Archive for December, 2015

December 31 haiku

Thursday, December 31st, 2015

Memories, like leaves
From a calendar, float by
And then drift away

Souvenirs

Wednesday, December 30th, 2015

There is much talk these days about the future of Virtual/Augmented Reality being a lightweight pair of glasses that will just be part of our everyday lives. I have been guilty of such talk myself. :-)

Of course, even people who work on Virtual Reality still think about tangible objects in the physical world. For example, when I visited Facebook / Oculus recently with some colleagues, we were each given, as a souvenir, a cool drinking glass with the Oculus logo etched into it.

As it happens, one of the other people in our group couldn’t attend. Our host, seeing how much I liked those drinking glasses, gave the extra one to me.

So I ended up flying back to NY with two of these in my carry-on backpack. I can attest that they are very well made, and make an excellent matched set. I find myself using them every day. Below you can see them as they are today in my real life kitchen.

This means I may very well be the first person in history to visit Facebook and walk out with a fully-functional pair of Oculus glasses.

Edible chess

Tuesday, December 29th, 2015

Today I got an idea for a new variant on an old game: Edible chess.

The basic idea is that each chess piece would be made of something yummy, like chocolate. The pawns would just be ordinary chocolate, the knights and bishops something fancier, maybe with almond or truffle filling, and the rooks fancier still, with the really good stuff reserved for the kings and queens.

The only rule would be that when you take a piece, you need to eat it. I don’t think kids would mind playing by those rules.

Needless to say, there should be a variant for older players, with the almond, fruit or truffle filling replaced by something a little more intoxicating. I, for one, would not mind getting a set for the holidays with a theme of Islay single malt Scotch.

Old Yiddish saying

Monday, December 28th, 2015

I was having dinner with my mom last night, and our conversation came around to the question of topics for which opinions are particularly sensitive. Such hot button topics include somebody’s lover, somebody’s child, and somebody’s religion.

If you and your friend are discussing such a topic, their opinion is not really open for debate, even if you think it is. If the subject comes up and you find yourself tempted to disagree, it is probably best to just change the subject.

This all reminded my mother of an old Yiddish saying. It doesn’t sound nearly as cool in English (for one thing, it no longer rhymes). But I think the meaning remains intqct:

“When two people are sharing a pillow, don’t get between them.”

To code or not to code

Sunday, December 27th, 2015

One of the questions you ask yourself when you do anything that involves programming computers, is when to write a computer program, and when to just do things manually.

Suppose, for example, you need to put a list of names in alphabetical order. If there are only five names, it’s easiest just to move them around in your text editor. But if there are a million names, you definitely want to use a sorting program. Somewhere between those numbers there is a crossover point.

For tasks as common as sorting, you usually don’t need to do any coding — somebody has most likely done that for you. But there are many cases where nobody has written a program for you. And then you have a choice to make.

How do you decide when a situation calls for writing a computer program? I used to think this was a question that called for cool headed and dispassionate logic.

But now I realize that there is usually another factor to consider: Programming is fun! Even if it takes longer to do something by writing a program, I might decide to write a program anyway. After all, something can take longer, yet still make the day go faster.

On the other hand, it might be interesting to come up with a real solution to the question of when to solve a problem with code, as opposed to brute force. I think I might just have an algorithm…

Survival of the least annoying

Saturday, December 26th, 2015

Herbert Spencer coined the term “survival of the fittest” in 1864, after reading Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Darwin himself is often mistakenly cited as the author of this iconic phrase, which I suppose is an example of one sort of Darwinian principle at work.

As I was walking down the street today, engaged in the awkward and clumsy task of using my cell phone to find an open bank in my neighborhood, I was acutely aware of the sort of weird dance I was doing. On the one hand I needed to look down at the virtual world on my phone, so I could see what branches were open, and how to get to them. On the other hand, I needed to make sure, back here in the physical world, that I wasn’t about to walk into another pedestrian.

Pretty soon this sort of interaction will be replaced by a different one: Questions like “How do I walk to the nearest open bank branch?” will become less awkward, because you will just see the optimal direction to walk. It will be floating in front of you, visually integrated with your physical reality.

You won’t be in danger of walking into another pedestrian because other pedestrians will stay safely in your line of sight, where they belong. But this will lead to some interesting design questions, which will be addressed by apps on your phone.

Those apps will start to compete for the space in front of our eyes. Each app will have its own visual solution to the question of how to show us where to walk, without being too intrusive or confusing, or requiring too much of our attention or cognition.

I suspect that eventually one visual paradigm will win, pushing out the others, just as the clean uncluttered look of the Google search page once pushed out the many competing search interface paradigms in the first decade of the Web.

