Archive for December, 2009

Peer-to-peer pressure

Thursday, December 31st, 2009

I get the NY Times delivered home every morning, and so do a lot of people I know. Lots of other people — a rapidly growing number — read the on-line version. Yesterday, just in time to herald the dawn of a new year, and our young century’s second decade, I realized how much of a disadvantage are those of us still clinging to our sad twentieth century ways.

Like most days, I woke up in the morning, grabbed the copy of the NY Times that was waiting outside my door, made myself a nice fresh mug of hot coffee, and began to read about the day’s events (well, actually, the previous day’s events). But then something funny happened. I started receiving emails — at first a trickle, but then a barrage (a very nice barrage) — of congratulatory messages from friend and colleagues, for having been written up in The New York Times. Yet the story they were all talking about appeared nowhere in the paper I was holding in my hands.

It turns out that these friends and colleagues (who have all decisively made the transition to the twenty first century) were reading Nick Bilton’s on-line BITS Blog. “BITS”, rather cleverly, stands for “Business, Innovation, Technology, Society” — hmm, maybe that would be a good name for a programming language (just kidding).

His post yesterday was about our new start-up company Touchco (an outgrowth of some of our research at NYU), which has developed a very cool new kind of pressure-sensitive multi-touch input technology called IFSR — basically a better mousetrap for multitouch. Not only do IFSR devices provide an unlimited number of touches, but you can also use them to write or draw (or erase!) with the same subtlety that you now only get with a real pen or pencil.

Friends as far away as Paris were sending me congratulations on the article, and Touchco’s website began to get flooded with inquiries. I realized for the first time that the on-line version of the NYTimes might very well have a larger information footprint among the technorati (who are, after all, the people you hope will read such an article) than the old dead trees version used by troglodytes such as myself. I suspect I will be switching over soon, so I guess this is the high-tech version of peer pressure.

Or maybe it should be called “peer-to-peer pressure”. Hmm.

In any case, by the time I do switch, I hope The New York Times itself will be available on some portable platform that uses our IFSR technology, because then I’ll be able to keep on doing the New York Times crossword puzzle in pen, with my morning coffee.

Happy New Year everybody!

Detective story

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

I realize it’s been more than a year since the release of “Rachel getting Married”, but I just now got around to seeing it, so for the first time I feel qualified to talk about this remarkable film. If you haven’t seen it, you probably know it as that movie where Anne Hathaway plays a slightly crazy sister of the bride whose presence almost derails a wedding. At least that’s the way it’s generally billed. But having seen it, I was pleasantly surprised to discover something far more — a first-rate detective story.

At the core of it all is the brilliant screenplay by Jenny Lumet, without which the wonderful direction of Jonathan Demme, or the performances in a stellar cast led by Anne Hathaway (whose performance deservedly won a gazillion awards) would have come to naught.

All great detective stories are built from two essential elements: The obvious secret, and the secret nobody knows (and which the detective must discover). Think of the Maltese Falcon. There is the secret of the bird itself — obvious and not all that interesting. But then there is the secret of the betrayal, the real core of the mystery. The key moment of Hammett’s novel occurs when Sam Spade uncovers the true killer of his partner, and must make the hard decisions that come from that bitter knowledge.

Likewise “Rachel getting Married” is a detective story with two secrets. The first one — the obvious one — is a family tragedy, a secret that everyone knows but nobody dares discuss. What makes this story interesting is that our stalwart detective, our Miss Marple and Sherlock Holmes all rolled into one, is a fragile and narcissistic former junky, a jittery wreck of a refugee from rehab. On a superficial level we are led to assume she is the nearest thing there is to a villian of the piece. But Demme makes sure, with every brilliant close-up and framing shot of his handheld camera, that we know that this character is not our bad guy, no matter how thoroughly she and everyone else on screen may believe she is.

And so the mystery is set up. Something has happened here, a chain of events from which a tragedy was set into motion, a tragedy for which the detective herself long ago took the fall and suffered the consequences. And right under our noses, without our being consciously aware of it, we watch as the detective sets out to solve the deeper mystery, the secret never before revealed, the one that really counts.

