Fewer every day

December 7th, 2016

I was having a conversation with a friend last night, and the subject of age came up. And I found myself saying, apropros of pretty much nothing, that every day there are fewer people older than me.

I hadn’t really ever thought about this before, and neither had my friend. So we pondered it for a bit. No matter who you are, from the moment you are born there is one thing that is certainly true: Every day, there are fewer people who are older than you.

Generally speaking, we assume that the converse is also true: Every day, there are more people who are younger than you. And this is a great thing, because young people are the future.

But even that is not certain. Hypothetically speaking, the U.S. might one day elect a president so heavy handed and inexperienced that he accidentally goads, say, the People’s Republic of China into a conflict that escalates into nuclear war. Not that that would ever happen.

But independently of all that, there is one thing you can be sure of: No matter who you are, or where you are, or how old you are, every day there are fewer people who are older than you.

It’s kind of nice to know that there is at least one thing we all have in common. :-)

A sort of time machine

December 6th, 2016

I’ve been posting one post a day to this blog, every day, since January 1 2008. The fact that I have been doing that seems kind of crazy when I stop and think about it.

On the other hand, it also seems perfectly normal. After all, anything that you do every day will eventually come to seem normal.

But one thing I’ve realized, something I don’t think I would have guessed when I started writing this blog, is it has also given each and every day during these past nine years a unique identity. Whenever I go back and read any of these posts, I find myself transported right back to that day, and I remember what was going on at that point in my life, the thoughts I was thinking, what I was happy about or struggling with.

So in a way this project has functioned for me as a kind of magical portal into my own life. Without quite meaning too, it seems that I invented a sort of time machine.

Cute names for racist, far-right fringe movements

December 5th, 2016

The New York Times and other news organizations have been using a certain term to refer to a very scary group of people in this country. The term seems cute, inoffensive, almost adorable, like a group of people who get together at their local library on Saturdays to form a community support group.

But the Times also went through the effort of precisely defining the meaning of this term: “A racist, far-right fringe movement that embraces an ideology of white nationalism and is anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic and anti-feminist.”

So why use a euphemism, when the meaning itself is right there? For example, can’t we just state the obvious, that Donald Trump has appointed, as his chief strategist, one of the thought leaders of a racist, far-right fringe movement that embraces an ideology of white nationalism and is anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic and anti-feminist?

And is there something wrong with simply noting that Donald Trump has become the hero and figurehead of a racist, far-right fringe movement that embraces an ideology of white nationalism and is anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic and anti-feminist?

Or has stating the simple and obvious now become unpatriotic? Are we so scared of the truth that we need to hide behind euphemisms, like scared little children?

The music analogy

December 4th, 2016

I got my undergrad degree in theoretical mathematics. Then right after graduation I went to work for a computer graphics company. Eventually I got my Ph.D. in computer science.

The other day a colleague asked me whether that math degree had been useful in my career. It was a thoughtful question, and it deserved a thoughtful answer.

I told him that the process of learning to program and mastering the principles of computer science, was, by analogy, like learning to play the piano. It was an enormously important set of skills. Having all those skills and concepts under my belt has very much helped me in my career.

But by the same analogy, learning math was like learning to understand music itself. Computer science merely gave me the tools needed to execute my vision of what could be possible with computer graphics. Mathematics taught me how to understand and think about that vision itself.

Subjective clock

December 3rd, 2016

When I am boiling something on the stove for, say, ten minutes, sometimes I will make the mistake of looking at the clock. As I am sure you know, when you wait for something by looking at the clock, each minute seems to a very long time.

I also find time going more slowly when I am in a contemplative or meditative mood, except in this case the sensation is more pleasurable. In contrast, when I am deep into programming something, also a pleasurable activity, the time just flies by. Those same ten minutes on the clock can feel like very little time at all.

All of this is consistent with Marvin Minsky’s Society of Mind and similar theories. The part of my brain that is engaged when I am staring at a clock or meditating about something is very different from the part that is engaged when I am explicitly performing a task. I suspect that if one were to do a PET scan of my brain activity at those various moments, very different regions would be lighting up.

