Large class

This semester I’m teaching a class with about seventy students. It happens to be about a subject I love — computer graphics. We are having a glorious time. Every week we get to explore different aspects of an endlessly fascinating subject, and the students get a chance to dive in and make stuff — original stuff.

This evening I had a conversation with some administrators from our department. They were surprised at the large size of my class, and they were even more surprised that I’m having so much fun. “Some of our faculty,” one administrator said, “believe that twenty students in their class are already too many.”

I heard this, and on some level I even processed it. But frankly, I couldn’t take it in on an emotional level. When you are preaching your own personal religion, talking about the most glorious and beautiful thing you know to people who are ready to go there with you, why in the world would you not welcome in one more fellow traveler?

I mean, isn’t this sort of thing exactly why we are here on this earth in the first place?

Poetry as a second language

I was putting together some simple procedural sketches for games to help kids learn to read, and while showing them to some colleagues we got onto the subject of poetry. Kids love rhymes, and poems have a kind of metrical structure to them, which might make them, in some ways, more useful for learning to read than straight prose.

Of course this is the central conceit behind Theodore Geisel’s Cat in the Hat and other Dr. Seuss stories. When I was a kid I remember thinking that those stories were far cooler in every way than boring old Fun with Dick and Jane.

Now I’m playing around with some ideas for a computer game where the goal would be to construct poems in various ways, such as by arranging objects on a screen. Playing such a game might also be a very nice way to study and practice a second language.


Oddity in fiction needs to be handled properly. You can’t just throw it in and expect an audience to respond. It needs to be correctly situated.

For example, the wonderfully inventive screenplay by Jules Feiffer for Robert Altman’s Popeye had gloriously weird and wonderful characters, yet audiences did not respond. Something similar happened in John Patrick Shanley’s Joe Versus the Volcano.

In contrast, Tim Burton’s most beloved films, such as Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare before Christmas, made a point of contrasting all of the wonderful oddness with nominal normalcy. The audience was placed in the position of the oddballs, being stared at by the “normals”, and realizing that normal is relative.

The master of this is Joss Whedon. It is a given in the Buffyverse that only Buffy the vampire slayer and her loser friends are capable of saving the world. Anyone who is normal, popular or well adjusted is completely useless. Without the help of Sunnydale’s freaks and geeks, they would all be vampire meat.

Whedon takes this even farther in Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. In this upside-down story world, you can’t be “us” unless you are “them”. The only sympathetic character is the evil genius intent on world destruction. He is beloved by audiences, who find themselves booing and hissing the hero who tries to stop him.

It’s like Richard III retold as Hamlet. Except with better songs.

Future present perfect

The present perfect tense allows us to say things like “She has been department chair for two months”, or “I’ve known him for ten years.”

We often see such statements in resumés and biographies. And every time the present perfect is used, the situation it describes is poised to go out of date by the next year or month or day or hour or minute.

Since so much modern text is digital, designed to be seen on-line or in other electronic form, why don’t we have a way of dealing with this?

For example, on-line documents could contain a since tag, enabling statements like “She has been department chair for XXX months” to remain up to date:

“She has been department chair for <since start=”november 2012″ unit=”month”>.”
“I’ve known him for <since start=”2002″ unit=”year”>.”


One of the banes of representative democracy is the practice of gerrymandering — drawing political districts in bizarre ways so as to concentrate the political power of a single party.

It occurs to me that the internet has been performing a bit of its own gerrymandering. It used to be that people with similar political affiliations in different parts of a country (say, New York and Seattle), had only a limited sense of shared community. In order to hang out with far flung members of your political tribe, you needed to get on an airplane and go there.

Now of course we have many and diverse electronic fora that allow us to build and fortify these political coalitions. People can spend their time “hanging out” with likeminded citizens whilst collectively tuning out the voices of those with whom they disagree. For right and left alike, political discourse starts to become ever more of an echo chamber, reflecting back one’s own preconceived ideas.

I wonder whether, in a supreme irony, the very ease of communication afforded by the internet has led to the extreme polarization we’ve recently seen in our country. By creating better bridges of communication that transcend geography, we may have enabled a new form of gerrymandering.

The Artist

Finally saw The Artist, and was amazed and delighted by how successfully the idiom of the silent film can work for a modern audience, when created with an understanding of the sensibility of that audience. And the sheer depth and beauty of the black and white cinematography!

