The man behind the curtain

April 18th, 2014

I was at a meeting this week of fellow researchers on a large project, and everyone was introducing themselves. One of the people in the room was from the large company that was funding the project.

When it was time for him to introduce himself, he said something that I thought was really delightful. Talking about how important it was for funding to happen seamlessly, without requiring us researchers to jump through too many hoops, he said:

“Every once in a while the man comes out from behind the curtain and you have to confront him, but for the most part we try to maintain the illusion.”

I think this is a wonderful statement of what we all really want in so many aspects of our lives: We know there is a man behind the curtain, and we are often very glad that he is there, doing things just out of sight. Of course the curtain is there for a reason — so we can all pretend he isn’t there.

And for the most part, we would prefer to maintain the illusion.

Jay Oliva

April 17th, 2014

I was very sad to hear today that the previous President of NYU, Jay Oliva, passed away.

It’s hard to describe the positive effect that this man had on our University. Whereas other presidents of great universities carry themselves with a certain “air of command”, Jay never did any such thing. He continually reminded us, through his policies and his wonderfully warm personal style, that we are, after all, just people on this planet, each of us trying to do the best we can.

Our University became a warmer, kinder, more human place under his guidance, and that warmth has become a permanent part of our culture.

I will miss him, as well many in our community.

Contextual expertise

April 16th, 2014

These last few days there was a big publication deadline in my field, so grad students were scrambling to get their papers finished on time. Weeks like this are exhilarating and exhausting, in equal measure.

From time to time a student would ask me questions about how they should write their paper. And each time this question would trigger something in me.

I would start to verbally outline the possible research questions, methods for empirical validation, engineering tasks, prior and related work, larger overarching themes, possible future directions, and an entire host of other things.

While this was happening, somewhere in the back of my mind I would be thinking “How am I saying all these things? I’m not really as smart as this guy whose words are coming out of my mouth right now.”

And I’d realize that this expertise is almost entirely contextual. The right question, in the right circumstance, triggers my brain to operate in a certain way, evoking a kind of “expert mode”. This is not a mode that I can simply conjure up at will — it surfaces only when needed.

I suppose we all have these little pockets of contextual expertise, ways of thinking and problem solving that emerge from our minds only when we need them. And when we no longer need them, they retract back to some remote corner of our brain, returning us to our usual, slightly clueless selves.

Debt burden, part 2

April 15th, 2014

Richard’s comment on yesterday’s post showed something positive at work. But I wonder, aren’t we looking at all of the question of higher education in a fundamentally wrong way? Why should it be the responsibility of young people to pay a high price for higher education? Isn’t in any society’s collective economic interest to do the exact opposite?

After all, if you have a for-profit company, and you are trying to maximize your profitability, your best option is generally to invest in those aspects of your business that will increase long term revenue.

And in the case of a nation, by far the largest potential engine for economic growth resides in the young minds that continually emerge from the population. These minds are, in the long run, the sources of invention, of new business models, new forms of art and entertainment, novel insights into science, technology and medical innovation.

The empirical genetic scientific evidence tells us that innovative minds are distributed rather randomly throughout any population — they don’t tend to be born more into privileged families. Which means that a nation that creates a de facto higher economic hurdle for a poor young person to be educated through the college level is simply self-destructive: The society that does so is like a farmer who consumes his own seed corn.

To put it plainly: Any nation state that figures out how to educate its young people without trapping them into a large debt burden will win, in the economic battlefield, over other nation states.

Debt burden

April 14th, 2014

Recently I had dinner with some friends who were arguing for forgiving college student debt in the U.S. Their argument goes roughly as follows:

To pay college costs — in some cases over $60,000 per year — young people and their families can go deeply into debt, often for many years. Many are never able to get out from under that debt burden, and so their chances for economic advancement remain permanently crippled.

It’s not as though they have much of a choice. In the U.S. one’s chances for professional success are very low if one does not have a college degree.

My friends argue that the increased short term tax burden to pay off those loans would be more than offset within just a few years by the more robust economy that would result.

This is a powerful argument. Yet there are aspects to our nation’s state of economic disparity that resist straightforward rational discussion. But I can try anyway.

More tomorrow.

