Vacation from stupidity

This week I have been mostly ignoring the sheer venality and vindictiveness that purvade the current policies of this country’s executive branch. I’ve been working here in NYC with colleagues, getting work done, seeing really good culture with friends, enjoying life on a local scale.

I know that soon I will need to refocus my efforts, as do millions of responsible U.S. citizens, on what each of us can do about the corruption and dysfunction that is ripping through the halls of power of our nation. Simple patriotism and respect for my country demands that much from me.

But sometimes, at least for a while, you just need to take a vacation from stupidity.

Why is The Matrix?

When I first saw The Matrix when it came out in 1999, I thought it was ok — just ok. I totally got that it was a formal innovation, beautifully art directed, excitingly shot and edited, visually stunning, a game changer for the movie SciFi genre.

But I also found the central premise to be trite. I had grown up with science fiction stories where at some point the hero wakes up to find that himself in a vat, and realizes that his life until now has been a simulation. That was already a well-worn SciFi trope when I was a kid.

But seeing it again I realize it’s not the obvious premise that is interesting, but the philosophical conversations that spin out from that premise throughout the film. In many ways the screenplay reads like a philosophy class.

What is reality? Why are we here? Why does any of this stuff matter anyway? Are we defined more by our physical existence in the world or by our belief in that physical existence? Can we transcend both?

Sure, obvious questions, but the Wachowskis built a kick-ass martial arts action film around those questions — and a really good one too. Which is wonderfully clever, when you think about it, because martial arts films are themselves a disquisition on the relationship between the apparent constraints of physical reality and our belief in our ability to transcend those constraints.

I’ve gradually realized, over the last few days, that the reason I like the film so much more this time around is that these are questions I now constantly think about in my work. Our research on “future reality” forces us to ask what becomes different when the rules of physical existence are changed, and what stays the same.

So basically, The Matrix is a kind of riff on basic issues that underly my current research. Those issues have been embedded in the DNA of The Matrix ever since its release. It has just taken eighteen years for me to catch up.

Best film in years

Last night I saw Jordan Peele’s film Get Out. I am happy to report that it is by far the best American fiction film I have seen in a very long time.

Recently I have gotten in the habit of making excuses for American films. These days they feel like smudged paintings. Even when you can still make out the beauty and integrity of the original intention, the final product has been so distorted by glop and goo and nonsense that the end result is usually seriously compromised, if not downright ugly.

The problem, I believe, is that large budgets lead to many hands on the final product. And a lot of those hands belong not to the film’s actual creative talent, but to the people who hold the purse strings. Those people are generally focused on their own misguided idea of a “bottom line” — target demographics, tie-ins, called-in favors, or some stupid formula they once read in a book about how to write screenplays.

But Jordan Peele had the good fortune to work with a production company that left him alone, as long has he kept his production budget under $5 Million (which he did). And the result, to my eye, is a masterpiece. I am not at all surprised that when it opened it rose straight to number one at the box office.

Get Out is the only American entertainment film I can think of in years that squarely hits its mark on every single level: pacing, visuals, acting, dialog, character development, sly wit, unerring tone. It trusts the intelligence of its audience, while also playing with that audience in a way that never condescends.

Lastly, in addition to its rollicking entertainment value, this is a movie about ideas — important and timely ideas, which are deeply uncomfortable precisely because they are important and timely. And all packaged up in a perfect two hours or so of perfect and fun entertainment.

I can’t wait to see what Jordan Peele will do next!

Mom Jam

This morning when I woke up I realized that I had been in the midst of a dream about a presentation some college students were giving me. It had been quite an interesting presentation.

They had put up a big chart on the wall, structured like a set of comic book panels. The panels progressed, step by step, through an idea for a kind of weekend game jam.

Except this was a game jam with a twist. The plan was that each of the participating students would enlist their mom to implement their game for them.

It was an interesting constraint: What sort of game could your team make in a weekend game jam, if all of the actual game creation would be done by your moms?

At the top of the chart, in big letters, there was a name for their proposal: “Mom Jam”. I distinctly remember thinking, just before I woke up, that I thought this might be a brilliant idea.

Now that I’m awake, I’m not sure I’ve changed my mind.

The three pillars

I was asked by a friend the other day what qualities I consider when I look for people to join our work at our lab. And I found myself giving a very specific answer. It wasn’t an answer I had consciously thought through before, but I realized as I said it that I had been using these criteria for a long time.

Essentially I think in terms of three pillars. I say “pillars” because all three are necessary. If any one is missing, things get unstable very quickly.

The three pillars are: Conceptual, Practical and Personal. “Conceptual” refers to the ability to understand the underlying meaning of what we are doing. In other words, why are we doing this research? What are our real goals? Without that understanding, it’s hard for any member of the team to make an independent decision about that is important for them to work on.

The second pillar (which is somewhat useless without the first), is practical ability. People need to be able to learn and master tools, to have the chops to work on their own without somebody else needing to hold their hand. That doesn’t mean everyone needs to be a virtuoso, just good enough to be self-sufficient when needed.

