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Monday, March 31, 2014

Living in Each Other's Dreams

The weather was atrocious today. Nevertheless I dragged Mr. S out to lunch at a fancy Thai restaurant we used to visit a lot but had not been back to for a year. On our way home the wind picked up and the rain turned into little ice pellets bouncing off the car's windows and hood. After some grumbling about the foot-dragging winter, we got into a discussion about an article reporting on research about ... well, the subject is not important, but I began to argue that the abstract representation of something that induces a projected, simulated experience in a person's head is not the same as actually having a real experience.

Then it occurred to me that this is an issue that has plagued my mind recently. When we watch a movie, when we read a book (especially but not limited to fiction), when we watch TV (including reality TV), are we not living in a simulated experience and feel emotions induced by a representation of experience that is NOT REAL to ourselves? Of course one could trace this back to storytelling by the fire pit ("Once upon a time...") and the drawings of hunting scenes on cave walls. When people listen to or watch (or both) an abstract representation of other people's adventure, they feel as if they were going through the same adventure and experience a part of the same feelings, emotions, and thrills (etc., etc.), all in the safety of their own caves or living room.

I'm sure someone --- probably a philosopher or a psychologist --- has described this odd phenomenon. Humans can experience something without actually doing anything for real. The fake experience, induced by abstract representation of others' actions and experiences, can induce a sense of actually being there and doing it. Sometimes it can feel very real.

So the line between reality and induced armchair experience is blurred. An extremely ambiguous example is playing computer/virtual reality games. You are doing something for real, but most of it is fake. The threat is fake, but the adrenaline rush is real. A number of recent experiments show that the brain cannot tell the difference between reality and fake reality, and a clever VR trick can even create an out-of-body experience for real. 

Now that we don't NEED to do much of anything in daily life any more, do we need real experience any more? We don't have to craft our own table and chair from wood, build our huts from clay and straw, cook our meal on fire, and harvest our own grains any more. If we want to know what it feels like to make things, we can watch programs on HGTV or the Food Network. We don't have to actually make things.

I remember the stirring fascination I felt watching the TV program "Alone in the Wilderness", in which a man made a living alone in Alaskan forest, building his own house, carving his own boat, catching his own fish. Also the Swiss novel "Heidi," which describes, in meticulous and credible details, the mountain life ranging from milking the cow to herding goats. Importantly, "Heidi" suggests that doing these things are so easy that even children can handle them. --- And so can you! But you don't need to bother. You can get all your satisfaction from projecting your mind into these people on the pages or on the screen.

Pushing the life a little farther, one could argue that many other experiences can be felt without doing anything. Can we eventually simulate all experiences, including the most instinctive pleasures, such as, uh, the tingling of smelling the woods on a clear autumn morning? All without moving your butt out of the chair!

Living someone else's experience through an abstract representation or a vivid medium is like living in a dream, a dream shared by me and the other person, because there is an eerie sense of both being and being surprised in either case. When I wake up in the morning and read the twitter feed or emails of news of the world I have missed in my sleep, it is not unlike walking straight into another dream. Throughout the day I share my friends' and colleagues' experiences through emails and messages, and the world's collective experiences through news and Web sites. In fact I have not left my chair, and my hands have not created anything tangible besides an electronic copy of some words and numbers that exists inside the machine.

Note that "someone else's experience" could be merely someone else's made-up experience, like fiction. In such cases, the author is dreaming and I enter his or her dream. The difference is the author has more control and spends more effort. I'm just a lazy consumer of the dream created by the author and deservedly have less control.

The question is this: If there is no difference between real and simulated experience, if we get the same emotions and reactions from nonreal representation of life, why live for real? Why do things for real? Why touch and hold real objects? Why eat real food? Why love real people? Why make anything real? How much of my life is real and how much is a dream created by others and shared by me?

Why not stay in the continuous, endless dream? 

