Archive for February, 2010

World of Goop

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

I was fascinated — and delighted — that no sooner did I post a poem yesterday that expressed a mood of gloom, when a comment appeared that rewrote the poem ever so slightly, so that it expressed a mood of hope. This act of rewriting was an implicit assertion that my original poem (or any original work) was merely one fixed point in a universe of potential creations.

Intrigued by this manifesto of remix, I then wrote a third poem as an answering comment, which expressed yet another mood, which got me thinking how the space of potential works can in some ways be more interesting than the written canon.

Coincidentally, an article in today’s New York Times featured an examination of the trend toward the use of deliberate and unapologetic appropriation in literature. The article even quotes James Joyce’s memorable line “I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors and paste man.”

There is a tension here, of course, between those who see appropriation as an aesthetic right, and those who claim ownership over their original works, viewing unauthorized appropriation as theft of property. Of course there are powerful arguments on both sides. As with most interesting debates, god is in the details.

But suppose content creators were to fling open the doors. Suppose we started designing literature to be a target for remix and appropriation, from the ground up. We could, in fact, develop software that would enable this process. Suppose my goal was to write not a single original poem, but rather a procedural universe of poems for you to use — a kind of “generative oracle of poetry” (Goop). Readers could request different moods, and out of the Goop would emerge variants of the core poetic idea that expressed correspondent shades of emotion.

The concept of procedural literature is certainly not new. The OuLiPo movement — founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and Francois Le Lionnais — looks at any given creative work as merely one instance of a set of generator rules and constraints to create potential literature. In this view, the true original work lies in the creation of this underlying set of rules and constraints.

But I think such ideas will continue to be of only limited interest if such poetic oracles are one-offs, with each writer’s work existing in its own isolated universe. Suppose there were a coherent OuLiPo universe, in which many Goops were naturally linked. My generative creation could deliberately incorporate the generative power of yours, so that anyone who sought to pull out a customized result from my poetic musings would find echoes of your muse nestled within.

This way of doing things is very familiar to software designers. Generally speaking, each of us does not implement our own version of a high dimensional matrix inverter, or Voronoi diagram builder, or 3D physics simulator (unless we are doing it for practice and self-education, as one might, say, build a cigar box banjo as a craft exercise).

Perhaps it is time, given the rapidly increasing power and accessibility of computers, to apply the general ethos of communities of shared OuLiPo to prose and poetry. Collaborative building and sharing of libraries for algorithmic expression have become a mainstay of scientific progress. Why shouldn’t the arts community benefit from such twenty first century tools?


Saturday, February 27th, 2010

The dreams you never know you dream
Still echo in the day
The inner eye, the unseen hand
Will lead you far away

Within the dark of night are found
Those shadows of your soul
That hide within a secret place
Until they take their toll

Voices whisper in the wind
And seeds of fate are sown
Where all the dreams that you forgot
Are waiting to be known

Faces, continued

Friday, February 26th, 2010

The discussion yesterday was so interesting that I thought it would be a good idea to spend another day on this topic. When it comes to the question of ubiquitous face recognition (ie: technology assist that lets you recognize the face of anyone, anywhere, anytime), I think there are two issues that somehow got entangled in the comments.

One is the issue of prosthesis, and the other is the issue of privacy. When talking about computer-assisted face recognition as a prosthetic, it is useful to note that there is nothing even remotely unnatural about such a technology. In fact, humans have rather sophisticated machinery within our brains that allows us to recognize faces (it turns out that reasoning power alone is insufficient — to identify the face of another person, you actually need that dedicated hardware you’ve got in your cerebrum).

So using software to enhance facial recognition is no more unnatural than contact lenses, hearing aids or prosthetic shoes. In each case, a natural human ability is being augmented through technology.

Privacy only becomes an concern when we ask what becomes of those images we are all taking with our digital cameras. And here is where it might become useful to push the discussion a bit further into the future.

Let’s skip ahead another thirty years or so. In 2040, the iPhone has become a relic of the past, interesting only as an arcane cultural artifact, like a TI99 might be in the year 2010. We all have implants in our corneas that allow our eyes to see whatever cybervisions we wish, all networked wirelessly at very high data rates.

In the world of 2040, it is a given that your eyes have automatic computer-assist for recognizing faces, and many other things besides. Your cyber-enhanced eyes and ears are gathering data all the time, and your implanted personal CPUs are continually sifting through that data, for things that you personally would find of interest.

