Superpowers: Telepathy

Telepathy (the ability to read the minds of other beings) is an interesting thing to contemplate.  There are a number of websites out there with “Top ten superpowers it would be terrible to have!” articles, and telepathy is always on there.  The reason why telepathy would be a bad thing to have, typically goes like this:

“Telepathy would be a terrible super-power.  It would be like being stuck in a room with a thousand radios, all set to full volume, all set to a different station, and being unable to turn any of them off.  A constant barrage of thoughts from everyone would drive a telepath insane, and unable to function at all.”

If you consider that telepathy is analogous to hearing, then that scenario is likely correct.   People assume that telepathy is similar to hearing because when we form thoughts, we form them in sentences as they would be “heard” by ourselves (to refine them) or by others (when we state them).  So naturally, mind-reading would be picking up on those audio sentences formed in our brains.

But what if it isn’t like hearing?

Of the five accepted human senses (sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste), these can be divided into two categories: directed, and undirected.  Directed senses are things like sight, taste and touch.  In the case of these three, we can stop perceiving certain things without blocking the sense entirely.  We can choose to look away, not touch a thing with our tongue, or not touch a thing period.   If something is painful to look at, we can turn our head and look at something else.  If something tastes terrible, we can stop eating it.

(Touch is a bit more problematic, because we have to be grounded on the earth.  If we’re walking on something uncomfortable, we have to find something more comfortable to walk on, and that might involve walking further on the uncomfortable bit.  We can’t simply stop being on the one, and go to the other.)

Undirected senses are hearing and smelling.  In the case of these, if something is offensive to the sense in question, you can shut off perception to that sense (blocking one’s ears, holding one’s nose).   But that means blocking everything relating to that sense.  You put your hands over your ears, and yes, you no longer hear the unpleasant sound.  But you no longer hear anything else, either.  You do not have the choice of, “I will listen to this sound, and not listen to this sound.”  Your choice is to deal with the sound, or close off all sounds.  With sight, if you see something you would rather not, you can look away, turn away to something nicer.   You can say, “I will not look at this.  I will look at this other thing instead.”  Your sense of sight is still working.  Your sense of hearing is not.

So, back to telepathy.  What if it’s not like hearing, but more like sight?  What if a telepath, in the middle of a crowd, is not confronted with a room full of radios, but rather a room with a magazine rack.  Instead of a chaotic din of noise, he has a choice of reading material.  He can select a magazine, open it, read it, put it back, and select another.

The problem is this:  unlike people who have walked on the Moon, or climbed Mount Everest, or done any number of extraordinary things, being a telepath is outside the experience of every human being on the planet.  So far as we know, there are no telepaths.  No one has stepped forward to say, “You’re all goofy.  Telepathy is nothing like you imagine.  Read my book!”  Because walking on the Moon or climbing Mount Everest can be conveyed to us as human beings doing human things, only to an extraordinary degree.  We know what climbing is like.  We can imagine low gravity.  Those are not outside our ability to experience, or imagine.

You can’t say that about telepathy.  Telepathy is probably a unique experience, one impossible to convey to the non-telepathic.   It would be like someone blind from birth trying to describe the concept of “color.”  He might be able to convey certain things based on other senses – “red is probably like the smell of apple pie” – but the actual details are going to remain outside of his grasp.

The ultimate point of this, is this:  evolution doesn’t throw things out without a purpose, and without a point.  There aren’t any crabs with three claws, because that doesn’t help that crab survive.  Similarly, there aren’t any sponges or lichens capable of picking up short-wave radio transmissions because, again, such perceptions would serve no purpose and would simply pile on perceptions that these creatures could not use in their day-to-day quest to survive and reproduce.  (So that survival is passed to the next generation.)

“Usefulness” seems to be what evolution works toward.  An ability which did not give an advantage, but was instead a hindrance, would be corrected in the next generation.  If there were usefulness, though–

By the way, if any of you out there are telepaths, let me know.  I’ll be happy to edit this entry for you.

Time Divided by Work

“Perceptions” are always, ultimately, personal. You can’t really experience great tides of history in anything other than an abstract sense, unless you’re affected by them—in which case they become personal. For those who originally conceived and experienced the perception, the newly wrought might be surprised to hear “Well, duh” after they outline their thoughts on the matter.

But this is the digital age, when one need no more think of something before it’s hurled online at some point. (Usually in your comment section, FRA. Sorry!)

Still, old habits die hard, and while one might feel a certain thought is a unique one, there is the nagging feeling that it might not be so…that others would read your insight and think, “Well, duh.” But the urge to talk goes on. And, so, it’s posted anyway.

