Monday, October 31, 2005

Is God in the pudding?

God doesn't exist.

As I've written here before, he once existed for me in a weak way. I've never believed intellectually, but there was a time when, under stress, I'd blurt out a vague prayer to someone or something, usually in the form of "Please, please don't let this happen to me!" It was less a belief in God than a belief in some sort of ordering force in the universe -- some force that was choosing to be unfair but which might be talked out of it.

Was this a shadow from my childhood? As a child, I did have "gods." They were "all powerful" beings who could dole out punishment or justice, according to their whims and my behavior. They were my parents. It is so much easier to have parents or gods than to live in a random universe. In a random universe stuff just happens; you don't matter. You're not UNimportant. That implies that there's a being that's choosing to ignore you. You're neither unimportant or important; you're not deserving of rewards or punishments; you're just are. There's no one there to care or not care about you; no one to punish or reward. Things will happen to you, good things and bad things. These things aren't messages or signs. "Shit happens."

Eventually, my intellect took over my emotions, and I lost the feeling of even a vague God. Now, when something goes wrong, I no longer say, "Please, please..." I know in my bones that no one is there. So why talk?

But very occasionally, I do still feel like I'm living in a universe that understands justice. I realized this about a year ago, as I was waiting for a train late at night. I was in a subway with four platforms, and it seemed like trains were coming to every platform except mine. This seemed so UNFAIR. As if some imp were taunting me. "Oh come ON," I kept saying.

But then I thought about probability. When a train comes, there's a one-in-four chance that it will come to my platform (a three-in-four chance that it won't). So it's much more likely that it WON'T come to my platform than it will. So lets say that a train comes to one of the other platforms. When the next train arrives, it once again has a three-out-of-four chance of arriving at another platform. With each train, the "dice" are re-rolled. There's no one tallying the previous rolls, saying "Shucks, six trains have gone by and none of them have been on that poor guy's platform. Let's give him a break." (There's also no jokester causing all trains to go to other platforms -- each train has a three-in-four chance of going to another platform. That is all.) If the dice are rolled a hundred times -- if a hundred trains come by -- about a fourth of them should be at my platform. But that doesn't mean that any will be there soon. It's perfectly possible to roll a die twenty times and not once see the number six show up. That's the sort of thing that happens with randomness.

It's so hard to give up the idea of a "parent." If there's no one in control, there's no one to complain to. It doesn't matter what I do. It doesn't matter if I'm a good person or a bad person. The train will come or it won't. I just have to wait and see. Having realized this, my subway religion is starting to fade. I only feel it when I'm really tired. Maybe one day it will be gone altogether. (I'm not suggesting that this is a good thing. It may be healthy to have certain illusions. But my history points to intellectual truths gradually becoming emotional truths. This seems to be the way I'm made.)

But I'm still deeply religious about food and dieting. I assume this is because food seems like such a reward. Anything that seems like a reward (or a punishment) triggers that religious feeling. As a kid, I got ice cream as a reward for eating my vegetables. So naturally it feels like a treat from the gods: something I get when I'm good. Something withheld when I'm bad.

For the past couple of years, I've been dieting and working out. Sometimes I lapse into bad habits. I recently gained five pounds. I'm trying to lose it, and I continually find myself thinking these sorts of thoughts:

-- It's only FAIR that I get to eat a cookie after working out so hard.
-- Damn! I rode the exercise bike for an hour really fast. Now I'm stepping on a scale and I still weigh the same amount as yesterday? That's not FAIR!
-- I had a really hard day at work today. I DESERVE some ice cream. (And this treat should NOT count towards my weight! I should get an exemption for being good!)
-- I didn't exercise today (or I overate). That makes me a bad person.
-- I worked out and ate only healthy, low-calorie food. That makes me a good person.

These are all fantasies. It's a pure numbers game. If I consume more calories than I burn, I gain weight; if I burn more calories than I consume, I lose weight. That's it. It's about as mechanical as a process can get. If I gain weight, I'm not a bad person -- I'm a heavier person. If I lose weight, I'm not a good person (but I may be a more attractive person or a more healthy person). If I have a hard day and I decide to eat a cookie, those calories from the cookie will affect me just as much as calories from any other day. Assuming these thoughts sink into my feelings, will this help or hurt my chances of losing weight? Do I need to be religious in order to diet? Or will I do better if I know my body for the contraption that it is?