Finally, there is the personal. I look for people who can play well with others. This means a fundamental attitude of kindness, as well as a real respect for the importance of everyone else. Without those qualities, even the most brilliant and talented person is actually a danger to the group effort, rather than an asset.

I suspect everyone responsible for a group of people working together goes through something similar. If you find yourself in the position of leading such a group, it’s probably one of the most important things you do.


Last night, after watching The Matrix, I stopped off at a local deli on my way home and bought myself a bunch of bananas and an avocado.

As I was paying, a yoing woman came in and asked the man behind the counter “Can I have a spoon?”

It took a lot of willpower, but I resisted the temptation to tell her “There is no spoon.”


It is 10,000 years in the future. Archeologists know that there once existed, many centuries ago, an ancient country called the United States of America. All that is left of that once mighty nation is a barren wasteland, bordered by a large wall on each of its four sides.

Experts are pretty sure they know the purpose of the wall to the East. That was built to keep out the waters of a mighty ocean, as increasing global temperatures caused that ocean to rise higher year after year, threatening to flood the land and devastate the populace.

The wall to the West served a similar purpose. Like its cousin three thousand miles to the East, this wall was under continual construction. It needed to be made higher with each successive year, to keep out the ever rising ocean waters of another ocean. Eventually both walls failed, as global warming inexorably overwhelmed the limits of human engineering.

The meaning of the wall to the north is well understood, for its purpose was preserved in history books. That wall belonged to another ancient nation named Canada, to keep the fleeing American population from rushing its borders. The history books record that the Canadians built this wall and made America pay for it.

Finally, there is a fourth wall to the South. This one puzzles the Archeologists, for it doesn’t seem to have served any useful purpose at all.

Introducing the future

Tomorrow evening, Friday April 14, at 9:30pm, I will be introducing a screening of The Matrix at the Rubin Museum of Art. I am super excited, and extremely honored, that they asked me to give the introduction for this screening.

The Rubin’s weekly Friday evening “Cocktails and Film” series (the audience sips cocktails while watching a film) features films that have some thematic connection to Buddhist philosophy. In the case of this particular film, I think the connection is obvious.

Tim McHenry, who runs the film series (and all of the awesome public events at The Rubin) asked me to introduce this film because I worked on Tron (the first one), In a way, Tron is itself a kind of introduction to The Matrix, marking the first time many people were exposed to the concept of someone walking around in a computer mediated future reality.

Coincidentally, just the other day we gave a demo, here in our lab, of our own VR enabled simulation of walking around in a computer mediated future reality. The person we gave the demo to was Alan Kay, the visionary who came up with many of the ideas for Tron (and many other ideas, like notebook and tablet computers). He liked it.

Today we gave the same demo to Tim McHenry. He liked it too.

If you are in NY tomorrow evening, come join us at the Rubin!

Anxiety attack

Every once in a while I get an anxiety attack. In fact, I just got one this afternoon.

I first started getting them in college. The symptoms were very specific: A general sense of panic, and a feeling of disorientation and alarm.

There is also a temporary inability to remember even the simplest of facts and figures, names, dates, telephone numbers. The phenomenon generally fades away after about ten to twenty minutes.

As you can imagine, when I first started getting them I found the situation to be quite distressing. But eventually I saw the silver lining.

I realized, you see, that these anxiety attacks were nature’s way of raising an alarm about something of importance. Perhaps there was something I wasn’t dealing with in my personal life, or in my professional obligations, or in my emotional reckoning with self. Whatever the details, an anxiety attack was a sure-fire indication that there was something fundamental I was just plain ignoring.

Apparently, I can go for a while blithely pretending that all is well, but not forever. At some point my inner sense of self-preservation raises an exception.

“Hello!,” these anxiety attacks seem to be saying, “I’m showing up here on your front doorstep because you kind of ignore me when I try to get your attention back there in the kitchen or bedroom. You SERIOUSLY need to get your shit together.”

Now I realize that such anxiety attacks are a good thing. They force me to refocus, to pay attention, to stop hiding from whatever it is I have been hiding from.

I have come to think of this anxiety attack syndrome as a friend — one of those annoying but invaluable friends who always tells you the truth, whether or not you want to hear it. In some ways, the best kind of friend to have.

The mom and the monk

A friend of mine recently told me an interesting story. It seems this friend’s mom had gone traveling to an exotic place and had met a monk there from an eastern religion.

Their conversation turned at some point to technology. My friend’s mom was bemoaning the way that technology seems to have taken over our modern world, and was impressed by the monk’s ability to live without it.

To her surprise, the monk disagreed. He said that technology is not bad, any more than it is good. It can be very useful. In fact, he said, it is simply what we make of it.

As my friend told me this story I realized that the monk himself relied — by necessity — upon technology. After all, the sacred books that allow words of wisdom to reach future generations are a form of technology.

We rely upon the technology of the written word. Without it, the great ideas of the Ancients might never have been passed down through the ages.

When we speak of technology as a thing apart from ourselves, we are engaged in a fundamental misunderstanding. To be human, in any way that we would find comprehensible, is to be awash in technology.

Given the nature of our species, technology is our birthright. What we do with that birthright is entirely up to us.