Newton Family Singers Concert this Sunday

My daughter Carolyn and I are in a singing group called the Newton Family Singers. It’s an intergenerational family chorus, which means that, even though she’s just 8, we get to enjoy the experience of singing together. Like all kids these days, Carolyn stays very busy. We’re always taking her to this or that class or practice or rehearsal. With this group, I like the fact that I’m taking her someplace where I belong too.

All that is by way of saying that our big Spring performance is coming up this Sunday. And I want you to come to it.

Here’s all the info you need to find us, along with a way to buy tickets.

We’ll be performing songs that celebrate the tradition of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. One member of our group, Jack Cheng, wrote an article about Seeger for the Newton TAB.

If he were alive, Woody Guthrie would be 100. Pete Seeger is still going at 93. But are they still relevant? Read this account of how 40,000 Norwegians recently joined to sing Seeger’s song My Rainbow Race. Why? To underscore their commitment to the multi-ethnic harmony so specifically reviled by the mass killer Anders Behring Breivik.

Pete Seeger is still relevant.

The moon is smaller than you think: big moons and big lenses

I just listened to a SALT talk (the little brother of the TED talk) by Jim Richardson, a photographer for National Geographic. In the introduction Stewart Brand said something that is somehow strangely non-obvious: Journalists can write prose from a distance, but a photographer always has to be there to get the shot. Richardson joked that many people, on looking at his portfolio, ask the same question: “Did you really go to all these places?” His well-rehearsed reply: “Well, yes. That’s how it works.”

The National Geographic website has a series called Extreme Photo of the Week, by which they mean breathtaking pictures of people doing really stupid, dangerous things. The kinds of pictures that make otherwise sane people say to themselves “My life is so dull. I should really take up poisonous kayak cliff diving.” I’m as much of a sucker for them as the next guy. Just see if you don’t spend the next fifteen minutes annoying the other person in the room: “Holy crap! Look at this guy! That’s insane! I know I said the last one was insane too, but this one is really insane. Come look. Seriously.”

Since it’s National Geographic, you get this extra benefit of the photographer explaining how they got the shot. So I was pleased to come across this picture of a crazy person dancing on a rope in front of a great big moon. Now the thing that interests me here is actually the big moon and not the crazy person. There are a great many irresponsible moon photos in this world, pictures where a moon has been pasted into implausible or impossible positions, sizes, and phases. And you rarely get the story of how the moon ended up so big (assuming it’s not a total fake job). Ever notice how if you try to take picture of the moon it’s always a teeny-tiny thing off in the corner? The angular diameter of a full moon is around a half a degree, a small fraction of the human field of view. You will never ever seen a scene like this with your naked eye, partly because your eye is incapable of making a moon look this big, and partly because their just aren’t enough crazy people dancing on mountaintop ropes to go around. And the photographer spells it out for you, which is the part I like. He was 1.2 miles away from his human subject, and using a hell of a lens (800mm f/5.6 lens with a 2X doubler).

That’s how you make a giant moon.

Thomas Edison, the man who looked like the thing that was needed

I just finished a biography of Thomas Edison called The Wizard of Menlo Park by Randall E. Stross. A biography is either going to improve or degrade your earlier opinion of its subject. Whenever I read about Washington or Lincoln, I always come away thinking, “Wow, that guy really is impressive.” With Stross’s treatment of Edison it’s the other way. Edison comes across as petulant, vain, willful in the extreme, and comically inept at business. His friend Henry Ford called him the world’s greatest inventor and the world’s worst businessman. And Ford was an admirer. Edison is not a sympathetic character when viewed from up close. He tolerated no dissent in his laboratory and hired only the docile and easily cowed. He took credit for the work of his staff. He never admitted to mistakes and clung dogmatically to ideas (like residential direct current electrical power) for far too long. He blamed his users for not knowing how to use his (in fact) slipshod products. He insisted on choosing the music to be sold for his phonographs in defiance of public taste.

