This morning in Paris I had breakfast with a woman who is stateless. That is, she is not a citizen of any country. In particular, she is a political refugee from Western Saraha.

I think this may have been the first time I had ever personally met a Muslim refugee, although of course a vast number of them are out there. I was pleased to find her very warm hearted, extremely perceptive and rather brilliant. She was also clearly enjoying the open-mindedness of the people she was meeting in Paris.

And I wasn’t the only one who was having an exotic experience. At one point she reached across the table, shook my hand, and said “This is the first time I am having breakfast with a Jew.” She seemed to be thoroughly delighted by this.

It was also the first time I had ever seen the passport of a stateless person. With her permission, I took a photo of the cover:

I wish everyone were as centered as this woman is. I guess it makes sense: When you have been deprived of any place on earth to call home, you learn to be highly grounded.

Biking in Paris

I’ve gone skydiving in Grenoble, I’ve traveled down the wild Amazon river, I’ve gone mano a mano with the peddlers in Mysore. So you could say I’ve been around.

But until today I had never bicycled in Paris. Let me tell you, it’s a heady experience.

First of all, yes, you are taking your life into your hands. French drivers do not fool around. To put it bluntly, your job as a cyclist is to stay out of their path.

Second of all, it’s great fun! There really is no place like Paris, and seeing it by bike is exhilarating. History rushes over you like the wind, and your soul drinks it all in.

Still, there is something about the sheer danger of cycling through the City of Lights that I find oddly appealing.

In particular, I greatly appreciate the appeal of a physical activiy whose allure rests largely on the opportunity to not get yourself killed.


For the last few years I have been spending some time each summer visiting the Centre for Digital Media in Vancouver. It’s great place, with lots of energy and very hard working and talented teachers and masters students.

The CDM folks generally put me up in room 404. It’s a beautiful suite, quiet and comfy and tucked away at the very end of a hallway.

I have always enjoyed the fact that my room number there is 404, because in computer lingo that number has special significance. It’s the HTML error code number returned when you try to surf to a web page that your browser cannot find.

In such cases, host sites have historically returned a variant on the message “Error 404: page not found” (some of them very creative). I love the idea that maybe I’ve been staying in a room that cannot be found.

And sure enough, I’ve never had a random person knocking on my door, bothering me or invading my privacy. Maybe the magic mojo of that room number has been protecting me.

It’s a little like having a superpower, except in this case the superpower works only in one place in Vancouver. I’ve sometimes thought how cool it would be if I could check into my “unfindable” room wherever I went.

Today I arrived in Paris for a short conference, and they handed me a room key for room 404 — a quiet room at the end of a hallway. Maybe this superpower is portable after all…

The non-linearity of time away from research

For me, summertime at NYU is a fun time. Classes are out, and my colleagues and I are mostly here working away on research projects.

It’s a time when I really want to be around to work with my students and research scientists. On the other hand, it’s also a time of year when going away for a conference is a lot easier, since research schedules are much more flexible than teaching schedules.

Still, a trip out of town in the middle of collaborative research can be problematic. Yet just how problematic turns out to be a highly non-linear function of time.

For example, a two week trip away can cause a major disruption when you’re working with other people. In a collaborative work schedule, fourteen days is a very long time. New things are always coming up, based on the results of ongoing experiments.

Only after those results are known can we then design our next set of experiments. If you are away from that process for too long, it starts to interfere with the flow.

But I am about to go on a one week trip, and I realize that such a relatively short time away is much easier to work into the research schedule. We can all simply agree on what we are going to work on during that week — some of us on the road and others back at the lab.

Then a week later we can reconvene and compare notes. Not only isn’t it a problem, it’s actually a useful design pattern that we can work off of.

One week seems to be just about the right amount of time to go away, get something done that might contribute to an ongoing collaboration, and then come back again, without really interrupting the flow of the research.

Stairway to Absurdity

I just heard a rumor that the estate of Randy Wolfe of the band Spirit is being sued. Lawyers representing the estate of George Harrison have pointed out that the intro to Wolfe’s song Taurus — a relative minor chord with a prominant descending baseline — is eerily similar to the intro to While My Guitar Gently Weeps.

There is another rumor that the estate of George Harrison of the band The Beatles is being sued by The Walt Disney Company on behalf of songwriter Richard Sherman. Laywers representing Disney have pointed out that the intro to Harrison’s song While My Guitar Gently Weeps — a relative minor chord with a prominant descending baseline — is eerily similar to the intro to Chim Chimney.

Rumor also has it that the whole seedy affair is blowing up into a major scandal, on a par with the Panama Papers. It seems that hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of songwriters have been blatantly stealing this musical structure from each other, in a major creative crimewave that has been going on for centuries.

Lawyers are very happy.

Sonic illusion

This morning, multitasking in my kitchen, I shut off the running water in the sink and then turned to switch off the blender behind me. But then a funny thing happened.