So forgive me if this seems pretty damned obvious. No, no, no, this isn’t like the Austrian self-sharpening razors, no sir, no overheating like with the tropical fishes, no zizzing and dripping like Ersatz Brothers Coffee, and this isn’t (for me) one of those, “Hey! I can use my turn signal lights to tell other drivers what I’m going to do!” obviousities that can be slammed to the matt and dismissed. For me. For you, it may be old news.

But, we’ll start with me, and something I realized a few days ago.

At work, I’ve discovered I am pretty darn judgmental and narrow minded. Aside from the folks who work in my department, who I know pretty well, everyone else is solely thought of in terms of how they relate to my job.

Let me insert, parenthetically, (you like that, don’t you) that my job is computer support. Yes–I’m the one who tells you, “Reboot and try again.” I’m the one who tells you, “Hang on a moment, I’ll recreate the printer,” or “I’ll clear the flags, give it a minute and try again.”

Or worse. If you tell me, “The system cannot find the drive requested,” well, you don’t hear me hurl invective toward the heavens. You do hear me say, “I’ll be right there.”

In sum, as far as I’m concerned, you are your computer problems. (I’m using the royal “you,” obviously.)

This is the insight that came to me a few days ago. I work at a large, 24/7 resort. I know my co-workers and get on with them fine; but for the rest of the staff, they are, to me, how often they call about problems, how savvy they can be considered, how crucial their problems appear (to them, and to me).

I judge them, based on how they use their computers. Not on their appearance, their habits, their hobbies, their friends and families, their pets, their love of gadgets or what car they drive. No, no, to me, they are “What kind of PC problems do they have? And how often?”

I imagine a lot of personal interaction works this way. If you’re a doctor or an auto mechanic or a designer…other than very good friends, the people you know are sorted and arranged according to how they impact on your skills, how they use you as a resource.

(As an aside, I recall seeing my doctor at a supermarket once. I waved and said Hi, and he got a sick look on his face which seemed to say, He’s going to ask me about medical problems. I didn’t, of course, because the same thing happens to me. I hate parties and never go, but if I’m trapped I hate mentioning my line of work. “Hey, you work on PCs? Well, my internet connection seems really slow…” or “I’m thinking of buying a laptop, what would you recommend?” Or the worst one. “I bought [item known to be a total piece of crap] and it doesn’t seem to work…” You can imagine my smile becoming fixed and skull-like.)

Back to the issue at hand, it must be noted that, of course, the reverse is true as well. People look upon you as a resource to be used, depending on your skills and their needs.

This is probably how societies form. So-and-so is a good hunter-gatherer, What’s-his-face is a good arrowhead maker, Whosis can talk to the gods pretty well…I’ll give What’s-his-face a gift basket of various cheeses if he’ll make me some new arrowheads. Meanwhile, what’s his face looks up to see who’s approaching his cave and thinks, Damn, I bet he lost all his arrows again. Crap. Looks like another basket of gift cheeses. Thank goodness the missus likes ‘em. This is probably also how societies tend to develop rigid roles for people; there are only a few resources to go around, so use and access have to be secured through rules.

Fast-forward a handful of millennia. We’ve got specialized positions all over the map, people who do things I can’t imagine and probably can’t spell. Two of these people meet. Their respective skills are irrelevant to the other. What happens? Do they have no common ground to interact upon, and thus move apart? Or does this lack of intrinsic need mean they can become best friends?

I honestly don’t know. I do know that intertwined spheres of usage can bring people together, but the level of usage keeps the relationship from becoming anything other than supply-demand. There’s a limited resource that both are trying to use, and the relationship can become one of vying. Just take a drive and notice how angry you get at the other drivers who aren’t going fast enough, are hogging the left lane, don’t use turn signals, etc. I think this is because we perceive that the resource—time on the road—is not being used properly by these people; we could make much better use if they weren’t there. Also, they are jerks.

On the other hand, a lack of commonality—two people who are not sharing a resource–can make the relationship brief, since no common resource can mean no common interest. But does it have to? The people who have no shared skill-range…neither needs what the other has…how do they come together in the first place?

Pheromones?

Like I said, I don’t know. It may be that I’m a right bastard and that is the sole root of the matter. What can you do? Reboot, and call back if it’s still a problem.

Slumbrous Despondency (Cheese Extra)

Filthy Rotten Angel recently posted that she was going to give up blogging, or at least give up blogging in the Known Universe. She has, I guess, reconsidered in the days since her first announcement and has posted a beautiful tribute to a friend who committed suicide. I always enjoy reading her work, it’s heartfelt in a way I can never be. I’m hoping I’m not out of line, linking to her here. Her blog is pretty autobiographical, and mine never is, so my certainty is uncertain.

