Archive for February, 2014

Time loop karma

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

Sharon’s comment on yesterday’s post really resonated with me. I too have had the experience, as an adult, of reading the journals of my sixteen year old self, and finding myself shocked at how similar we were. From that experience I came to the realization that at sixteen, we already have all the emotional equipment — we just have none of the experience to know what to do with it.

This notion of reading journals from a different time in one’s life does raise some possibilities for science fiction. If we could read the future journals of our older selves, then time would take on a far more interesting shape. Every time we looked at those journals, we might make choices that veer us away from the reality they describe.

And so, as we then grew older, we would write different journals. Our new younger self, reading those “reality spoilers”, would then create yet another version of reality, and so on.

Eventually scientists might discover properties that govern such reality shifts — some sort of operational rules of cause and effect. If you want to help cure world hunger, or make a world where people will be kinder to one another, it might turn out that certain kinds of journal entries are more effective than others.

Of course there will be other people writing journals only for selfish gain, trying to optimize their own personal time loop karma. All through the world, opposing forces would arise and do battle, one journal entry at a time.

If we really could steer reality itself in this way, I wonder what kinds of universes we would collectively create.

Conversations with oneself

Monday, February 17th, 2014

Today I read with interest an article by Tom Gauld in the NY Times Magazine about tattoos that have outlived their usefulness. It’s called The Existential Anguish of the Tattoo, and it’s a great read.

That article, plus my recent experience wandering through my old undergrad stomping grounds, got me thinking about this strange relationship we have with our younger selves. That person is us, more than anyone else could ever claim to be, and yet at the same time that person is not us.

I know other people think about this as well. Last weekend when I mentioned to an old friend that I had gone back to see my college campus, my friend said “Now you are one of those mysterious older people who sometimes shows up on campus, looking slightly lost.” And it was true.

But I wonder, what if we could actually sit down in a room and meet our younger self face to face (or, conversely, our older self). Suppose you were given an opportunity to do just that, through some unknown technology (all things being possible in science fiction and politics).

Would you say yes? Would you see it as an opportunity? Or would you find the idea of such a meeting too disturbing?

Time slows down

Sunday, February 16th, 2014

I often feel inundated by emails. Not the personal emails from friends, which are always a great pleasure, but the ones reflecting professional obligations.

Students stuck on a problem, potential collaborators, upcoming lab visitors, conference organizers, people requesting reviews — each by itself is perfectly reasonable, but in the aggregate they can become overwhelming.

You would think that it would be even worse when I’m programming. After all, when you’re in the zone, trying to work out some interesting problem, that would seem to be the worst time to get emails about something else entirely.

But it doesn’t work that way, because when I program, time slows down.

It’s like I’m in one of those slow motion scenes in a movie. I’ll be working intently on something, thinking through a problem, writing tons of code, trying something five different ways, and I’ll feel as though I’ve spent an hour. And it will turn out that the whole process took only ten minutes.

It’s as though my mind has one kind of internal clock for programming, and another kind for everything else.

And one good thing about this is that the world around me is still moving at its usual pace, so when I’m programming those emails seem to come very slowly.

It’s actually rather peaceful.

Waiting for Waiting for Godot

Saturday, February 15th, 2014

I had been looking forward, for quite a while, to the performance we saw this evening of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”, with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in the lead roles. I’ve seen Godot quite a few times through the years, in various productions, and it never fails to surprise.

On one level the set-up is very simple: Two old tramps with way too much time on their hands try to make sense of their moment-to-moment existence.

But that’s just the launching point for a dizzying array of ideas. And these ideas are never presented straight on, but rather are coiled in elliptically, so we often don’t see them coming, until we are already immersed in them.

What is really surprising and delightful about this particular production is how funny it is. Stewart and McKellan play Vladimir and Estragon as a kind of old married couple, their souls by now so deeply intertwined that one without the other would be unthinkable. In this production their constant bickering as merely a front for their powerful love for each other, and the audience responds to this love.

It’s a kind of irony which highlights Beckett’s genius: We the audience are laughing with delight, having ourselves a rollicking good time, at a tale of two souls who are so lost and rudderless that they are continuing wondering whether they should bother to keep living from one moment to the next.

It may seem strange to those of you who know Beckett’s work, but this production actually manages to make him seem like a romantic: Yes, life may be meaningless and filled with despair, but it all starts to make sense if we find a way to love one another.

Give me a break

Friday, February 14th, 2014

This seems like a good day to talk about relationships.

I was explaining to a non-native-english speaker today the phrase “taking a break”. While this phrase has various meanings, one in particular has recently come into common parlance: Taking time off from a romantic relationship.

When I explained this concept, my friend expressed disbelief. I forget the exact words she used, but the basic meaning was “Are these people for real?”

After all, if you are in a romantic relationship, this implies that you are with the one person in the world whom you most want to be with. So what does it mean when one party asks to take a break from the relationship?

One possible meaning is this: “I want to break up with you, but I haven’t even explained that to myself yet, let alone to you. So I’m arranging a way that I can get away from you, while not actually needing to say I’m breaking up with you.”

Of course this might be an overly cynical interpretation. But how could we know?

Well, here’s a way to test the question empirically: What percentage of the time, when somebody says to their romantic partner “I need to take a break”, does the couple end up getting back together again?

If the percentage is very low, then perhaps my friend’s reaction of disbelief was simply common sense.

Dark tomorrows

Thursday, February 13th, 2014

Over the course of the last two weeks, quite a few people have told me that I should watch “Black Mirror”, a British SciFi TV program.

In particular, “Black Mirror” is a dark and dystopian vision of possible near futures. As I understand it, each episode takes one or more leaps into the possible near future, when some technological advance or other has created a corresponding set of cultural and societal shifts.

