Archive for July, 2016

VR bars will be a thing

Monday, July 11th, 2016

There is a lot of disagreement at this point about where virtual reality will be going. One camp says that it will take over the world.

Another camp suspects that prolonged exposure is fundamentally bad for us physiologically, on both a proprioceptic and vestibular level. People who worry about this are especially concerned about the effect on the still-developing brains of children.

On the other hand, children generally don’t go out to bars for a drink after work. Which means that one of the more interesting conjectural questions doesn’t really pertain to them.

Namely: Will VR bars ever become a thing? Will you and I ever go out to a bar together to throw back a few and chill out together after a long day’s work?

Except that I will be in New York and you will be in California. Or wherever.

Note that we don’t have Skype bars. So clearly there is some test of “being there together” that video chat fails. But is that a limitation of video chat, or a fundamental property of physical co-presence?

My guess is as the technology continues to improve, at some point the need for social connection will eventually win out over the need for physical co-presence. VR bars will be a thing.

If you can prove me wrong, I’ll be happy to buy you a non-virtual drink.

Facial diversity

Sunday, July 10th, 2016

Today when you look at paper money in the U.S., you can tell at a glance what denomination you’re dealing with: Washington is on the one, Jefferson on the two, Lincoln on the five, Hamilton on the ten, Jackson on the twenty, Grant on the fifty and Franklin on the hundred.

Which means you can actually get away with not being able to read the words or numbers on these bills. All you need to do is recognize faces.

Yet all of that might change soon. If Donald Trump is elected in November, it is doubtful that he would tolerate so much unnecessary facial diversity.

By early 2017, the line-up is likely to be far more consistent: Trump on the one, Trump on the two, Trump on the five, Trump on the ten, Trump on the twenty, Trump on the fifty and Trump on the hundred.

Also, of course, Trump on the twelve, to match the number of articles in the U.S. Constitution. :-)

The good news is that in order to know what money we are spending, we will actually need to be able to read the numbers on the bills. Which means that Donald Trump can legitimately say that his campaign is promoting literacy.

Isn’t that wonderful?

Fibonacci fibonacci

Saturday, July 9th, 2016

I was typing stuff into node.js today, and I was curious to know what would happen if I fed the Fibonacci function into itself. Feeling lazy, I first implemented the function the easy way, which takes an exponential time to compute:

fib = function(n) { return n < 2 ? n : fib(n-2) + fib(n-1); }

But when I ran it on numbers from 1 to 10, it hung after 9:

1 1
2 1
3 1
4 2
5 5
6 21
7 233
8 10946
9 5702887

So I decided to do it properly, using the non-recursive way of computing the Fibonacci sequence:

function fib(n) {
   var a, b = 1, c = 1;
   while (--n) {
      a = b;
      b = c;
      c = a + b;
   }
   return b;
}

This time everything computed immediately. Here are the first 11 results of fib(fib(n)):

1  1
2  1
3  1
4  2
5  5
6  21
7  233
8  10946
9  5702887
10  139583862445
11  1779979416004714000

After that it totally blows up. fib(fib(12)) is about 1030, fib(fib(16)) is about 10206, and from 17 onward the result is so huge that node.js just returns Infinity.

Now I know. :-)

Indeterminately located

Friday, July 8th, 2016

Whenever I get on an airplane that travels between time zones, I set my computer’s clock to the time at my destination. I do this mainly to help my body adjust to the new time zone — specifically, to know to sleep and when to wake up. I know it seems silly, but it seems to actually work.

At the moment I am writing this while traveling on a flight from the East coast to the West coast of North America. Following my usual practice, I have already shifted my computer to West coast time.

Yet in some sense I don’t feel as though I am in any definite time zone. Rather, it feels like I am in a sort of Heisenberg uncertainty state of time zones. Not literally of course, but psychologically.

Writing a blog post while hurtling around the globe at nearly the speed of sound sort of blurs the whole notion of time zones, or of locality itself. Perhaps this is just one more manifestation of Applin and Fischer’s PolySocial Reality.

Or, in the immortal words of The Firesign Theatre, how can you be in two places at once when you’re not anywhere at all?

The Marx Brothers, revisited

Thursday, July 7th, 2016

I recently saw Noah Diamond’s spot-on re-creation of the Marx Brothers’ magnificent 1924 stage show I’ll Say She Is. Unlike their other shows from the 1920s, The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, this one never made the transition to the big screen, so most people would never have seen it.

Amazingly, yet somehow not surprisingly, it was side-splittingly, laugh out loud funny. Amazingly because the show is 92 years old. Not surprisingly because, well, it’s the Marx Brothers.

Most comedy from the early 20th century does not age well. Intellectually, you can usually work out why it was supposed to be funny, but understanding why something could be funny is not the same as finding it funny.

Yet, remarkably, the Marx Brothers’ humor does not age. Decades may come and go, but their best work somehow never seems to dim with the passing years.

What is it about them that makes this so, I wonder. What, precisely, is different about their work? How did Groucho, Chico and Harpo Marx somehow stumble upon an eternal fountain of comic youth?

Client-side

Wednesday, July 6th, 2016

Today I gave somebody a book. Not an eBook, or any other sort of virtual thing, but a good old fashioned book, printed on paper, with a binding and a cover and everything.

Except that the book was printed today. I went to the bookstore and ordered a book-on-demand. There was a book printing machine right there in the store (which includes a machine to bind the book), and they printed out exactly one copy for me.

