Nostalgia for nostalgia

Today, on a whim, for the first time in years I listened to Life in a Northern Town by The Dream Academy. A hit song in 1985, it resonates powerfully now.

The song itself is nostalgic for the early 1960s. So it is looking back through the flattering golden aura of nostalgia.

Yet to listen to this song now in 2020 is to do the same. I can only hear it through the flattering golden aura of nostalgia for the 1980s.

This double nostalgia — nostalgia for nostalgia — seems to run through our relationship to popular culture. Some of my own personal favorites are Singing in the Rain (I feel nostalgia watching a 1952 nostalgic fantasy of the late 1920s), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (I feel nostalgia watching a 1969 nostalgic fantasy of 1899) and Mary Poppins (I feel nostalgia watching a 1964 nostalgic fantasy of 1910).

It might be interesting to build a film series out of this theme. What would you put on the list?

The view outside your window

When you look outside the window of your home, you always see the same landscape. Whether you are in an apartment in a big city, or a farmhouse in the rolling countryside, your view does not vary very much.

One of the pleasures of going to other places is the chance to experience different landscapes. We may take our own neighborhood for granted, but we tend to see fresh vistas with fresh eyes.

There will come a point when augmented reality will allow us to choose the view out of our window. One day we may see a bustling New York City street, and the next day we may look out upon the beautiful rolling hills of western Missouri.

This idea that the view outside your window is fixed is merely a technological limitation. Some years down the road that limitation will no longer exist.

When that happens, people may wonder that folks had no way to choose the view outside their window. “Didn’t it drive them crazy,” they might ask, “to look out upon the same view day after day after day?”

Invited talks during a pandemic

This pandemic has been a terrible tragedy on so many levels. The awful toll in terms of lives lost, livelihoods destroyed, and permanent losses of health has been immense and sobering.

Yet humans are a hardy bunch, and the ways that we are coping are instructive. One thing I’ve noticed, as an academic, is that I am giving a lot more invited talks, and I am also inviting a lot more luminaries to give invited talks to our lab.

In a world where Zoom is the norm, “visiting” does not require flights, hotel rooms or meal expenses. You can simply invite somebody to your lab to give a talk, and they will usually say yes.

I’ve started a practice of inviting very high powered people to give talks to our students, and then to hang out afterward for Q&A. People who would formerly have been far too busy are saying yes.

Our students are benefitting from this. Mentorships are starting and connections are being forged that would probably not have happened in normal times.

Of course none of this begins to compensate for the enormous tragedy of the COVID pandemic. But perhaps it shows that even through the darkest of clouds, you may find a ray of sunlight.

Notes on prototyping

When I first create a software prototype, I notice that my very first versions of things often don’t actually do anything. They look like they should, but they don’t.

Instead, I put all of the pieces in their places, so I can see where all my buttons, sliders and other doodads will go. Then I spend some time rearranging things until it all looks nice.

Only then do I wire things up to actually be functional. It’s sort of like sketching things out in pencil, only in software.

I have come to realize that this purely aesthetic exercise is an important part of the process. Before going any further I need to feel that everything in the right place.

After all, if what I see on the dashboard doesn’t make sense to me, I’m not going to want to drive the car.

Meaningful looking fake data

I was on a Zoom call today, working with some colleagues on a slide presentation. The presentation will, among other things, describe a forthcoming user trial of new techniques we are developing for physical therapy.

To give our audience a sense of that user trial, one of my colleagues, a computer scientist, suggested we put up some example data. Of course no example data yet exists, since we have not yet done the trial.

So my computer scientist colleague suggested that we use meaningful looking fake data. That got a laugh from our colleague who specializes in physical therapy.

She said, kiddingly, “I really like that phrase — ‘meaningful looking fake data’. Maybe we should use that as a new term of art.”

At that point I had a revelation. “You know,” I said, “a good technique for generating meaningful looking fake data is actually what I am best known for in my field.”

The computer scientists on the Zoom call all laughed. “That’s true,” they nodded, “that is exactly what Ken is best known for.”


A long time hobby of mine is creating new kinds of text typing systems for situations when there is no QWERTY keyboard available. I’ve been doing this now for literally decades, and I have lost track of the number of different systems I’ve come up with.

It’s a topic that is becoming newly relevant as VR gradually becomes more widespread. Yet I wonder whether all such systems will fall away, as AI and other technologies advance.

Will typing itself will simply become superfluous. Will people eventually just talk to their computers and come to expect an accurate result?

Perhaps the skill of using ones hands and fingers to generate text will fall away. It may become one of those quaint cultural artifacts of long-ago, like knowing how to sharpen the tip of a quill writing pen.

But I kind of hope not — I like typing, and I would love to see it stick around. I also suspect there are still people out there who know how to sharpen the tip of a quill writing pen,


I’ve started reading about mindfulness and am thinking of trying out mindful meditation. I have a number of friends and colleagues who do it, and they all speak very highly of the practice.

As I understand it, the goal is to develop a certain kind of mental state in one’s daily life of being relaxed yet alert and present in the moment (good), as opposed to either zoned out or emotionally reactive (bad).

I know that I am pretty consistently in that kind of good state when I am teaching or giving talks. I wasn’t always — it’s something I gradually learned over the course of years.

I also know that I haven’t always been consistently in the good state in other situations. Sometimes, when things get stressful, my emotional state can be very inconsistent indeed. And that is definitely not good.

I suspect that mindfulness meditation is like any other exercise: You gradually build up certain muscles and skills over time, until eventually what had once seemed difficult gradually becomes easy, and eventually becomes second nature.

Seems like something worth trying.

New beginnings

It’s the first Monday of a new month, so my mind turns to the thought of new beginnings. How much are new beginnings really possible?

When you wake up each morning, you have the opportunity to make many decisions. You might even be able to set your entire life in a new direction.

Yet like Buckaroo Banzai once said, no matter where you go, there you are. So whatever path you choose, you need to take yourself along with you.

Which means that any real change is not going to be in your surroundings, but in yourself. In principle, this means change should be easy.

After all, if you want to change yourself, you don’t need to rely on others. And yet, it can be a lot harder to look inward than to look outward.

Like nobody ever said ever, a journey of a single step begins with a thousand miles.

Oklahoma, part 3

So what do you do in the face of the sort of blind prejudice that just casually blames the victim of that prejudice? Do you try to engage?

I am assuming you know the ugly history of Oklahoma, and what happened to the people who had been living there for many centuries. In any case, it’s quite easy to learn the terrible truth on the internet.

I could have spoken about all that, but I suspect the person I was talking to was separated from such thoughts by a lifetime of assumptions and ingrained attitudes. Even now, with lots of time to think back on it, I can’t think of anything I could have said that would have made a bit of difference.

But I am open to suggestions.