Archive for July, 2013

Cameras at SIGGRAPH

Sunday, July 21st, 2013

I’m very excited about the upcoming SIGGRAPH conference. But the emailed “Important Information For SIGGRAPH 2013 Attendees” has me a little non-plussed. Here is ther policy on cameras and recording:

No cameras or recording devices are permitted at SIGGRAPH 2013. Abuse of this policy will result in the loss of the individual’s registration credentials.

Now unless I am mistaken, essentially every SIGGRAPH attendee has a camera and recording device in their pocket at all times. Which means that about 25000 people — statistically 100% of attendees — are in continual violation of this policy.

What happens when they realize this, and take away the registration credentials of everyone? Should we then start our own conference?


Saturday, July 20th, 2013

A colleague of mine at Microsoft told me today about the recent send-off party for their director of research, who is being promoted. Because the guest of honor is a big fan of Star Trek, my colleague told me that they had decided to celebrate by watching the man’s favorite ST episode.

“City on the Edge of Forever,” I said.

My colleague just looked at me blankly. “Wait, how could you know that?” he asked. “Did somebody already tell you about about this?”

“No,” I said, “but it had to be ‘City on the Edge of Forever’.”

My colleague continued to look dubious, wondering whether I was putting him on by pretending to be clairvoyant.

So I tried to explain it. “Look,” I said, “I know roughly how old he is, so I know he would have been watching original Trek when he was around fifteen years old. I also know he’s a very intelligent guy, and that he still takes ST quite seriously almost half a century later. Which means that his favorite episode would have been the best one, the one that perfectly intertwines love, fate, loyalty, and speculative fiction on a metaphysical level.”

“Also,” I continued, as if that weren’t enough, “the one with an original script by Harlan Ellison.”

I’m not sure my colleague quite believed that I had worked all this out from first principles. But I am sure that it’s as obvious to some of you reading this as it was to me.


Friday, July 19th, 2013

I am very impressed by our president’s recent short speech reflecting on the death of Trayvon Martin. The whole subject is such a political minefield, and of course he will be criticized in some quarters for saying anything at all. Yet everything he said was very true, and very sad, and these are truths that need to be heard.

I was especially impressed by the way he managed to convey the pain of systematic prejudice, the terrible truth of what so many in our society must endure every day — and that he managed to all that not with anger, but with clarity and understanding.

And even a note of hopefulness.

CSS for learning

Thursday, July 18th, 2013

A cool feature of the modern World Wide Web that you use every day, whether or not you realize it, is its system of “Cascading Style Sheets”. The basic power that CSS gives to web designers is the ability to separate style from content. When you create a web page, CSS lets you focus just on the content. Then, somewhere else, you can describe the style, or “look” of the page.

This means, for example, that if you want to upgrade to a fancier font, or change the color of all your text box borders, or make the corners of all your buttons a little rounder, you don’t need to mess with (and potentially damage) the place where you wrote your valuable web content. Conversely, it makes it a lot easier to do things like run computer programs behind the scenes that update charts and other data. The output of those programs doesn’t need to know anything about the style or look of your web page.

I’ve been involved for a number of years in studying how to use games and other interactive media to help make learning for kids more fun and effective. A game or interactive experience is not only more engaging than a textbook, but it can also monitor how well a student understands what’s going on, and can continually adjust things to keep each learner in their own personal zone of best learning experience.

Not surprisingly, different kids respond to different approaches — there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to learning. There are young people who respond best to concrete examples, and others who do best with abstraction or symbolic approaches. Some prefer and learn best from things that are highly visual, or require speed and dexterity. Some learn best by doing things cooperatively, others through competition, and still others work best when working things through on their own.

Perhaps we should be working to define a system of Cascading Style Sheets for learning: The same subject areas, be they math, science, language comprehension, history or music, would be accessible to each learner via that learner’s own personal style filter. One student would go through a subject as a first-person shooter, whereas another could experience the same subject as a set of contemplative puzzles, while others could work through the same material as a set of cooperative building activities.

