Public Appearances in China Next Week

I will be giving two public talks next week in China, one in Beijing and one in Hefei.

First, on the morning of Saturday, November 26th I will speak at the "2016 Tsinghua Maker's Day International Summit" at the invitation of my friend Prof. Ben Koo. I don't have exact details yet, so I will post an update when I know the exact time and location of this talk. There is a whole day of "maker" activities scheduled, as I understand it.

My talk there will be short (20 minutes) and I intend to speak mainly about computational thinking and how deep knowledge of a computer language changes your perspective on the world, much as knowledge of multiple human languages allows for a wider view. I expect to hang out at the Maker Day for the rest of the time it's open, and would be happy to speak to anyone who wants to talk about chemistry instead of computers.

Second, at 19:00 on Monday, November 28th I will speak at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei. I'd tell you where exactly, but I don't speak Chinese so I can't read the poster below. Hopefully if you're interested in coming to the talk, you do speak Chinese and you can read all about it in the poster.

This talk will be about elements and molecules, and what I've learned about how to speak to the public about chemistry.

How Does the Car Know Which Way You Want to Turn?

I had an experience last night that reminded me of something I first learned from Jerry Glynn several decades ago.

I was giving a ride home to a six-year-old. As we were driving along, making several turns in a row, she asked, with some hesitation, as if she was afraid this was a stupid question:

    “How does the car know which way you want to turn?”

I proceeded to explain that the steering wheel was connected to a gear and some rods that make the wheels tilt left or right, depending on which direction you turned the steering wheel. I asked her to watch how the front wheels on other cars tilted, which she agreed was clearly visible and explained the turning behavior of cars. Mission accomplished!

But then she said:

    “No, I mean how does it know which way you’re going to turn?”

Hm, now I’m confused.

    "How does it know to make that clicking sound and blink the lights before you start turning?”

She had, apparently for much longer than just this car ride, been observing the behavior of the turn signal lights, but never noticed that the driver was flipping a lever at the same time they started flashing (probably because the signal stalk is on the left of the steering column, blocked from view).

So this poor confused child had constructed an elaborate theory of car ESP around the idea that cars have a  psychic ability to predict the driver’s intentions several seconds before they start turning the wheel. She was asking for an explanation of how this ESP system works.

Apparently no one had yet figured out what her confusion actually was. She had obviously asked the question before, and not gotten a satisfactory answer. Who knows how many times someone had explained the steering mechanism, without realizing that this was *not* the part of the system she was confused about.

The moral of the story is, students are far better than you are at figuring out new ways of misunderstanding the world. This is one reason having an experienced teacher on the team is so important when writing for students. Only they will have had contact with the enemy long enough to have built up a list of the specific confusions that come up, and how to deal with them.

Then the problem is that there’s no way you can possibly address all of them without turning the text into something ten times too long which insults the intelligence of the other 90% of the students who don’t have that particular confusion. Imagine a child—one who *has* noticed the driver flipping the lever—having an adult explain that the car is not psychic, when they were actually asking about how the rack-and-pinion gear works.

It’s a hard problem. Much better to assign an experienced, insightful teacher to each class, someone who knows the subject matter very well, but can also listen carefully and figure out what each student's unique confusion is. 

Sadly, that would require a sensible educational policy and teacher training system. This is at present impossible because the people in charge, much like my companion that day, are very confused about some aspects of how the world works and are focusing their energies on addressing many things that are not the real problem. 

Theodore Gray, June, 2016

P.S. I also explained that, by the time she could drive, cars would actually know ahead of time which way to turn, because they would be self-driving and you'd just tell them where you wanted to end up.



It has happened before. It will happen again. And it can happen here.

I don't normally comment on the issues of the day, but everyone has a breaking point, and this is mine. I don't want to wait until it's too late to say something, and I'm far from the only one who feels this way. You know things are getting bad when even sensible business people and cynical politicians decide that they need to be on the right side of history, no matter the cost.

It’s not often that you read something written by the CEO of a major corporation that took real courage to write. Not the sort of courage you get talked into by a PR consultant who says you need to look tough. Real courage, in the face of real danger.

America has done good things in the world. It has fought just wars and it has sheltered those no one else would. America rebuilt a shattered Europe and elected a black man president. These are not small things. But neither are they a guarantee or a moral blank check.

I believe in the essential goodness of people. I believe that very few people get up in the morning wishing to make the world worse. But history tells us that good people, solid citizens, and well-meaning leaders can take their countries to the depths of hell in a frighteningly short time. 

It has happened before. It will happen again. And it can happen here.

America has always been at its best when we have been courageous, not when we have cowered in fear. And let’s make no mistake about it: When a country commits outrageous, population-wide violations of long-held rights and freedoms—in response to attacks by individuals and small armed groups that pose no threat to the nation as a whole—that country is acting out of blind fear.

It is beneath the dignity of the great country I live in to act this way. 

The FBI, for reasons that it no doubt considers to be noble and necessary, has recently tried to play to our darkest fears. In the Bureau’s zeal to prosecute a criminal case, a murderous rampage, it is telling us that we are not safe in our homes if we do not give it the power to walk unseen into those homes and watch over us. 

