Ethical considerations

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

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.


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

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

“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.”



“That’s right,” he bragged. “I’m the guy who came up with that edgy TV ad which reimagines a sweater-wearing 50’s singing star as a gay icon, and it was all filmed in a single action shot.”

“Wow,” she said, “You’re the Po-Mo homo Como slomo promo domo!”

Picking up the guitar again

Today I picked up my guitar again.*

To put this act in context, the first time I seriously picked up a guitar was many years ago. I was quite young back then, and had just had my heart broken by a beautiful and beguiling woman.

The young lady in question was learning to play the classical guitar at the time. So in a sort of psychic jiu jitsu, I dealt with my pain by going to her classical guitar teacher and asking to take lessons from him.

In the months that ensued I poured every drop of my heartache into learning that guitar. Practicing for several hours a day was easy, since the only times when I could feel any joy were the times when I was practicing my music.

In a remarkably short time I had become proficient at playing the classical guitar. Which just goes to show you what you can accomplish if you have sufficient motivation.

Now, after many years, I am circling back to the instrument. I’ve mainly been looking at on-line courses, and following along with the lessons.

I find that my fingers never really forgot how to play. My skills started to return after just a few minutes, almost as though they had never left.

Only this time I’m not doing it because a woman has broken my heart. Although I may be doing it now partly because my country is breaking my heart.


* In an earlier draft I started this post by talking about our current political situation. But I’ve decided it might be good to sometimes lower the volume on that topic, at least a little. 🙂

Smell the Reichstag burning

Let’s pretend for the moment that we lived in a hypothetical alternate universe in which Donald Trump actually gave a rat’s ass about preventing terrorism. In that alternate reality, what would he do?

Well, the first thing he would do is issue a travel ban against Saudi Arabia. After all, that’s where the terrorists who killed actual Americans came from in 2001.

But of course we don’t live in that Disney-esque fantasy. We live in a world in which Donald Trump has business interests in Saudi Arabia.

So why is he being so transparent? I think he actually wants us to know that he doesn’t give a damn about any real threat of terrorism. That is why he has pointedly, ostentatiously, excluded Saudi Arabia from his Potemkin travel ban. Instead of implementing an effective policy, the ban includes only hapless Islamic countries that have never posed any threat to the U.S.

The message is clear: It’s not about actual threats of terrorism. It’s about stoking American Islamophobia — even if Trump’s irresponsible policies allow actual terrorists to enter our shores.

I suspect it’s even worse than that. The Trump administration doesn’t really want to prevent international terrorism against the U.S. Otherwise, Saudi Arabia would have been first on their list.

Rather, they optimizing for an actual terrorist attack, because then they can declare a state of emergency — all in the name of defending our country. An effective policy to prevent errorist attacks would totally mess with that plan.

Put your nose in the air and inhale. You can practically smell the Reichstag burning.

Parallel lives

My second question yesterday was rhetorical. Many die-hard science fiction fans know exactly who Kirk Acevedo is, and also know exactly who King Donovan was.

Among his many great dramatic roles, Kirk Acevedo played Charlie Francis on the cult sci-fi TV show Fringe. On that same show he also played another character: Charlie Francis.

Yes, same character, same name, played essentially the same way, with exactly the same voice, body language and mannerisms, but two quite different people. One of them you were supposed to like, the other you weren’t supposed to like.

There is a parallel here. Among his many great dramatic roles, King Donovan played Jack Belicec in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In that same film he also played another character: Jack Belicec.

Yes, same character, same name, played essentially the same way, with exactly the same voice, body language and mannerisms, but two quite different people. One of them you were supposed to like, the other you weren’t supposed to like.

So here we have two actors who look eerily similar to each other, each playing a compelling character in a sci-fi cult classic, as well as that character’s essentially identical but also opposite doppelganger.

These two eerily parallel pop-cultural offerings were also separated from each other by roughly half a century. Who says there aren’t higher dimensions?