Reflecting on mirrors

March 26th, 2017

As I was leaving a restaurant today, where I had just eaten a very nice lunch, I happened to glance in the mirror. Or at least I thought it was a mirror.

Turns out it was another section of the restaurand that just looked a lot like the one I was currently in. A perfectly understandable error.

Yet that brief moment of confusion, before the situation becams clear, was interesting. For in that moment all sorts of thoughts passed through my head.

My first thought was “Wow, I don’t have a reflection.”

My next thought after that was “Maybe I have somehow become a vampire.”

Then I tried to think back to the night before, for a memory of who might have bit me. After all, reason dictates that such a change would require at least a few hours to take effect.

Then I found myself feeling thankful that I was about to walk out into a cloudy, overcast day. Direct sunlight could be very problematic.

This all happened in about one second. In the next second, it finally dawned on me that I had been positing some very low probability events.

Which is when, tracing backward through my earlier logic, I concluded that the mirror couldn’t have been a mirror at all. And the realization finally hit me that I had been looking into another room.

As you might imagine, I was very relieved by this news.

The Wolverine as political allegory

March 25th, 2017

I saw Logan tonight, with my brother, sister-in-law and nephew. My nephew, who is in his early twenties, thought it was a great film.

I thought it was a great film for a person in their early twenties. So in a sense we were in agreement.

What surprised me was how much everything I was watching seemed like a pointed critique of the ugliness and stupidity of the Trump administration. But that couldn’t literally be the case, because surely this film was already in production before the Election.

So my conclusion is that the Trump administration is so offensive in its blatantly xenophobic goals, so ethically bankrupt, so embarrassingly transparent in its agenda to transfer our nation’s wealth to the top 1% — no matter how much of our collective wealth needs to be destroyed in the whole stinking currupt process — that pretty much any allegory of good guys versus venal bad guys will fit.


A cure for loneliness

March 24th, 2017

I was having lunch with a friend today, and the topic came up of loneliness. Why do people feel lonely? Are they not happy with their own company?

My friend suggested that it is not so much being by ourselves that causes such a feeling, but rather the back-and-forth between being alone and being with other people. The contrast encourages a mindset that expects the company of others.

She related a story told to her by a friend who had visited North Africa, where he had encountered a nomadic tribe. Individuals of that tribe would sometimes end up all alone for weeks at a time, with nobody else for miles around.

When told of this extreme way of being, her friend had asked one of the tribesmen whether he ever became lonely. “No,” the man replied, “I am always with myself.”

A definition of magic

March 23rd, 2017

I am still pondering all the things the illusionist Prakash Puru said at the Rubin Museum event yesterday. One thing in particular continues to roll around in my mind.

It was a quote from Teller (of Penn and Teller), a definition of magic as: β€œThe theatrical linking of a cause with an effect that has no basis in physical reality, but that – in our hearts – ought to.”

To me this thought speaks to the heart of all fictional narrative. We know that Lizzy and Mr. Darcy are just words on a page, that the guy playing Hamlet up on the stage is just an actor in a costume, that Humphrey Bogart isn’t really Rick Blaine.

Miraculously, it doesn’t matter. Because these characters and the narratives containing them are beautifully constructed, we feel that they ought to exist. In our heart of hearts, they are real to us.

I think narrative Virtual Reality will need to find its own version of that magic. It is not yet clear to me what that will be.

I do know that even VR pieces that I really love do not have that effect on me. Dear Angelica, Pearl, Giant, all of the other wonderful and award winning VR pieces, they are all great. But they don’t move me in the way that I am moved when Rick and Ilsa rekindle their love, or when Hamlet dies.

I am not convinced that this deficiency is intrinsic to the medium of VR. I think, rather, that we have not yet figured out how to use this medium to create magic.


March 22nd, 2017

This evening, as part of the Rubin Museum’s excellent Brainwave series of talks, I had the pleasure to hear an on-stage conversation between neuroscientist Tony Ro and master illusionist Prakash Puru. The general topic was why stage magic is so effective, which clearly relates to the way our human brain works, and therefore to neuroscience.

Mr. Puru said many fascinating things about how stage magic works, some of which I found to be very profound in their implications. He showed how easy it is to direct peoples’ attention, even when they know you are doing it.

These techniques of misdirection, if done well, are so effective that when the magician finally switches the card, or pockets the coin, or bends the spoon, nobody in the audience is looking. And it seems that the magician’s patter adds to this distraction in very specific ways.

For example, magicians will often tell jokes during their act. He pointed out that while you are laughing, you are not really paying attention to things. During a good laugh, he said, a magician can pull a switch, and nobody will notice.

Then Mr. Puru added another thought, one very topical. “For example,” he said, “I cannot think of election where the funnier candidate lost.”

I realized he was right. And that realization brought me back to the real world.

Some very unfunny things are happening in my country now. They will get even less funny when our Joker in Chief manages to pull our world into a tragic and devastating war, simply because reality is not part of his magic act.