But in many respects, his autocratic willfulness was not unusual among self-made 19th century men. A lot them were jerks. That’s not the interesting part of the story. The interesting part of the story is how Edison came along at exactly the moment when Americans needed someone to personify the rapid technological change that was reshaping the world. And he fit the bill marvelously. He had a flair for saying exactly what journalists wanted to hear, and they credulously wrote it all down. Edison’s true great invention was the phonograph, and though he was never able to make money with it, it cemented his reputation. He didn’t invent the electric bulb, but over time we had him invent it for us. As the technologies of modern life became more and more bewildering, it became easier and easier for people to credit them to this one man. Ultimately the only thing of value that remained was his name, which grew in stature out of all proportion to his actual inventions.

Sadly, he believed the flattery and came to think of himself as a gift to mankind. Stross quotes a letter he wrote to someone soliciting money for a local charity. Edison wrote something like this: “I’m not going to give you a donation, because I can put this money to better use for mankind by investing it my laboratory.” But he had long since ceased producing wonders and was in fact in a protracted money-sucking decline. By then his was the need not of a Prometheus, but of an addled and overstretched businessman. But in his vigorous youth, when we needed Prometheus, he was Prometheus, and so he will remain. Because that is the nature of gods.

Tool spinning, task boxing and the trade-off between usability and learning

Some weeks ago Bret Victor made a big splash with a talk called Inventing on Principle. His basic message was about the value of direct manipulation and instantaneous visual feedback. These aren’t new concepts, but Victor’s demonstrations were brilliant. They were elegant and persuasive in a way that words alone would not be.

As impressive as the talk is, there was something about it that nagged at me. I had the feeling that what he was saying and what he was demonstrating weren’t quite the same thing. Mark Guzdial of Georgia Tech is one of the few people I’ve seen to make a thoughtful critique of Victor’s approach, and he articulated my concern. You can read his commentary here: Inventing on Principle and the trade-off between usability and learning (interesting side note: Guzdial’s post drew comments from Alan Kay and Bret Victor himself).

What Guzdial says is something like this: make sure you understand your goal. If you want people to learn something, make sure they actually come to grips with that thing, and not an abstract and airbrushed version of it. Chasing usability (or entertainment) can come at the expense of learning, and if learning is your goal, you will have lost something important.

Guzdial provided an example of some educational software that was supposed to teach the relationship between the math (differential equations) and the physical system being represented (pipe flow). The software let you play around with pipes while the equations changed in real time. What happened? People liked the physical modeling (screwing around with pipes) and totally missed the underlying equations. But the equations were supposed to be the point of the exercise! So the authors had to retune the system to make the math more prominent. Now what happened?

The system became much harder to use.  But now, students actually did learn, and better than students in a comparison group.


Let’s say you want to be able to play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. The best tool I can give you is a machine with a single button bearing the label “Press this button to hear Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.” But I’ve probably underestimated your goal. If your goal is in fact to play the Moonlight Sonata on a piano with your own hands, then my music machine would be worthless to you. I would be guilty of putting you in a teeny-tiny task box. But beware! Now you need to spend years learning how to use the piano, a very expressive but demanding and not terribly user-friendly machine.

Any tool puts you in a box of addressable tasks. Constrained tools have small task boxes. Expressive tools are hard to learn. Finding the optimal balance between expressive depth and simplifying constraint is very tricky.

Now look at this tool that Victor built for using simulation to understand a math word problem.

It’s beautiful! And it works well as long as you don’t want to modify the essential parameters of the problem. But Victor isn’t helping us learn the metatools that he uses to create this environment. To be fair, that wasn’t his goal, but as a user, I feel like I’m locked in a pretty small task box. More to the point, it’s expensive to create these interactive gems, and there’s only one Bret Victor.

Victor’s real power is his ability to rapidly create and deploy these tools. In a twinkling he can size up a task that is worth studying, put a box around it and spin a tool. He does this so effortlessly, with such mesmerizing legerdemain, that we lose sight of this meta-skill. What Victor was really doing in his talk was illustrating the power of tool spinning, the rapid creation of customized, context-sensitive, insight-generating tools. Direct manipulation is good, but the nature of direct manipulation changes with the context, and the context can’t always be anticipated.

My preferred goal is to make tool spinning (and tool sharing) as easy as possible. If tool spinning is easy, if that is the expressive skill that we give our users, then small task boxes aren’t a problem. You can always make more tools.

Don’t use the thing Bret made. Do the thing that Bret does.