Puppet party

We all love a good costume party. They give everyone a chance to indulge together in harmless fantasy of being a superhero, or a cartoon character or cereal box, or whatever, while continuing to hang out with each other as ourselves.

I think of this now because I’ve been having discussions with people about the use of costumes and puppetry in theater, and how the relationship between costumes and puppets might change if theater is performed in virtual reality.

Usually we know the difference between costumes and puppets in the theater. A costume is worn by an actor as part of their performance. A puppet is operated by a puppeteer who is not generally considered part of the drama — even when in plain view.

Of course sometimes the two concepts can be blurred. Julie Taymor, to give just one example, has made a career out of doing just that. Yet for the most part they are distinct.

But let us consider a future in which theater is performed in VR. An actor might be able to embody an octopus or a giant snake.

In VR theater, it will become possible for the concept of costumes and puppets to be blurred. And yet it seems to me some fundamental distinction may remain.

After all, we all love a good costume party. But nobody goes to a puppet party.

Humor and suffering

Mel Brooks once defined the difference between comedy and tragedy like this:

“Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”

Most of us understand what he was getting at. We never laugh at good fortune. We only laugh when something goes wrong. But to be funny, things need to go wrong in the right way.

When I think of the jokes I find really funny — I mean sidesplittingly funny — they always involve something terrible happening. I would never want to be the person in the joke that the terrible thing happened to.

Yet when I tell such a joke well, everybody feels immense pleasure. I think there is something profound in this contradictory connection between misfortune and pleasure, but I am not entirely sure I understand the nature of that connection.

Can there, in fact, be true humor without an element of misfortune? Can the two ever actually be disentangled?

Money in the bank

Today, after much preparation, we submitted a proposal to a foundation. It may or may not be funded, but I think it’s a really good proposal.

Long ago, when I was first starting out in Academia, my mentor Jack Schwartz (now sadly deceased) helped me to write one of my very first proposals to submit to the National Science Foundation. I told him I was worried that it might not get funded.

His reply was very profound. “It doesn’t matter whether this gets funded. The important thing is that it is well written.

“If it’s a good proposal,” he explained, “Somebody will eventually fund it. A good proposal is money in the bank.”

Describing someone in a single sentence

I wonder how many people in the world can be identified by a simple one-sentence description. Even given the right individual, there can be an art to crafting exactly the right sentence, one that properly captures the essence and identity of the individual in question, while keeping the word count relatively small.

Here is one humble attempt. Everyone reading this post will of course know exactly to whom this sentence refers. I wonder how many other individuals in the world could be so easily identified from a simple one-sentence description:

“If he weren’t so incredibly dangerous, he would be utterly ridiculous.”

The time machine on the wall

I dropped by the house of a friend of a friend today, and there on his wall was this George Nelson clock from 1964. Seeing it hanging there was completely magical, like suddenly being transported to the 1964 World’s Fair.

I thought of George and Wilma Jetson, of Admiral Nelson and Commander Crane. I thought of Penny Robinson and Dr. Smith, of Tim O’Hara and his uncle Martin.

I thought of little plastic dinosaurs. I love thinking about little plastic dinosaurs. 🙂


Categorically exceptional

I was thinking today about the film Yesterday, which centers around the songs of The Beatles. And I found myself wondering whether the film would have worked if they had used the songs of any other pop group.

I came to the conclusion that no, the premise of this movie required the songs of this particular pop group. No other collection of popular songs has achieved anything even near the reach and influence and sheer abundance of genius as the music of Lennon and McCartney.

That got me thinking about extraordinary achievements in other areas. When we think of playwrights in the English language, there is Shakespeare and then there is everyone else. Nobody ever talks about some other playwright being a “close second”.

Similarly, when we think about someone who contributed to both the arts and the sciences, there is Leonardo DaVinci, towering above all others. Although there have been many such renaissance thinkers, his sheer genius ends up placing him in a class by himself.

