Archive for September, 2012

Grace notes (annotated)

Monday, September 10th, 2012
 

Grace notes (The girl has got an eagle eye)

That Ginger snaps (Gilligan’s Island is gripped with fear!)

While Cherry blossoms (I’ve heard she’s even grown an inch)

When Destiny calls (Using free minutes, i might add.)

 

And Lily pads (Accounting has called the FBI)

As Scarlett letters (Her penmanship is lovely, so I hear)

But Rosemary leaves (Poor poor Pierpont Finch)

When Victoria falls (Can England be saved? It’s all too sad.)

Watching Jessica Stein

Sunday, September 9th, 2012

More than a decade after its release, I finally saw “Kissing Jessica Stein”, thanks to the wonders of streaming Netflix. I am still reeling from the sheer brilliance of this movie. Co-written by its two stars — Heather Juergensen and Jennifer Westfeldt — this movie captures subtle shifts in emotions and relationship dynamics that I’ve rarely seen in films made in this country. It’s also incredibly clever and funny.

Like many romances, the film trades on a complicit pact with its audience, in that it posits a privileged universe in which the main characters (and we, the viewers) “get it”, in a world in which most people don’t. But in this case, this complicity plays out through sparkling wordplay reminiscent of the best of Preston Sturges. Yet unlike the old screwball comedies, this wordplay is delivered by believable and highly layered characters, as they travel through the complicated landscape of real relationships. And by relationships, I mean *all* the relationships on screen, including those between family, friends and coworkers.

The supporting cast is also awesome. Jackie Hoffman steals every scene she’s in, while Scott Cohen, in a very subtle performance, deepens the picture in surprising ways as a man trying desperately to hide his emotional vulnerability — not realizing that it’s his best asset. And it doesn’t hurt that Westfeldt deploys her personal WMD (weapon of mass distraction), Jon Hamm, with whom she’s been in a relationship since 1998. She later used Mr. Hamm to equally brilliant effect in her film “Ira and Abby”.

Why oh why don’t they make more movies like this?

Monsters and food issues

Saturday, September 8th, 2012

The “Twilight” saga, as some of you know, centers around a young woman who is being courted by both a vampire and a werewolf. Pop culture has visited similar themes before. For example, the Buffyverse led several women I know to ponder the question “Would you rather date Oz or Spike?”

Seen as archetypes, werewolves and vampires form a nice opposing dialectic. A vampire is seemingly a creature of energy more than of flesh, ethereal and wraithlike. In Bram Stoker’s original conception, the vampire had the ability to read and control minds, become weightless, or transform at will into a bat or even into fog. He was not so much an actual creature, as an idea of a creature, the monster conceived as a kind of dark version of Ariel.

The werewolf on the other hand, is a heady mix of human and beast. When the moon is full he grows hirsute, longs to consume flesh, becomes a slave to his own feral emotions. This is monster as Caliban.

It seems to me that which of these monsters one is drawn to comes down to food issues. Are you the kind of person who finds bodily functions distasteful, or who fantasizes about the Dinner at a country inn scene from Tom Jones?

Let’s put it another way. If you were an architect designing an office building only for vampires, you probably would not need to bother with such details as kitchens and bathrooms. Hell, you wouldn’t even need windows.

On the other hand, if you got the commission to design the werewolf office park, you had better pay attention to the earthly details. For example, all your restrooms would need to have extremely good air flow. If, um, you see what I mean. :-)

It runs in families

Friday, September 7th, 2012

It always fascinates me when somebody who does something remarkable in the world has a child who does a completely different remarkable thing in the world. It’s much more interesting than when any one field, be it acting, or science, or politics, runs in families. For when a child achieves something completely different from their parent’s contribution, it speaks to a more fluid and mysterious kind of inheritance — a spark of excellence that mutates freely as it passes between generations.

See if you can match up these achievements of parent:

(A) Inventor of Liquid Paper

(B) Academy Award winning actress whose career spanned 68 years.

