Archive for August, 2011

Temporary technologies

Thursday, August 11th, 2011

Our culture’s usual view of technology is of a continually upward spiral of capability. Over time cars go faster, planes fly higher, and computers become ever more powerful. But a curious epiphenomenon of all this change is the creation of “temporary technologies: — innovations that end up getting left behind.

When the CD came out, people started to see the LP record as an outdated technology. The LP, of course, had in an earlier era replaced the cylindrical recording. But now we realize that it was the very concept of a musical recording as a physical object that was the temporary technology. In another few years, children will find it incomprehensible that we ever associated musical recording with a physical artifact.

Radio as a medium for narrative fiction was in its time the embodiment of all that was new and modern. But when television came along, radio become the exemplar of everything that was old and quaint.

I’m sure this exact phenomenon has repeated itself throughout all of recorded history. Just as it happened to image morphing and tape recorders, to kinescopes and mimeograph machines, It’s going go happen to the SmartPhone, to Twitter, and to Facebook. I think it has already happened to flash mobs. History is littered with the detritus of abandoned technologies.

In a way this is sad, but it’s also somewhat poetic and redemptive. Technology is, after all the creation of humans. And like humans, it has only a very circumscribed claim on immortality — the creation of progeny (of one sort or another). Thomas Edison may be dead, and his cylindrical recording apparatus long fallen out of favor, but in the centuries to come we will probably still have recorded music, in one form or another.

Virtual reality, old-style

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

Around four thousand years ago humans started working out how to express their verbal thoughts in written language. As far as I know, there is not, as yet, any good way to know the details of how this transition played out. Parts of it were quite gradual — as in the slow transformation of markings that started as notations on traded goods up and down the Yangtze River by merchants and traders with no verbal language in common.

But other parts of it might have been quite abrupt, occurring over just a few generations, or perhaps springing from the mind and hand of a single exceptional individual. When those abrupt transitions happened, some people must have suddenly realized the ability of the written word to fold time and space itself. For the first time an individual could send their thoughts across vast distances, could learn from the words of one already dead, or conversely, could speak to generations yet unborn.

I wonder whether there was a sense of dislocation, like that experienced by the first generation to encounter the telephone, or to see reality move upon a flickering movie screen, or to hold a long distance phone conversation from a mountaintop.

It’s a shame we can’t see what it felt like to witness the beginning of the written word — the greatest leap into virtual reality in all of human history.


Tuesday, August 9th, 2011

The wonderful talks at this morning’s papers session got my mind racing in so many directions at once that it was becoming difficult to concentrate. This is the two-edged sword of an experience like SIGGRAPH. By the time the afternoon comes my head is so filled with things to think about, it’s hard to focus on the talk that is right in front of me. It’s like being served a fabulous banquet many times a day. After each meal you wish you had time just to savor — and to digest.

By the last afternoon session I had completely given up trying to focus. Instead, I was sitting with my laptop writing a computer program to work out some new ideas suggested by the morning’s talks. I can’t quite figure out whether, strictly speaking, that is the best use of time, but it sure is a fun way to spend a day!


Monday, August 8th, 2011

Today I am happily ensconced attending technical talks on the first day of the annual SIGGRAPH computer graphics conference in Vancouver, along with several thousand other like-minded people. There is nothing else quite like this event — the sheer number of great ideas, the combination of advanced mathematical and computational techniques in service of passionate artistic goals. I love the vast diversity to be found here. Some of the presented work aims for perfect realism, while other work creates artistic tools for far more impressionistic results.

What it all has in common is a perfect confluence of aesthetic expressiveness as a goal and top-notch mathematical engineering as a means. Talks are filled with technical terms like Principal Component Analysis, Single Value Decomposition and Hidden Markov Models, while the images one sees are of rays of light streaming through clouds, ocean waves at sunset, gracefully dancing figures, mysterious forests filled with dappled trees, and digital artworks that look like the marble sculptures, evocative pencil sketches, soft watercolors and sombre oil paintings of old masters.

It’s a bit of an arcane world — this use of shared mathematical language and computational expertise to describe the creation of things of aesthetic beauty — and it is a wonderful world, filled with passionate true believers.

Best of all, this year it is in the beautiful city of Vancouver, where the mountains meet the ocean, and the world itself seems made to inspire art.


Sunday, August 7th, 2011

Transitions between two ways of thinking can be complicated. For example, there are things you need to do when trying to introduce people to reasoning in four dimensions that would be unnecessary if you were talking to people who were already comfortable with four dimensional reasoning.

In that sense, the discussion about “how to enable people to think in four dimensions” reminds me of other discussions I’ve had recently about transitions. For example, this question about the (possible) transition to a world in which cars drive themselves.

The general reasoning here, which seems plausible to me, is that as computers become ever more powerful, computer driven cars will eventually become so much safer than human driven cars that the huge death toll caused by driver accidents will come to seem socially unacceptable, and eventually illegal — kind of like what has been happening with smoking in the workplace.

