Archive for July, 2011

Monopachydermous

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

I’m having dinner this evening with my old friend Bill Buxton. Bill is the only person with whom I ever rode an elephant. He also told me the other day that I am the only person with whom he ever rode an elephant.

Since then my relationship to individuals of other species has evolved, to the point where I would never again ride an elephant — since, in retrospect, it is clearly not an experience that the elephant enjoys.

It is therefore quite likely that Bill and I will remain true to each other — that we will each remain the only person with whom the other has ever ridden an elephant.

Which, I believe, makes us both monopachydermous.

How many people can say that about each other?

Good news and bad news

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

Last week, during a workshop at Google, I was asked to do a verbal report about our break-out session on “the future of gesture on mobile devices”. The Google V.P. presiding over the day, Alfred Spector, whom I quite like, said we could do these reports in any fun way we like — “even in iambic pentameter”.

If you know me at all, you’ll know that of course this was music to my ears. I composed and on the next day presented a faithful report entirely in iambic pentameter rhyming couplets. Which our hosts seemed to like, because today, on the Google blog, they linked to my little poem.

Alas, you can’t get the full effect of my presentation from reading the poem. There was a whole level of physical comedy in the performance that doesn’t show up in the words (with some of my more expressive comic gestures unsuitable for publication on Google’s blog). I’m thinking now that I might need to create a procedural character to act out the performance here.

OK, that was the good news. The bad news was that the very next posting on Google’s blog — also today — was an announcement that they are terminating Google Labs. As many of you know, Google Labs is where they put all the cool edgy crazy delightful stuff that may or may not turn into a product.

I love the brilliant randomness of Google Labs, and will be sad to see it go. There is something admirable about a company that has the courage to float brilliant innovations out in public, before those innovations have been neatly wrapped into a specific product. Hopefully Google will find some other way to put their researchers’ wonderful creative ideas out there for us to try out, without feeling they need to wait for official product cycles.

Robots

Tuesday, July 19th, 2011

In the last week I attended a number of very different events that had in common the theme of “how do humans communicate with machines?” One of these events was Heather Knight’s brilliant first annual “Robot Film Festival” (full disclosure — I was one of the members of the film jury).

Essentially, this was a series of short narrative films all centered around the theme of robots — or, in most cases, how humans and robots might interact with each other in social situations.

A few days later I found myself at a Microsoft Research event, in which one of the burning questions on the table was “What is a natural way for people to interface with machines?” And it occurred to me that there were very strong connections between these two scenes. As I believe I was the only person to attend both of them, I feel like some sort of ambassador between worlds.

For the most part, the Microsoft contingent clearly looked at computers as mere machines — soulless mechanisms that ideally would simply follow our instructions. In contrast, the robot film folks were mainly asking deep philosophical questions about the blurred line between machine and reality. To them, a robot is an entity that may in fact have a soul — like us.

I wish I could have gotten these two groups in the same room with each other. In a way this was the classic cultural divide between scientist and artist playing itself out in the context of human / machine interaction. To the scientist, we are alone, and machines are mere tools. To the artist, a machine is a creature of infinite possibility, into which one can breath a soul.

Which is right? Darned if I know. But I would love to get them all talking to each other, and see what comes out of it!

Porous

Monday, July 18th, 2011

The other day I wrote about the delicate balance between a society’s need to create fearless children — young people who dare to break the mold and find the courage within themselves to do things nobody has done before — and that same society’s need to indoctrinate its young people to obey authority, to reflexively listen to those in charge.

I was discussing this dialectic with a colleague over dinner this evening, and my colleague pointed out that society only needs some young people to be originals, to break out of the mold and come up with new ideas. Even if only, say, five percent of children grow up to be interestingly creative, then society as a whole can still evolve to meet challenges as they arise.

And then it occurred to me that the barrier society builds within its citizens’ minds against freedom of thought, by inculcating a tendency to conform, to defer to authority, to listen to anyone wearing a uniform or a badge, is perfectly fine (from the point of view of the needs of society), as long as that barrier is porous.

If ninety five percent of the population never questions authority, while five percent realizes that there is a kind of scam going on, and that each individual is actually free to pursue their own thoughts and develop new ideas, then society will still derive benefit from its free thinkers.

Of course a country can become too fascist, to repressive, and thereby squash the potential of even its eccentric five percent. But such societies tend to be unstable over time, since they don’t have the mind share to evolve either socially or economically.

Most people won’t ever feel the need to question authority, to look critically at the world around them, to ask whether things can be different or better. But as long as a thoughtful few are doing so in an interesting and intellectually powerful way, as long as even five percent manage to evade those porous barriers against nonconformity, then everything will probably turn out fine.

Inappropriate

Sunday, July 17th, 2011

I know there is a law in the U.S., has been for a while, that makes it illegal to attempt to engage in humor when going through the security X-ray at an airport. People always say “whatever you do — don’t try to be funny. You could end up in jail — or worse.”

Even so, this morning I took my life in my hands. On my way to board a flight at J.F.K. airport, there I was, about to walk through the X-ray body scanner, the one place where everyone works very hard to avoid the unexpected, when I was startled to see the woman in line in front of me start to walk through the X-ray machine holding a cat.

The guard told her she couldn’t take the cat through with her — she needed to run it through the baggage scanner. Don’t laugh — having watched Monty Python, I am well acquainted of the dangers posed by exploding cats.

I realize that this would have been a very good moment to remain silent, but there are forces that move deep within our souls, forces that are more powerful, more primal in their pull, than such mere niceties as self-preservation.

And so I went for it. Looking the guard straight in the eye, I asked him “Doing CAT scans today?”

For a moment he just stared at me, the wheels in his head seeming to turn. Then his face broke out in a broad grin, and he burst out laughing.

Today, it seems, would not the day my government puts me in jail for inappropriate humor.

Value proposition

Saturday, July 16th, 2011

This week I learned about the Internet Light bulb. In effect, each light bulb with NXP’s “GreenChip” has its own IP address and can therefore be accessed over the internet. I know this might sound like some sort of bad light bulb joke, but it’s for real.

The advantage in potential power savings is enormous, since millions of lights programmed to follow sensible patterns of usage can vastly improve our general energy footprint.

But what fascinates me most about this is the value proposition. Only a few years ago, to have proposed such a thing would have been absurd. Light bulbs were cheap throwaway items, so the approximately $1 extra cost per bulb of the GreenChip technology would have been prohibitive in the extreme.

But light bulbs themselves have changed, thanks to innovations targeted at reducing power consumption. A new generation of light bulbs is coming out that are designed to last years, which means it’s ok for a bulb to cost $20. Suddenly that extra $1 is a very good value indeed, given its potential to allow the power to a “smart bulb” to be optimized to follow patterns of usage.

This notion that an idea seems crazy until something else changes in the technology ecosystem, and then the same idea comes to seem obvious — perhaps inevitable — is one of the fun things about our rapidly changing technology landscape.

Fearlessness versus citizenship

Friday, July 15th, 2011

We all want our children to grow up fearless. In particular, we want them to believe that they can do anything they set out to do, that with the right combination of hard work and belief in themselves, they can achieve any goal they aim for.

I would guess that most young people come into this world with sufficient general natural ability that with enough practice and dedication they could indeed become decent writers, musicians, lawyers, artists, athletes, and so forth. I’m not saying they could necessarily become the best, but that focus, dedication and hard work, over a period of years, is an enormous force — sometimes even an unstoppable one.

Yet societies are not generally structured to optimize for fearless children. Getting young people to grow up obeying the rules of society involves a certain level of unconscious coercion. From the time we are little, we are told in various ways — some subtle, others not so subtle — that there are lines we shouldn’t cross, doors we’re not supposed to walk through, that in fact we cannot treat everyone as an equal, because there are certain “high status” people we are supposed to defer to.

Socialization, in just about any society, is a continual prodding toward the average, to the place where people are not going to question things too much, nor to stir up an inordinate amount of trouble.

I wonder whether it is even possible for a society to fully embrace the extraordinary possibility within each child. Or would that just violate too many taboos, create too much uncertainty, and result in the dangerous (and exciting) possibility of a citizenry of individuals with the self-confidence to do more than tend toward the norm?

Text and gesture in our future

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

I participated in a rousing discussion today about the future of gestural interfaces. One thing that was pointed out during the conversation — something I had not really fully absorbed before — is that with all the enhanced focus on innovations in gesture on the iPhone, iPad, WiiMote, Kinect and other devices, younger folks are actually using text far more than ever before.

It’s not that these new swipe, pinch and wave devices aren’t getting a real workout. Indeed they are. It’s more that among young people the telephone is becoming less of a medium for talking than a medium for texting.

This is perhaps an inevitable consequence of increased mobility combined with merging of telephone and internet. Younger people are multitasking on the go, keeping up simultaneous conversations while going about their daily lives. The consequent high level of continual context switching is something that simply cannot be done through voice.

We may very well continue to develop ever more exciting and innovative ways to use gesture to control our technology. But when it comes to communicating with each other, it seems the future may very well belong to good old fashioned text.

Impregnable

Wednesday, July 13th, 2011

Definition (from the Free Online Dictionary):

im·preg·na·ble 1 (im-preg’ne-bl)
adj.
      1. Impossible to capture or enter by force: an impregnable fortress.
      2. Difficult or impossible to attack, challenge, or refute with success: an impregnable argument.

im·preg·na·ble 2 (im-preg’ne-bl)
adj.
      Capable of being impregnated.

