Every once in a while it occurs to me that noses are very strange. We all have these odd fleshy triangular things sticking out of our faces.

Don’t get me wrong. Most of the time I pretty much take noses for granted. Except for every once in a while when I don’t.

And then I notice what an odd thing is a nose. Your nose protrudes straight out of the very center of your face, like a tent in the middle of a campsite.

Most other primates evolved to have tastefully inset nostrils, which do not at all disturb the contours of their features. But we humans, for whatever reason, went a different way.

Even our popular culture assumes that fictional characters all have noses. Unless, that is, you are a robot or an alien. Then apparently it’s ok not to have a protruding proboscis.

On the other hand, the only fictional person I can think of off-hand who doesn’t have a nose is He Who Must Not Be Named. And that can’t be good.

So I guess it’s just fine that we have noses.

Convergent avatars

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that people encountered each other socially by presenting themselves as avatars of their choice. Suppose further that this mode of interaction were to achieve mass acceptance, so that everyone you know was visible primarily as their chosen avatar.

What would happen, over time, to the appearances of those avatars? Would they be wildly different from one another, reflecting the incredible visual diversity of the human condition?

Or would they converge to some idealized norm? Would everyone end up choosing an appearance oddly reminiscent of some famous actor, model or pop musician?

I hope for the former. Alas, I fear we will more likely end up with the latter.

Juanita knew better

A large company is currently pushing the use of synthetic avatars for shared on-line worlds, rather than featuring the literal physical appearance of people.

I suppose I could be worried that they think people will buy into this “fake version of me”. But am more than reassured by my confidence that it will never catch on, except for playing games.

When there is anything at all at stake to negotiate in the real world, including relationships (especially relationships), people want to see each other as their true selves, so that they can read every subtle nuance of each others’ facial expression and body language. If you try to fake any of it with artificial intelligence, for the sake of technical convenience, you are just going to annoy people.

In Snow Crash, Juanita knew better. That’s why Neal Stephenson made sure to tell us that it was her facial expression software which led to the financial success of Black Sun.

Acquisitive vs inquisitive

We live in a society that has an odd set of values. People seem to judge themselves and others by how much they can get.

Do you buy great designer clothes? Do you live in a fancy house with cool furniture? Do you own an island?

People put a lot of effort into defining themselves by their stuff. But most people don’t seem to put the same level of effort into striving to create.

I do understand the economic benefits of providing social rewards for being a good consumer. After all, millions of people buying stuff is the engine that drives our nation’s economy.

But what if it were flipped? What if nobody cared how much stuff you have, but there was enormous social capital attached to how creative you are, how much you can contribute in new and original ways.

That would create an entirely different basis for a strong economy. It wouldn’t matter so much how acquisitive you are, but it would matter a lot how inquisitive you are. The means of production, and therefore the creation of national wealth, would be distributed widely among the population.

Wouldn’t that be cool?

Demo day

Today we had a demo day at our lab. We invited students and faculty from collaborating Labs at NYU and “virtually” invited via Zoom some collaborators from other academic institutions. Each of the students in our lab got up and gave a 5 minute talk and possibly a demo of what they are working on.

Our plan is for each lab to do this in turn, so that the students can all get to know each other and hopefully find interesting ways to collaborate. The “getting to know each other” is probably the more important part, because there cannot be good collaboration without good trust.

We served pizza. We didn’t ask the powers that be whether it was okay to serve pizza, because we didn’t want to know the answer beforehand. People were wearing masks while not literally eating a slice of pizza, and were very respectful of interpersonal distance.

But still, there was pizza. I think there is something iconic about offering that to students if you want to ask them to gather together and put in the extra effort.

I respect that.

King Tut revisited

Today is the 99th anniversary of the discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamun. I am not sure what that means, but the little kid in me thinks it is very cool.

Given that the young king died in 1323 BC, I don’t think he would have been all that impressed with the hoopla that formed around him in modern times. I am guessing it all would have seemed very strange to him.

After all, there is no logical reason that the death of a ruler who lived and died more than thirty three centuries ago should have created such a powerful mystique. But maybe that’s the point.


Today we had a group brainstorming session at our lab. Everyone was in the same room, and everyone was wearing a mask. It’s the first such session we have had here since the pandemic started.

For the last year and a half all of our group brainstorms have been over Zoom. You could see and hear each other, but everyone was reduced to a talking head.

Today’s session was amazingly productive. Really interesting new ideas were generated. I had forgotten how much better brainstorming work when everyone is in the same room.

There were so many subtle cues that people can use to understand what each other means, and to bounce ideas off each other. And people could jump up to scribble on the whiteboard, or point to a place in a video.

It is possible that some future form of virtual reality will allow us to do these things with the same ease and effortlessness. But it is clear that we are still a long way off.


I someteims go to conferences at Microsoft, in those years when they are funding our research. Back in the day, the big event was always when Bill Gates would take the stage, and we could hear directly from the man himself.

It was always interesting and informative, but I usually got the impression that he was there to push a company agenda, rather than to speak from his own passion. Except for once.

One time somebody asked him about Microsoft Office productivity software. And in that moment everything changed.

It was a though lightning was coming out of his eyes. The man spoke to the question of office productivity with an intensity and passion I have rarely seen. It was clearly something that he cared very much about and had thought about deeply.

Which I guess makes sense. The core of Microsoft’s success has always been its ability to server businesses reliably by providing high quality productivity software.

A successful company’s heart is never too far away from its wallet. And at the end of the day, the founder of a company needs to be deeply committed to its core business.

For Bill Gates, that passion turned out to be office productivity. And odd as it is to say, it was a beautiful thing to behold.

The Waist Land

A certain technology company has a vision for the future of people hanging out together in cyberspace as embodied avatars. A lot of smart people are working on it, and a very large amount of money has been committed.

Yet in all of the descriptions that I have seen, the idea is to represent everybody only from the waist up. The reason, I believe, is that the technology is readily available to track peoples’ heads and hands, but not so much to track their feet.

I wonder whether this is going to be just a temporary glitch, or whether it will become enshrined as a standard. Perhaps from now on, this is how people will look in their on-line lives — they will not exist from the waist down.

If so, I am not sure that I am ok with this. For millions of years evolution has seen to it that we have a particular arrangement of brain and body. The human brain has evolved to be highly attuned to that human body.

Maybe we shouldn’t just throw out half of the human body because of a temporary technical inconvenience. We don’t want our future reality to be an impoverished Waist Land.

Sigh. November is the cruelest month.