But the transition between a world with only human drivers and a world with only robot drivers is rather complicated. During this transition, robot drivers will need to correctly model and react to what those crazy human drivers are doing. And this can be far more difficult to compute than simply making rational decisions in a world that has only rationally acting robot cars.

Analogously, I suspect that even if we do manage to figure out how to transition people to reasoning in four dimensions, a lot of that effort will consist of relating everything back to the three dimensional reasoning people already understand (even if that isn’t the best way to think in four dimensions). I don’t really see any way out of this — we’re probably just going to have to do this the hard way.


Saturday, August 6th, 2011

I realized after posting the 4D Pong game yesterday, and watching peoples’ reactions, that the tricky concept is hypervolume — the equivalent of volume, but in one higher dimension.

The problem is that we have no direct experience of navigating in that very rich space. It’s deceptively simple — go up/down, left/right, in/out, and also one other dimension, but that extra dimension is one for which we simply have no intuition, since we don’t live there.

Something as simple as playing Pong — moving a box around in a hypercube and bouncing off its hyper-walls (ie: cubes, which serve the same function as the square walls on a 3D cube) — is already stretching beyond what makes sense to most people on any intuitive level, even if they get what’s going on intellectually.

I’m starting now to think about what might be good scaffolding experiences, even simpler than something like Pong, by which one could gradually “level up” to having the intuition required to navigate with ease through a hypervolume.

4D Pong, continued

Friday, August 5th, 2011

Well ok, here’s what I have so far. It’s clearly a work in progress, and it’s already really clear that trying to play Pong in four dimensions is hard.

Try it for yourself, by clicking on the image below:

4D Pong

Thursday, August 4th, 2011

The classic computer game Pong has two distinctive dimensions: The dimension across the rectangular board, in which you move your paddle from side to side, and the dimension along the board, where the puck travels back and forth between you and your opponent.

It’s easy to generalize Pong to make it a 3D game. The rectangular board becomes a 3D box, and you let each player move their paddle not only side to side, but also up and down.

So far so good.

I thought it might be interesting to create 4D Pong. In this version each player can move their paddle within a three dimensional space, while the puck bounces back and forth into a fourth hyper-dimension.

This afternoon I implemented 4D Pong, which turned out to be not so difficult. What did turn out to be difficult was understanding what I was seeing after I was done. Even though I knew exactly what I had created, I still had trouble following the puck as it bounced off the walls of the hyper-cubic playing field.

Now I am wondering whether this was some sort of failure of visual design on my part, or whether it is just too visually difficult to follow the movement of a careening 4D puck as it bounces around inside a hypercube, careening off the board’s eight hyper-faces. If I manage to create a version where the puck’s movement makes a modicum of visual sense, I’ll post it tomorrow.

One year later

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

About a year ago, in the summer of 2010, while visiting Microsoft, and knowing that they had been worried about the rise of Google, I asked people at Microsoft why they didn’t just make their Bing database available to the general public. Giving people direct access to the underlying database is something that Google literally cannot do, since hoarding that reverse index of the entire Web is Google’s treasure — the one thing to which they cannot give away access.

But Microsoft is primarily a tools company. If they said “hey world, here’s our inverse index, use it to your heart’s content, using our software tools written in C# and managed code,” then lots of really smart people would use those tools and that database to write their own search algorithms. It would be a game changer, and Microsoft’s software would be at the very center of the new game.

The highest ranking Microsoft Vice President I spoke to about this told me “That’s a very interesting idea, but it’s above my pay grade.”

And so I dropped it. Maybe, I figured, something like that would be above everybody’s pay grade. Besides, this year I’ve gotten to know some very cool people at Google, so my personal loyalties have become more diverse.

When I recently visited Microsoft, one year later, I didn’t even bother to mention it.

The stables are full of bones

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2011

On the recommendation of a friend, I started reading George R.R. Martin’s “A Game of Thrones”. I’m not sure I like it — in essence it’s “The Office” with broadswords — but there are moments where the deliberately archaic writing achieves a lovely poetry.

I especially like a line I just stumbled upon: “The ravens are gone from the rookery, and the stables are full of bones.” This sentence has an elegant air of wistfulness. It sounds like the reminiscence of a old knight who has known happier times. In fact it is spoken by a young boy, while recounting a dream.

One of the fun things about the fantasy genre is the permission it gives an author to blur the line between the actual and the poetically imagined. In a world where dragons are real, and a well timed magic spell might change the course of political history, there is no clear bright line between the dreams that trouble a character’s sleep and the waking world where he or she lives.

Unfortunately, this very freedom seems to create its own restrictions, by encouraging a set of genre conventions that are in some ways more rigid than the strictures of kitchen sink realism. Apparently when magic rules the world, then such considerations as class distinction — particularly the accident of one’s parentage — become as unyielding as fundamental laws of physics.

I wonder whether there is some sort of conservation law at work here. The more freedom of movement is allowed between dream and reality in a fictional world, the more rigid and unyielding is its social order. The castles in these worlds are lovely indeed, but the stables are full of bones.