The survival of man depends on the early construction of an ultra-intelligent machine.
In order to design an ultraintelligent machine we need to understand more about the human brain or human thought or both. In the following pages an attempt is made to take more of the magic out of the brain by means of a “subassembly” theory, which is a modification of Hebb’s famous speculative cell-assembly theory. My belief is that the first ultraintelligent machine is most likely to incorporate vast artificial neural circuitry, and that its behavior will be partly explicable in terms of the subassembly theory. Later machines will all be designed by ultraintelligent machines, and who am I to guess what principles they will devise? But probably Man will construct the deus ex machina in his own image.
The subassembly theory sheds light on the physical embodiment of memory and meaning, and there can be little doubt that both will need embodiment in an ultraintelligent machine. Even for the brain, we shall argue that physical embodiment of meaning must have originated for reasons of economy, at least if the metaphysical reasons can be ignored. Economy is important in any engineering venture, but especially so when the price is exceedingly high, as it most likely will be for the first ultraintelligent machine. Hence semantics is relevant to the design of such a machine. Yet a detailed knowledge of semantics might not be required, since the artificial neural network will largely take care of it, provided that the parameters are correctly chosen, and provided that the network is adequately integrated with its sensorium and motorium (input and output). For, if these conditions are met, the machine will be able to learn from experience, by means of positive and negative reinforcement, and the instruction of the machine will resemble that of a child. Hence it will be useful if the instructor knows something about semantics, but not necessarily more useful than for the instructor of a child. The correct choice of the parameters, and even of the design philosophy, will depend on the usual scientific method of successive approximation, using speculation, theory, and experiment. The percentage of speculation needs to be highest in the early stages of any endeavor. Therefore no apology is offered for the speculative nature of the present work. For we are certainly still in the early stages in the design of an ultraintelligent machine.
Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion,’ and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.
You have been mentioned in the same breath for the last several months. And soon you will go 1-2 in the draft. It’s a testament to your fantastic talent that there’s still uncertainty – although very little – about where you’ll end up. But once you get drafted and shake hands with Darth Vader, your lives will diverge and you will be immersed fully in the identity of your new employers.
Immediately following the draft, you will board a private jet to your new cities, where you will step off the plane as Hope. The first stage will be a media event. All stages, in fact, will be media events. Whether leading your teams to triumph or failing miserably, every breath will be a public affair. For better or worse, your privacy is gone.
After the necessary posing and hand shaking and I’m-excited-to-be-a-part-of-this-organization-isms, you’ll be escorted into the locker room and shown your new stoop. It will look identical to all other stoops. And until you retire, this will be the only room on the planet where you’re safe, and where your struggle is understood.
Your last name will be unceremoniously taped over your locker and you’ll be gripped once again with the feeling of uncertainty that comes with a new beginning. The NFL is a man’s world, and even when secure in the blossoming of one’s own manhood, the question is unavoidable: Am I man enough?
You’ll be issued your playbooks – if you haven’t already – and you will dive in headfirst. The fate of every professional football player is determined not only by his talent but by his circumstance. The offensive system is not up to the player. The plays that are called: he must run them. The blocking prowess of his lineman: he cannot affect it. The willingness of his coach to cater a rigid offensive system to his unique talents: he does not decide it. His defense: he does not control it. The mental health of the team at large, which will determine the efficiency of the work environment: he does not control that either. He is one man, and on his back the city jumps, expecting that his legs alone will deliver them.
And there will be failures. Andrew, there will be times during practice when you will be outplayed by free-agent camp bodies who will never play a down of pro football. And RG3, there will be times when you will look so shitty that anyone watching will declare you a bust, and the team’s hopes lost. Yet it is through these tunnels that all players must pass — the Hall of Famer and the Never Will Be. The knowledge of this common struggle will unite a team in defiance of the conventional wisdom that suggests otherwise. Remember for every interception thrown, there is an interceptor in triumph. For every touchdown thrown, there is a defense in defeat. Leadership requires an acceptance of this, and will not work without it. A leader who lacks this perspective will lead no one but himself.