Dancing Partner, Oil on Canvas.

During the days following her announcement, I thought about what it is that I do, here, and why I do it, and why I feel less and less like doing it.

What is the purpose and nature of this thing? Why do I do this?

Dancing Partner, Oil on Canvas.

I first signed up for Blogger in November of 2004. As I recall, it was a whim and one of those “everyone else is doing it, might as well get one myself” things. And now that I had it, I had no idea what to do with it. I’d scrawl brief little things and post and go back to work, or whatever.

Dancing Partner, Oil on Canvas.

The first purposeful posting I did was probably the PaintBlogs. These were really a method of cataloguing my creativity, trying to fathom why I made the choices that I did when constructing an artwork. And it was like a time-machine, I could see a work in its historical stages as well as the finished product. If I’d stopped at that stage (of the painting) and made different choices, what artwork would I have? And thoughts like that. The main thing is, it was all for myself. After all, I’d read somewhere that someone starts a blog every forty seconds or so. How was anyone going to come across my tiny corner?

Dancing Partner, Oil on Canvas.

Then something weird happened. Something I never expected to happen. I started getting comments. People were reading this crap. How did they get here? I suspect it’s the same way I found new blogs—the “Next Blog” button at the top of the Blogger Title Bar. I’d done that a number of times myself, usually enjoying the various realms I’d come across. Random chance can be fun, just ask Marcel Duchamp. In this case, it happened to me and whoever stopped by actually read what I was writing.

Dancing Partner, Oil on Canvas.

Of course, this changes everything. I wasn’t just leaving notes to myself, I was (cough) writing for the public. It’s one thing to write in a diary, but quite another to write in a diary knowing you’re going to have to read it in front of the class. In your underwear, too.

Dancing Partner, Oil on Canvas.

This changes the whole process. While I still wrote for myself, without a lot of thought whether or not my writing would be “useful” to anyone else, it does change your perspective when you think someone might read this. One is more careful with one’s phrasing, one double-checks the spelling and grammar, one reads over the prose to make sure that one thought flows smoothly into its fellow.

Dancing Partner, Oil on Canvas.

I’d start to think, too, that I should update more regularly, and that I should have something worthwhile to say. Worthwhile to whom? Well, why…oh. I need to write things that are interesting.

Dancing Partner, Oil on Canvas.

The natural question is, Well, what did you expect? Blogger is a publicly availably web service, and it’s available to this public at all times. If you want to hide, write things on your laptop and keep them there. If you want to be a public figure, blow the trumpet louder. Putting things on the internet is like showing up at the school dance. While few potential partners look at you twice, there is the possibility that someone would ask you to dance with them. Unlikely, sure, given the amount of people here. But it could happen.

Dancing Partner, Oil on Canvas.

Maybe that’s the attraction. There’s that slight possibility. That’s why you’re there, to show that you’re placing yourself in public eye, and ready to risk.

Dancing Partner, Oil on Canvas.

After all, one of the attractive aspects of other blogs is the ability to leave comments. I don’t always do so, but the fact that I can—that I can interact with another person’s thoughts—is a nice feeling. It makes me feel that I do exist, and that even though I may not be asked to dance, there’s always the possibility, however slight, that it might happen.

Dancing Partner, Oil on Canvas.

And when it does, telling the person you don’t know how to dance is really lame. If there’s no possibility that you’re going to dance, then you’re just going so you can be seen by everyone, and that sounds pretty lame too.

Dancing Partner, Oil on Canvas.

Where do I go from here? I have no idea.

I created this painting while thinking about Filthy Rotten Angel’s decision, wondering about where these events were leading. While I find this image pretty disturbing, even for my work, nonetheless I’m dedicating it to her. And hoping she won’t be a stranger.

Dancing Partner, Oil on Canvas.

Off to my dancing lesson.

Brains in Collision

Watching animals is instructive. If you see two strange dogs meet for the first time, the meeting is pretty straightforward. Usually, the tails are wagging rapidly but stiffly, and the ears are perked up, listening intently as the two approach each other.

What this seems to be saying is, “I’d like to be friends, but I’m on my guard.” Both dogs understand this state of affairs, and eventually, with the proper amount of sniffing, they usually run off to play together. (Or, one of them growls and the other decides if the challenge is worth it.) When they meet again, the body language is much more relaxed and there’s an eager energy which says, “I remember you, we played together!”

