Sheltering at home in a post-screen world

July 28th, 2020

Millions of people are at home with their kids these days, during this pandemic. The kids can’t go to school, the parents need to work from home (if they are still employed), and the entire family needs to make do.

A lot of people have been writing about families sheltering at home and their relationship to screens. How much screen time should kids have? What is the line between school and play, the balance between hanging out with friends and roaming the internet?

Does the internet help or hurt? How does it relate to parents and kids sharing quality time together without everyone going crazy?

Suppose we lived in the future world that Vernor Vinge describes in Rainbows End. In the morning everyone pops in their contact lenses, and sees an augmented reality seamlessly integrated with their physical surroundings.

In such a world we might not be talking about screen time. In a sense, there would be no screens, since the real and the virtual would just be seamlessly woven together.

How would this change the dynamic of families sheltering at home? Would it provide a way to promote togetherness, or would it simply create new sorts of barriers between family members?

Bringing creation tools into teaching

July 27th, 2020

Somebody asked me today what impact remote instruction has had on my teaching. Obviously there is something lost when you go from an in-person classroom to a group Zoom meeting.

So I found myself thinking about what I’ve been able to do to compensate, to add things to my teaching that I had not been able to easily do in real life. And I found myself talking about creation tools.

When I am sitting by myself in front of my computer screen, I am using all sorts of tools to make things. I’ve got text editors, visualizers, programming environments, 2D and 3D modeling tools and more.

I realize that as I’ve grown in confidence in using Zoom for teaching, I keep bringing in more of these tools. I am able to show students, in a way that would be awkward or impractical in a classroom setting, how I actually make things and conduct my own research.

I don’t think such features will ever replace in-person teaching. But maybe they represent something emergent that is valid and important in its own right.

It will be interesting to see how such approaches to instruction evolve, as necessity forces many teachers to become creative in new and different ways — and as our tools evolve accordingly.

If technology were not the limiting factor

July 26th, 2020

Suppose technology were not the limiting factor. What then would we actually end up with as a “holodeck”?

Would it be like the vision we saw in 1987 in the TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation? Or would it be radically different?

If we could enable anything, will people want to have the sense that their physical being is transported into another world? That very literal vision is both comforting and limiting.

Or might it be more like Ready Player One, where you are transformed into a being with great powers that make sense only in a virtual world?

Or will we split the difference? The Matrix posits a virtual world that seems just like this one, until you unlock the codes that give you super powers.

Or will we gradually abandon this literal body image, and shift to something else entirely? That probably seems like a very strange idea, yet if everyone does it, it will just seem normal.

After all, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy were represented only by a string of words printed on paper. In 1813 nobody seemed to mind.

This is a time machine

July 25th, 2020

I’ve been writing a post a day here since January 1, 2008. Little by little, it all adds up.

This week, out of curiosity, I went back ten years to see what I was saying in this blog a decade ago. Immediately I was swept back into another world, one that is oddly near and distant at the same time.

A decade is an interesting length of time. It’s sufficiently lon g that we’ve gone through many changes, yet we clearly recognize the person we encounter as ourselves.

It’s funny to of myself this way, two versions of me divided by a decade. If the person I am now could give one piece of advice to the person I was ten years ago, I wonder what I would say.

Toppling statues

July 24th, 2020

I do understand how it makes folks litiginous
Historical crimes against people indiginous
It’s so very awkward, that this very nation
Was built through a process of extermination
Now there is pushback and now there is rage
It’s the dawn of a far more enlightened new age
They’re toppling statues with vigor and glee
Of Columbus and Wilson and Robert E. Lee
New days are here from Duluth to the Bayou
But what will they do in Columbus Ohio?

Mood pill

July 23rd, 2020

Suppose you could take a mood pill that would put you into any mood you want? Would you use it?

I am not talking about intoxicating substances such as alcohol which impair your judgement. I’m suggesting something more down to earth.

Suppose I want to be sober and thoughtful at some point in the day, but lighthearted at another. Or I want to be rueful, or sentimental, or amorous, or coldly analytical.

If something like that existed, and it were truly reliable, I can see how it might be a very good thing or a very bad thing. I just can’t figure out which.

Border closing

July 22nd, 2020

I’m thinking these days of my friends to the north
Where I’m no longer free just to venture on forth
I was sorry to hear that the border is closed
I’m starting to think we are royally hosed

This was such a good country not too long ago
Now it’s all being Trumped by an idiot show
Next thing you know, it’s democracy’s fall
Then Canada says we must pay for the Wall

Five second delay

July 21st, 2020

Ever since I was a child, whenever I see lightning I start to count. It all has to do with physics.

Sound travels through air at around 1,000 feet per second. So it takes about five seconds for sound to travel a mile (5280 feet).

Since light travels, well, at the speed of light, we see a lightning strike essentially instantaneously. But the accompanying sound of thunder takes longer.

For every mile of the distance between you and lightning, there will be about a five second delay before you hear the thunder. For example, a lightning strike two miles away will be accompanied by a clap of thunder after about ten seconds.

Late last night there was a thunder storm, so I started counting in my bed. Until, that is, I saw a flash of lightning and heard a clap of thunder at pretty much the same time.

That’s when I hid under the covers and wished I didn’t know so much physics.

Whether weather

July 20th, 2020

Sometimes I rail against the heat of summer. It can be incredibly annoying to try to get through the day when it is hot, humid and muggy.

Winters can be even worse, chilling you to the bone on really bad days. Then there are the various seasonal hazards: snowstorms, hurricanes, and the other varieties of extreme weather that Nature throws as us.

I have a cousin who lives in L.A. Like me, he was born in NYC, but unlike me, he has escaped to a paradise of perfect days. It’s never too hot or cold, there is little humidity to speak of, and snow is nonexistent.

I completely understand why he would make that choice. Yet I have a feeling that without the extremes of weather, my life would be somehow impoverished.

So there you have it, a fundamental choice: I choose weather, and my cousin chooses no weather, and neither of us is wrong.

Seems to me there is a metaphor lurking here somewhere.

Productively off balance

July 19th, 2020

From time to time I like to switch up the tools I use to prototype things. It’s not that one tool is better than the other. It’s more that changing tools seems to keep me from falling into too much of a familiar rut.

Sometimes, for the same task, I will use 2D software tools, or 3D tools. Sometimes I will use commercial software, and other times my own home-grown code base.

And then at other times I will just pick up a number two pencil and a piece of blank paper and start sketching.

I think it’s not the particular tool that matters, but the greater awareness that comes from not taking your tools for granted. Ironically, it turns out that keeping yourself a little off balance can be good for your productivity.