Cruz control

Watching the speech by Ted Cruz at the Republican National Convention, the way it played out seems so obvious. Perhaps a literary analogy will convey a sense of the forces at work here.

The Joker finally has a shot at becoming the Mayor of Gotham City. At last his brilliant and diabolical plan to sow mayhem from within, to tear down the very fabric of rationality and rule of law, to turn society itself into a bad joke, is within his grasp.

So the Joker invites his old friend and sometime rival — Lord Voldemort, all the way from Hogwarts — to give a key speech at the convention. Sure there’s bad blood between the evil clown and the evil misanthrope. After all, the Joker did attack both the wife and father of He Who Must Not Be Named.

But in the end they are both fighting on the same side, right? Wrong.

For Lord Voldemort, still nursing his wounds, is not one to forgive a grudge. When all is said and done, the old Death Eater is not willing to go along with the plan.

Surely, the Joker must have thought, the Dark Lord will hold his nose and go with the program. He wouldn’t dare cut off his own nose to spite his face.

But what the Joker forgot is that Lord Voldemort doesn’t actually have a nose. Silly, silly Joker.

My speech

My fellow Americans,

From time to time I am asked to give a speech. I’ve decided that from now on I will always give the following speech. But first I would like to clarify a few things.

In writing my beautiful speech, my team of writers took notes on my life’s inspirations, and in some instances included fragments that reflected my own thinking. I think my immigrant experience and love for America shines through in my speech, which makes it such a success.

In other words, what follows is a completely original speech, by me. It is my speech. Tony Schwartz did not write this speech, any more than Jason Miller wrote the previous paragraph.

I was raised with these values: You work hard for what you want in life. That your word is your bond and you do what you say you are going to do and keep your promise. That you treat people with dignity and respect.

Pass those lessons on to the next generation and to the many generations to follow. Because we want our children, and all children in this nation, to know that the only limit to your achievements is the reach and strength of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.

Thank you.

† Sorry Jason Miller, I couldn’t resist.

Deep nap

After a lot of travel and way too much time working without a break, I find myself at my cousin’s house. These few days offer a rare interlude of quiet and relaxation.

And of course one of the very first things I did was take a nap. But not just any nap. One of those really long deep naps.

The kind of nap where, if this were a science fiction novel, I would awaken to find out that the laws of the Universe had shifted while I was asleep, that mushrooms have somehow become sentient and giant pterodactyls now roam the skies.

I’m sure you’ve had naps like that. You are so tired that your brain needs a complete reset, so your body rises to the occasion and says “OK brain, here’s your chance. Shutting down now for garbage collection and general maintenance.”

Having just now emerged from one of those blissful slumbers, I am feeling tired but happy, fully recharged and well rested. Dopamine levels are up, and all is right with the world.

And I am happy to report, from a cursory examination of the skies, that there are no pterodactyls overhead. Haven’t checked in yet on the mushrooms.

Demos and narratives

There are two fundamentally different approaches to giving a demo: Show a lot of cool stuff, or tell a great story.

It’s not that one of these approaches is “correct”. It’s more that they are complementary ingredients that need to be balanced.

A demo that just throws one feature after another at you can be impressive, but it can also grow numbing. It’s hard to remember what you’ve seen, or to make sense of it.

Ideally you want people to walk away with an overarching message. That’s where the story comes in. My current belief is that it is better to show fewer things, and leave people with a very clear understanding of what they have just seen.

And perhaps even more important: A very clear understanding of why they have seen it.


Tomorrow there will be a big sponsor visit to our lab. So this evening I was working with my brilliant student Aaron, debugging one of our demo programs.

As is often the case, we discovered after about two hours that the cause of the bug was something we’d never suspected. In fact, we had been looking in the wrong place entirely.

The solution was incredibly simple, once we finally saw it. In some ways it felt as though we had just wasted two hours.

Trying to be cheerful about the whole thing, I told Aaron that it hadn’t really been a waste of time. We had learned something, a new place to look for problems in the code, that maybe we could use the next time around.

Aaron didn’t seem completely convinced. “That would be the hope,” he shrugged.

I decided to give him the benefit of my greater maturity and experience. “Learning from your mistakes works for everything,” I told him. “Except, of course, for relationships.”

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

I am heartened that Donald Trump has picked a scary right-wing guy as his choice for running mate. Hard-core conservatives were never going to vote for a Democrat anyway, so Trump didn’t actually need to shore up support from the hyper-Calvinist right.

But now he has left the great undecided middle to Clinton, assuming she picks a centrist as her VP. Voters wary of radical politics in either direction will then have an easy choice.

This isn’t about the prospect of a Trump presidency per se. After all, if the Donald gets into the Oval Office, he’s not likely to influence policy all that much, since he doesn’t actually understand policy or government or all that complicated stuff that doesn’t fit into 140 characters.

Yes, he will probably paint the White House with the giant letters “TRUMP”. But I’m not sure he will actually do anything else, except perhaps try to enforce Article XII of the U.S. Constitution.

