Hot or Not?

I'm not sure what I think of Nabaztag. It's either one of the coolest ideas EVER, or it's completely stupid. I don't think there can be much middle ground with this thing.

But it points in a certain direction -- simple connectivity. Most devices that provide connectivity nowadays do so through a complex interface that requires substantial training and expertise to use. Nabaztag seems to let you be a lot more casual and still take advantage of high-tech possibilities. I'm sure there's some more or less complicated setup involved (picking sources for the little guy and configuring it, etc), but I think I get the idea and it looks pretty simple to use.

And I think the IDEA at least is killer -- a little guy that's plugged in so you don't have to be. Interesting how the world seems to be moving AWAY from the 80's cyberpunk vision of eternal connectedness -- even as connectedness become ubiquitous. If Nabaztag isn't the wave of the future, it's at least a reasonable look at the prevailing winds.


You Are In Love

Saw Brotherhood of the Wolf at the Festival here a few years back. Liked it okay -- painfully overcut, but otherwise some good stuff. Some time later Steph said, "Hey, remember that Italian actress from Brotherhood? The prostitute? She was really good -- she was in another movie, Tears of the Sun. Let's check it out."

Of course the woman in question is the actress Monica Bellucci, and is only one of an endless line of amazing actors that Steph has managed to pick out of the crowd and alert us to before we even know who they are. We have a whole "stable" of actors that she's identified as worth keeping tabs on. Sometimes we end up watching great actors in not-so-great movies (Tears of the Sun, say), but it's always thrilling watching somebody live up to the potential you see in them and deliver spectacular performances.

Now ordinarily I prefer subtitles to dubbing, since voice acting is if anything harder than normal acting, but Blaine's copy of Brotherhood doesn't include subtitles, so we watched it in English. And discovered that many of the actors did their own English dubs (since they're European and thus speak thirty languages) -- including Monica. So I grabbed a bunch of choice utterances, scrambled them up with a little Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass ("Green Peppers" from Whipped Cream and Other Delights), added a solid base of GarageBand loops and voila!

You Are In Love (We're Not Married)

Learned a lot listening carefully to Dmitri From Paris, Towa Tei and Coldcut on a recent trip to TO. It may not show, but I swear I learned it! I got more help from Steph, of course, than I did from any of them.

I Don't Like You Anyway

Bran Van 3000's album "Discosis" captivated me from the first moment I heard it, in a record store in Kyoto as Steph and I awaited our train back to Tokyo. I had no notion of BV3G as anything other than the one-hit wonder of "Drinking In LA", a tune I'd liked well enough back in the day but never really gave another thought to after its moment (it's really the "Life In A Northern Town" of 2000).

It remains one of my favourite albums, as much for its confusing jumble of themes and styles and genres (not to mention languages) as for the crisp muscianship and imaginative production. Sounds and voices come in and out, sudden and sharp or soft and gently announcing themselves. The whole album gives off an impenetrable aura of dreaminess, and I think that dreams and mystery are at the heart of this light-hearted but serious offering.

"It's so predictable to want to be so beautiful..."

What kind of music is this: electric beats and wistful acoustic guitars, overwrought diva vocals alongside freestyle rapping, spoken word tales that rewind and wrap around themselves, revealing a core of nothing but nonsense crafted from self-reference and wordplay.

But there's a running vein of ore under all the strangeness, a constant cautious exploration of dreams. Kermit the Frog flips off angry drivers while daydreaming of turning a traffic jam into a block party. A suburban girl's dreams of rock and roll trigger a cultural overload. A cultured fellow sends a message to a luscious actress which becomes a strange reversal of roles.

"I really can't recall who I was meant to be that day,
I'm an actress; I play so many roles.
But the script required Miss G,
that's who I was meant to be,
and I was just about to pick out the clothes
(when my crumpled paper ball
hit the floor beside you, it made no sense at all)"

Dreams of speed, of sex, of love, of transcendence. Transcending one's own identity, as the actress does (and ultimately her customer).

"Who do you want me to be?
Who do I want to be?
Who do you want me to be?
Fucking loaded."

The title, Discosis, suggests a play on psychological terminology, so maybe I'm not so far off here. Maybe the constant shifts and eruptions in the music reflect the constant stir and boil of our minds, where memories collide and come bubbling unexpected to the surface.

