Archive for October, 2012

Super power corrupts superly

Thursday, October 11th, 2012

In 1962 John D. MacDonald wrote a wonderful science fiction novel called “The Girl, the Gold Watch & Everything”, which was later made into a TV movie. The premise was simple and elegant: A young man inherits from his millionaire uncle nothing but a gold watch. But it turns out that the watch has the ability to freeze time — its bearer can inhabit the space between one instant and the next, doing (and changing) whatever he wants in the interval.

Obviously this is an enormous super power. The novel contains comedy and adventure, good guys and bad guys, a love story and thrilling chases, but much of the fun simply derives from observing the young man as he gradually figures out just how much power he really has.

Yet as Lord Acton observed, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Suppose (suspending disbelief for a moment) that you really had such a watch. Would it be possible to continue making ethical choices, to avoid over the long run becoming corrupted by the possession of such power?

Thinking more generally about this, I wonder whether we can rank any given super power by its tendency to corrupt its possessor. Consider invisibility, super-strength, teleportation, control over time, mind-reading, immortality, and all the other power-ups in the D.C. and Marvel canon. In ethical terms, just how much self-control does each demand?

After all, the only difference in the superhero universe between a “good guy” and a “bad guy” is whether or not they have become seduced by their own power.

Sourcing crowdsourcing

Wednesday, October 10th, 2012

Since I mentioned the word “crowdsourcing” in a post a few days ago, maybe this is a good time to talk about it a bit. The basic concept behind crowdsourcing — solving a substantial intellectual problem by asking a large amorphous group of people to contribute — is quite old, dating at least back to the six million volunteer contributed submissions by the citizenry to the Oxford English Dictionary starting in 1857.

But suppose we restrict the term “crowdsourcing” to refer only to internet-enabled collaborations. Notable examples include the SETI project and, Mechanical Turk, and, more recently, Foldit.

But I would argue that the granddaddy of them all is the Web itself. The thing that Ted Nelson hated most about Tim Berners Lee’s version of the Web was its haphazardness. Rather than orderly two-way links (as in Nelson’s original Xanadu concept), Berners-Lee allowed just for one-way links, with no enforcement policy whatsoever — a link could simply go nowhere. If you clicked on such a link, you would be told by your browser that the page does not exist (and you still are to this day).

But that, it turned out, was precisely the strength of Berners-Lee’s concept. Any schmo could put up a web page and start adding links to any other web page. With nobody overseeing the process, people just organized things for themselves. Ordinary members of public became the weavers of a virally expanding enterprise of Web-building.

You could say that the creation of the Web itself was the first internet crowdsourcing project.

Mind-body problem

Tuesday, October 9th, 2012

Fast-forward, if you will, to some time in the hypothetical future when our brains have been properly scanned and downloaded, and your mind will find itself physically existing as bits, rather than atoms.

Admittedly this future might never come to pass, but it’s certainly a plausible thing to think about — even with brains made of mere atoms, as they still are in these primitive times.

What I’m wondering is what place the “mind’s body” will have in such a reality. People who meditate, who get proper sleep and exercise, tend (on the average) to have a significantly more calm, alert and rested state than people who put their bodies through hell.

Does this mean that in our cybernetic far-future we will need to maintain virtual bodies? Will our mental health be improved by thirty minutes a day of virtual yoga? And what about sleep? Will there still be such a thing as sleep?

I find myself pondering the mental state of some digital entity thinking back on when he had been human. Would he miss his body? Or would that body have been so perfectly re-created in his mind that he wouldn’t even notice it was gone?

These are weighty questions, puzzling and vexatious. If I were that digital entity, I’d be tempted to pour myself a stiff virtual drink.

Three questions

Monday, October 8th, 2012

Today at the UIST conference (User Interfaces and Software Technology) Andrew Cross, Edward Cutrell and William Thies from Microsoft Research India presented a really neat idea — using a single camera to look at people holding up paper containing Augmented Reality tags in order to inexpensively conduct a poll of hundreds of people at once. The technology can also be used to enable truly affordable class polling of students in India.

At one point, to demonstrate their technology they asked three questions. Whoever got all three right would get a present. I really love these questions, so I will share them with you:

(1) What was the original Mechanical Turk for? (A) To predict the weather; (B) To play chess; (C) To do magic tricks; (D) To multiply large numbers.

(2) Where did the word “crowdsourcing” first appear? (A) At the SIGCHI conference; (B) At the UIST conference; (C) in Wired magazine; (D) In the New York Times.

(3) Which of the following was not sent into space with Voyager I? (A) The sound of a wild dog; (B) A one hour recording of a brain wave pattern; (C) A photo of Boston; (D) A schematic of the Cray supercomputer.

I won’t give any of these away just yet, since you might want a chance to answer them. If you’re going to try, do it it without using a search engine or other reference.

Movie star math

Sunday, October 7th, 2012

In a conversation at the Hamptons International Film Festival a friend posited that Sam Shepard is unique among movie stars in his ability to embody both the poetically suffering sensitive lover and the iconic manly cowboy, all at once. I countered that there is at least one other example — Heath Ledger in “Brokeback Mountain”. My friend agreed, but after thinking about it a bit more, I’m not so sure I was right.

Ledger manages the stretch between lover and cowboy by being winningly boyish, which is something a bit different. His character is really the man-child still in the process of discovering his true nature.