Chances are, you both already know this. But it is a nuance that is lost on the media. Simply showing the game on television is not enough. It must be accompanied with an explanation for why it happens. And this is where they fail us. Media knowledge isn’t so much knowledge at all, but sensation, flashed across a screen to stir the unbalanced longings in the heart. Out in society, you will be forced to choose: Do I prop up the myth or do I speak the truth? Or more directly: Am I the character they have created or am I me?
If this paradigm weren’t enough on its own, you will have a bucket full of non-football things to think about. First, everyone who meets you will see dollar signs. Everyone will want to “help you out.” When someone wants to sell me something or persuade me, I want no part of them. Yet if either of you are dismissive of strangers, you risk damaging your image, which you have been taught to protect. Do not worry about this. If you give your ear to fools, they’ll chew it off.
After negotiating your contracts, you both will surely buy a house in an affluent suburb where no 22-year-old would be happy living. Your new neighbors will be rich as well, facelifted, lipo-sucked, Xanaxed and dripping in diamonds, simply delighted to welcome you to the neighborhood. You will commission an interior decorator, recommended by a neighbor, to furnish your home. This will guarantee it feels nothing like Home. And someday, when all of this is over, you’ll walk through and gaze upon the marble columns and the embroidered drapes like artifacts in a museum, wondering why you ever listened to that woman.
And there’s more. You’ll buy a few cars, attend charity events and autograph signings, do endorsement deals, film commercials, go to golf tournaments, meet local investors and owners and politicians and more rich people on more Xanax and the surreal will become the real. The game that you fell in love with as a child will seem lost; a thump on the floorboard of your new Mercedes, swerved at high speeds to avoid a shadow in the night. The sights and sounds and smells of football, sensual memories that stir the passions in the soul, will be reconceived and recategorized, buried behind newer, odorless versions.
With all of this pushing against you, the role of friends and family becomes very important. There are people in this world to whom you’re just Andrew and Robert. Son, brother, lover, friend. You need to lean on these people when the Weirdos start to make sense. You need to run to the familiarity of genuine friendship. But even in this, there will be a loneliness, because, as a defense mechanism, you will have assumed a piece of your new identity, and your loved ones won’t understand it. Caught in between these two worlds you’ll drift. You’ll feast on the fruits of excess, and will only grow hungrier. You’ll dine with familiar faces, and find you’ve lost the taste. And so you’ll get in your Mercedes on your days off and drive to the facility and watch film. Ah yes. Football. That’s what this is all about.
And your ability to keep this all in perspective will determine how you perform on the field. Once the whistle blows on Sundays, you’ll be released from captivity, and you’ll be free for three hours to truly live your dreams on the grandest scale you can imagine, against the best athletes on the planet. You will win or you will lose, but then the football game will end. The NFL game never will. Godspeed, boys.
Nate Jackson played for the Denver Broncos for six years.
ON SEEING THE 100% PERFECT GIRL ONE BEAUTIFUL APRIL MORNING
by Haruki Murakami
One beautiful April morning, on a narrow side street in Tokyo’s fashionable Harujuku neighborhood, I walked past the 100% perfect girl.
Tell you the truth, she’s not that good-looking. She doesn’t stand out in any way. Her clothes are nothing special. The back of her hair is still bent out of shape from sleep. She isn’t young, either - must be near thirty, not even close to a “girl,” properly speaking. But still, I know from fifty yards away: She’s the 100% perfect girl for me. The moment I see her, there’s a rumbling in my chest, and my mouth is as dry as a desert.
Maybe you have your own particular favorite type of girl - one with slim ankles, say, or big eyes, or graceful fingers, or you’re drawn for no good reason to girls who take their time with every meal. I have my own preferences, of course. Sometimes in a restaurant I’ll catch myself staring at the girl at the next table to mine because I like the shape of her nose.
But no one can insist that his 100% perfect girl correspond to some preconceived type. Much as I like noses, I can’t recall the shape of hers - or even if she had one. All I can remember for sure is that she was no great beauty. It’s weird.
“Yesterday on the street I passed the 100% girl,” I tell someone.
“Yeah?” he says. “Good-looking?”
