Cyborg drama

Coincidentally I had several conversations today, with different people, on the topic of ideas for dramas involving cyborgs or robots. Maybe some karmic quota of such discussions needed to be filled, which is why these conversations got squeezed into the very last day of the year.

After all, one can have only so many discussions about how Jennifer Lawrence in “American Hustle” is, on a formal level, a eerily precise reiteration of Heath Ledger as the Joker.

The first of today’s conversations concerned the topic of space pirates. Everybody knows that a self-respecting scurvy pirate is supposed to wear an eye patch. To be without one would be as inappropriate, in fictional pirate social circles, as being caught without a parrot on one’s shoulder. But what about scurvy pirates in science fiction? Should these futuristic miscreants be held to the same high monocular standard?

We debated the point for a bit, and finally agreed that any self-respecting sci-fi pirate should indeed sport an eye patch, but that the patch should cover a cybernetic eye, useful for seeing through walls, and perhaps also functioning as a laser weapon. This would satisfy the formal requirements of both genres.

The second conversation concerned the near simultaneous evolution (lately in the news) of airborne delivery drones by Amazon and self-driving vehicles by Google. As each of these two types of vehicle develops ever more advanced artificial intelligence capabilities, the two species of robot may find themselves competing for the same economic niche.

Imagine being the very first autonomously self-driving truck to successfully replace a Federal Express delivery van, only so find yourself almost instantly obsoleted by a swarm of pesky little quadrocopters. If I were that robot truck, my feelings would definitely be hurt.

One could imagine someone writing a sweeping saga that follows the clash between these two rising classes of working robot, terrestrial and airborne. It would be a twenty first century version of those epic conflicts about labor unions that were once so popular. I supposed they could call it “How Green was my Silicon Valley”.

That was probably more than enough conversation, for one day, about cyborg drama.


Today my cousin and I went to the Wynwood, a part of Miami where all the building exteriors are painted with art. I had never heard of it before, and it was fabulous.

So much creativity, variety, and sheer fun. It made me realize that so much of what we call “art” falls into one of two traps. Either it’s really about mondy and commerce, or it’s about some kind of self-conscious attempt to be “important”.

These delightful works are not at all self-important, and they are not about money. What they are is bold, exuberant, fun, life-affirming, slyly humorous, mysteriously personal, and filled with craft.

Below are but two of countless examples that brightened my day today:

Black Santa, Red Fox

Today in Miami as my cousin and I drove by we saw two large Christmas lawn ornaments side by side. One was a seven foot tall inflated white polar bear, and the other was an equally tall inflated black Santa Claus. And not just any black Santa Claus. This was clearly a Santa who was proud of his ethnic heritage and delighted to share it with the world.

Of course I immediately flashed back on the recent assertion by Fox News (in response to a blog post asking why Santa couldn’t be a black penguin), that Santa Claus needs to be a white guy. Their reasoning was, as I understand it, that to say otherwise would be confusing to children.

As I looked at the giant dark skinned Santa on that lawn, smiling happily upon the world, I thought about the weirdness of Fox News’ insistence on factual accuracy in the portrayal of an entirely mythical figure.

I even looked up “Saint Nicholas” on Wikipedia, which confirmed that the actual historical figure lived in the 4th century in Greece. So I don’t think he would have come close to resemble the pink faced depiction by Thomas Nast in the mid-19th century (the one we’re now most familiar with in this country). In fact he would have been quite swarthy.

Yes, I know that the iconography of Santa also borrows from the Norse image of Odin, clad in his blue cloak, riding a giant steed to shower gifts during the very un-Christian celebration of Yule.

And there were many other influences as well, all of which support the point tacitly raised by that Miami homeowner: Why should old Father Christmas (or Papai Noel, Babbo Natale, Daidí na Nollag or Weihnachtsmann, as he is known to various people out there) have only one ethnic appearance? And who is Fox News to dictate which of the many versions of that gentleman is the “correct” one?

I understand that Fox News has an obligation to its Red State constituency, and ethnic diversity among powerfully totemic mythical figures might seem to them a dangerously liberal idea.

But lest Fox News feel bad, I can assure them, before they lose their tenuous grip on things, that the real life version of that other figure on that lawn, the polar bear, is most definitely white (-ish).

Another world

Today we went biking in the Everglades, far far away from civilization, from the nearest tourist attractions, deep into nature.

