Archive for the ‘Blog’ Category

Why Critical Analysis Makes Movies Better

I’ve discovered that critical analysis adds to my enjoyment of media. Heck, even if there’s something I dislike, it becomes fun to engage with in a critical way. I’m looking at you, Moffat’s Doctor Who and Sherlock! My friends and I talked our way through Skyfall and Revenge of the Sith, praising awesome set-pieces, clever dialogue, good framing, satisfying plot-twists – and yelling at the screen when characters get needlessly problematic or when a few key edits would have made the movie so much better.

I love watching smart film reviews, too — the ones that deconstruct their subject to show how editing, framing, lighting, and narrative structure are used to communicate character, relationships, and story. Even when the movie (or tv-show or video game) in question fails to use these tools well, I still get to learn something. The piece becomes interesting because I now understand what makes it tick, for good or ill.

awwww Franco and Franco

I had some friends over to watch Snowpiercer (with bahn mi!) recently. I’m not sure any of us were in love with it — the premise is difficult to swallow (all humanity is dead except for a few hundred people stuck on a perpetual-motion train circumnavigating a world frozen in a misguided attempt to stop global warming), the darkly humorous tone is uneven (or is it even supposed to be funny? ‘Happy New Year!’), and the emotional poignancy of some early scenes is established in retrospect towards the end of the film (oh, that’s why I was supposed to care!). The best characters are the supporting characters, namely the badass wordless parkourist Grey and the badass wordless rasputin-of-a-henchman out for revenge for his murdered lover (also a badass wordless henchman). And of course Tilda Swinton’s wacky maniacal spokesperson, Mason: ‘A shoe doesn’t belong on your head. A shoe belongs on your foot. A hat belongs on your head. I am a hat. You are a shoe. I belong on the head. You belong on the foot. Yes? So it is.’

But one of the reasons I wanted to watch two hours of post-apocalyptic-dystopia-on-a-train was to watch Tony Zhou’s two-and-a-half-minute analysis of its framing techniques. He points out that the back of the train is always to the left of the screen, the front of the train is always to the right. As our protagonists move forward to the engine, they move from left to right. And in individual scenes, choices are presented front/back, left/right; humanity behind, something more ominous and monstrous ahead. We liked the film a might bit better after having this subtle bit of craft pointed out to us. The ridiculous premise becomes an artistic device, a construct for realizing this linear motion on multiple scales. When it is simplistic, it is to sharpen contrasts and push some thought-provoking ideas. It’s spec-fic, it’s sci-fi, and it makes good use of the visual medium it’s presented in.

now kiss! Franco vs. Grey – who will win?

Other times it’s my ability to re-imagine the story as better than it is that makes my enjoy it more. Like my ongoing writing project, Empire of Shadows, inspired by some compelling core buried deep inside the Star Wars prequels. My frustration with the mistelling of Anakin’s story led me to write my own version of it. And now I’m subjected my own work to the critical process — my friends who know more about the craft of writing can teach me how to more effectively, evocatively tell the story I want to tell.

RISD taught me how to give and take criticism, but I think it also taught me how to enjoy the critical process. Finding the good, the worthwhile, the could-be-better-with-a-bit-of-tweaking makes more a more engaged reader and watcher of media. I get to be a participant in the story-telling, and I don’t have to be satisfied with what’s put in front of me, either. Never give up, never surrender!

It’s Cottage Time!


You may have been wondering where I disappeared to these last few months. Well, I have a huge new project: I bought a house!

I’ve been looking for someplace to build my tiny house, someplace in Seattle and easily accessed by public transport, someplace that I can afford. What? Impossible you say? I do not think that word means what you think it means. In fact, I was about to give up the hunt when this little gem popped on the market. A 600 square feet cottage, tucked in the corner of a generous 3000+ sq. ft. lot, five minutes’ walk from Columbia City. I visited the day it was listed, and put in the first and only offer the following day.

The interior began as a rainbow of colors, described by one of my friends as ‘sad fruit salad':



… and after a long weekend work party – with all my friends getting themselves dirty in the process of getting the place clean – it looks slightly more like the sky outside (the trim, which will be painted white, is in progress):



And here is the before-and-after of the front steps, courtesy of Mickey (he not only took the photos, he did most of the pruning that the photos reveal):



Once I finish painting, I will show off the place all furnished. It doesn’t feel quite like home yet, but the stress of buying it and moving in is slowly fading, and my flatmate (or rather, tenant) and I have made our rooms into cozy nests to retreat to. During the winter I’ll curl up in this little cocoon of mine and formulate schemes for transforming the yard into something marvelous.

… and next, the WORLD!

