Archive for the ‘diaries’ Category


The alarm clicks on, and a singer fills the pre-dawn room with exotic consonants over a heavy background of strings and a plucked ood. It is 4am here, and in an effort to get on California-time, I will immediately commence to pretend that it is 5pm. I extricate the daily slippers from the plastic wrap and cram my wide feet into the narrow terry-cloth toe-cups, don the comically plush bathrobe, and Skype home to see the last light of dusk over her shoulder. She’s dog-sitting for friends, and he starts woofing when I say “Hi Kai!” It occurs to me that he might not have a real sense of simultaneous ‘here’ and ‘there’. Where do you start when you set out to explain time zones to a dog? You’re having dinner, I’m having breakfast. Woof.

Here are a few things that I will remember (actual conference notes and details are in my notebooks). The charter bus from the hotel to the conference center has curtains that like to stay closed, preventing us from getting any real sense of the city as we ride back and forth. There are people spending a lot of money doing studies and having meetings. Stephen Hippell uses a Finder window on his laptop to browse around and show photos and videos while he’s presenting – it’s both fascinating and annoying at the same time. Sauteed mushrooms over rice with steak medallions are a good breakfast – fruit on the side. The Sheraton Hotel is a tetrahedron. People and businesses are moving to Qatar because people and businesses are moving to Qatar. Because there is almost no “here” here, they are making one. The Persian Gulf is like a big bathtub full of epsom salts; warm, salty, calm, and shallow. If a woman has her face covered do not engage in conversation unless she starts one. Six kinds of hummus in a buffet is not excessive. The breeze coming in from the gulf smells like warm iron. Dust is the reminder that the desert is still here. The people that you meet during the breaks are often more interesting than the people presenting. A tree stands alone in a shallow depression in an open lot, sand and bits of debris piled up against the trunk – a testament to determination. The birds here sleep in the daytime, coming out at dusk and dawn to chatter and chirp in the imported palm trees. Architecture should be more than just surprising. The Islamic Art Museum puts all those geometric patterns that are on doors and screens in a context that makes them make sense. You hardly ever meet anyone native to Qatar. Instead of carrying your groceries in the souk, you hire a really old guy with a wheelbarrow and he follows you around while you shop.

I know almost nothing about geography, and often amuse my fellow attendees by asking where their country is. I use my hands to make the shape of their continent and have them point out where they live.
“Over here,” they will say after orienting themselves to my hand-map, “near the base of this finger.”
“Is it nice there?”
“Oh yes. You should come and visit us. But stay away from this area here,” pointing at the bend in my wrist, “things are a bit unsettled there.”
My carpal-tunnel irritation has evidently leaked into the neighboring country.

After a presentation on the new language of school architecture, wherein I pick up the evocative characterization of “classic” schools as the “cells & bells” approach, I turn to my row-mate and offer, “Those so-called ‘playful’ spaces looked awfully sterile to me, what do you think?”
He pauses for a moment, and says, “In my village, the classroom is a tree. It is the oldest tree in the village, and it is also used for town meetings.”
“So, no fancy desks or individual study places?”
“The blackboard is tied to the tree when school is in session. Sometimes, the tree is also the jail. If someone does something bad, we tie them to the tree until the police from the municipality can come and pick him up. Sometimes we would be studying and there would be a drunk man tied to the side of the tree opposite the blackboard.”

He is from Angola, down by the first knuckle of my thumb.

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We are flying east, across the top of the Atlantic, racing toward daylight. Our flight-path creates a mechanical compression of time, collapsing 12 hours of night into 5 elapsed hours.

We lose the normal advantages of economy of scale in these long-haul flights. Fourteen hours in the air, requires enormous fuel reserves, and the math begins to erode the efficiency of big airplanes. We will burn more fuel to carry the fuel than to carry the people and the plane. To combat this, we climb to the edge of the stratosphere, cruising at 37,000 feet, sleeking thin air to reduce the friction on the plane.

I find sleep difficult to hold onto, alternating between creative flashes that force me to dig out my notebook in order to catch them, and an empty-headedness that reminds me of misspent hours watching junk on television.

Without dreams, I replay recent memories. Watching the tarmac baggage handlers load cargo boxes into the belly of the plane, suddenly noticing that they are all wearing ties. The toilet in terminal B where someone has written "Don’t Concentrate". Flight attendants wearing sky-caps and winged-oryx lapel pins.

The sleep mask traps heat against my eyelids, and I invent solutions involving overlapping Venetian blinds, working out how they will be sewn. Dim light, rosy with the dawn, leaks under the window shades. I will need my sunglasses soon – my sleep-deprived eyes and addled brain too susceptible to migraine to risk looking out the window.

