Archive for August, 2020

Last day of the month

Monday, August 31st, 2020

I organize all of my computer files by month. At the start of every month I copy over whatever folders I had been working on the previous month, and keep going from there.

This means that I leave a sort of trail behind. Every monthly folder is a snapshot of where I was at the end of that particular month. I’ve been doing this for years.

I realize that there are tools that automate this process, but I’ve gotten used to doing it this way, and I guess I’m old fashioned. Maybe it’s the cyber equivalent of somebody who insists on making their own pasta, when there are perfectly good varieties available at nearby supermarkets.

One consequence of this practice is that the last day of the month takes on particular significance for me. It’s a time to take stock, to reflect upon what I have accomplished — and what I have failed to accomplish.

Today is another such day. It is an illuminating — and often a humbling — experience, coming face to face with both the possibilities and the limitations of what can be accomplished in any given month. I highly recommend it.

The rhythm of names

Sunday, August 30th, 2020

I used to struggle to remember which was which — Thor Heyerdahl and Dag Hammarskj√∂ld. One was a great globe-hopping Norwegian adventurer. The other was a great globe-hopping Swedish diplomat.

The problem, I think, was the rhythm. As a kind of verbal music, the two names sounded nearly identical to me.

The names of other famous people also share this same rhythm, including the actor George Hamilton, the animator Jan Pinkava, and the futurist Hans Moravec. I am sure you can think of lots of others as well.

The rhythm of names is a subject that many people find endlessly to be endlessly generative. Lin-Manuel Miranda, to cite one example, constructed an entire rap musical around the rhythm of the words “Alexander Hamilton”.

Not that he was the first to do so. Back in 1952, my favorite songwriter of them all, Frank Loesser, found enough music in the name “Hans Christian Andersen” to build an entire songbook.

Now that I think of it, I probably got on this subject because last night I rewatched Loesser’s “Guys and Dolls”, an absolute masterpiece. I had forgotten how Frank Sinatra’s character casually slips into Yiddish during one of my favorite songs.

You should catch it while it is still on Netflix. It is an immensely enjoyable way to spend an evening.

Birthday parties

Saturday, August 29th, 2020

A piano teacher I know told me, with amusement, about a recent conversation with a student. The student in question, a young girl, explained at the start of their 1pm lesson that she needed to cancel the lesson.

The reason given? “There is a birthday party at 4pm today.”

It occurred to me that this is a defining difference between how girls and boys plan their day.

A girl will say, promptly at 1pm, “There is a birthday party at 4pm.”

A boy will say, promptly at 7pm: There was a birthday party at 4pm???”

Repurposing a quote

Friday, August 28th, 2020

While we are on the subject of quotes, I saw a great one this morning in the comments section of an article in the New York Times. The article was covering the Republican National Convention, and in particular, our president’s rather divisive speech accepting his party’s nomination.

The particular quote in question can actually be traced to the great (sadly deceased) columnist Molly Ivins. Ivins had been covering the 1992 Republican National Convention. That’s the election where the Republicans ended up losing to an ascendant Bill Clinton.

Pat Buchanan made a highly incendiary speech at the convention naming the a whole slew of now familiar bogeymen, including women in power, liberals, blacks, immigrants and homosexuals. He essentially labeled them all as enemies of America.

Today’s comment by a reader quoted Molly Ivins response to that speech, but in the context of the speech last night by our current commander in chief.

Ivin’s response? “It probably sounded better in the original German.”

Great quote

Thursday, August 27th, 2020

I’ve been enjoying this year’s on-line Siggraph. The only parts that are reliably live are the panels and Q&A sessions. Most other things are prerecorded.

Today I watched a fascinating panel about the history of the New York Institute of Technology computer graphics lab. I knew these people back in the day, and it was an absolute delight to hear them collectively tell one of the most important origin stories in the field of computer graphics.

My favorite moment was when Ed Catmull quoted Alex Schure. Sure had founded and bankrolled the lab. He hired Ed to run it, and gave him fairly free rein to hire many of the people we now think of as great pioneers in the field.

