Working in groups

I structured this evening’s class into two halves. In the first hour I showed them some software tools, and some demos that illustrate what can be done with those tools. In a way, I was just dangling possibilities in front of them, to get their own minds working.

Then, for the second hour, I asked them to organize into small groups, and to define their own project based on what they now knew to be possible. At the moment I am happily listening to the students as they work out designs, concepts, plans and schemes. I am very confident that some of them will come up with exciting directions that I would never have thought of.

It’s a balancing act, of course. You can’t just tell students to form into groups. You need to give them an exciting and worthwhile direction to aim toward. And you need to be careful about how you judge their work. For example, I’ve learned from experience that I must be scrupulously fair when assessing the presentation of each group. No playing favorites!

But once all that has been taken care of, you need to trust them. Sometimes the best thing a teacher can do for his students is to know when it is time to get out of their way. Students who are trusted to fly will find their wings.

Right of transcendence

When we look back through history, there are certain individuals who stand out. William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Virginia Woolf, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe — these are among a pantheon of individuals who have, each in their way, had a positive impact on the culture of future generations.

It is now well known that genetics is mostly random, and inheritance a crap shoot. Any child born into the world might grow up to be a luminary who can positively influence the course of history and culture, if given a chance. This possibility is a sort of human birthright, which might called a “right of transcendence”.

But of course that last part is key: “if given a chance.” There is a tendency in many modern societies to systematically exclude entire groups of people, based on nonsense. This person happens to be a Jew or Muslim, that one a woman, another one has some irrelevent characteristic such as skin color, or eye shape, or sexual preference.

Unless you are a complete idiot, or are ideologically willing yourself to impersonate a complete idiot, you know that those are all smoke screens. And they are astonishingly damaging smoke screens. Somewhere, a child who was born with the genetic predisposition to be a great writer, or inventor, or philosopher, or healer, is being denied reasonable health care, or has been thrown in prison because he happened to be in the wrong place for somebody with his skin color, or is part of an entire community of children whose IQs have been lowered by lead poisoning.

I think any society that cares about its own future should recognize the right of individuals to be protected in childhood from being thrown onto the ash heap of history, and to make sure that each child is given a fair chance to become the next great contributor to his or her culture.

Is that asking too much?

Parallel inventions

In a way, the history of the iPhone and its ilk parallels the history of the stereoscope. Both of them seemingly burst upon the scene when the time was right, although neither one was exactly new.

The modern era of the stereoscope actually dates back to around 1823. That was just a year after the invention of first permanent technology for recording photographs, although that first stereoscope wasn’t used with photographs, since most people didn’t really know about photography yet.

But it wasn’t until 1849 that Sir David Brewster got the configuration right. His device was used to make a stereograph of Queen Victoria which proved so popular at the Great Exhibition in London of 1851 that 250,000 of them were made. Photography was new then in the public mind, and this little gadget represented to many people the magic of living in the modern age made possible by photography.

Similarly, the iPhone wasn’t the first “smart phone”. But Apple got all the details right, and the first iPhone hit it big in 2007, starting a vast craze for smart phones that continues to this day. The idea of “carrying the web with you in your pocket” was new then in the public mind, and this little gadget represented to many people the magic of living in the modern age made possible by portable computerized communication devices.

Of course we now know that the two inventions are linked. Although many tinkerers quickly started pointing a stereo pair of lenses at the iPhone soon after its introduction in 2007 (mostly using an arrangement similar to Oliver Wendell Holmes’ 1861 configuration of the stereoscope), the earliest significant play was Hasbro.

In 2010 Hasbro came out with their My3D stereo viewer that worked with the iPhone. The My3D was, of course, a riff on that iconic earlier variant of the stereoscope, the View-Master, which had been patented in 1939.

Pretty much everything we are seeing today in Virtual Reality is the result of combining these two key innovations, the stereoscope and the smart phone: two parallel inventions from different centuries that perhaps were not all that dissimilar in spirit.

Carol Burnett

I went with a friend this evening to see Carol Burnett perform at the Beacon Theater. For millenials reading this, that might not mean much. But for the rest of us it is a very big deal.

When I was a kid I always thought there was something wonderfully different about Carol Burnett. Her humor wasn’t just funny — it had some other dimension to it. There were clearly truths being told in every episode, but always within the flow of the delightful comedy.

But now, seeing her live on stage at the age of 83, still taking questions from the audience and answering them with uncommon humor and grace, I think there is something more particular going on here.

Carol Burnett has never been just been about humor — although her show could be incredibly funny. She was about a philosophy that celebrates the unique spark of humanity in everyone — performer, audience, everyone.

That’s not a very popular rhetorical stance these days. The culture seems to be currently going through a phase in which everyone is the star of their own movie: You are here on this planet to promote your own fabulousness.

But to Carol Burnett, everyone is a star and nobody is a diva. We are each simply here to celebrate each other, and maybe have some laughs along the way.

