The one problem that haunts everybody — so much so that people don’t even talk about it — is the fact that one day each of us is going to die. Awareness of mortality subtly creeps into every aspect of our lives, yet we generally do our best to push it out of our minds.

Today I was invited to attend an Easter Sunday church service — I had never attended one before. And I saw a clear link between what was discussed in that service and mortality.

As the service went on, this link became more and more clear. Whenever the topic came around to the promise of eternal life, the energy in the room was positively electric.

If you are Christian, and you truly believe, then you have solved the problem of mortality. Unlike many of the other humans on this planet, you don’t need to wrap your head around the enormous idea that one day your existence is simply going to end.

No wonder it’s such a popular religion.

The Phantom Premise

There is one scene in The Phantom Menace that completely takes me out of the movie. It’s when they are racing in that little underwater ship with Jar Jar to Naboo, and escape giant sea monsters.

The problem is that it’s obvious that Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor are completely oblivious to the giant creatures that ostensibly could eat them at any moment. That really drives home to the audience the point that the supposedly menacing creatures are simply CGI elements added in post.

I understand that it is difficult to act in front of a green screen, when you can’t see what is in the script. But when I saw that movie, I was left wondering whether the two actors were even adequately told what the audience would later see in the final film.

I blame the writer/director. George did so much better when he had the good sense to get other people to write his screenplays.

Very simple

Over the last few weeks I implemented an algorithm for an interactive interface that was both sophisticated and intricate. It handled all sorts of cases, and had lots of mechanisms built in for dealing with anything that might go wrong.

To my chagrin, when I road tested it with actual users it kept failing. “What can I add to this,” I asked myself, “to make it more bullet proof?”

Today I ripped all of that sophisticated stuff out and replaced it with something very simple. The whole thing now works like a charm.

There is a lesson in this somewhere…

Debugging with comments

Programmers sometimes think of commenting their code as a chore. “Can’t people just read my code,” they ask, “and see what I am doing?”

But it’s not that simple. Not only is commenting good for communicating with others, it is also an excellent way to communicate with yourself.

When you write out, in plain English, exactly what you are doing, you understand it better. Doing a good job of explaining something is one of the best ways of understanding it yourself.

Also, you might find that when you go through the effort to do this, you uncover flaws in your own code or its underlying algorithm. More than once, I have started to comment my code only to realize that I could now see an error or unhandled case in the program itself.

In short, commenting your own code is one of the best ways to debug it.

Sleepless sci-fi

This concept of existing without sleep could take many forms. Rather than envisioning a world where nobody needs sleep, one could imagine a science fiction story based on the premise of a mutant gene that removes the need for sleep. Those who have the gene could arguably have an enormous advantage over the rest of us.

The story might track the effects of this phenomenon on relationships between people. It could be that the sleepers would start out trying to identify and persecute the non-sleepers, because they would understand that the non-sleepers have a distinct advantage.

Such a mutation would represent an adaptive evolutionary shift that might appear very threatening indeed. The resulting conflict and battle of wits could make for a very compelling story.

Now somebody just needs to write it. Oh well, I won’t lose any sleep over it.

Life without sleep

What would life be like if we never slept. I don’t mean lack of sleep, but rather no need for it.

We were wide awake 24 hours a day, we would never dream. We would never be in need of a hotel room for the night when traveling.

All of our signifiers would be completely jumbled. The meaning of day and night would not be the same at all.

The sun and the moon would be equal and balanced in their significance, rather than representing a kind of Yin and Yang. I suspect that society as we know it would be quite different.

But how exactly? That is the question.

Walking faster

When doing research, there are days when you know you’ve made a lot of progress. And then there are days when you don’t know you’ve made a lot of progress, but you have.

It’s not that you got a lot done on that day. It’s more that some instinct has made you change direction.

It then usually takes another day or more to realize that you had turned a crucial corner, and are now heading the right way. After all, if you are walking in the wrong direction, you won’t get to where you want to go any sooner by walking faster.

We had one of those

Many years ago I was invited to a conference in Mumbai. The day before the conference our host thoughtfully organized a tour for those of us who were from other countries — mostly myself and a group of very nice graduate students from Germany.

We all got in a car in the morning, and for the next few hours the driver — who spoke not a word of English — drove us to various places. At each place, we needed to get out and figure out why we were there.

One stop was to a lovely park, another to a busy clothing market, yet another to a very impressive government building. Even though we couldn’t communicate with the driver, we could pretty much figure out why each place was significant.

But then he pulled up at what looked like a residential house. We all got out of the car and went inside, wondering what this next place would be all about.

As we walked through the hallway, we saw that the walls were lined with pictures of Mahatma Gandhi. That is when we realized that we were standing in a house where Gandhi used to live (in fact it was Mani Bhavan).

At one point one of the German grad students and I were looking at the photos together. Both of us were in awe at being in the great man’s home. I said “Gandhi was probably one of the five most important people in the twentieth century.”

“Yes,” the student replied sadly, “We had one of those. But it didn’t turn out so well.”

Look at the bright side

Now that the next presidential election is gradually sneaking up on us, a memory from eight years ago has resurfaced. It was in November 2016, the morning that we all found out that you-know-who won the election.

My fellow NYU professors and I were standing around, feeling numb. I said to the group “I think this is going to be really bad for the country.”

“But look at the bright side,” one of my colleagues said. “It’s going to be great for comedy.”

Vernor Vinge

I was very sad to read about the passing of Vernor Vinge. He was truly a person of rare and great vision.

I know that in the world of ideas he is most known for his thoughtful essays about “the singularity” — the hypothetical moment in the future when general artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence and will then continue to accelerate at an exponential rate.

But the work of his that had the most profound influence on me was Rainbows End, a novel about a future where ubiquitous mixed reality has reached a point of maturity. Reading that novel changed the course of my research.

That was when I stopped thinking of interactive computer graphics as something on a screen, and started to see it as something that will eventually simply be part of the world all around us.