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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Trip: Wishing for Permanence

We took a tour of the Library of Congress. The tour itself was silly, but it was quite inspiring to see all those books in that one massive room, where anyone could read them. "But you don't read books!", Benjy interrupted. "I don't read books in practice;", I argued, "I like this place in principle." That started a little bit of an argument, because Benjy thought it was hypocritical to like an idea without wanting to follow it oneself. But I really did love the idea behind that place, my own dislike of reading notwithstanding. (If I'd realized then that there were comics there, I don't think his side of the argument could have held up.) I liked that anyone from the public could walk in there and start reading any book he could imagine. I liked that this library had an air of permanence to it, so that future generations could have access to all this. But most of all, I liked the idea that a person could potentially make this building into a fixture in his life, so that sources of art, entertainment and information would last the rest of his life. And in principle, I disliked that we were just tourists, coming to take a brief peek in at the room and leave. That's not what the building was made for.

We went to the wonderful New England Aquarium in Boston. It had so many interesting types of fish, and a special exhibit with the most gorgeous jellyfish, but the highlight was the big penguin tank in the center. There were some aquarium workers in the tank with the penguins, feeding them as they all got in line patiently and waited their turns. They knew all the names, how well which penguins got along, etc. All we knew was "Ooh! Penguins! How cute!". I got the distinct impression that we weren't getting the full experience here. The rest of the building was so big and filled that there was no way I could internalize all I was seeing. I ignored the science and just took in how pretty it all was, because I'm not a marine biologist who'd care about such things. Now, I can take quite a lot of prettiness, but at a certain point it just becomes overkill if you take it all in at once. I wondered what it would be like to see all that on a regular basis. I could imagine a fantasy world where everyone had penguins outside their door, and treated them the same as we treat cats. Or even in the real world, there must be someplace (Antarctica, maybe?) where that could happen. Now that would be cool. Them all bottled up in this big building where only a handful of people will see them regularly? That's not what animals were made for.

While we were there, we went to the on-site IMAX theater to see Sharks 3D. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that it was right up my alley- not a science-heavy documentary (as I'd expected) but just a succession of pretty pictures. Lovely. It makes you feel like you're one of these creatures who lives in the ocean, looking around at all the gorgeous things swimming around, of which sharks were only one of many species displayed. Now, nothing can really replicate the life of an underwater creature because they're permanently living in all this, but it gave us the next best thing by spending a lot of time on each animal. I can see how that might bore some people, but for me it was wonderful. Not least because this was an IMAX theater, not some tiny little Israeli theater. The special thing about IMAX isn't just that it's 3D- it's that the screen is enormous. I imagined a fantasy world in which I could watch every movie like that. Leaving the theater, I mentioned to Benjy that it would be so cool to be able to just go to an IMAX theater and watch, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey in 3D! That's what this sort of theater was made for!


Anyway, all this got me to thinking. If you take a large dose of some light entertainment once, you'll mildly enjoy it for the most part and possibly get a little dissatisfied. Why dissatisfied? Because it's overkill to have too much of a very subtle enjoyment all at once. But if you spread it out, taking small doses on a regular basis, it can enrich your life. For instance: A Sudoku puzzle is not exactly the most fun thing in the world. Spend an hour or two on such puzzles, and you'll be so bored you'll never want to do another such puzzle again. But if every morning you open the newspaper and do the Sudoku puzzle of the day, it can sharpen the mind. Same goes for crosswords, Kakuro, and all those handheld puzzle videogames of the kind (such as Polarium and Brain Age). And imagine how boring it would be to play Animal Crossing, a banal string of errands and smalltalk on the Gamecube, for hours at a time! But if you can integrate it into your life, working your real-life schedule around when events will be taking place in Animal Crossing, it's tremendous fun! And listening to a concert is the best way to appreciate music, but listening to the radio regularly has more of a positive effect on your life. I'm sure you can think of many more examples of your own.

There is a problem with aiming for such experiences- the whole time issue. If something takes a little bit of time every day, that's less time that you have for more sophisticated one-time experiences. Which means not only that each day is going to be fairly similar to the others (which is true of any sort of schedules), but that from a business perspective, there's less of a market for new things. Which is a problem for me as a person who would always like to see more diversity in art. Take online role-playing games, arguably the building blocks of future civilizations: They are so involving that the players not only neglect other games (The PC game market has been much smaller ever since World of Warcraft was released), but sometimes neglect the rest of their real-world lives! In order for such a game to be made responsibly, the gamists need to do more than just ensure the endless potential for growth. They need to design the game for short play sessions, which can be fit into standard schedules and not only the schedules of the obsessed.

But I admit all this reluctantly. Because I would like to imagine a fantasy world where everyone who wishes can and does read any book they ever want! Where anyone can walk right outside their doors and watch penguins in the cold. Where there is never a lack of pretty things to look at. Where any movie can be watched, at any time, in 3D on the finest IMAX screen. Where I can stay at Grandpa and Grandma's house, and where I can spend as much time as I want in a great art museum.




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