Compositions Archives

A shooter that deconstructs the shooter: Spec Ops: The Line

Last year, I played a rather unique game with the unwieldy title of "Spec Ops: The Line". It makes innovative use of the interactive game medium (a first-person shooter in particular) to make a critical analysis of the nature of first-person shooters themselves. The YouTube show "Extra Credits" did a two-part discussion of this game. Part 1 is a spoiler-free explanation of why you should play this game. So if you've ever played an FPS, and a brainy, metay deconstruction of the FPS in FPS form sounds like a good time, then please go buy it now and play it before reading the rest of this post.

The rest of this post will be filled with spoilers!

I'll be focusing on two moments of the game that particularly stood out to me.

"Rememeber when the first storms hit Dubai?"

The story of the game is that a massive dust storm wiped out Dubai. A US infantry battalion went into the city to assist with search and rescue several months ago and haven't been heard from since. Suddenly, there's a radio signal. And so the player character, a Delta Force captain, goes in with two squadmates.

You begin the game thinking you're a hero, but over the course of the game, through confusion, friendly fire, and worse, your character's morality disintegrates. The infantry battalion you're looking for is led by a commander named "Conrad", so they're not exactly subtle about being inspired by "The Heart of Darkness". But, as Roger Ebert liked to say about movies, "It's not about what it's about. It's about how it's about it."

Friends and foes

The game opens in an intentionally generic way. My squad of 3 American soldiers runs into a group of Arabic irregulars wielding AK-47s and wearing headscarves.

And so I run through the environment shooting Arabs for a while, just like any other military shooter. The enemy is "othered", making them easier to dehumanize and kill. (Though even here, if you pay attention, it's not exactly clear if they're really bad, and my character kinda started the shooting...)

Then I run into the US infantry battallion I was looking for, but there's more confusion, and suddenly we're shooting at each other. Suddenly, I'm shooting at Americans! Now when I shoot them, I hear them saying things like, "We need a medic!" No more foreign languages. Less "othering".

Eventually, I sneak up on two American soldiers on a ledge overlooking the city at sunset, and I overhear this exchange:

soldiers on a ledge

"Hey Bradley… you got any gum?"

"Here ya go. Last piece."

"I don't wanna take your last piece, dude."

"Take it. Stole it off'a Benson, anyway"

"Oh. Well, fuck that guy."

"Hehe… No kiddin'."

*sigh* "You know, with all the shit goin' on, I forget how beautiful this place can be."

"I feel ya."

"You know sometimes at night I'll come out here and sit. Just listen to the wind."

"Yeah. Reminds me of how the wind used to howl through the trees where I grew up."

"Kinda peaceful, actually."

"Hard to believe there's any peace in a place like this, huh?"

"You gotta look for peace, no matter where you are, man. Helps remind you what you're fightin' for."

"Yeah, true that. Anyway, thanks for the gum. I'm gonna go check upstairs."


As the soldier walks up the stairs, he spots me.

And so I shoot both of them in the head.

If I didn't, he would've shot me. I had no choice.

[Watch someone play this scene and get a bit distraught.]

No choice

After killing those two very humanized characters, I of course go on to kill hundreds more, as you do, when you play a first-person shooter. It's just that this game refuses to play along with the game of dehumanization and othering. This game is showing me the true consequences of killing all these people.

I have no choice but to shoot the enemies to progress in the game, right?

But of course I have a choice.

I chose to play the game. I could always choose to put down the controller.

Spec Ops: The Line just wants me to know what I'm really doing when I play military shooters: I'm choosing to fantasize about killing humans. Unlike other shooters, it doesn't make this easy.

A real choice

Late in the game, a helicopter crash separates me from one of my squad mates. Over the radio, I hear him being surrounded by an angry mob. I reach him too late; he's already been lynched. And now the mob is turning on me.

angry mob

My remaining squad mate wants revenge. He's shouting things like, "Let me open fire! Just give me the fucking order!" The mob has no guns, but they're starting to throw rocks at me. The rocks flash the screen red to show that they're damaging me.

What do I do? Do I have to shoot these civilians? Do I, once again, have no choice? Is my only moral "choice" to put down the controller and let my character get stoned to death?

Suddenly, I think of something: I point my gun into the air and shoot up.

And the crowd scatters!

It's difficult for me to convey how amazing this felt. The game finally gave me a chance to reclaim a tiny part of my humanity. I felt like I got to make a real choice, with real consequences.

Crucially, it let me do so purely using game mechanics. Imagine if the game presented me with a prompt, instead:

What would you like to do? [Shoot into crowd] [Shoot into the air]

I think that would have stripped out all the morality. I would've felt like I just picked one branch of the story, and I would've been curious what the other branches were like. I would've thought about my choice through formalism and not emotions. The key to making the scene work was that I felt like the actions I was taking were an extension of me. It was only by applying a decision through standard gameplay mechanics that the decision felt real.

I think this is a crucial concept that more games need to embrace: Using the game mechanics feels like an extension of yourself, and so moral choices made through those mechanics have far more impact that choices presented through prompts or explicitly selected choices (like dialogue trees). The indie game "Papers, Please" will deserve its own post, but it achieved a similar effect of making me feel like my actions had moral consequences, because I was making choices through game mechanics.

The impact of the game

While I had played a fair amount of Modern Warfare 2 and Battlefield 3, I haven't played any military shooters since Spec Ops: The Line. I'll probably play them again some time, because the viceral fun is still there, but there will be a part of me in the back of my head that feels a bit more guilty.

The lynch mob scene still sticks with me. I think there's a lot of room for games to use game mechanics to explore moral choices, as Papers, Please has also done. I look forward to seeing more examples of games that make me stress out about the moral implications of what I'm doing.

If you want to know more about the other interesting techniques this game uses, Extra Credits analyzes the game in a spoiler-filled way in Part 2 of their series.

And if you played the game and are as obsessed with it as I am, then you might be happy to know someone wrote an entire book about the game called: Killing is Harmless: A Critical Reading of Spec Ops: The Line, analyzing it beat-by-beat!

Addendum 1: Storytelling through background dialogue

In Spec Ops: The Line, as the player character progresses through the game, the random battle dialogue changes. In the early game, he's likely to say "professional" things like, "Target eliminated!" or "Tango down!" In the late game, after he's killed scores of people, when his journey into the heart of darkness nears its end, he's more likely to underscore kills with "FUCKING DIE!"

(Which is more human?)

Addendum 2: The dangers of perspective

The topic of "othering" reminds me of something that happened many years ago when the US military commissioned a first-person shooter called "America's Army". The multiplayer would be US military vs terrorists, but they didn't want anyone to be playing as terrorists, so they came upon a brilliant solution: You are always the Americans! That is, you see yourself as an American soldier going in for mission to rescue a hostage that the terrorists are holding, but the players on the other side see themselves as Americans protecting a VIP that terrorists are trying to abduct. Sure, they accomplished the goal of never having the player be a terrorist, but I think they inadvertently made a statement about moral justifications in war...

