Airplane VR

I’ve been flying a lot on airplanes these days, and it has given me an idea. When you are on a plane, particularly if there is any turbulence, your body is subjected to all sorts of interesting forces of acceleration.

In fact, as I type this, I am on a flight from California to NY, and we are going through a patch of turbulence. When I close my eyes, I can image all sorts of possibilities for how my body might be moving in flight.

It should be relatively straightforward to use your SmartPhone’s accelerometer to feed into a VR program that gives you a fascinating feeling of free flight.

The hardware set-up could be as simple as the cardboard VR viewer developed by Mark Bolas and his research team at USC. I remember getting and putting together one of their kits in 2012.

It’s an approach better known these days as “Google Cardboard”. In 2014 Google borrowed the concept and, to their credit, gave it much wider distribution.

Now you can buy foldable viewers of this type from China in bulk for about $2 a pop. Last Spring I bought 50 of those and handed them out to all the students in my computer graphics class.

It is not obvious what would be the best mapping from phone accelerometer to virtual motion, and there are many possibilities. Depending on your goal, you could convert any given acceleration to either limear movement or rotation.

So your VR flying experience might, for example, involve swooping down near to the ground, following by rapid movement over terrain, then soaring up high into the clouds to bank into turns and do rolling loops. There is a lot of room here for artistic license.

I think this would be really fun. In any case, it would be a lot more immersive than watching some stupid movie on that tiny seat-back screen.


Today I learned some very valuable life lessons. Unfortunately I think it will be quite a long time until I understand them.

But maybe that’s ok. There’s nothing like having a good long term project.


Everyday history

I have a habit of reading the Wikipedia each day to find out what happened on this day in history. I find it to be a rich source of cultural and historical knowledge.

Much of it is battles and conquests. For example, the only three events listed for the 11th century are:

  • 1009 – Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah demolishes the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
  • 1016 – Cnut the Great completes his conquest of England in the Battle of Assandun.
  • 1081 – Byzantine–Norman wars: The Normans defeat the Byzantine Empire in the Battle of Dyrrhachium.

Pretty dark stuff. Yet interspersed with all of the killing there are gems that uplift the spirit. For example, today in history Moby Dick was published, the BBC was founded, the first transistor radio was announced, and the very first human-made spacecraft landed on the planet Venus.

Sometimes I will learn about something completely new and unexpected. When that happens I might do a deep dive, spending the next hour or so happily exploring some fascinating cultural topic.

I highly recommend this practice. It will enrich your life, and quite possibly put a spring in your step.

Moral universe

I just watched Joker. I know that a lot of critics have had a problem with it. Yet all the people I know and trust told me the critics are wrong, so I went to see it.

And I really liked it. Yes it has a lot of violence, and quite a few disturbing things happen.

But I was ok with that, and then I found myself wondering why. After all, I have had serious problems with violence in many recent popular offerings.

I had to stop watching Game of Thrones. I quickly turned away from House of Cards. I couldn’t get through Breaking Bad. I found myself sickened by The Boys.

Yet I had no problem with Joker. And I think I know why.

For all of its insanity and violence, Joker takes place in an essentially moral universe. There is a concept of right and wrong, and the Joker himself, even in his highly disturbed state of mind, knows this.

He is, in fact, a vigilante, although a highly warped one. He has a sense of right and wrong, and he only wreaks violence upon people who are “bad” according to his internal moral compass.

Of course that does not make the violence right. In fact, by staying within a moral universe, Joker makes it clear that the Joker and the Dark Knight are two sides of the same coin.

Each believes that by taking justice into his own hands he is fighting against evil, and each understands that there are good people in the world. Of course their respective concepts of justice couldn’t be more different.

Therein lies the tension that drives their deeply dysfunctional relationship. This is what draws us to the mythic struggle between Batman and the Joker.

In contrast, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, Breaking Bad and The Boys take place in essentially amoral universes. Bad things keep happening to good people because — well — shit happens.

I’ve realized that I am just fine with violence in art. For all their horrors, I had no problem at all with Son of Saul or Amour.

In each case the violence was part of a valid struggle, a struggle that acknowledged the possibility of goodness. Those who struggle may end up failing, but the universe itself does not fail.

What I am not ok with is something that purports to be art, yet depicts a universe devoid of any inherent morality. If you watch too much of that stuff, you might be tempted to vote cruel bullies and amoral creeps into elected office.

And then where would we be?


In a recent post I discussed JRR Tolkien’s brilliant 1947 essay on Fairy Stories. One of the many interesting terms he introduces is “eucatastrophe”.

A eucatastrophe is something that happens quite often in fairy stories: It’s a sudden twist at the end, which makes everything turn out all right.

I mentioned this the other day to somebody I know who is from the Commonwealth. She laughed when I explained to her the meaning of the word.

I asked her why she found it so funny. She told me that these days you can parse the same word in an entirely different way.

“Brexit,” she explained, “is an E.U. Catastrophe.”

I can see her point. JRR Tolkien had a prodigious imagination, but even he could not have foreseen Boris Johnson.

The larger picture

Sometimes I get pulled deep in the details of some project we are working on. It can be easy to focus in on just one little technical thing, because then you don’t need to think about anything else.

But then there are other times — notably after I have found a few days to put some space between my ears — when I remember to look outward rather than downward. That’s when I am able to see how all of those details fit together.

That’s when I realize that I am actually working on just one project. What might seem at first to be many little unrelated tasks are actually different components of a single large and coherent goal.

I think this is the right way to think about things when you are doing research. Everything you do, no matter how tangential it may seem, is actually a brushstroke in a single large painting.

The trick of course is to remain mindful of this. And to remember that sometimes you need to put down your paintbrush, take a few steps backward, and get a good look at the larger picture.

Missing the iguana

A long time ago there was a giant statue of an iguana on the roof of a building in downtown Manhattan. Some people who’ve been in NYC long enough remember him fondly.

The iguana lived on the roof of the now vanished Lone Star Cafe. He stood proudly atop 61 Fifth Avenue, right across the street from where our lab at NYU is today.

I tracked down the giant iguana on-line. I learned that his name is Iggy, that he weighs 2600 pounds, and that he has happily taken up residence on the roof of the animal hospital of the Forth Worth Zoo in Texas.

It’s good to know that Iggy has found a good home, but I still miss him. This old town isn’t the same without him.

People who weren’t around NYC back then may not get this, but sometimes you just want a big old iguana on a nearby rooftop. Just to let you know that everything is going to be ok.


Faërian Drama

Today my good friend Andy suggested I read a wonderful and deeply thoughtful essay On Fairy Stories, written by JRR Tolkien in 1947. One paragraph in particular jumped out at me.

To clarify, “Secondary Belief” in the paragraph below is a literary term which refers to what a reader is asked to accept as real within a fictional world (eg: the existence of dragons).

“Faërian Drama”—those plays which according to abundant records the elves have often presented to men—can produce Fantasy with a realism and immediacy beyond the compass of any human mechanism. As a result their usual effect (upon a man) is to go beyond Secondary Belief. If you are present at a Faërian drama you yourself are, or think that you are, bodily inside its Secondary World. The experience may be very similar to Dreaming and has (it would seem) sometimes (by men) been confounded with it. But in Faërian drama you are in a dream that some other mind is weaving.

Note how Tolkien pairs storytelling with full body sensory immersion.

It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing he has postulated immediately suggests a certain recently fashionable hi-tech medium.