The Pixar Princess

A surprising number of animated classics have been created during my lifetime. Two important revolutions happened in America at the end of the 20th century: the “Disney Renaissance” and the arrival of computer-based animation. While the explosive impact of 3D was hard to miss, another important factor was subtle and sociopolitical.

The Little Mermaid was a regression in one sense, to the animated Broadway-musical royal romances that defined early Disney animation. In another sense, it broke new ground for the format. Ariel is the titular 19th-century ocean-dwelling heroine who makes a faustian deal to win the heart of Prince Eric, a boring but beautiful human. As only the fourth official Disney Princess, she does something other than be in distress, which is notable. The box office returns were impressive, and the royal romance was back in a big way. However, that whole singing princess trope hasn’t transcended its gendered appeal to this day. Consider that Pixar out-earned Disney at the box office without featuring a princess for 17 years. Or consider Halloween costume sales.

Anyway, let’s continue. Belle is also an “interesting princess” with all the book learning and such, but her character has more depth in that she learns to love a hideous creature. There’s not much else that needs to be said here, but imagine if the genders were switched!

Jasmine is the bride of Aladdin. She is notable for being non-European and owning a tiger. Perhaps because boys would balk at Beauty and the Beast, the action in that movie revolves around the illegitimate title prince. The Lion King doesn’t actually marry an official Disney Princess, which is just as well because lions are polygynous cannibals.

Pocahontas is next, featuring a quasi-historical (Native) American. The wheels were coming off the royal romance gravy train by this time, and her movie was slightly overshadowed by Pixar’s explosive debut. Animation would be changed forever; 2D was suddenly old-fashioned and unmarketable (see The Iron Giant). While its shiny new rendering process got a lot of attention, Toy Story was also at the vanguard of a different narrative technique. Gone were the musical numbers and pretty princesses – the only romance in Toy Story is between Woody and Bo Peep, and the framing device literally casts them as role-playing toys.

That stroke of genius allowed the franchise to explore mature themes like jealousy, existential angst, and the social contract, while basing all the action around a child and his possessions. Perhaps there is some significance to Andy’s gender and the fact that his pretend play always involves aggressive conflict between good and evil. The neighbor Sid takes this to a perverted extreme, obliterating and mutilating toys, while his sister Hannah has them share idle gossip over tea.

In any case, Pixar’s movies have avoided the royal romance trope almost entirely. Shrek absolutely wallowed in fairy-tale nonsense, and eventually The Princess and the Frog and Tangled introduced Tiana and Rapunzel as the first Black and 3D Disney Princesses, respectively. Meanwhile, Finding Nemo celebrated guardianship and adventure, The Incredibles focused on ability and the family unit, and Ratatouille studied ambition and creative expression. The latter did have a romantic subplot and a peerage aspect which was subversive at best.

To get to the point, Merida the Brave is scheduled to become the first official Pixar Princess in July. This is interesting for several reasons: First, she stays single until the end of the movie! Her three would-be suitors are not very charming, to say the least. Second, she doesn’t sing, except for one Gaelic lullaby. Finally, Merida isn’t actually the first romantic female lead in a Pixar movie. That honor goes to EVE, a machine with a fusion reactor and a minimalist design supervised by Jony Ive. Clever.

I’m leaving out several other animated features of note, like Wallace and Gromit, Persepolis, and Coraline, and that isn’t even mentioning Miyazaki or the rest of Japan. Here’s to all these great artists, and congratulations to Princess Merida!

Rovers

Here’s an interesting idea from John Graham-Cumming suggesting that “Rovers” like Curiosity could be useful in other environments. Specifically, the Earth is a gigantic place and most of it is hard for humans to access. Why don’t we have Earth Rovers that can perform simple tasks in those places?

I can see why having surveillance equipment in remote locations might make people nervous, because people generally don’t like being watched. This makes sense, but it completely ignores all of the other cases where “roving” can be helpful. Security is only one thing that computers do well, and we can learn a great deal by not judging what we see until we have a better picture. Sometimes waiting for an answer is the best thing to do.

