The funeral singer

I was discussing today with a friend the fact that Elton John repurposed his song Candle in the Wind for Lady Diana’s funeral. Our topic of discussion was: Is this legitimate?

In other words, can a writer cannibalize his own work? Is it ok to take a song that eulogizes Marilyn Monroe, change around a few lyrics, and end up with a song that eulogizes Princess Diana Spencer?

In this case the question is particularly fraught because the original lyrics were actually written by Bernie Taupin, not Elton John. But for now, let us gloss over that inconvenient fact.

Suppose we decide that it is ok to borrow a song you wrote honoring deceased person A, and re-purpose it to honor recently deceased person B. Are there any limits?

For example, could Elton John legitimately go on the road with variations of this song, performing custom versions for Micheal Jackson, George Michaels, Davy Jones, Prince? Would anybody have a problem with Candle and the Prince? I mean, you know, on ethical grounds.

If not, I see a rich future ahead for once top-charting singer / songwriters. Why not repurpose those old songs, and bring comfort to new generations of grieving fans?

I can see a whole new career ahead for Elton John and other intrepid troubadours, based on a sound and time tested business model. After all, one thing we know for sure about the future is that famous people will continue to die.

It is only prudent to have a song ready.

Chess to be another

In Paris I had a chance to try The Machine to be Another. This is a virtual reality empathy project that has been going on since 2012.

Two participants each wear a VR headset, with a camera attached to the front. The camera feed from the first person is routed to the VR headset of the second person, and vice-versa.

Essentially, you find yourself staring across a table at yourself, as though you are the other person. The feeling is as though you have swapped bodies.

The two participants are then asked to perform an exercise in which they both move their arms and hands very slowly, trying to match each others movements. The effect is that you look at the arms, hands and fingers in front of you, and it feels as though they are your arms, hands and fingers.

It is as though you are inhabiting the body of another person. And it is all very spooky and fascinating.

I was interested in seeing how this medium could be extended, so I asked whether we could extend the paradigm to the manipulation of physical objects. So at some point this afternoon I found myself sitting across a chessboard from myself, ready to play a game of chess.

One thing I soon realized was that it wasn’t clear which chess pieces I should play: The ones that were nearest to my point of view, or the ones nearest to my physical body.

I ended up opting for the ones nearest to my body. Perhaps this was because the muscle memory of pushing a pawn away from my body was stronger than the visual memory of seeing a pawn move away from my eyes. Maybe somebody should do a study to see whether different people make this choice differently.

We ended up running out of time, and I still had so many questions. Would it feel different to play “view-centered” rather than “body-centered”? What would happen if we rotated the chess board 90 degrees and we both played from the side?

Could you eventually learn to all sorts of physical tasks from a perspective outside your body? Play the piano? Shoot a basketball?

Now I want to try out all of these things.

A fundamental principle of computer science

Tomorrow we are going to be giving a big demo of shared virtual reality here in Paris. So this evening I am working with colleagues here and grad students back in NY to get it all set up.

It’s one of the realities of the six hour time shift between New York and Paris that this must be done today not tomorrow. Right now, here in the early evening in Paris, it is mid-day in New York. That is a perfectly reasonable time of day for the folks back home to be working on this with us.

But tomorrow morning wouldn’t work out so well, since setting up then would require our grad students in NYC to wake up at 3AM. Our students are dedicated, but nobody should have to be that dedicated.

Here we are following a fundamental principle of computer science, which may generalize to other fields as well: Never make a grad student wake up early in the morning.

Double time

I am very much enjoying Paris, but I am also dancing around the difficulty of trying to field lots of remote meetings in NY, on a week where I am also doing lots of demos and workshops in Paris.

I have started scheduling Skype meetings in NY at very odd times, such as midnight in Paris, because that’s when I know I will be free here.

This feels a bit like a chronological version of measuring length in feet versus meters: At any given moment of the day or night, I need to keep two time zones in my head at once — always at a separation of six hours.

Not that I am complaining. Hey, I’m in Paris. 🙂

Until we remember

This is probably not going to make any sense to those of you who do not have children.

In the last day, in Paris, I spent some time with my friend and her two daughters — one of them seven, the other four. We had a picnic on the Seine, the four of us, enjoying the beautiful warm weather, and soaking in the astonishingly lovely Parisien surroundings.

What I came away with, more than anything else, was the sheer wonder of children. My friend’s two daughters, feisty, difficult, completely innocent and completely high on life, were a wonder to me.

Both of them had a will of life, a fierce determination to enjoy every second, that no adult could ever hope to match. Simply being in their company, in the presence of such a beautiful and cacaphonous celebration of the now, had the effect of resetting my compass.

I stand in awe of the sheer force of childhood, the sense of wonder it brings, its will to life that we adults find it all to easy to forget.

Until we remember.


Word/sentence pairs inspired by a recent conversation with Andy Gerngross.

Acronym: A curious result of naming your memes.

Atheism: The non-existence of gods is my only unshakeable belief.

Boundless: Don’t leap to conclusions about things going on forever.

Dysnomia: I have a chronic difficulty remembering this word.

Inflammable: It burns me up when people use this word incorrectly.

Invalid: Aren’t you the guy with the fake handicapped sticker on your car?

Irony: There is only one word I don’t need a dictionary for.

Paradox: Nothing about this sentence is true.

Procrastination: I was going to start putting things off, but I decided to wait.

Xenophobia: I am afraid of strangers coming ever closer.


The title of yesterday’s post was ripped right from the news of the day. Out of context the words could seem confusing. But a search on the Web for the phrase “goddamned steam” would quickly tell the reader what I was talking about.

Since some readers seemed nonplussed by my unexplained use of that phrase, I find myself wondering whether my post violated some implicit contract between writer and reader. Of course we all know that anyone reading this blog can simply find the context through Google (or Bing or DuckDuckGo, to be non-denominational about it). But should they be required to?

Thinking back on it now, I think my decision to leave the topic unexplained was a kind of invitation. There were no words I could have used to convey my feeling of sheer horror and embarrassment, my sense of a world gone completely mad, when I first encountered this phrase in its original context — and realized that it was not, in fact, some sort of parody. I guess I wanted my reader to better understand that context by inviting her to see it for herself.

It’s possible that we will look back on this insane time in our nation’s history and single out the day the phrase “goddamned steam” was first uttered in public. That might turn out to be the moment when it became undeniable that we are dealing with a blend of insanity and stupidity far more toxic than anything we could have imagined.