The virtues of mountain climbing

July 28th, 2015

So it turns out that less than an hour before the deadline to get our work ready for some new collaborators, it was still hopeless. But then one of our team members called someone who know some stuff that we didn’t know, and he was able to talk us through the rough spot.

Then somebody else came up with a cool new way of doing something, she showed us how to do it, and we shifted our strategy accordingly and were back on track. There’s still lots of work to do before tomorrow evening’s demo, but now we have a clear path to the summit.

So in the last few days I’ve gotten a crash course in Windows 10, TeamWeaver, Vicon Blade, Visual Studio, IP addresses and gateways, Android, Unity, command line Python, NetGear routers, and a whole bunch of other things I can’t even remember.

Now I can appreciate the virtues of climbing up really tall mountains in foreign places. You might end up getting blown off the mountaintop, but along the way you sure do learn all kinds of useful stuff.

Into the unknown

July 27th, 2015

I spent much of the day today debugging a group project, mainly with people who were several thousand miles away, working on fixing experimental software I didn’t know, on an operating system I didn’t know, running on hardware I didn’t know, using internet protocols I didn’t know.

All of this required an impressively large variety of debugging tools that I didn’t know. After many hours of work, we think the end may be in sight — it feels near enough to touch — but we’re not completely sure yet.

Oddly enough, yesterday I saw a preview for that new “based on a real story” movie about people attempting to scale Mount Everest. A group of hardy humans climbing so far up that the air is actually too thin for humans to breathe. I know what you’re thinking — what could go possibly wrong?

I remember thinking to myself, as I watched that preview, “Who in their right mind would attempt something so crazy that it was nearly guaranteed to end badly?”

After today, I feel a little more sympathetic.


July 26th, 2015

I finally saw Jurassic World. The plot is stupid, the characters are shallow and obvious. The dialog is invariably lame, and the pacing most of the way through is seriously problematic.

This movie makes the original look like Hamlet. Its plot twists make no real sense, and it violates the rules of its own fictional universe at every turn. In fact, it possesses absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever as a work of narrative fiction.

But it has dinosaurs. Big beautiful ugly man-eating dinosaurs. They run, or they stomp till the earth shakes, or they swoop down from the sky to rain terror. They have big scary teeth, they can fell a mighty tree with a single flick of their massive tails, and some of them are scary as hell.

Awesome awesome movie. Buy a jumbo tub of popcorn and see it on a big screen in 3D. Bribe the folks who run your local cinema to turn the sound way up.

You won’t regret it.

Bad joke of the day

July 25th, 2015

So The Borg decide that the only certain way to defeat the Federation Star Fleet is to go back in time to the very dawn of Earth space travel, capture the greatest human mind they can find, and co-opt that supreme intelligence to their own alien ends.

After doing extensive research, they determine that the greatest of all mid-twentieth century Earth philosophers with a favorable attitude toward collectivism was an individual named Jean-Paul Sartre. Through an enormous investment of time and effort, they manage to invent a temporal probe, which travels back to early 1950s Paris, whisks the great man away from his usual table at Les Deux Magots, and transports him forward in time to the 24rd Century.

After various cyber-bionic adjustments Sartre emerges, transformed into a formidable creature, half man and half machine. The Borg, certain now of impending victory over those pesky humans, ask him what their new strategy should be.

Sartre shrugs. “Existence,” he says, “is futile.”

Transitional stage

July 24th, 2015

In the early days of the Web, internet cafes used to be very popular. People would go to have a coffee and surf the web together. It was all very exotic.

Of course it soon became not exotic at all, as everyone got browsers on their PCs at home. As a social practice, browsing the web because less like going to the movies and more like watching TV.

Now we are about to go through a similar set of transitions for “physically” hanging out with people in shared virtual reality. I’m not talking about the flavor of VR where you sit down in a chair and just pretend to walk around. I mean the more interesting kind, where you physically walk around with your own body, wearing a headset, but with no trailing wires to encumber you.

At first, doing this in high quality is going to be somewhat expensive, and therefore exotic. So I suspect you will see the equivalent of internet cafes popping up in your town.

Then after a few years, when the prices go down and walking around in VR just becomes a widespread capability found in the home, those “VR Cafes” will become a thing of the past, something to look back on with nostalgia.

Gosh, I almost miss them already. :-)

Bowen Island

July 23rd, 2015

Tonight I am staying with friends on Bowen Island. As it happens, the geographic area of this island is nearly identical to the geographic area of the island of Manhattan.

Yet Bowen Island has a population of only 3000, which is just about 1/1000th the resident population of Manhattan.

Right now I am very much appreciating the difference.


Finding the bug

July 22nd, 2015

Today I finally found a bug in my program that I had been tracking down for weeks. That particular bug was the final roadblock preventing me from making my system a lot more useful (basically, from being able to save your work, and load it back in later).

One thing that still astonishes me about programming is how you can spend vast amount of time building huge systems, with thousands upon thousands of lines of code, and yet one little aspect of the system — a few lines missing, or a single obstinate bug — can make such a large difference.

And when you finally find that bug, it’s like a magic door has opened up in your house, and when you walk through that door, suddenly you find that your little house now has twice as much room.

It’s a nice feeling. :-)

Geeky fun

July 21st, 2015

This evening I am participating in an informal tech meetup here at the Centre for Digital Media in Vancouver. We each take turns getting up and talking about the projects we’ve been working on, and getting feedback from each other.

There is something so wonderful about the energy in the room of people talking about something they love, to other people who really appreciate the hard work and design decisions that go into a project.

This all feels kind of the opposite of a corporate sales presentation (at least the ones I’ve seen). It’s fine if things go wrong, if the demo crashes and you need to restart. That’s all part of the realness of it.

It would be nice if more of the interactions in life between people were infused that same sense of shared love and appreciation.


July 20th, 2015

Just imagine, for the sake of argument, that everything you say or do can be recorded for posterity. This isn’t really such a stretch — we are already giving up our collective privacy for the convenience of carrying around those smart phones in our pockets.

So suppose that every gesture you make gets recorded, and instantly baked into a server somewhere. I would argue that this creates an opportunity.

With the appropriate supporting technology, you will be able to see yourself in earlier moments. In fact, you will be able to layer on those moments, creating various avatars of yourself.

One can imagine a new way of dealing with one’s past, one’s legacy. Not through regret, but through creative editing. If there was something about yourself that you didn’t like, you will be able to use technology to purge it — to remake yourself, to become pure.

I’m not so sure this will be a good thing…

Every city will have one

July 19th, 2015

After seeing Alexander Graham Bell demonstrate his version of the telephone, the mayor of a major American city exclaimed, with uncontained enthusiasm, “I can see a time when every city will have one!”

I think it’s important not to fall into that trap with technologies that are just around the corner. In order to fully understand the eventual impact of a technology, we shouldn’t think of it as a rare exotic creature. Rather, we need to imagine that it is ordinary, humdrum, the thing you don’t even notice because it’s there all the time, like your chair, or the light switch on your wall.

It is precisely the invention that becomes so ubiquitous that we no longer think about it which transforms our world. The wondrous and exotic technology that stays wondrous and exotic — like the personal jetpack (which has existed in one form or another for nearly a century, but has never come into common use) — is a failure.

It’s the technology that you don’t notice — the pen, the water filter, indoor plumbing — that is the real triumph. If twenty years from now we are still walking around thinking of augmented reality as something amazing, then we will have failed. But if we’re all using it without even knowing it is there, then the future that some of us are now envisioning will truly have arrived.