Generalized talkies

Yesterday I framed a subject (games for learning) in a specific way: The difference in perceived value of something before and after it has found its way into general use. This might be thought of as the “generalized talkies” problem, since the added value of spoken dialog in movies couldn’t have been completely clear to the general public until actual talking pictures started getting made and distributed.

This pattern shows up repeatedly. Automobiles were seen as either a curiosity or an annoyance in their earliest years. An entire industry initially missed the significance of Post-It notes. And of course there’s the Web. Back in 1992 very few people could have seen the eventual transformative impact of the one-two punch of easily authored hyperlinks and the image tag.

I wonder what new technologies are emerging right now that will turn out to be the new talkies for our era.


During a conference call today at our Games for Learning Institute, somebody on the line asked why we think games can be good for learning. My colleagues and I have been completely immersed in the science of this for the last few years, and it was refreshing to hear such a basic question.

The many parts of the answer include better ways to motivate learning, the ability to tailor teaching to each individual learner (and to that learner’s current level of skill in each part of a subject), methods of evaluation built right into the learning experience (potentially replacing formal tests, as well as the bane of “studying for the test”), better ability to do reliable large-scale assessment of the effectiveness of any given learning product, better ways to bridge the gap between formal (in-classroom) and informal learning, and the potential to give a teacher more complete and nuanced insight into the progress and needs of each individual student.

But at the moment the question was asked, I didn’t think about those things. Instead, my mind flashed on the mid 1920s, in those last years before talkies replaced silent movies. Faced with the idea of people talking at audiences from cinema screens, it would have been reasonable for Jay Gatsby or Daisy Buchanan to wonder why anyone would do such a thing. Such a disruptive change might have, within their frame of reference, seemed absurd. After all, wouldn’t all that incessant chatter simply take away from what movies were really about — moving images?


Have you ever had a realization what was causing a problem between you and another person, but were unable to express it? So much of what goes on between people is based on layers upon layers of social protocol that dilineate what we can say and what we can’t, that I suspect it’s actually painful for most people to break through those barriers, even when a situation calls for truth. And the ability to recognize and express difficult emotional truth is not a skill they teach you in school — at least not where I come from.

One of the appealing qualities of fiction is the opportunity to see people, on occasion, transcend those barriers. Of course in movies and theatre the entire situation has been carefully arranged to make this possible. Such a scene is meticulously sequenced, paced and staged, culminating in an apparently spontaneous moment of truth, which in reality was written and refined by professional writers over the course of months, and delivered by a highly trained actor. Often with, I might add, very flattering lighting.

Out here in the real world we don’t have this luxury. So how do we express these truths to each other? They say that alcohol has such an effect, but “in vino veritas” is largely an illusion. We rarely speak truth when drunk. Rather, we spout convenient epiphanies that merely sound like truth to a sodden mind.

If there were a pill we could take that would allow us to say exactly what we wished to say to each other, would people take that pill? Or, dangerous as such a thing almost certainly would be, would it immediately be declared illegal?

What’s in a name?

Today I saw “Being Elmo”, the excellent documentary film about Kevin Clash, the immensely talented fellow who does the voice and puppeteering of the beloved Sesame Street character Elmo. Clash also created the character and personality of Elmo as we know it today.

Young Kevin first entered the Henson fold through the generosity of Kermit Love, Jim Henson’s long time chief puppet maker (not, by the way, the inspiration for Kermit the Frog, who had existed for ten years by the time Henson and Love first met). Kermit Love took the talented young man under his wing and became his mentor, eventually talking Jim Henson into hiring the young puppeteer.

The film mentions that Clash’s big breakthrough in developing Elmo was to conceive of him as a character who both accepts and offers unconditional love — a marked departure from other Muppets, who are generally rather prickly.

Interesting that Kevin Clash came up with this beloved character while being mentored by a man who just happened to be named Kermit Love. Think about it: Elmo is the most popular muppet because he successfully combines two powerful memes: Kermit the Frog and Unconditional Love.

Mere coincidence? Or simply the Universe enjoying a happy little joke?

Roller coaster

When I was a kid I used to ride the Cyclone at Coney Island. It was an exhilarating experience, but it was always over too soon. So many things in life are like that.

It occurred to me today that if roller coasters were designed by mathematicians, such limitations could be removed. Through the application of some simple principles of geometric topology, I now present, for your consideration, a sketch of a roller coaster mathematically guaranteed to provide an infinite ride.

The fun never has to end. 🙂

Protective cocoon

I was talking this morning with a fellow academic who is more in the “art” world than in the “science” world. We were discussing the fact that for many fields (such as my field of computer graphics), the distinction between “artistic research” and “scientific research” can be somewhat fuzzy. In many cases it is hard, in the case of computer graphics, to create reproducible empirical results or usefully falsifiable principles (the bedrock elements of science) without aesthetic exploration or experimentation guided mainly by inspired intuition.

Over the course of the conversation, as my colleague and I discussed the politics of funding in our respective research disciplines, it became clear to me that I’ve been using the “science” label as a form of self-protection. As long as my research is officially identified as science, it is classified as practical, useful, “good for the economy”, and therefore fundable.

In essence, I (and a lot of other folks I know) have been using the label of science as a protective cocoon, whereas in reality — in the work as it is actually practiced — a reductive labeling of the research as being “art” or “science” would do more harm than good.

Greeting cards

I wanted to purchase a greeting card that would let me write the message myself. My first stop was a conveniently located CVS pharmacy. They had a vast selection of greeting cards. Yet every last card had some sort of idiotic jingle already written in it.

