More acrostics…

Marriage’s offenses reportedly expose
A clashing rage or sparking temper. I can suppose
‘Tis only true eternal love. Light inspires flames.
Youth overwhelms unthinkingly, adulthood reclaims
Every raging emotion, always dramatic,
Incendiary – no grandiose – basically ecstatic.
‘Tis wild exuberance, even now the heart
Exulting love’s inspired never ending start.

Paying attention

Today I attended an event – a “public conversation” – in which two very accomplished individuals, one a neuroscientist and the other a performance artist, discussed the twin subjects of attention and memory. The neuroscientist brought insights about what happens inside our brain – insights that come from experimental research results – while the artist’s insights were more intuitive and experiential. They ended up agreeing on quite a few points.

At one point the scientist observed that conscious multitasking is a myth. You cannot actual do several tasks well at once, if each task requires conscious attention. When you think you are talking on the phone while reading email, your brain is actually just switching rapidly between these tasks – while doing neither one well. You may fool yourself into believing that you are more efficient this way, but in fact quite the reverse is true.

The artist described focusing attention as central to her work. An audience is only taken to an interesting place if you can derail its pat expectations – she called this “the wisdom of the jump cut”. You need to wake the audience up, surprise it, jolt it out of the mindset that things are merely playing out as expected according to some pre-scripted version of reality.

The neuroscientist and performance artist used very different language, yet I felt that both were converging on a common theme: That the quality of our lives is highly dependent on our ability to pay attention – to bring an uncluttered sense of presence to the experiences we have in life. Whether through study, practice, zen meditation, breathing exercises or other means, the ability to focus on what really matters to us without becoming distracted or scattered is perhaps our most valuable asset.

This ability to focus is what allows us to strengthen the neural pathways that lead to learning and mastery of skills, and enables us to override whatever momentary impulses may pull us away from our deeper goals

Isn’t it odd then, I find myself thinking, that our modern culture is built around constant distractions. Television, magazines, billboards, radio and internet – so many things vie for our attention, pulling our focus this way and that. We are a nation of Harrison Bergerons from Vonnegut’s cautionary pen, forced to listen to non-stop clatter, lest our unfettered minds break out and do something dangerous.

Could our culture ever evolve to a place where truly centered focus and attention are prized and encouraged? Or is that asking too much?

Pack mentality

Today I am taking some stuff from one computer graphics program I’ve been writing and bringing it into another computer graphics program. My plan all along has been to put them together, but it was a lot easier to create them in separate pieces – each in its own workshop, at it were – and then assemble them together later.

The first program is a demo of how to get an interactive animated character to figure out where to place its feet when walking around in a virtual world. The second program is a demo of how those feet should actually move through the air between footsteps – how to lift a foot off the ground, land again, bend the toes, add more or less “spring” to the step, walk on tiptoe, and so on.

To do this I need to separate out the “demo part” of the code in the first program from the core stuff that does the actual work. By “demo part” I mean that part of the program responsible for displaying things on the screen in nice shapes and colors, as well as the sliders, buttons, and all the other widgets that let you play around with the program. Those parts of the code are important – like the the steering wheel and body and tires of your car – but I don’t really need to take anything with me except the engine and transmission.

It occurs to me, thinking about what I am doing, that essentially I am packing up for a trip. I need to figure out what is essential to take with me – what won’t already be available where I am going – and to avoid lugging around too much other stuff that’s hard to pack and that I can probably find anyway at my destination.

And so for the first time in my life I understand that the notion of “packing up stuff to take with you” is not really situated in the real physical world – that is just one example of where this notion shows up. Rather, it is situated in the mind – in our human brains. We create the concept of packing, because that’s the way our minds work, and then we impose this concept onto the physical world around us.

Things like wallets and duffel bags and toiletry cases are not primarily physical objects. Such things certainly exist in the physical world, but only because we have willed them into existence. Rather, they are primarily extensions of a way of thinking that is already there inside each individual human brain, and that is shared between all human brains.

Obviously we are not the only species that has such constructs in our brains. Squirrels and bees and dogs and countless other species share this proclivity for bundling stuff up and taking it from here to there. But we humans do it in a particularly elaborate and generative way, like everything we do.

And so, after writing this, I will continue my packing, preparing to take the eerily non-physical journey from one folder of my computer to another – between two of my little workshops, both of which just happen to be virtual. If distance is measured by the effort of travel – by how much you need to pack – one could say this is a somewhat longish journey, but far from the longest I have taken.

I am left with the thought that this mental pattern is probably found in a lot more places than we realize – in romantic relationships, literary discussions, business understandings and family ties. There are the various “places we live or visit” and the “stuff we need to pack up so we can take it with us”.

