Archive for February, 2014

Zen airlines

Friday, February 28th, 2014

I don’t enjoy traveling by air. Who really does these days? Today yet another friend related to me a nightmare story about being stuck in one of these cramped tin cans for hours on end at 30,000 feet.

Which got me thinking… Suppose you could simply go into a dreamless sleep, through some completely safe method, perhaps a form of general anesthesia, and wake up at your destination? It would be a kind of zen travel, a cross-over from being to not-being and back again.

Imagine the following scenario: You walk into a pleasant office in New York, take a pill and promptly fall asleep. Then perhaps some deeper anesthetic is administered, which may contain a mild memory suppressant.

The next thing you know, you are sitting in another office in Tokyo, feeling relaxed and refreshed and ready for your business meeting or pleasant day of museum hopping.

Although, in reality, your journey half way around the world took an entire day, to you it was but the passing of a moment.

Would this be a good thing?


Thursday, February 27th, 2014

I heard somebody explain yesterday that information our brain gets from the outside world is 80% sensory input, followed by 20% internal feedback.

The basic concept is that the brain needs a certain amount of internal reinforcement to make sure that incoming information actually registers. Otherwise, it would immediately become wiped away by new sensory data, before we have a chance to evaluate it.

If this factoid is true, it means that while most of what you think you perceive is really coming from the world around you, about 1/5 is actually being generated by your own brain, in a way that to you will appear indistinguishable from actual reality.

Which is something to keep in mind the next time you doubt your senses. It might be because you are really experiencing 80% reality followed by 20% internal feedback.

Unless of course you are discussing politics. In that case, as everybody knows, it’s about 20% reality and 80% internal feedback.


Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

My mom, who still handles her medical insurance forms by paper, was complaining that the sheer volume of paper involved has greatly expanded in recent years. I told her my theory, which is that it’s all the fault of the not-paper alternative: the internet.

My theory goes roughly like this: As it has become easier to move these processes on-line, the people who make regulations are progressively less constrained to do things in a way that conserves paper. After all, on the internet, information is infinitely expandable.

No matter how onerous the reporting requirements, you can design a web site for medical insurance in such a way that the first page looks clean and tidy. Then to see any extra fine print, users can just click on a tab.

So if somebody at a regulatory agency says “Hey, we really should also be requiring this extra info, or that statement of policy,” there isn’t much incentive for anybody else to push back and say no.

This isn’t much of a problem if you handle all your insurance on-line. But if you’re a paper person, you’ll see the size of those envelopes grow every year.

Not because of paper, but because of not-paper.

Bringing back Bogie

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

I described to a friend last night my recent post about a hypothetical “all star cast” of a play, consisting of brilliant actors who have played its various parts across different decades. My friend immediately replied “well of course that will be coming soon”.

What he meant was that we will, as technology progresses, become ever better at simulating the appearance of any actor, even those long deceased. I sort of agreed and sort of didn’t.

I completely buy the appearance part. Sooner or later computer graphics will allow us to create a virtual Audrey Hepburn or Cary Grant or Humphrey Bogart that appears completely indistinguishable from the original.

The problem comes when you talk about the performance itself. Any such simulation will necessarily involve a certain level of puppetry. Even if we run a machine learning algorithm to analyze all existing performances by this actor, and simulate their vocal performance, facial expression and body language accordingly, those algorithms cannot know about the higher levels of meaning in any new scene.

A great actor never quite repeats a previous performance. They use their face, body and voice as instruments, to reveal the unique meaning in each new psychological situation.

Our hypothetical “puppeteer” will need to possess an equivalent deep understanding, and then be able to use that understanding to drive a highly nuanced simulation of the actor in question.

In other words, while it may become fairly straightforward to bring Humphrey Bogart back to life as a mediocre actor, it will take a lot more work and talent to bring him back to life in a way that is true to the glorious original.

Drawing on history

Monday, February 24th, 2014

In a discussion today with a student about how animated drawings can help bring a narrative to life, I sketched the below image onto a whiteboard, describing how over the course of several hours, events in Kiev’s Independence Square led to the downfall of Ukraine’s government.

I realize, looking at it now, that the static image itself contains little of the drama inherent in the tale. Yet the process of drawing it, and telling the story as I did, conveyed a powerfully compelling real-life drama.

My drawing-enhanced narrative told the tale of how Andrei Levus, who represented the protesters in the square, reached out to an deputy interior minister. Knowing armed reinforcements were on their way to the protesters, Levus persuaded the minister that it was best to avoid a mutual armed bloodbath between protesters and police.

If security forces would stand down, he offered safe passage on buses to the police guarding the presidential compound. The deputy minister agreed to a cease-fire, and within hours Parliament had voted to demobilize the police.

Within hours, the police had fled the city, the presidential palace was left unguarded, the president himself fled the capital, and the government had fallen.

The above image can be improved upon in at least two ways. The easy way would be to replace it with an animated sketch that takes you through the tale in order. The hard way (which is much more interesting) would be to give you a complete simulation of the tale, so that you can play with history itself, rearrange its factors, and see what might happen.

For example, wat would have happened if armed reinforcements to the protesters had been further away? If Parliament had not been so obliging as to demobilize the police? If those police had been more loyal to the president? Wouldn’t it be enlightening to have a tool that would let us explore these questions?

