Octopus movement

This afternoon I was in one of those long and involved conversations about how amazing the octopus is. People were swapping stories.

For example there was about the octopus who climbed out of its tank in somebody’s living room, made its way across to the fish tank across the room, ate a fish, and climbed back into its own tank (all captured on video).

Or the incident, also captured on video, where an octopus makes itself completely invisible by changing its skin color to perfectly match the texture behind it.

Or the fact that Jaron Lanier refuses to eat octopus, because he considers it a sentient creature.

This went on for a while, these hymns to the intellectual, social and emotional superiority of the octopus.

Feeling the need to contribute, I said “don’t forget the political.”

“Political?” some people looked confused. “What’s political about an octopus?”

“Haven’t you ever heard,” I asked, “of Octopi Wall Street?”

4/8/64 @ 4:44

Today I wished a happy birthday to somebody who was born on 4/8/64, and who happens to enjoy math.

In fact, she was born at 4:44 in the morning, on a Wednesday (the fourth day of the week).

Clear there are powers at work here. The numbers 4, 8 and 64 are all there.

But what about the powers of two that were skipped over???

Which is why I was very glad to be able to wish her, in base 16, a happy 32nd birthday.

Bad about reading texts

This weekend a friend and I happened to overhear a conversation, just as one guy was saying to another “I’m sorry — I’m bad about reading texts.”

I told my friend, after we had walked on a bit, that I had no idea what the intent of that sentence was. “Is he saying that he spends too much time reading texts,” I asked, “or that he doesn’t read his texts often enough?”

My assumption would have been the first meaning, since a lot of people in my social circle find it annoying when people spend all their time reading texts — especially while an actual live human being is standing there RIGHT IN FRONT OF THEM.

As it happened my friend had heard the little bit of the conversation that came just a few seconds earlier. He explained that the other person had shown up late, and had told the first guy that he’d texted ahead to say he would be late. But the first guy hadn’t read the text, so he’d been standing there waiting.

So I had had it backwards.

My friend further explained — and here is the nice subtle part — that the guy’s “apology” for being bad at reading texts was actually a criticism. He was really saying that deciding it’s ok to be late, just because you know you can send a text, is not ok.

Hmm. Maybe it’s good to be bad about reading texts.

Bad career choices

Kind of a silly game that I made up this weekend, appropriate for our questionable economy. Feel free to try your hand at it:

“I was going to be a plumber, but it was too draining.”

“I wanted to go into vacuum science, but I sucked at it.”

“They wanted me to become a fencer, but I never got the point.”

“I was in the pillow stuffing biz, but it only got me down.”

“I was going to become a tunnel driller, but it was boring.”

“They said I’d get rich selling photocopies, but I was duped.”

“I joined a food preserve company, but they canned me.”

“I was a lumberjack, until I got the axe.”

Rule number one

OK, just because this has come up several times in the last few weeks…

When you meet somebody at a dinner party, or an awards event, or a wedding reception, and they seem very interesting, and knowledgeable, and intelligent, and fun to talk to, there is one hard and fast rule you must follow:

When they bring up the subject of Woody Allen, do not agree to talk about Woody Allen. No matter how desperately they plead with you to engage in a conversation on this important topic, however heartfelt their plea that this is really the most important topic in the world, you must change the subject.

Be firm, be adamant, be forceful. Do whatever you need to do, but change the subject immediately.

Trust me.

Shell game

When you hold a seashell to your ear, it sounds like the ocean. Of course it doesn’t sound exactly like the ocean, but the day you found that particular shell you were walking along a beach, and the crystal clear blue water stretched away as far as you could see.

Afterward, you brought the shell back with you, to the city. Surrounded once more by the hustle and bustle, the constant chatter and sounds of traffic, you held the shell up to your ear and you said “Ah, the ocean sounds just like — this.”

