Archive for June, 2014


Monday, June 30th, 2014

Today, on the long walk back from my successful quest to find and procure the ideal two-slot toaster for my temporary digs in Vancouver, I amused myself by singing songs aloud as I strolled along on this perfect summer’s day, down E 7th Avenue and across Main Street, past the Gene Cafe and the Antisocial Skateboard Shop.

There was plenty of time during my journey to exercise a varied and culturally diverse vocal repertoire. This being Canada, I made sure that Neil Young and Leonard Cohen were generously represented. Yet I freely admit that the Beatles were, as usual, the most fun to sing.

I wonder now, thinking back on the day, whether any of the natives were at all non-plussed at the sight of a strange man walking down their street while belting out the chorus of “Yellow Submarine”, a brand new toaster tucked securely under one arm.

Then again, I’m sure they understood.

Return on investment

Sunday, June 29th, 2014

After watching a world cup game today with some Latin American friends, I mentioned a theory I had formed years ago, on the day I first attended a soccer game at Rio de Janeiro’s famed MaracanĂ£ Stadium.

Seeing more than a hundred thousand testosterone fueled young men venting their energy at once, I had theorized that spectator sports may have developed as a way to channel the rage of young men — an emotion which can be so useful when a tribe is at war, but which can, if not redirected, become so destructive at other times.

One of my Latin American friends said that she thought my theory made a lot of sense. “It’s too bad,” she continued, “that the U.S. does not embrace soccer. If it did, your country might be less inclined to go to war.”

If my friend’s theory is correct, imagine how much money our government could save by investing a few million dollars each year in promoting soccer proficiency among children and young people. If we could one day assemble a team that would be truly competitive in the World Cup, our interest in waging war might decrease.

And if our government were less inclined to declare wars based on questionable evidence and logic, we might be able to reduce our national defense spending by billions of dollars per year.

That sounds like a pretty good return on investment.

100 years ago today

Saturday, June 28th, 2014

Gavrilo Princip
Starts nine million deaths using
Only two bullets

A delicate situation

Friday, June 27th, 2014

A friend told me today that she had gotten into a very unfortunate conversation with a guy. He had given unmistakeable signals that he was attracted to her, so she had sent him an email saying that those feelings weren’t reciprocated.

What ensued was a big blow-up. He denied ever having sent her those signals in the first place, and they got into a big argument about it. She asked me for advice.

I told her that the most emotionally evolved person I know has a great way of dealing with these things: She never suggests that she knows what anybody else is thinking. Rather, she makes sure to be clear about what she is thinking, and assumes that everyone else will take similar responsibility for themselves.

Applied to this situation, what my friend should have done was simply tell the guy that she was not interested in anything beyond a friendship, without suggesting that the guy is into her.

Of course this is not so easy to do. The very fact that she is raising the subject could be seen as implying that the guy is into her. So the wording needs to be delicate.

But the principle is clear: When you are dealing with a person who is in an emotionally vulnerable position, do not ever act as though you can read their mind (even if you can). They’ll just get angry at you.

Especially if you’re right.

Up to date photo

Thursday, June 26th, 2014

Today an acquaintance of mine, who recently got his hair cut, showed me his photo id. In the photo he has a big head of hair and a large bushy beard.

Whereas nowadays, post-haircut, he is close-shaven and quite beardless, so the photo in his id now looks like a different person entirely.

In this modern electronic era, it might be interesting to have a photo ID with an automatic “Update from self”, so your photo would would always reflect your actual appearance. If you were to get a haircut, lose a little weight or dye your hair, your official photo would automatically update to reflect that.

Putting aside questions of technical feasibility, I wonder whether this would be a good thing.

Pre-deadline superpower

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014

Tomorrow evening I’ll be giving a fairly important talk. Not because a huge number of people will be there, but because I am using it as an opportunity to try out our latest interactive research software. Of course the software could fail miserably, and then I will end up looking foolish, but that’s part of the fun.

Over the last week I’ve been gradually pulling the pieces together for this talk, but today those efforts increased exponentially. It’s not exactly that I had been waiting until the last minute, but rather that I was preparing for the last minute.

It seems that just before a deadline, one can attain a kind of superpower — an enormous increase in ability to focus, coupled with a combination of tirelessness and tenaciousness that is usually very hard to come by.

So there is no point in trying to fake it several days earlier, to pretend that you already possess that superpower. The best strategy is to get things ready, line everything up, lay out the tools and the weaponry, and be prepared for the arrival of the superhero that you will ever so briefly become.

Two narratives

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

The responses to yesterday’s post were fascinating. On the subject of what the founding fathers meant by ‘a well regulated militia’, the nature of the word ‘right’ in this context, the definition of ‘arms’, and just who (or what) is ‘the people’, there is clearly a wide range of opinion.

That the words were certainly written down, and by highly educated and intelligent authors, there is no doubt. Yet two hundred twenty five years and countless political shifts have created a sort of fog around the entire matter.

I wonder how many other indisputable historical facts have created such a wide split in their interpretation. Religion and patriotism aside (those are too easy), what other cases are there where a unquestionably true historical event has been met with the creation of two entirely divergent narratives?

Well regulated

Monday, June 23rd, 2014

The second amendment to the U.S. Constitution says:

“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

I’ve been pondering this statement recently. It’s clear that a lot of people in this country like this amendment. The National Rifle Association, which has dedicated much money and effort to defending the “right to bear arms”, has the support of many politicians and citizens in our nation.

But the part that confuses me is this: I keep looking around for that well-regulated militia. The amendment is quite unambiguous that the need for such a militia is the entire reason for this amendment.

Yet as far as I can tell, many people are walking around bearing arms without serving in such a militia. In fact (as hard as this may be to believe), it seems that there is no such militia.

So what the heck is going on here? Isn’t anybody worried about maintaining the security of a free state?

Am I missing something?

A slider for composition versus performance

Sunday, June 22nd, 2014

In many creative endeavors there is a tension between “compositional” and “performative” thinking. To compose an opera, or write a play or song, you need a certain amount of quiet contemplation, a space to be alone with your thoughts, and time to hear the sound of your muse.

But the performance of an opera, or play, or song, requires a different sort of thinking. You need to be in the present, to commune with your audience, to be able to pivot at a moment’s notice in response to the energy in the room.

It stands to reason that the best creative tools for these two modes of creation are not the same. And this goes for software tools. If your goal is to implement the best software interface for composing music, you will come up with something very different than if your goal is to implement the best interface for playing music.

Yet so much is the same between these to modes of creation — under the hood you will find much in common between these two types of software. It seems to me that there should be a little slider, one that can be adjusted as needed between “composition” and “performance”. In response, the look and feel of the interface might change radically, yet the underlying power would still be there, only in a different form.

The question of rhetoric

Saturday, June 21st, 2014

Experienced stage magicians will tell you that what matters most is not the cleverness of your magic trick, but the compelling quality of your narrative. A well-executed card trick is an amusing diversion, but a psychologically effective illusion, one that powerfully draws its audience in to suspend its disbelief, can make an impression that lasts a lifetime.

Which leads to an obvious question: If you are fighting for a cause — let’s say a good cause, like fighting poverty or discrimination, or helping to ensure a cleaner environment — to what extent is is ok to employ the principles of effective stage magic?

I’m not talking about making cards disappear. Rather, I’m talking about the ability to draw in an audience, to weave a compelling and emotionally engaging narrative, to move people to action through the sheer power of your performance.

Is it “cheating” to lean on such tools, rather than letting your good message speak for itself? Or is it in fact the opposite: That to effectively fight for a good cause, you need to use every rhetorical trick in the book?