I work out new ways to describe the point of Tinkering School. Soon, I’ll be talking about education, pedagogies, policy-making – I don’t use the right terms, refer to the proper research, or know the important names of pioneers in this field. I think of Basquiat, madly scribbling away only to end up standing around dumbfounded in galleries where art critics described his work in terms that sounded like nonsense. Looking for a label to put on it, these educated people call it "experiential learning" and I clamp down on my knee jerk reaction to say "yes, but it’s more than that…" and provide an amusing anecdote instead.

According to the live map, we have crossed into France. I will attempt a nap again, in hopes that I can be awake as we cross Afghanistan.


I awaken at 6:15pm, 18:15 according to the flight data on the display built into the back of the seat in front of me.

We are greeted by young women holding WISE2009 signs, and directed to board the bus that everyone else is boarding. The bus ride takes us through a living museum of international war planes and helicopters. A retired Navy colonel, now school administrator, points out interesting details that our untrained eyes do not notice; a helicopter equipped with rocket launchers and heavy machine guns, an unmarked C5 troop carrier ("not one of our birds"), a squad of combat-trained men standing at attention under the wing of the C5.

"This was a tough trip for me," he says to another attendee, "I have to clear all of my travel with the State Department, and they weren’t sure it was a good idea for me to come to Doha."
"Well, I know things," he adds cryptically, and turns to look out the window, memories of past "ops" flooding through his mind. All of those meetings with mysterious men under dubious circumstances, and the years spent doing things he can never tell anyone about – not even his wife. It was the not-telling that drove him to school administration. His father had been a principle at the other high school in town – there being a family edict that the kids would never go to the same school that dad worked at. "There can be no hint of impropriety," dad said whenever the subject of why the kids had to go to the school that didn’t have a pool or a jungle gym was raised.

We are herded from one waiting area to another by flocks of young women with signs. A system that seems like it could be very efficient, but isn’t. Our luggage arrives, and we collectively discover that all of the zippers have been opened and the contents rifled. A town-car takes us to the Sheraton, and I, not having exchanged any money yet leave the matter of tipping to my ride-mate, a woman who creates new schools in bombed-out villages in Afghanistan. I feel like a cad. Later, I have dinner with the Dean of the University of Virginia. We talk about how much fun it is to climb trees.

I am awake again at 2am.


Midway through dressing, I discover that my shaver has been partly dismantled and put away on. A practical joke from the team at customs inspection? Needless to say, the rechargeable batteries are completely dead. The front desk sends up the world’s worst twin-blade shaver and I dutifully nick and gouge my face until it is somewhat smooth. Now, to breakfast.

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Since co-producing the Plerkshop (a day-long workshop examining the meaning and value of play in the workplace) with Scott Klemmer, and Bill Verplank of the d.school at Stanford University, I’ve become fascinated by some of the work going on there and have had the privilege of being invited back on many occasions.

Recently Bill and Terry Winograd invited me to have a look at the results of a quarter-long student project to develop and explore toy design in a class they called “Toys for Learning” (the nested self-referential aspects of the title were not lost on me).

Rather than write a lengthy posting today, I offer these scans of the notes that I took during some of the presentations. Clicking on the thumbnail images will take you to Flickr where you can see much larger versions.

note: the top of this page is largely my exploration of the glass-bottom boat project for Tinkering School this year.


I was, in general, impressed with the projects. There seemed to be an overriding opinion that the hardware integrations were the source of most of the problems, and I find it surprising that this is still the case 30 years after I started fooling around with electronics and computers. Shouldn’t this be easier now? The littlebits project looks like a step in right direction.

Students at Stanford are forced to balance the demands of multiple simultaneous courses (as was evidenced by team members who could not be present at the presentation due to finals) and I left wondering what they could have accomplished if they had been given two solid weeks with no other interruptions.

In any case, I found things to like about every project and have talked about the Toonables marionette and the SeaMe virtual aquarium with multiple people since Monday night.

In particular, with Toonables, while watching a couple of kids make an animation, I was struck by how they had a tendency to focus on the animation of just one limb of the marionette. The end result almost always looked like a frozen person kicking at a soccer ball with one thawed led. I started wondering how the conception of the end result, despite the immediate feedback of the system, was not fully realized by the child operators – they were happy to see the animated leg, not disappointed to see the frozen, lifeless body it was attached to.

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India Diaries #2

Days 1, 2, 3 – Delhi
A crew of men sweeps debris off of an elevated road in downtown Delhi. The dust and bits of metal blow directly onto a small apartment building where a chain of women in brightly colored saris vigorously sweep it hierarchically down until, after many transfers, it falls to the street, where a woman with a little baby slung on her back sifts through the dust and dirt for anything of value. This is Delhi.