In both cases, what transpires is remarkably straight-forward. In the world of homo sapiens, I don’t think we have any equivalents in instant communication and understanding, except at the most basic, animal level (man approaches while pointing gun, other man hands over wallet—even this, though, relies on levels of experience).

I think the main reason for this is that people construct mental environments around each other, through which all events pass via a layer of interpretation. There is no such thing as a simple word or gesture, it all has to be filtered through past experience and “best guess” scenarios. And I think the reason for this is that humans use language as their primary means of conscious communication. Language is by its very nature imprecise and demands interpretation by the receiving party. This interpretation is how language communicates, through the creation and usage of shared references.

As an example, take the word “apple.” In English, this refers to certain fruits (sub word) of a certain range of colors (sub word) that grow on certain trees (sub word) and have a certain range of flavors (sub word). If I say, “Would you give me an apple?” I can imply all these sub words without having to spell each of them out. Without the word “apple,” I would have to lead you to the tree I was thinking of—at which point, I might as well get the apple myself. By categorizing these fruits as “apples” we’re able to exchange them among each other (parallels to the garden of Eden unintentional). You may get a different mental image than I do when you hear the word “apple,” and you may bring me a green one instead of a red one, but we’re thinking of approximately the same thing.

This use of language to categorize has no doubt helped us to create societies, since it was now possible to arrange common experiences with speed and efficiency. In fact, we could now create common experiences, through language, with people who had never had the experience. We did this through description, story-telling, instruction, and so on. We could even leave concrete records of experiences, so that others could share them long after we were dust.

(Humans are fascinated with collecting and codifying our experiences—blogging is but the latest manifestation–and to our knowledge we’re the only species that does, at least in forms we recognize, through the shaping of artifacts. It’s possible other species keep histories in ways we have yet to discover—which means we may not be as unique as we like to think. But I digress.)

With the ability to share experiences with those who did not experience them, comes another, possibly darker ability: to choose the means by which we present those experiences. One can be straightforward and use simple description…or one can emphasize/de-emphasize aspects, shift details, employ different words (“metaphors”) and otherwise change the impact of the experience (both for the listener and the teller) by shaping the narrative.

One can call this a form of “refined interpretation,” since it uses choice to distill the essence of the experience down to its basic form as it relates to us, rather than as a free-standing collection of facts. Rather than a simple description of events, the record now becomes a tool, by which we can convey what we wish to convey to another using the experience—what might be said to be the “lesson” to be learned from the experience.

And we’ve moved from factual description into interpretation. When we hear someone use the word “apple,” it’s no longer an isolated term. Now, it has to be centered in a context. Does the person speaking like apples? Dislike apples? Want an apple, or have an apple to sell? The word no longer has an objective meaning in relation to the world we inhabit—it’s surrounded by a host of sub words, memories, expectations and other intangibles.

It’s no longer about the term, it’s about the web of interpretation through which all communication passes. Communication itself becomes secondary, and interpretation becomes the primary information passed in conversation. How many times have we been asked, “How ya doin’?” knowing the correct response is, “Fine–you?” Other than the shaping of sounds, what exactly has transpired here? Words have been stripped of their meaning (does anyone ever answer “How ya doin’?” with a list of ailments and complaints?), but information has still been transmitted: “How ya doin—Fine, you” is a shorthand method of acknowledging recognition. We’re back to the dogs, saying, “I remember you, we played together!” But it’s recognition for its own sake, not as an introduction to further exploration. It’s a way to fit another person into our framework. It doesn’t communicate. So why do we do it? What’s the purpose? Is there a purpose, and can we know it, being language-creatures, or does it lie outside our cognitive abilities?

We’ve come full circle. While our mouths and our minds are transmitting noise-forms to one another, some other aspect of our species is communicating on some hidden, instinctual level that we seem to have out-clevered ourselves from sharing, through our use of language; specifically, the use of language to shape, reshape and otherwise obscure experience. Think of how often language is used against us, in advertising for example.

The process of communication itself has become the main information communicated between humans. The actual content still has a measure of importance, but it only achieves its true relevance when it’s placed into a context, another stone in the mosaic. The language itself has become almost decorative rather than informative.

I blame poetry, honestly. The first person who said, “My love is like a red, red rose” instead of “My girl’s pretty” probably had no idea what sort of slippery slope he just stepped onto. Because once the language is used in an interpretive way, there’s no turning back. The next person came along and had to say, “Yeah, well, my love is even redder than that,” because the bar was now raised. Language has been turned from the exchange of information into its own entity, which existed solely to obscure simple statements in the most clever way. I’ve never claimed to understand poetry, but I do like the use of language in works like Andrew Marvell’s “To his Coy Mistress.” There’s some striking imagery in that. But if you boil it down to its essence, Marvell is asking his gal for sex. And that’s it!

