Today I flew on a Zeppelin. It was amazing, and in some ways rather the opposite of airplane flight.

Getting a plane into the sky is, manifestly, an assault upon the elements. Everything is loud and rushing, as powerful engines force air against wings at high speed. It is as though humankind is literally hurling itself up into the heavens through sheer force of will.

But you don’t exactly fly in a Zeppelin, you float. As I told a friend earlier today, Zeppelins feel like graceful and gentle sea creatures gliding majestically through the sky. These magnificent floating apparitions are like something out of a beautiful dream.

I also learned that there are only twenty four registered Zeppelin pilots in the entire world. Only two of those are women, and one was our pilot, Kate Board. She was very cool, and we learned an awful lot from her about Zeppelins.

And don’t worry (just in case you were worrying), they fill them with helium these days. 😉


I was telling a colleague about my experience the other day where several participant on a panel I was running wouldn’t open up and talk freely, because they were representing large companies. “It’s frustrating,” I told my colleague, “because they were perfectly willing to speak freely with me over lunch just a few hours before the panel.”

“That’s because you were under a FrieNDA”, my colleague said. I had never heard the term, so he explained.

It’s sort of like an NDA, he said (it stands for “non-disclosure agreement”), except that a FrieNDA is not a legal thing. Instead, it’s the idea that if somebody tells you something in a one-on-one conversation, then they never really said it. They are essentially trusting that you will be smart enough not to publicly say “so and so from [fill in name of large company] said this.”

And that makes sense to me, because we all understand where the boundaries are. For example, it would be perfectly ok for me to repeat what they said in other one-on-one conversations, because that’s just me claiming they said something. There’s no real evidence chain proving that they really ever said it.

But if they themselves were to say the same thing in a public panel, then they have no plausible deniability. If their company gets pissed off that they’ve spilled the beans about something, they are screwed.

The end result of this process is that I get to know all sorts of amazing things that I would never tell you in this blog. But if you and I were just talking over beer, I might end up telling you some of those things.

After all, no matter what you might end up learning over that beer about what somebody told me, officially they never said it. That, my friend, is the beauty of a FrieNDA.

Less is more

We’ve been doing our Holojam project for more than a year now at NYU. It’s a variant of Virtual Reality in which people hang out together in physical reality, except that everyone wears a motion tracked GearVR headset, so all participants see each other as avatars in a virtual world.

When you enter the space, it’s like walking into the Holodeck. The usual rules of reality are suspended, because you can see impossible things. In particular, we give people wands that they can use to draw in the air. We have found that people immediately get it, and they gleefully start drawing all sorts of shapes in the air.

We’ve been showing it this week at the FMX conference in Stuttgart. Except this time something went wrong. We had three people in the space, but one of the three wands stopped working. At first my students were panicked. What would happen if people were in the space, but couldn’t do anything there?

But then a curious thing happened: When there are three people in the Holojam world, but only two have wands, participants create a sort of game out of it. Two of them will draw something, while the third watches. And then they will start to hand the wand around.

Instead of everybody just drawing in the air, grooving on their new-found superpower, people are forced to interact with each other, because that superpower is now a scarce resource. Less is more, as scarcity creates comradery, participants turn the sharing of the wands into a new meta-game, and the experience becomes richer for everyone.

My students and I were astonished that it took us more than a year to realize this.


I hosted a panel today at a major new media conference. Roughly speaking, it was a panel about “Visions for the future”.

I managed to get some very high level people as panelists, from such places as ILM, Google and Valve Software. During the lunch meeting before the panel, there was some great energy flowing, with rousing arguments for every side of the issue.

But then when it came to the panel itself, those same people were quite subdued. No fiery answers, no bold conjectures, just a sort of pleasant chitchat.

And I realized that I was probably dealing with people who would rather not go on record in public with their real thoughts, because it might cause some problem for their company down the line.

So there’s the irony: audiences are drawn to a panel partly because of the big names of the companies its panelists work for, yet that very state of employment may stop those panelists from truly speaking their minds.


I was having a conversation today with some colleagues, and one of them described his experience taking courses at the NYU film school. It was very expensive, he said, and they worked you incrediby hard.

“You’re basically paying NYU this huge amount of money,” he explained, “to make you work your ass off from morning till night.”

“But was it worth it?” I asked.

Oh yes, he said, it was very much worth it. He’d learned an enormous amount, and still uses what he learned in his work today, many years later.

Then I noted that there was a general principle at work here: “If you want people to give you money, make them suffer.”

One of my other colleagues got very excited about this. He insisted that we write this statement down and that I sign it.

I was flattered, but a bit confused. “Of course that’s how you get people to give you money,” I said, “isn’t that just obvious?”

William Shakespeare

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thy art is far more lovely and more sweet.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease doth bring the summer heat.
However brightly poet’s pens may rhyme,
Perforce they find their inspiration dimmed;
For fairest art unfairly fades with time,
By chance, or culture’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal genius shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that life it brings,
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines thy wisdom sings.
    So long as hearts can beat and souls can soar,
    The Bard of Avon lives forevermore.

In a fair fight

I was hanging out with family at my brother’s house last night. Some of us had just flown in that very evening, so at some point the conversation came around to airport security, as it often does these days. The threat of terrorism is of course very real and very serious, but sometimes the steps taken to deal with it can seem a little mysterious.

My mother said that she recalled a time, many years ago, when she and my dad had carried a circular saw onto an airplane. “I doubt,” she said, “that they’d let me do something like that today.”

It was pointed out that a circular saw on a flight is less of a threat than one might think (at least on domestic routes), because there’s no place to plug it in.

“Yes,” I agreed, seeking to add some perspective to the issue. “In a fair fight, a terrorist on a plane with a circular saw would totally lose to a terrorist with nail clippers.”

Pass / fail exam

Because of the holiday travel, I nearly missed my flight today. And that might have resulted in a cascade of problems.

But I didn’t miss my flight. I ended up getting on the plane, and arriving at my destination just fine. It was a sort of pass / fail exam, and in the end I passed it. Which got me thinking about pass / fail exams in general.

So much of life is a pass/fail exam, isn’t it? You either catch the plane or you don’t, metaphorically speaking. The difference in your actions can be slight (or in some cases non-existent), but the consequences of passing or failing can be enormous.

I think we instinctively understand this. At certain moments of our lives, we push ourselves to get over a finish line, knowing that getting to the other side of that finish line is the entire battle. We don’t always try for the “best possible” performance, but rather for the one that will allow us to keep going.

But what about life itself? Isn’t that the ultimate pass / fail exam? Some people emight say that in this particular game, you always fail in the end. After all, no matter what you do, sooner or later the Grim Reaper wins.

But maybe maybe this is one case where you get a passing grade just by showing up for the test. 🙂