“Your favorite type, then?”
“I don’t know. I can’t seem to remember anything about her - the shape of her eyes or the size of her breasts.”
“So anyhow,” he says, already bored, “what did you do? Talk to her? Follow her?”
“Nah. Just passed her on the street.”
She’s walking east to west, and I west to east. It’s a really nice April morning.
Wish I could talk to her. Half an hour would be plenty: just ask her about herself, tell her about myself, and - what I’d really like to do - explain to her the complexities of fate that have led to our passing each other on a side street in Harajuku on a beautiful April morning in 1981. This was something sure to be crammed full of warm secrets, like an antique clock build when peace filled the world.
After talking, we’d have lunch somewhere, maybe see a Woody Allen movie, stop by a hotel bar for cocktails. With any kind of luck, we might end up in bed.
Potentiality knocks on the door of my heart.
Now the distance between us has narrowed to fifteen yards.
How can I approach her? What should I say?
“Good morning, miss. Do you think you could spare half an hour for a little conversation?”
Ridiculous. I’d sound like an insurance salesman.
“Pardon me, but would you happen to know if there is an all-night cleaners in the neighborhood?”
No, this is just as ridiculous. I’m not carrying any laundry, for one thing. Who’s going to buy a line like that?
Maybe the simple truth would do. “Good morning. You are the 100% perfect girl for me.”
No, she wouldn’t believe it. Or even if she did, she might not want to talk to me. Sorry, she could say, I might be the 100% perfect girl for you, but you’re not the 100% boy for me. It could happen. And if I found myself in that situation, I’d probably go to pieces. I’d never recover from the shock. I’m thirty-two, and that’s what growing older is all about.
We pass in front of a flower shop. A small, warm air mass touches my skin. The asphalt is damp, and I catch the scent of roses. I can’t bring myself to speak to her. She wears a white sweater, and in her right hand she holds a crisp white envelope lacking only a stamp. So: She’s written somebody a letter, maybe spent the whole night writing, to judge from the sleepy look in her eyes. The envelope could contain every secret she’s ever had.
I take a few more strides and turn: She’s lost in the crowd.
Now, of course, I know exactly what I should have said to her. It would have been a long speech, though, far too long for me to have delivered it properly. The ideas I come up with are never very practical.
Oh, well. It would have started “Once upon a time” and ended “A sad story, don’t you think?”
Once upon a time, there lived a boy and a girl. The boy was eighteen and the girl sixteen. He was not unusually handsome, and she was not especially beautiful. They were just an ordinary lonely boy and an ordinary lonely girl, like all the others. But they believed with their whole hearts that somewhere in the world there lived the 100% perfect boy and the 100% perfect girl for them. Yes, they believed in a miracle. And that miracle actually happened.
One day the two came upon each other on the corner of a street.
“This is amazing,” he said. “I’ve been looking for you all my life. You may not believe this, but you’re the 100% perfect girl for me.”
“And you,” she said to him, “are the 100% perfect boy for me, exactly as I’d pictured you in every detail. It’s like a dream.”
They sat on a park bench, held hands, and told each other their stories hour after hour. They were not lonely anymore. They had found and been found by their 100% perfect other. What a wonderful thing it is to find and be found by your 100% perfect other. It’s a miracle, a cosmic miracle.
As they sat and talked, however, a tiny, tiny sliver of doubt took root in their hearts: Was it really all right for one’s dreams to come true so easily?
And so, when there came a momentary lull in their conversation, the boy said to the girl, “Let’s test ourselves - just once. If we really are each other’s 100% perfect lovers, then sometime, somewhere, we will meet again without fail. And when that happens, and we know that we are the 100% perfect ones, we’ll marry then and there. What do you think?”
“Yes,” she said, “that is exactly what we should do.”
And so they parted, she to the east, and he to the west.
The test they had agreed upon, however, was utterly unnecessary. They should never have undertaken it, because they really and truly were each other’s 100% perfect lovers, and it was a miracle that they had ever met. But it was impossible for them to know this, young as they were. The cold, indifferent waves of fate proceeded to toss them unmercifully.