On an alley running between military barracks and senior officer’s houses, families of monkeys scamper through the trees. Young women lean over the balcony of a brothel and wave at me. “New York! California! Hollywood!” they yell. My driver, Davijon, says that they are very clean because they are in the military district. A young monkey runs to the end of a branch and takes a daring leap across the width of the road, barely catching the end of a branch on the opposite side. The women clap, and Davijon looks at them with a longing that that first softens and then hardens his face – he looks away and gets in the car to wait for me. This is Delhi.

Humayun’s Tomb is surrounded by piles of burning trash. An inversion layer hangs over the region like a glass ceiling, trapping all the dust, exhaust, and rancid smells of the city. Wandering around the tomb, I am as amazed by the architecture and craftsmanship as I am by the powerful stench of the human feces which dot the fields around the tomb. From the scalloped walls, built in the early sixteenth century, I see half a dozen men squatting in the fields. Embarrassed, I look away and suddenly notice the eroded but still beautiful floral motif carved into the walls. This is Delhi.

We are stuck in traffic at noon. The driver ahead of us gets out and walks to the shade of a tree. The heat is almost unbearable. My driver, and now friend, Davijon laughs when I say that “beep, beep” is how cars say “Delhi, Delhi.” Now when someone honks behind us he says “Delhi, Delhi!” and chuckles. When traffic starts to move, Davijon has to go and wake up the driver who is now fast asleep under the tree. This is Delhi.

A little girl sees me take a picture of a dog sleeping on a bale of compressed paper and demands, politely, to see it. I hold the camera down where she can get a good look and she immediately tries to take the it away from me. I glance around to see if she is part of a team of robbers, then discover that she just wants to use the controls to look at all of the pictures. The constant wariness needed to keep from being ripped off taints almost all first encounters. This is Delhi.

My stomach is rebelling and the cramps are shockingly sharp and painful. When the merchants and passersby see me wince, they often spontaneously offer to get me some lemon-water. Davijon is most concerned and insists on taking me back to the hotel, only reluctantly agreeing to help me finish my list of tasks after many minutes of my determined attempts to convince him that it is not as painful as it looks. Later he stops in the shade of a huge tree and pretends that there is something wrong with the car so that I can rest quietly for a few minutes. This is Delhi too.

Day 4 – Taj Mahal
We meet at five AM to catch the express train to Agra, city of the Taj Mahal. My hopes for cleaner air are slowly dashed as the train rolls relentlessly through mysterious towns and terrain barely glimpsed through the haze. We hire a driver at the Agra station and have him take us to Yosh Cafe where, according to the Lonely Planet guidebook, we can rent a locker for our baggage. It seems the guidebook needs to be updated to include the following annotation: “lockers are actually wooden cupboards and require renters to bring locks, place reeks of urine, wooden cupboards are not actually connected to the walls.” The streets around the Yosh evoke the Katmandu of the first Indiana Jones movie – utter squalid chaos.

You can’t appreciate the Taj Mahal in one visit. I know because I tried. The best I can say is that it has beautiful proportions from every angle. It’s relationship to the smaller mosques on each side, and the towers across the Ganges, create amazing symmetries and sight-lines. Even the scum floating in the reflecting ponds, does not detract from the experience.

Our train to Jaipur is not until late in the day, so we take a break from local cuisine and try the bland American fare at a five-star hotel. From a roof-top portico we can sit and watch the light slowly change on the Taj.

Day 5 – Jaipur
Our hotel, the Sunder Palace, is listed in Lonely Planet, which means that the clientele leans to the backpackers and hostel-goers, but it has a lovely cafe in the roof-top garden and wonderful breakfast for very little money. I get my pants-pocket repaired by an ancient Muslim man with a treadle sewing machine. I offer 100 rupees ($2.50), but he refuses and accepts only 10 (25 cents). While my pants are on the machine, his assistant gives me a makeshift sari to wear and makes me tea. The assistant asks me where I am from, and when I say California, USA, the man at the machine stops for a moment, cocks his head at me and then says “Arnold Schartznegger!” I laugh and say yes, that’s our governor, he smiles and returns to the pocket work.

