Making a bubble

January 23rd, 2017

Procedural shading languages are very powerful. With a relatively small program you can create extremely beautiful and subtle animated textures.

But that very power comes with a price: Because the resulting code is so compact, it can be difficult for somebody else to understand what you have written.

I’m thinking it would be useful to “unpack” such programs, so that people can understand how they really work. For example, the bubble below can be described in just a few dozen lines of shader code (plus another few dozen lines for my standard noise and turbulence functions).

If you click on the image, you can see the bubble as a real time procedural animation, together with the shader program that makes it work. That program is very short, but it’s also really difficult to understand.

I’m thinking that I might try to create a step-by-step version of the process of creation. As you click through the steps, the shader program, and the corresponding result, will progress from very simple (just a few lines of code at first) to the final result.

At each step, the result will get a little more interesting. And at each step I can annotate exactly what has changed in the program to cause the visual improvement from the previous step.

Hopefully, if I design these steps carefully, every piece of the shader program will end up making sense. Then maybe some people will start to create their own animated bubbles!

Narcissistic sociopathy

January 22nd, 2017

Talking to several psychologists in the last few days, I found that every one of them has informally diagnosed our incoming U.S. president as being a classic case of narcissistic sociopathy. The narcissism is obvious. As one can plainly see, everything he says and does ends up being about him, and his self-glorification.

But the more interesting part is the sociopathy. Most people betray their true emotions when dealing with others. Sociopaths are wired differently. They too feel emotions, but those emotions are not the ones you see.

Instead, what you see is an act, a set of performances. In any situation, a sociopath will size up his audience, and gear his outward appearance of personality to suit that audience.

Which means, ironically, that a sociopath can be more effective than a sane person at convincing people he is sincere. Sane people always betray some measure of doubt and conflict. On some level, you can always sense their inner struggle to work through their emotions.

In contrast, a narcissistic sociopath is the ultimate salesman. Because he has no actual core beliefs other than self-aggrandizement, he never hesitates or wavers. He will look you straight in the eye and tell you his spiel with the appearance of utmost confidence and sincerity.

The next day he will very likely say the exact opposite, but it really doesn’t matter. He doesn’t care about the message, only about controlling the conversation.

Because most people have no actual experience, in their own lives, of encountering individuals with narcissistic sociopathy, the charismatic power of such a pure performer can often win them over. No matter how often he contradicts himself, such an individual is able to convince many people of anything, precisely because he himself believes in nothing.

Trump and God

January 21st, 2017

In his inaugural speech yesterday, Donald Trump talked about God. A lot. Here is just one of various times he invoked the (to use his words) almighty Creator:

“We will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement and, most importantly, we are protected by God.”

He uses this framework as part of an argument that America’s priority should be to look out for itself, and that, essentially, all those other nations we currently trade with can just go screw themselves.

So as far as I can tell, what he is saying is this: We will beat out those nasty Chinese and other competing nation states because God is on our side.

I am trying to follow his logic here. If God is the major reason for our greatness as a country, why do we need to make America great again? Has the Divine Creator somehow been slacking off?

Even worse, since China is doing so well and has been making all our stuff, is Trump suggesting that God has been moonlighting, sneaking over to those godless asian countries and showering His divine bounty upon them when He thought we weren’t looking?

Maybe somebody can explain it for me.

Message of the day

January 20th, 2017



Yes we could

January 19th, 2017

Unintended lessons

January 18th, 2017

For the last two days I have been attending a conference about augmented reality. It’s been really fun to talk with so many smart people about how AR is the future.

Interestingly, not one of the hundreds of attendees was using AR when they weren’t up on stage. So clearly AR is not the present, which I guess only goes to show that AR is the future. :-)

One talk in particular was filled with unintended lessons. It was a talk by a guy who was doing projects with the Microsoft Hololens.

After giving a really interesting talk, he said that he was going to show a live demo. So he put on his Hololens, held one hand in front of his face, and started to pinch an imaginary object in the air.

This went on for three long minutes. He just stood there, with hundreds of people in the audience watching, and pinched in the air. His thumb and forefinger would come together, and then they would move apart. And then the same thing again. And again, and again.

The audience just sat there politely. At some point I realized I had somehow wandered into the middle of an absurdist comedy, so I turned to the guy next to me and said: “This might just be the most entertaining thing that’s happened at the conference.”

My neighbor agreed with me. We sat there, several hundred of us, rapt in awe, as the guy on stage kept standing there, talking to us while standing still as a statue, except for his right thumb and forefinger, which continued to pinch and release, pinch and release.

Finally somebody in the audience shouted “Do you know that we can’t see anything on the computer screen?”

“Yes,” the speaker replied, “I turned off the display because I’m trying to get it into the right state.”

