A Baptist at a Bar Mitzvah

September 26th, 2018

I just attended the first day of the two day annual Oculus Connect conference. I am here because Facebook Oculus is a sponsor of our educational work that brings Chalktalk into shared VR.

The morning started with Mark Zuckerberg giving an inspirational talk about the future of Virtual Reality. After that, there were lots of talks describing specific features Facebook Oculus have added to their platform, and how all of this will help to advance VR for the computer game industry.

It’s clear that the folks at Facebook Oculus have made tremendous strides this last year in VR technology for gaming. In particular, their newly announced standalone Oculus Quest system generated a lot of excitement, and rightly so.

Alas, I felt a little like a misplaced person. Every time there was a new announcement, the audience erupted into loud cheers, and I felt more and more like a fish out of water. I am not, after all, really in the culture of gaming, and my interest in VR is entirely in how it can help to bring people together to tell each other stories.

I was very appreciative of the enthusiasm around me, and the excitement in the air. Yet I also felt disconnected from it. I supposed this might be what it might feel like to be a Baptist at a Bar Mitzvah.

All in a dream

September 25th, 2018

I had a really strange dream last night. Not sure why I would have dreamt such a crazy thing.

In my dream, the President of the United States decided to use his time at an important United Nations summit to make an even more important public statement about teenage ethics.

In his public statement, within my very strange dream, the President described a scenario in which a teenage girl is drunk, and a young man decides to shove his penis in her face without her consent. Were such a thing to happen, the President explained to the world, it would be entirely her fault, not his, because she was drunk.

I pondered how weird it was that I would have such a dream, in which the leader of our nation would choose an assembly of all of the world’s leaders to make such a surreal public statement.

Fortunately I woke up, and realized that it had all been a dream.

Some days

September 24th, 2018

Some days, I really just need to look at an icositetrachoron.

This is one of those days.

Standards for this sort of thing

September 23rd, 2018

At what point, when national politics just gets too way over the top absurd, do you stop believing it could possibly be real? I’m starting to wonder whether what has been going on recently in our nation’s capital is just some kind of big put-on — a kind of Mike Judge film gone feral.

This all began to become more clear to me when the very identities of three thousand American citizens suddenly winked out of existence. To most of us, those were people who had been tragically lost to hurricane Maria. But apparently they had never existed at all, according to a certain occupant of our nation’s White House.

It seems that their very existence on this planet — thousands of human lives, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, husbands and wives — had been a mere ruse conjured up by his crafty political opponents, just to make him look bad. Although I’m not so sure their grieving relatives would agree with him on that point.

The guy is probably feeling pretty proud of himself right about now. Imagine “unpersoning” three thousand human beings — citizens of your own country — simply by declaring that they had never existed. Who could ever top that?

He may not realize that the standards for this sort of thing are pretty high. A while back there were some over in Europe who declared that six million people in my own sub-culture (including quite a few in my own family) had not just died tragic and horrible deaths. In fact, the claim went, they had never even existed.

Guess he’s just going to need to try harder with this whole “making things up” stuff. I am confident, on at least that score, he won’t disappoint us.

Equinox haiku

September 22nd, 2018

equinox, dark clouds,
young girl in a bright red scarf,
first thoughts of winter

Idea for a TV series

September 21st, 2018

Black Mirror generally presents a dystopian vision for the future of technology. In nearly every episode, we are asked to stand witness to the sad aftermath of what probably seemed like wonderful inventions when they were first conceived.

I would love to do a kind of Black Mirror prequel. Each week, we meet an inventor with an exciting idea — one that will undoubtedly change things for the better and make our world a kinder and more wonderful place. To make things more interesting, our guest inventor can be from any era in history.

Perhaps the format can be a start-up pitch. In every episode, our intrepid entrepreneur is seeking investment into an exciting new venture. In the time allotted, our guest needs to describe how his or her innovation will not only benefit humankind, but will also be economically self-sustaining.

For our first episode, the inventor of the week will be a young and brilliant Italian-Swiss scientist with a strong background in applied chemistry. His name: Victor Frankenstein.

The great synthetic media debate

September 20th, 2018

I participated in a public debate today about whether synthetic media (media that involves digital altering of images or video) is more good or more bad. I argued for the “more good” side. To my surprise, our side lost the audience vote.

But then my teammate pointed out to me that given how overwhelmingly negative is the current view of synthetic media, we probably won handily, as compared with how the audience would have voted before our debate. We probably swayed a number of people to our side — just not enough for a majority.

I guess the good news there is that if we’d been running for president, “not enough for a majority” would have been enough to win. :-)

My concern about this negative attitude toward synthetic media — founded on the reasonable observation that it can be used to fool people — is that it’s yet another triumph of the forces of fear over the forces of hope and possibility. We’ve had quite a lot of that recently, and I’m getting very tired of it.

