Two samurai warriors

I just saw a wondrous film about two brothers, both great samurai warriors, who were separated at birth, and then banished from their kingdom by an evil king. Each brother ends up fighting in the service of the same great prince at different times, although neither knows at first that the other is doing so.

There is also a mighty warrior princess from a far off land, who fights fiercely for justice and the rights of the oppressed. She is fated to become the true love of the prince, and her faithful servant maiden to become the true love of one of the samurai brothers.

It’s a beautiful movie, and it stars Anjelica Houston, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, F. Murray Abraham, Fisher Stevens, Greta Gerwig, Harvey Keitel, Jeff Goldblum, Ken Watanabe, Liev Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton and Yoko Ono, among others.

It’s in theaters now, and I highly recommend it. I won’t tell you the name of the film because it’s easy to figure it out for yourself.

On the tenor sax

On the tenor sax there are exactly 32 steps — if you go by semitones — between the lowest playable note, the A♭2, to the highest, the E5. If you count the notes between these two extremes (which I have), you will find that there are exactly 32 steps in the chromatic progression from the former to the latter.

As a computer scientist trained in the arcane arts of computer graphics, I am fascinated by this fact. 32 is a perfect power of 2. In fact, it is two raised to the fifth power.

I feel a deep yearning to create a virtual reality musical piece which expands upon this mathematical tidbit. I do not know whether this desire stems from my love of computer graphics, or my love for my idealized view of the tenor sax.

It might very well be both.


I used the above emoji in an email to a friend. But then I felt a bit remiss. Such a large emotion to squeeze into such a small means of expression.

I found myself pondering the gradual degradation of our use of language to express our affections for one another. There was a time when people would pen entire sonnets to express such thoughts.

The work of writing a sonnet creates its own ecosystem of emotional value. Rather than simply dash something off, you need to put time and care into the crafting of a sonnet, choosing with care the use of rhyme and meter that will best express your thought.

So I decided to face down four centuries of linguistic devolution and unroll the simple “<3" back up to the level of a full Shakespearean sonnet. Below is what I ended up sending to my friend. The effort was much appreciated.

      A pair of symbols side by side I see
      Which seem to speak of something “Less than Three.”
      Yet other happy thoughts may lurk within,
      Analysis is called for — let’s begin!

      “Less than Three” — not less than Four or Five,
      What other fine constraints might we derive?
      First let’s not be negative, insist
      That Zero is the first upon our list.

      But Zero — what is left when all is gone
      Would leave us nothing positive — move on.
      Yet One will never do. It has been shown
      That happiness is never found alone.

            So now I see the symbols speak of Two:
            The Love you have for me, and mine for you.

Concert with blindfold

This evening I went with two friends to see a music concert. One notable detail: The entire audience was asked to wear blindfolds.

The music itself was a form of Musique concrète. All of the sounds were sampled from real life, and from those samples the composer/performer wove around us a landscape of ever shifting sounds (which actually emerged from speakers placed around the room).

As I listened, my mind kept drifting from one thought to another. Sometimes I felt myself wandering freely, and at other times the literalness of the individual sounds pulled me right back.

I had gone there with two other people. One of them reported that she had found herself floating to distant worlds. I think for her the experience was a kind of spiritual journey.

My other companion, who is blind, said that to him it just sounded like objects. He found it interesting, but he didn’t feel transported at all.

I guess that makes sense. If your experience of everyday life is dominated by the sounds of things around you, then those sounds will not seem distinct from reality. Rather, they would remind you of that reality.

Perhaps a rough analogy would be telling a sighted person that you are inviting them to a magical experience. Then when they got there, you tell them: “Look, here is a table, and this thing next to it is a chair. And that object over by the wall, that is a kitchen sink. Go ahead, try it. Isn’t it amazing?”

And yes, maybe it would be if you weren’t already seeing tables and chairs and kitchen sinks in your everyday life.

Somewhere between North Dakota and Michigan

For the last week or so I have been living under a sort of cloud. I made a number of improvements to the software project I’m working on, but the new version was not quite working yet. Until I finished making all of the changes and switching everything over, the whole thing was essentially broken.

So I have been in the awkward position of showing demos using an old version — one that has all sorts of little bugs, and does not have any of the shiny new features I’ve been working so hard to add. But unlike the newest version, that older version at least had the virtue of not being broken.

Finally last night, on a red eye flight from Seattle back to NYC, I decided to forego a few hours of sleep and push through to finish the new version of the software. In a way it was a logical decision, since airplane flights are very good for coding, yet very bad for sleeping.

I arrived at Newark Airport this morning tired but happy. Somewhere between North Dakota and Michigan, I had managed to get the new version working.

All of those shiny new features are now available, and the big cloud that was following me everywhere has dissipated. Maybe now I will go and get some sleep.

The night Emma Lazarus rose from the dead

One night Emma Lazarus rose from the dead
And swatted our President upside the head.
“Donnie,” she said, “did you look at my poem?
“Your own family were immigrants, surely you owe ’em.”

“You don’t know a thing Em,” the President noted
“We need some new enemies, voters have voted.”
“But you’re fomenting hatred — that’s a disgrace.”
“Em, I’m just trying to play to my base.”

