Male bonding

I went out for beers this evening with some fellow NYU profs, who all happened to be guys. Over the course of several hours our discussion touched upon a vast number of topics. Which is sort of the point of going out for beers.

Inevitably the conversation turned to ISIS. Whereupon one of my colleagues, a highly esteemed academic, asked whether any among us knew that ISIS has a magazine. Most people around the table expressed disbelief.

I guess we were all trying to wrap our heads around the idea that a nihilistic terrorist organization, bent on world distruction, would take time out to publish a periodical. “No, really,” he insited, “ISIS has its own magazine. It comes out regularly.”

He went on to ask whether any of us had ever read it. The topic of conversation seemed so absurd by this point that it didn’t even occur to me to give a serious answer.

“Sure, of course I read their magazine,” I offered, “but only for the short stories.”

I guess it was one of those jokes that only makes sense when you are out drinking with guys.

Still crazy

I met my old lover on the street last night / She seemed so glad to see me, I just smiled / And we talked about some old times, and we drank ourselves some beers / Still crazy after all these years — Paul Simon

It’s odd to suddenly find myself in the center of a technology movement that has gone viral. In my research I consciously try to work on things that other people won’t be thinking about for at least another ten years.

But the recent commercial focus on VR has sort of snuck up on me. When I was giving talks in 2010 about future VR wearables that track their user’s position using sensor fusion between inertial sensors and tiny cameras, I felt — perhaps a bit too smugly — that this was all far enough in the future that at least half my audience would just think I was crazy.

Now it turns out that extremely large companies are pouring ridiculous amounts of money into just those things. My “crazy vision of the future” talks of five years ago have become the business plans of today.

Sure, it’s nice to see your predictions come true, but it can also be a bit disconcerting. If you are doing research, you should not be spending your time in the present — you should be spending your time in the future.

Fortunately, I still have some ideas that everybody thinks are crazy. So at least I am doing something right.

Every six months or so

I’ve started to notice that my research undergoes a paradigm shift about once every six months or so. I’m not sure why this happens at six month intervals, but I suspect it’s connected to the energy of a new semester.

In the summer of 2013 I discovered HTML5 and Javascript. I dropped Java like a rock, and I’ve never looked back.

In the winter of 2013-2014 I started the Chalktalk “magic drawing” project. It has pretty much been my personal mainstay ever since.

In fall of 2014 our research group at NYU started to explore untethered social VR, using only lightweight headsets. We have come to refer to this as “future Reality prototyping”. It was clearly the right way to go.

In spring of 2014-2015 my research group at NYU began to focus on artistically driven group projects shown in public. It quickly became obvious that this was really the way to go.

This fall — October and November 2015 — I realized that the best way to move things forward is to just give our technology freely away — both our technology and our know-how. This is turning out to be a spectacularly successful plan. We already have multiple partners from around the rorld for our various research project.

I wonder what the next paradigm shift will be.

L’éléphant dans la pièce

I have been avoiding talking about l’éléphant dans la pièce for the last few days, because we have been so inundated by tragic accounts and assorted analyses of the recent horrific terrorist attacks. But there is one thought I would like to share.

When children are born, they are still capable of becoming anything. A child may grow up to be an artist, doctor, inventor, musician, scientist or architect, among many other possibilities. Every child born into this world is pure potential.

But children need to feel that they belong somewhere. If they are told that they are without worth or that their life has no meaning, they will seek out someplace where they are told otherwise.

Many children around the world have thus been led to dark places, from a White Supremicist movement in Wisconsin to an ISIS cell in Syria. The vulnerability that leads to recruitment into such hateful organizations begins with neglect, abandonment and prejudice.

Whatever our short-term response to terrorist threats, any meaningful longer term plan must include changing the conditions that turn young people into lost souls, easy pickings for recruitment to extremist ideologies.

I hope that amongst the billions of dollars that will undoubtedly be spent on new forms of warfare, some resources will be set aside for battling the conditions of neglect and economic abandonment of youth that make it all too easy for terrorist movements to thrive and grow.

Common interests

Today Patrick Hebron gave a wonderful demonstration at NYU of some work he is doing that ties together object recognition and word recognition. He is using a very large database of 3D shapes of ordinary objects — everything from chairs to computers to airplanes to toilet bowls — and tagging each shape with sets of words.

One of the things he can do with his system is use words to explore the shapes associated with those words. He can even to use language to create novel in-between shapes. For example, I learned from his demo that if you make a shape part way between a chair and a toilet bowl, you get something that looks very much like a fancy modernist designer chair. Although I’m not sure exactly what that means.

