Archive for December, 2014

Identity politics

Thursday, December 11th, 2014

It was not too long ago in our nation’s history when something like the following would have been inconceivable:

For reasons that I have not yet fully worked out, being in a nation where stuff like this can happen makes me incredibly happy.

Three is a crowd

Wednesday, December 10th, 2014

It occurs to me that the “Three famous people” game that I described yesterday can be played the other way. Rather than the challenge being to find the answer, the challenge can be to come up with a good question.

It can be surprisingly difficult to find two famous people with exactly *one* other famous person obviously connecting them.

For example, yesterday Sharon suggested “Tom Hanks” and “Neil Young”. I thought she meant Jonathan Demme, since he connects them through the film “Philadelphia”. But it turns out she meant Daryl Hannah, which definitely works as a good answer at the moment.

So maybe we can design a kind of crowd sourcing game: Contestants post two famous names, and various people out there on the internet try to guess who is the third famous person clearly connected to both of them.

Your goal as a contestant is to post two names that will result in nearly everybody guessing the same third name. The greater the unanimity of response, the higher your score.

By the way, we should probably ban the use of famous people who strongly evoke one person in particular (e.g.: Stan Laurel).

Come to think of it, I wonder whether we can use this general method for turning around any guessing game: Given any given guessing game, use the Crowd to create another game, one which measures the quality not of the answers, but of the questions.

Three famous people

Tuesday, December 9th, 2014

There are some pairs of people who are so indelibly tied together that if I name one, you’ll probably think of the other. We could even make a game of it. For example, if I say “Spencer Tracy” — assuming you know who Spencer Tracy was — you would immediately say “Katherine Hepburn”.

But some very famous people are not clearly tied to just one person. For example, if I say “John Lennon”, do you say “Paul McCartney” or “Yoko Ono”?

So it might be interesting to make the following variant of this game: I name two famous people, and you need to figure out what famous third person is associated with both of them.

Let’s give some examples. In each case, you need to name a third famous person that both have in common:

(1) Bill Clinton and Tommy Lee Jones
(2) Peter Bogdanovich and Bruce Willis
(3) Heath Ledger and Taylor Swift

I’m guessing that many people will be solve one or another of the above, but most people won’t be able to solve all three.

I suspect that if you design this game properly, you can learn quite a lot about a person by which answers they get right and which they don’t.

Can you come up with interesting examples for the “Three famous people” game?

† To clarify, by “solve” I mean that you don’t need to check your answer with a search engine, because you know for sure. :-)

Psycho-genetic testing

Monday, December 8th, 2014

You can send a sample of your DNA to or one of its competitors, and they will tell you where your forebears came from, your ethnic mix going back many generations, and all sorts of things about your family tree that might end up surprising you. Clearly the people who subscribe to such services would like to know the truth about themselves and where their genes came from.

Yet when it comes to other things, we might not be so eager to know the truth about ourselves. I’m thinking in particular about our attitudes about race, gender and other groups of people that society likes to lump together.

As I watch the various responses to the tragedies in Ferguson and on Staten Island, I think that one of the tricky aspects of trying to discuss all of this is that most people don’t realize that they themselves harbor prejudices. Almost anybody you talk to will assure you that they themselves are not prejudice. Yet they are perfectly comfortable with the thought that a very large number of other people are indeed prejudiced.

Suppose we had the equivalent of genetic testing, but one that gives you a map of your prejudices, racial or otherwise, that you yourself never knew you were harboring.

I would argue that a conversation in the U.S. about race could only be helped by such self-knowledge. After all, there is no shame in harboring prejudices. All of us have irrational emotional responses to things, and many of those responses stem from times in our early childhood when we had no control over whatever nutty ideas our all-powerful parents may have been feeding us.

The real question is what you actually do and say, how you treat and speak about others, whatever your inner demons may be. It can only help to learn about prejudices in your own soul that you never knew you had. To speak truly about anything, you must first know the truth about yourself.

The Entire History of You

Sunday, December 7th, 2014

Now that the BBC miniseries Black Mirror is available on streaming Netflix, a lot of us are getting to see it for the first time. I had been hearing for months about the third episode, “The Entire History of You”, and it truly was worth the wait.

For my money it’s an incredibly well written story. And unlike much of what you see on American television, not everything is spelled out in a patronizingly explicit way. The more I thought about the characters afterward, and what was left implied but never said about their relationship history, the more perfectly it all came together.

Spoiler alert: Stop here if you want to know nothing at all about the episode before seeing it, although I’m not going to give anything away that you won’t find out in the first few minutes of the show.

When you and I have a conversation, I can choose what to tell you and what not to tell you. But more than that, I can skew the truth in artful ways, usually to avoid saying something that might be hurtful to you or someone else. “The Entire History of You” raises the question of what human relationships would be like if everyone had total recall. So one thing that strikes me about this question is how much it highlights the importance of ambiguity.

Not only is our entire social existence predicated on a delicate dance around truth, but natural language itself supports this dance very well. There is a consensus among linguists that one of the richest features of natural language is its powerful ability to modulate degrees of ambiguity of meaning. Note, by the way, that this is exactly the opposite of what we generally want from computer programming languages.

So if everyone had perfect total recall, we would be faced with a socially impossible situation: The very way that we have evolved as a species to think and to communicate with each other, to be able to co-exist with each other as humans, would no longer work.

After all, happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory. And if I had total recall, I could tell you who first said that. :-)

Taking the red pill

Saturday, December 6th, 2014

I’ve noticed, in recent discussions with my students about the potential future of virtual reality, that the “Matrix” question comes up rather frequently.

I mean, the question of whether there is any way to know if you are experiencing an excellent computer simulation of reality, rather than reality itself.

