Category Archives: thinking


Cherlynn Low, writing for Engadget in “Johnnie Walker’s drunk-driving VR experience lacks subtlety”

The heavy-handedness of the video gets especially extreme at the end of the clip. As you look on at the victims of the crash, you start floating in the air, as if you were the spirit of someone who had just died. I know it’s supposed to be poignant, this moment where you’re thinking about the people who were just killed. But it was ultimately distracting and cheesy.

The idea of using VR to give the interactor a visceral experience of the consequences of drunk driving is potentially a good use of VR, a kind of story that only VR can tell. This implementation falls short, but it’s worth analyzing why.

Inventing the Medium

Janet Murray (Inventing the Medium):

  1. There is a tension between film and games as the model for VR.
  2. Since the interactor’s experience of agency is always the most important design value for digital environments, games are a more productive starting point.
  3. Hand controllers are key to success because they give us a presence in the virtual role, functioning as “threshold objects” when they mimic two-handed operations we can see.
  4. Virtual vehicles are a promising approach to constraining and empowering interaction.
  5. Documentary film approaches may work, shaping interaction as a visit (as I describe in Chapter 4 Immersion in Hamlet on the Holodeck). To be successful, designers need to invent:
    1. interaction conventions for navigating the space,
    2. cues to entice us to navigate,
    3. dramatic composition of the experience to rewards us for being in one place rather than another,
    4. a fourth wall equivalent to make clear what we can and cannot do.

If you’re at all interested in the narratology of VR, you need to read everything Janet Murray has written.

I’m An Artist (Sort Of)!

It’s not often that a writer gets to do something with contemporary visual art. But I had the good luck of being invited to participate as part of an exhibition by the amazing Singaporean artist Heman Chong for the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai.

Chong’s exhibition, called “Ifs, And, or Buts,” “investigates spaces between text and images, producing new ways of relating the two through 7 new works commissioned specifically by Rockbund Art Museum.”

The show has 7 new works, ranging from video installation to light show to monumental sculpture to performance art. It’s a thought-provoking and multi-layered collection of pieces in conversation with each other and with contemporary culture.

The piece that Chong asked me to prepare is called “Legal Bookshop,” for which I was responsible for curating the books that would be sold in a temporary bookshop to help readers navigate the Chinese legal system. I was asked to interpret the concept of “law” in a non-literal manner.

Rockbund Art Museum

So, I thought about laws (both man-made and natural), code (moral, ethical, and even machine-based), rules (including the trivial, such as games, and the non-trivial, such as government regulations), customs, principles, and so on. I made liberal use of puns and free association. The resulting selection is only tangentially related to “the legal system” of China, as that term is commonly understood, and yet, I think, may provide more helpful guidance than books literally about laws in China.

I also wrote a new story just for the exhibition (it’s in the catalog) which explores the ideas and metaphors behind “books” and “law.”

The exhibition will be running from Jan 23, 2016 through May 3, 2016. If you’re in Shanghai and get a chance to check it out, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

The Right to Move

Nicholas Schmidle writing for The New Yorker:

Once his wife arrived, they would have children and he would raise them as Swedes. He didn’t care if his kids spoke Arabic. He added, in broken English, “I worship Sweden.”

‘In Syria, there’s a hundred-per-cent chance that you’re going to die. If the chance of making it to Europe is even one per cent, then that means there is a one-per-cent chance of your leading an actual life.’

The right to free movement through borders and to live wherever one wished is a fundamental human right.

Steve Jobs, the Movie

From The Hollywood Reporter:

“Since the very beginning, Laurene Jobs has been trying to kill this movie, OK?” (Laurene’s character does not figure in the film, while Jobs’ daughter, Lisa Brennan-Jobs, from another relationship, plays a prominent part.) “Laurene Jobs called Leo DiCaprio and said, ‘Don’t do it.’ Laurene Jobs called Christian Bale and said, ‘Don’t [do it].’ “

Reps for Bale and DiCaprio were unable to verify that, and Laurene Jobs did not return calls. A Sony executive confirms, however, that: “She reached out; she had a strong desire not to have the movie made. But we said, ‘We’re going to move forward.’ My understanding is, she did call one or two of the actors.” Another source says that Laurene lobbied each major studio in an attempt to kill the project.

I haven’t seen the film, but many who knew Jobs have said that it fails to capture what was most interesting about the man, and it’s understandable that Laurene Jobs would be pained by a project that seems to trade off her late husband’s fame while rejecting the principles that bind a biographer. It’s no secret that Sorkin has said that “Art is not about what happened”. This is a sentiment that I’m generally somewhat sympathetic to, though with deep reservations in this case.

While it is true that most of us approach most art with an understanding that the rhetorical mode on offer is not about “facts” but “Truth” — emotional or metaphorical — a film like Steve Jobs is different. The reason many (if not most) viewers are going to see this film is because they’re fascinated by the real Steve Jobs, and it seems odd to claim that the art on offer has no responsibility at all toward the facts.

Writers wrestle with this problem all the time — especially those of us who write fictionalized accounts of historical events. When I wrote “The Man Who Ended History,” I felt the heavy weight of responsibility to the victims of the mass atrocities. In that case, the art was definitely about what happened because it was the reason why I was interested in writing about it in the first place.

I don’t have a good answer for how much fictionalization is “too much.” Like most questions of this sort, the “right” answer(s) vary by subject, by the subject’s distance (temporal and physical) from the audience, by the politics of the real world, and so on. Personally, I hew to the principle that I should try to minimize suffering — I don’t always succeed, but I try.