(C) Co-founder of the American Temperance Society

(D) Inventor of Spin Art

with the achievements of the child:

(1) Actor who played the young Kwai Chang Caine

(2) Accomplished songwriter, musician, philanthropist and one-time teen idol

(3) Internet pioneer, inventor of the hyperlink

(4) Writer of, arguably, the most politically influential book in American history

Sometimes it gets even more interesting, when the same person is famous for having done at least two completely different things. See if you can match a particular person’s achievement:

(A) Hollywood actress once known as “the most beautiful woman in the world”

(B) Writer of the lyrics to one of the world’s most beloved songs

(C) Legendary rock and roll guitar god

(D) Renowned ventriloquist

with another notable achievement by the same person:

(1) Inventor of the world’s first artificial heart

(2) Astrophysicist who contributed to our understanding of the science of interstellar dust clouds

(3) Co-inventor of spread-spectrum, the underlying technology for cell phone communication

(4) Inventor of the stereoscopic technology used in many 3D movies today

A world without limits

Thursday, September 6th, 2012

Posit, for the sake of argument, that we get to the point where technology is not the bottleneck. Whether it turns out to be nanobots, the Holodeck, or just Ray Kurtzweil tapping into our cyber-transcribed brain circuits to say “I told you so” in his singular way.

In any case, suppose we can do anything — transport ourselves instantly, acquire unlimited possessions, live forever, read each others’ minds if we wish. What would we, as humans, do with all this?

Would we be able to live in a world utterly without limitations? Or would such a reality simply fry our brains, being the very opposite of the sorts of situations that human minds evolved to cope with?

Perhaps we would inevitably rebuild all of the problems humanity currently faces — war, famine, crime, prejudice, disease — simply because that is the only sort of reality in which our human need to solve problems makes any sense. It may be the only sort of reality in which we feel sane.

You can ask this question for yourself: Would you want to live in a world without limits?

Wave theory

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

We use differing metaphors when we do different things on a computer. At various times we interact with shared documents, video chats, ebooks, augmented reality environments, software development tools, 3D modeling/animation tools, computer games, science simulations, and so on, with each type of interaction implemented by another computer program.

At any given moment, your computer screen might contain a video chat, a Google doc, an eReader program, and so on, all implemented as separate programs. Because of this separation, interaction between these programs tends to be limited.

I suggest that this approach is ultimately a mistake. Once it has been decided that functionality should be split into separate bodies of software, many kinds of rich interactions between the underlying metaphors simply cannot be implemented.

Google Wave was a noble and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to be a single integrated environment — an all-in-one program that does everything. I suspect Wave may have been trying too hard to be capable of doing absolutely anything one could ever think of.

Suppose instead we were to approach such an integration first and foremost from the perspective of user-centered design. Rather than set out to build a software tool that “could do everything”, we might instead ask “what would the user of such an integrated tool actually want?”

We then let the answers to that question guide our software design choices.

The puppet’s gaze

Tuesday, September 4th, 2012

Yesterday I saw the wonderful retrospective of the work of the Brothers Quay at MoMA. Like their predecessor Jan Švankmajer, they center much of their stop-motion animated filmmaking around puppets trapped in a dark and surreal world of rag-tag and seemingly found objects eerily come to life.

I think what makes this genre so arresting, more than any other single factor, is the gaze of the puppet. The puppet stares at its mysterious world, looking this way and that with fixed and intent expression, and in our minds we cannot help but project a Kafka-esque existential crisis into every frame.



For the puppet always seems to be trying, with tireless desperation, to make sense out of its circumstance, out of its very existence. Yet we know something the puppet does not: It is itself only a thing of borrowed life, a shell into which a soul has been breathed by an unseen force.

We also know it is only the will of the puppet’s master that animates this soul from one moment to the next. So the puppet’s gaze becomes something deeply affecting and tragic, as we watch it try so desperately to find the logic in an absurd existence.

For on some deep level, whether we care to or not, we know exactly how the puppet feels.

The master

Monday, September 3rd, 2012

“Now the trees are bare
There’s sadness in the air
And I’m as blue as I can be”
– Hal David

How ironic that even as I was waxing rhapsodic about songwriters in my previous post, the greatest lyricist of them all passed away yesterday. I hadn’t mentioned him in that post because it would have been like name checking Picasso in a discussion of painters.

Hal David was co-writer of two of the songs I mentioned yesterday, “99 Miles From L.A.” and “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before”, both written with Albert Hammond. He also contributed, over the course of his long and marvelous career, to the writing of more than 700 songs.

