Toon VR

I’ve been writing a toon shader for my little virtual reality world. Toon shading a way of rendering things so they look like they are in a cartoon or comic book. The objects in your scene have solid colors and black outlines, as though an artist drew things with a pen and then filled in the colors.

It’s a funny thought, being fully immersed in a world that is clearly not real. In a way it seems like a contradiction. How can things be fully real all around us, yet clearly not real at all?

Rather than a contradiction, I think it’s actually a super power. When things are literally real, they can limit our minds. We are prone to simply see them as they are. But when things start to deviate from the physically plausible, we are given permission to fill in the gaps, to let our minds roam, to use our imaginations.

It’s the same super power that we get from animation. Except with Toon VR, a whole other world of artistic possibility opens up before us.

Going for seconds

I just saw “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”, It’s the best movie I’ve seen in a really long time. I highly recommend it.

I am quite certain that I will going for seconds. I want to see it at least once more again while it is still in the theaters. It is way too good to wait for streaming.

Also, it provided a real opportunity for me to use my newfound skill of being able to count seconds accurately. I knew that would come in handy at some point!

Thanksgiving joke

A knowledgeable friend was explaining to me recently about the history of grape wines in America. Like many things, it’s a little bit complicated.

Grapes indigenous to Europe are better for wine, but they can’t really grow here, because they are vulnerable to a disease that kills the vines. Grapes indigenous to America are immune to that disease, but they didn’t produce the kind of wine that people liked.

Eventually growers figured out to import grapes from Europe and graft them onto American vines. American wine that we drink today is made this way.

At this point in the explanation, I interjected “So it’s like Hispanic people.”

My friend looked confused, so I explained. “European imports grafted onto actual American stock.”

“Yes,” she said, “that’s it exactly.”

I think I told a Thanksgiving joke.

The day before Thanksgiving

The day before Thanksgiving is always strange for me these days because I find myself reflecting on the odd contradictions between what I learned in school about Thanksgiving and America’s origins, and what I now know about our nation’s dark history.

Like many nations, ours is a problematic one. We have beautiful aspirational ideals of freedom and equality, yet we emerged out of an historical soup of both genocide and a particularly brutal form of slavery.

Is it possible to reconcile such extreme historical sins with the abstract promises of equality and freedom for all? I suppose this is the problem that faces much of the world, since many of the nations that exist today were forged out of conquest and subjugation of other peoples.

Compounding this is the fact that for most people a collective amnesia about these inconvenient facts is a fundamental part of how they get through the day, the month and the year.

On the other hand, tomorrow will be a time I get to hang out with family and play with my wonderful nieces and nephews.

For that, I should remember to give thanks.

The Irishman

Have you ever read a novel that was so epic, you couldn’t decide whether you liked it until a long time later? I just saw “The Irishman”, and it is having that effect on me.

So much happens in those three and a half hours, that my mind is awhirl with far too much information. It’s going to take me a long time to figure out exactly what I just saw.

And then, perhaps, I will be able to figure out whether I like it.

Less is more, or something like that

I know that some of my students like very structured assignments, because then they know exactly what to expect. But as this semester has gone on, and we’ve covered the basic stuff, I’ve been gradually loosening the structure.

At this point in the class I am putting them into groups and having them come up with their own ideas. There is always some trepidation on the part of students when you try something like this.

But after they have the experience of talking ideas over with each other and brainstorming, they get past that and become very excited and enthusiastic, and very very creative.

It’s definitely a case of less is more. Or perhaps more accurately, more is more.


I was at a professional dinner this week in which our hosts set the scene by lowering the lights and running a giant monitor which showed a video of a fireplace. It was kind of like that yule log video, but without the yule.

After dinner there were speeches, which at some point I started tuning out, as one does. Instead I focused on the fireplace videos.

First I set out to determine how long the video loop was, and exactly when it repeated. That turned out to be easy, because at some point a little spark floated up from one of the logs, froze in place for a moment mid-screen, and promptly vanished.

Counting off the seconds in my head, I determined that this little moment was repeating every thirty seconds. Which means it must have been repeating after exactly thirty seconds, because nobody makes a 29 second or 31 second video loop.

This was great, because it meant I could make a game out of it. As each loop repeated, I counted off seconds in my head, seeing how close I could get to reaching a count of 30 at exactly the right moment.

By the time the speeches ended, I had gotten really good at this. Using the fireplace video as my guide, I could now mentally count off seconds at a rate of exactly one second per count. I am sure this is a skill that will come in handy on many occasions.

Not having listened to the speeches, I am not in a position to judge whether they were good. But the other people in the room seemed really happy.

Which means that the other people in the room had really liked the speeches. Either that, or they had also been mentally counting off the seconds until the speeches were finished.

Trusting your own instincts

One of the hardest lessons to learn is the importance of ignoring what other people think about your research. It’s not that you shouldn’t be aware of their opinions. It’s more that you need to learn to trust your own instincts more.

The problems we work on in our lab are generally so outside of the norm that many people mislabel our work. Other people are simply confused about what we are doing.

I consider that a good thing. It means there is a good chance we are working on something that will actually be relevant in five or ten years.

I can’t speak for other fields, but I’ve learned a truism in my own field of research: If everybody understands what you are working on, you are probably working on the wrong thing.

Look, a baby carrot!

At the lab today I was using my little procedural modeling system to create some computer graphic shapes. These are things that will go into my virtual reality world. While I was doing this, I was listening with one ear to a conversation of some of my colleagues.

They were discussing snacks to get for a little end-of-week get-together tomorrow. We do those here from time to time, and it cheers people up, especially toward the end of the semester when work can get very intense.

One of my colleagues said that we should get baby carrots. It took me about 10 seconds to modify the thing I was creating — changing the proportions, the color and the lighting — to make it look like a first approximation to a baby carrot.

“Look,” I said, “a baby carrot!”


It doesn’t look exactly like a baby carrot. But for 10 seconds of work, it’s not too bad.