Archive for October, 2015

Third date

Sunday, October 11th, 2015

I was having a discussion the other day about possible future societal norms, after everyone has gotten used to seeing the world around them through cyber-enhanced contact lenses. As I’ve discussed here before, how you appear to others in such a future society, when you go out in public, may become a matter of choice.

And if such choices become the norm, then those future norms may become protected by privacy laws: To gaze upon somebody in public with your “naked eyes” — without the socially accepted intermediary of cyber-contact lenses — may come to be considered an invasion of their privacy.

In such a world, it might become a big deal to reveal your true biological appearance, perhaps akin to the way, in present day, we decide who gets to see us naked. And this change might have an effect on all sorts of things.

I can imagine a future conversation between two people who have just started dating:

“Would you like to see what I really look like?”

“I don’t know whether I’m ready for that level of commitment before the third date.”

“Yeah, me neither. Let’s just have sex.”

“OK. Thanks for understanding.”

Gender reversal

Saturday, October 10th, 2015

I was discussing with a friend today the decision by Stephenie Meyer to reissue Twilight with the genders reversed. Rather than a story about a teenage girl being romanced by a 100 year old male vampire, it will be a story about a teenage boy being romanced by a 100 year old female vampire.

My first thought was “Gee, if they reverse the genders in Harry Potter, wouldn’t Dumbledore be a lesbian?”

But then I continued the chain of thought. What if J.K. Rowling were to issue a gender reversed Harry Potter? It would be a story of a teenage girl, born to greatness but at first unaware of her true potential, who is looked over by a kindly magical female guardian, while an evil older woman — the young girl’s nemesis — tries to destroy her and take her power.

And that’s when I realized that Harry Potter does not need to be gender reversed. It’s already a gender reversed Walt Disney princess movie!

Like water

Friday, October 9th, 2015

I bought a Casio Privia PX-160 electric piano keyboard at the recommendation of a student who used to be a concert pianist. And I am really glad I did.

Unlike the electric piano keyboards that I am used to, this one feels nearly like a real piano when you play it. It isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty darned close.

For me, the crucial test is whether, when I place my hands on a keyboard, my fingers start to improvise and create new melodies. With a real piano, that happens as a matter of course. With most electric piano keyboards, it doesn’t happen at all — my fingers just sit there, waiting for inspiration that never comes.

The Privia PX-160 passes this test with flying colors. Throughout the day, whatever I am doing, I find myself drifting over to it, creating new melodies each time.

I’ve just ordered the proper Midi/USB cable so that I can connect my Privia to a computer. Once I have that connection set up, then all of those spontaneous melodies will be saved.

Over time these melodies will flow together into a growing reservoir of musical possibilities, like water.

The danger

Thursday, October 8th, 2015

A number of years back I was giving a demo of a technology we had come up with in our lab — a new and improved form of autostereoscopic display. That’s a kind of display that lets you see in 3D stereo without the glasses.

Unlike previous ways to do this, our display let you be any distance away from the screen, and showed things with very high quality, without the visual artifacts that usually accompany autostereo displays. We were very proud of it.

I was just at the point in the demo where I was explaining how a sufficiently advance autostereoscopic display might obviate the need to travel to conferences. “Just think,” I said, “people won’t need to deal with the bother and exhaustion of getting on airplanes and traveling long distances, just to have a high quality face to face interaction.”

But as it turned out, I was wrong. And I only know this for the following reason.

One of the people in the room was Ben Shneiderman, a pioneer in the field of human/computer interfaces. When I got to this point in the demo, he spoke up.

“Ken, people don’t get on those airplanes and travel thousands of miles to conferences just so they can have a face to face conversation.”

“Then why,” I asked, “do they do it?”

“They do it,” he explained, putting his hand on my shoulder, “because of the danger that they might touch each other.”

Anthills in the sun

Wednesday, October 7th, 2015

Most people reading this are, by comparison with the typical human at any earlier era in history, cyborgs. We have vast and constantly updating information literally at our fingertips. We initiate casual face-to-face chats, at a moment’s notice, across vast distances. We collectively create complex webs of social networks and tribal allegiances, all supported by immense engines of computation and connectivity.

Yet we remain, at our core, human. It is true that to be an individual in a human society is a shifting target, buffeted by ever evolving technological capability. Yet this has always been so, and in some essential way our humanness remains unaffected. We love, we laugh, we our share the day with those we care about, we build our little anthills in the sun.