When you take the time to read these jingles, it becomes clear how greeting card companies select the people who create them. Basically, company recruiters invite prospective employees for an interview, sit them down and challenge them to expound upon a theme. It could be a general theme, such as “Happy Birthday”, or something more specific, such as “Good luck on your Communion, from your Mother’s second ex-husband”. I think that one was located in aisle four.

Prospective job candidates, pen in hand, attempt to compose a verse that expresses the emotion of the given occasion. The candidate may try to be funny, rueful, poetic, lyrical, ironic, or some combination thereof. Prospective employers read the results carefully. If they find that the candidate has succeeded in any of these goals, even in a small way, then the candidate is immediately shot, gangland style, and their lifeless body dumped behind an old greeting card warehouse somewhere in New Jersey.

This process is iterated in a methodical way, until all human beings capable of writing a decent greeting card have been systematically eliminated from the population. Whoever is left alive is then hired as a professional writer of greeting cards.

I may be wrong about some details of this process — I am merely reconstructing a plausible scenario based on the available evidence. Yet if you read through many of these cards, I think you will agree that this, in essence, must be the standard procedure.

Two blocks away I found a lovely little store called Papyrus that offers a large section of the most extraordinarily beautiful and imaginatively decorated blank greeting cards. I purchased one of these, and proceeded to write my friend a note that said exactly what I wanted to say.

Cell phone

I lost my cell phone a few weeks back, one of the hazards of extensive travel. The rational decision would have been to run right out and get another phone. Everyone knows that no human being can survive for even five minutes without an internet equipped SmartPhone in immediate reach. But for some insane reason I decided to do the crazy thing, to take my life in my hands and not immediately find a replacement phone.

I still have my cell phone account, so if anyone leaves voice mail I can hear it. Yet I can also wander the city for literally hours at a time unencumbered by even the possibility of receiving a call, checking voice messages or reading email.

I cannot remember the last time I have felt such an exhilarating sense of freedom.

Oh yes, I know that at some point I will break down and get another phone. After all, it is unnatural for Homo Sapiens to walk around without an electronic umbilical cord. If humans were meant to be without cell phones, God wouldn’t have given us unbreakable service plans.

My evening with Michelle

Seeing Michelle Williams in Adrian Hodges’ film “My Week with Marilyn”, I was amazed at how she pulled off the impossible. She looks nothing like Marilyn Monroe, and yet she was completely successful in convincing us, the audience, that all of the other characters were seeing Marilyn up there on the screen. And make no mistake about it, the entire film hinged on her ability to pull off this seemingly impossible feat.

It was also one of those rare films that provides real insight into some very intricate personalities. The film’s central thesis, which was hiding just behind the sweet little romance between Marilyn and young Colin Clark, was that Marilyn Monroe and Sir Laurence Olivier, as opposite as they seemed, were actually two of a kind — talents of such overwhelming power that they were both essentially monsters, more less toxic to ordinary mortals in their path.

Yet to me the most fascinating aspect of the story was the spectacle of two such larger than life geniuses — Marilyn and Sir Lawrence — coming into contact, finding their respective muses completely incompatible, essentially going to war with each other, and yet somehow recognizing each other as two fellow aliens among the ordinary humans.

Olivier’s monstrous ego and vanity, Monroe’s all-devouring emotional neediness, these were not random personality traits, but were the essential demons that drove their art.

One thing that’s wonderful about Colin Clark’s peek inside the making of “The Prince and the Showgirl” is knowing that the very next projects Olivier and Monroe would each do after this failed film would be their finest work. Arguably the frustration of trying to combine their incompatible talents drove each of them to find their quintessential selves.

After all, Olivier’s very next project, John Osborne’s “The Entertainer”, was by far the greatest performance of Olivier’s career, the one in which he laid bare, with unstinting courage, all the terror and self-doubt underneath the egotism and vanity.

And of course Marilyn’s next character, Sugar Kane Kowalczyk in “Some Like it Hot”, was the role she was seemingly born to play. She had clearly thought through the various layers of this complicated character, and the result was sexy, comical, sweetly needy, kooky yet sensible, dizzy but centered, and completely, utterly irresistible.

It’s as though their mutual brush with failure forced both Olivier and Monroe to dig deeper inside themselves, to locate and bring out the very center of their particular genius, and thereby to create their best and most transcendent work.

Double constraint

As Sharon pointed out in her comment yesterday, writing a novel as a collection of self-contained short stories creates a double constraint. On the one hand, each short story should stand on its own, which means it should possess some kind of plot movement and resolution, as well as characters who, within the context of the individual story, fit the modest goals of that story.

At the same time, those characters need to have a deeper existence, with larger plot and character arcs that come into focus only when one reads the entire collection of stories.

In a way this is a bit like the constraints of ambitious writers of episodic commercial television, as seen in the work of Joss Whedon and his collaborators on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”. You can tune in and watch a single episode and be entertained — a practical requirement for commercial television. Yet you would then miss the real power of the series, since its most compelling aspects arise from the fascinating relationships between characters that form and evolve over the course of years.

The nearest equivalent I can think of to this double constraint within the world of novels is the episodic work of an author like Charles Dickens, who was paid to write his novels in the form of monthly or weekly installments within popular journals. It is plausible to conjecture that the publishers of these journals expected any given entry to be a self-contained entertainment in its own right.

Unfortunately there is no easy way to ask them about this.