Sunday, November 29, 2015

Indistinguishable from Reality....

Beijing Surfacing Artist Hang Li and Digital Asset Supervisor Jia Honglong teamed up to break past the uncanny valley and create a virtual 3D human head completely indistinguishable from a photograph:

The "Realistic Human Head Study" is a self portrait of Honglong, who created the model and texture maps in Autodesk's Maya; Li then shaded the model using The Foundry's Mari and rendered the final images using Solid Angle's Arnold ray-tracing software.

All three software applications are widely used in movie making, architecture and engineering, but ray tracing is truly the "icing on the cake" for achieving photorealism.
Current 3D video games are rendered in "real-time" (moment by moment) upon relatively inexpensive home computers or video-game consoles. The graphics are painstakingly created by teams of artists who paint permanent lighting and shadows onto 3D images. But the future of virtual reality gaming lies with “global illumination”, which uses ray-tracing to simulate light passing through media like air, water or smoke, then scattering, bouncing, splitting or being absorbed by the various materials it strikes.
Ray-tracing calculates and predicts the behavior of individual shafts of light as they pass through virtual atmospheric pixels and strike virtual surfaces and materials, so it produces highly realistic virtual reflections, refractions, scattering and dispersal effects.

But the massive computational load of real-time ray tracing is beyond the hardware capacities of current consumer-based computers. Thus, this hardware-intensive technology is better-suited for 3D animations that can be rendered in advance, sometimes using entire clusters of powerful computers.

But industry titans like John Carmack (co-founder of id Software and lead programmer of the Doom, Quake and Rage game franchises) have long been tinkering with custom-built ray-tracing engines, so it's really only a matter of time before we start to see commercial exploitation of the technology for consumer-level gaming. In fact, says Epic Games co-founder Ted Sweeney, we can expect video games that are "indistinguishable from reality" by the year 2022. I'm inclined to agree.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

A Thing of Beauty....

More hope for the future, as an Australian research team develops solar cells which can be printed onto flexible sheets at a rate of ten meters a minute. According to a statement:
They are able to print directly onto walls and windows using an opaque solar film and claim that they can line a skyscraper with panels, making it totally electrically self sufficient.

The scientists from CSIRO, the University of Melbourne and Monash University have spent more than seven years perfecting a means of printing solar panels onto plastic, resulting in self-powered electronics such as smartphones and laptops.

Just think, with technology like this, we can stop global oil wars, the funneling of petrol dollars into terrorist groups, and address global warming. What's not to like?

Saturday, September 12, 2015

DirectX 12 is Powerful Sorcery

DirectX 12: the technology even allows for calculating drying streaks of mascara upon the character's face in real time.
With the release of Windows 10 comes a very special API (Application Program Interface) called DirectX 12. This bundle of program routines, tools and functions lets programmers more easily access computer hardware directly, and to efficiently balance program code execution between multiple cores of modern CPUs (central  processing units - your computer's main "brain") and GPUs (graphics processing units). This allows multiple data streams of graphics, audio and simulated physics to be executed simultaneously, allocating it to hardware on an availability basis moment-by-moment.

The upshot for gaming fanatics such as thee and me is a tremendous boost in scene calculation and (rendering), framerates and visual effects.

To demonstrate the incredible power of this new "under the hood" software, hardware manufacturer nVidia teamed with Microsoft and Final Fantasy publisher Square Enix to create a real-time CG tech demo video. Real-time means the graphics were not prerecorded, as with a movie, but were being rendered frame by frame by the demonstration computer. This level of computing power has never been possible on consumer-level (as opposed to laboratory supercomputer) machines before.

Each scene in this demonstration uses about 63 million tiny mathematically-generated colored polygons - rendering on an order of magnitude greater than DirectX 11. Particularly impressive are the realistic hair, skin, and real-time lighting effects.

To render a scene with this level of detail at the resolution and screen size in the tech demo required the most powerful commercially-available hardware - four GeForce GTX Titan X video cards running in quad-SLI (parallel) mode with an Intel Haswell (i7 multicore) CPU.

