How to make phones better

A friend of mine was complaining the other day that he was always misplacing his phone. All this modern technology is very convenient, but if you can’t find your device, it doesn’t do you much good, does it?

I gave him the following suggestion: Find a sturdy cord, and glue it to your phone. Choose a room in your house that is very convenient — someplace you go all the time, such as your kitchen. Attach the other end of the cord to some handy location in that room.

Now you will always know where to find your phone. When you want to make a call, you will always know exactly where your phone is located. And you will never again need to worry about it getting lost!

It’s amazing how one simple innovation can solve so many problems. I’m astonished that nobody has ever tried something like this before.


Core wars 2016

When you run a program on a modern computer, the operating system puts a “fire wall” around your program. If some software bug causes your program to try to access core memory outside of its alotted area, the operating system prevents that from happening.

These fire walls prevent any individual program from inadvertently wreaking havoc on other programs. They are, essentially, why your entire computer doesn’t crash every time one program malfunctions.

Around forty years ago, in the early days of time-shared computers, the modern computer concept of memory fire walls did not yet exist. So, just for fun, people who did research on computer software created a game called “core wars”.

Each contestant would write a program that tried to fill up all of core memory. If your program was able to grow and fill up all of core memory before anybody else’s then you won the game.

As programmers developed ever more subtle tricks to figure out what was going on in each others’ programs, and use that knowledge to disable their opponents, the programs grew ever larger ane more complex. Until one day somebody had a different idea.

They just wrote an extremely stupid and tiny program that didn’t care about the other programs at all. It worked like a virus, rapidly replicating itself throughout all of memory before any of the other programs had a chance to respond.

And that was it — core wars was over. It turned out that “attacking with stupidity” was the ultimate weapon.

As far as I can tell, this is the campaign strategy of Donald Trump. His take on the issues is essentially random and ever-changing, because specific political positions don’t actually matter to him.

What does matter is taking down his opponents, so quickly and unexpectedly, that they don’t have time to draw a breath. Whether it’s the family of Ted Cruz, the manhood of Jeb Bush, or his now scattershot insults to Hillary Clinton, his strategy is to strike fast and aim low. He seems to do this apparently entirely on instinct, like a shark following a trail of blood.

This strategy can be effective not because of anything Trump actually says or stands for, but because viruses can be deadly. Fortunately, I think Hillary Clinton has a particularly hardy resistance to this particular strain of viral infection.

Singular expectations

There is a concept, with which some of you are familiar, of the “Singularity”. The basic premise, espoused by a movement led by Ray Kurzweil, is that technology is advancing at a hyper-exponental rate.

This premise leads to all sorts of interesting consequences. One consequence,for example, would be that medical technology will soon advance to the point where there will be no disease: Millions of tiny nano-bots will continually course through your bloodstream, efficiently correcting any organic dysfunction they may find.

By Kurzweil’s estimate, we will reach the Singularity around 2045. If you’ve managed to stay alive until that year, advanced technology will then allow you to achieve immortality.

I find my reaction to this scenario to be complex. Even if I make it as far as 2045, I don’t really want to live forever. I just want to outlive Ray Kurzweil.

Best quote

The keynote speaker at SIGGRAPH 2016 was Nagin Cox, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She gave a wonderful talk. And produced my favorite quote of the conference.

You might think that there is a big difference between space scientists and computer scientists. But as she described running a team of brilliant engineers to put a rover on Mars, or to send space probes to Jupiter, I realized that there are more commonalities than differences.

One quote summed it up nicely. As Dr. Cox explained that the journey of the Mars Rover from the Earth to the red planet took seven months, she explained the “just in time” style of creating software for different parts of the ambitious voyage.

“We don’t need to have the landing software written when we launch,” she said. “We just need to have it written when we land.”

Real Time, Live!

The highlight for me today at the SIGGRAPH conference was the “Real Time, Live!” show. This is the event, repeated each year, where people show their computer graphic projects up on stage in front of a large, raucous and very appreciative audience.

The kicker, of course, is that everything you see is happening live. It’s all real-time graphics, real-time performance, nothing canned. Which means that things can go wrong.

And they do. Every year something goes amiss, and a demo doesn’t perform as planned, for one reason or another. But then someone reboots the computer, things start up again, and in the end it somehow always seems to work out.

Every year, as computers get faster, and graphics gets better, the bar seems to raise, and the RTL demos become ever more impressive. But I think this year the excitement was even greater than usual, because VR and AR may really be a thing.

So the RTL event is now especially relevant, and I could feel the buzz in the room. The audience was paying extra attention, looking for cues about what new forms of entertainment and interaction might be just around the corner, what the future might hold.

The SIGGRAPH RTL event, as cool as it is, can’t actually predict the future. But if you are trying to predict the future, you could do worse.


The SIGGRAPH Electronic Theater (or just the “E.T.” if you’ve been going long enough) is one of the most anticipated parts of the conference. Its the showcase for the best of the best of this year’s crop of computer animations.

And like everything else, it has its good years and its bad years. This was one of its good years.

I think we’ve finally gotten to a point where computer animation is no longer about “Hey look, I’m using a computer!” The medium is finally maturing, and filmmakers are becoming more confident. Computer animated films are focusing on the good stuff: storytelling, plot and character.

The transition is kind of like what film itself went through a century ago. At first the cinema was all about trains rushing toward the screen, or people popping out of drawings and disappearing in a puff of smoke.

Then at some point filmmakers grew up, and the medium stopped being all about itself. And that’s when it started to get interesting.

Faster Forward

I mark each year by the annual ACM/SIGGRAPH Conference on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques. Not just by the conference itself, but by the opening “Fast Forward” session, in which all of the many brilliant technical papers are presented, one after another, in a single two hour session.

It’s a very heady experience. The authors of each paper have less than a minute, using words and video, to convey the essence of their paper, and hopefully entice conference attendees to come to their session later in the week.

It is by far the single densest performance of brilliant and exciting new ideas that I have ever seen anywhere, and this year it was even better. That’s because the field itself is changing.

After a period when computer graphics seemed to grow inward on itself (with papers that essentially said “My math is a more refined version of your math!”) it is now growing outward again to explore new areas. Robotic furniture, 3D printed machines, telepresent cartoons, cameras that see around corners, these are just a few of the many varied topics that SIGGRAPH now eagerly embraces.

None of these topics is “computer graphics”, strictly speaking, but that bit about “Interactive Techniques” greatly expands the possibilities. The SIGGRAPH technical community is clearly now taking that part of its charter more seriously.

I am completely delighted by all this.

Red sun in a smoldering sky

There has been a 12,000 acre brush fire my first day here in L.A. Half the sky is a clear bright robin’s egg blue, the other half an ominously smoldering ochre.

Here is a photo I took today from my friend’s car:

The red sun hangs high in the brooding summer sky, shining through the smoldering ash like a drop of fresh blood:

On such a day, I am glad I do not believe in omens.

Alternate reality airport

This evening I am flying to Los Angeles to attend the annual SIGGRAPH computer graphics conference. If you are in the field of computer graphics or computer animation, that is definitely the place to be.

On my way to the gate, I passed various other gates with flights to places like Madrid and Paris. Part of me asked “Why can’t I just get on one of those?”

If I were at a bus or train station, I could just hop on board, if the vehicle had any seats available. I started to wonder whether it would be possible, in some alternate reality, for airlines to work this way.

“There’s a plane leaving from this gate to Madrid. Why can’t I just go there now, on a whim?” I wondered. Wouldn’t it be cool if I could?