Archive for March, 2010

Attic, part 4

Sunday, March 21st, 2010

After the closing bell, they waited until the last stragglers had left school. When they were sure there wasn’t a soul around Jenny and Josh made their way to the school library.

“Well, this is it.” Josh said.

“Yes,” said Jenny, “but how are we going to get into the library?” The two of them looked at the forbidding oak door. Even if they’d wanted to, they couldn’t have forced their way through a door that big.

“Wait, I have an idea,” Josh said.

“OK,” said Jenny, “What’s your brilliant plan?”

“Watch,” Josh said. And with a look of studied concentration, he turned the door handle. The library door swung inward.

“How did you…” Jenny started.

“It was easy,” Josh shrugged. “The librarian never locks these doors after hours.”

“And you would know this how?”

Josh looked sheepish. “I like to come here to read after everyone’s gone, but I have a reputation to uphold. If kids found out how much of a bookworm I really am, they’d lose all respect.”

“You’re a dork,” Jenny said. “Fortunately, you’re a lovable dork.”

The two of them pressed on. Soon they were standing in front of the glass case, staring at the old wooden chest.

Josh tried the glass door. “No luck this time — this one’s really locked. Are we going to be doing any glass smashing today?”

“Not necessarily,” Jenny said, walking over to the librarian’s desk. “I’ve spent some time around here too, you know. This is not a very high security establishment. And you pick up some things if you know how to watch.” She opened the top drawer of the desk and rummaged around. “Aha!” she said, holding up a small metal key. “No glass smashing today.”

The little metal key indeed unlocked the door to the glass case. Soon they had removed the wooden chest from the case.

“You want to do the honors?” Josh asked. “After all, it’s your key.”

“Technically I’m not sure about that,” Jenny said, “But it’s probably true to a first approximation.” Gingerly she inserted the skeleton key into the little skull-shaped keyhole in the wooden chest. Nothing happened.

“Um,” Josh said, “I think you have to turn it.”

“Oh, right, I knew that. At least I think I knew that.” Jenny turned the key to the left, and they both heard a definite click. Slowly Jenny reached out with both hands, and lifted the lid of the chest.

There, lying in the middle of the chest, was a scroll, tied neatly with a faded yellow ribbon.


Saturday, March 20th, 2010

I realized during last November’s NanoWrimo that posting an entire novel on-line without “commercial interruptions”, as it were, is not the optimal use of the weblog as a medium. A daily posting needs variety. Otherwise people start to cross their eyes, everything goes blurry, pictures begin to shift around on the walls, and before you know it, devoted blog readers everywhere are speaking in tongues and levitating small household objects.

So consider today’s post as a friendly message from your sponsor.

While I’m here, I might as well talk about something. In particular, a snatch of a conversation I had over coffee yesterday. A colleague and I were discussing the fact that there is woefully insufficient cultural cross-over between the interests of art and the interests of science. I’m not talking about weird stuff like “an abstract interpretive dance about quantum theory.” Rather, a genuine merging of these two great human quests — the quest for aesthetic/emotional meaning and the quest for objective truth.

Soon after that point in the conversation I found myself, unexpectedly, telling my colleague: “I might be one of the few people I know who loves to do science that also really really cares why Austen had Elizabeth Bennet start to realize she likes Mr. Darcy in that particular chapter, rather than two chapters before or two chapters after.”

The person I was talking to knew exactly what I was getting at. I’m sure there are lots of people identified as “scientists” who share my passion for such questions. It would just be nice if there were more of us!

Attic, part 3

Friday, March 19th, 2010

Sitting in the courtyard at lunch break, turning the key over in her hands, Jenny pondered it with care. She was so lost in contemplation that she didn’t hear Josh come up behind her until he exclaimed, rather loudly, “Nice key!”

Jenny nearly jumped in the air. “Jeeze”, she glared. “You nearly scared me to death.”

“Sorry,” he smiled, clearly not sorry. “What’s that? Finally found the key to my heart?”

She just shook her head in disgust. Josh was cute, but there was no getting around it — boys simply did not mature as quickly as girls. For the crime of liking the male half, it seemed she was forever doomed to the company of geeks and morons. Oh why couldn’t she like girls instead, like Chloe? Life must be so much more pleasant for Chloe. Besides, that might be a way to get through to Mom — finally something Mom would really have to notice. The thought made her smile.

“Ah, starting to appreciate my fine sense of humor, I see,” Josh grinned.

“No, you dork, I was just thinking how great it would have been if I’d been … oh never mind. You wouldn’t understand.”

Josh shrugged. He’d learned long ago not to try to follow the convoluted path of Jenny’s thoughts. “So, what’s with the key?”

“I’m trying to figure out what it opens.” She continued to regard the key thoughtfully.

“Looks like a pirate key to me,” Josh suggested.

“It’s called a skeleton key,” Jenny explained impatiently.

He grinned at that. “Why would anybody want to lock a skeleton?”

“Can you please be serious for five minutes?” she asked. “This is important.”

“Sorry,” Josh replied. “Serious is against my nature, but for you I am willing to make an effort. Why do they call it a skeleton key anyway?”

