JOIN Durant Schoon

From: Durant Schoon (
Date: Mon Jun 04 2001 - 19:28:36 MDT

I've finished working on "The Mummy Returns" in late April. If you
don't believe me, you can look for my credit ;) I'm a Technical
Director at Industrial Light and Magic. I use expensive software to
make expensive special effects for expensive movies.

I've also recently finished catching up on SL4 since taking two weeks
off in April (It was nice meeting lots of you at the Spring Foresight

(Sorry this is so long, but hey, you can just skip it. I'm reading a
biography at the moment, so I'm thinking "biographically" :)

Academic Background:

        1990 Graduated as valedictorian from a smallish highschool in
        the middle of nowhere, CA.

        1994 Graduated from MIT with a Bachelor of Science degree in
        Computer Science.

Memetic Background / Development:

        My parents were (college educated) hippies. U.C. Berkeley, the
        1960's, you get the idea. Radicals with a renegade flair, they
        set out redesign their microculture from the ground up. If
        they were naive, it was more for being blinded by their own
        idealism than for an ignorance of the way the world works. My
        father rejected "the system" and dropped out of law school to
        pursue the road less travelled. My mother, trained to be a
        teacher, stayed home to raise me and my sister.
        During my upbringing, I was encouraged, but not forced, to
        believe in a metaphysical description of the universe. I did a
        lot of thinking about the nature of reality. I was very
        interested in the subject, but didn't get very far. I would
        say that my beliefs felt pretty solid. I kept pounding on them
        and attacking them, but within the framework I'd chosen, I
        could always find a way to make things consistent, even if I
        did end up in endless loops sometimes.

        After a not-too-uninteresting childhood and adolescence I was
        accepted to MIT. I wanted to be a film maker.

        My freshman year, I immediately signed up for "Minds and
        Machines" with Ned Block. For some reason, perhaps because of
        lack of understanding of both, I didn't get much out of the
        class. For the next four years, I slaved away to maintain my
        position as an average student of little distinction.

        My sophomore year, I began to formulate my idea of an ultimate
        educational software environment; everything graphical and
        animation based, all knowledge encoded and integrated in an
        executable form. I'm still working on the details and
        fortunately, the software world is rapidly catching up.

        In January 1994, during my senior year in college, I was
        reading Marvin Minsky's Society of Mind, in preparation for
        taking his class by the same name. I remember I was sitting in
        the 24 hour student center coffee shop discussing one of the
        essays with a beautiful student I knew from the Shakespeare
        ensemble. The essay was the one about souls, about their
        absurdity (my word) as a concept: if no information passes
        from life to life, what is the point in believing in them. It
        took four years of a computer science education before I
        started to understand. This idea was but a thread. Once I got
        a hold of it and started to tug, all of my foundational
        beliefs about the basis of reality began to unravel. Within a
        few months, my entire worldview would be demolished and
        replaced. For the first time in my life, I was mortal. Someday
        I would die and that would be my final end.

        That semester, I started dating a junior who looked like
        Louise Brooks and was heavily into the "goth" scene. I quickly
        became seduced by the twin ideals beauty and ephemera, perhaps
        as a way of coping with my new found mortality. I am still
        drawn to those haunting nightclubs.

        1994 was odd for me. Typically, I read three or four books per
        year. In 1994, I read over twenty. I began working on a
        concept that humanity and technology were symbiotically
        merging. One day, when I was browsing the MIT Book Store in
        Kendall Square, I found "MetaMan" by Gregory Stock which
        pretty much delineates the very same thesis. After that, I
        couldn't stop reading. I read Dawkin's "Selfish Gene". I
        picked up "Goedel, Escher, Bach" again and this time finished
        it. It rocked my world. I also met Sasha Chislenko, who was
        part of this weird group called "The Extropians" ;)

        Sasha was also taking the Society of Mind that semester. He
        was Russian. I couldn't tell if he was an MIT student or
        not. In my rampant imagination, I thought he was an ex-KGB
        spy. He had a 10 year old son who was in calculus. He was odd
        and interesting. He approached me about my homepage I started
        in 1993. A homepage was a virtual page which could contain
        text and graphics and was displayed on this new fangled thing
        called the World Wide Web. The page is long gone, but I listed
        all the books I'd been reading. He thought I should check out
        these Extropians. I did a little bit. I went with Sasha to one
        of their tiny meetings in a hotel room. Minsky showed up.
        Someone had brought a copy of "MetaMan" to add to the pile of
        books. People were excited. I learned that West Coast meetings
        involve hottubs. I posted to their newsgroups once or twice,
        mostly lurking, but my free trial expired and soon I'd have to
        pay for access. I was a poor student. Pissed off at having to
        pay, I never re-joined their group (even after they were free
        again) but I continued read books which happened to be all the
        same ones on their reading list. If the extropians were right,
        then perhaps, just perhaps, I wouldn't die after all.

