Archive for February, 2017

Bubble haiku

Thursday, February 23rd, 2017

Our nation on fire
Yet in New York a bubble
Of sweet sanity

The greatest enemy our nation is facing

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017

Every time I think that Donald Trump couldn’t possibly do something more dispicable and ugly, more hateful and counter to what this country stands for, he surprises me. I am starting to think that this administration is the greatest enemy our nation is facing.

ISIS can kill our bodies, but they do not have the power to destroy us from within. In contrast, Donald Trump’s relentlessly hateful policy decisions pose a far more fundamental danger to America.

This so-called administration is a cancer. This cancer has infiltrated the body of our society and is now eating away at our very core principles.

I have gone beyond feeling disgust for this narcissistic self-aggrandizing con-man. Disgust for such a crass operator is so obvious that it is no longer even important.

What is important, and what I now feel, is fear for our beautiful nation. When we pick up the pieces in another two years, after the mid-term elections finally erect a road block to the cynically corrosive policies that are oozing daily from our own White House, just how great will the damage have been?

I feel terrible for all of us, but mostly for the well-meaning people who voted for this bozo. How will they ever explain to their grandchildren that they were conned into supporting such an anti-American swindle?

Shoes in the ocean

Tuesday, February 21st, 2017

Yesterday a friend asked me to follow an old tradition I’d never heard of before. “When you find yourself by the ocean,” she said, “you must dip your shoes in the blue water.”

So yesterday, before leaving Sea Island, I walked down to the shore and dipped my shoes in the ocean. I felt great after following this little ritual, as though I was now somehow more connected to our planet.

Later in the day, over drinks, I was telling a colleague about this interesting tradition. Being in a punful mood, he replied, “Sure, you can dip shoes. But at a beach, wouldn’t it be more appropriate to dipthongs?”

“Maybe,” I told him, being in a punful mood myself. “But that wouldn’t have been consonant with my friend’s request.”

Future contingent privacy

Monday, February 20th, 2017

Yesterday, during one of the fancy breakfasts at The Cloister on Sea Island, a waiter looked at my plate and asked whether I wanted the scrambled eggs. He was so nice about it, clearly wanting to make sure I hadn’t missed seeing the eggs when I had gone to the buffet table.

I politely declined, thanking him. I realized he had no way of knowing that I don’t eat eggs.

It occurs to me that when people start wearing those future reality glasses, waiters will be able to know such things. In fact, that sort of knowledge might save lives. If somebody has an extreme peanut or seafood allergy, you don’t want to put a plate in front of them that contains peanuts or seafood.

There are all sorts of situations like this, where the right knowledge at the right time can be anything from convenient to life saving. But of course we also need to think about privacy.

We already have a complex set of systems in place to get information to the right place without compromising privacy or security. You can withdraw money from your bank at a convenient ATM, but the person in line behind you cannot then proceed to withdraw money from your account.

Similarly, we have ways for doctors to send each other health information about you without anybody else getting access to that data. In fact, such security is necessary for a computer-based health care system to be able to function.

I suspect that in future reality we will develop similar systems for even more casual interactions. The waiter will know whether you have food preferences or food allergies because you have granted restaurants access to that information. But that doesn’t mean they have access to other personal information about you.

It will be interesting to see how all of this develops. Most people will not be interested in the implementation details of such wearable-enabled systems for ensuring privacy and security. But they will be very interested in — and invested in — the outcome.

Future nature walk

Sunday, February 19th, 2017

Today I went on a nature walk along the coast here on Sea Island. There were so many wonderful things to see, from ospreys to rare trees to islands and dolphins off the coast.

Everyone on the walk had a pair of binoculars. Very often, in order to better see something especially cool, such as a far-away tree or a bird circling in the middle distance, I would look through the binoculars, and everything would look eight times larger.

Looking through the binoculars meant lifting them from where they hung from a strap around my neck and positioning them in front of my eyes. It was a simple enough act, but sometimes even that simple act took too long. By the time I was looking through the binoculars, the bird might have flown away, or the dolphin vanished beneath the waves.

It occurred to me that someday soon we may no longer need binoculars. The pair of glasses that we use for virtual and augmented reality will also allow us to zoom into things of interest all around us.

Magnifying our view, seeing in infrared, or other acts of augmentation, such as learning the identity of a tree or a bird, may become as simple as looking. We will start to take this superpower for granted.

Like any successful technology, such a capability will come to seem perfectly natural, an extension of our own body, like clothing or shoes. In time, we will wonder how anybody had ever managed to get along without it.

Ethical considerations

Saturday, February 18th, 2017

There have been so many great speakers during this two day workshop. Most of them touched on the ethical considerations of the topics they discussed.

