Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Lost: The Jacob/MIB Origin Episode


I'm a pretty big fan of Lost. There are some quality dramas on TV these days, including Breaking Bad and Mad Men, but Lost has consistently been my favorite for the past 5 years.

I didn't think the writers would be able to pull off a very satisfying ending. They seem much more adept at generating mystery than explaining it. So I have steeled myself for the end run of the series, almost hoping that they wouldn't really explain much more, because that would be more satisfying than a bunch of crappy explanations.

Looks like so far I've generally been right. That is to say, I wasn't much impressed with last night's episode, the last regular episode before the 2-part finale. There is hope yet, but things aren't looking very good on the basis of this episode.

To recap: Jacob and the man in black (MIB, he still didn't get named this episode, unless I missed it), are actually brothers. They were born of a woman from a shipwreck who wandered into a hippy Allison Janney, just credited as "Mother". Mother delivers the twins and brains the real mother with a rock. Then she raises the two boys and one day shows them a cave emitting a bunch of light. It's the source, she tells them. Everybody's got a little light inside of them, but if this one ever goes out, everything ceases to exist. Okay.

As teens, their real mother appears to MIB, reveals herself as his true mother, and tells him about the rest of the world. So MIB confronts his fake mother and goes to live with a group of other people on the island, none of whom we ever actually meet.

Years later, MIB can't find the cave, but does figure a way he can supposedly leave the island by sticking a wooden wheel near a source of underground energy. Okay. Fake mother shows up to brain him, and either her or something else slaughters all the villagers. Okay.

Jacob reluctantly agrees to protect the cave of light by drinking some wine. We still don't know if this is what gives him his powers. MIB then kills Mother. Jacob gets mad at him and throws him into the cave of light, which Mother had said was "worse than dying". This apparently kills the MIBs regular body and transforms him into the smoke monster. MIB's and Mother's bodies are laid side by side in the cave for Jack and the others to find hundreds of years later. Okay.

Anyone else not particularly satisfied with this?

The characterization was pretty lame in this episode. And it still raises more questions than it answered:

Who is this Mother character?
Where did she come from?
What is this light source?
Where did Jacob's real mother come from? Was she brought to the island by Mother?
Why would MIB keep calling Mother "mother" when he knew she wasn't his real mother?
Why does the light source turn you into a smoke monster?

And so on and so forth. Lost has always tread a thin line between generating genuine mystery and just throwing head-scratching crap at the audience. For the most part it's done a great job of genuinely creating mystery, mostly because they've done a great job of creating compelling characters that you actually care about. But I have to say, they failed on this one. I didn't really give a crap about Jacob or his brother, and this episode didn't really answer any of the mysteries of the island, except by just throwing up more gobbledy-gook.

Maybe the finale will wrap things up in a nice little bundle, but I'm even more pessimistic now. We'll see in a couple of weeks.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Google Acquires 3D Desktop Interface Company BumpTop

Here's the link, and a demo of the software:

A couple of thoughts...

One, it looks like a pretty cool touchscreen interface for tablets/desktop PCs, but I don't see how the 3D-ness really adds anything at all. Looks like the walls of the box are just being used like extensions of the desktop. The same functionality could easily be done (and is done in lots of OSs) without the 3D effect. When I read 3D, I thought of a fish tank environment where you could actually arrange and view things with X, Y, and Z coordinates, e.g. you could put things not just on the walls, but hang them in the space between the walls. That might be cluttered, but I thought maybe they'd found a cool way to handle it.

Another thought is that everything they demo is either file or photo manipulation. That's probably less than 5% of what I spend my time doing on a computing device. They don't show any text input or processing, browsing, search, or reading, which is probably over 95% of what I do on my machines. I could see how, augmented with very good voice input, this environment would be great for a tablet. Based on the demo alone I'm pretty skeptical about it being much of an OS enhancement, though I'm interested to see what Google might do with it.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Roger Ebert: Video Games Can Never Be Art

I'm chiming in a little late on this one, Roger Ebert basically being all crotchety and elitist, refusing to include any video game into his refined definition of art.

Ebert discusses some of the various definitions and features of both art and games, and that's really where the whole issue lies. "Art" and "game" are very abstract, poorly-constrained concepts that often overlap very different conceptual space for different people. The issue probably just boils down to how liberal your definition of "art" is. Mine tends to be fairly liberal. I'd probably define art something along the lines of: The arrangement of elements by one or more agents in order to provoke thought and/or arouse emotion.

I think agency is important to the definition, because though accidental arrangements can often be beautiful, the very idea of art seems bound up in the notion of intent, and there is no intent to arouse awe in a volcano or provoke self-reflection in a sunset. And I think noting that some art is intended to make you think, while other art is intended to make you feel (and often great art does both) is important to a definition as well.

Ebert mostly seems to object to the idea of games (and not just video games) as art because you can win them, and because they have rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. But this is a weird objection. Every art form has elements that distinguish it from others.

