Archive for December, 2014

An odd little stretch of time

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014

A year is an odd little stretch of time. To the Universe — that is, to any part of the Universe other than we humans — it is pretty meaningless. Just a bit of time that starts at some particular moment and ends at some other particular moment about thirty one million seconds later.

But we measure our lives by those funny little stretches of time. We really can’t help it. Like the scorpion says in The Crying Game, it’s in our nature.

For me this has been a year of unexpected changes, both large and small. As usual, the big events were not the whole show. Many things have changed gradually, the kind of change that can be so difficult to see while it is happening.

And that is why having so obvious marker as a year can be useful. We can stand on the high cliff of a December 31 (which is high only because we choose to name it so), and look back on that previous peak from twelve months before.

When we do this, what may have become lost in the more obvious and mundane moments can, all at once, jump out at us, and we see, with renewed clarity, the progress of our own lives.

A Game of A Game of A Game of Thrones

Tuesday, December 30th, 2014

I was very happy with the emails I got from friends with clever solutions to yesterday’s puzzle.

One thing it might be useful to add for those who really want a challenge: If you count my game of Go example (“A Game of Stones”) as one of the games, then there is at least one solution with nineteen unique answers, so that any given title appears only once. Although with that added constraint, a few of the answers are very tricky.

Maybe there is also a meta version of this game. Instead of starting with “A Game of Thrones”, we can start with the idea of titles that cry out for variation.

For example, instead of requiring a rhyme for the last word, we might generalize the pattern, perhaps finding another real title with a parallel grammatical construction. Under this particular rule, “The Hunt for Red October” would lead to:

“The Importance of Being Earnest”
“The Secret of Santa Vittoria”
“The Taking of Pelham 123”
“The Bridge over the River Kwai”

I suspect there are a lot more titles of the form “The NOUN PREPOSITION NOUN-MODIFIER NOUN”. Maybe you can think of some. :-)

A Game of A Game of Thrones

Monday, December 29th, 2014

A Game of Thrones has become such a powerful cultural meme that it is tempting to look for ways to extend the concept. I was talking with friends about this just yesterday.

We thought it might be fun to vary the title itself, and see where that leads. For example, you could describe the ancient Chinese game of Go as A Game of Stones.

Below are some other possible games (some real, some not). See if you can find an apt title for each. In every case, your proposed title should be of the form “A Game of ______“, where “______” is a word that rhymes with “Thrones”.

Feel free to leave a comment saying how many you figured out, but don’t reveal the answers — that would ruin it for others. Getting thirteen right is good. Getting all eighteen is brilliant! My answers will be coming in a few days, after people have had a chance to play.

  • Angry Birds
  • Appalachian bake-off
  • Atari’s Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • Being John Malkovich for PlayStation
  • British bake-off
  • Buddhist wit
  • Diva Wars: Collins versus Crawford
  • Enacting urban planning laws
  • Flying robots
  • Grave robbing
  • Guitar Hero
  • Knife sharpening contest
  • Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 1
  • Nintendo’s Stealth Inc 2
  • Paying for college
  • Pornography
  • Redirecting traffic
  • This puzzle

A highly collaborative medium

Sunday, December 28th, 2014

Every once in a while, when I see a film I like, I go onto IMDB and find out who wrote or directed it. And then I will go on a journey, systematically watching one film after another written or directed by that person.

The results have been fascinating, and decidedly mixed. When you go through such an exercise, you quickly learn what a highly collaborative medium is the cinema. Rarely can you see the sensibility of a single person shining through. Yes, in a few cases, a creator gets to make the movie they intended to make.

And a small number of auteur film-makers — Woody Allen is one example that comes to mind — have managed to grab control and keep it. But it become all too apparent that for most commercial releases, many hands have been laid upon the film before the public gets to see it.

I guess this makes sense. Millions of dollars are involved in the making of even a modest budget film. If it’s your money that’s being spent, you might find it difficult to keep your thoughts about the ongoing production to yourself.

Perhaps evolving technologies might change that. Maybe one day the costs of filmmaking will go down so drastically that production of a feature length film might become truly manageable by a single individual — the way writing a novel is today.

When that happens, perhaps more unique and individual voices will emerge.

Structural parallels

Saturday, December 27th, 2014

Have you ever noticed how every once in a while something in one sphere of thought reminds you of something in a completely different sphere of thought? Maybe there are certain organizational structures that nature — or perhaps human nature — is always drawn to, and destined to replicate.

For example, I was thinking recently about the battle back in the day between Apple and Microsoft over the graphic user interface, the mouse, windows, pulldown menus, and all of those related concepts, and the irony that both companies had both actually “borrowed” these ideas from the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center — where all those powerful concepts had really been put together for the first time.

And I was thinking that this precise structure — A and B battling, in a very public way, for ownership of a great concept, when the concept was actually originated by C — had occurred somewhere before. The paradigm seemed so familiar, yet I couldn’t quite place it.

And then I had it.

It was Tolkien and George Lucas, each famously creating the wise advisor to a young hero on a quest. You know, the old man with a staff, a long robe and a white beard, who has great powers over the elements themselves. In the case of Tolkien, this was Gandalf, mentor to the young hero Frodo Baggins. For Lucas, it was Obi Wan Kenobi, and his disciple was Luke Skywalker.

So those are our A and B — the Apple and Microsoft of this tale, if you will. And C, of course — the Xerox PARC of the story — is obvious.