There is nothing radically new about this. Such machines have been around for years. But I confess that I chose this particular book partly because I wanted to give my friend something that was interesting and, in its way, unique — a printing run of one, given the same day it was printed.

When we use computers we are used to things being customized just for us. For example, you and I may visit the same page on the Web, yet our respective browser preferences can give us very different experiences of reading that page. To use the parlance of computers, the contents of the page were created “server-side”, but the graphics that we see to look at that page were created “client-side”.

Here in the physical world, we are used to books being made “server-side”. Somewhere there is a big factory — a book server, if you will — and then a delivery system to bring us the finished object.

But newer technologies are allowing more and more things to be made “client-side”, like that book I just got for my friend. This is also true, for example, of the electric vertical hydroponic farm I discussed the other day.

And self-driving cars (once we get those pesky and dangerous human drivers off the road) will similarly enable a client-side technology. Right now we have a model of “one owner, one car”. But once cars function more like packets in a large packet switching network, it will make far more economic sense for any given car to serve many different people.

Future technologies will allow you to choose the interior and exterior color, lighting, interior airflow, and other options that you prefer. By the time you enter a car, it will feel just like your car. But it will only be “your” car from the moment you get into it until the moment you get out of it.

When the next person enters the same physical vehicle, it will feel to them just like their car. The automotive experience will be created client-side, rather than server-side.

As I mentioned a few months ago, this will eventually happen with hotel rooms as well. I wonder how many other experiences in life that we now think of as being created “server-side” will one day become “client-side”?

Scary political humor

Tuesday, July 5th, 2016

If Trump wins, Christie
Becomes Veep (!!!) Let’s cross that bridge
When we come to it.

Slow energy

Monday, July 4th, 2016

Several days ago I talked about using solar power in sun-drenched equatorial climates to power LED-lit vertical hydroponic farming in colder climates, possibly even within cities. It seemed like a good way to provide fresh locally grown food in an ecologically sustainable way.

Several readers pointed out the difficulties and inefficiencies of converting energy from the sun to electricity and then transporting that electricity over a very long distance. Perhaps, they said, the accumulated losses would make the system impractical.

Since then I’ve been starting to think about the problem differently. Since there is no requirement that the stored energy get to its destination quickly, perhaps it might make sense to convert the solar energy into some intermediate form that can be transported slowly.

There are so many candidates: Compressed air (constant volume or constant pressure), liquid nitrogen, thermo-chemical, biochemical, and thermo-physical are just some candidates. Whatever the method chosen, a storage mechanism in its low energy state can be charged up at an equatorial solar farm to its high energy state, then slowly piloted by sea to colder climates, where some weeks later its energy is harvested.

This slow cycle changes the nature of the game, since it allows us to consider alternate forms of energy storage that are amenable to being shipped slowly by sea. It will be interesting to see whether some particular form of storage is optimally suited for the task.

Affairs of State

Sunday, July 3rd, 2016

Over the years I keep learning of women who say they would never vote for Hillary Clinton, because she didn’t leave her husband when he cheated on her. Let me be clear: They are not, as far as I can tell, speaking to her qualifications, nor to her policy positions. Apparently it’s something more primal than that.

So I ask myself: If a man discovers that his wife has cheated on him, and he wants to keep working on the marriage, should that disqualify him as President of the United States?

What do we think of this man if he decides to take is wife back despite her imperfections? Is that the sort of man we would want to be our Commander in Chief?

I wonder what these women would say in answer to that question.

Self-driving news

Saturday, July 2nd, 2016

Today there were several in-depth articles in the New York Times about the first reported death in a Tesla while the car was driving itself. The death occurred on May 1, when a tractor-trailer unexpectedly cut off the vehicle, and the robot autopilot failed to swerve out of the way.

The slant of every article was the same: Because the Tesla’s autopilot failed to save its occupant, maybe self-driving cars are not yet ready for prime time.

What none of the articles failed to acknowledge was that the death was caused not by an errant Tesla autopilot, but by an errant tractor-trailer driver. A human, through faulty decision making, inadvertently killed another human, and the Tesla’s software failed to prevent that death.

Am I the only person who finds this absurd? The killer on our roads isn’t software, it’s human drivers. Automobile accidents are the single largest cause of death in the U.S. after heart failure and cancer. The death toll from people killing and maiming themselves and others while driving their cars vastly exceeds all fatalities and injuries to U.S. citizens from warfare or terrorism.

OK, in this one case out of many the robot did not succeed in stopping someone driving a vehicle from inadvertently killing somebody else. But why blame the software? Clearly the solution is to get all those killer humans out of the driver’s seat.

A road on which all vehicles were robot driven would be a completely cooperative road. No humans with bad judgement would be cutting off and killing other humans, no drivers would be trying to guess what’s on the mind of other drivers. It would all be a single coordinated packet-switching network, with every vehicle knowing, at all times, the exact location and intended movement of every other vehicle.

So why is this story not being reported for what it really is? Suppose after the horrific shooting in Orlando, the news media had focused entirely on the failure of bullet proof vests to save every victim.

I can envision hand-wringing editorials declaring that bullet proof vests are not yet ready for prime time, and criticizing the makers of bullet proof vests for not taking responsibility for the lives of the murdered people their vests had failed to save.

Wouldn’t that be a completely idiotic view of the situation?