And I also suspect that the winning design will simply be the one that satisfies the Darwinian condition of being the least “in your face”. It will be a case of survival of the least annoying.

Potato to moonbeam

Friday, December 25th, 2015

At different times, we all project different energies. Sometimes we are distracted and worried, even fearful, and other times we feel hopeful and optimistic, and our hearts are filled with wonder.

I realized quite a while ago that I measure different human psychological energies on an internal scale, a kind of psychic rating system that runs somewhere in the back of my mind. This is not something I do deliberately. Rather, I just noticed at some point that I had been doing it, probably for years.

I call it the “potato to moonbeam scale,” and it goes something like this: When a person is feeling heavy, burdened by existence, perhaps defensive and closed in, then they are kind of like a potato. They just sit there upon the earth, a slave to the forces of gravity that hold them down (both literal and metaphorical).

But every once in a while you encounter a human energy that seems unaffected by gravity, a mind that dips and soars, apparently without fear. This kind of energy — which I think of as channeling one’s inner moonbeam — allows us go to new places in our minds, to see things around us that are entirely invisible to us when we are in our potato-like defensive crouch.

Every soul travels along the scale between potato and moonbeam. Some people spend an awful lot of time at the potato end. You can feel their fear and their heaviness. And if you’re not careful, it wan weigh you down as well.

But then there are those astonishing souls who seem to be almost pure moonbeam. I love being around people who are in such a state. The experience is always both a revelation and a delight.

$150K

Thursday, December 24th, 2015

Back when George Lucas was making the first Star Wars film, he had the chance to negotiate for an additional $150K from Fox Studios, since American Graffiti had been a success at the box office. Instead, he left that money on the table, in return for licensing and merchandizing rights. At the time, it probably seemed like a weird decision to industry observers.

But of course he went on to parlay that move into a fundamental restructuring of the way movies are monetized. It’s hard to believe that before 1977, the whole concept of making a fortune through toys, T-shirts, novelizations, etc. wasn’t really on the radar. Now, like it or not, we live in the world that George created. Revenue from these sources has earned hundreds of millions for Lucasfilm.

Today a friend sent me a link to a video in which the chief creative officer of Sphero is interviewed as he demonstrates their computer-controlled toy version of the new Star Wars robot (if you’ve seen any of the trailers, that robot is in the very first shot). Watching this video, I was struck by how completely the concept of “owning the character” has seeped into the DNA of big budget sci-fi movies.

He talks about his childhood, and how he and his colleagues grew up watching the Star Wars films. Then he says, talking about Sphero’s development of the toy: “For us it was a chance to make the character that we always wanted to buy.”

Something about this sentence jumped out at me. It seemed oddly off, as though some essential concept had been misplaced. I spent some time today trying to figure out what, exactly, was bothering me.

And then I had it. It was the way his description had completely erased the line between the magic of seeing a movie character and the concept of buying one. As though they were one and the same thing.

But they are not the same thing at all. No matter how commercial all of this gets, a little kid goes to the movies not to engage in a commercial transaction, but to visit exciting new worlds, where they hope to encounter wondrous characters and stories.

And that, my friends, is precisely what is ingenious about the monetization strategy that George Lucas pretty much invented: After little kids go to the movies, they don’t buy toys and other merchandise.

Their parents do.

The Force is strong in this one

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2015

I finally got around to seeing the new Star Wars movie, days after many of my friends had seen it. One of the advantages of waiting so long is that you can get really really great seats.

Then again, one of the disadvantages is the increased chance that somebody might spoil the plot for you. But I had managed to avoid reading any reviews, and I’d been staying away from social networks, so I came in fresh, not knowing anything that wasn’t in the trailer.

Arriving just a little early, we had our pick of locations in the Ziegfeld (Manhattan’s grandest and most glorious movie theater), so we chose seventh row center. Those are perfect seats for a big 3D movie.

And the movie was good. I mean really, really good. Yes, there was cheesy dialog, but that was part of the fun. After all, this is a Star Wars movie.

And it was beautiful — breathtakingly beautiful. Also smartly paced, wonderfully edited, with a fun plot and great action scenes.

I’m not going to say any more, because I’m very against spoilers. But for the three or four of you out there who were not thinking of seeing this movie, you really should see it. You won’t be disappointed.

For me, it was a total treat. After all, it’s been more than thirty years since I last had the opportunity to go to a movie theater and see a good first run Star Wars movie.

Wishful haiku

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2015

I wish, sometimes, we
Could truly open ourselves
To see each other