D&D seder

I spent this weekend at my brother’s house in Pittsburgh. Their family organized a Dungeons and Dragons seder for this evening.

Those of you who have played D&D will know that it all comes down to having a good dungeon master. Fortunately, we had a brilliant dungeon master.

J.D. was highly prepared. He had built an entire interactive narrative around the thrilling story of the escape of the Israelites from bondage in ancient Egypt.

In addition, his delivery of the emerging interactive narrative, as well as his ability to respond to unexpected rolls of the dice, were extraordinary. We all witnessed the classic tale of bondage and libration as though we were experiencing it for the first time.

The best part was that my Mom, in the role of Miriam, was the one who threw the decisive roll of the dice. In the end, she managed to defeat Pharaoh and get us all across the Red Sea and into safety.

You couldn’t ask for a better Passover seder.

Kate Smith

I was delighted to learn, while doing research about Kate Smith, that she was the person who brought Josephine Baker to American Television. In 1951 it was not a foregone conclusion that the incredibly brilliant Baker — who had left America to become a sensation in Europe — would be accepted in the U.S., given the state of American racism.

But Kate Smith cut through all that, inviting Baker onto her popular TV show, thereby helping to bring home one of our great American geniuses. Which sort of makes sense.

I mean, consider that about twenty years earlier Smith had performed — in parallel with the great Paul Robeson — one of the great satirical songs taking down racism. Alas, we now live in an age where the satire of another era is incomprehensible to most people.

These days we may be woke, but we sure aren’t fully awake. What can I say? God bless America.

Beyond my Ken

I wonder how many ways there are to work a play on a famous person’s name into a sentence. Here are some examples:

“Desi wasn’t as famous as Lucy, but he still had a Ball.”

“If Glenn isn’t the greatest Hollywood actress, she is Close.”

“Everything written by the author of The Iliad wasn’t just a hit. It was a Homer.”

“Stephen is not merely our greatest writer of horror, he is King.”

“Lucy ruled the set on Xena, even though she was Lawless.”

“After Shelley left Cheers, it continued as a hit TV show, but not for Long.”

“Nobody can say bad things about Freddy Mercury, but Brian May.”

“Taylor was our fastest rising pop star because she was Swift.”

“Neil may be an aging rock god, but he will always be Young.”

Future coding

There is an issue that may at some point begin to loom large for software developers everywhere: In the future, how will we code our computer programs?

Right now I am typing this on a MacBook keyboard. I find it to be a convenient and comfortable way to enter all sorts of text and data.

When I am walking around, I can still continue to “type” emails and text messages. I just switch to Google’s speech-to-text, which is usually highly reliable if you speak in unaccented American English (as I do).

So for natural language text, going keyboard-less doesn’t seem like it is going to be a show stopper. But coding is a different thing entirely.

There is no good way, in current frameworks, to create a computer program by “speaking” it. Also, coding is a highly non-linear process. Having written something, you tend to go back over it many times. Most computer programs are created by a process of highly iterative editing.

So how are we going to deal with this when we are all wearing those future extended reality glasses? Will we create software through a combination of speech and hand gestures?

Or in the future will we still continue to write our programs using old fashioned QWERTY keyboards? I guess we will find out soon enough. 🙂

Our ideas will float in the air between us

Today I was trying to describe to someone a mathematical concept that I find to be particularly beautiful. I was unable to describe it just with words, so eventually I went to the next room to grab my computer, so I could show some visuals on the screen.

The whole transaction seemed vaguely dissatisfying. I found myself wishing for that day in the near future when I could just gesture in the air to bring up the salient images.

Why shouldn’t we be able to include beautiful visual ideas and geometric forms in our conversational speech? If we can visualize these things in our heads, we should be able to include them in our discussions with each other.

Fortunately, the time is drawing ever nearer when this capability will be an everyday reality. I look forward to a day when children wonder how people ever managed to get along without it.

Notre Dame

I am just devastated by today’s fire in the Île de la Cité in Paris. Notre Dame has meant so much to so many people.

At each significant time in my own life, it has been an important touchstone, a place to visit in the world, a place of serenity and permanence.

Notre Dame has been one of those monuments to beauty and graciousness that one simply takes for granted, much as one takes for granted the stars within the night sky.

I am hopeful that it can be rebuilt, although I understand what a massive undertaking that would be. After all, what is a monument like Notre Dame, created over the course of centuries, if not a symbol of hope?

Keep looking at the mountaintop

The last few weeks I’ve been implementing an improved version of my noise function. I knew from the start what the final result should be, but I still needed to actually implement the algorithm in a GPU shader.

I made a lot of false starts, trying one approach to the implementation after another, and kept failing. Finally yesterday I stumbled upon the key insight I needed, and managed to get it all working properly.

The reason I stuck with it, despite all my failed attempts, was that my strategy was to start from the answer. I already knew where I wanted to go, I just needed to figure out how to get there.

I think a lot of research is like that. You see the mountaintop in the distance, and keep your eyes firmly fixed on it. Then you try lots of different paths to get there, learning a little bit from each successive failed attempt.

Eventually you get to the mountaintop, because you always knew it was there. After all, you never took your eyes off of it.

Sentences with split words

Now that we’ve come up with some examples of splitting up words — with some excellent contributions from Andy! — let’s use them in a sentence. The rule is that you need to make a sentence that is grammatical and makes sense whether or not the word has been split up.

Here are some examples:

We alter natively fish in our pond.

She likes to be wilder.

The glass dome was built to cap a city.

They showed a flag rant disregard for my anarchist diatribe.

In the spa I sit all sweaty and hum idly.

When I fold my money it doubles, and afterward I find it still in creases.

The voluble Nobel laureate loved his lab oratory.

And drawing from Andy’s clever examples:

Some jokester has filled my bathtub with sham poo.

When I stay too long cooped up without sunshine, I am apt to go off on a tan gent.

Splitting up words

When you split a word into constituent parts (like therapist → the rapist), sometimes the resulting phrase subtlely shifts the meaning, and sometimes it ends up evoking something entirely different. Here are just a few examples out of many, from the first half of the alphabet. Maybe you can think of some others:

alternatively → alter natively
bewilder → be wilder
capacity → cap a city
decoration → deco ration
ecological → eco logical
flagrant → flag rant
gratefully → grate fully
humidly → hum idly
increases → in creases
jarring → jar ring
knowledge → know ledge
laboratory → lab oratory
mustache → must ache

Event horizon

Half a millennium ago, Leonardo Da Vinci had a crazy and inspired idea. Suppose two people on two different mountaintops measured the direction of the Sun at the same exact moment.

The data from those two measurements could then be combined to compute the distance of the Sun to the Earth. Nearly two centuries later, Giovanni Cassini carried out that very measurement.

Now a far more sophisticated descendent of that approach to astronomy has been completed. This one involved eight radio telescopes scattered across the globe, the use of atomic clocks to precisely synchronize the measurements, and massive amounts of computer time to interpret the data.

In a way, the wondrous image of the Messier 87 black hole that has been seen around the world this week is a tribute to a data-driven approach to astronomy that was begun around 500 years ago. I think Leonardo would have been proud.