Turn off your phone

May 14th, 2020

For the first weeks of the coronavirus outbreak I was having difficulty balancing my time between the personal and professional. Early on I made a rule that I would keep work only on certain days of the week, and then only within a certain range of hours.

I thought that would solve the problem, but it didn’t. I found myself worrying about work when I should have been focusing on my personal life. I think the problem is that once work goes virtual, it is (ironically) always present in the room, wherever you are.

But now I think I have really solved the problem. Not only do I walk away from the computer outside of certain bounded hours, but I also walk away from the phone. Not only that, I power off my phone.

Once my phone is powered off at some point in the afternoon, I don’t even turn it on until the following morning. My feeling is that anything from the outside world that would require my attention at night can just as easily wait until morning.

There is no email so urgent that it can’t wait until morning. And if somebody phones me and really needs me to call them back, they can leave a voicemail message.

It was interesting to see how my subconscious self adapted to this change. At first I found myself reaching for my phone at random moments.

Then I would remember, with a sense of relief, that it was literally impossible for me to reach for my phone. Not only was my phone powered off, but it was sitting in a room somewhere else in the house, at a safe distance from my neurotic self.

Since I have adopted the practice of turning my phone off after work is done, life has gotten much better in every way. I am far more present with people I love, the people who are right there in the room with me. Not coincidentally, my level of anxiety has gone from very high to very low.

Turn off your phone. I highly recommend it.

Future movie actors

May 13th, 2020

Seeing everybody virtually through video software, while also catching up on lots of old movies, my mind goes to odd places. One of those places is the question of digital make-up.

One of the charming things about Hollywood movies is that they work with “found materials”. Cary Grant looks like Cary Grant, and Winona Ryder looks like Winona Ryder.

The particular quirks of nature that formed these unique human beings are factored into the writing, directing, lighting, editing and other choices made by filmmakers. If a different actor had been cast, a good filmmaker would have adjusted those choices.

Yet we entering an age where natural appearance matters less and less. At some point the digital alteration of appearance will become a mature technology.

At that point, all bets are off. If Paul Giamatti has the chops to play a Harrison Ford role, then why not? Even better, if he has the chops to play Humphrey Bogart well, then Bogie is back.

Beyond that, filmmakers will be able to create actor appearances that are tuned to the role, without needing to find somebody who happens to look just right. Screen acting will become a kind of digital puppetry, and nobody will care what the puppeteer happens to look like.

What will be the impact of all this on cinema? Will movies be better or worse? I have absolutely no idea.

Predicting what will change

May 12th, 2020

There’s a sort of game that I’ve found myself playing with friends and colleagues lately. The basic idea is that we extrapolate from the current situation to see what it means for the future.

Specifically: What things, we ask, will not go back to the way they used to be? Now that millions of people are getting used to being home with their families, will they all just go back to working in offices?

Or will people resist going back to the relatively soulless world of long commutes and office parks? Will some other set of social and economic structures emerge, one that is more humane and family friendly?

Of course, after this outbreak is over, some things will go back to being pretty much the way they were before all of this ever started. But other things won’t.

And what will those things be? It’s an interesting question.

A lovely evening in May

May 11th, 2020

a box of chocolates
a glass of wine
we’re watching Upload
and everything’s fine

Mind reading

May 10th, 2020

We usually don’t really know for sure what other people think of us. After all, we don’t have the power of mind reading.

In my life there have been people whom I was quite sure did not like me. Only later did I find out that they were quite fond of me.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I can think of people who were consistently pleasant to me. Eventually, I learned that it was just an act, and that they didn’t really like me at all.

I suspect you have had similar experiences. We just can’t know what is going on in the head of another person.

I wonder how much life would change if there were a way to know, with certainty, what other people really thought of us. Maybe this could be achieved by some sort of future glasses with built-in A.I.

Would that lead to something positive? Or would we all just end up killing each other?

Eye contact

May 9th, 2020

A weird thing about Skype, Zoom, and similar video chat tools is that they don’t support eye contact for a call with more than two people. So there is a fundamental difference between talking one-on-one and any other remote conversation.

In real life, we use our eye gaze, face, body, hands and other nonverbal cues to let everyone know to whom we are directing our attention. We are very good at this. Sometimes we can send very complex nonverbal messages about how we are directing our attention, in different ways, to multiple people at once.

But in video chat we have none of those powers at our disposal. We are just looking into a camera lens, no matter who we are talking to.

I suspect that one of the next big innovations in video chat will be a good way to solve this problem. Given that we are, for now, pretty much all stuck working remotely, it seems like a very worthwhile problem to work on.

The more you pay, the more it’s worth

May 8th, 2020

There is an old song by Don McLean called “The More You Pay (The More It’s Worth).” For many years I have pondered the wisdom of that phrase.

We do indeed tend to value those things that come with greater effort, and to ignore whatever is right in front of us. This seems to be an intrinsic quality of human nature.

I suspect that those people who are able to overcome this very human defect are happier. They look around and see the riches near at hand, and they smile with delight.

Meanwhile, other folks just keep running like crazy fools, chasing after rainbows. Good luck with that.

The delicate line

May 7th, 2020

the delicate line
that divides joy and sorrow
can be hard to see

Extended reality house

May 6th, 2020

Two trends are converging: True extended reality (XR) wearables are getting closer to being a reality, and people are becoming less interested in traveling.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to combine these two trends and start designing houses meant to be experienced while wearing XR wearables? In reality, the ceiling might be quite low, and the walls bland looking. But while you are wearing your XR specs, you have beautiful tall vaulted ceilings with a nice skylight, and wonderful wallpaper.

I can think of at least two interesting superpowers this would give you. First, you can redesign your home at a moment’s notice. Second, you can travel to another city, check into a similarly designed Airbnb, and be right back in your own home.

You might come up with other superpowers I have not mentioned.

Optimal emotional variance

May 5th, 2020

There are people who are always on an even keel. They don’t get too excited or happy, and they don’t get too sad or depressed. It’s just a constant and very reliable flatline.

There are other people who swing from enormous highs to enormous lows. One moment they’re on top of the world, the next they may be ok nged into the depth of despair.

The first group never really experiences the joyous thrill of being truly alive. The second is able to experience true ecstasy, but has a rough time of it when they go through those low patches.

I wonder whether there is a perfect middle place, poised at some precise location between these extremes. To lead a happy life, what would be the ideal degree of emotional variance?