When I was six years old, my brother and I would spend hours playing with toy dinosaurs. We could go an entire day, happily making up stories about the T-Rex and Brontosaurus.

We would accompany our little plastic friends as they went on adventures, quarreled and fought, had romances. We were never bored.

When I became older I lost the ability to do this. I now look at those little plastic dinosaurs with fond nostalgia, knowing I can no longer bring them to life with such careless ease.

Now I create computer graphic worlds, implement algorithms, direct projects, script screenplays of lab demos. I have developed so many adult skills that I never had as a child.

Yet I wonder, perhaps all of this creative energy, all of the work of writers, artists, song writers, filmmakers, playwrights, the vast outpouring of culture itself, is actually a kind of compensatory energy.

We all remember, somewhere in the back of our minds, the effortless creativity of our earliest years, and in our hearts we know that we will never again regain those superpowers. So we use our adult minds to construct a simulacrum.

Maybe that is what really drives all of the cultural work we do, all of the planning, creating, inventing. Perhaps it is a kind of prosthesis, the nearest we can come to the magic of our lost childhood.

Ensnare your brides in starch!

I love the question posed by Adrian in his comment on my post the other day: How much does the beauty of a sentence depend on its meaning, and how much is purely a function of rhythm and cadence?

Suppose, for example, we retained only the rhythm and rhyme of some of Shakespeare’s most famous lines, but changed the words. Would they still be beautiful?

He rests on Mars, but never felt marooned.
Could that be Jagger I see performing?
The weighty moth is best to touch.
Ensnare your brides in starch!
How cool is Portal III?

I’m assuming you can deduce the corresponding originals, all taken from the Bard’s plays. Perhaps you can also contribute a few examples of your own. 🙂

The evidence of travel

Sometimes you notice analogies between things that at first seem very disparate. For example, on many long running TV shows, there is a character who is the backbone of the show. The personality of this character is generally more or less predictable and on the nose.

And then there is another character who weaves around this first character in a way that is quirkier and less predictable. Somehow, for reasons you don’t completely understand, you find you can’t take your eyes off of this other character.

This supposedly secondary character is in some ways more important than the titular central character, because he or she represents the dynamic arc, the evidence of travel, the long journey that the audience has been invited to take.

With that in mind, I present the following analogy:

Don Draper is to Peggy Olson as Buffy Summers is to Spike.

I imagine you can think of others.

Jonathan Demme

There is something wonderfully free about the films of Jonathan Demme, who sadly passed away this week. His movies are very different from each other, yet there is a clear theme running through all of them.

It is a theme of soaring spirit. Whether you are watching David Byrne dancing in a big suit, Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington taking on mindless hate, Michelle Pfeiffer struggling for personal freedom in the tackiest world imaginable, or Anthony Hopkins playing an improbably likable monster, you know you are witnessing something special, something wondrously full of life.

After having been a fan of Demme’s work for decades, I finally had the honor of meeting him just a few months ago at a screening at Lincoln Center of his last film. He was very frail — the cancer that would do him in was already quite advanced — but his eyes were still bright and full of delight.

We geeked out together about cinema for a while (of course), and then I invited him to come to our Future Reality Lab to experience shared virtual reality. His eyes lit up, and he said he would love to.

I told him that I was sure he would think of things to do with this new medium that we would never have dreamt of. I am still quite sure I was right about that, but alas, time was not on our side.

Beautiful sentences

Since yesterday’s post was particularly rhythmic, I thought I would take a moment to appreciate the great rhythmic sentences. Sort of the “greatest hits” of beautiful sentences.

We talk about great movies, great plays, great novels. But sometimes a single sentence can stand on its own as a classic for the ages, not merely for its meaning, but also for its cadence.

The very rhythm of some sentences has the power to transport me into another world. That such a thing is possible is a wonderful non-linear quality of our human brain and how it processes language.

Not surprisingly, I find the sentences embedded in poetry to be especially beautiful, but prose sometimes makes the list as well. Some personal favorites of mine: “I dwell in possibility;” “April is the cruelest month;” “Consider the lobster;”, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”

Since I am a native English speaker, I am not properly equipped to evaluate sentences in other languages. But even I can appreciate the beauty of a sentence like “Où sont les neiges d’antan?”

I’m not sure it’s proper to play favorites, but at the moment my favorite English language sentence, for sheer rhythmic elegance, is one that was penned more than 420 years ago: “He jests at scars that never felt a wound.”

That’s amore!

When the moon hits your eye
Like a big pizza pie
That’s amore

When you’re bit on the heel
By an undersea eel
That’s a moray

When it’s Povich you see
With a show on TV
That’s a Maury

When a thin shaft of light
Hits Othello stage right
That’s a Moor ray

When you make cool designs
From two sets of thin lines
That’s a moiré

When your whole native tribe
Has a New Zealand vibe
That’s Maori

When true love’s in the air
Up in Trois-Rivières
That’s amour, eh?

