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Future conditional, part 2

Sunday, April 23rd, 2017

Continuing from yesterday…

At some point in their on-stage conversation, Dean Buonomano asked Ted Chiang why, in his opinion, time travel didn’t emerge as a literary trope until the latter part of the 1800s. Ted Chiang’s answer was very interesting.

He said that through most of human history, the general view was that the future was pre-determined. Therefore, prophecies always came true. No matter how hard Oedipus (or his cultural equivalents) tried to defeat the words of the Oracle, everything he did actually conspired to bring about the very fate he was trying to avoid.

When you think about it, there isn’t much point to time travel as a literary form (except for a few edge cases) if the future is inevitably immutable.

But with modernism a different view began to emerge — one in which we have the power to alter our fates. Although H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine is often considered the first time travel story, Ted Chiang posited that there was an earlier one: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

In that novel the Ghost of Christmas Future, Ted Chiang argued, was actual an Oracle, showing Ebenezer Scrooge the bleak future that awaited him. But then Scrooge asked the Ghost “Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?”

The ghost left the question unanswered, yet Scrooge proceeded to answer the question for himself: He altered his behavior, and thereby altered his fate. For the first time in Western literature, information that came from the future was used to change the future. The literary concept of time travel had begun.

As I heard this, The Matrix was still fresh in my mind from having seen it only a week before. So this new insight led me to regard The Matrix in a different light. More tomorrow.

Future conditional

Saturday, April 22nd, 2017

Last night I attended an event at the Rubin Museum in which Ted Chiang, the author, and Dean Buonomano, the neuroscientist (and author), discussed the nature of time, and our perception of it.

Story of Your Life, the brilliant story that is the basis of the recent film Arrival, is essentially a disquisition on this topic, as well as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, in the form of a science fiction tale. Ted Chiang pointed out, during their fascinating on-stage discussion, that our human perception of time seems to be at odds with a deterministic view of the Universe held by some scientists, including Albert Einstein.

Specifically, we subjectively perceive the possibility of many futures, based on the choices we make from moment to moment. In other words, we think of ourselves as having free will.

Yet in Einstein’s view, all human thought and behavior is simply a manifestation of the Universe playing itself out in a deterministic way. This includes our belief in our own free will.

There is really no contradiction here. We now know enough about quantum physics to be sure that it would be impossible to query the current state of the Universe completely enough to learn what is going to happen in the future. So even if Einstein was right, and the state of the Universe is completely determined throughout all of time, the future is still unknowable, even theoretically, to human beings.

This all came up in the context of a discussion about language. Human natural languages generally have an asymmetric view of past and future embedded deeply within their semantic structure. But would it make sense, on any level, to posit a natural language based on full knowledge of the future? In other words, could there be a natural language in which past and future are semantically equivalent?

I don’t know the answer to that question, but now I’m thinking about it.

Our lab’s first Prime Minister

Friday, April 21st, 2017

The Prime Minister of Luxembourg visited our lab this morning. This was our lab’s very first visit by a head of state.

Prime Minister Xavier Bettel is a wonderfully charming man, very gracious, friendly and approachable. He is also extremely interested in technology.

We asked him if he wanted to try our shared Future Reality experience. It was fun to see him jump right in, and order the three ministers in attendance to go in with him.

The four of then proceeded to spend a very happy twenty minutes or so together, drawing in the air and running around the 3D sculptures they were making like little kids. I’m not sure what they were saying when they were together in Future Reality, because they quickly slipped into Luxembourgish, but they were clearly having a good time.

One of my NYU colleagues told the Prime Minister that I had won an Academy Award. I sheepishly deflected the congratulations. “My mom,” I said, “is very proud of that.”

He replied that his mom would be jealous of my mom, because my mom has a son with an Academy Award. I then responded that I’m pretty sure my mom would be jealous of his mom, because his mom has a son who is a Prime Minister.

We may have both been right.

Vacation from stupidity

Thursday, April 20th, 2017

This week I have been mostly ignoring the sheer venality and vindictiveness that purvade the current policies of this country’s executive branch. I’ve been working here in NYC with colleagues, getting work done, seeing really good culture with friends, enjoying life on a local scale.

I know that soon I will need to refocus my efforts, as do millions of responsible U.S. citizens, on what each of us can do about the corruption and dysfunction that is ripping through the halls of power of our nation. Simple patriotism and respect for my country demands that much from me.

But sometimes, at least for a while, you just need to take a vacation from stupidity.

Why is The Matrix?

Wednesday, April 19th, 2017

When I first saw The Matrix when it came out in 1999, I thought it was ok — just ok. I totally got that it was a formal innovation, beautifully art directed, excitingly shot and edited, visually stunning, a game changer for the movie SciFi genre.

But I also found the central premise to be trite. I had grown up with science fiction stories where at some point the hero wakes up to find that himself in a vat, and realizes that his life until now has been a simulation. That was already a well-worn SciFi trope when I was a kid.

But seeing it again I realize it’s not the obvious premise that is interesting, but the philosophical conversations that spin out from that premise throughout the film. In many ways the screenplay reads like a philosophy class.

What is reality? Why are we here? Why does any of this stuff matter anyway? Are we defined more by our physical existence in the world or by our belief in that physical existence? Can we transcend both?

Sure, obvious questions, but the Wachowskis built a kick-ass martial arts action film around those questions — and a really good one too. Which is wonderfully clever, when you think about it, because martial arts films are themselves a disquisition on the relationship between the apparent constraints of physical reality and our belief in our ability to transcend those constraints.

I’ve gradually realized, over the last few days, that the reason I like the film so much more this time around is that these are questions I now constantly think about in my work. Our research on “future reality” forces us to ask what becomes different when the rules of physical existence are changed, and what stays the same.

So basically, The Matrix is a kind of riff on basic issues that underly my current research. Those issues have been embedded in the DNA of The Matrix ever since its release. It has just taken eighteen years for me to catch up.

Best film in years

Tuesday, April 18th, 2017

Last night I saw Jordan Peele’s film Get Out. I am happy to report that it is by far the best American fiction film I have seen in a very long time.

Recently I have gotten in the habit of making excuses for American films. These days they feel like smudged paintings. Even when you can still make out the beauty and integrity of the original intention, the final product has been so distorted by glop and goo and nonsense that the end result is usually seriously compromised, if not downright ugly.

The problem, I believe, is that large budgets lead to many hands on the final product. And a lot of those hands belong not to the film’s actual creative talent, but to the people who hold the purse strings. Those people are generally focused on their own misguided idea of a “bottom line” — target demographics, tie-ins, called-in favors, or some stupid formula they once read in a book about how to write screenplays.

But Jordan Peele had the good fortune to work with a production company that left him alone, as long has he kept his production budget under $5 Million (which he did). And the result, to my eye, is a masterpiece. I am not at all surprised that when it opened it rose straight to number one at the box office.

Get Out is the only American entertainment film I can think of in years that squarely hits its mark on every single level: pacing, visuals, acting, dialog, character development, sly wit, unerring tone. It trusts the intelligence of its audience, while also playing with that audience in a way that never condescends.

Lastly, in addition to its rollicking entertainment value, this is a movie about ideas — important and timely ideas, which are deeply uncomfortable precisely because they are important and timely. And all packaged up in a perfect two hours or so of perfect and fun entertainment.

I can’t wait to see what Jordan Peele will do next!

Mom Jam

Monday, April 17th, 2017

This morning when I woke up I realized that I had been in the midst of a dream about a presentation some college students were giving me. It had been quite an interesting presentation.

They had put up a big chart on the wall, structured like a set of comic book panels. The panels progressed, step by step, through an idea for a kind of weekend game jam.

Except this was a game jam with a twist. The plan was that each of the participating students would enlist their mom to implement their game for them.

It was an interesting constraint: What sort of game could your team make in a weekend game jam, if all of the actual game creation would be done by your moms?

At the top of the chart, in big letters, there was a name for their proposal: “Mom Jam”. I distinctly remember thinking, just before I woke up, that I thought this might be a brilliant idea.

Now that I’m awake, I’m not sure I’ve changed my mind.

The three pillars

Sunday, April 16th, 2017

I was asked by a friend the other day what qualities I consider when I look for people to join our work at our lab. And I found myself giving a very specific answer. It wasn’t an answer I had consciously thought through before, but I realized as I said it that I had been using these criteria for a long time.

Essentially I think in terms of three pillars. I say “pillars” because all three are necessary. If any one is missing, things get unstable very quickly.

The three pillars are: Conceptual, Practical and Personal. “Conceptual” refers to the ability to understand the underlying meaning of what we are doing. In other words, why are we doing this research? What are our real goals? Without that understanding, it’s hard for any member of the team to make an independent decision about that is important for them to work on.

The second pillar (which is somewhat useless without the first), is practical ability. People need to be able to learn and master tools, to have the chops to work on their own without somebody else needing to hold their hand. That doesn’t mean everyone needs to be a virtuoso, just good enough to be self-sufficient when needed.

Finally, there is the personal. I look for people who can play well with others. This means a fundamental attitude of kindness, as well as a real respect for the importance of everyone else. Without those qualities, even the most brilliant and talented person is actually a danger to the group effort, rather than an asset.

I suspect everyone responsible for a group of people working together goes through something similar. If you find yourself in the position of leading such a group, it’s probably one of the most important things you do.


Saturday, April 15th, 2017

Last night, after watching The Matrix, I stopped off at a local deli on my way home and bought myself a bunch of bananas and an avocado.

As I was paying, a yoing woman came in and asked the man behind the counter “Can I have a spoon?”

It took a lot of willpower, but I resisted the temptation to tell her “There is no spoon.”


Friday, April 14th, 2017

It is 10,000 years in the future. Archeologists know that there once existed, many centuries ago, an ancient country called the United States of America. All that is left of that once mighty nation is a barren wasteland, bordered by a large wall on each of its four sides.

Experts are pretty sure they know the purpose of the wall to the East. That was built to keep out the waters of a mighty ocean, as increasing global temperatures caused that ocean to rise higher year after year, threatening to flood the land and devastate the populace.

The wall to the West served a similar purpose. Like its cousin three thousand miles to the East, this wall was under continual construction. It needed to be made higher with each successive year, to keep out the ever rising ocean waters of another ocean. Eventually both walls failed, as global warming inexorably overwhelmed the limits of human engineering.

The meaning of the wall to the north is well understood, for its purpose was preserved in history books. That wall belonged to another ancient nation named Canada, to keep the fleeing American population from rushing its borders. The history books record that the Canadians built this wall and made America pay for it.

Finally, there is a fourth wall to the South. This one puzzles the Archeologists, for it doesn’t seem to have served any useful purpose at all.