But sometimes you might find yourself on a lovely beach and realize you miss your city home, just a little. The crazy traffic sounds, the roar of the subway, the cafes full of strangers arguing late into the blustery night.

For those times, perhaps you can reverse engineer the shell. Then you can take it with you on vacation, pack it in your bag between the socks and the toothpaste. And when you need to be reminded of home, you hold it to your ear, and you hear the traffic, the noise, the calls of street vendors and hissing brakes of municipal buses — the constant reassuring hum of the big city.

The shell knows whether it is in town or not — a simple embedded radio receiver sees to that, listening for frequencies found only in the city. Now you will always be able to take that city with you, just for those moments when you really need it.

After you get home again to your little apartment in town, your vacation just a memory, you find the shell in your bag, in its place between the toothpaste and socks. You hold it up to your ear one more time.

And hear only the sounds of the whispering ocean.

Notes on open source

Continuing yesterday’s post…

I realized, as I started a collaboration here at MIT with Xiao Xiao (one of Hiroshi Ishii’s Ph.D. students), that collaborating with somebody else at a different institution, as opposed to just working on my own or with my own students, requires a different approach.

I shouldn’t expect somebody else to maintain something built on my own home-brew tool kit after I go back to New York. So I decided it would be good to change my ways, even if it takes me out of my comfort zone. Maybe especially if it takes me out of my comfort zone.

But I also want whatever I do to run on the web. So I’ve started using THREE.js. It’s similar to yet different from my own tools — kind of like driving in England if you are used to driving in the U.S.

The first thing I’ve made is a little walking character — its legs are musical notes — that will walk on Xiao’s piano keyboard. This will be a procedural variant of her brilliant Andante system.

You can see my very first experiments HERE.

Open to open source

I am one of those people who likes to build his own tools. Of course you can’t build all your tools from the ground up. Even if I wrote my own programming language, I’m still not building my own computer. And even if I built my own computer, I still wouldn’t be able to fabricate my own silicon wafers. No matter how DIY you are, you need to start from somewhere.

Still, for years I’ve been using a computer graphics package that I wrote myself. This has helped me in some ways, and held me back in others. For example, I’ve never been stuck, unable to do something because “the package doesn’t support that”. Then again, there are many things I haven’t done because it would just have taken too long to build a decent support infrastructure.

Of course, people do things for many reasons. If your goal is to learn how things work, I highly recommend starting at a low level and building your own tools. But what is the right level? That’s not really a question about tools, but about community.

Whenever you build something, you are implicitly joining the community of people who build similar things — and who therefore share a common sense of mission, aesthetics and design. These are the people with whom you can get into an excited conversation about topics that might be meaningless to most other people. Many communities form around this principle, around subjects as diverse as politics, music, comic books and quantum physics.

But that also means that you are excluding yourself from other communities. I’ve recently started to shift from an attitude of “I need to build it all myself” to “I’m interested in learning other peoples’ tools — and maybe adding to them.” And so for the first time, I’m really engaging with open source communities.

More tomorrow.

Sadder but wiser

Last week a friend from England, on a visit to NYC, was saddened by the need to go through layers of security and airport-style scanners to get into several major tourist attractions around the city. It wasn’t the inconvenience, she explained — it was quite literally sadness.

“Your culture used to be the freest culture in the world,” she explained over dinner. “Now look at what they have done to you. Everywhere you are fearful. In a way the terrorists have won — they have robbed you of one of your greatest cultural qualities.”

Of course she had a point. On the other hand, I was having dinner with another friend this evening, after we had gone together to a thought provoking talk about the need for greater openness in government, and he raised another interesting point.

Although it has come at a very high price, he pointed out that people in the U.S. are, in general, far more aware of the world outside our borders than we used to be, far more engaged with the politics and culture of other places, and far more likely to think through the difficult thought: “Hey, not everybody thinks we’re the good guys.”

Although we may be a sadder people than we were fifteen years ago, we have also perhaps become a wiser people.