Schure didn’t seem to know much about computer graphics, but to his great credit, he managed to keep all that great research financially afloat in those early years.

At one point, as a sort of aside, Ed shared this quote from Alex Shure. It’s a great quote. The proof of that is that I’m still scratching my head trying to figure exactly what it means:

“Our goal is to speed up time, eventually eliminate it.”
— Alex Shure

Bits and pieces of the future

Wednesday, August 26th, 2020

Like many of my colleagues, I am spending this week watching the Siggraph conference on-line, and participating actively in some parts of it. Experiencing this conference virtually has given me a new perspective on its value.

It is important to realize that Siggraph is not mainly a place where people show commercial products. Rather, it is a place where people show bits and pieces of the future.

So it is perfectly reasonable for researchers to show what one part of the future might look like, in anticipation of other parts that have not yet been invented. This creates an interesting sort of conversation.

Somebody today in 2020 is essentially starting a conversation with a person in the future. That conversation centers around some capability that the world may not see for years to come.

The conversation starts by saying “Hey, I’ve got one piece of this now. Can anybody in the future come up with the other pieces we will need?”

It takes a certain kind of faith to engage in conversation with future people. The ability to have that kind of faith in the future is part of what is beautiful about science.

Some things are the same

Tuesday, August 25th, 2020

I participated in a speaker at two Q&A sessions today at the (this year virtual) SIGGRAPH conference. Each was half an hour long, and each brought together a group of people who had given technical talks that were thematically related.

In one case, the moderator started out by having everyone summarize their research. This turned out to use up the entire 30 minutes, so there was no time for questions. It all sort of felt like a waste of time.

In the other case, the moderator asked great questions that got us all speaking to the same themes from different points of view. It was completely awesome.

So it seems that even when conferences go virtual, some things are the same. It mostly comes down to having a good moderator.

Sharing a drink remotely

Monday, August 24th, 2020

Here is a simple question: Will blended reality ever get to the point where it will feel good to share a drink remotely?

Or is having a beer together something that simply requires physical co-presence, on a fundamental level?

It’s a simple question, but I suspect that the answer, one way or another, may have profound consequences.

It’s a question I have been revisiting from time to time. The first time I wrote about it on this blog was back in 2013.

I’m revisiting it now because this week at the virtual SIGGRAPH conference we are offering an immersive experience called The Outpost in which everyone goes into VR and shares a drink. Of course, since it’s only 2020, you need to bring your own drink.

But maybe one day the world will evolve. On that fine day, when you enter VR, the drinks will be waiting for you. :-)

The defining question

Sunday, August 23rd, 2020

Tomorrow morning begins the largest annual computer graphics professional conference. SIGGRAPH has been around since 1974, and it has always been the place where people share their work, hang out, learn from each other, and form professional relationships and lifelong friendships.

But this year, for the first time, it will be on-line. It’s hard to imagine something like SIGGRAPH going virtual, since so much of the experience is based on the serendipity of running into people. Entire career paths have been launched out of chance meetings at SIGGRAPH.

I guess the coming five days will be a learning experience for all of us. After all, ,how do you create serendipity on-line? That’s a big question.

I would go even further. I would venture to guess that in the next few years, that question will come to be seen as one of the defining questions of our time.

Future house materials

Saturday, August 22nd, 2020

Let’s say you are wearing those futuristic specs that are coming sometime in the next few years. When that day comes, you will essentially be living in “blended reality” — a reality in which some aspects of what you see around you are physical, and others are purely virtual.

One thing that occurs to me, as we prepare to live in blended reality, is that the materials in our homes can visually change at will. One day you might be living in a wooden cabin, the next day in a castle made of stone.

Then perhaps you might decide to live in a house made of ice, or even diamond. You and the other people in your house could even be perceiving the same house differently, depending on the personal tastes of each inhabitant.

The possibilities, as Lance Williams used to say, are limited only by your imagination.