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My life list: Owning things

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My life list: Learning new skills
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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I've got a lot of things to learn on the list. I do want to learn how to land a plane. I want to learn how to tango. I actually have always wanted to play 12-bar blues on a piano. That just looks like a lot of fun. I wish I was really good at some magic trick. I'm not really good at any sleight of hand tricks. Some of them are easy. I should learn how to snowboard. I want to know how to build a drystone wall. I've never done that. I want to build a house. I've never done that. That's an ambition.

And actually I wish that I knew how to touch type. In fact, I've even thought of... this isn't on the list, but it should be. But I kind of want to learn to read again, because the way that I learned to read, I read pretty slowly. And I think it's because I learned how to read it phonetically, and so new words that I've learned I read much faster than old words that I learned as a child. And I realise there's sort of two different ways of reading: one where you make the sound and one... so mostly I read by making the sound and that slows me down. But I wish I could sight read like Chinese read characters, just see the whole word at once. And I thought maybe the way to do that would be to learn to read again by learning to read upside down. I'd just start all over from scratch, but try to do it the right way so I learn to sight read. So that's on my list. I should try to do that one day. And maybe I'll be able to read much faster if I start from scratch, sort of knowing where I'm heading, rather than starting by sounding out words.

So there's lots to learn. There's a lot of things in that skills category. I want... I'd love to learn how to draw. I never really learned how to do that. If I had my life to do over again, I would have done that one early. That would have been really useful. Right now, when I design things, I make very, very crude sketches and then I hand it to people who really know how to draw and they make them into better sketches, and I've always felt that was a handicap I had. I should really be able to do that myself. I'm very... I have done a lot of these things that are fun, like learning how to find my position with a sextant or making a dovetail joint. You know, there are some skills there that were on my list and I finally got around to doing. I sort of have a thrill category, which are things like paragliding and bungee-jumping, kitesurfing. I should probably do those pretty soon, before I get too fragile. I'm not so good about doing those. I'm actually not much of a thrill-seeker. That's not a very long list for me, things I want to do there. And actually, I see that, even on that list, there's not that many that I've done. I do want to ride on one of those waterjet platforms that, you know, the sort of flying saucers that are driven by waterjets.

[Q] What about wingsuit flying? Do you have wingsuit flying on there?

Ah, you know, that's not even on my aspiration list. I think that's too scary for me. But I notice, it's interesting, an awful lot of these... like there's... I have as many done as not done, and on the thrill-seeking thing, I have very few that are actually done. So maybe I'm a physical coward. I actually am probably not much of a thrill-seeker, but some of those I'd really like to do. I mean, I have parachuted. I did race car drive with a race car driver, but I didn't like it very much. I didn't have any inclination to do it again. You know, there are some things... I've always wanted to walk the whole Appalachian Trail, climb Mount Kilimanjaro. I've never climbed Mount Fuji. So I don't have, like, climbing Everest on the list. I have no ambition to do that. But I would like to climb Kilimanjaro. That's a very doable thing.

I've always wanted to walk up to the top of the Washington Monument by the stairs. And they don't seem to let you do that anymore. But I remember walking down it by the stairs and thinking, I have to one of these days go up it. Never gotten to do that. One of these days I want to read the Bhagavad Gita and the Quran and the Bible, but I haven't actually read any of those from start to finish, just little pieces of them.

[Q] What about diving, Danny?

I've got... well, diving, yes. I've done quite a... I've done... I mean, I've got my scuba license and I've done a lot of fun diving things like swimming with giant turtles and with seals in Galapagos and so I've gotten a lot of my diving things out of the way. I do like that. But I still haven't dived at Truk. And I've never had ambition to go freediving, that's just scuba diving. But I do love diving in the water. I did some diving in Papua New Guinea. That was nice.

W Daniel Hillis (b. 1956) is an American inventor, scientist, author and engineer. While doing his doctoral work at MIT under artificial intelligence pioneer, Marvin Minsky, he invented the concept of parallel computers, that is now the basis for most supercomputers. He also co-founded the famous parallel computing company, Thinking Machines, in 1983 which marked a new era in computing. In 1996, Hillis left MIT for California, where he spent time leading Disney’s Imagineers. He developed new technologies and business strategies for Disney's theme parks, television, motion pictures, Internet and consumer product businesses. More recently, Hillis co-founded an engineering and design company, Applied Minds, and several start-ups, among them Applied Proteomics in San Diego, MetaWeb Technologies (acquired by Google) in San Francisco, and his current passion, Applied Invention in Cambridge, MA, which 'partners with clients to create innovative products and services'. He holds over 100 US patents, covering parallel computers, disk arrays, forgery prevention methods, and various electronic and mechanical devices (including a 10,000-year mechanical clock), and has recently moved into working on problems in medicine. In recognition of his work Hillis has won many awards, including the Dan David Prize.

Listeners: George Dyson Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: skills, reading, drawing, wingsuit flying, touch-typing, thrill, climbing, diving, bucket list

Duration: 6 minutes, 27 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 05 July 2017