Archive for July, 2017

The death of place memory

Friday, July 21st, 2017

I was walking down an unfamiliar street the other day, but I had a pretty good sense of where I was going. Also, I could more or less keep in my head the general direction I was headed, so fairly soon I managed to get to a familiar intersection.

While this was happening I was thinking about a potential downside to wearable technology. If I had been using a mature version of a wearable, I would have had the option to see an optimal route at all times.

With the Cloud as my guide, I would have quickly learned to simply follow the directions on offer, confident that I would arrive at my destination in optimal time. I wouldn’t even need to think about it.

And that’s the problem right there. With every new technology aimed at making our lives easier, another skill becomes lost.

In this case, it would be the skill of place memory — the ability to navigate through a strange place using only one’s wits and common sense.

Who knows, maybe this is a good thing. I’m thinking of the future generations may read this, long after the skill of navigating through a strange place without computer assistance has been forgotten.

They will probably wonder what all the fuss was about.

The non-linearity of productivity

Thursday, July 20th, 2017

I happen to be going through a very productive time right now. I’m working on a project that I’m very excited about, and the threads are all coming together to create a very satisfying tapestry.

Of course, there are long stretches of time when I don’t feel very productive at all. I’ll noodle around, trying this or that, but nothing really compelling results.

I’m wondering what the relationship looks like between productivity and time. Is there a pattern to it? Are these things cyclic? Random? Contingent on the phases of the moon?

If only we could find a correlation between time-varying productivity and some specific external factor. Maybe we could use that knowledge productively.

Perhaps, if I knew I was about to enter a fallow period, I could choose that time to go on a relaxing vacation. Or perhaps, if I knew that a firestorm of creative energy was about to burst forth from my brain, I could be ready to make the most of it.

It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? Maybe I should try to tackle it the next time I’m feeling productive.

Productive relaxation

Wednesday, July 19th, 2017

These last five days I had the very good fortune to spend quality time with a dear friend in London after a whirlwind conference. I had the additional fortune to be there when my friend needed to spend about 50% of her time making a deadline.

We would wander out in the morning, look at cool places like the Tate Modern, and houses of famous dead people like Charles Dickens and Samuel Johnson. Then we would eventually settle in at her flat and get work done.

The reason this was so awesome was that it gave me perfect cover for engaging in my favorite activity: Working on my research software. In most social situations this would have been at least slightly awkward. But in this instance it was perfect, because our respective agendas lined up precisely.

Not only am I returning to NYC happy and relaxed and in touch with my inner Anglophile, but I also got a tremendous amount of work done during the last five days.

Oh, and I also got to be in London when Roger Federer won his eighth straight Wimbledon match. It doesn’t get much better than that.

The surprising price of avocados in London

Tuesday, July 18th, 2017

This week at a local market in London we purchased these 22 fresh avocados for a total cost of three quid. When I worked out the exchange rate (a bit less than four U.S. dollars), that total came out to be just about 1/15 the cost, per avocado, of the most recent avocado I purchased in New York City.

I am happy to report that all the avocados were perfectly ripe and delicious. We made lots and lots of guacamole!

Overheard this week in London

Monday, July 17th, 2017


“Right then. Where does this go?”

Secrets of the Knights Templar

Sunday, July 16th, 2017

As an American, I’ve had only limited exposure to the Knights Templar. To me they were a mysterious religious order that would show up in occasional old TV episodes of Superman, or that guy who patiently waited hundreds of years in a cave guarding the Holy Grail until Indiana Jones could come along and get it.

Yet clearly there was much more to them, a rich history waiting to be discovered. Which is one reason I was so eager to accept my friend’s invitation today to visit the Museum of the Knights Templar here in London.

I certainly learned a lot, about their shifting relationship with the various Monarchs of England, the waxing and waning of their political power throughout the centuries, their great role in both war and medicine throughout British history. But I also learned some small details that rather surprised me.

For example, in their role as providers of medicants, the Knights Templar tended to gather together some unusual ingredients. Here, for example, is a detail of a case of potions and elixars that I photographed during my visit:

Note, in particular, the container on the top left, labeled “Sang Dracon“. This translates into modern English as “Dragon’s Blood”.

Yes, that’s right — dragon’s blood. The Knights Templar had dragon’s blood.

Which means they had dragons. How cool is that?

Why animation may become more procedural

Saturday, July 15th, 2017

When you animate a computer graphic character by hand, you have complete control over everything. The placement of the feet, the head, the hips and shoulders, all of the subtle indicators of mood and intent, are under your explicit control.

Of course it can be a tedious process, but it is also a very rewarding one. You are essentially being the actor in a performance, but rather than performing with your own physical body, you are performing within a body by proxy.

But when you are making interactive content, this approach to character animation can start to break down. An interactive character needs to respond to unexpected events, turning or looking or reaching in response to something that could not have been planned for beforehand.