But here’s the rub: The moment that data leaves your body, there is an issue. The fact that whatever you see can instantly be transmitted to the world has all of a sudden become somebody else’s business — the business of the person you happen to be looking at.

I predict that a body of legal rulings will eventually be built around the question of what allowable limits there may be on my right to surreptitiously broadcast what I see with my own eyes. And those rulings will not decide in favor of unrestricted, unconditional rebroadcast of captured reality.

If we keep this scenario in mind, the issues become clear: I should have unlimited right to use iPhone based face recognition as a prosthetic — ie, for my own use in recognizing faces.

But once I start broadcasting my captured images to the world, identifying exactly who was where and when they were there, then I’ve crossed the line into potential invasion of privacy. That’s when the legal questions will start — and where the fuzzy line of what society finds acceptable will eventually become defined not through technology, but through case law.

There’s a face for that

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

It may not yet be common knowledge, but the technology already exists to figure out who a person is from a photo of that person. In particular, if you have a database of images of people’s faces, each tagged with the name of that person, then there are fairly reliable algorithms that can identify any one of those people from a new photo.

Meanwhile, millions of people are walking around carrying iPhones. There is already a culture in place whereby people use their iPhone to surreptitiously take photos of other people (you pretend you’re reading something on your screen, when in reality you are aiming your iPhone and clicking the shutter).

Logically you would think people would use an iPhone App to tell you who that guy or gal is at that party, or professional conference, or gallery opening? I mean, these are exactly the situations in which you are dealing with a known group of people, for whom tagged photos are likely to already exist.

I confess I’m one of those people who “knows” hundreds of people (at least) from conferences and other professional situations — if by “know” we mean that I recognize their faces and realize that I’ve spoken with them before, and have probably even shared a beer or two with them at one time. But I could not even begin to connect most of those familiar faces to their respective names, let alone to their professional affiliations.

Yes, I know that conferences hand out badges to attendees. But any conference attendee knows the limitations of that technology. Half the time people have their badge flipped around backwards, and during the evening parties (which is when you really get to talk with people), more than half have ditched their badges altogether – and the people who don’t wear nerdy badges at parties are probably just the people you’d rather talk to.

And of course you won’t generally find people wearing name tags at purely social gatherings or downtown performance events or art gallery openings.

It’s not just a question of name recognition. Your iPhone (which is, after all, a network appliance) could actually tell you something useful about that person — like the fact that they are working on precisely the research problem for which you’ve been seeking an expert. Or — in a slightly more sophisticated version — that they have just put a posting on Craig’s List to unload exactly that model of used netbook you’ve been desperate to find (and which they might be carrying with them right now). You get the idea.

I did a little searching around the Web. There are indeed some iPhone Apps out there that do face recognition. One of them even integrates with Facebook pictures. And yet I’ve never seen anyone use one.

Why is that?

Robots in your house

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

Today I was having a wonderful conversation with my friend Heather (who makes robots) about robots in your house. I don’t mean thermostats and dishwashers and automatic garage door openers all of those other practical robots that have been busily keeping your life in order for years while you weren’t looking.

I’m talking about Rosie from “The Jetsons”. I’m talking about R2D2 and C3PO from “Star Wars”, Robbie from “Forbidden Planet”, Huey Dewey and Louie from “Silent Running”. In your house, making your bed, greeting you at the door, cooking your favorite meal or just hanging out. Maybe a bit like a beloved dog, except this one can play a mean game of chess.

This is, of course, well trod territory. Asimov’s “Robot” series laid it all out for us decades ago. But in our culture something always seems to go wrong — eventually it all turns into Karel Kopek’s metaphor about repressed workers, and then things get bad. Somehow the robots figure out a way around Asimov’s three laws of robotics that are supposed to guarantee no harm to humans. Or Cylons spin out of control and start hunting us down. Or the Borg get really creative with used radio parts from Canal Street and end up looking like Maker Faire in hell.

This isn’t the case in Japan by the way. They love their robots, and every Japanese kid’s fondest wish is to have his or her own electromechanical friend that truly understands them, is up for going on adventures, and fighting bad guys. And not just kids. Grownup Japanese people want one too.

So what’s up with us? Why do our robots turn into scary monsters?