Creativity and Ludology

If you’ve followed my blog for a past few years, you know that I spend a lot of time trying to connect my game design and landscape and urban design. I’ve talked before about how wonder, flow, and meditation are related. But now John Cleese (via YouTube via my friend Gavin) has gone and added humor and play to the mix. In his 1991 lecture on how to be creative, he describes a recipe for creativity that involves getting from a closed state to an open state. Already this begin to sound familiar:

  • The closed state is when you are intent on getting things done, maybe slightly anxious about it, but definitely focused and single-minded.

  • The open state is when you are open to new possibilities, exploring and experimenting. This is play.

You generally want to switch back and forth so that you can effectively execute the plans you made while playing. But it’s easy to get stuck in the closed state. Indeed, it’s expected that we adults take things seriously and be decisive and effective. All the time. Play becomes a signature of childhood, and those who continue to play games as adults are seen as regressively childlike. True, not all play produces new ideas, much less ideas that become useful to us in the closed state; but if we insist that all play serve a larger purpose then we undermine the very purpose of play. According to Cleese’s creativity factor number four, play means that anything that happens is okay. There is nothing you can do that’s wrong, nothing you ‘shouldn’t have done,’ because ‘any drivel may lead to the breakthrough.’

Okay, here are all five factors:

  1. & 2. Space and time: Create a space-time oasis. A separate, quiet space away from distractions is helpful. And if play does not end, it is not play. (I’ll come back to this, since it is the most landscape-y.)

  2. More time: Ponder the problem as long as possible. Having a problem creates a tension that we want to diffuse by making a decision, taking the first easy answer that comes our way. If we can learn to tolerate the tension we give our minds more time to come up with something original.

  3. Confidence: Play is experiment. Anything that happens is okay.

  4. Humor: Even serious problems can be dealt with in humor, but solemnity is really just self-importance. Laughing doesn’t make things less serious, it just punctures ego. (This is where humor can become subversive.)

Cleese’s model ties into meditation, in that you do still have to bring your mind in from its wanderings, keeping it ‘gently round the subject’ at hand. And it ties into the process of wonder, too, because creativity involves connecting two separate ideas in a way that creates new meaning. Like ‘in a joke, the laugh comes at a moment when you connect two different frameworks in a new way.’ I got so excited here!

Wonder process

I get so much mileage out of my thesis. Anyway, he goes on to say that it’s helpful to have other people to be creative with. Essentially if you don’t shoot down ideas but always continue them with ‘yes, and…,’ expanding these insane little pocket universes and buying into them with a hearty ‘let’s pretend,’ you can loosen up your brain more easily.

Another technique that I’ve seen used in a few roleplaying games, markedly Fiasco and In a Wicked Age, and also in the excellent storytelling card game (that I just played last night) Once Upon a Time, is the use of oracles: using a random number generator to throw out a bunch of juxtapositions of elements, leaving the humans to sort out the meaning. Cleese calls these ‘intermediate impossibilities,’ absurd ideas that get you used to the notion of being wrong being okay.

So a space-time oasis needs to have recognizable boundaries, and an understanding that inside those boundaries anything can happen. The stakes are low, so there are no mistakes. Currently many of the known oases are virtual, either online (or at least on the computer) or at a gaming table.

And now I have to mention another humorous Brit, Quinns from boardgame review site Shut Up & Sit Down. What makes boardgames great, for him, is that they allow people to come together and create stories. Each game is a complete idea that comes to life through the playing of it. And of course I love that! Encapsulating an idea in a box, playing with frameworks and mechanics until everything clicks into place like a perfect little machine that only needs some players to bring it to life. Can you tell that I find designing games even more fun than playing them?

Human-sized, landscape-like boardgames already exist, and there need to be more of them. They usually take the form of art installations, like the work of Eric Zimmerman (the genius behind the tabletop boardgame Quantum). There are also art installations that become worlds for live-action roleplaying, something like Fabricated Realities in Olympia, Washington or even the non-fiction Village Building Convergence in Portland, Oregon.

Eric Zimmerman's Cross My Heart and Hope to Die

Would it be counter-productive to make such a thing a more permanent and accessible thing? Though untested, my thesis on wonder in the urban environment suggests that it is possible if the space is able to change over time and produce unexpected results. Boardgames achieve this replayability because their mechanics construct worlds where choices are limited but all choices are meaningful and failure is still fun. They get everyone laughing, but also get everyone exploring the possibility space for new solutions. And if you really want to test the limits of gamification, you could try to make those solutions applicable to the ‘real world’… but I see value in just helping people get into that open state to start with. Play – and therefore creativity – is a skill that needs practice.

Empire of Shadows preview

What could it be?

Flow and Wonder

Pink is the New Sky Blue

Nowadays our culture obsessed with happiness. But there are other states of being to consider, ones that are, in my opinion, more worthy of seeking out.

