SIGGRAPH Technical Papers – More Evidence of My Downfall

If you wish further evidence of your own lack of smartness, sit through a SIGGRAPH technical paper Fast Forward presentation. This was not your typical gathering of wily-old geezer scientists in smocks and meerschaum pipes, ruefully rubbing their beards while thoughtfully using 10 sentences to explain things where one sentence would completely suffice.

One of the really smart people who presented a 60 second synopsis of their research to an audience filled with people like me, who are not smart and who had no possibility of understanding what was being said.

By Dan Sarto

32 years ago, when I was a wee lad, I trotted off to college with the wild idea I would get my degree in physics and then venture forth into the world, doing smart things while looking and acting like a smart person.  People who met me would think I was a smart person, which they would think because they could sense my smartness. Smart people are, above all else, obviously smart to everyone they meet. And to themselves.

Reality, unfortunately, has a way of ruining every excellent party, and soon I discovered that at age 17, I was not nearly as smart as I thought I was. I had no idea how smart people behaved, what they ate for breakfast, or even what they looked like.  Squirming through one month of freshman physics, taught by an actual smart person to an assembled group of actual smart people (not me, but everyone else sitting around me), it finally dawned on me that not only was I not smart, but I would never be smart, not if I tried extra hard, not if I visited the professor during his office hours, not if I cheated off a smart person’s tests, not if I killed a smart student and ate their heart, not if I studied diligently every day, all day, for the next 200 years.  I understood right then that I would never, ever, ever be one of the smart people.  After one month of college, I had met actual, real life smart people, people studying physics, math, quantum mechanics and other topics smart people study, and it was as evident as the existence of quark-gluon plasma that I would never, ever be smart like them.

The trick then, using sarcasm and denial, was to convince myself that in actuality, I had never wanted to be smart in the first place and in fact, smart people were stupid.  Who wanted to be a stupid smart person?  Only a stupid person would want to be like that.  Certainly not me!

After a cursory amount of minimally invasive self-reflection (I was 17 after all) and after conferring with my derelict friends who had long before come to grips with their own lack of smartness, I decided that my educational efforts had been severely misguided, my planning tragically flawed, as it had relied on the fundamental assumption that I was really smart, smarter in fact, than most of the smart people around me. 

I needed to adjust my thinking, set my sights on new, more modestly achievable and easier to understand goals.  Rather than a Rembrandt-style approach, I needed a more “paint by numbers” methodology for academic commitment and a much less troublesome path to a degree and hopefully, a carefree happy life that I felt fully entitled to enjoy forever.

And so, on an overcast Friday afternoon in October 1979, a few weeks shy of my 18th birthday, I came to the conclusion that I was mediocre.  And that was OK.

This mindset is known clinically as “The Folly of Youth.” 

My friends agreed with my new-found introspective reassessment and told me it takes a real “man” to understand and accept his limitations, that it’s OK to not be smart and indeed, I was not very smart.  Their support was oddly comforting.

Thankfully, with my first existential crisis neatly solved, I went about the business of seeking a more modest, less challenging academic path, Biology, which required far less math and far more poking of fingers into trays of mammalian organs.  My future once again secure, my mind at ease, I ventured forth on my gradual downward spiral of underachievement and modest productivity that has brought me to where I am today, three plus decades later, at SIGGRAPH Asia in Hong Kong.

Which finally brings me to the point of this post:

If you wish further evidence of your own lack of smartness, sit through a SIGGRAPH technical paper Fast Forward presentation.

Yesterday evening, I sat through the SIGGRAPH Technical Papers Fast Forward presentation. The official program description is as follows: 

The SIGGRAPH Asia 2011 Technical Papers program is a premier international forum for presenting new research results in computer graphics and interactive techniques. Leading international experts from all over the world present the best results in peer-reviewed research spanning a wide range of research areas including new imaging hardware, acquisition devices, stereoscopic displays and systems; illustration and artistic tools for rendering and animation; light transport, material editing, and GPU rendering; computational photography and imaging; architectural modeling and reconstruction; as well as animation of hair, crowds, traffic and fluids.

The Fast Forward is an entertaining, illuminating summary of SIGGRAPH Asia 2011 Technical Papers in one exciting, fun-filled hour! Authors are allowed a little less than a minute to wow the crowd with their results and entice attendees to hear their complete paper presentations later in the week. 

