May 17th, 2013
People who study how games are designed and played speak of the “magic circle”. They are referring to the safe place where a game is played. In the universe of the game, you and your friend might be pummeling each other in a fist fight, or sending opposing armies into battle, but you are doing it inside the magic circle — both players understand that none of this is real.
There is something similar at work when somebody tells you a story. You might be hearing the most tragic story in the world, yet you are able to enjoy the story without feeling fearful or nervous. You are safely inside the magic circle of fictional narrative.
I wonder whether it’s like that for education: Great teachers build a magic circle, within which students feel relaxed and safe and comfortable, and more receptive to new ideas and ways of thinking. Inside this magic circle — if it is properly constructed — learning flourishes.
May 16th, 2013
I attended a discussion panel this evening at the National Academy of Sciences on the topic of how artists and scientists can work together.
Somebody asked “Should artists who want to work with scientists be required to be up on the latest technology?”
I immediately texted my colleague, who was sitting on the other side of the room, to say “Should scientists who want to work with artists be required to be able to quote Clement Greenberg?”
My colleague texted back the deeper point, identifying neatly what had really been bothering me (and him) about the entire discussion: “It’s interesting,” he wrote, “how the idea of having the artist and scientist in one body comes up so rarely in these things.”
I texted him back bemoaning the fact that there is no good word to describe such a person.
A few minutes later, a woman in the audience got up to the mike to speak about her research. She introduced herself as an “artist/scientist”.
May 15th, 2013
Today I was at a meeting where people with various kinds of expertise were gathered around a table to help figure out how we can use to use technology to better respond to disasters in cities.
We were discussing possible scenarios, and somebody suggested Hurricane Sandy. I said I was worried that this was too specific. “There are many different ways,” I said, “that something can put a big foot down on the city.”
Somehow this phrase stuck, and for the rest of the meeting people used the phrase “big foot disasters”.
In retrospect I realize that on some level I must have been thinking about Godzilla, although I didn’t realize it at the time. “Big foot disaster” is an oddly apt term, because it gets at the combination of insult and injury to a city that has been hit by any kind of assault just too big to shrug off.
Now all of these experts may very well continue to use that phrase. It might become part of the lexicon. I think I should be proud, but I’m not entirely sure.
May 14th, 2013
I heard the most wonderful story today, from a colleague who works for a software company that helps optimize work flow.
He was telling us about this one time his company had developed a computer program to help a municipal power utility find the best route for its maintenance trucks. The general idea is that when a work crew goes out on the job, repairing and upgrading things around the city, choosing the optimal route through heavy traffic can save hours — and time is money.
One day he was showing the route his company’s software had calculated to the client’s road crew, when the foreman pointed at the screen and asked “Why does it say to turn left here? It’s a lot faster if we go right.”
He was surprised by the question. “You can’t go that way — it’s a one way street.”
He was even more surprised when they all started laughing. “Why is that funny?” he asked.
“You don’t get it,” the foreman explained, still laughing. “We’re the guys with the orange cones.”
May 13th, 2013
For a dare, a quite intriging if absurd poser:
You might consider strangely rounded sentences.
Set in odd cadences, they reveal, by degree,
what age old absolute and, in essence, unvarying thing?
May 12th, 2013
Three gifts I presented on this Mother’s Day,
Each one said something I wanted to say.
Each wrapped in paper, and sealed with tape,
All three were books of the same size and shape.
Yet all were quite different in subject and tone,
For each book was meant for one person alone.
One showed how Yiddish evolved by degrees,
The second, inventions by crazed Japanese.
The third described answers by students in school
That were all incorrect yet were funny and cool.
A few folks who know me, from those clues I’m sure
Will figure out just who each present was for.
And that, in a way, gets us right to the heart:
It’s important to know — to know right from the start –
That issues of wrapping, of size and of shape,
Are of no more import than the choice of Scotch tape.
In giving a gift those are not the core mission.
The key is that small spark of true recognition
Which is why when we shop so much time is involved
Until the true riddle of giving is solved:
To find that best gift, the best one by far,
That says: “I can see you; I love who you are.”
May 11th, 2013
One my favorite moments in recent movie-dom occurred in “The Muppets” (2011), when the characters realize that they can get to Paris faster if they “travel by map”. Fozzie hits the conveniently located “TRAVEL BY MAP” button on his car’s dashboard, we cut to one of those old-fashioned animated maps with a big red traveling line right out of “Casablanca”, and voila! nous sommes arrivés.
The hell with the Star Trek transporter. That’s what I call traveling in style.
Today I had an experience not entirely dissimilar. I was meeting friends for brunch at the wonderful Champs Diner in Brooklyn (highly recommended!!!), so I went on Google Maps, which showed that the nearest subway stop was several blocks from my culinary destination.
I don’t carry a SmartPhone — one of my little rebellions, which I plan to keep up until Federal law is changed to make carrying of a SmartPhone a requirement for both U.S. citizenship and the right to use public bathrooms. The way things are going, I suspect that will happen sometime around mid-2014. But I digress.
Rather than draw myself a map, I decided to visually trace the route from subway stop to restaurant door, courtesy of Google Maps Street View. The experience was eerily like walking along a street. Even the pace felt similar, as I glided past houses, shops and intersections, turning corners as per Google’s directions until my virtual self arrived at the restaurant door.
When later in the day I emerged from the actual subway stop in Brooklyn, everything clicked into place. As I walked along, I recognized this fancy entrance on my left, that funny colored building on my right. These streets I had never before visited felt completely familiar, with never a moment of doubt about where and when to turn.
You could call it a successful experiment. My only regret was that my little walk brought me to my destination all too soon, so much was I enjoying this pleasant stroll in a familiar place where I had never been.
May 10th, 2013
Alas, there is not much Oracle support for Java these days. So if you happen to be interested in musical performance in Java, as I am, you need to turn to other sources.
Fortunately, there is an answer — which has actually been there all the time. It uses a combination of two wonderful interpreters — the “K” interpreter and the “LN” interpreter. Each of these is impressive individually, but when combined, the result is really amazing musical Java performance.
But why take my word for it? You can see for yourself here!
May 9th, 2013
I talked to my class yesterday about this project of making it easier to learn how to visualize things in four dimensions.
We went over the principle of the 4D virtual trackball, then everybody got to try out the Oculus Rift, to experience for themselves what an immersive graphical world is like.
Even before we demo’d the Oculus Rift, I asked the class how many of them would be interested in exploring the fourth dimension. A lot of hands went up.
I consider this a very good sign.
May 8th, 2013
Today it was raining in NY City as I walked to work. It was a rather light and pleasant rain. Except for one oddity.
As you undoubtedly know if you live in a big city, fellow pedestrians carrying umbrellas can be hazardous to your health. If people are not mindful, those ungainly objects, with their sharp and spiky metallic parts, can poke you in the eye.
Unfortunately, there is now a class of pedestrian that is very much not mindful. These are the people who hold their umbrella in one hand and their SmartPhone in the other.
It’s not so much that they are holding the SmartPhone — it’s that they are staring intently into it, oblivious to the world around them. When I see somebody carrying both an umbrella and a SmartPhone, I steer a very clear path.
I suspect that if one of these multi-taskers did poke you in the eye with their umbrella, they wouldn’t even notice. After all, they are not really present on that rainy street. Rather, they are living in the world of whatever or whoever is currently on the little screen in their hand.
It makes for an odd rain experience, and one can only live in hope that something will come along soon to wean people off this strange way of being.
Hmm, come to think of it, “odd rain” is an apt anagram for the situation. As is “in hope”, for that matter.
Just what they are anagrams for, I will leave as an exercise for the reader.