Four birthdays

Today I note four famous November 20 birthdays:

  • Benoit Mandelbrot (1924)
  • Robert Kennedy (1925)
  • Joe Biden (1942)
  • Microsoft Windows 1.0 (1985)

Of these four blessed events, which one do you think will be considered the most notable in another hundred years?

A good interface principle

Just recently I noticed a really cool feature on the alarm clock on my Google Pixel Phone. It might have been there all the time, but I hadn’t noticed it before.

When I am setting the minute part of the timer, if I simply tap, it jumps to the nearest 5 minute mark. But if I hold and drag, then I can set it to the nearest minute.

Once I noticed this, I realized how clever it was. If you are in a rush, you can get an approximate time. But if it really matters to you to set the time to the exact minute, you put in the extra work and attention to do that.

Meanwhile, if you never notice this feature at all, nothing can go terribly wrong. It’s such a wonderful paradigm for how our devices should be Hey I was just about to wake you. Do you want to bite? It’s a little bit more us.

Interfaces shouldn’t be drawing all of our time and attention. They should be taking just enough of our attention to get the job done, but no more.

Building in that kind of flexibility of precision versus cognitive load seems to me to be an excellent design principle, which could easily be applied to many other situations.

Operating manual

The serenity prayer, written by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr around 1932, goes like this:

Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.

Today I was having a discussion with a colleague. We got to talking about the crazy disruption of everyone’s life since this pandemic started.

At some point in the conversation I invoked the serenity prayer, and I said, “Basically, it has become an operating manual.”

Sci-fi and magic

In the fantasy miniseries Locke and Key, one of the magical keys is the “anywhere key”. To use it, you just think about where you want to go. Then you use the key in any door. When you walk through the door, you are at your destination.

This is, quite evidently, exactly what the Star Trek transporter does. Except one is billed as magic, and the other as technology.

For the purposes of storytelling, I suspect there are many crossovers of this nature between the realms of fantasy and sci-fi (human flight, invisibility, omniscient knowledge, telepathy, immortality, etc). Clearly something is going on here, probably involving our desire for wish fulfilment in the stories we create and receive.

I wonder whether anyone has ever cataloged this phenomenon in any sort of systematic way.


Math used to be very neat
Until it became incomplete
  Then the world grew unfinished
  When proof was diminished
And truth beat a hasty retreat

Now everything is in fluction
Ever since Gödel’s fateful deduction
  Black and white have turned gray
  And we have, you might say,
Some great Weapons of Math Destruction

Creative joy is infectious

I’ve started pulling more and more of my own research into my teaching. Rather than teaching just the “standard” computer graphics curriculum, I’m starting to add some of my own stuff to what I show the students.

For example, I have my own algorithms for procedural character animation, for making creatures walk, interact with their world, convey mood and personality. A lot of it is unpublished, but all of it is fun.

I figure as long as it’s me teaching, why not give them something they can’t get anywhere else? And the students really seem to appreciate that.

In class when I start coding in Javascript and twenty minutes later there’s a character walking around on the screen, I think it feels like magic to them. But the important thing is that it’s magic that they can learn to do. That’s the motivational hook right there.

Also, creating things with code brings me joy, which the students pick up on. Creative joy is infectious. And that makes for a better educational experience all around.

Augmented reality and street crime

Let’s say you are walking down an urban street late at night. There is nobody else around.

A car pulls up and several people get out of it. One or more of them may be carrying a gun.

They demand that you hand over your belongings. Of course you do, because you really have no choice.

Now imagine it is several years into the future. You and everyone you know are wearing smart-glasses.

You use your glasses for all of the things you might now do with your phone or a card in your wallet, including shopping for groceries, entering a secure office building, paying your subway fare, and getting directions from Google Maps.

But unlike your phone, those glasses will be recording everything you see, all the time. So the moment those people approach you, their faces are already entering a database, and being matched to a list of possible identities.

In the future nobody is going to be crazy enough to try to rob you. On balance, this may be good.

Of course, there are real downsides to everyone having the power to record everything around them. But that’s a topic for another day.