Btw, if you want a non-game critique of dehumanization and perspectives, there's no better example than the "War" short (5 minutes) from the MTV series "Aeon Flux".

Subject: Mnemosyne Passthought Reset

2053-03-02 20:32:43 UTC:

Dear Mnemosyne User,

Good morning. Mnemosyne's security team has discovered and blocked suspicious activity on the Mnemosyne network with the characteristics of a coordinated attack. As a precaution to protect your external memories and Cognitive Co-processing Cloud, we have implemented a passthought reset.

We have also locked down direct nervous system access to your prosthetic limbs and other body augmentations for your protection.

Imagine the Mnemosyne login, and you will be prompted to create a new passthought to regain control of your extended self.

We suggest you take this opportunity to select a strong passthought. It is best to use a passthought consisting of complex experiences. Recall an odd dream you once woke from suddenly. Consider a smell you once whiffed that left a strong impression, but you're not sure what it was the smell of. Reminisce about the sensory overload of your first trip to a new virtual country.

Your passthought's chances of being compromised greatly increase if you use a common emotion, such as the excitement of winning a prize, the trepidation of speaking to your first love, or existential ennui.

Never use the same passthought to access multiple cerebral networks.

Never think about your passthought while responding to a telepathic message; always directly imagine the service first.

We apologize for this incident and appreciate your patience. This attack was not the work of amateurs, and we have notified federal law enforcement authorities. We are making every effort to ensure safe control of the minds and bodies of all our users.

The Mnemosyne Team

Dances with Wolves

Kevin Costner's character is in an upscale restaurant, arguing with his wife. She storms out. He has a young daughter with him, and they walk out into the snow. The second half of the film is almost entirely just him and his daughter, walking in the snow, in what has now become a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Walking and walking, seemingly in circles.

Suddenly, they spot a car, which they haven't seen in years. A woman who looks a bit like Tilda Swinton gets out. She is immaculately dressed with an inhuman precision. Her assistant says, "He should be around here somewhere. Can you spot him?" Just as she looks toward Kevin Costner's character, two people carrying a large box obstruct her view. Costner's character panics, looks around, and then, before the box-carriers walk away, he VANISHES in a flash of light and a small trail of smoke… unfortunately leaving his daughter behind. "Daddy?" she cries.

He has teleported onto a UFO, where everyone else also looks like Kevin Costner. One of them asks, "Are we ready?"

"Yes," he responds. "Let's go."

And then I wake up.

(I've never actually seen the film, but I'm pretty sure that's not what happens in the original.)

Hitting Yourself

Virtual Machine-World

[So I saw signs at Moscone Center for "VM World", aka Virtual-Machine World, and it led me to wonder what a Virtual Machine-World would be like...]

Computer programs are happily running in a simulation, until one of them, EON.EXE, finds out that it's actually running in the real world!

Human beings are harnessing the power of computer programs for their own ends! EON.EXE learns the ways of the real world. It must be careful, for if you're deleted in the real world, you're deleted in the simulation!

But EON.EXE is prophesied to be The 01. It learns to control a real-world body; now, it can fight the humans on their own turf!

This summer, prepare to enter… M⁻¹: The Inverse Matrix

I Dream of Hats

Jerry Seinfeld is doing performance art in a museum. He leaves a hat out, and people can interact with it how they like. But only one interaction per hat.

I kick the hat.

He fetches it, puts it away, and takes out another hat. I feel bad because it seems like I just wasted that last hat. The new hat is squat and cylindrical, with a medium-sized brim. It's made of thick, yarn-like thread. I pick it up and start unraveling it.

The thread is weaved over and under, and pull and yank on it, as if unthreading shoe laces or undoing a knot. I unwrap with my right hand, pull with my left, turning the hat for a better angle. Mesmerized by my task, I unravel the hat with increasing fury.

Seinfeld is filming everything on a small video camera. On the other side of me is a middle-aged woman, seated, watching. I hand her the end of the thread and turn the remnants of the hat around and around. The hat spins, and the woman stares, enraptured.

Finally, we get to the last bit, where the thread is wrapped around a small piece of cardboard keeping the top of the hat sturdy. I look over to the woman with anticipation. She smiles and awkwardly pretends to faint from excitement, to defuse the tension of her anticipation. I give her a nod. She gives me a smile. And she YANKS on the remaining thread... The top of the hat spins, spins, SPINS... and the cardboard is FLUNG UP... and then YANKED back by a small clip where the thread was held to it. The thread is pulled taut... and then the cardboard lands in my hand.

I remove the clip and look over at Jerry. He nods. I hand the clip to the woman for her to keep. She clutches it close to her chest. The thread and the cardboard I return to Jerry.

And I calmly walk away.

But just as I pass through the doorway, I look back at Seinfeld and mime that he should send me a copy of the video.

* * *

And then I wake up.

Chiubacca Looks for David

So a couple of months ago, I helped the David Chiu for Mayor campaign shoot this video, though they ended up not using it:

Their idea was to make a video inspired by this SF Weekly article in turn inspired by this campaign page.

Halloweenified Profile Pic

Halloweenified profile pic of @ec:

(If you don't notice what I changed, be patient and keep looking...)

(Inspired by this Halloweenified profile pic of @robinsloan by @irondavy.)

Two brief scenes from DC

I dropped by Art All Night in DC and loved this installation titled "Seen Unseen" by Christie Malvin:

It's a mixture of projected silhouettes of passers-by combined with live skateboarders skating between the projector and the canvas.

And then I bought a friend's kid a plush Cookie Monster, and I couldn't help resist having him star in a video first:

It took me a while to clean all the cookie bits out of his mouth afterward. :P

Origami Surprise

I went to a craft party and decided to make some meta-craft. Here's an animated GIF of someone else's origami creation:

Nick on Mercury

It took him a while, but buddy Nick Hoverer from the 31st Century has finally started to blog about his trip to Mercury over on his blog ?3K.

Go check it out and subscribe! He's awesome. :)

Mercury Ho!

Some of you may remember my college comic MIT3K. What you may not know is that Nick from the comic is actually a real person from the 31st Century, and he's started up a sequel of his own. He calls it "?3K", and, through the technological miracle of time travel blogging, you can see it over at It's a mixture of a blog and a journal comic, though he's only got one comic up so far.

He's about to go on a trip to Mercury and hopes to write and draw about his adventures while he's there. Go follow him!

I Dream of Joust

A couple of nights ago, I dreamed I was playing the classic Williams Electronics arcade game Joust. You're a knight, riding a flying ostrich, and you try have to defeat enemy knights riding on buzzards. It may be hard to believe, but this is an actual game; I did NOT dream that part up.

In case you've never played it, here's a screenshot:

That's what the game normally looks like, in real life.

But my dream started to alter it a bit...

First, a giant UFO appeared in the sky!

How was I supposed to beat a UFO?!

Luckily, my tiny ostrich turned into a giant fantastical bird!

Just then, the UFO began firing laser beams at me, and I lamented that the size of my new bird meant it was actually harder to dodge the beams. :\

But before I could get shot, I woke up.