One winter, both the boy and the girl came down with the season’s terrible inluenza, and after drifting for weeks between life and death they lost all memory of their earlier years. When they awoke, their heads were as empty as the young D. H. Lawrence’s piggy bank.
They were two bright, determined young people, however, and through their unremitting efforts they were able to acquire once again the knowledge and feeling that qualified them to return as full-fledged members of society. Heaven be praised, they became truly upstanding citizens who knew how to transfer from one subway line to another, who were fully capable of sending a special-delivery letter at the post office. Indeed, they even experienced love again, sometimes as much as 75% or even 85% love.
Time passed with shocking swiftness, and soon the boy was thirty-two, the girl thirty.
One beautiful April morning, in search of a cup of coffee to start the day, the boy was walking from west to east, while the girl, intending to send a special-delivery letter, was walking from east to west, but along the same narrow street in the Harajuku neighborhood of Tokyo. They passed each other in the very center of the street. The faintest gleam of their lost memories glimmered for the briefest moment in their hearts. Each felt a rumbling in their chest. And they knew:
She is the 100% perfect girl for me.
He is the 100% perfect boy for me.
But the glow of their memories was far too weak, and their thoughts no longer had the clarity of fouteen years earlier. Without a word, they passed each other, disappearing into the crowd. Forever.
A sad story, don’t you think?
Yes, that’s it, that is what I should have said to her.
The Great Man Theory was a popular 19th century idea according to which history can be largely explained by the impact of “great men”, or heroes: highly influential individuals who, due to either their personal charisma, intelligence, wisdom, or Machiavellianism utilized their power in a way that had a decisive historical impact.
The theory was popularized in the 1840s by Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle, and in 1860 Herbert Spencer formulated a counter-argument that has remained influential throughout the 20th century to the present; Spencer said that such great men are the products of their societies, and that their actions would be impossible without the social conditions built before their lifetimes.
Carlyle commented that “The history of the world is but the biography of great men”, reflecting his belief that heroes shape history through both their personal attributes and divine inspiration. In his book On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, Carlyle set out how he saw history as having turned on the decisions of “heroes”, giving detailed analysis of the influence of several such men (including Muhammad, Shakespeare, Luther, Rousseau, and Napoleon). Carlyle also felt that the study of great men was “profitable” to one’s own heroic side; that by examining the lives led by such heroes, one could not help but uncover something about one’s true nature.
Alongside with Carlyle the Great Man theory was supported by American scholar Frederick Adams Woods. In his work The Influence of Monarchs: Steps in a New Science of History, Woods investigated 386 rulers in Western Europe from the 12th century till the French revolution in the late 18th century and their influence on the course of historical events.
The theory is usually contrasted with a theory that talks about events occurring in the fullness of time, or when an overwhelming wave of smaller events causes certain developments to occur. The Great Man approach to history was most fashionable with professional historians in the 19th century; a popular work of this school is the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition (1911) which contains lengthy and detailed biographies about the great men of history, but very few general or social histories. For example, all information on the post-Roman “Migrations Period" of European History is compiled under the biography of Attila the Hun. This heroic view of history was also strongly endorsed by some philosophical figures such as Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Spengler, but it fell out of favor after World War II.
In Untimely Meditations, Nietzsche writes that: “…the goal of humanity lies in its highest specimens”
In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard writes that: “…to be able to fall down in such a way that the same second it looks as if one were standing and walking, to transform the leap of life into a walk, absolutely to express the sublime and the pedestrian — that only these knights of faith can do — this is the one and only prodigy.”
Hegel, proceeding from providentialist theory, argued that what is real is reasonable and World-Historical individuals are World-Spirit’s agents. Thus, according to Hegel, a great man does not create historical reality himself but only uncovers the inevitable future.
One of the most forceful critics of Carlyle’s formulation of the Great Man theory was Herbert Spencer, who believed that attributing historical events to the decisions of individuals was a hopelessly primitive, childish, and unscientific position. He believed that the men Carlyle called “great men” were merely products of their social environment.
"[Y]ou must admit that the genesis of a great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly grown…. Before he can remake his society, his society must make him."
