A Vision Of Things

0. Intro 🔭

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.
– Marcel Proust (in Remembrance of Things Past)

Quick now, please check the pic above and tell us this: Where did we recently see that slick, stylishly-monogrammed sports car model? Making a dashing appearance atop my hefty computer vision textbook, our sports car sure looks set to go places. Powering forward, in other words.

Broadening our sphere of vision further—beyond the textbook and sports car featured above—note, too, the ascending fireworks rocket. Your guess is as good as mine when it comes to fathoming what that rocket’s doing around here, hovering right in front of my computer monitor. And what about the computer program hanging in midair, suspended in mid-action, paused smack in the middle of a debugging session?

Relax. Take a deep breath, and we will unpack this slowly.

To get us rolling, check the following sections, which happen to be the “bins” into which we’ve divvied up the unpacking of some admittedly hefty contents:

  1. Inspiration Strikes
  2. And Dreams Tumble Forth
  3. The Butterfly Alights
  4. Camera, Lights, Action
  5. Let’s Grab Some Hardware, Pronto!
  6. Back To The Drawing Board
  7. Let’s Connect: Or, Keeping Up With Transportation
  8. Behold That Keyboard: Or, Programming Springs To Life
  9. Good Luck: Or, Code On Fire
  10. Our Ship Is Sailing
  11. Look Ma, No Hands
  12. Of Traveling And Postcards
  13. Powered By First Principles

Did the title of this essay—”A Vision Of Things”—leave you momentarily suspended, maybe anticipating a heavy slog through the gory details of the machinery that underpins the spatial web? If it did, allow me to put your mind at rest.

This vision of things (VoT), you see, has nothing whatsoever to do with the Internet of things (IoT.) They are not cousins; they’re not even distantly related. In other words, we will not be delving into the territory of the spatial web. Yes, the signals are talking—notorious chatterboxes, those signals—but we will, at most, lend them in here the most offline of ways.

Aha, also, now I recall where I had seen our sports car last…

1. Inspiration Strikes 🌟

You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.
~ Jack London

It all begins here, with inspiration.

Quick, though, get me a decent definition of the words “simulacrum,” and then we’ll be in business. Otherwise, by the time we’re done grappling with only this single word—wondrous as it sounds—our essay will be done.

Why, we got ourselves a definition:

sim·u·la·crum
noun
1. an image or representation of someone or something.
2. an unsatisfactory imitation or substitute.
3. reasonable simulacrum of reality
4. an insubstantial form or semblance of something

Right, what we are after this time is an admittedly sweeping survey of a vision that goes to the heart of things that are, well, close to my heart. With that, and in no particular order, I cordially invite you to consider some themes which inform that vision:

  • Limitations are arbitrary—The only (true) limit is one’s imagination (and, of course, the laws of Physics.)
  • The divisions—silo-style, if you will—between areas of tech pursuit are even more arbitrary, foisted and verging on the artificial.
  • Our industry deserves to have some fun while doing great stuff, making great products.
  • Avoid the echo chamber at all costs: Instead, go to the source—That’s where the seeds of true originality lie, harbingers of genuine value.
  • Ideation for the sake of ideation is (generally) useless, but often a first (and necessary) step.
  • Be humble: We’re all in this together. No man—and no woman, I’m sure they meant to say—is an island in itself.

Oh, and as I was telling an esteemed friend just the other day—and here I must sheepishly draw your attention to that slight creative messiness in the background of my desk, the one featured in the picture above—I like to think of such messes as portals of creativity. (And hey, that big old crumpled piece of paper cluttered back there happens to be the cover of an industry-published paper which was based on my graduate school research, back in the day when I had my hands full with applying deep learning to pattern recognition, all at the intersection of computer vision as applied to vehicles.)

Fast-forward by many moons, and here we are today, about to take in a vision of things (VoT.) Nothing earth-shattering, but I have a feeling that you’re going to enjoy this visual tour.