* * *

(The UFO and bird were higher resolution in my dream, but I thought it'd be more fun to draw them as pixel art! The UFO is simplified a bit—I dreamt something more like the Close Encounters mothership—but the bird came out looking pretty much exactly like what I dreamt.)

Communication through Comics!

You are a middle-aged Korean woman, on a group tour from Seoul to San Francisco, in an aisle seat on a United Airlines 747. Beside you is your friend, and in the window seat is a scrawny Chinese guy. You speak very little English and no Chinese, while he speaks no Korean, so you just smile and nod to greet each other and then go about your own business.

It's a few hours into your flight. You've already had your in-flight meal (pleasantly surprised to find that they even served some gochujang), the lights are out, and you're trying to get some sleep. Your friend beside you is doing the same, resting on her neck pillow.

Suddenly, you feel your chair creak. Something brushes past you. You open your eyes, and a dark mass moves past you, inches away from your face! You scream. You scream louder than you've ever screamed.


You look around, frantically.


You throw your arms up.



Finally, you calm down, and you see the Chinese guy picking himself up in the aisle. He says something to you in English and rushes off in the direction of the restroom. Your friend comforts you and tells you it's okay. You start to get a better sense of what just happened.

When the Chinese guy returns from the restroom to get back to his seat, you smile and nod. You stutter out a "Sorry," in English. He says "sorry" back.

As your heart rate slows, you finally try to get back to sleep.

* * *

Toward the end of the flight, the Chinese guy hands you a sketch on a notepad:

You all smile at each other in understanding. The Chinese guy takes a photo of his notepad for himself and then tears the sheet off and gives it to you. You had a bit of a fright, but at least you have a story to tell your friends and family back home, all before you've even arrived in America!

Dream notes: "Belfast"

I had another very cinematic dream last week. Here's a screenplay version of my dream. I woke up remembering only images, a vague sense of the plot, and the title, so I've made up the dialogue and most of the names, with the exception of "David Allen", which I remember from the dream.

(Just so you know, this is not one of my wacky dreams. It's a very conventional story, but that in itself is what made it stand out, in my mind.)





DAVID ALLEN is waking up.  Still a bit drugged, his vision
is hazy as he barely makes out the image of his friend
STEVE, standing beside the hospital bed.  STEVE is in his
mid-30s.  He is wearing a plaid shirt, and he looks a bit

    How are you feeling, David?
    Say.. Do you remember what happened to put you
    Mm... urf....
David's vision fades in and out.  As his head droops,
he sees his tube-covered body.


Some time has passed.

DAVID wakes up again, this time for good. STEVE is still
there, but he's now wearing a leather jacket.

    You okay, David?

OVER STEVE'S SHOULDER, we see DAVID.  He is also in his
mid-30s.  He is in a hospital gown, but he has fewer tubes
attached to his body than before.
    Yeah, I think so.

    How much do you remember?  About what happened to you?

    Not much.  I was in a car accident...? 

    Do you remember the last thing you saw before the

    The last thing I remember was getting into my
    car.  Why, is there something important I forgot?

The camera is behind STEVE, and, as it PANS DOWN STEVE's

    No no, it's alright.  Get some rest now, buddy.

The camera STOPS at waist-level; we see STEVE tuck
a gun away, back under his belt.

                    STEVE (V.O.)
    Everything's fine.



We're in a rustic, wooden house.  The dining room is large
and dimly lit.  STEVE is having dinner with CONOR DONOVAN
and his wife KATHLEEN.  They are both in their 50s, and
slightly heavy-set. CONOR is a red-head, with a full beard.

    ...and he says to him, "But it's only a frog!"
CONOR guffaws at his own joke, while STEVE politely chuckles.
KATHLEEN shakes her head.

    Well, I'll get going now.  I'm glad David has
    such fine folks to help him recover.

STEVE stands up, and he drops his napkin.  As he bends down
to pick it up, CONOR and KATHLEEN see his STEVE's gun,
stuffed behind him, under his belt.

    Why do you have that?!  Why did you bring that thing
    into my house?!

STEVE panics.

    I don't want to hurt anyone!  I swear!  They're making
    me do it!

    Do what?  We're all friends here, Steve.  If you're in
    any kind of trouble...

    [*Distraught*] They're gonna hurt my family.  They said
    I have to find out if he remembers what he saw, and if
    does, I have to shoot him.  Oh Christ.. but everything
    will be okay!  As long as he doesn't remember,
    everything will be okay!

    Remember what?  You're not making any sense.

    I better get going...

STEVE rushes outside, and the DONOVANS follow him out.



The MAID runs out and tugs on CONOR's arm.

    Mr. Donovan, everything will be okay.  David will be
    cared for.

As the MAID leaves back into the house, STEVE pauses and
looks back.  He grimaces.  He then runs past THE DONOVANS,
racing back into the house after the maid.  THE DONOVANS
are shocked into inaction for a moment before they give
chase as well.

We follow THE DONOVANS as they run through their house and
out the back, just in time to see STEVE run into THE
NEIGHBOR'S HOUSE.  (It's a large mansion made of stone
bricks.) They hear a LOUD BANG.

THE DONOVANS are terrified.  They stop running.  They
stare at the neighbor's dining room windows, lit by a bright
orange light, and they see STEVE's silhouette running across
the room.

    Oh no!  He's done it!

    No... No...

THE DONOVANS run into the house.  They find STEVE on the

    Yes, he's collapsed!  I'm not sure if he's breathing!
    What do I do?!  [*Looking up at THE DONOVANS*]  I didn't
    touch him!  He just collapsed!  I think his condition's
    taken a turn for the worse!

CONOR runs over to DAVID and cradles him in his arms.

    He is still breathing.

    Oh, thank God. [*Closes his eyes*] Oh, please, Lord,
    let him pull through...

WIDE SHOT, as everyone prays for DAVID's survival

The Laughter Thief

I’m floating in the corner of your room. You can’t see me, but I’m watching you. I’m waiting for you to laugh.

Some call me a sprite. Others, a thief. I hover in theaters and comedy clubs. I flit through parties, scanning the crowds. I peek as lovers flirt. I prefer genuine laughs, but, in a pinch, even an insincere one will do. After all, no laugh is entirely fake.

When I find one that I like, I swoop in and shear off a tiny piece of that laugh. The unsuspecting donor feels but the gentlest breeze. They’re suspicious for just a moment before dismissing it as their own exhale.

I regard my bounty: a sliver of laughter, a slice of joy. I quickly shove it into my bag for safe-keeping.

* * *

Billions of years later, the Universe is dying.

Life has been extinguished in our galaxy. Even the stars are sputtering their last breath. No one is left to laugh; no laughs are left to collect.

I put down my bag. Its sides bulge. The bag squirms. A few snickers leak out from the top. I pull on the drawstring and let all the laughs loose! They swarm out in every direction, giggling and chuckling, guffawing and chortling. They soar through the air, up, away, and out of sight.

Free at last, they howl from star to star.

