You can’t live in the future for more than five minutes

Today a colleague told me “I wish I could live in the future”. My immediate response was to point out that this is de facto impossible, even if you were to possess the requisite time traveling tech. I was actually thinking, as I said this, of those immortal words of Buckaroo Bonzai: “No matter where you go, there you are.” I didn’t bother quoting Mr. Bonzai (co-inventor of the oscillation overthruster, for those of you who didn’t know) because I was pretty sure my colleague would not have gotten the reference.

My larger point was that the human brain is simply not wired to sustain a sense of novelty. Unfortunately, all new things on our event horizon become reduced to the mere normal with astonishing rapidity, and our voracious and fickle appetite for the new and different can all too quickly lead us to consume the very change we wish to enjoy. We eat the future for breakfast, by mid-morning we have indigestion, and by lunchtime we are hungry again.

One of the projects of Will Wright’s wonderful Stupid Fun Club is a robotic waiter. Unsuspecting customers in an ordinary looking diner find themselves being served by a very polite robot, an attentive cybernetic being crammed with mechanical relays, electric motors and blinking LED lights. The results, surreptitiously recorded on video, are rather interesting. After a moment, most customers simply take their unusual new waiter in stride. After all, they’ve seen robots in the movies — why not at their local restaurant?

To make things more interesting, Will and his colleagues then have the robo-waiter get the order wrong. The unfailingly polite mechanical servant brings back coffee instead of tea, or a bagel instead of biscuits. At this point all customers react in the same way. Completely putting aside the wonders of being served by a mechanical man, a marvel of the future, a harbinger of the world to come, they just get annoyed. They ordered tea, not coffee, dammit.

And so I come to my thesis. Even if you were to build a time machine, put on your silver lamé suit, set your flux capacitor to full forward thrust, and emerge two hundred years in the future, you would have only about five minutes to enjoy the sensation, more or less. During that time you might marvel at the wonders of antigravity, the graceful arc of the protective energy dome over your city, the glint of sunlight off the floating skyscrapers in the sky above, or the way your brain tickles from the seamless techno-telepathy that that appears to have rendered both TV and the internet obsolete.

But after about a minute or so, your brain’s novelty normalization filter will begin to kick in. Within three minutes everything around you will start to seem obvious, even prosaic. After five minutes you’ll once again simply be living in the ordinary present. Yes, it will be a present that contains floating cities, free infinite energy, shimmering holograms you can control with pure thought. But none of that will matter once you get used to it.

It will just be normal.

Why the theatre will never die

Today I attended a wonderful panel discussion between Donald Margulies, John Patrick Shanley and Beth Henley, three of my favorite playwrights. The conversation touched on many topics, but I found one moment in particular quite powerful.

The moderator, Robin Pogrebin of The New York Times, asked the discussants whether the theatre is dying out. John Patrick Shanley (the writer of “Moonstruck” and “Doubt”, to name just two of his many great works) mentioned the various new information technologies that are now all the rage, and then said (I’m paraphrasing from memory here) that “after the movies, after the internet, when the lights go out we will still have the theatre. And one day the lights will go out.”

He went on to observe that theatre — arguably the oldest of the performing arts — requires no technology other than one’s fellow human beings. Theater literally cannot die. If all else fails, you can gather your friends in a living room to perform a play. He went on to point out, rather cheerfully, that “It’s actually every one in this room who is in danger of dying out. But the theatre will continue.”

I found this to be a very profound observation. Particularly given his answer to a later question from an aspiring young writer in the audience, asking how, as a playwright, you can avoid selling out your principles. With a broad grin, Mr. Shanley gave a very compelling reason why unlike, say, Hollywood screenwriters, playwrights are never really tempted to betray their principles. His exact words were, if I recall, “The beautiful thing about the theatre is that there’s no money in it.”

Art movement

This evening I saw the pieces of a wooden chair crawl along a floor, gradually assemble themselves together, and then stand up.

It was an art piece called Robotic Chair by Max Dean, Raffaello D’Andrea and Matt Donovan. The sight of this “inanimate” object slowly and patiently pulling itself together was utterly compelling. The actual mechanism was mainly built into the seat of the chair, which crawled around on the floor and, in turn, carefully docked with each of the four legs and the chair back. Once all the pieces were connected, the chair would gradually pull in its four splayed-out legs until they were vertical. And then suddenly, in one moment, it was done, and the chair simply stood there, looking for all the world like an ordinary wooden chair.

