Attic, part 69

“The problem,” Jenny said, “is that the room is empty. Well, almost empty anyway. It’s just got the stuff every room has.”

“Yes, there’s a bed,” Josh said, “and of course the door, and a window and a clock over there on the wall.” He went over to the window. “Strange though, you can’t see anything when you look outside. It’s all just black.”

Jenny came over and stood next to him. “Yes, like it’s always night.”

“What did you say?” Josh said.

“It’s a story my mom used to read me out of an old story book, when I was little. About a town where it was always night. I’d forgotten all about it until I saw this weird window. The book was written all in rhyme. I only remember one part clearly:

In the town of endless night, the darkness ran so deep
That even all the dogs and cats and clocks fell fast asleep
Everywhere was darkness, and every house the same
Sleeping people dreaming of a dawn that never came

“That’s so sad,” Josh said. “I’ll bet your grandmother read that same book to your mother when she was little — I think we can use that.”

“Yes,” Jenny nodded, “I think I was supposed to remember that.”

“But that still doesn’t tell us what we’re supposed to do.”

“Oh I think it does,” Jenny said, “I think we need to make the dawn happen.”


I was having a conversation with my mom the other day about history. We realized that we had similar views on a peculiar property of historical writing: That if you pick up a history book that was written, say, fifty years ago, it literally may not be possible for you to truly understand what you are reading. And as you go further back in time, history books become ever more insidiously incomprehensible.

For example, at the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 it was determined that a slave in the United States should be counted as three-fifths of a citizen. To modern eyes, counting a slave at all might seem like a precursor to emancipation. But in fact it was something else entirely: The slave-holding states pushed this formula so they could have greater representatives in congress. Slaves were property, and therefore a measure of each state’s acknowledged contribution to the nation’s wealth.

A historian writing two centuries ago would see this issue merely as one of economics, so a history book from, say, 1800 would reflect that world view. Whereas a historian writing now would have a hard time working entirely from the mindset of “slaves are only property, not people”. History is not the only thing that changes — historians change along with it.

This kind of thing happens in all spheres of society. For example, “Babes in Arms” was a popular Hollywood film (based on a 1937 state musical) that saw itself as completely inoffensive when it was released in 1939. This teenage Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland singing and dancing romp was that era’s equivalent to, say, today’s “High School Musical. Yet if you look at this trailer, and skip forward to 2:24, you see a series of sequences that would shock the pants off of modern audiences, and might get the movie banned outright in various states.

Yet it is clear that the folks making this movie had no intention of offending anyone. It is history itself that has changed, so much so that the way people in 1939 saw themselves and their own era is something we can now only imagine, not directly experience. If you were to pick up a book about the history of cinema written in 1940, the author probably wouldn’t even mention “Babes in Arms” other than to note that Mickey Rooney, only 19 when the film was released, was the most popular movie star of the day.

One could posit a field of study about the way that history itself changes. I’m not sure what to call such a post-modern science of the ever changing mindset of historians, a sort of history of history. Perhaps it could simply be called History2.

Attic, part 68

“OK, I get it, we need to figure out what the riddle is before we can solve it.” Jenny said. “But how do we figure out that the riddle is?”

“Mr. Symarian, can you help us out here?” Josh said.

“I’m terribly sorry,” the teacher said, “but I cannot help you with this part of your journey.”

“No disrespect Mr. Symarian, but that’s kind of lame,” Jenny said. “I mean, we came all this way.”

“Yeah,” Josh added. “To get this far I had to find us a path through the freakin’ fourth dimension. And now you won’t even help with a stupid riddle?”

“It is not that I will not, but that I cannot. The riddle is a pathway. Your grandmother Amelia was young when she created it, and as the creation of a young mind, the pathway can be traversed only by young minds. Were I to attempt to provide any assistance, the way forward would disappear forever.

“Well ok then,” Josh said, taking a deep breath. “Jenny, I think we need to look around the room for clues.”

The world in which you were born

Last week at a conference I was listening to an intense diatribe by an artist who was positing that the availability of instant on-demand interactive media — the web, Google, Twitter, Wikipedia, and all that — would be the death knell for good old fashioned book reading.

During the question and answer session that followed, a man in the audience started out a rather long question with the quote: “Language is an old-growth forest of the mind.” I was struck by the wit of this quote, so while he was formulating his question I typed that phrase into Google and found out that it was by the anthropologist Wade Davis (whom I had never heard of). That led me to the Wikipedia page about Wade Davis, from which I learned that Davis had written an influential and controversial book in 1985 called “The Serpent and the Rainbow”. I then went to and put the book in my shopping cart. By the time the guy had finished his question, I was already queued up to read this book.