I’m not saying we should abandon poetry or humor or songs or anything; they’re all enjoyable in their own right, even if they fail as communication. Thanks to these things, the employment of language has become more central to us than what the language itself conveys. We’re steadily losing our ability to communicate meaningfully, except by exchanging chunks of autobiography. “Here’s how you fit into my worldview,” is how a lot of conversations seem to go. “Listen to me, and reflect me back at myself, in the way that I’m convinced I am.”

Consequently, there’s no way for you to know if what you’re reading here is what I’m actually writing, or your interpretation of what you think I’m saying.

And I’m not telling.

Even When They Aren’t

 

 

 

 

 

 

You probably recognize this guy as No Face, from Spirited Away. If you haven’t seen Spirited Away, you should stop reading now, sign off the computer, go find a copy and watch it. It’s that good. It’s one of the very, very few films that I recommend without any reservation at all. If you haven’t seen it, please don’t read any more of this, because this film really deserves to be seen with innocent eyes.

There are many wonderful characters in the film, but No Face is my favorite. He’s an example of what I’m starting to think is my favorite kind of character: the monster who isn’t.

As a monster, he’s very powerful, as demonstrated in the most destructive scene in the film, when he runs amok in the bath-house. Even Yubaba’s magic can’t stop him.

Also like most monsters, he has a limited ability to communicate. He can’t really speak, except by using someone else’s voice (in, shall we say, rather special circumstances). He communicates mainly by gestures and a kind of soft moaning. (His mask also changes a little bit from the normal somewhat happy look seen above to surprised, confused, angry, or sorrowful. It’s quite remarkable how expressive this simple mask is.)

What he seems to want most desperately is a place to belong, and a small measure of acceptance. He doesn’t demand love or admiration, he seems as if he would be happy to be ignored, as long as he was ignored among friends. We get no hint of his origins and he remains a mystery to the end, but that he’s very lonely, and has been for a long time, is quite apparent.

In his first interaction with Sen, she shows him kindness by leaving a door in the bath-house open so he can come inside out of the pouring rain. In return, he helps her to get a needed bath token when the guy in charge of such things refuses her. Sen’s gratitude—I get the impression this is the first emotional reaction No Face has ever been given–inspires him to procure a whole handful of tokens, thinking that this is what one does to be accepted—give people things. And he’s genuinely puzzled when she tells him she doesn’t need (and can’t use) any more tokens. Confused, he continues to insist but she still can’t accept the tokens. He simply hasn’t interacted with other beings before, so he doesn’t know the rules–but he also doesn’t give up.

He somehow takes note of the how the River God’s gift of gold was received, and tries his gift-giving again, creating gold nuggets which he gives to an eager bath-house frog. He’s much more successful this time. He then swallows the frog whole, and begins taking on his physical characteristics (and speaking with his voice). And he seems to take on the frog’s greed as well, figuring (I think) that he’s finally hit the right note, that this must be the basis of friendship.

Soon, the other bath-house attendants are fawning and fussing over him as he produces gold from his palms. When the realization dawns on him that it’s the gold that’s been accepted and not him, that’s when he becomes monstrous. He seems intoxicated by actually receiving emotional responses, and is distressed that they’re turning out to be false. He demands to see Sen, the only person who has shown him genuine kindness—he wants to be liked by her, that seems to be the one thing in his world that has any meaning for him. But he doesn’t know how to be likeable; all he’s learned from the bath-house is greed, so he tries to offer her enormous handfuls of gold (the one gift that has never been turned down).

Again, Sen doesn’t accept it, and again No Face can’t understand this, especially in contrast to the other workers. When it’s demonstrated that simply giving gifts is valueless as a means of friendship, my impression is that he wants to smash the entire hollow world that he’s constructed around himself. And it’s the bath-house that suffers (he does manage to cough up, whole and unharmed, everyone he’s swallowed). His rampage at the bath-house is not the result of his monstrous nature; instead, it comes about because his desire for acceptance is only partially fulfilled—partially because he seems to be the center of attention, but this attention isn’t about him. We’ve seen similar sequences in other movies where the unpopular nerd is treated nicely by the cool kids, only to discover that they did so only because he just bought a cool car or has a winning lottery ticket or has a famous rock star hiding in his house. In other words, it’s not because of who they are but what they have. It’s only natural that the bitterness that results is much more than simple disappointment. You had everything you ever wanted, and it all turned out to be hollow.

