Dipping a toe in the water

Today I wanted to understand what something that I was trying to program would look like. So I sort of implemented it.

What I mean by “sort of” is that I implemented one special case, which could be used to show exactly one demo. That demo worked just fine, but you couldn’t do anything else with it except show that one demo.

So it wasn’t completely real. But it wasn’t completely fake either. I did lot of things exactly the same way that I would do them in a full blown version. Just not everything.

I guess this style of working is a way of saving time, by dipping a toe in the water instead of jumping in with both feet. You learn just enough from this sort of exercise to know whether you’re going in the right direction — so you know whether you should keep going that way, or back up and try a different path.

It wouldn’t do much good to make something like this completely fake, because you wouldn’t learn enough. Instead, you need to figure out which part of the problem you’re not sure you can do — and then do only that part for real, faking the rest.

If that much works — and only if that much works — then you can go ahead and jump in with both feet.

Old notebook

Suppose you found an old notebook that contained a fantastical tale, perhaps a tale of events in a parallel world.

For various reasons of your own, you strongly suspect that the tale is true, but you are also aware that nobody else would be likely to believe this.

What would you do? Would you keep it all to yourself? Try to talk about it anyway? Present it as fiction?

These are not easy questions. For all we know, Philip K. Dick was making documentaries.

Product placement

I’ve been working with some colleagues on a new technology — a rollable mat that functions as a kind of “video camera” for pressure. If you stand on it, it sends to your computer or smart-phone a high quality time-varying image of your feet, toes, etc. Below is a typical image of that (with different pressures shown in different colors):

You can also lie down on it, bounce a ball on it, or use it as a rug under a chair. It’s very versatile.

We’re making them 2ft × 3ft in size, and they will wirelessly communicate with smart-phones, tablets or computers. We want lots of people to be able to use them, so we’re trying to make them very inexpensive. It looks like we’re going to be able to sell them for just $199 a pop.

You can also put them side by side to create a single giant sensor. At NYU this spring we’ll be using 96 of them, to create a 24 ft by 24 ft pressure imaging floor for our motion capture lab.

We want to make these mats available to the world, but we need to do so in a self-sustaining way. In other words, whatever people use it for needs to be something they are willing to pay for. Otherwise, we will just run out of money and we’ll have to stop making them.

People have expressed interest in using them as game controllers, for posture and balance assessment, to help practice golf swings, and as exercise mats. Other people would like to use them to help identify people. For example, if the mat outside your front door recognizes you by the way you step onto it, it unlocks the door for you.

You can also just use one to weigh yourself. Roll it up and take it with you on a trip, then unroll it when you get there, and you have a smart scale that can send your current weight to your favorite smart-phone app.

Personally, I want to use one of these, together with my GearVR virtual reality headset, to create a meditation experience. I sit on the mat, put on my VR headset and headphones, and enter beautiful and calming alternate worlds, where I can fly around on my magic carpet.

I’m curious if anyone has any favorites among these ideas, or if you see some other cool use that we haven’t thought of yet.

To bcc or not to bcc

Suppose that I, the proud president of Universal Widgets, get an email from Al, one of our loyal clients. Al wants to know whether our widgets can work under water.

I think so, but am not sure. So I send a reply, copying Betty who runs our R&D lab, suggesting that she follow up.

Meanwhile, I also blind-copy Cecil, our patent lawyer. After all, if satisfying this customer will involve inventing some new capability, I want Cecil in the loop.

What’s wrong with this picture? Well, for one thing, Betty doesn’t know that I copied Cecil. While I may not want the customer to know we’re copying our patent lawyer on this exchange, I probably do want our head of R&D to know.

As far as I know, there isn’t any graceful way, with a single email, to do what I really want: Send a reply to Al, copy Betty on my reply, and copy Cecil in such a way that Betty (but not Al) sees that I have copied Cecil.

Yes, I could one email to just Al and Betty, and then send another email to just Betty and Cecil. But that seems inefficient.

Shouldn’t there be a way to do this in one step?

Dream job

When I was in college I would have dreams, from time to time, in which I would show up at class only to find that we were taking a test, and that I had no idea about the subject. I would receive my test booklet, the hour would start, and everyone would get to work — except for me, because I was completely unprepared.

Shortly after I got my Ph.D., I found myself teaching at NYU. Now I was on the other side — not the one taking the tests, but the one giving them. I was, as they say, the one in power.

Yet the dreams continued. Only this time I would show up to give a lecture, only to find that I was completely unprepared, and had no idea what to lecture about. A sea of expectant student faces would stare out at me, and I would have not a clue what to do or say.

Thinking back on all this, what fascinates me is that these are essentially the same dream. The only difference between them is in the societal role that I am playing. In every other way, they are the same.

What continues to surprise me — I’m not sure why it surprises me, but it does — is that my dream self would bother to make such a fine distinction between “student” and “teacher”. After all, you would think that the terrified three year old in my soul would not care about such petty details.

Yet evidently he does.

26 letters/a shape hidden in haiku/a conversation

The last eight days I have been posting haiku, in a series that made its way through the alphabet from A to Z.

Each haiku in the series was a definition (more or less) of a word that started with the corresponding letter of the alphabet. And some days contained more haiku than others.

What I’ve really been doing is tracing out a shape. I actually started with this shape in mind, and then decided to paint it — piece by piece — with haiku, over the course of eight successive days:

This project has been, you might say, a form of Oulipo.

Oddly enough, I was at a party last night in which quite a bit of conversation centered around the relationship between poetry and Oulipo. I didn’t talk about my project, because it wasn’t finished yet.

Or maybe that wasn’t so odd. Words are strange creatures. The things we say, seemingly in the moment, can often turn out to be part of larger shapes that are revealed only later.