Archive for October, 2014

Zetetic

Saturday, October 11th, 2014

Because I am getting on a flight today that will span many time zones, and I know I will need to deal with jet lag afterward, I spent a happy hour this morning reading all about Flat Earth theories. After all, if the world were not round like a ball, but rather “round like a plate” (as Imogene Coca once explained on “It’s About Time”), I wouldn’t need to worry about jet lag.

Once you start delving into Zetetic theories of our planet, you can read for hours. Not only is the Flat Earth Society alive and well, but it has all sorts of precedents that I found startling. For example, as late as 1605, it was universally accepted in Imperial China that the earth was flat, a belief dispelled only through the introduction, by Jesuits, of Western techniques of astronomy.

And reading this stuff reminds you of all sorts of things that you kind of knew, but hadn’t paid enough attention to. For example, although Pythagoras was saying as early as the 6th Century BC that the Earth is a sphere, it was the publication the Almagest by Ptolemy nearly seven centuries later that finally settled the issue for the ancient Greeks.

Maybe I will get over my jet lag by trying to read that.

Do you have to be dead to live forever?

Friday, October 10th, 2014

It seems pretty clear that one reason vampires are so popular in our culture is that they represent a fantasy that you can be young and beautiful and live forever.

It’s interesting how this acts as a sort of counter-weight to religion. Many organized religions tell us that yes, you need to grow old and die, but it’s ok, because afterward, you are going to move on to a better life in a realm beyond.

Religions also put a lot of effort into helping bind families together, through shared rituals, traditions and beliefs. This promotes another kind of immortality: I might die, but I will pass on a piece of my identity to my children, which they will pass on in turn to theirs.

But the vampire fantasy goes for the whole enchilada: I will literally be here forever, and I’m going to look great and have a fabulous time.

Of course there is a down side, and you can see this down side as a tension between the lure of the vampire and the dictates of prevailing religion. For one thing, they are, in a way, dead. They are also evil, selfish, and an abomination before God (as Catholic priests in vampire movies so often put it). And they don’t tan well.

It’s interesting to me that there are far fewer examples in popular culture of the immortal who is not dead.

So we have examples, but they are few and far between, and the gender balance is atrocious. There’s Gregory Widen’s Connor MacLead, Robert Heinlein’s Lazarus Long, Jerome Bixby’s John Oldman, a handful of characters by Roger Zelazny, and not all that much more.

Well, not that much when compared with vampires. Our culture is lousy with vampires.

Why is this so? I suspect one reason might be that the living immortal does not provide a compelling counterpoint to prevailing religion, no built in pretext for a battle between good and evil. There is no cost exacted for cheating death, and no ticket to eternal damnation included in the price tag of immortality.

At the beach

Thursday, October 9th, 2014

There is something beautifully simple about being at the beach. It is an experience of joyous sensation for all the senses.

The sky above, the feel of the Sun on your skin and of the sand beneath your feet, of the gentle breeze off the ocean. The water, once you go in, is refreshingly cool and salty to the taste.

People go into the water and play with abandon. Young and old alike — everyone is five years old. We become our natural selves, unselfconscious, running and laughing, uncomplicated creatures of pure delight.

It would be wonderful if we could be more like that when we are away from the beach.

Lunar eclipse

Wednesday, October 8th, 2014

Last night a number of us went down to the beach and watched the total eclipse of the Moon.

We are usually so frantic, so busy, so distracted in our everyday lives. We make our mental lists, race to and fro, and think of where we should be rather than where we are.

But the Moon is in another realm of existence altogether.

To watch the shadow of the Earth, slowly and with great majesty, pass across the face of the Moon, is to glimpse the clockwork of the Universe, to bear witness to the slow and regal dance of the Spheres.

Lying on a sandy beach, and watching this magnificent show as it gradually unfolded, I was transported out of the day to day, and into a world of pure spirit.

Food for thought

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014

The student innovation contest today at the UIST conference included many ingenious submissions. There were discerning desk drawers, dancing dracaena, disco dishwashers and many other diverse delights.

But my experience of the event was perhaps a little skewed by the fact that none of the snacks provided by the conference were anything I — or any of the other vegans present — would eat. So I ended up gravitating toward two projects in particular.

One of those projects was a modified toaster that could print custom patterns on a slice of bread, under computer control. The device could spell out messages, create images of cartoon characters, or print pretty much anything else you’d like to see on your breakfast toast.

The best part was that the students provided a handy jar of peanut butter. After you were done printing your custom slice of toast, you could spread peanut butter on it and walk away with a yummy snack. It was quite delicious.

The next project I visited used the kind of xyz stage you’d normally see in a 3D printer, repurposed to act as a jelly printer. Navigating as though playing a video game, you could steer a jelly-depositing “print head” over a slice of toast, painting on a pattern of your choice.

When you were all done with your jelly covered masterpiece, you could take the slice with you. I can happily report that it was very yummy. Between that and the previous demo, I ended up being happily fed.

