Accordion talk

I gave a talk today, and everything went really well until I ran out of time. It didn’t end up being a bad talk. I just ended up speaking a lot faster in the last five minutes than in the first twenty minutes, and rushing through things in the end.

There is no single answer to the question: “How long should I talk for?” Sometimes people want me to squeeze everything into half an hour, including questions, and other times I’m told: “We have the room for three hours. Use as much time as you want.”

So I’m thinking of turning my talk into an accordion talk — a presentation that can shrink and grow to fit the available time. Since I write all my own presentation software, this shouldn’t be too difficult.

The fundamental idea, I’m thinking, is to tag each slide according to how long a talk it would be part of. The most important “tent pole” slides would be in every talk — even the short 15 minute talks.

But other slides would be tagged by “40 minutes” or “60 minutes” — meaning that I should skip over that slide if my talk is supposed to come in at less than 40 or 60 minutes, respectively.

Yes there is still some fuzziness in this. The technique heavily relies on my knowing how long it takes for me to present various given slides.

But I think it would be far better than the sort of guessing that I do now.


I loved all of the thoughtful comments on my Artist / Scientist post. So many interesting terms and definitions! I confess, the first time I ever saw the word “polymath” I thought it meant somebody who is good at algebra, geometry and calculus. In that spirit, herewith a short lexicon based on a misinterpretation of some very nice words. Feel free to add more!

Ambidextrous: Able to use any sugar.

Circumspect: Examine from all angles.

Consequential: In reverse order.

Extraneous: Outside a locomotive.

Impeccable: Beak-proof.

Kinescope: Tool for visualizing your family tree.

Oxymoron: What you become when your brain goes without air for too long.

Parasympathetic: Approving of very lightweight aircraft.

Penultimate: Bic or Mont Blanc, platinum edition.

Ponderous: Thoughtful.

Postulate: Create blisters.

Proliferate: Argue against abortion.

Stagnation: Country of bachelors.

Artist / scientist

Today I heard yet another talk at a research symposium in which the speaker, when asked about the difficulty of doing research involving both aesthetic invention and technological invention, responded by saying that artists and scientists need to collaborate.

I hate this answer. It suggests that there are two different species of being: “the artist” and “the scientist”.

Fortunately, another speaker later in the day pointed out that the artist and the scientist can be the same person. And I completely agree.

In fact, when it comes to research, it is far better if they are the same person. In industry the value proposition may be different, but in research, combining these two complementary forms of problem solving within a single brain is a huge win.

Yet I realize, thinking about it now, that we don’t have a good word for the person who is both an artist and a scientist. Maybe we should come up with such a word.

I’m open to suggestions!

In the garden

Every few years I make sure to revisit the Musée Rodin. I love the great man’s sculptures, which are, as I’m sure you know, inspiring and magnificent.

But the real reason I have always gone is to see the work of Camille Claudel, his sometime student and sometime lover, and an artist whose work has breathtaking power and beauty, and an aesthetic subtlety that can be lacking in Rodin’s art.

Alas, during this visit I discovered that only the garden was open, not the interior of the Hôtel Biron, where the smaller works are traditionally on display, and which is currently under renovation. It is the Hôtel which houses the works of Claudel.

But then I found out, to my delight, that a selection of the works from the indoor collection are on display in a temporary structure that has been set up for just this purpose. Imagine my glee in discovering that I would once again be able to commune with my beloved Claudel sculptures.

Alas, whoever was charged with selecting works to display from the indoor collection had assumed that we clueless tourists would be interested only in Rodin alone. The work of Camille Claudel was nowhere to be found.


If gold ruste, what shal iren do?

Finally went to see Age of Ultron. Yes, it’s wall to wall action packed, with beautifully choreographed fight scenes, flip dialog between the battles, awesome visual effects, and split second editing to take your breath away.

But what surprised me is that it’s not, you know, an actual movie. Not in the sense that, say, Richard Donner’s Superman was an actual movie. Watching Ultron, I felt as though I had been dropped into the middle of something — and I guess in a sense I had been.

Yes, I know that at the level of an Avengers movie it’s less about gold statues, and more about gold. With a budget so enormous there is no margin for financial error. But for me the gold is starting to rust. I had somehow thought that Joss Whedon would find some way to surprise us.

Of course everybody sees a movie for different reasons, and you might like this one quite a bit. As a large screen action extravaganza it certainly gets the job done. So maybe it’s me — maybe I need to lower my expectations.

Or maybe by now Whedon is only doing the Avengers to buy himself freedom to work on smaller projects that he actually cares passionately about. And maybe that’s ok.

After the movie, my friend and I were comparing notes. I said “Well, that wasn’t Chaucer.”

Then I thought about it some more. “Unless,” I added, “you’ve seen A Knight’s Tale. In which case, that was Chaucer.”


