Happy Halloween

Happy Halloween everyone!

I cannot begin to tell you how lovely it is to be enjoying an All Hallows Eve in New York in which people are merely pretending to be scared.

Last year the festive fakery of Halloween was replaced by the real thing — a not-so-little demon named Sandy.

This year things seem to be back the way they should be on October 31: We New Yorkers, for just one evening, forget to be serious, stop treating strangers as strangers, and realize that we are all actually one big dysfunctional family.

More than anything else, we remember that we all were children once, and that some important place within our souls, we still are.

Blurred lines

Every time I hear the song “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke et al., I hear a perfect cross between “Kiss” by Prince and the Sheena Easton hit “Strut” by Charlie Dore. I see B.L. as the love child of those two earlier pop classics, straddling the artfully blurred lines between homage and appropriation.

Part of the fun of pop music is recognizing this sort of influence — a song that is certainly not a copy (we aren’t talking about “He’s So Fine” and “My Sweet Lord”), but that clearly channels some piece of the soul of one or more earlier works.

These three songs, in particular, seem to form a perfect trinity of commentary on the eternal ritual of power and lust between the sexes. with “Kiss” as the father, “Blurred Lines” the son, and “Strut” most definitely the holy spirit.


I was surprised at first to see that when I referred to some people yesterday as “clueless tourists”, this came across as a referendum on all tourists. Then I started thinking about it more, and now I’m intrigued.

If you went to see a movie and somebody talked loudly throughout the film, you might refer to them as a “clueless moviegoer”. Or you might refer to a diner who screams at their hapless waiter and then leaves no tip as a “clueless diner”.

Yet we would never think, upon hearing those phrases, that you felt this way about all moviegoers or diners. I wouldn’t think I should stop going to movies or restaurants for fear that I would be tarred by the same brush.

Every client for a service has an obligation to follow certain protocols, whether that service be a night out at the movies, dinner in a nice restaurant, or tourism.

In my experience, tourists do a very good job of understanding those protocols. The ones who don’t are the exception that proves the rule: They stand out as clueless precisely because most tourists are not at all clueless.

So why the asymmetry in how people view tourists, as compared to consumers of other services?

I haven’t a clue.

Biking from Brooklyn

Today a friend and I bicycled from Brooklyn to Manhattan, riding over the Brooklyn Bridge. The weather was beautiful, and many people were out and about. The pedestrian/bicycle path between the two boroughs is an alternate New York, lovelier and less fast paced than the world of automobiles whizzing by below.

Most people followed the etiquette of the narrow divided space wonderfully — pedestrians on one side, bicycles on the other. Which made it more jarring on the very rare occasion when a clueless tourist would stand in the middle of the bike lane, looking for all the world as if they didn’t understand the dangerous situation they were creating for everyone around them. They might as well have been wearing t-shirts that said “Yes, I am trying to get somebody killed.”

But other than that, it was glorious. We arrived at the middle of the bridge just in time to watch the sunset behind the Statue of Liberty. Our green-clad Lady of the Harbor looked even more beautiful than usual, surrounded by the orange glow of the slowly sinking sun upon the far horizon.

Delightfully, the trip takes no more time by bicycle than it does by subway. And it is so much nicer a ride.

Best case scenario

I was having dinner this evening with a friend who is very optimistic about the prospects of on-line courses. So despite all the unknowns, I let myself think through the “best case scenario”.

Right now a very large percentage of the world lives in relative poverty (relative, that is, to the average wealth of those of you who are reading this). While an outstanding teacher or professor can inspire perhaps thirty or three hundred students at a time, even a mediocre teacher can potentially reach, on-line, hundreds of millions — or even billions — of learners.

Since most teaching still relies on physical proximity, we are currently living in a sort of pre-literate society: An upper crust of people have access to truly superior education, while billions of others have no real access to learning the sort of literacy that would allow them to become entrepreneurs, inventors, voices for political change, or other sorts of active players in the global culture and economy.

Suppose MOOCs continue to evolve, until some sort of truly effective high quality education becomes available to the great majority of the seven billion people on this planet. That might bring about the beginning of a true globally literate society.

Which wouldn’t be at all bad for our global standard of living.

Tying things together

I’ve been working on different software projects lately, with the aim of combining them, so that everything will work together in the same place at the same time. One part of the puzzle is seen in those interactive diagrams I’ve been posting here lately.

Another part is seen my recent dragon planet and in the WebGL work I posted recently for my graphics class (both of which require you to enable WebGL in your browser). Yet another part consists of letting the text of web pages change in different ways, like the mutable story I talked about here in September.

In these pursuits I’ve been very much inspired by the work of Chaim Gingold, Bret Victor, Vi Hart, Steve Wittens and others. And of course the Gandalf of the bunch, Alan Kay.

Now it’s time to start pulling threads together so that all of the components I’ve been building can interoperate. The result will be something that’s one part responsive book, one part interactive lecture, and about two parts magic. The longer term playbook I’m working from might be a little hard to explain.

But hopefully it will be fun to see.

The fallacy of the shiny new toy

I like making new things, coming up with cool approaches to problems, “inventing the future” as Alan Kay would put it. It’s a heady experience to realize you have found a different and possibly better way to do something.

But that wonderful emotion can be a trap. A new thing that you have created is your baby, and we love our babies beyond all reason. The sheer exuberance of fresh discovery can cloud the mind. We believe the world needs our creation — partly because it may be true, but partly because we want to believe.

As difficult as it is for me, I’ve started putting more effort into trying to turn around my point of view, to see it from all sides. Instead of only asking “How can I make the world understand why it needs my beautiful creation”, I’m also trying to ask “What does the world need?” Sometimes it turns out not to be my shiny new toy after all.

And maybe that’s ok.

Another dimension

There was a great talk this evening by Marc ten Bosch about his four dimensional computer game Miegakure, which is still at the prototype stage.

In the examples of game play Marc showed, the fourth dimension was very abbreviated — much simpler than the other dimensions in the game. This limited much of the 4D gameplay to elementary (although still fun) scenarios. I strongly suspect that the full game will have a much richer and more extensive fourth dimension than did the prototype we saw this evening.

Still, my student Adam was disappointed at not having seen, in this prototype, a fourth dimension as large and complex as the other three dimensions. Trying to explain to me the sort of rich four dimensional world he’d like to see in a game, Adam said: “I want people living at right angles to me, and we never intersect.”

“That’s easy,” I told him, “just live in Manhattan.”

Space to dream

Having seen Gravity — on a gloriously large movie screen in 3D — I can’t help but mentally compare it to the space operas in those sixty-odd year old Sci Fi magazines I bought yesterday. The mid 20th century was a time when space travel was very much a fantasy of the future, one of those ultimate human dreams just tantalizingly beyond reach.

Now we live in a world in which space travel can seem almost quaint. After all, we managed to put people up on the moon well over forty years ago. Yet now, by virtue of a different revolution entirely — enormous advances in computer graphics — we can bring to life the visions of an earlier generation to an extent that would have thrilled and awed the readers of Fantasy and Science Fiction in its golden age.

In another sixty years our collective dreams will have evolved yet again, and the visions that awe us today will seem oddly old fashioned. Meanwhile, we will find a new space to dream. The future equivalent of today’s cutting edge computer graphics will probably be something beyond anything we can today imagine.

In that future era, how we will visualize our collective dreams? And what we will be dreaming about?