February 7th, 2019

We are developing ever more elaborate technologies for collaboration and communication. Yet I still haven’t seen anything quite as wonderful as the old fashioned whiteboard.

What is it about a whiteboard that makes it such a perfect vehicle for collaboration? Is it the physicality of it, the merging of information technology with body language?

At least for shared ideating, no communication medium that uses computers seems to be able to compete with this simple and purely physical interface. I wonder whether anything ever will.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if the answer to that question turns out to be no.

Fiction and survival of the species

February 6th, 2019

It is clear that humans have a powerful instinct to tell stories and to listen to stories. In particular, most people are highly drawn to fictional stories.

What is it about fiction, a sequence of events that never happened, involving people who have never existed, that we find so compelling? If we were not so powerfully drawn to fiction, we would think it the silliest thing in the world.

Which means that our love of fiction must be deeply instinctive. And that suggests that fiction, like all powerful instincts, possesses (or once possessed) some very important survival value.

In other words, over the course of our evolution, the instinct to tell and listen to fictional stories has helped us to survive as a species. But how exactly?

I don’t know the answer, but I’ll bet it would make a great story.

Standing on the edge of time

February 5th, 2019

Today, walking along the streets of Greenwich Village, I was overtaken by the strangest whim. Taking out my SmartPhone I opened up YouTube, and started playing Mandy, sung by the inimitable Barry Manilow. The lyrics blasted out for all the world to hear:

I remember all my life
Raining down as cold as ice
A shadow of a man
A face through a window
Crying in the night
The night goes into
Morning, just another day…

It was, perhaps, the single most culturally rebellious act of my life. Here I was, surrounded by cool, up-to-the-moment students from NYU and The New School, and I was blasting out the single most uncool song of all time.

There was something beautiful about the moment, the sheer overwhelming inappropriateness of my musical choice. What I was playing was so off the cultural radar that it might as well have been from another planet.

Although that moment did not occur in a vacuum. Earlier in the day, during my class lecture, I had checked the sound level by playing an excerpt from Schoenberg’s piano etudes.

The music that emerged was dissonant, atonal and heavenly. The students seemed disoriented. What was this weird noise I was subjecting them to?

“Isn’t it great?” I exclaimed with enthusiasm. “Who else here is a fan of Schoenberg?”

Dead silence. I could feel ninety pairs of young eyes just staring at me, clearly confused that I would choose to send such a strange and disquieting sound out into the universe.

Maybe I should have played them Manilow.

The ordinary and the odd

February 4th, 2019

The ordinary and the odd,
Each one, I think, should get a nod.
The ordinary has its place
With steady calm its saving grace.

And yet it seems if that were all
The world would then be rather small.
With nothing odd to shake our tree
Our life could not be truly free.

For nothing jogs our intellect
Like something we did not expect,
And times when we are at our best
Are when our hearts are filled with zest,

For oddness is a dynamo!
But then again, it’s good to know
That ordinary’s OK too.
I had a nap today. Did you?

Proud of my country

February 3rd, 2019

I know this may seem like an odd time to say it, but I feel proud of my country. Yesterday I came back from an international flight, and saw the hard working TSA and customs officers keeping things together.

Yes, we have a president who is a complete idiot. Even worse, said idiot spent most of the first month of the new year actively trying to make the U.S. fall apart.

Interestingly, he did this just to promote his crazy Idiot Wall. By now everyone, including the people who voted from him, realize that every dollar spent on the Idiot Wall would be a dollar not available to spend on actual national security measures.

But facts are for those of us in the real world. In the fantasy world of Agent Orange, ill-conceived campaign slogans, no matter how stupid, are more important than real national security.

Which makes me especially proud of the hard working men and women who kept this country going, many without pay, even as an out of control idiot, for completely idiotic reasons, was working to destroy the country they believe in.

Next time you see one of these people at work, be nice to them. They deserve our respect.

Hidden in plain sight

February 2nd, 2019

Fast forward another five years or so. You wake up in the morning and put on your AR glasses, and so do all of the people you know.

Nobody even thinks about it. At least, not any more than people in 2019 think about slipping a SmartPhone into their pocket when they start the day.

But here’s a poser: if AR glasses can visually modify reality, can’t they remove AR glasses from view? Maybe one of the functions of your AR glasses will be to digitally remove the AR glasses from your view of everyone else’s face.

But suppose you actually want to see everyone else’s AR glasses. Well, that would be easy. All you’d need to do is take yours off. :-)

Change in perspective

February 1st, 2019

When I was eleven years old I loved the sort of science fiction story where some engineer is faced with a problem — maybe concerning time travel or some emergency aboard an interstellar space ship — and then cleverly figures out a way to solve that problem. I couldn’t get enough of stories like that.

I remember one time around then looking at an issue of The New Yorker magazine. I tried reading one of the short stories, since I’d heard they were very good.

I couldn’t get through it. The story was full of conversations about feelings and relationships, and all the characters in it seemed like boring people talking about meaningless things. It just didn’t seem to be about anything.

When I was eighteen I was reading a short story in The New Yorker when I recalled that experience from seven years earlier. As it happened, the story was full of conversations about feelings and relationships, and all the characters in it seemed like fascinating people talking about meaningful things.

Curious, I picked up one of the SciFi stories I had loved back when I was eleven years old. To my bemusement, I could hardly get through it. I found the story to be completely boring. It just didn’t seem to be about anything.

The new oil

January 31st, 2019

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?

January 30th, 2019

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?

January 29th, 2019

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?