Washington and garlic

Today I flew from Seattle to St. Louis, because tomorrow I’m giving a talk at Washington University. Imagine that – going from one Washington to another in the same day, and neither one our nation’s capital.

My friend and host Caitlin cooked me a delicious dinner (pasta + sun dried tomatoes + garlic + olives + chickpeas + various subtle spices), and that reminded me of the very first time I tried to cook for my parents, after I was out of college and I’d gotten my own apartment and a real job.

I figured that it was an important step – showing my independence by doing something nurturing for my parents – taking care of them for a change. I assiduously followed the cookbook, got all the right ingredients, preheated things, chopped other things, and timed it all out so that my meal would be ready to serve by the time my parents arrived.

I only made one mistake.

I think it was an understandable mistake. After all, I’d never really cooked before. It’s not like I could be expected to know all of the technical terms right out of the gate.

To be more specific, it turns out that this:

is not a clove of garlic. Those of you who, like me in my tender youth, have naively thought that the above thingie is a garlic clove are in for a rude awakening. In fact, it’s something called a “bulb”. When you open up a bulb you get about ten little slices, like pieces of an orange. Each of those little slices, like the thing below to the right, is a garlic clove:

Why is this important? Well, when a recipe calls for two cloves of garlic, and your parents are coming over, and you have prepared them a dinner into which you have actually incorporated two entire bulbs of garlic (around twenty cloves, by my reckoning), things are likely to go amiss.

Fortunately my friend Burke happened to come by some time before the arrival of my unsuspecting parents. Unlike me, Burke actually knows a thing or two about cooking. He had me sautée and sautée relentlessly, which didn’t exactly rescue the meal, but considerably reduced its near-lethal strength.

Needless to say, the entire apartment – and probably all who ate there that evening – reeked of garlic for the next week. My mom and dad were very gracious about it, and they gave an excellent impression of enjoying the meal. It’s amazing what some parents will do out of love for their children.

But there may be a silver lining to this episode: You have probably heard that vampires hate garlic. And I can say definitively that from that day to this, I have never – not even once – been attacked by a vampire. I suspect that my good fortune in this area has been entirely due to the lingering effects of that meal.

You’ve got mail

I was having a conversation with some friends recently about the immense diversity of the things we each do on a computer over the course of a day – same computer screen, wildly different mindsets. For example, we typically use a completely different set of mental constructs in order to, on the one hand, play a first-person shooter, and on the other hand, to read our email.

But why, we wondered, should these two worlds be so separate and distinct? Why not read your email the way you play a first person shooter? After all, haven’t you ever felt a surge of pent up hostility upon receiving that annoying spam message yet again – the one you thought you had filtered out for good? Wouldn’t it be great to have some way to channel those emotions?

In my mind I am imagining my email inbox divided into dungeon levels. On the one hand, there are the relatively gentle levels, where we might encounter most professional and personal emails. And then there are the other levels further down – the ones where we keep all the aggressive spam that we have captured, but have not yet deleted from our hard drive. When you enter these levels, and find yourself face to face with your sworn enemy, it may be best to go out with guns blazing.

What would we call our game? How about “Mailbox Assassin”? Or “Email Nemesis”? Or maybe just “Going Postal”? Can anyody think of another likely name?

The writing on the wall

Today, the forty fifth anniversary of the commercial introduction of the push-button telephone, seems like a fine day to talk about the future of computer/human interfaces.

Let’s skip forward into the future for a moment, to the time when the cost of computer displays will essentially be free – akin to the cost of printing on paper today. Whether it will end up being embodied by some variant of E-Ink, Organic LEDs, or something else entirely, this is not such a farfetched scenario. Give it another fifteen years or so, and we’ll probably have some sort of fairly pervasive and low cost electronic wallpaper.

I’ve been wondering recently, who will get to decide what’s printed on that wallpaper? Let’s say you’re sitting in a restaurant with your friend or spouse. Like most public places, the restaurant wall will consist of changeable paint or wallpaper. Various locations along the wall will be able to display text, images, animations, or whatever else happens to be of interest.

Some uses are obvious: the dinner menu, including special of the day and wine list. News headlines, theatre listings, bus schedules, Op-ed pages. But other uses are not so obvious.

For example, ideally I would like the section of wall in front of me to serve my personal purposes – as though I’m looking at a Web browser on my own computer. I’d want the wall to recognize me and bring up that magazine article or movie I was in the middle of viewing earlier in the day. We will begin to see that sort of capability in just the next few years, through the use of face recognition software.

And it won’t be all that difficult to design this electronic wallpaper so as to show something different to people who are looking at it from different directions. The means to do this is already around – essentially a variant on lenticular lens displays, which have been used for over half a century to make stereo postcards and blinking Jesus pictures.

