Future Islands

22 Mar 2014

Tim Jonze for the Guardian:

The eye contact. The sincere chest thumping. The limbo dancing right at the end, which comes straight after that stomach-churning, guttural roar. The whole thing is strangely unsettling, incredibly moving and brave enough to risk teetering to the very brink of out-and-out hilarity without quite falling off the edge.


Alexis C. Madrigal for The Atlantic

The vexing, remarkable conclusion is that when companies combine human intelligence and machine intelligence, some things happen that we cannot understand.

Netflix is a remarkable company. Google may deal with more sheer data, but Netflix has come to understand its data better – the impressiveness of the way that it navigates the complexities of categories and genres. The grammar of film and television is still being composed: What is the syntax of the silver screen? The morphology of cinema? The pragmatics of script?

These questions go far beyond the precision with which Netflix recommends content, just as understanding the form of the novel was about more than simply selling copies. Thomas Pynchon and James Joyce, masters of paragraph landscape and sentence construction. Netflix is not engaged in comparable projects to Gravity’s Rainbow or Ulysses – as good as Orange is the New Black and House of Cards may be, they do not radically break the form.1 It is a first step though, one of analysis and understanding.

I am inclined to reject that the results of our thought and action are unintelligible. Ignorance, deliberate or otherwise, perhaps, but I distrust those that claim inadequacy. It may be true that we are lacking, but drive in the face of the impossible is the very marker of our being. Is it incomprehensible? Attempt at comprehension. Does it appear to be impenetrable? Try to pass through. Meekness in spirit all but ensures failure – which is not to say that boldness is a guarantee for success, it simply allows for the possibility where there was none before.

The rise of algorithmic thinking, the convergence between machine and human intelligence is upon us. Google and Netflix are obvious markers of it, although I wonder if it has not already long been the case. Algorithms are not a uniquely digital phenomenon. Regardless, this intersection is now the norm, not the exception; in addition to whatever else we may be, we are also algorithmic beings. To relegate this relationship to the realm of the unintelligible is to wallow in nihilism rather than teach our eyes to hear, our ears to see. The ballad of constant fools who rest comfortable in what seems to be.2

  1. Give me some more time to muse on House of Cards. It certainly is novel – forgive the deliberate pun – but the work that Beau Willimon has done is not radical. Gradual, precise, and entertaining. Certainly, but not radical.

  2. None of this is a comment on Alexis’ article itself – it is an excellent piece that engages in exactly the kind of exploration that I am advocating for. My quibble is that the ending carries none of the same force as the rest of the thoughtful piece. Endings are difficult to pull off. Case in point.

Philip Seymour Hoffman roles demanded introspection and thoughtfulness. This, of course, is not solely upon him, but also on those that helped build his characters and he recognized the importance of directors and writers in his own craft. Yet excellent writing and careful direction can all be for naught if the actor is unfit for the role – and talented actors can offer some redemption to a poor script or a sloppy vision. It is to Hoffman’s credit that he rarely fell into such films.

He was an actor that took great care with his fictions, because he knew that stories were powerful and neither the audience nor the teller can ever wholly escape. Capote has stuck with me for years and I cannot help but hear Hoffman’s voice when I read In Cold Blood.1 He embraced his weirdness, his strangeness – and then displayed it on the screen for all to see. That particular brand of force and presence that he brought to his work will be missed.

  1. “It’s as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. And one day, he stood up and went out the back door, while I went out the front.”

I Am Not an Economist

24 Jan 2014

Yanis Varoufakis for Valve:

Throughout history, whenever the number of transactions (and ‘assets’) grew in number, one of those assets soon emerged as a numéraire – a basic form of money that is. Once the numéraire acquired currency, suddenly the prerequisite of some double coincidence of wants vanished and people could trade anything for the numéraire–asset which they could then use in order to buy whatever else tickled their fancy. In short, as economies grew in sophistication, they ‘monetised’ and ceased functioning on the basis of barter. This is why never in history have we witnessed truly sophisticated barter economies (for reasons similar to why we have not developed hugely sophisticated training wheels for professional cyclists).