Eventually it would again collapse, and its parts would go flying. At which point the chair would set about slowly, methodically putting itself back together again from the scattered pieces.

I can’t say I’ve ever seen anything else like it. People attending the gallery opening (at the wonderful Ronald Feldman gallery) were utterly transfixed by the sight of this sisyphian chair, which would go to such great lengths to pull itself together, only to suddenly collapse again a few minutes later.

Knowing that the chair was merely executing a computer controlled algorithm did not make the experience less compelling. The piece works because it functions as art on a number of levels. Knowing that the chair is merely a robot executing a computer program takes away none of the magic, so compelling is the resulting apparition, the visceral enactment of eternal struggle, of hard won success followed by sudden collapse.

I suspect that a large part of the power of this piece comes from something very primitive within us. Human society has changed in many ways since the Cro Magnon days. We’ve developed innumerable technologies, from agriculture to the printing press, the airplane to the iPhone. But we ourselves have not changed — we are each essentially the same beings our forebears were twenty to fifty thousand years ago, before societies evolved from small hunter-gatherer tribes to large hierarchical land-based fiefdoms, presided over by presidents and popes. Long before we had our modern religions, we each had an innate sense of childlike wonder, as fundamental to our nature as walking upright and a propensity to create language.

The Robotic Chair speaks to us because, deep down, we are all animists.

Programming without math, part 12

“A bladeless knife with the handle missing.”
        – C. C. Lichtenberg

As I’ve been implementing my little “programming language for everyone” in stages, the question has recently arisen as to whether to introduce variables early on — basically the idea of saying “I’m going to call these things by some name, and then later when I refer to that name, I will still be talking about these same things.”

At first I was resistant. After all, an assignment statement such as “x = y + 3” — a centerpiece of traditional math-oriented programming — seems very disconnected from the day-to-day experience of most people. I think it’s not so much that the concepts are so difficult, but rather that such statements deal with abstract entities that cannot be seen or directly experienced.

And yet we do have something quite like this in real life. The reason that the above quote from Lichtenberg is so delightful is that it makes us think consciously about something we all take for granted on a very deep level — the identity of objects. Consider, for example, the dog who lives in my neighbor’s apartment. This dog might change drastically through the years. He might grow from a little puppy to a huge beast, or get into a fight and lose an ear, or one day grow ill and lose half of his fur. Yet through all of these changes he’s still the same dog. In a room full of dogs, even dogs that looked very similar, he would be the only one who is him.

We deal with this concept all the time. You or I might change so drastically over time, in appearance or behavior, as to become unrecognizable. Yet we are still, unquestionably, ourselves, in a way that no other individual could ever be. These concepts of identity — the naming of things — are so fundamental to our human way of thinking that they are built directly into all natural languages, for as far back in time as anyone has been able to trace the evolution of natural languages. They are not technological aspects of humanity, but rather part of our innate biology — a product of the way the human brain has evolved to understand and generate communicative speech and gesture.

And so I’ve come to the conclusion that a programming language for everybody needs to embody the concepts of identity and assignment of identity. You need to be able to give a name to a thing or a person — or to a group of things or people. Then no matter where the named thing goes, or how much it changes, you can refer back to it later.

Speaking of names, an astute reader sent me an email pointing out that it might be too early to fix a name — even as appealing a name as “Pie” — to a project that is still so much in flux. Naming things too soon can tie you down to ideas that later turn out to be wrong. I’m going to take his advice and keep the question open for now, rather than committing to one name so soon. Although it could turn out that my problem is not so much with the word “Pie”, as with the word “commitment”. 🙂

Fool rain

Time was no one could tell the rain from a poke in the ribs
And we knew three secrets for every blade of grass out back
All the ‘gators lived in a shack down by the river
You couldn’t tell them a thing they didn’t already know.

Time was every step you counted was a big old mess of trouble
And don’t even get me started on the ones you didn’t see
There was nothing couldn’t be fixed by a good walk down by the river
And nobody ever sold a damned thing before Wednesday

Time was the pigeons knew the words to all the songs
But they held that secret to their graves
And even the loneliest hobo was banking on a dream
Although he never talked about it, not even to himself

Time was there were no limos in Chinatown
‘Cause everyone who knew the score had blown this town
And the church bells started ringing every Friday at noon
One for every hour since the last time I saw you smile

Time was we were younger than even we knew
Before I could see your tears even in the streaks of rain
That run down this broke down window like there’s no tomorrow
Hell. Maybe that fool rain knows something after all

Oskar Schindler, Pet Detective

“Schindler’s List” came out in mid-December 1993, but my friend Cynthia and I didn’t get around to seeing it until about two months later. The film is rather long, so when we showed up at the theatre, it was a good two hours before the next showing. Rather than waste all that time, we decided in the meanwhile to catch a newly released comedy, the Jim Carrey vehicle “Ace Ventura, Pet Detective”.

