It’s easy. You just…

When you’re trying to explain to a student a subject you know very well, there can be an enormous temptation to start out with “It’s easy. You just…” You must resist this temptation.

The problem is that for you, if it’s a subject that you know inside out, everything feels this way. After all, you can’t even remember a time when this stuff wasn’t easy.

So you start giving what you think will be a simple explanation. Except that part way through, you realize that it’s only simple because there’s something else that’s also simple, which you’ll need to explain first.

And then you realize that that simple thing relies on two other very simple things. And so on.

It’s not that any part of the explanation is complicated. It’s more that when you know something like the back of your hand, you forget just how many different steps you’ve gone through to attain that level of knowledge.

This may be one of the trickier things about teaching: The better you know something, the harder it is for you to remember that it’s not really easy at all, for somebody who doesn’t already know it.

First class

Today was not, technically speaking, the first day of class. My semester started last week, but I was in Dublin, so I needed to give my introductory lecture remotely.

But today was the first real class, the one where we dove in deep and explored the wonderful connection between mathematics and imagery, inventing on the fly to spin equations into animations.

There is something completely joyous about computer graphics, with its unique flavor of rational thought impelled by a search for beauty. There are few other endeavors that encompass so many different ways of thinking, all at the same time.

Learning this field is a privilege, a kind of sacred knowledge. It feels wonderful to pass that knowledge on to a new generation of fellow seekers.


Here’s something that is obvious intellectually, but that nobody ever seems to understand emotionally: Human experience is never objective. It is always calibrated to some norm.

For example, people who love rock and roll often think that classical music lovers are crazy, because they only listen to weird quiet music without a beat. To a rock’n’roller, classical music sounds like nothing is happening.

And of course the obverse is true as well. To a lover of classical music, rock sounds boring. There is little chromatic structure, loads of repetition, and not nearly enough dynamic range.

What’s interesting here is that each is thinking that the other is missing everything that is essential. The confusion is mutual.

This happens in so many spheres of life. Religious people believe that atheists are missing out on everything that is spiritually essential, and atheists believe the same about religious people.

Meat eaters believe that vegans are living in an aesthetically impoverished world, reasoning that a vegan diet is a strict subset of an omnivorous one. Yet vegans know, from experience, that there are vast empires of flavor which the meat eater does not even know about.

The way our tastes are calibrated strongly influences our view of the universe. Even if we know better on an intellectual level, our emotions give us the false impression that everyone else’s experience of the world is a sadly impoverished subset of our own.

Chrysalis, part 7

She was in a state of distress. It was true that the One was gathering information, but he was using methods that were slow, and very strange to her. She could feel the contours of his mind as he absorbed this new knowledge, his mind that was growing more powerful with every passing day.

Yet the days were running out. She knew there would soon be decisions to make, although she did not yet know what they were. The more information he had now, the better it would be.

But another being had intruded on his studies, and this meant trouble. The other being would return soon, and would bring others. Fortunately she could sense that the information needed was in the mind of this other being.

She must help the One prepare for their next encounter. There was little time.

One bad joke deserves another

I was showing a friend around New York City today, and we passed a shoe store named Shoegasm. She told me that she couldn’t believe there was a store with that name.

I had never heard of this store before, but that didn’t stop me from spontaneously weighing in on the subject. “You know,” I told her, “it’s not a good idea to visit this store too often.”

“Why?” she asked.

“Because,” I explained, “they charge you for every time you come.”

Generalizable example

A colleague and I were discussing programming examples that we give to our beginning students, to get them motivated. Of course you want to provide a first example that is reasonably simple, so that students can quickly get to that “aha” moment. But you don’t want it to be too simple.

Suppose, for example, you are teaching computer graphics, and your first example is drawing a square. You show them a little computer program that’s just a few lines long and say “see, here is all you need to do to draw a square!”

Ideally you have provided an example program that not only draws a square, but can also be modified in various ways to draw a rectangle, etc.

But then suppose some student asks: “What if I want to rotate my square by 10 degrees?” Too often the answer is: “Then you need to forget everything I just showed you. To make a square that can rotate, you’ll need something more complicated.”

