Two talks

I gave two talks, one last week and another this week. In the first talk, which was well thought out and coherent, I showed the overarching trajectory of our larger research agenda, with prepared sets of images, polished demos, and a formally arranged sequence of ideas that progressed in logical order.

The second talk was about “all the stuff I didn’t get to talk about in the first talk”. Consequently, that second talk was a bit rag-tag. I dug up some old work, gave some demos, showed a few things I’ve been playing with lately, and generally just winged it, sticking to things I thought would be fun for people to see.

Can you guess which talk turned out better? 🙂

Penny dreadfuls

One time-honored way to allow “the little guy to be the hero” is to make your protagonist an anti-hero. In such stories there is no question of the main characters saving the world. Like most of us, they have their hands full just saving their own souls.

Coincidentally just yesterday I saw the 2010 James Gunn film “Super”, a movie which seemed to polarize people when it came out. Put me firmly in the camp of thumbs up — I happen to love movies that start with some beloved but under examined genre (in this superheroes) and proceed to pick it to pieces by exposing its inherent absurdities. “Super” does that sublimely.

It’s also worth seeing just for Ellen Page’s performance as the most cheerfully enthusiastic psychopath in movie history. And it is also a great example of protagonists as anti-heroes. Speaking of which, as I watched “Super”, I felt there was something familiar about it. That in spite of the apparent insanity of it all, there was a classic structure underlying Gunn’s screenplay.

And then I had it! “Super” is basically “Sweeney Todd”, updated from 1846 to our own post-millienial age: Honest working man loses his beautiful young wife to an evil and powerful villain. Driven mad with grief, he becomes a self-styled avenger against evil, which he unfortunately defines a bit too broadly. Things get really nuts when our hero teams up with a woman even crazier than he is, who doesn’t even have his whole “good versus evil” thing to hold her back. By the end, not everyone gets out alive. The perfect plot for a penny dreadful.

I’m particularly intrigued by the realization that Page’s character of Libby/Boltie is an update of the indomitable Mrs. Lovett. When you think about it, Ellen Page as a reincarnation of the young Angela Lansbury makes perfect sense.

Everyone’s a hero, continued

In my discussion with students yesterday about broadening the concept of who gets to be a hero in on-line games, I ended up invoking two movies: “Saving Private Ryan” and “Lars and the Real Girl”.

Thinking about it afterward, I was struck by the fact that I could make exactly the same thematic point by referring to such wildly different films. Of the students in that discussion, the men in the room had seen “Saving Private Ryan”, and the women had seen “Lars and the Real Girl”. Maybe this is demographically significant. Or maybe we should just make more war movies with Ryan Gosling, so everybody can be happy.

I invoked “Saving Private Ryan” as an example of a war movie that aims to honor the unknown heroes, the grunts. Robert Rodat’s screenplay reminds us that a war is fought through a million unheralded acts of heroism. It was the very smallness of these men within the larger conflict, the fact that they knew full well that nobody was even paying attention, that made their bravery and self-sacrifice so moving.

“Lars and the Real Girl” makes a similar point in a very different way. Nancy Oliver’s screenplay deliberately focuses on the most unlikely of heroes — a young man who falls in love with a blow-up sex doll, seeming to believe she is a real person. Rather than simply play the situation for laughs, the story accepts the situation at face value, and goes with it. As odd as it may seem (if you haven’t seen the movie), it’s a tale of heroism. The heroism comes not from saving the world, or slaying dragons, but from a simple yet profound journey from self-protective fantasy toward reality.

So there you have it. Two movies as different as can be, but that’s the point. The same underlying twist on the hero’s journey propels them both: If you want a hero’s journey to be moving, go small. Splashy acts of heroism are easy. Small acts of heroism are hard.

Everyone’s a hero

I was talking with some students today about massively multiplayer on-line role playing games (MMORPG’s) such as Ultima Online and Worlds of Warcraft. One of the students was complaining about a particular characteristic of most MMORPGs: Unlike single player games, the sheer number of participants in an MMORPG does not allow the average player to be a heroic figure.