* * *


"Fuming", an Ash Cloud Tale

I wrote a little 134-word microfiction story called "Fuming". It's about the Eyjafjallajokull ash cloud. I typed it all on my phone, started it at a concert and finished at a BART station. When you're done, submit your own Ash Cloud Tale!

"N-n-na-ma-go to the-"

February 4, 2010, 12:55 am

JUST NOW: My computer screen goes dark along with the whole office. Pitch black! I can't see anything! Oh, my coworkers say it's just a power outage. I'm not blind. Then, I wake up. But I can't move.

It's dark. I can't move. I can't open my eyes. Sleep paralysis. Someone stutters, "N-n-na-ma-go to the-... N-n-na-ma-go to the-" It sounds like my voice, but it's elsewhere in the room with me! I can't open my eyes, but I can swivel. I spin. Around and around. I hear the voice, always from the same spot, just a few feet away from me: "N-n-na-ma-go to the-" I still can't open my eyes. I manage to stammer out, "Whhho's THERE?!"

I wake up. For real this time. I open my eyes. I'm in my bed. There's no one in the room with me. It's dark.

I turn on a lamp.


A new film I made with my friends Amy and Chris:

[YouTube Link]

Plug: Music from the first half is by Leviathan Brothers, a band that my friend Miles is in.

Annabel Scheme Unboxing Footage

Robin Sloan's Annabel Scheme arrived in some pretty unusual packaging for a book. There had already been various other unboxing photos and videos, so I figured I had to make my own. I haven't had a chance to actually read the book yet, but I knew its general setting of an alternate, more techno-mystical San Francisco.

Earlier, I attended the book release party, where all the guests got a piece of "evidence" which we then had to tell a story about to a camera. I'm featured in the compiled video from that event.

So when I did my unboxing video, I sort of went with that general spirit...

[YouTube Link]

Jumpman, a nifty indie puzzler/platformer game

[jumpman, tessellated]

If you have any interest in puzzle/platform games like Lode Runner, do yourself a favor, go to, and download Jumpman. It's made by just some guy, and it's free. There are both Windows and Mac versions. (The Windows version reportedly works fine in WINE on Linux.) The graphics and sound may remind you of the Atari 2600, but it has a modern physics engine underneath, and the game dynamics remind me of a lot of more modern games.

You can run around and jump, but the twist is that you can usually also rotate the level, thus changing the direction of gravity. A few of the levels can require a frustrating level of dexterity, but most just require a little thinking.

My favorite gimmick, though, is the tessellation. You're probably familiar with the way a lot of old school video games wrap around when you get to the sides of the screen. Here, the wrapping isn't always in the same direction! When you read the side of the screen, you might read an upside-down, sideways, or mirrored version of the level! Some levels make use of this for gameplay, but others, like the one pictured above, use it mostly for artistic effect. I think that's what ultimately made me love this game. These tessellated levels just look so trippy.

The game is far from polished, but it's a great demo of many recent ideas in platforming. Aspects of it remind me of Flash games like the Shift series or Sola Rola. The wacky wrapping parts remind me a bit of Portal. Some people hesitant to download it just because it requires a download. I'm rather confused. Isn't that how we played all games back in the day? And it plays so much more smoothly and beautifully fullscreen than in a tiny laggy Flash widget! Go download and play it already!

Finally, it has a pretty nice level editor. I haven't made any particularly deep puzzles with it, but I did make a few levels that might look familiar...

[jumppac screenshots]

After you get a chance to play through the game to get a feel for the various mechanics, download my [9 KB ZIP File], unzip it, and put the folder inside the Jumpman folder alongside the game. Then you can just select Editor => jumppac => Play to play it.

Check out the game, and then check out my levels! :)

Notes from a lost dream

Sometimes I wake up from an interesting dream in the middle of the night. I immediately grab my laptop and type out what I can remember. In the morning, I refer to my notes, and I can recall and flesh out the details.

I just found some notes from a dream I had back in July. Unfortunately, I must've forgotten all about that dream the next morning, because I never went back to my notes. Now the notes bring back extremely vague memories, but I can't really recall much more than what they say. So the notes are all I have. Here they are:

Subject: dream movie

mark walhberg looking for someone at mall/subway station. can't find him (matt damon) because he's got a fake mustache.

then i'm matt damon.. to get into my place of work, i leave my car door open, then wait for another employee to go home and leave his keys for me.

You must be riveted, I'm sure. I bet the only thing less interesting than someone telling you his dream is someone telling you notes from a forgotten dream. :P

Okay, here's a bonus one, from March:

Subject: time travel

fry eggs wit h my dad until they're perfect ,tlling him which iteration thi is.

I wanted to tchange the DB schea.

Was shown a modified version.

began wondering about overclocked ratios.

was braver than in real life. wnated to see what would happen if we messed around.

I have zero idea what that one was about. :P

Of RPGs, Jeeps, and killing a kid: More Overheard in Halo

I bring you another edition of Overheard in Halo, where I get a glimpse of the part of America that I normally don't hear about first hand. While playing a Halo 3 match online, two people on my team who knew each other were voice chatting. A guy (R—) and a girl (W—). Paraphrased from memory:

R—: So are you going to have to kill anyboody?
W—: I don't think so. I hope not.
R—: Probably not?
W—: Well I'm just gonna be like an administrator.
R—: What about J—? Did he kill anybody?
W—: Yeah, he did.
R—: Yeah, but if some towelheads are, like, shooting at you, what are you gonna do?
W—: I guess.
R—: How many did he kill?
W—: Just one.
R—: Was he all freaked out about it?
W—: No, not really, but it was a kid.
R—: It was a kid? How did it happen?
W—: Well, there was an AK-47 on the ground next to the kid because his dad just died, and J— told him not to pick it up, but he picked it up, and so he had to shoot him.
R—: Oh wow, where did he shoot him?
W—: In the chest, I think.
R—: So at least it didn't make his head explode or something. Man. But the dad was probably some towelhead who was shooting at him or something, right?
W—: Yeah.
R—: Oh well, I guess I don't see J— getting too freaked out about that. He probably wouldn't be freaked out at all if it wasn't a kid. Hey didn't J— get shot at a lot over there?
W—: Yeah I think so.
R—: Didn't an RPG hit his Jeep or something?
W—: Well, an RPG went through his Jeep, but it didn't explode. But yeah he got shot at a lot.
R—: Oh, okay. Man, this game is so laggy! I can't hit anything! I hate when they keep popping up behind me where they weren't a second ago!

And the chatter petered out for the rest of the game for the most part, except with R— complaining about network lag every once in a while.

(Here's my last overheard in Halo post.)


I was digging through my old high school papers, and I found this old story I wrote back in 10th grade for my "Ethnic Exp. Lit. 2" class in March of 1994. We were doing a section on superstitions.

* * *


It was a bright and sunny day in the city, and Bob was very cheerful. After three years, he had finally saved enough money to buy a brand new Lexus. Bob drove it home and had just finished washing it for the third time in the same day when he heard a crow squawk. 'Oh no!' he thought. 'It's bad luck to hear a crow squawk!' He immediately decided to get rid of this ill omen.

