Monday, August 31, 2015

Powell's Books

I have been to hundreds of bookstores, and never experienced anything like Powell’s! I have seen big bookstores before, and I have seen small curated bookstores, but I’ve never seen anything like this! First, it is immense, taking up most of a city block, and multiple floors. But amazingly, it is deeply curated, carefully and clearly organized, with each section feeling neat and alive. Used books and new books live side by side together in a pleasing harmony. Handwritten notes and suggestions from staff are everywhere, and all signage is clear, and the lighting is excellent. It must take an army to keep it organized, not to mention a set of principles that the entire staff fully understands and embraces. I could have spent days and days there. If I could only visit one bookstore the rest of my life, it might be this one. 

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Kaleidoscope VR Film Festival

I continue to be actively engaged in VR, and am excited about 2016, which will be VR’s biggest year ever. But most of my focus has been on games. Facebook has made clear they believe that VR movies will be the facet of VR that will be truly mass market, since the market for immersive games is limited. I had been somewhat skeptical about VR as a film medium, until I watched a short VR film my students created, which really used the medium well, and was very moving, though it had its rough spots. I happened to be in Portland for the premiere presentation of the Kaleidoscope VR Film Festival (if you want to see if it is coming to your town, check here), so I thought I’d check it out. They had about twenty VR “films” to show, about half of which were video, half were animation. Most of which were linear experiences, though a few had minor interactive elements. Portland is the first stop for the festival, but the plan is to visit ten cities. Regular tickets were about $25, but VIP tickets that let you skip the lines (and there were lines) were a bit north of $100. As a busy VR professional, who really wanted to see as much as possible, I decided to spring for the VIP pass.
My hope was that I would see a new medium springing forth, that would be as interesting and powerful as the VR gaming world is starting to be. Unfortunately, I didn’t really see that. Instead, most of what I saw were early, often bungling experiments with trying to make VR films. Few VR filmmakers seem to comprehend the power of presence, and fewer understand how not to break it. Annoyingly, even the organizers of the festival don’t get it! They pumped techno music into the festival space the entire time, which bled through the headphones into every experience, completely trashing any sense of place that a filmmaker might be trying to create. Hopefully enough people will complain about this that on the rest of the tour the festival organizers will take the hint that audio landscape is how the mind establishes where it is.
Most filmmakers are so used to creating content for a rectangular screen that dealing with an explorable immersive medium is alien to them. Nepal Quake, despite its noble mission, was full of jarring jump cuts and weird seams. The Archer tried to create a “silent movie” feel, but then absolutely failed to guide the eye of the viewer to the subtitles in any useful way. Red Balloon Movie was a watery take on Uplift, making a weak excuse to show some VR drone footage that felt fairly meaningless, and also had a lot of cuts. Some other films were really just immersion pieces, letting you sit quietly and look at something not particularly interesting. Some pieces such as Tana Pura, LoVR, and Bright Shadows were abstract music videos, which were relatively engaging by being pretty, but weak on storytelling. Colosse did a good job at being pretty, and at leading the eye, but the pacing was often a bit slow. Butts was amusing, and used an interesting 3D iris effect to guide the viewer’s eye at the end. The Night CafĂ© was an attempt to make an explorable Van Gogh painting, which aesthetically was very successful, though the navigation was slightly awkward, and it had no story or interest curve. There was definitely a problem with indirect control, as the usher had to tell everyone “There’s nothing in the basement. Everyone wants to go down there, but there’s nothing.” It was a wonderful beginning to what could be a very meaningful experience, but though the models are artfully constructed, there’s no meaning there yet. The standout of the show for me was DMZ: Memories of a No Man's Land, which takes about ten minutes and is an interactive exploration of the complexities of the Korean border. It was not only elegant and beautiful, but had a surprisingly thought provoking message, and a very clever method of allowing the guest to explore and gradually unlock content in a way that allows free exploration, but also lets a structured story be told. I definitely learned things from DMZ that I can use.

