Always two there are

Have you noticed how fantasy universes seem to come in pairs?

For the superhero we have the Marvel Universe and the D.C. Universe. As much as we may want to see Superman square off against the Hulk, or Charles Xavier match wits with Lex Luthor, it’s probably not going to happen any time in the near future.

Similarly, Star Trek and Star Wars may share a film director from time to time, but they clearly exist in very different Universes. That long awaited face-off between Q and Emperor Palpatine is probably not coming soon to a theater near you.

This seems to be a tradition that goes way back. For example, early in the twentieth century you could choose between two major fantasy Universes: Middle Earth or Narnia. J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were friends in real life, and fans of each others’ work, but their visions were strikingly distinct. It would be very interesting to hear Galadriel debate questions of metaphysics with Aslan, but I am not going to hold my breath waiting for it.

Is this recurring pattern of bifurcation merely a coincidence? Or was Yoda onto something?

How it begins

If you issue a travel ban against countries that have no history whatsoever of terrorism against the U.S., you are making it very clear that the ban has nothing to do with terrorism.

So what then is it about?

Hermann Göring wrote the manual on this: If you can get people to follow you on a principle of mindless hate, then you become powerful. The more mindless the hate, the more powerful you become.

And really, how can you get more mindless than a totally nonsensical travel ban on countries whose people have never even once harmed or threatened us?

Oh wait — I know, I know! You arrange it so that Americans with relatives in these countries no longer have the right to claim any meaningful kinship with their overseas grandparents, grandchildren or fiancé.

This is pure genius. Its very crudeness and casual cruelty is the source of its power: You are pointedly — and ostentatiously — “unpersoning” some Americans.

By treating these Americans with such extreme disrespect, you are essentially labeling them “not real Americans”. As an inducement to mindless hate, policies don’t get any more ingenious than this.

I worry that we are just a short step now from our own home-grown version of something we have seen before: First we pin on the yellow stars, then we start loading the trains…

The utopia solution

I very much enjoyed reading the various thoughtful comments on yesterday’s post, and following the links to learn more. There seems to be a consensus that utopia itself cannot sustain a dramatic narrative. It can sustain a polemic (as in Bacon’s New Atlantis), but only because a polemic does not require drama.

So if you’re going to create something with dramatic weight, you either need to threaten the utopia (as, for example, Pandora is threatened), or you need to create a society which believes itself to be utopian, but which the reader sees as dystopian, because its core values are alien to our own. A good example of this might be Star Trek’s The Borg.

Alas, dystopian societies are so much easier for dramatists. They practically write themselves! I find myself reminded of something my friend Luke DuBois told me on the morning of this last November 9: “This is going to be great for art.”

The utopia problem

Any time you want, you can see a sci-fi film about some future dystopia. It’s playing at your local movie theater, it’s on your streaming Netflix account, or Hulu, or wherever else you look.

Dystopias are easy to create stories around. They provide built in social problems, personal struggles, tragedies large and small, tests of human courage. Perfect fodder for storytelling.

But you don’t see many tales set in utopias. Telling a story set in a utopia is a bit like telling a story set in Heaven: If nothing is wrong, how do you build dramatic tension?

Star Trek: The Next Generation tried to convey a sort of utopian vision of a better and more enlightened future. But then they needed to resort to outsized antagonists to mess up the calm utopian order, such as Q and the Borg. So I’m not sure that really counts.

Would there be any way to tell a compelling dramatic tale in a truly utopian setting? If anyone can think of a good example, I’d love to hear about it.

Future conversations with past minds

At some point in the future, we might be able to apply machine learning to analyze the corpus of all of the extant letters or emails written by an individual during their lifetime, to create a sort of imitative avatar. This could give us the capability to (more or less) “converse” with someone long dead.

I don’t claim (or believe) that we could thereby have a substantive conversation with the former Emily Dickinson, Abraham Lincoln, Jane Austen or William Shakespeare, and certainly not receive any original thoughts from those great minds. Yet we might be able to have the sense of what such a conversation would be like, if only on the level of idle chat.

I wonder just how far such a technology could take us in the limit. Suppose we were to extrapolate Moore’s Law way out into the future, positing a computational technology a billion times more powerful than current levels. How long could we comfortably chat with a virtual virtual Virginia Woolf or Sir Andrew Johnson, before the seams in the illusion begin to show?

Why not take a more direct approach?