Future conditional, part 3

Spoiler alert: If you have never seen The Matrix, you might not want to read this post.

Continuing from yesterday…

In The Matrix the Oracle tells Neo that he is not “the one”. He has the talent, she says, but he lacks the conviction.

Then she tells him that either he or Morpheus must die. The only way he can save Morpheus is to sacrifice his own life.

But neither part of her prophecy comes true. When Neo realizes this, he is confused. Morpheus then explains that the Oracle tells each person what they need to hear.

In other words, the Oracle did not describe the future to Neo. Rather, she described a future, which she knew would cause him to engage in a set of actions that would lead to a better future.

We see here the vector from A Christmas Carol to The Matrix. In the 156 years between the former and the latter, the use of prophecy in speculative fiction had become far more relative and nuanced.

By 1999, when The Matrix was released, Western culture had completely forsaken the concept of a single immutable future. It was now so thoroughly embracing the principle of a multiplicity of futures that the role of an Oracle had been fundamentally transformed.

We see this now in many contemporary time traveling narratives, including Continuum, Travelers and Frequency.

The voice of the Oracle no longer serves as a messenger of immutable fate. Instead, that voice now functions as a kind of New Age life coach.

Future conditional, part 2

Continuing from yesterday…

At some point in their on-stage conversation, Dean Buonomano asked Ted Chiang why, in his opinion, time travel didn’t emerge as a literary trope until the latter part of the 1800s. Ted Chiang’s answer was very interesting.

He said that through most of human history, the general view was that the future was pre-determined. Therefore, prophecies always came true. No matter how hard Oedipus (or his cultural equivalents) tried to defeat the words of the Oracle, everything he did actually conspired to bring about the very fate he was trying to avoid.

When you think about it, there isn’t much point to time travel as a literary form (except for a few edge cases) if the future is inevitably immutable.

But with modernism a different view began to emerge — one in which we have the power to alter our fates. Although H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine is often considered the first time travel story, Ted Chiang posited that there was an earlier one: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

In that novel the Ghost of Christmas Future, Ted Chiang argued, was actual an Oracle, showing Ebenezer Scrooge the bleak future that awaited him. But then Scrooge asked the Ghost “Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?”

The ghost left the question unanswered, yet Scrooge proceeded to answer the question for himself: He altered his behavior, and thereby altered his fate. For the first time in Western literature, information that came from the future was used to change the future. The literary concept of time travel had begun.

As I heard this, The Matrix was still fresh in my mind from having seen it only a week before. So this new insight led me to regard The Matrix in a different light. More tomorrow.

Future conditional

Last night I attended an event at the Rubin Museum in which Ted Chiang, the author, and Dean Buonomano, the neuroscientist (and author), discussed the nature of time, and our perception of it.

Story of Your Life, the brilliant story that is the basis of the recent film Arrival, is essentially a disquisition on this topic, as well as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, in the form of a science fiction tale. Ted Chiang pointed out, during their fascinating on-stage discussion, that our human perception of time seems to be at odds with a deterministic view of the Universe held by some scientists, including Albert Einstein.

Specifically, we subjectively perceive the possibility of many futures, based on the choices we make from moment to moment. In other words, we think of ourselves as having free will.

Yet in Einstein’s view, all human thought and behavior is simply a manifestation of the Universe playing itself out in a deterministic way. This includes our belief in our own free will.

There is really no contradiction here. We now know enough about quantum physics to be sure that it would be impossible to query the current state of the Universe completely enough to learn what is going to happen in the future. So even if Einstein was right, and the state of the Universe is completely determined throughout all of time, the future is still unknowable, even theoretically, to human beings.

This all came up in the context of a discussion about language. Human natural languages generally have an asymmetric view of past and future embedded deeply within their semantic structure. But would it make sense, on any level, to posit a natural language based on full knowledge of the future? In other words, could there be a natural language in which past and future are semantically equivalent?

I don’t know the answer to that question, but now I’m thinking about it.

Our lab’s first Prime Minister

The Prime Minister of Luxembourg visited our lab this morning. This was our lab’s very first visit by a head of state.

Prime Minister Xavier Bettel is a wonderfully charming man, very gracious, friendly and approachable. He is also extremely interested in technology.

We asked him if he wanted to try our shared Future Reality experience. It was fun to see him jump right in, and order the three ministers in attendance to go in with him.

The four of then proceeded to spend a very happy twenty minutes or so together, drawing in the air and running around the 3D sculptures they were making like little kids. I’m not sure what they were saying when they were together in Future Reality, because they quickly slipped into Luxembourgish, but they were clearly having a good time.

One of my NYU colleagues told the Prime Minister that I had won an Academy Award. I sheepishly deflected the congratulations. “My mom,” I said, “is very proud of that.”

He replied that his mom would be jealous of my mom, because my mom has a son with an Academy Award. I then responded that I’m pretty sure my mom would be jealous of his mom, because his mom has a son who is a Prime Minister.

We may have both been right.