Patrick then pointed out that his general approach could be generalized to multiple languages. A shape described in one language, perhaps English, could be associated with the same shape described in another language, perhaps Arabic.

At that point one person in the room said that this could be really interesting to the NSA. Another person said out that it could be really interesting to Noam Chomsky.

“How nice,” I said, “that the NSA and Noam Chomsky can have common interests.”

Future schlock

My friend Sally says that I should put a “trigger warning” before this post in light of the attacks in Paris, because I talk about fictional violence in a sci-fi cop show. I’m not sure I agree — to me fiction is a safe place, because it isn’t reality, and that’s part of the point of talking about a silly sci-fi cop show right now. But everyone is different, so here is a trigger warning, just in case.

When the sadness of the real world gets you down, you can always take a mini-vacation by watching a silly TV show. Which is exactly what I did last night.

At the recommendation of a friend who knows I am interested in time travel, I started watching Flash Forward, an extremely high concept TV show from 2010. In the first episode, everybody in the world blacks out at exactly the same time, for exactly two minutes and 17 seconds.

After everyone wakes up, they eventually realize that each person on earth has had a vision of what they will be doing at the same moment six months into the future. Totally trippy, right?

On the surface this might seem like a great basis for a series. Unfortunately the narrative constraint of the premise forces the show’s characters to be more like characters in a video game than in a flesh and blood drama.

Fortunately, this same problem can also lead to some great unintentional comedy. For example, one lead character, a cop, is freaked out because he had no flash-forward vision at all. He worries that in six months he may be dead.

But then a minor character, another cop, shows up and tells him not to worry. She didn’t have any visions either, she says, and she finds it rather refreshing. At which point all I’m wondering is how many minutes of show time this character has left to live.

Sure enough, in the very next scene she dies in a gun fight. Soon after that, the cop who had no flash-forward is telling somebody how freaked out he is. “I met a woman today who also had no vision during the blackout” he says. “Five minutes later she was dead. How do you explain that?”

In that moment I felt a flicker of hope. Because right then and there the show could have totally redeemed itself, if only the other person had replied: “Bad writing?”

Alas, they didn’t go there. Sigh.

I looked for you today in Washington Square

I looked for you today in Washington Square.

They are painting flowers there, one by one.

People murmur quietly in two languages, under the Tricolore that now waves high atop the arch. The feeling is of great sadness.

I become aware of a stunned yet insistent voice that has been speaking within my head.

And I finally listen to what it has been telling me: “We are all Charlie Hebdo now.”


This evening I am too devastated by the horrifying events in Paris to be able to focus on anything else. Such cruelty is far beyond my understanding.

As I write this, we do not know who is responsible for those attacks, nor their reasons. But at some point reasons cease to matter. No ideology, no matter how fervently held, justifies the mass killing of innocents.

Could there be anything more fundamentally true than this? What kind of monster is capable of deciding to slaughter large numbers of innocent people, merely to score political points?

Digital amnesia

I am writing this on Thursday November 12, but you will probably not read it until Friday November 13. That’s because my ISP host crashed. Two days of digital data — everything since their last backup — is currently in limbo. They are trying to restore things, but it’s not clear that anything I post will make a difference until they finish, which they say will be some time tomorrow.

I find it both fascinating and disturbing that this blog has lost several days of memory, at least for now. Anybody going to this site (until the problem is fixed) who has already read the posts of the last two days will find them mysteriously vanished, as though those posts had never existed. It’s as though we’ve slipped into an alternate reality in which this blog has contracted short term digital amnesia.

I sense an opportunity for a dystopian story somewhere here. Imagine you wake up one morning to discover that everybody else has forgotten the last several days of your life. You have all of these vivid memories of specific events, but to everyone else, it’s as though those events never happened.

Somehow I suspect that this idea has already been used in literature, but I can’t quite figure out where or by whom. Maybe my memory is going… 😉


The New York Times has two daily KenKen puzzles: a 4×4 and a 6×6. After having done them for many months, I can always do the smaller one in my head. For the larger one, I need to use a pen, except on Monday, which is the easiest day.

It occurred to me recently that the 4×4 KenKen puzzle would make an excellent plot point for a spy novel. Every morning, our intrepid secret agent would open up the daily newspaper, solve the 4×4 KenKen in his or her head, and then use the order of the four numbers first row as a one time code. Because the code would change every day, the enemy would never be able to figure out the pattern.

Unless, of course, the enemy were to read this blog entry. So in a sense, just by writing this, I have potentially ruined an entire method of subterfuge for any would-be spy.

But I’m ok with that. After all, you get certain privileges when a puzzle is named after you. 😉