Archive for November, 2008

Arts and crafts project

Monday, November 10th, 2008

Today I wanted to send a message of love to a certain someone, so I decided it was a good day for an arts and crafts project. I started with a general idea of what I wanted to do, and I just made up the rest as I went along.

First I searched for “jigsaw template” on Google images, until I found a jigsaw puzzle template I particularly liked – a square image of twelve puzzle pieces drawn as black outlines against white. I saved the file to my computer.

Then on my tablet PC I scrawled my little message with the MS-Paint spray brush, making sure that lots of the letters crossed over from one puzzle piece to the next to make it more challenging. A puzzle is a bit like love – it’s best when it isn’t too easy.

When I liked the result I sent it to the laser printer.

Then I got a roll of double-stick tape, and laid it down in strips against a piece of black cardboard, until the taped area was as big as my printed puzzle.

I pressed the paper down onto the exposed sticky tape, making sure it was firmly affixed everywhere.

Now came the hard part.

I put on those super powerful 3.25 diopter reading glasses that I wrote about the other day in my post about “The Big Picture”, and worked my way through the puzzle with an X-acto knife, carefully cutting along all the puzzle lines. It’s amazing how precisely you can cut along an edge when the tip of your nose is just four inches above the table top.

Even so, it took the better part of an hour to cut out all twelve puzzle pieces. During this time I had two meetings at work. The other people at the meetings, once they realized what I was doing, kept getting silly grins on their faces. I guess it must seem very romantic to devote so much time and effort just to send a message to a special someone in such a nutty way.

One colleague told me “Don’t let my wife find out you’re doing that.” I guess he figured she’d start expecting the same from him.

Finally, when I was done, I stuffed the twelve puzzle pieces into a little envelope (with an extra piece of cardboard trimmed to size and inserted into the envelope for backing), and mailed it off.

Now of course comes the really fun part – waiting for the response…

Broken glass

Sunday, November 9th, 2008

Dagmar points out that today is the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht – the night of broken glass. Back then, the assertion that “these people are not like you and me – they do not deserve the same rights that we have” led to unspeakable horror. Given that this essentially the sentiment behind Proposition 8, it is tempting to look nervously for parallels.

I am reminded of the scene that I found the most powerfully disturbing in Roman Polanski’s brilliant 2002 film “The Pianist” – a film with many powerfully disturbing scenes. It is the moment when two guards in the Jewish Ghetto, feeling bored, decide to make the Jews dance. The guards shoot their guns around the feet of the captives, forcing the horrified Jews, men and women, to dance and jump about, like marionettes in hell.

I remember thinking, while watching this scene, that six years earlier those two guards, if told that one day they would treat people in such a way, would probably have recoiled with horrified disbelief. The difference is that six years earlier the two guards would have seen these poor suffering people as human. Now, after years of systematic brainwashing, the guards no longer see certain types of people as human. And therefore they no longer feel empathy for those people.

We see the guards as monsters, but they don’t see themselves that way. And that is an important point, perhaps the important point. People never see themselves as monsters. Rather, they are led to stop seeing the humanity in others.

And so we come to Proposition 8 (or “Proposition Hate”, as I’ve found myself calling it). I think the point that Andras makes is enormous: The Obama victory has been a triumph of reality over preconceived prejudice. As such, it has given millions of people in this country the good, clean, heady feeling that comes with being able to look past one’s fear and see something for what it actually is – in this case the election of a level-headed and competent leader, for a nation that sorely needs one.

People are in a mood now to embrace that positive energy, an energy that is so much more empowering than fear. When I have talked with people since the election, black or white, young or old, I have seen a solidarity with gay and lesbian Americans from people who were never before so openly welcoming. The change is palpable.

People are realizing that Proposition 8 and similar acts of legislative hate across the country are, in effect, an attempt to label ordinary people as criminals, people who simply want to be left alone, to be accepted for who they are, to be allowed to have a long-term committed relationship acknowledged, the same as their siblings, their co-workers, and their next door neighbors.