Heather was quoted today in a New York Times article with a very plausible explanation:

“The Japanese have always been more comfortable with it, but particularly in the West, there’s this whole Frankenstein thing that if we try to make something in the image of man, to make a new creature, we’re stealing the role of God, and it’s going to turn out wrong because that’s not our role.” – Heather Knight, quoted in The New York Times, Feb 24, 2010

I completely concur. Our entire Judeo-Christian tradition tells us that we’re not supposed to create life (other than through the usual, um, channels). This all goes back a lot further than Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The myth of the Golem and similar ancient European tales have shared this cautionary theme. Use your human intelligence to make other intelligent creatures, and you’re screwed (notice, by the way, how the Roomba has cleverly slipped in under our paranoia radar by channeling the whole “inoffensive pet” thing).

I suspect our cultural robo-paranoia goes back even further. It’s a close cousin of the Greek notion of hubris. Prometheus gives us fire, and the gods punish him for handing out one of their own divine powers like a party favor. Icarus, delighted by his newfound god-like ability to fly, forgets he’s not really a god. And you know what happens next.

So why did this particular flavor of technophobia emerge in the West, but not in the East? I’d love to hear any theories.

Expository writing

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

The subject of education reform brought me back to the single most useful class I took in high school (with the arguable exception of touch typing). Mr. Merkin’s expository writing class in the first semester of my senior year was quite unlike any other class I’ve ever attended.

The idea was simple. After a brief introductory lecture, we would be given a short story or essay to read, and each student would then write a one page essay, in pen, about what we had just read. Mr. Merkin would gather up our papers at the end of the class.

The next time we met he would hand back our papers, all marked up with red ink. Of course he would make grammatical corrections, but the more interesting corrections were structural — showing where our argument was veering off-target, where we had used a misleading metaphor, or pointing out an inadequate introduction or conclusion.

After we’d had time to absorb the returned paper, he would give us a lecture about some aspect of expository writing — the need to avoid overly lengthy descriptions, the structural trinity of introduction / exposition / conclusion, or the uses of a catchy lead-in.

Then we’d get another short story or essay to read, and we’d each write another one page expository essay. This would happen every class — three times a week. By the end of the semester, each of us had written dozens of short essays.

I distinctly recall that at the start of that semester I could not write worth a damn, and by the end of the semester I could. All I’d really needed was a set of short manageable goals, knowing that someone I respected was watching, and continual practice with good feedback at every step.

In my own teaching I have emulated Mr. Merkin’s methods. I never bother with exams — only homework. I give a homework assignment every week, always due before class the next week, and all of the assignments are learn-by-doing (mostly short programming assignments). I try to make each assignment self-contained, so that doing that assignment gives each student a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

I also try to make sure to structure the assignments so that every student is expected to add their own personal aesthetic spin to their work. Not only does this allow each student to express his or her individuality, but it also makes it essentially impossible to cheat.

It took me a while to realize that I was channeling my old high school teacher. Once I did, I felt an enormous sense of delight. My students tend to really enjoy these classes, and they seem to derive a great deal of pride and sense of ownership from their work. I learned from Mr. Merkin that a teacher’s job is to provide a properly structured ladder for each student to climb, step by step, by virtue of their own efforts.

When the ladder is designed properly, the student will generally succeed in climbing all the way to the top. The view they get, looking back over their own accomplishments at the end of the semester, is magnificent.


Monday, February 22nd, 2010

I was in a discussion today and the topic turned to the question of motivating kids to learn. Somebody pointed out that motivation is the key — once kids are motivated to learn something, they are unstoppable.

But then somebody cautioned “yes, but we want to motivate them to learn the things we need them to learn.”

I found myself disagreeing, on the grounds that this entire view of the situation contains a fatal oversimplification. In order to be truly compelling, to tap into kids’ powerful inner motivational engine, the entire transaction needs to be more of a dialogue than a one-way conversation. You can’t just impose your ideas about what is valuable onto kids, and still expect them to remain motivated. Rather, you need to work with each learner’s natural enthusiasms. That is the real raw material of high quality learning.

Each human mind comes to the same subject from a unique perspective. For example, many people find they have a great desire to write — and therefore to learn how to write well — but not everyone is trying to write on the same topic.

Similarly, I know an awful lot about computer programming by now. But I was never particularly interested in computer programming. My interest was in creating images, visions, making visible the worlds that I could see in my mind. It turned out that computers provided me with a great way to do that. And so I started picking up all sorts of skills in math and computer science that were useful in achieving that goal.

