The real meaning of New Years

What, in essence, does New Years mean to people? Clearly there is a lot of celebration involved.

At the stroke of midnight, many people go wild. They hug total strangers, and there is a general sense of good cheer and camaraderie.

But what exactly is it that is being celebrated? I used to not be sure, but after watching people celebrate New Years enough times, I think I know.

Although nobody really wants to admit it, New Years is really about one thing more than anything else. It’s about the fact that you and I are still here. We are the ones who will get at least one more ride around the merry-go-round.

That’s why we raise a glass at midnight with total strangers, and maybe also give them a big hug. We may not know who they are, and we may not have much in common with them.

But in that moment we have at least one thing in common. And it’s the most important thing.

Best advice ever

Today is the birthday of Rudyard Kipling. The man was born on Dec 30, 1865, so if he were alive today, he would be 158, which would be very impressive.

As it happens, Kipling gave the best advice ever if you are a teacher:

If you give someone more than they can do, they will do it. If you give them only what they can do, they will do nothing.

Subtitle match game

Can you match title and subtitle?

1. Birdman
2. Candide
3. Frankenstein
4. Middlemarch
5. Oliver Twist
6. Peter Pan
7. Roots
8. Slaughterhouse Five
9. Tess of the D’Urbervilles
10. The Hobbit
11. Twelfth Night
12. Uncle Tom’s Cabin
13. Vanity Fair
14. Walden
A. A Novel Without a Hero
B. A Pure Woman
C. A Study of Provincial Life
D. Life Among the Lowly
E. Life in the Woods
F. Optimism
G. The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up
H. The Children’s Crusade
I. The Modern Prometheus
J. The Parish Boy’s Progress
K. The Saga of An American Family
L. The Unexpected Virtue of Innocence
M. There and Back Again
N. What You Will

These early days of wonder

I am now used to the idea that I can have a skylight in my ceiling, even though I am not on the top floor of my apartment building. And I can have a portable chess set that can grow until the board is 10 feet wide.

I can make it snow indoors if I want, and I can draw in the air to create shapes that come to life, like Harold with his Purple Crayon. I can rotate a hypercube in 4D right in the middle of my office, and I can pull the Moon down from the sky right into my bedroom.

These are wondrous experiences, and I was able to create them because I have a Meta Quest 3 and I know how to program in WebXR. But such experiences won’t stay wondrous forever.

Sometime soon, everyone will have magic glasses. And when that happens, things like this will becom an ordinary part of daily life.

And then people won’t understand what the fuss was about. Just as people today don’t understand why a train coming toward you on a movie screen could ever have frightened anyone, or the how sound of a movie actor speaking could ever have seemed magical.

And when that happens, I will miss these early days of wonder.

Steve Martin, part 2

By the time he appeared on SNL, Steve Martin had been around for a while. For example, in 1968, as one of the writers for The Smothers Brothers Show, he had occasionally shown up on TV doing his own material. But back then the world wasn’t quite ready for him yet.

So he had eight more years to hone and perfect his act. By the time he burst on the scene on SNL in 1976, seemingly fully formed, the world itself had changed.

People were tired of the constant culture wars, and they needed a break. What Martin did in that moment was so pioneering that our culture largely lives in the world that he created.

His act essentially deconstructed the very idea of a comedy act, turning in upon itself. He used the absurdity of a performer being up on stage creating a “persona” as his very source material.

And the important part is that he made it fun. We are now so used to accepting this sort of meta-awareness in performance that it can be hard to remember that someone actually had to invent it.

And in doing so, he gave all of us grownups permission to act like silly little kids again. And for that, we should be eternally grateful.

Steve Martin, part 1

The 1960s were a time when everything in America meant something, including comedy. Behind every ostensibly silly act of comedy lurked serious intent.

By the early 1970s the American culture was aflame with heated culture wars over Vietnam, civil rights, Nixon and more. In the resulting general air of mistrust, comedy was suffused with undertones of rebellion against the Establishment.

Young people looked toward comics who spoke to this general feeling of wary malaise, from Lenny Bruce through George Carlin. Even comedy of the absurd, such as Firesign Theater, conveyed an underlying spirit of rebellion.

And then, on October 23, 1976, Steve Martin showed up on Saturday Night Live. More tomorrow.

Two days in one

I can’t quite wrap my head around how to locate Christmas in American culture. It seems to have two completely different meanings.

As far as I can tell, the two meanings of Christmas are only tenuously connected with one another, at best. In my head I have started to think of these two meanings as “Jesus Day” and “Santa Day”.

Jesus Day is an important Christian day of religious observance, celebrating the birth of Jesus. In that sense it is, for many millions of people, a highly solemn and spiritual occasion.

In startling contrast, Santa Day is a time when America is gripped by a kind of feverish need to be jolly. Catchy songs play round the clock in shopping malls and airports, people dress up like Santa Claus or one of his elves, and lots of people drink way too much.

In addition, retail outlets do a huge chunk of their yearly business around Santa Day. Without Santa Day, the American economy would be much the poorer.

Non-Christians have no real connection to Jesus Day, but everyone in America seems to be involved in Santa Day. I’ve seen Jews and Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus and Athiests all wish people a “Merry Christmas”. Everybody understands that they are talking about Santa Day, not Jesus Day.

Guided tours

When I am in extended reality, and you are in extended reality, how do we know we are in the same extended reality? Eventually this will become an issue as socially shared XR becomes ever more common.

I think we will develop an idea of guided tours. If you and I are in the same physical space, I might invite you to share my XR version of that space.

I can then show you virtual furniture, maps, ideas, works of art, organization charts, or pretty much anything of shared interest. When I switch to a different virtual overlay upon our real world, you will automatically follow me there.

In practice, people will likely take turns being the one to give the guided tour. Just like story telling, but visual and immersive.

Portable Skylight

Today I built a skylight for my apartment. The good news is that when I am home I can see blue skies and sunlight overhead, even though I am only on the third floor of a five story apartment building. The bad news is that I can only see my lovely skylight when I am wearing my Quest 3.

On the other hand, my skylight is portable. If I go on vacation, I can take it with me, and attach it to the ceiling of my hotel room. Also, at any moment I can choose what kind of sky I want to see — day or night, stormy or clear.

The magic glasses definitely still need to get smaller. But when they do, I could really get used to this.

A glimpse into the future

Yesterday morning one of my students remarked that the video passthrough on the Quest 3 is almost as good as reality. I responded that one day soon, one of its descendants would give you vision that is better than reality.

You will be able to see colors that you cannot see with your own eyes. You might be able to look through a wall and see what is in the next room over. You will be able to see the bus you that want to catch from three blocks away.

When I said this, I thought I was talking about the future. But then at a dimly lit restaurant last night, I realized that the only way I could read the menu was by taking out my phone, turning on the camera, and zooming in. When I did that, the text was clear and bright and easy to read.

And it occurred to me that in a few years I won’t even need to take out my phone. Any small or dim text will be easy to read as long as I am wearing my smart glasses. And as an added bonus, my glasses will let me read text written in any language.