Even leveling players up, as the Star Wars games did, doesn’t solve the problem. In a world filled with Jedi Knights, it’s not all that special to be a Jedi Knight.

I argued that the answer might be to go the other way — rather than think big, think small. In real life, we are all heroes in our own story, and for the most part our respective heroic journeys through life do not ruin it for each other.

This quality of shared human experience has found its way into other art forms. For example, great novelists are able to weave together perhaps dozens of characters, each of whom is the center of his or her own unique dramatic arc. The key is not to make the individual characters very large, but rather to make the world large enough to accommodate all of those simultaneous dramatic journeys.

I think Will Wright’s original version of THE SIMS got it right. You may have been merely a suburban home-owner, but in your own way you were on a quest, which felt quite important to you as a player. Eric Zimmerman did something similar with Diner Dash. Your character may just have been a harried waitress, but as that waitress you were very much the center of your corner of the universe.

If THE SIMS had kept with this strategy when it went multi-player (rather than morphing, rather unfortunately, into a chat-space), it could have been a prime example of a game consisting of multiple intersecting heroic narratives. You would have been aware of other players as home-owners down the block, or perhaps as co-workers or parents of your children’s friends, but each of you would have been able to experience this shared world as the center of your own personal narrative.

Maybe there is a MMORPG out there that does this well already. If so, please let me know. After all (in the immortal words of Dr. Horrible): Everyone’s a hero, in their own way.

Extra time

I generally have a very long laundry list of things I need to do. Phone meetings, papers to review, proposals to work on — to say nothing of those “other” chores like laundry and paying bills and tidying up the place.

Usually it’s a mad scramble, with various things falling by the wayside, not quite getting done, or getting done just well enough. Sadly, the activities that get shoved off the list are often the really fun ones. After all, the thing about chores that must be done, is that they must be done. Chalk it up to the cruel logic of tautology.

But every once in a while plans get unexpectedly canceled. They may even have been fun plans, something I’d been looking forward to. But now they are canceled, and I have extra time.

Whenever possible I try to spend that extra time on the fun things, the cool little creative projects and ideas I’d been saving for some unknown time in the future when I would miraculously have enough time.

And whenever I have the presence of mind, and the force of will, to push aside the usual chores and use that extra time to make something fun, I always end up feeling happier.


Today I went to see a wonderful exhibition of giant walking robot vehicles. They are still a work in progress, but when these machines are complete, their operator will be able strap into a kind of control harness, and stride around on enormous electrically powered legs. I know of similar projects elsewhere, but this is the first one I’ve ever seen in person.

And it got me thinking about what modern life would have been like if we had never invented wheeled vehicles.

The Maya civilization built a great many things without the invention of wheeled vehicles — except as children’s toys. What if, for whatever reason, our own civilization had gone the same way? In particular, suppose we had developed electric motors, internal combustion engines, integrated circuits, and and a host of other modern advances, but not the rolling wheel as the basis for moving people around.

In this alternate version of history, might we be walking around on power-assisted legs? Would we have devised industrial walker drones to carry our freight across earthly terrain? Just how far could an advanced civilization evolve on that basis? And in such a world, what would have been the steps along the way to modernity?

Maybe such questions — how technologies that never ended up existing might have evolved — belong to a field of study that could be called crypto-techno-evolution.

I wonder, in that alternate version of reality, whether people would be flying around in ornithopters.

Beachfront property

I took a ferry yesterday with a friend to visit a beautiful island, and I noticed, as is usual in such places, that the most spectacular houses were the ones right on the water. I mean, the other island homes were all lovely, but one look at the houses on the water made it clear that their inhabitants are operating in a whole different economic realm.

Which makes sense. Not only are the views from the shore spectacular, but such land lots also constitute a distinctly limited commodity, a result of simple geometry: The number of houses you can fit on the perimeter of any landmass, even a modest sized island, is far smaller than the number that can fit in the interior.

And because my mind works in odd directions, the first thing I asked myself was how all this would play out in a four dimensional world. In that case, the “real estate” on an island would be some sort of solid volumetric shape within the three dimensional “surface” of a hyperspherical planet.

