The subject of robots with personality, a centerpiece of my little emerging epic poem, reminds me of a talk I saw a number of years ago, given by my friend Athomas, within an entire afternoon session of talks around the question of what makes a virtual interactive character believable.

The previous talk had focused on showcasing a commercial product — a little animated character that could march around on your screen and make various comments that would show up as speech bubbles. The character was supposed to be cute, but it mainly came across as annoying. I think this was because the guy giving the talk was pretending that the character was making decisions on its own, while it was obvious that the whole thing was canned; the animated character was merely playing out bits of a pre-recorded script every time the presenter clicked on the screen. The vague air of intellectual dishonesty about the whole charade was rather off-putting.

In contrast, Athomas gave a straight PowerPoint presentation — text only. It was clear there would be no animated cartoon characters in this talk. He started out talking about the underlying philosophical and literary underpinnings of the quest for believability, the historical roots of believable characters, Freud’s theory of the uncanny, and other really interesting stuff.

But at some point in the middle of his talk Athomas made a point and gestured toward the screen — and the PowerPoint text showed something that disagreed with what he had just said. He restated the point, flipping to the next slide, and the PowerPoint text disagreed even more strongly.

What followed was quite amazing. Athomas proceeded to get into an argument with his PowerPoint presentation. Things started to get ugly. Names were called. He and his presentation clearly had different ideas on the subject of creating believable interactive characters, and neither one was willing to give an inch.

Finally the PowerPoint presentation pulled a power play. After saying something rather rude and insulting about its creator, it proceeded to go blank entirely — the ultimate refusal to cooperate. Athomas was left sputtering, standing in front of an empty screen. Soldiering onward with no slides, he summed up and proceeded to take questions from the audience.

The entire thing was a tour de force. We in the audience had just witnessed a screen consisting only of text come vividly to life, argue with its creator, and assert its independence of viewpoint and thought. All without a single animation, or even a picture.

I am fairly certain that I have never seen a more believable interactive character — or one with more personality.

The legend of Jake. Canto the first, verse two:

The world we know is nestled in a dream
And every dream contains more dreams within,
All dreamers, whether flesh and blood or tin
Must enter realms that are not what they seem.
Whenever hearts, however young and brave,
Set out one day, upon a noble quest
They see the world not plain, but at its best
For who can doubt the thing he fights to save?
We mortals die, but tales live forever
Thus tales told are magical indeed
Of epic quests, on rocket ship or steed
Made known by lyric verses sad or clever.
      But in that moment Jake knew only this:
      The world was dark, and something was amiss.

The hero’s other journey

Strangely, the very day after I posted the first installment of my little RIPRAP (rhyming iambic pentameter robotic adventure poem), a friend showed me a cool flash game that starts out by plunging an entire world of robots into darkness and unconsciousness.

While the intro for this game was playing on my friend’s computer screen, I started narrating out loud, in my best movie announcer’s voice: “In a world plunged into darkness, one young hero will rise. A humble yet intrepid little robot, with the courage to bring light back into his world.” And that is, indeed, exactly what happened next in the game. One little robot woke up, and your job, as the player, was to help him to bring his entire robo-world back to life.

My foresight in this matter seemed to impress my friend, who clearly did not know that I had just started, on the previous day, to tell almost the same story — albeit in a different medium. By the way, the on-line game, entitled “Little Wheel”, is very cool. Here is a link to it. It should work on any computer platform that doesn’t start with a lowercase ‘i”. 😉

Of course the reason I could with such authority predict what was about to happen next is that both my poem and this game are essentially the Joseph Campbell / Star Wars / Lion King / Harry Potter / Avatar tale — the classic hero’s journey. You know, the oldest story in the book: Young protagonist conquers great evil and saves the world, and in the process learns valuable lessons about life and about growing up. To a first approximation, they are all Gilgamesh done as an after-school TV special.

I’m starting to think there should be a different way to look at this scenario. Perhaps the hero’s journey ends up being very different from what we expected at the outset. Perhaps the form can be used to illuminate an entirely different space, one not so well travelled. The only really great example of this that I can think of off-hand — of an author radically thinking the entire idea of the hero’s journey, and taking it someplace truly new and different — is Dennis Potter’s “The Singing Detective”.

Not really sure I can do that with robots…

The legend of Jake. Canto the first, verse one

In ancient times, when robots ruled the earth
There was a droid named Jake, of lowly status,
Thus begins our epic, offered gratis
A tale composed of tragedy and mirth.
Fifteen times the seasons came and went
Before our callow hero e’er did roam
Beyond the humble factory, his home,
Where cybernetic days were simply spent.
Until one winter night most dark and deep
When robots slumber silent and recharging
A shadow large as night and still enlarging
Descended on the robots in their sleep
    With no one in the factory awake
    Except one humble robot, name of Jake.


It just so happened that today, on the very day that Steve Jobs unveiled the new iPad, I found myself in a Starbucks. Not that I particularly like Starbucks, but I really needed a coffee, and apparently there is a law in New York City dictating that there must be at least three Starbucks coffee shops on every block in this great city. So of course the nearest place to get a cup of coffee was you-know-what.