But will we really get our own customized wall space, wherever and whenever we want it? Perhaps the walls around us will be given over to narrowly targeted advertising – like the nightmare vision of personalized intrusiveness we were shown in the film “Minority Report”. Maybe the dictates of “homeland security” will require that face recognition software be used for reporting our whereabouts to some helpful government agency. In that case you might want to think twice before choosing that left-leaning Op-ed page to read over dinner.

Information utopia or dystopia – who gets to decide? Somehow I suspect that the reality may fall short of our hopes and dreams. But it would be nice to be proven wrong.

On a cold day in New York

Even on a cold day like today in New York, even when I have just spent a week in a delightful little European town, with enchanting Italian scenery, fine wine and brilliant company, it is good to be home, back in Manhattan, in all of its crazy madcap nonstop wonderfulness.

The swirling crowds that sweep you along, the fire in the eyes of people always on the go, the pervasive sense of urgency that practically bubbles up through the pavement, it all just fills my soul with joy.

I know that New York is not for everybody. But for some of us, it is heaven.

Program notes

My last few posts have been circling around my experiences this past week at the fabulous VIEW Conference in Torino, Italy. I’ve been trying to let it all settle in my brain before writing anything definitive.

The program got off to a really great start with Will Wright’s keynote lecture, in which he used a description of his game SPORE to issue several grand challenges. One of those challenges was to figure out an accessible way to let game players direct critters like the ones in SPORE while giving those players real programming power – not just the sorts of combination-through-menu-selection that a game like SPORE currently provides.

The next day I gave my talk, and I answered Will’s challenge by leading the audience in playing a computer game I’d written, which happens also to be a programming language. As you play the game, you send critters around a game board to play sequences of musical notes, somewhat like in SimTunes. The difference is that when you play this game you are actually creating loops, conditionals, setting variables, all the tools of programming. But it doesn’t feel like programming as most people currently know it; it feels like playing a game.

The audience was totally into it. They were enjoying the game, and they were also getting the point that as we were directing the game characters to roam around the board creating melodies, we were actually programming a computer.

I think they also realized that unlike traditional programming, we were engaged in an activity in which all choices lead to a kind of success. Contrast this with the standard approach to teaching programming, which seems too brittle to most learners: either you “get it” – ie: here’s how you write a loop, this is where you need to insert a conditional – or you don’t. And if you don’t get it, then your programs don’t run, end of story.

Brad Lewis was the last speaker on the VIEW program – he gave the closing keynote. Brad is a wonderful producer at PIXAR (eg: Ratatouille), and a man with a long and storied career. He was the speaker I was praising the other day, for his great observation that in order to truly succeed we must also embrace our failures, that only by being ready to accept those failures can we become free to explore and try new things.

After a day or so of mulling over in my mind what I had heard, I realized that I was groping toward a synthesis of these thoughts from Will and Brad. And I see now what that synthesis is: That engagement in “play” is, at its core, the hearty and enthusiastic embrace of the possibility of failure – when we are at play, failure holds no fear.

This notion provides an underpinning for our entire enterprise of using games for learning. Games are the things that invite us into a “magic circle” – a place where our actions have no dire consequences. If failure modes on the way to learning are presented as a game – as fun paths to explore – then kids can learn without fear.

I think that might also help explain why people of certain political persuasions are mistrustful of using games for learning. Fear is a useful political weapon – if you can drill it into kids early and often, then you can prepare them to be compliant citizens, unwilling to question authority.

A child who grows up learning and thinking without the cudgel of fear is the bane of an authoritarian society. I, on the other hand, am quite happy to help create a generation of children who are comfortable saying to themselves “Yes I can.”

Failing to learn math and science

Speaking of failure and its uses, I had a conversation today with a brilliant artist who never “got” math in school, and had thereafter stayed away from all things mathematical. At the moment we were talking, we happened to be on a bus outside of Torino, Italy, passing by an orchard. The trees were planted in a square grid pattern. Periodically the bus would pass a row of trees, whereupon the trunks of whatever row we were in front of would visually merge into a beautifully perfect line.

I told my friend that if the orchard were infinite, and each tree trunk infinitesimally thin, you could think of each tree as a rational number (a ratio of two integers). I asked him to imagine standing at the corner of the orchard, and to think of each row is a numerator and each row as a denominator. If you look out at the horizon, the bits of sky you see between the trees are all the irrational numbers.

He told me that made perfect sense, and that if they’d only presented math that way in school he’d have had no problems. Because I’ve been thinking about the positive benefits of failure, I told him that I thought that maybe the reason so many people have trouble learning math and science in school is that they are taught without good failure modes.

If you write an essay in your high school English class, and the teacher wants to give you suggestions about how to do better, they can always say “You have some interesting ideas. Try using smaller words and less description, and focus on the main concept.” Or something like that.

