Archive for November, 2017

Situational armor

Friday, November 10th, 2017

I heard two related stories today about the effects of RSS (repeated song syndrome). If you are putting a show at a festival, or work in an amusement park, the odds are that you will end up hearing the same song or musical motif over and over again.

When you are in in this kind of situation, you develop a kind of tolerance for the incessantly repeating tune. You somehow manage to shut it out rather than become progressively more irritated by it.

But if you then hear the tune outside the show or festival, it can drive you completely crazy. My theory is that the mind develops a kind of situational armor to protect it against mental irritants.

Your situational armor is effective as long as you are in the environment where you originally encountered the mental irritant. But when you are outside that environment, you are no longer wearing that armor, and the feeling of irritation comes roaring back.

This is only a theory.


Thursday, November 9th, 2017

Yes, there are two paths you can go by
But in the long run
There’s still time to change the road you’re on

— Robert Plant

Blade Runner 4098

Wednesday, November 8th, 2017

I watched Blade Runner 2049 some weeks back, shortly after it came out. My friend reserved seats for us at one of the IMAX theaters in NYC, and we treated ourselves to a modern wonder.

Not everybody likes the new Blade Runner sequel. Personally, I came away feeling as though I had just seen a masterpiece — one of those rare pop cultural triumphs, like Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane or The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper, that will continue to influence people for generations after its own time.

I remember thinking while watching it, about two hours into the three hour long film, that it seemed a bit slow in places. Yet I was confidend that I would go back to see it again on the big screen.

The other day I did just that, this time going with a different friend, one who had not yet seen it. We sat ourselves down fifth row center, and let the experience wash over us.

I had been curious to find out whether I would like it as much the second time around. The results were surprising.

It turns out that Blade Runner 2049 is far better the second time around. The first time you are still trying to put the pieces together in your head, to figure out exactly what you are seeing. The second time, all of your questions have already been answered.

Which means you can pick up the telling details, the subtle clues that change the meaning of everything to follow. This is a film with vast operatic sweep, but its giant canvas is constructed by thousands of carefully wrought details. And when you see it for a second time, you realize that every one of those details is essential.

Also, the second time I saw it, I didn’t find it to be slow at all. On the contrary, it felt as though it was racing headlong forward, like the most breathtaking of thrillers, with not a moment wasted.

To me that’s a sign of a well made film.

Like sending your child to kindergarten

Tuesday, November 7th, 2017

We open sourced Chalktalk this week. The link is here.

It’s a big step for our research group, one we didn’t take lightly. When you open source a project, you become responsible for a lot of people being able to use it.

After nearly four years of development, Chalktalk is still really not ready for prime time, but then it probably never will be. By open sourcing it, we can more easily invite other people in to help improve it.

The feeling is both exciting and scary at the same time. I imagine it’s a bit like that first day you send your child off to kindergarten.

You know that sooner or later you need to let go, to stop being overprotective. Yet you also know that your kid might run into bullies at school, and come back home with a bloody nose.

Eventually you realize that every child is better off learning how to deal with the world, bloody noses and all — children eventually need to find their own way in the world. And that’s true even when your child is a software project.

Something ironic

Monday, November 6th, 2017

I realized something ironic today: In my field I’m known largely for developing techniques that make it easier to create computer graphic images that look realistic. Yet I never set out to make computer graphic images look realistic, and in fact that’s not something I particularly value.

What I want is to help make computer graphic images look beautiful and compelling. It just happens that realism is one way to do that — among many others.

Yes, my techniques can be used to create things that look real. But they can also be used to create a lot of other kinds of visual results.

I think what’s going on here is that the movie and games special effects industries (where the big money is) are really in love with realism — presumably because audiences are. So that’s how my techniques tend to be used, which means that’s what I’ve become known for.

Personally, I’ll take the look of Fantasia over the look of a Transformers movie any day. But to be fair, I’m not in the business of making movies that are supposed to earn millions of dollars for their creators, so I can have the luxury of an iconoclastic opinion.

When I was in high school

Sunday, November 5th, 2017

When I was in high school there were two cultures of computer science. On the one hand, there were the official “computer science” courses, where we learned serious languages like Fortran, as well as lots of math.

On the other hand, we had the timeshare terminal. I’m not sure who made the decision to get one of these for our school, but it ended up being totally gangsta.

The kids who hung out at the timeshare terminal were rebel outcasts, hackers, nonconformist anarchist agitators. If it helps, think the A/V club from Stranger Things, but with a lot more attitude.

So I ended up spending time in two vastly disparate cultures. The first one was a sort of prep school for a well paid but boring future job at IBM. The second one was totally rock & roll, set in some hypothetical alternate universe where Jerry Garcia was a programmer.

My friend David was the keeper of the terminal. He was our self-appointed sys-admin, troubleshooter, general go-to guy. If this had been a game of D&D, he would have been the Dungeon Master.

At one point David noticed a problem: Some kids where registering inappropriate four letter words as their user name. So, in typical hacker fashion, he fixed it in software.

David installed a look-up table. If you incorporated one of the forbidden words on that table into your user name, you were booted from the system.

The very next day we got a visit from the school Principal. He told us that the people who ran the time-share system were not happy. It seems that one of our students was putting four letter words into a look-up table that was stored on the time-share servers.

