Archive for January, 2017

Trump and God

Saturday, January 21st, 2017

In his inaugural speech yesterday, Donald Trump talked about God. A lot. Here is just one of various times he invoked the (to use his words) almighty Creator:

“We will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement and, most importantly, we are protected by God.”

He uses this framework as part of an argument that America’s priority should be to look out for itself, and that, essentially, all those other nations we currently trade with can just go screw themselves.

So as far as I can tell, what he is saying is this: We will beat out those nasty Chinese and other competing nation states because God is on our side.

I am trying to follow his logic here. If God is the major reason for our greatness as a country, why do we need to make America great again? Has the Divine Creator somehow been slacking off?

Even worse, since China is doing so well and has been making all our stuff, is Trump suggesting that God has been moonlighting, sneaking over to those godless asian countries and showering His divine bounty upon them when He thought we weren’t looking?

Maybe somebody can explain it for me.

Message of the day

Friday, January 20th, 2017



Yes we could

Thursday, January 19th, 2017

Unintended lessons

Wednesday, January 18th, 2017

For the last two days I have been attending a conference about augmented reality. It’s been really fun to talk with so many smart people about how AR is the future.

Interestingly, not one of the hundreds of attendees was using AR when they weren’t up on stage. So clearly AR is not the present, which I guess only goes to show that AR is the future. 🙂

One talk in particular was filled with unintended lessons. It was a talk by a guy who was doing projects with the Microsoft Hololens.

After giving a really interesting talk, he said that he was going to show a live demo. So he put on his Hololens, held one hand in front of his face, and started to pinch an imaginary object in the air.

This went on for three long minutes. He just stood there, with hundreds of people in the audience watching, and pinched in the air. His thumb and forefinger would come together, and then they would move apart. And then the same thing again. And again, and again.

The audience just sat there politely. At some point I realized I had somehow wandered into the middle of an absurdist comedy, so I turned to the guy next to me and said: “This might just be the most entertaining thing that’s happened at the conference.”

My neighbor agreed with me. We sat there, several hundred of us, rapt in awe, as the guy on stage kept standing there, talking to us while standing still as a statue, except for his right thumb and forefinger, which continued to pinch and release, pinch and release.

Finally somebody in the audience shouted “Do you know that we can’t see anything on the computer screen?”

“Yes,” the speaker replied, “I turned off the display because I’m trying to get it into the right state.”

That was the point where I just threw up my metaphorical hands and gave in to the complete absurdity of the situation. Is this what happens, I wondered to myself, to people who wear AR glasses?


Tuesday, January 17th, 2017

Suppose everybody were wearing those future cyberglasses, and we were hanging out in a room together. Somebody walks into the room to give a presentation.

Each of us can see the presentation from our own point of view, projected onto any wall, or just floating in the air. Or some of us can choose to look down and see it projected onto their desks. It really doesn’t matter.

The presentation, if well designed, will be able to fly about the room, create drama and excitement, enter your personal space, whisper in your ear. You will feel it on a visceral level.

Now compare this to a PowerPoint or Keynote presentation: Click, click. Talk for a while, Click again.

That difference you perceive from PowerPoint to future reality is not new. It’s analagous to the difference that people perceived several decades ago, when the act of writing on overhead transparencies was replaced by computer based presentations.

It’s not clear we got that one right, all those years ago. Maybe we will get it right this time.


Monday, January 16th, 2017

Trump isn’t even sworn in yet, and it seems that John Lewis seems to have already figured out how to beat him at his own game. In a magazine interview just days before Martin Luther King day, Lewis said: “I don’t see this president-elect as a legitimate president.”

Lewis was referring in particular to the role that Russia played in hacking our election, but I would like to think that he had correctly predicted what Trump’s response would be. That response, no surprise, was to attack and belittle John Lewis.

Of course in civil rights circles, attacking and belittling John Lewis is kind of like attacking and belittling Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King himself. To anyone who actually knows anything about the record of the person in question, the attacker just ends up looking like an idiot.

I realize that we are long past the point where Donald Trump cares whether he comes across as an idiot. After all, this is the guy who just days ago equated the right of the Press to ask him questions with Hitler.

[Note: Rereading the above paragraph, I am amazed that we live in a world where something like that actually happened. Before this year, if you were to read a political novel in which the author had a fictional president-elect compare the fourth estate to Adolph Hitler just because reporters insisted on asking him questions, you would probably have just rolled your eyes and stopped reading.]