Silent films are so very physical. The faces and bodies of the actors, and the way the light and camera placement capture those faces and bodies, carry the weight of the emotion of characters and their relationships. There’s just something so wonderfully primal about it, this direct expression of mind through face and body, without the distraction of all those words.

That very physicality makes me wonder — perhaps somebody should try to make a silent 3D movie. I’ll bet the two forms would work splendidly together!

Planting a seed

I was talking with some friends last night about Will Wright’s game Spore. Someone remarked that it wasn’t as successful a game as The SIMS. I responded that Spore may have suffered from being ahead of its time.

“Think about it,” I said. “All of those eight and nine year olds who spent countless hours in 2008 making their own creatures. Those kids were not just being players, passive recipients of entertainment. They were being creators. As those young people hit their teen years, they are going to have much higher expectations of themselves.”

If the seed planted by Will takes root, then Kurt Cobain’s despairing GenX cry of “Here we are now, entertain us,” will be replaced by its opposite. Millennial kids, having tasted the power of creation, having been trusted to exercise their own artistic muse, won’t settle for anything less.

Dive bar

An old friend was passing through NY, and we went for a drink and to catch up. We deliberately chose a complete dive — one of those old dimly lit holes in the wall that smells like stale beer and has old wood tables covered with the scratched graffiti of rebellious generations past. It was so much nicer than going to a proper restaurant, or to one of those hoity-toity wine bars scattered about the city.

It’s a curious irony. People spend so much money to go out to fancy places in Manhattan. Yet choosing a somewhat disreputable place, the kind of place where nobody cares who you are or what you do, can give you far greater value on a psychological level than meeting at some posh locale. A dive bar, by its very nature, is telling you and your friend: “You don’t need to impress us, or worry about us at all. Enjoy hanging out with each other. We’re just here to serve the beer.”

All that, and the beer is cheaper too. 🙂

DC Plans Prequels to Moby-Dick

Watchmen, one of the most influential comic-book works of the last 25 years, is about to yield additional chapters, a plan that has already drawn the outrage of its original author. On Wednesday DC Entertainment is expected to announce that its DC Comics imprint intends to publish seven comic-book mini-series that will continue the stories … But Mr. Moore was unconvinced, saying that the endeavor only weakened the argument that comics were an authentic form of literature. “As far as I know,” he said, “there weren’t that many prequels or sequels to ‘Moby-Dick.’ ” – From an article in the NY Times, Feb 1, 2012

New flash: On Wednesday DC Entertainment is expected to announce that its DC Comics imprint intends to publish seven comic-book mini-series that will continue the stories of the adventurers introduced in Moby-Dick, which was written by Herman Melville.

First published in 1851, Moby-Dick chronicles a group of whale hunters who find they are as powerless to solve their personal problems as they are to catch an elusive great white whale.

The new mini-series, collectively called “Before Moby-Dick” and scheduled to start in the summer, will not be direct sequels to the original, which has been widely praised for its sophisticated storytelling and for its emphatic (if deliberately ambiguous) ending. Instead a new group of writers and illustrators will expand on the back stories of the Pequod crew, like Ahab and Starbuck.

“It’s our responsibility as publishers to find new ways to keep all of these characters relevant,” Dan DiDio and Jim Lee, the co-publishers of DC Entertainment, said in a statement. “After 161 years these are classic characters whose time has come for new stories to be told.”

Complete plans for the series have not been officially announced, but we have been able to learn about a few of the story lines from a source within DC Entertainment who wishes to remain anonymous, due to contract negotiations and commercial tie-ins still in negotiation. Our source reports that the series will include “Call me Ishmael”, about the narrator’s life before the Pequod as an apparently mild-mannered schoolteacher, an identity that was actually a cover for his true mission as a fearless costumed fighter of crime.

Then there is Ahab, whose past as a sea captain was a thin cover for his true identity as “The Whaler”, a fearless costumed fighter of crime. Upon catching evil-doers, the intrepid lone crime-fighter was famous for shouting “To the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee,” after which he would throw a harpoon at the thoroughly confused miscreant.

Starbuck also gets his own series, centering on his earlier life as a young man in Nantucket, where his repeated and comically failed attempts to open a chain of coffee shops served as a convenient cover for his true mission, together with his intrepid wife Mary, as fearless costumed fighters of crime. Their many heroic deeds of crime fighting utilized advanced technology they developed within their secret laboratory on Starbuck Island in the central Pacific. Spielberg has expressed interest in obtaining film rights.

At press time, Herman Melville was unavailable for comment.