Archive for June, 2013


Thursday, June 20th, 2013

When I was a child I fell in love with the idea of thermostats. The lowly thermostat was, I came to understand, the perfectly minimal example of an actual working robot. When the temperature went up, a sensor triggered the thermostat to produce cool air. When the temperature went down, the sensor triggered the thermostat to produce warm air. It was simple, but intelligent.

It was a robot in my house. What more could any kid ask for?

When I was a child there were also mechanical men. They were on TV, in movies, and in exhibitions, and they were called robots. But I understood that these were not robots at all — they were simply puppets dressed to look like robots. The thermostat, humble though it may be, was the real thing.

And then I discovered it had cousins, like the governor of a steam engine. If a steam engine runs too hot, its governor spins faster, and the two steel balls it carries are flung outward through centripetal force. This movement causes a lever to be pulled downward, which partly closes a throttle, thereby cooling the engine down.

My grandparents owned an old telephone they never used, which I was given to play with and take apart. I found an electromagnet inside, which pulled upon a spring metal bar which held a clapper that rang a bell. But as the clapper moved toward the magnet, an electrical connection was broken, and the bar snapped back. This reconnected the electric circuit, and the cycle began anew.

The phone ringer didn’t look anything like the thermostat, or the steam engine governor, but I knew they were all cousins.

And then one day I learned the truth about circles.

More tomorrow.

Four million

Wednesday, June 19th, 2013

Today Alan Kay told me that in the hay day of Apple’s HyperCard, over four million people were programming in its HyperTalk language.

This number dwarfs the success of all other programming interventions. For example, the Scratch programming language for introducing kids to programming, which is considered by many to be a highly successful project, has several hundred thousand users — an order of magnitude fewer than HyperCard in its prime.

It’s odd to realize that the historical high point for widespread computer programming literacy occurred about a quarter of a century ago.

We really need to fix that.

Where one man has gone before

Tuesday, June 18th, 2013

In response to my post about nostalgia for the future, Sally wrote: “Star Trek is just cops in space. Gene Roddenberry worked for the LAPD. Think about it, the Enterprise crew flies around in a “cruiser” fighting intergalactic crime, but IN SPACE and with no donuts.”

The original Star Trek was an important show in the evolution of television, but not as a cop show. The prime directive generally prohibited “solving crimes”, but the story goes much deeper than that.

On its most basic structural level, Roddenberry’s “Wagon Train to the Stars” (his term) was very much a Western. As I’ve noted here before, there are only two kinds of Westerns: (1) A stranger rides into town, and (2) We ride into a strange town. Star Trek was both kinds.

But the clues to what Roddenberry was really up to can be found in his previous show “The Lieutenant”, which focused on a military man in peace time. I suspect that show was influenced more by Roddenberry’s experience as a fighter pilot in WWII than by his later stint with the LAPD.

In addition to Gary Lockwood as the lead character William Tiberius Rice (Lockwood would later famously guest on Star Trek in the iconic episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before”), the show featured appearances by Leonard Nimoy, Nichelle Nicols and Majel Barrett.

One episode, featuring Nichelle Nicols in a mixed-race relationship, was never aired, because NBC decided that race was too controversial a topic for television. This sad incident motivated Roddenberry to make his next series — Star Trek — into a vehicle for progressive social commentary. As in a Western, the displacement of the story out of our own contemporary world gave him license to make political points that would otherwise be unacceptable in the heavily censored TV of the 1960s.

The airing of Star Trek was very much a political breakthrough for television, opening the door for a slue of later socially progressive shows from Norman Lear, Larry Gelbart and others.

In a sense Star Trek was the very opposite of a cop show. Rather than being a show about going around arresting bad guys, the overriding message of the series is understanding and acceptance of others, no matter how different they may be from ourselves.

By the way, I think Tiberius is a wonderful middle name, don’t you?

Living forever

Monday, June 17th, 2013

I attended a conference this past weekend, a gathering of scientists and spiritual leaders, all of whom are seriously addressing the question of “How can we live forever?” Whether through induced neural regeneration, or nanoscale tissue repair, or downloading of minds from a brain to a computer, or spiritual transcendence of the body, just about everyone seemed to be a True Believer.

I turned to a friend of mine, who seemed really into it, and I asked “But why is everyone so sure this is a good thing?” He seemed a bit taken aback by my doubt. “After all,” I continued, “you have a small child. I can imagine a future scenario where there wouldn’t be any more room — where your desire to live forever would clash with your ability to bring a new life into the world.”

If somebody said to me: “You have five seconds to decide, and only one chance — would you like to be immortal?” I suspect I would probably say yes. The instinct for survival is simply that strong. But that doesn’t mean I think this would be a good thing to unleash upon the world.

And then there are all sorts of weird ways in which the very idea of an individual could become eroded. What if my downloaded mind were then replicated multiple times? Which one would be me? Would the phrase “unique individual” even continue to make sense in such a world?

Nostalgia for the future

Sunday, June 16th, 2013

In yesterday’s post I talked about period films, and how much they reveal about the era in which they are made.

Stephan pointed out that this is also true for Star Trek, as in the differences between the original series and the recent JJ Abrams reboot.

Which made me realize, perhaps for the first time, that a science fiction film is a period film. In this case the period is a particular vision of the future that has become built into our culture.

You might argue that a “vision of the future” doesn’t count as “period”, since it’s not a real place or time.