That said, quality of this level is certainly within reach of consumers running smaller displays at home.
Spokesman Hajime Tabata introduces the video, noting that Square Enix is determined to achieve the "absolute pinnacle of quality" in computer graphics with Final Fantasy 15:

Although all modern 3D PC video games will benefit from DirectX 12, Wikipedia has listed ten titles currently in production that are specifically being developed for the PC using the tools and instruction sets from Microsoft's latest API, including Fable: Legends, Gears of War: Ultimate Edition and the newest in the Hitman series.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Science of Influence

Here's a short excerpt from my second book, The Path Book II. It outlines the fascinating and amazing things neuroscience and evolutionary psychology have to say about personal influence. 

Download the PDF here:

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Sir Chistopher Lee: RIP

Aside from being one of the finest actors the world has ever known, Sir Christopher Frank Carandini Lee was (there's just no better way to express it) a badass.

At 6'5", he spoke six languages, engaged in more sword fights than any other movie actor and is the oldest (award-winning) heavy metal vocalist ever at 91. He was apparently the most prolific actor in motion picture history (281 roles), the son of an Italian Countess descended from the line of King Charlemagne, and of a WWI war hero related to American Civil War General Robert E. Lee.

In 1939, Christopher Lee volunteered to fight for the Finnish government, and upon the death of his father volunteered for the Royal Air Force. As a codebreaker in North Africa, he helped bring about the 1943 North African surrender of the Axis.

Lee's special ops service is so highly classified that his records are still sealed, seventy years after the close of the war. However, after the war, Lee is also said to have assisted the UN War Crimes Commission by personally tracking down Nazi war criminals. In 1997, he was named Commander of the Venerable Order of Saint John; in 2001, Commander of the Order of the British Empire; in 2009, he was knighted by Prince Charles, and in 2011, he was named Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters by the government of France.

Lee acted in screen adaptations of the greatest stories of all time: The Three Musketeers, Robin Hood, Dracula, Star Wars, James Bond, The Lord of the Rings, Sherlock Holmes, Hamlet, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland, and many more.

As an interesting bit of trivia, Lee also hobnobbed with many other greats - you can find him on the cover of Paul McCartney's album Band On The Run, where he's dressed as one of several convicts caught by a searchlight (alongside McCartney, the band, and actor James Coburn). As a master golfer, he's played against Jack Nicklaus. He even met J.R.R. Tolkein in an Oxford pub called the Eagle and Child, and found himself so starstruck that all he could say was "How do you do?"

Lee was apparently a huge fan of the author's work (which he read in its original 1953 prio\nting), and said in an interview with Cinefantastique magazine:

"Members of the [Lord of the Rings] cast and crew were always trying to catch me out. They'd ask me questions like, 'What was the name of Frodo's father,' or, 'What was the name of this or that sword.' Things like that. Well, they never caught me out -- not once! They tried, but they never did."
"I still think the Lord of the Rings is the greatest literary achievement in my lifetime," he said.

Millions around the world will doubtless agree Sir Christopher Lee was the greatest actor of his time.

"Now cracks a noble heart. Good-night, sweet prince; And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest." Horatio - Hamlet

Sources: "Christopher Lee was a Nazi hunter and other badass things you didn't know about cinema's biggest villain", Philippa Hawker, The Age;"Sir Christopher Lee on The Lord of the Rings trilogy", Lawrence French, Cinefantastique;
IMDB; Wikipedia; "One Reason Christopher Lee Was Perfect For 'Lord Of The Rings'", Todd Van Luling, The Huffington Post 

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Boy Who Wants to Save the World - and Just Might

The 19-year-old Dutch aerospace engineer looks like a young Donovan Leach, and certainly shares the famous balladeer's visionary temperament.

But Boyon Slat's Atlantis is of a more tangible sort: he plans to address a deeply troubling and pressing environmental issue - skimming off the mountains of plastics choking the life from our oceans.

