A Smudge and a Bird

September 10, 2010

I was watching reruns recently of my favorite show, ‘The West Wing’. There’s a scene in one of the last few episodes where the character Toby Ziegler, once a powerful figure at the White House, is now awaiting prison for a security leak. He is incredibly idealistic and the conscience of the West Wing. Now he’s reduced to sitting in his apartment waiting for punishment, so he starts rereading and comparing different copies of the Constitution (believe me, this is his idea of fun!). He notices a place where in some copies there’s a comma and in other copies not. It changes the meaning of the sentence, so he calls up and has someone check the original. He’s told, yes, there is a comma. Or is it a smudge? They’re not sure.

This is a kite

This reminds me of the famous Freudian analysis of Leonardo Da Vinci’s childhood, which, no matter  what else you think of Freud (in my case, not

This is a vulture

much) is fatally flawed because of a mistranslated word in a document he used in his research on Da Vinci. In one of Freud’s interpretations, he extrapolates from a childhood incident with a vulture that it is a symbolic remembrance of suckling at his mother’s breast, and interprets the memory as a fantasy with mythological connotations. All of this is moot, because it is based on a translation error where the word was for the bird  ‘kite’ instead of ‘vulture’.

What I learn from all this is how easy it is to say the wrong thing or build an intellectual edifice based on a small mistake. It makes one almost terrified to put any thoughts down.  I probably should reread this blog a few dozen more times.


The Little Robot That Could

July 19, 2010

We grew up with stories of little engines that could climb that hill, or tugboats that could handle that big ship.

We have always personified vehicles, naming ships and trains, but their spirit was really guided by the a human hand on the controls.  Now we have cruise control, auto pilots, and heat seeking missiles. But their autonomy is very limited.

On Mars we finally have two actual  autonomous rover robots.  Their mission was to last only a few months but they have struggled on all alone in an alien landscape of dust storms and extreme temperature conditions for several years. They have only a primitive self-awareness, enough to navigate around obstacles and terrain, to plan routes, to maximize their energy gain from solar power and utilize it’s energy in the most efficient way. They must protect themselves from loss of power and damage from terrain. I think this is a form of life, maybe not organic, but life all the same. One of them finally became trapped, two of it’s wheels locked, probably by the fine sand from the huge windstorms. Not long ago, their programming was updated to give them more autonomy in selecting which rocks and features they photograph and explore.
The rover that is still mobile is on a long lonely journey across the plains of Mars that will take years to get to it’s goal, it has been travelling there for two years already. Their exploits have been so heroic that two asteroids have been named after them. I wonder what thoughts if any go through their cybernetic synapses as they crouch in low power mode waiting out the Martian storms.

On Transferring the Story’s Vision

June 13, 2010

Since the first person told his story around the proverbial campfire, storytelling has been an attempt to transfer one person’s vision to another. The technology of this keeps progressing, oral, written and film. But they are all trying to attain that one basic transfer of what’s in one person’s head into another’s.

The medium dictates how it is shaped, and also limits what can be transferred. The written word can go into much more detail than the cinematic experience, but leaves it to the reader to recreate his own echo of the vision. The cinematic experience (whether movies, or television, or online video) allows for a more direct experience of portions of the vision, but of course video isn’t something people put down and continue later. The smaller details of the story are lost in the attempt to give a gestalt version that can be viewed in one sitting.

This is the reason books haven’t gone away with the advent of film and television.  They overlap in their attempts to convey the vision, but their approaches are ultimately not compatible. The vision can be partially transmitted in both media, but they won’t be the same.

The next big jump in transferring the vision is going to be the virtual reality experience. Reliving the story from the viewpoint of one or more characters. Or perhaps from some godlike overview.  Immersion in the vision.  It’s closer than we think, it’s already nibbling at the edges of story already.  What will this do to the written word and cinema? Let me know what you think.


On writing, or lack of it …

May 31, 2010

photo by Matt Namin

I’ve always wanted to be a writer.   I read constantly, I make my living selling books,  I am immersed in books, literally. Boxes of books totter over my bed threatening to collapse on me. I’m sure I’ll end up as one of those stories in the paper some day, ‘Recluse found dead under mounds of books’.  But for all the ingestion of the printed word over more than half a century, not much has been produced in return.  Occasional blogs, memoirs on the computer for my kids to find some day when they try to figure out who the strange person was that raised them, aborted stories and novels that never see completion.  It’s not that I don’t have a lot to say,  I’m a very opinionated person on almost every subject (though I do tend to change those opinions frequently).

So why aren’t stories and articles and scripts pouring out? What strange writer’s block has constipated the creative process for decades? I’m beginning to suspect that I have to stop reading much to start writing.  I think that the literary tunnel to my psyche is so flooded by the torrents of writing coming in,  that the struggling creations trying to work their way upstream to the outside are just swept away.

So to test this theory I am going to try to stop reading much.   This will probably prove to be much harder than giving up cigarettes or heroin, I have been reading probably an average of a book a day for most of my life.  I can’t envision what a life devoid of literary input would be like.   Has anyone else had these thoughts and tried to stop reading? Are there support groups where we can go and say “Hi, I’m Roger and I’m a reader”?


