Archive for January, 2017

Plato’s 4D cave

Wednesday, January 11th, 2017

A colleague recently told me about a dream she’d had. She was in VR and somebody showed her a mug and asked her whether it was a real object. Her response was, essentially, no.

Then he showed the same mug to a virtual A.I. in the VR world, and asked her the same question. The A.I. said “sure it is!” and promptly picked up the mug.

I told my colleague that her dream reminded me of thoughts I’ve had about the VR visualizations of four dimensional objects that we’ve been doing in our lab at NYU. We’re doing our best to create intuitive ways for people to rotate and otherwise interact with these 4D objects.

Suppose you were to ask me, while I am wearing the VR headset, whether the thing I am looking at, floating in the air before me, looks like a 4D object. My likely response would be “sure it does!”

But if an actual four dimensional being were looking in on our little exercise, I suspect her reaction would be quite different. “Of course not!” she would likely say. “That’s just a shadow of a 4D object, projected onto your flat little 3D world.”

To such a being, everyone and everything in our Universe is a mere shadow, projected on to a higher dimensional version of the wall of Plato’s cave.

Qualified support

Tuesday, January 10th, 2017

I watched Meryl Streep’s eloquent criticism at the Golden Globes awards of Donald Trump’s insulting behavior toward a disabled reporter. Then I read various on-line comments about her speech.

From the pro-Trump side, the major criticism seemed to be that Streep should not be commenting on politics, because she is not qualified to do so. The central thrust of these arguments is that she has never held any political office.

I was curious whether this was true, so I looked it up. It turns out that when you look at her record, Meryl Streep is indeed extremely qualified to make political statements.

In particular, Streep has spent exactly as much time in political office as has the president-elect of the United States. I can’t see why any Trump supporter would argue with such impressive qualifications.

A fifth of vodka, revisited

Monday, January 9th, 2017

Nearly eight years ago I wrote a post in this blog in which I proposed a fifth of vodka test for computer-user interfaces. The basic idea was that a truly successful computer interface for general users needs to work well after the user has drunk a fifth of vodka.

The real point, of course, is that a computer interface should not require too much cognitive load — it should work properly even if your mind is focused on something else (like the problem you are trying to solve). If too much of your attention is being drawn to the interface itself, then the interface is not doing its job.

I realized after this last U.S. presidential election that the same principle applies to election campaigns. Donald Trump passed the fifth of vodka test, whereas Hillary Clinton failed it.

If you actually listened to their ideas, Trump sounded like a complete idiot. Very little that he said actually made sense, and he continually contradicted himself. On an intellectual level, he sounded like a somewhat demented twelve year old punching way above his weight.

But he had the stance, the cockiness, the hand movements, the tone of voice, the head and body movements, all of the non-intellectual subliminal stuff. On a purely paleo level, he was saying “Hey, I’m the guy in charge.”

Intellectually, Clinton was brilliant. Her ideas were well thought out, her economic proposals detailed and comprehensive, her foreign policy forceful yet measured, with a depth of knowledge consistent with her experience as Secretary of State.

But her body language was all wrong. For much of the time she was stiff and tense, and her voice sounded strained. Her body, her facial expressions, her gestures, didn’t convincingly convey the message “I’m in charge here.”

Now, in any rational society, none of that would have mattered. If most voters had actually been parsing the candidates’ statements for meaning and content, Clinton would have won by a landslide.

But we don’t live in a rational society. Many people don’t even bother to watch the debates. And if they do, they are not listening to detailed policy positions. A lot of people in swing states are simply too worried and too harried. They are working long hours trying to make ends meet.

A complex message outlining an effective economic policy is just not going to get through to people who are overworked and distracted. But a statement like “Hillary wants to take away your gun” will be heard loud and clear, even if it’s not true.

It may sound like a bad joke, but the fifth of vodka test is all too effective. If you want to win a U.S. election these days, you don’t need to make sense. Rather, you need to figure out how to minimize the cognitive load of your listeners.

Alas, we’re going to need a lot more than one fifth of vodka to get through the next four years. On the bright side, there soon might be a lot more vodka available in the U.S. I understand that our president-elect has great connections with the people who make vodka.

Roundhouse kicks

Sunday, January 8th, 2017

Today in Miami my cousin took me to a kickboxing class. Everything about it was wonderful.

Your “opponent” is a very large weighted punching bag. There is a lot of skill to the whole thing, but in essence the experience is very primal. As my cousin explained to me, you hit the bag so you won’t feel like hitting anybody else.

Even from the starting warm-up it became clear that I was more out of shape than I had thought. This form of exercise is a whole level up from running on your treadmill in the morning.

But the instructor was extremely kind and patient with me, and more than that, she was very encouraging. I think the idea with these classes is that you find your own level. With time and practice you will level up.

The core of the class is a series of strenuous exercises, during which you rapidly jab, cross, front kick, side kick and roundhouse kick the bag in various combinations. To me, a punching bag seems like the sparring partner: It takes every hit with grace and humor, and it never ever hits back.

To do the roundhouse kick, you swing your leg out wide and let your foot strike your opponent from the side. The name comes from the fact that your leg is going around the house, where the house in question is your opponent’s body.

This idea of a human body as a house leads directly to a correlary idea: The body houses the mind, and the sheer physicality of kickboxing reminds you that our minds are not disembodied entities. They dwell in the house of our bodies.

These thoughts come to mind because when you are kickboxing, your mind simply has no room for the usual sort of chatter. Old grudges, overdue bills, relationship worries, deadlines at work, none of these things enter your head. All you have time or energy to think about is the right combination of jab, cross, front kick, roundhouse kick, repeat.

So in essence, kickboxing is a form of meditation, one that connects you to your body in a very primal way. Not surprisingly, after the class I felt exhilarated.

