On the Fire at Notre-Dame

The photos and videos of yesterday’s fire at Notre-Dame were difficult to watch but hard to avoid. For a while, when it seemed like the structure would be a complete loss, I couldn’t help but contemplate the same sense of the impermanence and futility of human existence that I felt when I visited the ruins of ancient civilizations in Egypt. What hubris the Egyptians must have had to think that they could build something–structural and societal–that would last forever.

In the 800-some years since the Notre-Dame was conceived, governments, cultures, art, and values have shifted and evolved. In western society, the church (Catholic or otherwise) holds a tiny fraction of its former authority. Grand civic works of 50- to 100-year duration are seldom, if ever, undertaken. We debate the incontrovertible evidence of the threat posed by climate change as if it were fashion or politics, while committing only symbolic levels of resources to action. We, as humans, are capable of more than ever before. But what will be our generation’s Notre-Dame? What are we building that will be treasured and celebrated 800 years from now?


Endlings Program Cover

at the American Repertory Theater

March 1–17, 2019 at the Loeb Drama Center
Cambridge, Mass.

About 10 minutes into the show, I realized that my mouth was hanging open.  I’m not accustomed to being dazzled or surprised by the Boston theater scene–delighted, yes, and certainly entertained–but here I was, giddy for every startling new set change, lighting cue, and sound cue.  Endlings, a play about elderly Korean free-divers on a remote island eking out a living from their obsolete profession and the way their lives are linked with the next generation, is unlike any play I’ve seen.  The first act was a joyful and beautiful window into their lives; the second act a surreal, hilarious, and sometimes over-the-top departure into the existential questions of a young playwright living in New York.  (It makes sense in the show, really.)  The play is not without its flaws, but there’s nothing quite like it either.  There’s also the small matter of the 4,800 gallons of water on stage.  I would recommend it to everyone I know, but time is running out.  See it while you can.

3D-printed Parts in the Home

I’ve worked in the 3D printing industry long enough to recall the peak of the 3D printing hype cycle (2013–2014) with an appropriate level of horror. 3D printing is a terrific technology, it’s here to stay, and it’s crucially important to the future of design and manufacturing. But its maturation did not exactly overthrow any industries. And the much-reported science-fiction future in which everyone has a printer at home, “downloading” faucets or minting custom repair parts or whatever is still an absurd joke. Nevertheless, access to a printer comes in handy, such as for the tricky installation of this baby gate:

It’s a silly project, but what are you going to do when you have 4 mounting surfaces that are non-coplanar? With this part (in blue) I was able to quickly adapt the hook provided by the gate manufacturer to the turned, tapered newel post. Since it was 3D-printed, I could integrate hollow channels for nylon zip ties that would have been difficult to realize with other technologies. The part is secured to the newel post with zip ties and silicone glue, which makes it strong but relatively easy to remove in the future. The material is Formlabs Tough resin.

Something Positive About an American Airline

Scott McCartney of the Wall Street Journal nominated Delta Air Lines as America’s best carrier of 2018. He backs it up with specific statistics, but I have two other reasons to believe it’s true.

First: the people on the phone. Every phone call I’ve made to Delta—admittedly not often—has connected me to someone who is unfailingly polite (“oh, my son loves ____”) and absolutely competent (“I’m going to move you and your baby because that particular aircraft doesn’t have an extra oxygen mask in that row”). Sometimes even a little too chatty, in that charming southern way. That is absolutely not typical of other airlines in the US.

Second: employee autonomy. I also travel on a bunch of lower-cost carriers, and I’ve become accustomed to the notion that airline employees are slaves to the whims of some faraway machine with grander plans for us (inevitably referred to in conversation as “the computer”). Stuff goes wrong all the time in air travel. Senior employees of Delta appear empowered to do pretty much anything to correct problems. I’ve seen them rearrange seats, redirect luggage, and hold flights, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were allowed to re-route planes. I can’t forget the time that my flight to a funeral was canceled, putting me on standby for the last conceivable flight that could actually make it in time. The replacement flight was sold-out, but with no more than a nod at me, the gate agent turned away a paying passenger in the final minutes of boarding so she could give me the seat. That is the kind of world you get to live in when humans are in charge.