Purged of the rage and greed (as well as all the physical stuff) he absorbed in the bath-house (“This place makes him crazy,” Sen observes), he returns to his usual form, meekly and humbly following Sen as she undertakes a difficult journey in order to save Haku’s life. And at the end of that journey, he’s the one who finds a home, a place where he’s accepted and his talents are appreciated.

If only all such monsters could find such a place. Probably the “monster” that comes closest to No Face is Boris Karloff’s version of the Frankenstein Monster. He’s another powerful being who’s not monstrous at all, he simply isn’t beautiful looking and he can’t communicate in erudite language, which is (ironically) the one thing that probably best hides a man’s nature from others. But I digress. I do that. Rather a lot. You’ve probably noted.

Of course, No Face has one advantage over Frankenstein’s Monster: he doesn’t look like a human being, so we cannot look at ourselves and compare him (unfavorably) to us. We are apples and oranges. Frankenstein’s Monster, on the other hand, was created specifically to look a lot like us, and has clearly fallen short of any ideal with which he can be compared. So, yes, it’s appearance in this case that determines standing among monsters. No Face, as the Other, can be seen more objectively than the Frankenstein’s Monster’s parody of humanity. Interestingly, the Baby in Spirited Away learns a similar lesson. Transformed into a mouse, he’s disappointed that his mother doesn’t recognize him—appearance, and not our true nature, has become the standard of judgment.

(Some might include Godzilla or King Kong in this misunderstood-monster company, but for me they’re disqualified because the destruction they cause is clearly the end of their actions, rather than a reaction to being disappointed by the world and themselves. The Hulk? Maybe. Ben Grimm? Definitely. Day of the Dead‘s Bub? Yes.)

Why do I like such monsters? Probably because I am such a monster. I have no idea what the social contract entails. I just make up something that seems plausible or, more likely, copy what I’ve seen others do on television. I’ve unwittingly caused pain because I didn’t know what to do, and I’ve also stood there not knowing how to respond when a response was clearly needed. Each and every time I feel like I’m just something odd hidden in a regular envelope. I’d sure like to find the place where I really belong. This doesn’t seem to be it.

I suspect a lot of people feel the same way. Like No Face, we’re not destructive because we’re monsters. It’s just that that is what monsters do, so we must be monsters when we are destructive.

I also seem to create such creatures. In my NaNoWriMo project, I had a monster. A destructive killing creature that could not be defeated, no matter how brave and determined my hero. But something changed my hand as I wrote, and I suddenly found myself with a No Face. He immediately became my favorite character, and story and world suddenly shaped themselves to accommodate his new nature. Except for the fact that he can’t talk, I would eagerly do another novel all about him.

Well (I say with a shrug), they say all art is autobiography and every painting is a self-portrait. Who am I to argue with them? I like monsters.

By Any Other Name

I went to see Serenity this weekend. And I liked it, it was a fun movie with some interesting plot twists and turns and some really good special effects. The whole thing was very intelligent and well thought-out.

Except for the title.

Honestly, when the word “Serenity” appeared on the marquee of the local theatre, my first thought (and I can’t be alone in this) was, Oh, hey, it’s one of those sensitive films about young girls coming of age. I mean, that even sounds like a TV show title, where young women experience laughter, heartbreak, love and friendship all separated by carefully timed commercial breaks. Nothing wrong with that, I hasten to add. Heck, I like a good cry…far more often than I should be admitting in public. But that isn’t here or there. So the fact that it’s a science fiction western may come as a shock to those of you who didn’t dig too deeply. And that’s my main point.

The film is a spin-off of sorts from a failed television series, “Firefly.” Something I never watched, but fans have a passion that will not be dimmed. At the IMDB show times screen, it was quite instructive to see that other films in the theatre I go had a few hundred votes…some had four thousand or so…but only Serenity had over seventeen thousand.

That’s quite a fan base. And that’s quite a fan base for a film that is, let’s face it, preaching to the converted. Who is going to dig deep enough to see what this film is about, and then go to see it? Other than me, I mean. People showing up for a sensitive chick flick are (I hope) going to be warned away from a pretty violent and sometimes gruesome science fiction shoot out. People who are going to look for a science fiction shoot-out are, I guess, watching something else on DVD since they may not be aware of this film. But the “Firefly” fan-base, they’re going to be out en mass.

