Archive for August, 2012


Saturday, August 11th, 2012

Yesterday Andras and I were talking about various and sundry pop cultural subjects, and the topic came around to cool slacker characters. I said “You know, like Rispoli.”

Andras said “you mean Jeff Spicoli.”

“Exactly!” said I. Mr. Hand’s nemesis in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”, played so perfectly by a young Sean Penn, is such an iconic cultural touchstone that to invoke his image you don’t even need to get his name right.

Marveling at how quickly “Rispoli” had been understood to mean “Spicoli”, we went on to posit the creation of a story or play or movie in which every single cultural reference would be similarly fractured, but in such a way that the audience would always know exactly who or what was being invoked. Needless to say, to create such a work it would be useful to amass a file of great examples.

Today I was describing an idea for a gestural computer interface, and Andras said “You mean like in ‘Blah blah blah Authority’.”

“You mean,” I said, “‘Minority Report’.”

“Exactly!” said Andras, and then we just looked at each other, pleased that we had snagged another example for our files.

In shape

Friday, August 10th, 2012

It’s amazing how the English language overloads words to create secondary meanings.

For example, if you are in a circle then you are hanging out with people you feel close to. Yet if you are in a box then you are being fenced in against your will.

If you find yourself in a square, then you are in a public place, but if you perform in the round then you are surrounded by your public.

Being in an area means merely that you are expert at something, whereas being in the zone means you are using that expertise optimally — firing on all cylinders, as it were.

If you are in a line then you are probably waiting for something, but if you are in a triangle, then you are in love with two people at the same time. Which probably means you are not the kind of person who likes to wait. :-)

Predictive technological obsolescence

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

Yesterday I talked about the passing of the once ubiquitous (and in fact iconic) SIGGRAPH message board. This phenomenon of once essential technologies passing into obsolescence has a history as long as we care to go back in human culture. History is littered with discarded or highly marginalized technologies such as the steam engine (both Watt and Newcomen), scrolled parchment, pneumatic tube message delivery, punched card reader, and many many others.

In most cases, the discarded technology was replaced by some specific new technology or combination of technologies: steam engine → internal combustion engine ; scroll → codex ; punched cards → magnetic disk storage + terminal.

Sometimes a technology comes back for one reason or another. For example, even as the music CD is being replaced by its purely software equivalent, the old-fashioned LP is making a surprising comeback, an example of a retro technology being embraced by hip young people.

For any currently ubiquitous technology, such as the automobile, SmartPhone, LCD display, or digital projector, or even an emerging technology, such as the 3D printer, it would be interesting to try to predict what future technology might displace it.

Of course such predictions are often wrong. A lot of people I know are still waiting for their flying car.

The way of the message board

Wednesday, August 8th, 2012

Once upon a time here at the annual ACM/SIGGRAPH conference there was a message board. It was a big cork board that had the letters of the alphabet printed along the top. People would write notes on paper and stick them up with push-pins. You would find messages by looking under the first letter of your last name.

At some point, once everyone had a mobile phone, the message board was retired. Sometimes I hear people say “Remember when people actually wrote messages on paper to find each other at SIGGRAPH?”

Yet I still remember, a few years back, trying in vain to connect with a colleague whose European mobile did not work in the U.S. She had no easy way to reach me, and we spent most of the conference not managing to connect. I remember thinking at the time that the old fashioned message board would have connected us very quickly. As it happened, we finally ran into each other at random on the street, on the very last day of the conference.

This year a research group was showing off a “proxy robot”. You put on V.R. goggles and gloves, and the robot moves around in a remote location, mimicking your movements. Meanwhile it sees, hears and feels whatever you see, hear and feel. I wonder this is the first glimmerings of the conference itself going the way of the message board. Why bother with airplanes and hotel rooms when you can just send your proxy robot in your place?

There may come a day, perhaps not that far off, when people will say “Remember when people actually showed up in person to the SIGGRAPH conference?”

Old friends

Tuesday, August 7th, 2012

The SIGGRAPH conference has thousands of attendees. One of the reasons I like to go is the opportunity, when things go well, of running into old friends. In some cases I may get to see someone I haven’t seen in years.

This morning on my way from the hotel to the conference center I saw an old friend walking ahead of me, somewhat in the distance. I hadn’t seen him in years, and I began thinking of all the interesting things we could talk about, and of all the things that had happened since the last time we had spoken. I started walking faster, so I could catch up with him.

I was surprised to see, as I got a bit nearer, how young looking my friend seemed. Some people, I’ve noticed, just don’t seem to age with the passing years.

As I got even closer I observed that my old friend wasn’t nearly as tall as I’d remembered him. It’s funny how over time we can exaggerate certain traits in our memory, like height or weight.