Among these, to name just a few of my favorites, are “24 Hours from Tulsa”, “Alfie”, “Anyone Who Had a Heart”, “Blue on Blue”, “Close to You”, “Do You Know the Way to San Jose”, “I Say a Little Prayer”, “Make It Easy on Yourself”, “Message to Michael”, “One Less Bell to Answer”, “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”, “The Look of Love”, “There’s Always Something There to Remind Me”, “This Guy’s in Love With You”, “Walk on By”, “What the World Needs Now is Love”, “Wishin’ and Hopin'” and “You’ll Never Get to Heaven (If you Break My Heart)”.

We are fortunate to have lived in a century that contained a talent of such magnitude.

When the singer’s gone, let the song go on

Sunday, September 2nd, 2012

“All the things that we felt
Must eventually melt and fade
Like the frost on my window pane
Where I wrote ‘I am You,’
On Second Avenue.” — Tim Moore

At his vocal peak, Art Garfunkel had a way of finding the most in a song of romantic yearning or lost love. But whose emotions are such singers actually channeling, and what other stories might be lurking at the source?

Out of curiosity, I looked up the writers of some of Garfunkel’s most iconic solo recordings, to see what other songs I would find. Not surprisingly, the song with the most achingly lovely melody — “Traveling Boy” — was written by Paul Williams, well known for many iconic songs, including “Rainy Days and Mondays”, “Evergreen”, “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “The Rainbow Connection”.

Similarly, Garfunkel’s biggest hit — “All I Know” — was written by the great Jimmy Webb, who also wrote “By the Time I get to Phoenix”, “Up, Up and Away”, “Wichita Lineman”, “MacArthur Park”, and many other wonderful songs. So far no real surprises.

But then we get to the more interesting cases. “99 Miles From L.A.” was co-written by Albert Hammond, whom I am embarrassed to say I’d never heard of, considering that he also wrote or co-wrote such songs as “It Never Rains in Southern California”, “When I Need You”, “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” and “The Air that I Breathe”, among others. You can see Hammond’s own performance of “99 Miles From L.A.” here. While he doesn’t have Garfunkel’s crystalline voice, I find his rendition more genuine and emotionally effecting.

Similarly, I had never heard of Tim Moore, the writer of “Second Avenue”, one of the most moving songs on Garfunkel’s Angel Clare album. While Garfunkel’s voice is lovelier, Tim Moore’s own recording is far more sad and moving. Alas, Art Garfunkel’s recording of this song, released shortly after Moore’s own version, knocked Moore’s recording off the charts, which arguably derailed Moore’s career.

Starting with almost any pop album containing songs not written by the singer, we can discover a vast web of talent, brilliant writers painting their own emotional landscapes in song. Most of us end up associating those beautifully painted landscapes with others — the well known singers who have built careers expressing the emotional tales of these writers.

I guess that’s just the sad way of the world. You can live your life in the shadow of such geniuses, bathed in their work, yet never be aware of their existence. After all, how many people do you know who have heard of Jane Espenson?

Black shirts and white shirts

Saturday, September 1st, 2012

After talking yesterday about the limits of collaboration, today I’d like to share a conversation I had about the natural alliance of artists and scientists.

When you think about the energy people put into making things happen in the world, you find roughly two categories: People who do things because they deeply believe in them, and people who do things as a way to another goal (usually making money). The people who do things out of inherent passion for the thing itself often dress down, preferring black tee shirts to white shirts and ties. For this reason, these creative types are sometimes referred to as “black shirts”.

On the other hand, people who go to business school and end up in CEO or COO positions within a corporate hierarchy tend to value exactly those aspects of appearance that are anathema to the creative types, such as wearing a nice shirt and tie. These people are sometimes called “white shirts”.

Today in conversation somebody asserted that the “white shirts” have an agenda to keep different types of “black shirts” separate from each other. After all, he asserted, if the creative people — whether scientists or artists — were to all find each other and join forces, they might not need all those other people. They could just get together and do it on their own.

This might not even be a conscious agenda, he continued. It could be that the participants — both business and creatives — cannot imagine an organizational structure without a business focus at its core.

The image of black shirts and white shirts struck me as somehow poetic, even if the theory might be flawed. For example, It could be that creatives themselves just don’t want to be bothered with these aspects of running an organization. Or that, as an organization grows, its founders could simply be changing their black shirts for white. In any case, it might be something worth thinking about. Or maybe not. ­čśë