The new oil

Yesterday, during a technical presentation about data analysis, the presenter declared that “Data is the new oil.” I understood what he meant.

After all, vast fortunes were made in the last century from oil extracted from the Earth. Similarly, vast fortunes are now being made from data extracted from human activity.

“But there is an important difference,” I told the presenter.

“What is that?” he asked.

“We are running out of oil,” I said. “But we will never run out of data.”

He agreed. Data, unlike oil, is a renewable resource.

Why does Harry Potter work so well?

This evening I got into a very intense conversation about “Harry Potter”. A colleague of mine had just binged through all the novels, having missed the phenomenon the first time around.

He told me he simply couldn’t see what the big deal was. What J.K. Rowling had written, in his estimation, was simply one more variation on the well trod fantasy-genre coming-of-age story.

I argued that there was a key difference, which I thought was integral to how powerfully Harry Potter was embraced by a generation of young readers. In addition to the whole “Sword in the Stone” trope of the orphan boy who discovers he is really the king (which is also the basic idea behind Cinderella, as well as many other classic tales), there is another far more potent ingredient.

Namely, in order to save the world, our young hero must first come to terms with a deeply disturbing fact: His power is linked intrinsically to the dark power of his evil adversary.

We see this, for example, in the way Harry is nearly chosen for the house of Slytherin, and in the way — to his great surprise — he can speak the serpent language Parseltongue. So even as young Harry learns to wield his growing power as he comes of age, he must reckon with the dark side of himself which makes that power possible.

This theme is also explored in “Star Wars”, as young Luke comes to realize his true kinship with Darth Vader. But in Harry Potter, this theme is front and center.

Our hero must battle the dark forces hidden inside himself before he can battle the dark forces outside himself. If that is not a perfect metaphor for the confusing state of puberty, I don’t know what is.

By the end of our conversation my colleague was convinced. Your mileage may vary.

How bad can Mixed Reality get?

Today I had a conversation with a colleague who described to me a possible negative consequence of ubiquitous mixed reality. Suppose, he said, everybody is wearing those future mixed reality glasses as their go-to edge computing device.

In one Black Mirror-esque scenario, powerful social influencers — which can be advertisers or governments — do you the “favor” of conveniently classifying everything you see. Perhaps, you are shown, this item is a cool purchase, or that person is someone to be socially avoided. Such influences will use clever algorithms to play to your cultural, psychological and tribal proclivities.

As with other previous forms of media, it should be possible to resist the pull of social influencers, if you are sufficiently aware. But it might be more difficult, because the influence will be more visceral and sensorially ever-present.

If this dark vision of Mixed Reality should come to pass, I wonder whether we will develop effective means to counter its ever growing pernicious influence. Or will we all just slip ever deeper into a collective passive state of waking slumber, and never realize what is happening to us?


A week ago I purchased a pair of Bose Frames. They are innovative in that they look just like an ordinary pair of glasses, yet they have a superpower: They beam high quality stereo sound into your ears from the two earpieces.

During my recent trip to France, I proceeded to walk around Paris wearing them all week while listening to music. Now, back in Manhattan, I continue to listen to music with my Frames every day.

This was very surprising to me, because for years I have thought of myself as the sort of person who never walks around listening to music. So what is different now?

Well, two things. First, since the Frames don’t cover your ears, there is no disconnect with the world around you. You can still hear traffic, conversations, all of the details of the city. As an inveterate pedestrian, that just makes me feel safer.

The second thing is that there is no “social signaling” involved. Since the Frames just look like an ordinary pair of glasses, they are not telling the world “this person has checked out of reality.” I like that.

In my opinion, they may be the first truly successful wearable input device. For that reason, I think they represent an important milestone in the march to future reality.

Ascending algorithmically

I’ve never done any real rock climbing, and have very little first hand experience with climbing walls. So my knowledge is mainly from reading and watching others.

I’m always amazed by people who have the physical stamina and concentration to climb up a rock face. To witness such an ascent is a thing of beauty, as the climber strategically works his or her way up the wall, shifting positions to make best use of a handhold here, a foot support there.

