Procedure versus data, part 2

April 18th, 2018

This whole argument about “procedure versus data” is perhaps a bit of a red herring. Long before computers, the two modes of operation formed a complementary set.

For example, you probably know a musician who has an encyclopedic memory for songs. You name pretty much any song, and he or she will remember that song on the spot and play it for you.

And you may know a musician who is a great improviser. You name a musical style, and he or she will be able to immediately riff in that style and create something new, something that has never been heard before.

In my experience, one rarely finds a high level of development of these two complementary skills within the same individual. And that makes sense, since each kind of skill takes not only native talent but many hours of time and practice to learn and develop.

But why should these be seen as two separate skills? Isn’t there some place where they meet, and build upon each other? More on this tomorrow.

Procedure versus data, part 1

April 17th, 2018

Many years ago I learned about what I thought of as the “synthesizer wars”. Back then, the Roland keyboard synthesizer worked by creating an instrument’s audio waveform entirely by procedural methods. This is more or less the musical equivalent of the way procedural textures work in computer graphics.

In contrast, the Yamaha synthesizer worked by having lots an lots of different recorded samples of instrument sounds. To create variations in tone it would blend samples together.

Since I am a big fan of procedural textures (for obvious reasons), I really liked the Roland approach. Alas, the Yamaha did better in the marketplace, because it was easier to create sounds for.

The Roland required somebody with real skill to write the procedure that synthesizes a given sound. The Yamaha just required lots of sound samples. That’s a problem you can solve without a lot of skill, if you’re willing to throw enough money at it.

This was a dichotomy that has repeated in a lot of computer fields. Should you try to build a procedure to describe something algorithmically, or do you find an actual sample of the thing out in the world and then modify that? Each approach has advantages and disadvantages.

More tomorrow.

You can’t make this stuff up

April 16th, 2018

I just read that a few days ago in a Starbucks in Philadelphia two businessmen were waiting for a colleague to discuss a real estate deal. Like many people (me, for example), they decided to be polite and wait until their colleague arrived before ordering.

The manager told them that they couldn’t wait for their colleague without first ordering something. When they didn’t order anything, the manager called the cops.

Six police officers arrived and told the men they needed to leave, so the men explained to the police that they were waiting for a colleague. Their colleague arrived just in time to see his two associates, whom bystanders said had been very polite to the police throughout the entire incident, being cuffed and carted away.

The two businessmen were taken to the police station, arrested, fingerprinted, and kept in custody for about eight or nine hours before being released. The reason for their release, according to the Philadelphia district attorney, was that there was no evidence that any crime had been committed.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross praised the police officers, saying that “they behaved properly and followed procedure.”

You can’t make this stuff up.

Punnishingly descriptive

April 15th, 2018

Today, in a very silly musical pun-off with Jaron Lanier, I said “violinists are high strung, but they never fret.” I am happy to report that my moment of egregiously low humor received the groan that it so richly deserved.

I wonder whether anyone has look at this form of punnishingly descriptive language as an art-form in its own right. Would it be possible to create an entire on-line dictionary of such wickedly painful descriptions?

I see such a thing as a community effort. Perhaps we can start a Wickipedia to put all these things together in one place. Am I the only one who thinks this would be a good idea?

Probably. :-)

2 x 50

April 14th, 2018

Today I visited the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. It’s a marvelous place, and there were many things there that delighted me.

But two in particular jumped out. Both were invented exactly fifty years ago, and both have managed to change the way we look at reality.

One was Alan Kay’s original mock-up of the Dynabook — his vision for what a computer might one day look like. This radical concept influenced everything to come, informing the design of the notebook computer, the SmartPhone and the data tablet.

It’s remarkable to realize that Alan introduced such a design in the Paleolithic age of computation. Back then, when most people thought of a “computer” they pictured a mainframe consisting of row after row of giant room filling cabinets.

The other was Ivan Sutherland’s original “Sword of Damocles”: the very first working virtual reality headset. How astonishing that Ivan could see the future from such a long distance away. It takes a special kind of vision to see that far.

I wonder what visions someone might be having now that will have that kind of impact in another half a century. Maybe we will just need to wait to find out.


April 13th, 2018

Here is the diagram I started to draw on the whiteboard at Google yesterday, although on the whiteboard I draw only the surrounding square and the 26 letters.

In the above image, you can see me in the process of drawing a letter “b”: I draw a stroke first to the upper left (where the “b” is located in the alphabet) and then veer to the right (where the “b” is located within its little cluster of letters).

Some very frequently occurring characters, like a, e, i, l, o and t, are just a single straight stroke. The others are all bent shapes.

The space character is just a click, and the capital letters you see in the dictionary are special characters: D for Delete, C for Caps, A for Alt keyboard (eg: most punctuation) and E for Enter.

