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The Narrative Arc

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
–T.S. Eliot

The Narrative Arc

There is a point, in almost every conversation I have with visiting educators, where I explain the pedagogical framework of Brightworks. We gather around a big piece of brown butcher paper, and uncapping a chisel-point Sharpie, I say, “This is the Arc,” as my hand draws out the chord of a large circle. “It is a reference to the narrative arc in a story, and we chose that because we never want to forget that every student here is on their own personal journey.” This statement generates a range of reactions from the educators, some will nod, some are waiting to see where it is going, and some, in a faint echo of the moment when I first drew it for myself, will lean forward with sudden and unexpected delight.

This notion is so foundational to life at Brightworks, that it is easy to forget. Like fish in water, the students don’t really think about the medium they live in. Of course they have a personal story, doesn’t everyone? Yet, where the diagram lays out a smooth and continuous curve, their stories are almost fractal in complexity and filled with emotional peaks and valleys. This is what makes their stories worth living; they are complicated and surprising. It would be quintessentially boring if your personal story was as smooth and unvarying as the arc I draw on paper. Imagine each of the sub-plots of a student’s life as threads, and that learning is the process of organizing those threads into a coherent fabric.

Pick a moment in time, say the age of ten and a half, and you will see that there are many active threads; relationships (family, friends, peers, collaborators, pets), projects, personal interests, media (movies, books, games, web series, etc), politics, weather – and this list changes over time, with some threads taking dominant roles and others fading into the background. It’s tempting to make an analogy with weaving on a loom, and call some strong threads the warp lines and the more dynamic threads the weft, but life is much less regular than that. We have to look to the fabric arts and see the work of experimental artists who might appear to be weavers until we look closely and see that they are incorporating spoons, bits of concrete, and love letters into the works they are creating – this is a better analogy than the perfectly orderly patterns coming off of the traditional loom.

Wired to Learn, Wired to Experience

There is a little structure in the brain called the *lateral habenula*, and it plays a key role in the learning processes because it is the thing that notices when our predictions about the future are wrong. Put another way, it’s the lateral habenula that triggers the sense of being surprised. In explaining the importance of this, a neuroscientist once told me that “you never want to forget which cave the saber tooth tiger jumped out of.” Generally, the lateral habenula fires off when what we expected to happen, doesn’t happen. The other big change that happens when the saber tooth tiger appears is that we get a huge jolt of adrenaline and a fight-or-flight response kicks in. Our heart rate shoots up, breathing rate increases, and our cognition goes way down as we focus on escape. Who cares about noticing what shade of blue the sky is when you’ve got a tiger chasing you?

Reading the research, it would be easy to think that this little bit of the brain is only concerned with bad events, but there are a couple of circumstances where it triggers good feelings and one of those is the situation where something we learn connects ideas in a surprising way – the sense of “AHA!” that we get when we are making new meaning out of what we are learning. This positive reaction and flood of good feelings happens in concert with another region of the brain, much more recently evolved than the lateral habenula, known as the *basal forebrain*. There is a lot happening in the basal forebrain, and it is the area of focus for many sleep experiments because of its role in the production and release of acetylcholine, a compound that, among many other things, creates a sense of wakefulness. Interestingly, acetylcholine is critical to the learning process as well as an enabler of the plasticity part of neuroplasticity. So, when we’re awake, and something that we are learning surprises us, we get this great jolt of dopamine, a dash of acetylcholine, and a little squirt of adrenaline – this neurochemical cocktail increases the chances of a much longer retention of the new knowledge. It’s sort of like the watchdog parts of the brain realize that this new thing we just learned might be important, and great effort is made to emphasize the new connections. This is the wonderful feeling of delight that we have when we figure something out!

Fundamentally, we are wired to enjoy learning that surprises us. From a purely biological perspective, it is clear that we evolved this positive reward system because it is beneficial to our survival as a species to learn new things.

