Future great dead people

I was in a meeting with some fellow faculty today, in which we were trying to work out how best to evolve the curriculum at NYU to include what might be called “computational media”. Obviously this is a moving target. The computational media of ten years ago, of now, and of ten years from now are all quite different.

I think this is mainly because of Moore’s Law. Available compute power determines what sorts of forms of cyber-enabled expression will impact the culture in any given year. For example, desktop publishing really only started to become practical about thirty years ago. Similarly, wireless streaming of content (first songs, and then movies and TV), have only become practical in recent years. And we are just now hitting the wave of practical high quality consumer-level VR and AR.

But independent of all that, we needed to figure out what is the proper role of the University in all this. Trying to frame the issue in terms of a University’s fundamental purpose, I offered the following:

“We can divide the University’s mission into two parts. First, roughly speaking, we have research and teaching to understand the existing work of great dead people. And second, we have research and teaching to nurture the emerging work of future great dead people.”

As soon as the words had left my mouth, I realized, to my extreme embarrassment, that I had phrased that last part very awkwardly. Fortunately, my colleagues basically agreed with me.

That is, as soon as they could stop laughing.


Today I attended the celebration at NYU of Louis Nuremberg, the fourth NY recipient of the Abel prize in mathematics, a highly prestigious prize established in honor of the great group theorist Niels Henrik Abel.

The Abel prize is roughly the equivalent, in Mathematics, of the Nobel prize. In the thirteen years the prize has been in existence, four of the winners have been from our own NYU Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences.

Which is amazing.

Because this was an important event, I thought it merited an original joke worthy of the occasion. So I casually buttonholed various colleagues, and said the following:

“You know, if it turns out that there are a prime number of people here, we could all join hands and form a circle. Then we’d be an Abelian group.”

Fortunately, this was just the right crowd for that sort of joke, and everybody thought it was very funny.

But I would definitely not recommend it for most parties.

Stick figures on the Holodeck

It makes sense that there would be a rush to develop the most realistic, highest polygon count, most finely textured visions for virtual reality. After all, that’s the dream, right? The ability to create worlds, to remake reality itself, only perhaps better, richer, more full of wonder.

Yet as our little NYU Holodeck has started to become a reality, I find myself pulling strongly in a very different direction. I spent much of this weekend working on an animated stick figure. As I worked at it, I realized fairly early on that my inspiration was the xkcd webcomic, and its simple yet remarkably evocative characters.

It was a little over a year ago that I had the privilege of meeting Randall Munroe in person, having been a follower of xkcd for years. I showed him my software for making sketches come to life and turn into animated characters. At the time I felt a little like an aspiring songwriter playing a tune for Bob Dylan.

But he was very kind and helpful, and gave me some good suggestions. He helped me to realize that it’s not about making things more real, but about finding great expressiveness in a few strokes.

I think I’m channelling some of that energy now. I’m not so much interested in creating a physically accurate world, but rather a world filled with expressive characters, teeming with personalities and emotions and human ideas. Deliberately swinging away from realism — putting stick figures on the Holodeck — is one way to get closer to that.

Besides, it’s pretty cool to see a little stick figure man walking across a table. 🙂

But everyone knew her as Nancy

At the recommendation of a colleague, I finally got around to reading Cory Doctorow’s 2003 sci-fi masterpiece Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. I started reading it earlier today, and pretty much scarfed it down, start to finish, in a single gulp.

The most fun thing about this book, which takes place about 150 years in the future, is that all of the advanced technology — the cochlear implants, the built-in heads up displays, the casual use of finger and hand gestures as user interface, even the ability to upload our memories and download ourselves into new bodies — are not the focus.

Rather, these are just the starting point. They are simple givens, like automobiles or washing machines. The real focus of the book is on what people are like in such a reality, how they relate to each other — the world of friends, lovers, mentors and rivals, human concerns that are as old as time.

The same issues that tug at our hearts, the same mysterious bonds that tie us to each other, yet manifest themselves differently with every newly developed form of communication.

If only he hadn’t gotten the lyrics wrong to Rocky Raccoon. I’m still trying to figure out whether he did that on purpose.