That was the point where I just threw up my metaphorical hands and gave in to the complete absurdity of the situation. Is this what happens, I wondered to myself, to people who wear AR glasses?


January 17th, 2017

Suppose everybody were wearing those future cyberglasses, and we were hanging out in a room together. Somebody walks into the room to give a presentation.

Each of us can see the presentation from our own point of view, projected onto any wall, or just floating in the air. Or some of us can choose to look down and see it projected onto their desks. It really doesn’t matter.

The presentation, if well designed, will be able to fly about the room, create drama and excitement, enter your personal space, whisper in your ear. You will feel it on a visceral level.

Now compare this to a PowerPoint or Keynote presentation: Click, click. Talk for a while, Click again.

That difference you perceive from PowerPoint to future reality is not new. It’s analagous to the difference that people perceived several decades ago, when the act of writing on overhead transparencies was replaced by computer based presentations.

It’s not clear we got that one right, all those years ago. Maybe we will get it right this time.


January 16th, 2017

Trump isn’t even sworn in yet, and it seems that John Lewis seems to have already figured out how to beat him at his own game. In a magazine interview just days before Martin Luther King day, Lewis said: “I don’t see this president-elect as a legitimate president.”

Lewis was referring in particular to the role that Russia played in hacking our election, but I would like to think that he had correctly predicted what Trump’s response would be. That response, no surprise, was to attack and belittle John Lewis.

Of course in civil rights circles, attacking and belittling John Lewis is kind of like attacking and belittling Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King himself. To anyone who actually knows anything about the record of the person in question, the attacker just ends up looking like an idiot.

I realize that we are long past the point where Donald Trump cares whether he comes across as an idiot. After all, this is the guy who just days ago equated the right of the Press to ask him questions with Hitler.

[Note: Rereading the above paragraph, I am amazed that we live in a world where something like that actually happened. Before this year, if you were to read a political novel in which the author had a fictional president-elect compare the fourth estate to Adolph Hitler just because reporters insisted on asking him questions, you would probably have just rolled your eyes and stopped reading.]

Still, Donald Trump saying of John Lewis (of all people) that he is “All talk, talk, talk – no action or results,” just makes Trump look like he has no idea what is going on in the world around him.

I wonder whether Lewis has finally found the proper strategy to combat Trump: Since Trump will reflexively attack anyone who pokes at him, without exercising any judgment or moderation, his opponents can easily goad him into attacking ever more inappropriate targets, leaving him looking like a more irrelevant fool with every tweet.

Trump will no doubt keep piping up with those weird nasty little comments, spraying venom in random directions. But after a while, very few people will still be listening.

Watching some guy with my name on TV

January 15th, 2017

There is a program on CUNY TV called Science Goes to the Movies. It’s a fun show.

Each episode they pick a particular science topic, and invite two scientists in different fields to give complementary views on how those topics are treated in film. Which generally ends up leading to a larger discussion.

In October I was one of those scientists, and it was a blast. Here is an on-line link to the episode.

It was really fun being on this show. At the very end I got to quote a particularly wise observation by my mom, and that was especially nice.

Not being a television personality, I found it strange, when watching the show, to see the host asking me questions. She kept asking all these questions of a guy named Ken, who was me.

Because I’m not used to seeing myself on TV, part of my mind kept thinking of this Ken guy as somebody else. The experience was weirdly dissociative.

I imagine that people who are used to seeing themselves interviewed on TV wouldn’t find such a thing at all strange. To them it is probably just all in a day’s work.

I suppose if I keep showing up on TV, that will eventually be the way that I feel about it. But for now it’s fascinating to experience it as something exotic, like the very first time you dip your toes in the ocean, or the first time you eat a Maracuy√° from Colombia.

One minute less

January 14th, 2017

As I wrote about here last week, I gave a ten minute talk in which I needed to summarize my vision for the future, and what we are doing to help make that vision happen. Ten minutes is not a long time, so the experience was a great exercise in learning how to focus.

In a few days, I am going to give a similar talk. Except on this occasion, the time alotted to each speaker is limited to nine minutes.

I will probably repurpose my ten minute talk, cut out some of the remaining fat, and practice a few times to make sure I indeed hit the nine minute mark. But that exercise raises an interesting question:

What if, as a discipline, one were to talk a talk on some topic and keep iterating on it, each time shaving off one minute? At what point would it be an essentially different talk?

Obviously there would be a dramatic change when the running time goes from “one minute” down to “zero minutes”. :-) But what about other transitions?

The intriguing thing for me about such an exercise is that it would force you to boil your ideas and your narrative down to the essential, while providing a framework for doing so. You could learn a lot from the choices you end up making about which ideas you keep, which you edit down, and which you simply throw away.