I realize that what I am saying is heresy, from the perspective of received wisdom about educational policy. But there really is no way around it. If we want to fully engage those astonishing minds that kids have — by far any nation’s most valuable resource — we need to rethink education at a fundamental level. We might need to throw out most of what we think we know about teaching and learning.

We need to recognize — and to truly respect — that every learner is an individual learner.

The legend of Jake (complete)

Sunday, February 21st, 2010


Canto the first

In ancient times, when robots ruled the earth
There was a droid named Jake, of lowly status,
Thus begins our epic, offered gratis
A tale composed of tragedy and mirth.
Fifteen times the seasons came and went
Before our callow hero e’er did roam
Beyond the humble factory, his home,
Where cybernetic days were simply spent.
Until one winter night most dark and deep
When robots slumber silent and recharging
A shadow large as night and still enlarging
Descended on the robots in their sleep
      With no one in the factory awake
      Except one humble robot, name of Jake.

The world we know is nestled in a dream
And every dream contains more dreams within,
All dreamers, whether flesh and blood or tin
Must enter realms that are not what they seem.
Whenever hearts, however young and brave,
Set out one day, upon a noble quest
They see the world not plain, but at its best
For who can doubt the thing he fights to save?
We mortals die, but tales live forever
Thus tales told are magical indeed
Of epic quests, on rocket ship or steed
Made known by lyric verses sad or clever.
      But in that moment Jake knew only this:
      The world was dark, and something was amiss.

He wrestled with a mounting sense of fear
As slowly did he roll across the floor
Slower still he exited the door
Where looming darkness now was drawing near.
Before the spreading spectral shadow’s fall
Jake did bravely choose to stand his ground
Listening quite closely for some sound
But heard no sound — he heard no sound at all.
Till all at once a rustle overhead
Direct above the place where he did stand
And looking up, he saw a giant hand
Descending through the dark, a thing of dread.
      Before he even had a chance to pray
      Our brave young hero fainted dead away.

Jake awoke to find himself inside
Some sort of large mechanical device
Making sure to check his circuits twice
He found nothing amiss, except his pride.
Quite relieved to see he wasn’t dead,
He knew there was still much to understand
It isn’t often that a giant hand
Lifts one into the air from overhead.
He set about examining the place
Just where he was, he really could not tell.
He hoped he’d find some other bots as well
Perhaps a friendly cybernetic face.
      No sooner had this thought formed in his head
      When a lovely face appeared. “Hello,” she said.


Canto the second

ake was too astonished to reply
Transfixed, he simply stood in silence, gawking,
Confident that had he started talking
He would have gotten stuck somewhere at “Hi”.
For never in his life had our young bot
Beheld a vision of such sheer delight
This strange new robot was a lovely sight
For she was everything that he was not.
Her armature was delicate and svelte
Her cover plate a soft and glowing pink
He found it was becoming hard to think
He thought his circuits were about to melt.
      And then she spoke again — her voice was sweet.
      “Are you a real robot? That’s so neat!”

“That’s evident,” said Jake, somewhat bemused.
“Like everyone,” he said, “I am a bot.”
“You are indeed,” she said, “but I am not.”
“Not what?” replied our hero, all confused.
The concept she was trying to explain
Was so outside the universe he knew
That as she spoke, his puzzlement just grew
He felt troubled in his cybernetic brain
“Look,” she said, “I am a human being.”
“I do not know this model type” said Jake,
“Perhaps some newer bot? A recent make?”
“No!” she said, “You’re looking, but not seeing.”
      “Well then?” inquired Jake, “What do you do?”
      “We create robotic droids,” she said. “Like you.”

Jake was stricken. This was too much to digest.
What were these humans? A source of life or doom?
His world was changing, right here in this room,
Was this the end, or the start of some new quest?
He felt afraid, as frightened as a child
Who’s stumbled on a deep and endless void.
“Are you my God?” asked the hesitant young droid.
The girl looked thoughtful, then suddenly she smiled.
“I’m afraid,” she said, “it is time for me to go.”
Then she shrugged, and began to turn away
He felt that there was something more to say
“Wait!” Jake cried, “There is much I need to know!”
      All at once, the stranger’s face went blank
      And as Jake looked on in horror, to the floor she slowly sank.