Flow is the state of being fully immersed in what you are doing. The sense of yourself performing the activity becomes simply the performance of the activity, and self-consciousness disappears. All attention is devoted to the task at hand. The concept of flow was first proposed by Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in the 1970’s, and is similar in many ways to Tai Chi’s wei wu wei (doing without doing) and other meditative states. This sense of engagement is quite rewarding, and Csíkszentmihályi sees it as the ultimate state to achieve in life – or at least a better one than mere happiness. In his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, he describes the people who experience flow on a regular basis as the most fulfilled, based on his surveys and studies on the subject.

Getting into a flow state can be a bit tricky. The activity we engage in has to hit a sweet spot between being too simple and too difficult – err too far on one side and you get bored, on the other, frustrated. Furthermore, as your skill level increases, so too does the sweet spot. It’s a moving target. The environment needs to be conducive to concentration, too. Flow has been studied especially in the tech industry, where open floor plans, ringing phones, chatty neighbors, and intercoms interrupt this delicate state in which programmers are most effective. Imagine artists or writers trying to work in a busy office instead of retreating to tranquil environments where they can concentrate for long hours. Likewise, the whole business of multi-tasking prevents you from achieving flow by splitting your attention into many small fragments, which may explain why trying to do several things at once makes you do all of them much worse.

I suppose you wouldn’t want to be in flow constantly – unless that is what Nirvana is meant to be – but it seems to be a vital component of a satisfying life. It has understandable parameters, but it is not achievable in a mechanistic way. And it affects how you relate to yourself and the world around you in a generally positive manner.

The topic of my graduate thesis strikes me as similar in these same ways. Wonder, as I define it, is a state of surprise and delighted confusion experienced when you encounter something extraordinary – something that flies in the face of our commonplace experience of the world. As with flow, the parameters are definable but highly subjective. Much depends on exactly what is commonplace for a particular individual to experience, their mental model of the mundane. Only rarely does something require a sudden and radical shift in this perspective – by definition, since the model simply adapts to anything that happens frequently or with regularity.

Encountering things of an entirely different scale than you’re used to, like a sudden view of a mountain, or things that behave completely differently from everyday objects, like rainbows or singing sand dunes, generally inspire wonder. There is a dark side though: things that make you entirely doubt the basic understandability of the universe inspire terror instead. This is the source of much existential horror, and the line between wonder and horror is the line expertly walked in the best works of H. P. Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith. But usually there is some hint to the puzzle of the unexpected – obviously a mountain or a rainbow or an explosion of fall color isn’t entirely unreasonable, even if it is momentarily disorienting to be in the presence of its utter grandeur. If this is enough for curiosity to drive you to explore these strange occurrences with your mind, senses, or body, then you have wonder on your hands.

Studies have found wonder to cause a more open-minded and altruistic attitude. It is often cited as the driving force behind most scientific exploration. So, like flow, it is a not-common-enough state of being that can improve our wellbeing and our work in small but meaningful ways. And though at first glance it seems to be entirely dependent on external forces, I have found myself in a state of wonder far more frequently when I take active notice of my surroundings. ‘Notice new things,’ as someone once described transcendental meditation.

Even small things can be wondrous when you’re actively engaged in experiencing them: the smell of the first autumn rainfall, a hawk in a roadside tree, the neon pink clouds of a sunrise. My landscape architecture thesis was about creating landscapes that spring wonder on unsuspecting commuters, but it is really a collaboration between a conducive environment (in this case, one rich in detail and diversity) and a willing participant. Just like flow.

Getting to and being in a state of wonder feels a lot like being in a state of flow. They both create a seamless connection between you and the thing in front of you, without the conceit of your ego getting in the way. It’s all flattened – there’s no meta-level thoughts. And though they may not bring serotonin-dripping hits of joy, I find them to be ready cures for existential angst.

City in a Valley

Nom Nom Chompsky

Chomsky's Government and Binding Theory

Chomsky, Chomsky, Chomsky. How I have despised your iron hold over American linguistics! With the convoluted contortions of generative grammar and that ridiculous Universal Grammar theory and the pretentious way you write your papers… and yet, I never knew much about your political science career. You know, the one you are famous for amongst everyone who is not a linguist.

And so, when my Reed alum book group decided to read Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky (or ‘Chompsky’ as we like to pronounce it – the title of this post is in honor of Gavin and Thuy’s silliness), I was pleasantly surprised by the conversational tone and the seeming lack of intellectual elitism. He just strings together facts into logical sequences, so that he appears to have no political theory or agenda at all, beyond revealing the truths that power seeks to hide. I admire his encyclopedic memory, but the straightforward presentation obscures his own biases, conscious or unconscious. What facts he relates and what facts he leaves out are an editorial decision that craft a neat story that suits his purposes. He often attributes intention where they might only be accident, and active malevolence where they might be simple apathy or a complex of shifting, interacting interests. No surprise, then, that I found him the most engaging and enjoyable when he is talking theory and opinion instead of hiding behind some false sense of objectivity.

