Archive for October, 2013

Used book shop

Monday, October 21st, 2013

This evening I found myself outside one of my favorite used book shops. I love this place because I always find something completely different from anything I had ever thought I’d find. Some shops are magical like that.

This evening I walked in, feeling hopeful, but alas could find nothing of interest in any of the sections I usually frequent. I was on my way out when a display near the door caught my eye. There I saw an entire row of old science fiction magazines — a mix of Astounding Science Fiction and Fantasy and Science Fiction — from the mid 1940s through the early 1950s. Each issue had been carefully tucked into a clear plastic sleeve, and every one of them called out to my inner child.

They were all from well before I was born, and I realized I was looking at someone else’s childhood, at the poignant remains of somebody’s story of long ago innocence. That mystery just made them more compelling. I vowed to buy one, but which one? The cover art on each was delightful, in the Hugo Gernsback way that was so popular back then.

Then it dawned on me: One thing about being a grown-up is that you can do things you would never think to do as a child. Sometimes you actually get a chance to indulge a combination of childhood dreams and grown-up wherewithal. This was one of those times.

I bought them all.

A few more interactive diagrams

Sunday, October 20th, 2013

As our computer graphics class has gone on to cover some more advanced concepts of ray tracing, such as refraction, layered fog and blobby models, it seemed like a good idea to create a few more interactive diagrams to accompany the course notes, and to help bring the concepts to life.

If you click on the image below, you will get to the course notes pages, and then you can play with these interactive diagrams for yourself:

In the land of the blind

Saturday, October 19th, 2013

One evening at the recent user interface conference in St. Andrews I was walking to a restaurant with some colleagues. Since I didn’t have a SmartPhone, I had studied a paper map beforehand, so I’d know where the restaurant was. We first took a detour to one colleague’s hotel so he could drop off his computer bag, and then we started toward the restaurant. At the second intersection my two colleagues both seemed to become disoriented.

“I’m not sure if it’s this way or that way,” one of them said.

“It’s half a block this way,” I replied, “on the right.”

Neither of them was satisfied with this answer. One colleague took out his SmartPhone and started to navigate an on-line map, while the other waited anxiously for the results.

“Really,” I said, “it’s just over there, half a block from here on the right, a little before the intersection.”

Finally, after a bit of a wait, the colleague who’d been fiddling with his SmartPhone looked up. “We need to go a little this way, on the right.”

Exactly where I’d said it was.

And that’s when I realized that not having a SmartPhone had given me a sort of super power — the same super power nearly all humans have had until very recently.

As the old saying goes: In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king.

Weapon of choice

Friday, October 18th, 2013

I finally got around to seeing the 1984 film version of “Dune”. I had read the novel as a kid, and had loved it, so I was understandably skittish about seeing a film adaptation that had received such mixed reviews through the years — even if it was directed by David Lynch.

“Dune” turns out to be a very strange film, but in an interesting way. Lynch doesn’t seem to have set out to direct a movie, so much as a sort of religious ritual. The line readings, editing, camera placement and pacing all feel very stagy, but in a way that suggests it was all meant to be that way. It’s as though we are witnessing a kind of Passion Play — a solemn ritual enactment of the sacred rites of someone else’s religion.

And if you know “Dune” (the novel, I mean), you’ll agree that this approach, while unorthodox, makes a sort of sense.

One thing that thrilled me was when Paul of Atreides (Kyle MacLachlin) says “Walk without rhythm, and it won’t attract the worm”.

As many of you know, that is a line from “Weapon of Choice” by Fatboy Slim. The song, it turns out, is quoting the movie.

Which is very cool, except I now worry that whenever I think of the mighty sand worms of Arrakis, my mind is going to visualize Christopher Walken flying off a hotel balcony.

The toddler strategy

Thursday, October 17th, 2013

As I was traveling in Europe this past week, the one question I was asked most often was how our government could shut down. People there seemed genuinely flummoxed. It didn’t seem like the kind of thing that should happen in the United States of America.

They were also, needless to say, nervous. We came remarkably close to starting a world financial panic, the effects of which would easily have extended across the Atlantic and beyond.

When asked about the shutdown, I invariably responded that I was sure our more moderate Republicans leadership was working as hard as they could behind the scenes to come up with some graceful exit. The only available strategy for them, as far as I could see, would to be to get the Obama administration to cede some minor point of little consequence, so that the Republican leadership (which now clearly fears its own extreme wing) would have some face-saving way to declare “victory”.

