Salt and pepper

There is a constant pull in our hearts between the old and familiar and the new and daring. It’s not that one is better, for to live life is to continually wage a battle between comfort and adventure. In fact, one could argue that either of these opposing principles is meaningless without the other – each forms the yin to the other’s yang. What’s interesting is the way these two forces continually play themselves out in our lives, from the smallest details up to the most significant of life changes.

When you see a horror movie, or an action adventure flick, you are consuming a kind of comfort food. There you are, safe in your movie seat or living room, watching at a safe distance while scary zombie monsters devour the flesh of people on the other side of the screen. Ironically, the scarier the scenario, the greater is the comfort derived from engaging in this transaction. When we enjoy such entertainments, we are reenacting the principle of the campfire, the primal warm place of refuge, where the tribe can gather in comfort, safe from the fearsome lion that roars in the forest beyond the trees.

On a different level, any daring adventure is an assertion of an inherent right to exist. To wander out into the unsafe world, to climb that mountain, sail across that sea, jump from that airplane, is to wage war against the arbitrariness of fate, to wrest control of the underlying existential debate. It is a way of saying “I continue to exist because it is right that I should exist!”

I am not saying that any of these emotions make a lick of sense on a rational level. We’re not talking rationality here. After all, what can you say that rationally justifies your continued existence? From the perspective of the Universe, why is your existence somehow preferable to your non-existence? But on the level of psychological survival, we each feel a deep need – from the time we are small children, barely old enough to walk – to test our safety, to affirm and demonstrate some principle of invulnerability.

This continual need to seek comfort and reassurance from danger and uncertainty is an inherent part of us, a desire deeply embedded in the human psyche. It is the very spice, the salt and pepper, which lends flavor to our time here on this Earth.


Watching a friend draw something on paper today, I was thinking about the big advantage that paper has over electronic media in terms of expressivity, fluidity, subtlety, resolution and sheer sensuous feedback.

Electronic drawing has, of course, only one advantage – perfect undoability. So drawable ePaper doesn’t need to be as good as paper itself to take over, it just needs to be almost as good, to the point where the ability to back up from one’s mistakes makes up the rest of the difference.

Perhaps, sometime further out into the future, with the advent of new technologies of which we cannot currently conceive, other media will achieve a kind of undoability that will change the nature of various other human activities and transactions.

For example, perhaps one day we will achieve eConversation. Remember that foolish thing you said that one time at that party, a moment of stupidity you’ve been spending years regretting? Well, no problem. With eConversation you’ll just be able to hit the UNDO button, and it will never even have happened.

Then of course, with any luck we will go on to invent eWar…



Today a friend of mine told me that her six year old daughter said that when she grows up she wants to either be someone who rescues animals that are in trouble, or else a paleontologist. Both seem like very reasonable choices, but my friend was very impressed and delighted to discover that her six year old daughter actually knows an impressive six syllable word like “paleontologist”, let alone actually knowing what a paleontologist does.

But that got me thinking – “paleontologist” is such a long word, but what about a nice short word like “ontologist”. Wouldn’t it be cool to be a professional ontologist? Imagine if your job was simply to ponder the meaning of existence. I wonder what the actual job description would be. How would you structure your work day? Would there be time off for lunch? And what would qualify as prerequisites for such a position? Is it highly competitive, dog eat dog and all that? And is there an affordable dental plan?

I realize that (as far as I know) I’ve never met a professional ontologist. How many ontologists are there out there, and who do they work for? It would be so ironic, all things considered, if it turned out that they don’t actually exist.

Robot kiss

Recently I received a distinctly surprising email from an old friend – a mass mailing she had sent out to various friends with a request to go to a commercial web site where you could register your own birthday. That way, she would be reminded automatically each year that it was your birthday, and so wouldn’t forget to send you a birthday wish.

Coincidentally, I received this email exactly one day after my actual birthday. So I sent her a reply helpfully pointing out that if I were to register, I would need to wait the maximal amount of time – 364 days – before it would do me any good.

But I also got to thinking about the whole transaction going on here. If I were to register for this site, then I would be the one taking responsibility for my birthday being remembered. In a larger sense, I would be contributing to a cultural shift in which we would all become responsible for registering our own birthdays with each potential well-wisher, so that they could be reminded to honor us.

