Monthly Archives: June 2013

Of Art, Algorithms and Humanity

Wow! This was very thoughtful. A lot to digest here, but worth digesting.

Utopia or Dystopia

Lascaux

We are at the strangest of crossroads, a series of changes that challenge and upend what have been the core elements of the human experience since the beginning of our species. Nothing perhaps cuts so close to that core as what is happening and will happen to the meaning and place of art in our lives. Art here understood as everything from the music we compose to our paintings and drawings to the stories we tell or the films and videos we create.

For all of our history it has been we ourselves who created art, and perhaps we might even twist Ben Franklin who defined us as a “tool making animal”  to say that humankind is an art making animal. Just now we are beginning to have companions and competitors in these acts of creation. Joining us are increasingly intelligent machines- art creating algorithms that are not only already…

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Why World War Z Wimped Out

I eagerly awaited this week’s release of World War Z, the film based on the Max Brooks novel. The New York Times Bestseller is an oral history of mankind’s war against the zombie apocalypse, written in the style of a report with interviews from survivors all over the world. While American characters are frequently the focus of the story, readers get perspectives from South Africa, China, Russia, South America, and all over the world. The tone is realistic and journalistic. The novel is remarkable in several ways:

  • There is no main character. The narrator is almost completely removed from the action. If anything, mankind is the main character. That’s some feat, pulling off a compelling book without someone to root for. But Brooks keeps the tension by making readers wonder how humanity will overcome the challenges from both zombies and from other humans.

  • Social commentary. Most zombie stories carry the same moral: what makes humanity special is the ability to reason. Zombies represent humans minus this gift. But World War Z digs a lot deeper into more cutting issues, including America’s dubious role as “world leader,” the savagery that humans will employ to save themselves, and the power of unconventional thinking.

  • The novel avoids many zombie clichés. Some elements are common to all zombie fiction: the viral origin, the brain as a target, the general uselessness of conventional weapons, worldwide epidemic. However, Brooks puts his own spin on a lot of things (hint: zombies don’t need oxygen, so the sea ain’t safe!). He did incredible amounts of research, so not only does the novel feel realistic, it is actually based on solid information.

I saw the film this afternoon. My expectations were…wary. First bad sign: a PG-13 zombie movie. I certainly don’t need blood and guts to be entertained. But what makes zombies so fearsome is the visceral way they attack and devour. For a zombie film to be effective, viewers need gore. Sure enough, the film featured lots of cutaway shots and off-screen brain-munching, and was therefore bloodless and only occasionally scary. And from what I saw of the previews, it appeared to have all the soulless sheen of a Big Hollywood Production.

After seeing it, here’s why the film wimped out:

  • Main character. The film attempts to make a main character of Brooks’ narrator. Brad Pitt plays the character ably, but there’s not much of interest to him. He’s a generic, Big Hollywood Hero. And the characters around him are totally forgettable. They emerge long enough to move him (and the plot) forward, then die or are abandoned.
  • Complete lack of all that cool stuff from the novel. All the edgy stuff from the novel like pharm companies getting rich off of fake vaccines, a snarl of political issues, and the brutal efforts to reclaim the world are all missing. The focus of the film is on finding a cure, so the “war” against zombies never actually happens (or at least viewers never see it).
  • The film embraces clichés. Good guy hero with emotional scars, called on to save the world? Check. Worried, ineffectual wife and whimpering daughters to fight for? Check. Swarms of secondary characters, human and zombie, to aid/annoy the hero on quest? Check. Unfunny wisecracks by tough guy commandos to lighten the mood? Check. Disproportionately white cast? Check (Side note: there was only one black character in a grocery store in Newark. Come on!). Overall, the film took every opportunity to make a predictable, safe, Big Hollywood Blockbuster. May the production company enjoy their millions.

I am NOT one who demands that a film adhere strictly to its source material. Many fine films have been made from fine books. Some films are better than their novels. (The Prestige). But everything that made the book an engaging read was eliminated in this film, and that’s what left me disappointed.

The film wasn’t a disaster. Brad Pitt makes the character sympathetic, if not interesting. And I was excited to see Marc Foster at the helm—he’s done great stuff in the past. And his artistic touch was evident in some of the lighting and some intense dream sequences. And the band Muse contributed to the more ambient sections of the soundtrack, and they’re the band to write a soundtrack for the apocalypse. It wasn’t a terrible movie, just a disappointing, wimpy one.

Here’s what I’d love to have seen: a mock-documentary. Make it much, much closer to the novel. It’s not like mockumentaries are unprecedented or even all the unusual to American audiences. It would lack a main character (and a Leading Man Role), so I can see why Big Hollywood would back away from that idea. But I would be riveted to my seat watching a series of interviews serving as voiceovers to the scenes from all over the world. Show me Patient Zero in a peasant hut in China. Show me the massacre at the Battle of Yonkers. Show me zombies, frozen in Minnesota in the winter. Show me the damn underwater zombies, pounding on the submarines! It would not have been an easy film to make, but it would have been a more compelling and much braver one.

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Never Say Die! Or, How A Very Early Story Finally Found a Home

BigBad

Most writers have “trunk stories”: stories that made their rounds to publishers, never were picked up, and are now stashed in a literal or electronic trunk, never to see daylight again. I never like fully trunking a story, but still, I have stories that I haven’t done anything with in years. De facto trunking, if you will.

