Archive for May, 2015

Track 45 left, part 1

Thursday, May 21st, 2015

In her comment on one of my posts the other day, Sally plausibly assumed that my Pad zoomable interface was influenced by Blade Runner. In fact, Pad evolved from an obsession I had back in 1979 to create a portable device that would show zoomable maps, to be stored as successions of tiled images with progressively doubled resolution.

It wasn’t until 1989 that I finally got my hands on a computer fast enough to let me build a good real-time demo of the concept — my first implementation of the Pad zoomable interface. The paradigm of zooming through the use of powers-of-two tiles gradually spread, particularly after David Fox and I published a SIGGRAPH paper about it in 1993, and eventually became used for lots of things, such as Google Maps.

Of course there was nothing new about zooming, even back then. Kees Boeke’s book Cosmic View, published in 1957, had famously inspired two wonderful films by Ray and Charles Eames. My additions were the use of this paradigm for a general purpose computer/user interface, and the use of powers-of-two tile storage to make it all practical.

To my mind, the wondrous “Enhance 224 to 176…” scene from Blade Runner — one of my favorite scenes from any movie — which superficially seems to suggest a Pad-like paradigm, is actually evocative of something vastly (and excitingly) different. More on that tomorrow.

Programming is magic

Wednesday, May 20th, 2015

To misquote Sarah Silverman, programming is magic. And by this I mean something very specific.

In the physical world we use tools to help us build things. But the things we build are still made out of relatively stupid materials. No matter how well made is a hammer or a saw, a piece of wood is still a piece of wood. It doesn’t know anything about what you are going to create out of it, and it can’t help you very much, other than by acting exactly like a piece of wood.

Programmers learn to see things differently. When you program, you are really mainly in the business of building very smart materials — objects that know all sorts of things about how you will assemble them together, and that can actively help you to build with them.

If a piece of wood were a software object, it would already know how to align itself perfectly with other pieces of wood, to create a set of notches in itself for making a dovetail joint, or how to ensure that any nails or screws you drive into it will always land in exactly the right place.

And once a single piece of wood knows how to do all of those things, then every piece of wood also gains the same knowledge. If you try to think of analogous situations in the physical world, the closest parallel is to the laws of magic.

Sometime in the coming decades, when we are all living in an eccescopically enhanced world, in which atoms and bits blend much more seamlessly than they do today, the way people construct things in the physical world will become ever more aligned with the way that programmers already think about creating things.

Imagine someone from today’s world, suddenly transported to that future time. They would look the way every day things were constructed, and they would think that they had entered a world of pure magic.

First day in Paris

Tuesday, May 19th, 2015

This is my first day in Paris. I am here for a four week stay, with occasional side trips to places like Cologne, Dublin and Tübingen. As long as I qm, you know, in the neighborhood. 🙂

And not just Paris. I am staying in a swank Haussmainnian flat (you could look it up) in the 17th Arrondissement. It’s one of those places where you look around and think “Wow, what a large and lovely and elegant apartment!”, and congratulate yourself on lucking out. Then you happen to open another door, and you say “Oh my god, there’s a whole other master bedroom and bathroom!”

Speaking as a Manhattanite, where the words “apartment” and “closet with running water” are used interchangeably, this place has some serious Mojo.

Yet in moments when I am truly honest with myself, I realize that this all feeds my inner nerd. I know that I will spend hours roaming the City of Lights, crossing Pont Neuf, wandering through Le Marais, communing with the statues at the Musée Rodin.

And then I’m going to come back here and get some serious programming done.

Cool idea for a T-shirt

Monday, May 18th, 2015



cat foo | sort -n +2 | awk '{if ($3 > 0) print}'

Ceci n’est ce pas une pipe.



Waiting for Frankenstein

Sunday, May 17th, 2015

This evening I read yet another article about our cultural obsession with machines that come to life and then want to take over the world. There is a long tradition of this sort of thing in Western literature.

From the Golem to Frankenstein’s creature to Maria in Metropolis to Robots, HAL, Cylons, Replicants Terminators and on and on and on, our culture seems obsessed by the idea that we will one day create an artificially intelligent being that will then displace us.

Yet I have not seen any compelling evidence that such a thing is even possible. From an empirical standpoint, the notion of a machine that would “want” to be human — or that would want anything at all, in the sense that we generally understand that word — has no correlate in reality.

There are many SciFi fantasies that we clearly understand to be metaphoric, from time machines to faster than light travel. When we talk about any of these devices, we generally understand that we are merely using a convenient literary convention.

So why is the Golem fantasy different? Why is it that every time we see another fantastical A.I. tale from a writer’s imagination, whether 2001 or Her or ex Machina, we debate about it as though discussing something as immediate and real as tomorrow’s weather?