Now if only those two groups of students could join forces, I’m sure they would take over the world.

The (sort of) protean brain

Monday, October 6th, 2014

Mark Bolas gave a brilliant and very provocative opening keynote today at the UIST 2014 conference. He posited that we may all end up in virtual reality in the long run, because, as the technology advances, VR will eventually subsume the capabilities of literal reality, and will eventually allow us to move far beyond it.

Obviously this is a high controversial statement. People who have spent their entire lives in relatively unmediated physical reality might be understandably unnerved by the prospect of such a radical shift in the perceptual paradigm. I’m pretty sure he was saying it precisely to be provocative — to get people talking and debating about the many issues surrounding such a possible future.

Mark is certainly qualified to fling down that particular gauntlet. Over the last several decades he has done far more than anyone else to advance the field of virtual reality, and he doesn’t seem to be slowing down.

Yet even if we posit, for the sake of argument, that his prediction is correct, there remains an interesting question: As we start to shift the apparent reality around us, freed from the constraints of the real world, what other constraints will still remain, imposed by our own brains?

There are many sorts of things that seem baked in to our otherwise highly protean human brain. For example, it is well established now that our brains have built in rules that constrain the possible grammars of natural languages.

It is also well known that human babies, quite soon after birth, will seek out two dots that are side by side, but will ignore two dots one above the other. This suggests an innate instinct to seek out a mother’s eyes.

How many other such constraints are built into our human brains? These constraints, whatever they may be, will create hard limits around the reality we may collectively experience in any shared future — even one that reality is entirely virtual.

New versus useful

Sunday, October 5th, 2014

The Spatial User Interaction workshop I am attending this weekend features many exciting new approaches to how people can interact with computers. Yet I’ve noticed an odd thing about some of these approaches.

They are cool, they are exciting, they are certainly thought provoking, but in some cases they just don’t work very well. Recognition of a user’s gestures is often error prone, or subject to noise, or ambiguous, or just too coarse for allow fine distinctions.

I’m beginning to think that there is some law of conservation at work here: The more radical is an idea for how people can interact with information, maybe the less likely that it will be truly useful.

I’m not saying that’s always the case, just that I see a pattern.

One example of this, which has become a bit of a joke among people in the user interfaces community, was the way the character played by Tom Cruise in the Stephen Spielberg film Minority Report held his arms up to direct things on the computer screen in front of him. The underlying ideas, which largely came from John Underkoffler, were indeed exciting.

Yet the way those ideas showed up in Spielberg’s direction, they didn’t really work on any practical level. What mere mortal could really hold their arms straight out in front of them for entire minutes at a time?

On the other hand, it looked very cool. :-)

Our superpower

Saturday, October 4th, 2014

This morning I gave a keynote talk at the Spatial User Interaction workshop, in which I presented a kind of vision of the future. In the Q&A after the talk, people asked some really great and challenging questions.

In my answers to those questions, I realized that I kept returning to the same point: The most amazing thing about humans is our built in ability to communicate through natural language. Everything we do, build, create, comes out of that shared ability.

We so take it for granted that this superpower is “normal”, that we generally forget how astonishing it is.

To a sentient being that did not possess the ability to casually communicate their thoughts to each other, what we do every day, without even thinking about it, would seem like pure magic.

Consider not just our computer software, or our movies, books and plays, but the very clothing we wear and the buildings we inhabit, our bridges, roads, eyeglasses and coffee makers. These, and everything else we create, are basically outgrowths of our shared language instinct. Without it, none of these things would exist.

The fact that you are reading this right now and are immediately forming your own thoughts, theories and counter-theories in response, really is a marvel beyond compare.

Just didn’t want you to forget that. :-)

Do not trust airplanes

Friday, October 3rd, 2014


Do not trust airplanes
One of those things took away
Someone dear to me

A stranger returned
Same of face, same of body
But not my true love

That last farewell kiss
Is as fresh now in my heart
As a new red rose

With a taste so sweet
And promise of a future
That was not to be

Do not trust airplanes
No, do not trust them. When they
Take your love away

The fire of a kiss,
Once so tender, leaves nothing
But a taste of ash

Prepping

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014

I’m going to be giving a presentation this Saturday. Much of it will be new, although I’ll be using elements from talks and demos I’ve given before.

I remain somewhat nonplussed by the mysterious alchemy that goes into preparing for one of these talks. On the one hand, the weeks leading up to it seem so busy, in an almost random way. I might spend hours — even days — on experiments that I end up throwing out, but then something that took only a few minutes ends up being exactly right.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I believe, part of me knows exactly what will happen, how the actual talk will unfold, where all the beats will land. But that part of me isn’t telling the rest of me. Perhaps he doesn’t want to spoil the surprise.

As the days and then hours tick closer to the presentation, I finally start to see where I was going all the time, and only then does it fully make sense.

I used to think I should be fully planning these things out, in advance, that I was somehow being lazy or remiss by letting the pieces fall into place in such an apparently haphazard way.

Now I know better.