Notes from Silicon Valley

As fun as this blog might be for me to write, and as many random ideas might play out (and succeed!) here, I still haven’t talked very much or very directly about myself or what I think about my own situation, as it didn’t really occur to me that certain people might care about that too. Family and friends, feel free to consider this The Return On Your Investment, Part 1, or whatever:

– The simulacres phenomenon is very real indeed. Humans may have bootstrapped their own existence all along, but moving to a place like this really underlines how far we’ve come as a species. I’m still not completely able to relax and enjoy myself when the ambient temperature is more than three degrees from whatever would seem “ideal” at any moment, because I have never known survival that does not require a carefully-constructed box. My ancestors fled nameless European tyrants in a box, and each subsequent generation of Northeastern Americans go on reproducing their boxes like some quasi-species of box-creature, just so that come springtime the whole lot of us aren’t frozen up in a giant cube. The problem is, boxes cut both ways, and people get soft. Like me.

– Maybe you think, ah, it must be that famous “crunchy” perspective from the camping trip, but this is not true either. Many people here seem to know their environment better than they know themselves. Some would not even regard that kind of statement as an insult.*

– Ever talk to one of those people who are too clever for their own good? Where we should probably just stuff them in the nearest closet or mental institution for a few hundred years while everyone else grows up? You’ll run into a lot of those people here.

– On the other hand, we have a verifiable shortage of free lunches, as people keep asking me to replace theirs. Actually, I did get a free lunch last week, but of course there was a waiting list involved. And the best free food is still reserved for the best free programmers, somehow.

– If I am willing to deal in money, there are many lunches available for purchase, most of which are delicious.

– As delicious as the marine life might be, Italian Food in City X doesn’t hold a candle to the real thing. Which, of course, doesn’t hold a candle to the real thing.

– No matter what happens, the hipsters have no choice but to become old with me.

– In the end, nothing outlasts a weird uneasiness about this whole endeavor, a sense that the things I write and the things I know might be the only things standing between me, the street, and some totally crazy sign. And that the street itself is the only thing standing between humanity and all those impregnable woods. And that I might actually need to earn a master’s degree before these strangers start taking me seriously. I still don’t want to.

*If there are any specific people who believe I am picking on them, the answer is NO!!! Everything is caricature!!!

Vacation Bonus Update!

Having just graduated from RIT, I’m traveling and looking for tech jobs in the SF Bay Area. Unfortunately it’s been too long without an update so here are some assorted links and a miniature article:

Cool Guns
Nuclear Paranoia
Best Google Plussers
James Bond stares at his cell phone for 5 seconds while driving!

Stacked Comment Pronouns

Today on reddit, a funny picture imagines Commander Shepard using a dating site:
Shepard on OKCupid

Now, some comments:
Deep Pronouns

See what happened there? Each person referred to some aspect of the previous statement without explicitly naming their subject. By the third reply, we’re muddling through a confusing mess of ambiguous pronouns, and from there, discussion will be plagued by cumbersome phrases like “the (O)riginal (P)ost” or “ChrisHansensVoice’s comment” as long as each pronoun is already taken.

Here’s a Quick Internet Tip: if you’re making a clever observation or somehow trying to stimulate conversation, try to be polite and keep the pronouns free. Sometimes it takes a bit more effort, and it sounds rather like you’re trying to coin a phrase, but don’t be ashamed about that! The last commenter could have substituted something like:

“I used to wish for second chances, until I beat Braid.”

This sentence is contextually intact and doesn’t rely on any external reference to make sense (to most English speakers). One effect of this completeness is that there are no pronouns that refer to any noun outside of the sentence itself. With shorter sentences, there aren’t usually any pronouns at all, something that will be massively appreciated by new readers. Pronouns shouldn’t be completely off-limits, but when the previous three comments contain real or implied pronouns, it’s a good sign you should probably leave them out.

Introduction

Hey Internet, welcome to my blog without readers. I hope you’re all having a good vacation, or at least making enough money to be happy with things. I’m having a decent vacation but not making any money, so I figure it’s about time to get this thing going.

First, I guess I should say up front that this blog won’t really be “about” any specific discipline or project, so your interest in it might turn out to be a tad inconsistent. I’ll talk about current events and politics, sure, but I’ll also be discussing some serious science problems and sharing artistic projects as I see fit. I’m not a journalist and frankly I don’t care whether you get confused or discouraged, so let the reader beware.

Second, I’m not going to be talking about “typical” issues you might find on other news blogs, and what you read here might sound a bit crazy and radical more often than not. I assure you that I’m not some evangelical nutjob – my political opinions align more with “South Park” than really any other TV show (or political party). I’d just rather not spend time rehashing the same old libertarian perspective on the same old popular issues, day after day. That’s a fate reserved for employed writers.

Anyway, I hope you’ll check in soon. Upcoming topics include: neuroscience and memory, Wikileaks, aliens, education vs. learning, imaginary numbers, digital business, war, music and emotions, and more.