It may look like a walnut

WandaVision is by far the best thing on television right now. I am very sad that next week will be the final episode.

One great thing about WandaVision is its precise and knowledgable references to classic moments in television culture going back well over half a century. Last night’s penultimate episode was no exception.

One of the things it referenced was my favorite episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show. Season 2, Episode 20 (first airing, February 6, 1963). I hadn’t seen this episode since I was a kid, but today — thanks to the wonders of streaming — I sat down and watched it again, and fully appreciated for the first time what a great parody it is of The Twilight Zone.

It can be difficult to explain now the particular appeal that The Twilight Zone had on America back then, and how deeply the creative tone of paranoia crafted by Rod Serling tapped into our nation’s Cold War fears. It’s even more difficult to explain how formally innovative it was at the time for a light-hearted sitcom to parody The Twilight Zone.

So now I realize how meta is the reference to that particular episode. When you crack open a walnut, you expect to find a walnut — but sometimes you find something completely different.

Episode 20 in Season 2 of The Dick Van Dyke Show moved the ball boldly forward on what can be done within a television show. It may look like a walnut, but it’s so much more.

Just like WandaVision.

Fractal presentations

Today we are hosting the annual visiting day for PhD students accepted into our computer science department at NYU. It’s the first time this event is being held on-line (last year’s visiting day took place just before the pandemic turned everything upside down).

Much of the event consists of a faculty member describing, in about 15 minutes, a large body of research in some broad area, such as machine learning, compiler optimization, or natural language processing. Each such area has an entire group of faculty working on it, and involves collaborations with lots of students and other labs around the world.

I am impressed, as I watch these presentations, at how each presenter is able to describe what is really an enormous amount of research in a clear and economical way. There is something beautiful about seeing a large topic summarized briefly in a way that still captures the excitement of doing research in that topic.

Ideally it would be great to see these short presentations expanded out as a kind of fractal. As a student is interested in learning a bit more about any sub-topic, they should be able to go down one or more levels to learn more, and then continue to descend into further details or pop back up and move on to other sub-topics as desired.

Maybe we should be building tools to support the creation of fractal presentations. That might be a good next step in the evolution of on-line learning.

Apps between us in reality

Now take everything I said in yesterday’s post, and apply it to a future reality in which we can all wear really good high quality mixed reality glasses. In that future, we will be able to see and hear and converse with each other face to face — whether or not we happen to be in the same physical room.

But also we will be able to gesture to create and manipulate objects in the space between us. Semantically, this would be a logical extension of the kind of apps that might be available in future “open” versions of something like Zoom.

This suggests a possible path toward building that shared enhanced reality. If we start the ecosystem now, while we are still all looking into screens, we might learn a lot about what works, and what people find engaging and useful.

Then when the really good extended reality glasses finally show up, we will all have a better idea how to use them properly. Why not start now?

Apps between us in Zoom

Yesterday I talked about potential future variants of Zoom. The idea would be to have something more open in terms of the stuff that could be seen and manipulated on the screen between you and me.

In particular, I’m thinking there could be a sort of App Store, in which vendors would create plug-ins that enhance functionality and interaction in various ways. One vendor might add a slide creation tool or shared text editor that would be superimposed right over the videos of participants. Another vendor might add a 3D character animation tool. A third might add some sort of cooperative video editing suite, another a customizable appearance filter.

Not every app would be successful. Some apps would be wildly popular, while others would languish. But that’s the beauty of the app store model — if there is an audience for any given app, that app will eventually find its audience.

Stuff between us in Zoom

Zoom allows you to choose any background, and also to scribble on the screen. So there is a rudimentary notion of “there are objects between us.”

But it doesn’t get much fancier than that. There isn’t really a shared sense of a world of meaningful tangible objects between you and me — just a kind of blackboard.

There is an opportunity to do much more. With the right software, we can create entire little interactive worlds to share between us.

What little worlds would you want to create and share?

Reality distortion field

Everybody has their own reality distortion field, which they carry around with them wherever they go. Each of us looks at reality through our individual preferences.

There are things that I happen to like, and other things that I don’t like. You might find some things fascinating and things not so much. So in effect, no two people look at objective reality through exactly the same lens.

But what will happen when we all have those mixed reality glasses? There will be at least an opportunity for each of us to perceive the likes and dislikes of others.

If we can work our way through the privacy issues, we might end up getting a serious power up to personal communication. Once we can see each others’ reality distortion fields, we might find kinder and more appropriate ways to be good to one another.

On the other hand, it could all just be used to sell ads. This is definitely a situation where taking responsibility is a good idea. We should be paying close attention to Kranzberg’s first law of technology.

Relaxation and productivity

I know there is this whole thing in our culture that you’re supposed to be working all the time, under stress, pushing against the limits. There’s a kind of calvinist strain that says “no pain no gain.”

But I find that I am most productive and most creative when I find some nice relaxing place, with good light, pleasant music and very calm surroundings. I get myself a nice cup of coffee or cappuccino, lots of space to work, and just let stuff happen.

It is amazing how much more productive I am when I set things up properly to reward my mind and body, rather than punish my mind and body.

Bingeing all the versions

This pandemic can have a way of changing your TV viewing habits. I just watched Robin Hood, Men in Tights. I had somehow never seen it, although I am a long time Mel Brooks fan.

Now I want to see all of the Robin Hood movies. My plan is to go from the 1922 version with Douglas Fairbanks to the 1938 version with Erroll Flynn through to the 1973 animated version with Peter Ustinov all the way up to the recent 2018 one with Jamie Foxx and that guy who looks like Elton John.

After I’m done with that, I want to watch all the Spiderman movies. But I’m worried that it will feel like I am just watching the same movie over and over again.

Except for the animated one — that one’s good.

The rule of banana

When my brother and I were little, we used to make various concoctions in the blender. I don’t recall why our mom let us do this. Maybe we did it when our parents were away. I’ve probably conveniently forgotten those details.

In any case, we would raid the fridge and look for various ingredients — milk, ice cream, jelly, fruits, oreos — anything was fair game.

We tried many things, varying both ingredients and amounts from one experiment to another. It was always delicious.

After much emperical experimentation, we only discovered only one definitive principle. We called it “the rule of banana”.

It was a simple rule, and invariably true: If you put in a banana, then everything tastes like banana.

Future imperfect

Continuing from yesterday’s post, what is it, exactly, that caused the shift in our science fiction view of the future from optimism to pessimism and even paranoia? When, exactly, did we go from white mirror to black mirror?

From the perspective of the U.S., my best guess is the general response to our nation’s involvement in the Vietnam conflict, compounded by the Watergate scandal. That was a time when a large swatch of the citizenry rapidly grew distrustful of their federal government.

This seems to be supported by the timing of various science fiction offerings in popular culture. For example, when Star Trek came out in 1966, the nation was, for the most part, blissfully unaware of anything to do with the Vietnam conflict other than what their own government was telling them.

By 1968, the debut of two far more dystopian films — 2001, A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes — the cracks in our sunny narrative of the future were starting to burst open.

By 1973, in the wake of both Vietnam and the Watergate scandal, we had Soylent Green and Westworld, two films as paranoid as it gets. The tide had decisively turned, never again to turn back.