Archive for October, 2020

Walt, Frank and Steve

Sunday, October 11th, 2020

The lives of great geniuses are often very complicated. Genius is an odd phenomenon. It visits people and very uneven amounts and often it very surprising ways.

The life experiences of three geniuses of the 20th century, in very different fields, had remarkably similar arcs. Walt Disney was a pioneer in animation, Frank Sinatra in popular music, and Steve Jobs in personal computers — three very different fields.

Yet the overarching narrative in each case was oddly similar. The early career was an example of a naive and idealistic young person achieving rapid success and recognition. Then there came a time when the young genius was cast out and betrayed, followed by a period of disillusion.

Then, some years later, there was a return to success, but with an important difference. The Disney, Sinatra and Jobs who eventually returned to triumph to build an empire was very different from the original young idealistic genius who had started out.

Each returned as a hardened and ruthless businessman. In each case there was still an appealing populist message, but now both the man and the ethos behind that message had been transformed.

The shared pattern here, once recognized, is remarkably specific. I wonder how many geniuses throughout history have had lives and careers that have followed a similar arc.

Being Mr. Collins

Saturday, October 10th, 2020

I was having coffee today with friends, and the subject of Pride and Prejudice came up, as it often does. In particular, we were discussing how it would be be easier in real life to be some of Austen’s characters, rather than others.

I pointed out that the most difficult character to be in real life would be Mr. Collins. He is, in a very important way, the most pure of all the characters.

After all, he is the only character in the novel who knows, without a shadow of a doubt, that he is perfectly fine exactly as he is, without the slightest need of improvement.

He is also, of course, by far the most annoying and insufferable character in the book. To understand why, see the previous paragraph.

How can they tell?

Friday, October 9th, 2020

Reading our national news of the last few days, it occurs to me that this would be an apt time to rewatch The Madness of King George. It seems to parallel our current situation uncomfortably well.

Although I must admit that my general feeling about the situation of watching a leader go gradually mad was summed up by Dorothy Parker. Upon hearing of the death of former president Calvin Coolidge, her first response was “How can they tell?”

Suppose everyone could program

Thursday, October 8th, 2020

Suppose everyone could program computers. In other words, suppose computer programming were taught as a basic skill to every child, starting in kindergarten, and continuing on to the senior year of high school.

I’m not suggesting that little children be taught C++ or Javascript. I would imagine that they would first be introduced to the concepts of programming in an age-appropriate way, perhaps through simple play, then progress to a blocks language like Scratch, and eventually move on to something like Python, supported by a well designed user interface.

I am guessing that if we were really to do that, we would think about programming differently. For one thing, it would be used for different purposes than it is now.

Rather than being a specialty craft — akin to being a plumber or an electrician — it would be something done every day by hundreds of millions of people, like cooking. I also suspect that programming languages themselves would evolve to meet the needs of this much broader user population.

Advances in user interfaces to support programming would have a very different flavor, once the ability to program is no longer just an advanced professional skill, but also a basic literacy skill. The kind of programming language that ends up getting used by everybody might look very different from anything we have seen so far.

Good mood pill

Wednesday, October 7th, 2020

If there were a completely safe, non-toxic, not physically addictive way to put people into a good mood, would that be a good thing? I’m thinking just of some sort of ostensibly benign pill that helps people to chill, to accept each other, to relax and enjoy the moment.

On the surface, it seems like a good thing. But maybe such a thing runs counter to what people really need.

Perhaps our human tendency toward irrational moods and behaviors has actual survival value, despite its seemingly disruptive effect. Maybe, on some fundamental level, we need to argue.

If that is the case, then a perfect “good mood pill” might actually be destructive in ways we cannot yet measure. It might end up taking away something essential that is needed to give our lives meaning.

Were movies inevitable?

Tuesday, October 6th, 2020

There is a strong argument that movies were inevitable. We are, after all, a storytelling species, and we seem to turn any available tool toward the task of telling stories.

In 1800, movies were pretty much unthinkable. In 1900, they were a budding novelty. By 2000 they had, in many ways, long displaced all other forms of storytelling.

