Archive for October, 2011

Superpowers for grownups

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

Today in the U.S., because NYU had no classes either Monday or Tuesday, in honor of Columbus Day, I effectively had a four day weekend. For us, the official “work week” doesn’t really kick in this week until Wednesday.

My students and I have been working intensely on a project, so we were all around this past weekend, getting things done. As noted in my previous post, yesterday was my magic “clean the office” day. Which left today — an entire extra extra day, giving me time to get more things done before everything starts up again tomorrow.

The feeling has been wonderful — a sense of extreme temporal luxury, as though some metaphysical intervention had granted me an extra day.

It occurs to me that a kind of superpower, quite different from the kinds of superpowers in all the Marvel and D.C. comics, would just be the ability to summon an extra day, between today and tomorrow.

I realized this doesn’t sound as flashy as super strength, incredible speed, effortless flight, invisibility, telekinesis, conjuring fire or ice, or any of those other amazing abilities that excite the imagination of your inner twelve year old.

Yet the more you experience of life, the more you realize that there is one fundamental element in the Universe more powerful and terrifying than all the rest — the element of time. So when you think about it, conjuring up that extra day would be a kind of superpower for grownups.

Come to think of it, can anyone think of any other good superpowers for grownups?

All clean and shiny

Monday, October 10th, 2011

Sometimes an office can get out of control. One day you innocently put down a piece of paper on the nearest surface, then another piece of paper, and before you know it you’ve run out of surfaces. Soon the piles of paper have begun migrating to the floor. Eventually your little corner of the world has turned into something that would send H. P. Lovecraft fleeing to the world of the Elder Gods.

My office had gotten to the point where nobody, including me, wanted to walk through the door. There might as well have been a sign at the entrance proclaiming “Here be Dragons”. Even the piles of paper were covered in piles of paper.

So today I enlisted the help of two hearty and intrepid (and clearly very loyal) friends. Together we battled the beast to the ground, fighting a long and mighty war against endless legions of old reports, expired receipts, announcements for events from 2003, and an alarming variety of random bric-a-brac. Bravely did we enter the fray, we few, we happy few, tossing aside fearsome mountains of paper like so much — well — paper.

Now I sit in an office all clean and shiny. My desk is clear, and so, I dare say, is my mind. My uncluttered soul, no longer ensnarled by an endless labyrinth of insidious mess, feels clean and alive, soaring on wings of a new found freedom. I face the future, proudly and unafraid.

But first, I’m just going to put down this one piece of paper…


Sunday, October 9th, 2011

This evening I saw a violin performance by my friend Mari Kimura, which she had set to my butterfly animation from last December. The combined violin+animation performance is called “Voyage Apollonian” (a name Mari and I had decided on together).

I had seen Mari perform this piece before, soon after she had composed the music. Yet somehow this time — hearing and seeing this again after most of a year had elapsed — it seemed like a far deeper experience. I’m not sure whether this is more because Mari has had months to work through the piece, or because my own distance from the animation now allows me to more clearly experience the combined performance.

In any case, it’s fun to see one’s own work with fresh eyes.

And of course, it doesn’t hurt to have great collaborators. 🙂

All that jazz

Saturday, October 8th, 2011

In an earlier post on Computer programming as performance, I raised the possibility of writing computer software as an act of performance in front of a live audience. More recently, in discussions with colleagues, I’ve come to realize that this is just one example of a much more general idea.

First, consider the distinction between “composition” and “performance”. Composition is generally done in solitude, without the constraints of immediate results. A play, a symphony, a novel, a 3D CG model, these are generally created “at leisure”. In contrast, a performance often takes place in front of a live audience. Acting on stage, playing a musical instrument or manipulating a puppet fall into this category. “Rehearsal” provides a bridge between these two modes, by providing a way for the performer to study and develop best ways to translate composition into performance.

All compositions are built from some sort of system of grammatical rules that are mutually understood between author and audience. Those rules may be musical, linguistic, cultural or other. Things get more interesting when such constructions happen not at composition time, but at performance time.

A few kinds of performance, such as jazz improvisation and improv comedy, involve creating novel grammatical constructions. In such cases, the performers are generally well practiced experts, and the grammatical variations are constrained and very well understood (eg: in jazz, “12 bar blues”, or in Improv comedy, “A man walks into a psychiatrist’s office with a chicken on his head”).

