Riding dragons

Two films came out recently that prominently feature people (or something more or less like people) riding dragons (or something more or less like dragons). One was Avatar and the other was How to Train your Dragon. I saw both of these films in movie theatres, in all their stunning large screen stereoscopic 3D glory.

Of the two, Avatar is the one that has gotten the most hype, has broken box office records, and is being touted as the tour de force that has raised the bar on special effects in Hollywood films. And yet, thinking back on my experience of these two films, I am struck by how much more vivid and delighted is my memory of the cartoon boy riding the cartoon dragon than the far more realistically rendered blue Na’vi riding the dragon-like Pandoran banshee.

It’s not that the flying sequences in Avatar are anything less than thrilling, exhilarating or heart poundingly exciting. They are indeed all that and more. It’s more that they are, from a psychological perspective, mere illustrative detail, meant to establish and ground the abstract concept of Na’vi as the ultimate native culture in harmony with nature. From a story-telling perspective, the flying of dragons is a philosophical and political point made flesh — albeit very blue flesh.

In contrast, for the boy in How to Train your Dragon the act of flying the dragon is an expression of love. The entire narrative of the film is based on a kind of star-crossed love story between the boy and the dragon. I don’t mean “love” in the narrow sense of a sexual romance, but in the sense of the love that grows between two kindred souls whose connection with each other seems destined, like the love between Huck and Jim, Butch and Sundance, Hope and Crosby, Kirk and Spock, Laurel and Hardy, Woody and Buzz, Rocky and Bullwinkle.

You know from the outset that these are two souls who together create something far greater than would either one without the other, and the reason you watch is to see them realize this for themselves as the narrative unfolds.

When we see Jake Sully ride the banshee, we are just seeing one aspect of a character finding himself — or perhaps one of many aspects of Jake’s growing romantic bond with his female counterpart Neytiri.

But when we experience Hiccup ride Toothless, we are experiencing the very embodiment of the emotional arc of the story of How to Train your Dragon.

I’ll take that experience any time.

Attic, part 53

Josh was getting tired of waiting. “You sure Jenny’s ok in there?”

“There is nothing to worry about,” Mr. Symarian said. “He will not harm her.”

“He’d better not!” Josh said, his hands balled into fists.

“You misunderstand me,” the teacher said. “They may converse, but no more. This house and all within are mere illusions. The two of them are speaking to each other across a vast divide. He has no power over her here. Jenny may as well fear the shadow that falls upon the floor.”

“Are we all shadows then?” Charlie asked, a note of doubt in his voice.

“Do not worry. You are quite real. It is only this tower that is a thing of illusion.”

“Mr. Symarian, how come you know all these things?” said Josh.

“Kid,” Sid said, with a flutter of his wings, “You don’t know the half of it.”

When walls have eyes

There will be a time, somewhere in the future, when people will all get eye implants at birth that turn the entire world into the Holodeck. Out of their cyber-enhanced eyes, people will be able to see whatever their minds need or want to see at that moment. But that probably won’t start to happen for at least a half a century.

Meanwhile, clever people will come up with intermediate ways of approximating the visual effect of the Holodeck. I was talking with a friend the other day and we realized that we both had the same idea of how this would be done.

The problem is that it’s insanely expensive to make walls that create the illusion, from every possible viewing angle, of a convincing 3D scene. To compute the complexity of this task, the number of pixels on the wall would have to be multiplied by the number of viewing angles — and the result would be a really really big number. By the time we can afford something like that, we’ll already be wearing those eye implants.

No, my friend and I agreed that rather than try to synthesize every possible viewpoint of an imaginary scene, the walls will have little imbedded cameras that watch us, and always know where our eyes are.

When I look at such a wall, it will know — through a combination of a high resolution camera and advanced image processing — the precise location of my left eye and of my right eye. The wall will show a synthetic image only visible from the direction of my left eye, and another such image only visible from the (slightly different) direction of my right eye.