"One day God walked on old Mount Royal, just to dream of the human form,
through stones and cans and comic books in a kettle,
then you came out like a shining goddess of heavy metal.
It's too bad some hearts just don't settle,
and the pipes are leaking and you feel like leaving,
Yeah we've heard this one before.
Dear God, buddy, now don't you meddle,
cause I got my own twisted ways of showing you
that I do, yes I do, I love you in my own twisted way."

Strange stories like this litter the album, drifting along without seeming to resolve properly, transforming themselves from one tale to another. The way the songs reinvent themselves as they go on reflects the constant expressions of change, of the need for change and the desire through self-change to effect self-assertion.

"Do what you want to make the fuckers pay, don't waste your time and sleep your life away; I always meant to tell you I don't like you anyway..."


Lovecraft suggested that non-Euclidian geometry would drive human brains mad; that confronting realities other than the ONE reality we think we are familiar with would be such a shattering moment that our minds would never recover. His fiction, and the interminable repetition it has suffered at the hands of less-imaginative writers over the years since, works over this theme again and again, and non-Euclidian geometry gets brought numerous times as an example of that sort of mind-shattering alteration to reality.

Things We Were Not Meant To Know.

But non-Euclidian geometry has, so far, driven remarkably few people mad. It turns out that alternate models of reality are not only comprehensible; they're immensely useful.

For non-mathematicians of Lovecraft's time, the early 1900's might well have been around the time when non-Euclidian geometry was first getting considered and talked about, and no doubt there was plenty of confusion as to what it really was and what it meant. The first forms were discovered only in 1823, so it's not crazy that 80 years later it was hitting the non-expert populace.

(basically non-Euclidian geometry is geometry that defines "parallel" differently than what we normally think of as parallel. Sort of. Not a mathematician, over here. Go look it up if you want to know.)

It turned out to be far less shattering than people feared -- no more so than alternate number systems such as irrationals or worse imaginary numbers. It turns out that people are actually pretty good at holding simultaneously contradictory models of the world in their head. Which, when you think about it, is a pretty important skill to possess. That's what any artist or any craftsman does when they create. They imagine a world different from this one, a world in which their novel or server or toothbrush exists, and they act in order to transform the current world into the imagined world.

I recently re-read Douglas Hofstadter's landmark Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, and while deep in exploring Godelian gymnastics I realised again how critical MODELS are to our ways of thinking and seeing. It is the models by which I organize my perceptions that determine my reality -- as I change those models, I change the very world around me. Not to get all freaky and strung-out-60's-ish about it -- but it really is sobering to realise how many of the "facts" by which I guide my own decision-making are in fact models that I've generated about the world.

In response to statements like these (model = reality) people bring up physical issues ("Changing your models won't allow you to walk through walls"), which is fair enough, but you know, not many of the difficult decisions in my life have to do with physical issues. The TOUGH decisions in my life are always about how to handle or communicate with the folks in my life -- and in that arena my models really ARE of critical importance. And having multiple models that I can switch between is as immensely helpful to me as non-Euclidian geometry to assorted mathematicians.

Both Euclidian and non-Euclidian geometries are TRUE. Both describe the world accurately, depending on what aspects of the world I want to model. But the real power is not in using one or the other -- it's the ability to use BOTH, to hold them both in my mind simultaneously, that opens me up to honest, sincere change in myself and my world.

Now the models I use in my head are not easily available for my own review -- I can't print them out in a meaningful way. But I clearly can examine them, even if only incompletely, and I think it's reasonable to assert that I can also examine models that I DON'T use. In a way, that's what I do when I try to understand another person -- I'm trying to comprehend how their model works, so that I can compare it with those of mine that I'm aware of and decide if it offers any advantages.

And I don't go insane when I do. But I think Lovecraft touched on a very real fear of us all -- that by opening ourselves to possibilities, to models other than those that we're already comfortable with, we will imperil that deepest sense of ourselves. We cling to our models, and reject new ones out of hand, because we are afraid that we risk our identity. I know that when I react defensively, as I do so often when someone tries to present a model unfamiliar to me, or one that seems to conflict with ones I have already invested my pride and self-worth in, what I'm really doing is fighting to maintain my erroneous notion that my models are actually my reality. I'm pretending that if I consider alternatives, I will diminish myself, or maybe lose control of myself. When in fact, practicing my ability to hold multiple models simultaneously is really the strongest, most human thing I can do.

