Archive for December, 2021

Doubly obscure

Friday, December 31st, 2021

On this day of all days, which marks the passing of time in a more than usually dramatic way, I was reminded of how culture moves on in surprising ways.

Today I heard a song by Duran Duran, and I was reminded of when the source of their name was one of those deliciously obscure pop cultural factoids. Back when they were one of the biggest bands in the world, true fans knew that they had named themselves after the villain in the 1968 Roger Vadim sci/fi film Barbarella.

Now, among many people, the band Duran Duran itself is an obscure pop cultural factoid. So the full lineage of the term “Duran Duran” is doubly obscure.

There are lots of examples of such doubly obscure pop cultural references. A few might come to your mind while you are reading this. But I wonder whether there are any pop cultural references that are triply obscure .

Reality filter

Thursday, December 30th, 2021

Suppose there were a pair of glasses that you could put on to visually or sonically transform the world around you. Let’s also suppose that those glasses were as affordable as a smart phone.

What sorts of choices might people make, when taking advantage of those transformations? Would we turn the world around us into a theme park? Would we change the appearance or voices of people we’re talking to?

In principle, you could do anything with a reality filter. But in practice, certain choices will prove popular and others less so.

I suspect that people won’t choose any transformation of their perceived reality that would interfere with their own EQ (emotional intelligence quotient). It’s important to us, as social beings, to be able to “read” other people.

If anything, I suspect we will start to see apps that enhance your ability to figure out what is really going on with the people you are talking to. And that is going to have all sorts of implications for social interactions and acceptable cultural protocols.

Useful mistakes

Wednesday, December 29th, 2021

As I do research, sometimes I get things right, and sometimes I get things wrong. It’s always gratifying when I get things right.

But when things go wrong, I sometimes learn more. Because I am forced to ask why did it go wrong?

And generally that gives me an insight that I didn’t have before. Hitting an unexpected wall forces me out of my comfort zone, which sometimes leads to new ways of thinking about the problem.

And that can be even more productive, in the long run, than getting it right would have been.

Fungible

Tuesday, December 28th, 2021

There are some words that don’t really get noticed by many people, until something changes. Then they get noticed a lot.

One of the words that has recently gone through this transition is “fungible”. This is mainly because of the rise of the NFT, or “Non-Fungible Token”.

People are becoming more aware of the dangers of living in an increasingly virtual world. One of those dangers is that somebody else might control the rules of the world you live in. And then it is a world in which you are, essentially, fungible.

Hence the rise of Blockchain and NFTs. These are digital means of taking control of anything you value in the digital world, without needing to rely on a large profit-driven corporation.

So now we all get to use words like “fungible”, a cool word that used to be neglected. And that can’t be bad.

Biopics and reality

Monday, December 27th, 2021

Biopics bear an uneasy relationship to the truth. On the one hand, they are based on real people, who actually lived. On the other hand, their primary goal is to entertain.

Because they are based on truth, biopics will inevitably give an impression of their subject which people will conflate with the real things. Yet because they are a intended as entertainment, they will invariably present a picture that is false in numerous ways.

So where does the creator’s responsibility lie here? Should truth be respected, or ignored, and to what degree?

I would argue that the most responsible course of action, given the inherent contradiction here, is to veer ostentatiously away from reality. Creating the illusion of being “faithful to truth” in a biopic is a recipe for ethical disaster.

For example, the 2014 biopic some years back of Alan Turing, The Imitation Game, seriously betrayed its subject. None of the science is accurate, and Turing’s contribution to the war effort, as well as the contributions of others, are grossly misrepresented.

For the most part I can live with the incredible number of historical inaccuracies in that film. It is, after all, a work of fiction. Caveat emptor.

But one fictional insertion drives me crazy. The filmmakers added a subplot in which Turing was blackmailed by a Russian agent, who threatened to expose Turing’s homosexuality, should he reveal the agent’s existence. In the movie, Turing does not report the agent.

