems and had to start seeing a physical therapist. A P.T. has you do exercises both on-site and at home, rubs your neck and shoulders in all sorts of comfy and pleasant ways, and gives you stern lectures on the importance of good posture.

Sure enough, after about two months of this treatment, my neck problem started to go away. I am convinced that it wasn’t so much the comfy and pleasant rubbing, nor the exercises, whether at home or on-site. It was the stern lectures.

To underline the wonderfulness of good posture, my P.T. pointed out that if you ever look at small children, say around two years old, they have gloriously good posture – they stand and sit in a perfectly relaxed and centered way. It’s only later in life that we all learn to go to hell with ourselves.

Of course the real teacher was the pain. Once you get the concept firmly stuck into your mind that bad posture leads to serious pain, it’s amazing how much easier it is to remember to sit upright, stop crouching down over your computer keyboard, and in general keep your body in a better position.

And at some point during this process – as my body healed, now that it was no longer being mistreated – it occurred to me that “good posture” is a highly generalizable concept. It applies to pretty much anything.

There’s a kind of “posture dialectic”. Anything you can do – have a conversation, do a job, sing a song, help out a friend in need, with a kind of grudging crouch – can be done by just barely getting through the experience, while exerting minimal effort. Or, alternatively, you can keep your back straight, put in that extra effort, and stay centered – in every way. I’ve tried it both ways, and it turns out (sometimes to my surprise) that the good posture way actually takes much less effort.

I hope you understand my position. :-)

2 + 2 = 4

Thursday, January 22nd, 2009

“Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two equals four. If that is granted, all else follows.” -Winston Smith in George Orwell’s 1984

I didn’t watch the inauguration. I found I wasn’t interested in the hype. I have been very supportive of our new president – particularly since his speech on race relations last March – but unlike many others, I don’t find myself swept up in the dreaminess. I find I don’t trust adoration in the political sphere – it can lead even very good people to some very bad places.

Today my brother mentioned to me the above quote from Orwell’s “1984”, and it helped me to realize that I have been holding my breath all this time, waiting to see what Obama would do the day after he took office, when it came down not to making the lovely eloquent speeches about the future, but to making the day-to-day decisions of a chief executive.

I am heartened not just that he has moved immediately to order the closing of the prison at Guantanamo, but that he is going about it in a careful and gradual way – over the course of a year – so that there will be time to find where the truth lies in that mess of a situation.

And I realize that my difference in expectations before and after January 20 comes down to what Winston Smith said so eloquently in “1984”. There came a point, after having been disappointed too many times, when I simply stopped expecting straight talk from the Bush Administration.

Obama still holds open the possibility – so delicious to contemplate after having been denied by our leaders these past years – that he might not lead through deceit and misdirection – that he might actually level with us, as equal and thoughtful participants in a republic.

It’s so simple and so fundamental, this freedom we had lost, that may now have been restored: The freedom to have our intelligence respected.