My friend David was called into the Principal’s office. He was told that he was being kicked off the system for using inappropriate words.

David explained the actual situation to the Principal. The Principal then agreed to let David keep running the timeshare system, if he would just remove the damned four letter words.

David then wrote an encryption algorithm, which scrambled the four letter words in his look-up table. He could now check for naughty words in user log-in names without those words ever appearing in his own computer program.

I’m sure that there is a profound lesson in all of this, but I’m not quite sure what it is. Maybe you can figure it out.

Applied math

Saturday, November 4th, 2017

Recent statements by Whitehouse chief of staff John Kelly provide an interesting opportunity to learn about math. I’m thinking specifically about Kelly’s statement that we shouldn’t judge the opinion on slavery by Robert E. Lee through the lens of modern sensibilities.

Kelly’s argument, as I understand it, is that we shouldn’t be too harsh on Lee, because most people thought slavery was perfectly normal back in the early 1860’s. Therefore, he reasons, it is unfair to judge Lee by applying our 21st century values.

Let’s do some math. Suppose we say, to be generous, that 60% of white Americans were at the time in favor of slavery (the actual percentage was lower, but I’m being generous).

Now we know that in slave-holding regions of the U.S., roughly 40% of the population consisted of slaves. Let’s put these numbers together, with the reasonable assumption that slaves themselves were not in favor of slavery.

If 60% of 60% of a population is pro-slavery, that means that 36% that population is pro-slavery, which means that 64% is against slavery. That comes out to an overwhelm opinion against slavery: Nearly twice as many people are against slavery than are for it.

Unless you think that certain darker skinned members of the population were not “people”. Hmm.

Surely that’s not what Kelly is implying. Or is it?

Choice of argument

Friday, November 3rd, 2017

A recent article in the NY Times talked about the Impossible Burger. I haven’t tried the burger myself yet, but I understand that it is right on the bleeding edge of plant-sourced food technology.

Included in the article was a link to a video taste test. Four subjects — identified, respectively, as a butcher, a technology reporter, a cardiologist and a vegan yoga instructor — were given the burger to eat, and their reactions were duly recorded.

The responses were quite similar: All four found it very tasty, and none of the carnivores thought it tasted the same as meat from a cow.

But to me one of the most interesting moments in the video was when a reporter, in voice-over, explained why people might go vegan. Here is that explanation, in its entirety:

“Cows use a ton of resources while emitting greenhouse gases, which are terrible for the environment.”

You can learn a lot about a person by their choice of argument. I found myself imagining that same reporter explaining why some people oppose slavery:

“Slaves take up a lot of jobs that could be filled by working people. That drives up unemployment, which is terrible for the economy.”

Dinner party

Thursday, November 2nd, 2017

When I think of the early 1500s, I think of Leonardo DaVinci. When I think of the early 1600s, I think of William Shakespeare.

The early 1700s remind me of Johann Sebastian Bach. And the early 1800s make me think of Jane Austen.

Four geniuses spaced roughly a century apart, working in four different artistic fields: an artist/inventor, a playwright, a composer and a novelist.

So why these four? I know there have been many geniuses throughout history, but those four happen to be particular favorites of mine.

Recently I’ve been trying to see the thread that connects them. And I think I have it.

What they all had in common was a sense of playfulness. There have been many other great geniuses: Goethe, Beethoven and Michelangelo, to name a few. But most of them were so damned serious — it was all about the Sturm und Drang.

When you look at the works of DaVinci, Shakespeare, Bach and Austen, you can clearly tell that they were having a blast. Sure, they were capable of great seriousness. But none of them ever seemed to forget that in its essence, invention is play.

I would love to have them all over for a dinner party. Imagine the conversations they would have! I am quite sure that I would be content just to sit back and listen.

Cultural time travel

Wednesday, November 1st, 2017

I have had several long and detailed conversations with friends in the last few days about Stranger Things 2, after we discovered that we had all binged it. It would not have been obvious to me, a priori, that so many people would immediately binge-watch a nine hour miniseries the moment it is released. But then again, Stranger Things is no ordinary miniseries.

All of the people I’ve had these conversations with have at least some memory of the 1980s. So one of the things that we talked about is how true the show is not just to the look of that decade, but to its spirit.

It’s not so easy to convey the essence of an era to people who weren’t there. I imagine that to millennials, the youthful spirit of mass revolt against established norms that characterized much the 1960’s would seem very exotic. The very premise of the cultural conversation is radically different.

Similarly, it would be hard for young people today to connect with the raw sense of upheaval and youthful rebellion associated with the emergence of Rock & Roll in the 1950s. After all, that kind of Rock & Roll was the music of their grandparents.

When artists in later times try to reproduce such eras, the results are often weirdly off. I found this to be true of, for example, the 1999 TV movie The ’60s, and the film The Wedding Singer.

When I watch such attempts at cultural time travel, I feel a bit as though I am looking at aliens trying to pass as human, after they’ve studied up on the subject by watching humans on TV (shades of Galaxy Quest). They get lots of little details right, but the essential spirit is somehow off.

Which is what makes the Stranger Things series so miraculous. It feels true to the actual spirit of the 1980s, with a precision that I haven’t seen in a very long time.