Archive for October, 2012

Meta-humor

Sunday, October 21st, 2012

I’m only on the third episode of season one, yet I’m already starting to understand why “The Walking Dead” is so fun and entertaining, in spite of being a vision of our world transformed into a hellish nightmare.

I think the key is the humor. Not humor among the characters — their lives are grim and terror-filled and constantly in peril. I am speaking, rather, of all the witty meta-humor sailing over the fourth wall. The characters are not in on the joke. But we and the writers are.

For example, at this point our intrepid every-man hero, having braved huge ravenous hordes of flesh-eating zombies through a combination of resolve, resourcefulness, and an insane amount of dumb luck, is finally reunited with the wife and young son he had feared dead.

Because he is the hero, and therefore noble, our man decides to turn right back around to brave the flesh-eating hordes yet again, in order to honor a promise he had made. His wife is frantic with despair at the thought of her husband deliberately heading to near-certain death so soon after their tearful reunion.

But listen to what their young son tells her in the very next scene:

Son: “I’m not worried.”
 
Wife: “Why?”
 
Son: “Think about it mom. Everything that’s happened to him so far. Nothing’s killed him yet.”

Just in case, um, you were worrying that they would kill off the hero after only three episodes. :-)

This is very funny stuff. The writers are obviously having a great time, and so am I.

Imagine no possessions

Saturday, October 20th, 2012

“Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man”

      -John Lennon

In the “Ethicist” column of this week’s New York Times Magazine a reader asked whether stealing is unethical. I found the answer by the columnist Chuck Klosterman to be unsatisfying. Here is the core part of his response:

“Can objects truly be ‘owned’ by someone, or is this just a word we use to describe an unreal proviso? The more you think about that question, the more complicated it becomes. But it ultimately doesn’t matter, because we’ve collectively decided to live as though ownership is real. We believe our possessions are extensions of ourselves. So if stealing were an acceptable practice — if we lived in a world in which people just took whatever they wanted, simply because there was no clear argument for doing otherwise — our lives would be consumed by anxiety. We would live in constant fear and spend all our energy protecting our possessions. Traveling would become impossible, because we couldn’t go anywhere without bringing along everything we owned. People would be less motivated to create things, because they would have no way of stopping others from taking away those creations. Violence would increase exponentially.”

It seems to me that this is a shallow and incomplete view of the question. After Klosterman says “if we lived in a world in which people just took whatever they wanted”, he does not really follow the full implications of his own premise.

One could at least posit economies that function without ownership. This has been done a number of times in speculative literature, two notable examples being Skinner’s “Walden Two” and Le Guin’s “The Dispossessed”.

For example, in a pure gift economy, the very concept of stealing would become meaningless, since value would be created by people freely sharing what they create. Your reward would be precisely that people use what you create, while their reward would be that you use what they create.

Of course this way of thinking is radically different from the way you and I live, and it is not even certain that such a way of thinking is compatible with how our brains are wired. But shouldn’t a discussion that dwells on the nature of “stealing” also touch on the nature of “property”?

The comfort of zombies

Friday, October 19th, 2012

Today I finally started watching “The Walking Dead”. I’m half-way through the first episode, and so far it’s great fun.

At the very beginning, our sympathetic every-man hero wakes up to find that his familiar town has been transformed into a post-apocalyptic nightmare overrun by flesh-eating zombies.

As I watched this transition, I thought of the “experiment gone horribly wrong” in the game Half-Life, in which an inter-dimensional rift causes our hero to suddenly find his familiar research facility has been transformed into a post-apocalyptic nightmare overrun by flesh-eating zombies.

This in turn made me think both of the stories of Stephen King and of the book/film “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. This idea of horror arising out of the familiar — as opposed to taking place in an exotic or gothic locale — seems to get at the very heart of modern anxieties.