It would be interesting, in the context of any type of performance, to consider how to support new grammatical constructions during the course of a performance for a live audience. For example, are there meta-rules for such constructive performances? Do jazz and improv comedy have some underlying structural similarities with each other, simply because both allow the performer, during a live performance, to improvize new work?


Friday, October 7th, 2011

A number of years ago I was attending an international conference. At a small dinner one evening, all four of us happened to be men. One of our colleagues threw out the following hypothetical question:

“If you were on a sinking ship with your mother, your wife and your daughter, and you could save only one, which of them would you choose?”

One colleague — my recollection is that he was from India — said that he would save his mother. When someone asked why, he told us that in the region where he came from, one’s mother is sacred, and should be kept from harm at all cost.

Another colleague — I can’t remember where he was from, but I seem to recall it was somewhere in northern Europe — appeared to treat the question as a kind of intellectual puzzle. He said he would save his wife. “If my wife survives,” he reasoned, “We could always have more children — perhaps several.”

From my cultural perspective — a New Yorker from a Jewish family — the answer was obvious. “My daughter, of course,” I said without hesitation.

When asked why, I explained: “If I did anything else, my wife and my mother would kill me.”

Gracious tribute

Thursday, October 6th, 2011

I particularly like Google’s tribute to Steve Jobs, because it is so elegant and precisely in-line with their core mission.

Rather than try to convey his importance in mere words or even images, they simply give over their home page for a day to honoring him. Not in any sort of splashy way, but in that unobtrusive and cleanly designed way they have of doing things that was clearly influenced by Mr. Jobs himself.

The tribute is simply the following statement, with an embedded link:

Steve Jobs, 1955 – 2011

The link itself, I hasten to add, goes not to a tribute page, but rather to the homepage of their arch-rival, a company with whom they are often in direct economic competition for consumer eyeballs — Apple, Inc.

This is what Google does best when it is at its best: Quietly, and in an understated way, send you off to the place on the internet where, in that moment, you want to go.

Steve Jobs

Wednesday, October 5th, 2011

By now many of you have heard that Steve Jobs has passed away. When I heard this, I felt incredibly sad. If there was one individual who could justifiably be referred to as a towering genius of our time, it was he.

What amazed me about him wasn’t so much his influence on technology (which of course was transformative and profound) but his influence on design. I remember thinking, in 1998, right after Monsters Inc came out just as Apple was launching the first iMac, that here were two design interventions that were simultaneously dominating our cultural landscape: A completely new way of thinking about the look of animation (together with the equally visually daring Toy Story), and a completely new way of thinking about the look of computers.

Visually, they were both sending the same message: Sophisticated and elegant, yet also joyful and childlike. These designs charmed children while, at the same time, inviting adults to indulge their own inner child, to enter a world of highly self-aware playfulness.

And of course both companies, Pixar and Apple, had something else in common — their CEO, Steve Jobs.

In no time this playful-yet-sophisticated, endearingly retro-futuristic aesthetic seemed to be everywhere. Volkswagen launched their reimagined Beetle — a car that might as well have jumped out of a Pixar film. Even the U.S. Mint got on the bandwagon. Our newly revamped paper money, with its large sans-serif numerals within simple ovals, seemed like something that Apple could have designed.

And of course about a year later, the famous Google logo appeared, continuing this theme of “playful, yet grown-up and elegant” as a new visual identity for the internet. After almost two decades of darkness, the public’s idea of “What the future looks like” had finally been wrested from the dystopian vision of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and replaced by something far more hopeful and filled with joy.

In a sense, what Steve Jobs had wrought was a bridge from the baby boomers to the generations that followed — a way to allow older consumers of culture to tap into their nostalgic childhood memories of The Jetsons, or even Playskool, while inviting newer generations to join in the fun.

There are many critical things that one could say about Steve Jobs. Yet he has undeniably brought us a world of visual pleasure. Apple’s iMac, iPhone, iPad and other innovative designs have not only changed the way we think about information — they have helped remind us that “the future” can be a place of optimism and delight.