When I was just about close enough to call out to get his attention, I noticed that my friend was the wrong color.

It was around then that I decided there wouldn’t really be any point in saying hello.


Monday, August 6th, 2012

This morning at the annual SIGGRAPH conference I started to get texts and emails from people, telling me that the little sandwich stand in the convention center had my name up on its lunch board. It seems that various foods on the menu were named after assorted people in our field, and I was one of the chosen.

Other food selections were named Phong, Catmull, and so on. My name, for some reason, was at the very top of the lunch board, as you can see in the picture below, taken from an photo emailed to me by a former grad student:


I went there for lunch today and ordered a delicious peanut butter and banana sandwich named after Jim Blinn. When the lovely woman behind the counter realized who I was, she very graciously (and a bit shyly) presented me with a ceremonial peach. As you can see, the actual peach has a beautiful procedurally generated texture:

Role reversal

Sunday, August 5th, 2012

One of my favorite films of all time is “Wings of Desire”, the 1987 metaphysical meditation by Wim Wenders. It’s one of those rare works that seems to perfectly realize its ambitions. The achingly beautiful story centers on Bruno Ganz as an angel who must choose between heavenly immortality and his love for a human woman.

Today at lunch a friend told me that this movie was remade by Hollywood in 1998 as “City of Angels”, starring Nicholas Cage in the Ganz role and Meg Ryan as his human love interest. I never saw the latter film because at the time various friends warned me away.

Now going back and reading the reviews of “City of Angels” on IMdB, I see that they are neatly divided into two opposing camps. Anyone who had never seen “Wings of Desire” finds “City of Angels” to be charming, if somewhat flawed. Whereas everyone who had previously seen “Wings of Desire” expresses a deep dislike for “City of Angels”, bordering on horror and revulsion.

I suppose it’s similar to the situation with many Hollywood remakes of great films. For example, if you have any intention of enjoying “The Magnificent Seven”, do not under any circumstances see “The Seven Samurai” first. Seen alone, “The Magnificent Seven” is a somewhat silly and offbeat American oater. Yet seen as a remake of “The Seven Samurai”, it is an abomination and a desecration, more or less a rancid vial of stinking urine flung at the gods of cinema.

There might be cases where the Hollywood remake is actually better than the original. I can’t think of any examples off-hand, but the sheer force of numbers suggests that such a thing most likely exists. Meanwhile, I am left to ponder the dynamics at work here.

For example, suppose Hollywood were to randomly remake great Bruno Ganz films, in each case casting Nicholas Cage in the same role. Imagine, for example, the Nicholas Cage version of “Downfall”. Somehow the thought of Mr. Cage as Hitler in the bunker sends chills up my spine, for all the wrong reasons.

Not to denigrate the unique talents of Nicholas Cage. After all, I’m not sure I would want to see Bruno Ganz in a remake of “Valley Girl”.

Demo haiku

Saturday, August 4th, 2012

A living demo
Is only for us. Here. Now.
And then it is gone.

Only we were there
To share that exact moment.
That’s why it’s magic.


Friday, August 3rd, 2012

I was just looking at Sargent’s “Portrait of Madame X”. When it came out the scandal around this painting was sufficient to drive its painter from France and to make its subject, the popular socialite Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, withdraw permanently from Paris society.

Today the same painting is seen as an important work, with an honored place on the walls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In our day and age, it is distinctly not scandalous.


I am trying to imagine what work of art today might end up following a similar historical trajectory. Specifically, what aesthetic creation is out there today that scandalizes people, to the extent that it has the power to ruin careers and reputations, yet will one day be seen as an important and eminently respectable work of art?

Of course the future is notoriously difficult to predict. Still it is fun to imagine.

So here is a game to play: Pick any work of currently scandalous creation, and declare it to be a respectable work within some imagined future. From that seed, you might be able to construct an entire forward cultural trajectory.


Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

Recently I was at the head of a trail in a national park. Perusing the bulletin board I observed that there were theme hikes listed for nearly every day in the summer. It seems that you can register on-line to take your group on a wilderness trail hike around most any theme.

For one of the scheduled hikes the theme was a word I had never heard of — friggatriskaidekaphobia. For reasons I cannot fully explain, I jotted the word down. It just seemed like one of those words that might some day prove useful.

This morning I finally got around to looking the word up. Yesterday I would not have been able to tell you on which day of the summer this hike occurred. But today, thanks to the wonders of internet search, I know, with certainty, exactly which day this hike took place.

Now I am wondering whether somebody will ever schedule a follow-on hike, perhaps for some balmy Saturday afternoon, around the theme of hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia.