Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Social media considered harmful, part 2

Sunday, July 23rd, 2017

If a stranger walks up to you the street and punches you in the nose, that person is labeled as crazy. But if a stranger performs the equivalent act on-line, that is simply considered rude behavior. The first person might end up in an institution. The second person we just call a troll and shrug our shoulders.

How did we get to this place? Why do so many people on-line come out swinging at total strangers? My best guess is that it’s a way of dealing with feelings of fear and helplessness.

Before the advent of social media, if you were feeling helpless or scared, you would generally turn to the people in your everyday life — your family, your clergy, perhaps a neighbor. These were people you actually knew.

But now there is an easier way. You can go on-line, vent your frustrations, put on a fictional persona, act out all you want. You can avoid ever confronting feelings of helplessness or fear. In fact, you can feel that you have replaced them, through aggressive and inappropriate interactions with strangers, by an illusory feeling of power.

I’m not saying *everyone* does this. Far from it. Most people understand the limits of social media, just as most people understand the limits of alcohol use.

So the underlying problem isn’t social media itself. The real problems lie elsewhere.

Social media merely exposes those problems. But in doing so, it creates new problems of its own. More tomorrow.

Social media considered harmful, part 1

Saturday, July 22nd, 2017

When people keep trying to post hostile troll-ish comments, I end up blocking them, and then I don’t even see their subsequent attempts. But in the one or two attempts that I do see, before I realize they are either crazy or trying to act crazy, I always learn something.

Yesterday the trolls came out in force, because one of my posts was listed on Hacker News. And I learned quite a bit — mostly about the nature of anger.

One of the trolls made sure to announce himself as a troll by posting a comment that was ostentatiously insulting, and then acting offended when I didn’t post it. So here was somebody essentially saying “I will engage you not in actual discussion, but only as my enemy. Those are my rules of engagement.”

So what would motivate somebody to go up to a complete stranger and loudly announce themselves as that stranger’s enemy? What’s really going on in such situations?

I think there are implications to this phenomenon that are more significant than mere bad manners. More on this tomorrow.

The death of place memory

Friday, July 21st, 2017

I was walking down an unfamiliar street the other day, but I had a pretty good sense of where I was going. Also, I could more or less keep in my head the general direction I was headed, so fairly soon I managed to get to a familiar intersection.

While this was happening I was thinking about a potential downside to wearable technology. If I had been using a mature version of a wearable, I would have had the option to see an optimal route at all times.

With the Cloud as my guide, I would have quickly learned to simply follow the directions on offer, confident that I would arrive at my destination in optimal time. I wouldn’t even need to think about it.

And that’s the problem right there. With every new technology aimed at making our lives easier, another skill becomes lost.

In this case, it would be the skill of place memory — the ability to navigate through a strange place using only one’s wits and common sense.

Who knows, maybe this is a good thing. I’m thinking of the future generations may read this, long after the skill of navigating through a strange place without computer assistance has been forgotten.

They will probably wonder what all the fuss was about.

The non-linearity of productivity

Thursday, July 20th, 2017

I happen to be going through a very productive time right now. I’m working on a project that I’m very excited about, and the threads are all coming together to create a very satisfying tapestry.

Of course, there are long stretches of time when I don’t feel very productive at all. I’ll noodle around, trying this or that, but nothing really compelling results.

I’m wondering what the relationship looks like between productivity and time. Is there a pattern to it? Are these things cyclic? Random? Contingent on the phases of the moon?

If only we could find a correlation between time-varying productivity and some specific external factor. Maybe we could use that knowledge productively.

Perhaps, if I knew I was about to enter a fallow period, I could choose that time to go on a relaxing vacation. Or perhaps, if I knew that a firestorm of creative energy was about to burst forth from my brain, I could be ready to make the most of it.

It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? Maybe I should try to tackle it the next time I’m feeling productive.

Productive relaxation

Wednesday, July 19th, 2017

These last five days I had the very good fortune to spend quality time with a dear friend in London after a whirlwind conference. I had the additional fortune to be there when my friend needed to spend about 50% of her time making a deadline.

We would wander out in the morning, look at cool places like the Tate Modern, and houses of famous dead people like Charles Dickens and Samuel Johnson. Then we would eventually settle in at her flat and get work done.

The reason this was so awesome was that it gave me perfect cover for engaging in my favorite activity: Working on my research software. In most social situations this would have been at least slightly awkward. But in this instance it was perfect, because our respective agendas lined up precisely.

Not only am I returning to NYC happy and relaxed and in touch with my inner Anglophile, but I also got a tremendous amount of work done during the last five days.

Oh, and I also got to be in London when Roger Federer won his eighth straight Wimbledon match. It doesn’t get much better than that.