Building Blocks of Learning

There is an interesting theory currently being explored about how learning is represented in the brain. It’s only a theory because the actual analysis of brain structures that represent knowledge is a work in progress, but it’s a good theory and it resonates with a lot of research and observations about how learning happens and how knowledge is organized. The theory is that the atomic element of learning is the analogy; *this is like that*. These tiny associative connections include a strength, so it can be anything from “this is really like that” to “this is kind of like that”.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), provides a way of looking at brain activity as it happens, and tests done with this technique seem to support the observations and the theory. Neuroscientists often say “like fires like,” and what they mean is that if you think about “orange” you will activate all sorts of connected concepts and references, from orange as a fruit to a uniquely personal associative list of orange colored things ranging from pumpkins to sports teams. These “facts” are apparently macro clusters of knowledge that are assembled out of tiny little “this is like that” analogies. You can watch yourself chase these “like-that” through a simple associative-chain exercise; think about pumpkins for a moment. Notice all the connections you can make? It’s breathtaking when it happens deliberately and under self-observation, but in reality, those kinds of associations are firing all the time. You’re connecting experiences as they happen to your existing personal knowledge, and constantly adjusting your prediction of the immediate future – with your lateral habenula “noticing” when those predictions fail.

Like almost all of the systems in the human brain, lack of use increases cost of use – meaning that if you don’t surprise yourself regularly, it gets harder to surprise yourself. The lateral habenula needs stimulation in order to function correctly, and for that surprise mechanism to work (the one that triggers that deeper learning) you have to be making predictions, and to make a prediction you have to be engaged enough to formulate one. Lack of surprise comes from lack of engagement, and habitual lack of engagement leads to apathy – the antithesis of delight. 

Eating Oatmeal

Whether we are paying attention or not, we are making connections. Those connections form webs, where, if we could look closely, there is as much or more unintended detail (mostly with weak connections) as there is intended content (with hopefully stronger connections). If we could look at it happening while you were reading about Copernicus, we would see some of the details about the astronomer getting built right along side details about the smells coming from the kitchen, the song playing in the background, the wind moving the branches outside the window, the texture of the chair, and all the unintended, undesigned, and rich elements of the moment. The intentionality of reading and focusing ensures that there is some emphasis on the Copernican details and the associations you make to things you already know. Unconsciously, and sometimes consciously, we are re-reading the last few words, sentence fragments, or whole sections, leading to the strengthening of the intended connections. The result is that we start knowing some things about Copernicus, but when we access a memory we activate all of the connections, so we are getting back weak references to the texture of the chair along with strong references to the learned content. We didn’t mean to learn about that chair, but we did.

The odd thing is, the weak connections are actually beneficial. The learning processes of the brain seem to do better when there is variation in the experience. Researchers have proven that changing your physical location for studying improves retention. Until very recently, it was common practice for parents and teachers to encourage students to make a study place, free of distractions, and use it every night for homework. On the surface, this monk-like approach appears to be a good idea because it makes the homework the focus. But where do we find adults when they need to get work done? College students, writers, entrepreneurs, and programmers, can all be found at the coffee shop, headphones on and eyes focused on a textbook, laptop, or notebook. What a complex and sense-rich environment – the exact opposite of the monastic study-nook.

Routine activities are hard to differentiate in our memories. Think about the last time you ate oatmeal. Think about brushing your teeth on Tuesday morning. It is easy to conjure up generalized sense-memories of this thing we do multiple times a day, but try to review the last ten times you did it. This is the problem with the study-nook as well, and to some extent the rigorous structure of the traditional classroom with assigned seating; you are doing the same thing over and over, performing a routine that produces little in the way of unique experiences. Consider all of the time you spent at that desk in 3rd grade. Perhaps you can recall the classroom, and the teacher, but very few lesson details remain. This is not to say that you didn’t learn anything there, it’s just more likely that everything you did learn there is now more strongly associated with more recent experiences that make it more difficult to remember the earlier context because of how undifferentiated the 3rd grade learning experience was. That being said, most of us can remember some things that happened in 3rd grade – but it is overwhelmingly more likely that a distinct memory from that far back has a strong social component (you won the class spelling bee, or lost it, or a classmate got hit in the nose and there was blood). Could there be something inherently more durable about “social” memories?