Slat's TedX Talk sparked international enthusiasm, and funds started pouring in for his Ocean Cleanup foundation:

A year, a UN Champions of the Earth award, and $2 million in seed money later, his passive ocean cleanup system is set to launch - next year.

It's an engineering feat on a grand scale, and one that is restoring hope in our planet's future.

The passive cleanup array is currently being tested off the coast of Tsushima, an island found between Japan and South Korea.

It's 6,560-feet long, the largest structure ever set afloat, and it's scheduled for at least two years of operation. Slat's team is currently trying to find methods of using the harvested waste plastic as a source of alternative energy.

After three more years, with deployments gradually increasing in size, Slat's engineering team will deploy a 62-mile-long array to deal with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch found between California and Hawaii.

In preparation, the team will deploy 50 ships this August to map out a 3,500,000 square km region between California and Hawaii, creating a high-resolution map of Pacific Ocean plastic contamination.

Ship owners are presently being invited to participate. More information on the technology is available here:

Ms. Lennox, if you would please do the honors:

Sources: How the Oceans Can Clean Themselves: Boyan Slat at TEDxDelft;
The Ocean
Cleanup Device Will Be World's Largest Floating Structure by Wendy Laursen,

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Praise Jesus and Pass the Ammunition: Neoconservatism and Gun Control

Returning from my best friend's wedding, I pulled into a remote South Carolina gas station, to find a corpse in a spreading pool of blood. The discovery stamped into my brain the fragility of life, and its shockingly cheap price.

An open cash register told the elderly attendant's tale - he'd been murdered for pocket change, and his executioner had fled seconds before I arrived. Such moments change you forever - this one made me question the need for handguns.  

It was the impetus for my final paper in Harvard's Introduction to Statistics for the Behavioral Sciences, a preliminary attempt to establish a "pro-gun" profile based upon political leanings and gender. What I discovered is chilling - 
our country is in a state of crisis that urgently needs addressing:

PRAISE JESUS AND PASS THE AMMUNITION: Neoconservatism and Gun Control

The statistics are stunning: according to the UN, With less than 5% of the world's population, the United States is home to roughly 3550 percent of the world's civilian-owned guns, heavily skewing the global geography of firearms and any relative comparison.”

The UK Guardian says this equals 88 guns per 100 people, the highest per-capita gun ownership in the world, far ahead of number two contender Yemen, which boasts 54.8 guns per 100 people. So just how many guns is that?

A 2012 Congressional Research Service Report says nearly 310 million guns are owned by 40% of U.S. households, and most of those households have more than one. Thats a very sizeable portion of the world's 875 million guns, used to kill 1,000 worldwide every day, according to 

he FBI's 2011 Uniform Crime Reports also show that, of 12,664 resolved murder cases, two thirds (8,583) were committed using firearms. But that’s just the proverbial tip of a very bloody iceberg: between 2001 and 2010, U.S. guns were used in approximately 20-25% of all serious crimes (those which involve robbery, aggravated assault, rape and other sexual assault) according to the 2012 Small Arms Survey.

Furthermore, notes The Atlantic’s Jonathan Stray, "...Guns are also involved in suicides and accidents. 19,392 of 38,264 suicides in 2010 involved a gun (50%), according to the CDC. There were 606 firearm-related accidents in the same year -- about 5% of the number of intentional gun deaths."

Aside from the devastating toll exacted upon family and community wellbeing and morale, gun crime also exacts a more tangible price: the 2012 Small Arms Survey adds that "...Direct medical costs for firearm injuries, including hospital stays, diagnostic procedures, surgery, and blood products, are substantial and often exceed the costs of treating other injuries and medical emergencies.”

"Research was carried out in the United States in the 1990s, when the firearm violence epidemic was at its peak, to assess the overall cost of firearm injuries. One study estimates that direct and indirect costs exceeded USD 20 billion in 1990, of which USD 1.4 billion represented direct medical costs (Max and Rice, 1993, p. 171). 