I don’t need to tell you that these are very different movies. Both were highly enjoyable, but in distinctly different ways. Fortunately, we knew enough by then to see the comedy first (it really, really doesn’t work to do it in the opposite order). The very next day, I was describing to Cynthia a shot that had resonated with me — a moment in “Schindler’s List” when a uniformed guard is menacing his helpless victim. Half way through my description I realized that I was actually describing a scene from “Ace Ventura”.

You can well imagine that I was taken aback to have made such a mistake. How could I have confused a serious film about an attempt to annihilate millions of people with a wacky comedy in which the hero talks out of his butt cheeks?

That, my friends, is a very good question.

I have a theory, which goes something like this: We are so used to the conventions of film that we no longer quite see them. We don’t even realize they are conventions. Were we to encounter a similar experience in real life, we would quickly doubt our sanity. In a movie, points of view shift instantaneously, time skips and jumps around with abandon, and everything is grouped into scenes in which action first needs to be “set up” via an establishing shot before anything else can happen. Not to mention that nobody ever goes to the bathroom.

In fact, the myriad conventions by which any Hollywood film operates are so thoroughly engrained in our collective psyches, they have become part of the very fabric of our existence. The two shot, the jump cut, the slow pan or rapid montage. It’s all part of the language of film. We often forget, while completely immersed in the cinematic experience, with its powerful visual language, just how particular and stylized that language really is.

Ministry of Truthiness

In today’s New York Times there was an opinion piece by David Brooks which contained some oddly unnerving language. He talked about cultural and political tensions in the U.S. between the “educated class” and the “tea party movement”. Essentially he posited that everything supported by the “educated class” is opposed by the “tea party movement”, and that the latter is becoming a growing force in the country.

The article is certainly thought-provoking, but it begs certain questions. Yes, it’s understandable that in hard times people can easily be inflamed to inchoate rage against just about anything. That is simply human nature. But when you try to politicize the difference between, on the one hand, people who are educated (including, for example, David Brooks) and, on the other hand, people who angrily make such self-contradictory declarations as “Government’s should stay out of Medicare” (which translates, essentially, to “Government should stay out of Government”), then what are we talking about? We might as well take Stephen Colbert’s lead and set up a Ministry of Truthiness.

This isn’t a question of Left versus Right, or liberal versus conservative. If some of our citizens are running around furiously bumping into walls out of ignorance, then why don’t we just talk about improving education? A phrase like “the educated class” sets up a weird sort of relativism, in which there is potentially something bad about being educated. But the person who is not educated never has a chance to contribute in any meaningful way. That citizen can never become a scientist, or a doctor, or a leader in business, or an effective writer, or craft any legislation that could make this a better country, or become a judge or lawyer or educator.

The phrase “educated class” should not be some definition of a perceived elite. Rather, the educated class should all of us, in any reasonable vision for our nation’s future. Isn’t this an obvious truth? Or am I missing something?

When newspapers read you

It would appear that the physical world follows in the path of the cyber-world after all. Today’s actual paper copy of The New York Times had a version of that article about our multitouch interface research — the one the Times reported in its on-line BITS Blog on December 30. The version in the physical paper shows up near the end of today’s Business section, on page B6. It’s much shorter than the BITS version, and there are no pictures. Then again, the gorgeous color pictures in the on-line article — particular that first image of our transparent sensor — would not have shown up very well in the paper version. There is really something to be said for high quality LCD displays.

Soon enough these two media will find a happy medium, when the forthcoming slate computers start to hit the market. The buzz is that the Apple iSlate is showing up sometime in the next three months, at which point I suspect a lot of newspaper and magazine readers will start to switch over. It wasn’t so long ago that we all thought it a fantasy when the people in Harry Potter’s newspaper would come to life and wave to the reader. Now it’s about to happen for real, and I’ll bet the novelty will wear off very quickly.

Although it will be interesting to see whether the manufacturers of slate computers will really make use of those little cameras they are likely to embed in the bezel, using them to see what the reader is up to. Modern face tracking software is easily up to the task of figuring out whether you are looking at the screen, or even which general part of the screen you are reading.