“I think it comes from the shape of the keyhole,” she explained. “Round at the top and kind of flared out below — kind of like the shape of a skull.”

“Oh, right,” he said. “You mean like the keyhole in that old wooden box in the school library — the one they supposedly found in that time capsule forty years ago. I remember Mr. Flanders told us in class it was the only object in the capsule they could never get open.”

The two of them looked at each other, then they both looked at the key. When Josh looked back at Jenny he saw that she was regarding him with the sweetest smile.

“You are a genius!” she exclaimed. “I could kiss you.”

Josh felt a very complex mix of emotions. He was sure that later he would think this was a very good moment, but right now he felt way out of his comfort zone. He knew he was supposed to say something here, but for once he was at a loss for words.

Jenny was too excited to notice. “Hey,” she smiled, even more sweetly, “would you like to go on an adventure with me to open that box?”

Faced with a concrete task, Josh once again found himself able to focus. “Well,” he said, “you do realize it would involve breaking into a locked glass case, tampering with school property, and probably violating about a dozen school regulations and at least one state law.”

“Will that be a problem?” she asked.

“I don’t see why,” he smiled. He wasn’t sure, but he had a feeling this whole crime thing was going to be a positive step in their relationship.

Attic, part 2

Thursday, March 18th, 2010

The golden key glistened as Jenny held it up to the light from the attic window, turning it first one way and then another. She frowned thoughtfully. It’s one thing to find a key, but quite another to know what it opens — if anything. She wondered whether it was made of real gold. Not that it really mattered. After all, the real value of a key lies in what it can unlock.

She looked about the attic, trying to spot something that might require a skeleton key. Everything was in such a jumble — it had probably been decades since anyone had made a real attempt to tidy up in here. She had gotten the feeling growing in this house up that ever since Grandma had passed, the attic was not a popular place to visit. It wasn’t anything people said, more the way the subject just never seemed to come up. Whatever the reason, clearly Mom wasn’t a big fan of the attic and its secrets.

Still, she could try to ask Mom what the deal was, show her the jewelry box with its mysterious key. No, she thought, that probably wasn’t a good idea. She really wasn’t supposed to be up here at all, and in any case, something told her that it would be better, at least for now, to keep this little secret to herself. Besides, she was already late for school. Jenny tucked the key into the pocket of her jeans and headed on downstairs.

Attic, part 1

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

The house had been in their family for about two hundred years, and had somehow managed to pass from mother to daughter. So great was the pull of the old place that successive generations of husbands always ended up moving in.

Jenny had always heard stories about her grandmother’s secret jewelry box, the one that was supposed to be lost somewhere in the attic, and how grandma, when she was a girl, had found it there one day, left by her grandmother. Mom used to tell the story with a wistful look, as though talking about some long lost childhood friend. But it was one of those stories you don’t really think is true. Grandma had died when Jenny’s mom was just a girl, so there was no way to check, and Jenny was rather practical minded about these things.

So she was a little taken aback when she actually came upon the little jewelry box while rummaging around in the attic one day. The inlaid figurine of a ballerina on the top surface was exactly as her mom had always described it, and she knew at once that it was the real thing, with a certainty that she couldn’t really explain.

There didn’t seem to be a key to open it, or a keyhole either for that matter. After a few minutes of fiddling around trying to find a secret door or something, she was about to give up in frustration, when on a sudden whim she pressed down on the little figure of the ballerina. With a click the box sprang open.

The inside of the box was lined with a thick cushion of red velvet. It smelled slightly musty, as though the box had been closed for a very long time, which she supposed it must have been. Other than that the box appeared to be empty, except for a single old-fashioned skeleton key, golden in color, nestled within a matching depression in the velvet cushion.

Superheroes, revisited

Tuesday, March 16th, 2010

Yesterday I pointed out that the modern equivalent of the power of invisibility is possession of a universal password. One can take the analogy further. Superhero comics have been with us for a long time. From Superman to Batman to the XMen, the basic premise has been the same — we place our collective hands in the fate of individuals with enormous powers, and we trust in those individuals’ heightened sense of responsibility and ethics, knowing that they will use those powers for the good of humanity.

Even Spiderman — poor misunderstood Peter Parker — courageously fought for good, even in the face of being falsely labeled a villain. What would possibly be more noble than to devote your superior powers to the defense of the very people who falsely accuse you?

Things got more complicated with Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Suddenly the moral equation became tilted — superheroes were just like us, only with better training and colorful costumes. A superhero did not necessarily have a heightened sense of ethics — in fact it could go quite the other way.

We are currently in an analogous situation in the age of Google. I have no doubt that Larry Page and Sergei Brin are good and highly ethical people. But their superpowers will outlive them. One day others will have possession of the universal password — the modern equivalent of the power of invisibility.

And on that day we may find ourselves in the highly ethical universe envisioned by Jerome Siegel and Joseph Shuster when they created Superman, but rather in the far darker and more ambiguous universe that Alan Moore showed us in Watchmen.

And on that day, we may regret putting our collective fate into the hands of our modern day superheroes.