And the feeling was not merely physical. It’s hard to maintain neurotic thoughts when you’ve just gone through an hour’s worth of strenuous rounds with a large and very accommodating punching bag.

I highly recommend it.

Irony in the modern age

Saturday, January 7th, 2017

I had two hours this morning in Las Vegas to see the CES show before heading to the airport. For those of you who don’t know, CES is the largest computer expo in the world. It meets in Vegas every year around now.

I had spoken at an event in Vegas yesterday, so I was briefly still in town. I headed from my hotel to the convention center, and everything went well.

Until that is, I tried to register. Right in the middle of my registering, all of the computers went down. The people running things were very apologetic, but they said they just can’t let anyone in without a badge.

And for anyone to get a badge, their computers need to be up. I ended up spending the next 20 minutes waiting around.

Then, on the advice of a colleague, I went to a different part of the convention center. I waited in another long line, this time outside in the cold. I got to the window, and right in the middle of my registering, the computers went down again.

At this point I figured that maybe I’m some sort of minor god. After all, I seem to be able to bring down an entire computer network simply through the force of my bad karma.

A third line did the trick. I got my badge, having spent more than an hour on various lines, and headed into the show. There were now just about 30 minutes left before I needed to leave the convention center and head to the airport. So I got to see a few things, but not many.

Yet I didn’t feel bad, because the irony of it all was more delicious than the inconvenience: I had essentially missed the largest computer show in the world, because their computers crashed.

The future in ten minutes

Friday, January 6th, 2017

I gave a short talk at an industry conference today. Because the schedule was packed, I got exactly ten minutes to present a “vision of the future”.

Fortunately, I had my trusty Chalktalk interactive drawing program as my presentation tool. So I used it to create a demonstration of what that future might feel like.

My fundamental thesis was that augmented reality is indeed coming, but that this isn’t the interesting part. The interesting part is what will happen after everybody starts being able to make drawings in the air, or on any surface, as part of everyday casual conversation, especially when those drawings can come to life, moving over time to express dynamic ideas and relationships.

I argued that eventually this will change the nature of human language itself, as kids grow up in a “Harry Potter meets Harold and the Purple Crayon” world. To that generation, such things will seem perfectly ordinary.

So I used the ten minutes to connect Augmented Reality, dynamic drawing, and the future of language. The trick was that I was able to illustrate that future in the form of a live demo.

Better than virtual

Thursday, January 5th, 2017

Today in Miami my cousin took me out on his speedboat. We headed to Biscayne Bay, gawked at the cool houses on stilts, had a picnic on the boat, did a little swimming off the boat.

The weather was perfect, and the experience was every bit as awesome as it sounds. But it wasn’t all fun and games.

As I saw today, there are many steps to getting a speedboat out of the house, properly hitching it to a trailer behind a truck, driving without incident to the water, and then getting the boat into the water and properly afloat, all without anything going wrong. Then when you’re done at the end of the day, you need to do it all again in reverse order.

There are lots of cool devices, both large and small, that make this process even possible: Winches, lifting devices (both powered and mechanical), ratchets, tow ropes, retractable ladders, and all sorts of other gizmos.

These devices don’t make the process easy — they merely make it possible. And my cousin had clearly mastered them all.

As he said to me at some point during the long process of getting the boat prepped for travel: Real life experiences are better than virtual ones [no arguments here!], but you have to really want them.

What I did yesterday

Wednesday, January 4th, 2017

In response to my post yesterday about Magic Leap, J. Peterson makes a fair point. How can we trust extremely well funded companies that don’t make public statements about what they are up to?

But as it turns out, J. Peterson and I are not in the same position. Because I have now seen the Magic Leap demo.

And here is what I can say about it: It is clear to me from the demo I saw, and the conversations I had there, that they are very much on the right track. Not only that, but I also think they are making the correct business decision in keeping things under wraps until they are ready to go public.

So yes, I am giving Magic Leap a thumbs up — and I can’t yet tell you why. But I think you will end up agreeing with me, after they have gone public and you can see for yourself what they’ve been up to.

What I did today

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2017

Went to Magic Leap
Could tell you what I saw but
I’d have to kill you


Ontological time machine

Monday, January 2nd, 2017

We are moving our lab this month, so last night I needed to pack my office into boxes. Due to various circumstances, I needed to do this in a single night.

I didn’t want to lose objects that might be precious, such as my birth certificate, or photos from the first time I went to Brazil. But not being a very organized person, I wasn’t sure where all those things were.

So it ended up becoming a struggle between time and space. It would have been fastest to simply shove everything into boxes, and push the problem down the road for future Ken to deal with.

But that would have resulted in a crazily large number of boxes, with no real understanding of what was in them. The birth certificate and the treasured photos from Braziil, among other things, would have remained vague cyphers, objects somewhere in a large and mysterious collection of boxes, still out of reach.

So I made some educated guesses. Some piles of paper were clearly not important, and I tossed those out summarily. Yet others looked like they contained treasures, and through these I carefully sifted.

Still other piles of paper were clearly part of what I think of as my “origin story” — the collection of drawings that I made that led to algorithms I’m proud of, or things I had written so long ago that they possess clear archeaological value for that reason alone.

These collections of papers I put into boxes wholesale, without trying to sift through them. I guess there are certain categories of objects that I simply think of as sacred

The entire experience, which lasted roughly twelve hours, felt like a journey through a time machine. Through these objects, which at various stages of my life I had touched, and had in turn touched me, I could see who I was a different times.

I remembered the joys and struggles, the friends now long gone, the relationships that defined me. On the one hand I was merely sifting through piles of paper.

On the other hand, I was sifting through my own life. And all the while I was asking myself a question: Which parts of that life do I cherish, and which parts will I throw away?