No matter what sort of improvement you might need in your essay, it wasn’t a failure – just a path to success. And this is true for many subjects in school, such as art, history, drama. All of the failure modes work – they produce something interesting, something for which you can get positive validation from your teacher, and to get progressively better you can take things from there.

But math and science are often not taught that way. Rather, they are taught in terms of “this is the way things work, and if you don’t get it, you’ll get the wrong answer”. You are told that this is Avogadro’s Number, that is Newton’s law, to find the roots of a quadratic polynomial you need to apply this correct formula. Everything is rules, rules, rules. And if you don’t follow those rules, then the message is that maybe you’re just not cut out for this stuff.

But of course in reality – as opposed to our schools – math and science are far closer to English and history and drama. They are wide open spaces, opportunities for play, fields that stretch out in all directions ripe for endless experimentation and innovation.

For much of my K-12 education, I wasn’t learning math mainly in a classroom. Instead, I would spend joyful hours in the library or the school courtyard trying things out, asking myself crazy questions, posing puzzles for myself, and then trying to work out the answers. The fact that sines and cosines make circles, and that you can express both sine and cosine with a series of equations in a simple pattern – that was just the starting point for exploration. Suddenly the derivatives of those equations had meaning, they were things I could play with and make something out of, like the trees in that orchard of rational numbers.

Of course I would often fail – set out in a direction only to encounter a brick wall. But that was ok. I always learned something from the failure, and it never bothered me when I got stuck. I would just strike out in another direction, try something else, because I was always having fun.

In other words, the failure modes were not punitive – they were part of the exploration and play, like in a well designed computer game. And that’s still the way math and science are to me today, only now I can also write a computer program to try something out, to see for myself whether my crazy theory is correct. My theories often turn out to be wrong, and I still hit brick walls quite often. But even in those cases, I feel like I have had fun with my little chemistry set, and it never feels like I’ve been wasting my time.

One of my hopes for the use of computer games in the classroom for teaching math and science is that they might help those of us who had a hell of a lot of fun exploring those worlds (and still do) to share our sense of exhilaration with a new generation of kids. The key to fun learning is to try things, explore, break something just so you can put it together a different way to see what happens.

Like I said yesterday, failure is indeed an option. In fact, if you’re doing it right, failure can be your friend.

Failure is an option

I saw a talk today in which the speaker’s message to his audience, on summing up, was to embrace not just our successes, but also our failures. His underlying theme was that to be an artist (and he is indeed a wonderfully successful artist), in order to take risks and have the mindset to try new things, you need to be prepared for the times when you fail, and not expect that the outcome of your efforts will be an unbroken string of successes.

I found it to be a good message on a number of levels. First there’s the obvious: It avoids a kind of brittleness in one’s thinking. If you insist on never failing, and you set that up as a goal, then you will find it much more difficult to take significant risks, and you’ll probably end up missing many great opportunities.

But even more than that, I’ve come to realize, as I look back on my many failures – mixed in with the successes like giant bumps on a long road – that I have learned far more from those failures than I could ever have learned from the successes. And not just specific knowledge on the order of “I’ll never do that again,” but also an ability to let go of the past, to not be ruled by it.

Success feels nice – a kind of cosmic pat on the back, confidence lifter, ego boost, and general all around spirit raiser-upper. But success can also be misleading. It can give you the false impression that you are solely responsible for things having gone well.

And of course that’s just hubris. You are always engaged in a dance with fate, as your actions and choices weave in and out of the events and the people around you, like the warp and weft on a loom.

Failure sometimes just happens. A colleague might feel threatened by you, you might catch a head cold the day before an important exam, or miss a crucial flight because of something as prosaic as bad weather. The list of things outside your control is so vast that it’s futile to even attempt an inventory. But those are the easy cases.

Much more difficult are those cases where you and fate conspired together to create a failure, where the lines of responsibility are blurred. You got mad at the wrong person at the wrong time, you picked the wrong deadline to focus on, you made a joke when it really was a serious moment, or you just backed the losing side. These are the dangerous cases, the ones where there is a temptation to hold on to grudges, to replay events back obsessively, in an endless attempt to make the past turn out right.

And here is where that speaker’s advice comes in handy. Once you understand how to gather up your cautionary lessons and walk away, to move on, to leave the dead bodies lying on the road where they fell, then you begin to feel a kind of freedom.

The nature of that freedom is not always easy to see, but it’s there. Once you are willing to accept that some cherished thing you once held in your hand has been well and truly lost, to stop walking around defiantly wearing a severed limb as though it is still an organic part of you, then you are free – free to try new things, to define yourself in new ways, to start from scratch with nothing but your wits and pluck and good humor.