The shore would not form an undulating shoreline, like it does for islands in our world, but rather some sort of undulating two dimensional “shoreplane”. A lot of houses would be able to fit on the volumetric interior surface of the island, but far fewer houses would be able to fit on its bounding shoreplane.

In such a world, the total number of houses on even a smallish island would probably be vastly greater than could ever fit on one of our islands. And from our perspective, there would also be room for a lot of houses on the shoreplane.

But you can be sure that the people who lived right on that shoreplane, with their fancy views of the volumetric waves, would be the wealthiest of all the hyperfolk.

Doug Engelbart

I was very sad to hear of the passing of Doug Engelbart. As many of you know, he co-invented many things we now take for granted, including the computer mouse, hypertext, graphical user interfaces, and computer networking.

But more important than any of these individual contributions was his influence in a powerful view of computer technology: That the true betterment of society through technology cannot come from innovations within a handful of companies. Rather, what is required is literacy on a massive scale. The citizenry needs to be fully engaged in using such technology for the creation of original ideas, of new ways of thinking and doing things.

I fully believe in this vision. After all, we already live in a world where millions of citizens are able contribute to our culture of music, literature, theatre and the visual arts. Powerful works in these media emerge from the “long tail” of the citizenry on a regular basis.

And only in the last five years we have seen a transformation in the production of film and video. Thanks to wide adoption of recently developed technologies for digital video production and distribution, young people today have a fluency in creating works for this medium that would have been unthinkable less than a generation ago.

Sometime in the coming decade, this revolution will extend to procedural creation, when a new generation of young people will be able to draw on computer programming to help in the creation of new cultural works and the expression of original ideas.

And when that happens, somewhere the spirit of Doug Engelbart will be smiling.


When we experience an author’s work, we often feel the echoes of some earlier work. Sometimes we can be sure that the influence was real, as in the influence of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” on Laurents’ “West Side Story”. In this case, the former was itself an adaptation of a tale by Matteo Bandello, by way of Pierre Boaistuau, by way of Arthur Brooke.

But sometimes these echoes are far more subjective. For example, I often hear strong chains of influence between music from different historical eras, and I am left wondering whether the connection actually existed in the mind of the composer.

Here’s one such chain, listed in forward chronological order:



Erbarme Dich, mein Gott!

Johann Sebastian Bach
Manhã de Carnaval

Luiz Bonfá


Earth Wind and Fire


Daft Punk


To be sure, there is great aesthetic change from each piece to the one below it. Just two steps suffice to make the connections disappear. Yet to me the chain of influence from each work to the next feels very strong.

Your mileage may vary.

The language of arrows

Unicode is the standard decided upon by the computing industry for representing text in almost all of the world’s writing systems. So far, it contains well over one hundred thousand characters, and it’s still growing.

But one little subset of Unicode completely fascinates me, because it has a particular kind of resonance. That is the set of 112 Unicode identifiers reserved for arrows. How they decided that 112 was the right number is a bit of a mystery to me, but I do know the Unicode committees like to organize things into multiples of sixteen, since that makes for nice hexadecimal divisions. I guess somehow they decided that six groups of sixteen were not quite enough, eight were too many, and seven were just right.

Anyway, here they are, in all their pointed glory:

















































































































What I love about this set of shapes is that it represents all sorts of ways that one thing can relate to another, without saying anything at all about what those things might be. You can take this as a vocabulary for relating power relationships, or political affiliations, or perhaps types of love.

In fact, simply looking at some of these arrows suggests ideas about how things could relate to each other. One can imagine, say, the artist formerly known as the artist formerly known as Prince penning an album of songs with some of these evocative symbols as titles. For example, the rightmost arrow in the fourth row could be interpreted as meaning, roughly, “Nothing compares 2 U”.

You might want to try your hand at mapping these suggestively sagittate glyphs into some meaning structure near and dear to your heart, whether it be battles of the American Civil War, concepts of quantum physics, or the daimonica in Lovecraft’s Necronomicon.