I study political theory through the works of Friedrich Nietzsche and Hannah Arendt; I study Canadian politics through Alan Cairns and C.B. MacPherson; and, for a while, I happened to study economics through a Professor of Economic Theory that writes for Valve – a company that develops and distributes video games.

SasquatchPhD on reddit/gaming:

I always thought “plumber”, in the Mushroom Kingdom at least, was more like our “ranger”.

The Mushroom Kingdom is obviously built on top of a vast network of all encompassing pipes which, for the last few decades at least, seem totally unconnected to anything major or modern. Things live in those pipes. Dark things. Dangerous things.

Mario and Luigi are the only two people in the Kingdom willing to “plumb” the depths of those pipe systems, clearing out the goombas, and the pirhanna plants, and the koopa troopas, making things safe for you and me. They’ll go places no one else would dare and face things no one else knows exist. That’s why they’re heroes.

This is not merely fan fiction, rather it is the measured examination of the world that must exist beyond that which is seen and heard. It is the construction of a narrative beyond that which is obviously presented. And once revealed, it becomes an obviousness in its own right. Of course Mario and Luigi are descendants of the Dúnedain.1

As far as I am concerned, this is now canon.

  1. Clearly, I am only speaking of their metaphorical lineage. I would never go as far to claim that the Mushroom Kingdom and Middle Earth are one and the same. Brave as Luigi may be, he is no High King of the Reunited.

On Personal Science

27 Jul 2013

Seth Godin:

If you spend enough time experiencing your own take on reality, you come to believe that what works for you might actually be a universal truth. Marketing plus psychology might equal science, it seems.

The rise of “personal science” strikes me as one of the most dangerous aspects of contemporary society.1 The notion that having opinions is somehow equal to having knowledge has become all too common. Global warming is an obvious example, but such “reasoning” has spread to almost every field and topic. Debate is hardly possible anymore as there is can be no equal footing from which to stand when one side has an evidence-based worldview and the other is entirely opinion-based. There are parallels here between the conflict of science and faith, but few would claim that anyone contemporary is mirroring the suffering of Galileo Galilei. But even worse than these two opposing philosophies is when opinion and faith come into conflict with each other wearing the facade of fact. The fury that people come to when their “I Believe“‘s are not aligned… There can be no measured arguments, no agreements to disagree.

  1. I blame Wikipedia. Maybe encyclopaedias too.

Pinball Wizards

17 Jul 2013

Tycho Brahe from Penny Arcade:

[Gabe] also does not understand pinball. I mean, he understands that there is a silver ball and that you can’t let it go down through the hole; he doesn’t understand why I find them beautiful. I tried to find a word to describe how I feel about them that wasn’t the word beautiful, but I couldn’t do that and be honest. They’re playable sculptures; I don’t know what you want from me.

For some it was Street Fighter II or Final Fight, for others it was Contra or Gauntlet. I myself have fond memories of Konami’s X-Men (and even foolishly bought it for my iPad) and my brother and I spent far too much money on both Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time and The Simpsons Arcade Game, but I have always had a fondness for pinball cabinets. A well played nudge; the long row of dibs quarters; and replays long into the night. No worries about having to compete with joystick watchers, no frustrating time limits announced with cries of “Red Wizard needs food badly”. Just my flippers and I against the world.

To those who can’t understand the appeal of pinball I have a simple reply, “how can you not?”. Playable sculptures indeed.

The Superman Ectype

16 Jul 2013

Eric Burns-White:

Once the mantle of Superman is assumed, the character is not becoming, he has become, and at that point the burden is on the writers – he is the figure who finds the other way, who makes the right choice.

Eric’s piece explains one of the popular frustrations with Man of Steel and he does it through the use of archetypes, ectypes1, and Myth Criticism. This is a counterpoint to my previous post about the film, but Eric is quick to state that this is why the character does not work for him. This is the key.