From Rickety Structures to Deep Foundations

So, there you are, studying Copernicus in your homework spot; he lived in the early 16th century, he proposed a heliocentric model of the solar system, he had a long, drawn out, kerfuffle with the church, and so forth. These facts start accumulating in a web that tends to have strong connections internally and weaker connections externally. Isolated structures like this are common when learning something new, and they suffer from temporal fragility – they can get pruned away if they are not accessed. The more we learn about the new topic, the more connections we will make to already known things, and the more likely we are to retain the new information over the long run.

When topics are taught in silos, separated almost entirely from each other, the memories formed are weak and are quickly pruned away when we aren’t forced to visit the topic by a schedule of regular classes. If, on the other hand, we learned those typically siloed subjects in the context of an authentically engaging experience, then those new concepts and skills are anchored firmly and form a part of a durable memory.

Put in concrete terms, when we learn math (for example) because it is relevant and meaningful in the context of what we are doing – it sticks. When the math we are learning enhances the quality of the experience, we begin to actively seek more math knowledge.

The purpose of the Arc at Brightworks is to create an engaging framework for the emergent story that is the context in which the student is learning. A story that they are co-authoring with us; a true collaboration, an opportunity to experience and share delight, to see the world anew.


A few salient references:

Varying study locations helps with retention – https://web.archive.org/web/20211016113123/https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/07/health/views/07mind.html

Eureka effect, and cerebral lateralization – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eureka_effect

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I took this picture while driving, much to the panicked screams of my passengers. What they couldn’t see, and I had very little time to capture, was that the odometer was displaying a very curious number, namely “122551”. It may not be obvious in the font being used here, but on my dashboard, rendered in seven-segment LED numbers, it exhibited perfect mirror symmetry. These kinds of numbers are related to palindromic numbers (which I explored earlier this year), but are just a little bit more odd because they rely on how the numbers are represented visually.

The question I began to think about was something like: “How many times will the odometer of my car display a number that contains it’s own reflection?” In this strange kind of numerical analysis, some numbers will never show up (3, 4, 6, 7, and 9), some exhibit self mirror-symmetry by the nature of being symmetrical about the vertical axis (0, 1, 8) and then 2 and 5 are a reflective pair. What that means is that any time a 2 or a 5 shows up, there must a corresponding opposite 5 or 2. For the record, 9 and 6 don’t count because they are rotations not reflections. So how is this essentially arbitrary property distributed along the number line?

To examine a few million integers efficiently, I would have to create an efficient way to check a number for mirror symmetry (in python). I decided to treat all mirror-able numbers as if they have a mirror pair the way 5 and 2 do — this simplifies the comparison step. For odd length numbers, I check for self-symmetry on the central digit.

SymPairs = {'0':'0', '1':'1', '2':'5', '5':'2', '8':'8'}
SymMonads = ['0', '1', '8']

def sym_check(v):
    l = len(v)
    match_count = 0
    for i in range(l/2):
        target = v[i]
        if not target in SymPairs:
        match = SymPairs[target]
        if v[l-1-i] == match:
            match_count += 2
    if l & 0x1:  # odd length
        # check center digit
        if v[l/2] in SymMonads:
            match_count += 1
    rval = 0.0
    if match_count > 0:
        rval = match_count / float(l)
    if rval == 1.0:
        print v
    return rval

Armed with a function that returns 1.0 for fully mirror-palindrome numbers, I checked to see how many there were between 0 and 100,000:

0	15821
1	18081
8	18181
11	18881
25	20005
52	20105
88	20805
101	21015
111	21115
181	21815
205	22055
215	22155
285	22855
502	25025
512	25125
582	25825
808	28085
818	28185
888	28885
1001	50002
1111	50102
1251	50802
1521	51012
1881	51112
2005	51812
2115	52052
2255	52152
2525	52852
2885	55022
5002	55122
5112	55822
5252	58082
5522	58182
5882	58882
8008	80008
8118	80108
8258	80808
8528	81018
8888	81118
10001	81818
10101	82058
10801	82158
11011	82858
11111	85028
11811	85128
12051	85828
12151	88088
12851	88188
15021	88888

The great thing about this function is that it returns 1.0 for a perfect mirror-symmetry number, and something less than that for something that exhibits some symmetry. So we can visualize that as grey scale in an image. Here’s the corner of an image that contains a rendering of all the numbers from 0 to 1,000,000. In the upper left corner is 0 with the pixels representing 0, 1, 2, 3, 4 and so on moving to the right. Pixels 0, 1, and 8, are bright green because they are self-mirroring. Checking the list above, we see pixels representing 11, 25, 52, and 88 lit up as well. In this rendering, grey pixels are kind of symmetrical, and black pixels exhibit no symmetry (according to how the code is testing for it).


That pattern of rectangles continues, with an evolving variation, from there on out. Viewed as a graph, you can see the gaps between fairly evenly distributed ranges more clearly.

Screen Shot 2017-07-19 at 10.52.23 PM

Start looking for patterns in numbers, and you will find them. This is also true for all endeavors, mathematical or otherwise.

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//Doha//Monday//WISE2009//Day One

Life in a hotel is simple for conference attendees. You wake up knowing what you will wear, where you will eat (but not what), and what you are doing the rest of the day.

I find serendipity only in the face-to-face encounters with other attendees. I have animated discussions with educators and policy-makers from Camaroon, Bangledesh, South Africa, Australia, Ghana, Mali, Bahrain, France, England, Belgium, Berkeley, Davis, and Washington, DC. Later, during our conversation over dinner we discover that no one at the table has yet met a Qatari citizen.

There are over a million people living in Qatar. Of that, approximately one hundred thousand are Qatari citizens. Citizenship comes with an eighty thousand dollar per year allowance tax-free from the Sheikh. Needless to say, no foreigners are ever granted citizenship. An unknown percentage of the citizens are away collecting degrees at universities around the world, which further reduces the native head count. So it is a common experience for visitors to Qatar to spend a month here on business and never meet a citizen.

Jaded business people describe the Qatari as detached and aloof. I have the romantic notion that this could be a nation of Bruce Waynes, building their bat-caves around the world and springing to action when the time comes.

At breakfast I eavesdrop on a Japanese representative from a shipping company as he interviews a potential captain for a fully loaded oil tanker lying dormant in the Persian Gulf. The shipping company is losing a thousand dollars an hour while the ship sits still. The conversation is formal and reserved until he and the captain, a sun-beaten man with a scar that runs through his left eyebrow, discover that they both were in Burma during the coup, hiding in the same town. By the time I sign my bill, they are laughing and gesturing wildly with their cutlery.

The waters of the Persian Gulf appear to be about as turbulent as a swimming pool, only warmer. Waves lap at the manmade shorelines only when the occasional speedboat passes. Beneath the surface, silver and black fish drift about, looking for morsels of food on the sand covered rocks.

Despite the temperature difference between the shore and sea, no wind comes to stir the palm trees. Doha sits in a pool of it’s own exhaled breath, dirty with construction dust and diesel exhaust. It’s partially constructed skyline of whimsical architecture fades into the murky distance.

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Canada Syndrome

While freeing up some space on my laptop, I found this amusing little experiment. My intention was to create a complete document of an entire vacation as a single comic book. To my current way of thinking, it’s far better to put these half-finished things out than to sit on them indefinitely.

This story unfolds during a 2006 paragliding trip to the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia.

Canada Syndrome - the comic book.

Also available as hi-res PDF for your printer.

