Archive for August, 2009

Counting to ten

Friday, August 21st, 2009

Today, for the first time, I experienced a really satisfying video teleconferencing experience. I wasn’t expecting to. After all, like many people reading this blog I have had years of unsatisfying and somewhat uncomfortable experiences of teleconferencing. Skype chat, and before that iChat and its cousins, all promise more than they deliver. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has deliberately turned off his video capability, because the results are just too jarring and disappointing.

But today a friend of mine, who works for the network company CISCO, invited me to a little demo, in which we talked for an hour to a friend/colleague in San Francisco over a high quality video teleconferencing hook-up. Having spent all these years being disappointed by video teleconferencing experiences, I wasn’t expecting much.

Except this time it was different. This time, I felt as though I was having a completely comfortable conversation with somebody who was three thousand miles away. Not that everything was perfect. For example you still don’t have the experience of looking into each others’ eyes – that would require each participant to look at the camera, rather than at the image of the other person on the screen. Or some technological fix to adjust the apparent aim point of the pupils – something that would be quite difficult to do reliably well.

But seeing somebody you know at life size, on a high end 65″ diagonal LCD screen, through a high quality video camera, with guaranteed 30 frames per second video, and good quality audio that is actually synchronized to the video, turns out to make the difference. We all actually felt as though we were simply having a conversation, as opposed to “accessing technology”. We all agreed that we’d be perfectly comfortable having meetings over this medium on a daily basis – something none of us had been expecting to be able to say before the demo.

Of all of the aspects of this demo, the one that I think was the most important was the excellent synchronization of video and audio. There seemed to be zero delay. Intellectually, I knew this was highly implausible, given the current state of technology. And yet, there it was.

So I tried an experiment. I told my friend in San Francisco to count to ten with me. I told him I would say “one … three … five … seven … nine”, and I asked him to fill in with the even numbers as quickly as he could. The results were interesting. What I and the people in the room with me heard was:

one … two three … four five … six seven … eight nine … ten

But what my friend in San Francisco heard was:

one two … three four … five six … seven eight … nine ten

Based on the lengths of the pauses, we concluded that there was about a half a second delay in the transmission. And yet, for any other communication, we simply could not detect this delay. Conversation seemed perfectly normal in every way.

For the remainder of the session we were all aware of this delay, and yet we could not detect it. It was unquestionably there, and yet the experience we all had was that there was no delay – a surprising result that I found to be quite intriguing.

The conclusion I reached was that even a half a second delay is essentially unnoticeable, if you have excellent time synchronization between audio and video. Given sight and sound signals arriving at exactly the same time, and in the absence of any other artifacts disrupting the flow of time, the human mind seems to just gloss over the delay, as people automatically adjust their flow of conversational turn-taking to compensate.

How surprising and delightful! For the first time, I am hopeful that in the future there will be truly useful video teleconferencing for everyone.

Training wheels

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

Yesterday I described the distinction between (i) an actual artistic process, and (ii) games that create an illusion of artistic creation. Whether we’re talking about “Spore” or “Guitar Hero”, essentially it’s the difference between creating a picture and playing color-by-numbers.

By the way, one of my favorite examples of such an entertaining illusion was one of the very first Java applets to appear on the Web back in 1994, Paul Haeberli’s delightful The Impressionist.

But a much more interesting question is how a game might employ such an entertaining illusion as a scaffolding device, to gradually lead the player from mere entertainment to true artistic creation. For example, imagine a game that starts out – in its first levels – as color-by-numbers, and then gradually changes through successive levels, eventually becoming a platform for the true creation of original artistic work.

Similarly, one could imagine a game that starts out guiding its player through simple melody matching challenges on a musical keyboard, and gradually morphs into an experience in which the player is called upon to create truly original music. In any case, we are talking about a sort of “training wheels” for easing the novice artist into a true creative experience.

I could see this general rhetorical device as an approach to learning that could be both fun and effective – if properly designed. Is such a thing really possible? I’ve been trying to think of examples, but so far with little success. One problem is that software designed to entertain and software designed to teach are generally very different. The former promises a maximum of engaging fun, whereas the latter is supposed to be “good for you”. The two agendas are so different that they are rarely if ever combined successfully into a single package.

