Archive for September, 2009

Perfect convergence

Sunday, September 20th, 2009

Sometimes two elements come together to create something new – a glorious synthesis – Gilbert and Sullivan, Tracy and Hepburn, Lennon and McCartney, “Dark Side of the Moon” and “The Wizard of Oz”.

OK, maybe not that last one. But you get the idea.

And every once in a while you get a third element – like George Martin becoming the Beatles’ producer – that makes this synthesis even more powerful.

Yesterday I watched the synthesis of Animaniacs and YouTube. At a family gathering, I looked on in awe as nieces and nephews discovered Yakko’s World on YouTube. Originally broadcast in 1993 in the second episode of the animated series, this song written by Roger Rogel was the first of what would become an entire menagerie of educational Animaniacal songs.

The idea of the song is so simple. Yakko is a rather manic cartoon character who sings a song with lyrics that consist of the names of all of the countries in the world – or at least, all of the countries that existed around 1992 (modulo a few mistakes, such as leaving out Wales and Northern Ireland) – to the tune of “The Mexican Hat Dance”.

It’s one thing for kids to see this on a TV broadcast. It’s something very different for them to be able to watch it over and over and over on YouTube. To witness the power of this combination is quite something. I watched as first the kids gathered around the computer and watched the song – perhaps ten times or so back to back. Then they all started singing along to it. Then they all printed out copies, one for each child, and they spontaneously made up a game to see who could sing the entire thing through – first while looking at the print-out, and then trying to get through more and more of the song without looking. They were all still completely absorbed in the project even as their parents were trying to herd them out the door at the end of the evening.

Personally, I find the video utterly mesmerizing. It’s not just the cleverness of it, but also Yakko’s almost insanely high-energy cheerfulness, all perfectly calibrated to appeal to restless young minds.

In this sense it’s both progeny and evolution of Danny Kaye’s performance of Gershwin and Weill’s Tschaikowsky (And Other Russians), as well as Tom Lehrer’s The Elements.

Kids are also fascinated by those older list-songs, but not nearly as much as they are by watching Yakko jump around like an animated maniac, rattling off countries. I think there is something about the inclusion of a manic cartoon character to act it all out that makes everything come together. It seems that the Trinity of:

YouTube

Manic cartoon character

Song containing exhaustive list

creates a perfect convergence – an utterly irresistible educational formula that has kids climbing all over each other in their eagerness to learn.

Hmm … there could be a real educational opportunity here.

Maybe we should be taking notes.

Stars

Saturday, September 19th, 2009

When I was a child, from time to time our school would take us on trips to the Museum of Natural History in New York City, where we would inevitably be treated to a cosmic star show at the Hayden Planetarium. I remember little of these shows, since they were immensely outclassed by my earlier memories from around the age of five of lying on my back on the cool tall grass, on a dark moonless night in the countryside, while my Dad would point out Cassiopeia, the vast swatch of the Milky Way, Orion and his belt, and which two stars on the Big Dipper you should follow to find Polaris – which is not only the north star, but also the end of the handle on the Little Dipper.

But one star show at the Hayden has stayed with me – the one where they talked about the Polynesians. It seems (at least according to the prevailing theories of the time) that there had once been a great mystery around the question of how the Pacific Islanders were able to travel from island to island. The islands themselves are very small, and the distances between them quite great. The islanders did not have any of the technology Europe had been developing for world navigation – no compass, no sextant, no mathematical formalisms for triangulating around the great globe of the Earth.

And yet a thriving distributed culture and economy emerged, in which islanders would navigate in their long boats from one island to another on a regular basis – trading, visiting, intermarrying. How was this possible?

Well, according to the lesson narrated with the star show at the Hayden, the current theory was that each island kingdom would, from time to time, send out a lone volunteer to paddle forth in a long boat on a particular day of the year. The brave young man (apparently it was always a man) would follow a particular star wherever it might lead.