ake stared down upon the lifeless girl
Had he just seen his own creator die?
Could he revive her? Should he even try?
So many thoughts! His mind was in a whirl.
“You seem confused,” a voice behind him said.
He turned around but saw no other bot.
“You wonder was this real, or was it not.”
The voice, he realized, was in his head.
“Our intent, you see, was never to deceive;
“We programmed you to seek the human out.”
“But why?” he asked, “What is this all about?”
“We sought to test your power to believe.”
      “You mean there is no truth behind religion?”
      “There is,” replied the voice. “But just a smidgeon…”


Canto the third

“What use is a religion without God?”
Within his CPU Jake felt betrayed.
The voice replied “You’re angry and afraid,
But remember that this path is quite well trod.
No bot was ever built to last forever,
There comes a time we all must start to rust.
Eventually we crumble into dust
And eternity’s another word for never.”
“Oh please,” our hero snapped, “just what’s your point?”
The voice said “Hey, I’m here to give assistance.
I appreciate your courage and persistence,
But please don’t get your circuits out of joint!
      Life isn’t owned, my friend — it’s merely rented.
      We need to cope. Thus gods must be invented.”

“So you think gods are invented?” Jake replied,
“Then tell me, voice, just who made the first bot?
It seems to me you do not know a lot
For someone with an attitude so snide.”
There was a silence then, for quite a spell
His opponent now seemed well and truly stuck.
Jake thought, perhaps through skill or just dumb luck,
He’d argued his position very well.
But then the voice returned, “It was a bot.”
“A bot?” said Jake, “A bot was the creator?
But this other bot would have to have come later
Than some other early bot, but that’s just rot.
      The recursion never ends, and you’re a clown.”
      The voice replied “It’s robots, all the way down.”

think,” said Jake, “I now see your position,
That bots assembled bots since time began.
But I’m afraid I’m really not much of a fan
Of causality replaced by superstition.”
With that Jake started exiting the room.
“Wait!” replied the voice, “We aren’t done.”
“I think we are, it’s been a lot of fun,
But now I see no harbinger of doom
Is threatening my planet with its might
And I really must return back to the shop.”
With that Jake left. “No, wait!”, the voice said. “Stop!”
But Jake was rolling quickly out of sight.
      “It’s too late,” sighed the voice. “He’s gone. Oh hell.”
      A familiar voice replied, “You argued well.”

For a while she just stared down at the screen.
“He never stormed away before,” she mused.
Emily was getting more enthused
This was the most successful run she’d seen.
She’d never thought she’d like the seventh grade
But this teacher let her program her own sim.
Jake had started out a little dim
But look at all the progress he had made.
She’d appeared to him as all the major gods
Now she’d run her bot through Turtle theory
(It seemed recursive robots made Jake leery)
Next up on the list: Transpermic pods!
      After that it would be “Jake the robot nun”.
      Homework never had been so much fun!


Saturday, February 20th, 2010

I am fortunate to have gotten this far in my life without having read John Le Carré. Fortunate in the sense that I now have the incomparable pleasure of reading “The Spy who Came In from the Cold” for the first time.

There is something wonderful about picking up a book and realizing that one is in the presence of a master. There is not a wasted sentence in this tale. Every page is taut, lean, uncertain. The world Le Carré paints is both deeply civilized and knife-edge dangerous, all at once. Small details matter, and events of great moment can pivot on subtleties of character. In short, this book takes my breath away.

I am about half way through now. Since the novel is completely irresistible, I know that I shall soon be finished, and that will be sad — like the prospect of finishing a delicious cake that you wish could last forever, even as you reach for the next greedy forkful. I wanted to write this while I was still in the midst of the experience, still living vicariously within Le Carré’s astonishing world.

The first time reading a great work is a moment of grace in one’s life — an experience that can never again be repeated. I know that in the head-long rush of things we often overlook such moments. I, for one, am savoring this one.

The legend of Jake, Canto the third. Verse 4:

Friday, February 19th, 2010

For a while she just stared down at the screen.
“He never stormed away before,” she mused.
Emily was getting more enthused
This was the most successful run she’d seen.
She’d never thought she’d like the seventh grade
But this teacher let her program her own sim.
Jake had started out a little dim
But look at all the progress he had made.
She’d appeared to him as all the major gods
Now she’d run her bot through Turtle theory
(It seemed recursive robots made Jake leery)
Next up on the list: Transpermic pods!
      After that it would be “Jake the robot nun”.
      Homework never had been so much fun!