While I was looking at the blender, I realized I could still hear the water running in the sink. Figuring I had not managed to shut it off all the way, I turned back toward the sink.

But the moment I looked at the sink, two things happened simultaneously: (1) I saw that the water was no longer running, and (2) the sound of running water suddenly vanished. All I could now hear was the sound of the still-running blender.

Apparently the loud whirring of the blender had created a kind of sonic illusion. Somehow my ears had been tricked by the presence of that louder noise into continuing to “hear” the sound of water running.

Now I am wondering whether we can use such sonic illusions when designing immersive virtual realities. Rather than creating a literal sound for every activity in a simulated environment, we might be able to use sleight of hand to merely suggest the presence of some activities, and then use sonic masking (the equivalent of that running blender) to help sell the illusion.

Sounds like an interesting research project waiting to happen…

Why is the Matrix?

When I first watched The Truman Show I was already an adult, but the kid in me felt a powerful tug of recognition. I was reminded of when I was around nine years old, and I would often wonder whether the ostensible reality around me was merely a cover for a deeper reality.

Maybe, my child self had thought, everybody is just pretending, putting on a show for my benefit. At school I would find myself carefully watching my classmates and my teachers, waiting for some false move, a telltale rip in the fabric of so-called reality.

But at the same time, another part of me was wondering why I was doing all this. I did not yet know the phrase “Occam’s Razor”, but the principle would have made perfect sense to me. Why postulate an elaborate ruse, when directly perceived reality is already so wondrous and amazing?

Eventually I came to a different conclusion about my wish to uncover a deeper truth behind so-called reality. I decided that this wish did not come from an intellectual place. Rather, it came from an emotional place, out of a desire for some sort of transcendence.

Rationally, of course, such “reality is fake” theories don’t really add up. Once you start looking for a “truer” reality behind this one, where do you stop? Wouldn’t it just be turtles all the way down?

Science fiction and many religions share this idea of a “deeper” reality beyond the one we see. From the Hindu concept of Maya to the Christian belief in a Heaven that awaits us after death, through mystical thinkers from Siddhartha to Teresa of Avila to Meister Eckhart, in popular fantasies from The Wizard of Oz to Dark City, eXistenZ, The Thirteenth Floor and Inception, we are perpetually drawn to the idea of drawing aside the veil of our perception to discover something deeper and more real.

I’ve long concluded that this phenomenon, this burning desire to ask, in essence, “What is the Matrix?”, is a side-effect of macro-evolution. For whatever reason, a social species capable of bonding through grammatically evolving spoken language apparently has a better chance of survival if its members question the reality of their own perceptions.

I’m not sure why this is a survival trait for our species, but on balance I’m sort of glad it is, since it makes life a lot more interesting. Now excuse me while I look for the door in the back of that wardrobe…

Great speech

Yesterday, for the first time in this election cycle, I heard Hillary Clinton give a great campaign speech. Not a great policy speech, or “position-paper” speech, but a flat-out great campaign speech.

She took down her opponent by decisively and accurately enumerating his weaknesses and deficiencies. And she did it calmly and cooly, with humor, cleverness, and tremendous poise.

Like it or not, the race for the President of the United States is partly about which candidate is able to most effectively project a sense of power and command. That’s largely a result of the multiple roles a President plays in the U.S.: top military commander, most powerful agent for economic policy, and the nearest thing our country has to a regal figurehead.

Today Clinton hit those marks perfectly. She stopped acting like a policy wonk (although she really is a highly gifted policy wonk) and started to act like a President.

One of the two leading candidates for President is an actual expert, with deep knowledge of our government, our legal system and our economic system, and the other one is a highly gifted TV personality. Up until now, the TV personality had been grabbing the entire spotlight.

Perhaps the conversation is finally starting to shift from reality television to reality.

The mystery

Today I got back the student reviews of my class from this last semester. In general were really positive. Several students said it was the best class they had taken at NYU.

Some students had constructive suggestions for how the class could be better, and I’m always grateful for that. It’s a class I really care about. I spent long hours preparing the lectures this semester, I wrote a lot of custom code to enable students to do assignments at a high level, and I often met with students one-on-one to help them when they are having difficulty.

But one student review was weirdly personal, in a way I’ve never seen before. This student (anonymous of course) called me lazy and rude, and several other negative things.

I tried to think back over the semester, to identify a moment when I could have said something off-putting, or inadvertently offensive. I came up with nothing.

The general feeling in the class the whole semester had been so positive. Students were clearly proud of the work they were doing, everybody was mutually supportive, and we all loved the subject.

So I kept trying to make sense out of this one negative review, thinking that perhaps there was something I could learn from it. Maybe there was some lesson I could take away to help me be a better teacher.

But in the end I was stumped. Sometimes you just need to accept the mystery of other human beings.