It all culminates in a brief scene late in the film of such unexpected emotional violence and feral intensity that it might seem like melodrama, except for the fact that it is in fact the key scene of the film, the pivot point, the moment that everything has been leading up to — the moment when the detective unmasks the killer.

What’s fun about this film is that we don’t expect things to turn out the way they do — heck, for much of the length of the film we may not even realize we are witnessing a detective story. Jenny Lumet is way ahead of us every step of the way, and Anne Hathaway, in her brilliant performance, is right there with her.

Sam Spade, it’s time to move over.

In memory

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

Two times have I been here before
Surveyed this very terrain
Seen the damage done
Only to have kept
My council

But now it has come round again
And I, astonished, as before
By fire soft to the touch
Find the taste of ash
Upon my lips

From the bitterness of moments lost
As empty as these hollow halls
That can echo only silence
Now the slate has been
Wiped clean

Two times have I been here before
I still see, even today, in memory
This room, so different now
Only to find that nothing
Has changed

Programming without math, part 11

Monday, December 28th, 2009

On the one hand I’ve been working on this programming language that everyone can use. On the other hand I’ve been trying out different names for it. I suppose this might be premature. On the other hand, in some ways it can be hard to work on, or even think about, something without knowing what to call it.

At first we (my students and I) wanted to call it “Patch” — an portmanteau of “Python” (the popular programming language) and “Scratch” (the MIT programming language for kids). But Patch is not really a very appealing name, is it? It sounds for all the world like the name of a sad little rag doll lying abandoned at the bottom of an old toy chest. Not really a name upon which to pin the dawning of a new era of universal literacy.

I tried out a few other names — like “Monty”, to suggest a prequel to “Python” — but most of them were just plain silly.

By far the best I’ve come up with comes from the mantra “Programming is easy”. As an acronym, that spells “Pie”, which has a rather nice ring to it. Pie is a simple name, easy to remember, and slightly whimsical, but not too whimsical. It also emphasizes the analogy between a program and a cooking recipe, which is definitely good.

I particularly like the way it sounds like the beginning of “Python”. In a sense, learning Pie is the beginning of learning Python. Furthermore (switching now into shameless pun mode), Pie is well rounded and flavorful, something you can really sink your teeth into. It’s a peachy name, fresh, yet warm. Quite à la mode, as they say. Possibly half baked, but that’s ok — this is research, after all.

And of course, everyone knows that Pie goes well with Java. :-)

All in all Pie seems like a fine name for a universally accessible programming language, no matter how you slice it. Does anyone care to agree or disagree?

The gathering storm

Sunday, December 27th, 2009

I feel odd about the year winding down. No, that’s not exactly right. To put it more precisely, I feel odd about feeling odd about the year winding down. I ask myself, why does it matter so much?

As these last days curl off the calendar, one by one, everyone is focused on this coming event, this next turning of the year. It so thoroughly pervades our thoughts that we don’t even quite notice it, so obvious is this particular elephant in this particular room.

It is quite like the feeling I remember as a child on summer mountain afternoons, as storm clouds slowly massed in one corner of the sky, and the darkness gradually spread outward, swallowing the blue sky while a chill filled the air. You could always feel when a storm was coming — that peculiar sudden drop in air pressure, the way even voices sounded different in those moments before the deluge. And then eventually the delicious sound of a million raindrops drawing closer, a veritable wall of water rushing toward you, an event so much larger than mere human scale, and yet somehow so personal.

The New Year is like that. We each bring our memories of other storms in other days, of the friends we were with, and how we felt about them. Even now, with four whole days to go, I can already feel the air pressure drop. People are aligning themselves, choosing where they will be on New Year’s Eve, making their resolutions.

By any objective measure it is just an arbitrary day, a moment, a trick of the calendar conjured by an accident of history. And yet we all feel it just the same. And when it comes, and the raindrops splash upon our upturned faces, every one of us will look up with hopeful eyes, each in our own way, for the dawning of a new year.

