What makes America beautiful?

For the last two days I have been thinking long and hard about what it is about America that makes me the most proud. Can we look past our short-term failures as a nation, to ask why we are a wonderful and noble experiment that helps to make this world a better place?

And I realized that everything I love about this country was best summed up by Emma Lazarus, within her poem “The New Colossus”, at the base of the Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

If I needed one reason to show that America is something glorious, it would be this: That sometimes — not always, but sometimes — our nation remembers to live up to that beautiful idea.

It’s complicated

I guess I am supposed to weigh in here on the results of yesterday’s election. But it’s not that simple. In fact, it’s complicated.

I am not sure that anybody fully expected this — possibly the largest protest vote in U.S. history. But now that it has happened, we need to figure out the best path to the future.

And make no mistake about it: There is always a path to the future.

The Butcher’s Tale

Your child is lying on the operating room table, your beautiful precious child. Brain surgery is needed, you are told, but you are not sure you can trust the surgeon.

She is secretive, it has been said, and she is given money by rich friends, sometimes merely for giving speeches about neuroscience. Yet she has spent decades studying her profession, and she knows that the proper use of a scalpel is both delicate and complex.

She has become adept, through many years of practice, at dealing with lesions, aneurysms, abscesses and hematoma. Whatever you think of her personally, you realize her knowledge of this difficult and subtle craft is both extensive and practical.

But then at the door appears a butcher of some renown. He is finely dressed, for he has done very well indeed in his trade. You are immediately taken by the man’s sheer boldness and confidence. In your moment of grief and indecision, you stare up at him dumbly, awed by his arrogant swagger and air of self-possession.

“I alone can fix it,” he declares, and you let him in the door. As he sweeps confidently past you into the operating theater, you realize that he holds in his hand not a scalpel, but a butcher’s knife.

“Yes, of course,” you say to yourself, “I must have known that. After all, he said he was a butcher.” But by then he is already at the table.

The great man has no use for precision or accuracy, for arcane learning from books, for the mundane niceties of neuroscience. Before you know it, he has already plunged his butcher’s knife deep into your child’s brain, and has begun to slice away the parts he deems useless, or that simply bore him.

You rush to the table, as in a terrible dream, trying vainly to stop the dripping red flow that has already begun to pool onto the floor, and you recall that the man had never claimed to be an actual brain surgeon. He’d merely said that he was a successful butcher.

You realize that this was not his fault, it was yours. As you gaze down at your hands, now covered with the blood of your dying child, you remember that it was you who opened the door, it was you who let the butcher in.

In the balance

Our country, and in some sense the state of the world, is hanging in the balance. Much depends on what happens tomorrow.

Even if you buy into every nutty conspiracy theory against Hillary Clinton that Fox News loudly repeats — and then very quietly retracts — there is still no comparison between the two candidates. It’s not mainly that Donald Trump is a bully, or a narcissist, or a proud mysogynist, or says deeply insulting and offensive things about blacks, Jews, hispanics, Muslims, and many other Americans.

It’s mainly the fact that he is completely unqualified for the job. He has no experience or knowledge of foreign policy, of economic policy, of law or even the U.S. Constitution — except, of course, for his cherished Article XII.

The moment Trump gets into the White House, Vladimir Putin will begin to manipulate him into starting an ill-conceived war somewhere. Trump will take the bait, because he won’t have the slightest clue he is being manipulated. Things will work out very well for the Russian strongman, but very badly for the rest of the world, including the United States.

If you were a Bernie Sanders supporter, if you don’t agree with Hillary Clinton on all the issues, if you are reading this blog and are wavering, please think about what’s at stake here. Don’t sit this one out. Don’t for a third party candidate.

Even if Clinton wins tomorrow, if she does not win by a decisive margin, or if the Senate stays in Republican hands, this ugliness will continue. Without a clear mandate at the polls, don’t expect a ninth Supreme Court justice any time soon. The GOP leadership has made it clear that it is not interested in playing by the rules.

If you think Trump, and all he stands for, is a horror show, then don’t kid yourself. Neglecting to cast a vote tomorrow, or throwing your vote away on a third party candidate, is effectively a vote for Donald Trump.

Lost in translation

Today I was explaining to someone how difficult it can be for me to navigate the differences between languages. To illustrate, I ended up describing a bus ride I once took in Brazil from Rio de Janeiro to Sao Paulo.

It was quite a long trip, so along the way the bus driver stopped at a rest stop, which contained a little snack bar, a rest room, etc. I found myself running into a surprising number of language barriers just trying to use the rest room.