In the original film, Neo was given the choice of taking a blue pill or a red pill. If you take the blue pill, then you remain blissfully aware that you are living within an illusion. But if you take the red pill, then you end up waking up to the reality outside the emulation.

Which leads to the following question: It you suspect you are in the Matrix, and you really really want to take the red pill, what would be your best strategy to figure out whether the world you see around you is just a simulation?

I suspect the answer would have something to do with the topics I discussed yesterday. Some things are much much harder to emulate than others, so your best bet might be to figure out what is the most computationally expensive thing to emulate, and then test for flaws in that.

Then again, if there is an A.I. agent monitoring your experience, intent on keeping you on a blue pill diet, then it can simply warp your perception of whatever experiment you try to perform, thereby maintaining the illusion of a perfect emulation.

So maybe you would need to design an experiment that takes such an A.I. agent into account. Which might not be so easy. :-)

Emulation costs

Friday, December 5th, 2014

I was having a spirited debate with a colleague about where the brain ends. In particular, we were discussing where you can say “this part is the human body”, and “this part is the human brain.”

My colleague was arguing for an inclusive definition — the body is a simulator of itself, and the brain cannot function without the feedback from that body. One example he gave was the chemical activity in our gastric system. When we’re nervous or agitated, the nerves to our brain receive signals from all that chemical activity.

Eventually we both clarified that what we were really discussing was the question of what parts of the body, if any, could be effectively emulated — replaced by a simulation — without adversely affecting our brain’s ability to process the resulting data. We both agreed that it probably wouldn’t be too difficult to computationally simulate the chemical reactions in the stomach that trigger signals in our nervous system when we are agitated or upset.

But we disagreed about the nerve pathways that run from the body up into the brain itself. I felt that it would be extremely difficult to replace those pathways, and the various sorts of processing that goes on along them, by computer emulation.

Thinking back on the conversation, it occurs to me that we might really have been discussing Moore’s Law. Assuming computers continue to get twice as fast every eighteen months, when will it become feasible to emulate the signals from the stomach to the enteric nervous system? And then at what later date will we be able to emulate the parasympathetic nervous system? And then the entire autonomic nervous system?

At what point will we be able to emulate the cerebellum? The optic nerve? Specific language centers in our brain?

We could map out a rough timeline, given that Moore’s Law holds, when it could be possible to replace more and more of our experience of reality with a computer emulation.

I’m not saying that this would be a good thing to do. I’m just saying that at some point in the future, parts of it will become possible to do. And whatever side of the ethical debate you are on, you might be well advised to know where the important points are along that timeline.

I suspect that there are key central functions of your brain — including higher level cognition that we associate with our conscious sense of self — which would be far off to the right on that emulation timeline, perhaps several hundred years beyond your lifetime.

Unless, of course, the other parts of you become emulated well enough. In that case, your conscious mind might still be around when it becomes possible to emulate your entire brain. I wonder what your opinion will be then.

Joss Sherman-Moffat

Thursday, December 4th, 2014

Like many Netflix users, I’m watching various TV shows in parallel. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, one of them is “The Gilmore Girls”. Another is “Dr. Who”, and a third is “Marvel’s Agents of Shield.”

It’s hard to choose a favorite, when you’re ping-ponging between Joss Whedon, Steven Moffat and Amy Sherman-Paladino. I would love to have all three of them over for dinner sometime. If that ever happens, I promise I will record their glittering conversation for posterity.

One thing I’ve notice is that in the most important sense, they are all essentially the same show. Well, not literally. One is concerned with the dating life of a single mom and her teenage daughter, another is concerned with saving the world from alien menaces, and the third is concerned with, um, saving the world from alien menaces.

But really, underneath all that, they are pretty much exactly the same: A ragtag group of very smart non-conformists, deprived of anything most of us would recognize as a normal family, have banded together to build their own idiosyncratic version of family. All of which is accompanied by rapid-fire quips, conversations filled with obscure pop culture references, and the kind of “us against them” sardonic humor that would be instantly recognizable to any middle school kid who has ever gotten beaten up before lunch.

Come to think of it, I think I’ve just described half the TV shows out there.

Mysterious alchemy

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014

A few days ago, as I was putting the final touches on that interactive logo I talked about in yesterday’s post (well, it’s interactive if you’re not using Firefox), I decided to explore the space a bit more.

So I implemented a kind of ‘Lego version’: When you draw any collection of lines, those lines are converted into links of a flexible interactive shape that you can then play with. I showed this to my computer graphics class, and we used it to make little stick figure creatures as part of a discussion of principles of animation.

One thing led to another over the next two days, and now this little animated stick figure program has grown into a new direction for our lab that ties together research ideas in interactive drawing, procedural animation, recursive graphs and virtual reality.

I was very surprised when all of these connections started showing up, and also very pleased. That’s one of the things I like about research. Through some mysterious alchemy that I don’t completely understand, just ‘playing around’ can lead to exciting — and often unexpected — breakthroughs.

Logo programming

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014

I am fortunate enough to be affiliated with a research consortium of brilliant and highly inventive individuals, the Communications Design Group (CDG). Recently we started talking about what our logo should be. Not surprisingly, lots of people jumped in with fun and innovative suggestions.

One of our colleagues, Patrick Dubroy, created quite a few designs, all of them wonderful. Each design emphasized a different positive aspect of our group. One design in particular, which he called “connections” (see below), highlighted the way everything we do is interconnected:

A number of us looked at this and had the same thought: that a design so visually evocative is practically begging to be interactive. So several people in the group tried their hand at making it so.

Here was my attempt to turn Patrick’s logo design into a fun toy that you can play with.