Today I was thinking about Margaret Hamilton, who famously played the Wicked Witch of the West in the 1939 MGM musical The Wizard of Oz. When I was a little child I was terrified of her. Yet by the time I got to college, she had become my favorite character in the film, the one I liked the most.

Some years later I tried to figure out why this was so. And then one small snatch of dialog in the film revealed all, the moment when Dorothy’s Auntie Em says: “Elmira Gulch, just because you own half the county doesn’t mean that you have the power to run the rest of us.”

This is the moment when you realize that not only is Miss Gulch a spinster, but that she also happens to be an exceedingly rich spinster. And according to the iron-clad laws of physics that ruled American movies in that era, a rich unmarried older woman was the enemy, the Antichrist, the scourge of all that is true and beloved and, well, American. The idea that a woman could live on her own past marrying age, becoming independently wealthy without leaning on a man, was considered such an abomination, such a hideous affront against God, that it would have seemed to audiences at the time a very short step indeed to labeling her as a witch.

And thus I realized that this was the reason I liked her. Elmira Gulch, that detested woman who became the literal embodiment of evil in Dorothy’s dream, was the true victim of the piece. For the film was, in a sense, an attack on women’s right to equality. Of course the people who made the film didn’t know this, any more than a slave owner thinks of his whip as a tool of oppression. Once you buy into a concept of a “natural order”, you see any defense of that order as reasonable.

And so we get to that wonderful word “Impregnable” with its two opposing meanings. On the one hand it defines the significance, in some societies, of a young unmarried woman — like Dorothy. Rather than being celebrated for intelligence, for talent, for the capability to go out and accomplish things in the world, she is seen as passive, dreamy, confused, waiting for somebody to rescue her and fill her life with meaning. The girl on the cusp of womanhood is portrayed as a sort of empty vessel, existing mainly to wait until she is ripe for the plucking, for a man to claim her, to fill her, and thereby give her an identity.

Unlike the young man striking out to make his fortune, this young woman’s identity is defined by the fact that she is nubile — impregnable, as it were.

But of course the older figure of Elmira Gulch is the opposite. She has become a success, and wealthy, through her brains (although her enemies would likely use the less kind word “cunning”). And she is clearly never going to settle down with a man, so she cannot be co-opted. She is the enemy fortress that must be destroyed. In that sense she is the embodiment of that other meaning of the same word — impregnable.

One can argue that the evolution of feminism has been an ongoing attempt to avoid being reduced to this dialectic. To exist as more than a sexual conquest, to be recognized for one’s accomplishments. And yet to do this in a way that does not negate one’s own sexuality.

This negation of sexuality was a fate that seems to have befallen Elmira Gulch.

Oh, and also getting killed.

We don’t need another Heroes

Tuesday, July 12th, 2011

Yet another show has appeared — Alphas on Syfy — about a group of super-powered misfits who must team up to save the world by virtue of the respective special gift/curse each one possesses. This, of course, was the premise of X-Men, The Fantastic Four, The Incredibles, Charmed, Heroes, and many, many similar fantasies, most recently No Ordinary Family on the ABC network here in the U.S.

The general unifying conceit, of course, is that anything that makes you special, even if it’s a super-power that enables you to save the world, also singles you out, separating you from the fellowship of humanity and therefore making you a kind of outcast.

The problem is that it’s a tired, obvious idea, with limited dramatic potential, since every character is stuck in their own private dialectic — either embracing their particular power as a true mark of their identity, or else doing the opposite, trying to assert to an uncomprehending world that “this thing you see first about me is not really who I am!” This was precisely the point of the wickedly deconstructive Mystery Men.

Only one show ever got things right, a brilliantly conceived BBC series from 1968-1969 called The Champions. The elegant premise of this show was that none of the three protagonists (two men and a woman) were actually misfits, because they all had exactly the same super-powers.

The three government agents, their plane having crash-landed somewhere in the Himalayas, were rescued and nursed to health by a mysterious advanced civilization. Except that they were all put together better than before, so they now possessed superior intellect, strength, vision, hearing, a modest pre-cog capability, and a limited ability to read each others’ minds. Nothing as flashy as flying or invisibility, just humans “turned up to eleven” as Nigel Tufnel might say.

The brilliance of this premise is that the three protagonists, because they possess identical gifts, are allowed to be individuals. Their powers do not define their interactions, but merely enhance them, putting everything on a higher level.

This is not like, say Monk or Numbers or Columbo or House or Heck Ramsey or The Closer or The Pretender (I could go on — the list is very long) where one flashily hyper-brilliant misfit sucks up all the oxygen in the room.

No, to each other, the Champions are perfectly normal, charming, funny, interesting, human, except of course that everything between them is happening on a wonderfully advanced level. I suspect that today, in the hands of an Aaron Sorkin or Joss Whedon, a show with this premise would blow all those “group of misfits” fantasies out of the water.