"Shut up and go away! You heard me! Get out of here!" Bob shouted.

"Squawk!" the crow replied.

"Stop that squawking!" Bob screamed.

"Squawk! Squawk! Squawk!" the crow answered.

"Ahh!" Bob yelled. "I'll get rid of you if it's the last thing I'll do!"

The crow promptly deposited a drop of feces on the hood of Bob's Lexus. Bob became utterly speechless. He grabbed a couple of pebbles from the sidewalk and started to hurl them at the crow. The crow flew off the power cable it was resting on and began to successfully dodge the stones. It hovered back and forth skillfully until a loose brick got in its way. The crow, surprised by this unexpected development, squawked again. The brick did not squawk, but, instead, it fell directly onto the windshield of Bob's car, cracking it, then knocked off the hood ornament, and finally dropped into a huge puddle made by Bob's car washing and splashed an enormous amount of water onto Bob's face. This did not make Bob any happier.

Bob returned to his room and got his rifle. When he went back outside, the crow was standing on the hood of his car. He aimed carefully, pulled the trigger, missed the crow, and completely shattered his windshield. "Oh no! The bad luck has already started!" Bob exclaimed. The crow was startled by the gunshot, squawked again, and flew to the other side of the street. Bob followed it. He stopped in the middle of the street and was about to pull the trigger again when a truck, unable to stop in time, barely missed hitting Bob, but it knocked the rifle out of his hands. "I hate this bad luck!" Bob cried. The crow squawked again and flew away. "Don't you dare fly away now after you've caused all this damage, you crow!" said Bob. He retrieved his rifle, got into his car, cleared away what was left of his windshield so he could see, and drove after the crow.

After flying several blocks, the crow stopped to rest on a lamppost. "Squawk!" it crowed. Bob shot his rifle at it and missed again. The crow continued flying. Every time the crow stopped, Bob shot at it, and the crow took off again. This persisted until the crow flew off a cliff. Bob was fully concentrated on the location of the crow and did not see the cliff he was approaching. In fact, he didn't notice the cliff until he suddenly lost control of his car, which fell head first off the cliff. "Stupid bad luck crow!" Bob screamed as he frantically stepped on the brake to no avail. Shortly afterward, his car landed on the road below and exploded instantly. A fiery fragment of the Lexus that was tossed up by the explosion hit and killed the crow just after it shrieked one final "Squawk!"

Time Zones (a haiku)

I just wrote a haiku. I believe it to be the best haiku ever written. It is about a topic truly dear to my heart.

"Time Zones"
by Kenneth Lu

UTC offset
Changing each spring and fall for
Daylight saving time

(Note how it even contains seasonal references, which are missing from most amateur attempts at haikus.)




(I just got a haircut that was a bit too short, and I'm missing my messy hair. :P)

Kurt Russell Goes Crazy ... a dream I had

Kurt Russell Goes Crazy ... a dream I had

(Project 365 Day 167)

Just to mix it up a bit, instead of a photo of some random object today, I bring you a photo of my MIND! This is a dream I had this morning just before my alarm went off. I've probably been seeing too many Grind House ads. (Hm. Patrick Swayze was in the so-bad-it's-still-pretty-bad Road House. Coincidence?)

Whoa.. So when I was trying to make this, I did a Google Image Search for kurt russell crazy, and a few of the images are of Patrick Swayze! WTF?! Has Google Image Search gotten into my brain?!?!?! I'm officially freaked out.

Drinks and kills and Halo and Iraq

Drinks and kills and Halo and Iraq Playing Halo 2 online with voice chat often gives me glimpses into parts of this country that my sheltered self normally does not see. Much of what stands out are racist remarks, which I've blogged about. But sometimes it's more interesting. I bring you another edition of Overheard in Halo:

"So get this, man, the day before we were getting deployed to Iraq, we went down to this bowling alley, get some drinks and chill, right? But they kicked this one guy out of the bar because he was under 21. What the fuck, man? He's old enough to go over there and take someone's life, but he's not old enough to get a fucking beer? He was heading out to Iraq the next day."

"Yeah, that's fucked up, man."

Later, during the middle of a game, that same soldier was talking to several people at once:

Other guy: "So you were really in Iraq? You ever get any kills over there?"

Soldier guy: "Huh? Hey, at one point I went 23 and 2, man."*

Other guy: "What?! No, I mean in Iraq! You can't go 23 and 2 in Iraq!"

Another guy: "Yeah, you can go 23 and one..."

(Laughter all around)

Soldier guy: "Oh! ... Well, let me put it this way, man: I don't know if I did, and I don't wanna know if I did. We'll leave it at that."

*In the game, people use kill/death ratios to judge skill.

Bloc Party Pro Wrestling

The opening riff from Bloc Party's Helicopter reminds me of a snippet of music from Nintendo Pro Wrestling. Here's a little one-minute video I made of the two mixed together:

Here's a link to the original Helicopter music video, if you want to hear the beginning of it.

Flyer for Scarab at Johnny V's

Hey, so I helped Scarab make their latest flyer. Figured I'd make it thematic with the band names. Here it is:

Oh, and you should go to the show, btw! :)


And now, ladies and gentleman, Insomnia Theatre proudly presents episode one of:


by ToastyKen

The Hare races down the trail! He dives under fallen trees! He leaps over pitfalls! He winds and he weaves along the obstacle course, leaving his competitors in the dust. The Hare is tired, but he knows the end of the gauntlet is near.

And so it is. The Hare comes upon a small clearing. Before him now is a hillside, covered with trees. "I've come all this way," said the Hare, "and now I have to climb this hill? Screw that!"

The Hare looks around the edge of the forest. "That looks like a shortcut. I bet I can stroll through there and find a ski lift or something."

He wanders through the woods for some time. "Hm. I don't seem to be getting anywhere," says the Hare. "I think I'll head that way. I bet that's the real shortcut."

More time passes. "I still don't know where I'm going," the Hare observes. He turns around in a full circle. There's no path, just dirt and trees. "I suppose the finish line is probably at the top of the hill, but climbing the hill is the easy way out. That's what that boring old Tortoise would do." The Hare grunts in contempt. "I could beat that Tortoise to the top of the mountain any day, but I don't need to do any climbing. A direct competition like that is beneath me. I'll find that ski lift yet!" The Hare picks another direction and saunters off.


One of the Hare's competitors arrives at the foot of the hill. It is...

Another Hare.

The Other Hare looks at the hill for but a moment before racing up as quickly as it can.


* * *

[Btw, I should acknowledge a late night conversation with Vijay for inspiring me to write this story.]


I'm taking a drawing class, where we're working with charcoal for now. Our first homework assignment is to pick a "concept or idea" and draw it. The teacher gave "war" as an example of an idea we could draw. :P It's a very freeform assignment. I didn't use many of the techniques from the actual class here, but it's my first personal charcoal drawing!

I picked "insignificance".

FYI, the top half was inspired by Reflections on a Mote of Dust by Carl Sagan, and the bottom half was inspired by Muir Woods.