‘”Libertarian” has a special meaning in the United States… What’s called “libertarianism” here is unbridled capitalism… And if you just read the world that they describe, it’s a world so full of hate that no human being would want to live in it. This is a world where you don’t have roads because you don’t see any reason why you should cooperate in building a road that you’re not going to use… If you don’t like the pollution from somebody’s automobile, you take them to court and you litigate it. Who would want to live in a world like that? It’s a world built on hatred.’ (200)

This reminds me of the Daily Show sketch of the correspondent from the libertarian alternate universe, where everything is made of guns (including cell phones!) and everything is on fire. But it also seems to me that the (American) libertarian line is at face value the same as the anarchist, namely that certain kinds of institutions are unjust and should be replaced by the right kind of institutions. Libertarians want government replaced with corporations, anarchists want corporations replaced with populist organizations – but either way, they ultimately want to put power into the hands of people. Then again, the definitions of ‘people’ differ fundamentally: libertarian humans are autonomous self-interested individuals, and anarchist humans are social creatures with interests beyond themselves. But the idea that new institutions would be better seems to ignore the tendency for institutions to get kludgy and uncaring as they grow. If institutions ran on different incentive systems, would they get better? Or would they forever be mutating into ultimately self-serving entities that transcend the human beings they’re composed of? It’s worth a try, but I have to agree with Chomsky that the only way to figure out what works is to experiment at smaller scales and longer time-frames – evolution instead of revolution.

‘Since we’re dealing with complex systems which nobody understands very much, the sensible move I think is to make changes and see what happens – and if they work, make further changes.’ (201)

And now for a quick lesson in using incentive systems (learned from game design!) to encourage our congressional representatives to make choices in the Everyman’s interest:

But I’m reminded of the difficulty in balancing even a simple board game. Human society is levels of magnitude more complicated. Either because it wants to be – that is, social structures tend to emerge out of human interactions with a given level of complexity – or because humans want a certain level of complexity in their lives and therefore complicate the social structure until it provides a satisfying level of challenge to work out. I kind of love the idea that we create social systems as a puzzle to keep from getting bored:

‘It reminds me in some ways of things that you find in non-literate or non-technological cultures… where for example, you get extremely elaborate kinship systems… And when you look at the structure of them, they seem like a kind of mathematics. It’s as though people want to work out mathematical problems, and if they don’t have calculus and arithmetic, they work them out with other structures… Or another thing you sometimes find in non-literate cultures is developments of the most extraordinary linguistic systems… And what all these things look like is that people just want to use their intelligence somehow, and if you don’t have a lot of technology and so on, you do other things.’ (99)

Switching gears:

‘Classical liberalism (which remember is pre-capitalist, and is in fact, anti-capitalist) focused on the right of people to control their own work, and the need for free creative work under your own control – for human freedom and creativity. So to a classical liberal, wage labor under capitalism would have been considered totally immoral, because it frustrates the fundamental need of people to control their own work: you’re a slave to someone else.’ (216)

‘For classical liberals in the eighteenth century, there was a certain conception of just what human beings are like – namely, that what kind of creatures they are depends on the kind of work they do, and the kind of control they have over it, and their ability to act creatively and according to their own decisions and choices… Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out that you can have systems in which “the art advances and the artisan recedes,” but that’s inhuman – because what you’re really interested in is the artisan, you’re interested in people, and for people to have the opportunity to live full and rewarding lives they have to be in control of what they do, even if that happens to be economically less efficient.’ (222)

Classical liberalism resonates with me. Not to say that I think its ideas are correct, because it just smacks of those idealistic young Romantics who never had to do any actual hard labor… then again, I am basically one of them. (My fake best friend is Mary Shelley!) I don’t know, maybe you could have a society composed entirely of artisans. But as Chomsky points out, it would mean sacrificing technological progress. And isn’t the direction of human society since the dawn of agriculture prioritizing the creation of stronger and more stable power structures over individual and community wellbeing, all through the miracles of better stuff?

And finally, some of my favorite quotes, removed from their context for your enjoyment and thought-provocation:

‘The terminology we use is heavily ideologically laden, always. Pick your term: if it’s a term that has any significance whatsoever… it typically has two meanings, a dictionary meaning and a meaning that’s used for ideological warfare.’ (37)

‘There’s something really hopeless about contemporary life that’s new, I think.’ (47)

‘So what in fact happened is these two huge waves of immigrants were just herded into concentration camps, which we happen to call “cities.”‘ (48)

‘It’s been known since the Great Depression that anything like free-market capitalism is a total disaster: it can’t work. Therefore every country in the world that has a successful economy is somewhere close to fascism – that is, with massive government intervention in the economy to coordinate it and protect it from hostile forces such as too much competition.’ (72)

‘Overwhelmingly international terrorism comes out of Washington and Miami.’ (77)

