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Kurt Vonnegut on 8 'shapes' of stories
The American author said he attempted to bring scientific thinking to literary criticism, but received "very little gratitude for this."
- Kurt Vonnegut wrote a master's thesis on the shapes of stories that he submitted to the anthropology department at the University of Chicago, which rejected it.
- The late Indiana-born author said it was his "prettiest contribution" to the culture.
- Vonnegut half-jokingly defended his "scientific" approach to literary criticism over his career, but noted that great stories can't be easily plotted on a diagram.
Stories have very simple shapes, ones that computers can understand.
This was the basic idea behind the master's thesis that Kurt Vonnegut submitted to the anthropology department at the University of Chicago. It was rejected, however, "because it was so simple and looked like too much fun," Vonnegut said.
The late American author is best known today for using his dark, dry and decidedly Midwestern sense of humor to satirize American culture and politics in novels like "Slaughterhouse-Five", "Cat's Cradle", and "Sirens of Titan." But in his autobiography Palm Sunday, Vonnegut claimed that his "prettiest contribution" to the culture is his theory on the shapes of stories.
"I have tried to bring scientific thinking to literary criticism, and there has been very little gratitude for this," Vonnegut joked during a lecture at Case Western Reserve University in 2004.
The system involves two axes: the Y-axis represents good and bad fortune, the X-axis represents the beginning and end of a story. Vonnegut explains his system in the video below (at about 38 minutes).
From "boy meets girl" to "man turns into a cockroach", Vonnegut plots out a handful of story shapes on his diagram and explains why some of these patterns keep showing up in storytelling. To get a better visual sense of the story shapes, check out this great infographic created by graphic designer Maya Eilam.
So, does Vonnegut's theory actually have useful application in literary criticism?
"I think perhaps it does," Vonnegut said. "I think this rise and fall is, in fact, artificial. It pretends that we know more about life than we really do. And what's perhaps a true masterpiece cannot be crucified on a cross of this design. Well, alright. Let's try 'Hamlet.'"
Vonnegut describes how Hamlet's experiences throughout the play can't easily be classified as good or bad. For example, Hamlet speaks with a ghost who claims to be his father. But Hamlet (and, by extension, the audience) never definitely learns whether this ghost really his father or a demon who's impersonating him. Ambiguities like this make the story of "Hamlet" difficult to plot on Vonnegut's diagram. But they also make the story great.
"I have in fact told you why this is respected as a masterpiece. We are so seldom told the truth. In Hamlet, Shakespeare tells us we don't know enough about life to know what the good news is and what the bad news is, and we respond to that. Thank you, Bill."
If this isn't nice...
Real life is too complex to plot on a diagram in any meaningful way. But Vonnegut suggested that learning to see life's ebbs and flows in stories might help you appreciate when things are good in your life. He concluded his lecture with a bit of advice he picked up from his uncle.
"What uncle Alex found objectionable about so many human beings is that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy," Vonnegut said.
His uncle made a habit of noticing the good times: When Vonnegut and his family would be drinking lemonade under a tree on a summer day, his uncle would suddenly exclaim, "Wait a minute, stop! If this isn't nice, I don't know what is!"
"It was very good advice," Vonnegut said. "And I've taken it up, and I hope that you will take up this habit, too — of noticing when things are really awfully nice, and saying: 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.'"
These alien-like creatures are virtually invisible in the deep sea.
- A team of marine biologists used nets to catch 16 species of deep-sea fish that have evolved the ability to be virtually invisible to prey and predators.
- "Ultra-black" skin seems to be an evolutionary adaptation that helps fish camouflage themselves in the deep sea, which is illuminated by bioluminescent organisms.
- There are likely more, and potentially much darker, ultra-black fish lurking deep in the ocean.