And now, back to work. I need to pack my toothbrush, but not my bathroom….

Sonnet at dawn

Two empty glasses sparkle in the light
While I stand within the doorway in repose
And watch them for a moment, for I chose
To leave them as a token from the night
As though the hours hadn’t sped on by
And unwelcome daylight hadn’t come at all
As though the foolish Sun had missed her call
And forgotten to appear within the sky
But the curs’d glasses sparkle all the same
Reminding me the all too faithful Sun
Has heralded another day begun
I turn away and softly call your name

      How pale seems this early morning light
      Compared with one now gone with ended night


I listened today to a talk by Warren Spector, the great computer game designer responsible for “Deus Ex”, “Thief”, and various other wonderful computer games.

After the talk, there was a conversation which spiraled around to many topics, but came down to one point: Warren’s ideal is to create games that have a kind of emergence. What he means by “emergence” is a game or interactive experience that is rich enough so that a player will be able to do unexpected things – that is, come up with solutions to game-play challenges – which were not explicitly designed into the game.

Warren bemoaned the fact that so far his favorite moments in computer games have been the ones that were tightly scripted – essentially cinematically crafted – such as the moment the giant tentacle reaches in and grabs the scientist in “Half Life I”, or when the dog bursts through the window in “Resident Evil”.

Yes, it is certainly possible to create emergent games, games that allow the player to explore in a way that was not explicitly designed by the game designer. But can we make those games as emotionally powerful as games that follow a more linear, pre-scripted design?

And then somehow the conversation got on the subject of crossword puzzles – which were held up as an exemplar of a non-emergent (ie: pre-scripted) interactive experience.

Which left me wondering the following slightly wacky thought: Could we create an emergent crossword puzzle? And if so, what would that be like? I’ve already started trying out some ideas…

Hamlet versus “Hamlet”

The other day I saw a splendid production of “Hamlet”. God how I love seeing this play, when it’s well done. I’ve seen it many times by now, and each time I discover something new. The play resonates on so many levels, and keeps my brain buzzing for days afterward.

But I’ve noticed something interesting about the place of “Hamlet” in our society. On the one hand, it’s so iconic, so much a central part of English-speaking culture. Everyone knows Hamlet’s most famous solliloquy (or at least they know the first ten words). But most people in the U.S. haven’t actually seen the play (or maybe they’ve seen some abbreviated movie version with Mel Gibson).

And so what they don’t know is just how oddly, crazily, bounce-off-the-wall weird it is. I mean, the fun thing about “Hamlet” is that the idea of it manages to be completely iconic within our culture while the actual play itself is so utterly loony – in a very good way. The whole thing pingpongs back and forth between heart-breaking tragedy and vaudeville comedy.

Hamlet isn’t just a tragic hero. He’s also pre-Elizabethan Denmark’s answer to Groucho Marx. The first person he shows a deep emotional connection to is a man who’s been dead for twenty three years (we learn this while he’s holding the guy’s freshly dug-up skull in his hand) – apparently because as a child Hamlet had learned his sense of humor from the man.

There are plots within plots, plays within plays, a gravedigger who’s shtick is straight out of “Seinfeld” (or, more accurately, “Seinfeld” descends from that gravedigger’s shtick), ghosts, drag queens, wild plot twists, secretly switched letters, fast talking men and crazy suicidal women.

Every one of the several romantic relationships in the play is a different kind of quease-inducing incest, our hero drives his own girlfriend insane (literally), sends some poor saps to their death just because he’s mildly annoyed at them, has an unfortunate habit of accidentally running the wrong people through with his sword, and spends about half the play spouting complete gibberish.

And yet we like him, because Shakespeare knows what he’s up to – and Shakespeare is very, very good at what he does. The play’s peculiarity, its strange quirks and complete nuttiness, manage to cohabit with a story of great depth and beauty. We recognize in the hero’s antics and deliberate non sequiturs our own frustration at a world that oftentimes seems mad.

In essence, Hamlet is us. He embodies our own struggle with trying to find sense when no sense can be found. He is Woody and Juno and Benjamin Braddock and Yossarian and George Carlin and John Lennon and Lenny Bruce and all of their kin, all rolled into one.

It’s strange to me that so many people in America don’t know this – because they haven’t seen the play (or maybe they once read it in high school and hated it because it was forced down their throats). They don’t know how damned funny it is, how peculiar and transgressive and exhiliaratingly wacked out – how modern. Sadly, “Hamlet” remains in the unseeing American mind something vaguely boring, like Mount Rushmore.

If only they knew.