Most of the time the intrepid explorer would disappear out at sea, never to be seen again. But every once in a while that star would lead to an island. And then the young man would wait until the right day of the year, and travel back to from whence he came, this time paddling directly away from the lucky star.

Upon his arrival back home, the fortunate young man would be showered with adulation. The king would give him great riches, honor, and the choice of the hand in marriage of the most beautiful maiden in all the island.

Or at least that’s how I remember hearing the story.

For the ambitious young volunteer, it was a good deal. Either go out in a blaze of glory, or get lucky, and be set for life. And, of course, if the explorer was successful there would be another link in the chain of connections between the islands. Over the course of enough years, decades, centuries, this technique was used to build an entire network of connections between many islands in the South Pacific.

For some reason, this story has always stuck with me. The crazy romance of it, the hero’s journey, the sense of giving one’s all for a barely possible dream. It’s funny what happens when you hear a story at the right time in your life. It plants a seed, becomes a part of the way you think about things.

And so it happens that ever since that day at the museum, whenever I begin to doubt my own crazy dreams, I have only to look up at the stars.

Tea ceremony 26

Friday, September 18th, 2009

The young woman sits in the car, looking impassively at the house across the street. On her left ring finger is a ring – a thin band of white gold. Absently, without looking, she reaches with her other hand and her fingers close around a white paper coffee cup, half filled with black tea. She lifts the cup to her lips, and slowly takes a sip, never once taking her eyes off the door of the house.

In her left hand, the one with the ring, is a cigarette. For a moment she moves her gaze from the door of the house across the street, and looks down at the still unlit cigarette. A brief look of anger crosses her face, and she flicks the cigarette out the driver’s side window.

Just as the cigarette hits the ground, the door of the house opens. A man steps out. For a long while the man stands on the porch. He does not appear to notice the car. The man walks to the end of the driveway, turns left, and continues on, walking along the sidewalk.

The young woman carefully places the cup back in the cup holder. Then she removes the ring from her left hand. Clutching the ring, she turns on the car radio. It is playing the first movement of a sonata by Beethoven. She lets the movement play to the end, seeming to listen intently, and then shuts off the radio. Holding the ring tightly in her clenched fist, she puts the car into gear, and slowly pulls away from the curb.

Gravity has no friends

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

One of the most interesting things about human language is the way that the things we say are merely an indicator of the things we do not say – of deeply mutual understandings of which our language is merely a signifier. In a sense, words and sentences are only a shorthand for a vastly larger meaning space, one that does not need to be explicitly represented because every one of us carries it around in our head.

We can only really appreciate this mutual understanding when we see attempts to replicate it in software – attempts that often fail in interesting ways. For example, today I learned, from a lecture by my friend Noah, about “Tale-Spin”, a software system developed by James Meehan to automatically generate stories. Most of the generated stories are fairly uninteresting, with the notable exception of the ones that fail – the stories in which the artificial intelligence inference logic broke down somewhere along the way. Here is one of my favorite Tale-Spin failures:

Henry Ant was thirsty. He walked over to the river bank where his good friend Bill Bird was sitting. Henry slipped and fell in the river. Gravity drowned.

What on earth is going on here? How can gravity drown? It turns out that the story system understands that Henry is being pulled into the river by gravity. But it doesn’t understand that gravity is not, in fact, a character. In the internal logic that generated this story, Henry Ant survives his mishap because his good friend Bill Bird pulls him out in time.

Alas, gravity is not so lucky. Being a character in the story, and having nobody to pull it out of the river, poor gravity dies. Or, as Noah phrased it so poetically in his talk, “Gravity has no friends.”

How true.

Five fingers

Wednesday, September 16th, 2009

About 340 million years ago, all four-limbed creatures – the ancestors of today’s amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals – began to “standardize” to five fingers/toes on each limb. Yes, many birds seem to have only three claws, and the horse seems to have a single big hoof, but when you look closely at their anatomy, these variations all turn out to be the result of fused or vestigial digits.