I can also become religious about money (another reward/punishment trigger). "I deserve to buy myself something." Maybe so, but my bank account will still be drained after I do.

As a teenager, I read a story called "The Cold Equations" by Jerome Bixby. It was a science fiction story about a man traveling towards a planet in a small space ship. He discovered that a young girl had hid herself on board so that she could also get to the planet. The stowaway wanted to be with her boyfriend, who was stationed there. But her added weight meant that the ship would crash. If the pilot threw her out into space, he would be able to land safely; if he kept her onboard, they would both surely die. There was no one to appeal to. It was a just numbers game. Cold equations.

Friday, October 28, 2005

the imaginary workshop

When I discuss stories with other people, we often exchange the following sort of comments:

Me: It doesn't make sense that a ghetto-guy like the hero would never swear.

Other person: Well, I cut the writers some slack, because they're writing for network television.

Me: There's a mistake on page six: Boa constrictors aren't green.

Other person: Well, you can't expect the author to be an expert on everything.

Me: How could they have blasted off from the planet when five minutes before that they clearly said they were out of fuel?

Other person: Hey, I'll forgive them for that, because the space battles are so cool.

Coming up for air from these arguments, I am always baffled. "Cut the writers some slack"? "Forgive them"? I don't get it. It's not that I expect writers to be perfect. I've written stories, and I know how hard it is. But when I'm reading a story, I'm not thinking about the writer; I'm thinking about the story. If there's a mistake in the story, there's a mistake in the story. I can "forgive" the writer or "cut him some slack" but after I do, there's STILL a mistake in the story. What's the point of "forgiving" the writer, anyway? I don't know him. He doesn't know me. He won't know that I've forgiven him. Heck, he doesn't know he ever offended me in the first place.

It's as if these other readers participate in an imaginary writer's workshop, in which the author is also a member. And they want to encourage him to continue writing, so they're willing to put up with a few mistakes.

I wonder what these readers do when they eat a slice of a cake in which the baker accidentally substituted salt for sugar. They may wish to spare the baker's feelings. So they may say, "Thank you so much for the yummy cake" while clandestinely spitting it into their napkin. This is admirable. Who wants to hurt the baker's feelings? But that doesn't change the fact that the cake tastes bad. The baker's feelings and the taste of the cake are two different things. And there's something odd about being MORE concerned about the baker's feelings than the taste of the cake, if you don't know the baker -- if you're eating a packaged cake you bought at the supermarket.

I have a strong desire to make a loud, startling noise -- maybe bang a couple of cymbals together -- and wake these readers out of their dreams. I want to say to them, "Look, there was a mistake in the story. Did you notice it?" If not, fine. Then THAT'S why the mistake didn't bother them. They can't be bothered by something they don't notice. Sometimes I don't notice a mistake until the fifth time I read a story. At which point it DOES bother me. But it didn't bother me the first four times I read the story, because I didn't know it was there.

Or maybe these people DID notice the mistake, but other elements of the story were so compelling that they were able to stay emotionally engaged with it anyway.

Or maybe they don't read for emotional engagement in the first place. Maybe they read in order to participate in an imaginary relationship with the author -- to cheer him on. Actually, this is a kind of emotional engagement, though very different from the kind I seek. I like the engagement of believing in a fictional world. And it's hard to believe in a world in which rockets can take off without any fuel or in which ghetto guys say "golly" and "heck."

Here's another phrase I hate: "suspend your disbelief." I don't hate it in theory, but I hate the way it's commonly used -- as if it's something the reader is supposed to do (out of fairness to the writer) as opposed to something the writer should try to make the reader do.

Me: it doesn't make sense that Phillip can fly in chapter two when in chapter one it clearly states that people on his planet don't have the power of flight.

Other person: Man, I think you need to learn to suspend your disbelief.

I hate this, because it's not something I can learn to do. I'm tempted to write "it's not something anyone can learn to do," but I try not to presume what goes on in other people's heads. Can one really CHOOSE to believe or not to believe? If so, then why not choose to believe you're a multi-millionaire with a harem of nubile babes waiting for you in your bedroom?

I either believe or I don't. Sometimes something really thrilling happens. Sometimes a gifted writer persuades me that something impossible is really possible -- at least in his fictional world. Through attention to detail and inner coherence, he makes me believe in magic. And I DO suspend my disbelief. Or, to put it in a less pedantic way, I believe.

(Children, clap your hands if you've suspended your disbelief in the non-existence of Tinkerbell.)

