Archive for March, 2014

Mixed, Dual and Blended deception

Friday, March 21st, 2014

I recently encountered an interesting take on what Fischer and Applin refer to as “Mixed, Dual and Blended Reality” — the phenomenon whereby people using various modern technologies may not be psychologically located where they are physically located.

Consider one familiar example: If you are crossing the street and talking obliviously on a cell phone, then your mind is having a pleasant chat with a friend while your neglected body, perhaps crossing against the light, has become a soft fleshy target for oncoming traffic.

I had mainly been thinking about such situations from the perspective of the pedestrian who, being psychologically absent, is in danger of serious injury or worse. I hadn’t really thought about it as thoroughly from the perspective of the driver.

Then yesterday a colleague — who often has occasion to drive through pedestrian-heavy intersections — told me of her unusual strategy for preventing oblivious pedestrians from wandering through red lights into the path of her moving vehicle. It’s a very simple strategy, really.

As she approaches an intersection where it looks as though people are about to cross against the light, she picks up her cellphone — which is actually switched off — and holds it to her ear, as though carrying on a conversation.

She reports that this works like a charm: Rather than cross against the light, people in the crosswalk, even if they themselves are on the phone, wait until her car has gone by.

This is certainly a form of dishonesty. On the other hand, everybody gets to go home alive.

Optimal unreality

Thursday, March 20th, 2014

Bret Victor gave a guest lecture today to a class I’m co-teaching with Hiroshi Ishii at the MIT Media Lab. As always, what Bret had to say was inspirational and highly thought provoking.

For me one of the highlights of the class was a spirited discussion between Bret and Xiao Xiao — one of Hiroshi’s Ph.D. students, and also a brilliant musician.

Bret had used The SIMS as an example of a simulation world that is deliberately stylized. As Will Wright has explained, the unreality in the look and behavior of the characters in this game is a key part of its design. This feeling of unreality creates a sense of mystery, which allows players to project their own stories and emotions onto the characters.

Xiao then pointed out that in fact character behavior in The SIMS goes beyond merely mysterious — SIMS characters often do things that no real human would ever do. In fact, their behavior can be at times downright alien. She posited that this feeling of the SIMS characters being “impossible” people helps to remind players that this is an alternate world, thereby increasing the sense of freedom and possibility.

Which leads to an intriguing question: Is there an “optimal” level of unreality in a virtual world, at which a sense of possibility is maximized? Science fiction plays with this edge all the time. If characters and stories are too weird and incomprehensible, then the reader can become lost. But until this point is reached, the experience of encountering strange beings and unfamiliar ways of thinking can be very mind expanding.

Which is, after all, one of the reasons we make art.

A pronounced difference

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

A friend posed a riddle to me recently: “What’s the difference between a chemist and a plumber?”

The answer I came up with was “A chemist ionizes, and a plumber unionizes.” Although, I added, the chemist also unionizes.

Turns out this was fairly close to the ‘right’ answer, which is, in its written form: “Ask them each to pronounce the word ‘unionize’.”

Yet if you explain the answer out loud, you need to say something like “The way they pronounce the word “un–Ionize.” If you say “The way they pronounce the word ‘unionize'”, a lot of people will just be confused and not get the joke at all.

After thinking about it for a bit more, I then sent my friend the following email: “On the other hand, whether it’s the chemist or the plumber who unionizes, the world still ends up with fewer free radicals.”

My new answer was kind of opposite to the first answer. Whereas the standard answer depends on sound, this one depends on deliberately ignoring sound — as though words have no pronunciation at all.

So here we have an example of humor that can exist only in written form. I wonder how common that is.


Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

This evening we were discussing music, and the topic drifted to the wide range of styles one can find in different work by the same composer. And a kind of game occurred to me:

Find, for any given composer, his or her two most opposite works. For example, Mozart’s two most antipodal compositions might be Ein musikalischer SpaƟ and his Requiem Mass in D Minor.

Of course, this notion of antipodal work can be found in many realms of art, from painting to dance to sculpture to theatre and film. But if you get a good list of examples in music, there’s one thing you can do in particular that you can’t do in any other artistic field: You can make a totally cool high concept record album.

I mean, if somebody managed to choose the selections just right, and came out with the ultimate “Antipodal” music compilation, I’d buy it. Wouldn’t you?

But what should go on this album? I’m open to suggestions.


Monday, March 17th, 2014

I seem to be blessed by friends who daily introduce me to many delightful, if slightly twisted, cultural influences. These introductions are far too numerous to list with any completeness, but I’ll mention just two that came up in the last day, to give you a sense of their collective wonderfulness.

One is the amazing Robert Askins play Hand to God, which I saw yesterday after I was told about it by not one but *two* friends. In addition to containing the best performance I have ever witnessed of explicit onstage sex between hand puppets (if you’ve only seen “Avenue Q”, you have no idea, trust me), it also contains one of the best lines I’ve heard in the theatre in years. After a guy has made a suspiciously aggressive homophobic remark, a gal tells him: “You are so far back in the closet, you’re in Narnia.”

Gosh, I wish I could write like that. :-)

And for reasons that I cannot even begin to fully explain, I am endlessly in love with this YouTube video, a link to which was sent to me today by yet another friend: Vegan Black Metal Chef. I mean, how cool is that?


Sunday, March 16th, 2014

Today with little warning,
I think it was late morning
I was musing on technology,
Its effect on our psychology,
And my mind kept on returning
To a reverie concerning
Whether all this stuff is fated
To make us alienated.

Now that you and all your crowd
Have been wired to the cloud
I’m sure that’s got appeal
But is it even real?
With your texts and tweets and pokes
I mean, really, folks!
When you’ve become The Truman Show
Is that even human? No!

