Everything is new

September 22nd, 2017

I was talking to an old friend this evening who, like me, teaches at New York University. We were comparing notes about the incredible energy and enthusiasm among our students.

She was telling me how disheartening it is to see that people who are somewhat older don’t seem to have that energy and fire. It really does seem to be a trait of the young.

I told her that it was exactly this quality of younger people that makes me love teaching. But somehow that didn’t seem like a complete answer. Why, I wondered to myself, do younger people have this quality?

And then I had it. “When you are young,” I told my friend, “you understand that everything is new.” She agreed completely.

After we said goodnight, I kept thinking about our conversation. The challenge, I found myself thinking, is to maintain that understanding as one gets older — the ability to see that everything is new.

Dinner with Shakespeare

September 21st, 2017

Supposed you were given the opportunity, through some metaphysical event, to have dinner with William Shakespeare. Would you?

I know many people who would say, without even needing to think about it, “Hell yes!” After all, a conversation with the greatest writer in the history of the English language is a sort of dream come true.

But what if Shakespeare, the actual person, were to end up deviating dramatically from Shakespeare the written presence? What if he should turn out to be boorish — or even worse, boring?

Would you rather know this, or would you regret having discovered such an uncomfortable truth? Would you end up wishing that your dreams of greatness had remained forever unsullied?

I don’t think there is any right or wrong answer to this question. Yet I suspect that how you choose to answer this question might say a lot about your particular view of reality.

Mess/cleanup algorithms

September 20th, 2017

I used to use a very ambitious approach to computer algorithms that create structure. If I wanted to, for example, construct a level surface from volumetric data, I would carefully build a coherent structure as the algorithm ran, maintaining order at every step.

This would generally require some pretty gnarly code, with lots of dynamic data pointers and intricate logic in the inner loop. In a way it was all quite beautiful, but also fragile and difficult to maintain. A single ill considered change to the code could bring the whole delicate structure crashing down.

I notice that these days I take a different approach, which might be called mess/cleanup. I run a first pass without worrying too much about structure. In that pass I record just enough info along the way so that I can do the rest in a second pass.

That second pass is where I build all the actual structure, using the info I’d recorded earlier. The result ends up being the same, but the process is very different.

Doing it this way, I find that my code is much smaller and more compact, and a lot easier to read. There are fewer errors, and debugging is a piece of cake.

So it seems that a little messiness is a useful thing when you’re writing tricky algorithms. Not too much of a mess, but just enough.

Comfort coding

September 19th, 2017

As I began to teach my graduate class this evening, I remarked that it had been a very long day, and that I had only managed to get through it without complete burn-out because I had taken time to do some programming.

Many of the students laughed, so I thought it would be useful to explain. So many things in the course of your day are beyond your control, I said, including incoming emails, looming deadlines, and other people’s behavior at meetings, to mention just a few.

But when you program, that’s just between you and yourself. It’s a world that you yourself create, and that you can steer into any direction you want.

One of the students objected on very reasonable grounds. “What about bugs you can’t catch?” he asked.

I explained that I’m talking about programming you do to help you relax. Nothing outrageously complex, no giant code base or tricky mathematical algorithm that you don’t completely understand.

Rather, I relax by picking a programming task that is manageable, something challenging enough to be interesting, but easily doable within an afternoon. Comfort coding, if you will.

Once the students understood what I was talking about, they agreed. Everyone does it within their own domain. The chef who makes a simple dish to relax, the songwriter who tosses off a little ditty between sets, we all have our own version of comfort coding.

The Mumbai method

September 18th, 2017

When I think of a future where cars are self-driving, the vision my mind conjures up is of interchangeable pods that pick you up whenever you need a ride, and then drop you off at your destination. Essentially it will be like Lyft, but with robot drivers. Or in other words, an extremely granular form of public transportation.

As I watched the traffic weaving through Manhattan this weekend, I started wondering how traffic flow would work in that future world. Would we still have a form of turn-taking roughly equivalent to what is done now with traffic lights?

I remember visiting Mumbai a number of years ago, and being amazed at how traffic worked there. In most parts of the city there were no traffic lights. At intersections cars would just weave through each other, east/west traffic seamlessly flowing through north/south traffic.

Through all of this pedestrians would cross the street and cars would simply steer around them. To my Western eyes it all looked incredibly dangerous, but the entire time I was there I never saw a traffic accident.

Given the fact that self-driving cars will actually form a single cybernetic network, that is simply communicating with itself, it seems to me that the Mumbai method might work very well. If this sort of traffic pattern can be sustained by a sea of human drivers, each needing to guess what the other will do, surely a single self-communicating computer network can do the same — and probably much better.


September 17th, 2017

This weekend in NYC was home to the Jump Into VR Fest. The schedule was filled with presentations and panels all about virtual reality, and of course there was a generous sampling of the product on hand.

This weekend in NYC was also home to the Brooklyn Antequarian Book Fair. The schedule was filled with presentations and panels all about old books, and of course there was a generous sampling of the product on hand.

I love the fact that these two events were in this city at the same time. And I found myself wondering how many people would be interested in going to both. How many people care passionately about old books and also about virtual reality?