I did all this reflexively, without pausing to think about the process, but afterward it occurred to me that my experience was a direct refutation of the central point of the talk. I don’t read less because of these internet-enabled connections. I read more. There is an intriguing interaction between my reading time — something I do in solitude when at leisure — and my real-time acquisition of knowledge about new topics to explore, something that would not have been possible before the age of the internet.

The title of this post is from another quote by Wade Davis, one I find particularly inspiring and oddly relevant: “The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.”

Attic, part 67

“OK,” Jenny said, “Let’s take this slow. When you say ‘riddle’, what exactly do you mean?”

“Well,” Mr. Symarian said, looking somewhat abashed, “Were I to tell you, in some explicit way, then it wouldn’t be a riddle, would it?”

“Are you for real?” Josh said. “I mean, is there some kind of script we don’t get to read or something?”

“No, nothing like that,” the teacher said. “It’s more of a quest sort of thing. One requires a certain purity, as it were, to pierce the veil of space-time. It wouldn’t do to provide a cheat sheet.”

“So you’re saying,” Jenny jumped in, “If I’m getting this, that if I want to get my grandmother back, I don’t just need to solve the riddle, I need to figure out what the riddle is in the first place.”

“Well, yes,” Mr. Symarian said. “That is the essence of it.”

“Damn,” said Josh. “This is harsh. It’s like when you’re supposed to know that ‘Lord of the Rings’ is all about Sam versus Gollum, and the rest, Aragorn and whatever, is just noise. They don’t tell you that going in.”

“Right,” Jenny said, warming to the theme. “Or that Harry, Hermione, Ron and all those other annoying kids are just window dressing, because Snape is really the only important character. The stuff that you don’t figure out until maybe the third book.”

“Exactly,” Mr. Symarian said. “Or, to revisit the classics, that fact that the entire narrative arc of Buffy is merely background for the passion of Giles.”

The two teenagers stared at him. “You’re, um, joking, right?” Jenny said.

Mr. Symarian sniffed. “You children will understand when you are older.”

Drama Mouse

I was really excited to read the thoughtful comments on my post about Animation as Live Theatre. I completely agree with Alec’s observation that puppets are to animation as theater is to film. And that would be all there is to it, in a pre-computer world.

Heather gave a wonderful description of cyber-puppetry, framing it as a kind of performative Turing test. But not exactly the Turing test, because in the scenario she describes, there is indeed a live human performer in the real-time loop, remotely operating a puppet through the internet.

All four commenters alluded to what I was really getting at — that the introduction of computers allows us to think seriously about non-trivial automatons as real-time performers. In other words, get the human performer out of the real-time performance loop.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying get the human out of the loop entirely. Computers don’t have aesthetic judgement — they are merely machines that do what we humans program them to do. What I’m saying is that there is an opportunity to use computers to evolve puppetry in new and exciting ways.

Generally speaking, a computer graphic or robot puppet can be infused with human performance chops in one of two ways: (1) Before the performance starts, and (2) While the performance is taking place. Traditional puppets operate almost entirely via (2). I say almost entirely because well designed marionettes do indeed have “talent” built into them, by virtue of how they are weighted and strung, which can cause them to move in ways that can look remarkably alive. Well designed marionettes shift and balance their weight by dint of the physics that is literally constructed into them.

Computers allow us to increase this “before the performance aesthetics” manyfold. We can think of a cyber-puppet as a blank slate that can be infused with ways of moving, of gazing, of walking and speaking. And we can think of the person who imparts these qualities into cyber-puppets as a kind of acting coach.

This concept is well understood in the field of electronic music. For years, computer software has been used to allow modern jazz composers to pre-train their computers. Such already-trained cyber-instruments allow a real-time performance to bring out riffs, sequences, inversions, arpeggiations and modulations that were programmed in beforehand. Unlike a traditional musical instrument (such as a piano or cello), a cyber musical instrument behaves in a way that reflects the complex musical ideas of its programmer, and therefore can actively interact with a performer in interesting and sometimes surprising ways.

It’s not that such a cyber musical instrument is “talented”. We don’t need to anthropomorphize here. It’s just that it has been pre-trained by a talented musician/composer who has programmed in her own musical choices. One of the first people I know of who did this for music in really interesting ways was Laurie Spiegel, with her revolutionary 1985 software Music Mouse. When you create music with Music Mouse, in a sense you are always collaborating with Laurie, because her aesthetic methods and choices continually inform the music you make.

