Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Outside London pubs

Thursday, September 5th, 2019

Just arrived for a several day trip to London. I’ll be speaking on a panel tomorrow, and its nice to be here again (and to realize that my Oyster card still works).

Today at around 6:30pm I wandered out, in the neighborhood of Charing Cross, to do a little food shopping. My short journey from hotel to grocery store took me past several pubs.

Outside each pub was a sizable crowd. People of all ages and descriptions were gathered outside the pubs, happily chatting away.

Everyone had a beer in hand, and everyone seemed supremely delighted to be there. I was struck by the general mood — a sort of cheerfully jovial atmosphere that you don’t generally see in public places in New York City.

I loved the feeling of it, friends and colleagues gabbing happily away on assorted street corners, beer in hand, absolutely delighted to be in each others’ company. With Brexit looming, this may not be the easiest of times for Londoners, but there is something to be said for a People who have the capacity to share a simple moment of pure joy.

Object permanence, or not

Wednesday, September 4th, 2019

I had a really interesting discussion last weekend with my colleague Julie Williamson about object permanence. It’s something her research lab has been focusing on.

We all learn, at an early age, that the object you see and the object that I see are one and the same. Somebody picks up an apple and hands it to me, and sure enough, the same apple still exists when I close my hand around it.

But once you start interacting in virtual or augmented reality, object permanence is a purely voluntary thing. We can choose to both see the apple, or we can choose not to.

Interesting questions come up when you start looking at the latter option. What happens when your sense of physical reality starts to diverge from mine? Is there any case where this is actually preferable?

In the world of computers we deal with this kind of thing all the time. If you and I have different file permissions, then a directory that I can see may be completely invisible to you.

But once VR and AR start becoming pervasive, these notions of diverging reality may start to invade our interaction with the physical world itself. This might end up seeming really weird.

Or maybe it won’t. Maybe it will be more like one of having different keys to different rooms in a hotel.

If you and I are staying in different rooms in a hotel, I can use my key to enter my room any time I’d like. You believe that my room exists, but you cannot enter it, or even see what it looks like, unless I invite you in.

It could be that diverging experiences of object permanence in VR and AR will end up feeling somewhat similar. Sometimes you won’t be able to see some object floating in the air between us, unless I give you permission to do so, and vice versa.

Maybe, after we’ve been doing this for a while, it will all just end up seeming, like, normal.

Dudgeons and Flagons

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2019

I game up with a new game today, pretty much by accident. To test my new text editor, I created a list of words in alphabetical order, picking the first word that came into my head. My word list looked like this:


But then I decided it would also be useful to have full sentences, so I just expanded each of those words out to a sentence. Without really thinking about it, I ended up telling a little story:

apple is a kind of computer.
banana is a kind of fruit.
cat is a small furry animal I keep in my car that likes bananas.
deli is where I get my bagels.
eatery is where I dine tonight because I do not feel like bagels.
friend is who is dining with me.
garage is where we will park the car while we eat.
hacksaw is what the thieves will use to break into the car to steal our cat.
internet is where we will look for the cat on our apple computer.

I was sort of surprised that the resulting string of sentences made any sense at all as a story. But it gave me an idea for a game.

A storymaster presents a random string of words in alphabetical order. The players all need to use those words, in order, within an original short story.

The winner is whoever the storymaster thinks wrote the best story. And to keep it fair, people take turns being the storymaster.

But we can also make it a drinking game to keep things interesting. Every time you lose, you have to down an entire beer.

Of course people will get upset when they lose — particularly after they’ve lost a lot of rounds. Which is why we should call it Dudgeons and Flagons.

George and Leonard

Monday, September 2nd, 2019

Today I went to see the wondrous exhibit about Leonard Cohen at the Jewish Museum here in New York City. A good friend reminded me that it is closing in a matter of days.

In my hand the whole time I was clutching a paperback edition of Lincoln in the Bardo, my current subway reading. I find the connection between the two to be fascinating.

Here we have two deeply brilliant and profoundly talented literary creators, each grappling with the mysteries of love and connection and human existence. One was born in Quebec, the other in Texas, but both are very much citizens of the world.

Even more interesting, Saunders was raised Catholic, but then migrated to Buddhism. When you read his work, you really get a strong sense of both his Catholic upbringing and his Buddhist beliefs. He uses the mystery of Catholicism to explore Buddhist ideas.

There is quite a precise parallel going on with Leonard Cohen. He was raised Jewish, but then migrated to Buddhism. When you listen to his songs or read his poems, you get a strong sense of both his Jewish upbringing and his Buddhist beliefs. He uses the mystery of Judaism to explore Buddhist ideas.

If you go to see the Leonard Cohen exhibition, make sure to catch Ari Folman’s Depression Chamber. It is a perfect way to experience Cohen’s transcendent conflation of the world of the spirit and the world of the body.