High tech / low tech

Friday, December 26th, 2014

Today I got into an interesting discussion with a friend about research tools. It wasn’t one of those discussions that has a right or wrong answer, more of a mapping out of the space.

We were discussing the dichotomy between high tech tools — very expensive and high maintainance equipment that only a few people can have access to — versus lower-fidelity DIY tools that are widely available to millions of people.

What you can do with lower tech DIY tools — for example, capturing human movement with the Microsoft Kinect, or composing music on a low cost MIDI keyboard, or shooting a movie with your phone’s camera — can be limiting. Results can be noisy and/or inaccurate, the instrument introduces its own artifacts, and your aesthetic ends up being heavily influenced by the limitations of your tools.

On the other hand, whatever interfaces you build become immediately available to millions of other people, so you get the full power of the Crowd. We have seen this phenomenon in full swing in the rise, over the last six years, of YouTube videos. Relatively inexpensive video capture equipment has been used to create all sorts of exciting and innovative work (in addition to a lot of silliness — but there’s nothing wrong with that).

On the other hand, if you capture movement with a high quality motion capture facility, or compose your music on a Steinway Grand, or film with a top of the line digital video recorder, you can work through subtleties of expression that a lower fidelity instrument would not be able to help you with. The down side, of course, is that these tools are expensive, so they are available to only a select few.

Therefore, alas, in any given generation these top of the line tools may never be discovered by very talented potential creators.

Fortunately, this is a case where advancing technology often comes to our rescue. The highly expensive and therefore exclusive creative instruments of today often become the consumer level tools of tomorrow. Which means that new aesthetic revolutions are always just around the corner.


Thursday, December 25th, 2014

I am visiting friends, and we have decided to spend the entire day of December 25 cooking, eating, watching “Game of Thrones” and hanging out. The latter mostly means discussing various random topics of philosophical interest.

At some point our discussion wandered to the question of Modernism. We spent a while going around on this topic before realizing that we couldn’t agree on what Modernism is.

So at some point somebody looked it up on the Wikipedia. And it turns out that the word has multiple and decidedly contradictory meanings. Some have used it as a synonym for the technological progress we associate with the modern era, the sort of “technology makes things better” narrative of human progress that one hears these days from Google, Apple, etc.

Others have used it in a nearly opposite sense — as a cynical view of the modern condition that arose in reaction to the horrors of World War I, horrors which were very much enabled by advancing technology.

So it seems that the word “Modernism” itself has no agreed upon meaning. It’s enough to make one question whether words themselves can have reliable meanings.

How postmodern!

How can we be so unhappy, when we have such beautiful dreams?

Wednesday, December 24th, 2014

I mark the sad possing of the great Joe Cocker with a link to my favorite of all his recordings, Jimmy Webb’s classic song “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”.

Some of you will also recognize this as the title of a great novel by Robert Heinlein. The Heinlein story and the Webb song are, on their face, very different. What they share is a sense of the difference between the ideal reality we wish for, and the harsh reality that is.

This mournful longing for something better that seems to elude our grasp, is a theme that runs through so many songs. You can hear it in Judy Garland’s rendition of the Arlen/Harberg song “Somewhere over the Rainbow”, in Tom Waits’ “Time”, in so many of the songs of Leonard Cohen.

They all seek the answer to the same question — a question we all ask ourselves from time to time: How can we be so unhappy, when we have such beautiful dreams?

But nobody ever did it better than Joe Cocker, singing this immortal Jimmy Webb tune.

Rethinking airports

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2014

I am writing this from LaGuardia Airport in New York City. This being the holiday season, the terminal is filled with travelers waiting patiently — or in some cases not so patiently — to get from one place to another.

A surprisingly large number of people are simply standing around, just staring at the LCD monitors showing when their plane might depart. In some cases they stand there a very long time, knowing full well that their plane isn’t scheduled to arrive for another hour or more.

I find myself questioning the approach we take to airport design, on a fundamental level. If you know that a significant portion of your population will be spending hours of their lives in a location, why design it to be such an “in between” place?

It seems to me that airports could be thought of differently. Why not make it a place for constructive engagement? An airport could contain a library, or a problem-solving place, or a focus for community discussion or other activities.

I suspect that with a little imagination, the entire experience could be turned on its head, promoted from an oddly liminal zone where chunks of life are largely wasted, to a destination in its own right, where people can go to be fully engaged with each other and with their own lives.

Loving the future

Monday, December 22nd, 2014

This evening at a coffee shop we were discussing virtual reality. I was excited because I’ve just bought the Samsung Gear VR, which was developed in partnership with Oculus Rift. I was explaining how if you hook the Gear VR headset up to a Galaxy Note 4 smart-phone (I’m getting one of those too), you get a really good quality virtual experience, considering how little it all costs.

Then the waiter came over. He told us that he’d overheard parts of our conversation, and he’d realized we were talking about virtual reality. He said that he has tried the Oculus Rift dev kits 1 and 2, and we compared notes about those. I told him that the Gear VR provides a much more polished experience.

Then he proclaimed, with real enthusiasm, “I love the future!” It turns out that he is an engineering student, and he is incredibly excited about all of the new technologies coming out in support of virtual and augmented reality.

“But what about the possibilities for things to go wrong?” my friend asked him.

The waiter was undeterred. He acknowledged that any technology can be used for both good and bad purposes, but he was very confident that these new capabilities would make the world a better place.

That is a wonderful thought, isn’t it?

And it might even be true.