Archive for June, 2018


Wednesday, June 20th, 2018

Saxophonic music reaching up to the Divine
Notes of purest heaven turning water into wine
Saxophonists swaying to the rhythm of the night
Music flying, colors sighing, dancing in the light
Saxophonists singing to the Angels with their sighs
Careful or they’ll melt you with the color of their eyes

Saxophonists playing everything from Bird to Tosca
Swirling round your spirit like the finest Ayahuasca
Saxophonists riffing with a rolling razzmatazz
Worshiping a goddess with the holy name of Jazz
Saxophonists singing to the Angels with their sighs
Careful or they’ll melt you with the color of their eyes

Saving grace

Tuesday, June 19th, 2018

I was exchanging missives today with a dear friend, one whose thoughts invariably inspire me. Our correspondence had meandered into a discussion about how strangely self-destructive we humans can be.

That is indeed a sad thing, and I thought it might be pleasant to at least attempt to put a positive spin on it. So I ended up writing the following:

When faced with any situation in which the stakes seem to be high, people have an unfortunate tendency to do exactly the wrong thing. The upside of this is that it leads to all sorts of great plots for books and plays and movies. Where would literature be without the spectacular ability of people to act like complete idiots?

I wonder whether that counts as a saving grace?

Narrative threads

Monday, June 18th, 2018

Today marks the start of the second cycle of our Future Reality Lab blog. Two weeks ago we agreed that fourteen members of our lab would collectively maintain a daily blog, with each person posting once every two weeks.

Now that everyone has written their first post, I can see several distinct topic threads emerging. Some talk about language, others about telling stories with VR, still others about spatial audio or interactive animated characters or simply the philosophy underlying our Lab’s collective vision for the future.

As each lab member develops their theme, it will be fascinating to observe how these discussions influence one another. In the weeks to come, I look forward to seeing these narrative threads weave together, to create a beautiful fabric of new thoughts and ideas.


Sunday, June 17th, 2018

Because I keep a daily blog, I often find myself, over the course of my day, thinking of ideas for things I might want to write about. For the great majority of these ideas, an hour later I cannot recall them at all. Alas, they have fallen into that great “Pit of Forever Forgotten Fleeting Thoughts” (PFFFT) where they are destined for all eternity to remain.

Sure, I could have taken out a pen and paper and scribbled something down, or grabbed my SmartPhone and dictated my thoughts into it. But depending on where I am and what I am doing, such actions are often not an option.

But one can imagine some variant of augmented reality, perhaps involving wearables and subvocal speech, in which as soon as you get a thought in your head, you can instantly record it. In such a scenario, you could record such transient thoughts without the need for any real task switching that might interrupt whatever you are already doing.

So there is the potential there for many more ideas — the ones that spring spontaneously out of our heads in response to whatever is happening in the moment — to actually make it out into the world. Fewer ideas would end up going PFFFT, and more would end up in the intellectual space between us.

That can’t be a bad thing, can it?

Stories, games, and the hero’s journey

Saturday, June 16th, 2018

It has been said that a culture defines itself by the stories it tells. I was reminded of this last night as I started to watch The Power of Myth, the miniseries from 1988, now on streaming Netflix, in which Bill Moyers interviews Joseph Campbell.

Campbell, who wrote many influential books including “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” discusses his theories about the journey of the archetypal hero found in the mythologies of all cultures. I’m only a bit into the first episode, and already I am hooked.

And it got me thinking again about the relationship between stories and games. Many people use stories centered on a hero’s journey as a cultural and psychological touchstone, whether that hero be Hamlet, Luke Skywalker or Elizabeth Bennet.

Unlike stories, where one can only experience that journey vicariously, computer games allow the player to be the hero, directly making choices that effect the outcome. Yet in the general culture, Gordon Freeman, the Master Chief or Nathan Drake have not enjoyed the outsized recognition of, say, Huckleberry Finn or Emma Bovary or Katniss Everdeen.

One game character in particular, Lara Croft, has certainly entered the consciousness of the larger culture. Yet her outsize visibility is arguably related to the films starring Angelina Jolie, which brings us back to linear narrative.

Theoretically, a medium that allows us to walk the path of the hero’s journey for ourselves should have great power, as compared with a medium that merely asks us to watch. So why do linear narratives seem to be so much more influential than games in this regard?

Suppose we accept as a hypothesis that a culture defines itself through its versions of the hero’s journey. Why do stories of a hero’s journey seem to capture the imagination of the culture more effectively than games on the same theme?

Is this disparity simply due to the newness of the computer game as a cultural medium? And if so, should we expect this imbalance to change over time?

Urban jungle

Friday, June 15th, 2018

I was walking up Fifth Avenue this week, and when I got to around 10th Street I saw this. So I snapped a picture.

It looks a lot like what I saw when I visited the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. Different species of trees, but similar feeling.