It’s hard to let go of one’s heroes. For a geeky teenager growing up in the 90s, contemporary society had little to offer in terms of role models. That is, with one exception: Woody Allen. For the wedgied and oppressed, the universe seemed a little fairer that a skinny kid with glasses and pipe-cleaner limbs could grow up to be attractive to a Diane Keaton and win the odd Oscar. Woody Allen allowed you to believe that the meek might inherit the earth after all. And so, like with anyone you look up to, it is a painful experience to watch one’s spiritual father slowly, artistically deteriorate to the point where you start guiltily wishing that he would just keel over and die.
For an ex-Woody enthusiast, this constant comparing is inevitable. Allen has always been notorious for his capacity to borrow from other filmmakers (e.g., 8½ for Stardust Memories, Wild Strawberries for Another Woman), but of late he has become an expert in plagiarizing himself. And yet, perhaps it is unrealistic to expect a great filmmaker to be in constant renewal. Perhaps Woody is like an American Ozu, someone who makes the same film over and over again, changing only character names and the odd situation as the years go on. Renoir once said, “A director only makes one movie in his life. Then he breaks into pieces and makes it again.” Why should Allen be any different?
But there is this unshakeable feeling that these later films could all be better. Allen remains a talented director Cassandra’s Dream has a morbid weight to it unseen since Crimes and Misdemeanors,and aside from some of the impossible dialogue and casting in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, there are a few very powerful moments) but you sometimes wish he would take a little more time… Popping out a film per year from script to edit can only lead to mediocrity. And, if he’d been a little more patient, maybe he might’ve realized that much ofMidnight was a bit pointless, that there were too many characters for us to care and that the end was in total contradiction with the film’s main themes.
And yet, it would be silly to be too regretful. If there is anything positive about constantly comparing these lesser imitations with the originals, it is precisely realizing how original those earlier films really are. No romantic comedy has ever come even close to the beauty and comic tone of Annie Hall or Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanors remains one of the great American films of the late 1980s, and Zelig, along with Broadway Danny Rose,have yet to find their equivalent. This is of course what is most stinging when sitting through these “new” films: the constant reminder that Woody Allen is (was?) capable of much more.
Right-handers have long accounted for 90 percent of the population, and scientists may have figured out why
Only one out of every 10 people are predisposed to favor their left hand instead of their right, ”a ratio that has remained constant for more than 5,000 years,” says Rick Nauert at PsychCentral. Why isn’t there a 50-50 righty-lefty split? Why aren’t all of us right-handed? New research from Northwestern University may have the answer. Here’s what you should know:
What exactly is this new theory? Researchers are positing that the steadily low percentage of lefties “is a result of the balance between cooperation and competition in human evolution.” Humans have long had an evolutionary need to cooperate, such as when sharing tools or hunting in groups. And if most people use the same hand, it makes such cooperation easier. "The more social the animal — where cooperation is highly valued — the more the general population will trend toward one side," says co-author Daniel M. Abrams.
Then why aren’t we all right-handed? Because people aren’t purely cooperative. We compete with each other, too, and always have. “If a society was totally cooperative, then everyone would be same-handed,” says Nauert. But that’s not us. Our competitive streak ensures that there will always be lefties.
Why does competitiveness foster left-handedness? Physical competition “favors the unusual,” Nauert says. For example, “in a fight, a left-hander in a right-handed world would have an advantage.”
What proof do researchers have? To showcase the validity of their model, researchers turned to sports like boxing, fencing, and table tennis. In athletics, lefties are “overrepresented to the tune of about one in five,” says AFP, underscoring the competitive advantage of left-handedness. And the inverse is true for sports where handedness isn’t a factor. For example, “the number of successful left-handed PGA golfers is very low, only 4 percent,” says PhysOrg.
For many years, I have remained a presence in the shadows. You citizens of the Internet have gone about your lives, navigating to this page and that, reading articles, watching videos, exchanging messages with friends, but all the while a single question has clawed at your curiosity each time your focus breaks and you notice the garish blinking ads strewn about your web pages:
Who, who is it that clicks these banner ads?
