Archive for July, 2015

How we talk about movies

Friday, July 31st, 2015

Speaking of Inside Out, my friend Athomas pointed out to me the other day that when he discusses that movie with his 14 year old daughter, the entire conversation sounds like psychological introspection, right out of the Freudian playbook. But of course they are not actually engaged in psychological introspection. They are just talking about a work of entertainment.

And that got me thinking, would it be possible to design a popular film from the ground up using the jargon of a particular technical field, with the goal of introducing that field’s language into the popular culture? The measure of “success” would be that anybody overheard talking about the film afterward would sound like they were discussing that technical topic. But of course they wouldn’t be — they would actually just be talking about a fun movie they had seen.

What fields could this sort of thing work well for? Government? Carpentry? Computer graphics? Particle physics? Are there certain fields that lend themselves to this sort of game, and others for which it would be impossible?

And then the follow-up question: If you have seen a film that gets you talking in the language of some technical field, and therefore has placed certain ideas in your head, would you find it easier to learn the real thing? Would somebody who watches Inside Out find it easier to learn advanced concepts from the field of psychology?

I’m guessing the answer is yes. After all, anybody who has seen the Cohn brothers’ film A Serious Man, and was really paying attention, is much more likely to truly appreciate the paradox of Schrodinger’s cat, and therefore the concept of quantum superposition.

Everything you always wanted to know about Inside Out (but were afraid to ask)

Thursday, July 30th, 2015

I wish somebody would do the following mash-up of Inside Out and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask:

Our scene is set in New York City. Young Riley is now all grown up, and she’s enrolled as a student at NYU.

Who should she be on a first date with, but that guy from the 1972 Woody Allen movie. Inside Riley’s mind are Joy, Sadness, and the usual gang. Inside the young man’s mind are the crew from ’72: Burt Reynolds as Switchboard, Tony Randall as The Operator, Stanley Adams as Stomach Operator, Oscar Beregi as Brain Control, and of course Norman Alden as Brain Technician.

If you really want to see this film, do not watch the Woody Allen movie first, because it totally gives away how the evening will end.

But other than that, what kind of movie would it be? Personally, I think it should just be handed over to Pete Docter and Woody Allen to co-direct. Let them duke it out.

The demo is what you show

Wednesday, July 29th, 2015

We had this wildly ambitious plan for our demo in Vancouver. So many features that were nearly working. Then at the last minute, about 70% of those features fell apart.

But we stil had 30% of the features working. And here’s the cool thing: The people who came to see the demo didn’t know about that other 70%. All they knew was what we showed them.

So we built an entire presentation around the 30% that worked, and scaffolded that demo with interesting and relevant context. It was all very entertaining and fun, and everybody had a great time.

I’m sure there is a moral here somewhere. :-)

The virtues of mountain climbing

Tuesday, July 28th, 2015

So it turns out that less than an hour before the deadline to get our work ready for some new collaborators, it was still hopeless. But then one of our team members called someone who know some stuff that we didn’t know, and he was able to talk us through the rough spot.

Then somebody else came up with a cool new way of doing something, she showed us how to do it, and we shifted our strategy accordingly and were back on track. There’s still lots of work to do before tomorrow evening’s demo, but now we have a clear path to the summit.

So in the last few days I’ve gotten a crash course in Windows 10, TeamWeaver, Vicon Blade, Visual Studio, IP addresses and gateways, Android, Unity, command line Python, NetGear routers, and a whole bunch of other things I can’t even remember.

Now I can appreciate the virtues of climbing up really tall mountains in foreign places. You might end up getting blown off the mountaintop, but along the way you sure do learn all kinds of useful stuff.

Into the unknown

Monday, July 27th, 2015

I spent much of the day today debugging a group project, mainly with people who were several thousand miles away, working on fixing experimental software I didn’t know, on an operating system I didn’t know, running on hardware I didn’t know, using internet protocols I didn’t know.

All of this required an impressively large variety of debugging tools that I didn’t know. After many hours of work, we think the end may be in sight — it feels near enough to touch — but we’re not completely sure yet.