In contrast, Shepard as easily conveys the figure of the fully formed cowboy as Sam Elliott himself — handsomely craggy, quietly authoritative, a man of action in that calmly Zen way of the true loner hero. At the same time, he does indeed embody the sensitive suffering lover, every bit as soulful as Adrien Brody in “The Pianist”, to choose an iconic example. All this while being a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright!

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There are many movie stars who are great at being one or the other of these things, while being merely acceptable at the other. Richard Gere makes a great sensitive lover, but as a cowboy he’s not quite there. And one could argue that Harrison Ford has transitioned gracefully from young lover to old cowboy, but he was never perfectly both at the same time.

Which leaves me wondering: Was my friend correct? Is there really only one living movie star who has simultaneously embodied both of these divergent ideals?

Only last night the moon

Saturday, October 6th, 2012

Alas, I must leave the Hamptons
This evening, before the festival
Has even ended.

It was so good to leave the city
For a place that has real sky
And real ocean.

Only last night the moon
Floating low within the night sky
Was a shade of deepest orange.

If I could only reach out,
In just the right way, I could pluck it
Clean out of the air.

A beautiful couple

Friday, October 5th, 2012

Today I watched “A Beautiful Mind” in the company of John and Alicia Nash. The occasion was a celebration of John Nash, as part of a larger celebration by the Hampton’s Film Festival of films that focus on science and scientists.

John and Alicia are fascinating people — both brilliant, both very down to earth, and clearly very emotionally connected with one another. It was interesting to hear them talk quietly to each other during the screening, pointing out places where the film got things particularly right or wrong.

All in all I think they have made their peace with the extremely large liberties that Ron Howard and company took in putting their story on screen. For example, in reality John Nash never saw anything that wasn’t there (his hallucinations were entirely auditory), and the chronology of events in the film is rather screwed up. The screenplay also contains a huge number of other factual errors that it would be pointless to enumerate here.

But the spirit of the film has held up well since I last saw it during its initial release. At the core is the fundamental idea that a schizophrenic, if he has the right emotional support, can eventually use reason and logic to figure out which parts of his perceived reality are true, and which originate inside his mind. As Alicia said when we held a panel discussion after the screening, the film is part of an important discussion about how to deal with mental illness.

This evening a man I’d never met came up to me and thanked me for running the session. He said his sister is schizophrenic, and that he has always been inspired by the story of John Nash. I told the man that I was honored to be able to take part in such an event, with two such extraordinary people. And I very much meant it.

Contract with the audience

Thursday, October 4th, 2012

Today, at the Hamptons International Film Festival, I saw four feature films, each wildly different in every way from the other three. One was a tongue-in-cheek metaphysical inquiry into narrative, another was a non-fiction thriller based on the 1969 Piazza Fontana bombing in Italy, a third was a revisionist documentary about Marilyn Monroe based on her very thoughtful writings (unearthed only after her death), and the fourth was the Tim Burton stop-motion film Frankenweenie.

I enjoyed all of them, although I found the two serious films to be far more satisfying (think “meal”, as opposed to “dessert”).

But seeing such different movies back to back really brought home to me that a film is, at heart, a contract. In particular, the filmmaker is contracting with the audience to assert and then maintain a very specific alternate reality — a world that has much in common with ours, but with key and well-defined differences.

A good film must bring the audience in on this contract quickly and cleanly. The film can contain mystery, but it cannot contain fuzziness. And a bad film is one in which the initial contract is either not clearly made, or else is betrayed at some point between the start credits and the end credits.

Even if viewers do not consciously know what the contract is, they always know whether it is a good one or a bad one, and whether it has been violated.

This is the reason that a beginning author is often advised to “kill your children”. If you fall too much in love with a particular scene in your story, then you will be tempted to keep that scene in no matter how much it tears the larger narrative out of shape. So you need to be prepared to be ruthless in throwing out good material — even great material.

In fact the only thing that ultimately matters is that contract with the audience. If you make a good contract and stick to it (admittedly not an easy thing to do), your tale will be a success.

Off the grid

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012

A friend of mine is currently traveling completely “off the grid” through Nepal. You can’t communicate with somebody directly while they are disconnected from the info-web, but you can imagine what their journey is like.

I have been doing just that. In the process, I am learning all sorts of things about Nepal. Yesterday I traced an imaginary route from Kakabhitta to Kanchanpur. The more I read about these places, the more fascinating they become.

I may just need to take some time off the grid myself.

Generative StretchText

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012

In 1967 Ted Nelson described the concept of “StretchText” — a body of text that compresses down to successively more compact abstracts in response to space constraints.

I was having a conversation recently with my colleague Noah Wardrip-Fruin in which we realized that he and I share an interest in doing something similar in spirit, but in some ways quite different: Using a generative narrative engine to selectively expand what starts out as a compact abstract, so that it expands to a desired level of detail.

It goes without saying that this is a hard problem. It presupposes some kind of engine for directed narrative generation, such as the research being done in the Expressive Intelligence lab at UC Santa Cruz (run by Noah and Michael Mateas), or the system Emily Short and Richard Evans have been building to tell interactive stories in the style of Jane Austen.

But it also demands that the text that is generated be both dramatically interesting and narratively consistent, no matter how or where one “zooms in”. If Ted Nelson’s original concept is analogous to Google Maps, then this would be analogous to that zoomable procedural planet I created in homage to Richard Voss.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if this constraint were actually to help. The need to generate a consistent narrative at all levels of detail might lead to new approaches to narrative generation — perhaps better in some ways than the current state of the art.