Maybe we can change that.

Every man a Rembrandt

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

The title of this post was the motto of the “Craft Master paint-kit” – the first color-by-numbers product. Invented by Dan Robbins in 1950 (based on an idea from Leonardo DaVinci), these kits clearly filled a need, selling more than twelve million units in their first three years.

There is a recent – and to me much welcome – trend among computer game providers to update Robbins’ idea, rhetorically positioning the player as an artist. When you play “Guitar Hero” you are in the ostensible position of being a musician. “Spore” gives you an experience of designing your own fabulous creatures. “Little Big Planet” takes the ultimate rhetorical step and positions you as a designer of computer game levels.

All games like this have several things in common – they are fun to play, they are thought provoking in concept, and they are, at core, completely fake. I don’t mean “fake” in a bad way. I mean that they share a mandate to be consumer entertainment products, so their mission is to give you the illusion that you are engaging in an artistic process.

But it is only an illusion. When you peer even a little behind the scenes, you find that it’s all color-by-numbers: A team of talented people has carefully crafted a set of pathways for the player to take. Because that team has built a great deal of artfully concealed content beforehand, the experience of a player is really engaged in a kind of mix and match of work that has been done by others. This creates a feeling in the player of magical empowerment, so that every choice produces an interesting outcome.

When you play with “Spore”‘s creature creator, you can get some of the sense of this (although it’s fun to pretend otherwise). Behind the scenes, the folks at Maxis are simply providing menus of choices, and result of your decisions as a game player is essentially to fill out that menu. Those choices are used by the game engine to trigger and select amongst work that was already built by hard-working artists and animators.

Sure, you can create a ten legged creature in “Spore”, but your creation moves a lot like a four legged creature. Not surprising, since the movement you are seeing is (very brilliantly done) window dressing over a simple core template. The result is very different from what would be produced by, say, an animator from Weta lovingly working out the individual motion for each leg of a rampaging alien decipod.

I like this trend not because it is actually empowering (it isn’t) but because it might create some curiosity in the minds of consumers about the real thing. Playing “Guitar Hero” is not an actual experience with a musical instrument, but it might lead more than a few kids to pick up a guitar and check out what it’s like to truly master an instrument.

It may be illuminating to divide products into tools for real artistic creation, versus ersatz art, entertainment products that exist to provide an enjoyable fantasy of an artistic process. Anything you do with “Little Big Planet” or “Spore”, for all the apparent sophistication of the experience, is going to result in a characteristic aesthetic, since you are actually engaged in a – quite fun and engaging – process of shuffling around content that was already made by others.

Whereas real artist’s tools are often strikingly simple. A humble lump of clay is the most protean of tools. I’ve seen a talented artist pick up a piece of plasticine and proceed to create figures of heartbreaking beauty. The same sort of thing can happen with a six string guitar or a movie camera.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy playing “ersatz art” computer games. But give me a good mechanical pencil, a Pink Pearl eraser, and an 8½” &#215 11″ sheet of plain white paper, and I’m in heaven.

National anthem

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

I haven’t been writing here about the 40th anniversary of Woodstock because there has already been plenty of ink spilled on the topic. Certainly I understand the attraction. For a highly self-aware generation it was the one moment when the ideals were matched by the reality. A belief in peace and good fellowship, a vision of unhesitating friendliness and mutual helpfulness between total strangers, these were the core tenets of that generation’s political belief system. And for one weekend everybody actually got it right.

But today is something else. Today is the fortieth anniversary of Jimi Hendrix playing our national anthem on the closing morning of Woodstock. I’m not nearly old enough to have been there, but older people I knew who were at the festival have told me it was a transcendent moment – perhaps the transcendent moment – of the three day event.

What I like about the image of Hendrix playing “The Star Spangled Banner” is that it was a choice not to focus on protest of the government’s policies, as much of the popular music did at that time. The performance transcended political issues entirely, and sent a much more profound message out to the young crowd.