And in every case, the results are not good. In essence, the program is a series of cautionary tales about what might go wrong — very very wrong — if we are not careful with how we use emerging technologies.

Because so many people had recommended it, I decided to sit down and watch an episode. It was extremely well made, with excellent acting, superb production, really thoughtful writing, persuasive character arcs and a powerful story. In short, everything that high quality television should be.

I hated it, and I’m pretty sure I’m not going to be watching any more episodes.

I realize that the problem here most likely lies with me, not with the program. I spend a lot of time thinking about socially positive ways that advancing technology can help make the world a better place. Now along comes this show which essentially portrays technology as the Boogeyman.

Yes, I do understand that cautionary tales serve a positive purpose. It’s important that people think about these things. Ideally we should all be thoughtful about important issues that affect our lives, and dystopian scenarios can indeed raise awareness.

Yet to see the negative side so starkly portrayed, and perhaps even fetishized, just gives me nightmares. I don’t need to be scared — I need to engage in thoughtful discussion.

When somebody walks in the room and loudly shouts “Boo!”, which is essentially what this show does, I’m not sure that thoughtful discussion is still possible.

Virtual whiteboards and the evolution of language

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

Continuing the thought from yesterday, let’s fast-forward to some time in the future when we will all be able to see displays floating in the air between us.

In such a world, you and I won’t be looking down at SmartPhones. Rather, we will always be looking outward, toward each other and the world around us.

This is not necessarily a panacea. After all, in such a future I could be rudely checking my email while pretending to be focused on our conversation. Yet I suspect that once such technologies become ubiquitous, people will become very adept at reading those nonverbal signals, and social conventions will be worked out.

But there’s something else going on here: In such a future, every face to face encounter will have a built-in whiteboard. Drawing pictures, sketching out ideas, bringing up images, all of these things will become normal in face-to-face conversation.

If this leads to an evolution of natural language, then the major innovations may end up being made by little kids (as generally happens with natural language). I’m excited to see what they will come up with.

A new kind of literacy

Tuesday, February 11th, 2014

I had an interesting conversation today with Bret Victor, which touched on the question of how much constructionism there should be in an interactive presentation. In other words, how much should you be able to build your presentation of a simulation out of general components, right then and there in the class-room?

The distinction touches on the difference between “live” and “canned” presentations. There are people who give spectacular talks, with truly exciting visuals. Yet during the question and answer session those speakers fall back on words. All of the spectacular visuals were pre-cooked before the show.

Bret has a vision, which I admire, that in an ideal world any question can be answered using the component pieces — right then and there — of the very tool you used to give the talk. It’s an ideal of a procedural visual language.

I find that I fall somewhere in the middle between Bret’s vision and the more traditional approach. I have a practical need to lecture on certain subjects, like computer graphics. I know that if I focus all my energies on building first-principles tools for giving those lectures, that may be all I ever have time to do.

And yet I agree with Bret that it is better to answer questions from the class using the procedural tools of my presentation, if I can.

In the end, we will all play our part. I may focus my energies more teaching computer graphics, and Bret may focus more on presentation tool as real-time visually authorable simulation, but I do believe that we, and others working in this space, will eventually converge on a new kind of literacy.

What she’s having

Monday, February 10th, 2014

I got into a discussion this evening with a friend about the movie “Her”. There is a scene in this film involving simultaneous orgams, which raises all sorts of questions. And I realized that this scene reminded me of another famous movie orgasm scene.

I’m speaking of the restaurant scene in “When Harry Met Sally” where Sally (Meg Ryan) tells Harry (Billy Crystal) that women can convincingly fake an orgasm — and then proceeds to demonstrate her thesis with spectacular success. Director Rob Reiner’s mother, as a diner looking on from another table, delivers the great line that ends the scene: “I’ll have what she’s having.”

But the scene works on multiple levels, since what Sally is actually having is not an orgasm, but a moment of feminist triumph. She has just won a knock out punch in the war between the sexes.

Which brings me back to “Her”. When you first see this film, the simultaneous orgasm scene appears to be a moment of bonding between two souls.

But if you think about what an orgasm really is, on a biological and evolutionary level, you understand that one of those orgasms is fake. It is a sign that something here is veering away from reality and toward fantasy.

Which illuminates the real significance of the restaurant scene in “When Harry Met Sally”: Sally indeed asserts her power over Harry. Yet simultaneously, by telling him the truth, she affirms their friendship.

So what is Sally really having? She’s having a relationship built on truth and friendship. In the long run, that’s a lot better than a mere fantasy.

Killer app

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

I was co-teaching a class the other day during which I suggested that in the future we might all be walking around seeing reality augmented in some way. This is a theme I have visited often, in these pages and elsewhere, and there is a lot to think about and work through on the subject.

At one point one student asked a very reasonable question. “Why,” he asked, “after all the work on virtual reality some years back failed to create a world in which everyone wears V.R. headsets, do you now think that everybody is going to embrace augmented reality?”

It was a question that deserved a serious answer. After all, the dream of immersive V.R. did indeed founder, despite the serious efforts of some very brilliant people.

“First of all,” I said, “we already live in an augmented reality. Everything around us is made up — the chairs, walls, tables, books, coffee cups. None of those things exist except through an effort of collective human will. We can talk about levels of technological sophistication, but there is no fundamental difference, from a cultural perspective, between the completely artificial object sitting on your desk and the one floating in the air in front of you.”

“Second,” I continued, “Virtual Reality had the problem that it didn’t bring people together. It was a fundamentally isolating experience. The information technologies that people embrace are the ones that best connect us to other people — which is, after all, the thing that people care about most.”

I’m not sure my answer was right in every detail, but I am sure about the most important part: Other people are always the killer app.