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Literary Mashups: a new game

I have invented a new game called "Literary Mashups." Here are the rules:

1. Pick a book at random, open it to a random page, and (without looking) point to a sentence. Write that sentence down.

2. Now choose another book -- something very different from the first book. Using the same process, pick a random sentence from this second book and write it down.

3. Pretend the two sentences are from the same book. Write a "bridge" between them so that they make sense together.

4. Try to make your bridge short and simple.

Here are some examples.:

The purpose of the table is to establish the connections between the nodes.
--"AI for Game Developers" by David M. Bourg and Glenn Seeman

I went in -- after making every possible noise in the kitchen, short of pushing over the stove -- but I don't believe they heard a sound.
-- "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The purpose of the table is to establish the connections between the nodes. But even though they were all seated around it, they refused to talk to each other. They didn't react at all, even when I banged my fists on the table. Fine, I thought, be like that. I got up and walked out of there and into the kitchen, which was warm and homey. Why should I ever have to go back in that dining room with those nodes who care about nothing, who care about no one? But I know my duty. I went in -- after making every possible noise in the kitchen, short of pushing over the stove -- but I don't believe they heard a sound.


I own the property, my mother owns the property.
-- "Glengarry Glen Ross" by David Mamet

Through Uncle Abe, I was drawn into the history of "cold" light -- luminescence -- which started perhaps before there was any language to record things, with observations of fireflies and glowworms and phosphorescent seas; of will-o'-the-wisps, those strange, wandering, faint globes of light that would, in legend, lure travelers to their doom.
-- "Uncle Tungsten" by Oliver Sacks

I own the property, my mother owns the property. Uncle Able is just a lodger. Mother hates him. "No good layabout," she calls him. "Bum!" She shakes her head and says, "Stop staring at the chandelier. Stop playing with that candle. Do something useful!" Uncle Abe just laughs, turns to me and winks. Or he hands me an old cigarette lighter or sometimes a tiny flashlight. Through Uncle Abe, I was drawn into the history of "cold" light -- luminescence -- which started perhaps before there was any language to record things, with observations of fireflies and glowworms and phosphorescent seas; of will-o'-the-wisps, those strange, wandering, faint globes of light that would, in legend, lure travelers to their doom.


Ray Porter parks the car and enters the house in the most efficient way.
-- "Shopgirl" by Steve Martin

Now I do turn to look at her, too uncomprehending to conceal it.
-- "Spies" by Michael Frayn

Ray Porter parks the car and enters the house in the most efficient way. I follow him. She's waiting for us in the hall, below the stairs. She doesn't speak. Neither does Ray. He pulls a gun from his jacket and points it at her. I turn and peer out the window into the night. We're alone. We're miles from anywhere. "Well?" Ray asks her. "Well, what?" she says without a pause. I keep looking out the window, refusing to look into her eyes. She says, "Are you going to shoot me before you die or are you just going to die?" I don't know what she's talking about, but I hide my puzzlement. "You do know this house is surrounded, don't you?" Now I do turn to look at her, too uncomprehending to conceal it.


The head can go up and down, side to side, back and forth.
-- "The Animator's Survival Kit" by Richard Williams

Harry Levin, brooding on this, aptly described "Hamlet" as a play obsessed with the word "question" (used seventeen times), and with the questioning of "the belief in ghosts and the code of revenge."
-- "Shakespeare the Invention of the Human" by Harold Bloom

The head can go up and down, side to side, back and forth. But this outer movement is far outpaced by the movement within, which can zigzag, hop from one place to another, and even teleport -- for the mind's destinations needn't be contiguous. This extraordinary vehicle, the mind, is never so swift as when it's asking questions. And the supreme questioner was Shakespeare, who asked all the questions that needed asking. Harry Levin, brooding on this, aptly described "Hamlet" as a play with the word "question" (used seventeen times), and with the questioning of "the belief in ghosts and the code of revenge."