Of course there were key geniuses who advanced the medium at many points in its development. But even in the absence of specific individuals such as Edison, the Lumière brothers or Eisenstein, others would have taken up the challenge.

The gating function, I think, was not the genius of any individual, but the emerging technological possibility itself. Once technology had advanced to the point where movies were possible, they were bound to be invented and developed in short order — because we are humans, and that’s what we do.

One reason I find this line of thought fascinating is in its implications for possibilities in the future. What storytelling technology is just now emerging, which today seems like a mere novelty, but will soon grow in its influence by leaps and bounds?

In short, what will be the successor to movies?

Places in future reality

Monday, October 5th, 2020

I have been designing a VR environment, which does not exist in the real world. There is a chance, however, that it might one day exist in the real world.

I am not sure how to classify my experience of walking around within and spending time exploring this environment. What relationship does it have to my experience of the physical world?

If this VR environment never gets built in the physical world, then it is merely a thing of exploration and conjecture. Like any novel or movie, it exists only in the collective minds of those who experience it.

But what if it does end up getting built? What if it eventually becomes a physical place where I end up living some fraction of my actual life?

Will that retroactively change the meaning of my current experience? Will I have, in some real sense, gotten a jump on living in my future life?

And what if my VR experience today causes me to make a change in the design or construction of that future physical place? It would be fascinating if a sensorily immersive yet entirely imaginary experience of today should end up causing a significant change to how I physically inhabit my future reality.

As VR becomes an increasingly common part of our everyday lives, I suspect that such questions will become more important. They may eventually become central questions of our existence.

Systems thinking

Sunday, October 4th, 2020

I was preparing breakfast this morning and noticed the way I was multitasking. Since I had prepared these dishes many times before, I knew exactly how long everything takes.

So as I put one thing on the stove, I would turn something over in the toaster, and then the next moment reach for something else in the refrigerator. It was a kind of synchronized dance, with all of the moves choreographed not by design but by experience and intuition.

I realize that this systems thinking is an aspect of software engineering that is difficult to teach. A student can understand all the principles, but without knowing the weight of things, those principles are difficult to apply efficiently in practice.

How much does it cost to add a new module, to allocate such and such objects, to iterate versus recurse? On top of that, there are multiple kinds of costs. Some costs come in the form of greater time and effort in programming, whereas others are penalties paid in run-time performance.

Systems thinking applies to everything, whether shopping for groceries, cooking a meal, fixing a car, writing a computer program or designing and building a house. In order to do really something well, you need to have put in the time to have working knowledge at your fingertips.

Beginners are at a distinct disadvantage when experience is everything.

LSMFT, part 1

Saturday, October 3rd, 2020

Some years ago I was walking around lower Manhattan with a companion. The topic got to contemporary popular cultural references.

I said that you could probably figure out someone’s age within a few years by which pop cultural references they recognized, and which they did not. There is, after all, a certain range of dates during which certain movies, TV shows and commercials appear, after which most vanish into the mists of time.

Except in the memories of those who witnessed them.

A case in point, I said, is the acronym “LSMFT”. Unless you are a culture nerd, you would need to be older than us to know what that means. My companion just looked at me blankly, with no sign of recognition.

At that moment, an older man who had been walking behind us spoke up, and proudly announced what “LSMFT” stands for. In a way, he was elegantly proving my point.

I suspect that anyone under about 75 years of age, unless they are very unusual, will not recognize this acronym, whereas any American over about 75 will know exactly what it means.

I’m curious — is there anyone out there in the younger demographic who already knows what LSMFT means, without Googling it?


Friday, October 2nd, 2020

Today our research group watched a video of Ivan Sutherland’s 1963 Sketchpad system. Afterward we had a long discussion about it, and about how much things have or have not changed in the last 57 years.

It is surprising that we have not gone collectively further since then in creating procedural interfaces. This suggests that it is an inherently hard problem, in which simple cases (like the ones that were tackled in Sketchpad) are low hanging fruit, and more complex cases become exponentially more difficult.

But now that we are entering an age in which virtual and mixed reality are going to be more widely adopted, this might shift. The greater affordsmces of immersive media could be a game changer.

Guess we will see!