Amazingly, when I asked for a small cup of coffee, the lady behind the counter did not correct me and say “you mean a Tall cup of coffee?” No, she actually let it go, allowing me to just order my coffee; she didn’t respond with a sentence containing “branding” words like “Tall” or “Grande” or “Venti”. I felt a sort of kinship with her in that moment, the recognition that one is talking to a reasonable human being, not just another hapless human face hired to hide the essential impersonality of a soulless corporation.

Which brings me to Steve Jobs’ announcement. Clearly there is an ongoing attempt on the part of Apple Computer to lay claim to the letter “i” as a prefix, what with product names like iMac, iMovie, iPod, iTunes, iPhone, and iPad. But is this possible? Does it count that IMAX is already called, well, IMAX? Or maybe that one’s ok, because IMAX is ALL IN CAPS, which means that it denotes something huge, grandiose, bigger than you are, whereas Apple’s cutely diminutive “i” suggests something adorable, reminiscent of the long-lost teddy bear from your early childhood, a special little friend that you’ll just want to curl up with at night, sharing stories and hot cocoa.

I’m wondering whether Apple will succeed in this quest. It’s not clear to me that you can actually get intellectual property protection on the “i” prefix. It’s a pattern – and patterns are not covered by U.S. copyright law. And I’m pretty sure you can’t patent it. It’s probably too late to sue Robert Graves for “I Claudius”, but I’m sure that if there’s a way, Apple will find it.

In the future, of course, anything might happen. Maybe Apple and Microsoft will merge, and we will end up with iWindows, which would be kind of boring. It would be much more fun if Apple were to merge with other industries. If they make a pogo stick it could be called the iHop (oh wait – that one’s already taken). Perhaps if they came out with a high-tech vacuum cleaner, they could call it the iSuck. Although more likely it would be called iRobot (oh wait, that one’s taken too).

As long as we are doing corporate branding mash-ups, I really like “iVenti”. I hope that’s still in the public domain. It sounds a lot like “I vent”, which does a good job of describing today’s post. 🙂

When a black cat crosses my path

I have only recently come to realize that I have had the same song running somewhere in the back of my head since at least October. Not the entire song, end to end, only the really catchy bits. It’s funny that I am just now consciously realizing this, after so much time. I supposed this is not the kind of thing one notices right away. Songs that run in the back of your head tend to the subliminal.

In my case the song is “Sugar Water” by Cibo Matto. I have no idea why this particular song has taken such a place of honor in my brain, rather than other catchy songs like “Bad Romance”, or “Rehab”, or even the ever-popular “It’s a Small World” (this may be the first time those three songs have ever been mentioned together in one sentence).

But no, it’s “Sugar Water” all the way. I realize now that the song was playing in my head the entire time I was co-writing “Sun and Moon”. Certainly the song factored into the plot. For example, the lyric “A woman in the moon is singing to the earth” essentially plays out as a major story point in the novel.

Perhaps this was all triggered in September when I rewatched the episode “When she was bad” that kicks off the second season of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”. The scene in which this song was played is certainly unforgettable. But I’m not convinced that’s it.

No, I think it’s just that a song is a sort of half-wild creature which comes and visits you for a while. Like a stray black cat that wanders into your house one day. You understand that this is a visitor, and you make sure to feed it and set out a bowl of milk at night. Little by little you become used to it, curled up on a chair or purring contentedly in your lap.

Until one day you realize that it has gone.

The gift of the rose

Her hand was still clutching what remained of the umbrella,
Now all broken metal spines tangled with red vinyl, without sense nor form.
The picture lay on the floor, where it had fallen, still in its frame.
A single crack ran diagonally through the glass, but that was enough.
She doubted she would ever know the whole truth.

And that was just as well.

There were dreams in this room, that once were young.
The rose on the mantel was dry with age yet beautiful, perfectly formed.
Droplets of rain fell upon the white coverlet they’d picked out together.
She reached down to pick up the picture, now yellowed with age.
The crack ran right through his right eye.

How perfect, she thought.

We are all dying inside, she mused, perhaps that is the problem.
She turned the picture in her hands and he seemed to wink.
A trick of the light no doubt, but still she saw her hand was shaking.
There are many kinds of storm, and some winds blow colder than others.
She found herself wondering when their cold wind had started.

Was it before or after the gift of the rose?


If everything goes well, you get about 30,000 days altogether. A pretty generous helping, but not unlimited. If you start in the morning, you can easily count through all the days of your life by the time you retire that night. Although admittedly that would be a silly way to spend a day. As I said, the supply is not unlimited.

Sartre once said “Freedom is what we do with what is done to us” (well, actually, he said it in french). As maxims go, this is not only quite evidently true, but also rather useful, in a prescriptive way. You see, every single one of us (you know who you are) has had the experience, at some point in our adult lives, of dealing with insult or injustice by turning our anger inward. Roughly the equivalent of a child who says: “I’m going to hold my breath until I get my way.” With one crucial difference: We know, in the adult world, that holding our breath will not result in our getting our way.

