Archive for April, 2013

Pyramid power

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

This week I learned a wonderful thing: If you assemble spheres to make hexagons of different sizes (up to N spheres on a side), and then stack up those hexagons to make a pyramid, you get exactly the same number of spheres as if you made a cube with N spheres on a side.

I was so delighted by this that I wrote a little computer program to visualize it.

Below you can see the cases where the hexagons contain up to two, three or four spheres on a side, respectively. Next to each picture you see spheres arranged into a cube. In each case (and in fact in every possible case), the number of spheres is the same on the left and on the right.

How cool is that!

p2 c2
p31 c3
p4 c4

Original version

Tuesday, April 9th, 2013

There is an animated Japanese film in town that I’ve really wanted to see, and a friend has also really wanted to see it — so we’ve decided to go later this week.

The film is being offered in both dubbed and original (subtitled) version. When we compared notes we found out that we both greatly prefer the original version. Which is interesting, because neither of us speaks Japanese, so we will both be reading subtitles to follow what’s going on.

Of course the case for seeing the original version is most compelling for a live action film. In that case, the people you see up on the screen are, literally, the voice actors. It is understandable that we may prefer to hear Alain Delon or Sophia Loren speak their own lines. I once inadvertently rented a dubbed version of “Et Dieu… créa la femme”. Every time Brigitte Bardot opened her mouth, a horrible brassy American voice spewed forth. I had to rent it again in the proper language, just to restore my sanity.

Yet who is to say that one language is preferable to another for an animated film?

I think my preference comes down to the following: Japanese and American culture are very different (“Lost in translation” is more than just the name of a Sophia Coppola film). The intention of the writer and director, with their particular cultural sensibilities, will likely be accurately reflected in the original voice acting. This is much less likely to be the case in dubbing sessions half a world away by voice actors who grew up in America.

This is particularly an issue in the case of Japanese animation, where subtlety of emotion is paramount. One of the wonderful things about Japanese animation for children is that it starts with the assumption that children are very intelligent and emotionally sensitive, and can appreciate complex and contradictory relationships.

I’ve seen American kids in screenings of Japanese films. It’s like seeing food given to someone who has been starving. It’s clear that the children in the audience are amazed and delighted that somebody has made a film that understands and trusts in their intelligence.

By comparison, American animated films — even the best ones — treat kids pretty much as idiots. This is not a criticism of American animation, but rather a reflection of the patronizing way American culture acts toward its children in general. I suspect most Americans are not even aware it is possible to make an animated film that does not talk down to children.

GIven all that, and given the privilege of seeing a good Japanese animated film, who would want to take the chance on viewing it with American voices?


Monday, April 8th, 2013

One of the readers of this blog sent me a very nice and friendly email today, pointing out that the site has an extremely retro design, and that perhaps it might make sense to update to something more modern.

I thus find myself on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, I enjoy these sorts of retro things. For example, the smartest phone I am currently using looks like this:

and the telephone I use at home is this charming replica of a candlestick phone from the 1920s:

When are old fashioned things charming, and when are they just old? People tend to like my candlestick phone, presumably because it evokes a lost world of long ago. Yet my Samsung flip-phone seems to inspire something closer to bemusement.

In our modern cyber world, so relentlessly focused on the latest and greatest, is it valid to employ a retro web page design?

Or is it, in the immortal words of Seth MacFarlane, “still too soon”?

Easter eggs

Sunday, April 7th, 2013

Computer games have a concept of “easter eggs”. These are hidden puzzles that are not officially part of the game. If you make a move in a certain way, or open a cabinet at just the right moment, something surprising might happen — a hidden message perhaps, or a spectral visitation from the game’s creator.

There is an entire sociology around easter eggs. Fans share them with each other, webpages are devoted to their secrets and mysteries, and occasionally a highly inappropriate easter egg pops up that was never intended for the release version of the game (much to the embarrassment of the game’s publisher).

I wonder whether it would be possible to design a computer game solely around easter eggs. Could one build a game for which the entire reward structure consists of finding arcane hidden messages and surprises?

If such a thing already exists, I suspect somebody reading this will helpfully point it out.

Augmented reality and economics

Saturday, April 6th, 2013

Yesterday I wrote, somewhat tongue in cheek, about how easy it would be for future wearable augmented reality technology to maintain the gulf between the “haves” and “have nots” of this world. In my dystopian scenario, high-tech wearables would augment the reality of economic inequality.

But suppose we could rethink the premise of augmented reality, from the ground up. Is there a way we could set it in a direction that would actually promote greater economic equality?

The largest potential power-up I can think of is in education. Perhaps inexpensive wearable devices could make it easier for high quality education to reach a greater portion of the world’s population. After all, wearable augmented reality has the potential to put teachers and students together, face-to-face, across large distances, or to simulate playful environments for learning and exploration that might be cost-prohibitive to build with laboratories of bricks and mortar.

Doesn’t the true potential of a child reside in what his or her mind can learn to do? Just as the increasing fluidity of information has helped to bring down dictatorships and repressive regimes, perhaps another leap in technology will make it possible to bring down the scourge of inadequate education.

What could possibly be more important to the world’s economy?

The magic of technology

Friday, April 5th, 2013

Let us fast forward a bit to a time when those of us in the developed world are wearing our forthcoming variants of Google Glass. Bear with me here.

Rather than staring down at iPhones as we walk blithely into oncoming traffic, we will be looking forward, heads held high, while augmented reality displays give us power-up knowledge of the world around us, and unobtrusive bone-conductance microphones whisper messages that only we can hear.

In this brave new world, our personal video cameras will be recording every passing moment — buildings, stores, cars, passers-by — and helping us to interpret the many things that pass into our field of view.