Once you get away from roads and houses, you can feel the natural world reasserting itself. From the sounds of unseen animals rustling in the woods, to the sudden glimpse of a black racer snake as it slithered across my path, to the deceptive silence when we would stop to take in our surroundings.

I say “deceptive” because the more you wait quietly and listen, the more the Everglades come to life. There are so many little sights and sounds, details of the daily life of nature that you would never see or hear from a car.

At one point we stopped by a sign from the park service, warning visitors not to wander off the path and disturb the world around us. I thought it charming that right next to this sign, somebody had thought to place a giant statue of a blue heron, far too large to be a real bird.

Just then the statue came to life, spread its magnificent wings and flew off in a slow upward spiral, giving a loud cry of disapproval that we had dared to disturb its silent reverie. After all, the blue heron was the one at home, and we the exotic visitors from another world.

The path to Teflon

I’m involved right now in a very intensive programming task. As I go along, a part of my mind is monitoring which parts are easy and which parts are turning out to be hard.

And I’m seeing a definite pattern. Programming requires a certain amount of energy minimization. I guess this is true of any task. For example, when your arm reaches out to pick up a glass of water, your brain automatically works out a trajectory that will result in minimum effort and least wasted motion for your body.

When programming, much of this optimizing takes the form of redoing work you’ve already done, because when you first did it you did not yet know what you know now. A lot of what might look like backtracking, is really just necessary retooling.

Sometimes I get impatient, and just forge ahead without taking the time to do all the retooling I should. And that’s often how I get into trouble and hit a dead end.

But that’s also how lucky accidents occasionally happen, and how some interesting new stuff gets invented.

I was just discussing this with my cousin, and he said “That’s how Teflon got invented.”

To which I could only reply: “The path to Teflon did not run smooth.”

The desolation of slog

Since “American Hustle” was sold out, my friend and I went today to see “The Desolation of Smaug”, the second film in Peter Jackson’s new Hobbit trilogy.

The first thing you need to understand is that this film is about seventeen hours long. I’m counting in subjective time. In actual clock time it’s a little shorter.

Yet in all that time, nothing actually happens. The genius of Peter Jackson is that even though nothing is actually happening, we still get to see lots of monsters, and fights, and water rushing, and plenty of really lovely views of New Zealand. I mean, um, Middle Earth.

All nicely intercut with endless scenes of dwarves walking. These scenes are very good for children, because they go on for so long that kids will have plenty of time to escape into their own heads and make up games to pass the time. For example, during one of those endless walking scenes, I was able to count the individual hairs on the head of the person sitting directly in front of me.


Another thing that’s kid friendly about this film is the way it portrays Orcs. Now, those of you who have a passing familiarity with Tolkien might be under the misconception that Orcs are fearsome creatures, savage and malevolent warriors with no purpose in life other than to be perfect and efficient killing machines.

But I learned from this film that no dwarf or hobbit can ever be killed by an Orc. In battle after battle, the cute and cuddly little guys manage to avoid any casualties. Ever. The dwarves even have time for funny and adorable antics in battle that somehow always result in the mighty and musclebound Orcs getting mowed down by the dozen.

It’s all very magical and sweet, if you like that sort of thing. I kept expecting Walt Disney himself to come out in a cameo and invite us to the gift shop afterwards.

There is even a love story of sorts. When an appealing and proud young soldier is wounded in battle, a hot chick with pointy ears from some alien race — who is nearly twice as tall as he is — comes to his rescue, fighting off bad guys with bow and arrow to save her tiny lover. Eventually I realized that I was watching early tests for “Avatar”, so I knew that sooner or later there would be flying dragons.

Speaking of dragons, another thing I learned from this movie is that dwarves and hobbits also cannot be harmed by three hundred foot tall fire breathing dragons. Ever. This is something I had not known.

It’s amazing how much you can learn at the movies.

Varieties of enchantment

This morning I watched the first half of Peter Hall’s 1968 film version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” on DVD. Then I attended a matinee performance of Julie Taymor’s current off-Broadway production (I went all alone — it was my holiday treat to self). Then I went back home and watched the second half of the film.

I hadn’t wanted to see either one before the other, so as not to taint either of the two experiences. So I split the difference by watching the film in two parts, which worked out splendidly.

It’s a bit unfair to compare the performances. The 1968 film had the great British actors Helen Mirren, David Warner, Judi Dench, Ian Holm, Diana Rigg, Ian Richardson and others, all at the top of their game.

