Money in the bank

August 9th, 2019

Today, after much preparation, we submitted a proposal to a foundation. It may or may not be funded, but I think it’s a really good proposal.

Long ago, when I was first starting out in Academia, my mentor Jack Schwartz (now sadly deceased) helped me to write one of my very first proposals to submit to the National Science Foundation. I told him I was worried that it might not get funded.

His reply was very profound. “It doesn’t matter whether this gets funded. The important thing is that it is well written.

“If it’s a good proposal,” he explained, “Somebody will eventually fund it. A good proposal is money in the bank.”

That sad moment

August 8th, 2019

That sad moment
When you realize
That you are about to watch
The last episodes
In the latest season
Of Stranger Things
And then there will be nothing
That you can do
But wait

Describing someone in a single sentence

August 7th, 2019

I wonder how many people in the world can be identified by a simple one-sentence description. Even given the right individual, there can be an art to crafting exactly the right sentence, one that properly captures the essence and identity of the individual in question, while keeping the word count relatively small.

Here is one humble attempt. Everyone reading this post will of course know exactly to whom this sentence refers. I wonder how many other individuals in the world could be so easily identified from a simple one-sentence description:

“If he weren’t so incredibly dangerous, he would be utterly ridiculous.”

The time machine on the wall

August 6th, 2019

I dropped by the house of a friend of a friend today, and there on his wall was this George Nelson clock from 1964. Seeing it hanging there was completely magical, like suddenly being transported to the 1964 World’s Fair.

I thought of George and Wilma Jetson, of Admiral Nelson and Commander Crane. I thought of Penny Robinson and Dr. Smith, of Tim O’Hara and his uncle Martin.

I thought of little plastic dinosaurs. I love thinking about little plastic dinosaurs. :-)


Categorically exceptional

August 5th, 2019

I was thinking today about the film Yesterday, which centers around the songs of The Beatles. And I found myself wondering whether the film would have worked if they had used the songs of any other pop group.

I came to the conclusion that no, the premise of this movie required the songs of this particular pop group. No other collection of popular songs has achieved anything even near the reach and influence and sheer abundance of genius as the music of Lennon and McCartney.

That got me thinking about extraordinary achievements in other areas. When we think of playwrights in the English language, there is Shakespeare and then there is everyone else. Nobody ever talks about some other playwright being a “close second”.

Similarly, when we think about someone who contributed to both the arts and the sciences, there is Leonardo DaVinci, towering above all others. Although there have been many such renaissance thinkers, his sheer genius ends up placing him in a class by himself.

I wonder how many examples of this phenomenon we could find, were we to really think about it. Which fields contain one exemplar of genius so far about the rest as to become categorically exceptional?

I am open to suggestions.

Flying in clouds

August 4th, 2019

Today I think I need to step away for a bit away from the deeply tragic events going on in our nation right now, and talk about something more innocent.


Yesterday, as I was flying over the U.S., I looked out my window and realized we were inside a cloud. And it brought me back to my childhood.

When I was a little kid, I used to look up into the sky and wonder what it might be like to be inside a cloud. Would it be like walking on a ball of fluffy cotton? Strolling through a field of cotton candy?

Would I find that there were people living in the cloud? If so, would I get along with the cloud people?

Now that I am a grown-up, I can fly through clouds any time I want. But the problem is I now know too much.

I no longer expect to walk through fields of cotton candy. I know I will never get to hang out with the cloud people.

And it makes me sad, because the child version of me still holds on to those visions. Yet the grown-up version knows they are not true.

But also that they should be.

One day in early August

August 3rd, 2019

On Saturday August 3rd, 2019, a man started opening fire in a shopping mall in El Paso, Texas. Despite Texas being an open carry state, nobody stepped forward to challenge the shooter. The perpetrator continued, unchecked, to kill and maim people (eventually 20 dead and many more wounded) until the police were finally able to show up and subdue him.

John and Becky strode through the shopping mall on a lovely day in early August. John was so proud to have his best girl on his arm, and proud to live in an open carry state like Texas, where he could be one of the good guys with a gun. None of that mamby pamby liberal stuff for him. Becky deserved a real man.

All of a sudden a shot rang out. Becky turned to him. “I think we have a shooter.”

“It’s a good thing,” he explained, “that we live in Texas, where some good guy with a gun will stop this asshole.”

“What about you?” Becky asked, looking pointedly at John’s holster. “You can stop him.”

There was a moment of hesitation. “That’s the great thing about Texas,” he replied. “There are plenty of open carry guns right here in El Paso. I can just be ready as back-up if some other good guy with a gun doesn’t get him first.”