Back to Sartre and that finite supply of days. What old Jean-Paul was telling us is that the clock is ticking, whether or not we choose to acknowledge it. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The knowledge that one day our very existence will dissolve into utter nothingness is an excellent structuring device, if you see what I mean. And a little structure never hurt anybody.

Bad things happen to you. Events can screw you over, and people you love can get hurt, or decide to stop loving you back. Or sometimes they die. It’s perfectly natural to want to hold your breath until the Universe realizes it is being terribly unfair and agrees to mend its ways. Except for the inconvenient fact that the Universe could care less whether you happen to be breathing. Darn.

Which is where Sartre comes in. Buddhism says roughtly the same thing in a different way, as do many other philosophies. But Sartre doesn’t dress it up in piety. He just lays the cards on the table for you. “Look,” he is saying (I’m interpolating here, bear with me), “You want to be an idiot, fine, be an idiot. But every day you waste feeling angry and hurt because of what was done to you, that’s one day less you get to enjoy the dazzling miracle of one of these 30,000 days.

“That may seem fine to you now, while you’re sitting there holding your breath and feeling miserable and repeating ‘It’s not fair, it’s not fair‘ until you’ve managed to drive everyone out of the room. But one day, toward the end of your life, you’re going to think back on how many days you wasted doing that. And then oh boy are you going to feel stupid.”

And that, my friends, was Jean-Paul Sartre’s take on how to be free. I know he didn’t say it exactly like that, but I’m pretty sure that’s more or less what he meant.

One hundred years of Django

A century is not a very long time.

Just enough time for a very few true geniuses to grace this world with their all too brief light. One such genius was born a hundred years ago today.

Wherever you are Mr. Reinhardt, I know I speak for many around the world in wishing you a very happy birthday, and in thanking you for the gift of your music.

There will never be another like you.

Habeas Corporus

As of today, in a landmark 5-4 ruling by our Supreme Court, corporations have the right, under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, to spend an unlimited amount of money on ads to support a candidate for office. Essentially, I am free to pay my $50 or $100 to support my candidate, while Citigroup or Exxon Mobil are free to spend their $500,000,000 on the opposing candidate.

For a long time now, human citizens have had an unfair advantage over these poor corporate entities. But this new ruling levels the playing field, permitting a gargantuan money-making machine trying to support its need for profit to compete fairly with individuals who push all sorts of personal and selfish agendas, like a reasonable education for their kids, air that doesn’t eat into everyone’s lungs, and water that’s clean enough not to lower children’s IQ scores by ten or twenty points.

Some people are saying that these selfish individual citizens should continue to lord it over hapless behemoths like Wal-Mart and Bank of America. But in a stirring example of judicial activism at work (some people, like my friend Troy, don’t like judicial activism, but what can you do?) the High Court’s majority has taken power back from such annoying individuals, and given it to giant synthetically constructed entities, where it belongs.

After all, isn’t it a little silly in the twenty first century to think that our elected leaders should be beholden only to those interests that actually reside in our own country? Multinational corporations have needs too, including the needs of their shareholders in places like Romania and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

If the legitimate needs of those shareholders are not being adequately addressed by a candidate for U.S. Senate or, say, the U.S. Presidency, clearly it’s only fair to give that corporation the opportunity to spend a few billion dollars to flood our TVs and other media with non-stop highly polished advertisements featuring beloved actors and top directing talent, so they can state their case. What candidate in his right mind would dare resist such a juggernaut of First Amendment expression at its finest?

Yet one thing continues to confuse me, as our society marches forward into the future, where a corporation can finally be treated under the law like any other citizen. And that is the question of Habeas Corpus — or, as it should more properly be called from now on, Habeas Corporus.

In order to properly discuss this issue, we probably need some new language to distinguish these new kinds of citizens. I propose that we henceforth refer to them as “paper people”. I mean, under the first amendment they are real people, legally, just like you and I, only they are constructed of paper, rather than meat.

And just as logically, we should collectively refer to the older variety of persons — the kind that eat and sweat and perform various other unsightly bodily functions — as “meat people”.

Back to Habeas Corporus. Suppose (to take a random example), Wal-Mart has a little too much to drink one night (who hasn’t been there, right?) and ends up getting thrown in jail. So now you have a major corporation (sorry – a paper person) forced to spend the night locked in some local hoosegow with drifters, lowlifes and other assorted meat people. Who is going to protect Wal-Mart’s rights? Where is the Habeas Corporus?

There is so much uncharted territory here. Can the R.J. Reynolds Corporation be imprisoned for smoking indoors? If AT&T gets put in jail, is it entitled to a phone call? And just how many days in the slammer should General Motors get for driving without a license?

There’s just one thing I still can’t figure out — not to put too fine a point on it, or in any way denigrate a corporate citizen’s right to be treated like any other free individual in this great nation of ours. How do you fit a corporation in a jail cell?