It might be time to try to create a sort of “Drama Mouse” — a technology that does for computer enhanced interactive cyber actors what Laurie Spiegel did a quarter of a century ago for the computer enhanced performance of music.

Attic, part 66

Jenny circled around the bed, looking at her grandmother lying there. Although it seemed impossible that this was her grandmother. She recognized the face from the old photos, but her grandmother Amelia should have been old. This was a woman in her twenties.

“What do you think we should do?” Josh asked, unconsciously speaking low, as if he were in church. “Should we wake her up?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Jenny said despairingly. For some reason, she felt like crying. “After all this time, and everything we’ve been through, I really don’t know how to reach her.”

“It may be easier than you think,” said Mr. Symarian. “One could say that you are practically staring the answer in the face.”

“Right in the face?” Jenny said, rolling her eyes. “What is this, some kind of riddle?”

“Well, yes,” said their teacher. “I believe it is.”

Animation as live theatre

Live theatre has something that film does not have — it is live. An audience seeing a play is in a unique moment in time, together with the actors up on the stage. If the mood of the audience changes, the performance itself will change, as the cast picks up on that changing mood and reflects it back across the footlights.

There is no equivalent in film. Every time you see Casablanca, or The Godfather, as magnificent as those films are, you will see exactly the same performances, the identical artistic choices. A film is a frozen artifact, a fixed point in aesthetic space, not an organic entity that interacts with its audience.

In this way, animation is of course like film. Every time you see Toy Story or Princess Mononoke, you are seeing exactly the same performances.

But what if animation could be more like theatre? What if the virtual actors could improvise, based on audience response? Would it still feel like watching an animated film, or would it start to feel more like live theatre?

Computer games do something vaguely similar, but they generally do not privilege deep and psychologically engaging characters. What if we wanted real-time animated performances, right on our computer screens, of stories about characters with emotional depth and resonance? As Janet Murray asked back in 1997, will we ever get Hamlet on the Holodeck?

Attic, part 65

Charlie and Sid were waiting nervously outside in the hall. Charlie was pacing up and down the hallway, and Sid was flying back and forth from wall to wall, looking very distraught.

“Do you think they’ll be ok?” Charlie asked.

“How the hell would I know,” Sid growled, “What am I, the answer demon?”

“Well, you don’t need to snap at me,” Charlie said.

“Sorry kid,” Sid said. “I get upset, I get nervous. It’s a thing with me. Don’t take it personal.”

“Yeah,” Charlies said, “I guess we’re all on edge. I mean, anything could happen now.”

“Sheesh, you’re tellin’ me,” Sid said. “people wandering around in too many dimensions, time tying itself into a pretzel. It’s enough to make your horns drop off.”

“Well,” Charlie said, “you know, that isn’t really so bad.”

Sid stared for a moment. “Oh right, I forget, I’m talkin’ to a guy who was one of those fake demons. Not that there’s, you know, anything wrong with that,” he added hastily. “I mean, no offense intended.”

“None taken,” Charlie said.

Aunt Sylvia

My aunt Sylvia passed away yesterday. She was 93 and had lived a full and glorious life. We are all rearranging our schedules to fly down to attend the funeral.

Some people change in radical ways as they get older, but my memories of aunt Sylvia from my earliest childhood are completely consistent with my sense of the person she continued to be to the end of her life. She was always smart, cheerful, outgoing, generous and full of joy, with a genuine and uncomplicated love of people. I know that sounds too good to be true, but in her case it is exactly true.

In recent times I have stood witness as too many people were taken from this earth in untimely ways. People who were in the middle of getting things done, who were far from having finished the mission they had set about to accomplish. Those cases of life interrupted are always deeply tragic. One comes away with a sense that something has been unfairly stolen.

But I get a different sense when I think about aunt Sylvia. I am sad for us, that we will no longer have the pleasure of her cheerful presence, yet I feel that she indeed got a chance to accomplish her mission. In a way it was a straightforward mission: To connect with people, to fully enjoy those connections, and to find joy in life and in loving the people around her.

It’s something that sounds so simple to say, yet many people have a hard time keeping hold of that joy. It was part of aunt Sylvia’s genius was that she never made that mistake. Even when my uncle passed away — her first and only love and inseparable companion for over sixty years — she managed to bounce back and throw herself into her love for her children and grandchildren.

Sometimes when life gets complicated, and I become distracted by the sheer amount of nonsense that a day can throw at me, I temporarily forget what a great privilege it is just to be here. In such times it’s good to think about a person who never lost sight of that simple and profound truth — my late wonderful aunt Sylvia.