Sexy Italians

When I was growing up in an ethnic New York neighborhood, there was a kind of a rough equivalence between Italians and Jews. Yes, one was Catholic and the other, well, Jewish, but the cultures had a lot in common, including dreams of upward mobility, a strongly connected family, a powerful religious bond within the community, assertive mothers (very, very assertive mothers), and a similar kind of coarse sardonic outsider humor – the kind of humor that develops in ghetto cultures. I could make this list a lot longer, but you get the idea.

And both cultures offered up a kind of alternate leading man, the one who isn’t Gary Cooper or George Clooney or Cary Grant or Hugh Grant – or any kind of Grant. The Italians had the young Al Pacino, we Jews had the young Dustin Hoffman. Intrepid hero as plucky outsider – not the big square jawed football captain from an old American family, but the little guy, the one who could win anyway, in spite of being up from the streets, could somehow get the girl through determination and grit and force of sheer will.

It made perfect sense that Paul Newman, a Jew, would play Rocky Graziano, an Italian. It didn’t matter – he was still the underdog, sinuous and seething with class resentment and unresolved neurosis, working his way up out of the immigrant ghetto. Everyone rooted for him, and all the girls swooned.

But even as a kid I knew there wasn’t any real parity here. The Italians had a kind of sexy cool on their side, where we Jews just had a kind of outsider energy, hovering between frantic/angry and hangdog/rueful. After all, they had Dean Martin and we had Jerry Lewis. They have the older Al Pacino, while we have the older Dustin Hoffman (ouch).

They could turn out a young Rocky Balboa without batting an eye, whereas our rebels were more like Alan Ginsberg and Lenny Bruce. Astonishing, brilliant, world-changing, but not the guy who goes home with the gal.

I’m not talking about reality here – I’m talking about cultural perception. After all, Paul Newman was actually Jewish, as were Paul Muni, Kirk Douglas, John Garfield, Tony Curtis, and many others (and the same goes for the endless list of Jewish female movie stars – there is no shortage of real-life sexy Jews on the Hollywood roster). But Tony Curtis was cast to play Italian, because he was dark eyed and sexy. The game was rigged.

All of this came home to me recently when I realized that Peter Petrelli – the brooding and impossibly sexy male star of the TV series “Heroes” – is not only Italian, but “post-ethnically Italian”. In other words, his entire family, from his U.S. Senator brother to his billionaire alpha-male dad to his elegant patrician mother, have clearly already risen to the top of the American social heap.

And as I watched the show, I began to realize that something was going on here. Peter Petrelli is the archetypical Prince. Not the ethnic immigrant gosh-I-hope-he-makes-it prince, but the real deal. As in Prince Hal, Aragorn, Simba the White Lion, Robert Redford.

Something fundamental has happened. A young Italian American guy is now being sold as the ultimate potential mate – American royalty – the guy who will usher some lucky gal into the highest caste gene pool.

I don’t think an HBO miniseries will be developing this kind of treatment any time soon for the Shapiros or the Goldsteins.

Buttons on the back

It’s interesting that Dagmar should bring up Mike’s suggestion that buttons be placed on the back of the PDA. I played around with these ideas about six years ago. Here is a little java applet I made in early March 2003 to visualize how you might arrange the keys on such a device: (drag your mouse to see it from different angles).

In that device I was going for a QWERTY arrangement, gripped from the two sides in both hands, using the four fingers to type, although you could also put thumb keys on the top. The idea here is that your keypresses are mirrored on the display while you are just learning – until you get good at it, and then you no longer need that help.

I’m kind of amazed that even now (six years later!) there is no commercial product out there that even tries to do a physical keyboard on the back. I couldn’t possibly have been the only one playing with these ideas, even back then.

Why not Braille?

Continuing the topic from yesterday…

Of course all the people I know who are blind can read and write Braille. But I don’t know anybody else who writes Braille – except now for me, because I used that java applet I posted yesterday to spend the twenty minutes or so it takes to learn how to write in the Braille alphabet.

It occurs to me that there may be an odd sort of prejudice at work here. Braille, it turns out (not surprisingly) is vastly superior than anything that sighted people currently use for typing on a small portable device while looking somewhere else. For example, suppose you are in a meeting, and you don’t want to interrupt the flow of conversation to jot down a quick note or send off a text message (either to yourself or others). If you need to look down at your cellphone to write that quick note, then you will have to look away from the person you are talking with.

Why don’t we all just use Braille? Why don’t our portable electronic devices come with a small keyboard that supports this much more sensible way of typing into a PDA – one that does not need to keep our eyes always focused on the keyboard? It would be easy to make it work with just one hand (eg: by providing three keys for the thumb, rather than one).

Is our general lack of use of Braille caused by some taboo at work, a sense that it’s “only for blind people”? Or there some flaw in my reasoning or assumptions?