On the use of bad puns

I have a tendency, when I find myself in a room where everybody is being very serious, to not be serious. Sometimes this gets me into trouble. Sometimes it doesn’t.

Today I was in a strategy meeting, and somebody pulled out a document. “These,” he explained solemnly, “are the four pillars that underlie our strategy.”

Everybody looked very serious. After all, these were the four pillars.

“Oh good,” I said, probably without having given it sufficient thought, “I love pillar talk.”

Fortunately, everybody laughed. Bullet dodged.

Maybe somebody should do a study on the use of bad puns to lighten up a serious mood. When do they work? And when are they just a BAD IDEA?

Or maybe somebody could just write about all of the bad puns suggested by the phrase “pillar talk”. It’s worth at least a column.

Algorithms and immortality

There is something philosophically interesting about coming up with a new algorithm. I’m thinking about this right now because I came up with one just today, whilst trying to solve a research problem.

I created this algorithm for a very specific purpose. But it’s also very general. So there’s a good chance it is going to be used by other people for other purposes.

And here is where it all gets interesting. In all likelihood, many of those people will find clever new uses for this algorithm — uses I would never have thought of — long after I’m gone from this earth.

Which means that an algorithm is, in a funny way, a kind of immortality. When you give the world a new thought or idea, you are passing down your intellectual DNA, setting it free to mingle with the intellectual DNA of future generations.

Well ok, it’s not literal immortality. But it’s still pretty good.

Credit sequence

I really love the opening animation sequence for Good Omens. That sequence was created by Peter Anderson Studio in London. It captures the flavor of the show perfectly.

The character animation style in that sequence is a direct quote of the groundbreaking character animation style of the video for Little Talks by Of Monsters and Men. That earlier music video was created in 2012 by WeWereMonkeys in Montreal, run by Mihai Wilson and Marcella Moser.

As far as I can tell, there is no connection whatsoever between the two sets of creators. It seems that the highly innovative style of the earlier piece was simply lifted wholesale to create the later piece.

I realize that there are no copyright laws protecting “style”. Still, the whole thing gives me an uneasy feeling. As far as I can tell, something truly new and innovative was simply taken from its original creators, and my gut tells me that there should have been some sort of legal protection for those original creators.

Perhaps I am wrong, and there was indeed some sort of collaboration between the two studios. If so, that would be delightfully good news.


No you won’t go all at once
There are hints, intimations
Someone whispers in your ear
Gives you the cheat code
When nobody’s looking

One day maybe
A piece goes missing
Nothing too important
A tiny detail
In the vast mosaic

But this time you notice
And something you’d heard
About a friend of a friend
Comes back to haunt you
Then it all comes together

No you won’t go all at once
But one day you wake up and know
In the marrow of your bones
That sooner or later
You will go

Comment in the New York Times

Today, for the first time ever, I posted an on-line comment on an article in the New York Times. The article was a long-delayed and somewhat apologetic obituary of Alan Turing, one of my great heroes.

I was worried that the Times would not publish my comment, because maybe they wouldn’t understand it. Based on the obituary (which seemed way too inspired by the recent Benedict Cumberbatch pseudo-biopic), I don’t think the writer really understood just how important and fundamental was Alan Turing’s contribution to the computationally altered world that we live in today.

But I just now checked, and they did indeed publish my comment. Maybe they even understood it, although that is a very hopeful thought.

What I wrote was:

“The NY Times has finally passed the Turing Test.”

Juggling plates

Today is one of those insanely busy work days where even my multitasking is multitasking. I needed to give two talks — in two very different places — then race back to the lab to work with students on a deadline for tomorrow, another one for Friday, and a third one for Monday.

A day like this reminds me that I do indeed have a go-to strategy for those times when I feel that I’m juggling too many plates at once (speaking metaphorically). It goes something like this:

When I start to realize that I’m trying to keep too many plates in the air at the same time, I often give in to the temptation to look up. Of course when I do this, what I see is a whole lot of plates coming down toward me.

In that moment, I know exactly what to do. I quickly look around, find a brand new plate, and fling it up in the air.

It works like a charm. That said, your mileage may vary.


On this day of the year, 100 years ago, the U.S. Congress ratified the 19th constitutional amendment. That’s the one that essentially says women are allowed to vote.

I remember as a little kid being amazed that it had taken so long — 130 years — from the time the U.S. Constitution was ratified to the time women got the vote. It seemed like an awfully long time.

As I got older, I came to understand it was even worse than I had thought. Even after the 19th amendment was ratified, millions of women were effectively barred from voting for a long time.

For example, it wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that black women in many parts of the U.S. really got the right to vote, along with black men. Until then, if they tried to register, officials could — and often did — just beat them up before turning them away.

For the first time in 1965, the Voting Rights Act made it a federal crime for state officials to physically beat up citizens or otherwise deter them from exercising their right to vote. It is tragic that we needed that to be stated in a law.

But hey, we live in a tragic world. After all, also on this day of the year, just 30 years ago, the government of another very large nation half way around the world used extreme violence against its own citizens for somewhat similar reasons.

When governments begin to think of their own citizens as “the enemy”, something has clearly gone very wrong.

The liminal space between game and story

I have always had mixed feelings about interactive narrative. On the one hand, it’s a subject of endless fascination in some quarters.

There have been entire conferences devoted to the liminal space between game and story. What if we, the reader or viewer, had the power to change the outcome of a narrative?

Yet every time I actually encounter such a thing, I feel a sense of disappointment. When I am being asked to make decisions about what I am viewing, I feel less immersed in the experience.

My best theory about this is that the part of our mind which listens to a story is very different from the part of our mind which makes active decisions. It’s not that being an audience is a passive experience — on the contrary, it’s a very active experience.

To be a member of an audience is to accept a contract to perform a very particular kind of work. We are agreeing to use our minds to understand where a story is going, to find resonance in the characters and their journeys, to connect the particulars of the plot with larger themes.

If you ask an audience member to do a different kind of work — to actually choose the outcome of the story — then you are breaking that contract. I think interactive narrative fails not because it asks too much of us, but because it asks too little.

Roswell agonistes

I watched the first episode of the reboot of Roswell, after reading the on-line Netflix reviews. I was intrigued that every review is either near 10 (awesome) or near 1 (awful).

When you read the reviews, the reason becomes clear. The reboot has been cleverly configured as a star-crossed (literally!) love story between two young people whose parents were aliens. Both of the young lovers want desperately to fit in, to simply be acknowledged and allowed to chip in as a productive member of society.

Both lovers fear, above all, becoming identified as an “other”, rather than as a unique individual. The thing that makes all this so clever is that the heritage of one the young lovers is outer space, and the heritage of the other is Mexico.

It seems that about 40% of viewers who left a review think this approach is a blatant left-wing politicization of a once beloved show. I strongly disagree, yet it’s hard for me to be objective, since I clearly belong to the other 60% of viewers.

But I will give it a go: The entire point of the original Roswell was sympathy for misunderstood and persecuted children of alien parents. All the producers of the reboot have done is emphasize that exact point in a way that would resonate in 2019.

Unless of course you have no sympathy for hapless young people of alien heritage, just trying their best to get by in a sometimes hostile world. In which case, why were you watching a show like Roswell in the first place?