It would be interesting to work out, in this context, what form a CSS type of specification would take. What is the interface, in interactive learning experiences, between subject and style? And what is the best way to describe that interface?


Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

I was at a workshop where roughly half the participants self-identified as designers and the other half self-identified as computer scientists. The goal was to try to find ways for the two cultures to understand each other and work together better.

At one point, after a designer had talked about his process of creating ideas via sketching, people were invited to ask questions that the panel would then discuss. One designer asked the following question: “How would one reconcile our practice in these conceptual stages of design, where we need to use sketching, with the practice of computer programming? In code everything needs to be so precise, so black and white. It’s all ones and zeroes.”

I happened the next person whose turn it was to ask a question. Before I asked my own question I couldn’t help commenting on the previous one. “It’s funny,” I said, “Everything I make is sketching, and everything I sketch is made by writing code.”

Packet switching

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

The modern internet is built atop a set of layers of protocols which are collectively known as TCP/IP. The essential idea behind this system is that anything you get over the internet, such as a document from a Web page, is that all of the data is broken down into tiny packets, and each packet is labeled. The label tells the packet (1) where it is in the larger document, and (2) where the final destination is (ie: where your computer is on the internet).

The beauty of this approach is that all of those packets can take different routes to get to you. In effect, your document “pours” over the internet like a kind of liquid, with each packet acting like a tiny “molecule” that travels along whichever path happens to be least congested. This turns out to be a really good solution, and it’s one of the reasons the internet continues to work even when there is heavy traffic.

The way that each of these packets is intelligently handed from intermediate server to server on its way to you is called “packet switching”.

Several years ago somebody explained to me why a lot of deliveries in Europe are done by truck rather than train, although one would think that trains would be more efficient by virtue of larger speed, greater fuel efficiency and absence of traffic lights. It turns out that a freight car often needs to sit waiting at borders and other switching stations, sometimes for hours or more, until it can be coupled to another train. There just aren’t enough tracks to be completely flexible.

In contrast, putting your product on lots of trucks allows you to deliver it across Europe more efficiently. Each truck driver is free to take whatever route he/she likes, as long as the load gets to its final destination. This is essentially same highly granular packet switching that makes the internet.

We might see the same sort of change in the next ten years or so, as we switch over to self-driving cars. Once driving routes can be computer controlled, automobiles will be able to coordinate with each other, forming an optimizing packet switching traffic network. Those annoying traffic jams that last for hours — the bane of many of today’s commuters — will be a thing of the past.

In his talk yesterday Bill Gates made a similar point about the relationship between education and credentialing. Today there is really only one way to build academic credentials with good provenance: Enroll at an accredited university, and take its degree granting curriculum. He posited that as more on-line options become available, credentialing may begin to decentralize. Education consumers may be able to pick and choose, building their personal credential portfolio from a combination of on-line and brick-and-mortar vendors.

If this scenario comes to fruition, then educational credentialing — the way you will show a potential employer that you are qualified for your next job — will operate via a kind of granular packet switching.

One can see similar patterns in the recent evolution of personal music collections, casual written communication, and even how people arrange to meet for afternoon coffee. I wonder whether this emerging meme is an inevitable consequence of evolving information technology.

The unintended consequences of technological change

Monday, July 15th, 2013

For quite a while, one of my favorite examples of the unintended consequences of technological change has been the historical relationship between the invention of musical recording and live musical performance. Today that history came up in a surprising and intriguing context.

At the dawn of the age of commercial recorded music, many top musicians refused to go into recording studios and cut records, because they were afraid that audiences would then no longer be interested in hearing their live performances. That’s not how things worked out. As we now know, the artists who made recordings were able to build a much larger following. Demand for their live performances consequently increased.

Today I attended a talk by Bill Gates. During the Q&A, somebody asked him what he thought would be the long term effects of the growing practice of on-line education. He mentioned the historical precedent of music recording, and for me that was an “aha” moment. If music performance is any precedent, the recording and wide distribution of lectures will not kill the live lecture, but rather will result in a greater demand for live lectures by good teachers, as a result of the following they will develop among inspired learners. Bad teachers won’t fare as well.

