Archive for May, 2014

A Young Lady’s Illustrated Math Tutor

Wednesday, May 21st, 2014

Yesterday I read in the New York Times about Tabtor, a math tutoring app with an unusual pricing model: The first two weeks are free, but the app costs $50 for every month thereafter.

This steep price helps to support the app’s most distinguishing feature: Up in the Cloud, your child’s work going through these math problems is being monitored by a human tutor. Unlike a computer, this person offers notes and encouraging voice memos, assigns new worksheets, and checks in via weekly video conference calls.

To my surprise, the writer of the article, whose own kids use the app, didn’t make the obvious literary connection, which I suspect will be evident to many readers of this blog.

Tabtor is, of course, a concrete step toward perhaps the most tantalizing idea in Neal Stephenson’s prophetic 1998 science fiction novel “The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer”.

A central plot point of that novel revolves around a young girl named Nell, who gets her hands on a futuristic cyber-textbook that helps her grow intellectually to the point where she eventually becomes the smartest person in the world.

The key to the Primer’s effectiveness for Nell is the fact that a human, a woman named Miranda, is up in the Cloud, acting out its simulations. Although the two never meet in person, Miranda takes a personal interest in Nell, and her nurturing presence ends up greatly amplifying the educational effectiveness of the Primer.

In a sense, this plot-line is a disquisition on the Turing test: Stephenson is clearly saying that no matter how advanced A.I. becomes at simulating human knowledge, the presence of another actual human will always make a decisive difference.

And now it seems, people are finally trying out his theory in the real world!

Glass in class

Tuesday, May 20th, 2014

I know that any semester now, some of my students are going to show up wearing Google Glass, or whatever will be the next generation version of that sort of thing. And when that happens, it will be interesting to see how everybody reacts.

For one thing, everything I say or do as a lecturer will become a matter of public record — and potentially a viral YouTube video if I screw up badly enough — unless I or somebody else makes a rule against people recording and then posting whatever they happen to be looking at.

The University might get nervous about all those “citizen recordings” of class lectures, because it could mess up a hypothetical revenue model from on-line courseware. That may sound crass, but there is an argument to be made that these class lectures are actually school property.

Oh well, with any luck this won’t be a problem for a while. All of those Glass users in class will be checking their emails on the higher res Android phones on their desks. So they won’t be looking at me anyway. :-)

At night

Monday, May 19th, 2014

At night the dreams arise in fitful sleep
Emerging from some long forgotten fright,
Wanton creatures scavenging the deep
Disturb the quiet requiem of night.
They scutter from the hunter drawing near
Blindly thrash around upon the bed
As spiders turn to dust and disappear,
I know that this is all inside my head.
Then through the dark gray labyrinth a face
Seen perhaps just dimly far afield
The moment comes in solitary grace
When all these shadows fade and start to yield
      To sunlight playing on a mountain lake,
      The world becomes your smile — I’m awake.

Maintaining tension

Sunday, May 18th, 2014

I just heard a recording of a great radio interview with the legendary Joe Harris. Among other things, Harris was the co-creator and storyboard artist for “Tennessee Tuxedo and his Tales”. Seeing that animation as a kid is what first got me interested in using animation for teaching.

Among his many accomplishments, Joe Harris also created what is probably the single most famous tag line in American advertising: “Silly rabbit, Trix are for kids!”

This idea was seminal and brilliant for several reasons. For one thing, the line doesn’t say anything about the product itself — a concept pretty much unheard of at the time. In a radical departure from the norm of its day, the ad wasn’t even trying to sell Trix breakfast cereal to parents. It was selling directly to the kids.

The other ingenious aspect of this ad campaign is that the rabbit keeps trying to eat the Trix, time and time again. But never succeeds. Ever.

Harris said in the interview that people would often come up to him and ask “Why can’t you give the rabbit a break?” And the answer was that this was precisely the point. Once the rabbit gets the Trix, the drama is all gone. There is no longer any reason for you to pay attention.

By continually withholding the breakfast cereal from the cartoon rabbit, a tension is created in the audience. Maybe the rabbit will get the Trix next week. Or tomorrow. Or any minute now.

That dramatic tension creates interest. Suddenly the rabbit’s quest seems a lot more important.

The Trix campaign is narrative literature redux. It is, in a very pure sense, a beautiful illustration of why narrative literature works at all.

The future of artificial scarcity

Saturday, May 17th, 2014

There was a time, before the information age, when all goods where inherently scarce. Material products consume natural resources, require one or more perhaps costly steps of manufacture, and then need to be physically shipped to retail outlets or customers.

In recent years, a new class of products has emerged: The purely informational product. Songs, games and movies no longer require a physical substrate on a per item basis, but rather can be sent directly to the consumer through a common electronic pipe.

The inherent per-unit cost for such a product is so low as to be essentially zero.

In order to maintain a viable economy, this development has required the introduction of artificial scarcity: Even though the cost per copy is now essentially zero, creators still need to protect the investment they have made in the creation of such products.

Therefore a system of system of licensing has been developed, either as a payment per downloaded product, or in the form of a maintenance fee for monthly service.

One day, perhaps, the Singularity will arrive, after which we will all be able to upload our minds to the Cloud. Physical brains and bodies will no longer be necessary.

When that day comes, there will be no practical technical limitation on how many copies there are of each of us. There could be five of me in the Cloud, and twenty of you.

But it is likely that such unrestricted copying would violate my sense of myself as my own “intellectual property” — my feeling that the investment I made into being me, over the course of my life, has a unique value. And you will probably feel the same way about your own self.

I suspect that this will lead to restrictions on copying of someone’s mind within the Cloud.

