Description / Experimentation / Navigation

After having implemented my “bubble breakdown”, I started studying its component parts. And I discerned a structure that I hadn’t really thought about while I was making it.

The web page has six parts. Two of the parts are for description, two are for experimentation, and two are for navigation.

I am thinking that this is a general blueprint for how to communicate knowledge: You tell people something, you give them a chance to play with that knowledge, and you also give them a way to wander around within the connected space of learnable things.

Wikipedia does two of those three things, the first and the third: It tells you stuff, and it provides ways for you to navigate around in the space of topics. But it doesn’t give you any way to gain insight by actively playing around with a topic.

As I think about what a future mixed reality version of Wikipedia might be like, I’m thinking that there is an opportunity to upgrade to a Description / Experimentation / Navigation paradigm. Whatever you look at in the world around you can become an opportunity for learning and exploration.

There are undoubtedly all sorts of tricky user interface problems to solve before that future version of Wikipedia becomes a practical reality. But I suspect those are going to be really fun problems to work on. 🙂

There are heroes

There are heroes in the world. I’m not talking about the make-believe kind of hero you see in a Hollywood movie, but real flesh and blood heroes.

As you may have noticed, we’ve been faced with a puzzling situation in the U.S. this past week, one that has created all sorts of confusion. Our incoming administration has labeled anybody from certain countries as de facto enemies of the United States, and has banned those people from entering the country.

And yet, there are actual heroes in the world. People who are willing to lay their very lives on the line for the ideal of America: For a society that promotes freedom, democracy, respect for others, for the dignity of individuals.

Some of these heroes, for example, are Iraqi pilots, translators and others who have worked closely with the U.S. government for years, generally at considerable risk to their own lives and families. All of them have been caught in the sweep of this executive order.

I find myself pondering whether Donald Trump actually knows what a hero is. He seems to have little experience dealing with people who have the courage to put their very lives on the line for a higher ideal. He may not actually be able to understand the concept of that kind of moral fiber.

Which means we are faced with an odd situation: The President of the United States, apparently through sheer ignorance or intellectual laziness, is attacking genuine heroes who have put their lives on the line for our nation. But willful ignorance is not a sufficient defense against acts of atrocity.

At what point is a line crossed here? At what point will our own patriotism, our sense of duty to our nation, require us to acknowledge that the President of the United States is committing acts of treason against his own country?

Bubble breakdown

I recently mentioned that I was interested in creating a kind of code narrative — a progression of steps the shows how to create things like that procedural bubble I posted.

In the movie business, there is a term for showing, step by step, how a special effects scene is built up. It’s called a scene breakdown.

As it happens, a good friend was really interested in learning how the different parts of the procedural bubble work together. Inspired by that request, I made it a priority to create such a breakdown.

Mostly this involved wrapping a bunch of HTML5 code around the core program to create a framework for telling such a step-by-step story. Then of course telling the story.

So now I have something workable: Perhaps the world’s first bubble breakdown.

Puzzle orgy

Each week I look forward to Saturday morning, because it’s my puzzle orgy time. That’s because when you get the NY Times home delivered, they always include the Sunday Magazine section with your Saturday paper.

Which means there are lots and lots of puzzles to do. So when I wake up bright and early on Saturday mornings, I make a pot of fresh coffee, open the paper, and dive right in.

First I do the Saturday 4×4 KenKen, then the 6×6 KenKen. Then the Saturday crossword puzzle, which is absolutely my favorite puzzle in the world.

Each week I try to do it as fast as I can, and I am happy when I can get down below 20 minutes. This week my time was 19 minutes, so it is a happy week. 🙂

Then I move on the Magazine section. First the 5×5 KenKen, then the 7×7 KenKen (always a challenge).

Then the weird puzzles on the second puzzle page of the Magazine, which are always changing. This week it was a word puzzle called “Projectors”, a number puzzle called “Capsules”, and the ever delightful “Puns and Anagrams.”

After I get through all those, I do the large Sunday Crossword puzzle. It’s much easier than the Saturday puzzle, but it’s big and it always has a trick theme, so it’s a nice way to spend some time in a puzzling frame of mind.

By 9am I’m generally done, and ready to start my day. And I am in a very good mood!

Psychological profile

I recently read the psychological profile of a well known political figure, prepared by Walter Langer for the United States Office of Strategic Services. According to his report, here are the five primary rules of behavior exhibited by the subject:

  • Never allow the public to cool off;
  • Never admit a fault or wrong;
  • Never concede that there may be some good in your enemy;
  • Never leave room for alternatives;
  • Never accept blame.

