Remembrance of things past

I went to a lecture today by Slavoj Žižek. He said many fascinating and thought provoking things, about economics, culture, politics and philosophy. But one thing in particular really stayed with me.

He pointed out that the things we value from our past, the things that we have lost, are often valuable precisely because we have lost them. It is the loss itself that creates much of the sense of value in our memory.

I think we can all agree, when we reflect back on our own remembrance of things past, that this is quite true.

There seems to be something tragic about this quality of human nature. Joni Mitchell said it in a somewhat different way: “We don’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone.”

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could have a crystal ball that tells us “This experience — this day walking with a friend, this sunlit morning waking up with a lover, this moment in time that you so blithely take for granted — one day this simple moment will be remembered in your mind as a paradise lost.”

And knowing this, perhaps we will know not to take it for granted.


Today we took the rowboat out, and rowed across the lake. Nobody lives on the other side. Beyond the trees is a meadow, where the cows from a nearby farm often come to graze.

For quite awhile we were alone, enjoying the view of trees and sky, the silence of the day, the ripples that crisscrossed in ever-changing patterns across the surface of the lake.

Then the cows found us.

And they were completely fascinated. I don’t know whether it was because the farmer gives them treats (and so they expect the same from any humans) or just because they were hungry for bipedal company, but they couldn’t get enough of us.

More and more cows showed up, and soon we were nearly surrounded. They were all gazing up at us with big brown eyes, sniffing at us, and generally acting as though we were the headliner act in whatever is the bovine equivalent of a rock concert.

As we walked back to our rowboat, they followed en masse, keeping pace with us at every step. At last we got in the boat, and the cows looked on sadly as our little craft drifted slowly away from shore.

Or at least I’d like to think they were looking on sadly. I’m not really certain. The picture above shows the cows watching us depart. Maybe you can figure it out.

Under a new sky

Today I am visiting friends in the Swedish countryside about 100 Km north of Stockholm. They have a summer cottage by a lake, surrounded by trees all around. It is eery how similar this region is to the place in upstate New York where my parents used to take us in summer, the source of so many happy childhood memories.

The view of the lake brings me back to those times, from the geese who sail serenely along, to the delicate layer of white mist floating just above the water. Even the birch and oak trees look the same.

And of course there is a peaceful sense of quiet for miles around, so far away from the noise and bustle of the city.

But one thing is very different — the light. The sun here does not set until after 10pm, far later than in New York. At sunset, the angle of the sun makes for a beautiful but (to my eyes) eery light, with deep streaks of red arcing through the clouds and reflecting off the rippling surface of the lake.

It’s like seeing my childhood summer memories brought back to life under a new sky.

Death and the Mouse III

So why is it, continuing from yesterday, that Disney animations often subject their young viewers to the violent and traumatic death of the parents of beloved animated characters, and yet a trip to Disneyland comes to be seen by kids (and their parents) as the most wonderful and safe of vacation options?

I would argue that there is a deliberate and brilliant strategy at work here on the part of the Walt Disney Company. And it is clearly a strategy that goes all the way back to Walt himself, when you think back on such classic Disney films as “Pinocchio” and “Bambi”, both of which contained some truly terrifying moments.

When you go through a traumatic experience with somebody — say a war, or the loss of a loved one — and have seen it through together, such an experience can draw you closer. I think Disney is deliberately tapping into this principle, by carefully constructing stories that will subject little kids to the most horrific emotional trauma, and then guiding them through that trauma to the conclusion: “Everything turns out ok in the end.”

Question: After you have experienced such terror as seeing your mother being shot to death, or your father betrayed and murdered by his own brother, or your entire family wiped out by vicious killers, who can you trust? Answer: Whoever it was that guided you through this horror and saw you safely through to the other side.

In other words, inducing terror in small children is Disney’s very stock and trade. Kids love visiting Disneyland precisely because they have learned by watching Disney films that the world can be a horrible, cruel and unfair place, where bad things happen to good people. But also that there is one little corner of the world where you can escape this ever-present existential terror.


Death and the Mouse II

Yesterday I talked about my lunch conversation with a friend in which we mused over the plethora of killing in Disney animations — specifically the frequency with which family members of the protagonist (usually the mother or father or both) are killed, often while our young hero is helplessly looking on.

One thing I didn’t mention is that my friend’s daughter now really loves Disneyland. To her, a trip to southern California means yet another chance to visit the Magic Kingdom. It was this key factoid that put me onto my current train of thought.

This is an animation company that regularly subjects little kids to the most frightening thing imaginable to a small child: The death of a parent — generally right in front of the eyes of the character the child most identifies with.

Now couple this with the fact that Disney’s commercial empire is built upon cross marketing: You see the movie, then you visit the theme park, buy the princess dress and take home the character-themed plush toy. It’s all part and parcel of the same highly interconnected business.

And what is the fundamental appeal of that theme park? I would argue that the allure of Disneyland is deeply connected to the idea that it is the safest place on earth. Little kids love that feeling, and parents like the reassurance that everything is under control.

But wait. On the one hand we have movies that regularly kill off the parents of beloved little animated characters, often in a highly brutal and traumatic way. On the other hand, around these movies are built highly successful theme parks which are all about safety and reassurance. What is going on here?