In contrast, some of the acting in the Taymor version was a bit uneven (alas, the young man who played Lysander was in way over his head), although many of the cast were quite wonderful, and Max Casella as Bottom the Weaver was actually better than Paul Rogers from the 1968 film.

But of course we don’t go to a Julie Taymor production just for the words, even when the words are by William Shakespeare. This fantastical story was a perfect fit for Taymor’s brand of theatrical magic. The scenes of the woodland faerie world at night were breathtaking in their beauty and visual wit — for much of the play the entire audience was lost in rapture.

There were moments during the film, such as after a particularly lovely speech by Helen Mirren or Judi Dench, that I thought the poetry of Shakespeare’s words, beautifully delivered, to be all that mattered. And also many moments in the theater when I was in thrall to the power of Taymor’s visual magic. At such moments I would ask myself, which is the better variety of enchantment?

Fortunately we don’t need to choose. The Peter Hall film and the Julie Taymor theatrical production can each be enjoyed for what they are.

Sometimes both in the same day. 🙂

Pride, prejudice and preconceptions

For the last eight years, despite — or perhaps because of — my extended love affair with Jane Austen, I have avoided the 2005 Hollywood film Pride & Prejudice.

In that time I have read the book several more times (it gets better with each reading), created various interactive multimedia projects around the text, purchased “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” as a birthday gift for an old friend, given quite a few public research talks which prominently mention the classic novel, revisited the 1995 miniseries, and watched the BBC spoof “Lost in Austen” with gleeful abandon. Twice.

Yet I stayed away from the post-millennial film version, mainly out of a deep and abiding distrust of Hollywood’s ability to do justice to the subtlety of Austen’s work, and a fear that commercial imperatives would dull the razor sharp edges of her masterpiece.

Furthermore, I thought Kiera Knightley to be far to obviously beautiful to play Elizabeth Bennet. I may also have been put off by that pesky ampersand in the title.

I am happy to report that I was wrong. Knightley rises to the occasion splendidly. Also, Donald Sutherland is perfectly pitched as Mr. Bennet, and Brenda Blethyn as Mrs. Bennet is a hoot.

It is true that Matthew Macfadyen, in his role as Mr. Darcy, is distressingly wooden (although always very pretty), Rupert Friend doesn’t have the charm required for Mr. Wickham, and Tom Hollander, although quite good, isn’t nearly funny enough as the dread Mr. Collins.

But with Judi Dench playing Lady Catherine, it’s hard to quibble. This lady can do anything (she once played a fabulous Sally Bowles on the London stage). And it’s fun to see a pre-discovered Carey Mulligan (don’t blink).

In the end, it all comes down to the character of Lizzie. And Ms. Knightley acquits herself extremely well, transmuting the inner fire and steel of Elizabeth Bennet into pure Hollywood charisma.

To be clear, this isn’t the book. In fact it differs from the book in fundamental ways, and this is not the Regency England that Austen knew and wrote about. I suspect she would have been confounded by the sight of lovers meeting alone half dressed and gentlemen wandering into ladies’ bedrooms. And that ampersand in the title is very descriptive, given that many key elements of the novel have simply been dropped.

Yet on its own abbreviated and modernist terms, P&P is a very enjoyable film. But to finally see it, I needed to overcome my own pride and prejudice.

Two step program

From time to time each of us vows to shake off some inconvenient habit or other. For me this has happened on a number of occasions, including an unfortunate tendency to have just “one more” shot of espresso at work.

As the new year approaches, we may resolve to swear off one or more of these habits. The problem isn’t making the resolution, but rather sticking to it.

I have noticed that when trying to walk the virtuous path, I find myself in one of two mental states in the course of a day. Either I am (1) finding it easy, or (2) finding it really, really difficult.

So here’s the thing. When you’re in mental state (1) it’s easy. But when you’re in mental state (2), you’ve got to ask yourself: Isn’t that the problem right there? Anything you crave so desperately is sure to be bad for you.

I mean, who wants to turn into Gollum muttering about his “Precious”? He may have a high polygon count, but that guy is seriously nuts.

The trick is to turn your craving on its head. Use its very intensity as a clear reminder of why you ditched your annoying habit in the first place.

I’ve taken the liberty of creating a handy diagram that replicates my own internal mental process, which I call my “two step program”. For me it has worked like a charm: