Archive for April, 2011


Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

I wonder sometimes whether the bond between adults and children is based more on illusion than reality. When you are three years of age, or five, or seven, you have a way of looking at the world that is in many fundamental ways entirely different from the viewpoint of an adult. We grownups can see that worldview only vicariously, and as we spend time with children it is tempting to believe that being with them, playing with them, laughing with them, in some way takes us back to our own childhood.

But it is equally likely that this sense of transport is merely an illusion. We grownups may feel we know the mind of a child because we have our own childhood memories to draw on. Yet there is no reason to believe that those memories are in any way a portal back to our true experience at that age.

Have you ever stumbled upon something you wrote when you were quite young? I have, and the experience is very disconcerting. The writings of my preadolescent self feel like the writings of a stranger. There isn’t the sense of immediate connection and recognition that I feel, say, when I read something that I wrote at age sixteen (an age when we have indeed, for the most part, become our adult selves).

Or course the illusion of shared mind view between adult and child is necessary to the very survival of the species. And we wouldn’t want to give it up, any more that we would want to relinquish the pleasant and nurturing illusion that there is true mutual comprehension between us and our beloved canine companions.

The Lexiconicom

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

In the deepest recesses of a long forgotten library, where mortals rarely dare to tread, there is a book, very wise and very old. Even the librarians in that forsaken place speak of this tome only in hushed and reverent voice, for its power is great, and its reach is infinite.

It is the list of terms once vibrant and alive, that now live on only in gaunt and ghostly shadow. Phantoms of language, creatures spawned by voices now stilled, the words that live between its ancient covers writhe upon the page in their struggle to be heard. Each entry in this vast and ancient text once blazed with great power, as souls countless in number fell under its sway. Yet these words remain trapped within these cryptic pages, for they are no longer welcome to walk among the living.

If you listen closely, on moonless nights you can hear the whispers of these ancient symbols within the library corridors, a faint echo falling like silent snow upon the uncaring walls. The music of these words is strange, its meaning elusive, like an ancient incantation only half remembered by a dark sorceror long gone mad. Words like hep, and knapped and ague, like groovy, barkers and fream, ginchy and fab and STTNG, bludger and dollymop, flimp and LSMFT.

Each of these words, once mighty in its reach, waits like a spectre for its moment to rise once more and reenter an unsuspecting world. And perhaps one day they will return, these strange lexical apparitions, refugees from a forgotten time. For who among us can foretell the future, and who can say what dark truths it may yet hold?

Open, if you dare, the Lexiconicom.

The dead

Monday, April 18th, 2011

The dead they are not gone, we listen
Carefully to hear, we think, to what
They try to say, to tell us,

From wherever they have gone
Although we’ve lost, somehow, their
Voice, their touch, a thousand
Memories we still remember, yet

We listen, how we listen, like
Children lost in waiting
For someone to take our hand
And lead us home again, until
We realize, all in a moment,

We are so very far from home.


Sunday, April 17th, 2011

I am slightly nearsighted. Without glasses I have wonderful vision at about two feet away (the distance of a computer screen, more or less). I can see ok at a distance, but when I drive or go to a movie, I wear glasses to get that extra little bit of sharpness.

But here’s something odd: Whenever I look out from an airplane window without my glasses, everything below seems perfectly sharp and clear. Of course when I put on my glasses, all sorts of new details pop into view. Yet without the glasses, I never feel like I’m missing those details — it’s as though they never existed.

Yesterday I was at a dinner party where somebody who grew up with cellphones and the Web was asking what it was like before those technologies existed. “How did you find things and reach people?” he asked.

Those of us who had been around back in the days before cell phones and the Web explained that there had never been any sense of something missing. You could reach somebody by phone because you knew when they would be at home or at their desk. As for finding information, in the library you could learn all about any topic under the sun. When you wanted to arrange a meeting at work, you sent around a memo.

I suspect it has always been like this. People who lived before the age of the telephone, the airplane and the automobile didn’t miss them. Life, work and relationships had a way of adapting seamlessly to whatever technology happened to exist at the time.

I wonder, twenty years from now, when technology has advanced yet again, and the SmartPhones and Web browsers of today seem hopelessly clunky and inconvenient, whether young people will ask how we all managed to get along with only the paleolithic technologies of 2011.

Taking the long view

Saturday, April 16th, 2011

At a dinner party this evening overheard someone talking with a man who researches ways to cure cancer. The cancer researcher was asked what causes cancer. He explained that the very same wild capacity for growth that enables children and embryos to grow by leaps and bounds can also end up going wrong. Random mutations sometimes trigger cells to act as though they are in a growth spurt, but in inappropriate ways that veer wildly out of control. The result is unpredictable and often fatal run-away tissue growth.

He went on to explain that this is largely a disease that strikes older people, because there is little genetic selection in our species for preventing such mistakes in people who are beyond child-bearing age. Mostly, our DNA just selects for individuals to survive long enough to propagate. After that — in evolutionary terms — you are living on borrowed time.

Deciding to crash the conversation, I suggested that maybe the long-term solution to solving cancer lies in a different direction. Rather than focusing only on curing cancer in individuals, I proposed that research also be done to extend the age at which we can make babies. That way whatever happens to older people will go into the gene pool. The tendency toward cancers in such older people will gradually be weeded out.

He agreed that in principle this should work. Of course we also realized that this won’t be of any use to anyone alive today, or even anyone alive in a hundred years. But over time, it will do the job.

Maybe, in some far off distant future, our descendants will thank us.

Time travel in China

Friday, April 15th, 2011

I just read that the government of the People’s Republic of China has essentially banned TV shows that feature time travel. I’m not making this up — here is the story.

I guess this is conclusive proof that time travel does not exist. Because if it did, some intrepid TV producers would certainly have traveled back through time and given themselves advice about how to avoid annoying the Chinese government.

On the other hand, maybe some rival TV producers who actually have time travel have managed to use it to go back through time and plant those seeds of suspicion about time-travel themed TV shows in the minds of government officials.

But then what happens when the people who make the time-travel TV shows get hold of that time machine, and figure out how to get the Chinese government to think that time-travel themed TV shows are the most patriotic thing imaginable.

Would we all end up getting caught in an endless time loop?

And more importantly, if we do, can we make a great Chinese TV show about it?

Opening a window

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

Sometime in the coming years, as I’ve written in my Eccescopy posts, each of us will simply take for granted an unobtrusively worn personal communication device. Just as we now use our SmartPhones for all sort of diverse things — browsing the web, capturing photos and video, finding our way around town, sending and receiving texts, even talking on the telephone! — we will use the cellphone’s wearable successor for an even more diverse variety of daily tasks.

Unlike the SmartPhone, this wearable interface will always be able to know where we are looking. New interface paradigms will emerge that build on our ability to make things happen simply by directing our gaze. But gaze detection is a two-way street. Not only will these devices obey our commands, but they will also accumulate a vast body of data about where people look when they are going about their daily lives.

I suspect that we will discover that we spend a disproportionate amount of time looking at other human faces. Further, I suspect that we will find that we spend much of that time looking into other people’s eyes. In a sense, our wearable technologies, and what they reveal about us, will open a window into the window of the soul.

The somewhat monstrous sensory humuculus below represents what a human body would look like if each part grew in proportion to the area of the cortex of the brain concerned with its sensory perception.

One could similarly imagine a visual humunculus — what the world itself would look like if everything were proportional to the amount of time we spend looking at it. Someday soon we will be able to gather enough data through our wearable interfaces to see what this humunculus looks like. I suspect that it will be dominated by a huge pair of eyes, with much of the rest consisting of a face, and all the rest of existence crowded into the edges.

I wonder whether we will find it monstrous or beautiful.

Darwin’s games

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

Recently I became interested in the idea of computer games as living creatures. The primary function of any species is to ensure its own continuing survival — otherwise the species simply dies off, and its genes will not propagate. What if we apply this same principle to the study of computer games that evolve to optimize for their own continued existence?

