I had an interesting conversation with some friends about puns. After riding a bike for the first time in a long time, my friend David said it was “good to be back in the saddle,” and he wondered whether this counted as a pun.

Since a bicycle actually has a saddle (the more technical term for the seat), it could be argued that this is just a literal statement. On the other hand, “back in the saddle” also has a metaphoric meaning, so it could be argued that his statement has two simultaneous meanings, and therefore should indeed count as a pun.

It then occurred to me that this is an example of a class of statement whose literal and metaphorical meanings coincide — a metaphor for itself. You might say it is “autophorical”.

Here are some other autophorical statements. Perhaps you can think of more:

“Sorry, the train derailment threw me off track.”

“Hey, everybody on this cruise is in the same boat.”

“Drosophila were dropping like flies.”

“The entire soccer team is having a field day.”

“I went out on a limb to rescue your cat from that tree.”

“The editor cut my novel to five pages, to make a long story short.”


One interesting connection between science and art is that they are both concerned with the question of what is irreducible.

Science asks what is irreducible in the world around us. The great figures in the history of science, from Euclid to Einstein, produced beautifully simple explanations for complex observations.

Similarly, art also looks for the irreducible truth, stripping away all that is inessential. Except that in the case of art, what is considered essential is not the world around us, but rather our own human condition. In this regard art differs from entertainment, which merely seeks to divert and amuse.

A work of art, such as Becket’s Endgame, Picasso’s Guernica, Munro’s Passion or Beethoven’s ninth symphony, may indeed entertain, but its primary purpose is to illuminate some essential truth about ourselves.

In other words, both science and art seek truth, but they do so in very different ways. For example, both can teach essential truths about pain. Science will show you the connection between sensory stimulus and cognitive effect. Art will punch you in the nose.

Generalized shared worlds

Recently I was trying to describe why I find Google Docs to be such an interesting tool for collaboration. It’s not just Google Docs itself, but also the very idea of collaborating in real time with other people. There is something about this process, compared with many other computer experiences, that feels as thought it is more about people, and less about computers.

In my description, I used the following metaphor: Essentially, I said, Google Docs is a shared virtual world. You and your collaborators wander around in this world together, and if any one of you makes changes to the world, everyone sees the change immediately.

Usually when we think of “shared virtual worlds” we think of the 3D computer graphics of games like “Counter-Strike” and “World of Warcraft”. In these shared 3D game worlds, objects have a kind of shared permanence: If I pick an apple up off the table and put it on a chair, everybody sees the apple change its location. And if they are watching my avatar, they can also see me pick up and move the apple.

Similarly, in Google Docs, the fact that everyone can see my cursor moving in real time means that my cursor is effectively my avatar in the shared world. If I cut and paste and do other editing operations to modify text and style, I am changing the state of our shared world. In essence, I am moving the apple.

I like this analogy because it underscores the fact that the concept of a “shared world” is not inherently about 3D graphics, nor any literal representation of reality. The metaphor of “interactively sharing a common world” is clearly a very general and re-mappable concept for human minds.

If we can apply that concept to something as non-physical as text, then perhaps we can apply it to all sorts of other interesting interactively shared “worlds” that nobody has yet thought of.

One hand waving free

To dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow
      — Bob Dylan

I talked yesterday about the odd specter of people on the street being “differently present” while immersed in their SmartPhones. There’s another aspect to all of this that seems equally strange.

One of the various wonderful things about human evolution is the way we have developed such an extraordinary ability to use our hands. Through the combination of large brain power, binocular vision, strong yet flexible hands and fingers, and an amazingly ability to sense touch through our fingertips, we have become master tool builders.

The great majority of humans have two hands, and we take for granted the various powers this confers. It is simply a part of us, not just biologically but also culturally and technologically.

So we actually giving up quite a bit when we tether ourselves to a SmartPhone. Effectively, one of those two hands is now occupied with holding a plastic brick, and cannot be used for anything else.

It seems to me that in historical terms, this arrangement must be temporary. After all, it’s hard to believe that humanity will be willing to pay such a high price for much longer.

Differently present

Everywhere I look in New York City I see people staring into their SmartPhones. Whether they are holding an iPhone or an Android, the physical act is the same: One hand grips the softly glowing object, while the other strokes and pokes it in endless combinations, as the phone’s user stares intently down at the little screen.

Since this is Manhattan, these people remain vaguely aware of the need to function as pedestrians, more or less. They shuffle along, trying to progress down the street with one eye on oncoming human traffic, for the most part managing not to barge into other folks.

I think a new sort of protocol is developing around these half-present entities. Other people understand that they have a sort of disability, while they themselves expect to be treated with the deference that one shows the disabled.

But of course, these being politically correct times, we must not call these people disabled. For then they will become discouraged, and will lose self-esteem. Instead of pointing out that they are psychologically absent, rather we must say that they are “differently present”.

On some level they themselves understand this. If you attempt to treat a mobile texter/tweeter as a fully abled person — say, by expecting them to not simply walk head-on into oncoming pedestrian traffic — they tend to look at you with a kind of distractedly annoyed expression. “Can’t you see,” the look seems to say, “that I am not completely here? Have you no respect for the differently present?”

Very charming Karma

I was watching “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” today on DVD (a wonderful film), when I heard one of the characters say:

“There is no past that we can bring back by longing for it. Only a present that builds and creates itself as the past withdraws.”

This was such an amazing line that I paused the film to look it up. A quick Google search revealed it to be a slight variation of the English translation of a saying attributed to Goethe:

“There is no past that we can bring back by longing for it. There is only an eternally new now that builds and creates itself out of the Best as the past withdraws.”

The original is a bit more ungainly in English (I can see why they streamlined it) but also more positive. Whereas the line in the film is somewhat fatalist, Goethe’s original conveys a very charming Karma: If you are able let go of the past, then your life going forward will build upon the best parts of that past.

It really is a beautiful thought, isn’t it? True, wise, very simple to understand, yet incredibly difficult to live up to in practice.

Interestingly, I was not able to find this quote in the original German. If anybody knows it, please tell me.


Jaron Lanier has pointed out, quite reasonably I think, that Wikipedia creates a false sense that there is a single correct version of things.

Yes, for every topic there is a discussion page, and you can click on the history page to see all successive changes to any article, but you need to actively seek those things out, and even then the information is rather buried and scattered about.

I wish there were a web client for looking at Wikipedia articles in a way that preserves all the inherent glory and messiness of their provenance. Behind the seemingly monolithic facade, any given article may well represent a fierce and often ongoing war between competing narratives — battles which are not at all evident while reading the page.

I am envisioning some sort of alternate Wikipedia client in which such roiling clusters of competing narratives are somehow made manifest, in a dynamic and truly interactive way. Mousing over highly contested sections would reveal in even greater detail the exciting dissonance that lies behind a crowd-sourced article.

Wouldn’t you want to have the option of seeing an article’s boisterous pedigree, rather than merely its misleadingly placid surface?

Flu flew

Boston is in the middle of a flu epidemic, but I came up yesterday anyway, for a meeting today at MIT I had promised to attend. After a long train ride from New York, I took the T to Harvard Square, followed by a pleasant walk to my friends’ house.

At the end of a lovely evening, I retired to the waiting guest bed, where all was well until around 4am, when I woke up feeling a chill. I thought this odd because the blankets were quite warm. Then I started to feel a dull ache in my head, and I thought to myself “Uh oh, did I remember to wash my hands after getting off the T?” Suddenly I could recall every surface I had touched, every overhead metal bar I had grabbed onto during my trip on the Red Line from South Station to Harvard.

I thought how strange it would be to lie awake in bed while experiencing, moment by moment, the gradual onset of full symptoms. My nose was threatening to run, and I started to feel an ache all through my body. The battle was engaged, and the little virus cells were multiplying.

“I have no time for this,” I thought. “There is so much I need to do this week!” But of course Influenza does not care what I think. It operates on an entirely different logic.

I finally got out of bed three hours later, feeling just fine. Apparently my body had fought back and had won.

I would love to take some sort of credit for the valiant actions of my body’s defenses, but alas, I know the victory had nothing to do with my worthiness or lack thereof. I am just grateful that my immune system came through for me.

Hooray for our side!

One, two, three

Every prototyping project has its own rhythm, but there are patterns within these rhythms that one can see emerging over time — eternal constants in the process of creation. This week, as I iterate yet again on a prototype, I am noticing a pattern that I’ve seen before.

In particular, I notice that my process of prototyping is divided into three successive phases. Each phase, or “version” if you will, serves a distinctly different purpose.

The first version of the prototype says “This is just a rough sketch of what the result will look like”. In that first stage, the important thing is to quickly and efficiently throw something together which conveys an idea, with no attempt at robustness or reusability.

The second phase says “Watch this demo — it has many cool features, but it will break if anybody uses it except me”. This phase is a bit of a magic act. The idea is to show the full potential of the approach, but without the robustness of a real product. As long as I’m the only one using it, it looks wonderful. But if anybody else were to try to use it, they would quickly put their foot through a hole in the floor, and things would all fall apart pretty rapidly.

The third phase says “Go ahead, you use this.” This is a much harder thing to create, and it requires everything that was learned during the first two phases. It is the stage where you build something that can withstand being used by random people — people who aren’t trying to avoid the weak spots.

If you get that far, you may well be on your way to a usable product.

PowerPoint SunShot

This week a representative from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) came to our university to talk about Grand Challenges. These are big research questions that the U.S. government considers to be difficult or long term, that usually require university level research in addition to corporate research, and which can have a big impact on society or lots of great spin-off benefits.

In a PowerPoint presentation we learned of such Grand Challenges are the self-driving car (which started at universities, but which Google has now taken over — the hope is to save many lives each year), sequencing the human genome (which was largely successful), and an inexpensive implementation of the “Tricorder” — the hand-held device on Star Trek that can diagnose diseases. Believe it or not, people are actively working on a real version of that.

A canonical example of a Grand Challenge was the MoonShot — John F. Kennedy’s challenge in May 1961 to land a human being on the moon before the decade was out. Many useful spinoff technologies were developed during the eight years it took to realize that goal.

A number of such challenges were listed, and one in particular caught my eye: The “SunShot”. Eventually we learned that this was a program to develop truly practical next generation photovoltaic solar power.

Unfortunately, I saw the word “SunShot” on the PowerPoint slide well before I heard this explanation. So for several minutes I found it very difficult to concentrate on anything else.

This is because I was trying to work out in my head what seemed like an insoluble problem: How were they going to land a person on the Sun?