It also feels very much like being physically immersed in a George Saunders story. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

Palate cleanser

Sunday, September 1st, 2019

My first lecture of the semester is only about a week away. This is going to be a very intense semester. For these last few weeks I’ve been working on my course notes, but I know there is still plenty more to do.

So I’ve decided to take a break from course preparation and work on a completely unrelated weekend programming project. My weekend project is small and self-contained, and doesn’t really anything to do with the course.

But it’s a way to sharpen my hacking chops in preparation for the semester ahead, without obsessing too much about the class itself. Sometimes, when you know you are about to dig into a really large meal, you need to start with a little palate cleanser.

Forensic futurology

Saturday, August 31st, 2019

One approach to understanding the future is to look at futures past. We can look back to previous times and examine how they thought about the future.

How were people thinking before train travel, recorded sound, human flight, the radio, television, the Web, SmartPhones? What was their concept of the future?

In each case, were there people during those times who predicted the change that was about to happen with any degree of accuracy? If so, who were those people?

Were they scientists, industrialists, poets, philosophers? Were they writers of popular fiction?

It might be useful to do some forensic futurology: the study of how and when the future was accurately predicted in times past. We may very well be able to apply what we learn to our current times, and thereby better predict our own future.

Speaking up

Friday, August 30th, 2019

Some among my friends and family ignore the insane tweets, the rapid dismantling of rights and protections for our citizens, and all of the other assaults on our country that are currently oozing out of Washington D.C. like an overflowing toilet. Their argument: This too shall pass away.

They invoke the Civil War, the horrors of Reconstruction and the Klan, the McCarthy era. They point out that our nation has, more than once, received terrible body blows from within, and yet has managed to survive.

Yet I have other friends who obsessively read the news, agonizing over every astounding new insult to our system of laws and our national character. They are politically engaged, but stressed.

The first group is less likely to get high blood pressure, but are they really right? After all, any democracy relies on checks and balances. When a major political party goes insane, it’s up to others to pull us back from the madness.

As painful as it is, I think we have a responsibility as citizens to face the discomfort of dealing with a self-serving scoundrel and his cynical enablers. When you look back on those historical examples, one thing they had in common was the courage of at least some citizens to look the agents of hate in the face and say, in effect, “At long last, have you no sense of decency?”

Super powers

Thursday, August 29th, 2019

We are starting on a new research direction at the lab. When I first started drawing up plans describing this direction, I listed a set of projects we might work on.

It all sounded ok, but it wasn’t particularly exciting. The word “project” can evoke the idea of something you do because it needs doing. Like the “project” of repainting your bedroom or cleaning out the garage.

But then I changed things a bit, and started describing the same capabilities as “super powers”. Instead of stuff we need to implement, things are now framed in terms of cool new abilities we will end up having when we are done.

Suddenly the whole thing reads like something exciting — a grand and even epic adventure. I think there is a principle at work here:

In order to create excitement, it’s not sufficient to describe something. You need to create a compelling narrative. If you want to really inspire somebody, tell them a good story.

Puppies and kittens

Wednesday, August 28th, 2019

I was having dinner with a fairly omnivorous friend at a trendy vegan restaurant in Greenwich Village. At some point the topic of varying cuisines came up.

I am a conscientious vegan, which means that for ethical reasons I eat only plant based foods. But I don’t have any objection to other people eating whatever they happen to eat, because I hate when people tell each other what they are supposed to do.

My friend had just related to me a story in which he had been dared to eat something without being told what it was. Only afterward did he find out that he had been eating whale.

He told me that he had gotten really upset, because he would not have purposely eaten whale meat. He had a level of sympathy for whales that moved them out of the category of food.

This made it easier for me to explain that becoming vegan had not involved any willpower at all on my part. It was, rather, a category shift. Here is how I explained it:

Just because something tastes yummy and is nutritious doesn’t necessarily make it food. And it doesn’t take any willpower to refrain from eating something that isn’t food.

For example, puppies and kittens might taste delicious, if you were ever to try them. And they would probably be quite nutritious. But you probably don’t think of them as “food”, so you still wouldn’t want to eat them.

Of course all of this is culturally relative. Your mileage may vary.

Conducting oneself

Tuesday, August 27th, 2019

We all know on some level that we have multiple aspects to our personality. Different sides of us emerge at varying times, depending on a combination of circumstance and stress level.

Suppose we could see all of those sides of our personality with perfect clarity? Rather than a cacophony, what if they were instruments in a well conducted orchestra?

Now suppose that this were perfectly normal. Rather than being ruled by conflicts between internal emotional forces, what if people were able to simply draw upon those forces as needed, the way a poet draws upon a beloved memory.

I suspect that world would be a very interesting place to live. But I also suspect it might seem a bit strange and overwhelming to us ordinary neurotic humans.