Ebert says:

One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome.


But we could play all day with definitions, and find exceptions to every one. For example, I tend to think of art as usually the creation of one artist. Yet a cathedral is the work of many, and is it not art? One could think of it as countless individual works of art unified by a common purpose. Is not a tribal dance an artwork, yet the collaboration of a community?

One could make the same objection about any art form that Ebert clearly considers true art:

One obvious different between a cathedral and art is that you can house hundreds/thousands of people in a cathedral. Cathedrals have doors, windows, spires, and holy people.

Try it with any form of art that Ebert clearly recognizes as true art: dancing, theater, literature, and of course film. You can clearly find stark differences between them that seemingly set them apart from the others. Some have clear function outside of their aesthetic appeal. Some are artifacts, while others are temporary performance. The thing to do, in order to have a consistent concept of what something means to be art is to identify the common features, not the differences.

And I tend to think that common core is a desire to evoke emotion and/or provoke thought by attempting to put things together in a way that nobody before has done. That to me is the essence of art.

So, under these fairly broad guidelines, of course video games are art.

Another issue is the distinction between good and bad art. Ebert skirts around it, but never really comes right out and says what he thinks on this point. My guess is that he considers even very bad films art (albeit bad art), while even the most gut-wrenching, thought-provoking video games are not art.

And I'm sorry, I just can't abide any opinion that considers Ernest Goes to Jail art, but doesn't acknowledge Myst as art.

Oh, and P.S. Learn how to fucking use hyperlinks, Roger. It's 2010.

Money and Motivation

This PBS NewsHour piece supposedly explores the way in which modern science has changed the way we think about motivation in the workplace.

I think it's probably right in very broad strokes, here's the general thrust of the story:

DANIEL PINK: We tend to think that the way you get people to perform at a high level is, you reward what you want and punish what you don't want, carrot and stick. If you do this, then you get that.

That turns out, the science says, to be an extraordinarily effective way of motivating people for those routine tasks, simple, straightforward, where there's a right answer. They end up being a terrible form for motivating people to do creative conceptual tasks.

PAUL SOLMAN: How does the science show this?

DANIEL PINK: If you offer me a reward, $500 reward, you have my attention, absolutely. A contingent reward gets you to focus like this, narrow vision. If the answer is right in front of you, that's terrific. You race a lot faster. But if you have this kind of vision for a creative conceptual problem, you're going to blow it. You're not going to do anything good.

Okay, that makes some sense, although the primary example throughout the story is the classic problem-solving task of affixing a candle to a wall with only a book of matches and a box of tacks. The amount of the reward is contingent upon the amount of time taken, i.e., you solve it faster, you get more money. So time is a pretty big variable that goes unmentioned for the most part.

The results of the classic experiment mentioned were that people tended to solve the problem better and faster if offered less money. Okay. I don't know this literature, but did they do an untimed variant? For example, have two groups: one that's just told they will be paid a flat rate, say $20 for solving the problem, and another that is told they will get just $50 for solving the problem, but a bonus of $200 for more creative solutions. Neither group would have a time constraint. My prediction would be that the second group would solve the problem more often and more quickly than the first.

The theme of the piece is that in the modern workplace, creativity, problem solving, and more diffuse, less goal-driven thinking are all more important, and that we have to shed our traditional notions of motivating people with more money if we want them to be more creative and solve more interesting problems.

I think that's a crock. It feeds into the stereotype of the starving artist, but I don't think it meshes very well with reality.

The first place of business the story profiles is a computer sales firm. They say that just about every stat for the business went up after they eliminated sales commissions. Why? Because the lust for money was causing sales staff to lie in order to sell more stuff. When they eliminated bonuses, everybody was supposedly happier. Why? Because sales staff could now focus on "fostering long-term relationships with customers". Um, okay.

This bit smells very fishy to me. It plays like a chunk of a Michael Moore film in which we learn how awesome the Cuban healthcare system while conveniently ignoring the fact that it's situated in a police state.

I kept waiting for a salesperson to say "Yeah, there's less pressure, but damn, I do miss those fat commission checks around the holidays." None of that, of course. I kept waiting for them to mention some other motivators used in lieu of money, e.g. nice workplace conditions, but the story basically focuses on people's intrinsic desire to do good.

Anyway, then they interview a bunch of people who work on open-source projects and ask them why they do it. We get a lot of hippy, feel-good explanations about giving back to the world.

I think it would be interesting to study the science of human motivation. In general, though, I think the assertion that monetary rewards dampen creative thinking are bunk. I can see how that might be the case in a high-pressure, timed situation, but the world is filled with highly-successful creative people who were not so altruistic as to give away their creativity and problem-solving for free.

I'm not saying there aren't people who don't produce valuable things due to intrinsic motivations. Money isn't the only motivator, obviously. But this story doesn't do anything to dispel the idea that it is still an effective motivator for both routine and highly-creative tasks.