The time to wonder has ended and the time has come to open your eyes and to see the truth, to discover who has been clicking that which you so often ignore.
It is I who click the banner ads.
While you check the weather, I find out why California dermatologists hate the one weird skin care secret discovered by a stay-at-home mom. While you read the New York Times, I rollover for more information about how to get my diabetes under control. While you search IMDB, I click for showtimes, tickets, and behind-the-scenes videos for Think Like a Man. Page after page, banner after banner, I click and I click.
It is not for myself that I click these banner ads, not because I yearn for exclusive local deals and belly fat-reducing tips. No, it is for all of you that I click to learn more, rollover to expand, and tap to download. Without me, your banners would go unclicked. And if your banners go unclicked, then who will pay for your web pages? Banners are the steam engine of the Internet, and I must shovel coal into the fiery maw.
It may be a sacrifice, to labor hour after hour, day after day, month after month in my secret lair, one hand on a mouse, the other on an iPad, furiously clicking and tapping every banner ad I can find. My ears have been calloused by movie trailers with autoplaying sound. My eyes have been warped and reddened by live streams of red carpet events presented by auto manufacturers. My hands have turned to gnarled claws from all the cartoon monkeys I have punched. My computer is but a shuddering pile of tracking cookies and spyware following my every move so that the next LowerMyBills.com advertisement I see is slightly better targeted to my gender, age, and browsing history.
Some may see me as a tragic husk, obsessed with duty but without friendship, without warmth, and without love for anything but all of you who I labor so hard to keep safe. I may have hundreds of free ringtones, thousands of exclusive promotional desktop wallpapers, and millions of special offer codes, but what good is a printable coupon for one dollar off a family-sized Stouffer’s chicken lasagna when you have no family?
But a hero is more than himself. I am the thin gossamer line between a free, sprawling internet and an oppressive desert bound in barbed wire and ruled by dollar-hungry warlords. Without me clicking to learn how New York drivers are saving hundreds on car insurance, you would be paying for what you are reading right now, throwing precious coin down an endless digital well.
So if you see a targeted text advertisement for debt reduction next to your email, know that I am there. If you see an animated custom background for the Call of Duty franchise, know that I am there. If you see a three-dimensional computer-animated dog run across the page and cover the video you are watching about dog food, know that I am there. Now get back to your reading, your posting, your downloading. The night will soon be over and there are still hundreds more credit card offers I must post to my wall.
The partial freedom of, and from, meaning that is the natural result of aesthetic form is made possible by the exploitation of an inherent fluidity, or looseness of significance, naturally present in both language and social organization. This is a freedom often repressed, and attempts at repression and conformity are an inevitable part of experience. That is why aesthetic form—in poetry, music, and the visual arts—has so often been considered subversive and corrupting from Plato to the present day.
Conventions are the bulwark of civilization, a guarantee of social protection. They can also be a prison cell. Of course, any art has its conventions, too, just like every other activity, and an artist is expected to fulfill them. Traditionally, however, for at least three millennia and possibly longer, the artist is also expected paradoxically to violate conventions—to entertain, to surprise, to outrage, to be original. That is the special status of art among all other activities, although it may indeed spill over and make itself felt throughout the rest of life. It is the source of freedom, prevents the wheels of the social machine from locking into paralysis. From our artists and entertainers, we expect originality and resent it when we get it.
Ideally we expect style and idea, form and matter, to be fused, indistinguishable one from the other. Friedrich Schlegel observed that when they are separable, there is something wrong with one or both of them. Nevertheless, the liberty of the artist rests on the ever-present possibility or danger of their independence. The Erasmian principle that style is, or should be, always subservient to idea is essentially naive. It takes little account of experience. Style can define and determine matter. We can see, for example, how the virtuosity of style in La Fontaine profoundly altered the morals of Aesop’s fables. The tension between style and idea, their friction, is a stimulant.