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The Experiment that Started the Experiment

The Experiment that Started the ExperimentHolding a piece of scrap-paper in one hand, the ball resting on a table, and snapping a picture I suddenly become interested in spherical lenses. I remember that some of the earliest microscopes (from the 1600’s, I think) were made with polished balls of glass.

I decide not to look anything up on the internet until after I try building a camera using this ball as a lens.

First Sketch

First SketchBall, box, viewscreen, and a hole to put the camera lens through.

Second Sketch

Second SketchPutting the parts in relation to each other helps me think through the construction and builds a more detailed model in my head.

Precision Layout

Precision LayoutI mark and cut crude holes on both ends of the box. Later I will put more precisely cut pieces of cardboard over these holes.

Making the Imaging Screen

Making the Imaging ScreenAfter trying various materials readily at hand, I settle on tissue-paper (which keeps the Christmas theme going). The cardboard frame is cut slightly wider than the box so that it will make a gentle arc when it presses against the sides – this will (hopefully) more closely match the focal arc of the ball and keep the screen in place.


AssemblagePutting all the parts together (using mostly gravity), the camera starts to take shape. The ball is so much heavier than the box, I had to hot-glue a piece of plywood to the box to create a sturdy support.

First Image

First ImageI neglected to account for the minimum focal distance of the camera, as a result the camera must be outside the box in order to actually focus. But, as we can see from the upside-down image of my yard, the ball is working as a lens.

Notes for next iteration: longer box, put the ball inside the box to reduce intrusion of light from the sides, different viewscreen material (possibly sanded plastic from discarded packaging).

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Algorithmic Brushing

Using only information in the image, is it possible to algorithmically choose angles for brush strokes? I started fooling around with this idea back in 1988, and have been resurrecting it off and on over the years – this version runs in Processing.

Get the source here.

Strange Things Around the Eyes

Strange Things Around the EyesThis has always been the problem with this approach – no attention to the anatomical details. I wonder if facial-recognition data could be used to scale the strokes around and on the eyes to preserve some detail?

More Facial Distortion

More Facial DistortionI like the treatment of the ceiling in this one, but the distortion of the facial features is disturbing again.

Sleeping Dog, Window

Sleeping Dog, WindowSwung the laptop towards the window and caught Kai sleeping. Stroke direction on Kai just happens to coincide with fur.

Un-natural Directional Choices

Un-natural Directional ChoicesVertical strokes on the hand? Feels like those should follow the vectors of the fingers…. Might try reducing image to a few colors, creating a polygonal representation, and then use a vector field (seeded with the lines from the polygons) to determine brush angles.

Self Portrait – Eyes Closed

Self Portrait - Eyes ClosedLooking for good angular distinctions between areas of similar brightness but different hues.

Monochrome Brushing

Monochrome BrushingIgnoring the color information to see the angular details more clearly.

(added 3.jan.09)
Interesting to note what kind of traffic you get from posting to the Exhibition section on processing.org:
Traffic on blog after posting to processing.org
I posted to processing.org on Christmas day (25.dec.08) and then get an almost perfect decay curve in blog traffic.

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On Leaving Adobe

When you leave a big company, you have a unique opportunity to send one more message before they shut down your email account. Some folks had some kind words to say about my final email and asked if I would post it.

Dear Friends,
It has been an utter pleasure to work with you since I got here. The opportunities afforded me here at a Adobe have been the source of some of the most interesting and exciting projects I’ve worked on.

As I pack up my desk and get ready to start writing the first of the Tinkering School books, fleeting panics ebb and flow as I come to grips with all the nascent projects that I have discussed with people – all those good ideas that I won’t get to participate in building… I look forward to seeing where things at Adobe go from here.

So, I leave you with four good ideas:

#1 – Play!
The more we take ourselves seriously, the less good our work becomes. There is no better place to try a risky idea, than here, nestled in the arms of a really good, solid company. If your next proposal doesn’t shock 15% of the people you present it to, then it’s not crazy enough.