The power of invisibility

Monday, March 15th, 2010

The first time I ever heard “This American Life” was while I was driving around Austin Texas in a rented car. That day Ira Glass was doing a wonderful riff on the idea of super powers. One bit involved asking people, given the choice between the power of flight and the power of invisibility, which they would choose. Initially the choice was about even, but just about everyone, when given more time to think about it, ended up realizing that invisibility is by far the greater power. Essentially, flight makes you vulnerable whereas invisibility gives you knowledge, and knowledge is the ultimate power.

Some people interviewed were actually afraid of the power of invisibility. One man worried that given so much power over others, he might over time become a monster — unable to resist using the power.

I thought about this again recently, when it occurred to me that these days, in the age of social networks, the power of invisibility translates rather precisely to the power of the universal password.

If you knew that you could hack into anybody’s account — whether Gmail, Facebook, or hard drive — then nothing but your own intrinsic sense of honor would stop you from abusing what amounts to a vast and disturbing amount of power over others.

The worst of it is that you might deeply regret any knowledge illicitly gained through the use of your universal password. The very act of looking into someone’s private email is a terrible transgression. If you found out that some you love had betrayed you, how would you confront them with such knowledge? It would be hard to argue that their transgression was worse than your own.

Fortunately we can say with confidence that the power of invisibility remains a fantasy. Unfortunately, it is not so clear, in the age of Gmail and Facebook, that we can say the same about its modern equivalent: the universal password.

There are questions here…

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

There are questions here. Mysteries. Something you may have conjured in the back of your mind, an idea you once entertained, but can no longer accept. Why did she do it. What was he thinking? Was it really necessary to leave before there was even a chance at reconciliation?

We ask these questions not because we wish to be cruel, but out of an honest desire to know. The truth is never your enemy. You may spend years running away from that moment of final reckoning, but in the end you cannot escape the weight of knowledge, of understanding, of — as hard as it is to acknowledge — acceptance.

In any mystery, there are worlds within worlds. If you do not take the time to question them, to pause, slow down, take a moment, you might very well miss what is most essential.

I do not profess to know the answers, to run within these streets with knowledge of the unrevealed word. But I do know this: If you believe in that moment of fate, in the one key instant in which everything changes, because of some crazy thought within your head that became manifest within the world, then you must act. You must grab this moment as your own, and accept that this is your time.

I will be waiting to see what happens.

Story behind the story

Saturday, March 13th, 2010

My post yesterday sort of started in the middle of the conversation. Anyone reading it might be wondering why I wish there were a self-balancing robot built around an iPhone. The larger story has to do with a long-term effort to teach kids to be interested in programming, by having them program robots. The effort is being spear-headed by Mark Guzdial and others at Georgia Tech University.

The basic approach, which I think is wonderful, is to take programming out of the virtual world and bring it into the real physical world. The people doing it have found that kids are a lot more motivated to program an actual physical little robot — which they can dress up and customize, by the way — than something that only exists on a computer screen.

One problem is that the robots they use are somewhat expensive, and all you can do with them is program them for these projects. I was thinking that the whole effort would gain a lot more traction if the “robot” part of things was an attachment on something like an iPhone. A lot of kids already have either an iPhone or some similar device, and these devices all come with a computer, some form of internet connectivity, a camera, and a pretty impressive little processor.

So you wouldn’t have to convince kids why they would want to get this little machine. You’d just be giving them another way to bond with a gadget that they already think is cool, and that they associate with playing and communicating with their friends.

Except once their iPhone (or Android phone) ss upgraded to a robot, they have a lot more reason to learn how to program, to truly bring it life in interesting ways.

So that’s the more complete story behind the story.

Where’s my self-balancing iPhone?

Friday, March 12th, 2010

I love those self-balancing robots with two side-by-side wheels — the ones that operate on the same inverted pendulum principle as Kazuo Yamafuji’s “parallel bicycle” (and its much-later imitator, the Segway). A few years ago I talked about these little gizmos here.

Given the fact that there are now well over 100,000 iPhone apps and counting, I’m trying to figure out why nobody has yet built a little attachment that will turn your iPhone into a self-balancing robot. The iPhone would be an ideal platform for this. It’s cute, it’s ubiquitous, it’s got a camera so it can figure out where it is, and it’s got a graphic screen so you can give your little self-balancing robot an expressive face.

All you’d need to do is build a little attachment with two wheels, each connected to a geared motor and some auxiliary power control electronics. All of the smarts needed for navigation and self-balancing are right there in the iPhone’s own CPU.

Once iPhones go self-mobile, you and your friends can set them up in the same room so they can wheel around in packs for game play and other real-world activities.

This seems like such an obvious play for a toy company. I’d certainly buy one, if they didn’t cost too much. And of course it would provide a great platform for educational programming.

A number of groups have constructed little self-balancing side-by-side wheel robots, but these devices are mainly one-offs, built from the ground up in order to perform the single trick of getting around while staying upright. If you started with an iPhone it seems to me you’d be getting a lot more bang for your buck.

So where is my self-balancing iPhone? Are we going to be able to get one of these soon? Or am I going to have to wait until after they come out with that flying car?

Come to think of it, and not to take anything away from Apple, it might be poetic justice if such a thing appeared first on Google’s Android.