There are some questions I’d like to ask Mr. Langer about his profile. Alas that might be difficult, since he wrote it about seventy three years ago.


This evening somebody asked me, if I could create a Kickstarter for any purpose, what purpose would I choose.

I said that I would really like to create a Kickstarter to support creating things that start when you kick them.

I am now wondering whether I somehow missed the point.

When art flourishes

For both sides of the recent election, I think the question being asked was: “What this country really needs is a guy with a big baseball bat, who is willing to use it to smash heads like watermelons, if that’s what it takes.”

To the majority of voters who voted against our new President, that didn’t seem like a particularly good idea. But for the minority who voted for him, it seemed to feel like a kind of Occam’s razor.

The general concept, I think, was something like this: Tony Soprano might not be your favorite person, but you can be pretty sure nobody is going to get in his way.

Which leads me to the question of art. In the 1990s I knew a number of people from the former Soviet Union who told me that one casualty of the fall of the Berlin Wall was a decrease in the production of great art.

It seems that brutish governments that employ bullying tactics against their own people are good for artistic expression. And as my colleague Luke DuBois said to me right after the recent election, “This is going to be very good for art.”

I think he was right. My need to add beauty to the world, to create things that bring people together, that promote an awareness of the sheer wonder of each other, has greatly increased since the election.

Sure, our very own real life Tony Soprano might be stomping around Washington floating a fantasy tale of millions of illegal immigrant voters, referring to our free press as “Nazis”, claiming to hallucinate a vast imaginary crowd at his inauguration, threatening to make decent health care an entitlement for the privileged rather than a basic right of every citizen. That baseball bat seems to be getting a very good workout.

But I also think the sheer brutal nastiness of it all is causing many people to move in the opposite direction. They are realizing that art matters. Music matters. Celebrating the beauty within our souls, caring for each other, retaining the ability to see the humanity in one another, all of these things matter.

But only if we step up, if we remember that sometimes we need to turn our eyes away from the guy with the baseball bat. Alas, I fear that the next few years are going to be a very good time for art.

Making a bubble

Procedural shading languages are very powerful. With a relatively small program you can create extremely beautiful and subtle animated textures.

But that very power comes with a price: Because the resulting code is so compact, it can be difficult for somebody else to understand what you have written.

I’m thinking it would be useful to “unpack” such programs, so that people can understand how they really work. For example, the bubble below can be described in just a few dozen lines of shader code (plus another few dozen lines for my standard noise and turbulence functions).

If you click on the image, you can see the bubble as a real time procedural animation, together with the editable shader program that makes it work. That program is very short, but it’s also really difficult to understand.

I’m thinking that I might try to create a step-by-step version of the process of creation. As you click through the steps, the shader program, and the corresponding result, will progress from very simple (just a few lines of code at first) to the final result.

At each step, the result will get a little more interesting. And at each step I can annotate exactly what has changed in the program to cause the visual improvement from the previous step.

Hopefully, if I design these steps carefully, every piece of the shader program will end up making sense. Then maybe some people will start to create their own animated bubbles!

Narcissistic sociopathy

Talking to several psychologists in the last few days, I found that every one of them has informally diagnosed our incoming U.S. president as being a classic case of narcissistic sociopathy. The narcissism is obvious. As one can plainly see, everything he says and does ends up being about him, and his self-glorification.

But the more interesting part is the sociopathy. Most people betray their true emotions when dealing with others. Sociopaths are wired differently. They too feel emotions, but those emotions are not the ones you see.

Instead, what you see is an act, a set of performances. In any situation, a sociopath will size up his audience, and gear his outward appearance of personality to suit that audience.

Which means, ironically, that a sociopath can be more effective than a sane person at convincing people he is sincere. Sane people always betray some measure of doubt and conflict. On some level, you can always sense their inner struggle to work through their emotions.

In contrast, a narcissistic sociopath is the ultimate salesman. Because he has no actual core beliefs other than self-aggrandizement, he never hesitates or wavers. He will look you straight in the eye and tell you his spiel with the appearance of utmost confidence and sincerity.

The next day he will very likely say the exact opposite, but it really doesn’t matter. He doesn’t care about the message, only about controlling the conversation.

Because most people have no actual experience, in their own lives, of encountering individuals with narcissistic sociopathy, the charismatic power of such a pure performer can often win them over. No matter how often he contradicts himself, such an individual is able to convince many people of anything, precisely because he himself believes in nothing.