Instability: When Machines Take Over

Behind the broad, swift market slide of 2018 is an underlying new reality: Roughly 85% of all trading is on autopilot—controlled by machines, models, or passive investing formulas, creating an unprecedented trading herd that moves in unison and is blazingly fast. Behind the Market Swoon: The Herdlike Behavior of Computerized Trading, The Wall Street Journal

As an engineer, I know a few things about feedback loops. The world is full of feedback loops. I design electronic ones, but the financial markets are full of them too. When a bunch of people build automatic control loops around some crucial piece of infrastructure (like the stock market) and gradually turn up the gain to maximize profits (as we know they will), the system will eventually go unstable and oscillate. You can model that. It looks like someone learning to drive a car while spotting the road directly in front of the hood, overcorrecting for every perceived error.

Meanwhile, to the great detriment of humanity, many bright minds–including many of my college classmates–are engaged in high-tech R&D to advance the state of the art in automated “investing.” They have built new algorithms, better supercomputers, broken new ground in programming languages and big-data analysis in the name of automated trading. Millions of dollars have been invested in further gaming the system, like by locating datacenters in places that optimize communications latency at sub-millisecond levels.

Does any of this work serve the real world? Of course not. None of it creates lasting value–just money. Automated trading exists to siphon money out of the real economy and into the hands of the financial industry. Appreciate for a moment that it’s not really fair to call these schemes “investing” if they are automated and high speed. Investing implies that you are making a long-term bet on something, not responding to a tiny signal.

I’ve met these people and their companies at career fairs where we compete for young talent, and it feels bleakly hopeless and strange to me that nobody seems to question the ethics of it. Of course it’s technically demanding and academically interesting work, but so is building weapons of mass destruction. Except instead of building machines to kill people, you get to build machines that gamble with people’s retirement savings.

If I were king of the world, I would fix this problem quickly and easily without violating any of the core principles of capitalism: by introducing a highly random and arbitrary (but fairly short) delay on every trade, automated or human. There is no real reason that trading needs to be fast. Overnight, automated computerized trading would be wiped out, but fairly so. The big banks siphoning money out of the system through high-speed financial arbitrage would lose a potent source of income, but this consequence would pose no detriment to the actual (productive) economy.

Think about it.

Credit cards in 2018

My credit card bill is full of lines like:


Why does GrubHub write its name twice and mention New York? I ordered that meal in Massachusetts. Who swallowed the rest of the letters in “Whole Foods” and why did they leave a 5-digit number? Who is “TST*”? Or “M”?

Visa and MasterCard made about $10 billion and $4 billion, respectively, in annual profit this year. You’d think that if Twitter (whose 2018 profit is in the low hundreds of millions) can afford to offer 280-character messaging, the credit card companies could cough up computer systems that can handle more text than a 19th-century telegram. Maybe even lowercase letters. Or human-readable metadata.

One can dream.


Dieter Rams
Photo credit: Gary Hustwit

I attended the Boston premier of Gary Hustwit’s new film Rams at the Museum of Fine Arts today. I’m a super fan of two of his previous documentaries, Helvetica and Objectified, so I really had little choice.

The movie is great. Dieter Rams is a fascinating character with an incredible résumé. He has a message for us: design is about more than form or function. We need to stop getting excited about the shiny and the beautiful. We need fewer things, and the things we have need to be more permanent and more consequential.

It’s a great message from a legend of the field. And it comes across well on the big screen. The photography is beautiful. The editing is relaxed and the story emerges on its own. The original Brian Eno soundtrack isn’t too shabby either.

The live Q&A with the director left a few ideas percolating in my head. Rams is, of course, famous for his ten principles of good design. In response to an audience question, Hustwit suggested that perhaps we should all have a set of principles that govern how we judge design. Why not try to write them down?