Two birthdays

January 17th, 2022

Benjamin Franklin, one of my favorite humans ever, was born on this day, January 17, in the year 1706. Since I was a little kid he has been one of my heroes.

When I was eight years old, I knew I wanted to be Benjamin Franklin when I grew up. Yeah sure, there’s all the political stuff. But he was my hero because the man was just the most awesome inventor a kid could ever aspire to be.

Lightning rods, bifocals, water flippers, that stove. Not to mention the glass harmonica. I just loved the glass harmonica.

Today is also the ninety first birthday of James Earl Jones, a hero to millions. I would love to see James Earl Jones play Benjamin Franklin. Steven Spielberg, are you listening?

First you make it, then you figure it out

January 16th, 2022

This last week I was faced with a problem in computer graphics, and I did something I often do. I jumped in and started hacking until I got something that worked.

The problem was, I couldn’t really figure out why or how it worked. So then the real work began.

Over the course of the next several days I sautéed and sautéed, transforming the code piece by piece, breaking things down into properly named methods, trying to turn it into something that would explain itself.

After a few days I finally ended up with something that not only worked, but that another programmer could pick up and read and understand. In the scheme of things, this is much more valuable than what I had originally, because now it can also be used by other people to do other things.

I can’t say whether this approach is good. It’s not clear whether I would have gotten the thing working had I approached it more methodically.

I suppose I should be grateful that the process works, as messy as it is. I wonder whether other people trying to make things have similar experiences.


January 15th, 2022

Somebody asked me if I was interested in watching The Eternals. That’s the latest offering from the Marvel cinematic universe.

But I misheard. I thought they said “E-Turtles”. “Sure!” I said. I figured that anything called E-Turtles must be wonderful.

Alas, it’s not E-Turtles after all, it’s The Eternals. Yet I still prefer it the way I first heard it.

E-Turtles would just be so cool, wouldn’t they? The story practically writes itself.

Second order games

January 14th, 2022

Years ago I heard a talk by Chris Crawford at the Game Developers Conference, a conference that he had founded. He talked about many things, but one thing in particular jumped out at me.

He said that when we talk about the study of games, we should not include professional sports. People “playing” professionally, he said, is actually a form of work, not of play.

I found myself strongly disagreeing. There is a tremendous amount of interesting gameplay around professional sports, which is why it is so popular. It’s just that those games are not played on the field.

Professional sports is a prime example of what might be called second order gaming. It is not the game you see at first which matters, but rather the set of games that are built around it.

Professional sports provide endless hours of entertainment for people who argue, study, debate and generally fill their conversations with observations, statistics, and various forms of tribal loyalty expressed in both words and fashion.

This is, in fact, one of the most interesting systems of games that we have, and well worth studying. As long as we remember that the actual game, the one that really counts, is played by the fans.

Bad art day

January 13th, 2022

I heard someone talking today about their bad haircut. Another person was telling them to give their haircutter another chance.

“Cutting hair is an art,” he said. “Anybody can have a bad art day ”

And that gave me an idea. Why can’t we have an official “Bad art day?” One day of the year when everyone has permission to just go ahead and make bad art.

Everyone gets to participate. No judgement.

You can create anything you want, and it’ll be ok. Just remember not to go for a haircut.

Widget Wednesdays #2

January 12th, 2022

This week I am visiting an old favorite. Ever since I was a child, I was fascinated by four dimensional space.

From yearning to tesser after reading A Wrinkle in Time, to watching the Little Girl Lost episode in The Twilight Zone, I wondered what it would be like to travel in four dimensions.

I first started to seriously play around with creating 4D things when I was an undergrad. When it became easy to do virtual reality in the last five years or so, I started moving those experiments into VR.

A question I’ve long pondered is whether, if you gave little kids a 4D toy, they would learn to think intuitively in four dimensions. It’s really a question about whether the way our human brain works. Is our ability to learn to intuitively reason about space “hard wired” for 3D, or is our brain capable of adapting that intuitive learning process to other spaces?

Wouldn’t it be amazing if future generations had universal 4D reasoning skills? That could lead to all sorts of fascinating and surprising cultural developments.

I’ve made many little 4D toys to play with through the years. This is one of the simplest, and I include the source code (as a link on the bottom) so you can see how it’s made. is just a 4D cube (also called a hypercube, or a tesseract). Instead of the usual three dimensions XYZ, it has four dimensions XYZW.

To let people play with it, I implemented a 4D virtual trackball.

The way the trackball works is that if you drag your mouse left and right, you rotate the shape, exchanging the X and Z axes. If you drag your mouse up and down, you exchange the Y and Z axes. So far that’s the kind of rotational behavior we expect from a trackball.

But also, if you hold down the SHIFT key and drag left and right, you exchange the X and W axes. If you hold down the SHIFT key and drag up and down, you exchange the Y and W axes.

One interesting question is whether people can learn to quickly and intuitively rotate the shape into particular 4D configurations. It would be fun to set up an on-line test to find that out.

The luxury of daily blogging

January 11th, 2022

It takes a certain amount of dedication to blog every day. The key is to remember every day not to not blog.

But the process also affords an interesting kind of luxury. If you get it wrong one day, you have a chance to get it right the next.

Essentially, daily blogging a kind of laboratory for trying out various things. It has also taught me how to simply write, without sweating the process too much.

And that by itself is very a valuable form of exercise. I highly recommend it.

Dates that come up in art

January 10th, 2022

I have always been fascinated by references to real world dates in literature. Although sometimes you need to look carefully to find them.

One of my favorite examples was June 18, 2006. This real world date was foretold in the lyrics of one of my favorite songs, a song that you have most likely also heard.

Can you figure out the reference?

Funny plurals

January 9th, 2022

This week I started thinking about the oddness of plurals in the English language. Plurals in our language can be very strange.

For example, the plural of the word “fruit” is (sort of) “fruit”. You can say “I’m getting a banana, or I’m getting two bananas.” But if you don’t say what kind of fruit you are getting, you would say “I’m getting fruit.” In that sentence, the word “fruit” might mean just a single banana or a whole bunch of bananas. There’s no way to know.

Yet if the word “fruit” is used to refer to a particular kind of fruit, and then there is indeed a clear plural form. If you say “I am getting fruits”, that means you are getting more than one kind of fruit. So there is a distinct plural for kinds of fruit, but not for the thing itself.

Then there are words for which the singular and the plural are exactly the same, like deer or fish. The latter is even more confusing, because it’s also a verb. You can say “Whenever I fish, I hope for lots of fish, but I only catch one fish.”

It’s amazing that little kids learn this stuff with so little trouble. Just one more thing that helps me to appreciate the wonder of the human brain.

Physical prototyping

January 8th, 2022

Today I left my usual comfort zone of software hacking and built a physical prototype of something. It felt good to get back into the real world, and work with tangible materials.

I even worked up a sweat. That’s something that never happens when I’m hacking on software.

At the end of the day, we can’t spend our lives entirely in the virtual. We have bodies, and those bodies want to be used. And it feels good to use them.

Maybe I’ve caught the bug of “making things in the real world.” I wonder whether this is the start of a trend for me. I hope so!