Yet we will not be alone. For our fashionable head-mounted device will be connect to the internet, and the internet is connect to the world.

Somewhere far away, where the average wage is perhaps one hundredth our own, some brilliant individual — perhaps a young person of unbounded promise but with no real future — will be paid three dollars a day to interpret what we see, to whisper in our ear, to point out objects in our view, suggest paths we may take, opportunities for purchase, ways forward that we ourselves may never have thought of.

To this young person the opportunities will seem like a dream. For a wage far greater than anything she could have imagined, she will see sights beyond the dreams of anyone in her third world village. A glimpse into a fabulous world where everyone can afford a car, where a movie costs more than a month’s salary, and where universal education is guaranteed.

We, of course, will not quite be aware of this person’s existence. We will simply chalk it all up to the magic of technology. “How,” we might ask ourselves, “did my augmented reality device know to send me to this particular store on this particular day? It is truly marvelous what they can do with computers these days!”

Cosmic View

Thursday, April 4th, 2013

I am a big fan of Ray and Charles Eames. In the world of design they were perhaps the ultimate power couple, originating one ingenious idea after another. The Eames Chair has deservedly become an icon of modernist design.

Similarly, their 1961 interactive museum exhibit Mathematica: A World of Numbers … and Beyond is the best advertisement for the sheer delight of mathematics this side of Vi Hart’s videos — and a very high bar for the Museum of Mathematics to strive for as it continues to mature.

The there is one thing for which they unfairly get too much credit. Just today a colleague referred to their iconic work Powers of 10, a lovely short film that first zooms out from human scale to the universe, and then zooms in to the atomic world (and which was subsequently released as the book “Powers of Ten” by Philip and Phylis Morrison).

I say they get too much credit because the entire concept for this film was borrowed from Cosmic View, a 1957 illustrated essay by Kees Boeke.

Not surprisingly Boeke was a pioneer in many other ways. For one thing, he originated the concept of a Sociocracy in education. You could look it up.

Other rooms

Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013

A person who programs in a low level computer assembly language might reasonably say to a person who uses a high level programming language: “It must be very difficult for you to use such a restrictive tool. There are so many things you can’t do!”

Interestingly, a person who programs in a high level programming language might also reasonably say to a person who programs in assembly language: “It must be very difficult for you to use such a restrictive tool. There are so many things you can’t do!”

Both statements are true, and there many analogous situations. The person who walks to work can see and do things that the person who drives cannot, and vice versa. The person of faith can be motivated in ways that the atheist cannot, and vice versa.

There is a tendency to see those with different world views as living in a more restricted version of our own world view. To a Christian, Jews might be defined by their lack of belief in Christ. To a straight person, gay people may be defined by their lack of heterosexual desire.

By thinking this way, we tend to miss the richness of the lives of others. If the meat eater sees a vegan as living in a restricted world, she will never realize the vast universe of taste experiences that the vegan takes for granted, of which the meat eater has no knowledge.

I wonder whether this awareness should be made a part of our education in childhood: The ability to understand that those other ways of looking at the world, different from our ours, are not merely nested boxes within our own world view.

They are other rooms, as large as our own, within the same spacious house.

Wearable micro-tweets

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2013

Visiting Google today, and looking at a Google Glass device close up, I found myself pondering the future of social turn-taking.

Today that act of reading a text or tweet is a somewhat socially heavy operation. You need to look down at the mobile device you are holding in your hand, thereby breaking eye contact and social continuity with whomever you are talking to.

If you need to take the device out of your pocket, that is an even heavier gesture. The performance of this act itself implies “There is something more important than talking to you right now.” Even worse, your conversant has no reason to think you even know who the text or tweet was from. So the implication might be “Anything is more important than talking with you right now.”

But what if we were all wearing Google Glass or some similar device? A simple drift of the eyes up and to the right would allow us to read the contents of our incoming texts. Yet even this movement would probably be easily noticeable.

Suppose we wish to read our incoming texts without interrupting the social flow of the conversation, and without making the person we are with feel unimportant? Perhaps we will learn to devise ways to hide such telltale eye moments.

Tweets might become even more terse than they are now. A brief enough micro-tweet could be read in a very short amount of time. Still, making that particular eye movement while somebody else is talking would give the game away.

So we might end up becoming practiced at waiting until just the right moment in conversational turn-taking to read those incoming micro-tweets. Say, a moment when it is socially natural to move one’s eyes off to the side.

In this scenario, the simple act of looking into the display can serve as a trigger to the device: If our wearable display detects that we have looked at it, this can serve a signal for it to prepare the next micro-tweet.

I admit I’m troubled by the possibility that any of this might come about. Not only would it promote a form of social dishonesty, but it would also encourage an even more fine grained fragmentation of attention than we already have these days.

Then again, I suspect that to any child growing up in such a world, this will all just seem perfectly natural.

Games for higher consciousness

Monday, April 1st, 2013

One theme that came up quite a bit during the Game Developer’s Conference, and that also came up today in conversations with various friends and colleagues, is the idea of making games that are good for people.

There is an entire field of games for health (an initiative that has been strongly supported by Michelle Obama to fight childhood obesity), and quite a few games designed to raise social or political awareness around various issues. At our Games for Learning Institute we’ve been working for years on figuring out how to make games that help kids learn better.

But can a game go further than this? Can we use them to become better people? Suppose all of those self-help books that currently line our nation’s book store shelves were gradually replaced by interactive game software that can truly customize for each individual user, and that person’s particular needs.

Could we end up with a powerful force for good? Can a game help you to become a kinder or more thoughtful person? To be more considerate in your relationships? To guide you toward raising your consciousness in a way that frees you to better appreciate the world around you, and to get the most out of each day of your life?