I think the Obama victory really has changed the discourse. Hopefully on this day of sad remembrance of Kristallnacht and the horrors it prefigured, we are starting to see something beautiful and opposite emerging in our culture – an embracing of love for one’s fellow humans, rather than fear and hatred, and a greater willingness to stand up for our friends and neighbors, to march alongside them in protest when somebody tries to deny them their humanity.

Perhaps Proposition 8 was one too many rocks through the window, one act of hatred too far. Maybe this time people will pick up those shards of broken glass, and we will see not the self-administered destruction of a society, but a wake-up call that saves one.

Attack by ghost

Saturday, November 8th, 2008

This is a companion piece to yesterday’s entry about the recent passage of Proposition 8 in California banning same-sex marriage. While yesterday I came at it via parody, today I’m going to speak to the issue directly, because I think it’s important that we talk openly when faced with an act of hatred on such a large scale. We need to look it squarely in the face and try to understand how so many people can be capable of such an act.

First of all, a full disclaimer: I don’t have the stomach to pretend to “argue both sides” on this issue. Both the proposition itself and its passage were, in their effect, acts of hatred against innocent members of our society. Even worse, people were willing to attack their own friends, family members, neighbors and coworkers. I’m not talking here about the story people were telling themselves while pulling the lever. Rather, I’m talking about the real harm that has been done to innocent people. Whether you’re talking about Chinese, blacks, gays, Jews, women, or any other targets of hate, the wholesale denial of equal rights to a group of people, simply because you have some purely metaphysical notion that they are “not like us”, is effectively an act of evil, no matter what story or excuses you tell yourself while doing it.

At the same time, I am sure that many of the people who voted for this monstrous proposition think of themselves as decent and kind, with strong love of community and a sincere desire to do good in the world. How do we reconcile it all?

I have a theory.

Human organizations are like any other organisms – their first order of business is to survive, and they develop mechanisms to ensure this survival. The reason is simple: Any organism that does not develop effective mechanisms to ensure its own survival will soon disappear. And so, like any other organism on this planet, a religious church is subject to the rules of Darwinian survival of the fittest.

Those mechanisms may at times not seem to make rational sense, but they always serve this core purpose. Unfortunately for the tender sensibilities of humanists, one of the most effective such mechanisms is the identification of an “Other” – a designated outsider – and the encouragement of members of the group to attack that Other.

In the relatively short time that our nation has been in existence we have seen many such designated Others branded and duly attacked by one organized group or another. The victims of such organized attacks have included african americans, Catholics, chinese, hispanics, homosexuals, irish, italians, japanese, Jews, labor unions, native americans, women … the list goes on almost endlessly.

In the case of Proposition 8, religious organizations were the key organizers of the attack upon the innocent, and the attack helped to ensure that people will continue to be loyal to the church. In this case the proferred pretense is that gay marriages will somehow pose a threat to straight marriages – but it’s clear that nobody really believes this.

Rather, this strange bit of nonsense is used as a shallow cover for the real mechanism of attack, the mechanism religious organizations generally use to demand loyalty. This mechanism might as well be called “attack by ghost”. Here’s how it works: A religion asserts a spectral view of the world, in which all-important invisible forces that we can neither see nor hear (which is, apparently, how we know that they exist) will be offended if certain people are permitted to have the same rights as everyone else.

The beauty of such an assertion is that it doesn’t need to make any logical sense. Religious organizations have been playing exactly the same game for many thousands of years. As long as an organization phrases it properly, by saying: “the invisible ghosts will be offended if others have the same rights that we have”, then people will agree to follow that organization in denying the rights of others.

I do understand that people need to feel that they are part of an organization. People need that feeling of safety, that sense of connection. Religious organizations can and do help people and communities in many ways. I also understand that people need their ghosts. For most people, the idea of death without an afterlife is just too frightening to contemplate, and a church offers a way to avoid that existential horror.

But I find it unbearably sad, even though I realize it is a part of the human condition, that such an evil might be built into us, that our organizations, in order to ensure their own survival, need to goad their members into systematic attacks upon innocent people.