The four scientists were not the first to study frog vision.
-- "The User Illusion" by Tor Norretanders

"I am laying down good intentions, which I believe durable as flint."
-- "Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Bronte

The four scientists were not the first to study frog vision. But they were certainly the last. One by one they died, until Jennings was the only one left. "We thought we could find a cure for blindness," he explained. "What fools we were." He said nothing for a minute, then, "You know, I was only trying to do some good in this world. Who knew good intentions could kill?" He sighed deeply, gathered his papers, and walked to the door. Before leaving he said, "I am laying down good intentions, which I believe durable as flint."

the best form of drama

The best form of drama is television. That's a biased statement, so I will explain my biases below. It's also an eccentric statement. Most critics call TV the bastard cousin of film. To address this, let me point to the word "form" in my biased statement: Television is the best FORM of drama. It's the form with the most potential. It's the best medium for great storytelling. Which doesn't mean it tends to be used to its full potential. Generally, TV-storytellers don't deserve their platform. They produce trash. But there are and have been shining examples which give us a glimpse of what TV could be. I suspect no one has yet pushed this medium to it's true potential, but the history of television is still young.

Okay, my biases: I consume stories for one reason only -- so that I can get the feeling of living in another world. I'm not (necessarily) talking about science fiction. The other world can be a version of contemporary New York. Every story (on television, in a book, in the cinema, etc.) creates a unique world with it's own rules. I read to escape my world and jump into that one. ANYTHING that hinders the sensation that the story-world is real detracts from the experience.

When people hear I love escapist literature, they often recommend genre novels and sci-fi shows. Though I love these sorts of stories when they're well crafted, they are usually so shoddy that I can't sink into their worlds for more than a few seconds. People usually assume that I don't care about writing style. But I care deeply. I care deeply because bad writing makes me aware of the artist's poor craftsmanship. And then I am thinking about the artist, which means that I am remembering that the world isn't real (that it is a fabrication, created by an artist), in which case I can't immerse myself in the world. For similar reasons, I'm anal about plot errors, bad acting, cliched dialogue, unbelievable psychology (the WORST error!) and other gaffs. I don't try to pick nits; I just don't like being reminded that a fictional world is fake. And errors remind me of this. It's like being torn out of a dream. This is also why I don't like didactic stories. If I'm aware that the author is teaching me a lesson, then I'm aware of the AUTHOR, not his world. For the same reason, I abhor clunky, obvious exposition.

I know that there are many other kinds of reader/viewers. Which is why I'm admitting that these are MY biases.

Anyone who shares my biases will understand why I prefer long stories to short ones. Assuming it's well crafted, a long story allows me to stay in its world longer than a short story. And since my goal is to stay in the world as-long-as possible, I'm grateful when it goes on and on and on. So I adore long novels like "War and Peace" and the more recent "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel." I want to live with characters for so long that they seem as real as people in my life. I want to fall in love with them. I want to grieve when they die.

Though I dearly love literature, immersion in a world is so much easier in visual storytelling (assuming the story well made). You don't have to imagine a street in ancient Rome. You SEE the street. You see the clothes; the buildings; the food; the dirt. Movies and television are the closest I can get to visiting other worlds without joining the space program. I will be forever grateful for this amazing technology and the for luck that I was born in a time when I could enjoy it.

Film and theatre are wonderful, immersive forms, but they are lacking one thing: duration. You can't immerse someone in a film version of "War and Peace" as deeply as you can in the novel, for the simple reason that you can't hold people in a theatre for more than a few hours. Occasionally someone experiments with an episodic sequence of films ("Lord of the Rings," etc.), but it takes so long to crank each installment out that one loses any sense of continuity. And even these series tend to be relatively short. Clearly, Peter Jackson felt he didn't have enough time to film Tolkien's whole story. He released many scenes only on the DVD versions, and even with these scenes, the story was truncated. [Incidentally, I HATED those films. To see why, read this.]

The hero is television. It provides the same visual (and auditory) immersion as film, but it can tell stories that are many hours long, in the form of episodes. These episodes can be disseminated quickly, one each week for a whole season, so one doesn't lose the thread. And one of the great new joys of the 21st Century is the advent of TV series on DVD. One can watch as many hours straight as one likes. This brings TV much closer to providing a similar experience to that of reading a long, involving novel.

Too bad TV screens are so small, compared to movie screens. A huge screen that engulfs one's whole visual field is a huge aid to immersion. Seeing "2001: A Space Odyssey" on the big screen is like actually being in outer space. Seeing it on TV is like having a small portal to outer space in your living room. But televisions are gradually getting larger. I'm confident that one day I'll own a screen that fills my entire living-room wall. (Truth is, the cinema generally teases me with the lure of immersion, but it rarely delivers. Even if the film is wonderful, the audience is usually impossible. It's hard to sink into a world when the guy behind me is shout-whispering, "WHAT DID HE SAY?!?" At home, though I'm forced to watch on a small screen, I can control the surrounding environment. If you try to call me when I'm immersed, you won't get through -- the ringer is turned off.)