Whatever one’s politics, playing the national anthem at a moment like this – a defining moment of an American generation – and in a beautifully operatic and definitively rock and roll style – was a perfect gesture toward the future, a reminder that ultimately the idea of a nation as a force for good in the world must be embraced anew in each generation. If you think your parents got it wrong, then it’s up to you to try to get it right.

I love the fact that this particular concert, held during a time of such bitter national turmoil, was concluded on a note of affirmation. Not a rejection of our national identity, which would have been all too easy – but a promise to uphold and stand up for its better ideals.


Monday, August 17th, 2009

When I was a kid television was something that arrived in measured doses. Your favorite TV show came around only once a week, and that was that. Sure, you could keep the TV on and watch whatever came on the screen, but you knew you were just killing time – not watching something you really liked.

Things started shifting when TiVO came around, and then they continued to shift with streaming NetFlix. But I think there is something fundamental and historically unprecedented going on now, with the rise of Hulu. For the first time television offers a true economy of abundance – years and years of free TV (“free” in the sense of commercial sponsored) of sufficient quality and quantity that there is literally more instant television at no cost that you might genuinely want to watch than there are hours in the day.

In other words, if you like TV (and not everyone does) you can see all the episodes of an insanely large assortment of shows stretching back through the decades. Whatever you’re into, be it “Firefly”, “My So-called Life”, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”, “The Simpsons”, “Dragnet”, “Lost”, “The Twilight Zone”, “Kings”, “The Office”, “McCale’s Navy” or “My Mother the Car”, it really doesn’t matter – whatever your taste in TV, there is now an unbelievably vast abundance of free content just a click away.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. On the one hand it’s great – information wants to be free. On the other hand, I wonder whether we might see the emergence a new level of addiction to the medium. If you are a TV addict, you can now, quite literally, spend 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, watching shows that are of genuine interest to you, until you die. The free content will simply outlast you.

For most of us this is not a problem. But for some people, it might be the equivalent of the bottle of alcohol in the kitchen cabinet – far too much of a temptation.

Might we see the emergence of Huluaholics Anonymous – complete with twelve step programs (hmm, maybe we shouldn’t call them “programs”)? Will people recovering from lost weekends of watching “Fringe” or “Kojak” congregate in secret meetings for group support, identifying themselves to each other only by their first names?

There must be a way out of this, someway to forestall the trend before masses of hollow-eyed TV addicts begin to roam the cities, clutching their laptops in desperation, doomed to an endless search for the next WiFi connection.

Wait, I know. Maybe we can start a channel that offers free video games.

Being two

Sunday, August 16th, 2009

Spending time today with my two year old nephew Thomas, I realize that the two year olds are not unformed versions of us – they are something completely different. They have an entirely different way of seeing the world, and their eyes focus on different things. What delights and enthralls them is often meaningless to us.

They focus on particular details – where the line is on the pavement, how many cookies everyone has, how many times to run around the pole – that are from another world, one we can see but not really understand.

I think it’s not so much the difference in the way their minds work – although the non-linear spontaneously generative thinking of a two year old seems completely different from the relatively linear narrative within an adult mind. It’s the fact that entirely different things motivate them. The aspects of reality that most delight a small child – the sounds, colors, endless repetitions of games – are largely inaccessible to our adult minds.

Thomas can switch his attention on a dime from one thing to another without another thought. On the other hand, he can watch a guitarist play for an hour or more, gazing in rapt attention at the fingers of the musician while listening to the magical sounds that emerge, without ever losing focus for a moment. I understand this, but I cannot do it. It’s another world, one only vaguely accessible to our adult minds. We can peer in through the glass, and perhaps even make sense of many of the things we see there, but we cannot step through, into this other world.

Comedy is not pretty

Saturday, August 15th, 2009

Went with some friends this evening to a comedy club. Before the headline performer (who was amazing) there was a procession of semi-professional comics – either young kids just getting started, or semi-professionals who were clearly never going to go anywhere.

It was most instructive to watch the really bad acts. A gifted and experienced comedian is so good at creating a flow state in the room, that you tend not to notice it being done. You’re just floating on the vibe, and it all seems seamless and (misleadingly) effortless.