Today I found myself pondering the astonishing horror show going on in Washington DC right now. I am speaking of Mitch McConnell’s so-called “healthcare” bill.

When I think of the very large number of American children, senior citizens, and people with pre-existing conditions who will needlessly die through loss of access to adequate healthcare if Mitch McConnell’s mean-spirited plan should pass, I find myself asking two questions:

(1) Exactly how many Americans would die each year once Medicaid has been gutted? (2) Just how much money would a few very wealthy Americans (the actual beneficiaries of this plan) thereby save in taxes each year?

Instead of going through such an elaborate song-and-dance, couldn’t we achieve the same result more directly? Why don’t we just let Mitch McConnell kill those people directly? Obviously it wouldn’t be fair to ask one man to personally shoot to death hundreds of thousands of people, so we’ll need to streamline the process.

Perhaps we could supply him with explosives, so he could blow up entire schools to kill the requisite number of young children en masse, with poison gas to exterminate large numbers of old people in group homes, and with plenty of automatic weapons and ammo so he can saunter through our towns and cities while shooting anyone with a pre-existing condition dead in the street.

For every one thousand Americans Mitch McConnell manages to kill, we would each agree to send an agreed-upon amount of money to our wealthiest citizens. If we get the numbers right, we would end up achieving exactly the same result as his proposed bill, but it would all be so much more direct.

On the other hand, maybe it isn’t fair to ask one man to personally exterminate hundreds of thousands of American men, women and children a year. After all, if Mitch McConnell were to fall behind on his daily quota, then our wealthiest citizens wouldn’t end up getting their cash.

And that wouldn’t be fair, would it?

A potential downside of Moore’s Law

It’s pretty wonderful that computers keep getting exponentially better. Sometimes Moore’s Law manifests itself in the form of faster computation, other times in larger storage, or greater communication bandwidth, or smaller size and weight, or lower prices. At any given time, some aspect of our computational world generally moves forward at a steadily exponential rate.

One would think this is an entirely good thing. Yet there is a potential downside. Professional tools may develop and become mature in an era when computation is relatively slow, and then an industry might become stuck with those tools during a later era when computation is much faster.

For example, there is now a very mature computer animation industry optimized for an era when “animation” meant animated films. This has led to a set of tools optimized for linear animation, and for non real-time computation. It has also led to successive generations of animators being trained for linear animation.

This is all well and good if you are making an animated film. But if you are creating a real-time experience such as a computer game, there is a potential mis-match between the real-time experience you are trying to create, and the production tools and animation talent generally available.

In this case, it is possible that a truly disruptive animated medium, such as immersive augmented reality, will force a more fundamental change in how we do animation production. I guess time will tell.

The history of “language”

In yesterday’s post I referred to language — in particular, I referred to people referring to language as “language”.

Latest research suggests that the species homo sapiens is at least 300,000 years old. (1) . It would be reasonable to presume that natural language is therefore much older than that. But when did we evolve a word for “language” in any natural language?

In order for a society to have the concept of a language, as opposed to having the language itself, it might be necessary to encounter another society that does not share their language. It seems a sure bet that once any such two ancient tribes were to encounter each other, a word for language itself would quickly enter their respective vocabularies.

But could such a word evolve in the absence of such an encounter? I wonder whether there is any way to answer this question empirically. Perhaps we would need to find a tribe of people who have remained culturally isolated, and learn their language quickly, before our own presence contaminated that language. Of course a number of such tribes have been encountered in the last two centuries. I wonder whether anyone checked their language for the word “language”.

(1) Callaway, Ewan “Oldest Homo sapiens fossil claim rewrites our species’ history”. Nature, June 7, 2017.


I was asked by a friend whether I am still watching Buffy the Vampire on streaming Netflix. Alas, I replied, Netflix no longer offers Buffy as a streaming option (although you can still rent the series on DVD).

I told my friend that what would really be ideal, since I’ve seen Buffy so many times, would be to just play it from memory. If I could truly internalize the experience, I could just sit in a quiet meditative state and run any episode in my mind, like a movie in my head.

If I could do that, then I could even mix it up a bit. Maybe the third or fourth time through some episode I could enter the scene myself, back Buffy up in a fight against demons, or compare notes with Giles about a particularly fine edition of De Daemonibus.

There are many dystopian implications to a future in which direct neural communication will be possible. But there are also some happy possibilities. For me, the opportunity to dive full-on into the Buffyverse is one of them.