That never happened, and nothing like it ever happened. Whatever the intention, the effect was to turn a real life hero into a traitor, and to continue, into our modern era, the ugly smear of “homosexuals are security risks”.

The veneer of “authenticity” of the presentation leads the viewer to think that care was taken to get the facts right. The net effect is a serious betrayal of an important historical figure.

On the other hand, the recent series Dickinson got it right, by making it obvious that the title character could not possibly be a faithful representation of the great poet.

By inserting completely impossible modern flourishes into the telling, the creators are cluing us in that we need to take everything with a grain of salt. Biopics are not reality, they are reminding us, but they can serve as inspiration, and can lead us to learn more, on our own, about the real thing.

That seems a lot more responsible to me.

The idea of movies

Sunday, December 26th, 2021

I recently watched a theatrical version of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas. Carol”. One particular moment jumped out at me.

The Ghost of Christmas past is showing Ebenezer Scrooge scenes from Scrooge’s own personal history. Events are taking place all around them, as though real.

At some point, Scrooge tries to talk with somebody in the scene around them. The next moment the ghost tells him “These are but shadows of the things that have been. They have no consciousness of us.”

What this tells me is that, in essence, Dickens came up with the idea of movies by 1847, long before Edison. It wasn’t a technological enablement, but it was a mature conceptual understanding of the power of a medium that did not yet exist.

Webb page

Saturday, December 25th, 2021

James Webb was a key figure in the exploration of our outer Universe. In the 1960s, when he was the head of NASA, he played as large a role as anyone in helping humans to explore the outer reaches of our reality.

How fitting that the new telescope launched today, the most powerful in human history, is named for him.

Jimmy Webb is a key figure in our exploration of our inner Universe. Since the 1960s, when he started he phenomenal career as one of our greatest songwriters, he has played as large a role as anyone in helping humans to explore the inner reaches of our reality.

So in honor of the launching of the James Webb Space Telescope, here are some salient words from Jimmy Webb:


See her how she flies
Golden sails across the sky
Close enough to touch
But careful if you try
Though she looks as warm as gold
The moon’s a harsh mistress
The moon can be so cold
Once the sun did shine
Lord, it felt so fine
The moon a phantom rose
Through the mountains and the pines
And then the darkness fell
And the moon’s a harsh mistress
It’s so hard to love her well
I fell out of her eyes
I fell out of her heart
I fell down on my face
Yes, I did, and I, I tripped and I missed my star
God, I fell and I fell alone, I fell alone
And the moon’s a harsh mistress
And the sky is made of stone
The moon’s a harsh mistress
She’s hard to call your own

T-minus one day

Friday, December 24th, 2021

Only one day left to launch. When the launch is complete, our collective eyes will be open to seeing the Universe in a whole new way.

I am so excited!

We tell ourselves stories in order to live

Thursday, December 23rd, 2021

I was very sad to read of the passing of Joan Didion. She is long been one of my cultural heroes, and I know that I am far from alone in this opinion.

I am sure that I have not read all of her nonfiction, so today I bought the five book comprehensive collection of her essays: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

I look forward to it. Great reading by a warm fire for the winter holidays.

First Site

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2021

In 1992, Batman Returns was the hot summer movie. Everybody wanted to see Tim Burton’s sequel to his 1989 blockbuster smash.

It was also the first time I saw a URL splashed across a billboard in public. Right under a giant poster for the film, I saw “http://www.batmanreturns.com”.

What was odd was that this a full year before even most geeky people were using a Web browser (the Mosaic browser, to be precise). So the ad was an entirely conceptual play — a nod to the idea of the Web, before there actually was a Web that the public could readily access.

I wonder whether that will start to happen with newer forms of public interfaces. With all the recent talk about implementing Neil Stephenson’s Metaverse, we don’t quite yet have the equivalent of Mosaic for VR — an easily accessible place where anyone can go for free, with no strings attached, to explore a rapidly growing world of community-built information.

Maybe we will know that place has arrived when major movies start advertising in it. And maybe that will start to happen about a year before you can actually go there.