Sketchtext is a variant of the Quikwriting system I wrote over twenty years ago, but with a particular emphasis on being able to sketch text in VR, in situations where you want to be able to spell things out without needing to look at your pen.

The view you are seeing is the tutorial view. It’s a very easy system to learn, because everything goes around the circle in alphabetical order, so when you’re using it, you don’t really need to see the dictionary.

I wonder if it will be better than Morse Code. :-)

Starting a meeting at Google

April 12th, 2018

Today I was visiting Google, and at the very start of the meeting one of the Googlers — a young man I had never before met — started talking about the problem of writing text in VR.

As it happens, on the flight on the way over, I had implemented yet another gestural text entry system. Implementing these has been a hobby of mine for many years.

So I jumped up and scribbled my system on the whiteboard. Then he jumped up and scribbled his system on the whiteboard. Excited conversation and much scribbling ensued.

After a few minutes, we both sat down, feeling quite pleased with the exchange. Then we looked around the table and realized that everyone else had just been watching us.

My host — the person who had actually invited me — politely suggested that we make introductions before starting the meeting. “OK,” I said, feeling somewhat sheepish, “now that we’ve finished nerding out.”

Writing in VR

April 11th, 2018

I am not convinced that for creating text we will want to use keyboard, either real or virtual, in a future reality where millions of people wander around together in shared Virtual and Augmented reality. Perhaps we will simply move away from the use of text altogether.

After all, speech-to-text is now quite reliable, and faster than typing in many cases. Still, there is something appealing about using our hands rather than our mouths to create text. It allows us to work with text while continuing our conversation with other humans, which is very useful for collaboration.

Because of the recent emergence of VR at the consumer level, a lot of people are now thinking about the text input question. But what properties should a “virtual VR/AR keyboard” have?

One of the great things about using your hands to type on a QWERTY keyboard is that you don’t need to look at your hands. You can keep talking with other people, maintain eye contact, be able to absorb their body language, all while typing away.

I suspect that we will continue to value those two constraints: (1) the ability to continue talking with people while creating text, and (2) not needing to look at your hands while you are creating text. Exactly what form that will take, as VR and AR continue to go mainstream, only time will tell.


April 10th, 2018

I saw Ready Player One with my nephews. It was delightful. My nephew Jonathan and I laughed out loud in all the same places.

I liked it so much, that I went to see it again, and this time I treated my grad students to see it. Both times in glorious 3D.

In addition to the obvious fact that Mark Rylance is one of the great wonders of the world, this is Spielberg in top pop form. He is having fun here, like he did in Minority Report and Catch Me if you Can, celebrating popular culture for its sheer visual magic.

I was curious to see what the critics thought, so I went on-line and read the reviews. And what I discovered was, for the most part, pure venom.

Many critics seem incensed, indignant, left sputtering in outraged at the very idea of a Spielberg film that is simply fun, a pop confection designed mainly to entertain and delight.

Perhaps some of it is their feeling of horror that modern pop culture might be something worthy of celebrating, simply for the sake of celebrating a phenomenon that many people find delightful. But why the extreme degree of venom?

I suspect it has something to do with critics’ feeling that they are the gatekeepers of culture. If you’ve ever listened to a classical music maven decry The Beatles and all that their influence has wrought, you probably know what I mean.

Fortunately, the movie itself has the courage to simply celebrate the sublime beautiful nuttiness of modern pop/nerd culture. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, I recommend you get yourself to a theater and see it.

Preferably in 3D.

Math with my brother, part 6

April 9th, 2018

Let’s review. We’re looking for a way to find a regular simplex — the simplest symmetric shape with flat boundaries — and we want our method to work no matter how many dimensions it has.

We already saw that to get a one dimensional simplex — a line — you go up to two dimensions and draw a line between the two points (1,0) and (0,1), keeping only the parts where all the coordinates are positive.

To get a two dimensional simplex — an equilateral triangle — you go up to three dimensions and draw a plane between the three points (1,0,0), (0,1,0) and (0,0,1), keeping only the parts where all the coordinates are positive.

It turns out this trick works in any number of dimensions. For example, suppose we want to get the three dimensional simplex — a regular tetrahedron.

You go up to four dimensions and draw a volume between the four points (1,0,0,0), (0,1,0,0), (0,0,1,0) and (0,0,0,1), keeping only the parts where all the coordinates are positive. In this picture, the x,y,z,w axes — all at right angles to each other — are in blue, and the resulting simplex is bounded by thick black lines:

Wait, what was that? Draw a volume???

Well, sure. Math doesn’t care how many dimensions you have. It doesn’t even care whether you can picture in your head the thing you’re talking about. It just does exactly what you tell it to.

And now, thanks to the statistically inspired math my brother showed me, I have a way to create a regular simplex in any number of dimensions — even a hundred dimensions, or a million. It may not make any visual sense to me, but I can describe it exactly.

And when you think about it, that’s pretty cool.