Archive for March, 2013

Hanging on

Thursday, March 21st, 2013

I had the oddest dream today.

I dreamt I was plunging to earth from a great height while holding onto something, and the only thing that could save my life during the long plunge was to keep holding on, without loosening my grip even once before I had reached the ground.

The dream was so vivid that I woke with a start as soon as my dream self had made it safely to the ground. Upon awakening, I found myself in a state of agitation.

Of course the dream doesn’t make any literal sense. But as a metaphor it’s pretty intense. I’m not sure I agree with the underlying philosophy it seems to represent.

Yet clearly deep down inside me, something is taking it very seriously.

Inviting the vampire in

Wednesday, March 20th, 2013

In the various tales of vampires, there is a common tradition about inviting them inside: Once you have welcomed vampires into your home, they are then free to enter your home any time.

Like many mythological ideas, this one is grounded in truth: Before agreeing to something, it is wise to understand not just what we are agreeing to, but whom we are dealing with.

Continuing yesterday’s theme (today being the 10th anniversary of the American war in Iraq), the following open letter from Tomas Young to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney provides a searing reminder of this truth. The letter is from a young man who is currently dying from injuries sustained during his service in Iraq.

In the letter, he points out that he had enlisted two days after the destruction of the World Trade Center, to fight those who had attacked the U.S.

Now, as he spends his last days in a hospice bed, he is processing the fact that his enlistment gave our government the legal right to send him to fight any war it wished — even a war that had nothing at all to do with those attacks against the U.S..

A sad reminder that once you invited vampires in, you no longer have power against them. Alas, the vampires at your door can appear very presentable.

Sometimes they even wear nice suits.

A short war

Tuesday, March 19th, 2013

At the end of the day today, it will have been exactly ten years since the United States started the ongoing “short war” in Iraq.

Which might be a good time to take stock as to how things are going so far.

On the plus side, Saddam Hussein is no longer in the picture.

On the minus side, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives have been either ended or disrupted, tens of thousands of American men and women have either lost their lives or have had their lives and health irrevocably damaged, and the total cost to the American taxpayer over the coming decades is estimated by various experts to come to approximately six trillion dollars.

You never know what will come out of a short war.

It is fortunate indeed that we didn’t plan a long war.


Monday, March 18th, 2013

A friend and I were having a conversation today about the nature of cultural upheaval in the U.S., and my friend pointed to the apparent calm of our own time.

We do not, on the surface, seem to be in an era of radical cultural change. Discourse today has nothing equivalent in urgency to hippies rejecting the Eisenhower post-war culture, or to punks declaring war on the middle class.

In fact, retro is in. Young people are mining the past for cultural influence, reaching back to the 1960s, or 1950s, or even the 1920s for inspiration.

But after talking it through a bit, we both concluded that this apparent calm is deceptive. The very nature of the cultural conversation is changing. The entire apparatus of passive consumer culture is being questioned by a generation less interested in pure consumption than in remix and collage.

For a growing number of young people, TV and movies are no longer the be-all and end-all of cultural experience. They’re just source material.

Maybe, my friend said, things seem calm because the new generation is still in the process of absorbing the past, assimilating it, gathering data.

As this generation grows into its power, and starts letting loose with a new kind of cultural production, one that is far more participatory than anything seen before, the change is going to be radical indeed.

Punching bag

Sunday, March 17th, 2013

Today I was invited to a “boxing aerobics” class. I hadn’t even known there was such a thing, and I found it quite fun and interesting. For part of the class we put on boxing gloves and took punches at large free-standing punching bags.

The instructor also gave us some really good lessons in technique. In addition to getting a workout, I learned the basics of the sweet science, including jabs, crosses, uppercuts, and effective ways to do combinations.

Just as the class was starting, my friend gave me a suggestion: He pointed to a spot at eye level on the punching bag and told me, essentially, to imagine the face of somebody I am mad at. “The next time you see that guy,” he said, “you’ll be totally cool and calm.”

I appreciated the suggestion, but as the class went on I found it difficult to think of anyone whose face I really wanted to punch. The whole energy just wasn’t working for me.

Then at some point I had an insight, and after that it all got a lot easier. I imagined my own face up there. Suddenly my jabs started to hit with precision, my uppercuts landed solidly, my right crosses connected with real power.