If this world needs anything, I think it needs another Carol Burnett.

Your ideal self

A decade or so ago, Second Life was all the rage, and having an embodied on-line persona was new. Back then there was a lot of buzz around the crazy choices made by participants as to the visual appearance of their avatar.

Some people chose to be purple tentacled aliens, others eight foot tall felines in dominatrix suits. Pretty wild choices were made. None of it really mattered all that much, because it was understood that these were fictional representations.

But sometime in the next decade we may encounter something new. If you start wearing those Future Reality glasses in your everyday life, the stakes could be higher.

That eight foot tall cat dominatrix may become not just something funny and ironically rebellious, but a potential measure of how you might be judged in real life. It could effect the outcome of interviewing for a job, applying for a loan, even trying to get seated at a restaurant.

This happens now, of course. If you show up for that high powered corporate executive job wearing your Halloween hooker outfit, you might not get called back for a second interview.

But if your very appearance, as perceived by others, is largely created in software, that is arguably a bit more fundamental. Will people go for the outrageous?

Or will they systematically skew their appearance toward some safely “ideal” age or set of facial and body features? In a world where we will be able to choose any outward appearance, what will we see when we look at each other?


This morning one of the clues in the NY Times crossword puzzle was “It occurs twice in chalk talk”. The answer was “Silent L”. I was really excited because Chalktalk is the name of my research software. So this morning I rallied my silent L’s and wrote a little poem in honor of the occasion:

I solved the puzzle in a walk
I knew, I think, I surely would
Not for a moment did I balk
Because I knew I really could
I did not suffer sweaty palms
And didn’t need to sprain a calf
In fact, I really had no qualms
And beat my fastest time by half
Yet all the while I stayed so calm
When all was done I ate an almond
Then sat right down and wrote this psalm
But stayed away from eggs with salmon *
 * Alas, I fear that many folk
   Will never really get the yolk

Blog days

Sometimes I marvel, when it comes time to post my daily blog, how much time has passed since the previous day’s post. I know that sounds strange. After all, wasn’t it just a day — no more, no less?

Well yes, in a strictly chronological sense. But here is where things get interesting. Sometimes it seems as though only minutes have passed since the previous day’s post. And that’s how I know it hasn’t been a very interesting day.

Other days, it feels as though a week or more has passed since I last posted — even though it was just the day before. And that means it’s been a very full day.

I don’t think that “full day” equates to how much I’ve gotten done, or even how much has happened. I think it’s more a matter of how many social context switches I’ve experienced on that day.

So if I’ve met with very different sorts of people, and taken on different social and professional roles, then a day can seem like a week. These are the most exhausting days.

I realize now, having just gone through one, that they are also the best days.


A few weeks ago there was an editorial in the New York Times by David Malpass, a senior economic advisor for the Trump presidential campaign. He laid out a series of reasons, based on right-wing economic theory, why a Trump presidency would be better for the economy than a Clinton presidency.

We can all agree to disagree about economic theory, but there are some things we cannot agree to disagree about. And one of those was Mr. Malpass’s closing thought, which I repeat verbatim:

One candidate has spent her lifetime seeking the presidency. Mr. Trump hasn’t.

Think about this for a moment. What is he actually saying? Speaking as an American, I know that I grew up with some fundamental truths. One of those is that, if you are kid, wanting to grow up to one day become President of the United States is applauded.

Wanting to serve your country in this way is the American Dream condensed to its fundamental essence. So much so that to tell a child that they could never aspire to such a position is, arguably, abusive.

So what, exactly, is wrong with Hillary Clinton “spending her lifetime seeking the presidency?” Let’s do a though experiment. Suppose Mr. Malpass had been talking about a man.

How does this sound: “Mr. Bush has spent his lifetime seeking the presidency.” Or try this one: “Mr. Lincoln has spent his lifetime seeking the presidency.” The only rational response would be “Well, good for him.”

The only difference is between the words “her” and “his”. Apparently, it’s ok, in fact laudible, for a male to aspire to the presidency. But if a woman wants exactly the same thing, she clearly does not know her place.

If you were black, and a candidate’s campaign said that a black candidate was being “uppity” for daring to run for president, you probably wouldn’t vote for that candidate. If you were Jewish, and a candidate’s campaign said that there was no place for a Jew in the White House, you probably wouldn’t vote for that candidate.

So I wonder, all politics aside, what woman in her right mind would vote for a candidate whose campaign is built, in such an obvious way, around mysogyny?


I woke today and thought about the date
And wondered at how much has changed since then
Yet even now our world is filled with hate
And politics brings out the worst of men.
How long a stretch of time time is fifteen years?
One would have thought enough for us to learn
That giving in to hatreds and to fears,
Is not a way to build, but just to burn.
I only hope that all of us today
Will truly honor those whose lives were lost
By turning messengers of fear away
For hate is never worth its awful cost.
      Our better angels call us from above
      When human hearts can find a way to love.