And most of all I feel sad for my many friends, relatives and coworkers, good, decent, hardworking people, who are the victims of this latest such attack.

California outlaws inappropriate “marriage”

Friday, November 7th, 2008

One of the more interesting developments last Tuesday was the passage of a law in three states, including California, rendering it illegal for couples to marry if they are incapable of having children. The law extends to cover all barren women, impotent men, and couples in which the woman is over the age of 50 at the time the marriage license is sought.

“We fought long and hard for this law,” says Fred Wilmhite, leader of SANE (Society Against Nonmoral Entanglements). “For too long certain people have treated the sacred institution of marriage simply as a license for wanton sexual congress. Well, the day of reckoning has now arrived. The sanctity of marriage is based on its role in society as a solemn institution for the raising of children, and we must never lose sight of that principle.”

The new law was widely applauded. Even His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI praised the decision. The Vatican, which rarely comments upon the passage of U.S. laws, issued a special holy writ commending the American people for their historic decision, and expressed the hope that similar sanity would soon prevail throughout the United States and the world.

Harvard Professor and renowned legal scholar Harold Schustenblatt agreed to be interviewed for this article. “The urge to engage in sexual intercourse for purposes other than normal procreation is natural,” he said, “One might even say that it is part of the human condition. But, ipso facto, so is the urge toward murder, or theft, or the improper fondling of certain small furry animals.” Upon making this last point Professor Schustenblatt suddenly appeared to become nervous, taking a long moment to clean his glasses before proceeding with his learned disquisition.

“One must accept that society itself has real needs, and that the individual cannot – must not – be permitted to subvert those needs simply to satisfy his or her own wanton lusts. Were we to allow every man and woman who wanted only to engage in sexual intercourse to hide their actions under the cover of matrimony, where would we go next? Wouldn’t the law then require us to permit ten year olds to marry? Would you want to be responsible for legally sanctioning sexual activity between preadolescent children?”

We hastily agreed that we would not, and thanked Dr. Schustenblatt for his time. In spite of his busy schedule, the great man was quite gracious, spending considerable time after the interview playing with our pet hamster Sonya, and even offering to watch her for us on weekends.

Many constitutional scholars believe that this new law is only part of a larger trend. Once the precedent is firmly established that the sacred institution of marriage exists in the United States for the purpose of forming a family, tolerance for sexual relations between childless “married” individuals will likely continue to decrease.

As of this writing, there were no plans to revoke the marriage licenses of childless couples who were already wed when the law was enacted. And yet this generous tolerance toward the recognition of such sinful unions is not universally shared. Kevin Schmidt, senior Pastor of Bountiful Hills United Methodist Church, puts it rather eloquently: “Even were we to accept the absurd notion that women over fifty are even still interested in sexual congress, it is clearly not in the interest of society to permit them to continue to engage in carnal acts at a time when they are no longer capable of conceiving children. I mean, at some point we must draw the line and say no to acts of moral indecency.”

Pastor Schmidt, at the hale and healthy age of sixty three, followed the dictates of his church and his conscience by divorcing his first wife – the mother of his first three children – when she was no longer of childbearing age. He is now happily married to the former Desiree Gladstone, age twenty two, who as of this writing is six months pregnant with their second child.

A small but vocal group of dissenters, particularly the group PETE (People for the Ethical Treatment of Eroticism) has begun asserting that the use of phrases such as “the sanctity of marriage” as a justification for any U.S. law is a blatant violation of the separation of church and state. Government officials have been duly alerted, and these people are being watched, to make sure they don’t try to slip into each others’ beds just to have sex, under the cover of marriage.

The wonder of it all

Thursday, November 6th, 2008

I was going to post a blog that would comment on the election, or perhaps suggest a subtely skewed take on that airplane conversation I had with the young mystery actress. Or else I was going to compose a poem that may or may not be interpretable as a comment on my personal relationship – raising the veil or lowering it, depending upon how you choose to interpret my iambic pentameter.

But no.

Because on the way here, walking back to my computer, I had a revelation. One of those lovely and transcendent revelations that you who happen to be between revelations may find irrelevant and possibly insufferable.