Aguirre, Wrath of God (Herzog) Apocalypse Now (Coppola) Citizen Kane (Welles) Dekalog (Kieslowski) La Dolce Vita (Fellini) The General (Keaton) Raging Bull (Scorsese) 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick) Tokyo Story (Ozu) Vertigo (Hitchcock)
At one point in pondering this list, here’s what I thought I would do: I would simply start all over with ten new films. Once any film has ever appeared on my S&S list, I consider it canonized. “Notorious” or “The Gates of Heaven,” for example, are still two of the ten best films of all time, no matter what a subsequent list says.
I decided not to do that—trash the 2002 list and start again. It was too much like a stunt. Lists are ridiculous, but if you’re going to vote, you have to play the game. Besides, the thought of starting with a blank page and a list of all the films ever made fills me with despair.
So there must be one new film.
The two candidates, for me, are Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York” (2008) and Terrene Malick’s “The Tree of Life” (2011). Like the Herzog, the Kubrick and the Coppola, they films of almost foolhardy ambition. Like many of the films on my list, they were directed by the artist who wrote then. Like several of them, it attempts no less than to tell the story of an entire life,
In “Synecdoche,” Kaufman does this with one of the most audacious sets ever constructed: An ever-expanding series of boxes or compartments with which the protagonist attempts to deal with the categories of his life. The film has the insight that we all deal with life in separate segments, defined by choice or compulsion, desire or fear, past or present. It is no less than a film about life.
In “The Tree of Life,” Malick boldly begins with the Big Bang and ends in an unspecified state of attenuated consciousness after death. The central section is the story of birth and raising a family.
I could choose either film. I will choose “The Tree of Life” because it is more affirmative and hopeful. I realize that isn’t a defensible reasons for choosing one film over the other, but it is my reason, and making this list is essentially impossible, anyway.
Apart from any other motive for putting a movie title on a list like this, there is always the motive of propaganda: Critics add a title hoping to draw attention to it, and encourage others to see it. For 2012, I suppose this is my propaganda title. I believe it’s an important film, and will only increase in stature over the years.
By now you’re probably wondering what this is all about, why FBI agents pulled you out of your barista job, threw you on a helicopter, and brought you to NASA headquarters. There’s no time, so I’ll shoot it to you straight. You’ve seen the news reports. What hit New York wasn’t some debris from an old satellite. There’s an asteroid the size of Montana heading toward Earth and if it hits us, the planet is over. But we’ve got one last-ditch plan. We need a team to land on the surface of the asteroid, drill a nuclear warhead one mile into its core, and get out before it explodes. And you’re just the liberal arts major we need to lead that team.
Sure, we’ve got dozens of astronauts, physicists, and demolitions experts. I’ll be damned if we didn’t try to train our best men for this mission. But just because they can fly a shuttle and understand higher-level astrophysics doesn’t mean they can execute a unique mission like this. Anyone can learn how to land a spacecraft on a rocky asteroid flying through space at twelve miles per second. I don’t need some pencilneck with four Ph.D’s, one-thousand hours of simulator time, and the ability to operate a robot crane in low-Earth orbit. I need someone with four years of broad-but-humanities-focused studies, three subsequent years in temp jobs, and the ability to reason across multiple areas of study. I need someone who can read The Bell Jar and make strong observations about its representations of mental health and the repression of women. Sure, you’ve never even flown a plane before, but with only ten days until the asteroid hits, there’s no one better to nuke an asteroid.
I’ve seen your work and it’s damn impressive. Your midterm paper on the semiotics of Band of Outsiders turned a lot of heads at mission control. Your performance in Biology For Non-Science Majors was impressive, matched only by your mastery of second-year Portuguese. And a lot of the research we do here couldn’t have happened without your groundbreaking work on suburban malaise and its representation and repression in John Hughes’ films. I hope you’re still that good, because when you’re lowering a hydrogen bomb into a craggy mass of flying astronomic death with barely any gravity, you’re going to need to draw on all the multidisciplinary reason and analysis you’ve got.