But wouldn’t this change the meaning of birthday greetings? There would no longer be a concept of “Hey, you’re important to me, so I remembered your birthday.” Instead, if somebody didn’t wish you a happy birthday, they could simply point out that it was your own damned fault for failing to register with their service provider. If you had really cared about your birthday, you would have gone on-line and signed up to be remembered.

The funny thing about all this is the realization that my friend could just as easily have gone on-line on her own and registered the birthdays of the people she cares about, without involving them in the transaction at all. Somehow it seems nicer (assuming that is what one is going for) to ask a friend “Could you remind me again when your birthday is?” rather than to sending out a mass mailing that officially abnegates responsibility – effectively telling your friends that henceforth it will be their fault if their birthday is forgotten.

Perhaps the most delightfully perverse thing about all of this is that my friend was employing the services of an actual company – a commercial enterprise – that seems to exist solely for this purpose. The entire raison d’etre of this company is to promote this weirdly post-modern transformation – the turning of birthday wishes into the mere illusion of birthday wishes.

Perhaps this is one of those sad inevitable consequences of a society going cyber. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, we no longer need to pay attention to each other – we now have machines for that. Why throw somebody a party, or make them a home cooked meal, when you can have your robot do it?

Perhaps, as technology continues to improve, one day soon we will no longer need to go through the time or trouble of old-fashioned expressions of mutual affection.

We can simply teach our robots how to kiss each other.

Hermione on the harmonium

On a street corner by the harbour on the island of Victoria, British Columbia, a man stands every day, dressed up as Darth Vader, and plays his fiddle for tips from passing strangers. Having been in Victoria for the last few days, I’ve had several opportunities to observe this intrepid fiddler from the Dark side.

He stands there for hours, playing his heart out. And I must say, the man plays a mean fiddle. Tourists are variously bemused, fascinated, confused and disoriented. They did not come to Victoria for Star Wars themed performance art. And yet Star Wars themed performance art is what they are getting – gratis.

As I watched this energetic masked musician, in all his ebony black finery, I found myself enjoying the contrast between his utter strangeness and the picturebook backdrop to his performance. All around him was a world of genteel charm, from the magnificent ivy covered walls of the imposing Fairmont Empress Hotel to the lovely boats floating peaceably in the harbour, sun-dappled ripples from the flawless sea reflecting in their pristine hulls.

And in the very midst of this scene of Edenic repose stands the dark Emperor’s minion, Lord Vader himself, scourge of the Universe, fiddling away every day, inventing his own unique brand of sublimely crazy mountain-punk folk art – cannily combining the oddly matched symbols of violence and violins.

I wonder how long this can go on? Will Anakin’s dark music find a challenger? Will a defiant vagrant Obiwan plant himself on the opposite street corner someday soon, and proceed to play the oboe, in defiance of the no doubt evil plans of Senator Palpatine’s musical minion? Will this august Jedi knight be joined by young Master Luke on the lute, striking a chord for the Light side of the Force?

How many Star Wars refuges can crowd into downtown Victoria Harbour, a song in their heart and an instrument in their hand, before the local gentry will begin to take umbrage? Would a full-scale cultural war ensue, an epic battle between the local Chamber of Commerce and the forces of avant garde Comiconical musicianship?

I have no idea. But I wouldn’t be completely surprised if one day we see Spock on the spoons, Spidey on the spinet, or Hermione on the harmonium.

Unusual blue eyes

Today I had a rather long conversation with a man whose eyes are an extremely unusual shade of blue. He was quite intelligent, articulate, and well spoken. The conversation was on various topics of great interest to both of us, and there was indeed much to discuss. And yet, some part of my mind kept focusing on the unusual color of his eyes.

I realize that objectively there is no “there” there – in the immortal words of Gertrude Stein. The color of a man’s irises should not in any way influence one’s perception of his thoughts. Even so, there is something about encountering someone with an unearthly eye color, a fellow human possessed of uniquely shaded irises, that tends to draw your attention, to pull upon you at some deep instinctual level.

As we talked, I found myself pondering the evolutionary forces at work here. Why are we drawn to strange eye colors (as far as I can tell, pretty much everyone is). We are distinctly not drawn to other unusual physical traits, such as three arms, or an unusually small head. And yet eyes of a shade found nowhere else on earth seem to attract.