Various speakers spoke of injustices around the world. I started to see a theme emerging of the complicity of “good people” in acts of cruelty and destruction, simply through the act of standing by passively and doing nothing.

Speakers referred to the systematic dismantling of native American culture, governments paying lip service to climate change while allowing it to continue, America demonizing black people as a way to avoid its past injustices to toward them, the international trade of diamonds from Sierra Leone that has been “paid for” with human atrocity, and unreasoning prejudice in general. These were just a few of the topics that involved difficult ethical questions.

Two of the speakers spoke about standing up for animals. But only cute animals.

Even among thoughtful people, who spend a lot of time and effort pondering deeply about ethical issues and trying to make the world a kinder and more just place, have a kind of blind spot. It’s good to be nice to non-human sentient beings, but only if you think they are cute.

What about the other sentient beings? The consensus seems to be that it’s perfectly fine to torture and kill them and do various unimaginably monstrous things to them.

One speaker in particular stood out in my mind. He had just finished suggesting various ways to experiment on living creatures that were so horrific they would make Dr. Moreau blush in shame.

Someone in the audience then asked him “Are there any ethical considerations to any of this?” His simple answer: “No.”

Why are people like this? I’m not sure exactly, but it seems to be because people think it’s fun.

Backstage pass

Friday, February 17th, 2017

Two weeks ago a friend and I went to the Rubin museum in NY to see a talk by a person who is a legend in his field. It was, as expected, a wonderful talk, insightful and full of information and fascinating anecdotes.

Afterward, people went up to the stage to talk to the great man. My friend asked me whether I wanted to go up as well. She knew I had questions I wanted to ask him.

I said I’d rather not. I’ve seen that scene before: An already exhausted speaker, patiently entertaining random questions from strangers who want a moment with the famous guy, when all he really wants to do is chill out and rest after being up on stage for an hour.

I told her I’d rather just wait until I run into the man at some professional event, when he and I can meet as colleagues. I don’t think my friend quite believed me, and I’m not really sure that I believed me. She and I both knew that the speaker and I are not at all in the same field.

By complete coincidence this same man and I were both invited to be speakers at this weekend’s little Sea Island think tank. We ended up having a deep conversation about one of the technical points in his Rubin museum talk, followed up by an email exchange with references to published research papers.

So it turns out, by some crazy twist of fate, that I had been right. I did indeed meet the same guy at a professional event, only this time not as a random audience member but as a professional colleague.

Maybe it was a complete coincidence, or maybe it was just the Universe having a bit of fun. In either case, it’s nice to know that sometimes life hands you a backstage pass.


Thursday, February 16th, 2017

This weekend I am participating in an interdisciplinary think tank on Sea Island. The idea is that the organizers get a bunch of people together from different fields, invite them hang out together for three intensive days at a fancy resort, get each participant to give a talk about their own work, and then have everyone discuss it all over drinks and meals.

I shared a shuttle bus ride from the airport with Jack Horner. He is a noted paleontologist who, among other things, is studying how dinosaurs might be brought back to life.

The most promising approach, as I understand it, is to start with birds, which share a lot of DNA with dinosaurs. After all, birds evolved from dinosaurs. Then you use cutting edge science to transform those birds into dinosaurs (lots of technical details omitted).

Jack was telling me that there are many more possible ways to use the same technology. “For example,” he said, “you could create a duck with the head of an alligator or crocodile.”

“Wait,” I told him, “that sounds like a bad joke.”

“How so?” he asked.

“Imagine,” I said, “that it’s some time in the future, when all of this technology has been perfected. A man walks into a restaurant.

“Waiter,” the guy says, “I’ll have that new thing — the duck with the head of a crocodile.”

“Ok,” the waiter replies, “If that’s what you really want. But just wait until you see the bill.”

Continuing the ray tracing breakdown story

Wednesday, February 15th, 2017

My recent raytracing breakdown was, in a sense, the beginning of a story. It was, in particular, the first part of a story about implementing a ray tracer in a WebGL fragment shader.

As the computer graphics class I’m teaching this semester has progressed, I’ve added more chapters to that story. With each new chapter, the reader learns a bit more about raytracing.

If you want to see how far the story has gotten, click on the image below.

Ad-speak, part 2

Tuesday, February 14th, 2017

“Actually,” he continued, “It was a antacid commercial commissioned by the NY State Governor, assembled from color lithographs of the Florence Cathedral, over a British beatbox soundtrack.”

“Oh I see,” she said, “You’re the Po-Mo homo Como slomo Duomo chromo Shlomo Cuomo bromo promo domo.”