History repeats itself

March 21st, 2017

The Republican leadership speaks
But only to talk about leaks.
If your scandal needs fixin’
Says the ghost of old Nixon
Maybe you just need some Plumbers.

The far corners of possibility

March 20th, 2017

What if you could fly like a bird, turn into a stream of water, float to the heavens like a diaphanous cloud? How would that feel?

What if your human intelligence, your childlike capacity for wonder, were freed from the particular human frame of your birth? What would you do with it?

What if your consciousness could radiate out into the waiting universe like starlight, plunge headlong down into the deepest ocean, become a musical instrument that plays mad cool jazz with likeminded souls? Where would you go?

When our virtual selves reach the far corners of possibility, will we joyfully embrace such power? Will we become more free within our unlimited minds? Will we feel that we have finally come home?

Reality and push buttons

March 19th, 2017

During a panel discussion at SXSW last week we talked about buttons. One of the panelists explained that if you implement a virtual push button in VR, you need to do it right.

When users of your VR system presses a virtual push button with their controller, it’s not good enough for them to see the button go down. They also need to have some indication that their controller is touching the button, even before they actually push it. This feedback can be visual, vibrational, or both.

We then discussed how, in this sense, the semantics of a virtual push button in a VR world is pretty much the same as the semantics of a virtual push button on your computer screen. When you position your mouse over a virtual button on your computer screen (such as any hyperlink on a web page), you see the button change color.

This visual feedback is very important. It tells you for sure that your mouse is positioned over the correct button, before you ever click down.

We talked about how we get this feedback for free with a physical push button, like in an elevator or on a computer keyboard. In that case the feedback is tactile: We can feel our finger pressing against the button, so we know we’ve made contact. And then we can decide whether to go ahead and press the button.

At that point in the panel discussion, I pointed out that all push buttons are virtual, including old-fashioned physical ones. After all, there is no such thing in nature as a push button. They only exist because we made them up.

It just happens that we used to make all our push buttons out of atoms, because that was the only way we could. But that doesn’t change the more important point: Push buttons have always been a kind of virtual reality, even the physical ones.

Rogue movies and others

March 18th, 2017

Only sometime in the last few days did I learn that Star Wars: Rogue One was directed by Gareth Edwards. Somehow I had not gotten around to seeing this film.

There is always lots to do, life is busy, the friends I had wanted to see it with had already seen it. There are a million excuses for not seeing a first-run blockbuster film.

But then I found out who the director was, and I knew I had to see it. Gareth Edwards is the plucky guy who, seven years ago, directed Monsters, one of my favorite Sci Fi films of all time.

And the beautiful thing is that it was something of a rogue movie. Edwards’ budget for this feature film was $15,000. Not $15,000 for special effects, but $15,000 total.

Like any truly groundbreaking film, its user ratings on IMDB are mostly either 10 stars or 1 star. People were either completely enthralled by it, as I was, or they were deeply offended by it.

Even though Monsters featured giant scary extraterrestrial creatures, it was nothing at all like the sort of big budget super-heros and villains CGI heavy extravaganza that today passes for science fiction. At its core it was a relationship film, about two people who weren’t even likeable.

In other words, it was the opposite of a fan-boy friendly comic-book film. I loved everything about it.

So when I found out that Gareth Edwards had directed the latest Star Wars film, I rushed out and saw it, just this afternoon. And I was not disappointed.

Unlike most movies that pass for science fiction these days, Star Wars: Rogue One actually makes thematic sense from a psychological perspective. The exposition makes clear, on a moral and ethical level, in a way that emerges naturally from character development, why the good guys are the good guys, and the bad guys are the bad guys.

And it doesn’t do that in a cheap or easy way. It makes its characters earn their right to be on the side of goodness.

It’s interesting to compare the two films in terms of budget. By my calculations, Star Wars: Rogue One cost about 10,000 times as much to make as Monsters.

Yet both are good. That’s quite a range. Three cheers for the brilliance of Gareth Edwards.

These immigrants

March 17th, 2017

I guess it’s easy to understand the resistance toward these immigrants to the United States. Strangers coming to our shores with their odd ways, bringing an alien culture with them.

Many of them are poor and uneducated. They worship some strange religion that differs from ours in many ways. A lot of Americans are concerned that these immigrants will follow the teachings and leadership of their weird religion, rather than respecting the secular laws of our beautiful democracy.

They dress oddly, and they talk with a funny accent. Sometimes you can’t even understand what they are saying. Their music is different, and they seem to prefer to stick with their own kind.

Of course some Americans will actually side with these invading hoards. “Hey,” such people might say, “maybe one day those immigrants’ children and grandchildren will rise through society, become well educated. Maybe even graduate from Harvard. Maybe even become President!”

But even that feels like a threat. These first immigrants may already be taking low paying jobs that we could be getting. Now it seems their grandchildren will take the high paying jobs too.

Perhaps those grandchildren will even start to think that they are real Americans. In their confusion about their own questionable origins, they might even object to some future wave of impoverished immigrants.

Of all the nerve! Who do these immigrants think they are?

Happy St Patrick’s Day!!!