There is something a bit poignant about hanging around in a University research lab after the semester is over, and classes are done. One by one people depart. Many go home to their respective families, others fly off to visit friends.

As the post-semester week progresses, the usual bustle of activity is gradually replaced by an eerie silence. This place starts to feel less like a lab and more like a very high-tech sort of spiritual retreat.

A few of us will still be around in the next week or so, and we who remain will have each other for company. A small yet hardy band of hackers.

Probabilistic clairvoyance

Suppose you could see into the future? That would be wonderful, or it could be dreadful.

After all, perfect foresight would completely remove free will. Your subjective experience of life would be that of a puppet dangling on a string. No matter what you do, you know the outcome has already been determined.

Even worse, you might run into some serious paradoxes the moment you tried to change that future. In the worst case, by creating an unresolvable paradox you might cause your own subjective timeline to simply cease to exist.

But what if you could see into the future with some degree of probability? For example, suppose that half of the time your future vision becomes reality, and half of the time it doesn’t.

This is a very different proposition. You could, for example, always win at games of chance, since you will have the ability to unfairly adjust your bet at any pick of a card or roll of the dice.

Given the above, what would be the optimal such probability of correctness for a person possessed with this particular superpower? Is it indeed 50%? Is there some rational way to figure this out?

Tell us a story

You can invent whatever you like. But if you don’t spin it into a story, hardly anybody will understand why it is significant.

As humans, we are hardwired to think in terms of narratives. Tell us a story, and we know what’s going on. But confuse us with mere facts, and we simply tune out.

I’ve come to realize that in order to bring our Lab’s research to the outside world in a way that will truly have impact, we need to tell a story. Not the story of how our stuff works, but the story of why it will matter.

So yes, peer review journals are important. You definitely want your professional colleagues to verify that what you are doing is solid research, and result of honest science.

But also, you need to tell everybody else why what you are doing matters — including that vast majority of people who don’t care how cool your algorithm is. What they care about is what effect your innovation will have on them and on the people they love.

And to get that information across, you need to know how to communicate what you’ve done in the form of a story. Some researchers might think that this is an unfair burden, but I think it’s perfectly reasonable.

Transcribed text, with feeling

In the last year or so, Google’s Speech to Text has gotten really good. There was a time not too long ago when it was terrible, so this is a wonderful and welcome change.

Yet converting speech to text, even when done perfectly, inevitably loses something. Even if the text you end up with is a faithful transcription of your words, it fails to capture your tone and intonation.

I wonder whether there could be a visual representation of computer-transcribed speech that somehow adds back this missing information. Perhaps the visual representation of this affective information would be some combination of text color, word spacing, font size and style, background shade, or other characteristics.

I suppose we could just intermix appropriate emojis at various places within the transcribed text, but that seems somehow unsatisfying. It would be so much more interesting if the text itself could give the sense that it is coming alive with emotion.

Future Reality research research

My blog post today for the Future Reality Lab doesn’t exactly answer any questions. Rather, it raises a particularly thorny question about conducting research into the future.

I’m not actually sure there is any good answer to the question of how to conduct research into future reality. Yet it seems to me that it would be useful to develop some overarching principles, a kind of context-independent guide to “researching things that haven’t happened yet.”

I don’t dare hope that we could ever come up with any truly reliable guide to this kind of research. But I would like to think that we could develop a set of sound principles.

I guess this would come under the heading of “Future Reality research research.” Oh well — I never meta-discipline I didn’t like. 😉

Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?

When I was a kid we knew about stars in the world of popular entertainment who had peaked long before we were born. I knew a whole lot about Rudolph Valentino, Rudy Vallee, Mae West, Ida Lupino, Fred Waring, Nelson Eddie and Jeanette MacDonald, Victor Borge, Harold Arlen, Josephine Baker and Mary Pickford, to name just a few.

That hunger to learn about the roots and evolution of popular culture seems to be missing from nearly everyone I speak to who are now in their early to mid twenties. Historical memory has apparently become shorter, and the OGs of our current popular culture trends have mysteriously become invisible.

To take one example, very few people in their twenties that I speak to seem to who know who Lenny Bruce was. A few of them recognize him as a character lurking around the fringes of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, but that’s about it.

This despite that fact that George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, David Chapelle, Amy Schumer, Sarah Silverman and many others are living in the construction of modern comedy that Bruce built. And he built it against enormous societal resistance, at unimaginable cost to himself.

I could give many similar examples. We appear to be living in a time when people are simply not interested in tracing back the historical roots of their own popular culture. I wonder whether this is just a phase we are going through, or whether it indicates a fundamental shift in the nature of popular culture itself.

An early influence

When I was ten years old I read a science fiction story that had a profound effect on me. I was discussing this memory today with my brother, who as a child was also deeply into science fiction (we both still are). Back then, our uncle Lou would regularly bring us paperback SciFi anthologies, which we would both eagerly devour.

But this one story, whose title I could not recall, stood out from all the others. I told my brother today that it probably had had more of an effect on my particular approach to research, in my grownup life, than any other single influence.

So this evening I decided to search the Web for this fabled story, choosing my keywords based on memories from long ago. And I found it!

The story’s title might be met with amusement by those of you who know my work. Now I find myself wondering how much the naming choices in my own research were influenced by the title of a story I had last read when I was ten years old.

In case you are curious, here it is.

This evening I heard a Stradivarius

This evening I heard a young man play a Stradivarius. The performance took place perhaps six feet away from where I was sitting. The musician was phenomenally talented, the music transcendent.

Every note was like a perfectly blown glass crystal. I was reminded, during this performance, how lovely and precious life can be.

We often forget, in the turmoil and conflict of everyday life, that we are, after all, beings of magic and stardust. Yet every once in a while you can experience something that reminds you of the sublime nature of your human soul.

This evening I had such experience, and I was reminded of my human connection with the infinite. This evening I heard a Stradivarius.

Good day at work

Sometimes you just have a really good day at work. Today was one of those days for me.

When that happens, when you have one of those days when everything gels, you realize it’s not just you — it’s the entire team you are working with. Somehow everybody has managed to come together, to really understand how to help each other achieve what we are trying to do.

I also realize that this is an incredibly precious thing. It is something rare and wonderful that needs to be guarded and nurtured.

If you ever find yourself in such a situation, I have some simple advice for you: Whatever you do, do not take it for granted.