He saw a sudden look of disappointment on her face. But the look only lasted for a moment, before her head exploded like a watermelon, spattering him all over with blood and brains and bits of Becky’s skull.

Just then he spotted a nearby store where people were hiding out. He might be carrying a gun, but he wasn’t an idiot.

It was too bad about Becky, but she should have been carrying a gun too. Anyway, he knew it would all be ok, because everyone would soon hear, as always, that the hopes and prayers of our duly elected officials were with them.

Once within the safety of the store, he heard somebody mention that the shooter was a white male.

“Well that’s a relief,” he thought. “At least it wasn’t one of those domestic terrorists.”

He smiled to himself. “That’s why we need the NRA. Thank God for the NRA.”

The future of the Web

August 2nd, 2019

The World Wide Web is soon going to move decisively off of screens and into the world around us. It is just waiting for one key consumer platform — a well designed wearable. There are strong indications that this platform will be arriving in the next few years.

Which leads to the question: What, essentially, is the Web? I don’t think it is, at heart, a particular set of technologies. Rather it is a powerful idea that is independent of any given technology.

The Web is our shared electronic space. It is where we can all publish and read and look at and listen to information posted by one another. The Web is the world’s bulletin board.

This distinguishes it from, say, Apps, which are meant to serve specific functions. Because the Web is ubiquitous and freely accessible to vast numbers of people, it is essentially a shared place — although not a place in our physical world.

Once the wearables arrive, this “shared place” will start to have more of a presence in our own physical world. It will become accessible as part of our face to face conversations, our navigation through time and physical geography, our very concept of reality itself.

Yes, you will still be able to choose not to use it, just as you can still choose to turn off your SmartPhone (or, for that matter, choose not to talk to other people). But for more and more of the social contract, living life among our fellow humans, we won’t want to turn it off, because its ubiquitous will seep into our very concept of reality itself.

I don’t think that will be a bad thing. Like the screen-based Web of today, the future Web will quickly simply be thought of as normal reality. In fact, people will wonder how on earth anybody managed to get along without it.

Geeking out at the Geek Bar

August 1st, 2019

A wonderful feature of this year’s Siggraph conference has been something called the “Geek Bar”. A large number of bean bag chairs face an enormous super-high resolution screen that simultaneously shows eight conference presentations.

You pick up a portable audio receiver/switcher and a pair of headphones from the nice people at the desk, nestle down into one of the comfy chairs and put on your headphones. Then you just pick one of eight audio channels to listen in on.

Each time you choose an audio channel, you are effectively transported instantly from one lecture room to another. The whole thing is so wonderful that I want to set up something similar as a permanent fixture of our lab at NYU.

I don’t like the feeling of earphones covering my ears, but fortunately I didn’t need them. To see the screen more clearly, I wear a pair of glasses, which in my case are Bose Frames. They look just like a pair of glasses but they also provide high quality stereo audio (that other people can’t hear) — without covering your hears. I’ve had my Frames fitted with prescription lenses, since I am slightly nearsighted.

The Frames are a wireless Bluetooth device, but that’s not a problem. I recently purchased a TaoTronics Bluetooth 5.0 Transmitter/Receiver, Wireless 3.5mm Audio Adapter on Amazon. It’s a tiny gizmo that you can plug into any audio jack to effectively turn your audio device into a Bluetooth transmitter or receiver.

I just plugged my TaoTronics into the audio jack of the receiver/switcher, and voila, I was connected. The experience felt much more pleasant than having to wear a stupid pair of headphones, and the sound quality was better too.

On a meta-level the experience was also immensely satisfying, and kind of poetic. I was geeking out at the Geek Bar.

VR, AR and beyond

July 31st, 2019

Last year we presented a work that allowed 30 people to share a VR “virtual theater” experience, all in the same room. People could see each other, but as avatars of themselves.

This year (this week in fact) we presented a work that allowed 6 people to share an AR “virtual theater” experience, again all in the same room. The experience itself was not as overwhelming — it all took place in miniature on a tabletop — but people could literally see each other.

It’s been fascinating to observe the tradeoffs between these two modes of immersive storytelling. The shared VR experience is all around you — you and your friends are transported together into another world entirely.

The AR experience simply affords you a view into another world, without actually taking you there. Yet you and your friends have a greater sense of each others’ presence and response to the work.

Ideally we will find a third way — one that transports you together into another world, yet maintains the richness of connection that you feel with one another in real life. Maybe we will show that next year. :-)