Which turns out to be not much of a mass. Wouldn’t it have been better to call the film something a bit more a propo? Like, urm, Killer Cannibals from Space? Granted that would have tied into the schlock movie crowd (like me) and wouldn’t have alerted the fans of quality idea films that here was something they might like…but then, the title “Serenity” didn’t do that either. (Spoiler alert: It’s the name of the spaceship.) For despite the fact that I went to see it, it dropped off the charts this weekend. Who’s to blame? Well, it’s hard to say. The whole set up is so insular that one imagines the fans of “Firefly,” and writer-director Joss Whedon are equally to blame. He made a film for them, and they went to see it. No one else was invited. Oh sure, you might say. All someone had to do was peruse a few message boards or read the synopsis or what-have-you, and you’d know what to expect and be there with bells on.

But that requires WORK. As noted, you’ve got to go to the trouble to dig up info on the entertainment in question. Why put people to work like that? Why not make it easy for them? Why not try to tell people what you’ve got on offer?

It might be argued that an arty title is the priviledge of the artist and his right to be true to his vision. And I won’t argue the point. But films aren’t just art. They’re commerce. Someone gave Mr. Whedon almost 40 million dollars to make a movie. Wouldn’t it have made sense to have as many folks as possible see the result? So that if it was a huge success, he might make another one?

The second argument is that such actions might delute the cult. It won’t be cool and hip, man, if everyone goes to see it. No, no, it is only for the select few. The enlightened ones…and I’m going to stop there before I get too scowly. I don’t have much patience with fans who desire that an artist, in whatever field, remain their exclusive property, and if that artist becomes a success he has, therefore, sold out.

The surprising thing was, I was able to pick up on the story and characters with minimum confusion. I may not have had the rich experience a “Firefly” fan might have had, but clearly Mr. Whedon was persuaded that potential newbies had to be brought up to speed. (The exposition was quite cleverly handled.)

So, it may be too late if you missed it and that sounds like something you’d like. If you’re a “Firefly” fan, you’ve probably already seen it. And if you’re a “Firefly” fan, perhaps you can answer a question for me. The Reavers in the film are a group of completely psychotic space cannibals. In the film, they appear totally out of control and completely in thrall to their passions, howling and rawring all the while. They seem to be 28 Days Later’s “Rage” victims…of the future.

How in the heck are they able to avoid killing each other, let alone organize? How the heck can they fly spaceships?

All that Noise, All that Sound

Well, I finally bought the Coldplay CD, the one with “Speed of Sound” on it. I just couldn’t get that song out of my head. So I went out and got it, thus succumbing to, I guess, peer pressure. I did, however, wait for a couple of months, so Coldplay’s fifteen minutes are pretty much over, so it wasn’t like I was succumbing to good peer pressure. I also bought a Doctor Who DVD at the same time, so it wasn’t like Coldplay was my only goal. Defensive, aren’t I?

The reason I hesitated so long was that I was pretty sure “Speed of Sound” would be the only really good song on it. And I was mostly right. Don’t get me wrong, the rest of it is at least agreeable, and there’s a clever re-working of the riff from Kraftwerk’s “Computer Love” that’s, er, clever. But it’s basically U2 sonic mush, shaped into some riffs and keening vocals.

Notice I don’t say it’s “U2-like” or “U2-esque.” This is basically a U2 record that they didn’t make themselves. Chris Martin and Bono have very similar voices (Martin’s voice is sweeter, but Bono’s is more powerful), but the guitarists for the bands could be evil twins to each other. The only thing I can figure is that Coldplay must have been really scared by U2 some time in their (collective) past, and they’ve been trying to work out some kind of therapy this way.

That’s not really what I want to write about, though. It struck me that a CD, as a container of music, is a fixed product. One generally has the idea that it should hold a certain amount of music, anywhere from 35 minutes (at the extreme acceptable low end) to over an hour. Anything less than 35 minutes seems like unused potential (at best) or a cynical rip-off (at worst). So I imagine that any conscientious band, not wanting to appear parsimonious to their fans, probably puts some less-than-stellar material out, just so the CD format seems to be a reasonable value to the potential consumer.

But doesn’t this mean that the overall quality of the CD is diluted? Sure, we’re consumers, but we’re also listeners. Back when vinyl was the standard, this good stuff on this Coldplay CD would have made an outstanding EP. As in, play it til the grooves wear out. As a CD, the sheer length means the excellent track (“Speed of Sound”) and the couple of very good tracks are drowned in a sea of okay-not bad noise. (Granted, the band members probably think all the songs are great, but they’re not writing this, are they.)

