Emotional arc

I was having a conversation with a collaborator today about a forthcoming project. We realized that whatever we end up with, it will need to have a strong emotional arc.

People enjoy spectacle. They like seeing talented actors moving about amidst great scenery, evocative lighting, brilliant editing. But none of that is enough.

A good work of narrative art needs, at its core, to be something you can sum up in a single sentence. We want to go on an emotional journey with a character who starts here and ends up there.

Truly great films, plays and novels can all be boiled to a simple essential idea. Sometimes we lose sight of that, but we really shouldn’t.

Especially not if we want to create good films, plays or novels. 🙂

If Neanderthals and Denisovans had survived

Suppose, just for the sake of argument, that Neanderthals and Denisovans had survived. Yes, I realize that humans in some parts of the world today have a bit of Neanderthal and Denisovan ancestry.

But I am talking about full blooded representatives of our near-relatives. I wonder how such people would think, and how their thinking would be different from ours.

Would they be better or worse at math, at spatial reasoning, at emotional engagement and theory of mind? Would they tend to be highly analytical or intuitive?

If Neanderthal or Denisovan children were to go to school alongside Homo Sapiens children, how would that work out? Would everyone get along?

I realize there is very little chance we will even know the answers to these questions. Theoretically we could bring back such individuals from their extant DNA, but I don’t believe anybody seriously thinks that would be a good idea.

Still, it’s an intriguing set of questions. Sometimes it is useful simply to ponder a mystery, even if you never expect to know the answer.

Browser drift

I have been using a standard feature of the Chrome Web browser for the last several years in my Chalktalk program. About a week ago, in the middle of giving a presentation to a class full of students, I found that in the course of several hours it had mysteriously stopped working.

My friends, I was a victim of browser drift.

I had literally just tested everything a few short hours before my talk. In that time, my computer must have upgraded to the latest version of Chrome, which had proceeded to — well — break stuff.

Now, a week later, after many hours of debugging, I have figured out how to get around the problem. Essentially, I have completely abandoned that feature of Chrome.

Instead, I implemented something entirely different, which happens to look and behave the same to end users. It’s kind of like dynamiting an entire building down to its very foundations, and then using entirely different construction techniques to erect a new building which just happens to look exactly the same.

Browsers are built according to standards that are carefully overseen by large and quite conservative committees. One would think the programs we write for the Web would therefore be immune to this sort of nuttiness.

Alas, I should know better. After all, my NYU webpage is littered with the sad rotting corpses of once beautiful Java applets that will never again come to life.

Forgetting pill

I am having a very good time reading Ted Chiang’s newest collection of short stories Exhalation. Such a good time in fact, that I wish I had a forgetting pill.

That way, after I finish the book, I would be able to jump right in and read it again for the very first time. In fact, I would then be able to read it every day for the very first time, and each time I would feel the same delighted sense of discovery.

There is probably a downside to my plan that I’m not thinking of. Come to think of it, this could be the premise for a story by Ted Chiang.

John Carmack at OC6

There were so many fascinating things to see at OC6. But as you can see from this photo, there was one phenomenon that was far more compelling to most attendees than any of the technology on display.

That was, of course the presence of John Carmack. Wherever he went, he was mobbed by worshipful acolytes. Every young game developer hoped to get at least a moment with their hero.

John, as ever, was happy to talk with any young person who approached him. He spent much of the conference just like this, meeting with the young game developers one-on-one, diving into whatever level of technical detail was needed to help them work through their game design.

If only all famous and influential people were so gracious and generous with their time.



I am here at the sixth annual Facebook Oculus Connect conference in San Jose, also known as OC6. It’s interesting for me, being a person primarily interested in physically co-located experiences, to attend a conference that is focused on people who are using VR to communicate at a distance.

The goals are very different, yet the enabling technologies have a large amount of overlap. The Oculus Quest headset was designed mainly for people who are not in the same location as the people they are interacting with. Yet it turns out to be a really great device for co-located shared immersive experiences.

I was very happy to see that they are finally integrating hand and finger recognition into the Quest. It’s a technology that has been around for quite a while, but it wasn’t available until now on consumer level VR headsets.

I also learned about their vision of the shared future. There is a forthcoming product called Horizon which will allow people to hang out together in a shared virtual world, and even build elements of that world for themselves. It’s sort of like if High Fidelity were not open source.

But here’s the thing: Because the VR sensors can only track your head and hands, the system has no idea what is going on below your waist. In other words, they can only reconstruct your body pose from the waist up.

I find this to be problematic. Even though I understand that there is something profoundly powerful about people across the world being able to share a sense of physical presence.

Alas, it seems that in the future, we will all be hanging out in a world where nobody is wearing pants.

What a long strange trip it’s been

Reach out your hand if your cup be empty
If your cup is full may it be again
Let it be known there is a fountain
That was not made by the hands of man

There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go, no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone

For this is all a dream we dreamed one afternoon

— RIP Robert Hunter, 1941-2019

A journey of a single step

Today on our Future Reality Lab blog I gave an example of how adding constraints to a problem can make the problem easier to solve. I suspect the principle generalizes.

Sometimes, when you have a task before you, the hardest part is simply knowing where to begin. In such cases, taking the first step can be very challenging.

By reducing the set of possibilities, constraints can help you to take that first step. The way I like to describe this is by inverting an old Zen koan:

A journey of a single step begins with a thousand miles.

Time machine

My mom is in the process of moving, so today I helped sift through the many decades of books that have accumulated in the house. Each book needed to be sorted into “keep”, “throw away”, “give away”, or “save for particular family member”.

It was a strange feeling to watch my own childhood and early adult experiences pass before my eyes, and to hold pieces of those experiences in my hands. Memories I had not engaged with for quite a few decades came roaring back.

This was a very different experience from sorting through somebody else’s collection of fantasy and science fiction books. For one thing, I was catching glimpses of the various stages of my very own existence.

There was that essay I wrote in college, a copy of my very first published conference paper, my high school graduation yearbook, my favorite book of magic tricks. Each item by itself seemed a bit random, but taken together they started to form a mosaic of my life.

I think this may be as close as I ever get to an actual working time machine.


In my kitchen I have a microwave oven that was manufactured thirty two years ago. It was made in a year when Duran Duran was on top of the charts, when martial law had just ended in Taiwan, when Prozac was approved by the FDA, when the very first version of Photoshop was released, when our world was Rick Rolled for the first time ever.

I have been using this microwave oven pretty much every day for many years, and it runs perfectly, which I find astonishing. After all, we currently live in a world where electronic items are meant to be disposable.

An entire segment of our economy is based on the principle of designing and manufacturing things so that they will break down. After all, if some piece of technology lasts forever, how are you going to get people to buy another one?

Yet clearly the designers of this microwave oven did not get the memo. It appears they designed it to last forever.

I realize that by using a piece of equipment that just keeps on functioning perfectly, decade after decade, I am doing grievous harm to our economy. By using this microwave to heat up my food, I am undoubtedly taking food out the mouths of hard working people.

Should I be feeling guilty about this? After all, how are we going to keep people employed if things that we buy simply keep, you know, working?