#2 – Defer Judgment!
I first saw this on the wall at IDEO, but it’s the best advice anyone ever committed to signage in a corporate setting. It’s too easy to take pot-shots at newborn ideas. If someone is describing something to you that you just aren’t getting, say “Keep working on that” instead of saying nothing and going back to your desk to tell your friends how dumb it was. Really good ideas are sometimes buried in crap and may need help getting cleaned up.

#3 – Instead of Having a Career Path, Always Do the Most Interesting Thing You Can.
A career-path will only get you to retirement. Follow your interests obsessively, sacrifice everything, and keep doing it. Eventually it will turn into something both amazing and surprising. Along the way you will do things that you never thought you would, find yourself in places that you never imagined you would go, and in the end you will look back and say “Wow! What a fun ride that was! Can I go again?”

I guess #4 should be “don’t put advice in your goodbye mail, it will get too long and no one will read it“.

Now some contact information:
You can keep an eye on me here: http://www.twitter.com/gever
Or check out the school blog: http://www.tinkeringschool.com/blog/
Or my infrequently updated personal blog: https://gevertulley.wordpress.com/
Or get them all in one place: http://www.friendfeed.com/gever

As ever,

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Over the past two years, I’ve gotten some requests to post a transcript of the talk I gave at TED in 2007. It sounded like a reasonable idea until I sat down and listened to myself talk and tried to write down what I actually said – what an exercise in humility. Luckily for me, the resulting procrastination paid off when TED contacted me to approve the transcript they had created from the video as part of a larger project to create multi-lingual versions of the talks. So, here, in all of it’s raw and, uh, like, broken sentences, is the actual transcript of the video:

Welcome to five dangerous things you should let your children do. I don’t have children; I borrow my friends’ children, so (Laughter), take all this advice with a grain of salt. I’m Gever Tulley, I’m a contract computer scientist by trade, but I’m the founder of something called the Tinkering School. It’s a summer program which aims to help kids to learn how to build the things that they think of. So we build a lot of things, and I do put power tools into the hands of second-graders. So if you’re thinking about sending your kid to Tinkering School, they do come back bruised, scraped and bloody. So, you know, we live in a world that’s subjected to ever more stringent child safety regulations. There doesn’t seem to be any limit on how crazy child safety regulations can get. We put suffocation warnings on
all the — on every piece of plastic film manufactured in the United States or for sale with an item in the United States. We put warnings on coffee cups to tell us that the contents may be hot. And we seem to think that any item sharper than a golf ball is too sharp for children under the age of ten.

So where does this trend stop? When we round every corner and eliminate every sharp object, every pokey bit in the world, then the first time that kids come in contact with anything sharp or not, made out of round plastic, they’ll hurt themselves with it. So as the boundaries of what we determine as the safety zone grow ever smaller, we cut off our children from valuable opportunities to learn how to interact with the world around them. And despite all of our best efforts and intentions, kids are always going to figure out how to do the most dangerous thing they can, in whatever environment they can. So despite the provocative title, this presentation is really about safety and about how some simple things that we can do to raise our kids to be creative, confident and in control of the environment around them. And what I now present to you is an excerpt from a book in progress. The book is called, “50 Dangerous Things.” This is five dangerous things.

Thing number one: play with fire. Learning to control one of the most elemental forces in nature is a pivotal moment in any child’s personal history. Whether we remember it or not, it’s a — it’s the first time we really get control of one of these mysterious things. These mysteries are only revealed to those who get the opportunity to play with it. So playing with fire, this is like one of the great things we
ever discovered, fire. From playing with it, they learn some basic principles about fire, about intake, about combustion, about exhaust, these are the three working elements of fire that you have to have to have a good controlled fire. And you can think of the open pit fire as a laboratory, you don’t know what they’re going to learn from playing with it. You know, let them fool around with it on their own terms and trust me, they’re going to learn things that you can’t get out of playing with Dora the Explorer toys.