Many years ago I read a book about artificial intelligence, which I have not been able to track down. Google doesn’t seem to help.

The book itself was ok, but what I really loved was the dedication at the beginning. Ostensibly the book was written for the author’s fellow humans, yet at the very start he put in a little shout out to a certain hypothetical non-human future reader.

Here is what was written on the dedication page, in its entirety:

“This book is dedicated to the first machine that understands the gesture.”

On the TGV

Speeding across the European countryside on the TGV today, my trip was mostly uneventful. The day was clear and beautiful, and the scenery magnificent. I was even impressed by the lunches on display.

Europeans, possessed of a certain sense of style that we Yanks often lack, really know how to pack a picnic for a long train ride (the right wine is very important). All around me, people sipped their wine and enjoyed the rolling view outside, as they quietly conversed in French or German.

Then, around two hours into the ride, everybody started to notice a plaintive meowing. Conversation died down — the sound was unmistakable. Apparently a small kitten had gotten onto the train. Passengers started to look around, trying to figure out where it might be hiding.

Finally a man stood up, reached into the overhead luggage rack, and took down his backpack. At that moment we all realized the sound was coming from the bag. I was both astonished and dismayed. What sort of person makes a little kitten spend a three hour train ride inside a backpack?

All eyes were glued to the backpack as the man reached in with one large hand, digging around inside.

Finally, he pulled out a small black cellphone, which he handed to his young son, who was looking extremely sheepish and embarrassed. The boy switched off the alarm, then his father put the phone back into the bag, placed the bag back up in the overhead rack, and we continued on our way.

Interface design

Today a colleague told me that she was impressed with something she had seen in the Oculus Crescent Bay demo — an interactive flying dragon. Not a real dragon of course. But because the virtual dragon was rendered in full surround VR, she said she felt a visceral sense of danger, even though she knew it was all make believe.

We then discussed the connection with the Lumiere brothers’ famous 1896 train sequence, and whether we might now be witnessing the last moment in history when anybody would be able to achieve that sort of effect in VR. In another few years it is likely that what she experienced may become as ordinary and expected as a shot of a train coming toward the camera.

She then told me that every time the dragon flew at her in the demo, she involuntarily dropped down, and looked for something to hide under — even though she knew intellectually that this made no sense.

Then I had an “aha!” moment. “Don’t you realize what you were experiencing?” I said.

“No,” she replied, “what was I experiencing?”

“That was an example,” I said, “of a dragon drop interface!”

Between Dublin and Paris

On Saturday I was wandering through Dublin, and somehow I got myself turned around. I asked a stationmaster how to get to Trinity College, and he sent me in the general direction of a bus stop down the street.

When I got to what looked like the right location, I asked a portly and somewhat elderly gentleman whether this was the right place to catch the bus to Trinity College. He told me that the proper place was right across the street, but that I shouldn’t take the bus.

“Why not?” I asked.

“There’s no point in taking the bus,” he said, “when it’s near enough to walk.”

It was a nice day, perfect for a little walk, so I asked: “OK, how do I walk to Trinity College?”

Then the man smiled, a big broad happy Irish smile, and I can swear I saw his eyes twinkle. “With your feet, of course.”

I laughed, not so much at the joke as at his perfect delivery. Then he pointed me in the proper direction, and sent me on my way.

The next day I took a flight back to Paris. As I took the RER B to Paris Nord, and then the M2 to Villiers, I was struck by all the tense and somber faces. Everyone looked dour, wrapped up in their own private world.

Paris is incredibly beautiful, I thought to myself, but nobody here is going to make a joke like the one that guy told in Dublin.

And right there, I thought to myself, is the difference between Dublin and Paris.


I’ve had several conversations recently in which people expressed the opinion that technologies which rely on electricity are somehow less robust than technologies which do not. For example, your computer screen is only useful if there is a supply of electric power. By contrast, drawing a message in the dirt with a stick is something you can do even if all the electrical power in the world goes away.

So the argument, as I understand it, is that on some elemental scale text on a computer screen is somehow less real and robust, whereas drawing with a stick is more real and robust. But it seems to me that there is something flawed about this way of looking at things: “Powered by electricity” is a rather arbitrary place to draw the line.

Yes, it’s true, without electricity there are no computer screens. Yet without written language there is no writing with a stick. And written language is the far more elaborate and advanced technology than mere electrical power. We take written communication for granted because we are used to it. But it is the outcome of centuries of cultural evolution. And without the continuous influence of culture, that evolution could easily be lost.

It would take only a generation or two, in the wake of some vast disaster, for the world to become plunged into illiteracy. It might then take centuries before written language again evolves to its current level.

So maybe we shouldn’t be worrying so much about our machines being vulnerable to becoming unplugged. Maybe we should be worried about our culture being vulnerable to becoming unplugged.