What the official description should really say is:

We are smart – you are not.  Get over it.

This was not your typical gathering of wily-old geezer scientists in smocks and meerschaum pipes, ruefully rubbing their beards while thoughtfully using 10 sentences to explain things where one sentence would completely suffice. This tech paper presentation, for the most part, was a gathering of kids (I learned this form of categorization from my dad, who at age 90 would call 80 year olds “Junior”), certainly few older than I, all dedicated academics, researchers, scientists and scholars, doing research in areas of computer graphics and visualization I can’t even pronounce, let alone understand.  I watched close to 100 people hop on stage, esteemed experts from all over the world, one after another, each taking 60 seconds or less to remind me how smart they are and how smart I am not nor will never be.    

Technical Papers Chair Kavita Bala, from Cornell University, warms up the crowd with a joke about a Rabbi, a priest and an NVIDIA® Tesla™ GPU SimCluster walking into a bar. Just kidding. She described the rigorous process of paper selection and introduced the program.

An example of some of the papers being presented here at SIGGRAPH:

  • A Hybrid Iterative Solver for Robustly Capturing Coulomb Friction in Hair Dynamics
  • General Planar Quadrilateral Mesh Design Using Conjugate Direction Field
  • AppWarp: Retargeting Measured Materials by Appearance-Space Warping
  • Adaptive Sampling and Reconstruction using Greedy Error Minimization
  • Single View Reflectance Capture Using Multiplexed Scattering and Time-of-Flight Imaging

I’m sorry, I tried to follow the presentations, but Chair Kavita Bala lost me right after she said, "Welcome."

To further underscore my cognitive deficiencies, I’ve taken the liberty of fabricating a fictitious research project, piecing it together from project names presented here at SIGGRAPH Asia.  Honestly, can you tell me this sounds any less real?

  • Spectral Reflectance and Interference Simulation of Virtual Crowd Avoidance 3D Rendering

Talk that top secret bad boy up to the right people at Intel or HP and I bet you could get some grant money.

All kidding aside, the list of projects selected for presentation this year in Hong Kong represents the work of some of the best and brightest people in the world, all working diligently (well, there’s probably a slacker in the group, my guess, from Canada, dressed in a corduroy jacket with leather elbow patches, a Molson in each pocket, sneaking out of the lab on Friday at 4 so he can go visit his hot Czech PhD candidate exchange student girlfriend – the bastard) to advance their disciplines, pushing forward in areas that will influence practical applications in fields such as animation, visual effects, gaming, architectural and scientific visualization, stereoscopic 3-D and virtual reality for decades to come. 

The packed room of close to 800 people was transfixed by the sheer magnitude of smartness coming from onstage. I'm way up in the left corner somewhere looking confused.

The assembled group of presenters here is fantastic.  To listen to them talk about their work, with such passion and commitment, as incomprehensible and nonsensical as some of them sound, is so comforting, so satisfying, it’s hard to describe.  It’s the comfort you felt as a kid when your dad tucked you in and told you mom’s not moving out and there’s no such things as ghosts, and you believed him.  Don’t you sleep better at night knowing there is a team of 50 brilliant young Japanese researchers working day and night building a virtual robot iPhone app that can make you a spicy scallop hand roll? I know I do.

Seriously, is their nothing better than a sturdy, good looking goateed Swedish scientist standing at a podium, all studious, speaking in measured, unemotional monosyllabic Nordic tones, talking all geeky scientificky about research in sub-surface light scattering? Come on, if you had a choice, would you want anyone other than Max von Sydow to read you a bedtime story or explain to you why you’re not very good at your job?

I take comfort in knowing that the forces that shape my life are being imagined, researched, designed and implemented by smart people, who dedicate their lives to making the world a better, safer, more enjoyable and fulfilling place.  Every time I switch on my cell phone, plug in my PlayStation, turn on my TV, or curse a Michael Bay film, the ubiquitous and magical visuals of my world exist because of the ingenious work of a generation of smart people like the ones I saw last night, running up on stage to spend 60 seconds describing years of work in a way that hopefully someone like me can understand.  Which I can’t.  And you know, that’s perfectly fine with me.