More tomorrow.

Death and the Mouse

Yesterday at lunch a friend was telling me that she had a nagging feeling before her young daughter sat down for the first time to watch a Disney film that she herself had not seen for many years. The movie is rated fine for kids, but something in the back of her mind was bothering her.

When they finally sat down to watch the movie, she told me she remembered all at once what it was.

“It was ‘Finding Nemo’, right?” I asked.

Sure enough, that was the movie. You know, that cute adorable animation for kids which begins with a scene of our young hero’s entire family being brutally slaughtered — parents and siblings all.

I then told her that when my nephew first saw “The Lion King” as a young boy, he was traumatized by the scene where King Mufasa is killed by his brother Scar. My nephew also has a brother, the same difference in age as my brother and I. It seems it wasn’t the death of the king that disturbed my nephew so deeply. Rather, it was the idea of one brother betraying another. For the next year he would, from time to time, ask my sister in law for reassurance, saying “It was only a movie, right?”

And of course there’s Bambi. In fact a similar dark thread runs through many Disney stories. Why is there so much killing of the parents and family members of the protagonist in Disney animations?

I have a theory, which I will talk more about tomorrow.

Diving even deeper

In his comment on yesterday’s post, Doug suggested a philosophically interesting direction: Capture variations in singing style and then re-apply those variations to different songs. As Doug points out, this is in the same vein as the Image Analogies work by my brilliant former student Aaron Hertzmann.

I use the phrase “philosophically interesting” because herein lies a sort of divide in current thinking about ways to use computers. There is no right or wrong side to this divide. It’s more of an aesthetic difference.

Doug’s suggestion falls on the “Machine Learning” side: Feed a lot of real-world examples of something into a computer algorithm, and then apply that now-trained algorithm to new situations. In this case, we would be training an algorithm to recognize a singer’s style by first examining how they have performed some set of songs, and then use our tuned algorithm to simulate how that same singer would sing different songs.

My own aesthetics (and where I was going with this series of posts) leans more toward the “Model Driven” side: I would want to create a design tool in the form of an interface that represents a model of the singer’s choices. Using this design tool, a designer could reshape those choices, in effect creating their own custom singer.

The difference is crucial: The Machine Learning approach does not provide a way to understand the choices the singer makes. It can effectively apply the singer’s “style” to new songs, but in doing so it operates as a black box. The Model Driven approach reveals what is going on under the hood.

In other words, I’m not so interested in algorithms that just do things for us. I’m more interested in tools whose workings we can clearly understand, and that therefore can be guided by our own intuition.

Don’t get me wrong — the Machine Learning approach is immensely powerful, and in fact is the key to the power of such data-driven search tools as Google search.

It’s just that I don’t just want a player piano, even if it’s the best player piano in the world. I also want to play the piano — or even make my own piano.

Diving deeper

Once you start to notice the many subtleties that go into a vocal performance, it is reasonable to ask “Is there a good way to describe them?”

We can think of this as a kind of arithmetic. Consider, for example, the “average” version of a song — some sort of mean of all the ways that different singers perform it. Then consider a particular artist’s rendition, and take the difference:

renditionthis artist   –   renditionaverage

What we’ve done here is remove information about the song itself, so that all that remains is whatever is unique to this artist’s performance.

We can go further, and compare a single performance by some artist against his/her aggregate performances:

renditionthis   –   renditionaggregate

Of course all of this assumes that we have some way of converting a song into a form in which such arithmetic works — or even makes sense.

Diving deep

Recently I have been getting into the habit of diving deep into favorite songs — not just the song, but a particular performance. I listen to the performance repeatedly, trying first to recognize each decision the singer made, and then to figure out the reason for that decision.

A masterful singer will make hundreds of little choices over the course of performing a three minute song, from phrasing to pitch bend to rhythmic variation to vocal quality to pronunciation. Each of those choices has an effect on the overall emotional impact of the performance. The more I look at such performances, the more detail I find.

After listening to a performance I particularly like — say, Janice Ian performing “At Seventeen”, or Leonard Cohen singing “The Stranger Song”, or Tom Waits singing “Time” — I try singing the song myself while making exactly the same vocal choices. I don’t pretend that what comes out of my mouth would be pleasing to anyone else. The important thing is to notice what choices the singer made, and to become completely familiar with them, so I can start to figure out the purpose of each of those little decisions.

It’s an odd little hobby, but it’s great fun.

Who was that actor?

I was perusing a theatre review the other morning in which several members of the cast were complimented by name. My first thought was “Who are those actors? Have I seen them in anything before?”

I could have looked them up on the web, but that would have taken just a little more effort than I had time for at that point in my morning routine.

I then realized that if I had been equipped with some sort of wearable — perhaps some everyday descendent of Google Glass a few years from now — then I could simply have used some sort of quick hand/finger gesture to highlight the name of any actor on the page, and the image of that actor, together with a brief bio, would have shown up in front of my eyes. No fuss, no muss.

Then it struck me — I was still thinking in terms of paper. Such a twentieth century mindset I have!

In a few short years, the whole notion of reading the news on actual printed paper may become as extinct as listening to an Edison cylinder.