One such story was something I wrote for my first fiction workshop, freshman year of college. It was a straight-up dragonslayer story called “What It’s All About.” A mercenary, a barbarian, and a kid enter a dragon’s lair to slay the beast, the mercenary, barbarian, and dragon are killed, and the kid survives through dumb luck. It was fun to write, but obviously the work of a beginner. The protagonist didn’t deserve to triumph, the plot had zero twist, and cliches grew like weeds (cue laugh track). Apparently, publishers weren’t interested in such a tale, so it sat in an untouched folder in the guts of my hard drive.

Fastforward to about two years ago. I decided to mess around with the old story, see if I couldn’t jiggle something interesting, if not saleable, from it. I told the story from a new point of view, flip flopped who would be protagonist and antagonist, and added some fun layers of detail that jolted some intrigue into my plot. I started submitting the story again, this time under the title “The Seventh Trap.”

And it found a home, an anthology called The Big Bad, which is now available. The theme of the anthology is bad guys, and I think “The Seventh Trap” fits in well because dragons are always the bad guys, and my story has a little fun with that stereotype. It’s still a straight adventure fantasy story, but with enough depth and twist to make it a worthwhile.

The Takeaway: Just because a story was unsuccessful in the past, there might still be something to it. Sometimes, when a creative dry spell hits, drag something out of the darkness, dissect it, and try to reanimate the pieces.

Synonym Toast Crunch

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.” –Mark Twain
Lightninglightning-bugs

I believe vocabulary development is one ofthe key elements of middle school language arts. There’s a lot to learn between sixth and ninth grades, but without expanding the words that kids can recognize and use is critical to high school success. Limited vocabulary can be a hurdle, but done effectively, vocabulary can be a bridge from little-kid reading and writing to real sophistication.

I’ve struggled with how to effectively teach vocabulary in my class. We have vocabulary workbooks in my school with 20-word chapters of grade-appropriate vocabulary. Bleh. I dislike teaching vocab out of context, but it’s like doing long runs or pushups– ya just gotta get the work in. Throughout my six years of teaching, I’ve striven to make the chapters both effective and palatable.

Anyway, I’ve found that strict memorization is pretty much useless. Your vocabulary isn’t a stockpile or stamp collection– the words aren’t any use if you can’t recognize and deploy them. So now when I teach vocab, I have the students make flashcards and draw pictures, I give them example sentences and make them write their own, and reward them when they use the words properly in their own writing. So far, it’s working pretty well.

I also require them to give me a synonym and antonym (if applicable) of each word. Here’s where things fall apart. It’s one thing to remember a definition, another to rephrase it, and another to plug the word into a sentence. But to give synonyms requires having a sense of the word that isn’t easily learned in a couple of weeks.

The first hurdle is understanding the part of speech and the ways in which the word can–and cannot– be used. For instance, one of the words in their current chapter is “bungle.” A verb. Yet I’ve had a number of students give me sentences like “He’s such a bungle person!” I explain that it needs to be changed to an adjective, “bungling.” Then they get another verb, “refute,” and try to change it to an adjective: “The scientist’s report was very refuting about the old information.” English is fun!

The second problem is that some definitions just don’t give a sense of the word. This chapter, the hardest word to grapple with is “smug.” The official, book definition is “overly self-satisfied, self-righteous.” I think this is a vague definition (not to mention useless for the 98% of my students who don’t know what “self-righteous” means). I’ve done my best to talk them through it, explaining “smug” as “cocky” or “thinking you’re better than everyone and everything” or “arrogant, in a quiet way.” I give them example sentences (“She was awfully smug for someone repeating 7th grade for the fourth time!”). In the end, though, I’m pretty sure that “smug” will be one word this chapter that will simply elude most of my kids.

Another challenge comes from how we look for synonyms. We recently completed a research project, and I came across one report with a high level of highly misused vocabulary. The sentence that really got me was “Edgar Allan Poe was a vast author for all his stories and poems.” I called the student over and asked her what she meant by it.
“I mean he’s a great author!”
I paused. Something struck me.
“You typed this in Microsoft Word?”
“Yeah.”
“Did you write ‘great,’ then right-click on it and look for ‘synonyms’?”
“Yeah. You’re always telling us not to use little kid words, so I wanted to replace ‘great’ with a better word.”

I explained that because “great” can be used many ways, and not all the meanings are the same. “Great” and “vast” are synonyms…sometimes. The caveat to my “used big-kid words” is “use words you know how to use.”

This isn’t the fault of technology or MS Word. The same error could have been made with a hard copy thesaurus. I only find thesauruses useful when they remind me of other words I hadn’t thought of. But lunging out at mysterious words can create some wacky results.

(Also fun– use MS Word for “synonym chains,” when you replace one word with a suggested one, then replace that one, over and over until the final word choice is light years away from the original one.)

I don’t see the “great/vast” mixup as an utter failure. A big part of vocabulary development is experimentation. But it’s gotten me thinking about the nature of synonyms. Are there ever any true synonyms? If two words meant exactly the same thing, why have both of them? English is a messy hoarder of a language that eagerly accumulates and reluctantly abandons words. English may not be efficient or tidy, but I think this ambiguity, the shades of meanings, the connotations and implications of words is what makes it so much fun to play with.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Simple, clear, epic.
“It was the paramount epoch, it was the most perilous of occasions.” Bloated and overreaching.
“It was the instigate of clock, it was the under the weather rotation.” MS Word Synonym Chain.

I’m not going to stop teaching vocabulary, though I’m always adapting my methods. Is there one key to developing a vocabulary that is not only large and flexible, but is readily applied? Sure. I encourage my students to do it all the time, in school for academics and at home for fun. It was the way I developed my vocabulary. Read.

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Adam Knight

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