‘Anybody who wants to become your leader, you should say, “I don’t want to follow.” That’s like a rule of thumb which almost never fails.’ (138)

‘Awareness is only the beginning, because people can be aware and still not do anything – for instance, maybe they’re afraid they’ll lose their jobs. And obviously you can’t criticize people for worrying about that; they’ve got kids, they’ve got to live. That’s fair enough. It’s hard to struggle for your rights – you usually suffer.’ (187)

Why there are no classic collaborative board games

200/366 Board Game

The article ‘Collaborative games: Lessons learned from board games’ by Zagal, Rick, and Hsi analyzes the particular issues of collaborative game design. They differentiate competitive games, where the players’ interests are opposed, from cooperative games, where the players have interests that may or may not align, from collaborative games, where the players have to work together to win. They are fighting together against a common enemy. It not only sounds more virtuous, it might be more fun if you’re someone like me who gets stressed out by competition – though many collaborative board games, like Betrayal At House on the Hill or [Arkham Horror], can be quite a bit more frustrating and nerve-wracking than say, a game of Settlers of Catan where all the players are making good-natured trades or a session of Dominion without attack cards and everyone can pursue their awesome strategies in peace. The goal is a collective feeling of success, where no one is losing to someone else at the table.

Strange, though, that over thousands of years of human history, humans apparently have only created competitive board games. Chess, mancala, go, pachisi, nine men’s morris – all pitched battles, invitations to no-holds-barred antagonism within the boundaries of the board. Why do collaborative games only appear in the more complex modern board games with their billions of tokens, cards, and rules?

One of the biggest challenges of collaborative games is preventing the most competent player from directing all the other players and transforming it effectively into a solitaire game. Players stand the best chance of winning if they share all the information and resources they have, creating complete transparency – which means that unless the players are perfectly evenly matched and already a great team, the so-called teamwork will mostly consist of acting out the strategies proposed by the one or two players with the keenest eye, the most experience, or the silverest tongue. Far from creating a sense of camaraderie, this recreates hierarchy.

The only way to prevent this for individual players to have an interest in not sharing everything they have with everyone else. The Resistance, some Betrayal At House on the Hill hauntings, and the Battlestar Galactica board game achieve this by making some players double-agents – while everyone else still has to work together to win the game, you cannot trust the person handing out tactics to be acting in your interests. They could well be a traitor! Or you could be the traitor! Though this type of game sounds a bit like cheating from the standpoint of solving the Director Dilemma – not everyone is on the same team in the end.

Another idea is for individual survival to be a big component – you can use your resources to further the team’s success only by jeopardizing your own ability to continue playing the game. This sounds harsh, but the penalty has to hurt enough to give the player a real reason not to put all her cards on the table, literally. The rules can’t simply require everyone to play with closed-hands when there is no incentive to do so. Counter-intuitively, only by reducing cooperative can truly collaborative play be achieved.

I think this increased need for balance is why classic games are overwhelmingly competitive. To create a virtual, non-player challenge, made only out of rules and playing pieces, one that is appropriate to a variety of skill levels and fun for any ol’ group of friends to confront and overcome without too much ease or frustration, is an inherently complicated thing to do.

Of course, if anyone knows of a truly good collaborative game with the elegant simplicity of a classic board game, please send it my way – I know I won’t give up on trying to design one myself, despite the apparent difficulties.

A world of security

Welcome to amateur historian hour! I’ve been reflecting on what will soon be two eight-year sets of two very different US presidential administrations. Perhaps it is only because this time period will make up the bulk of my politically-aware life, but it seems that the world has changed substantially in ways most of us don’t fully understand yet. The internet has transformed into the Cloud, and online social networking has become so pervasive that life, online or off, has myriad new modes for communication, entertainment, economics, marketing, and surveillance. In a way this is all old hat, tapping into our desire to gain and share knowledge, but at a scale and speed unimaginable even in the ‘old days’ of the web. I doubt we are anywhere close to settling into the final forms for these new add-ons of humanity, but if they ever do settle down into a stable set of customs, I doubt they’ll be predictable or recognizable – while at the same time, I would bet that humans themselves will stay very much the same precocious apes we are today.

But while Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Kickstarter, and all the rest (all soon to be superseded, I’m sure) may be the medium for contemporary life, they also provide a convenient way to gather information on us. It’s funny that when I learned of Snowden’s revelations of US government spying on its citizens, I was not particularly surprised. I think I’d always assumed they were watching and reading. And while we probably should be upset, the issues of privacy and security are not clear cut. For one, there is always the balance of security and liberty to consider. But even before that, there is the muddled idea of what we’re protecting in the first place.