Unobtainium

Saturday, December 26th, 2009

Having just seen the film “Avatar”, I’m still pondering the substance Unobtainium, which shows up early on in the plot. It was a bold move for James Cameron to include something of this name in his story. “Unobtainium” is, in some circles, a well known substance. Whether you work in the sciences or the film industry, it is the thing you can’t get. For example, my cousin who works in film production tells me that the replacement lamp you need on the set, when there is no replacement lamp to be had, is said to be made of Unobtainium.

It turns out that this substance has its very own Wikipedia page — from which I learned that it is not actually the rarest substance in the universe. That turns out to be “Handwavium” — referring to something that can’t actually exist in any universe at all, because it consists of hand waving. Apparently that is the rarest substance of all. Or the most common, depending upon how you look at it.




Unobtainium (in case you need to know what it looks like)

I love the way that Cameron just plops this term right in the middle of the most literal-minded expensively realized special effects film in history, a movie in which each leaf on every blade of grass was lovingly created at immense detail, and at even more immense expense. In the midst of all of this slavish devotion to accuracy, this delicacy of execution, he throws us a giant neon sign, a metaphor as clankingly, pointedly in-your-face as, say, the first three letters of the title character’s name in Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”.

This is a move that shows great confidence, which I like. After all, in the world of the film, when one character explains to another that this is Unobtainium, the appropriate response would have been “What? Is this some kind of joke? Or are you just a complete idiot?” But of course that’s not how it goes down. The characters are not in on the joke — only we are, the audience. Cameron is asking us to join him in a moment of outrageously post-modern comedy in an otherwise very self-serious story. Basically he’s telegraphing, in no uncertain terms, that all of this world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.

When you watch “Avatar”, if you haven’t already (I recommend it highly — it’s right up there with “Lost in Austen”), you’ll see that this seemingly tiny Shakespearean detail is, in fact, a precise commentary on one of the central themes of the story. And that’s just genius.

Picture this song

Friday, December 25th, 2009

Today I was listening to one of my favorite songs — “London London” by Caetano Veloso — and it occurred to me that one could create a single image that forms an unmistakeable “snapshot” of this song, for anyone familiar with the song. Here is the image I came up with:



This suggests an idea for a game: Choose or create a single image, and ask somebody to guess what song it represents. Here is one that most of you will find easy:



I showed the two above images to my cousin Ben and his wife Estéphane (she is Brazilian). Estéphane got the first one instantly, but Ben had no idea what it was.

On the other hand, Ben got the second one instantly (as I suspect most of you will), but Estéphane had no idea what it was.

Which suggests another game: Choose two friends, and create two different images, each of which represents a different song. The goal is to create your images so that one of your two friends will be able to name only the song suggested by first image, while your other friend will be able to name only the song suggested by the second image.

I think this game is much more interesting.

:-)

Lost in Lost in Austen

Thursday, December 24th, 2009

I saw the film “Lost in Austen”. Actually it was a four part BBC series (which I happened to catch on streaming Netflix). The premise is very simple. Amanda Price, a modern day young woman in London, upon rereading “Pride and Prejudice”, finds herself somehow swapped with Elizabeth Bennet. While the fictional Ms. Bennet is presumably left to cope with the unfamiliar world of post-millenial London, Amanda must navigate the perilous terrain of the upper classes at play in early nineteenth century England.

This could have been a complete mess. There have been so many knock-offs of Ms. Austen, from “Clueless” to “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”. But this one is different. The writer, Guy Andrews, not only knows the intricacies of Jane Austen’s masterpiece inside and out, but he writes as if you do too. It’s all perfectly entertaining if you haven’t read the book, or perhaps have read it once and forgotten much of it, but if you really know the book inside out, then this film is a treasure map, leading you through the subtleties, the delicate jockeying for social position, sudden shifts in balance of power, delicate feints and clever subterfuges that form the lifeblood of Austen’s greatest work.