And that is when you learn not to fear a failure. You start to see it as just another tool in your toolbox, a cautionary experience to draw on, a battle scar you’ve paid for fair and square.

Only when you are willing to accept your failures openly and without remorse, then you become free, free to jump back on that road, bumps and all, and go off in search of new adventures.

Everybody knows

There are many things that everybody knows, which nonetheless are not true.

More precisely, there are many questions you can ask of a hundred people at random, and they will all give the same answer, and that answer will be wrong.

To be fair, there are people who have no opinions about things. So let’s set some ground rules: A person can opt out of answering your question – they can just say “I don’t know”, or even “I don’t even understand what you’re talking about.” In that case, you can just ask somebody else your question, and keep on going from person to person until you’ve accumulated a hundred answers.

Here’s one such question: If you want to show the color black on a computer screen, you specify the color 0,0,0 (red and green and blue all zero). If you want show the color white on a computer screen, you specify the color 255,255,255 (red and green and blue all 255).

But what if you want middle gray, containing half the brightness of white? What color should you specify?

Just about anybody who chooses to answer this question will say something like 128,128,128 – and that’s a perfectly logical answer.

But it turns out to be wrong. The right answer turns out to be “it depends”.

In fact, on many computer monitors 128,128,128 will result in something considerably darker than half the brightness of full white. On my LCD screen of a Lenovo ThinkPad, half brightness occurs at around 170,170,176.

What I mean by that is that if you make a fine checkerboard pattern where half the pixels are black and the other half are white, and you compare this with a solid color, on my computer you need to set the solid color to around 170,170,176 to get the same overall visual brightness.

You’ll probably get somewhat different results on your computer monitor, but you can see the general idea for yourself. Look at the following image and squint, so that you can’t really see the details of the checkerboard. On my computer screen the solid gray areas look pretty close to the average shade of the checkerboard:

black/white checkboard versus 170,170,176


In contrast, on my computer 128,128,128 produces something waaaay too dark:

black/white checkboard versus 128,128,128


Of course, on your computer screen the second one might look right. The “correct” answer varies from screen to screen.

This means that lots of people who make images with computers are getting things very wrong. They think that to make something half as bright as white they always need to use 128, and to get a quarter as bright as white they need 64, and so forth. If you ever wonder why so many computer graphic images have an odd “fake” look, that’s one of the reasons.

Can anybody think of something else that “everybody knows”, where the conventional wisdom is wrong?

Pope Pauses

Today I was having a conversation about the fact that people don’t edit on film anymore in this age of computers, and it reminded me of the story my friend Cynthia told me about the time some years ago when she was visiting a woman she knew who was in the midst of editing a documentary about His Holiness Pope John Paul II. This was soon after one of the Pope’s visits to New York City. Whenever JPII would visit New York he would be greeted with the sorts of ecstatic crowds that one associates with rock stars. Although, as it happens, the demeanor of His Holiness could not have been more different from that of a rock star.

For one thing, John Paul II had a way of speaking that involved very long pauses between one utterance and the next. For this reason Cynthia’s friend was charged with the task of editing down the Pope’s speech, so as to remove or shorten those many lengthy silences.

Cynthia’s friend was editing the old fashioned way – on film, using a flatbed editor. On this particular day, Cynthia tells me that she saw that her friend’s apartment was festooned with hundreds of small snippets of film. Cynthia asked what those were. Her friend explained that it was all sountrack film, and that each snippet had been carefully trimmed out of the soundtrack of the forthcoming documentary, because each contained one of those long pauses. The eventual goal was to show the Pope talking without forcing the audience to sit through the many long silences between his sentences.

Cynthia asked her friend what was to become of all those little film trims. Her friend explained that because they were useless, they were all going to be tossed out. In a moment of inspiration Cynthia asked whether she could have them. “Sure, no problem” said her editor friend, and after a few minutes of work on her Steenbeck, she had taped the trims together into one continuous roll, which she handed to Cynthia in a film can.

From that day until this Cynthia has had in her possession a unique cultural document – a recording of His Holiness John Paul II not talking. At each moment either he has just finished speaking, or he has not yet begun to speak. If you listen to it, all you will hear is silence, the record of the liminal spaces between successive Papal utterances.

I have no idea what this means, this recording of the spaces between papal thoughts, of Pope Pauses. But something tells me that it is a wondrous thing.

My tribe

Sandra is a woman I know, originally from Jamaica, and one of the most refreshingly down-to-earth people I’ve ever met. She is also definitely someone that most people in my country would call “African American”. The other day we ran into each other, a few days after the election. The very first thing she said to me was “It’s about time they elected an intellectual for president.”

Swelling with pride, I smiled at here and raised my fist high in triumph. “My tribe!” I said. She smiled back, pleased by my enthusiasm, sharing my joy that one of my people had won.

I could see that she was very happy for me.