To me the effect will be the same as though I were wearing high quality movement-tracked virtual reality goggles — only without the goggles.

If another person comes along, the wall will also sense the positions of their eyes, and will show two more synthetic images, one for that person’s left eye, the other for his/her right eye.

This will continue as more people enter the room. If there are ten people in the room, the wall will be simultaneously showing twenty different views into an imaginary scene — each visible only from the direction of a single eye.

To anyone in the room, the result will appear as a vivid, coherent, shared 3D view into an imaginary world. Each of these views will exactly as it should from that person’s position in the room. After a while, this will all come to seem prosaic. People won’t question the virtual reality all about them anymore than they now question, say, the image on their TV screen.

And then, a few decades later, everyone will get those post-natal eye implants, and none of this will be necessary.

Attic, part 52

The specter pondered this for a long while. “Time flows well here, where you live. But that is not so everywhere.”

Jenny was starting to see the immensity of the gulf between them. She racked her brains trying to think of a way to bridge the gap. “Don’t you have time where you come from? Hasn’t anything ever happened to you that you wish you could undo?”

The specter seemed to think for a moment. “It is different,” he said. “the past and future flow together here, like a river, washing away all in its path. For us, time is a landscape, a place where memories are real — not merely illusions, as they are here.”

“‘Us’?” Jenny asked quietly. “Who is ‘us’?’

Worlds of tomorrow

A 2007 study by Stacey Wood and colleagues at Scripps College showed that people tend to get sunnier and more optimistic in their outlook as they get older (Kisley, M. Wood, S. & Burrows, C. *(2007) Looking at the sunny side of life: The negativity bias is eliminated in older adults. Psychological Science, 18 (9) 838-843).

As I have been wandering around the ACM/SIGGRAPH computer graphics conference here in downtown L.A. this week, I am starting to see a connection. People here range from young researchers in their early twenties, just starting out, to old timers who have been in the field since the 1970s or even longer.

To many young folks it is clear that the future has arrived. We have iPhones, iPads, realtime 3D graphics in home computers, and cutting edge films like Avatar. Much of the graphics technology that was mere fantasy a few decades ago is now widely available at consumer prices. Faced with so much well packaged magic, it might be hard for a young person today, just starting out in the field, to conceive of a future that will make our current level of technology look quaint.

But the old timers have already been there. They’ve seen vast sweeping changes over the several decades of their career. They’ve seen — first hand — an approximately million-fold increase in computer power in the last forty years, and they see no reason why there should not be another million-fold increase in the next forty.

They’ve gone from bulky punched paper tape holding no more than a few kilobytes to 256 gigabyte flash drives you can hold in the palm of your hand. They’ve seen the rise of the internet and the Web. They’ve seen low resolution CRT displays gradually evolve to four megapixel LCD screens. They’ve seen digital projectors and high resolution color printers go from rare treasures to every day consumer items.

The list of wonders goes on. And on.

Anyone who has been in the field of computer graphics for several decades knows that the graphics in Avatar will, in time, come to appear hopelessly primitive, and that the iPhone will all too soon seem as quaint as an old fashioned calculator, a relic of a bygone age.

Experience is a hill that you climb, year by year. The higher you have climbed, the farther you can see into the future, and the easier it becomes to glimpse the far off worlds of tomorrow.

And once you can see those worlds well enough to know they are out there, you can build them.

Attic, part 51

Mr. Symarian spoke softly to Jenny. “None of us can speak to him but you. This part of the journey must be yours alone.”

Jenny felt more than a little intimidated, but she knew she must face the spectral creature. “Who are you?” she asked, not really sure whether she wanted to know the response.

“That is a very difficult question to answer. I am not sure the concepts would make sense to you. But know that I am not from your time, not from time itself. It is quite difficult for me to cross this bridge, to … speak with you.”

Jenny forged ahead. “What do you want with my grandmother?”