In a few years we will very likely have the option to wear augmented reality glasses that give us all sorts of information about the world around us, and we will simply take this power for granted. One thing we might be able to do with those Smart Glasses is to train a machine learning algorithm to give us a customized sense of our own particular “subjective time”. This measurement will vary quite a bit based on various factors, including our current activity, objects in our field of view, and gaze direction.

I wonder whether having this information explicitly available will cause us to make different choices. Will we opt for activities that make time race by, or will we instead become drawn to more contemplative modes of being. Such meditative activities might slow down our subjective clock, and therefore in some sense allow us to live a longer life.

Concert sales

December 2nd, 2016

Just about every time I give a talk about the possibilities of virtual reality, somebody asks me whether I think there is a danger that VR will replace reality. And I always tell them that I don’t worry about that, because all historical precedent shows otherwise.

Each time a new medium comes out, people worry that it will “replace reality”. I suspect that this perception is really a consequence of the newness of the medium, which leads people to mischaracterize it.

In its time, each new medium for distributing content was worried over, as a potential “reality killer”. Books, photography, audio recording, cinema and television are just some examples.

More recently, the rise of the high speed internet has coincided with a dramatic increase in long distance air travel. When people know more about a place in the world, they are more likely to take the effort to visit it in person.

Referring to historical precedent isn’t always convincing. After all, a person who grew up in today’s world has no real connection with the advent of books or cinema, and today’s undergrads were born into a world where the Web already existed.

But today a student once again asked me the question about whether VR would replace reality, and this time I managed to phrase my answer in a more relevent way, by placing it in the context of popular music. “Album sales,” I said, “don’t kill concert sales.”

A footnote to history

December 1st, 2016

When you put an adult into VR for the first time, there often seems to be some sort of difficult moment when they are asking themselves whether its ok to be there.

In contrast, when you put kids in VR, they go crazy. To them it’s the best thing ever, and they take to the experience like a duck takes to water.

What’s even more interesting is that if they are really little kids, they don’t even go crazy for VR. They just accept it as another reality, like TV or movies or the games on their iPad. It just makes inherent sense to little kids that they can enter a completely different world, one with magical properties.

Today, during a panel discussion that I was moderating, somebody asked what we should do about all the adults who refuse even to try VR, and who therefore never know whether they would like it or not. And I had a very specific thought in response to that question, which I did not speak out loud.

I thought about the widespread adoption of the telephone over a century ago. And then I thought about those people who thought of it as crazy and disruptive, and who therefore refused to ever use it.

And I found that I just didn’t care about those people. They didn’t matter, because telephony did matter. It ended up rapidly evolving from a curiosity to a cornerstone of modern communication. And that meant that it became inextricably woven into the fabric of society itself.

If that happens with some version of VR (which I think it will) then people who refuse even to use it will cease to matter. They will become a footnote to history, an archaic artifact of a bygone age.

The kid in the high tower

November 30th, 2016

At first I was wondering: Why is Donald Trump sending out all those stupid tweets about “voter fraud”?

I’m sure he’s been briefed, so it’s clear he has access to the same data that everyone else has — probably more. Surely, therefore, he knows none of that is real.

At first I kept thinking “OK then, what’s Trump up to? He must know that everybody knows he’s just making this stuff up.” I was looking for some sort of plan, a coherent strategy.

But then I realized that no, there is no plan. He just makes stuff up because he can. It’s like we’ve handed a loaded gun to a little kid. A very, very big gun.

Technically, the man in that tower is 70 years old. But I think we need to start dealing with something more deeply true: In any meaningful sense, the person we’re dealing with is a 12 year old kid.


November 29th, 2016

I was looking out over the water yesterday near sunset in the great Pacific Northwest, and I found myself wanting to describe to a friend how beautiful it was.

Just then, I looked up and saw an Arbutus tree framed against the darkening sky. The image matched my mood at that moment: complex, and not in an easily resolvable way.

I found myself thinking that maybe that is simply what it means to be human — complexity that can not always be put into words. So instead of words, I sent the image.

A wondrous thing

November 28th, 2016

A good power nap
When you need a power nap
Is a wondrous thing