I realize how astonishing it is simply to be here. To breath this air, to think these thoughts with these amazing brains of ours, to feel the joy and pain of physicality flowing through our veins. The accident of a conversation, the poetry of a glance. We truly are such stuff as dreams are made of, as Mr. Shakespeare was kind enough to point out.

I suppose that if we were ever to truly let ourselves realize the full power, the wondrous ecstatic joy of being here – a human being on this planet – we would go mad with the intensity of it all.

And so I allow myself, for just this moment, to tear away the curtain. I let myself admit the sheer delight that fills my heart, the honor I feel to be able to converse, to share converation with you. And you. And you.

I know that it is not cool to admit vulnerability such as this. But I cannot help it. Life is joy, and joy is life, and I am just so incredibly happy to be here with you.

The big picture

Wednesday, November 5th, 2008

Now that we have averted the threat of Sarah Palin getting within blow-torching distance of the U.S. Constitution, I can now go back to lighter-hearted pursuits. Although I’m still trying to keep my eyes on the big picture.

I recently saw a demo of a personal planetarium. It was a kind of dome turned on its side (you look forward instead of up), 12 feet across from left to right, and it cost about $40,000. For that you get an inflatable dome, projector with special wide-angle lens, and a personal computer complete with Universe-hopping graphics software.

Not having $40,000 to spend, and not really sure where exactly I would put the dome if I did, I’ve been opting for an alternate one-person solution that comes in at considerably lower cost – Ken’s handy dandy homegrown personal planetarium.

First you find the biggest LCD computer monitor you can get your hands on. Fortunately we have one of those cool Dell monitors in our lab, the 30″ diagonal ones with a resolution of 2560×1600 pixels. It costs about $1300 these days, and it’s essentially the same as the largest Apple monitor. I suspect they’re actually made by the same people, only on one the casing is black so you’ll know you’re in league with the Evil Empire, and the other it’s white, like an iPhone on steroids.

In either case, the other component of the planetarium is something you can get for about $15 at your nearest drug store. Go to the section where they sell the reading classes. Usually there’s a giant rack of them, with all different perscriptions. Find the strongest one – I found one with a prescription of 3.25 diopters. Try to get glasses with the largest lenses you can find.

If you put one of those suckers on, you can focus perfectly at a distance of about five inches. Anything further away looks freakishly blurry, but something five inches away is crystal clear and gloriously magnified.

Now all you’ve got to do is look at your super-big monitor with your super-strong reading glasses, from about five inches away. Voila – your very own planetarium. The image on the screen fills your entire field of vision. It’s quite amazing.

Of course you need to either write or find some sort of appropriate software to undo the perspective distortion of the parts of the screen that are off to the sides. But that’s just software – these days you can probably get a high school student to write that for you.

Every once in a while it’s nice to be able to see the big picture.


Tuesday, November 4th, 2008

What can I say?

Oh yeah, I remember…



It’s important to say, nonetheless, that John McCain’s concession speech was quite lovely and gracious, and I think we should all applaud him. Tonight in his concession speech we saw the John McCain we knew eight years ago, the one who had seemed to have gotten lost in the heat and rancor of this campaign.

Black, by Popular Demand

Monday, November 3rd, 2008

Even though we are being inundated by it, I still cannot get used to this strange claim that Barack Obama is “black”. Objectively, of course, it’s a nonsensical statement. Ethnically he is fifty percent of what people commonly call “black” and fifty percent of what people commonly call “white”. To call him “black” contains no more intrinsic logic than to call him “white”.

I realize that there is a strange contradiction at work here. On the one hand, it is certainly a wonderful thing that the next U.S. President might be a person whose ethnicity includes a group that has historically been so abused in the U.S.. The statement “a black man is President” conveys a sense of hope to millions of people who always thought that they were automatically slated to receive a raw deal, by virtue of nothing but sheer unreasoning prejudice.