Sorry to be down on this stuff, but the medium is really important to me. I came to the festival hoping to get an update about the wonderful progress that VR filmmakers are surely making. Mostly, I’m not seeing that. This experience has strengthened my belief that gaming will be the killer app for virtual reality. While I’m sure there will be a few excellent VR films created, they will be exceptions, not the rule, and I believe there will be far more passion for game-like experiences in VR than there will be for film-like experiences. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Portrait of Socrates

I picked up this book, written by R.W. Livingstone in 1938, a few years ago from a small used bookstore in Newcastle. Socrates has always interested me, and the idea of learning more about him interested me. But how is there any more to learn about him than what we see in Plato’s writings? There isn’t, really – and so, this portrait consists of Plato’s “death of Socrates” trilogy, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo, with annotations and commentary from the editor. His most helpful annotations were the ones regarding the challenges of translating Ancient Greek into English. The word that comes across as “beauty” has a deeper, richer meaning than our word, for example. There was an irritating aspect to many of these annotations, however. Instead of putting them after a section, they generally were listed before a given section, and usually contained a summary of the forthcoming passage, which both broke Plato’s natural flow, and somewhat spoiled what was to come next. Before long I stopped reading them, so I could enjoy the natural flow of Plato’s writing, which tries very hard to feel like natural conversation. Going back after I finished to read the annotations gave some extra depth. This book was published in 1938 and had at least one previous owner. Interestingly, there were pen marks in the margins, where someone seemed to be noting the places where Socrates was prefiguring Christian beliefs and attitudes. It is remarkable how much he does present a Christian message, especially given that he too was unjustly executed by the state. The Athenians invented democracy, and then used it to execute Socrates. Nobody’s perfect, I guess!

One more curious aspect about this book. The editor uses two different typeface sizes: a large one to denote passages that he feels most fully represent Socrates, and a smaller one to indicate ones that are less important for understanding Socrates the man. I had a hard time making the distinction, but I liked the idea of using different sized typefaces to indicate potentially skippable text. In the introduction, the author suggests that if this book received a warm enough reception, that he might create a whole serious of “Portrait of” books. My web search turns up no new ones, which is understandable. It’s always pleasing to visit with Socrates, even on his deathbed, but this book would have been much more enjoyable had the editor simply given us some background, and gotten out of the way. 

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Amazing World of M.C. Escher

When we got to Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival, and started walking around, we were excited to see the Modern Art Museum featuring an M.C. Escher exhibition. I was weaned on Escher at a young age, sitting in my grandfather Emil’s armchair by the fireplace and carefully paging through his big coffee table books of Escher’s works. It was exciting to visit this exhibit and see the prints up close – they look so much more detailed than the reproductions I have seen. Being able to see Drawing Hands, Snakes, and my personal favorite, Castrovalva, up close was very special. Even more special was being able to see the letters he exchanged with Coxeter and Penrose about mathematics and technique. Also, I never really understood his business model before, never understood how much he was very much trying to make prints that people would buy, and trying to maximize their value. His work always had an incomplete quality, to me. He wasn’t really building a world, just giving glimpses into something. When I was young, I always assumed the rest of the world was out there somewhere – that the books just only showed small fragments of it, for some reason. To be an adult now, and to realize that no, these few fragments are all that exist is very sad. To think that a relatively small number of these beautifully rendered, but somewhat sterile fragments are all that exists to represent a human life, and that there never was any more to that world, and there never will be, just an eccentric artist trying to make what people would buy is somewhat disheartening. I guess the other side of the coin is the insane perfection in his work. Doing that kind of work as ink, and as lithographs, and some even more esoteric methods, sometimes spending months on a single print, requires a level of perfection that is hard to even think about, And while his small collection of pictures might seem a little sad, how much sadder are the thousands of artists who slave their whole lives and are not remembered at all? His combination of unique perspective and intense perfection has ensured that his work will live on. I think that Escher is best remembered for his limited collaborations with mathematicians. The lesson I take away most of all is this – if you work alone, your work will be limited. If you would build something large, if you would build a whole world, you must work with a team, and accept and embrace everything that entails.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Back to the Future