Number two: own a pocket knife. Pocket knives are kind of drifting out of our cultural consciousness, which I think is a terrible thing (Laughter). Your first, your first pocket knife is like the first universal tool that you’re given, you know, it’s a spatula, it’s a pry bar, it’s a screwdriver and it’s a blade, yeah. And it’s a, it’s a powerful and empowering tool. And in a lot of cultures they give knives, like, as soon as they’re toddlers they have knives. These are Inuit children cutting whale blubber. I first saw this in a Canadian Film Board film when I was ten, and it left a lasting impression, to see babies playing
with knives. And it shows that kids can develop an extended sense of self, through a tool, at a very young age. You lay down a couple of very simple rules, always cut away from your body, keep the blade sharp, never force it, and these are things kids can understand and practice with. And yeah, they’re going to cut themselves, I have some terrible scars on my legs from where I stabbed myself. But you know, they’re young, they heal fast (Laughter).

Number three: throw a spear. It turns out that our brains are actually wired for throwing things and like muscles, if you don’t use parts of your brain, they tend to atrophy over time. But when, when you exercise them, any given muscles adds strength to the whole system and that applies to your brain too. So practicing throwing things has been shown to stimulate the frontal and parietal lobes, which have to do with visual acuity, 3D understanding, and structural problem-solving, so it gives a sense, it helps develop their visualization skills and their predictive ability. And throwing is a combination of analytical and physical skill, so it’s very good for that kind of whole body training. These kinds of target based practice, also helps — helps kids develop attention and concentration skills, so those are great.

Number four: deconstruct appliances. There is a world of interesting things inside your dishwasher. Next time you’re about to throw out an appliance don’t throw it out. Take it apart with your kid, or send him to my school and we’ll take it apart with them. Even if you don’t know what the parts are, puzzling out what they might be for is a really good practice for the kids to get, sort of, the sense that they can take things apart and no matter how complex they are, they can understand parts of them and that means that eventually, they can understand all of them. It’s a sense of knowability, that something is knowable. So these black boxes that we live with and take for granted are actually complex things made by other people and you can understand them.

Number five: two-parter: break the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (Laughter). There are laws beyond safety regulations that attempt to limit how we can interact with the things that we own — in this case, digital media. It’s a very simple exercise, buy a song on ITunes, write it to a CD, then rip the CD to an MP3 and play it on your very same computer. You’ve just broken a law, technically the RIAA can come and persecute you. It’s an important lesson for kids to understand, that some of these laws get broken by accident and that laws have to be interpreted and it’s something we often talk about with the kids when were fooling around with things and breaking them open and taking them apart and using them for other things, and also when we go out and drive a car.

Driving a car is a — is a really empowering act for a young child, so this is the ultimate — (Laughter) For those of you who aren’t comfortable actually breaking the law, you can drive a car with your child. This is — this is a great stage for a kid. This happens about the same time that they get latched onto things like dinosaurs, these big things in the outside world that they’re trying to get a grip on. A car is a similar object, and they can get in a car and drive it. And that’s a really, like, it gives them a handle on a world in a way that they wouldn’t, that they don’t often have access to. So — and it’s perfectly legal. Find a big empty lot, make sure there’s nothing in it and it’s on private property, and let them drive your car. It’s very safe actually. And it’s fun for the whole family (Laughter). So let’s see, I think that’s it, that’s number five and a half, okay.

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From Doodle To Thing

I doodle when I am in meetings, or when I am not sure of what to do next, or when I am trying to solve a really hard problem, or when I am avoiding a hard problem. I’m a doodler. I doodle my way out of situations, I doodle to entertain small children, I doodle to explain complex system architectures to myself and my co-workers.

I have the great pleasure of having a Universal Laser Systems 60W laser cutter by my desk at my office. An object whose very existence asks the question “what are you going to make today?”

Naturally, it was only a matter of time…

why did i draw this shape?

the peculiar thing on the floor

I’m honestly not sure what to make of it. The object itself is kind of a mystery to me, and the whole process from locating the doodle in the notebook to assembling the pieces, took about thirty five minutes. A period of time so short that it barely registers as a project.

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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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