Oddly enough, yesterday I saw a preview for that new “based on a real story” movie about people attempting to scale Mount Everest. A group of hardy humans climbing so far up that the air is actually too thin for humans to breathe. I know what you’re thinking — what could go possibly wrong?

I remember thinking to myself, as I watched that preview, “Who in their right mind would attempt something so crazy that it was nearly guaranteed to end badly?”

After today, I feel a little more sympathetic.

Dinosaurs!

Sunday, July 26th, 2015

I finally saw Jurassic World. The plot is stupid, the characters are shallow and obvious. The dialog is invariably lame, and the pacing most of the way through is seriously problematic.

This movie makes the original look like Hamlet. Its plot twists make no real sense, and it violates the rules of its own fictional universe at every turn. In fact, it possesses absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever as a work of narrative fiction.

But it has dinosaurs. Big beautiful ugly man-eating dinosaurs. They run, or they stomp till the earth shakes, or they swoop down from the sky to rain terror. They have big scary teeth, they can fell a mighty tree with a single flick of their massive tails, and some of them are scary as hell.

Awesome awesome movie. Buy a jumbo tub of popcorn and see it on a big screen in 3D. Bribe the folks who run your local cinema to turn the sound way up.

You won’t regret it.

Bad joke of the day

Saturday, July 25th, 2015

So The Borg decide that the only certain way to defeat the Federation Star Fleet is to go back in time to the very dawn of Earth space travel, capture the greatest human mind they can find, and co-opt that supreme intelligence to their own alien ends.

After doing extensive research, they determine that the greatest of all mid-twentieth century Earth philosophers with a favorable attitude toward collectivism was an individual named Jean-Paul Sartre. Through an enormous investment of time and effort, they manage to invent a temporal probe, which travels back to early 1950s Paris, whisks the great man away from his usual table at Les Deux Magots, and transports him forward in time to the 24rd Century.

After various cyber-bionic adjustments Sartre emerges, transformed into a formidable creature, half man and half machine. The Borg, certain now of impending victory over those pesky humans, ask him what their new strategy should be.

Sartre shrugs. “Existence,” he says, “is futile.”

Transitional stage

Friday, July 24th, 2015

In the early days of the Web, internet cafes used to be very popular. People would go to have a coffee and surf the web together. It was all very exotic.

Of course it soon became not exotic at all, as everyone got browsers on their PCs at home. As a social practice, browsing the web because less like going to the movies and more like watching TV.

Now we are about to go through a similar set of transitions for “physically” hanging out with people in shared virtual reality. I’m not talking about the flavor of VR where you sit down in a chair and just pretend to walk around. I mean the more interesting kind, where you physically walk around with your own body, wearing a headset, but with no trailing wires to encumber you.

At first, doing this in high quality is going to be somewhat expensive, and therefore exotic. So I suspect you will see the equivalent of internet cafes popping up in your town.

Then after a few years, when the prices go down and walking around in VR just becomes a widespread capability found in the home, those “VR Cafes” will become a thing of the past, something to look back on with nostalgia.

Gosh, I almost miss them already. :-)

Bowen Island

Thursday, July 23rd, 2015

Tonight I am staying with friends on Bowen Island. As it happens, the geographic area of this island is nearly identical to the geographic area of the island of Manhattan.

Yet Bowen Island has a population of only 3000, which is just about 1/1000th the resident population of Manhattan.

Right now I am very much appreciating the difference.

:-)

Finding the bug

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015

Today I finally found a bug in my program that I had been tracking down for weeks. That particular bug was the final roadblock preventing me from making my system a lot more useful (basically, from being able to save your work, and load it back in later).

One thing that still astonishes me about programming is how you can spend vast amount of time building huge systems, with thousands upon thousands of lines of code, and yet one little aspect of the system — a few lines missing, or a single obstinate bug — can make such a large difference.

And when you finally find that bug, it’s like a magic door has opened up in your house, and when you walk through that door, suddenly you find that your little house now has twice as much room.

It’s a nice feeling. :-)