Some day in the not too distant future, your conversations will leave a visible trail if you want them to. A discussion you had with a friend outside your apartment, that debate with a fellow student at school, your declaration of true love in a favorite restaurant.

You will be able to see any of these events as a visible trail in the air. Not only will your memories be there when you go to visit those places, but they will also be available in your VR travels, whenever you decide to put on your cyber-glasses and visit old haunts.

An episode of Black Mirror presented a dystopian version of this capability, but I remained unconvinced. The people in that story didn’t seem to understand the implications of the technology, and so as inhabitants of such a reality their behavior made no sense. The equivalent in our world would be talking to a reporter and then being surprised when your words show up in the newspaper.

Should the day come when we can all leave trails of our every conversation, I think people will be much more sophisticated about it. There will be laws against invading someone else’s memories, just as there are now laws against hacking into somebody’s computer.

To me the more interesting question is how we will handle our own trails. Will you choose to keep your memories in sight? Will you allow yourself to see only the happy ones? Or will you decide to stay away from some places all together, so you won’t have the burden of deciding?

Goodnight moon

David, a member of our research team, is working on a beautiful and inviting VR room. Today we all tried it out.

Imagine that you are in the book Goodnight Moon, except that it is a real place, and you can actually go up to the window, and look outside to see the moon and the stars. It was like that.

Taking off the headset was a bit of a shock. Suddenly you’re back in the harsh realm of reality, without no lovely storybook fireplace, or cozy little bed or night table.

After emerging back into the real world I said, to nobody in particular, “I hated to leave that place.”

One of the students nodded her head and said, “Yes I know. I could have just stayed in there all day.”

I thought about that for a moment, and then I said to the students, “Maybe this is it, right here. The beginning of the end for humanity.”

They knew exactly what I meant.

Lush life

I recently started watching Twin Peaks on streaming Netflix. I hadn’t seen it at all in the nearly twenty five years since it went off the air, and somewhere in the back of my mind I wondered why I’d started to rewatch it now.

I should mention that I am thoroughly enjoying the experience. When Twin Peaks first came out, I didn’t appreciate the full extent of what David Lynch was up to. It’s completely unlike anything that had ever been on television before.

For one thing, every shot is gorgeous. The colors and tones are excruciatingly lovely, the framing perfect, the play of light upon the faces of the actors luminous and haunting, and the music that flows in and around the story is unearthly yet mournful.

There are countless visual moments that simply take my breath away. The very possibility that you could do something like this on TV, this kind of lavish chiaroscuro in a muted technicolor palette, was not even part of the conversation back in 1990. Until David Lynch and his team did it.

Just yesterday I realized why I had sought out this particular TV viewing experience: Because last week I had watched The Tales of Hoffmann (in a gorgeous Technicolor print at the Film Forum). I had found myself immersed in the take-no-prisoners hyper-romanticism of Michael Powell and Emetic Pressburger, and I had wanted more.

Lynch is clearly the direct aesthetic descendent of Powell and Pressburger, a fellow worshiper of the lush yet artfully overripe as pure visual opera.

These are not the grand but visually cold offerings of a James Cameron or a Christopher Nolan, nor the slightly coy toy box aesthetic of a Tim Burton or a Wes Anderson. No, these are full-blown romantic visions, dark, dangerous to the touch, bursting with heat and erotic suggestion.

I’ll take that over an Avatar or an Interstellar any day.

Superman is listening

One year at sleepaway camp, I think I was about eleven years old, I was reading a Superman comic book, and I got to my favorite part, where they publish letters from kids. Often readers would write in to ask various questions, and some of these questions were of a technical nature.

In this particular issue, an intrepid reader had noticed that Superman had caught some bad guys by using his super hearing to eavesdrop on their nefarious conversation. Because he is Superman, he’d been able to do this from halfway around the world.

What the kid wanted to know was this: With all of those billions of people chatting away, many of them a lot nearer than those villains, how was Superman able to pick out a single conversation through all that chatter?

