The Attic, complete

The other day when I referred to my novel The Attic, written here last year as a series of posts, I realized that I had never actually put the whole thing together into a single continuous document.

So today I did just that. It seemed like a good way to mark the conclusion of a very eventful first half of this year 2011.

For your metaphysical enjoyment, the entire novel is now on-line in one piece.

Factor Me Elmo

Yesterday I was talking with some colleagues on the subject of using well-known branded characters in games for learning, and suddenly the phrase “Factor Me Elmo” popped into my head. So of course I started trying to imagine what such an educational game might actually be like.

Instead of tickling Elmo to make him giggle (the basic premise of the popular toy “Tickle Me Elmo”), you and your child would factor numbers with him. If Elmo says “forty eight”, and your child responds “six times eight” or “three times sixteen”, Elmo starts to giggle. If your child says “two times two times three times four” Elmo laughs out loud. But if your child says “two times two times two times two times three” then Elmo just totally loses it, and starts rolling on the floor laughing. Pretty soon your kid is laughing too, you’re laughing till your sides ache, and you’re both wondering why you’d never realized math could be so much fun.

But why stop there, when there are so many other educational possibilities? How about “Tackle Me Elmo”? This educational game would have two levels. In level one, young learners would use Elmo for football practice: Kids place the adorable red Muppet out in the middle of a yard or other open area, put a football in his hands, and then take turns knocking him over. This game level helps your child to build valuable self-esteem through healthful physical exercise. In level two, a six foot tall robotic Elmo attempts to tackle your child every time the young learner picks up a football. This game level teaches your child valuable lessons in proper balance and self-defense, as well as such advanced philosophical concepts as “moral relativism”.

Maybe the most daring game concept is “Pickle Me Elmo”. In this game your child takes Elmo out and gets him drunk. After he has knocked back a few shots, Elmo starts saying things about Kermit and Miss Piggy that he will come to dearly regret. At some point the sodden Muppet staggers outside and steals a car, which he eventually crashes. The next morning Elmo wakes up to find himself in a fleabag motel somewhere in Tijuana, married to a stripper from Salsipuedes.

This game teaches your child valuable lessons in social responsibility.

Also geography.

Desktop movie maker, take 2

Sometimes you feel like performing in the moment, and other times you want to go back and fine-tune things. This next take on the “desktop movie maker” is a design sketch for an animation tool that lets you go back and forth between those two ways of thinking.

It really comes down to how you look at time. The version yesterday used hot-keys to let you create an “in the moment” puppetry performance. I wanted to keep that spontaneous way of doing things, while also adding the ability to see and manipulate time holistically, the way Jenny’s grandmother Amelia experiences time in my story Attic.

This second version is only a design sketch, so it doesn’t have things you’d want in a real working system, like undo and save/load (operations to shift and stretch time would also be nice). I implemented it this afternoon mostly as a way to get conversations going.

Click on the image below to try it out:

Desktop movie maker

I can’t figure out whether the title of this post refers to making movies on your computer desktop, or to making movies about a desktop.

Hmm. Maybe both.

In any case, this is an example of one of my programming hobbies — interactive digital puppetry. Click on the image below to try it out for yourself. Then let me know what you think!

Useful stupidity

It occurred to me today that an unsung hero of the recent vote allowing gay marriage in New York State might be former Republican candidate for governor Carl Paladino. Those who remember Mr. Paladino mainly from his weirdly homophobic stump speech might think that odd, so I’ll explain.

Politics is very much about perception. Our elected representatives like to look as though they are on the correct side of an issue, where the definition of “correct” depends, of course, on their constituency. But absolutely nobody likes to be seen as a bad guy.

Paladino, who is really more of a businessman than a politician, made an impressive timing blunder in a well-publicized speech during his campaign for NYS governor. The theme of his speech, “Gays are not equal”. unfortunately came mere days after a vicious anti-gay hate crime that had sickened the citizenry.

Within days Paladino, realizing he had been given very bad political advice, had disavowed his own speech, but the damage had already been done. By the time the election had arrived, Paladino was left looking, at best, politically clueless. His loss to our current governor, the Democratic candidate Andrew Cuomo, was dramatic.

But one effect of this sequence of events, I think, was that when Cuomo went to the State Assembly to lobby for votes, had political cover for voting in favor of Gay marriage. After all, nobody wanted to look like Paladino, who had managed to blunder into becoming the poster child for hate and intolerance.

So in effect, Paladino’s speech was an act of very useful stupidity, which ended up bringing about an outcome that might never have been possible without him.

A day to be proud of

Yesterday the New York State legislature made it legal for gay people to marry each other. New York is only the sixth state in the U.S. to have done this, and I am very proud of New York right now. Politics in our state is far from perfect, but at least they can get the fundamentals right.

I come from an ethnic group that has run into rather extreme trouble in the past by being cast as outsiders, and the line from tolerated outsider to intolerated outsider can be very thin. So I am very aware of that slippery slope, because you never know where you will find prejudice, and you never know where it will lead.

Maybe somebody you know says they find a particular group of people “disgusting”, and perhaps they even add with pride that they will pass those attitudes on to their kids. Then you realize what this implies — that it’s ok for somebody to say the same thing about your group of people.

And you realize, in moments like this, that the prerequisite for atrocity is just those little slips and slides, those small imperceptible steps toward looking at an entire large swath of fellow citizens as the “other”.

So when something as sensible as this legislation is enacted here in New York — a bold statement that is the very opposite of prejudice — it makes me proud to live here.