Animatronic prototyping board

Tuesday, October 4th, 2011

Following on from some thoughts of yesterday, what would it look like to have a “platform” that would make it easier for people to use their computer and their 3D printer together to create prototypes for new kinds of useful devices?

A microcomputer (like the one in even an inexpensive cell phone of today) is very good at computing, but it’s not very good at making things happen in the physical world. For that you need components like motors and solenoids.

But there’s a problem. While a modern microcomputer contains many millions of electronic switches, the cost of motors and solenoids is not going down. So any mechanism that needs to use lots of motors and solenoids for physical actuation is going to hit a serious wall of cost.

I’m thinking that we will need to create a general prototyping architecture which will allow lots of different parts to be activated using only a small number of motors and solenoids, by using the same motors/solenoids to actuate different things. For example, imagine an animatronic prototyping board (APB) that looks like a phonograph turntable, carrying a solenoid which travels around in a circle. As the moving solenoid comes into contact with different parts, it pushes each part up or down (all under control of a microcomputer).

Since our future home 3D printer will be able to print any already-assembled arrangement of gears and mechanical relays, the right 3D printed mechanism should be translate the simple up/down movements made by this APB into pretty much any robotic action we need.

This is also the layered way that computer software is built — a general purpose compiler at the lower layers, and then more special-purpose application software built on top of that.

I’m not sure that an animatronic prototyping board will really look like a turntable carrying a solenoid. But I’m pretty confident, just as we now take general purpose microcomputers for granted, that future made-and-designed-at-home robotic devices will be built using some kind of APB.

3D printers and the Protestant Reformation

Monday, October 3rd, 2011

I really liked the answers to yesterday’s question about what people would do if they had a 3D printer. But I think there may be an entirely different aspect to all this. Consider the analogy of the telephone.

For most if its history, the phone was just a device for calling people. For the last two decades or so, the inside of a phone was of course much more than this. It was in fact a computer. But we were not allowed access to that computer, other for one very narrow use.

Then, mostly in the last several years, the phone opened up. Not only has it now been revealed to be a complete mobile computer, but it has become a platform to write software for all sorts of purposes, and that software is written by all sorts of people. Most of those software writers do not work for the phone company, or for any particular corporation.

This is the arc followed by many information technologies: The transition from authorship by a small official priesthood to authorship by the general populace. When this happened to pop music a little over half a century ago, it was quite a big deal. It was called Rock and Roll.

When it happened with books in the early sixteenth century, it was an even bigger deal. It was called the Protestant Reformation.

When everyone has a 3D printer, I do not think they will just be printing little sculptures. I think they will also be printing apps. Eventually there will be easy to use software development platforms, allowing people to print out complete working mechanisms — at first toys and games, but then more serious apps, little robots that do things for us in custom ways and in custom situations. They will clean our car or our refrigerator, iron our clothes, open our curtains in the morning, neaten up our desk, polish our shoes, water our flowers, as well as many other things we’re not even thinking about yet.

It will be part of a general movement — a movement which started with the mobile phone — to move computation into the real world, the world in which we live.

As long as combinations of computer smarts and robotic mechanisms are expensive to produce and to market, they will exist in an invention economy of scarcity — much as the telephone did until recently.

But when future versions of 3D printers, together with easy-to-use authoring kits, make such invention accessible to millions, then we will arrive at a far more exciting situation — one we already recognize when talking about books and pop songs and SmartPhone apps — an economy of abundance.

Uses for a 3D printer

Sunday, October 2nd, 2011

Recently I’ve been getting a lot of use out of the little 3D printer I have at home, and have come to realize I use it just about exclusively for inventing things. Mostly little parts that are used to make other things. For example, the last few days I’ve been printing out fixtures for optical experiments, to hold things like mirrors and lenses in place.

I am quite happy with this 3D printer, and am finding it to be an invaluable part of my process of trying out different ideas. In its way it can be as useful as a whiteboard.

But I realize that this pattern of use doesn’t translate to anything that would likely be relevant to millions of people — any more than millions of people are going to find it useful to spend lots of time scribbling math on whiteboards or writing graphics programs in Java.

Which means my own use is not providing any insights into the following interesting question — and it would be great to hear someone else’s opinion on this: If everyone had a 3D printer at home, what would they use it for?