So now you know why I love TV. I love it in theory. I hate most of the actual shows. But here are some I love, most of which are old (but available on DVD): "I, Claudius," "Upstairs Downstairs," "The Charmer," "Northern Exposure" (I've only watched the first season), "Paradise Postponed," "To Serve Them All My Days," "Freaks and Geeks," "The Sopranos," and "Deadwood." (Incidentally, most of the great shows of the 70s and 80s came from England. The late 80s and most of the 90s were, as far as I can tell, a wasteland. Suddenly, great television is coming from the US -- mostly from HBO. HBO is the BBC of the early 21st Century.

It's boring to talk about what makes most TV bad. Most of it is bad because it's horribly written -- containing writing mistakes that wouldn't (or shouldn't) get a passing grade in a freshman composition class. The characters are cliched types, the stories are trite moralistic sketches, the dialogue is crafted by someone with a tin ear, and the plots are impossible. I have no time for this crap. I have no time for the beautiful girl who hangs out with her dumpy (but wisecracking) best friend or the wasp lawyer whose buddy is a black guy from the ghetto. These "conventions" are an insult to my intelligence and as such should be outlawed. Let's talk about something more interesting.

TV's greatest asset -- it's ability to deliver lengthy stories -- is also, often, its downfall. The BEST shows on network television generally suck because they have no dramatic arc. The writers can't craft an ending because they must keep the series going and going until the ratings drop. This generally means that even good shows will keep going until they are bad shows. Which -- in an ONGOING story -- kills the whole project. If "Law and Order" ever goes South, it won't be the end of the world. Each story is self-contained. So later goofs won't mar earlier triumphs. (On the other hand, "Law and Order," being a series of short stories, can't ever give me that "War and Peace" thrill.) I'm currently enjoying the series "Lost," but I'm nervous about giving so much time to it, because I read an interview with the producers in which they admit that they MUST keep the show going indefinitely, until the ratings slide. How can one possibly produce a good story under these conditions. One is forced to either write each episode without knowing the shape of the story it's apart of. Or, if there's a loose shape, one must keep inserting gratuitous filler to padd the story so that it lasts longer.

At the BBC, they have the right idea. What we call a season in the US, they call a series: "The Office, Series One," "The Office, Series Two." This affords them them the ability to keep the show going as-long-as it's popular (just keep creating series after series) without jeopardizing the quality of an individual "season." Since a season is a series, it must tell a complete, satisfying story by itself. Future series might extend earlier ones, but each one is somewhat self-contained. Why does this simple idea so rarely translate across the Atlantic? HBO seems to have FINALLY gotten the idea. Which is one of the reasons their shows are so good.

But this idea, when taken to extremes can be a curse instead of a blessing. Recently, I've been watching a sci-fi show called "The 4400" on DVD. It's not great, but it kills an hour for me while I'm working out on my stationary bike. My problem is that they've attempted to replicate the BBC-series idea on an episode-by-episode basis. "The 4400" IS an ongoing story. Episodes often end in cliffhangers which propel you into the next episode. But each episode also contains,as a subplot, a self-contained story. "ER" also does this, as do many other shows. I HATE this hybrid format. I hate it because it's SO obvious that the "special guest stars" are going to have to die or move on by the end of the episode. I can't invest any real emotion in them. They are wasting my time. I just want to get on with the MAIN story.

A similar problem occurs in shows that are set in dangerous worlds (i.e. "Lost") in which major characters are not allowed to die. There's no risk. One is supposed to be scared about so-and-so's fate, but the whole thing is stupid, because the guy is OBVIOUSLY going to live. He's the star of the show! I won't create a spoiler here, but I will say to anyone who has never seen it, that midway through "Upstairs, Downstairs," there is a huge event (i.e. something like a main character's death) that propels the entire series in a fascinating, unforeseen direction. "The Sopranos" does this too (hooray for them!), as does "Deadwood" (which is somewhat constrained by history). I would cheer if halfway through a season of "24", Jack Bower would take a fatal bullet. (Not because I hate him. I enjoy him immensely. But I love good storytelling even better. And I love to be surprised. I want the producers to be one step ahead of me.) That would be a huge act of bravery on the part of the producers.

