Archive for December, 2021

Sadly

Tuesday, December 21st, 2021

We went to a funeral earlier this week of a person who had died of Covid. Half the people there were not wearing masks.

I wish I could say that this was irony, but frankly, it just seems like stupidity. Needless to say, we did not linger.

And I wish I could say I was making this up. Sadly, I am not.

Are people just plain crazy? I am really starting to wonder.

Precisely imprecise

Monday, December 20th, 2021

Many years ago, when I first read Steven Pinker’s book The Language Instinct (highly recommended), I learned that natural language is imprecise for a very good reason. As language evolved it gave us an evolutionary advantage as a species.

We evolved spoken language primarily to build networks of trust with our fellow humans, and that’s a kind of super power. Before we know whether we can trust somebody, we are able to speak to them in imprecise ways, so that our meaning and intention is able to remain fuzzy.

This gives us plausible deniability. And that lets us back away from interpersonal connections gracefully as needed.

So it may seem at first as though natural language, as opposed to, say, a language used for computer programming, is bad at conveying exact meanings. But in fact it’s quite the opposite: Natural language is excellent at precisely adjusting intentional imprecision.

I wonder whether it would be useful to design a computer programming language that is focused specifically on this kind of intentional fuzziness. As artificial intelligence takes on more and more human-related tasks, that might be a fruitful direction for language design research.

Road trips

Sunday, December 19th, 2021

Today I sing the praises of road trips.

In a way it’s very simple. You get into a car, load up on gas, pack some food for the journey. Then, like Paul Simon said, look for America.

Or, depending on where you live, you look for whatever part of the world happens to be in driving distance.

Pretty much anywhere you go, there are all sorts of small towns and interesting places that you’ve never heard of. And every one of them has its own story to tell.

In the immortal words of Fred Ebb: What good is sitting alone in your room?

Department of stupid questions

Saturday, December 18th, 2021

When I was an undergrad in college, one of the guys in our dorm had only a right arm. His left arm was missing from just below the shoulder.

There was a shared kitchen on the ground floor of the dorm, where students could make their own meals. One morning in the kitchen he and I got to talking.

At some point he mentioned that he played in the University orchestra.

“What instrument,” I asked, “do you play?”

For just the briefest of moments a look of exasperation flickered across his face.

He recovered quickly. Then he answered “The trumpet”.

MCRR readiness

Friday, December 17th, 2021

When you binge on multiple sitcoms you start to notice patterns. One of the patterns I’ve picked up on is what I call the “MCRR readiness” arc. The entire premise of a show can be seen in how it treats this arc.

“The Big Bang Theory” is all about this arc. The main characters start out hopelessly unable to sustain a meaningful committed romantic relationship (MCRR). Then one by one they progress to readiness.

“Seinfeld” is the exact opposite. Everything about the show circles around the fact that none of these people is ever going to be ready for an MCRR. In a sense, that very dysfunction is their comedic narcissistic superpower.

“Frazier” is poised perfectly at the midpoint between these two premises. Yes, the protagonists are capable of progressing toward an MCRR. But getting past their own enormous and (delightfully funny) narcissism is going to make it very difficult going.

Note to self

Thursday, December 16th, 2021

I am one of those people who from time to time writes a “note to self.” The note could be on any topic at all — sometimes it’s just good to write these things down.

I’ve been doing this for decades. So it’s not surprising that as I am cleaning the apartment, today I came across a note to self from a very long time ago. From the looks of it, it looks as though I was in my early twenties as the time.

The note is on a little piece of lined paper on hotel stationery. This was probably during one of my very first professional conference trips.

The note just says:

Destiny is easy to define in the past tense.

I have no recollection of writing it, but now that decades have elapsed, I can testify that it is absolutely true. I wish I had as much foresight now as I did then.

Cleaning house

Wednesday, December 15th, 2021

I’ve been throwing out a lot of old stuff that I don’t need. Looking into drawers that I haven’t opened in years, tossing out old clothes and papers that I know I will never use or need.

It’s a wonderful feeling, a feeling of air and lightness. Too much stuff can weigh you down, even stuff that you don’t even look at.

In the immortal words of Billy Idol: Start again.

In the back of your mind

Tuesday, December 14th, 2021

Sometimes when you get stuck trying to solve a problem, the best thing to do is to put it aside and come back to it later. After a while, you often find that the answer just comes to you.

But what is actually going on here? Is a part of your mind continuing to work on the problem?

And if so, how come you’re not aware of it? Are there entire regions of your brain which are working away on things that you care about, without bothering to tell you?

Think about it. While you are reading this, do you really know what your brain is actually up to? What sorts of things might it be doing that it’s not telling you about?

Monte Carlo stars

Monday, December 13th, 2021

The first time I ever implemented a Monte Carlo method was at the very start of my career in computer graphics. The company I was working for, MAGI, needed a star field for a TV commercial.

So I generated lots and lots of points inside a cube, using a random number generator to produce (x,y,z) coordinates. Then I discarded all of the points that were outside of a sphere that fit snugly inside the cube.

I then pushed all of the remaining points out to the surface of the sphere. Voila, stars.

But then the head of CGI told me that he needed more stars in the sky. So I just made lots of copies of my star field.

Everywhere I had put a star, I placed a copy of the entire star field in miniature, centered on that location. By making those clusters bigger or smaller, I could tune how “clumpy” the star field looked.

Then he was happy. The spot aired on TV with my beautiful star field. And then I was happy.

11 minutes

Sunday, December 12th, 2021

I have been doing the NY Times crossword puzzle for many years. And this weekend, for the only the second time ever, I managed to finish the Saturday NY Times crossword puzzle in 11 minutes flat.

I know that in the scheme of things, with the terrible state the world is in, that this is not a very big thing.

But it makes me happy.