First off, to enter the rest room, I needed to go through a door labeled with a word which is pronounced “Push”. In Portuguese, this word means “Pull”.

Then I needed to decide exactly which restroom to enter. One of the doors had a big “M” on the door. It turned out that the “M” stood for “Mulheres”, which is Portuguese for “Women”.

Once inside, I needed to figure out which tap was for hot water and which was for cold water. Just like in the U.S., one of the taps had a big letter “C” on it. Except in Portuguese, the “C” stands for “Calore”, which means “Hot”.

I wonder whether Brazilians visiting the U.S. for the first time are as confused about our signage as I was about theirs.

Reality sliders

When I am in a work crunch — which I am these days — one of the ways I deal with the pressure is to watch TV shows. Fortunately, Netflix makes this easy.

Since I don’t particularly care which show I am watching, as long as it has decent writing, and having exhausted, for the moment, Jennifer Jones and Stranger Things, I find myself randomly ping ponging between lots of offerings on tap, including Luke Cage, iZombie, Galavant, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Gotham, Grace and Frankie, Penny Dreadful and of course Buffy — always Buffy — among others.

When you are watching so many shows, you start to notice that each one is actually about a very well-defined reality. In a sense, that specific defining reality is the real point of the show. Each TV series possesses an exact mix of knowing humor, sardonic ruefulness, tragedy, romance, absurdity, kindness and cruelty, hopefulness and despair.

It’s almost as though there is a giant bank of sliders, labeled with every human emotional quality. I can picture the writers and show runners working through the exact settings of those sliders together, before a single script has been written.

Once the show if off and running, that particular setting of reality sliders becomes a sort of bible. If you write for the show, whatever you write needs to conform to that bible.

Of course there are exceptions. Just as The Beatles evolved from the Mersey Beat of their early days to something far more daring and interesting, some TV shows manage to break free of the shallow moorings of their first season and transition into a far deeper and more powerful reality.

Like, for instance, Buffy.

Barranquilla, continued

My blog post yesterday somewhat cryptically referred to Barranquilla. The exegesis of that post was a long and fascinating conversation I had with somebody who comes from that town in Colombia.

Barranquilla is on the northwest coast of the South American continent, and is known and celebrated for its elaborate and flamboyant Carnival. It was fascinating to meet somebody from this part of the world, and to compare and contrast our culture of New York with an equatorial culture.

I came away with a renewed appreciation for the wonderful diversity of this world of ours, and how much we can learn from the people we encounter. One thing I love about New York is the way you get to meet people from different parts of the world, and how thoroughly we all accept that we are all different yet all the same.

I sincerely hope that our country is not about to enter a dark time of xenophobia, the sort of fearfully cowering and angrily defensive distrust of the outside world that Donald Trump has been peddling.

We are better than that. We must be better than that.

It’s not enough that we are interested in them

I gave a guest lecture for a class yesterday, during which I demonstrated interactions with some of my procedurally animated characters. Later in the day I received an email from a student saying that he had spent the next several hours pondering something I had said during that demo:

“It’s not enough that we are interested in them, they have to be interested in us.”

I think this is, in fact, the core essence of interactive animated characters. We are fascinated by them because they seem to be aware of us, and to respond back to us — they seem to recognize us.

In a way, we see such characters as a kind of mirror, and we experience a sort of blurring of identity. In some profound way, they become us, and we become them.

Newly emerging VR and AR technologies are allowing such characters to break free of the screen, and to inhabit the world around us. When they do, this feeling of shared identity will become even more powerful and profound.

Twin effects

Today I saw a pair of identical twins walking up Broadway. And in response to this sight I had the oddest thought.

Suppose I wanted to create a science fiction film featuring a race of identical looking people. It would be so much easier if my lead actor or actress was actually a pair of identical twins. That way, I would have no need of expensive high quality matte effects.

If I were careful about how I set up my shots, making sure that no more than two characters were overlapping on the screen at the same time — not a very challenging constraint — then all of the other compositing could be done on the cheap, since people would never be overlapping in the shot

Scenes that would otherwise be difficult or enormously complex to achieve would become relatively straightfoward to shoot and composite together. That would allow more focus on story, character development, all the good stuff.

The use of identical twins to portray a single character is far from a new concept. Among the more famous examples are the Olsen twins playing Michelle Tanner on Full House, and the occasional use of Nicholas Brendon’s identical twin brother Kelly Donovan in some scenes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Yet I’m not sure anybody has ever employed a pair of identical twins as a means to create the illusion of an entire race of identical people.

Or have they?