Product names

Absolution — The exercise program for priests

Avarice — The preferred snack food for sultry 1950’s movie sirens

Behoove — Motto of the ASPBH (American Society for the Prevention of Barefoot Horses)

Contrite — Greeting cards for that special prisoner in your life

Dictatorial — Instruction manual for budding despots

Eschew — The yummy new candy shaped like everyone’s favorite letter

Gangling — A magazine for the children of Bloods and Crips

Limpid — The singles club for people with no sex drive

Pedantic — A cure for restless foot condition

Penultimate — The perfect gift for the scribe who has everything

Posthaste — For when you need that letter mailed right now

Prowess — The association for transgendered prows

Sibilant — Help for insects with multiple personality disorder

Taciturn — Store that specializes in understated funerary containers

Winsome — Self-help for managing expectations in the casino

Forgetting pill

I am viewing “Mad Men” on Netflix, spacing the time between episodes, forcing myself not to watch two in a row, trying to drag this out for as long as possible. But I can already see the end in sight, the writing on the wall. I am in the middle of the third season, and the finality of the last episode of that fourth season looms ever more near.

Yes, I understand there is likely to be a fifth season forthcoming, but by then so much will have happened, so much will have changed. This particular moment in my life, the point when I needed this particular show, this exact fix of melancholy reverie, will have passed, and the moment will be gone.

Why can there not be a forgetting pill? I would like to be able to go back to each episode with fresh eyes, to see it once more with its mysteries still intact. If only cursed memory did not leave such a trail of damage, of secrets revealed and endings laid bare, then I could go on forever enjoying the world of Don Draper, and live for all time in a long ago world that somehow, against all reason, never grows old.


If we can have a museum that looks back on bygone interaction technologies, why not museums that look back on other things? For example, well before Freud, people were theorizing about how the mind works. How about a museum of Paleopsychology?

The possibilities are endless. There could be museums for Paleochemistry, with wings devoted to Paleogastronomy and Paleozymurgy (for those museum-goers who want to learn about the history of dining and distilling), museums of Paleogeography and Paleocartography (special bonus: maps of a flat world are easier to exhibit!), of Paleoexobiology and Paleoufology, of Paleocosmetology (just what did those Egyptian women put on their faces?), and a museum of Paleosynectics, so we can learn about how people used to invent things.

Some museums could be a bit meta, like the museums of Paleopaleoanthropology and Paleopaleoichthyology, where you can learn about the histories of how people used to study ancient peoples and ancient fish.

Turning it around a bit, you could see what people used to think the future would be like, by visiting the museum of Paleofuturology (I suspect there already is one of those). And of course there would be the ever popular museum of Paleoerogeny.

It’s possible that people had these sorts of museums in earlier times. To find out, we’d probably want to visit the museum of Paleomuseology. 🙂

The museum of Paleo-interactive technology

Sharon’s comment on yesterday’s post got me wondering what sorts of social interactions have fallen by the wayside as technologies have faded away or have been supplanted.

There was quite likely a rich set of personal interactions in the late nineteenth century around, say, sharing piano sheet music, back when it was a dominant mode of experiencing music. We still have sheet music today, but it is no longer culturally central to the general experience of music.

One could probably fill an entire museum with the interactive media from any given era — the traditions of physical sharing and interpersonal interaction that surrounded traveling, reading, writing, dining, watching a sports game, listening to music, gossiping, gathering for prayer, social drinking, or just the process of getting dressed in the morning.

Some of those bygone ways of being have been represented — often in idealized or altered form — in movies with stories that are set in earlier times. But it’s not clear that the filmmakers got it right (I strongly suspect that the Hollywood version of courtly behavior in the European middle ages is more than a little half-baked). After all, up until the late 19th century we have only drawings, paintings and the written word as our guide — we don’t know how everything moved. It takes serious scholarship to tease out those sorts of details from the available record.

Perhaps the findings of serious scholars would be better disseminated if there were a museum that conveyed what we know of those lost ways that people of other eras used socially connecting technologies. A museum of Paleo-interactive technology.

Reconstructed reality

I had a great conversation with a friend today about the way interaction technologies go through phases, eventually finding a place where they fit well with how people actually function best.

It’s a sort of Darwinian process, whereby technology gradually adapts itself to arrive at what really works best for humans. For example, musical instruments that people can use more effectively to make compelling music tend to win out over ostensibly more impressive musical instruments that are less expressive in human hands.

My friend raised the topic of recorded music collections. I don’t think many people believe we will ever cycle back to an interface that feels exactly like the long-playing record collection. Yet there was something about that interface, an emotionally compelling physicality, that is absent from iTunes, Pandora, Spotify and all of the cyber alternatives for sharing music.

When you visited a friend who had a record collection, there was always something in their collection — perhaps that one song by an obscure band you could never hear on the radio — that you wanted to listen to. The act of sliding the record out of its sleeve, handing it to your friend, the placing of the needle in the groove, all these acts had a ritual quality which added immensely to the feeling of emotional closeness between the listeners.

Now of course, you just scroll down a list on a screen and click on the name of a song. Perhaps at some point people will feel that something is missing from this abstracted way of doing things. And when they do, will new forms of physical interaction replace the rather disembodied way we currently share music?

As our technologies mature, will some kind of physicality reemerge — not because we need it to, but because we want it to?


Recently a friend pointed out to me a feature of Skype that lets you share your entire computer screen as part of a conversation. And I realized this is one feature completely transforms Skype. Sure, it’s great to be able to look at the person you are talking to, but once you can share your entire screen the possibilities become vastly greater.