Big budgets can kill a show. This isn't necessarily true, but it's often true in practice. When producers can't rely on big effects, there's nothing left but writing and acting. Those facets are either amazing or the show dies (and good riddance). If you have any doubt about this, compare the wonderfully cash-poor "I, Claudius" with the so-so (but wealthy) "Rome." (Which is slowly getting better, but what a lousy start!)

Here's my formula for a great show. Producers, get your out notebooks and write this down!

-- Hire the best writers and actors you can find. Everything else is less important.

-- Craft a long but complete story. Know the entire story BEFORE you film the first episode.

-- When the story is over, it's over. If someone offers you a lot of money to keep it going,
turn them down. It's fine to create sequels.Sequels are new stories based on earlier stories.

-- EVERY scene in each episode must move the main series story forward. Gratuitous scenes with "special guest stars" are not allowed.

-- NOTHING gratuitous is allowed. "Gratuitous" doesn't mean sex and violence. ANYTHING that doesn't move the main story forward is gratuitous. That includes jokes (unless they help move the stories forward). Your job, as producer, is TO TELL THE STORY. That is your only job. You have no other job.

-- If a character no longer serves the story, he must go. I don't care if he's the star.

-- When you're given your budget, surprise the studio executives by saying "we'll only need half of that." Make sure that your budget is so low that you're scared shitless. Then solve budgetary problems through great storytelling.

-- Avoid formulas like the plague. Audiences should NEVER be able to guess the outcome of the current episode by studying previous episodes.

-- Obvious exposition is NOT allowed. PERIOD. The following comes straight from the devil: "It sure is nice to live in New York in the year 2023." People don't talk like that. Find another way!

-- If an actor dies or quits, write their character out of the series (and use the opportunity for story innovation). NEVER replace that actor with with another actor playing the same character. That's insane.

-- Actors may NOT play multiple parts in the same series. That's also insane. (Do you hear that "Law and Order" producers? We remember that the criminal in this episode was the judge last year! There's no shortage of actors in the world. Find someone else!)

-- NEVER try to appeal to every demographic. Don't throw something in for the kiddies, something in for the working Mom's and something for the Baby Boomers. Pick an audience (preferably people like you) and write for THEM.

-- If there's a popular show on another network, it's popular because it's well written and well acted. Remember that when you try to copy it. It's not good because "Sci-fi is in right now." Specific genres are never "in." What's "in" is good craftsmanship.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

See Me! Feel Me! Touch Me!

Am I the same "me" as I was when I was a small child, yesterday or five minutes ago? Is it fair to punish me for a crime that an earlier "me" committed? Theodore Sider's explores these ideas in an essay here (pdf file):

It's a well-written, entertaining and lucid survey to the philosophical questions that surround personal identity.

I think many philosophers start from an odd premise (it's intellectually odd, but understandable from an emotional point-of-view). The (generally) unstated assumption is "we WANT personal identity to exist, and we want it to exist free of illogic, so sets see how we can reason it to be so." The same assumption underlies most discussions of Free Will.

(For centuries, philosophers played this game with God. "God must exist," they said, "so lets try to work the logical kinks out of a universe with a god." Few were willing to say, "What if God doesn't exist? Does that elimantate the kinks?")

Few people are willing to say, "It FEELS like there's such a thing as a 'me', but maybe that's an illusion. Maybe THAT'S why I keep hitting walls of illogic -- because I believe in an illusion." Again, people feel the same way about Free Will (it's a linked topic to identity). We FEEL like we have free will, so we assume it exists. But does a feeling, no matter how strong, really point to a facet of the physical world?

I think it's fine to assume something exists and then try to show a logical framework for it. Often good science proceeds this way (testing a hypothesis). But one should be honest about one's methods. ("I know 'me' might be an illusion, but I'm going to assume it exists and see what happens.")

I suspect that there is no "me" -- or rather that "me" is an interpretation (i.e. a sort of metaphorical thinking) that we use to make sense of our world. The interpretation is imperfect, but that's okay. It's generally good enough. But if you act like it's a description of physical reality, you will eventually run into contradictions and absurdities. It's one of those concepts that help you get through the day, and as-long-as you don't think about it too deeply, you'll be fine.

Let's say I walk into a transporter. It's supposed to obliterate me and then make an exact copy of me somewhere else. But it malfunctions and creates a copy without destroying the original.

The copy will FEEL like it's me. And I will also feel like I'm me. There's no contradiction here, unless you insist on dubbing one of us "the REAL me." If you insist on this, then you run into all sorts of absurdities. The fact that we really FEEL like insisting on it (there MUST be a real me) doesn't mean that there is a real me. It just means we have a really strong feeling. Just because reality makes us uncomfortable, that doesn't stop it from being reality. In fact, reality is reality even if it's unbearable. Or inconceivable.