  1. Eric is erudite and does not shy away from his academic background. It may be why I am so fond of his writing. This is his definition of the concept: “Failed attempts to get to the archetypes are ectypes. Ectypes have elements of the archetypical, but fail to achieve that zenith.”

Man of Steel

15 Jul 2013

Superman stories have no unified properties – not even Superman himself as protagonist1 – so it is somewhat ridiculous to claim that Man of Steel fails to live up to some ideal version of the hero that exists on the Wikipedia page and in Mark Waid’s mind.2 This movie explores the narrative of a Superman, just as Smallville did, just as Superman Returns did, just as Lois & Clark did. The question, as it always ends up being, is whether the film succeeds in crafting a character and story that you find appealing. Debates over absolutist versions of Superman are nonsense. While harder to argue about, it is actually worthwhile to have debates over whether Snyder and Goyer succeeded in meeting your own personal visions.

I have always seen Superman as a better version of ourselves. It may be that he is from some other planet but there was a time when the Americas were equally alien to my ancestors, when the people therein and their ways were just as strange. He is one of us, whatever that may mean and whoever we may be, and with that is the capacity for both kindness and harm, greatness and dread, good and ill. His heroics are a reminder of what we could be, if only we dared to reach. His powers fill us with fear, because great heights can come with equally great falls. We fear him because we fear each other. We fear him because we fear ourselves.

It is perfectly reasonable not to enjoy Man of Steel – it is, after all, a piece of art – but I think that some of the complaints about the lack of authenticity in the portrayal have more to do with our fear of ourselves than with a failure on the parts of Synder and Goyer. The problem with this Superman, to contradict Quentin Tarantino3, is that he is entirely too human, that he is is not super enough. He is, as the rest of us are, flawed. And that is a good thing, because perfection makes for a lousy narrative.

  1. See: World Without Superman, Luthor, Death of Superman, Last Days of Krypton.

  2. Not that I intend on belittling Mark’s thoughts on the matter. Birthright was great and he has had a number of other interesting runs; the cast he has collected to craft and maintain Thrillbent is impressive; and he also happens to be a fantastic writer outside of graphic novels. But he is also the first to admit that he is not an unbiased observer when it comes to Superman: “there are not rivers or coastlines on this planet long enough to measure just how much I wanted to love this movie”.

  3.                      BILL
       Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And
       what are the characteristics of Clark Kent?
       He’s weak… He’s unsure of himself… He’s a
       coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on
       the whole human race.

Ben Kuchera for the PA Report:

This is a game about relationships, and how everything we do affects everyone around us. It’s about how trying to do the right thing can be as monstrous as starting with ill intentions. It’s about how we can hate those we love, and love those we hate.

Video-games have fallen off my plate lately – we can blame Ulysses and The Human Condition I suppose – but I made an exception during the release week of Bioshock Infinite. There are many thoughts that have been tumbling around my notebooks about this game, though I may not get around to turning those into coherence. While Ben’s thoughts are decidedly less philosophical than mine would be, he also points his readers towards an article by Mytheos Holt for The Blaze that examines some of the more interesting political concerns about the game:

Is Bioshock Infinite anti-Tea Party? No. If anything, given that it takes place in 1912, it’s much more an attack on the sort of jingoistic sentiments that motivated Americans at the turn of the 20th century, and that caused writers such as Sinclair Lewis to openly fret about America itself going fascist.

Ignore the fact that it was written for Glenn Beck’s website and most definitely ignore the comments section. If you manage to do both of those, you will find that that Mytheos has crafted a thoughtful exploration of the populist libertarianism current that runs through the narrative of Bioshock Infinite.1 Personally, I am more impressed that video-games are starting these kinds of conversations in mainstream discussions.

It is about time.

  1. Then again, apparently ”Mytheos Holt is a tit”. What do I know?