H.P. Lovecraft is wrong. Having your mind shattered is a GOOD thing.

Creepy and Beautiful

A wonderful example of how profoundly effective simple techniques, applied with imagination and artistry, can really be. Sophistication lies in perception and the ability to use "telling details" to make the story come alive.

Or, as in this case, to kind of fascinate, turn the stomach and widen the eyes with amazement all at the same time. Run Wrake (apparently the director) is to be praised for creating this weird and wonderful little visual fable.

Musings: Stories of the Tribe

This is something that's been brewing in my head for quite a while; I've finally got some time here to jot down my ongoing notions and see what comes of them.

I've been reading Harold Bloom (and he's a clever clog, no doubt) and considering the progress of humanity (something I do every Wednesday from 7 to 9) and one thing has occurred to me:

We (the human race, that is) have gotten better at lots of things over the record of civilizations. We run faster. We build higher building. We communicate more readily with folks around the world. We're taller (some of us). We're healthier (again, some of us). We live longer (on average, all of us). There's more of us.

Progress, ah, progress, it is a mighty thing. Enough to make you believe in destiny, in fate, in the eventual triumph of all our dreams.

But it occurs to me (and this ties into Hofstadter again) that there are also things we demonstratably HAVEN'T gotten any better at.

Telling stories.

In the 500 years since Shakespeare wrote, we haven't improved on his storytelling. Not in any consistent manner, at least. And before Shakespeare, it's pretty hard to demonstrate an ongoing and consistent line of improvement from Homer to the Bard. For all the things we do get better at year in and year out (building houses, making cars go faster, airplanes fly higher), it's striking how we are completely unable to get better at telling stories.

This isn't a rave-up for Shakespeare; substitute any names in there and the case remains. Even the most ardent post-modernist is going to have trouble showing how story-telling has gotten consistently better and better over the centuries.

How can this be? After all, we have all those centuries of experience behind us. Surely we can look back and learn lessons that Elizabethan dramatists never had the opportunity to. Surely the combined weight of all those wonderful story-tellers over the ages must combine somehow, as in science, to provide us with superior insights and tools and techniques. But no. Why not? Why is story-telling something that each generation must learn again?

In 500 years, how is it possible we haven't gotten any better at this? Heck, if you like The Iliad (which I do), we haven't noticeably improved in 3000 years.

And yet we understand human nature so much better. We understand the causes of our fears and anxieties, our obsessions and our passions to a degree far beyond what Homer or Dante or Shakespeare could possibly have done. We have reams of research on what makes people tick, on how they respond to danger or anger or frustration, that we ought to be better than they. We know so much more than they.

And yet, we don't tell stories any better than they.

We are story-telling animals. What makes us what we are is the set of stories we tell. Stories of ourselves. Of our ancestors, our tribe, our universe. By changing our stories, picking up new ones, forgetting old ones, adjusting the details, we change ourselves.

Yesterday was Remembrance Day. A day for telling stories. Stories of a nation's sacrifice. Of battles won and lost, of valour shown and young lives cut down. A nation must have its stories. Say to a Canadian: "Vimy Ridge, Flanders Fields, Dieppe, Juno" and a whole host of tales emerges, tales that define us as a nation. Without those stories and many more besides, what would link us to one another? We are Canadian because we share Canadian stories with each other.

This is how we form group identities -- through shared story-telling. With our families, our friends, classmates, co-workers -- any "tribe" exists in order to perpetuate its tales, the stories that evoke and its identity.

And yet we never get better at it. How is this possible? What does it mean?

I think that if there is such a thing as a soul, it lies right near this strange little bit of country. If there really is an irreducible part of each human being, something that is only theirs and cannot be further broken down into its constituent elements, cannot be reproduced or simulated, it is this. It is the stories we tell.

Will an artificial sentience tell stories? If it doesn't, is it sentient?

Whatever strange forms life may take in other parts of this strange universe, if it doesn't tell stories somehow, someway, I don't see how we can consider it sentient.

But if it does, and we learn to hear and share in its stories, perhaps then we will finally get better at this.

The Very Heart of the World

Steph's brother Steve passed this over to us. It is most definitely the coolest thing I've seen in some time. Six minutes of insane brilliance from Guy Maddin.

Guy Maddin = unbelievably cool