Suppose, just for the sake of argument, that this development in the Lower Carboniferous age had resulted not in pentadactyls, but in tetradactyls – creatures with four fingers or toes on each limb. And suppose that in this alternate universe we humans had evolved anyway, giant brains and all.

I’m thinking we’d have developed binary arithmetic a lot earlier in our history. After all, historical development of mathematics has been hobbled by the need to count in multiples of five and ten. The ancient Babylonians found themselves stuck with base sixty. Such an unwieldy counting system seems quaint until you realize that traces of this system survive today – such as in the number of minutes in an hour, and the number of angular degrees around a circle.

The ancient Romans were hobbled by their need for a number system that had symbols for 5, 10, 50, 100, 500 and 1000. The resulting way of counting rendered as simple an operation as multiplication all but impossible.

But if we had four fingers on each hand, eight fingers in all, sixteen digits between feet and toes, we’d already be well on our way to thinking in binary. Perhaps, in such a world, computers would have been developed far earlier. The whole notion of building complex structures of meaning out of sequences of binary bits would have made sense to even the smallest child.

Of course when you start to play this kind of game, you begin to uncover some disturbing questions. For example, in such a world would there still be Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, or would there be only three? Would the Holy Trinity become a Holy Duality? Would a picture be worth two hundred and fifty six words, and would Snow White really still be hanging out with seven dwarves? Would there have to be a science fiction series names “Babylon 4”? Could the Beatles still be the Fab Four, or would Ringo have to go?

And then of course there is the question I’m sure you are all asking: In such a world, how many fingers would Homer Simpson have?

Alas, these questions may forever remain unanswered. :-)

Negative architecture

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

One day a number of years ago I visited my cousin Ben – who works in movies – while he was filming some scenes at Walt Disney studios in Orlando, Florida. Between takes we hung out on the set, talking about this and that. But when cast and crew resumed shooting, there wasn’t really much for me to do.

So once the cameras started to roll, I wandered around and explored, taking in all of the components of a modern film studio – prop department, dressing rooms, video preview rooms, sound stages of all shapes and sizes. It was endlessly fascinating to see the story behind the story, all the practical brass tacks that go into making the magic we see up on the silver screen.

But then, after turning a corner at the end of a corridor, I could see into one room that wasn’t at all like the others. It seemed to be completely abandoned, run down, with paint chipped off the walls in places. The room was bare except for an old formica table, a metal folding chair, an empty coat rack in the corner with some wire hangers. In short, it was just about the least interesting room you could imagine.

Completely nonplussed by the contrast between this drab space and the well-tended studio behind me, I ventured into the room. Only after I was well inside did I see that there was a door, half open, out of sight of the corridor I had come from. Walking through this second door, I found myself in Walt Disney World.

I knew that I was supposed to think “Wow, cool, I’m in Disney World!” But that’s not what went through my mind. Rather, my first thought was “I was in a real movie studio, and now I’m just in Disney World.” It definitely felt like a step down in coolness factor. Meanwhile, all around me were tourists, a huge swirling throng of them, on their way from one attraction to the next. And not a single one of them seemed to notice the door I had just come out of.

And that’s when it hit me: I was witnessing a masterful example of negative architecture. Of course the people who work at Disney need to be able to get in and out, slipping unnoticed into the Magic Kingdom, and then slipping away again just as quickly and unobtrusively. And they need to do this very fast, often in full costume – as if through a magic portal – without having to bother with locks and such.

What I had discovered was one such portal. Any restless kid visiting for the day with his parents, stumbling through that half-opened door, would see a place that looked far less magical than the glittering theme park outside – probably a storage room, he’d think, or maybe the janitor’s hang-out. It would never occur to him to venture any farther. Rather, he would take one look at this boring little room and turn right back around, returning to a place where he could spend the day with Mickey and his magical friends. And that curious kid would never know, or even suspect, that genuine movie stars were to be seen in the rooms just beyond.