But a bad comedian is a lesson in how hard it is to establish that control, to create the proper vibe in a room. When you see somebody dying up there, trying one joke after another and starting to get that look of panic in their eyes when none of it is hitting, you’re seeing a lot more than an out of control act. You’re seeing a implied contract being broken – the contract whereby the performer has told the audience, simply by virtue of being up there and picking up a microphone, “don’t worry, I’m here, I’ll take care of you”.

Interestingly, one young comedian in the lineup was either genuinely insane or else trying deliberately not to be funny. I couldn’t figure out whether I was seeing somebody who hadn’t a clue what humor is, or the next Andy Kaufman, deliberately deconstructing the process.

The audience started to get nervous when he made an unfunny joke about Obama eating fried chicken in the White House (that one was apparently directed toward the young black couple in the front row), but people really started to freak out when it appeared that he was about to tell a joke at the expense of Sarah Palin’s baby – the one with Down’s Syndrome. He veered away from that just in time, and then spent the remainder of his act publicly embarrassing and humiliating his own father, who was in the audience.

I found myself wondering whether it was all deliberate. The act seemed far to bizarre to simply be the result of incompetence. Perhaps we’re seeing the birth of a new kind of theatre of the absurd. Or as Artaud might have put it, a kind of theatre of cruelty – a deliberate attempt to force us to see the turmoil, anger and pain beneath the surface, the generally unacknowledged raw meat of alienation that goes into the sausage of comedy.

Or maybe the guy was just nuts.

Gender roles

Friday, August 14th, 2009

I started watching the wonderfully silly new show “Warehouse 13” on the Syfy channel. For those of you who don’t know, the term “Syfy” is a clever marketing gimmick to appeal to people who like science fiction but haven’t learned how to spell yet.

Ostensibly about the care and feeding of that giant room at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” where our government stashed the Ark of the Covenant for safekeeping, the nice thing about “Warehouse 13” is that its treatment of this alternate reality is deliberately silly. In each episode the writers make a point of creating a driving plot premise for that week’s adventure that is so outlandishly stupid and inconsistent, even according to the weird internal “rules” of the show’s fictional world, that the audience can just relax and feel in on the joke.

The fact that such an eye rolling plot howler appears in every single episode – and each time in a different way – makes it clear that we are seeing a deliberate choice on the part of the writers. In this sense, “Warehouse 13” bears roughly the same relationship to the fantasy genre as “Borat” does to the Kazakhstan Chamber of Commerce.

Which is all fine with me. A meta-premise is still a premise, and “fantasy ideas written while falling-down drunk” is a great meta-premise for a show. Besides, the writers don’t seem particularly interested in the fantasy part anyway. They are only using that to get to the real meat of the show, which is the coming together of a surrogate family of loners and misfits. And here is where I think the show goes out of its way to do something genuinely innovative.

To summarize briefly, the main characters on “Warehouse 13” are:

(i) A government agent who is serious, decisive, hair-trigger to action in a crisis, expert with both gun and the marshal arts, and used to being in charge;

(ii) That agent’s partner, who is sweet, intuitive, sensitive, endearing in a childlike way, and loves milk and cookies;

(iii) A mysterious and somewhat aloof uber-boss who rules with complete authority and not a trace of sentimentality;

(iv) The indearingly sensitive and eccentric caretaker of the warehouse, who fusses after the two agents like a mother hen, always dresses in dowdy outfits, frets whenever the two agents are in trouble, and is always sure to give them milk and cookies when they return from an adventure;

(v) A skinny whiz-kid teen hacker in sneakers who is smarter than the geniuses at MIT, faster with a sarcastic quip than Ferris Bueller, plays world-class chess, and is capable of inventing three new technologies in the time it would take Scotty to say “Aye Cap’n”.

Doesn’t seem very innovative, right? But here’s the thing. The genders of these five characters are, respectively: (i) female, (ii) male, (iii) female, (iv) male, (v) female. In other words, the exact opposite of what one would expect for a TV show of this kind. There is simply no way such a deviation from genre conventions could have been an accident – these writers are clearly up to something.