Apparently some cultural neurosis compels us to wait for Frankenstein’s monster to walk through the door. But that doesn’t mean anyone is actually on the other side of the door.

One of those moments

Saturday, May 16th, 2015

This evening I went with friends to see the Berlin Philharmonic. It was all wonderful.

But when Yuja Wang came out to play Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2, it all went somewhere far beyond wonderful. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a powerful experience at an orchestral performance.

Prokofiev’s second piano concerto is a work of intense emotion. He wrote it in memory of a close friend who had committed suicide, and he essentially wrote it twice — the second time after the original orchestral score was destroyed in a fire following the Russian revolution.

Yuja Wang played the piece as though she was possessed. It was astonishing to see and hear so much emotional power flow from a single human being, particularly one so young.

Meanwhile, the orchestra and conductor Paavo Jarvi clearly understood that something extraordinary was happening, and they rose to the occasion magnificently. The interaction between pianist, conductor, orchestra and enraptured audience was a thing of pure beauty.

It was one of those moments that make you realize how truly fortunate you are to be alive.

VR accessories

Friday, May 15th, 2015

VR headsets seem to be
The hot new business, you’ll agree.

In a movie you can view
Only what’s in front of you.

But VR shows what’s all around,
From back to front, from sky to ground.

Yet there are problems, so it seems,
In selling those immersive dreams.

You can’t walk in this new space
Because you’d fall upon your face.

You cannot run, you can’t explore
And when you hear that dinosaur

You cannot look behind to check,
Unless you want to hurt your neck.

The real next-gen millionaires?
They’re buying stock in swivel chairs!

Ignoring the cheap shot

Thursday, May 14th, 2015

Today a man that I know professionally attacked me on a social network site, in a particularly puerile and ignorant way. My first instinct was to fight back, to publicly defend myself.

And then I realized that the entire episode was simply ridiculous, that this guy was just taking a cheap and intellectually lazy shot. To directly respond to such an attack would be, at best, a waste of time.

You never know when somebody will try to misrepresent you, whether through malice, ignorance or stupidity. And you may feel the immediate instinct to fight back.

But often the attack is so evidently ludicrous and ill informed that no defense is required. You just need to trust that the people reading these things are not idiots, and will see such nonsense for what it is.

Or else what’s the point of anything?


Wednesday, May 13th, 2015

Today a friend told me a story she heard about a study that was done among chimpanzees in Africa. I suspect the story is apocryphal, but in a way that makes it even better.

It seems that some scientists had been studying a group of chimpanzees, and had observed behavior which in humans correlates to depression, such as eating at odd times, spending lots of time alone, and staying on the outskirts of the group. This behavior was observed in about 10% of the chimps, which happens to be near to the percentage of Americans who show symptoms of depression.

The scientists removed the depressed chimps for six months, to see how this would affect the behavior of the other 90%. It’s possible that the chimps signed a voluntary consent form for participating in such a disruptive study, but I’m not holding out much hope.

You might think that in the absence of the depressed individuals, the remaining majority would produce another 10% of depressed chimps. But apparently that’s not what actually happened.

What actually happened was this: When the scientists returned six months later, all of the non-depressed chimps were dead.

It would seem that the depressed chimps had functioned as a kind of early warning system, continually looking out for predators, tropical storms, and other threats to the group. Without that system in place, the group was doomed.

When I heard about this study, I remember thinking how great it would be for depressed people. Instead of being a problem to be fixed, they would know that their condition is a valuable asset to society, providing a critical mass of individuals uniquely suited to guarding against danger.

I figured this would make my depressed friends vey happy.

Oh no, I thought. What happens if we become a society with no depressed people? We are all doomed.

New Media, part 2

Tuesday, May 12th, 2015

Suppose you had never heard of holotheatre, and somebody invited you to see a robo-play. Imagine how strange the experience would be.

All of those robots rolling around the room, saying things that were actually the words of humans, and touching people who are wearing VR headsets. You might be appalled at the people who are interacting with these odd machines, wandering about in what is clearly a make believe reality, acting as though everything about this made up world is real.

Every once in a while, one of these crazy robots would roll toward some audience member, who wouldn’t seem to know the robot is there. The robot might do something weird like hand the audience member a glass of water, or blow air in their face. Even worse, the robot might start singing — and the person holding the glass of water wouldn’t seem to realize that a robot has burst into song.

“Hey!” you might be tempted to shout to the robots, “Why are you harassing these people?”

But your major worry would be reserved for the audience. All of these apparently intelligent citizens, falling for an obvious trick. Why, you might ask yourself, don’t they realize that those robots among them are merely pretending to be human?