Yet the very idea that somebody who is of mixed parentage is called “black” also works in exactly the opposite way. It’s an echo of the same old trick that the U.S. has been using to harm defenseless people for a century and a half: The ugly notion of “tainted blood”.

There was a time in the U.S., not all that long ago, when somebody could be labeled an “octoroon”. This was a term indicating that one of your great grandparents was of African descent – in other words, that you were one eigth black.

If you had this small amount of African ancestry, then until 1954 (Brown v. Board of Education) you were legally considered black, in the sense that white people could exclude you from most respectable accommodations (hotels, train cars, etc), whether or not you could afford to pay for them.

Think about how extraordinary this is: Someone whose entire connection with African ancestry was a single relative who had died before they’d been born – someone who had this one relative whom they had never even met – was nonetheless considered to be of African descent, and therefore unfit to be treated with respect by society.

Seen in this context there is something insidious about reflexively saying that Barack Obama is “black”. It perpetuates the pernicious tendency of our society to label individuals according to whatever component of their ancestry has the lowest perceived status. As though being “white” is some sort of angelic club of purity, from which all outsiders must be excluded. As though the blood of non-whites is somehow tainted.

And what’s bizarre about this is that (as I have said here before) anti-black racism actually has nothing whatsoever to do with people of African ancestry. These sorts of racist ideas are entirely a sickness of “white” people, a deep and horribly disfiguring disease of the psyche, a festering sore upon the soul, a moral incapacity that can cripple and deform the hearts of otherwise decent people, rendering them incapable of feeling for others with the full empathy which one human is capable of feeling for another.

I suppose on one level we should all pity “white” people who feel the need to identify Barack Obama merely as “black”. By clinging to such an absurdly reductionist label, they are publicly declaring themselves to be crippled in an essential way.

I for one welcome an ethnically mixed president. Perhaps his presence in the White House will help these poor damaged racists to heal. Maybe an Obama presidency will help people who have felt a reflexive need to label anyone not like themselves in an insidiously pejorative way. Perhaps these self-shackled souls will finally be made free, and will at last become ready to take their rightful place as proud members of this glorious human race.

Meeting people on airplanes

Sunday, November 2nd, 2008

Today on a flight from New York to Toronto I got into a long conversation with a very pleasant young woman. She told me she was an actress and I said “I hope you’re not somebody famous and I should know who you are.” It turns out that she is indeed famous, one of the leads in one of the highest rated shows on TV. Not having a TV I kind of miss these things sometimes. But in a way it was nice. I could relate to her as the person, not the famous role, since I’d never seen her on TV.

And it turned out that she was very interested in the work we’re doing at the University using computer games to help get kids – especially girls – more interested in learning math and science. Since the character she plays on TV is one that girls look up to, I said she might be a good public spokeperson for that, and the idea intrigued her. We exchanged info and we’ll see what happens.

You never know who you’re going to run into on any random day.

Motion Capture

Saturday, November 1st, 2008

Today at the 2008 Machinima Filmfest I did a public demo in which I used a sensor device we invented in our lab to capture the motion of my hands, in order to make two animated characters walk around on a screen. It was a simple thing, this digital puppetry, but very important to me – bringing together two different areas that I’ve worked on, both of which I really care about.

The sensor measured the pressure from my hands and fingers. By varying position and pressure of my fingers, I could make each hand convey goals (walking, leaning, squatting, …) to one of the characters. The characters were “smart” enough to understand how to turn those pressure signals into human-like movements.

We had a panel discussion afterward, and somebody asked whether the goal for Machinima (a genre that records the actions of characters in a computer game and uses the results to make movies) was greater and greater realism.

I answered that people are not trying to make the actors in movies look realistic. The realism comes about only because the filmmakers happen to be using the materials at hand – actual people. The goal for a medium should not be to slavishly imitate another medium – that would miss the point. A book glories in the infinite possibilities afforded by printed words on paper, the theatre by the immediacy of seeing a live human before you, cinema by using moving images of real people to create a dream reality.

Machinima should be finding its own true nature, not trying to imitate conventional cinema. From what I’ve seen at the festival this year, I think it is well on its way.