That’s why procedural methods can be so useful. They are designed, from the ground up, to be able to respond to unexpected changes in the environment. But nothing comes for free. In order to provide that power, these methods require the animator to let go of the precise control afforded by hand animation.

How, exactly, does procedural animation make it possible for a character to respond to unexpected events? The key idea is that within every procedural animation system is a model of behavior. Whereas in traditional animation there is no such model — which means that any unexpected change will start to break things.

For example, if you blend together two hand-crafted animations of a character walking, the result will likely be a character whose feet begin to slide along the ground. That’s because, whereas the animator knows avoid sliding feet when making each individual walk animation, there is no knowledge in the computer that such a thing is important.

So any change in the animation, like blending it together with another animation, is likely to create that sortsof weird results. The computer doesn’t care about things like foot sliding, but viewers of the animation care a lot. As soon as an animated character starts to move in a way that is weird and impossible, viewers stop believing in that character.

In contrast, procedural animations have such constraints built into them. In a properly designed procedural animation system, it is literally impossible for a character’s feet to slide along the floor, unless the animator specifically directs the character to do so.

When is this power relevant? Well, if you’re making a movie it is not relevant at all. You’re pretty much always better of hand animating, since everything in the character’s environment is known beforehand.

If you’re creating a computer game, it may be relevant, or maybe not. You still have a lot of control over how the player sees the character, which gives you cover to hide a lot of sins in blended animation.

But if you are creating an interactive character in virtual, augmented or mixed reality, the balance changes. In those media, an observer can view an animated character from any position, and is generally free to move her head to view the character from a different angle.

In these newer media, any undue repetitive movement, and any artifacts caused by bad motion blending, will jump right out, and will quickly dominate the visual experience. That’s why I think that procedural animation is going to become ever more important in the next few years, as interactive animated characters move out of screens and into the world around us.

Great story, terrible sequel

Friday, July 14th, 2017

During the Develop games conference, one of the speakers showed an image from a game set in a future dystopia. The image was of two skeletons, their bodies entwined on a bed. If you looked carefully, you could see a vial of poison next to them.

His point was the importance of context in properly setting the scene, not just for game play, but for any sort of narrative. Walking into a room and seeing such a sight gets your mind asking questions: Exactly what kind of situation led to these two people making such a choice? What kind of people were they, and what was at stake for them?

I had a slightly different take-away. I turned to the person next to me and whispered: “Romeo and Juliet: The Sequel.”

That got a laugh, but it also got me thinking. What other great stories would probably have really terrible sequels? Anyone have suggestions?

Soylent Green perhaps? Dr. Strangelove? The Matrix? Oh right, somebody already tried that one. :-/

The future of interchangeable information devices

Thursday, July 13th, 2017

When the IPad came out in 2010, I had a vision of a universal anonymous device. When you picked up any IPad that happened to be handy, its front facing camera would recognize you. That would then become your IPad, customized with your data and preferences, until you put it down again.

Clearly this is not what happened. Like the IPhone before it, the IPad became a singular possession, a sign of status and wealth, like a car — as in: this isn’t your car, this is my car.

There are many examples through history of technological objects which are anonymous: The telephone booth, the piano, the typewriter and the taxi cab, to name just a few. You don’t need to own any of these devices to use them. They are designed to be more or less interchangeable with other devices of the same type.

But the data tablet and smart phone are different, because they contain your personal data. Which means you don’t want anybody messing with them, and thereby potentially messing with your private information.

Yet we now live in the world of Blockchain, of end to end encryption, of fully secure WhatsApp messages. There now exist widely adopted mechanisms by which individuals can store their data in the Cloud without needing to worry that their data will be stolen.

So the next wave of personal information devices — arguably the first generation of wearables — might be able to get it right. The moment you put on a pair of cyberglasses, the device will do a quick retinal scan, fetch your data from the Cloud, and essentially become your personal customized device for as long as you are wearing it.

And the next person who puts on those same glasses will have a similar experience. Which means that wearables will, like pianos, and guitars, and plates and bowls and forks and spoons and screwdrivers, become anonymous interchangeable machines.

They will not be tethered to any one person, but rather will be equally useable by anyone. And that will make a lot more sense, won’t it?

Political undo function

Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

Suppose Donald Trump ends up being thrown out of office because of the whole Russia getting him elected thing. What are the ramifications?

Do we get to roll back his nutty executive orders? Do we get to throw out the anti-environment head of the EPA? Do we get to throw out the anti-education head of the DOE? Do we get to throw out his entire rogue’s gallery of crazies?

Most important, do we get to ask Neil Gorsuch to leave the Supreme Court? And can we then replace him with somebody who was chosen through a legitimate process?

What, exactly, are the rules when a fake President, who got into the office through chicanery, finally gets tossed out?