Another study, focusing exclusively on medical costs, estimates the mean cost per injury at about USD 17,000, which includes hospitalization (as victims who survive firearm injuries frequently require multiple rehospitalizations) and subsequent medical treatment spread over a victims lifetime. Based on the number of firearm injuries in the US in 1994, the study estimated a total cost of USD 2.3 billion. The study finds that approximately three-quarters of these costs were borne for gunshot injuries due to violence (Cook et al., 1999, p. 453)."

However, these are simply the most obvious deleterious consequences of America's love affair with firearms: in 2008, the World Health Organization concluded that "...a comprehensive assessment of direct costs of firearm violence would include expenses linked to policing and imprisonment, legal services, foster care, and private security (Butchart et al., 2008, p. 7, table 1)." 

"Tangible indirect costs include loss of productivity, lost investments in social capital, and higher insurance costs; a broad range of intangible indirect costs may also be taken into account, such as reductions in or limitations on health-related quality of life (pain and suffering, both physical and psychological), job opportunities, access to schools and public services, and participation in community life.

In Gun Violence: The Real Costs, authors Philip J. Cook and Jens Ludwig put the monetary costs of gun violence to Americans at a whopping $100 billion every year.

With so much at stake morally, ethically, politically and financially, it's imperative that we deepen and broaden our understanding of the problem. To that end, is it possible to determine a typical "pro-gun" profile, and, if so, is the pro-gun stance independent of gender and age?

100 Harvard classmates were asked politically polarizing questions about topics like abortion, military expenditures and religion, and the responses scored from 1 (extremely liberal) to 7 (extremely conservative). The responses were then tallied and compared with responses to the question "Should gun control laws be stricter?", to determine whether or not there was a correlation between political conservatism and a preference for lax gun control laws.

The sample of 100 individuals was drawn from enrollees in Harvard's Introduction to Statistics for the Behavioral Sciences. The participants ranged in age from 17 to 65 with a mean age of 29.17 and SD of 10.8 years, and there was a ratio of 66 women to 32 men, with two participants electing not to disclose their gender.

The null hypothesis posits that gun control opinions are independent of political leanings, while the alternative hypothesis states that there is a typical pro-gun profile, among the most politically conservative Americans. Our second alternative hypothesis states that there is a correlation between gun control advocacy and gender.

The political leanings of the 100 respondents formed a roughly normal distribution, ranging from extremely liberal (45) to extremely conservative (99), with a mean of 71.68 and a standard deviation of 13.37:

The first test found no significant correlation between political leanings and gun legislation preference (r=.097, n=98, one-tailed). However, SPSS automatically set the alpha level at .19, and this value was not adjustable.

The second correlation test likewise found no significant correlation between gender and gun legislation preference (r=.170 n=98, p=.01, two-tailed). However, it's important to bear in mind that this sample is drawn from a population which is highly atypical; Harvard students have a higher level of literacy, affluence and upward economic mobility than typical Americans.

For a truly representative study, respondents would need to be drawn from the American population at large, with a much larger, regionally diverse and race/gender/income-balanced sample. Given the time and resources, it would also be advantageous to add literacy and education levels as additional independent variables.

Works Cited:

Gun Crime Statistics by US State, Mona Chalabi, September 17, 2013, The Guardian

A Matter of Survival: Non-Lethal Firearm Violence, Chapter 3, Small Arms Survey Yearbook, 2012, chapter 3, Anna Alvazzi del Frate et al., Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, Switzerland

Gun Violence in America: The 13 Key Questions (with 13 Concise Answers), Johnathon Stray, Feb 4, 2013, Atlantic Magazine concise-answers/272727/

2012 Congressional Research Service Report on Gun Control Legislation, William J. Krouse, U.S. Congress, November 14, 2012

Gun Violence: The Real Costs, Philip J. Cook, Jens Ludwig, Oxford University Press, 2002