Mind control

Until recently I thought that no matter how advanced human/computer interfaces become, they will stop well short of direct control of thought. But recently I learned about the relatively new field of optogenetics, which allows neurons to be switched on or off by infrared light.

In particular, researchers have figured out how to insert a light-sensitive gene from algae into brain neurons. This essentially makes the neuron function as an externally controllable switch: one kind of IR stimulus turns it on, another turns it off.

Why is this so significant? Because human tissue, while fairly opaque to visible light, is translucent to infrared light. The further into the infrared spectrum, the more transparent human tissue becomes. Which means that genetically modified brain neurons could be switched on or off non-invasively — no nasty surgery required.

In the short term this won’t have much impact. But eventually, certainly sometime in the next half century, technology will have advanced sufficiently to enable real-time computer generated infrared holograms that target specific neurons and clusters of neurons from outside the skull.

Which means direct control of thought, for better or worse.

As I’m sure you already realize, there are both very good and very bad scenarios here. And it’s not really a question of whether this will be used. As with all technologies, inevitably it will be used. The question is what we will choose to do, as a society, once we can directly stimulate — and therefore simulate — sensation, experience and thought itself.

The Zombie Vampire Continuum Hypothesis

Following up on all the great comments from yesterday’s post, suppose we take as a working model the idea suggested by Alec’s comment — that our instincts toward the nearly-human “other” are not merely influenced by our past history with Neanderthals, but in particular both by warring with them and by mating with them.

This model would suggest that our instincts about monsters are informed by both a joy in killing them and a sexual attraction toward them. Which leads to what might be called the “Zombie Vampire Continuum” (ZVC) hypothesis: Because of our prehistoric relationship with Neanderthals, we have both a blood lust toward “nearly human” monsters and, well, the other kind of lust. A monster will therefore lie on a continuum between “a being that I want to kill” (Zombie) and “a being that I am sexually drawn to in a way that scares me” (Vampire).

Note how this parallels the repulsion/attraction that adolescents feel as they approach sexual maturity, which is generally reflected in archetypical fairy tales: Little Red Riding Hood wants the Wolf to be killed, but she also finds him seductive.

Perhaps our species’ unique relationship to sexuality is informed by instincts we acquired while interacting with rival sentient species, most recently the Neanderthal: We think of sex as dangerous, and at the same time we find killing sexy.


Today in his closing keynote at the Games for Change conference, Jesse Schell floated an interesting theory. Why, he asked, do we have Orcs? Or more pointedly, why do we have a pervasive cultural trope of dumb yet violent humanoid monsters that we kill without remorse?

We call them, variously, trolls, ogres, flesh eating zombies, lizard men, or a host of other names, but they are always pretty much the same. They are stupid, they are violent, there are lots and lots of them, and we create highly popular fictional entertainments around the premise of gleefully mowing them down.

We don’t do this with other species. There are no happy fantasies of killing hundreds of chimpanzees or bonobos (well actually, we do send the members of other species to outrageously painful and horrible deaths in large numbers, but we try to pretend we’re not doing anything of the sort). No, we only create entertainment fantasies around the killing of creatures that are sort of like us, distinctly human in their way, only more stupid and more violent.

Jesse’s theory for why this is so came as no surprise: That this drive to kill Orcs is a holdover from our instinct to kill off our real life near-human rivals — the most recent of these, of course, being the Neanderthals, who died out only around thirty thousand years ago.

There have been many theories as to why the Neanderthals died off, but Jesse’s theory is quite simple — we killed them. Why? Well, in his exact words: “I think we killed them all because that’s how we roll.”

It’s hard to judge these things, but to me his theory has the ring of truth. And this idea of an instinctive basis for antagonism toward “the human-like other who is different from my tribe” goes a long way toward explaining the extreme idiocy of racism.

After all, no human mind that is functioning rationally would sanction singling people out for completely nonsensical reasons, say because their ancestors happen to be from Africa, or from Italy or Ireland, or because they are gay, or Jewish, or some other artificially labeled marker of “differentness”.

And yet we know that it happens all the time. I find Jesse’s theory appealing because it explains the complete lunacy of racism. Whether they be antisemites, or homophobes, or just averse to people with red hair, people suffering from this sad affliction are simply playing out left-over survival instincts from long ago.

Deep down, on an instinctive level that their rational minds cannot access, such people think they are still fighting the Neanderthals.

Be here now

Ram Dass famously said “Be Here Now”. Yesterday, really for the first time, I started to wonder whether this powerful idea has become a thing of the past.

Because yesterday I attended a talk by former Vice President of the United States Al Gore, who was giving the opening keynote at the annual Games for Change conference. Mr. Gore was quite charismatic in person, although he had an alarming tendency to answer questions any and all topics by talking about climate change (alas, an inconvenient truth).

But what struck me, sitting in the fourth row of a quite nice auditorium, was the luminescent sea of white between me and the stage. The people in front of me were all surfing their iPads, the bright alabaster glow from their screens dominating the view.

Curious, I started reading over their shoulders. Most people turned out to be “multitasking” (the polite word for it). One guy was randomly surfing the web, another was checking out the next day’s talks, and the woman most directly in front of me was closing a top-secret business deal by email (all very hush-hush).

The most surreal moment came during the Q&A, when Mr. Gore said, as part of his response to a question about the usefulness of serious games in raising consciousness (this is an exact quote):

“All of us should live completely in the present moment all the time, but none of us do.”

Definitely the spirit of Ram Dass, if not the pithiness. Yet I’m not sure, between the emailing and web surfing, whether most the people in front of me even heard him say this.

Which is, um, ironic.