On my sixteenth birthday, I went to school and played mini-golf with my family and friends in the afternoon. But the whole time I had one eye and at least half my attention glued to the television screen: the Twin Towers were falling endlessly on loop, and the once-comedic George W. Bush was giving serious and determined speeches. It was all too big and too far away to take in. At first there was a bout of patriotism, but soon the Neo-Conservative administration was swinging its weight (and its scary amounts of money) around, leading to increasingly violent foreign conflicts and a crack-down at home. All actions were justified with the rhetoric of protecting and spreading Democracy. But what the heck did that mean if Muslims, immigrants, and advocacy groups were targeted for persecution, illegal domestic surveillance was being conducted on a wide scale, suspected terrorists were being thrown in jail without trial, and any impediment to expedient government action was being removed? The threat of America becoming a warmongering police state got many Americans worried – my parents talked about, and eventually did, move abroad (for a brief stint, anyway).

My friend Emily pointed out that terrorists were probably not a real threat to the structure of the American government or two American lives and infrastructure. Which may be why the idea of Weapons of Mass Destruction was invented, to make Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein seem like viable enemies worth risking American lives to take down. But what they actually threatened was a set of ideas about American identity – they threatened our totem, the emblem of American solidarity, supremacy, and righteousness. The administration could remove individuals’ liberties, even threaten individuals’ wellbeing, all while acting in the name of security. The trick was that the thing they were trying to ensure the safety of was not people or even an institutional structure, but an abstract idea system.

It backfired, of course. They tried to strike fear into the citizenry in order to gain power and control, the way the government was able to do in the Cold War, but after the Weapons of Mass Destruction turned out not to exist in the first place, after the amped-up airport security was revealed to be merely security theater, and after more Americans, Afghanis, and Iraqis were killed than we could stomach in the name of protecting something that didn’t seem to need much protecting anymore, the myth of America the Great and Powerful soured anyway. Too many lies and too much death that in the end to protect no one’s safety.

The liberal and the progressive and the war-weary peaked out of our apathy bunkers when Obama came along, though, promising transparency and realism in place of misplaced idealism. I’m not sure what I expected, but what we’ve gotten is better than I feared and worse than I hoped. I’m still psyched about Obamacare, thank you very much, and the imminent threat of a new American imperialism has been slinking into a corner. Instead… we have a near-future-science-fictional world of mass surveillance operations and drone warfare.

It is probably too late to apply old notions of security and privacy in this vastly interconnected, online age. Convenience drives the sharing of this information, and people who had no say in whether the TSA was going to invade airports and take away your toothpaste have much more control over the inconvenient safeguards of the Cloud. Which is to say, there won’t be many. To secure your information, you have to give up the freedom of sharing it.

The government has simply taken advantage of the innately open nature of lives lived in the Cloud to get the information it really wants to do its job. I doubt there’s any twirling of mustaches involved – we’ve all rooted for the fictional cop breaking the rules to catch the perpetrator. We watch and read about characters who we know are on the side good perform an illegal wiretap or break into a building without a warrant. Red tape only slows our heroes down. But when we do not know the character doing the snooping, and especially when we’re being snooped ourselves, such vigilantism suddenly takes a sinister turn. It’s invasion of our privacy. And what you rarely see in fictional media is the number of false starts and fallacies that lead to innocent people getting investigated, arrested, and killed. More information can be helpful to create a more accurate picture, perhaps mitigating for our imperfect judgements, but it can also lead to more criminalization. To prevent real crimes, why stop things at thought crimes?

I’ve been riveted to the show Person of Interest. Now in its third season, it is positively prescient of the level of domestic spying being done by the NSA. Of course, unlike in the show, we don’t have a nearly sentient AI watching our every move nor a kindly team of vigilantes saving regular civilians and only aiming for kneecaps – but the show is careful to portray even the government’s interest in mass surveillance in a nuanced light. The intention is always good, it just manifests in warped ways. The government has a habit of setting priorities in such a way that it is willing to sacrifice the welfare of individuals for the good of the country. At least in the current Obama administration, it looks like what is being secured is supposed to be people rather than an ethically irrelevant totem.

The negotiation about security continues – the safety of individuals as balanced against the solidity of the government, the good of the few against the good of the many, the flesh-and-blood humans against the myths that define the nation-state. It’s been going on since the birth of this country, and much earlier besides. But so often the rhetoric forgets to define who and what is being protected when we talk about security. When no one bothers to make this explicit, we end up working at cross-purposes: the Bush administration jailed and killed innocent civilians along with dangerous criminals in order to fend off threats to its image and its power. Sacrifices to the God of America, to whom we should owe fealty. Now the rhetoric is more personal, more about individual safety and wellbeing: healthcare for all, drones and missiles that allow us to target enemies without risking our own troops (and theoretically minimizing the deaths of other civilians), and even the NSA’s spying. American Express recently put out ads vaunting its own benevolent surveillance AI. It’s meant as a personal protection service.

‘Are you too comfortable?’ What is this, dystopian fiction? It sounds like a government PSA from 1984!

