Together we will have many children

After an intense and wonderful day “prototyping the future” with my collaborators, I am left with an interesting question: Am I collaborating with these people because I want to develop new ideas for the future, or do I want to develop new ideas for the future because it lets me collaborate with these people?

Of course these two questions cannot be totally disentangled from each other. We are inspired by our collaborators, and that inspiration leads to new discoveries. In a sense we are parents, bringing forth our children into the world. Except that those children are wondrous new ideas.

Fortunately I do not need to answer this question. I am in a beautiful professional relationship with brilliant and exciting people, and together we will have many children. What more could one ever ask for?

Two kinds of prototype

I have several projects going on at NYU at the same time. Some of these are visions for what life might be like in the future. They generally use existing equipment — or sometimes oddball mash-ups of existing equipment — to create demonstrations of what everyday life might be like ten or even twenty years from now.

But other projects aim differently. Rather than look far off into the future, they aim to create a prototype of an alternate present. Instead of asking: “What could we do if we had the technology of the future?” these projects ask: “What could we do right now if we were thinking about things differently?”

It is important for research labs like ours to do both types of prototyping. We need to do the first type because corporations have no strong interest in prototyping products that are still ten or twenty years off. There is simply no profit in it. Yet they support our lab — and other labs like ours — because if our prototypes succeed then those companies are given a glimpse into where things might be going in the long run, which is always useful.

And it is important for research labs to do the second type of prototyping — demonstrations of a parallel vision for uses of today’s technology — because corporations are often constrained to follow well-defined markets. It can be too expensive for those companies, with their large fixed costs and overhead, to start creating prototypes of products that people do not already know they want.

But somebody has to dip their toe in the water and try out those crazy new ideas, and a research lab is a great place for that. Yet another reason to go into University research. 🙂


Today, as research for an article I’m working on, I went back and reread many of my posts on this blog since January 1, 2015. Even though my search went back only one year, the results were pretty overwhelming.

I could actually feel, as I read, the gradual changing of the seasons, variations over weeks and months of my own outlook and mindset. There was a definite contour to those changes, like caves and reefs in an undersea landscape. And within those caves and reefs were surprising little pockets of exploration that I had quite forgotten about.

I am tempted now to try to write a filter that shows those changes in mindset, perhaps laid out in graphical form. With such a filter in hand it would be fun to go spelunking through this or other blogs, searching for buried treasure.

Son of Saul

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
      Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’ – John Keats

When I first saw Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List I found it disturbing. Not because it presented me with a horrifying nightmare, but because it did not. I was dismayed that a film which was so uplifting, so visually beautiful, so joyful in places, so redemptive and life affirming, was being widely described as a testament to the Holocaust.

In particular I found its moral clarity troubling: There is a good guy and a bad guy. In the end, the good guy triumphs over the bad guy, and we all leave the theater satisfied, maybe having had a good cry. Yay Hollywood!

Most important, by directing our attention to a single psychotic “bad guy”, Schindler’s List did not convey, or even really touch upon, the true moral horror that was the Holocaust. I found myself wondering whether such moral horror was something that simply could not be communicated within the framework of a two hour movie.

Several days ago, when I mentioned I was about to see Son of Saul, a friend who had seen it tried to warn me. “Do you know what you are in for?” she asked ominously. Well, her fears were for naught. Son of Saul is everything that Schindler’s List was not. In particular, it is actually about the Holocaust. It is not about good guys and bad guys, or anything Hollywood might recognize. Rather, it is about things that are much more difficult, and much more important. One of those things is the fact that humans, ordinary humans like us, are capable of unimaginable cruelty, and yes, evil.

In Schindler’s List it is comforting to be able to point to the lone psychopath picking off prisoners from a balcony, and tell ourselves “I’m not like that guy”. In Son of Saul there is no such convenient Voldemort, nothing that easy. The Concentration camp is a vision of hell that is so vivid, so immense, that we cannot help but place ourselves there. It forces us to ask hard questions about ourselves, and that is exactly what art is supposed to do.

Strangely, I didn’t find it difficult to watch — quite the opposite. In contrast, I had found Game of Thrones difficult to watch (I finally had to stop) because it seemed to be filled with gratuitous cruelty and violence, all seemingly for its own sake.

In Son of Saul nothing is gratuitous. There is no sentimentality, no grandstanding or speechifying, not an ounce of fat nor a self-indulgent moment. From beginning to end, you feel as though you are in the presence of truth.

Yes, I had gone into the theater with trepidation. But watching Son of Saul turned out to be a profoundly beautiful experience.


It has been about 1.3 billion years since those two black holes collided. So that’s how long it took from the time the actual event occurred to the moment, September 14, 2015 at 5:51 a.m. EDT, when we humans received our first clear empirical evidence that gravity waves exist — a cool century after Albert Einstein first predicted them.

Some people have reacted to this discovery, to the incredibly massive scale of the event itself both in time and space, by pondering how insignificant humans are in this universe. Others have responded the opposite way: As far as we know, we are the first beings in the Universe to appreciate gravity waves.

But what about that qualifying phrase “As far as we know”? While that expanding wavefront was passing galaxy upon galaxy over the course of 130 million centuries, perhaps sentient creatures on other planets detected the same signal, and realized, just as we did, what it is. They might have thought, just as some of us have thought: “As far as we know, we are the first beings in the Universe to appreciate gravity waves.”

We can defined the Gravity Wave Index, or GWI, of any universe as the number of independent such discoveries per billion years for any given black hole collision. The GWI for our universe may very well be in the thousands, or even millions, depending on how many planets out there contain sentient species.

But we know for certain now that it is at least about 0.769.

Optimality of genre mash-ups

Continuing the thread from yesterday, I’ve been doing a review of notable genre mash-ups. I have just started watching (for the first time) the premiere season of Veronica Mars, an excellent mash-up of “High school drama” meets “Film noir detective”.

It’s a show that follows in a continuous thread of great mash-ups that have woven their way through decades of popular culture. Immediately before VM, you can see the influence of Buffy, and of course immediately after VM you can see the influence upon Rian Johnson’s insanely brilliant Brick.

All of this makes me wonder: Are some cross-genre mixes inherently better than others? Or could you mix any two genres together successfully, if you really knew what you were doing?

Somewhere there is a game / challenge here. Get a group of great writers in a room together and pick two genres at random out of a fishbowl. Right then and there they need to write a treatment, be it “Beauty contest” meets “Police comedy” (I think we all know how that turned out) or “Killer clowns” meets “Star crossed lovers” (that one, I think we are still waiting for).

Maybe the very incongruity of the challenge would be a source of inspiration. After all, a film that was essentially a mash-up of “Western” meets “Space Opera” wasn’t at all an obvious choice before it led to the most successful cinema franchise of all time.