I wonder how many examples of this phenomenon we could find, were we to really think about it. Which fields contain one exemplar of genius so far about the rest as to become categorically exceptional?

I am open to suggestions.

Flying in clouds

Today I think I need to step away for a bit away from the deeply tragic events going on in our nation right now, and talk about something more innocent.


Yesterday, as I was flying over the U.S., I looked out my window and realized we were inside a cloud. And it brought me back to my childhood.

When I was a little kid, I used to look up into the sky and wonder what it might be like to be inside a cloud. Would it be like walking on a ball of fluffy cotton? Strolling through a field of cotton candy?

Would I find that there were people living in the cloud? If so, would I get along with the cloud people?

Now that I am a grown-up, I can fly through clouds any time I want. But the problem is I now know too much.

I no longer expect to walk through fields of cotton candy. I know I will never get to hang out with the cloud people.

And it makes me sad, because the child version of me still holds on to those visions. Yet the grown-up version knows they are not true.

But also that they should be.

One day in early August

On Saturday August 3rd, 2019, a man started opening fire in a shopping mall in El Paso, Texas. Despite Texas being an open carry state, nobody stepped forward to challenge the shooter. The perpetrator continued, unchecked, to kill and maim people (eventually 20 dead and many more wounded) until the police were finally able to show up and subdue him.

John and Becky strode through the shopping mall on a lovely day in early August. John was so proud to have his best girl on his arm, and proud to live in an open carry state like Texas, where he could be one of the good guys with a gun. None of that mamby pamby liberal stuff for him. Becky deserved a real man.

All of a sudden a shot rang out. Becky turned to him. “I think we have a shooter.”

“It’s a good thing,” he explained, “that we live in Texas, where some good guy with a gun will stop this asshole.”

“What about you?” Becky asked, looking pointedly at John’s holster. “You can stop him.”

There was a moment of hesitation. “That’s the great thing about Texas,” he replied. “There are plenty of open carry guns right here in El Paso. I can just be ready as back-up if some other good guy with a gun doesn’t get him first.”

He saw a sudden look of disappointment on her face. But the look only lasted for a moment, before her head exploded like a watermelon, spattering him all over with blood and brains and bits of Becky’s skull.

Just then he spotted a nearby store where people were hiding out. He might be carrying a gun, but he wasn’t an idiot.

It was too bad about Becky, but she should have been carrying a gun too. Anyway, he knew it would all be ok, because everyone would soon hear, as always, that the hopes and prayers of our duly elected officials were with them.

Once within the safety of the store, he heard somebody mention that the shooter was a white male.

“Well that’s a relief,” he thought. “At least it wasn’t one of those domestic terrorists.”

He smiled to himself. “That’s why we need the NRA. Thank God for the NRA.”

The future of the Web

The World Wide Web is soon going to move decisively off of screens and into the world around us. It is just waiting for one key consumer platform — a well designed wearable. There are strong indications that this platform will be arriving in the next few years.

Which leads to the question: What, essentially, is the Web? I don’t think it is, at heart, a particular set of technologies. Rather it is a powerful idea that is independent of any given technology.

The Web is our shared electronic space. It is where we can all publish and read and look at and listen to information posted by one another. The Web is the world’s bulletin board.

This distinguishes it from, say, Apps, which are meant to serve specific functions. Because the Web is ubiquitous and freely accessible to vast numbers of people, it is essentially a shared place — although not a place in our physical world.

Once the wearables arrive, this “shared place” will start to have more of a presence in our own physical world. It will become accessible as part of our face to face conversations, our navigation through time and physical geography, our very concept of reality itself.

Yes, you will still be able to choose not to use it, just as you can still choose to turn off your SmartPhone (or, for that matter, choose not to talk to other people). But for more and more of the social contract, living life among our fellow humans, we won’t want to turn it off, because its ubiquitous will seep into our very concept of reality itself.

I don’t think that will be a bad thing. Like the screen-based Web of today, the future Web will quickly simply be thought of as normal reality. In fact, people will wonder how on earth anybody managed to get along without it.