“Are you trying to tell me you have no beliefs?”
“Yes I have one. Remember those First Nations chiefs
“That we lied to? Those treaties we handily broke?
“I believe in distractions. Now people are woke

“And soon they will notice that most of us here
“Are illegal immigrants, gripped by the fear
“That the truth will win out and we’ll all need to go
“As the Sioux and the Navajo watch us eat crow.

“Now I’m playing the role of buffoon most uncouth,
“To distract everyone from unfortunate truth.
“And so far it’s working, they’re singing my song,
“‘Cause people are losers, they just go along.”

“Mother of Exiles!” Emma replied,
“You knew all along, and yet you just lied.”
“How can you stand to create such despair?”
“It’s easy,” he said, “I am rich. I don’t care.”

Future illusions of reality, part 3

Continuing from yesterday…

The next morning I woke up and I had thought of a counterexample. When I saw Steve the next morning I described my scenario.

I said to Steve “Suppose you wanted a soda so you gave me five dollars to go to the deli. I put your bill in my pocket, go to the deli counter and order a bottle of soda.

“The guy behind the counter scans my bill and says ‘This is counterfeit.’ I end up coming back without any soda. You go thirsty.”

“What,” I asked, “is the essential difference between that and the scenario you described?”

We both realized that culturally speaking this was essentially the same scenario, despite the large difference in technological enablement. In both cases you sincerely believe that you are living in a well defined shared physical reality. Yet at the end of the day, you don’t get to have a sip of that soda.

Which speaks to my larger point: The key element here is not physicality, but culture, sociology and psychology. And those factors are really about us humans, not about any given state of technology.

Future illusions of reality, part 2

Continuing from yesterday…

As it happened, there was a bottle of soda on the table, within easy reach. Steve asked me to consider the question of whether this bottle was real or just an illusion created by augmented reality.

Of course we cannot ask that question today in any practical sense, because the underlying technology isn’t here yet. But sometime within the next decade, it may very well be.

“Suppose,” he said, “I were to reach out to take this bottle. If it is real, then I can take a swig of its contents. If it is an illusion, then I will go thirsty.”

He pointed out that this is different from the question of whether an image on a computer screen is “real”, because we already understand that such an image has no tangible substance. We never think that what is being represented might be part of our immediate physical world, and therefore we would never think to rely on its literal existence — for example, as a way to quench our thirst.

This sounded like a reasonable point, yet I was skeptical. It’s too easy to think of the technological advancements of one’s own time as being fundamentally different from the advancements that have come before, and I suspected Steve might be falling into this trap.

Precisely because any newly emerging technology is unfamiliar to us, we tend to credit it with outsized power. In contrast, we tend to dismiss the significance of advances from earlier times, because they are so familiar to us: Technological familiarity breeds technological contempt.

After all, we know quite well the cultural, social and psychological norms that bracket existing technologies, and therefore we understand the limits of their effect upon us. Yet we don’t have any knowledge of future cultural, social and psychological norms, so we tend to view future technological advances as being separate from any meaningful cultural context.

That is all well and good in principle, but objecting on principle was not good enough. I needed a more concrete argument. It wasn’t until the following morning that I worked through a counterexample that revealed the flaw in Steve’s logic.

More tomorrow.

Future illusions of reality, part 1

I was having a conversation about Augmented Reality yesterday evening with my colleague Steve Feiner, who is one of the great pioneers of AR research. We were discussing changes in human perception that will accompany the coming age of wearables. In particular, we were debating whether those changes will be fundamentally different from the changes that have accompanied earlier technologies.

We both agreed that when wearable technology becomes mature, we will find ourselves seeing 3D objects in the world around us that are not actually there — other than in our perception. The debate centered around whether this difference between perception and reality will be fundamentally different from those provided by previous sensory interfaces that “defy reality”, such as, for example, the telephone or television or Skype.

Steve argued that the implications of the sensory illusions made possible by coming wearables would indeed be fundamentally different from the implications of previous sensory illusions. I argued that there was no fundamental difference — that in fact all such differences are determined by cultural forces and constraints, rather than by the nature of any specific technology.

I realize that this all may sound highly theoretical. But when we got down to cases, the discussion got interesting.

More tomorrow.

Remembering names

Nobody seems to remember phone numbers anymore. After all, why would they?

Back when I was a kid, in an era before phones had gone mobile, we all kept long lists of phone numbers in our heads. Sure, you could write down a phone number. But for people you knew it was more convenient just to memorize seven digits (the area code was usually easy).

With that knowledge in your head you could dial them from anywhere, on any phone that happened to be nearby. We didn’t think of this memorization as a chore. It was something we just took for granted, built into the fabric of “the way things are”, like remembering somebody’s name.

Speaking of which, after we enter the age of wearables, we won’t need to remember peoples’ names anymore. Just today I greeted a colleague, somebody I see all the time at conferences. We gave each other a big hug, and were genuinely glad to see each other. Except I couldn’t remember his name.

It didn’t really matter in that situation. On a social level, you only really need to remember somebody’s name when you are introducing them to a third person. Still, it would have been nice, and I found it somewhat distressing that the name of somebody I know and have liked for many years had managed to elude me.

But once we are all “wearing”, there won’t be any need for such a skill. The ability to keep peoples’ names in your head will come to be seen as one of those arcane skills, like typesetting with metal fonts or tying a proper cravat, which belong to a bygone age.