The principle will be the same as it is for today’s economy of downloadable information products: Although the cost of replicating a human mind may become essentially free, the owners of those minds will likely insist upon a system of artificial scarcity, to protect their investment.

Nighttime taxi

Friday, May 16th, 2014

As I got out of the subway this evening and crossed Sixth Avenue on my way home, I saw a young woman attempting, with no success whatsoever, to hail a taxi. It was clear, from her body language and her general sense of frustration, that she had been standing there trying to get a cab for a long time.

After I crossed the avenue, I heard a man’s voice behind me, shouting “Miss!”

As someone who has lived in Manhattan for years, I didn’t need to look around to know what was going on. There was only one reason the man would be trying to get her attention.

I was closer to the young woman, who clearly hadn’t heard the guy calling to her. “Hello!” I shouted in her direction, and she turned to look at me, confused. I pointed to the other side of Sixth Avenue. “There’s a cab. Somebody is just getting out.”

Suddenly the young woman became focused, and quickly crossed over to the taxi. Just as she got in she turned around and waved a thank you. I gave her a thumbs up, and continued on my way home. The system had worked.

I love being back in New York City.

Together, but not with each other

Thursday, May 15th, 2014

This evening as I walked down the street I saw a young man talking to a young woman who was walking toward him. And she said something in response.

But then something strange happened. The young woman kept walking right by the young man, continuing to talk, while the man turned away from the woman and also continued to talk.

It was only then that I realized that each was speaking on the phone, via a wireless headset. They weren’t talking to each other at all. I don’t think they were even aware of each others’ existence.

In the new PolySocial Reality, this is all perfectly normal. I am the strange one — the one who insists on thinking that people may somehow be connected, simply because they happen to be facing each other in the physical world when they speak.

I was thinking of writing a play about the absurdity of all this — perhaps involving a man and woman who carry on an entire conversation before the audience realizes that both are actually speaking on their cell phones to other people. But I think we may already be at the stage where an audience would fail to see the point — because they wouldn’t find such a situation to be at all absurd.

Second Second Life

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

My post yesterday, asking what would happen to our body image as people move their physical existence into the virtual world, treated this as a far-off Sci-Fi possibility. But in fact this is a question that has relevance in the here and now.

In various recent discussions I’ve had with friends and colleagues, the idea has continued to surface that the acquisition of Oculus Rift by Facebook has a specific purpose: To create a modern spin on Second Life.

Unlike Linden Lab’s original creation, which never really took off as a mainstream product (although it did capture the imagination of many), Facebook is about as mainstream as it gets. Also, the biggest problem in Second Life (as well as its predecessors, such as “The Palace”) — what to do once you get there — already has many ready answers in the Facebook universe.

In a possible Facebook reboot of the concept, you would still be able to trade news, photos and quips with your friends, except now you could be doing these things while interacting with your friends’ 3D avatars.

Since people also use Facebook for serious things, it will be interesting to see what sorts of avatars will be created. Appearing as a ten foot tall hot pink one horned panda bear may be fun, but it might not be the best strategy for closing a business deal.

As we move our public selves on-line, we may very well end up opting for something distinctly human in appearance, even if that’s less fun.

Body image in the virtual world

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014

Let us say, hypothetically, that those predicting the Singularity are correct, and one day our brains are all uploaded into computers. Sort of like “The Matrix”, but without that pesky Agent Smith and his friends using us as batteries.

At that point, we would presumably experience our bodies only in a virtual sense. Our faces, hands, feet and other bodily parts would exist in our minds only as cybernetic simulacra of themselves.

I would be curious to learn whether, in such a world, our body image would drift over time. Would we allow ourselves to become translucent, to fly above the treetops, to teleport instantly between locations? Or would our uploaded brains reject such options, or any reality that radically deviates from the last several million years of evolutionary development?

I realize that in shared virtual worlds used for entertainment, such as Linden Labs’ “Second Life”, the laws that govern our physical bodies are suspended on a routine basis. Yet we don’t actually live in those worlds — they do not encompass the entirety of our sensory experience.

If we were to migrate our existence entirely into cyberspace, just how far would our virtual selves drift from the sensed experience of this everyday reality? Or would our brains ultimately reject radical change, opting instead for the biologically evolved familiar?

Blue greenhorn

Monday, May 12th, 2014

Continuing the two word challenge (see my April 30 post), this time my friend specified the words in the title of this post.

The challenge was the same — to spin those two words into a tale. Below is the story I came up with.



“Blue,” he said, “before you even ask.”

“Is that your favorite color?”

He shook his head “My mood. Moods are colors,” he explained, “and mine is the color blue.” He stared into his whiskey glass.

“Is there anything I can do to cheer you up?”

Turning his attention from the drink in his hand, he took a good look at her. “You’re pretty.”

She smiled. “I’m glad you noticed.”

“So how come you’re talking to me?”

“I’ve been watching you from across the bar, and you look like a man who could use some cheering up.”

He put down the glass and turned to face her. “I think it’s working. But why pick me, with all this collective misery to choose from?” He looked around the bar.

“These others, they’re old pros at being miserable.”

“But not me?”

“No, not you. You’re a greenhorn. I can tell these things.”

“You have magical powers?”

“Just one. I’m a gal. We’re good at that kind of stuff.”

“Maybe,” he shook his head, “or maybe we guys are just bad at that kind of stuff. Still, I’m happy to report that I feel better already.”

“Ah,” she smiled, “Validation of my magical powers.”

“Do you have any other magical abilities? Could you actually guess my
favorite color?”

She laughed. “I’ve been known to read minds, but I try not to abuse that particular power. My boyfriend says it gives me an unfair advantage.”

He picked up his glass, and regarded it silently.

“So?” she asked, “What’s your favorite color?”

He stared into his drink for a long time before answering. “Blue.”