I looked around a bit and found that there has been very limited research in this area, but not really very much. And it doesn’t seem to have been studied as a formal problem. By “formal” I mean breaking the problem down into genotype and phenotype. A “genotype” is the genetic description of something — the list of instructions, as it were. For example, our DNA contains our genotype, and a cooking recipe is the genotype of that delicious dish your mom cooked last weekend. A “phenotype” is a description of the kind of thing you get when those instructions are carried out, like a human being or a yummy ratatouille.

Rather than design specific games, I’m thinking it would be interesting to create a computer program that can create lots of different games. When you tweak various parameters in this game generator, different games come out. I’m not saying that there is some magic way to create this program — you’d still need to carefully design the game generator, using all the skills that a good game designer must have. But when you were done you’d have not one game, but a universe of possible games.

Most of these games would be terrible, but certain combinations of parameters would produce magical results — truly marvelous games that are fun and exciting to play. But how do you find those particular games within the mass of possibilities?

This is where crowd-sourcing comes in. You put these games up on-line, and let anybody play them. Some of the games will be boring, and people won’t be drawn to them. But others will find an audience. The genotype of those more fun and playable games will gradually spread, as more people play them.

Meanwhile, you continually tweak the parameters behind the scenes, so that the game is slightly different for each player. Certain tweaks will make the game more fun and popular — people will continue to play it longer — and others will have the opposite effect.

Eventually, games might emerge that are fun and exciting for many people. Such games will not have been built by any individual, but rather evolved organically, through the collective mind-share of the community of players.

The species will have ensured its own survival.


Tuesday, April 12th, 2011

It has been exactly fifty years since Yuri Gagarin became the first human to enter outer space. So much has changed since then, in ways that his contemporaries could never have anticipated. The very notion of “conquering space” has come to seem vaguely quaint, as human aspirations have moved on from the merely physical to the profoundly virtual.

We no longer think primarily of the physical universe when we think of exploration — John F. Kennedy’s bold vision of a “new frontier” has become yet another old frontier, as distant from us in its way as the California gold rush dreams of a century before.

Even the recent blockbuster space epic — “Avatar” — whose grand visual sense of space opera captured the imagination of a rapt world-wide audience, was not really about visiting outer space. On the surface it may have appeared to be about space ships and alien planets, but that was merely a ruse. “Avatar” was actually about inner space — the space within our minds, where the limits of biology meet the endless possibilities of cybernetically enhanced evolution.

In the end, the forces in that film which set out to conquer a planet were shown to be hopelessly out of touch with real power. The true conquest was the transcendence of the physical itself — the triumph of escaping one’s very body, to achieve a different state of being.

As our collective minds turn inevitably to the future possibilities of social networks, of augmented realities and computer-implants, of ubiquitous interfaces that allow us to enter ever more detailed worlds of fantasy, we realize we can never go back to the merely physical.

And so we find that the astonishing journey of one lone spaceman who ever so briefly escaped the bounds of earthly gravity itself, is floating away from us, gently yet inexorably, into the unreachable mist of history.

Superpower mode

Monday, April 11th, 2011

At an event today in which students are presenting wonderful projects they’ve worked on for months, I’m struck by the immense power of human energy. When we set our minds to it, and put in enough focus and work, there does not seem to be any limit to what we can accomplish.

This kind of “building over time” energy is a strange phenomenon because it highlights a fundamental split in our modes of thought. Most of the time we are more or less spontaneous, living in the moment, hanging out, having conversations with the people around us.

But we each have the potential to go into this other mode — a kind of superpower mode. One in which we can focus for several months and master a musical instrument, or write a play or novel, compose an opera, film a movie, or invent and build a new kind of machine that nobody has ever seen before.

When caught up the intensity of such creative experiences, we often don’t even realize that we have entered a heightened zone of being. And when we come back from them, it seems to marvelous indeed to realize that we were capable of such things.