The editors of D.C. Comics had an answer ready: Because Superman has super hearing, he is not only able to hear all the conversations in the world at once, but he is also able to distinguish each conversation from all the others. From there, it’s just a matter of choosing the particular conversation he is listening for.


If you are like I was as an eleven year old kid, you might be deeply suspicious of answers that merely repeat the question using different words. On the other hand, you might think that was a fine answer, in which case you may have have a bright future in politics.

And yet the scenario they were describing is something we now take for granted: If I mention your name in my blog, wherever you may be in the world, within a few minutes you might very well get a helpful alert from a Bot informing you that I was talking about you — even if you’ve never before heard of either me or my blog.

When I was a little kid, this kind of thing would have seemed about as plausible as a guy from outer space flying through the air in tights and a colorful red cape.

And yet, as Edna says, here we are. Some day soon, when we have cast away those silly smartphones, and information technology moves, as it inevitably will, into our eyes, our ears, our fingertips, those Bots will have a much richer meal to dine upon.

Imagine a cafe, perhaps twenty years in the future. You are sitting with a friend, settling into your second Bermuda highball and trading gossip. Or maybe not. For whenever you name-check someone, whoever or wherever they may be in the world, a tireless Bot is ready to whisper your words into their ear.

Superman is listening.

Open source

I’ve been using some open source software called THREE.js, and I like it a lot. It’s a software library that provides a common way for programmers to specify three dimensional objects and scenes in a web page.

Some coders don’t like to use such libraries. They say “Why should I use somebody else’s stupid library, when I can write all that stuff myself?” But the real advantage is that an entire community of programmers ends up following the same conventions.

It doesn’t even matter much what those conventions are. The important thing is your code and my code will work together, because we’ve both agreed to use something like the THREE.js software library.

Which is all great, until those conventions change. Now, officially, software libraries are not supposed to alter the names of things without a lot of warning. It’s kind of like trying to move a railroad track while the trains are running. Bad things are likely to happen.

Alas, THREE.js has done this to us several times. For example, some months ago somebody decided that the shape called “Cube” should instead be called “Box”, so they just renamed it. Which is great, except that if you had any cubes in your little webpage scene, your page just broke.

On the whole, I’m happy with the open source approach. It builds community, everyone shares their work freely, and the energy is more about creativity and openness than about somebody else getting rich. And it’s not like renaming a “Cube” as a “Box” is the end of the world.

At least not yet. One day, several decades from now, when everybody is seeing everything through those little cyber-contact lenses or retinal implants, some hotshot programmer is going to come up with a better word for “Box”.

And all around the globe, in a single instant, all of the buildings in the world will disappear from sight.

Less is more

The mission statement of our start-up company has been gradually evolving. Because our technology came out of a University research mind-set, for the longest time we were focused mainly on how cool and innovative our technology was.

When people would ask us what our product does, we would describe our ingenious technology, and talk about how amazing it was. People would then inevitably ask “So what’s it good for?”

That was always a tough moment, because when you’re the proud parent of a fancy new technology, you find it hard to believe that people don’t already see it the same way you do. Maybe, you think, they are asking the question rhetorically, since the answer is so obvious.

A good analogy might be showing photos of your newborn baby. Obviously everybody in the world is going to take one look at your kid’s darling face and realize that this is the most beautiful and brilliant child in the entire world. And if they don’t, then clearly they are complete morons.

This, my friends, is not the best energy out of which to create a successful marketing strategy.

What you gradually realize — and this can take quite a while — was that other people will not fall in love with your baby on first sight. But people will respond to a clear story about how your baby might grow up to help the world become a better place.

Now, here’s the really tricky part: When you tell that story, you need to leave out almost all of it. You may know that your technology is capable of solving a million different problems. But you need to talk about only one problem — one very focused problem that is clearly out there in the world, and that your technology can help with.

All of those other cool things? Take them off the table. This is a case where less is more. A single narrative, one market focus, a well defined group of customers and users — that’s the only story the world is capable of hearing about your wondrous little hatchling.

And what if your little baby chick one day grows up and happens to accomplish other great things as well? Well, nobody is going to complain. But that’s only going to happen if it manages to leave the nest.