Archive for May, 2018

Sure, ok

Saturday, May 26th, 2018

The other day, during a discussion at our lab about virtual reality and the nature of perception, I related a variation on the wonderful story about Picasso on the train. You may have heard a version that goes something like this:

Pablo Picasso got into a conversation with a businessman during a train ride. Recognizing the famous artist, the businessman remarked that he didn’t get all this modern art. “If somebody paints a portrait of my wife,” he said, “I want it to look like her.” Picasso asked what the man’s wife looked like. The businessman took out a photo from his wallet. Picasso pondered the image for a while, then said “She’s very small.”

One of the people in the room, somebody I had just met, said “Oh, that’s a dad joke.” I hadn’t expected that response.

I was tempted to disagree. I wanted to reply that this parable was, in fact, a profound meditation on the dynamic relationship between our ever changing technologies of representation and our shared language of aesthetic norms, and the effect this relationship has on the resulting evolution over time of our cultural consensus on the nature of reality.

But then I remembered that I didn’t know this person, and that I shouldn’t assume too much. So instead I said “Sure, ok.”

Why I like three day weekends (a haiku)

Friday, May 25th, 2018

Long three day weekends
When people relax at home
And I get work done!

Magic by any other name

Thursday, May 24th, 2018

This evening I went with a friend to see part 1 of the two part Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on Broadway. It was an astonishing experience.

When I was a teenager I spent one summer working at a performing arts camp. There was a professional magician on the payroll, and one day he and I got into a discussion about the difference between stage magic and theater special effects.

He told me that the difference is entirely one of framing: If you are watching a magic act, then it’s stage magic. If you are watching a play or musical, then it’s theater special effects.

This evening my friend and I witnessed what I am quite sure is the most magical thing I have ever seen on a stage. And I have a feeling that what we will see tomorrow evening will top even what we saw tonight.

I know that technically speaking, since it was in the context of a play, what we saw should be called “theater special effects”. But to me, it was just pure magic.

Meetings in different places

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2018

It’s one thing to have lots of meetings in a single day. But it’s something else to have lots of meetings in different places.

This morning I had to cut short a phone meeting, so I could travel to Brooklyn for a sit down meeting. Then I had to end that meeting in time to attend a talk.

I needed to leave that talk before the Q&A was over so I could travel back to Manhattan where I was scheduled to give a talk. Then I needed to leave that event in the middle so I could get back to our lab for a weekly production meeting.

Finally I left the lab to meet with an old friend, which doesn’t really count as a meeting because we had dinner. And besides, he is an old friend.

I have had other days with more meetings than this, but there is a qualitative difference. When you need to physically travel between meetings from one place to another, actually transport your body through space and time, the whole “meeting filled day” thing definitely feels crazier.

I thought the Internet was supposed to fix all that. 😉

So there’s that

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2018

I’ve been trying to avoid politics here. But that can be really hard to do after our U.S. Supreme Court committed such an astonishing act of economic violence against American workers yesterday.

One interesting thing about the Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis decision is that the swing vote justice who wrote this monstrous 5-4 opinion — Neil Gorsuch — is only on the Court because of the outcome of our recent presidential election. So if you are a worker and you voted Republican, your vote succeeded in taking food out of your own family’s mouth.

I wonder how many workers who voted Republican realized at the time that this is what they were voting for. Well, if they were intending to vote against their own economic interests, I guess they got their wish.

So there’s that.

Speaking to computers

Monday, May 21st, 2018

In 1966 the computer in Star Trek responded to spoken commands from Captain Kirk and his crew. At this time this was considered wonderfully futuristic, and seemed like something we might see in the 23rd century.

Now of course we are living in a world where computers respond to speech. My little Google Pixel Phone — and the Cloud with which it communicates — is able to turn my speech to text, and in many cases is also able act upon the result.

So have we achieved the sine qua non of human to computer communication? Is this the interface to end all interfaces, this ability to simply tell computers what we would like them to do?

I don’t really know the answer. I am just throwing the question out there.

Maybe I should just ask Alexa.

Short talks are harder

Sunday, May 20th, 2018

Tomorrow morning I am supposed to give a four minute talk. And that seems hard.

I’m used to giving hour long talks, or 30 minute talks, or even 10 minute talks. But there is something about a four minute talk that brings things to a whole other level.

When you only have four minutes, every moment counts. I like showing live demos in my talks, but in that amount of time, your live demo needs to work right on cue, without fail.

For one thing, you won’t have time to try your demo again. For another thing, if it doesn’t work, you’ve disrupted the rhythm of the entire experience.

On the other hand, if you manage to get a four minute talk right, it’s wonderful thing. When every second counts, what you say can have a lot of impact.

I’m reminded of Blaise Pascal’s famous apology: “Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.”**

** I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.

A day in Kingston

Saturday, May 19th, 2018

I am spending the day with friends up at their farm in Kingston NY. It is as different from Manhattan as you can imagine.

Today is a cool rainy day of conversation, walking in the countryside, a few inspired games of ping pong, and picking salad fresh from the garden.

Also several varieties of locally sourced wine. Maybe a game chess as well, but only after a few glasses of that wine. :-)

Novel forms of virtual reality

Friday, May 18th, 2018

Today we hosted the external advisors to our big collaborative research consortium at NYU. Six of us on the NYU faculty, together with our awesome grad students, showed the various VR related research projects we’ve been working on.

Afterward, our advisors gave their feedback. And at that point I began to see a rift in what different people mean by “virtual reality”.

All of our advisors are legendary in their fields, and all have deep insight that comes from many decades of research. Yet they disagreed with each other on the basic premise of VR on a surprisingly fundamental level.

Some of our advisors clearly see the goal of VR as involving the literal re-creation of sensory reality. Their criterion for “success” can roughly be stated as follows: Even if someone is not physically present in the room with me, I an able to see and hear them exactly as though they are right there in front of me.

Yet some of our other advisors have what might be thought of as a more nuanced take. To them, successful VR is not about literal transmission of physical presence, but rather high quality transmission of emotional and psychological presence.

I tend to side with the latter group. But then again, I’m old fashioned. To me, some of the most profound experiences of virtual reality can be achieved simply by curling up with a really great novel.

Dream workshop

Thursday, May 17th, 2018

Last night I dreamt I was in a professional workshop with some colleagues. All the other participants in the workshop were people I know in real life, either as collaborators or as potential collaborators.

The workshop itself was very entertaining, and people had lots of intriguing ideas. Of course it wasn’t until I woke up that I realized it had all been a dream.

The surprising thing was that even after I awoke, I felt that the idea that had been discussed in the workshop were work pursuing. I realize, of course, that all of those ideas were actually coming from my own brain, but I also think that those ideas were informed by my internal model of these particular colleagues.

So here we have something interesting: I internalized the thinking of smart people I know. Then I dreamt about cool ideas that, in my dream, appeared to come from them.

In a way those ideas did come from them. My theory of mind of those colleagues became tangled up with their own unique thought patterns, resulting in something different from anything they might actually have thought of, or that I might have thought of without their influence.

I wonder whether there something here to pursue. Perhaps lucid dreaming as an approach to collaborative research?