One thing I wished I had articulated more clearly during the debate is that you can’t really defend any very new medium on cultural grounds, because the greatness of its cultural contribution lies in the future. Take movies, for example.

Back around 1903 when Georges Méliès was making movies where people magically vanish in a puff of smoke, it would have been possible to dismiss movies as a shallow gimmick, so arguments against the medium of movies on moral grounds would have been easy to make. But then we got Citizen Kane, Casablanca, The Piano, Chinatown, The Godfather, Raging Bull, Gone with the Wind, Sunset Boulevard, Vagabond, Rear Window, 12 Angry Men (the list obviously goes on and on).

It would have been very difficult to make the argument for movies in 1903 by drawing from examples, just as in the earliest days of the printing press it would have been very difficult to make the argument for novels, without being able to point to Don Quixote or Middlemarch.

I wonder whether we are doomed to forever make the same mistake. Each time a powerful new medium comes along that can offer new possibilities for how to communicate, the arguments of fear make more sense to people than the arguments for possibility.

Shocked — shocked!

September 19th, 2018

As the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings have hit a snag, Mitch McConnell seems very upset that the Democrats are making things difficult. I am sympathetic, because we all know how deeply McConnell respects a sitting President’s right to select candidates to the Supreme Court.

The image that comes to my mind when I think of the situation is from of one of my favorite movie scenes — that moment in Casablanca when Captain Louis Renault utters his most famous line of dialog.

You can probably guess what that line of dialog is. It’s amazing how up to date that particular scene feels right about now.

A reflection on a reflection

September 18th, 2018

I took the following screenshot yesterday to include as part of a rapid talk I gave about our future reality research. In the picture, I’m in the middle of explaining some of the math behind four dimensional rotation. When I saw it, I was reminded of something I wrote in this blog about seven years ago (before I had the gray beard).

One thing to note about this image is that the text in the glowing matrix to the left is forward, yet the “Future Reality Lab” logo on my shirt is mirror reversed. This reversal would make perfect sense if we were doing a Skype call, because it would ensure we are both looking in the same direction when we read any text between us.

But it wouldn’t work in the physical world. After all, when you and I are standing in front of each other in the flesh, we are not actually mirror reversed, and that can create a problem for shared text in augmented reality.

It’s the same problem that arises if you write a message on the glass surface of a window. If I am standing on the other side of that window, to me your text will look backwards.

I described one possible solution to this problem in this blog in 2011. Back then, I figured sooner or later those AR wearables would be coming, and we’d need to deal with this. Now that those glasses are a lot closer to becoming a reality, I am going to actually implement the solution I proposed then, and see how well it works.

Smokey or the Bandit, part 2

September 17th, 2018

It is interesting, in our current political climate, to ponder the semiotics of Smokey and the Bandit. In 1977 the second highest grossing film in America centered on two lovers who each represented opposing archetypes that are with us to this day.

Sally Field’s character maps very well to our current concept of “Coastal Urban Sophisticate”. Her energy is quite reminiscent of the energy projected by Hillary Clinton in our recent presidential election, a triumph of intellect over intuition, of relying on logic rather than on one’s gut instincts.

Meanwhile, Clinton’s opponent appeared to embody opposing virtues that are prized in the less urban parts of our country. Trump seemed to be saying “Don’t trust those elites with their fancy words, respect the regular working guy, screw the Man.” It was the sort of philosophy that Bo “Bandit” Darville — the character played by Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit — could get behind. It’s easy to see why working people who had felt betrayed by liberal promises would go for such a message.

Yet in the movie, the characters played by Field and Reynolds, despite their cultural differences, end up showing each other great respect. They both understand that they will never have the same tastes and values, yet both remain open minded, willing to accept into their tribe somebody from a radically different culture. Audiences clearly responded to that call for mutual respect and tolerance.

This sort of reaching across divides is not at all what Trump has been doing since getting into office. In contrast, his vision of building “a big beautiful wall” serves as a metaphor for all of his policies. He seems focused on hardening the boundaries between tribes, essentially turning every conversation into a debate about “us versus them.”

One couldn’t even imagine Bo Darville doing such a thing. Throughout the film he invariably viewed each individual he encountered with deep insight and honesty. He never made the mistake of reducing people to mere labels. That sort of self-defeating reductionist thinking was the province of Jackie Gleason’s character.

And so, forty one years after its release, I am struck by the odd resonance of Smokey and the Bandit for today’s political arena: Many people voted for Donald Trump because they were able to convince themselves that their candidate was channeling Bo “Bandit” Darville. Yet with every passing day, the man seems more and more like Buford T. Justice.