I can’t actually think of anything else like it. Rather than the usual pop-cultural trick in a “fish out of water” story of replacing a masterpiece with something coarse and obvious, “Lost in Austen” draws from the intricate strengths of the original work, building on them expertly to create an alternate version of Ms. Austen’s universe that is in every way true to the spirit of the original. In fact, the more familiar you are with the original work, the more you will enjoy “Lost in Austen”. If you are a fan of “Pride and Prejudice”, then you already know these characters — you know them intimately, know what they will do when faced with a novel set of circumstances. And yet Andrews’ biggest conceit is to suggest that you don’t know them nearly as well as you believed you had all these years. They say and do surprising things, revealing novel dimensions, but always in ways that are completely consistent with Austen’s original intent.

Part of this is due to Andrew’s perfect ear for Austen’s dialog. Everything that emerges from the mouths of these characters — from Mr. Darcy to Mrs. Bennet to Mr. Collins — is dead-on accurate, a perfectly pitched expression of how speech from that particular character would actually emerge from the pen of Jane Austen.

I think this may be something very rare indeed — a genuine work of post-modern genius on television. If you have ever thought there was more to Lady Catherine de Bourgh than meets the eye, that perhaps Georgiana Darcy was not as she first appears, if ever you harbored questions about the dynamic between George Wyckham and Caroline Bingley, or if you are simply a fan of Austen’s masterpiece (you know who you are), you should watch this film immediately.

Programming without math, part 10

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009

One thing that is becoming clear to me, as I play around with different implementations, is that universal programming literacy will require undoing the general perception of programming as an “off-line” activity — as opposed to, say, writing, which can easily function as an “on-line” activity.

By “off-line”, I mean something you can generally only do slowly and in solitude, when nobody else is around to disturb your concentration. It is certainly true that much writing of prose takes place off-line. I generally write these blog posts during some interstitial time of day, when no one else is about. On the other hand, we don’t need to write off-line. It is quite common now for people to engage in text chats or fire off quick emails in the middle of events or meetings. And of course the entire point of a tweet is that it is an emphatically on-line act. In fact, this single quality essentially defines the very ethos of the twitterati. To tweet is to twist the dictum of Ram Dass — “Be Here Now” — into an imperative to “Be There Now”.

And so I’ve reached the conclusion (at least for now) that the proper way to teach programming — if programming is to be a universally acquired skill — is to immerse the learner into an on-line community, via a synchronously shared game or activity, in which programming serves as a fundamentally conversational skill. In such a learning environment, communication between people should be an essential purpose of the act of programming.

In this scenario, programs are not heavy things, like most programs of today — creations of psychic bricks and mortar — but rather light and airy, quickly mutable, jotted musings that produce an instantaneous effect, which can be quickly changed and just as quickly discarded.

In other words, the very qualities that we expect from a language.

A fifth of vodka

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

Today I was visiting the MIT Media Lab, mainly to talk with Mitch Resnick and Marvin Minsky about programming without math. While I was there, I got a demo from a grad student about a multitouch table interface he’s been developing. He told me he’d discovered that the simpler he made his interfaces, the more people seemed to like them. We discussed the need for very natural interfaces that make the most intuitive sense to people. Even if such interfaces have less functionality than the fanciest interfaces, people greatly prefer them.

At one point in the conversation I found myself saying that interfaces should pass the fifth of vodka test. “What’s that?” the student asked. I explained that the best interfaces are the ones that would still work after the user has drunk an entire fifth of vodka. The student seemed somewhat surprised to hear of such a thing, but he agreed that this is indeed an excellent test, one that seems to get at the essence of things. For example, the Apple iPhone passes with flying colors, whereas it’s hard to think of any software by Microsoft that would pass the fifth of vodka test.

So how long had this test been around? Well actually it hadn’t — I just made it up that moment. Still, I think there’s something to it. For example, it could be interesting to see how well the fifth of vodka test works in practice. Then again, I can foresee some practical problems. For one thing, I imagine it would be very difficult for a study validating such a test to get funding from the National Science Foundation.

If you see what I mean.