        I spoke with Sasha one last time at the Foresight Fall
        Gathering in 1999.

Where I am now and what I'm doing:

        Ever since I was a kid, my first dream was to work on the next
        Star Wars movie (Episode I) doing special effects. I did. I've
        been working at ILM since 1995. I completely missed out on the
        whole dotcom thing (everything except the outrageous rents,
        that is).

        In 1998?/9, I met Ka-ping Yee at ILM and told him about my
        ideas, how I wanted to build this ultimate software system and
        how it might relate to AI. The notion of AI had made a huge
        impression on me as I first seriously considered some of the
        implications in Minsky's class (yes, I'd taken 6.034, the intro
        to AI class. I found it fascinating, but it didn't do much for
        me. I didn't feel as if it was the most important thing for
        humanity to build as I did in SoM).

        Ping told me that Doug Lenat would presenting at Foresight.
        According to Minsky, common sense was the missing link. Doug
        Lenat's Cyc project was the one true endeavor toward
        fulfilling the ultimate of dreams: AI. I signed up as a Senior
        Associate. I heard Doug Lenat speak. I was disappointed. Next
        Spring, I met Eliezer. Concerning Eli, I was much less
        disappointed ;)

        Note: Ping has since left ILM. I don't think there are many
        people around here with these whacky ideas.

Future Goals / Aspirations:

       So what about this mysterious software system I envision?

       Basically, I want to encode all knowledge and processes in a
       single system and represent it all graphically (2D / 3D
       whatever). Imagine visually sorting a linked list and storing
       relevant information about memory and speed characteristics
       (O(n) etc.) of the algorithm. Then building in layers of
       abstraction to allow all sorts of metaphors (functional
       isomorphisms) between heterogenous systems (all the while
       optimizing as necessary to beat the costs of abstraction).

       Now wouldn't that be a lot prettier and more fun than nasty old
       Mizar syntax? If Eli would just put out a version of Flare,
       maybe I could start working on that graphical front end :) When
       you want to understand a beautiful algorithm, isn't the best
       way (for humans) is to see / play with a graphical animation?

       In the mean time, the slim possibility of becoming rich so that
       I can pursue my dream, has been preoccupying my free time. I've
       been working on a "hobby" peer-to-peer project over the past
       year on weekends and holidays (I had to stop while I was on
       mummy, since the overtime totally wiped me out). Hopefully, it
       will be ready sometime this summer. It'll be just a shot in the
       dark...we'll see.

Current Book:

        "A Beautiful Mind" by Sylvia Nasar (national best seller)
        About John Forbes Nash Jr. "The Origins of Virtue" by Matt
        Ridley made reference to the Nash Equilibrium and I think
        hinted at the strangeness of this eccentric Nobel Laureate's
        Life. John Nash was a brilliant mathemetician who began to
        suffer severe schizophrenia. He later recovered (extremely
        rare) after 30 years and went on to win the Nobel Prize in
        Economics (in 1994 oddly enough...numerology...oh never mind,
        just read the book, but don't let the aliens get you). I am
        curious about insanity and genious and wanted to read a good
        biography. This book perfectly fits that description.

        Double bonus is that Nash was a prof at MIT (I didn't know)
        and all the people he hung out with and knew were well known
        math professors there (some of whom I had as teachers):
        Hartley Rogers, Gian-Carlo Rota, Arthur Mattuck. It's totally
        bizarro to read about these guys being young and having social
        lives in the 1950's (parties at the Minsky's, who knew?).
        Which reminds me that these luminaries interact in weird
        ways. I've read references to great debates between Chomsky
        and Minsky. I guess I did get to whitness history when Eli
        assailed Minsky with assertions at the Fall (2000?) Foresight
        Gathering. Oh boy, that was fun =)

but enough about me...

Durant Schoon

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