The surprising price of avocados in London

Tuesday, July 18th, 2017

This week at a local market in London we purchased these 22 fresh avocados for a total cost of three quid. When I worked out the exchange rate (a bit less than four U.S. dollars), that total came out to be just about 1/15 the cost, per avocado, of the most recent avocado I purchased in New York City.

I am happy to report that all the avocados were perfectly ripe and delicious. We made lots and lots of guacamole!

Overheard this week in London

Monday, July 17th, 2017


“Right then. Where does this go?”

Secrets of the Knights Templar

Sunday, July 16th, 2017

As an American, I’ve had only limited exposure to the Knights Templar. To me they were a mysterious religious order that would show up in occasional old TV episodes of Superman, or that guy who patiently waited hundreds of years in a cave guarding the Holy Grail until Indiana Jones could come along and get it.

Yet clearly there was much more to them, a rich history waiting to be discovered. Which is one reason I was so eager to accept my friend’s invitation today to visit the Museum of the Knights Templar here in London.

I certainly learned a lot, about their shifting relationship with the various Monarchs of England, the waxing and waning of their political power throughout the centuries, their great role in both war and medicine throughout British history. But I also learned some small details that rather surprised me.

For example, in their role as providers of medicants, the Knights Templar tended to gather together some unusual ingredients. Here, for example, is a detail of a case of potions and elixars that I photographed during my visit:

Note, in particular, the container on the top left, labeled “Sang Dracon“. This translates into modern English as “Dragon’s Blood”.

Yes, that’s right — dragon’s blood. The Knights Templar had dragon’s blood.

Which means they had dragons. How cool is that?

Why animation may become more procedural

Saturday, July 15th, 2017

When you animate a computer graphic character by hand, you have complete control over everything. The placement of the feet, the head, the hips and shoulders, all of the subtle indicators of mood and intent, are under your explicit control.

Of course it can be a tedious process, but it is also a very rewarding one. You are essentially being the actor in a performance, but rather than performing with your own physical body, you are performing within a body by proxy.

But when you are making interactive content, this approach to character animation can start to break down. An interactive character needs to respond to unexpected events, turning or looking or reaching in response to something that could not have been planned for beforehand.

That’s why procedural methods can be so useful. They are designed, from the ground up, to be able to respond to unexpected changes in the environment. But nothing comes for free. In order to provide that power, these methods require the animator to let go of the precise control afforded by hand animation.

How, exactly, does procedural animation make it possible for a character to respond to unexpected events? The key idea is that within every procedural animation system is a model of behavior. Whereas in traditional animation there is no such model — which means that any unexpected change will start to break things.

For example, if you blend together two hand-crafted animations of a character walking, the result will likely be a character whose feet begin to slide along the ground. That’s because, whereas the animator knows avoid sliding feet when making each individual walk animation, there is no knowledge in the computer that such a thing is important.

So any change in the animation, like blending it together with another animation, is likely to create that sortsof weird results. The computer doesn’t care about things like foot sliding, but viewers of the animation care a lot. As soon as an animated character starts to move in a way that is weird and impossible, viewers stop believing in that character.

In contrast, procedural animations have such constraints built into them. In a properly designed procedural animation system, it is literally impossible for a character’s feet to slide along the floor, unless the animator specifically directs the character to do so.

When is this power relevant? Well, if you’re making a movie it is not relevant at all. You’re pretty much always better of hand animating, since everything in the character’s environment is known beforehand.

If you’re creating a computer game, it may be relevant, or maybe not. You still have a lot of control over how the player sees the character, which gives you cover to hide a lot of sins in blended animation.

But if you are creating an interactive character in virtual, augmented or mixed reality, the balance changes. In those media, an observer can view an animated character from any position, and is generally free to move her head to view the character from a different angle.

In these newer media, any undue repetitive movement, and any artifacts caused by bad motion blending, will jump right out, and will quickly dominate the visual experience. That’s why I think that procedural animation is going to become ever more important in the next few years, as interactive animated characters move out of screens and into the world around us.

Great story, terrible sequel

Friday, July 14th, 2017

During the Develop games conference, one of the speakers showed an image from a game set in a future dystopia. The image was of two skeletons, their bodies entwined on a bed. If you looked carefully, you could see a vial of poison next to them.

His point was the importance of context in properly setting the scene, not just for game play, but for any sort of narrative. Walking into a room and seeing such a sight gets your mind asking questions: Exactly what kind of situation led to these two people making such a choice? What kind of people were they, and what was at stake for them?

I had a slightly different take-away. I turned to the person next to me and whispered: “Romeo and Juliet: The Sequel.”

That got a laugh, but it also got me thinking. What other great stories would probably have really terrible sequels? Anyone have suggestions?

Soylent Green perhaps? Dr. Strangelove? The Matrix? Oh right, somebody already tried that one. :-/