I’m going to keep watching. Maybe I’ll find out just where this is all leading. Of course there’s no way to know for sure – this is a fantasy series after all. They might just end up introducing a third gender.

Live music

Thursday, August 13th, 2009

This evening as I was walking along 8th Street I realized that I was hearing live music. I looked around to see who might be singing and playing the guitar. There was a group of people sitting outside an entrance, and I looked over as I approached to see if one of them had a guitar. But no, they were just sitting around talking – no guitar and no singing.

But when I passed the entrance, I looked inside and saw it was a coffee shop. Way in the back was a guy singing into a microphone and playing his guitar to entertain the diners – not an uncommon sight. Mystery solved.

But then I got to thinking – how had I known it was live music, from clear up the block? The music I’d heard had travelled from the back of the coffee shop out into the street – I was still a good fifty feet up the sidewalk when I first heard it and realized I was hearing live music. And I hadn’t just suspected I was hearing live music, as opposed to a recording. I had been certain of it.

If the guy had been singing without an amp, it would have been easy to explain the difference. There’s all kinds of phase information in live audio that gets flattened, distorted or just plain lost when played back through a speaker. Humans are extremely good at detecting subtle textures in sound, and the difference between a live sound source and the poor substitute of playback through stereo speakers is quite dramatic.

But the guy I’d heard was singing into a microphone. I wasn’t hearing his voice and guitar directly – I was hearing music coming out of an amplifier and speaker. So why was it so obvious, even from all the way up the block, that I was hearing a live performance?

I have some theories, but I’m curious to know if anyone else has any thoughts on the subject.

King Tut’s bicycle

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

We were standing around today discussing the moral issues around stolen bicycles. Specifically, what to do should somebody come up to you and tell you that he is the rightful owner of that used bicycle you’ve just bought. Once you know that you are the unwitting possessor of stolen goods, should you give it back to the original owner? Sell it back to him for half of what you paid? It’s a difficult situation because you are both, in a sense, victims.

In our conversation I mentioned a somewhat analogous situation in the art world, when a museum finds itself to be in possession of looted antiquities. Although here the situation is a bit more complex, because museums fairly teem with antique objects of potentially questionable provenance; it is often not in their interest to ask too many questions.

While we were discussing the moral issues surrounding the relocation of ancient treasures from one nation to another, my friend Charles tied it all back to the original conversation by saying “It’s basically the problem of King Tut’s bicycle”.

At which point I completely stopped whatever train of thought I’d been on, because the phrase “King Tut’s bicycle” was just one of the most wonderful and evocative word combinations I think I’ve ever heard. I told Charles he should write a book, and call it “King Tut’s bicycle”. It could be one of those big thought books that ties together current issues of politics and philosophy by relating ancient Egyptian burial rituals to shifting modes of personal transport in the post-Victorian era. Or perhaps a disquisition on the relationships between technology, celebrity and the changing image of childhood over the last thirty seven centuries. The possibilities are endless.

But it doesn’t really matter. Any book with the title “King Tut’s bicycle” is bound to be a best seller. Forget “A Brief History of Time”, keep your “Tuesdays with Morrie”. Because now there’s a new book title in town, and it ain’t messin’ around. You could just print a run of a few hundred thousand, prop some up by the entrance to Barnes and Noble, maybe a hardcover edition with a nice cover picture artfully juxtaposing the eponymous boy king with a bright red Schwinn Phantom, and then sit back and watch the inevitable climb up The New York Times bestseller list.

Imagine the awe on everyone’s face when people show up for that beach vacation with “King Tut’s bicycle” packed between their sun tan lotion and Spiderman beach towels. All of those has-beens who are all still reading “Drink, Play, F**k” (or the hilarious Liz Gilbert parody of that book, “Eat, Pray, Love”) will be green with envy. I suspect you could even market one of those blank books, the kind they sell at the front of bookstores for people who like to avoid the bother of reading, preferring to just fill in their own words. Just slap the phrase “King Tut’s bicycle” on the front of one of these little journals, and you’re golden.

Eat your heart out, Malcolm Gladwell.