Even benevolent protection can go awry. Police have shot many an innocent black man holding a can of soda, all because they were looking for patterns of threatening behavior. As a society, we have decide which entities need protecting, and how much convenience and freedom we are willing to sacrifice to that security. If a principle like civil rights gets high priority, then perhaps individuals should be disallowed from protecting themselves with guns. If the secrecy of our private information and communications is paramount, we may need to handicap our digital social networks and live with the fact that national security organizations will be working with certain blinders on. How and where we martial our forces of protection is not a matter of right or wrong, good or bad – it is a matter of compromise and politics. It is a conversation taking place at dramatic scales and involving the lives of millions. That is, I think, what has enlivened the soon-to-be-past sixteen of history. And why the world will continue to be unsettled, as new subjects, objects, and means of security unfurl in rapid succession, asking new questions before we’ve had a chance to fully consider the old ones.

The pregnant universe

Cosmological natural selection

Three reasons why I love Charles Sanders Peirce: semiotics (see also, my Reed thesis), map projections*, and inspiring theoretical physicist Lee Smolin to develop a theory of cosmological natural selection. The idea is that black holes – singularities – give birth to new universes with variations in their laws of physics (namely, the constants of the Standard Model). Over time, universes that are tuned in such a way as to produce more black holes will dominate the population of universes. And apparently parameters that are friendly to the development of black holes are also friendly to the development of life forms, meaning that our universe is, statistically speaking, one of the most common types – one selected for high black hole production.

It sounds fun and wacky at first, but this theory is testable by (among other ways) checking to see if our cosmological constants are in fact maximally black-hole-producing. Are there any neutron stars larger than the minimum possible mass for creating a black hole in any possible tuning of the Standard Model? If we find one, it means there are fewer black holes than the theory predicts, and just like that it’s falsified.

We haven’t yet, though. As Smolin points out, the ability of the theory to be falsified makes it a good one. Especially compared to the untestable, unfalsifiable theories out there based on the anthropic principle – the idea that our universe has laws hospitable to life simply because we wouldn’t be around to observe them in a universe without such laws. How convenient! I have no qualms about the anthropic principle, but it does make for a scientific dead end because it doesn’t explain anything. And perhaps we never will be able to explain why our universe has the laws it has, but that’s not a good reason to give up or resort to a belief that fundamentals are tested by their mathematical elegance. Even symmetries are only approximations, Smolin says: ‘Symmetries are common in all the physical theories we know… Yet if Leibniz’s principles [namely the principle of sufficient reason] are right, they must not be fundamental. Symmetries arise from the act of treating a subsystem of the universe as if it were the only thing that existed.’ (Time Reborn, p. 117)

Having grown up immersed in modern theoretical physics, this came as a bit of a shock. Sure, the inability to test string theory always made it seem rather like a house of cards, and Feynman’s writings taught me not to expect the mathematics of quantum electrodynamics to lead to an understanding of it. But Smolin stresses that all laws and models are only approximations. Mostly they take some part of the universe, put it in a box, and pretend nothing else interacts with it. All subsystems that we treat as isolated systems are actually open and interconnected, except for the universe (or multiverse) as a whole. Any model that describes a part of the universe incapable of explaining the whole thing, especially when models assume an external clock or observer. If you assumed things external to the universe, you’d just get fallacy turtles all the way down.

‘Experiments up to now have probed fundamental physics only down to a certain length scale… This means that the Standard Model of Particle Physics, which agrees with all known experiments so far, must be considered an approximation (besides the fact that is has nothing to say about gravity). It ignores currently unknown phenomena that might appear were we able to probe to shorter distances… The missing phenomena could include not only new kinds of elementary particles but also heretofore unknown forces.’ (p. 111) How exciting!

Basically such so-called effective theories are simple and elegant precisely because they are approximations. Like quantum electrodynamics, they are tools for describing and experimenting more than they are a window into an ideal, Platonic plane of pure mathematics undergirding our universe. Such a notion is untestable, yet I get the impression that it is a widely held belief amongst theoretical physicists (and heck, I’ve absorbed the assumption myself). This is a bit weird, actually, when you consider that quantum physics itself is founded on probabilities and statistics, things we usually associate with sociology, economics, and other fields that are governed by emergent laws rather than fundamental laws. Are particles fuzzy by nature, or is it only our current understanding of them that is nebulous, in an electron-cloud sort of way?

Now I’m getting in way over my head in a topic I’m nowhere near an expert in. I trust that Smolin, who keeps company with the likes of Hawking, Wheeler, and DeWitt, knows what he’s talking about. And anyway, his main purpose of this particular book I’m reading is not to detail the wonderfully imaginative theory of cosmological natural selection but to argue for the existence of time. Like the anthropic principle, the “fact” that time was another dimension just like the three spatial ones was something I’d come to terms with long ago. Of course time only seems to progress linearly in a particular direction because of some peculiarity of biology or psychology. So Smolin is unconvincing at the beginning of the book when he tries to appeal to my intuition that time must be real. Fortunately he quickly gets into the mechanics of his argument, first laying out the conventional ‘block universe’ model with its timeless spacetime and the arguments for doing away with a fundamental, universal notion of time. Then he introduces reasons why such a model doesn’t suffice.