That’s a failure mode. It means that the first program you showed them was too simple. You worked so hard to provide an accessible example, that you ended up with one that could not be generalized.

I’m not saying that providing an example for students that is simple yet generalizable is easy. It is not. But it’s worth striving for, because the generalizable example is much more interesting and enlightening for them than the simplest possible example.

Penguin as Prufrock

I am having a very nice time watching Gotham on Netflix. As you may know, it’s the “prequel” to Batman — a tale of what transpired in the fictional city of Gotham in the years from when young Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed to when he grew into the eponymous superhero.

For me, by far the most compelling character is The Penguin. Every time Oswald Cobblepot comes on screen, his gradual transformation into Gotham’s weirdest supervillain grips me the same way Heath Ledger’s Joker gripped you when you first saw The Dark Knight.

For it is the Penguin who holds the key to the underlying dynamic of the Batman saga. Bruce Wayne may have experienced tragedy, but he is still brilliant, handsome, fabulously privileged, and psychically whole. Oswald Cobblepot is none of those things.

He is, in point of fact, that guy, the loser, the unmanly man, the nebbish who will never get the girl. Popular culture has known him by many names — William Collins, Julius Kelp, Barney Fife, Arnold Horshack and Screech Powers are just a few among many.

But Oswald Cobblepot is different, because he is the doppelgänger of Bruce Wayne. Wayne is consumed with rage at the murder of his parents, but because he is a heroic figure, he uses that rage to launch a righteous crusade to rescue Gotham itself.

Yet Cobblepot is consumed with a kind of rage that Bruce Wayne could never even begin to understand: The rage of the loser, the man who is merely ridiculous, who is sexually irrelevant, who can never be the hero.

This is a far fiercer and more dangerous kind of anger than the one that drives Batman, for it is pure existential fury. Spiritually, he is the bastard spawn of J. Alfred Prufrock and Pirate Jenny, and what could be more dangerous than that?

We may find The Penguin repulsive, but we understand the rage that fuels his power, and we cannot turn our eyes away.

Human to machine or human to computer interaction?

We are all familiar with the concept of a “human to machine interaction”. Every time you operate a household appliance, such as a microwave oven or a washing machine, you are interacting with a machine.

But then there are other things we do that involve machines which we generally think of as “human to human” interactions. For example, talking on the telephone.

Why this is the case is not much of a mystery. The phone is, indeed, a kind of machine. Yet it successfully manages to avoid dominating our attention, thereby allowing us to focus on the other person in the conversation.

It seems to me that the nature of the machine is not what decides whether we are talking about “human to machine” or “human to human” interaction. Rather, the task itself is the deciding factor.

If I am serenading you on my guitar, while looking soulfully in your eyes, then my use of the guitar is part of a process of human to human interaction.

On the other hand, if I am sitting alone in my room, playing my guitar in order to work out a new song that I am writing, that is an example of human to machine interaction. When I am composing, as opposed to performing, my focus is on the instrument.

This generalizes to other technologies. If I am using this keyboard to write a novel, then I am in a compositional mode, which means that my use of the computer is an example of human to machine interaction. On the other hand, if you and I are having a real-time text chat, then this same computer becomes a tool for human to human interaction.

As with many things, there is no black and white here. “Pure composition” and “pure performance” are merely the opposite extremes of a continuous scale. Our use of tools will often fall somewhere between these two extremes.

Right now I am using this computer to type a daily blog post, an act which is some mixture of composition and performance. Which means I that am interacting both with this computer and with you.

Robots are puppets

There has been an enormous amount of conversation among some very smart people about the impending age of Ultron. Or shall I say Skynet. Or shall I say Colossus.

I don’t see any real evidence that robots have achieved sentience. I do see evidence that computers are becoming progressively better at mimicry. The best cutting edge chatbots now let you spend several minutes in the company of software, under the illusion that you might be talking to another human, before you realize it’s just software.

But what does any of that have to do with actual human intelligence? The ability to create puppets that mimic human behavior has nothing to do with the far deeper problem of what might actually be going on in our own minds.

It’s as though people are looking at a still life of fruit, and saying “Wow, that looks a lot like fruit!” And then they try to eat the fruit.

Am I missing something?