It seems to me that as our entertainment technology continues to advance, performers are being asked to adapt not only to the technology, but to the changing needs of the consumer. So whereas once a recording was the means by which music could be preserved and distributed, now a band is the means by which a recording can be produced and sold. (That’s not supposed to be as cynical as it sounds.) Also, whereas in the past consumers would seek out bands, now the band has to court the consumer.

This isn’t going to be a rant about how music nowadays sucks (though it does), as I suspect that as every generation passes, that’s the common complaint from the old to the young. The music that we choose is better than what came before, and better than what will come after. Twas ever thus.

No, what I want to talk about is the impact of recording technology, not just on how music is experienced, or how it is created, but why it is (possibly) created the way it is, and the ways in which it is thought about by the listener.

I suspect that before the invention of recorded sound, music was less tied to any kind of restriction. If you wanted to write an opera cycle that lasted several days, you could do so without let or hindrance. Likewise, if your song was only a few seconds in length, there were no rules to say that couldn’t be done. (Having your music performed for an audience was a different matter, but I digress.)

Most composers and performers didn’t do these extreme things, because popular music is, for the most part, a functional art form. People want to dance, or feel beloved, or feel blue, feel smarter than everyone else, or otherwise be entertained. The music had to fit a certain need in order to become popular in the first place. While Wagner’s marathon works are respected, they’re not as widespread as many other, simpler forms of music.

When recorded sound became popular, the limits of music (at least commercial music) changed. A song couldn’t be longer than what a wax cylinder, or a 78 RPM disk could hold–there was no medium capable of greater length. And I think over the course of the decades, the recorded sound object (the record) began to shape music to reflect its own image.

Originally, a dance band, for example, would simply shape its performance to the length of the party where it was playing. If the party ended early, they’d stop and go home. If the party went longer than expected, they could play more songs, or play longer versions of the songs they knew.

I think the first audio recordings were, basically, promotion for a band. The band could have a record played on the radio and people would know what the band sounded like, and if they liked what they heard, they’d go to the live show. The record was an advertisement for the concert.

My own opinion is that this was the norm for a long time. People bought records not for the records themselves, but because they liked the concert. For one reason, for a long time records didn’t have the same audio quality as live performance. Concerts were also right there and then, probably more fun than a tinny recording that had to rely on memory for most of its effect.

But when records became audibly equivalent to live performance, and began to surpass that (via overdubbing, compression, effects, etc) I believe the balance shifted.

Suddenly, records were no longer the enticement to a live performance; the live performance was now the enticement to go out and buy the record. That must have seemed odd to those bands that realised what was going on–they just wanted to (at this point in the century) rock and roll, but their wings were being fitted to a different flight path. Playing music? Sure, sure, as long as the LP sells!

As the recording process, and the resulting LPs continued to be refined, I imagine that bands began to tailor their aims more and more toward the physical record, and less toward what the record was supposed to document: the band’s own performance. After all, most bands at first aspired to a song on the radio, ie, one side of a 45 RMP record (the other side could be, and usually was, anything). Two to three minutes at most, just enough for radio play. The rest was the party.

When the LP became the standard, suddenly more was required of bands. They had more minutes to fill. Pete Townsend tells how he wrote “A Quick One” (a ten minute song cycle) because his producer told him he had ten minutes to fill to complete the album. Townsend was a consumate professional though, and very talented, so that ten minutes wasn’t just band noodling.

That wasn’t always the case, of course. Insert your favorite meaningless jam band here, but respect me and my kind if we say But wait! about our favorite prog rock outfit. To say nothing of Tangerine Dream!

Since this is getting too long, let me wrap up here. The era of the LP gave way to the era of the CD, and bands were under even more pressure to fill those minutes. Which leads us to Coldplay, and an excellent EP turned into an okay CD.

There may be hope on the horizon. The advent of the iPod and downloadable MP3s have made a conceptual leap in what is expected of music these days. It’s still tied to recordings rather than live performance, but it seems to know that there’s a need out there that bands can only sporadically fulfill.

Suppose Coldplay decided that what they wanted to go back to was the era of the 45 RMP record? The song on the radio…or in this case, the song on the iPod. They could put all their resources into making that one song really, really great, and not bother with the attendant CD.

It’s still a matter of terminal nostalgia, which our species seem can’t seem to shake since the advent of the recorder, but at least it’s a step forward for the consumer. At least he or she doesn’t have to listen to hours of drivel to get to the good stuff. Which of course, varies from consumer to consumer. One man’s drivel, etc.

This might mean a whole new era of composer-consumer relations, one actually based on music and not product.

Or it might not. Never underestimate the ability of marketing to undercut everything.

Still. I should do something with that iPod, shouldn’t I.

Before it does something with me.