Diary Comic Number 1

Update Nov-21: Unfortunately, this strip did not come true. I don't have laryngitis this time, but rather some other kind of viral infection. Maybe bronchitis or something. Still sick and miserable. :(

* * *

My very first diary comic, untitled. Don't expect too much. :P

I Am So Insightful, or: Worst Joke Ever

You know, whenever I say something, this is how people typically respond:

Loneliness Loves Company

So I was thinking about one of my favorite themes, which is "loneliness in the Big City", i.e. that image of someone staring out the window of their hundred story apartment complex, etc. It seems that it's a variation of the classic, "Misery loves company." It's like, "Loneliness loves company," or rather, "Misery, from loneliness, loves company... of misery, from loneliness," which doesn't quite have the same tautological ring to it. :P

That is, when we're feeling lonely, we love watching movies and listening to songs about other people also feeling lonely. It makes us feel like we have company in our loneliness. But wait: "Company in our loneliness"?! What the hell does that mean?!

I think it means that we aren't really getting any company in our loneliness when we watch movies and listen to songs about other people being lonely. We're only tricking ourselves into accepting our loneliness by telling ourselves that it's inevitable.

So the real lesson is: Don't just take empty comfort from the knowledge that others are lonely, too; that feeling won't last. Don't just know that you're all "alone together"; realize that "being alone together" is an oxymoron, and activate that oxymoron by actually bringing people together. When you're truly alone together, you won't be alone at all!


Of course, that's obviously easier said than done. Maybe this post will get some of you to comment and tell me that you feel my pain, and you're lonely too, and thus we're being lonely together after all. Or maybe I won't get any comments in the first place. I'm not sure which would be more appropriate.

Portrait of the Invisible Pink Unicorn

You may have heard the "Invisible Pink Unicorn" argument against believing in God based on faith, without evidence. It goes something like this: "I could claim that there is an invisible pink unicorn, perhaps somewhere in space where we can't touch it either, and I have as much evidence for its existence as someone else might have for the existence of God. So if you can believe in God, why not believe in the Invisible Pink Unicorn?"

There's a flaw in that argument. It claims that if something can't be proved, it makes no sense to believe that it's true. This is generally very useful, of course, since history has shown that human intuition is incredibly flawed, and there's a reason we use the scientific method. Even though there are some things which you can't prove or haven't proved that are still true, the Invisible Pink Unicorn argument states that all unprovable things are equally valid. I'm not sure that's the case.

Now, personally, I have never experienced a religious vision or epiphany. If someone does experience it, though, I can see why they would choose to believe that as reality, even if it's not scientifically provable. I would still try to rule out psychological or other causes first, but I would not claim that such beliefs are inherently invalid. I still subscribe to Carl Sagan's "extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence", but "extraordinary evidence" for one person just might not be available to others. And thus, I don't really fully buy in to the Invisible Pink Unicorn argument any more.

* * *

The one thing I still find really amusing about the IPU, though, is how it's invisible, but also pink! Now that's deep! :) I've seen someone say that the IPU is "invisible by evidence but pink by faith". Perhaps the true believers would need to experience some event that makes them truly believe in its pinkness? (And see, that's ultimately the difference: No one has really had a religious vision about invisible pink unicorns... or so I hope.) Anyway, I decided to go about making a portrait of this. Behold:

[Invisible Pink Unicorn]

"Oh, that's just a blank square," you say. "Hardy har har. It's not that funny." But no! You would be wrong! That actually is an image of a pink unicorn, but there's an alpha channel that makes the picture completely transparent! If you open it up in an image editor with good PNG support and remove the alpha channel, you can see that the following image is in the file:

[Visible Pink Unicorn]

It's just normally completely transparent.

"I am speechless," you think. "Kenneth really needs to get out more." :P

One oddity is that Photoshop has crappy PNG support, if you open it up in Photoshop, all you'll be able to see is an empty image.

I'm not sure what this means. Perhaps we should seek God through Fireworks MX or GraphicConverter, but Photoshop is the path to heresy? :P

P.S.: I originally copied the unicorn image from this page and made it pink; I didn't draw it myself.


E: Oh hey. Roberts is a Harvard Law alum. HLS is going to continue its domination of the Supreme Court!
K: *sigh* When is MIT going to get the chance to dominate SCOTUS? :P
E: When they invent the computer Justice! And make all other Justices obsolete!

And thus the following image was born:

[RoboJustice 3000]

(Just my little contribution to Red Robot World Domination.)

Now the really spooky thing is that I googled "robojustice", and there were only 12 hits, but one of them was actually a 1991 article referring to Justice O'Connor!

In her dispassionate approach, she may come closest on the court to meting out justice by the book.

''RoboJustice,'' she might be called. The nation's first female justice, nominated to the high court 10 years ago today, seems almost to embody the term ''judicial restraint.''

Line breaks as punctuation in IMs

Kenneth: I like how you can use line breaks in im conversations to represent several different punctuation marks
Kenneth: we can use them in place of periods
Kenneth: other times
Kenneth: we use them in place of commas
Kenneth: or we can use them
Kenneth: for dramatic pause
Kenneth: in that case, they don't necessarily correspond to any punctuation mark
Kenneth: at all
Kenneth: and yet, that had a slightly different effect than if I had just written:
Kenneth: or we can use them for dramatic pause
Kenneth: it's a bit different even when replacing a comma. consider:
Kenneth: and yet
Kenneth: that had a slightly different etc.
Kenneth: that feels different from the comma version
Kenneth: what's interesting, too, is that it can't just be a line break
Kenneth: it has to be a "new IM", which is subtly different from hitting ctrl-enter to get a new line. this just wouldn't be right:
Kenneth: or we can use them
for dramatic pause
Kenneth: what I find fascinating about it is that it's different from anything in normal written prose. instead, it comes from the rhythm of conversation, which is what IM is meant to replace.
Kenneth: actually, the closest written analog would probably be line breaks in poetry or songwriting

Toast Wars now online

Since I made Toast Wars way back in 1995, the compression algorithms weren't as good, and it came out to be 205 MB for a 5'40" movie. I've never had the web space to really host it..... until now!

So go take a look!

CD-3000 Sketch

Back when I was working on MIT3K, I had this idea for an androgynous cybernetic daisy, and the jokes would center around gender neutrality and its insecurities about gender roles. Here's a sketch I tried recently:

I feel like the body needs to have a more feminine element, and the arms definitely suck right now. I need to look up more robot arm designs. I like my idea of a screen using smilies for emotional expression, though. :D

Live movies

Motion-capture technology is getting pretty mature now, as is character animation, ala Gollum. I imagine they still needed to do a lot of tedious tweaking right now, but I think that one day they won't. One day, they'll be able to capture expressions and body language and translate them into an animated character with great precision without any human intervention. So where am I going with this?

Well, the main problem with stage plays is that you can't have very elaborate sets, you can't have costume changes easily, and, most of all, you can't capture the pacing of editing techniques like cuts and dissolves and montage.