In our attempt to properly educate our daughter about the foundations of nerd culture, Back to the Future seemed pretty necessary. And it worked to good effect – she stayed interested, and appreciated the jokes. One thing that had not sunk in with me about the movie – how much it keeps moving! It barely stops for a moment, and tries to tell a slightly complicated story, almost never stopping to recap, which makes it an impressive piece of storytelling. When I advise my students to create “impossible” situations for their characters (novice storytellers never want to create these situations because they can’t see a way out), I think I’ll show the five minutes leading up to the climax, where it seems like there is no conceivable way for Doc Brown to get everything hooked up properly.

One thing that really startled me – I watched the “deleted scenes” – had those been included, it would have been a very different movie! In them, Doc Brown is lecherous and foul-mouthed, the neighborhood cop takes a bribe, and Marty’s Mom cheats on a test for no obvious dramatic reason. They were wise to cut all that, it would have made the film seem grubby. Although, I always had wondered how Doc Brown got rid of the cop… now I wish I didn’t know!

Monday, August 17, 2015

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

I had heard of this show, and have always been fond of spelling, and this high school production seemed family friendly, so we thought we’d check it out. After all, a spelling bee is a good idea for a stage show – it’s already on a stage, already has tension and eccentricity, and everyone understands what it is. And the show was decent. I can’t say it was great, but it was pretty good. The kids did a nice job with their songs and bits, and I think most of my concerns were with the script. It was enough to make me wonder if we were seeing some strange abridged version of the show, since the main weakness was that character relationships did not feel fully developed, and as a result, the characters sometimes did things that didn’t make sense. But the show has a LOT of characters, so maybe that’s just how it is? The show was 90 minutes, which was plenty for a musical – I don’t know how they would have fit in more without cutting something. I found myself wishing for a 35% reduction in characters with a corresponding increase in depth. The school group was from the US (Alexandria, Virginia) and it must have been so exciting for them to come all the way to Edinburgh to perform. Overall, it was about as good as one could hope for a high school production to be, and I’m glad I got to see it. Still, for a musical about spelling bees, I'll take "A Boy Named Charlie Brown" every time.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

4x4 Ephemeral Architectures

I’ve watched a lot of juggling shows. Dozens, probably hundreds. And I’ve put on quite a few. The easiest kinds are the ones where you build anticipation for a difficult or dangerous trick, then do that trick and collect the applause. More difficult are the ones where you weave comedy into your tricks, using the tricks to frame jokes, and using the jokes to set up tricks. Most difficult are the shows where what is happening is simply beautiful. These are so hard because for juggling to be truly beautiful, it must be perfect in a way that evokes an emotional response. You see this most often when a single performer does a very challenging routine against music. But often these routines while technically beautiful, feel emotionally dead. The performer is performing them for you, to impress you, so you come away thinking, wow, that guys is really good. Seldom is the solo performer trying to get you to experience beauty, or an emotional experience. 4x4 Ephemeral Architectures (video trailer here) is like a show I’ve dreamed of, but never thought could really happen. In it, four expert jugglers and four expert ballet dancers perform elegantly choreographed routines by a master choreographer. The entire focus is on creating a beautiful, artful performance, and because there are multiple performers, emotional exchange is natural and inevitable. I have always wondered what it would be like for a really skilled choreographer to work with jugglers to create beauty – the addition of trained dancers makes it even better. The show itself explores the clash of these two cultures, as to fulfill the vision, it was necessary for the jugglers to perform some basic ballet, and for the dancers to perform some basic juggling. Clearly great pains were taken to build routines around what each performer was best at. I can’t imagine how long it must have taken to develop this show, four to six months at minimum. I never cried during a juggling performance before. When I put on headphones and practice in my front yard, trying to create beautiful swooping patterns that match the music, this is the kind of juggling I fantasize about being able to do, and this show has given me hope that one day I may do it.