Yet the “old West” that we see in our movies is often the mythological version, not at all grounded in the reality of life in those times, but rather in an idealized collective fantasy about that era. It is not so much whether a period being portrayed exists in reality, but rather, whether it exists in our hearts.

And there is some piece of cultural real estate in our collective history that we all recognize as “science fiction future” that we idealize as a period in our cultural history, like any other. We experience all of the attitudes toward this make-believe place that we have toward any other era in our nation’s history.

We might even feel nostalgia for the future.

Double period

Saturday, June 15th, 2013

I’ve been spending time recently watching old “period films”. A period film is a movie in which the story takes place in an earlier historical era, such as “Gangs of New York” or “Gladiator”. The thing that strikes me about old period films is how much they reveal about the era in which they were made.

For example, there have been at least five different filmed versions of “The Great Gatsby” (if you include the 2000 made-for-TV version). Although each movie ostensibly takes place in the summer of 1922, they all end up being lessons in the aesthetics of their own time. In a sense, such movies are “double period” — they reveal the aesthetics of two time periods at once.

What is considered sexy, powerful, compelling, from facial expression to body language, are portrayed in markedly different ways in the various versions of “Gatsby”. Which makes sense, since ultimately each film is aimed at its own contemporary viewers. Rather than faithfully portray Fitzgerald’s Jazz era, each film maker must recreate that era in ways that will resonate with his or her own current audience.

It is easy to look at a movie which aims to portray events of its own time, and see the markers of the particular slice of time in the culture when that film was made. But in a way it is far more interesting to do this with a period film. The choices are still there, but they have moved largely to an unconscious level.

Seeing “Ivanhoe” now (the Richard Thorpe version) is a lesson in the aesthetics of the early 1950s, even though it is based on a novel about the 12th century that was published in 1820. And seeing “The Scarlet Pimpernel” (the Harold Young version) tells us far more about the aesthetics of 1934 than I suspect the filmmakers had ever intended.

Writers and linguists

Friday, June 14th, 2013

I know many people who like to write — essays, stories, reminiscences, polemics. Using the language to express oneself is, to many people, just plain fun. And it can a powerful way to reach other people, to share ideas, to preserve and celebrate culture, to maintain an extended conversation.

Yet I know relatively few people who focus on the language itself as a technical study. Psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics, historical / evolutionary / developmental / computational linguistics, computational phylogenetics, these are all fascinating but relatively rare career choices.

Most people are more interested in using written language rather than looking inward to study the workings of the language itself. And that makes sense, just as it makes sense that there are a lot more drivers of cars than there are automobile mechanics.

Yet while we have a recognized field called “computer science”, we do not have a recognized field consisting of the best use of computer programming. All of our academic study focuses on looking inward — of being the equivalent of the linguist or the auto mechanic. Academically, we seem to conflate the act of programming with the study of the underlying mechanisms of computation.

Maybe this false equivalence is holding our society back from achieving true universal programming literacy. Perhaps the field of programming needs to focus less on producing good linguists, and more on producing good writers.

Math and physics

Thursday, June 13th, 2013

Yesterday I bemoaned the large separation between the teaching of high school math and the teaching of high school physics. Let’s go beyond that, and ask the question “What would it mean for these two topics to be taught in a coordinated way?”

Could our high schools integrate such topics together in a more seamless manner? I wonder whether the impediment is not so much an inherent issue, but rather something structural.

Perhaps there is something fundamental in the process of high school level education that requires keeping subjects separate. It might be that practical organizational issues, from the choice of a textbook to the training of teachers, actually rely on there being a clear intellectual firewall between different topics.

An alternative explanation, of course, is that there is no reason for the lack of coordination between courses, other than “That’s how we’ve always done it.”

If that is the case, then perhaps it is time to work out a more integrated curriculum. And then to do systematic user testing to validate whether such an approach would, in fact, create a better general appreciation for, and mastery of, math, physics, and the interactions between those topics.

Other courses, other rooms

Wednesday, June 12th, 2013

When I was in high school I took math courses. I also took a course in physics.

The math courses were all taught by the math teachers. To attend those classes, you needed to go to the math wing of the school. You also needed to have a textbook devoted to that year’s math topic.

Meanwhile, the physics course was taught by the physics teacher, who hung out with the other science teachers, in the science wing of the building — which happened to not be very close to the math wing.

There was a textbook for physics, with lots of cool pictures, examples, and some very cool mathematical equations. This textbook did not in any way refer to the math textbook. In fact, reading just the physics textbook you wouldn’t have had a clue that there was even such a thing as a math textbook.

The math textbooks took the same attitude toward physics — in fact about all other non-math subjects. Those courses simply did not exist, as far as math textbooks were concerned.

Different textbooks, different teachers, even different rooms.

Does it strike you that there is something wrong with this picture?


Tuesday, June 11th, 2013

I was having dinner this evening in Stockholm with a very high ranking minister in the Swedish government. To my delight, he was very intelligent, extremely thoughtful, and impressively well-informed about matters relating to how government might improve education.

Our long and wide-ranging conversation touched on many topics. At some point the conversation came around to the topic of elections. He mentioned, rather tongue in cheek, that Saddam Hussein had once won reelection in Iraq with 99.5% of the votes.

“I have always wondered about that,” I said. “I mean, all things considered, why didn’t Saddam win with one hundred percent of the votes?”

“Ah,” the minister replied, “that was for plausibility.”