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Arya and Lady Snowblood

A few days ago George R. R. Martin released an Arya chapter from the yet-unpublished "The Winds of Winter" (the date on the Web page is wrong). He claims that he had been doodling on this particular chapter off and on for over a decade.

The chapter itself is wonderful and eerie. A strong sense of familiarity plagued me from the first word to the last. First it seems like an imagined version of life in The Globe Theatre circa 1600. The last bit was familiar in a different way, a strand of memory I could not put my finger on.

After reading it last night I rushed to ask Mr. S: "Do you know of a genre, subgenre, or sub-subgenre in Japanese manga about girl assassins?" He shook his head, "I have just heard of one such series, but I've not read it so ..."

I said never mind, as the origin of that floating strand of memory surfaced at that moment.

Lady Snowblood.

In the early days of my Internet life, I found home among figure skating fans and geeks who dug Asian movies --- no, Asian cult cinema, which included old-school Hong Kong Kung Fu movies (where my own interest lay), Japanese anime, and various action and exploitation movies, and later Korean and Southeast Asian cinema.

Apparently women occupied an interesting place in Asian cult cinema. They are often the object of "the male gaze," but are sometimes also male oppressors' worst nightmare. The line between exploitation and empowerment is pretty blurred. However, above all it is primarily about spewing blood, lots and lots of it. The movie was paid homage to in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Volume 1.

Lady Snowblood was first a series of manga and later made into popular movies. The heroine is a beautiful young woman on a deadly path of revenge for her family who had been slaughtered before she was born and her mother who died in a prison after giving birth to her. Like a lot of manga series, it featured some sex scenes along with the blood spattering and a variety of clever ways of killing people. 

Shakespeare and Japanese manga are not as dissimilar as you might think. Blood revenge, sometimes of such barbarity that makes modern readers uneasy, is a frequent theme in both. The tireless mix-and-masher GRRM has done it again, even instilling a whiff of the sexual elements with death from the manga. He is walking a fine line here with the Arya storyline.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

A Historical Day in My Life

March 4, 2014

I did crossovers! While gliding!

Since I started learning to skate a year ago, the idea of crossing one foot over the other foot and leaning the body outward has haunted me. It has always seemed unspeakably terrifying to do. I've hesitated and delayed learning forward crossovers because of mental images of stumbling and falling conjured up by my brain.

Today I did it. I crossed one foot over the other. I took the leap (figuratively speaking)! And I'm fine. No falls. No broken nose. It was not pretty, but the mental block was overcome and I can now practice and improve.

The video below shows what (good) crossovers look like:

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Richard III (Folger Shakespeare Library)



Director: Robert Richmond. Lead: Drew Cortese.

The set design was marvelous and clever. Every victim --- and there are many --- is ceremoniously shoved down a hole in the floor tinted in eerie blue light. In the center of the stage "buried" under glass floor was a skeleton, evoking the bones excavated two years ago in a car park in Leicester that have been confirmed to belong to the hunchback king.

It's a long and hard play. I cannot complain the quality of the production, except the costume design. The supporting male cast all wore black and many had on trench coats. For the first half I couldn't distinguish Buckingham from Hastings.

Cortese was nowhere close to looking grotesque (rather the opposite) and made no attempt to be so. This decision possibly led to the director's interpretation of the scene between Richard of Gloster and Queen Elizabeth, in which she kissed him despite all the hate speech. Hmm... I am not fundamentally against this interpretation but it does not quite work here. Something was off. In fact both of Richard's women-wooing scenes (the other is with Lady Anne) that nearly bookend the play are not done to my satisfaction.

I know this is cliche, but what red-blooded woman can resist the urge to imagine exactly how the evil bad man seduces and turns a woman who hates him with sheer wit and charm and lies and pure daring?

Timon of Athens

During the intermission of Timon of Athens at Folger, I eavesdropped on a discussion among the 3 persons (who looked like a mother with t...

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