Jim Dale was right

Jim Dale once said “You cannot learn anything from success, you only learn from failure.” And today I experienced a failure — something professional that I put a lot of work into, which I thought was going to be accepted, ended up being rejected.

There was a moment of numbness, followed by about an hour of sadness and unhealthy snackage. But then things changed.

I started getting to work, building things in places where I had lazily neglected to build things. Suddenly I am finding myself industrious, on mission, productive.

None of these useful things would have happened had I received good news rather than bad news. I most likely would have coasted along on that success, until eventually getting tripped up by my entitled laziness.

Jim Dale was right.

Brief encounter

Today, around the corner from my Manhattan apartment, two men in hassidic garb had a little table set up.

As I walked past, one of them said to me “Excuse me, are you Jewish?”

Responding in kind, I asked him “Are you Jewish?”

“Yes,” he replied.

“Funny,” I said, “you don’t look Jewish.”

And then I continued on my way.

Real magic

Magic is a funny thing. When we see a magician perform, there is a mutual understanding between performer and audience that what is being presented is an artful illusion.

We also eagerly embrace fictional representations of real magic, like Harry Potter or Bewitched. In a way, this is the same thing: We are watching performers pretend that magic is real, yet there is an unspoken understanding that it is all make-believe.

But what if we were to encounter real magic? Would that completely disrupt our understanding of reality?

Or would we simply relabel it “physics”? In other words, is the term “real magic” an oxymoron? Is magic, by definition, that which cannot actually exist in reality?

Just because you’re lucky

My interest in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer eventually led me to learn about Vasily Atkhipov. The short form is that in 1963 Atkhipov, singlehandedly, quite literally saved the world.

Specifically, he saved the world from mutual nuclear annihilation, which at the height of the Cold War was a very real possibility. You could look it up.

This comes up now because I was talking with a colleague today about recent advances in Generative A.I. As this technology advances by leaps and bounds, there are parallels with nuclear weaponry.

We don’t need to indulge in fantasy scenarios like Skynet to be worried that A.I. might eventually do us all in. The danger, in fact, is quite the opposite.

The danger of a Large Language Model (LLM) is not that it cares, but that it doesn’t care. It is like the broom in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, mindlessly doing what it is told, with no regard for the consequences.

Should we be worried about that? Yes.

People who argue against government regulation of A.I. sometimes point out that nothing really bad has happened as a consequence of LLMs. Which brings me back to Oppenheimer and the Cold War.

Vasily Atkhipov was not inevitable — he just happened to be the right person at the right time. Had it been someone else on his watch, we might all be dead now.

We may be in an analogous situation with Generative A.I. Nothing goes horribly wrong until it does, and then it might be too late to do anything about it.

If something catastrophic threatens to happen because we all rely on A.I. without anyone checking its work, there may not be a Vasily Atkhipov around this time to save the day. As I said to my colleague today: Just because you’re lucky, doesn’t mean you’re safe.

Familiar face

I saw a preview for the movie Golda. The lead looked very much like Golda Meir, and nothing at all like Helen Mirren.

And yet, I instantly knew it was Helen Mirren. And I wondered, why was that so easy?

My best guess is that we humans are very good at identifying somebody from their subtle and unique facial expressions. She didn’t look at all like Helen Mirren, but her face moved exactly the way Helen Mirren’s face moves.

As we drift slowly into the age of wearable extended reality, I find this very encouraging.


Why does music have such a powerful psychological hold on us?

You can read a book or a newspaper, and you will indeed receive information. But if you hear the same thing in a well-crafter song, you may end up embracing it as a core tenet of belief.

I believe that this reflects an evolutionary imperative. Clearly music had an advantage to proto-humans first emerging into the world.

And all of us reap the benefit of that evolutionary legacy.

Animated diagrams

Describing an algorithm in text can be very precise, but such a description is for most people to read. Describing that same algorithm as a sequence of animated images does a much better job of helping people to understand what is going on.

But making animated diagrams through traditional means, such as programming, can be difficult and time consuming. To make even one minute of animation might take hours.

This seems to me to be a great potential use of generative A.I. If a student were able to learn an algorithm by watching it in the form of animated diagrams, that student would most likely have a much easier time of it.

I wonder whether we are about to enter an era in which formerly tedious tasks, such as the creation of animated diagrams to explain algorithms, will become easy. In a way this transition feels like the invention of photography. Creating a faithful representation of reality, which was once a long and difficult chore, becomes, literally, a snap.

Tools for mixed reality

These are still early days for head-worn mixed reality. For now, if you want to manipulate objects in MR, you pretty much have two choices: either bare hands or VR controllers.

But this goes against many centuries of human wisdom. In our everyday life, we have pens, brushes, hammers and chisels, screwdrivers and pliers. Humans have developed many specialized tools that amplify both the power and the precision of our hands.

I suspect that sometime soon, the act of picking up an ordinary pen to make a magic animated scribble while wearing your mixed reality glasses will become commonplace. We are not there yet, but with any luck we will be soon.

Creators of worlds

Today is the birthday of four people who created fictional worlds that continue to live on in my head, and that I suspect always will.

On this day in 1866, H.G. Wells was born. On this day in 1912, Chuck Jones was born. On this day in 1934, Leonard Cohen was born. On this day in 1947, Stephen King was born.

Imagine if those four individuals were able to collaborate. Whatever they came up with together, I for one would definitely go see it.