In the case of the San Bernardino iPhone, the FBI is asking for the power to, at any time and without our knowledge, place listening devices and cameras on our bedside tables, in our back pockets, in our children’s bedrooms, and yes, in our bathrooms.

Of course they don’t put it quite that way, but no one should be under any illusions on this subject. If the FBI is permitted to compel Apple to create the backdoor they are asking for in this case, they will ask for it again, and they will ask for more and more powerful access, for less and less serious crimes. 

If they can ask Apple to disable the password protections on an iPhone, they can ask Apple to turn on the microphone or the camera. On any iPhone, anywhere, in any home in this country. And you would never know. 

Some years ago one could have argued that there would be restraint in the use of such powers. But no one can seriously make that case anymore. We all know they would do that sort of thing if they could, because we’ve all read of too many cases where they have.

Once the tool exists, it will be abused. I really wish I could say otherwise. I wish I lived in a country where law enforcement acted with the square-jawed nobility of a comic book FBI agent. I used to think I did live in such a country, but in recent years I have been forced to realize that I don’t. I think that, in your heart, you know it too. 

And if you happen to like the party in power today, just remember, every tool you give them is inherited by the next guy. Think of the worst possible outcome of the next election, the worst new president, the worst new congress you can imagine (whichever one that might be for you). Do you want those people to have the power to look and listen to anyone they please, anytime, anywhere? To search at will through recordings of our most personal moments? To use a rubber stamp warrant to gather dirt on someone who insulted them? To review the browsing history of anyone who annoys them publicly enough? 

Fear is the tool of choice for bringing a free people under the yoke. Fear is the great equalizer between the unlimited power of the people to act in their own interest, and the pitiful weakness of a would-be despot.

Do not give these people the tools that only fear can buy them.

The work of courage belongs to everyone. We each have a role to play in our own corner of the world. Right now there is only one thing standing in the way of a nightmare coming true in the domain of the iPhone. That one thing is the good word of Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple Computer. And if that doesn’t scare the living daylights out of you, I don’t know what would.

I do business with Apple. I like Apple. I liked Steve Jobs. I don’t know this man Tim Cook, but I respect his courage in standing up to a bully government. His words set an example, and for that we all owe him a debt. I think it's a debt that is best paid forward.

We should all look to our own lives and ask, against what injustice, great or small, am I the last defense? What requires my courage? When they come knocking, whose example will I follow?

Theodore Gray 

I gave a TEDx talk (and so did Nina)

Last week Nina and I both gave separate TEDx talks in Maastricht, Netherlands. Maastricht is very nice! Lots of bicycles, very few cars. If you've seen my Molecules book tour talk you won't see much new in this video, but if not, it's a concise 18-minute summary of my views on natural vs. synthetic chemicals (hint, I'm in favor of them).

Nina talked about how copyright is brain damage:

Nina's movie (that isn't her fault) is out!

A few of you may know that the only reason I got into making periodic table quilts (and molecule quilts and Pi quilts) and other such nonsense is that my girlfriend Nina bought a giant quilt-making robot. And the main reason she bought that machine was that she needed to invest some otherwise taxable income from a Hollywood movie gig. It was kind of a question of beating blood money into quilts, or something like that.

Well, that movie is finally out! It's called The Prophet, produced by Salma Hayek and directed by Roger Allers (The Lion King). Here's the official trailer on YouTube.

The movie has received mixed reviews, but you can't blame Nina for that, because it was produced as a collaboration in which half a dozen well-known animators each contributed segments in their own unique styles (with glue in between that makes them all hang together).

Her segment is, of course, fabulous, and if you don't believe me, this is what the Village Voice has to say:

Of the film’s team of idiosyncratic but somewhat timid animators, only Nina Paley (writer-director of Sita Sings the Blues) delivers a segment — traditional shadow puppets are plunged into a vortex of psychedelic abstract shapes — that is viscerally engrossing enough to bring Gibran’s writing to life. Paley’s segment proves that The Prophet is more of a missed opportunity than an ambitious folly.

The Prophet has a 69% Rotten Tomatoes score, while Nina's own movie Site Sings the Blues has a 100% score, proving, as if any further proof were necessary, that 100% Nina is much better than merely fractional Nina.

Apple Celebrates Five Years of Touchpress

Ooo, such a tingly feeling to be on the front page of the App Store!

Today (and for the next week most likely, as these things generally turn over every Thursday) Apple has put up a whole row of icons on the home page of the US and UK App Stores (and possibly others) featuring a selection of Touchpress Apps, plus a special icon that takes you to a page all about our storied line of apps.

The occasion is our fifth anniversary as an app publishing company. Here's what the lovely, lovely page looks like. (Also, all these apps are on sale half price, so now's your chance. They're really quite good.)

And here's what the front page of the App Store looks like (scrolled down a bit, because, no, it's not the TOP line of icons, it's just one whole great big juicy line of icons, part way down)