2. And Dreams Tumble Forth 🐘

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name
– William Shakespeare (in A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

Speaking of the fascinating realm of AI—ever on my radar, though it gets narrowly edged-out by my passion for distributed systems such as the kind I work on nowadays—I did some CV (not the moniker used in Europe for the resume, but as in Computer Vision) programming which culminated in the not-so-distant Labor Day weekend.

Value-creation remains number with me in such hobby activities. But realizing that this exercise may be something of interest to readers, I captured some vignettes along the way, by way of pictures—a handful of which pepper this essay.

Here, then, is the result of weaving these pictures into a story, making sure—of course!—that I promote the company that remains dear to my heart (Please note, here, our CCC-monogrammed sports car featured proudly on my CV textbook (in the first pic below.)

3. The Butterfly Alights 🚁

There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.
~ Graham Greene (in The Power and the Glory)

The surest—and, in my opinion, surefire—way of priming oneself to conquer decidedly complex business logic is to be reminded anew of a remarkable Einstein quote:

No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.

So yes, inspiration strikes, and it all begins there, with inspiration, amirite? But you also have to allow ideas to ferment, to coalesce into kaleidoscopic unity—You need to make room for that metaphorical butterfly, that harbinger of creativity, to alight. In our case, it so happens that the blue, blooming butterfly chose to perch right atop my monumentally thick CV book (as in the pic above.) Yay!

One thing led to another—especially after the Python code I had been wrangling with began to reach critical mass—and we found ourselves right at the cusp of action.

4. Camera, Lights, Action 🎬

Some men see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not
– George Bernard Shaw

It’s time to roll out that carpet… Goodness, a boatload of carpets, all stripes of colors, too, if my vision serves me right.

Anyhow, there I was, gingerly cradling in my hands a glimmering blue iPhone (check the right hand side of the computer monitor above), striking a pose for the algorithm to capture as a contour, all in true realtime (check the left hand side of the same computer monitor.)

There you have it: My doppelgänger unerringly tracking my every move with eerie accuracy. (Next thing you know, it’ll want a sip right out of my blueberry smoothie, you know the one featured over to the left hand side above, hovering—fancy a levitating smoothie now—in its blue haze, right next to the bluish symbols on display in my IDE’s program variables explorer, nifty to have around anytime I need to snoop and introspect into the state of the running program.)

To be sure, and much as I said earlier, you also have to allow ideas to ferment and coalesce into unity. Once you got that under your belt, then it’s time, in turn for… Camera,  Lights, Action. Yay!

5. Let’s Grab Some Hardware, Pronto! 📺

When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.
– John Muir

Did we forget to lug in some hardware? Oh no… But it’s not too late. We technologists are inveterate optimists. With that, I whip out of its elegant box my very own realtime tracking camera.

But what is that thing trained on the camera itself? Aha, it’s an old-fashioned telescope, shiver my timbers, as Popeye would say. Goodness, this is getting a bit too meta, if you ask me; a good problem to have on your hands, the way I see it.

We’re doing good so far, having made up for lost time by getting our hardware all hooked up to funnel visual signals in all their glory to our GPU-powered machine—that’s where the action happens, algorithmically speaking.

6. Back To The Drawing Board 🎨

Than to be sure they do; for certainties
Either are past remedies, or, timely knowing,
The remedy then born—discover to me
What both you spur and stop.
~ William Shakespeare

Lest we have fast-forward at a pace too dizzying for your senses—and apologies if I did—allow me to remind ourselves that it all begins on the primordially blank drawing board, such as the one featured above, the thought bubble and  its accompanying sound bubble that says POOF!

There’s something about working from first principles—more on that soon—that keeps drawing me to, well, the drawing board. It’s just you and your ideas, with the medium of the board to sound out the viability of those ideas, amirite?

And while I haven’t quite figured out yet—and maybe I never truly will—whether my work is an extension of me, or if I am an extension of my work, I do know that I will forever take inspiration from Einstein’s memorable words when he remarked, oh-so-humbly:

I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.

So let’s check what has sprung forth from our drawing board, shall we?