When it was all over, I was completely relaxed and loose — tired but happy, and ready to hit the shower. It had been a great workout, and I felt wonderful for the rest of the day.

And the next time I see that guy, I’ll be totally cool and calm.

Happy accidents

Saturday, March 16th, 2013

Today I had a fascinating conversation that touched on how art and craftsmanship change as new technology allows an artistic process to evolve from manual techniques to more “instantaneous” and automated alternatives.

For example, when a film is shot on location, happy accidents can arise from the very difficulty of framing your shot in the real world. Perhaps there is an unexpected car or lamppost in the scene that must be shot around, or else incorporated into the frame. This very challenge can lead to new ideas.

If the set were computer simulated, and the lighting designed in post-production (two options that are becoming ever more readily available), such happy accidents might never occur. The argument could be made that convenient “improvements” in process can actually impoverish the outcome.

A counterargument could be made based on the following observation: A novelist experiences no such production hurdles. Yet the author, upon writing part of a scene one morning, might later that day have a random conversation or encounter which provides, the very next day, a new insight into how to complete her scene.

So perhaps we do not need to fear that evolving technologies will debase our art. The happy accidents that lead us to discover our best artistic impulses come not from the complication of dealing with the world around us, but rather from our own complicated human responses to that world.

Time machine

Friday, March 15th, 2013

As a break from work (the more work there is to do, the more I seem to need such breaks) I have been joyfully wandering through YouTube watching old performances, many I’d never seen before, by Sid Caesar, Victor Borge, Vera-Ellen, Ernie Kovacks and other greats from more or less sixty years ago.

It was an astonishingly rich world, and you can become totally pulled into it. Traveling through it is a bit like having your own time machine.

To take just one example, there has never been comedy before or since quite like the Nairobi Trio. In fact, it deserves a link.


Thursday, March 14th, 2013

This afternoon I was describing to someone a software project I’m working on, which allows parts of a document to be interpreted by a computer, so that interactive animated characters (as moving illustrations in the document) can act out a story in response to that text.

I was explaining that in order to make this practical, those “computer readable” parts of the document will use a special text editor — one that guides the author to write things in a way that computers (which are a bit stupid) can actually understand.

Then a bit later this afternoon a colleague told me that his nephew, a brilliant NYU film student, is interested in the idea of writing screenplays in the form of animations.

I told my colleague that I’m already working on that — since what his nephew wants is more or less a very nice way to describe what I am building.

His nephew and I are going to meet, and hopefully collaborate.

I love when this sort of confluence happens. I take it as a sign that things might be going right.

Happy π day!!

A different deck of cards

Wednesday, March 13th, 2013

After happily watching the first thirteen episodes of the American remake of “House of Cards”, I have turned my attention to the BBC original.

The contrast serves up a delightful lesson in the difference between the two cultures. Whereas Kevin Spacey’s antihero politician is all about swagger and a thinly disguised display of raw sexual charisma, Ian Richardson’s original is a glorious lesson in understated subterfuge, in the menace that can lurk beneath the smoothest of surfaces.

The original house of cards is not about who slays the most enemies, but rather about how elegantly the kill is done. I confess I am greatly enjoying this highly refined bit of mischief from across the Pond.

While I certainly enjoy a good overcooked drama of political evil, it seems I prefer my Macbeth slightly on the rare side.

Ambiguous art

Tuesday, March 12th, 2013

Recently I saw, for the first time, Liliana Cavana’s haunting 1974 film “The Night Porter”. I won’t say too much about it here because you really should see it for yourself (but don’t take the kids — it’s definitely a film for grownups).

One thing that struck me about it, something I especially liked, and which seems to have infuriated others through the years, is that it absolutely refuses to spell out its message. Meaning is suggested, hinted at, but remains elusive. Just when you think you understand it, it moves in another direction.

I realize I enjoy this quality of ambiguity in art. Entertainment spells things out, wraps its message in a tidy little package with neatly typed labels for our enjoyment. In the end, everybody knows what has happened.

Yet art can keep us dangling, forcing us to fill in our own meanings and interpretations. And sometimes those interpretations can bring us to profound, if disturbing, places.

I enjoy a nice tidy entertainment as well as the next person, but there is nothing like a wonderfully, provocatively ambiguous work of art.