On the other hand, the history of musical recording and distribution is still being written.

Obscured originals

Sunday, July 14th, 2013

Yesterday I was having a conversation with a fairly learned colleague that touched on Zen philosophy, and I wanted to reference a particular book. I started to say “Zen in the Art” … and my colleague finished “… of Motorcycle Maintenance”.

“No,” I said, “Zen in the Art of Archery,” whereupon he looked confused. It turns out he had never heard of it. I briefly described Eugen Herrigel’s classic memoir of his experience as a Westerner attempting to learn Zen under Japanese master Awa KenzĂ´. I also pointed out that Herrigel’s book was quite likely the inspiration for the title of Robert Persig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”.

This led to a discussion of a curious phenomenon: The homage which becomes more famous than the original. For example, a number of years ago I mentioned Jean-Luc Godard in one of my classes, and the only association in my students’s minds was Jean-Luc Picard, the starship captain. Of course the latter’s name was an homage to the great nouvelle vague filmmaker, but none of my students knew that.

Similarly, a lot of people know about Bob Dylan, yet have no idea where he got his adopted last name. And think of all those kids who grew up hearing the voice of Stimpy, yet have never heard of Peter Lorre.

I suspect one could compile a long list of such “obscured originals”: Once ubiquitous cultural references that have been displaced in the collective consciousness by something else that had been intended as an homage to the original.


Saturday, July 13th, 2013

I was having a conversation today in which somebody pointed out the very high environmental cost of buying a new car — any new car. Every time you purchase a new automobile, the global chain of production is pushed in the direction of rolling more new cars off assembly lines. And the process of manufacturing each of those new automobiles has an extremely large energy footprint.

Yet lots of people are very excited about the prospect of buying and owning an “ecofriendly” car like a Prius or Tesla. Particularly in the case of the Tesla, there is the promise of hitting two key social goals in one stroke: (A) Showing the world that you can afford a fancy high status car, and (B) Showing your friends and colleagues that you are caring and eco-conscious in your purchasing choices.

In truth, over the period of time that you would typically own a car, it would be far “greener” to buy a used car, whether gasoline or diesel. Alas, you will get no social points from most of the people you know for tooling around in a ratty looking old used car, even if it is the more ecofriendly driving option.

I wonder how many other examples there are of “ecofashion” — people making lifestyle decisions that privilege the appearance of helping the environment over less trendy choices that actually would help the environment.

Preconditions for widespread literacy

Friday, July 12th, 2013

I’ve talked quite a bit here about “universal programming literacy” — the prospect of a large proportion of of our population being able to get computers to do things with the power and flexibility that programmer’s take for granted. But to understand what would be the right preconditions for this, it might be useful to look at historical precedents.

It seems that dramatic increases in literacy come about by a confluence of motivation and technological enablement. For example, the 1951 introduction of the Fender electric bass, followed closely by the electric guitar and similar innovations, allowed young people to perform their own music — in modern parlance, to communicate as “makers” — to a large audience of their peers, without the need for access to highly specialized and expensive venues. Most of these young people had little or no formal musical training, yet six decades later the revolution they started still dominates popular music.

And just in the last several years, widespread access to affordable digital video cameras and digital editing software, as well as free worldwide distribution (the last thanks to YouTube) have led to an enormous increase in filmmaking literacy among people, similarly motivated by a desire to communicate as “makers” with a large cohort of their peers. Again, most of these kids had little or no formal training, yet the influence of this new literacy is clearly going to be transformative in the decades to come.

There are many similar examples throughout history of a means of production going viral and thereby leading to a new form of widespread literacy, and they all seem to follow the same basic pattern.

For programming, what would be the equivalent combination of (1) a set of technological innovations that lead to wide-spread enablement of programming production and distribution, and (2) motivation to communicate via programming as a “maker” to a large cohort of one’s peers?