“I am drawn to her beauty, for beauty — not just outer beauty, but the inner light itself — is a thing outside of time. I was drawn to this light within Amelia. I do not know, even now, whether she was aware of it herself. But I was drawn to it as a moth is drawn to a flame. And in my way, I have tried to preserve this light.”

“By keeping her asleep?”

“By keeping her out of time. For time is the destroyer.”

“Time,” Jenny said, “is where we live.”


Yesterday I went sailing on a friend’s boat. And realized once again what a unique experience is sailing.

Being in a small sailboat is an experience quite unlike being in a car or a bus or a train, for you must always be consciously engaged. You don’t just ride in a boat. There is continual work to be done, winches to be wound and released, adjustments to be made to the rigging to get the sail catching the breeze just right. The entire experience reminds you that you are at the mercy of the wind — the source of both all your power and all your troubles.

This very awareness of being a mere visitor upon the sea, of the need to pay conscious attention, to stay attuned to the natural world around you, pulls you in emotionally and invests you in the moment, makes you feel more alive, and wins your love.

Attic, part 50

It took only a few moments for Sid, with sure movements of his long taloned fingers, to pick the lock. And then the door sprung open.

The other travelers walked hesitantly to the door. Inside, the room was bathed in an eerie green light. There was a bed in the middle of the room, over which the light was brightest.

“C’mon,” Josh whispered. “We’re supposed to go over to the bed.” He held out his hand to Jenny.

Jenny had her doubts, but if Josh said it was the right thing to do, then she was sure it would be ok. She took his hand, and followed him over to the bed.

Lying there, apparently asleep, was her grandmother Amelia. She knew it had to be her grandmother, because she had seen pictures, but the strange thing was that woman lying on the bed was young — impossibly young.

“It’s my grandmother,” Jenny said, “but she she’s supposed to be a lot older than this.”

“But of course she cannot be older than this,” came a voice from behind them.

Jenny whirled around, and found herself staring at a spectral figure. She wasn’t sure what she was looking at. It was like he was there and not there at the same time. Indistinctly, she could make out a sad face over a shimmering body. She realized the face was talking.

“I have known that this day would come, and that you would try to take away my precious Amelia.”

Smith grade coffee

The friend at whose house I am staying out in the woods has no coffee grinder. But he does have an anvil out back. So rather than going all the way into town I decided to get a bit creative.

This morning I put fresh whole coffee into a tall glass, put a clean white sock over the glass, and turned the glass upside down, so all the coffee beans ended up in the toe of the sock. Below is what it looked like just before I dumped the coffee beans from the glass to the sock:

Then I went out back with my coffee bean laden footwear, and forged myself some coffee grounds:

Then I put the sock back over the glass and shook out the freshly ground coffee:

Which I then brewed in my friend’s coffee pot, resulting in a mug of fresh hot yummy coffee:

It tasted delicious. And as you can see, there are even enough grounds left for tomorrow morning’s cup of coffee.


Attic, part 49

“Sid,” Charlie said, “are you sure you want Jenny to carry you over to the door?”

Sid looked puzzled. “How the hell else am I supposed to get there?”

“Think about it,” said Charlie. “As soon as we passed through the tower walls, I got my powers back.”

Sid just stared at him a moment, and then turned to look at Mr. Symarian. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“You never asked,” Mr. Symarian said. “And I thought it best to not to encourage you. You may recall what happened the last time…”

“Sheesh, you gotta be kiddin’ me.” the little demon said, rolling his eyes. “All this time…” He spread his wings and gave them an experimental little flap. And rose several inches into the air. Then several more.

“That’s wonderful!” Jenny said, and clapped her hands. Sid was now flying around the room with a big grin on his face, happily trying out his now functional wings. He was still beaming like the cat that ate the canary when he flew straight into a wall and dropped like a rock.

“Ouch, that must hurt,” said Josh.

“Only my pride,” the little demon said, brushing himself off. “Us demons, we’re a hardy bunch. Now, lemme at that lock.” And with a cheerful wink at Jenny, he lifted straight into the air and flew toward the locked door.