I have no answers to this riddle, but I do suspect that the underlying mechanism at work here is an important one. In many ways people operate on an instinctive level, much as our Cro Magnon forebears did fifty thousand years ago. I wonder, did a Cro Magnon man, trudging once upon a time through the harsh winters in search of food, ever come upon another Cro Magnon man unusual of eye? And did he stop short, surprised, bemused, curious?

I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.

Social media sites on the Web seem to be all about customizing themselves around your unique individuality. They advertise, essentially, as perfect bespoke cyber-garments, wrapping their shimmering page designs around your wondrous self – a way to promote your every like and dislike, your taste in music, your food/exercise/religious/artistic lifestyle. What is being sold is, of course, a feeling of empowerment, of you – that special individual you – as the very center of the Universe, the ultimate culmination of three billion long years of evolution, the end result of our very galaxy’s majestic spiral formation, of eons of chemical, biological and cultural development, all gradually building toward an inexorable crescendo, a majestic symphony of meaning, of cosmic purpose, of blindingly beautiful symmetry.

Toward this ultimate purpose, countless lesser creatures needed to die their merciless deaths along the way, mere links in an unthinkingly cruel food chain, in a brutal Darwinian war for survival, sacrificed so that the the fittest could pass on their genetic code, could transmit this sublime message to the future, gasping nobly with their last breath like the doomed soldier going to his happy death at Marathon, all for one glorious purpose.

So that you, cyber-citizen, could go on Facebook and proclaim your unique and beautiful self.

But what if all of this is backwards? What if the true purpose of the Web is not to glorify your perfection, not to allow you to go through your day with the self-satisfied smirk of one who has posted the exactly right picture of your cat batting amusingly at the vacuum cleaner?

What if the true purpose of the Web is to make you question things, to put aside childish thoughts?

What if the true purpose of the Web is to force you to become your better self?

Imagine if the Web were like, say, books. Go to your nearest bookstore and you will see shelves lined with tomes that explain, often in alarming detail, how to be your better self – how to lose weight, get richer, make more friends, land a more attractive job/guy/gal/house/pet. Printed media seem to possess a fierce devotion to finding out what is wrong with you, analysing it, breaking it down into its component sordid pieces, then taking you through a twelve-step program, or an encounter group, or a thirty day exercise plan that will change your life. Printed media doesn’t like you the way you are, not one little bit. It wants to make you better – it wants to fix you so that you are good enough for it.

The Web, on the other hand, wants to take you out for a beer and coddle you all night, tell you over pizza that you were right all the time, that she was never good enough for you anyway, that the stupid job you just lost was beneath you in every possible way, and good riddance.

The Web wants to tell you that you actually look better since you stopped dieting and put on all those extra pounds.

But what if the Web were like books. What if it stopped coddling you and starting putting up pages that made you examine your life, pull it all together, and strive to discover the best version of yourself.

Would that be a good thing?

Lens flare

Often when you watch a film you will see lens flare. It’s a peculiarly cinematic effect, and not one that you are likely to see with your own eyes in real life. Other times at the movies, say during an action sequence, you might see what looks like droplets of water or blood splash against the camera lens cover. In a film shot in a cinema verité style such as “Children of Men”, you might see the camera shift focus between foreground and background at odd moments, conveying the impression of a cameraman trying to work out the shot while we watch.

What all of these moments have in common is that they are deliberately placed artificial “mistakes” designed to create an illusion of heightened realism. What’s particularly fascinating about this is that we are clearly not supposed to be thinking about them literally, as in “Oh, somebody is on a set making a Hollywood movie, I just saw the lens flare, and something splashed onto the camera lens cover.” If people were to focus on those thoughts, a major goal of the film would be defeated – the goal of immersing you emotionally into a particular make-believe world.

I think what’s going on here is that we are supposed to think, on a subliminal level, that yes, there is someone behind the camera. Only we’re not supposed to think it’s the filmmaker – we’re supposed to think that it’s a fictional camera operator within the world of the film. By deliberately creating artifacts of a camera’s presence – under carefully controlled circumstances – the filmmakers are diffusing our innate resistance to the inherent unreality of films.

For example, there is something totally absurd about the well-known actor Tom Hanks standing around in what looks like the Vatican, a serious and gritty look on his face, while he faces down terrorists under strange and ominously gloomy lighting. After all, why doesn’t one of those nice older gentlemen dressed like a priest ever speak up and say “Hey, aren’t you that guy from Forrest Gump?” But when water splashes against the camera during a moment of heightened physical action, then the makers of “Angels and Demons” are inviting us in on the joke – making us complicit in our own tacit acceptance of this silly fantasy parading itself as something serious.