Sometimes when I am writing software it can feel like I am climbing a sort of mental rock face. Each iteration of the program gets me to the next safe handhold, but then I need to rest for a while and think about my next move.

That’s because every step in software development needs to produce a valid program. If you make a wrong move and break the program, you’ve pretty much fallen off the mountain.

Which means you need to be strategic. You can’t afford to move too quickly, since you always need to think several steps ahead to make sure you’re not ascending into an impasse.

So here we have two extremely different human activities — programming and rock climbing — that share certain qualities. I wonder whether there is some way to combine them.

What would it be like to program while rock climbing? Hmmm…

A conversation

About two years ago my cousin, who was the cameraman on a film shoot in Miami, told me about a conversation he had recently had with another member of the crew.

His colleague was from Mexica, so naturally he had been following the various pronouncements from our then-new president. In particular he was interested in our president’s promise that he would build a border wall and make Mexico pay for it.

My cousin said that his colleague had told him: “I don’t understand why we are supposed to pay for the wall. After all, we are already paying for the tunnels.”

The connecting threads

We wonder at the connecting threads, those tenuous lines that bind us, one human to another. We fret over their design, their weave. We check for breaks, for a tear in the fabric.

They is our most powerful connection, yet our most fragile. For what are two humans but two infinite minds and souls reflected one to other, a mirrored room that seems to stretch out forever, like a thread unspooling to infinity?

Sometimes I lie awake at night and wonder, will all these threads suddenly fly apart, releasing us into the void? How can we know that we are safe and secured.

How can we know that we will not simply rise up, in a single decisive moment breaking the thread that holds us here, and waft above the tree line, till we are gone?

The usefulness of jet lag

Since I have been back from Europe — which is six hours ahead of NY — I have found myself growing very tired early in the evening. I am writing this at around 7pm NY time, and already I am feeling quite sleepy.

Conversely, every morning I find myself waking up at around 5am. None of this is a bad thing.

I tend to be a lot more clear-headed in the mornings, so these last few days have been enormously productive. Fortunately I had the foresight not to schedule anything in the evenings these first few days that I’m back from Europe.

So when I leave the lab each day I simply sink into blissful slumber. Then I wake up bright and early the next morning and get enormous amounts of work done.

I realize this state won’t last. In another day or so my body will adjust to the shifted pattern of sunlight. But while it lasts, it sure is convenient!

The best thing to think about

When your medium is computer programming there is a strong tendency to think in terms of how things work. After all, there can be many complex parts involved in a successful piece of computer software, and creating a system that works well is a source of pride.

But this tendency to focus on the beauty of one’s algorithm or implementation has a potential downside: It can come at the expense of a clear focus on the actual user experience.

I often see this tendency in my computer science students. They strive so hard to build something that works, then afterward they say “Look at this thing I created, it functions perfectly. Isn’t it wonderful?” Alas, all too often it isn’t wonderful — at least not to anybody who actually tries to use it.

This is one reason it is a good idea to spend time with creative people who don’t know or care how your software works. It’s actually great when somebody doesn’t have the faintest idea how you did something, because they cannot be blinded by the beauty of your algorithm or your implementation.

All they see is what your creation actually does, and all they think about is what they could use it for. Which is really the best thing to think about.

International flight

An international flight can be wonderful, if you plan it right. Of course you need to plan it right.

For one thing, you need to fly mid-week, when most people don’t travel. That strategy often places you on a fairly empty flight.

Then, if you pick the right airline (for example, Air France), they let you change your seat up to the last minute. That means you can pretty much guarantee that there will be an empty seat next to you.

Next, you need to make sure you’ve got a list of things you really wanted to do. This is your time to do them.

Because a beautiful thing about air travel is that you have a perfect excuse to be off the internet. So if there was something you really wanted to get done, and just needed uninterrupted time to do it, nobody is stopping you.

If you plan a long flight properly, it can be a little slice of heaven.

Now if only somebody could do something about the really annoying bits before and after the flight. Sigh…