4/14/2006

Commuter Koans


Videogame Epiphany

I don't play videogames, but I have discovered for myself the meatspace equivalent: driving in commuter traffic.

It is primarily a game of subtle optimization, measured along two distinct vectors -- the honing of navigational heuristics and the conservation of fuel. The first is an exercise in observation, in which zones of known traffic compression are memorized and preemptively avoided. The second is an exercise in efficient use of the engine, scored numerically by the real-time mileage readout in my dash display.

High scores are likewise determined by a dual metric. Navigational heuristics are scored in terms of the total minutes of travel from point to point, and fuel conservation is scored in terms of affecting the number for the overall fuel efficiency reported by the car's computer.

Since actively playing I have managed to shave an average of ten minutes from my journey, and saved an average of 0.1 litres of gas per 100 kilometres driven (equivalent to about 14 cents per day).

So, I have a first person perspective into a world of impossible speed, little numbers at the bottom of my view that reflect my performance, and if I screw up I die.

"Ah-ha!" I said to myself, "so this is why people play videogames."


Coruscant on Earth

It is clear to me that Ben Burtt drives the California highways on his way to Pixar and Lucasfilm, because the sounds generated by the streams of flying traffic on Coruscant are such obvious cousins to the Dopplered moans, swooshes and chortles of actual freeway travel.

I drive with the window open, even when it's brisk outside. I would rather wear a scarf than stay cooped up. I like the sounds and the fresh wind. Now I have a sunroof so I open that, too.

Three quarters of the way through my journey the countryside becomes fractures and falls away, replaced by warehouses and outlet stores and cheap office space for startups with stupid names with "tek" or "dyna" or "e-" in them. After that the highway splits into several fatter ropes, and we swoop beneath bridges and over coverleafs.

The horizon turns ochre, then grey.

And we are swept into the city, the gateway flanked by billowing white clouds of industrial effluvia, the sky criss-crossed by jetplanes, their high-pitched whines rising over traffic's din as their soft shadows lick across the lanes.

Coruscant is one of the few images that created an impression on me from George Lucas' oft maligned fantasy prequels, and I think it spoke to me through the same channels that would speak to anyone with an intimate relationship with one of the world's megalopolises. When I feel the city wash up around me and over me as it does when I enter in the currents of a commuter morning, I know Coruscant's relevance. The city-as-everything is a welcomed nostalgic terror because it gives us some ownership through artistic appreciation over the vast proportions and frenetic energy megalopolises exude.

Sunrise through the smog is beautiful.

A cargo jet drops out of the sky at such a rate that it is hard to believe it is under control. Its silver belly flashes orange morning sunlight through my windshield, winking on the glass. Tons of steel and plastic and goods touch down with a bark of smoke and coast down the runway. In the sky intersecting con-trails fade as a backdrop to the slow, throaty rise of a blue and white 747.

At this stage, navigation is a matter of following the current. There are enough of lanes going in each direction that contests for position occur internally to each vector. Those on their way further south jockey in their lanes as my lanes draw away west. Everyone knows where they are going. We hug the corners like speeding ballbearings.

Busy, busy, busy.


An Unfortunate Phenomenon

While I drive I tend to think up inspired stories that I tend to forget when the driving is done.


12 comments:

Moksha Gren said...

Your final statement is true. Great idea seem to flash into my head inversely proportional to my ability to quickly write the idea down. In the car, in the shower. Either that...or my inability to write the idea down just makes me unable to go back and realise how bad the idea really was, leaving me content to believe that the lost idea was inconceivably wondrous.

The Girl in Black said...

Maybe it would be possible to record your ideas while driving? Using a mini disc recorder, tape recorder, or cell phone (video capture, but just for the audio)?

Otherwise, you mind just gets to enjoy the stretch before dealing with metropolis drones.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Moksha Gren,

With respect to ideas I think you might just be right -- many of them may benefit without a second sober appraisal.

I'm lamenting the loss of specific words and paragraphs, in this case -- bits of prose flowing out when I've got a good groove on, mentally. The sort of stuff that types itself quickly when I do have a keyboard.

Nevertheless, despite my feeling that I have an instinct for judging the quality, there's no doubt in my mind that some of what I regret losing is no doubt utter crap.

Love,
CheeseburgerBrown

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Girl in Black,

I've experimented with dictaphones in the past, but the trouble is the transcription. I don't have a secretary, so I quickly fell behind...and it was tedious, tedious work. And to add insult to injury it wasn't always worth the effort, as Moksha aludes to above.

The last time I tried voice recognition / automatic transcription software it was still sucking fairly bad, but that was a number of years ago.

I think my solution is to find better mnemonic gimmicks for patterning the stuff to memory. At least I hope that's it, because that's about all I got.

Love,
CheeseburgerBrown

Simon said...

Though your route probably has the predictability of so much moldering, organic detritus washing into increasingly larger tributaries with the spring runoff, would your score go up or down if you were to get lost?

Your fuel conservation factor would obviously go way up, as would your total travel minutes. Leading one to think that you'd've lost that round. But, given your proclivity for 'getting lost' on occasion, and the obvious corollary between gardens and urban sprawls, would it be more akin to a bonus round of some sort?

Derek said...

I add two more metrics to this game. How much can I avoid driving at all (measured by how many weeks I can stretch out buying gas. My record: 8 weeks).

The latest metric is how little I can pay attention to driving and still get there in one piece. This is measured by how much of a daily show I get through (watching on my phone) while going here or there. Get a few more honks when the light turns green and I'm still laughing so hard I have to wipe the tears from my eyes, but that's too bad for the other guy.

Niels said...

I do play video games, but am yet to witness commuter traffic first-hand. I wonder if the comparison works the other way too.

I'm positive that all those lost ideas are still swimming around somewhere in that head of yours. They'll pop up when you need them.
Not every idea makes a good story, I know that all too well, but adding smaller, different (and probably "lost") ideas usually makes up for an interesting mix.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Simon,

In this instance getting lost would kill my score, because the meta-goal is getting to work ontime or getting home to help with Mr. Colic Baby.

Perhaps such contraints only encourage one to get lost when possible.

Love,
CheeseburgerBrown

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Derek,

My navigational heuristic metric does, in part, measure my ability to zone out. When lane-switching and ramp-exit decisions are pre-ordained by well-honed rules of thumb, one need barely think at all while driving.

Love,
CheeseburgerBrown

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Niels,

You're probably right. I have written a story that contains many miscellaneous elements from my commute, but it needs an edit pass before I can post it and I left my laptop's power cable at home, so I guess it'll have to wait until tomorrow.

Now I have no choice but to WORK at work. Sigh.

Love,
CheeseburgerBrown

-NinjaVANISH said...

Just remember: when driving, jumping out of your vehicle in a flash of anger and gunning down other drivers/innocent bystanders will definitely result in you losing the game out in reality, instead of boosting your score as in most videogames. Although it's clear that you are a rational being who can easily seperate reality from fantasy, certain American lawyers and other government censors still seem to think you'll have trouble with the distinction.

-NinjaVANISH said...

Just remember: when driving, jumping out of your vehicle in a flash of anger and gunning down other drivers/innocent bystanders will definitely result in you losing the game out in reality, instead of boosting your score as in most videogames. Although it's clear that you are a rational being who can easily seperate reality from fantasy, certain American lawyers and other government censors still seem to think you'll have trouble with the distinction.