Human energy over time

I had the good fortune to be invited to attend a retirement celebration this evening for Fran Brill, one of the great Sesame Street muppeteers. The sheer talent in the room was breathtaking. Many of my favorite muppet characters were there — Miss Piggy, Big Bird, Grover, Snuffleupagus and more — all cleverly disguised in their human form.

The evening prominently featured a whirlwind review of her body of work through the decades. There is something marvelous about seeing the result of many years of creativity, artfully conveyed through a single evening’s worth of representative samples.

We are only human, and in any given month or year we can accomplish only so much. But the result of decade after decade of dedicated talent, focus and effort can be astounding.

There are times when I feel that I’m not getting enough done, and I lose heart — but then I see something like this. It reminds me of the power of human energy over time, and I am newly energized.

The takeaway here: Find something you love, just put one foot in front of another, and keep going. In the long run, it’s all going to be wonderful.

On the masthead

At this week’s faculty meeting of our Media and Games Network (MAGNET), we did a recap of the gender related events at last week’s Oculus Connect meeting. And we decided that we need to take a more pro-active stand on the need for men and women to work together toward gender parity in our field.

MAGNET already does a fair bit in this direction. It hosts Girls who Code, Black Girls Code, and other events that help to encourage young women to enter fields that require facility with software engineering.

But now that is going to be an explicit part of our mission — on the masthead, if you will. After all, why should the United States of America be a backwater among the industrial nations, capable of attracting only 50% of its potential workforce to 21st Century jobs?

Interestingly, due to vacations, sabbaticals, conferences, and other events, none of our female MAGNET faculty were in town this week. All of the people pushing for this new direction today were men.

Signs of the times

Today I saw a delightful sign outside a restaurant. To emphasize the rustic nature of the establishment, the sign maker had built each individual letter out of hand-whittled wooden sticks.

Clearly a lot of work had gone into the effort, and the result was worth it. Just looking at that sign made some part of me want to abandon my city slicker ways and live off the land, like our ancestors did once upon a time.

But then I looked at the sign again, and I realized that the text on the bottom line was the restaurant’s phone number. At first I hadn’t noticed this little bit of culture shock because we don’t generally think about phone numbers any more.

But there it was, if you cared to look: an iconic symbol of modernity, represented by little pieces of rough-hewn hand-whittled wood.

And I couldn’t help but wondering: Maybe someday soon we will see that same beautifully old-fashioned sign, but with the phone number replaced by a URL — lovingly carved in rustic little hand-whittled wooden letters.

Or maybe not a URL — maybe a hashtag.

Or maybe whatever is going to come after the hashtag. Your guess is as good as mine.

Going from 50% to 100%

A number of professions have recognized the issue I was discussing yesterday. Bringing women into a field that was historically dominated by men requires both men and women to work together.

For this reason, fields as diverse as anthropology, law, medicine and architecture have focused on doing just that. These professions don’t see this as an issue of “men versus women”. They see it as a way of getting talented young people into the field. And if you look at the gender balance in such fields over the past few decades, you see that this strategy has been working spectacularly well.

Facebook, the parent company of Oculus, has been doing this as well. Mark Zuckerberg has had the good sense to bring on Sheryl Sandberg as his COO. She has pointed out that men need to be part of the process of increasing participation by women — not as a handout to women, but to maximize their company’s ability to compete.

These examples of inter-gender cooperation are particularly impressive given that there are land mines everywhere. For example, women I know have privately told me that they have avoided commenting here in the last few days because they are afraid of on-line retaliation by trolls. After what I’ve seen, I’m afraid their fears are well founded.

And of course there are more subtle forms of bias, even among men who consider themselves enlightened. If a man asks a question at a conference in a knowing and slightly smart-ass tone, he is generally admired for his daring and chutzpah. But if a woman speaks in exactly the same tone, she risks coming across as “arrogant and smug”.

Virtual realities

Based on the comments to yesterday’s post, it seems that Oculus was faced with a situation where practically no women were interested in developing for Virtual Reality. And that tells me something odd is going on here.

Among my female students (all of whom program computers), most are highly interested in V.R., and are eager to develop for it. I also know quite a few women who are currently working in V.R.

In one of the most exciting developments in the entire field, one of my colleagues at NYU is working on solving the problem of true spatially correct real-time audio reconstruction for V.R. About half of the grad students working with her on this are women.

As most of you know, V.R. itself is far from new — although its viability as a consumer product is indeed new. For over twenty years I have known female colleagues who have done research in and developed for virtual reality, including quite a few grad students.

So it seems we are confronting virtual realities of a different kind. On the one hand I have known, for many years, women who are highly skilled programmers who are also extremely interested in V.R. and have been working on it. On the other hand, when Oculus holds a conference, these women cannot be found.

I don’t know the answer to this mystery, but it might help to explain the tone of my previous two posts on this subject.

It also might help explain why I think Palmer Luckey can be a pivotal figure. The female V.R. researchers and developers are indeed out there. But many of them might be looking for a sign that they are welcome.

Unlike men, who never need to deal with this issue — and therefore can remain blissfully unaware that there even is an issue — I suspect many women in high technology know very well what happens when they show up somewhere they were not invited.

More specifically

I disagree with the premise of CC’s comment on yesterday’s post. If women are angry, it’s because there is a reason. To dismiss their concerns because one finds their anger distasteful is not excusable.

Yes, blacks have been angry at being lynched, and Jews have been angry at finding hotels mysteriously full when they try to register. Gays have been angry at getting beaten up by cops.

To say “your grievance is illegitimate because I find your anger unpleasant” is, essentially, to blame the victim, instead of focusing on the cause of that grievance.

In the case of Emily Eifler — the subject of yesterday’s post — she was not in fact speaking in an angry tone. Her question, asked in person and directly to the founders of Oculus Rift at a meeting of a very large number of developers at which only a tiny number of female developers were invited — and none at all invited to speak — was “What is Oculus’ approach to their clear gender gap and how are they not going to port that into VR?”

I find it significant that Emily did not hide behind any wall of social media at all. She didn’t post or tweet — she showed up in person, face to face with the people she was asking, and in a matter of fact tone raised a question of great economic consequence for their industry.

Palmer Luckey made a thoughtful attempt to address the question. He concluded that he doesn’t know the best way to solve it. I think he does not yet realize his own power, and I am hopeful that he will get to the point where he realizes that it is in his power to make a difference. I respect him trying to work it through.

John Carmack’s answer was more dismissive. I think he might not realize that ignoring a clear problem, rather than creatively thinking of ways to deal with it, is de facto limiting the growth potential of his company.

Also, as John knows — or should — Emily’s question was not asked in a vacuum. The industry is still working through the issues raised recently by the ugly sequence of events often referred to as Gamergate.

Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe has said that VR is “bigger than 3-D graphics, maybe even bigger than computers.” Statements like that end up sounding just plain silly if an industry doesn’t make an attempt to reach half its potential customer and developer base.

It is legitimate to posit that the tone and marketing of Oculus has indeed initially drawn more male than female interest, but the great work that Emily and her collaborators have been doing on the Oculus platform is part of the solution to that problem — not an annoyance to be dismissed.

Here’s an example of some of the sickening on-line conversation that followed the Oculus Connect Q&A. Fair warning: some of it is very ugly.

By the way, I can attest, from first-hand experience, that the work Emily and her collaborators are creating is brilliant, and is helping to take 360 degree VR in exciting new directions.

Do people being evil know they are being evil?

A colleague of mine, a brilliant high powered and accomplished professional, took the brave step this last weekend of questioning an egregious case of gender inequality. And promptly got slammed for it.

I forced myself to read some of the chains of on-line attack comments, and they made my skin crawl. Those of you who have been following recent events around computer games know that this has become standard practice: A woman dares to point out the obvious fact of a “boys only” club in high technology, and then the attacks start.

And they never attack her ideas — they attack her in a sexually suggestive, degrading, highly physical way, as though simply being a woman is some sort of crime.

It’s an age old story, and we’ve seen it all before: White people in 19th century America incensed by the idea of black people learning to read and write, straight people offended by gays for the crime of not being straight, or all sorts of people denouncing Jews because — well, because they’re Jews.

This is how evil operates. Somebody is condemned not because of their ideas, but because they happen to inhabit a body of the wrong kind.

So all those creepy teenage fanboys making lewd on-line comments about my colleague, commenting on her breasts or publicly fantasizing about raping her — I wonder whether they understand that they are getting into bed with Adolph Hitler, and with every white supremacist with a coiled rope and a murderous gleam in his eye.

Do they know they are being evil?


Earlier this evening, with plenty of time to spare (a good seven minutes), we made a deadline to submit a paper for a major conference. As usual, the scramble near the end was a combination of tenseness and exhilaration — the former because everything becomes a gamble as a deadline draws near, and the latter for pretty much the same reasons.

As soon as the submission was in, one of the students asked me what we would be doing for the next major conference paper deadline, which is four months away. I hadn’t been letting myself think about that — one deadline at a time is plenty.

But once he asked, I realized I already knew what we were going to work on. Apparently, somewhere in the back of my mind I had already been thinking about that very question.

It strikes me now that each publication deadline forms a kind of tentpole to our research. These are moments that punctuate the time and give it structure, helping to impel the work forward.

If there were too little time between major deadlines we would not be able try something truly new and ambitious. And if there were too much time, we might lose all sense of urgency.

Four months seems to be about the right distance between tentpoles.


My mom had a very significant birthday today, so we kids threw her a party and invited a bunch of family and friends. Everyone had a great time — especially my mom, which is really the important part.

At some point in the festivities, each of us kids got up and gave a speech in tribute to our mom. My brother came up to me a few minutes before the speeches were to start, because he wanted to talk about the speeches we’d be giving.

“I wrote out an entire speech,” he said, “but I think I’m going to throw all of it out and just get up there and say something spontaneous.”

I had already come to the same conclusion. I had a few general ideas in my head of things I might say, but I really didn’t know just how it was going to come out. But I was confident that it would be ok, because it had to be ok.

So it was agreed. Each of us got up to speak without a script, saying whatever moved us.

And in both cases it worked out great. When I told people afterward that our speeches were improvised, they were shocked, since everything had gone over so well.

I gave some thought to this later in the day. Why is it that something you say in the moment and off the cuff can work better than a script that you had slaved over to get just right?

I’m not sure, but here’s a clue: If I’m a little surprised by something I say in a speech, maybe the audience will be too. 🙂