Who Should Take Credit for The Martian?

Lisa and I got to see The Martian last week, and I did enjoy it (as have 93% of the critics on Rotten Tomatoes), though not as much as I had hoped. Among many other problems, the most egregious issues with the adaptation are these:

  1. Almost every single interesting episode in the book has been either eliminated or drastically simplified, which made them less engaging and dramatic. For instance, contrast the “rover hacking” and “blown airlock” episodes from the book with the film versions.

  2. The adaptation failed to give a sense of the long delays required for communications between Mars and Earth — an important contributor to the threat facing Mark. (NASA and Watney couldn’t just IM each other, as the film seemed to imply.)

But rather than going on and on about how the film came up short, I want to talk about something else: most critics are treating this film as though the writer, Andy Weir, was irrelevant to its success.

Take this bit from Christopher Orr of the Atlantic:

In this, the collaborators who put together the film—Scott, Goddard, the cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, the entire cast, and on down the list—resemble the NASA folks and Hermes crewmembers of the movie itself: They are all pulling together toward the same goal, and doing so with extraordinary skill and tenacity.

Conspicuously absent in this list is the author whose novel was the foundation of the film. Is it really right for his name to be left off here, placed below “and on down the list”? (To be fair, Weir is mentioned once in the beginning of the review: “Drew Goddard’s screenplay is a sharp, nimble adaptation of the novel by Andrew Weir” — but the very phrasing here minimizes the value of Weir’s book.)

Even more curious is the fact that almost everything Orr liked about the film was sourced directly from the book:

There are no tedious backstories, no leaps of rampant illogic, no poorly cast performances, no tacked-on romantic subplots, no extended narrative lulls.

These praises are far more accurate when applied to the book than the film.

The Martian has a degree of humor uncharacteristic of a Scott film, including a running gag about the awfulness of the disco tracks that were left behind with Watney … But perhaps the movie’s best joke involves the love for J.R.R. Tolkien that is apparently encoded into the DNA of every living male nerd.

These clever bits are all from … you guessed it, Weir’s book.

I have long been puzzled by our obsession with assigning credit for collective endeavors to a single individual (e.g., scientists who get Nobel prizes are rarely single-handedly responsible for those discoveries). In film criticism, we worship the director as though they’re single-handedly responsible for all good ideas in the result, but in the case of The Martian, this is just wrong. If we enjoy the film, it’s because Weir wrote a great story that could be simplified into a film without too much loss.

Award Slates

I’m going to keep this simple and short. My position on slates is perfectly captured by Elizabeth Bear and Aliette de Bodard in their respective blog posts.


First of all, I’m going to state up front that I will never willingly participate in a slate. If I learn that I have been included on a slate, I will ask to be removed, and I will bring as much force to bear on that issue as I legally can.

Additionally, I’m going to rely on the discretion of readers and fans of goodwill, who I think are pretty smart people. If you see my name on a slate, please assume that it’s being done by ruiners to punish me, and that whoever put it there has ignored my requests to remove it. I have nothing but contempt for that kind of behavior, and I’m frankly not going to do anything to please them at all.

My colleagues, of course, are free to deal with the situation as they see fit, up to and including refusing nominations. As for me, well—while I reserve the right to turn down an award nomination at my discretion, I’m not about to be forced into it by the action of trolls and reavers. I expect my readers to be able to make up their own minds about my work, and decide for themselves if it’s worthy of an award or not, and vote accordingly in a fair and sportsfanlike fashion.


You Can’t Quit

Apropos my review of the book about Amazon, there’s this NYTimes article about a customer’s attempt to quit Amazon in protest over its attempt to squeeze Hachette by delaying shipment of Hachette authors’ books.

As she found out, quitting isn’t easy:

“I’ve certainly missed Amazon. I bought three bird-watching books from Barnes & Noble about a week ago. So far, I’ve received one. I need to consult Amazon to make decisions about what I want to order because the customer feedback is so weak at B.&N.”

“I’m convinced that Amazon will not make any effort to regain me since they can rely on getting me back due to the magnetism of their efficiency and their massive stock of everything,” she wrote. “So, feeling as isolated as I do in my feeble protest, I believe I’ll call it quits soon if there is no prospect of it making a difference to anyone.”

Seems like Jeff Bezos was right about his flywheel.

World Scholar’s Cup

The World Scholar’s Cup, a world-wide academic team-based competition for teens that celebrates learning (think Academic Decathlon), invited me to their Tournament of Champions at Yale today.

I was there to talk to the students about “The Paper Menagerie” — they had read it as one of the resources to be used in their debates and essays. It was really cool meeting the students: bright, eager, and very insightful with their questions and criticisms. I felt like I learned quite a bit about myself and about the story after hearing from them. These young people were having a great time while also honing their academic skills — it was impressive as hell to see and hear them at work.

Daniel Berdichevsky, the founder of WSC, is a pretty amazing individual (go read his bio), and I think his vision for what WSC can do for students around the world is very inspiring. Jeremy, Zac, Grace, and other WSC coordinators (I didn’t write all the names down in time) were all really kind, generous, and brilliant, and everyone exuded positive energy.

It’s heartening to see this kind of positive work being done in the world.

I had about half an hour at one point free, and I popped in at the Peabody Museum of Natural History because this is where the world’s only “Brontosaurus” is located. (Read the plaque for why I used quotes.)


Brontosaurus explanation