Opening lines

April 13th, 2014

Recently I was thinking of the lovely first line of Daphne du Maurier’s classic novel Rebecca: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

Except my mind did a sort of funny substitution: “Last night I dreamt I went to Pemberley again.”

It’s not really such a stretch. The literary trail from du Maurier’s Rebecca back to Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is fairly clear and quite easy to trace. In both cases a hyper-romantic tale is viewed through the prism of a symbolic locale. Even the sounds of the two words “Manderley” and “Pemberley” have a similar musical line.

Similarly, I was recently thinking about the opening line of Melville’s Moby Dick: “Call me Ishmael.”

Except my mind did a similar sort of substitution: “Call me Starbuck.”

Again there is a similar parallel at work. A sweeping saga of a ship adrift, facing an implacable enemy that mocks our all too human conceit of hegemony over nature. We are told a tale of terrible isolation, of vast stretches of emptiness, of insidious tendrils of madness threatening to seep in at every moment, and above all of the uncertainty that creeps into the thoughts of every crew member, not just of getting home, but of whether there is any longer such a thing as home.

I am speaking, of course, of Battlestar Galactica — a work that arguably could not have existed but for the cultural influence of Moby Dick.

I wonder what other works could likewise evoke their literary kin, via a substitution, in the opening line, of a single word.

That in between state

April 12th, 2014

I was having a conversation today with an friend I hadn’t seen in a while, who mentioned something I had recently said on my blog. I said “Oh, you read my blog?”

There was a pause, then she replied “Well, every once in a while.”

And I realized that we had perhaps gotten into a slightly complicated topic.

There are friends who are perfectly happy to tell me that they read my blog every day. There is, of course, a vastly greater group of people who never read my blog.

Then there are people who don’t want me to think they read it too often, because, you know, maybe that means they are paying too much attention. And that wouldn’t be cool.

I’m not sure why, but I think that in between state is interesting. It suggests that something, somehow, is being negotiated.

The value of having less time

April 11th, 2014

I gave a talk last week at the MIT Media Lab. To my surprise, many of the questions afterwards were not about the things I had talked about.

Rather, they were questions about my process. How do I work, and how do I prototype? What goes into deciding how long to spend on an idea, and how do I know whether to move forward?

I understood that these questions, all of them asked by professors, were for the benefit of the students in the room.

One of the beautiful and startling things about youth is that the young know they will live forever. Oh, if you ask them, they will acknowledge that they will die one day. But in their hearts they do not believe it. Life is infinite, possibilities are endless, and it is all just beginning.

But after a while the heart begins to understand differently. We look upon our parents and see our own future, we understand that the clock is ticking, and we recalibrate.

And we learn the value of time.

Much of what I do is rapid prototyping. When I have an idea, I work fast to implement a quick sketch — perhaps a short interactive graphics program that runs on the web — without worrying too much about the details. I’m not looking for perfection, but for a sign that will tell me whether to stop now, or to go forward. Or maybe to veer off in a related direction.

This is what the professors asking those leading questions were getting at. Time is valuable, and spending three months to build something that may lead nowhere is not a good use of one’s time. Good rapid prototyping skills are a way of maximizing life, of making the most of the time we have.

Because when all is said and done, you know only two things for sure: (1) You do not know how much time you have left to get things done, and (2) You surely have less time than you did a year ago.

Boston Symphony Orchestra haiku

April 10th, 2014

Bach, then Stravinsky,
Then Beethoven. Old Ludwig
Was the best, by far.

Octopus movement

April 9th, 2014

This afternoon I was in one of those long and involved conversations about how amazing the octopus is. People were swapping stories.

For example there was about the octopus who climbed out of its tank in somebody’s living room, made its way across to the fish tank across the room, ate a fish, and climbed back into its own tank (all captured on video).

Or the incident, also captured on video, where an octopus makes itself completely invisible by changing its skin color to perfectly match the texture behind it.

Or the fact that Jaron Lanier refuses to eat octopus, because he considers it a sentient creature.

This went on for a while, these hymns to the intellectual, social and emotional superiority of the octopus.

Feeling the need to contribute, I said “don’t forget the political.”

“Political?” some people looked confused. “What’s political about an octopus?”

“Haven’t you ever heard,” I asked, “of Octopi Wall Street?”