Archive for January, 2019

Three rabbis

Friday, January 11th, 2019

All cultures have certain shared values. Those shared values often express themselves in surprising ways. And those ways can be somewhat of a mystery to people outside the culture.

Sometimes I wonder how well my non-Jewish friends understand our Jewish subculture. Sometimes I just tell them the following joke, and see if they laugh:

Three rabbis were talking about their problems with mice in their synagogues. One rabbi said “We tried to put out mousetraps. But the very first Saturday morning, a trap went off right in the middle of the service. The whole congregation was upset that we had killed a living being on Shabbos. We figured we could just learn to live with the mice.”

The second rabbi said “We thought we would do it right. We hired a fancy professional exterminator. He tried everything, but nothing worked. The mice just kept coming back.”

The third rabbi said “We no longer have any problem with mice.”

The other two were astonished. “How did you manage that?”

He shrugged. “We just put out cheese everywhere in the synagogue.”

“But how could that possibly help?” they asked, incredulous.

“It was very simple,” he explained. “Every time a mouse wandered out to eat some cheese, we would Bar Mitzvah it. We never saw it again.”

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall

Thursday, January 10th, 2019

When I was little I read Robert Frost’s Mending Wall. The title of this post is the first line of that wonderful poem.

Back then I found myself wondering just what it is, exactly, that doesn’t love a wall. The poem is somewhat elliptical on this point.

But now I finally understand the answer. The thing that doesn’t love a wall should be anybody in the U.S. eligible to vote in 2020.

A piece of cake

Wednesday, January 9th, 2019

Today I had surgery. It was unexpected but necessary. I’m assuming some of you have been there.

When we finally got down to the procedure, it turned out that there were two interesting items of note: (1) They couldn’t really anesthetize me completely, so there was going to be pain, and (2) I needed to keep absolutely still for the entire procedure. No dramatic mouth breathing, nothing that could cause me to move unexpectedly.

So for the entire duration of the surgery, I needed to remain totally immobile, regardless of whatever pain I was feeling. I did my best to comply, and somehow we muddled through.

Afterward, the surgeon complemented me on my ability to remain calm in the face of such extreme discomfort. “With any luck,” he said, “this is the worst pain you will ever experience in your life.”

At that point I felt it only fair to let him in on a little secret. “It wasn’t all that hard,” I told him. “I just reminded myself that everything is relative, and that there are worse forms of pain than this.”

“The entire time,” I explained, “I remained focused on the memory of my very worst romantic breakup. Compared to that, this was a piece of cake.”

Back in the lab

Tuesday, January 8th, 2019

This past week I took some time off, far away from the lab. The experience was delightful and refreshing, and also gave me some much needed time to clear my head.

Today I landed back into the lab, in the midst of a hubbub of activity. People here are firing on all cylinders. Some are working on a big paper submission deadline that is now only a week away. Others are working together on a very big project that we will be showing at a major conference more than six months from now.

I have to say, I am enjoying every moment of it. It’s exactly this sort of crazy headlong creative rush of nonstop energy that makes me glad I live in New York.

Also, happy birthday Elvis!

Winter snow haiku

Monday, January 7th, 2019

It comes in the night
This gentle silence, to ask
All the world to dream

Building walls

Sunday, January 6th, 2019

It’s pretty clear at this point that a concrete wall along our nation’s southern border will never be built. Grownups now in power realize that spending money on real national security is more useful than indulging a pointless boondoggle that sounds like it sprang from the mind of a six year old.

Still, walls are indeed going up inside our own country. I took the following photograph today. A friend and I drove to a national park on this beautiful Sunday afternoon, only to be greeted by the sign you see below.

Lots of people who work for the government are going without pay right now. It’s not just our national parks that remain out of service, but a whole lot of things we need to keep our nation running.

All because of a petulant brat who doesn’t care a fig about actual national security measures. At least not if those measures get in the way of his childish power games. Sigh.


Document as machine

Saturday, January 5th, 2019

Machine (noun): an apparatus consisting of interrelated parts with separate functions, used in the performance of some kind of work.

Yesterday’s post got me thinking of active documents as machines. By “active document”, I mean the sort of document you sometimes find on the Web, where parts of the document are able to interact with you and with the world, changing over time and in response to user actions.

My post yesterday was an example of that. The diagram on the left was a simulation of a human face. The diagram on the right consisted of a set of sliders. User interaction with the diagram on the right caused active changes to the diagram on the left.

That document is, in effect, a machine with two separate but interrelated parts. Clearly there is data flowing behind the scenes from the diagram on the right to the one on the left.

The user understands intuitively that this data connection exists, even though it is not immediately visible. By its very visual design, this is a machine that is asking to be used.

This ontological framing of an active document as a machine can be very useful, because it immediately prompts us to ask certain questions: What are the component parts of that machine, and what is the nature of the work it is performing? And I think these are exactly the right questions to ask.

Crossing the bridge

Friday, January 4th, 2019

In a recent post I talked about how I built a bridge between two code worlds. In particular, I created a parallel set of software libraries, so that the same content I created for my Chalktalk presentation system can also be put on the Web, in the form of interactive diagrams for on-line documents.

As it happens, last year I ported my Responsive Face Java applet into Javascript so I could show it in Chalktalk. I decided to use this as a test case.

I’ve now managed to get the responsive face working as a Javascript interactive diagram, along with basic interactive controls. I still need to put in the full set of controls, but at this point it’s ready enough that it’s interesting to play with.

If you want to try it out, click on the image below.

Pop culture inflection points

Thursday, January 3rd, 2019

Looking back from a future era, it is often easy to see those moments of inflection when popular culture evolved. These were the moments where an event occurred that ushered in a new sensibility.

A few such events that come to mind are the release of The Jazz Singer in 1927 or Citizen Kane in 1941 or Heartbreak Hotel in 1956 or Psycho in 1960 or Star Wars in 1977 or Rapper’s Delight in 1979 or Doom in 1993. I am sure you can add to this list.

I just watched Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. It does so many innovative things with narrative, and rethinks how to visually tell a story in so many fundamental ways, that at some point I stopped trying to keep track and just leaned back to enjoy the ride.

Of course we can’t really know for sure what will happen in the future. But I suspect that there is a good chance this film will be seen as one of those inflection points in popular culture.

Technical language

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2019

People in some technical professions use plain language — short words that sound like regular English. People in other highly technical professions do just the opposite.

For example, civil engineers and plumbers use short English words to describe things. Words like “span” and “load”, “valve”, “pressure” and “pipe”.

The language of doctors is quite different. Their words tend to be much longer and in latin. Finger is “phelange”, forward is “anterior”, down the middle is “sagittal”.

It’s as though there are working class technical fields and upper class technical fields. Plumbers and engineers are working class — it’s all just about getting the job done. Doctors are upper class — it’s still about getting the job done, but it’s also about something else, something more rarefied.

In computer science we tend to use simple English words when plying our craft, like “heap”, “stack”, “array”, “float” and “return”. I guess that makes us a working class technical field.