Something beautiful and true

In a meeting today with some fellow educators, at one point the conversation took a surprisingly negative tone. I showed an inspirational video from somebody who was clearly delighted by what they were showing and talking about, after which one of the educators in the room said, in effect: “Well, that could just turn most kids off. That person seems to be showing off that they’re good at this.”

The more I thought about this comment, the more horrified I became by the reasoning behind it — it reminded me a bit of Kurt Vonnegut’s story Harrison Bergeron. If someone loves what they are talking about, and is sharing their enthusiasm and joy with an audience, I’ve always thought that this is a good thing. Sure, we can’t all play guitar like Jimmy Paige, or dance like Fred Astaire, or tell a joke like Jerry Seinfeld, but does that mean their performances should not be shown, because we worry that kids might be intimidated?

If we are failing to teach our kids the joy and excitement and beauty in ideas, is the solution to shield our kids from the joy and excitement of others? In my view (and I realize that this is a radical view in some circles) if we are finding our kids systematically failing to learn something we know to be beautiful and true, then the fault is not with our kids, but with ourselves.

Springy skeletons

Instead of making a way to create general springy shapes, another interesting direction is to make a way to create springy characters that walk or fly or hop or crawl or slither.

And one thing that those characters usually have in common is that their limbs don’t change length. Arms, legs, necks, torsos — every part of a skeleton can all be quite flexible in how they bend, but the limbs of your skeleton don’t usually grow or shrink when you move.

Unless of course you are Reed Richards, in which case I am absolutely thrilled and honored that you are reading this. Email me — we’ll have lunch. Bring Susan.

Anyway, it turns out that this “limitation” — limbs not growing or shrinking in length — is really great for puppeteering, since the limbs of such skeletons move more like actual arms and legs.

But why take my word for it? Try it for yourself.

A dog named Ethyl

I was showing some springy applets to my friend Lee Tremblay, who is a biochemist and composer, and Lee said it would be cool if people could construct and play with springy 3D molecules.

Actual molecules have all sorts of forces between their atoms that make them want to take on certain shapes. In an accurate simulation of a molecule, moving one atom would cause the other atoms to move around in very particular ways.

But I didn’t want to take all that on in one evening. So I figured that today I’d just build the computer graphics part of it, and then Lee and I could put in the proper forces later. So today I’ve just added 3D to my little springy ball and stick model, as well as the ability to change size and color of each “atom”.

The frisky little critter below with three legs and two tails is not, appearances to the contrary, a Martian dog. But it is the 3D shape of a molecule of ethyl alcohol — the same alcohol that leads us humans to have unexpected fun and sometimes unexpected babies.

Well, maybe it is a Martian dog, and maybe her name is Ethyl. You can try out the new 3D version of my springy thingy toy by clicking on Ethyl below.



Imagine you can rewind time. Perhaps you’ve said something that has foolishly damaged a friendship, or have just barely missed a crucial deadline, or have played the wrong card in poker, or maybe you’ve just stepped out from the curb the wrong way and twisted your ankle. Go back five minutes, or ten, or an hour, and try again.

This would be a super power, giving you vast leverage in the world. Of course there would have to be some rules (there are always rules). The second time around, things might not turn out the same way they did the first time. The universe is an unpredictable place, and reality is always in play. If your next time around puts you in the path of an oncoming bus, then you run out of do-overs.

To make it more interesting, suppose everybody has the same super power. Sure you can buy that stock the day before it suddenly doubles in price, but so can anybody else. What kind of a world would we then live in?

Unfortunately (or, more likely, fortunately) we will never find out. But we can create a game that simulates the experience. Imagine a game world where you can always go back in time and try things differently, but where the game is also simulating other players who have the same power.

To you, it will appear as though those simulated players always make the best choice. After all, if they don’t make the best choice, then they will have just gone back in time and done it again.

I don’t know that anyone has ever made a game like this. It would be fun to try.

All the words

Continuing on my quest to make an interactive playground for creating Möbius stories in the spirit of Vi Hart’s Möbius story: Wind and Mr. Ug, I ran a computer analysis over about 56000 English words, looking for “Möbius words”.

I found 728 words that fit the bill: When “mirror-flipped” upside down, each one still looks like a word (although maybe a different word). Any Möbius story you write has to contain only Möbius words.

Below are the words I found in all their symmetric glory, printed in the Möbius story font. Now we just have to make Möbius stories out of them!

Möbius story font

Today’s post, like yesterday’s was inspired by Vi Hart’s Möbius Story: Wind and Mr. Ug, a wonderfully twisted little tale about self-reflection and the unexpected turns that love can take.

I thought would be good to build an interactive tool for telling such stories. My first step is the font below (seen with its mirror image), which I call (in honor of Vi’s tale) the Möbius story font:


Following on discussions I had with Vi recently, the next step is to build a vocabulary from this font of words that make sense (although maybe very different sense) when read upside down.

Then of course, will come the fun part. Because, in the words of the great Shakespearean actor Sir Edwin: “I don’t want you to get the impression it’s just a question of the number of words… I mean, getting them in the right order is just as important.”

The land beyond the Möbius strip

I walked one day on a Möbius strip
Just ’cause I felt like taking a trip.
It seemed so easy, ’til I found
A land where things were turned around

Yes, turned around! Try as I might
I couldn’t tell my left from right
The food they had all tasted funny
The print was backwards on their money!

Now, much as I do like to roam
I just wanted to go home
But I found out to my dismay
The path would only go one way.

They say you can’t go home again,
The world I’d known was gone. But then
“The hell with it,” I said. “Instead,
“Why don’t I just forge ahead?”

So I found another Möbius strip
And started on a second trip
It made no sense I know, and yet
How much wronger could things get?

And sure enough when I’d gone round
That second strip, it seems I found
Another land where things were good
And left to right went like it should

Food was yummy, words looked right
I thought I’d maybe spend the night
Now here I am, still on that trip
To the land beyond the Möbius strip