On the usefulness of preparing a talk

In the last several weeks I have given three different talks. I could have “recycled” any one of these talks, using the same “slides” with only minor reshuffling. That is routinely done by a lot of people I know.

But instead I built each talk from the ground up. Yes, there was some overlap of material, but not all that much. It was a lot more work, and at times I wondered why I was driving myself crazy.

But now, having finished the third presentation, I realize that in each case it hasn’t been about giving the talk, but rather about affirming my connection with a community. And because each of these communities is very different, I have needed to be different.

What I realize now is that putting the talk together is at least as important as actually giving the talk. It’s only when I am faced with specific authoring choices — what to put in or take out, what vision to emphasize, what story to tell — that I really understand my relationship with a particular community of people.

And that tells me, in way I might not otherwise have understood, why I want to be a part of that community.


The other day a friend sent me an email in which he had clearly meant to talk about renting a car for an upcoming trip. But good old autocorrect “fixed” the word “car” in his message to the word “cat”.

And it occurred to me what a lovely idea this is. Somewhere off in a parallel universe, people who take a flight to halfway around the world will immediately rent a cat on their arrival. Because everybody needs a cat right?

Don’t scoff — this is my made-up universe, and I’m allowed to make up any rules I like.

In this universe, when your flight arrives at its destination, there will be kiosks set up by rival cat-rental agencies. This is good because it provides a variety of choices, from the Hertz pure bred all the way down to the Dollar mangy stray.

Of course you will want to book early, because who wants to arrive in a new place only to find they will be without a cat?

Needless to say, in this universe the most popular videos on the internet will show cute little automobiles rolling over piano keyboards and engaging in various other irresistible antics. Sometimes people will wonder why everybody loves something as useless as a car. Then someone will show a video of an adorable little Chevy playing with some string, and everybody’s heart will melt.

Having a Google moment

While writing yesterday’s blog post I had what is often called a “senior moment”. I knew I wanted to mention Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember what it was called.

Since I was sitting at a computer anyway, I figured I’d just look up a list of his work on-line, and then I’d recognize it. Except I couldn’t remember Neil Gaiman’s name. Which is kind of embarrassing, since I’m a big fan.

Fortunately, Neil Gaiman is married to the indie singer/songwriter Amanda Palmer, so I knew I could just look her up on-line, and that would quickly lead to him.

Except I couldn’t remember her name either. 🙁

But I did remember that in 2012 she had a Kickstarter campaign for her solo album, which ended up raising over a million dollars. I remembered this because it was controversial: When Palmer invited local musicians to be her back-up band on stage during her next tour, some people objected. If she was getting all that money from the community, they said, maybe she should start paying those musicians.

So I typed into Google the search words musician kickstarter $1000000 — and the name Amanda Palmer came right up.

The rest was easy. Typing Amanda Palmer husband brought up Neil Gaiman, and then a quick scan of his Wikipedia page revealed Neverwhere.

The entire process, start to finish, took maybe twenty or thirty seconds. And afterward I thought about what will happen when technology eventually allows us to do Google searches in our heads.

When that day comes, what I experienced might no longer be called “having a senior moment”. That little pause people will make, while they access their inner search interface, may end up being called “having a Google moment”.

The Village, where the witches are green

One of the things about spending time in Boston is that I spend a lot of time riding the T. So I often look at the map, which contains wondrous exotic place names. I’m not sure I want to visit these places, because the reality could never measure up to the enchantment conjured by such evocative words as Alewife, Wonderland and Braintree.

If life were indeed a fantasy, I would very much want to go to Wonderland, named for the charming yet sadly short lived amusement park of that name early in the 20th century. But I am not at all sure I would want to visit a place that has a Braintree. I would indeed like to meet the Alewife one day, but I have no idea what she would be like.

Seeing it all through the eyes of a visitor, I realize that my own home turf — Greenwich Village — must look hopelessly exotic on a map. What sort of folk be they (I can almost hear a would-be visitor wonder), who live in the Village, where the witches are green.

By the way, I should send a shout-out to Neil Gaiman, who used a similar idea in his wonderful BBC teleplay and then novel Neverwhere, which posited a parallel world in which the names of stops on the London Underground, such as “Knightsbridge”, “Earl’s Court”, “Hammersmith” and “Blackfriars”, were literal descriptions.