Then I remembered that I was pretty much missing both festivals because my colleagues and I are hard at work on following our passion: We are constructing a virtual reality experience, based upon a book that was published in 1865.

Karma Chameleon

September 16th, 2017

I’m a man without convictions. — Boy George

Maybe it’s there is a good side to the fact that our president is more or less random. He doesn’t follow any accepted idea of right or wrong. Instead, he aligns himself with whatever side seems to be following the prevailing winds of power in the political moment.

Recently he has made a point of supporting the Dreamers, and therefore has aligned himself with the Democrats. This is not really a stretch for a political player with no actual convictions.

After all, the Dreamers stand accused of committing the “crime” of being little children when their parents came to America illegally. So here we have a generation of educated, hard working young people with flawless legal records, completely devoted to the American dream.

They are “criminals” in essentially the same way that you are a criminal if you are a six year old child riding in the back of the car that your father drives to rob a bank. You’ve really got to be a hard-ass to blame these young people for stuff that happened when they were little kids.

The fascinating thing about our president is that he totally gets this. He has a powerful sense of self-preservation. And therefore he understands that if he were to align himself with the creepy right-wing fanatics on this issue, the entire world would stand appalled that the President of the United States did not stand up for law abiding hard working young people who, by the way, are contributing to our economy.

Our president doesn’t have much of a sense of right or wrong, in the usual definition of those terms. But he sure does seem to have a feeling for not being on the losing side.

Future theater

September 15th, 2017

We are all working away here at the Future Reality Lab on a theater piece. The show will be an historical first: a live theatrical performance with multiple actors and audience all in the same room sharing an experience entirely in Virtual Reality.

Everyone will be able to walk around freely on their own two feet, and will appear in their actual position in the room. In that sense it will be a kind of theater in the round, with audience members able to directly engage with the performers — just like in real life.

Except unlike in real life, the actors will appear as fantasy creatures, and the laws of physics will be extremely flexible, to say the least. Characters will be able to change size from very small to very large, and the audience will be able to stroll from one world into another as the story progresses.

We have several weeks left to finish pre-production before the opening performance, and everyone here is very excited. It’s going to be a lot of work, but if all goes well it will be worth it.

I wonder how Alan Crosland and his crew felt back in 1927 while they were working on The Jazz Singer. Did they realize that they were creating the future?

The post-biological evolution of appearance, part 2

September 14th, 2017

In response to yesterday’s post, Adrian wrote a very thoughtful comment. Suppose, he posited, that in an Augmented Reality world in which people could have any appearance, that a person’s appearance is determined not by the person being looked at, but rather by the person doing the looking.

Technologically speaking, either or both are equally feasible. In this future world, any person walking down the street could set their default avatar. For observers who do not override this default, that is how the person will appear.

Yet, as Adrian points out, an observer could indeed choose to override that default. Such an observer would then take control of his or own perception of the person being observed.

Yet I would argue that the overriding issues here are not technological, but rather sociological, psychological and emotional. Rather than ask what is technologically possible, we might well ask what is most likely from a human perspective.

And here I suspect the answer will be the same as it has been down throughout human history: Decisions about appearance are based not on theoretical limits of absolute freedom, but rather the emotional and cultural imperatives of consensus.

Most people are not driven primarily by a desire to separate themselves from their fellow humans, but rather to find congenial kinship groups, and to then make common cause with those groups. If you are the only person who sees other people in a particular way, then you are effectively forming a kinship group of one, and your opportunities to engage in consensus and social sharing with others become diminished.

Which is why I suspect that the great majority of people in an Augmented Reality future will chose to keep the default settings that others have set for their own appearance, rather than to override those settings.

The latter choice may be very amusing, but the former choice allows us to learn more about the person being observed. Even more important, it allows us to share that knowledge with other people in our own kinship groups.

The post-biological evolution of appearance

September 13th, 2017

As we start to develop the ability, due to advancing technology, to support a virtualized embodied presence for all citizens, and as that embodied presence becomes divorced from the dictates of physical reality, will the notion of appearance itself change?

To provide historical context, we rarely see the naked bodies of friends and colleagues. So the idea of covering our bodies with a sort of virtual camouflage — otherwise known as fashion — is well entrenched in human society.

But once future wearables allow us to free ourselves from literal appearance entirely, just how far will our chosen appearance deviate from our natural appearance? Will our virtual eyes become larger, because people find that attractive? Will our virtual bodies shrink relative to our virtual heads, because people find bodies less interesting than faces?

There is a biological appearance norm that evolution has taken us to, and all of us more or less hover around that norm. Yet there may be a different appearance norm that our brains are drawn to.

Perhaps, once we have been freed from the constraints of biologically determined physical appearance, we will collectively drift toward that other norm. If so, the drift will quite likely be so gradual that we won’t see it happening. Everyone will simply continue to appear normal.

After all, nobody considers it at all weird that everyone they know wears clothing, even though there is nothing natural about clothing. Furthermore, if somebody were to show up at your favorite restaurant stark naked (in other words, if that person were to revert to their truly natural self), you would no doubt be horrified, and the police would inevitably arrive to cart that person away.