Let's say the copied me goes home (to what he FEELS is his home) and takes up where I left off -- living with my wife. She will feel as if she's still living with me. To her, the copy IS me. Her experience of me is from the outside -- via my actions, my appearance, my smell, etc. That is how she chooses (or is forced by her brain) to define me. And since the copy meets those requirements, to her it IS me.

I arrive home a few weeks later and am horrified. From my point of view, the guy kissing my wife is an imposter. I am the real me.

Who is right? Answer: both of us. We're both right, because though we seem to be answering the same question (Who is the real me?) we are actually answering two totally different questions. I am answering "Who is me from my point-of-view?" My wife is answering "Who is me from her point-of-view?"

She may have a hard time, now that there are two MEs. Her brain is going to push her really hard to point to the "real" me. Maybe she'll make some arbitrary choice, just to preserve her sanity. But there IS no real me. There are two versions of something me-like. There's no deep intellectual problem here (there IS a deep emotional problem) unless you insist that there MUST be a real me. (Of course, "real" is just a word, and "The Real Me" is just a title. We can bestow that word and title on anyone we want. We can arbitrarily choose some definition of "real," or we can choose a definition that makes people feel most comfortable, in which case we're admitting that "real" is a metaphor -- a human mental construct -- not a description of reality.)

Similarly, there's no deep problem when you see a dozen cans of Coke in the grocery store. We agree that they are all Coke cans. Since we're not emotionally invested in there being a primary Coke can, we're fine with doing this.

Fidelity plays a role here: think about video tapes of movies. My VHS of "The Godfather" is missing information that's in the original film. There are no scenes missing, but it doesn't look as good as the theatrical version. If I look really closely at the image on the screen, I'll see it's somewhat degraded -- lacking the resolution of the film version. But to me it's still "The Godfather." I've decided -- or my brains has made me decide -- that this level of coarseness is good enough. Someone else might differ. "Good Lord! That's not 'The Godfather'! It's a travesty of 'The Godfather!'" Who is right? Both of us! Neither of us! It's a low-res Godfather (which I simply call "The Godfather"). It is not a high-res Godfather (which my friend calls "The Godfather"). We run into trouble when we perversely insist that there must be ONE Godfather.

If the world was full of malfunctioning transporters, we'd have all sorts of problems -- which copy should be punished for a crime? Who should be allowed to spend money from a bank account? Etc. And, as the Sider essay suggests, we may already have these problems (Is it okay to punish someone for a crime they committed 5 years ago? Is the present person and the past person really the same person?). But these are practical problems, not philosophical problems. They all assume identity exists and then try to grapple with what POLICY we should pick when identity issues become complex.

I think we're trapped with the illusion of identity -- just as I think we're trapped with the illusion of Free Will. We can't NOT feel identity. We can't NOT feel free will. (Many people can't NOT feel God.) So it makes sense to come up with practical solutions to problems created by the feelings (feelings generated by illusions). That illusions are false. The feelings are real.

Monday, October 17, 2005

you can't always get what you want, but you will always want what you want

People keep fighting over rights to art. The artist wants to own his creation, and, as owner, dictate to what extent consumers can touch it with their grubby little fingers. But consumers sneer at touching. Consumers don't just want to touch. Consumers want to consume! They want it all. They want to snatch the work from under the artist's pillow and run away with it. They want to play it backwards and forwards, rewrite it, put stickers all over it, have sex with it, rip it to shreds, lick it all over, etc.

The artist won't let go. He clings to his work. "It's mine!" he says. "You can look, but don't touch!" But if we can't touch, we lose interest. The artist yearns for our interest, so he lets us touch -- a little, and is dismayed that this only makes us want more. There are only two ways he can keep us at bay: he can keep his works locked in his basement, or he can produce only humdrum works. If he keeps his work in the basement, we'll never see it. If we don't see it, we won't praise its maker. Its maker craves praise, so the basement is out. We also won't praise humdrum work. So the artist tries to make his work as exciting as possible. He pours his heart, soul and guts into it. As it gets better, we praise it more, but we also covet it more. So the artist is trapped. He needs praise and control, and he can't have both.