It’s important to point out an essential element here — the fact that Skype is free — so there is no barrier to entry, if you have a computer and an internet connection. Which means that if I write a computer program to allow you to see powerful stuff that’s running on my computer, as a way to enhance our communication with each other, and if I give that computer program away for free, then whatever I’ve implemented is immediately available.

The opportunity is there to add new ways for people to communicate with each other — without anyone needing to pay for any of it. This is a kind of techno-wildcard, and it is very exciting. 🙂

Algorithmic audience genres

The insightful comments on yesterday’s post, together with Sharon’s link to CS Unplugged, made it abundantly clear that there is no one correct way to engage an audience in interactive activity. Even if you stick to one subject area, the nature of any given audience imposes its own constraints and presents its own opportunities.

For example, Manooh had the wonderful suggestion that I could have asked audience members to exchange seats. I had thought of that, but had decided it would not work with this crowd. We had little kids with their parents, and they would have been required to separate. Also, we had very old people, some of whom just can’t move all that fast. Yet if I had been giving the same talk to a crowd of ten year olds, I definitely would have had them physically change places.

Also, I decided to go with sorting because everybody in the audience understands immediately what the goal is. Various other ideas had come up, including Conway’s Game of Life, and having the audience emulate the bits in binary arithmetic. In each case there were two problems: (1) The question of “what are we doing and why are we doing this” would have been far more abstract, and (2) there are lots of places in most audiences where there are gaps between people. Most of these other ideas require a regular grid, so they just don’t work when there are empty seats.

The possibilities are probably inexhaustible. It would be interesting to look at audience participation not as one particular activity, but rather as an entire space of possibilities, a set of disparate artforms, connected to each other by their mutual reliance on an active audience.

Somebody really should write a thesis on algorithmic audience genres.

The algorithmic audience

Last night I gave a talk to a very diverse crowd, from little kids all the way up to quite older people. As part of the fun, I turned the entire audience into a computer (actually three computers, since the auditorium was divided into three sections, separated by two isles). First everybody wrote down their birthday on an index card (not the year, just the month and day, so as not to put anyone on the spot). Then a beach ball was handed to the person in the left seat of the front row of each section.

Each of the three sections was turned into one long linear “computer memory” by the following two rules:

  • If you are in an odd numbered row (rows 1,3,5,7,…) then your “next person” is the person on your right.
  • If you are in an even numbered row (rows 2,4,6,8,…) then your “next person” is the person on your left.
  • If you are at the right end of an odd row or left end of an even row, then your “next person” is sitting behind you.

We did a practice run, with each person handing the beach ball to their next person, zigzagging all the way to the back, just to get the order straight. Then the fun began.

I gave everyone the following instructions:

When you get the beach ball:

  • If your next person has a birthday that is after yours, then just hand them the beach ball
  • If your next person has a birthday that is not after yours, then you both stand up and exchange cards, hand them the ball, and then both sit down.

It took about five minutes for the ball to wend its way from the front to the back of each section. At the end of that time, the person in the very back was holding the ball, and also holding the card of whoever had the “highest” birthday (eg: Dec 28). Effectively, the audience had computed a “maximum” function.

Everyone understood that they could continue using this method to sort all their birthdays into ascending order — passing the beach ball through the crowd over and over again — but that doing so would take a really, really long time.

So instead, I turned them into a parallel computer — with every person in the audience now functioning as a CPU. Under the new rules, we ditched the beach ball, and followed pretty much the same rules as before, except that any audience member could follow these rules any time at all:

  • If your next person has a birthday that is after yours, don’t do anything
  • If your next person has a birthday that is not after yours, then you both stand up and exchange cards, then both sit down.

As soon as the three parallel computers (one for each section of the auditorium) started operating, there was a huge hubbub of activity. After a while, most of the activity was combined to the middle rows, with the front and back just occasionally coming to life as a ripple of cards exchanged forward or back. After about ten minutes, it was all over. The cards had been sorted.

Of about four hundred people in the room, only one woman ended up holding a card that was out of order. She was very embarrassed to be the only “bug in the computation”, but she took it very sportingly.

Interestingly, three people ended up holding a card with their own birthday written on it. What are the odds?

Hanging with the neighbors in Squaresville

As I was saying, in Squaresville corners tend to act funny. The image below shows what happens when you check in on your neighbors to the northwest. Mr. Red, who lives to your west, is standing next to Mr. Blue, who lives to your north (his real name is Mr. Cyan, but he hates when people call him that). Because it takes only three turns to go around a corner, they are actually standing next to each other, side by side.

In the image below, you can see two distinct views of Mr. Red, and also two views of Mr. Blue, because that’s how light travels in Squaresville:


The example of a “tile world” in my post the other day was perhaps needlessly complicated. Let’s take a much simpler case — a world in which the inhabitants live within the surface of a cube.

These people don’t know they live in the surface of a cube, because they don’t think in three dimensions. When they cross the edge of the cube, going from one cube face to another, they don’t notice any change, because that edge is part of the surface of the cube.

Note that this world of a cube surface can be described as consisting of six plots of square land, with each plot of land adjoining four neighbors.

What makes life in this world strange is that at each corner of your plot of land you don’t have four neighbors, but rather only three. Since this world is a lot simpler than the sixty-plot world we were discussing the other day, it’s going to be a lot eisier to describe its strange properties.

More later.