After all, isn’t it precisely the exquisite ordinariness of the housefly on the video monitor that turns “The Ring” into a masterpiece of modern horror? In these technologically sophisticated times, a film about the Cthulhu Mythos of Lovecraft would elicit not much more than a bored shrug. We might pause to admire some nicety of special effects, but that’s about it.

Yet horror that shows up within our everyday, in our bedroom or kitchen, has the power to scare us half to death. After all, deep down we in the modern world know that our feeling of everyday familiarity masks some terrible truths.

We live in a world in which it is dangerous to look too closely at things, such as how our iPhone was made, or the process that brought that fried chicken to the table, or exactly what our soldiers are being asked to do half way around the world.

So when we turn on the TV and see zombies show up in our living room, this is our modern equivalent of Bettelheim’s “The Uses of Enchantment”: We see our deepest fears transformed to a safely metaphorical form, and for a while we feel better.

Not a game

Thursday, October 18th, 2012

I was having a discussion today in which the question came up of “what makes something a game” — as opposed, say, to a toy or a simulation.

For me there is a fairly simple approximate answer (although of course there are subtleties here): A game is an interactive experience that encourages its participant(s) to aim toward defined goals, and offers some sort of reward for a player who succeeds in reaching those goals. The reward can be minimal (eg: a message that says “Congratulations, you did it!”), but it needs to be present.

This conversation got me thinking about the interactive java applets on my NYU home page. Most of these applets are clearly not games, even though it would have been very easy for me to structure them as games.

And it occurred to me, for the first time really, why I don’t make them as games: Because the last thing I would wish visitors to do is focus on reaching some predefined goal.

Rather, I want visitors to my site to explore with no agenda. My hope is that my ragtag little band of demos will encourage people to follow their own free-wheeling thoughts, to form their own creative associations, and to discover worlds of their own.

Art imitates life

Wednesday, October 17th, 2012

I grew up not far from a little town named “Grandview”. So when I saw the Will Wellman film Magic Town, which takes place in a town of the same name, it felt sort of funny, as though the events in the movie were happening right next door.

Something similar happened when I saw the film Pleasantville, since I used to live pretty much within walking distance of a real town called Pleasantville.

And now the TV show American Horror Story: Asylum takes place in a placed called Briarcliff Manor. I used to leave in a real place called Briarcliff Manor (which is not far, it turns out, from the real Pleasantville).

This sort of thing happens a lot. My best friend when I was six years old was named Salvatore Romano. So when a character named Salvatore Romano showed up in Mad Men, I had a moment.

The rational part of my mind dismisses all this as coincidence. But there is another part of my mind, the wild romantic part inherited from my childhood self, which on some level believes The Purple Rose of Cairo and The Truman Show are documentaries. That part of me is paying close attention.

A little experiment

Tuesday, October 16th, 2012

I’ve just been doing a little experiment: I’ve spent the last ten days not having anything alcoholic to drink. It’s not that I’m against people drinking (unless of course you are one of those people who cannot handle alcohol, in which case it is essentially poison). It’s more that I was curious what the effect would be on my mood, my sleep patterns, and my general feeling of well being.

A bit to my surprise, the result has been dramatic. I’ve been sleeping better, feeling more calm and relaxed, and generally in better spirits all through the day.

I was visiting friends this weekend where there was magnificent scotch to be had, and as part of my experiment I demurred. I love the taste of a good scotch, but my reasoning is that I can always indulge after my experiment has ended, and it’s not as though good scotch is vanishing from the planet any time soon.

But the real surprise was what happened when somebody offered me some perfectly good white wine. My immediate feeling upon seeing the wine was something in my gut pulling away. It was as though my body remembers the negative effects of drinking white wine, but not the positive ones.

I suspect that the next time I drink, whenever that is, the rush from all that alcohol metabolizing into blood sugar will reset some primordial switches, and I will again feel the familiar pull. But at least for now, my mind and body are having a lovely and quite enjoyable vacation.