Still, Donald Trump saying of John Lewis (of all people) that he is “All talk, talk, talk – no action or results,” just makes Trump look like he has no idea what is going on in the world around him.

I wonder whether Lewis has finally found the proper strategy to combat Trump: Since Trump will reflexively attack anyone who pokes at him, without exercising any judgment or moderation, his opponents can easily goad him into attacking ever more inappropriate targets, leaving him looking like a more irrelevant fool with every tweet.

Trump will no doubt keep piping up with those weird nasty little comments, spraying venom in random directions. But after a while, very few people will still be listening.

Watching some guy with my name on TV

Sunday, January 15th, 2017

There is a program on CUNY TV called Science Goes to the Movies. It’s a fun show.

Each episode they pick a particular science topic, and invite two scientists in different fields to give complementary views on how those topics are treated in film. Which generally ends up leading to a larger discussion.

In October I was one of those scientists, and it was a blast. Here is an on-line link to the episode.

It was really fun being on this show. At the very end I got to quote a particularly wise observation by my mom, and that was especially nice.

Not being a television personality, I found it strange, when watching the show, to see the host asking me questions. She kept asking all these questions of a guy named Ken, who was me.

Because I’m not used to seeing myself on TV, part of my mind kept thinking of this Ken guy as somebody else. The experience was weirdly dissociative.

I imagine that people who are used to seeing themselves interviewed on TV wouldn’t find such a thing at all strange. To them it is probably just all in a day’s work.

I suppose if I keep showing up on TV, that will eventually be the way that I feel about it. But for now it’s fascinating to experience it as something exotic, like the very first time you dip your toes in the ocean, or the first time you eat a Maracuyá from Colombia.

One minute less

Saturday, January 14th, 2017

As I wrote about here last week, I gave a ten minute talk in which I needed to summarize my vision for the future, and what we are doing to help make that vision happen. Ten minutes is not a long time, so the experience was a great exercise in learning how to focus.

In a few days, I am going to give a similar talk. Except on this occasion, the time alotted to each speaker is limited to nine minutes.

I will probably repurpose my ten minute talk, cut out some of the remaining fat, and practice a few times to make sure I indeed hit the nine minute mark. But that exercise raises an interesting question:

What if, as a discipline, one were to talk a talk on some topic and keep iterating on it, each time shaving off one minute? At what point would it be an essentially different talk?

Obviously there would be a dramatic change when the running time goes from “one minute” down to “zero minutes”. 🙂 But what about other transitions?

The intriguing thing for me about such an exercise is that it would force you to boil your ideas and your narrative down to the essential, while providing a framework for doing so. You could learn a lot from the choices you end up making about which ideas you keep, which you edit down, and which you simply throw away.

Stories of your life

Friday, January 13th, 2017

I just finished rereading the collection Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang. Some of you might know that the recent film Arrival was based on Story of Your Life, one of the tales in this magnificent collection.

I have long been a huge fan of Chiang’s work. I first read Story of Your Life back in 1998, and it completely changed my view of the possibilities of of Science Fiction. It was like reading a more intellectual version of Philip K. Dick, if that makes any sense.

And now, rereading these stories, I am touched by a sense of awe by their intellectual elegance. Each of his stories starts with a very simple premise. He will notice some crack in reality that we all see every day, and ask: “Why is reality like this, and not like that?”

Then he will take that question and use it as a pivot. So his stories generally ask the question “Suppose reality were, in fact, not like this, but like that?”

And then we’re off and running. But don’t take my word for it. Buy the book, read it. Thank me later.

From the top

Thursday, January 12th, 2017

Far far above the streets of New York City there is another city, one that most people never see.

This evening I was invited to a rooftop party. To put this invitation in proper context, the people who have such parties generally have an insane amount of money. That’s really the only way you can afford one of those multifloor penthouse apartments.

When you look out from such an apartment, your eyes skim the tops of the Manhattan buildings, and you can see the other islands of fabulous wealth. The other members of your rarified tribe.

It’s all very lovely, but those of us who are merely guests can only gawk in wonder. On the other hand, it is only because such experiences are so rare for us that we are able to experience that sense of wonder.

For somebody who sees this every day, it might not seem so special. And there’s the irony: To truly appreciate the fruits of great wealth, you need to be a person who doesn’t have it.