Paraphrasing his paraphrase of Roberto Unger’s reasoning, timeless laws – laws of physics as we think of them, without beginning or end – make it impossible to explain why these laws and not others rule the universe, breaking Leibniz’s principle of sufficient reason again. Without time, the laws of physics exist outside of the relational universe (where everything is interconnected and anything that acts is itself acted upon) and therefore ‘outside the realm of rational explanation.’ To construct a cosmological theory – a theory that explains the universe without recourse to external clocks, observers, or arbitrarily-chosen mathematics – it must allow for the laws of physics to change. In other words, time.

I’m still not sure what the apparently-popular timeless model does with entropy, nor why an evolutionary model can’t use spatialized time. In fact, I am now totally confused about what time is and what the distinction is between the real time Smolin is advocating for and the timeless time he’s arguing against. Happily the many other ideas in the book make it engrossing nonetheless, besides which, I’m only halfway through.

*And now for one awesome map: Peirce quincuncial projection

Why AutoCAD is like Interactive Fiction

Using AutoCAD is a little like playing Zork. Think old-fashioned text-adventure games and interactive fiction that require you to type your actions: “pick up key,” “enter east door,” “examine mysterious artifact,” etc. This made a lot of sense when computers were text-based terminals without much in the way of graphics capabilities. AutoCAD, a piece of top-of-the-line drawing software used by architects, civil engineers, surveyors, and landscape architects, still looks like the 1980’s in all its 8-colors-against-a-black-background glory. And you have a handy command line through which you interact with it:

— “MVOE”

I’m sorry, I don’t understand MVOE.

– “MOVE”

Okay, you want to MOVE. What do you want to MOVE?

– Click some lines.

You can’t do that with those objects.

– Click some other lines.

Okay. Select origin point.

– “0, 0″ (I could click somewhere, but this is more in the spirit of things.)

Okay. Select destination point.

– Move mouse a bit to the right… easy does it… and type “5 FT”

You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.

– What!? “XYZZY”

You get eaten by a gru.

– That’s it, I’m getting out the trace paper and drafting dots.

I have heard it argued that text-driven interfaces can actually be more efficient. After all, language is an integral part of the human brain. Relying entirely on mouse clicks and icons can be inefficient, inaccurate, and unintuitive – the bandwidth is much higher with the entire keyboard at your command, and it doesn’t take much more time than pointing and clicking. Less time, in fact. But there is still something clunky about drafting, which is a visual and graphical enterprise, using words.

I think one of the problems is that AutoCAD has a lot of cruft from its long history. Each command is like a UNIX command-line program, with its own set of options and sometimes its own idiosyncratic way of inputing information. At least in the 2009 version I use at work, breaking a line into two parts requires you to select the line after typing the command (BREAK then click), whereas most commands will act on what you already had selected before typing in the command (click then JOIN). There are hundreds of commands at your disposal, and hundreds more if you want to program your own macros in LISP, so from this perspective typing is a good way to hone in on exactly what you want to do. Except that most of the time I’m using only a small handful of these many possibilities.


I like text-base interfaces, don’t get me wrong. Playing interactive fiction, even those with slightly-less-interactive clickable hyperlinks, quickly immerse you in the imagery that words convey. With the mind filling in the gaps, these worlds are infinitely rich. Graphical adventure games have their own charm – animations! funny voices! – but because thousands of pixels rather than dozens of words are used to convey the world around you, and define that world in more absolute terms, you often feel the need to click everything in a scene lest you miss something important. (I often feel this way in CAD when I want to grab many pieces of a complex object that I have neglected to put on its own separate layer. Curses.) But either way, text or graphical, game or tool, the best moments occur when the interface disappears and I am no longer directing it the computer to act for me – I am simply acting.

The jarring part is transitioning between the two modes of graphics and text. I usually type blindly, knowing by heart the sequence of information I need to enter, allowing me to focus my eyes exclusively on the visual content… until the inevitable mistype or more complex command that requires me to read the text at the bottom of the screen and engage in CAD’s inane dialogue. Sadly there are no hidden passages to discover or puzzles to solve on the textual side of things. It is simply a brief detour between mouse clicks.

Though sometimes the arcane oddness of the interface and my growing mastery of it culminate in the sense that drafting is somewhat punk. Like I am programming scenarios in WarGames or directing neon Tron warriors inside my computer to shift walls and multiply shrubberies and create the intricate, precise patterns of light that represent entire worlds. Worlds that may be less interactive, but also less fictional, than Zork.