Twitterverse Magic

February 9, 2010

     As much as I’d love magic to exist in our ‘real’ universe, I have long ago filed it away with so many other things I wish were true. Sorry, Harry Potter. But a recent exchange on twitter has opened my eyes to the fact that there are other universes where magic might truly exist. One such is the twitterverse.

     Now the twitterverse has its own fundamental laws and particles, tweets and RT’s, links and follower bots. They interact in strange and mysterious ways, which our social media physicists are still trying to put into a grand unified theory. But at this point in the development of the twitterverse, I think we see things as being caused by forces we don’t understand (magic), perhaps we are at the beginning of an alchemical approach to it. So for now, we can just act like things operate here by magic, until somebody has an apple fall on their head and begins to really understand this stuff.

     My thoughts on this started when I was telling a friend on twitter how I had tweeted the name of a certain brand of coffee and I was immediately followed by a bot from that company. I was then contacted and I started getting free samples. She sounded skeptical.

But shortly thereafter she tweeted that  it was working and that she was being followed by friendly bots.

So wishes can come true in the twitterverse. I’m not sure if you have to tap your heels, though. And not sure if the ‘Only three wishes’ rule applies here.


Why are virtual chores fun but real chores a drag?

February 6, 2010

   

I’ve pondered the question many times of why people gladly spend endless hours performing virtual tasks that in their real life they avoid like the plague.  A recent post by @fjfonseca over at BitRebels touched on the subject, and as I have a 14-year-old daughter who has her virtual Facebook farm and aquarium and other examples too numerous to mention, I really started to think about it. Why does my daughter so gladly do these virtual chores in Farmville, but avoid helping take care of our real pony, dog, cats, and fish? When I try to get my kids to work on our garden every year it’s like pulling teeth, but her virtual garden is award-winning.

     Perhaps one reason is the feedback system involved. In Farmville she reaches levels, gets awards, and her accomplishments are sent over social networks to her friends. With her real garden she gets a ‘job well done’ from me, and far down the road some vegetables to eat. Maybe I should be learning from the virtual chores, I need to supply awards and badges, positive reinforcements and recognition of achievements. I guess calling her friends to tell them when she’s finished projects wouldn’t be appreciated by my daughter, though.

     Seriously, I would like comments on your take on this, it’s growing exponentially over on Facebook, and is just the beginning of a greater phenomena. Other examples are ‘games’ like the Sims, or the programmed pets that die on you if you don’t care for them properly. Can we learn lessons from their success in engaging people to apply to real life interactions?


The murky history of J. C. Bancroft Davis and corporate personhood

January 21, 2010

     This is about a murky historical event most Americans are unaware of, when one man in a somewhat bureaucratic position changed the course of corporate history. Today’s Supreme Court decision on campaign contributions from corporations prompts this piece. You will probably never see me write about Constitutional Law again, but you never know what rolls through my mind, so no guarantees. A few years ago I came into possession of a really interesting book lot containing many early governmental books and documents. One that caught my eye was “Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States Transmitted to Congress, With the Annual Message of the President from 1874″   It was interesting in its own right, with the President at that time being Ulysses S. Grant. But what really caught my eye was the declaration printed on the cover that this was from the library of J. C. Bancroft Davis. My mind is an incredible mish mash of unsorted data, and something about the name sent me off into a flurry of research. Sure enough, he was from Worcester, Massachusetts which was the nearest city to where I grew up.  He led an interesting life in business and government, he was Assistant Secretary of State when this book was published. He also was President of the Newburgh and New York Railway (keep this in mind for later). He eventually became Reporter of Decisions for the Supreme Court and that is where he, singlehandedly in a headnote he wrote, gave corporations much of the “personhood”  that they enjoy today.

     Today’s Supreme Court decision on campaign contributions broadens the interpretation of corporations having many of the rights of human beings. There will obviously be much disagreement on whether this was ever intended under our Constitution. But what fascinates me is how one person at the right place and time really can alter the flow of events. The case that really called corporations ‘persons’ for the first time was a railroad dispute. This was in the 1880′s, full of robber barons such as Gould and Carnegie.  The case was ‘Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad‘ for those who want to delve into this further. It was basically about railroads calculating their tax as people would, and not as businesses normally do. It eventually went all the way to the Supreme Court. After the Supreme Court writes it’s opinions on the case, it’s the job of the court reporter to write a short summary called a headnote which is a summary of the decision. Davis was the Reporter of Decisions at the time, and included in his summary a phrase that is nowhere in the opinions of the court, but is what much of the concept of ‘corporate personhood’ is based on. “The court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, applies to these corporations. We are all of the opinion that it does”, in other words saying corporations enjoy the same rights as a person under the 14th amendment. Headnotes are treated with the force of law, and thus were corporations armed with one of their most potent legal weapons, personhood, not by the Supreme Court itself but by the court reporter who just happened coincidentally to have been a corporate railroad president earlier in his life.


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