Archive for August, 2016

No limits

Thursday, August 11th, 2016

At some point in the last few months I found myself typing the words trump news into Google, to learn about the latest outrageous event. At first I thought that I was the only one doing this. But I have come to realize, after talking with a number of friends and colleagues, that a lot of people are doing pretty much the same thing.

We all seem to have started doing this independently. Only afterward did we find out that the people around us have been doing it too.

It’s like standing on the shore and staring off into the distance at a ship that is slowly sinking down into the ocean. Sure, it’s a disturbing sight, but you really can’t look away.

Each time the next crazy thing happened, I’d think to myself that this would the limit. Things couldn’t possibly get nuttier. If a candidate for President of the United States has already declared that he wants to build a three thousand mile long wall and deport all our nation’s Muslim citizens, how could he ever top that?

But then he says that Brexit will be great for the UK economy, and then he says that Vladimir Putin is the best ally of the U.S, and then he decides not to endorse Paul Ryan in the GOP primary, and then he gets into a personal grudge match with parents of a slain US soldier, and then he doesn’t know that Russia invated Ukraine, and then, and then, and then…

He has now coyly suggested that gun toting NRA supporters should “take care of” Hillary Clinton . What could he possibly say to top that?

Part of me thinks there is no way he could say something even more disturbing or scary during this election cycle. But another part of me realizes that there really are no limits here.

I guess, for the next 88 days, I’m going to keep doing those Google searches.

Through the looking glass

Wednesday, August 10th, 2016

I went with a friend this evening to see Then She Fell, loosely based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. This is an immersive theater experience in which every audience member is taken on a unique journey.

We were split up at some point, but that was ok. At the end, my friend and I got to compare notes, which was part of the fun.

She and I had had nearly the same experience, as it turned out, but not quite. For one thing, we had seen things in a different order. Ultimately though, that didn’t matter, because it wasn’t so much a story, as it was a journey. Narrative is powerful, but so is sensory immersion. Then She Fell is definitely the latter.

One day it might be interesting to see this sort of thing in virtual reality. Some obstacles remain though, maybe insurmountable ones. Eye contact, for one. Every time an actor in Then She Fell looked at you, he or she was really looking at you. You could feel a powerful sense of being seen, of the fourth crumbling in that moment.

Only real life can do that, at least for now. Ultimately though, who knows what will become possible? Someday theater may escape the bounds of physical reality entirely.

Old ideas of “live performance” may eventually need to be replaced by new ones. Perhaps this will be a good thing, or perhaps not. Hopefully, what is essential will always remain.

I am optimistic. As ever. :-)

Feelings and reality, part 2

Tuesday, August 9th, 2016

In yesterday’s post I posed the following question:

If I spend a lot of time nurturing a character in a computer game, and that character “dies”, is my feeling of loss fundamentally different from my feeling of loss if a person in my life dies?

For me the answer is yes. As I mentioned yesterday, I was surprised to learn that not everyone agrees.

I see the fundamental difference as this: In the former case, I am the only mind to consider. Yet in the latter case, I am dealing with an entire other sentient being, one with feelings toward me that more or less match my own. I have lost a reciprocal relationship.

Surely there must be a fundamental difference between the loss of such a connection, and, say, the loss of a favorite wristwatch. I claim the two situations are very different. But perhaps someone has a good argument for why the two situations are fundamentally the same.

Feelings and reality

Monday, August 8th, 2016

I had a very profound conversation with a colleague this evening about the difference between our relationship with our fellow humans and our relationship with artificial beings.

If I spend a lot of time nurturing a character in a computer game, and that character “dies”, is my feeling of loss fundamentally different from my feeling of loss if a person in my life dies?

To me the answer is obviously yes. To my colleague the question — and its resolution — was more nuanced, which surprised me.

I’m still thinking this over, and I will probably have more to stay on the subject tomorrow.

Other people are unknowable

Sunday, August 7th, 2016

I was reading an interview with an artist yesterday (I forget who at the moment), and one quote from the interview jumped out at me: “Other people are essentially unknowable”. I see now from a Google search that several others have made the same observation.

The reason this thought jumped out at me was that I came upon it right after that panel yesterday in which we discussed how VR and AR might change communication between people. When I read that quote, something crystalized in my mind regarding that panel’s topic.

Every time a disruptive new communication technology comes along, some people see it as a game changer. “Aha,” they say, “now we will really be able to communicate with each other!” Radio, cinema, television, the Web — each of these new media created its own brief wave of utopian conjecturing. “Finally,” some people asserted, “we have the means to break down the barriers that separate us from each other.”

But of course it wasn’t true. What separates us is the fact that only you have direct experience of the thoughts in your brain, and only I have direct experience of the thoughts in mine.