In essence, we are being asked to pretend that there is a make-believe world in which an invisible cameraman – a sort of meta-character – is magically taking movies that show us what is going on in this alternate world.

This is a tradition that stretches back to far before the invention of cinema. Shakespeare invites us in on the joke in “Hamlet”, by having his eponymous here stage a play within the play. In “The Tempest” Prospero engages us in philosophical discussion about the unreality of plays, and suggests to us that perhaps we ourselves are inadvertently living our lives within a play, for the temporary amusement of an unseen audience.

Charlotte Bronte is up to similar tricks in “Jane Eyre”. At one point the heroine breaks out of the story entirely to tell us; “Reader, I married him.” This is a remarkable statement. The character – not the author – is speaking directly to you, the person holding the book. Of course you know that the character of Jane Eyre does not actually exist. And yet she has spoken to you directly. The sheer affrontery of this act, and your acquiescence to this affrontery, puts you alongside the author, and makes you complicitous in her fantasy-making enterprise. By keeping the strings of the puppet show in plain sight, Bronte is essentially engaging in the deliberate production of lens flare.

I suspect that she would have made an excellent filmmaker.

Curious criticism

I confess I am very happy that Rio de Janeiro will be hosting the 2016 Olympics. It is a beautiful city that has been sadly neglected in recent decades – this could be just the shot in the arm needed by this cidade maravilhosa to bring it back to its state of glory. In the larger scheme of things, it was obviously a good decision, and the International Olympic Committee recognized that.

One thing about the competition that puzzles me is the criticism from some in the U.S. of our president for flying to Copenhagen and arguing forcefully in favor of our own Chicago as the 2016 host city. When I think about the role of President – or the leader of any nation for that matter – it’s hard to define that office in a way that wouldn’t encourage such a mission. In these difficult economic times, it would have been a significant boon to our nation to have nabbed that prize. By sending our leader, we were putting our best foot forward – such a show of seriousness can only help one’s case.

Of course if he hadn’t gone, there would have been far greater criticism. President Obama would have “owned” the loss: Whatever other factors were involved in the IOC’s decision, if he had turned his back on the process – a bid from his own home city – there would have been consensus that the loss was his fault, for not lending his support. To have failed even to try because the odds were against success would rightly have been judged as a craven decision.

There are so many real things to do discuss in this country. Decisions on Afghanistan, the bank bailout, health care, environmental policy, these are all subjects for legitimate debate. It is important that the administration not get a free pass on any policy issues that affect millions of Americans – and in some cases the rest of the world.

But when the topic at hand is a no-brainer – when the president does something as obviously reasonable as flying to Copenhagen to stand up for our nation’s bid to host the Olympics – there is something peculiarly idiotic about taking him to task for this. It’s as though some critics of the administration are deliberately trying to be perceived as clowns – to destroy their own credibility – when in fact our nation needs them to be taken seriously, so that we can continue to have a serious back and forth on the real issues that face our nation.

Tea ceremony 58

The ruins lie in the sunlight, no longer smoldering. The houses on either side sit silently, dappled by the shifting light through the trees that line the quiet street. A small cloud drifts lazily overhead in the otherwise cloudless blue of the afternoon sky. Somewhere in the far off distance a dog begins to bark, breaking the silence. A car sits in the driveway, facing the blackened heap that used to be a home.

The girl stands at the edge of the driveway, a sorrowful look upon her face. In her left hand she holds a bible. The bible is old and well-worn. She opens it to the place she had marked, and in a soft but steady voice reads from Corinthians 15:

“Behold, I will tell you a mystery; We shall not all sleep but we shall be changed.”

When she is finished, she walks past the car, absently placing the bible on the roof of the car, and continues to walk up to the very edge of the ruins. Gingerly, carefully, she steps through the charred remains of what had once been a house. She is looking down, an intent look upon her face, as though searching for something.

Then, in one graceful movement, she stoops down and picks up a soot covered teapot. It is still somehow intact. She looks down at the pot for a long while, holding it gently by its white porcelain handle. She runs her finger over the smooth surface, slowly and carefully tracing a perfect circle.

Well, almost a perfect circle.