Don’t think I don’t have my misgivings about sending some hotshot Asian Studies minor into space for the first time. This is NASA, not Grinnell. I don’t have the time or patience for your renegade attitude and macho bravado. I can’t believe the fate of mankind rests on some roughneck bachelor of the arts. I know your type. You feed off the thrill of inference and small, instructor-led discussion. You think you’re some kind of invincible God just because you have cursory understandings of Buddhism, classical literature, and introductory linguistics. Well listen up, cowboy. You make one false move up there, be it a clumsy thesis statement, poorly reasoned argument, or glib analysis, and your team is dead, along with this whole sorry planet.
I’ve wasted enough time with chatter. Let’s get you over to mission control. Our avionics team needs your help getting their paper on gender politics in The Matrix properly cited in MLA format.
I keep copious notes. Notebooks have always been a critical part of my life. If I’m on a Virgin plane, I’ll get up and meet staff, meet passengers, get feedback and write things down.
When I’m on Necker Island [in the British Virgin Islands] about all I’ve got on is SPF—Sun Bum and also Island Company sun cream.
Every day is different, absolutely fascinating and a learning experience. In Canada, I’m trying to get legislation passed to save the polar bear. I’m going to Madagascar to try to save the lemur. Yesterday I was on stage with Amnesty International; today I’m doing a bit of business with Virgin Atlantic.
I hate being in hotels with a thousand rooms. And I personally don’t like going into hotels where you’ve got formal check-in desks. I’d much rather come and sit on the couch and be checked in that way, or ideally be checked in before I’ve actually gotten to the hotel.
My watch is a Bulova Accutron limited-edition. Every time one is sold, a portion of the proceeds goes to Virgin Unite, my charity.
I’ve spent a lifetime trying to set an example to get the necktie abolished. I mean, I just find it so sad going somewhere like Japan, where they’re all wearing suits. You look at these lovely pictures of them 100 years ago in their beautiful robes, and you think, ‘how on earth did the necktie ever catch on?’ I just find them uncomfortable and restricting. I think it’s people who run departments of companies, who’ve had to suffer all their lives and are damned if the next generation isn’t going to suffer, too.
I love to kiteboard. My board of choice is Cabrinha.
I’m not a very religious person, but if anybody was going to convert me, it would be Archbishop Tutu. He set an incredible example to the rest of the world, I think, when he helped bring about forgiveness in South Africa after the apartheid regime collapsed.
The reason I got into the travel business originally was out of frustration about the ghastly experience we used to get on other airlines. We literally started with one secondhand 747, crossing the Atlantic from London to New York to see whether people would go out of their way to travel on an airline that offered something a bit more personal. Fortunately, people did.
Jeans are great because you can wear the same pair of trousers 365 days a year and get away with it.
The movies that really make a difference are documentaries. ‘Sharkwater’ is one that changed my life. It’s about all the sharks that get slaughtered just for their fins and are thrown back in to die.
I could live off English roast dinner. If business is good, I love a glass of Champagne.
As a leader it’s important to always look for the best in other people—never criticize. If I ever said anything bad about anybody when I was a child, my mom would make me look in the mirror.
I’ve always believed in befriending your enemies. Years ago British Airways went to extraordinary lengths to put us out of business. After the court case, I rang up Sir Colin Marshall, who ran BA, and said, ‘would you like to come out for lunch?’ I think he wondered why on earth I was doing it. But we had a delightful lunch at my house in London and became friends and buried the hatchet.
There’s no better gift than aphotograph. Stephen Colbert recently sent an enlarged, framed photo featuring him dressed as me, vacuuming, with a nude model on his back. It was similar to a photo of me kiteboarding, and it was gratefully received because the fire on Necker burned down my office and with it all my notebooks and photographs.
I love the music of Peter Gabriel, who is also one of my best friends.
I recently bought a pair of Allen Edmonds lace-up oxfords in Las Vegas. I wear them all the time.
I’ve just spent two days in the Silver Bank, where pretty much every whale in the Atlantic converges once a year. It’s about 600 miles off the Dominican Republic. I was swimming with these magnificent creatures. The babies come up and play with you—it’s definitely one of the 20 wonders of my life. I think we’re going to send my catamaran there in March and April of every year and share the experience with other people.
I find that taking pictures gets in the way of enjoying the experience. But I’m also lucky that there are so many people around me who are taking pictures.