Any future capability to wave our hands in the air and directly conjure visions for each other — like something out of Harry Potter — is not going to change that.

The great glory of being human is that we have this powerful urge to communicate with each other. And we are indeed continually inventing ever more powerful ways to do so. But no virtual reality technology, no matter how advanced or capable, is ever going to change the fundamentals.

Communication between people always takes place across the great divide between individual human brains. Our hunger to communicate, and our great joy when we succeed, goes hand and hand with our fundamental aloneness.

Because we are human, we are all connected. Because we are human, we are seven billion separate universes.

Gathering together in a room to discuss the future

Saturday, August 6th, 2016

I participated in a panel today about the future. We panelists did our best to discuss that things might be like in another five, ten or fifteen years from now, given continued development of virtual and augmented realities. It was a really fun experience, and everyone had thoughtful things to say.

One thing that I found oddly charming about the panel, given its topic, was how old-fashioned this event was, on a strictly formal level. To discuss how our future selves might become transformed by the virtual, we were physically gathering together in a room.

Other than hand-held microphones, there was no mediating technology between the panelists and the audience. Attendees crowded around, gathering as they have for many thousands of years, watching us intently, listening to the conversation, and laughing at the occasional joke.

I find myself wondering whether this will ever change. It may not matter how good the technology gets. Perhaps there are some things that are not about technology at all, but about something more primal, some viscerally deep emotion that connects our brains through our bodies, that only comes to life when people gather together in a room.

Negative review service

Friday, August 5th, 2016

Humans move toward balance. After you stare at a white wall for a while, everything around you seems dim. And after you stare for a while at a green wall, your vision becomes more sensitive to red.

Sounds seem louder after a quiet interlude. Food seems to taste more bland right after you’ve eaten a heavily seasoned meal.

All of this makes sense. After all, we humans are, quite literally, walking balance machines. If we weren’t, we’d fall over.

I saw Suicide Squad today with a friend who had read many of the uniformly negative reviews. I had read no reviews. She liked the movie more than I did, and we both conjectured that this was related to those reviews.

The entire time she was watching the movie, she told me afterward, she’d been thinking “This isn’t nearly as bad as the reviewers had made it out to be.” Faced with harsh words about a movie that she found enjoyable in places, she found herself coming to its defense.

My conclusion from this is that somebody should do us all the service of publishing only uniformly negative reviews of every new film that comes out. Before we go to any movie, we can read its reliably negative review. We can then be confident that we will end up enjoying the movie more than we would have otherwise.

Perhaps this service could be rendered algorithmically. On-line reviews could be culled from other sites, as is done for Rotten Tomatoes. Except only the negative reviews would be kept. On this site, you could be sure that the tomatoes would always be rotten.

This service could eventually be extended to hotels, restaurants, theater, music albums, pretty much anything. Wouldn’t that be great?

Unexpectedly off-line

Thursday, August 4th, 2016

Today I took a five hour flight on United Airlines which had been billed as an internet-access flight. So I dutifully paid my $14.99 for internet access. My card was charged, but there was no internet.

I mean, the on-board server thought it was talking to the internet, but it couldn’t connect to any actual external server. Figuring there might be something amiss with my computer, I powered down and restarted. No change.

At some point I told a flight attendant. She went up to the front of the plane to check. “It’s working,” she said. “The lights are all on.” I explained that I couldn’t actually connect to anything. This did not satisfy her. “It’s working,” she again explained patiently, “the lights are all on.” Clearly we were at an impasse.

So I went to Plan B. I paid another $4.99 for one hour of internet access on my SmartPhone (at this point we were most of the way through the flight). Same result.

I am assuming United will refund my $18.98. We shall see. Meanwhile, I got five hours of all sorts of debugging and code re-organization done on my computer that I never seem to have time for when I am on-line. So maybe that’s a good thing. :-)

Sharing parts of documents

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2016

I made a to-do list for myself recently, to help me organize a particularly busy day. As I often do, I wrote it as a Google Doc.

I like having a document on the web, since I can then access it from anywhere, and putting everything into a single document makes it easy to move things around, as I organize my thoughts.

I wanted to share parts of this document with some colleagues, but not the whole thing. But Google Docs sets sharing permissions on a per-document basis — not for parts of documents.

It occurs to me that there may not be any tool out there that lets you do that. You can place multiple documents into a folder, giving each document a unique list of “can-edit” or “read-only” collaborators.

But you can’t get that level of control over shareability within a single on-line document. Why hasn’t anyone implemented such a thing yet? Or have they, and I missed it?

The limits of unreason

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2016

Is there anything
Trump could say that would scare off
His fanatic base?