Which is why I suspect, as we creep ever nearer to a seamless merging of the physical and the virtual, that nothing essential will change. Some day soon the very ground under our feet will seem to be one with future abstractions floating in the air, abstractions that will become part of our shared language.

We will continue to upgrade, incorporating cyborg affordances unimaginable to previous generations. Yet we will still understand, at a deep level, what our species has always understood: That such changes are all just part of being human.

The best special effects

Tuesday, October 6th, 2015

Today’s post is more or less the opposite of the previous two.

This evening I had the privilege of hearing Bonnie MacBird read an excerpt from her new Sherlock Holmes pastiche Art in the Blood. It was a simple drawing room scene, in which our famous detective and his loyal sidekick Dr. Watson meet with a prospective client, a beautiful and highly intelligent french chanteuse.

Yet from this apparently simple introductory conversation, the war of wits that rapidly developed between Holmes and the lady in question was breathtaking. The precision of verbal strike and counter-strike between the two quick witted opponents was a wonder to behold, a thing of pure beauty.

I remember thinking, listening to this intricate and brilliant dance of words and ideas, that it would be difficult for any mere movie adaptation to do justice to such a moment.

And then I remembered something my mother once told me, while reminiscing about her childhood. “The best special effects I ever saw,” she said, “were on the radio.”

First person perspectives

Monday, October 5th, 2015

We are about to enter the era of consumer Virtual Reality games. The VIVE, the Oculus and the Morpheus should all be hitting the market sometime within the next half year.

This will create an opportunity for a kind of game experience that would merely be interesting when you are looking at a screen, but could be far more compelling when visually immersed in another world: The ability to become many different sorts of creatures.

Imagine a VR game played from the perspective of an ant, or a planet, or a paramecium. As a balloon or a skylark, a trapeze artist or a blue whale.

Sure, these are interesting first person perspectives when you are just looking at a rectangle sitting on your desk. But when you find yourself completely immersed in another reality, they might bring about a fundamental shift in perception.

As this medium starts to take off commercially, many more artists will be creating new kinds of experiences for it. We cannot yet know just how far-ranging those experiences will be. I suspect some of them are going to be pretty darned awesome.


Sunday, October 4th, 2015

I saw The Walk today — in gorgeous stereo IMAX. The movie straddles a tightrope between reporting a real historical event and taking the viewer on a journey into pure wish-fulfilment fantasy.

And it manages that delicate high wire act perfectly. I was aware at every moment that I was watching a Robert Zemeckis fantasia, the kind of astonishingly nimble effects-driven opera de cinema that is his stock and trade.

Yet I was also aware of being invited into a very personal story, that strange and unpredictable place where human frailty somehow transforms into godlike grace.

To my mind it was a perfect film.

As in a dream

Saturday, October 3rd, 2015

The weather has suddenly turned cold in Manhattan. Today, for the first time in quite a while, I dressed in layers to go out. And it was great.

Don’t get me wrong, I love those warm summer days. But when the first chill of fall arrives, something about the autumn air seems distinctly, perfectly New York.

The overcast sky creates a soft and mysterious light. People walk quietly down the street together, almost as in a dream.

Winter will come soon enough, and with it the real cold, the biting kind. Until then, we are all out and about, enjoying autumn in New York.

The happy medium

Friday, October 2nd, 2015

We all know that when you’re having fun, time seems to go faster. And conversely, when you are bored or having a really bad time, time can seem to drag on and on.

You could, if you wished, achieve the experience of living a longer life by always being bored. In practice, this isn’t a very good strategy, because what’s the point of life if you can’t enjoy it?

But maybe there is the germ of a good idea there. What if your level of happiness and your level of subjective time passing don’t change in the same way? In particular, maybe we can maximize the following product, added up over all the moments of your life:

Subjective Enjoyment (SE) =
      (subjective duration of each moment) ×
      (level of happiness at that moment)

For instance, let’s say that at some level of happiness A, time seems to go at a rapid rate TA, and at some lower level of happiness B, time seems to go at a slower rate TB.

Consider the level of happiness half way between A and B. What if time at that level of happiness seems to goes by more slowly than the average of TA and TB?

In that case, you can achieve a greater total lifetime SE score by hovering near this average state.

In fact, if we could measure both subjective happiness and subjective rate of time passing on a linear scale, we might be able to compute an optimal state of happiness, to best make you feel as though you’ve lived a long and satisfying life.

But don’t get too excited about this. If you get too happy, you might end up with a shorter subjective lifetime. 😉