Greek alphabet

The other day somebody asked me if I knew the Greek alphabet, and I realized I didn’t. I managed to get just five letters in — to ε — and then I got stuck, which is not very impressive.

So I set about memorizing the whole thing, and it was surprisingly easy. For one thing, you can clearly see how our own alphabet is a variant, and that makes things loads easier.

Entire runs of letters essentially look like ABCDE or KLMN or OPRSTU. Once you see that, you’re about 80% of the way to having the whole thing memorized.

Also, there are only twenty four letters. I found myself learning it as six runs of four: First α, β, γ, δ, then ε, ζ, η, θ, all the up to the final φ, χ, ψ, ω.

When you break it down like that, it goes very quickly. And that’s pretty much the alpha and the omega of the Greek alphabet.

Now I want to memorize all of the elements in the periodic table. That might take a little longer.


There will come a point when putting on your VR glasses and talking with a friend who is physically somewhere else will feel more “present” than talking with them when they are right in front of you. I don’t know how long it will be before that happens, but sooner or later it will. That will be the crossover point.

There will be two elements to that future experience. The first will be the sense that the person is right there in front of you, with proper 3D perspective and perfectly correct spatial audio. You will be able to get all of the subtleties eye movement, body language and facial expression, like you now do when talking to somebody face to face.

The second element will be all of the super powers that you will both have. Objects and text that float in the air, the ability to modify your appearance at will, being able to instantly transport yourselves into any location. These are just a few of the new powers will will have in future “virtually present” face to face conversations, that we will eventually take for granted.

There will be other future super powers that nobody has yet thought of, but they will. A good analogy might be the Apple App Store. Many of the apps didn’t occur to people right away, but in hindsight they seemed obvious.

There will likely be a similar learning curve involved here, as we all gradually get used to the possibilities. Who knows — maybe you or one of your children will end up coming up with a killer app for the future experiential economy.

Two scientists walk into a bar

I read an essay today that started with the line “Two scientists walk into a bar.” The author then goes on to describe a vast diversity among the sciences. Whereas some sciences focus on very concrete studies of data, others are built around a very high level of abstraction.

There is a sort of continuum at work here. Biologists deal with concrete data, while chemists work at a more abstract level. Physics is even more abstract, and mathematics is the most abstract of all.

I was disappointed to see that the essay did not actually contain a “two scientists walk into a bar” joke. I thought the essay would be stronger if there were an actual joke that proved its point.

So I wrote one:

A mathematician and a biologist walk into a bar.

“Why are you and I hanging out together?” the mathematician asks. “Of all the scientific fields, mine is the most abstract, and yours is the most concrete.”

“That’s true,” the biologist replies, “but we have Chemistry between us.”

Smart clay

In my fantasies of what I want for future computer interfaces, I keep thinking about smart clay. That’s my go-to term for something that doesn’t exist, but that I would really like to exist.

I would like to be able to pick up a lump of clay, mold into the shape of a creature, and then have that creature come to life. The creature should understand, based on the shape I made, that this is its head, that’s an arm, these are its legs.

When I poke in little indentations for the eyes, it then knows how to look at things. If I give it a nice little paunch of a belly, it should waddle appropriately.

And if I make two such creatures out of clay, they will happily play together with each other — and with me.

Is that asking too much?

Total recall

Eventually this brain/computer interface stuff is going to become practical for millions of people. It’s not going to happen any time soon, but in the longer picture it might be inevitable.

I realize that talking about that now is a little like somebody in 1850 discussing the inevitability of motion pictures. But let’s go ahead and place ourselves in the position of those future people who will take such things for granted.

One outcome of a mature brain/computer interface is that we will all have total recall, should we so wish. Anything we have every seen or heard will be immediately available to us, if we would like to call it back to mind.

And there will probably be a very slick effort-free indexing system that will put to shame the clumsiness of typing keywords into Google. I wonder whether, in the larger scheme of things, this is going to be a good thing or a bad thing.

Text in the air

In a few years, when everyone gets used to wearing those extended reality glasses in public spaces, text will be everywhere. In particular, it will be floating in the air.

Sometimes it will appear very large and looming against the sky. At other times it will show up on a convenient wall.

Then there is the text that will be hovering between you and me during our casual conversation (perhaps when ordering from a restaurant, or spending time together reading an email from Mom). And then there will be text we carry with us, as a personal note or reminder, which nobody else can see.

I wonder what exactly this text will look like. Will it be bright and glowing? Will it look flat or three dimensional? Will preferred fonts be cartoonish or formal? Will it aim to grab our attention, or to blend unobtrusively into our world?

It’s not really a question about technology, but about human preference. So I guess we will need to wait to see what answers will arrive in the laboratory of mass adoption.

Moving a fridge

Today I helped someone move a refrigerator. It was a nice change from writing computer software.

On the other hand, I started to see similarities. To get the fridge through the door, we needed to partially dismantle it, and then reassemble it again once we were inside. And that process reminded me of some things I’ve done as a programmer.

The step by step process of partially disassembling a machine, and then putting it back together, felt much like things we do all the time as programmers. I was being shown a glimpse into the deeper operational structure of something, starting to see how it is really put together.

When you look at the code written by somebody else, you are basically seeing a machine that they built. In order to work with somebody else’s code, you need to understand that machine, reverse engineer it in your mind, and start using the pieces that they have created.

Seeing these similarities reminds me that there is a universal logic to all mechanisms made by humans. Everytime you get to see a different sort of mechanism, this universal logic becomes a little easier to see.

Lazy day

After an exhausting sequence of deadlines and day-long committee meetings, I am finally enjoying a lazy day off. Much of today has been spent reading Andrew Maynard’s wonderful book Future Rising, which is thoughtful and deep and clever and all-around delightful.

And now that my mind is finally able to relax, I find all sorts of cool ideas for research projects popping into my head. Maybe they were there all along, just waiting for some breathing space that would let them wend their way to the surface.

I’m thinking it might be very productive to take more lazy days off. 🙂