No, this is about what happens if anything were to happen to The Donald, and Mike Pence became president. If you’re LGBT, you’d better forget about the last 20 years of social progress. But if you’re a business that discriminates against LGBT citizens (or, for that matter, refuses to hire Jews because they offend your Christian beliefs), then Pence’s track record shows that he is totally your guy.

Also forget about abortion rights. And if you are a low income family, be afraid. Be very afraid. Mike Pence really does not like low income families. Forget about a decent minimum wage or adequate health coverage for your kids.

I’m hoping all of this means that millions of undecided voters will turn against Trump, out of a sense of self-preservation. Even if he is entertaining in a “What if Al Bundy ran for president?” sort of way.

Monsters, virtual and otherwise

It was hard to get through the day today as though nothing had happened. Everyone I know was very aware of the carnage in Nice.

I have been to Carnivale in Nice, so I know that Nice is a particularly child-friendly place. Families celebrate together, and the sense of joy and connectedness is very beautiful.

Which makes it even more incomprehensible that a so-called “ideology” would call for the wholesale slaughter of little children. Clearly the killers in this case did not care whether their victims were Muslim — many of the dead and injured were, in fact, Muslims.

All of this on the same day as a possible military coup in Turkey. I say “possible” because the military claims success, while President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claims the coup has failed.

I suspect that U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump may be very confused by these events. Isn’t Thanksgiving supposed to be in November? I eagerly await his tweets on the subject.

Meanwhile, in events even more virtual, I am told that Pokémon monsters have invaded Auschwitz. The historical site of the brutal mass genocide of Jews at the hands of the Nazis is now, apparently, a place where you can catch virtual monsters with your phone, courtesy of the latest craze in location-based entertainment.

Speaking of Donald Trump, I suspect he may have the last word on this topic as well. After all, his policy toward all those hard working people he doesn’t consider “real Americans” would have made perfect sense to the National Socialists:

Gotta catch them all!

Constraints and possibilities

A lot of people I’ve been talking to have been asking variants on the same question: “Could you make a good narrative story in VR?” By “good”, they don’t mean award winning. They just mean passable — say, the level of a run-of-the-mill TV drama.

The issue is not one of quality. It’s more fundamental than that. Might it be the case that the very immersiveness that makes VR so compelling has other effects as well? Specifically, might it interfere with the distance needed to create fictional narrative?

To suspend our disbelief and immerse ourselves in a story, we need to be confident that it is not real. We might, for example, find it very difficult to focus on the tragedy of Macbeth if we thought that we ourselves could be murdered at any moment.

But the visceral quality of VR may interfere with this process. A primitive part of our brain might continue to remain alert, attuned to the possibility that somebody is actually sneaking up behind us.

Yet even if this is the case, it might not be bad for virtual reality. Maybe VR isn’t supposed to be some alternate form of movie. After all, film itself is not an alternate form of live theater. Rather, it is a separate medium, with constraints and possibilities all its own.

I am hopeful that VR, as it matures, will enable new ways of exploring and sharing the human condition that have never before been experienced. Yet I remain doubtful that it will do so by adopting the vocabulary and traditions of cinema.

Virtual virtual reality

This coming January our lab will be moving to a beautiful new facility, at the location of the former Forbes building at Fifth Avenue and 12th Street. For me, one of the exciting things about this move is the fact that it will include a state of the art Virtual Reality lab.

The interiors are being constructed now, which as you can imagine is a massive undertaking. Every few weeks my colleagues and I go to the building, don hardhats and protective glasses, and get a tour of the facilities. It’s still bare cement floors and walls, exposed ductwork and wiring, and tape to mark where offices will be built.

Fortunately the University was kind enough to share with us the 3D CAD files containing detailed plans of the forthcoming interior. My brilliant student Sebastian Herscher has turned those files into a VR walkthrough.

Today, in our current VR lab, I donned a VIVE headset and took a tour through our future, still unbuilt, VR lab. It was all very vivid and wonderful.

You might say I had an experience of virtual virtual reality. There is something delightfully meta about that.

Mixed realities

I remember when the first Bluetooth-enabled hands-free phones started showing up in New York City. I would be walking along Washington Square North, and pass by one person after another who appeared to be talking to themselves.

Seeing people talking to themselves in New York City was not at all a new phenomenon. The streets of New York, like the streets of many major cities, are filled with people who live in an alternate reality all their own.

But until the arrival of hands-free phones, you always knew that people who talked to themselves were exhibiting some form of schizophrenic behavior. After the arrival of those phones, it wasn’t so simple.

When people walked by me apparently talking to themselves, I found myself checking out how they were dressed. That was usually the most reliable way to figure out whether I was passing a lost homeless soul wandering within their own private universe or a yuppy investor making a business deal on the way to their power lunch.

Something similar is going to happen once mixed reality wearables become ubiquitous. More and more people are going to be walking down the street looking at things that nobody else can see, and gesturing in the air. Some of these people will be talking to actual other people, enabled by the latest technology. Others will just be living in their own imaginary worlds.

At some point the eyewear involved will look indistinguishable from ordinary eyeglasses. After that, if you want to figure out who is who, I guess you will just need to trust your fashion sense.