Consumers are stuck in their own trap. They love to possess, but they also want to be told what to do. They want a guru to guide them; but they also want to be left alone to do what they like. They want to take the artist's work and stomp up and down on it until it's smashed into pieces. Then they want to bring the pieces back to the artist and ask him to put it back together again (so that they can stomp on it and break it again!). But the artist says, "Fuck you! You stole it from me and smashed it? Well, it's yours now. YOU fix it!" Or he chains it to the wall so they can't steal it in the first place, in which case their desire to meddle is thwarted.

(Yes, there's another player in this game: the Media Holder. But he is boring. He just wants to make money. Naturally, he wants to spread the work to as many consumers as possible, because that's how he makes money. And naturally he wants to spread without giving up full control, because once he gives up full control, he can no longer make money. (If consumer's have full control, they don't need to pay the Media Holder.) He also can't make any money if he gives up NO control, because the only way to do that is to keep his wares in the basement. And consumers won't pay if they have no access. So the Media Holder, like the artist, is in the horrible position of needing to give up some control but not all control. His motives and end goal -- making money -- are obvious, so we won't discuss him further.)

Parents should empathize with artists. Parents want to control their kids, but they also don't want to control their kids. Parents want their kids to have some autonomy but not total autonomy. But once kids get a small taste of autonomy, the go crazy and become anarchists.

Kids -- even grownup kids -- want to be free, but they also want to be controlled. They defy anyone who stands in the way of fulfilling their urges. Yet they long for the comfort of the womb and absolution from heinous responsibility. "Give me back my God damned cigarettes," they say. "But do my taxes!"

These are all primal human urges. You can't stop them. They are with us. We fear loss of control, but we pine for the intimacy that we only get when we give up control. We balk at chains, but we secretly dream of being locked in a comfy room with a lifetime supply of chocolate. And it's possible these urges will always be in conflict. Maybe that is human nature. Or maybe there is a way to end the war. But there's one thing we can know for sure: the war will never end if we deny our natures.

If consumers download mp3s without paying, the artists will scream. That is his nature.

If artists ban free mp3s, consumers will scream. That is their nature.

If there's a solution -- a means for everyone to be happy -- then it must involve some method of bestowing a feeling of ownership on the artists (even if they don't literally own their works) and a feeling of free use on the consumers (even if they aren't literally free to do what ever they want). Primal needs are satisfied by the bestowment of satisfying feelings.

It's worth striving for these goals, because threatened artists produce shoddy art. We want artists to feel safe so that they can focus on their work. We all benefit from that. And consumers grow when they are allowed free play -- when they can let a work of art take them anywhere; when they can take a work of art anywhere.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

My Two Things

I just discovered The Two Things. It's a site of pure genius. "For every subject, there are really only two things you really need to know. Everything else is the application of those two things..."


The Two Things about Advertising:
1. Get people's attention
2. Overwhelm them with charm.

Some of them are profound and really seem to peg a discipline's essence:

The Two Things about Non-profits:
1. You have to look like money to get money
2. Everything is mission-critical

The Two Things about Advertising:
1. Get people's attention
2. Overwhelm them with charm.

Some are like simple, lovely poems or haikus:

The Two Things about Boxing:
1. Hit.
2. Don't get hit.

Some (many) are funny:

The Two Things about Biology:
1. Evolution is the process through which genetic structures that are better equipped to reproduce viable copies will tend to proliferate.
2. Except for the Platypus.

I tried writing some of my own (below), about the things I do. After coming up with each of them, I asked myself "If I was allowed a third thing, what would it be?" In every case, a third thing seemed less important (and not really essential) than the two I had already listed. So I asked myself, "What if I was only allowed one thing?" In each case, one thing didn't seem enough to describe the job.

The Two Things about Directing:
1. Know the story.
2. Watch and listen.

The Two Things about Teaching:
1. If the student doesn't learn, it's your fault.
2. The student is not required to do anything.

The Two Things about Web Design:
1. People have short attentions spans.
2. People can't read red text on a red background.

The Two Things about Acting:
1. Learn your lines.
2. Listen and respond.

The Two Things about Animation:
1. Timing.
2. Patience.

The Two Things about Storytelling:
1. Lie about anything except psychology.
2. If it doesn't move the story forward, axe it.

The Two Things about Drawing:
1. How does the line you're drawing affect the immediate area of the page surrounding it?
2. How does it affect the entire page?

The Two Things about Programming:
1. Does it work?
2. Could another programmer understand it?

The Two Thing about Marriage:
1. Her.
2. Me.