This seems to be exactly what has happened, which is not surprising. But what seems most amazing to me is the thinking of the Republican extreme right in triggering the shutdown in the first place. As far as I can tell, they seemed to be following what might be called the toddler strategy: “If you don’t give me what I want, I’m going to hold my breath until I die. After I die, you’ll be sorry!”


Wednesday, October 16th, 2013

I was having lunch with some friends yesterday, and the conversation came around to young people. There seemed to be general agreement around the table that today’s younger generation are falling short of expectations. I didn’t have anything to contribute to this topic, so I just listened.

One person explained that kids today are not taught how to think for themselves. Another expressed disappointment with their seeming disengagement with important events on the world political stage. A general worry was expressed about the decline of Western civilization.

This went on for a while, at which point somebody said “Are we really being fair?”

“Of course you are,” I said. “Otherwise, why would people have been saying the exact same thing for at least three thousand years?”


Tuesday, October 15th, 2013

Walking along the massive Roman walls that still (partly) encircle old York, I was struck by the way a Christian town, complete with cathedral, grew inside those magnificent walls from a vanished empire.

As I walked along the parapet, I couldn’t help thinking that I’d seen something like this before — not the literal thing itself, but the general idea.

And then, I had it.

This was very much what it felt like the first time I visited Mumbai and saw Victoria Terminus train station. That magnificent edifice has since been rechristened Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, but no mere name change can hide the pure, beautifully ostentatious high Victorian style of the place.

Today, of course, countless Indian citizens pass through the space and walk beneath its high vaulting ceiling. The Raj is long gone, and with it the hegemony of foreign overlords from England, but the aggressively 19th century British architecture remains.

I wonder how many other such places there are in the world — magnificent monuments to a vanished empire, now part of the every day scenery to another culture.

And part of me cannot help but wonder: Which of those mysteriously evocative relics will one day be all that remains of our own American empire?


Monday, October 14th, 2013

There is something amazing about being in York (where I am today) and standing in front of the statue of the Emperor Constantine.

In the year AD 306 Constantine was, at York, declared emperor of the Roman Empire. It’s sort of odd to stand here, in these latter times, and reflect upon such an august history.

The idea of one individual reigning over the entire known world is very foreign to our modern view of things. And so I admit to a certain romance, an unloosing of possibilities, in revisiting this particular ancient history.

I would love to have met this man, this conqueror of worlds. And if I had met him, what would I have said? Maybe just this: “Why is Istanbul not Constantinople?” 🙂

Future objects

Sunday, October 13th, 2013

I’ve noticed that research into mixed reality — the attempt to bring digital objects fully into our physical world — falls into two essentially disparate camps: Making use of physical objects that move in real time, and creating objects with 3D printers.

Today’s 3D printers can create incredibly intricate 3D forms, but for technical reasons are extremely slow. It can take hours for such a printer to produce an object of any significant size. In contrast, there are wonderful, if much coarser, interactive displays like inFORM by Hiroshi Ishii and his students at MIT, which can temporarily take on different shapes in real time. Such devices are still very expensive, but that will change.

One day these two threads of research will merge, and then we will have the ability to create intricate and dynamically moving shapes of any shape or size, shapes that we can interact with directly. In fact, this is an explicit long term goal of Hiroshi Ishii’s research.

It’s fun to think about what that world will be like, and what we will be able to do when it arrives. The possibilities may be limited only by our imagination.

Old Curiosity Shop

Saturday, October 12th, 2013

There is an old Curiosity Shop in St. Andrews. This has been my second visit to St. Andrews, and I was happy to see this little shop again, as it was perhaps my fondest memory of my previous visit. The shop has very few things of value — mostly the little knick knacks and personal things of lives past — smoking pipes, salt and pepper shakers, lamps, cups and saucers, little musical instruments of every stripe, books, toys, wall hangings, framed photographs, and who knows what.

Coming from the U.S., where the contents of such shops generally go back only decades, I am fascinated by its equivalent in an older culture. A shop like this is a kind of magical portal into past lives. Tucked somewhere in a corner I might discover some item or other from a previous century, nothing much in its own day, but now a thing of archaeological wonder.

Grand castles and cathedrals are wonderful too, but if you’re looking for a time machine, nothing beats an old curiosity shop.