The Pacific blackdragon
Credit: Karen Osborn/Smithsonian<p>When researchers first saw the deep-sea species, it wasn't immediately obvious that their skin was ultra-black. Then, marine biologist Karen Osborn, a co-author on the new paper, noticed something strange about the photos she took of the fish.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"I had tried to take pictures of deep-sea fish before and got nothing but these really horrible pictures, where you can't see any detail," Osborn told <em><a href="https://www.wired.com/story/meet-the-ultra-black-vantafish/" target="_blank">Wired</a></em>. "How is it that I can shine two strobe lights at them and all that light just disappears?"</p><p>After examining samples of fish skin under the microscope, the researchers discovered that the fish skin contains a layer of organelles called melanosomes, which contain melanin, the same pigment that gives color to human skin and hair. This layer of melanosomes absorbs most of the light that hits them.</p>
A crested bigscale
Credit: Karen Osborn/Smithsonian<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"But what isn't absorbed side-scatters into the layer, and it's absorbed by the neighboring pigments that are all packed right up close to it," Osborn told <em>Wired</em>. "And so what they've done is create this super-efficient, very-little-material system where they can basically build a light trap with just the pigment particles and nothing else."</p><p>The result? Strange and terrifying deep-sea species, like the crested bigscale, fangtooth, and Pacific blackdragon, all of which appear in the deep sea as barely more than faint silhouettes.</p>
David Csepp, NMFS/AKFSC/ABL<p>But interestingly, this unique disappearing trick wasn't passed on to these species by a common ancestor. Rather, they each developed it independently. As such, the different species use their ultra-blackness for different purposes. For example, the threadfin dragonfish only has ultra-black skin during its adolescent years, when it's rather defenseless, as <em>Wired</em> <a href="https://www.wired.com/story/meet-the-ultra-black-vantafish/" target="_blank">notes</a>.</p><p>Other fish—like the <a href="http://onebugaday.blogspot.com/2016/06/a-new-anglerfish-oneirodes-amaokai.html" target="_blank">oneirodes species</a>, which use bioluminescent lures to bait prey—probably evolved ultra-black skin to avoid reflecting the light their own bodies produce. Meanwhile, species like <em>C. acclinidens</em> only have ultra-black skin around their gut, possibly to hide light of bioluminescent fish they've eaten.</p><p>Given that these newly described species are just ones that this team found off the coast of California, there are likely many more, and possibly much darker, ultra-black fish swimming in the deep ocean. </p>
Using machine-learning technology, the genealogy company My Heritage enables users to animate static images of their relatives.
- Deep Nostalgia uses machine learning to animate static images.
- The AI can animate images by "looking" at a single facial image, and the animations include movements such as blinking, smiling and head tilting.
- As deepfake technology becomes increasingly sophisticated, some are concerned about how bad actors might abuse the technology to manipulate the pubic.
My Heritage/Deep Nostalgia<p>But that's not to say the animations are perfect. As with most deep-fake technology, there's still an uncanny air to the images, with some of the facial movements appearing slightly unnatural. What's more, Deep Nostalgia is only able to create deepfakes of one person's face from the neck up, so you couldn't use it to animate group photos, or photos of people doing any sort of physical activity.</p>
My Heritage/Deep Nostalgia<p>But for a free deep-fake service, Deep Nostalgia is pretty impressive, especially considering you can use it to create deepfakes of <em>any </em>face, human or not. </p>
How long should one wait until an idea like string theory, seductive as it may be, is deemed unrealistic?
- How far should we defend an idea in the face of contrarian evidence?
- Who decides when it's time to abandon an idea and deem it wrong?
- Science carries within it its seeds from ancient Greece, including certain prejudices of how reality should or shouldn't be.
Plato used the allegory of the cave to explain that what humans see and experience is not the true reality.
Credit: Gothika via Wikimedia Commons CC 4.0<p>When scientists and mathematicians use the term <em>Platonic worldview</em>, that's what they mean in general: The unbound capacity of reason to unlock the secrets of creation, one by one. Einstein, for one, was a believer, preaching the fundamental reasonableness of nature; no weird unexplainable stuff, like a god that plays dice—his tongue-in-cheek critique of the belief that the unpredictability of the quantum world was truly fundamental to nature and not just a shortcoming of our current understanding. Despite his strong belief in such underlying order, Einstein recognized the imperfection of human knowledge: "What I see of Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility." (Quoted by Dukas and Hoffmann in <em>Albert Einstein, The Human Side: Glimpses from His Archives</em> (1979), 39.)</p> <p>Einstein embodies the tension between these two clashing worldviews, a tension that is still very much with us today: On the one hand, the Platonic ideology that the fundamental stuff of reality is logical and understandable to the human mind, and, on the other, the acknowledgment that our reasoning has limitations, that our tools have limitations and thus that to reach some sort of final or complete understanding of the material world is nothing but an impossible, <a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01K2JTGIA?tag=bigthink00-20&linkCode=ogi&th=1&psc=1" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">semi-religious dream</a>.</p>