But the world is still revolving
And perhaps you are evolving
Not through your DNA
But in a cybernetic way
For all this techno-flurry
You needn’t really worry
In a twist somewhat Hegelian,
You’ve simply turned into an alien!

The two cultures, revisited

Saturday, March 15th, 2014

I was having a lunch conversation today about an experience I had years ago, which I now realize touches upon what C.P. Snow referred to as “The Two Cultures”. Those cultures are, respectively, the cultures of scientific thought and of humanistic thought.

This particular experience dates from the very beginning of my career in computer graphics. I was part of an interdisciplinary team that was creating special effects for films and TV commercials. At some point Chris Wedge — a phenomenal animator, and later to become the founder of the great NY computer animation house Blue Sky Studios — asked me whether I could program a tool that would allow him to achieve a certain lighting effect.

All fired up by the task, and maybe too young and stupid to see beyond my own ambition, I stayed up all night and implemented a software tool that would allow Chris to do pretty much anything. It had all sorts of variables and parameters, complete with a cascading crescendo of calibrated components, creating a cornucopia of cool capabilities.

The next morning, flushed with pride, I showed Chris my creation. “Here,” I said, “you can use this to do all sorts of things. For example, this is the particular thing you wanted, if you just set these variables like so.”

He hated it. “I just wanted a tool that would let me do this“, he said, “I don’t care about all this other stuff.”

And that was the first time I got an inkling that there are two fundamentally different ways to look at the space of interesting problems. The ‘scientific’ approach looks for the most general solution, the one that will encompass as many answers as possible. THe ‘artistic’ approach doesn’t care about this vast space of all possible answers. Rather, it looks toward a particular human space of meaning, and is only interested in paths that lead to that space of meaning.

It’s not that one of these approaches is right and the other is wrong. They are both quite powerful, each in their own way. It’s more that these are two different languages — each better at approaching a different kind of truth.

When faced with the reality of these two different languages, maybe it’s best to be bilingual.


Friday, March 14th, 2014

I’ve been doing various research recently that involves propagation of energy. In one case I’m using it to make cool interactive animations of water waves. In another case I’m simulating the propagation of forces through solids, to find out, for example, how strong a building is, or where an overloaded bridge would be mostly likely to collapse.

These may seem like very different problems, but it turns out that the math (at least the simplest version of the math) is pretty much the same in these and lots of other cases. Essentially, the value in each location is decreased, while some of the values in the locations next to it are added to it. This is done everywhere at once. Repeat.

That probably seems too simple, but it works amazingly well, and it’s a reasonable approximation of how various kinds of forces propagate in nature.

And it has occurred to me that this is also a nice description of what happens between people. As we interact with each other, and get to know one other better, we each gradually become a slightly less pure version of ourselves, and instead begin to incorporate little bits and pieces of the people to whom we are closest.

Just as with water waves and the weight of buildings, this exchange of forces can seem imperceptible in any one given moment. But over the course of time the ripples that travel from person to person can span the globe, and the force of our collective being can grow beyond all imagining.

Something essential

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

This morning I had a very difficult time dodging an oblivious commuter who was staring into a SmartPhone. This occurred on the steps of a subway platform, at the height of rush hour, with a crowd of people streaming past each other.

Objectively one would think that somebody wouldn’t attempt to text while walking up a flight of steps in such circumstances. But I realize that this person was really absent — somewhere else in all but the physical sense.

This problem, which most of us run into pretty much every day, is at least partially the result of a technology still in transition. As SmartPhones get better/faster/cooler, they can draw your attention ever further away from the actual world — the world that contains your body.

The technologist in me says “Hey, we can fix that!” If we can just invent a better technology, then everything will be ok.

But there’s another part of me that says “Hey, wait a minute — isn’t technology part of the problem?” Maybe the solution to every problem isn’t a continual advancement of technology. Maybe there are ways of thinking of this that actually have nothing to do with inventing something cool.

For all of our collective problem-solving inventiveness, maybe our view of how to “make things better” with technology is missing something essential.

Sweeter Charity

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

I’ve been going through old YouTube videos of classic performances, as I do from time to time, comparing different performers in the same role.

Recently I’ve been watching old videos of one of the greatest of them all — Gwen Verdon — who lit up the musical theater stage for much of the twentieth century. Alas, she never quite had the same impact in Hollywood (with the notable exception of her performance as Lola in “Damn Yankees”), and some of her greatest song and dance performances have gone unrecorded.

Gwen (as some of you know) was married to the great choreographer Bob Fosse, and some of his best work was made specifically for her brilliant performance style. One of the great dance scenes in all of filmdom was their outrageous comic duet in Who’s Got the Pain from “Damn Yankees”.

Although Fosse built the entire show of “Sweet Charity” as a showcase Gwen’s astonishing talent, but when the show went from Broadway to Hollywood, she didn’t go with it, even with Fosse directing. The film simply wouldn’t have been green-lighted without a major movie star, and in this case that star was Shirley MacLaine.

If you compare their performances, Verdon is the vastly better dancer, but MacLaine is far more effective as an adorable waif. That was, after all, her specialty.

It’s a shame that millions of people never got to see Gwen Verdon in such a great role that was written specifically for her. One day perhaps, as new technologies evolve, a version of “Sweet Charity” might appear that merges the best qualities of these two actresses into a single performance — the incomparable dancing of Verdon and the unique vulnerability of MacLaine. Would such a thing be a gift to humankind, or an abomination? And would they need to call it “Sweeter Charity”?

Meanwhile I will leave you with this inspiring little clip, which shows the sort of dancing that Gwen Verdon was capable of at the age of fifty.