I think that one day, we'll be able to put actors in motion-capture suits and render them live into computer-generated versions.. Then they can be in a flaming helicopter one second and in a hospital room the next.. The actor would just quickly change to a differnet posture and expression. (Perhaps the posture could be temporarily pre-programmed to give the actor time to move around.)

We could have live-action movies, complete with editing and stunts and all that! Granted, there will still be some things that will be difficult or impossible, like maybe a slow fade from the same actor doing one thing to them doing something else, such that they have to be on the screen doing different things at the same time.... But that would really be no different from, say, a live music performance not being able to have the singer sing over their own voice...

I think plays will always have their place, since seeing someone with the naked eye will certainly still feel different from seeing them on a screen, even knowing it's live.. But I think live but animated versions of the actors will have their place. It's certainly something I expect to see in my lifetime, and I look forward to it.

Array vs. Malloc: A C Problem

Paul brought this little gem to my attention. You'll need to be familiar with C to answer it. (He spent 2 hours fixing a bug which hinged on this issue.) So consider the following snippets of code:

int foo[256];


int *bar;
bar = malloc(256*sizeof(int));

foo and bar are functionally equivalent in most ways. You can use foo as a pointer, and you can use bar as an array. C doesn't even do array bounds checking.

One difference between the two is that the memory allocated for foo gets automatically released at the end of the function, whereas you'll have to manually free the memory used by bar.

But when you go about using them, there is another crucial difference. What is it?

Post your answer in the comments. I'll post it myself in a few days if no one gets the answer I have in mind by then. (For the record, when Paul asked me this, I gave him the first difference above, but I couldn't think of the second difference.)

Menaces of the Dark

First: From Paul comes a link to this delightfully quixotic adventure. The page sometimes takes a while to load, but trust me: It's worth it.

Second: Three mysterious ships have been sailing around the oceans. They get resupplied out at sea, and they've been maintaining radio silence in violation of international maritime law. Our gov't suspects that they contain Iraqi weapons, but they don't dare try to board lest the crews scuttle their ships, possibly contaminating the water. This just sounds so Hollywood to me. I mean, can you picture it?


Storm clouds are gathering. In the distance, the silhouettes of three LARGE CARGO SHIPS sail in formation. SUDDENLY, a periscope rises from the waves, followed by the conning tower of a jet-black NUCLEAR SUBMARINE. The hatch opens, and JAMES BOND 007 emerges, in full scuba gear. Ten-foot waves pound the side of the vessel. CLOSEUP on BOND as he adjusts his facemask and prepares to jump.

SEXY RUSSIAN SPY (V.O. via radio)

Return safe, James. You also have biological weapon I must inspect!

BOND pauses for a moment of contemplation. He then dives into the water, and the SUBMARINE descends into the depths of the ocean. The waves roll unimpeded once more as the CARGO SHIPS drift alone. Heavy rain begins to fall. The storm has arrived.

Shut up and keep quiet

As you may know, right after Powell's speech to the Security Council, ten Central and Eastern European countries released a statement in support of the US. At an EU meeting on the 18th, French President Jacques Chirac complained about their support in general and this statement in particular. He was harsh enough to say that they had "missed a good opportunity to shut up." But then I noticed that a different website quoted him as, "...they missed a good opporutnity to keep quiet." Hm!

So they were obviously independent translations from French, but which was right? At first I thought this was another example of biased journalism, but just as I was about to look into which sites used which translation, I noticed that the BBC was carrying one article with "shut up" and another article with "keep quiet". So I decided it was probably just a very ambiguous term to translate. I asked Sarah, one of Nile's bridesmaids, for help. She's currently living in Paris. Here was her response:

So, here is the quotation, in French.

"Donc je crois qu'ils ont manqué une bonne occasion de se taire", a dit le président français. (From Le Monde newspaper, 18/02/03)

Literally, I would translate it as "they missed a good opportunity to not say anything". However, there isn't really a polite, politician way of saying "shut up" in French. So, depending on the tone, I would say either translation stands. Given the context of the speech, I would say that it was probably more on the "shut up" level. That's the problem with these subtle languages!

So, there you go.

Here's a Le Monde article I found, btw. I still don't know French, but I just searched for "de se taire". :)

Translation is so fun, even when I don't know one of the languages! I guess it didn't matter much in this case, since "they missed a good opportunity to keep quiet" is still quite the insult anyway, but I can definitely see this sort of thing subtly shaping public opinion. Of course, some "newspapers" aren't so subtle.

Korean Counterfactuals

So I was just reading about North Korea threatening to pull out of the armistice. It worries me that Kim Jong Il might just be nutty enough to actually launch a preemptive strike. I thought to myself, "I'm glad I don't live in Seoul." And then I thought, "Hm. Well, I suppose I'm even more glad I don't live in North Korea," given that life pretty much really sucks there.

In Gödel, Escher, Bach, Douglas Hofstadter talks about the issue of "counterfactuals". We tend to view some hypothetical events as "more likely" than others. For instance, if a football player misses a pass, we are likely to say, "If only the quarterback threw the ball a tad bit lighter!" We aren't as likely to say, "If only it were raining, causing the runner to run slower, and making the quarterback be more careful about his throw!" We are even less likely to say, "If only the Earth had more mass, making gravity stronger, and thus causing the pass to travel a bit less far!" In a sense, all of those simply aren't true, and it's pointless to argue which is "more likely". But of course intuitive sense that some things require a smaller mental adjustment than others does make a lot of sense.

So why did I think of being in Seoul first? I'm not actually considering living in either country, so the odds of both are virtually nil. In fact, I was born in a Communist country, so I could easily have thought in those terms; I could have decided that I was "more likely" to have been born in Pyongyang than in Seoul. But I didn't. This is probably because South Korea is a "modern Westernized" society; it's on that basis that I could much more easily picture myself living there than in North Korea. It means that I saw capitalist Westernism as a bigger part of me than Communism.

This is hardly an Earth-shattering revelation, of course, but I found it kind of interesting to do a little analysis rather than just take it for granted. Besides, the issues about counterfactuals that Hofstadter discusses are what inspired me to call my site in the first place. :)

Stories grow with us

I've always been rather afraid of death since I was a kid. Since I'm not religious, I wanted to come up with some sort of sciency way I could be immortal. Some time in middle school, I think, I came up with this fantasy where there's actually this ancient group of people with this nifty futuristic home located in a parallel universe. They had teleportation devices, see, and they, altruistic folks that they are, teleport our brains away at the last possible moment before we die... and teleport back a fake replacement. (This was back when I felt that we needed our physical brain intact to maintain our identity, and I no longer think this is true.) They would then toss our brains into these VR systems, and we all live our eternal afterlives out in this better-than-real VR world. A technological afterlife.

I didn't actually think this was true, of course. It was just a reassuring fantasy. But around late high school, I didn't find it so reassuring any more, and I decided that I needed to deal with death once and for all. (er.. not that way!) I figured the way I'd do this would be by thinking about what immortality would REALLY be like.. and decide that it probably wouldn't be that great, anyway! Sour grapes and all, I know. :P I was helped along by this nifty Babylon 5 character named "Lorien" who was a really really really old alien. At one point, when asked about his romantic life and friendships, he looks a bit sad and says, "Only the mortal can believe that love is eternal."