It is good to know that there are still places in this urban jungle where you can see something that looks for all the world like, well, a jungle.

The real Mickey Mouse

Thursday, June 14th, 2018

If you were to discover that the person inside the Mickey Mouse costume at Disney World was actually a robot, would that make a difference to you? Would you feel less comfortable with such a non-human “actor” posing for a photo with your child?

I imagine many people would start out by saying “Yes, of course it would make a difference!” When we think we are faced with a real human being, but then find we are dealing with a simulacrum, we tend to feel betrayed, at the very least.

Yet there is a subtlety here. That real live human inside the Mickey Suit is also a simulacrum. He or she has simply been hired to play a gig.

The actor in question does not necessary feel any actual emotional bond with your child. It’s all really a business transaction: A suit is worn, photos are taken, and at the end of the week an actor is paid.

So in this sense, might it not be more honest to have a robot portray Mickey? That would spare everybody involved the oddness of a situation whereby a total stranger goes through the pretense of caring about your child, only for the sake of a paycheck.

I realize this sounds cynical, but I’m not trying to be cynical. I’m genuinely trying to understand a difficult question about human nature:

Do we still prefer interaction with real humans rather than fake humans, even when that interaction is based on deception? And if so, why?

Hollywood news bulletin

Wednesday, June 13th, 2018

Hollywood news bulletin, June 2018:

Audiences often assume that filmmakers use special effects to create the illusion of reality. Which is why this reporter was fascinated to learn, in a tweet this week from the President of the United States, that when Robert De Niro played Jake LaMotta in the film Raging Bull, actual professional boxers were employed to repeatedly slam their powerful gloved fists into Mr. De Niro’s head, rattling his brain and causing lasting brain damage.

It would be interesting to learn what sort of insurance was required to cover such a production decision, given the high probability of permanent tissue damage or even death to the highly paid movie star. So this reporter did a little investigating, to uncover to what extent other Hollywood productions have employed “real life” techniques behind the scenes.

I soon learned that this was not an isolated case. For example, in the film Chinatown, Roman Polanski used a real knife to slice open Jack Nicholson’s nose. Similarly, in preparation for filming Forrest Gump, actor Gary Sinise agreed to have both of his legs amputated (the legs were later re-attached).

Also, in the film The Shape of Water, the male lead was played by a genuine amphibious creature with magical healing powers. Perhaps most surprising of all, this reporter discovered that the actor Chris Hemsworth, the star of Thor, is in real life the actual God of Thunder.

I reached out to Mr. Hemsworth to ask what he thought about the fact that it took the President of the United States to uncover the truth about Hollywood production practices. Unfortunately, the actor was unavailable for comment, as he is currently vacationing on Asgard.

Special places in hell

Tuesday, June 12th, 2018

I don’t usually discuss politics these days. But I was intrigued when White House trade advisor Peter Navarro started a criticism of the Canadian Prime Minister with the words “There is a special place in hell.”

I’m surprised that hell would care about something as mundane as a political speech. One would think that the Eternal Place of Torment operates on a different plane entirely.

Yet suppose the statement is true, and hell actually does care about what people say in their political pronouncements. Does that mean there is a special place in hell for people who make political statements that begin with the words “there is a special place in hell?”

Interesting question, but I feel I need to tread with caution here. What if there is a special place in hell for people who say there is a special place in hell for people who make political statements that begin with the words “there is a special place in hell.”

It may be safer if we avoid the topic entirely. After all, we might stumble upon this special place in hell for people who discuss the recursive nature of special places in hell.

Possibly a sound idea

Monday, June 11th, 2018

One of the more notable performances at the Hear Now Festival was by Marjorie Van Halteren, this year’s Norman Corwin Award winner. She augmented her brilliant live spoken word performance by numerous ambient sound effects that she triggered from her notebook computer.

The effect was spectacular, and it got me thinking. At some point in the near future, when SmartPhones have been supplanted in everyday life by wearables, we will all have the ability to pepper our conversation with interactive sonic landscapes.

Of course this could be very bad, but then a lot of good things start out being very bad, before people really understand them. For example, in the early days of the Web, websites were peppered with flashing banner ads.

Those annoying ads soon went away, mainly because everybody hated them. Web sites still have ads, but now they tend to be unobtrusive — yet still clearly sufficiently effective that you don’t need to pay a fee to use Google.

So, thinking past a possible “annoying sound effects that nobody wants to hear” phase, how might our every day conversation be augmented in an interesting way to a mutually interesting sonic landscape? How might we modulate that landscape in the course of our conversation, as a natural part of our speech?

Maybe those ambient sounds will serve as a sort of sonic equivalent of hand gestures. Maybe we will literally use hand gestures to invoke them.

I don’t know the answers, but I do think this is something worth playing with. It could very well turn out to be a sound idea.