Perhaps to truly understand history, it is necessary to be able to customize it.

Esperanto for augmented reality

Sunday, February 23rd, 2014

The other day I suggested that language might evolve in a more gestural direction, once augmented reality allows us to create visual artifacts “in the air” during face to face conversation.

It is unlikely that we will be able to come up with such natural languages merely by thinking about them. After all, the evolution of natural language is, by definition, a process that happens naturally, through actual use — and mainly through actual use by children.

On the other hand, there is a place for artificial language creation in the process. For example, Esperanto is not a natural language. In fact, there is empirical evidence that when children are taught Esperanto, they proceed to spontaneously “fix” it, converting this artificially designed language into dialects that are more like true natural language.

Yet other empirical studies have shown that when children are exposed to Esperanto, their facility for acquiring and understanding languages can improve. Which suggests that starting out by creating an Esperanto for augmented gestural reality would not be a complete waste of time.

After all, you’ve got to start somewhere.

All star cast

Saturday, February 22nd, 2014

This evening I saw yet another production of “Twelfth Night”, one of my favorite of the bard’s plays. This was the Pig Theatre’s rollicking over-the-top production, which focused mainly on the laughs and absurdities, in contrast to the Royal Shakespeare Company version recently on Broadway, which went deeper and more serious.

After seeing this production you may end up remembering Malvolio and Feste the fool. Yet in the RSC production, what you can’t get out of your head is the astonishing soulful performance of Mark Rylance as Olivia.

This contrast made me think back on all the productions I’ve seen of this play through the years, and I found myself mentally assembling an all star cast, picking and choosing from each production to create a dream team. Sort of like what people do with baseball: “What if Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle were on the same team…”

So what would be my “Twelfth Night” dream cast? Certainly Mark Rylance as Olivia. And perhaps Marisa Tomei as Viola from a “Shakespeare in the Park” production. To me the definitive Sir Toby Belch was Fred Gwynne (known to a generation as Herman Munster) in a production from quite a few years back. His scene stealing performance as the fabulously drunken nobleman showed there was a lot more to this actor than TV had allowed him to reveal.

Perhaps one day technology will advance to the point where we can simulate all of these great actors onstage together, in a dream production. Until then, we’ll just have to use our imaginations.

The energy in the room

Friday, February 21st, 2014

When someone gives a talk or a performance or a lecture, people talk about “the energy in the room”. Everyone can tell when something magical is happening, or conversely, when the whole thing is falling flat.

This isn’t merely about counting laughs. After all, most of us can also tell when an audience is enjoying a serious drama, or an academic lecture.

So here’s an interesting challenge for artificial intelligence: Could we design an algorithm that is able to sense the energy in the room?

One approach would be to construct the algorithm as a trainable neural net. Volunteers in the audience would indicate to a computer a high or low score that reflects their own human sense of how well a performance is being received, and a pattern matching algorithm would “learn” how to associate that score with cues from the audience.

Yet the problem remains: What are valid audience cues? Breathing? Whispering? Facial expressions? People squirming in their seats? What factors are we ourselves using to “sense” an audience’s mood?

I’m not sure anybody really knows the answer to that.

Future language

Thursday, February 20th, 2014

Flash forward about thirty or forty years from now. Several generations of children have gotten used to using augmented reality gesture to talk with each other.

Because these kids spent time with these interfaces before they were seven, they have incorporated into their everyday natural language the ability to draw shapes in the air, create virtual objects through gesture, and navigate a space that mixes the physical with the virtual.

As much research has shown, natural language is actually created by little kids, including natural languages with a strong visual component.

Most grown-ups never quite master this new kind of natural language. They can usually muddle through, using some kind of pidgin as a serviceable approximation, although they make all kinds of grammatical errors that the kids find funny.

But a generation or two after that, those kids will have grown up, and nearly everyone will be a native speaker of our future language.

Forgetting to keep your car on the road

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

This is going to be a bit of a rant.

While driving, have you ever simply forgotten to keep your car on the road? I’m guessing you haven’t, because you’re still alive enough to read this. Some things are just too obvious to miss.

Which leads me to the rant part: In the last several days I’ve been to the theatre twice. Both times somebody’s cell phone went off in the middle of the performance.

In one case, in the performance I wrote about the other day, we were seeing Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in “Waiting for Godot”. Seats were very expensive in a sold out run of a once in a lifetime Broadway experience.

So you would think that people would be conscious of how important it was to turn off their ringer. Yet somebody’s phone started ringing in the middle of the play, loudly and for a very long time.

In the second case, the management made a point of telling us to turn off our cell phones. Before the curtain rose, we heard a lovely female voice with a posh British accent explaining to us how very very important it was that we switch off our electronic devices. The lady was charming yet extremely firm.

And yet, again, some damned fool’s cellphone went off in the middle of the second act.

I have been trying to figure out how this happens. After all, as an audience member in a live theatre performance you are responsible for performing exactly one action to avoid ruining the experience for everyone else: Turn off your phone (or at least your ringer). And that’s it, that’s the whole enchilada, the beginning and the end of what is expected of you.

So how could anybody miss something so fundamental? It’s kind of like driving an automobile and forgetting to keep your car on the road.