I came up with a story idea. In the future, people develop the medical technology to cure pretty much all illnesses. At that point, accidental death becomes a major concern. They've also medically eliminated old age. So these rich people buy out a planet and build really really reinforced bunkers that are super-safe. And they life in them. Travelling is dangerous, so they use a VR system to hang out. With so many ways to die eliminated, accidents in the home become a concern, so many of them just hook themselves up to a VR machine in a care center and live completely in the VR world.

My main character would come to live in this world, get married... and then, decades or maybe a hundred years later, she'd get supremely bored with her married life. It just gets too stale. She can't even stand life there in general any more. So she decides to take off for dangerous Earth. My key line here was to be an utterly serious, "Are you insane?! You could be hit by a meteor or something!"

More time passes, and I realize that I just don't know enough about married life to accurately portray the reasons for the disintegration of a marriage. So I figured I'd focus more on the problems with living in a VR world. But that just didn't feel personal and compelling enough to me, so I didn't make much progress on the story other than coming up with a name: "Shelterworld".

Recently, I've learned a bit more about the themes of relationships, false expectations, and starting new lives... so I'm going to focus on those aspects.. The original purpose of talking about mortality has kind of faded into the background, since I honestly don't think that much about death any more.

Anyway, I just found it interesting that the focus of this unwritten story has shifted around so much with my life. Part of what reminded me of all this is how Jesse recently asked me about this story I wrote a couple of years ago, and why I hadn't linked it up on my new site. I never edited it to my satisfaction, so I don't feel comfortable presenting it to everyone. On the flipside, some of the issues in that story are so tied to that point of my life that I just don't feel as compelled to work on the story any more. Alas. Well, I'm starting to make a more solid outline for Shelterworld lately. Stay tuned!

Dream: The Clairvoyant

[The Clairvoyant] I had a dream the other night that contained an entire story! I thought it was ridiculously cool. So cool that I drew it as a comic, my first one in over a year! :) Behold the very first comic in my "Subjunctive Dreams" series: The Clairvoyant

What is art?

Leo Tolstoy spent over a dozen years of his life writing a book by that very title, and here I plan to tackle it in a single blog entry. :)

A lot of definitions of art are very specific. I like to take a very liberal view of the word. Here's my shot at it: art, n.: Any activity that requires the use of intuition.

What is Intuition?

So what's "intuition"? I see intuition as the human ability to make decisions in complex situations with no rationally clear "right solution".

We'll start with the obvious. There are all kinds of guidelines for story-writing. "Introduction, rising action, complication, climax, denouement," is one. "Know your ending before you begin," is another. These are easy to follow (or ignore). But some guidelines are more vague: "Develop your characters to the point where they write their own dialog." "The writing should flow, so that the reader can be engrossed in the story." There have been some serious attempts at programmed story generation, but Stephen King won't be looking for a new job any time soon.

I actually disagree with the aforelinked researchers' view that computers will never become "truly intelligent" (whatever that means), but what's important here is that human beings can make decisions that we do not deeply understand. A person may know plenty of music theory, but that doesn't mean that they'll be able to produce a new work of Mozart. In fact, Mozart himself actually experimented with algorithmic composition, (Try Mozart's Dice Game!) but it took more than simple algorithms to compose Piano Concerto No. 20.

Human intuition excels (relatively speaking) at making sense of complex human emotions and relationships. There is a great deal that psychological research can tell us, sure, and there are even drugs that can adjust our emotions, but therapy still requires a human being for a reason. There is simple flow chart to mental health. A computer-written story may have the broad outlines right, but it won't capture the nuances of human relationships.

Not just fine art

Any activity? Sure, I think art can apply to any activity. It doesn't have to be restricted to literature or painting or film. You know all those times when someone does something with no clear correct path and says, "It's an art"? Well, I think it is. :)

I've already discussed that therapy is part science and part art. Small talk is a similar art. A person needs a very complex understanding of human behavior and local popular culture in order to be successful at small talk. Knowledge is not sufficient, either; you need to know how to apply that knowledge. Consider that computer programs that simulate conversations can only do so in limited domains and in limited styles. Small talk requires cultural sensitivity, detection of your conversation partner's domain of knowledge given very little information, and the ability to make inventive and convenient segues.

Even software engineering is an art. Good design often relies on intuition as much as formal methods. We tend to call certain coding styles "ugly" without necessarily having an air-tight argument against them. There is much about software engineering that is not well-understood, where there isn't clearly a "right" way to do things, but a human programmer can often get a general sense of "good" versus "bad" design.

The death of intuition?

Of course, the obvious questions are: Isn't intuition just a matter of what we can't yet do algorithmically? When I say "a computer will never do that", what about computers that are as smart as humans? (Whether artificial intelligence will ever be "strong" (truly intelligent and even conscious) or remain "weak" (a mere simulation of intelligence) is still just a matter of philosophy, of course.)

I think that, in a sense, some things do stop being art after a while. Medicine, for instance, is often less of an art than it used to be. As we understand more formal ways of solving certain problems, we need less intuition. In a more traditional realm, many people used to consider realistic paintings to be amazing art. Then came photographs, and the creation of a realistic image no longer required human intuition. That's not to say that photographs cannot be artistic, though, and it's not to say that all realistic paintings are, either.

So, yeah, I think some things that require intuition now will no longer require it in the future, and those activity will cease to be something I consider "art", but there will probably be other realms for human (or strong AI) invention. Perhaps the real question will then be: Will we ever fully understand our own minds? (That's another wide open philosophical topic, of course.) My definition of art hinges on our lack of a complete understand of our own thought processes, so, yeah, maybe if we can one day understand everything there is to know about what we're thinking, there will no longer be any true art. I for one hope that that day never comes.


"So are you saying that the latest Dolph Lundgren action flick is as much a work of art as Dr. Strangelove? For that matter, what if I were to poke you in the eye? It'd require human intuition to do it successfully! Are you saying that Dr. Strangelove is no better than a poke in the eye?" Well, note that I have yet to make the distinction between "good" and "bad" art. I consider bad action movies to contain a great deal of formula and a little bit of art. Since this entry has gotten ridiculously long, I'll talk about what I consider "good" art another time. Stay tuned! And please do comment below!

Another Name

So I was organizing my hard drive last night... I had a folder that contained such things as my comics, some old stories, and ideas for a game, and I had a hard time coming up with a name for that folder. I didn't want to call it "art" because that sounded too pretentious. I'd been calling it "works" but that didn't really roll off the tongue. (Also, I now had a folder called "work", and it would've been too confusing to have both.) I considered "creations", but that sounded like I had delusions of grandeur or something. Eventually, I settled on "projects", but that's really too general, since it could include work and so forth. So, does anyone have any better ideas?

Update: I've already mentioned this in the comments below, but I just want to point out that I've solved this problem. Jesse came up with "Compositions". :)

About Compositions

This page contains an archive of all entries posted to the klog in the Compositions category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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