For that matter, face tracking software can now tell who is looking at the screen of a slate computer. So if I put down my slate “newspaper” for a while, the slate should be able to go right back to wherever I was when I next pick it up, even if somebody else has picked up the same slate computer in the meantime to read something different. Maybe the slate can even monitor my facial expression, and show me some happy news when I look sad, or maybe just a good cartoon.

Or maybe it won’t be such a good thing when the newspaper you are reading can read you right back.


It’s not as though it’s such a crazy idea. You would think, in a world where everyone is looking for the next angle, that somebody would have done this already. I’m speaking of course of the Laundromat / Bowling Alley, or Wash’n’BowlTM. By all rights these should be all over the place by now, a fixture of our cultural landscape. And yet I look about me and see nary a one.

And it’s not as though our culture avoids hybrid experiences. There are, for example, the ubiquitous café / bookstores. These started out as novelties around the campuses of Harvard and Berkeley, and quickly spread far and wide. Now it’s hard to find a Barnes and Noble that doesn’t nestle a Starbucks tenderly within its bosom.

In fact, an entire culture has grown around these hybrid places, and the clever trick they play upon their customers. The trick goes something like this: Every day the most brilliant minds of our generation can be found comfortably ensconced in these establishments. Each of these customers takes a book off the shelf and reads it for hours. Here’s the good part: When they are done, these customers put the book right back on the shelf, and feel as though they’ve pulled one over on old B&N. Meanwhile, of course, said brilliant minds have spent a small fortune in coffee sold at inflated prices (you know, that weirdly burnt stuff they sell at Starbucks instead of coffee, which everyone pretends is delicious because a cup of it costs as much as an SUV). You can bet that Starbucks shares their profits with the bookstore.

The combination works because overpriced coffee and books go together particularly well. There is something just so perfectly collegiate about reading “Wild Sargasso Sea” while sipping espressos that cost more than your college tuition. The whole experience is pretty much like crack for English majors.

So why shouldn’t some of our more blue collar life experiences get in on the act? What could possibly be more perfect, if you’ve just fed your quarters into a big old washing machine at the laundromat, than to slip into some comfortable bowling shoes and knock off a few frames? It’s not as if you’re going to find a bowling alley at home. In fact, this might even encourage people who have their own home Maytags to wash their tighty-whities at the laundromat. It becomes a social activity, you see.

And why stop there? Through the magic of modern networked computers, the Wash’n’Bowl management can track your bowling score, and use that to give you automatic discounts. Imagine the pride you will feel, upon bowling that perfect game, to be able to tell your friends that you’ve just won a free tumble dry.

It doesn’t get much better than that, does it?

An artistic undertaking

Many years ago I got an idea for a rather unusual art piece. To actually undertake this would take a bit of work, so it occurs to me, at the start of a new year — when all things are still possible — that I can simply describe the project, thereby creating a virtual art piece.

The idea is rather simple: Simultaneously stream the contents of all radio stations within a given geographic area (say, New York City) onto some convenient storage medium. Continue doing this for twenty four hours. The data storage required would be a bit large, but not crazily so — there are, more or less, just 36 FM stations and 22 AM stations that can be heard from Manhattan, and audio doesn’t take up all that much space (especially if you compress it a bit).

The total cost of this data capture, if you were clever about it, would be just a few thousand dollars – not all that prohibitive, in the scheme of things.

Here’s the kicker: At the end of the twenty four hour period, just start recording all over again, overwriting the same data files if you’d like (or not — data storage is very cheap these days). Unless, that is, some major event happens on that day, such as a war breaking out, or a financial meltdown, or some other cataclysmic occurrence.

In which case, you have your art piece. Set up an ordinary looking radio, with a nice old fashioned dial, but with the dial connected to a digital server that streams in those audio files on demand. For each position of the dial, this radio snapshot can be made to play exactly what that actual station was playing on that eventful day, at that exact time of day. As the listener turns the tuning dial, the progression of the day, as told by different voices, can be played back and re-experienced in many different ways.

I have a distinct recollection, on a certain day in September a little over eight years ago, of thinking that it would have been an appropriate day to have had my project running. I also remember thinking that it felt unseemly to be thinking about art projects on such a sad day. Yet perhaps it would have been good to have preserved that day — a day when so much of our nation’s innocence was lost, all at once.

I now have mixed feelings about such a project — in particular the way it seems to be tempting fate. Starting such a project is a little like going into business as an undertaker. You’d like to make a living, but at the same time, you don’t want business to be too good.