Which is exactly the point. There are doors everywhere leading from the Magic Kingdom to a place where even stronger magic is made. These doors are all wide open and you can walk right through them. No guard will stop you, and nobody will block your way.

But they are protected by the power of an even stronger magic – the magic of negative architecture. And so, my friend, try as you might, you will never find them.

What We Tweet About When We Tweet About Love

Monday, September 14th, 2009

In 1981 Raymond Carver published a collection of short stories called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” – also the title of a sad and powerful story in the collection. Carver’s theme, as you will know if you have read his work, was the abyss between people, the yearning to reach out, to love each other, and the difficulty we humans have in doing just that.

But now, nearly three decades later, we have entered a new age. Emotional expression has been boiled down to sound bytes – tweets, texts, blog posts, scribbles on facebook walls and all the other modern tricks we employ to fill in the vacuum of life’s random moments. This constant chatter in short electronic bursts can give us the feeling that there is no distance between one human soul and another, no alienation at all.

I wonder whether we as a culture are gradually mutating as a result of Twitterization. I don’t believe for a moment that we have found a magic cure for alienation, for misunderstanding, for the essential distance between us all. But I do think we may have found a drug that dulls our perception of these things. If you can send and receive dozens of little messages throughout the day, post your moments to Facebook, type out 140 character epiphanies into the aether, then perhaps you can create the illusion that the demons are at bay – the demons of loneliness, the demons of sorrow.

The demons of mortality.

In Carver’s world, people regularly found themselves face to face with their essential loneliness. But now – thanks to the miracle of modern technology – we can create walls of chatter throughout the day that shield us from those feelings.

Perhaps this is a good thing – maybe the drugs help.

Who am I to judge?

Genres

Sunday, September 13th, 2009

Sometimes it comes as a surprise to realize that things we’d been thinking of as completely different are actually quite similar. In films we are used to this sort of revelation. After all, students of the films of Alfred Hitchcock have realized for years that most of his thrillers are actually somewhat disguised boy-meets-girl romances, in the sense that the romance (whether between Cary Grant and Grace Kelly or between Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll) is actually the engine that drives the audience’s interest.

Of course there are exceptions, but the Hitchcock films that are primarily romances at heart by far outnumber those that truly break the mold, such as “The Birds” and “Lifeboat”.

Similarly, many computer games are essentially variations on the same game, when boiled down to their essentials. One of the most popular of these “essential games” is what might be called the “maze with prizes and killer zombies” game, more popularly known as a “dungeon crawler”. In this game, exemplified by the games from Id Software such as the 1993 Doom and 1996 Quake, your avatar runs around in a claustrophobia-inducing labyrinth trying to collect treasure while hungry killer zombies continually appear from around the corner, wanting to eat you.

Like any sensible individual in such a situation, you are supposed to use your high powered futuristic weapon to blow these zombies to smithereens and spatter their undead blood-soaked body parts against floor and walls, before said zombies approach near enough to rip open your chest cavity like a bag of corn chips, noisily suck out your brains and feast with rabid hunger upon your still writhing flesh.

All good clean fun.

Many games have appeared in the intervening years that continue in this hallowed tradition, such as Half Life, Diablo, Demon’s Souls and many others. These games are largely thought to be inspired by Doom, with story elements taken from Tolkien by way of Dungeons and Dragons.

But in this past week I had a revelation: The gameplay of such games is actually derivative of a game generally thought to belong to a completely different genre. Think about it for a moment: Your avatar must navigate a labyrinth, picking up valuable prizes to accumulate points, while avoiding death at the hands of autonomous monsters that roam around in the maze with no purpose other than to kill you. The first game to follow this paradigm came out well before Doom – in 1981 to be exact.

I speak, of course, of Pacman.