One year, believe it or not, Kermit the Frog spoke at the Harvard commencement ceremony. The beloved amphibian was, as usual, accompanied by his constant companion and bodyguard, Jim Henson.

I remember having a discussion with a friend about this notable event, some time after it was announced. We both agreed that Kermit was an excellent choice.

“Wouldn’t it be great,” I said, “if one year they invited Snoopy and Woodstock to speak at commencement?” For those of you who don’t know, Snoopy and Woodstock are a beloved cartoon dog and bird created by the late Charles M. Schulz.

My friend objected that this wouldn’t make any sense, because Snoopy and Woodstock would not really be a choice of one speaker, but of two.

“I don’t think that’s going to be a problem,” I said. “Together they constitute a single speaker.”

“Why is that?” my friend asked.

“Because,” I explained, “One is a woofer, and the other is a tweeter.”

Cartoon caption contest

As some of you know, every week the New Yorker magazine runs a contest in which readers compete to supply the best caption for a cartoon. Several weeks ago I saw a cartoon that just cried out for a caption, so for the first time ever, I entered the contest.

Here was the cartoon in question:

The winning caption for this cartoon, which you can see as contest #417 on their website was “Why does this never happen on the way to work?”

Now, I don’t mind not winning. After all, the odds of winning one of these contests is extremely small. But that winning caption is just not very funny.

Yes, I do realize I’m not objective about this. 🙂

My caption was: “I hear the Tunnel is even worse.”

Listening to the unconscious

Today at least three times I had a premonition that I was about to say or do something that would cause more problems than it would solve.

In each case I couldn’t figure out what the problem was, so I went ahead and did it. And in each case, my premonition turned out to be correct.

So here’s the dilemma: In such situations, clearly something is being worked out by our subconscious mind, which then shouts out a warning to our conscious mind. Sadly, these warnings usually don’t come with an instruction manual.

Which can lead to much false interpretation. If we were to heed everything from our unconscious that felt like a warning, we might not get much done in life. Besides, at some point somebody might ask you “Why didn’t you do that?” And if your conscious mind has no answer, things can get pretty embarrassing.

I seriously doubt we’re ever going to get our conscious and unconscious minds to speak the same language. So how do we get them to communicate better?

Maybe this is one of the reasons to meditate, and to do other things that increase mindfulness. If we can rid our mind of some useless clutter, then we might be able to hear our unconscious more clearly, the next time it tries to tell us something.

Put on a happy face

This weekend I attended a workshop that contained a very impressive research talk by someone from Adobe. The speaker showed a picture of a little girl looking somewhat bemused. Then, using a second photograph of the same girl smiling, he demonstrated how to transform the first picture, so that the girl was now smiling.

This is harder than it might seem. The two photos were taken at different angles, with different lighting. Furthermore, to make the resulting picture work, the entire facial expression needed to be transformed, not just the mouth. For example, when we smile the shape of our lower eyelids changes. Despite all that, the algorithm got it right.

By convention, after each talk speakers took questions from the audience. Until that point, all of the questions at the workshop had been technical. But my question broke the pattern.

“After you add the smile,” I asked the speaker, “would you still call it a photograph?”

He seemed a little unprepared for the question. After a bit of thinking out loud, he said “I’d call it a Photoshopped photograph”. Which made sense, since Photoshop is an Adobe product.

But of course the issue is larger than that. Maybe there was a reason that little girl was unhappy. When we can change a facial expression in a photograph, we are rewriting history. And not in the obvious way that Stalin “disappeared” Trotsky and many others from official photos, but in a more subtle and perhaps more insidious way.

In the end it’s not really a question of technology. It’s a question of where we want to go as a society. Eventually technology will allow us to walk around seeing the entire world through a Photoshop lens, in real time. When that happens, what will we see? And what will we never see at all?

The warm furry mammal

We all have the concept of the warm furry mammal, running between the legs of the doomed dinosaur, and replacing it for predominance upon this earth.

But we don’t generally bring this concept down to our own lives, day by day — even though we ourselves are the descendants of that warm furry mammal.

What if we could actually witness, on a cultural level, a translation from old media to new, from dinosaur to whatever. something profound and yet inevitable? Sometimes, if we are paying attention, we can see a societal evolution as it is happening.

Would we argue, would we put up a fight? Would we object to a paradigm shift out of our comfort zone? And if so, what exactly would we rail against?