Monday, August 27, 2007

Scientists Should Read Broadly

We should not be too quick to dismiss as irrelevant the scientific
findings in other fields. Though, for example, astronomy and
psychology appear to have nothing to do with one another, remember
that before Newton ballistics and astronomy were considered completely
different fields. Imagine youself living at that time... How could the
motions of the heavenly bodies have anything to do with the mundane
motions of thrown rocks? One of the things that made Newton's laws so
exciting was that they explained the motions of balls thrown by
children and the moon with the same theory.

I believe that scientists should read broadly, for the benefit of
science. By reading broadly scientists increase their probability of
coming up with a revolutionary theory-- revolutionary theories often
have the characteristic of bridging scientific areas previously
thought to be unrelated.

I read Discover magazine for this reason. Sometimes even I doubt that
what I'm reading will ever be tied back to cognitive science,
e.g. geology. But maybe it will. There have been proposals that
quantum mechanics are important for understanding human
intelligence. I'm speaking of Penrose's The Emperor's New
. This isn't the greatest example, because I have yet to meet
a cognitive scientist who thinks we should take Penrose's theory
seriously. People, for now, seem to be reacting similarly to Wolfram's
automata theory as expressed in A New Kind of Science. Though I
don't believe in either of these proposals, I am very much in favor of
their approach at a high level: These kinds of things are important to
say because I find many scientists who don't even attend talks outside
of their subfield!

Psychologists who study attention do not go to social psychology
talks. They don't see it as relevant and valuable, but I see it as a
long-term investment in your own mind, making the soil fertile for new
things to grow sometime in the future.

Pictured is perhaps one of the worse jobs ever. These poor assholes are hired to basically be walking television sets marketing stuff. Taken by yours truly on the streets of Ottawa.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Jim's Law of Animation, Comics, and Puppetry

I'll admit that Jim's Law of Movies is not particularly profound. I
hope to redeem myself with this post.

Jim's Law of Animation, Comics, and Puppetry stats that: A story
should only be animated, a comic, or a puppet show only if it has an
element of the otherworldly.

It's best understood through examples.

The Muppet Show is appropriate for a puppet show, because it
features talking caricatures of anthropomorphic animals.

The Belle of Amherst, a one-woman play about Emily Dickinson,
should not be a puppet show (which is why the suggestion was funny in
Being John Malkovich) because there is nothing otherworldly
about it-- there's just a human woman telling the audience about
herself. What's good about it is the story told and the acting.

Spirited Away should be animated because it features radish
spirits and a host of other fabulous beasts.

The Graveyard of the Fireflies, also by Studio Ghibli, should
not have been animated, because it was a realistic story about human

Y: The Last Man, should not be a comic because it's not
particularly visually interesting. It's a about the adventures of the
last human man on earth amongst all the women. It's otherworldly, but
not in the important sense. None of the images in the comic are
unbelievable. It should have been a novel, or possibly a film.

The Flight of the Osiris, the first film in the
Animatrix is completely computer-generated. What's the problem
with this? Well, it's depicting the same kinds of things the movies
do. There are people in the matrix and on Earth, etc. If a mix of live
action and computer graphics (CG) was appropriate for the movies, then
why should animation be appropriate for this short film? And in fact
it suffers from bad acting and the uncanney valley.

Okay, enough examples. I'm someone who dabbles in multiple art forms,
and when I get a good idea, I think about what medium it should be
in. Should it be a play? A screenplay? A short story? A novel? A
comic? A drawing? A painting? A poem? A dance piece? I understand that
the different media have costs and benefits.

Animation has the benefit of being able to feature otherworldly
characters and places in motion. Loony Tunes were a fantastic example
of the best use of the genre. They features anthopomorphic animals
getting into impossible physical situations, and the humor was largely
based on timing, which can only be approximated in comics and novels,
for example.

Comics allow incredible otherworldly scenery and characters, allow
careful frame composition, encourage re-reading, and can elegantly
communicate thoughts through text. Both comics and animation allow
pictured scenes to contain details that do not have to be described in
words. The comic Fables is a good example of the use of
comics. In the first collection, a detective is looking over an
apartment. All the clues he uses later are shown in the frames early
on. Describing these in a novel is possible, but takes considerable
finesse to not draw too much attention to them.

Puppetry has the enormous benefit of being three-dimensional, adding
to the illusion that the puppet is alive.

All of these genres take a major hit on acting, however. That is, you
cannot get acting in these genres that is as good as the best human
actors. In a story where good acting is paramount, one should try not
to use animation, comics, or puppetry. Someday, perhaps, computer
graphics and AI will have excellent actors, but on my understanding of
the field this is still very far off.

All media have good and bad things about them.

Novels have a terrible time with acting. There's only the barest
description of "acting" in a novel. There's no intonation, no facial
expression (aside from "Ted smiled.") Some of what novels have going
for them is that they can be arbitrarily long, and can feature inner
thoughts and exposition very well. Part of the reason reading Stephen
King is still worth doing even if you've seen the movie is because
they feature lots and lots of interesting inner thoughts that can only
clumsily shown in a film (recall the voice over in Lynch's
Dune.) Jurassic Park is a fun film, but much of the
scientific content is lost because communicating it in a film is

I saw The Upside of Anger with my friend Daniel, which is a
pretty good movie. I'm going to spoil the plot it in this paragraph,
so if you want to see it, skip to the next paragraph. In it, a woman
thinks her husband left her and the kids to be with his
secretary. She's bitter and angry throughout the film, and at the end
she finds out he just fell in a hole and died in the woods behind her
house. Near the end of the film you see her in terrible pain over it.

When she's in terrible pain the acting is good, but you don't get to
see the fascinating inner thoughts that you would in a novel. At the
same time, the story benefits greatly from the acting in the
film. It's kind of sad-- no one medium does this story justice!

Television shows are terrific because they have the benefit of novel
in that they can tell long stories in which you can really get a
chance to explore a world.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Jim's Law of Movies

Jim's Law of Movies is this:

Any movie with a monkey in it benefits from having that monkey.

Some excellent examples:

  • Raiders of the Lost Arc. Remember the monkey that ate
    Indy's date and died, and that's how they knew they were poisoned?
    Wouldn't it be a worse movie without this scene? Yes.

  • The Fountain. The medical researcher is doing research on
    a monkey to try to cure something. A definite positive addition to
    the film.

  • Pirates of the Carribean. The monkey's name was Jack
    too. Very funny.

  • Strange Brew. This movie had no monkey, and therefore did
    not benefit from having a monkey, following Jim's Law of
    Movies. The law does not state that any movie would benefit
    from having a monkey, only movies that have a monkey. If you
    thought the law meant the former, you made a logical error when you
    read the law.