There is a temple to Hanuman in the eastern hills above the city. The path up is too steep for cars and rickshaws so very few tourists make the fifteen minute walk. On the way to the top, a gang of boys comes at me laughing and offering me their left hands to shake – evidently an insult in this land – I laugh and scamper up the hillside to avoid them. At the top I meet the monk. His name is Ram Niwas and we proceed to spend the next hour enjoying the view, ringing various bells, and talking about Rama, Sita, Ganesh, and Hanuman. Though the temple is dedicated to Hanuman, he is not actually in the central vaulted room. Ram Niwas asks me if I would like to see Hanuman. Of course, I say, and he leads me down some steps that lead through his house to a little locked (to keep out monkeys) room. Inside is a four foot tall statue of Hanuman that is covered head-to-toe in bright orange paint.
“Freshly painted?” I ask
“Oh, yes. A bath for Hanuman every Tuesday and Saturday. Rama on Sunday, and Ganesh on Wednesday.”
“And for you?”
“Every time it rains,” he says with a laugh.

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Day 0
It is late at night. It is early in the morning. We are crossing Northern Canada and the slow undulations of a weak Aurora Borealis tease the horizon. I am watching a Bollywood movie to mentally prepare myself for what is to come. If rickshaw drivers and fruit merchants do not spontaneously burst into song when I get there, I will be sorely disappointed.

In business-class, they bring you a drink prior to takeoff. This seems so decadent and civilized at the same time that I take a tiny glass of champagne and wait for Clark Gable to arrive.

Champagne is still largely a mystery to me – like a book with beautiful pictures, but written in a language and alphabet that is almost like english and yet obviously not. I flip through and look at the pictures, with the distinct sense that I am missing something.

Lufthansa has a multi-lingual but primarily German staff. Miene deutsche ist kaput, nonetheless, I gleefully mangle it for the amusement of our steward.
Eine apfel kucken, bitte, I ask.
Mitt kaffe oder eine eiffel tower platzen fleischer druken eben?
I’m sorry, I thought I was asking for apple cake.
Yes, would you like coffee with that?
Neine, danke. But did you just say something about the eiffel tower?

The movie goes like this: wealthy son of a dead industrialist gets dumped by fiance and gets on a train to Delhi only to discover that the seat he has taken belongs to a beautiful, and eccentrically chatty woman on her way home. During a stop, he wanders off and as the train sounds it’s whistle she chases after him. She knocks over an old woman selling tomatoes, and the train leaves during the ensuing argument, with her luggage, and purse on board. Much singing and dancing and confusion ensue. Then they get married.

Here’s the really interesting part – at one point, she runs away to Shimla and lives in the “Working Women’s Hostel”. Shimla? That’s the place I’m going on my train adventure in a few days time. Is it just coincidence, or something more? According to the movie there is a lot of singing and dancing in Shimla, and I’m looking forward to it.

Day 0.5
It is morning, it is evening. The progress map show us descending from 38000 feet as we slide down from the stratosphere into Munich. I am halfway to halfway around the world from where I started – directly North of Africa, Malta, Italy, Milan. These are the countries of spy novels.

We are passing through a layer of ice-crystals. Huge concentric rings of spectral colors surround the shadow of our plane. Granite-hard grains of pure water at temperatures far below freezing chew at the elastomeric membranes that protect the leading edges of the wings. I have slept three hours of the last twenty four.

Day 0.75
Munich Airport is gleaming and cold. The ambient air temperature outside is four degrees centigrade. In my accelerated time frame, just eleven hours into my journey, this is the next night. If all goes well, I will sleep from Munich to India and wake up in an Indian morning after seven hours of flight. I feel sleepy and the wired at the same time. I recognize the sleep-deprived cadences of my writing as I write. I feel the grains of time chewing at my leading edges.

My previous time at the TED conference has left me with my boundaries poorly defined. I keep expecting to have the easy instant connection that comes from powerful shared experiences, but my attempts at conversation are stalled at the mundane and purely observational. It was a lovely sunset. I did enjoy the chicken. I never expected it to be this cold here. Yes, it will be much warmer in Delhi.

There is a person smoking in the bathroom. Instead of paper toilet-seat covers, there is an anti-bacterial spray that, according to the illustrations, you apply to a square of tissue and then wipe the seat. The electric carts which whisk the elderly between terminals do not beep continuously while moving. The seats in this airport are not designed to prevent you from sleeping on them. I have left California.

Day 0.8
It is three AM in India and I am awake, my nose is running, and the man across the aisle is snoring. I decide to try and finish the introduction to my book, but get stuck on figuring out what it means to be competent. I want to include something about Philip Zimbardo’s idea of “heroic imagination” which he sees as the precursor to heroic action (the opposite of passive inaction) – it seems to me that competence is the basis of confidence, which must the be foundation of heroism, or at least a component – but it reads awkwardly and I end up just saving it as notes for later. Despite the setback, I make some progress and get a couple of good paragraphs written.

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