7. Let’s Connect: Or, Keeping Up With Transportation 🚙

Explaining Metaphysics to the nation–
I wish he would explain his Explanation
~ Lord Byron (Don Juan: Dedication)

A chariot was waiting for me. Really?

Truth be told, the entire transportation industry—specifically an especially vibrant sector, the one that serves its payments, claims, and insurance needs—was ready to spring a surprise on me, one that has buoyed my spirits. There’s so much happening in my industry that I feel like the proverbial boy who has stumbled into a candy store. Where to begin?

Lest you think I exaggerate, I invite you to check my rendering above—it’s that gorgeous drawing board again—one on whose expanse I’ve etched out a tribute to the leader in this area.

Let’s power forward.

8. Behold That Keyboard: Or, Programming Springs To Life 💻

What I cannot create, I do not understand.
– Richard Feynman

Before adding that proverbial feather to our cap—or, as in the pic above, to our hat—I extend a personal thank you to all the parents in the world: Without your sacrifices and your tenderly lavished attention to nurture the next generation of technologists, we (I for sure) would not be where we are today…

Some of us grew up to be bookworms; a really good kind of worm right there, if you ask me, one right up there with the glowworm.

But I digress.

Then again, my readers know me (all too) well. We often crack jokes around here, because we’re a friendly bunch. And I’ll be the first one to admit that if I can’t laugh at myself every now and then, I know something’s really wrong. So there. I said it.

The bottom line is this: Our industry deserves to have some righteous fun while building great stuff, while making great products.

9. Good Luck: Or, Code On Fire 🍄

The time which we have at our disposal every day is elastic; the passions that we feel expand it, those that we inspire contract it; and habit fills up what remains.
~ Marcel Proust (in Remembrance of Things Past)

Another thing near to my heart goes like this…

Be humble: We’re all in this together. No man—and no woman, I’m sure they meant to say—is an island unto itself.

But when it comes to designing software applications, when you’re writing code to power those application, I urge you to be ambitious, too. Be ready to tackle the complexity that our universe brings our way. Logic can take us a long way to the solution.

All the same, what got you here, won’t (necessarily) take you there. I apologize if all this comes across as pontification.

But here’s the thing: Having worked alongside some of the brightest minds in the industry—programmers, managers, leaders, and designers among them—I’ve noticed with what I can only chalk up to an uncannily frequent happenstance the role that luck can play.

Yes, logic can be airtight; remember, though, that if it’s too airtight, because there can be such a thing, that selfsame logic can suffocate the solution you’re after. To delight  our customers, then, our software has to transcend the mundane, the quotidian, and instead resonate with customers’ intuition.

There’s a saying in my tradition—I first heard it many years ago from my late father, a chemical engineer and precious soul who breathed his last in the year 2015—which takes us to the core of sincerity-in-service by reminding us, “Munn jeetay, jugg jeetay“. Translated into English, and I apologize for that (preceding) rather literal transliteration, it roughly means, “Win their hearts, and you’re bound to win the world.

So the next time you’re coding up a solution to delight your customers—we are inspired by leadership to do it every day here at my workplace—approach your solution holistically (logic, intuition, and lucky inspiration all rolled into one). And when you do, don’t be surprised to see your interlocking pieces of logic reach critical mass, afire with glory.

10. Our Ship Is Sailing ⛵

I find the great thing in this world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving: To reach the port of heaven, we must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it—but we must sail, and not drift, nor lie at anchor.
– Oliver Wendell Holmes (in The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table)

Ah yes, this was bound to happen. Our ship is sailing, and yours truly is about to celebrate, even as I hold aloft my good luck charm—yes, it’s that monogrammed sports car model recently, making yet another dashing appearance, going places. Powering forward, in other words.

Onward.

