Pass / fail

A colleague asked me how I was doing this morning. I think it was really a social reflex on his part. I’m pretty sure he didn’t want me to go into any sort of detail.

But in the moment, it occurred to me that “how are you doing” comes down, in essence, to a sort of pass / fail test. If you are here at all, alive on this planet, then you always have the possibility of doing well.

I told my colleague about these thoughts. “In essence,” I continued, “we are all trying to pass as long as possible, and to hold off that ultimate moment when we fail.” He agreed completely.

But then we realized that this is where the language breaks down. When you hear that somebody has passed, it means that they have actually failed.

Redemption spectrum

I’ve noticed that TV shows fall on a spectrum of redemption. At the start of each series, the show runners seem to establish a clear point of “redeemability” for the characters. And that quality remains fairly consistent throughout the run.

For example, the characters on Seinfeld are completely incapable of self-improvement. Nobody ever seems to learn from their mistakes. The comedy comes from the endless loop of self-absorbed narcissism that the four main characters share.

At quite a different point in the spectrum is The Big Bang Theory. The characters are very flawed, it is true, but they are, for the most part, quite capable of growth and redemption. Even Sheldon.

Compare, for example, the final episodes of those two shows. Each is, in a sense, a summing up of everything that came before.

The punchline at the very last episode of Seinfeld is that these characters are completely hopeless, and utterly incapable of doing better. The message at the very last episode of The Big Bang Theory is precisely the opposite.

In both cases, we are not surprised. We have been prepared for years for those respective endings from the very beginning.

Of course this spectrum forms a continuum. Frasier, for example, seems to fall exactly in the middle.

Dancing in the aisles

Building on the comments from yesterday’s post, suppose they were to reissue The Rocky Horror Picture Show in the future, and add some as yet uninvented new technologies. We might get a very different experience of this beloved classic.

You might literally have the experience of Tim Curry and Richard O’Brien and Susan Sarandon and Meatloaf dancing in the aisles. You could even have your very own personal interaction with them.

Would this be a better experience than the original? Would it raise red flags, much as colorization did in its day?

Would we be subverting the intent of Richard O’Brien’s offbeat masterpiece? Or would he embrace this advance as being exactly in the spirit of the live show that he created first?

I guess we could ask him.

St. Patrick’s Day

I wrote a post 10 days ago in which I asked why we don’t celebrate a notable person’s death, rather than their birth. Today is a sort of answer to my question.

St. Patrick’s Day is a celebration not of the birth of St. Patrick, but of his death. According to tradition, St. Patrick dies on March 17, 461 AD.

I wonder how many other examples there are where we celebrate a death rather than a birth? The only one I can think of off hand is Good Friday.

Continuous interfaces

If you go onto the Wikipedia to look something up, you can mouse over someone’s name, and their picture, if there is one, will show up. But when you do that you are not making any decisions.

If you really want to know more about that person, you need to click on their name, and then you will be taken to their page. Which means that you will be leaving the page you were on.

This is different from what happens when we interact with documents in real life. In the physical world, we can spread out papers on our desk. We can also take a book down from the shelf, leaf through it, and lie it down on the desk, keeping it open to a particular page.

At no point are we “leaving” the documents that we were looking at. They are still right there on the desk, remaining open to us, as available as ever.

This ability to see multiple documents is somewhat approximated by computer interfaces with multiple open windows. But on a computer screen we usually don’t have the flexibility to move continuously nearer or farther away from a document, the way we can with paper documents when we move our physical body about a real room.

I wonder whether the ability to go beyond the discrete “click” action will become more available as mixed reality improves. Ideally we should have the best of both worlds — the ability to instantly make connections and look things up afforded by computer interfaces, as well as the ability to continuously and simultaneously navigate between many open documents afforded by the real world.

The Ides of March

The Ides of March comes the day after Pi day
Whether it falls on a Tuesday or Friday.
It was always this way and forever will be
Yet somehow it seems most peculiar to me
That a day of betrayal should follow so close
After one that is so very far from morose.
I wonder if Caesar, that day just begun
Took a moment to look to the glorious Sun.
Did he stop for a moment and ask himself why
As he gazed at that bright shining orb in the sky
The ratio formed by its rim to its height
Is always unchanging from morning till night?
For some laws are eternal, when Gods so decree
And try as we might we can’t change what will be
Or did he just think to himself “I am late!”
As he rushed to the Senate, and so met his fate?

Pi day

I know it’s irrational, but I love Pi day. There is something about it that feels transcendent.

It seems like only yesterday that we celebrated the previous Pi day, and now we have come full circle.

Everyone in my social sphere loves it too, and probably everyone within a mile radius. Let’s all celebrate by having some pie.

Making diagrams

I am working with some colleagues on a large proposal to the National Science Foundation. Every once in a while, I need to stop word-smithing, and instead explain what we are doing by making a diagram.

I know that that’s supposed to be work, but there is something just so darned fun about explaining things in pictures. It feels less like work and more like play — sort of the grown-up equivalent of a kid getting to color with crayons in school.

I think that this is because when you make a diagram, you aren’t just communicating ideas. You are also communicating, in a visceral way, how those ideas relate to one another. The physical arrangement of the components of your diagram is itself an important part of the story.

Words are amazing — they are our human super power — but sometimes a well-designed diagram gives the sense of things, in a way that words could not. And maybe that’s why the part of proposal writing where we make diagrams is so much fun.

Zoom anniversary

Today is the third anniversary of my first ever use of Zoom. I taught a class on Zoom for the first time on the morning of March 12, 2020.

To put this into context, on the morning of March 11, 2020 I had not even heard of Zoom. But then came March 12, a Thursday. That was the day my University went suddenly and completely virtual, which it remained for a year and a half.

We now take Zoom so much for granted that we forget how recently most of us had never even heard of it. We would occasionally use Skype, but for most people it was not a primary means of communication. And then one day we were all transported into the opening credits of The Brady Bunch.

People are again meeting in person, but we will never go completely back to the way things were. I now have quite a colleagues around the world, people I have never met in person, with whom I regularly meet over Zoom to discuss shared research.

Zoom, it seems, is here to stay. Now if only they could fix the problem of who is looking at whom…