The only essential difference, from a game-play perspective, is that you get to see the entire maze when you play Pacman. John Carmack’s innovation in Doom was to show only a small, ground-level view of the maze. This increased the level of paranoia, as well as incorporating the task of learning and remembering the dungeon’s layout into the game itself.

One could also argue that the true progenitor of the “deathmatch” multiplayer mode of Quake, in which participants play against each other within a maze-like dungeon, is even earlier – the 1973 Atari game “Gotcha”.

Novel directions

Saturday, September 12th, 2009

Over these last days I’ve been making more of a push on a new direction for this blog. For the first time I posted a complete original short story – “Farewell” – written just for you, dear readers, in “real time”, as it were. And of course I’ve also been sculpting the “Tea ceremony”, a sort of digital still life in words.

Given this backdrop, imagine my excitement and shock of recognition, upon perusing the weblog of my dear friend Kaelan, to come upon her reference to http://www.nanowrimo.org, a site devoted exclusively to promoting a simple idea – members of the great unwashed public write a complete novel in one month.

In a nutshell, November is novel month – in the form of a contest. Upon entering this contest, you have one month – from 00:00 on November 1 to 23:59 on November 30 – to create a complete 50,000 word novel. It’s ok to have devised plans/outlines/sketches beforehand – as well as any scene ideas conceived while playing with plastic toy dinosaurs or small household pets and kitchen utensils – but the actual prose itself must all be created within this thirty day window. This last requirement would rule out, for example, the “Scenes from the Novel” that have gradually emerged on these pages from time to time.

I’ve been thinking I might devote the month of November this year to taking up this challenge, flinging the gauntlet, taking a hefty bite from Euterpe’s apple, so to speak.

I suppose if I were truly invested in the cutting edge potential of this novel cybermedium, then I would go all the way and Twitter my way to the finish line. I’ve run the math: There are thirty days in the month of November, and just about fifteen words in the average Tweet. For a 50,000 word novel, that comes out to 111 Twitter posts per day, or somewhere between seven and eight Tweets per hour (or about 0.12 t.p.m.), assuming that (a) one sleeps an average of eight hours a day, and (b) one does not actually have a life.

OK, maybe that wouldn’t be such a good idea.

But it might be interesting to take a monthlong detour from our regularly scheduled program in order to write a novel in these pages, and see where it all leads.

You are the readers, and I value your opinion on the subject. So, what do you say? I’d love to hear from you, to see what you think of this idea.

Tea ceremony 59

Friday, September 11th, 2009

The young man awakens in the bed. At first he looks around wildly, as though at an unfamiliar place. Then he sits up on the bed, clad only in boxer shorts and a tee shirt, and his gaze systematically takes in the details – the silk lampshade, the alabaster flowered wallpaper, the Edwardian writing desk upon which an old silver tea service stands beside an empty bottle of champagne.

He stands up unsteadily in his bare feet, walks to the nearest door, opens it and peers through, seeming to realize only gradually that he is looking into a walk-in closet. He stares down at the row of women’s shoes, and a look of understanding crosses his face.

Silently he shuts the closet door.

He puts on his jeans and socks and pull-over sweater, which had been scattered on the floor off to one side of the bed, and walks out into the hallway, making his way silently as he carries his shoes in one hand.

He begins to descend the stairs, one by one. Halfway down, he peers furtively from the landing into the room below. Two figures sit upon the couch, a man and a woman. They do not appear to see him. He pulls back silently, until he is just out of sight. He stands stock still for a moment, his head bowed as though deep in thought, and then slowly he sits down upon the stairs.

From the back pocket of his jeans he pulls out a bedraggled drawing pad, opening it to a fresh and unmarked sheet. He reaches into his other pocket, rummaging around until his fingers emerge clutching an exceedingly old looking fountain pen.

He stares intently down at the blank paper, holding the pen absently between thumb and forefinger. Then quickly, with practiced strokes, he begins to sketch a picture.