11. Look Ma, No Hands 🚴

The book, if you would see anything in it, requires to be read in the clear, brown, twilight atmosphere in which it was written; if opened in the sunshine, it is apt to look exceedingly like a volume of blank pages.
– Nathaniel Hawthorne (in Twice-Told Tales)

This was inevitable: The realization, the dawning that ideation for the sake of ideation is (generally) useless, but often a first (and necessary) step. We started humbly. Remember the drawing board?

Exactly. It was just us and an idea. Crucially, though, we pursued the idea from first principles and made things happen. And if this tech travelogue inspires you to find an idea and run with it, please know that I’ll be cheering for you.

You’ve got this.

12. Of Traveling And Postcards 📬

Wealth I ask not, hope nor love,
Nor a friend to know me;
All I ask, the heaven above
And the road below me.
– Robert Louis Stevenson (in Songs of Travel)

Hey, somebody lugged out my wheeled suitcase. (Check above: It’s the one with a big splash across its blue colored exterior.) What’s going on?

Truth be told—you knew this was coming, didn’t you?—the picture itself tells the story.

And I invite you to spend some time, poring over the “artifacts” and all—while this is clearly not the site of an archaeological excavation, there are “artifacts” aplenty here to keep you musing for a bit, amirite?

Onward.

13. Powered By First Principles 🚀

Because our brains can only fit so much, specialization leads to fragmentation, where insights in one specialty become inaccessible to the others… With this tunnel vision, specialists know more and more about less and less, until they eventually know everything about nothing.
– Edward Ashford (in Plato and the Nerd: The Creative Partnership of Humans and Technology by The MIT Press)

Last, but certainly not least—and here let’s take one wistful, collective look at the themes mentioned atop this essay, themes that inform my vision of things—I urge you to avoid the echo chamber at all costs: Instead, go to the source, because that’s where the seeds of originality lie, that’s where the harbingers of genuine value dwell, IMHO.

Consider, as an example, how, for one thing, robotics would get nowhere without CV; it would remain blindsided. For another, OCR (aka Optical Character Recognition) would not be a reality anytime soon without CV; yes, lots and lots of CNNs (aka Convolutional Neural Networks) in there for sure. CV counts for something, amirite?

And to get a sense for the related visions of a distant shore—realizing the full power of computer vision one day—there is no better place to start than this lovely book by Simon J. D. Prince:

Computer Vision: Models, Learning, and Inference (Cambridge University Press.)

One thing’s for sure: The whole enterprise of humanity is undergoing change at an unprecedented pace, amirite?

So it’s all the more crucial that you come to grips with the foundations of knowledge. And for that, you’ve got to go back to the basics. Find the best resources in your chosen field—distributed computing happens to be mine, though AI/CV/ML are never far from my radar—and then all you’ve got to do is but drink up from the proverbial firehose.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
– William Blake (in his poem Auguries of Innocence)

Till we meet next, I invite you to ponder over the luminous lines of verse above. Meanwhile, I know we’ve come full circle, judging by the pic coming right up—the doppelgänger unerrin meme dare I say—being a pic with an uncanny resemblance to the one atop this essay.

4 comments

    • I am incredibly grateful for those sparkling words of encouragement, thank you. Here’s the thing: Readers, friends, acquaintances often ask me, “Akram, what is the secret of your writing? What gets you, and keeps you, into writing?” I dutifully—and truthfully—reply, “I cannot not write“. That you enjoyed reading has doubled my joy, and redoubled my motivation to return with more. Please stay tuned for my next, as-yet nascent-idea-stage essay 🙂

  1. Love the playfulness and creativity in your writings! Something you wrote above made me think of Douglas Adams. The young kid in you, that I remember well, was positive and loving in addition to being playful. I am sure you channel it all in your work as much as you clearly do in your writings. To working and living with joy and with passion!!

    • Your glorious comment has made my day, thank you! Loved your reference to Douglas Adams, him of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame: I can’t help but think back to your explorations of space via astrophysics in Minnesota, which turned toward exploring the human psyche, an area where you’ve made an indelible mark on the world. Now if I can get you to contribute an essay or two to this blog of mine, from time to time, my readers—and I—will be happy as a clam. What do you say?

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