Hunters to the right, gatherers to the left

Monday, October 15th, 2012

Today I was telling my friend Andy that I found it interesting how both the political left and the political right in this country have their respective “pro-life” contingencies. For the left the issues include animal rights and opposition to the death penalty. For the right the issue is opposition to abortion. Although they might agree on little else, both contingents predicate their argument on a premise that “life is precious”.

Andy then pointed out to me that these positions map quite well into contrasting opinions about Patriarchy: The political right are “hunters”, for whom the traditional concerns of men are predominant. The political left are “gatherers”, for whom the traditional concerns of women are more important.

Hunters want men to have more of a say in the progeny of women they impregnate, whereas gatherers might think this assertion intrudes on a woman’s own judgment as to the best time to bring a child into the world.

Hunters might see the killing of animals for food as essential, whereas gatherers might be more inclined to view it as unnecessary violence.

Hunters might tend to see the death penalty as a necessary part of patriarchal justice, whereas gatherers might perceive it as the unwarranted triumph of vengeance over respect for life.

Of course where there is an ideal, there is often a symbol. To the hunter, the ultimate symbol is the gun. This object does not merely represent the hunter’s power over life and death; it also serves as a useful proxy for another object of vaguely similarly shape that is not usually brandished in polite company.

The gatherer’s response to both objects, and their frequent use as symbols of power, can be remarkably similar: “Put that thing away”.

Crossing the A.I. chasm

Sunday, October 14th, 2012

I was having a conversation with some friends today about the future of Artificial Intelligence and robots. As you probably know, A.I. pervades our lives. Heuristic algorithms run our cars, our homes, and every internet search we do. Mostly these algorithms work behind the scenes, rather than being embodied by an old-fashioned robot with a face. Occasionally something like Apple’s Siri is used as a front-end puppet, so that we can have the entertainment value of “talking with a robot”.

Whether or not this stuff ends up being seen in anthropomorphic embodiments, or manifests mainly as anonymous software lurking in cyberspace, I posited that there is a key question here — one to which we do not yet know the answer.

The question is: will we ever develop A.I. that can solve novel and unexpected problems with something like the facility possessed by humans (and some other species as well). This is precisely what is missing from today’s leading examples of A.I., from Watson to Google Search — the ability to switch contexts, to understand and deal with a radically novel problem, to put together apparently unrelated clues and find a solution within a completely new solution space.

If we do ever manage to forge machines that can cross that chasm of capability, then I think the interesting questions will start. Because at that point our machines might really begin to be our friends or enemies. And then we can even start worrying about SkyNet. :-)

In the country

Saturday, October 13th, 2012

I have become so used to the compression, the noise, the hectic pace of the big city and its environs, that it can be easy to forget the pervasive effect it has. If you live every moment inside of a pressure cooker, you can forget you are in a pressure cooker.

But now I am visiting friends, in a house in the woods outside of Woodstock. There is nothing around but beautiful mountains, wooded nature, the sky and the stars. There is quiet here, a kind of deep blanket of silence I never hear in the city.

I can still feel the bustle, the agitation, of the city inside me. Even after leaving such a place, that agitation stays with you for a while. But I suspect this will fade, like a vibration that only dies away slowly. The still night air, these old and silent mountains, they just need a little time to work their magic.

And I am feeling very open to magic.

Eulergy

Friday, October 12th, 2012

Yesterday a colleague who is quite respected in the field of computer/user interfaces was giving a technical talk, and happened to mention some work of the great eighteenth century Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler.

Until that moment, I had always assumed that there are two kinds of people in the world: People who have simply never heard of Euler, and people who revere him and his influential work. But suddenly I realized that there is a third category.

For my colleague had pronounced the great mathematician’s name as “Yoo-ler”, whereas the proper pronunciation sounds more like “Oiler”. So here was someone who knew about Euler, and was even properly citing his work, but apparently had never before heard the great man’s name spoken aloud.

There should be a word for this phenomenon — getting the work right but pronouncing the name wrong. I vote for “eulergy”.

It’s a cool word, isn’t it? Now I just need to figure out the right way to pronounce it…