Archive for May, 2019

Designing future explanations

Saturday, May 11th, 2019

Sometimes it’s easier to make something than it is to explain what you made. You can implement a new algorithm in a dozen lines of code, but it might take many words and images to explain to somebody else how that code actually works.

It’s particularly difficult when your algorithm is about something in 3D space. Showing how something works in 3D doesn’t always work well on a 2D computer screen.

These days I like to imagine that we are already several years into the future. When we can all put on our lightweight augmented reality glasses, I will just be able to gesture with my hands to walk somebody through a visual explanation of a 3D algorithm.

The 3D diagrams I create will simply float in the air between us. We will be able to look around them just like any 3D object in our world, and we will be able to use our facial expression, hand gestures and body language while we discuss the concepts, just like we always do in face to face conversation.

I know that what I am describing is all still a little ways off, but I’ve already started creating my visual explanations with the assumption that this is how they will soon be seen. I think of it as good practice.


Friday, May 10th, 2019

There is something educational about reentering your everyday life after having been away for a while. It stirs things up in a way that I think is entirely positive.

The quotidian has a way of disappearing before our eyes. Anything we do or see day in and day out becomes a sort of background blur.

But then you go away and come back, and suddenly you notice things. You realize how much you cherish the people you see every day. Little things that make your daily life joyful are no longer taken for granted.

But most of all you remember to appreciate having a place in this Universe. And that leads to the biggest reawakening of all: Every one of us is lucky simply to be here.

What you realize

Thursday, May 9th, 2019

What you realize, in the end, is that the conference is not about the papers or research results. It’s not about the technical presentations, or the panels, or workshops, or even the keynote addresses by Very Important Persons.

No, the conference is about the people you meet, the lasting personal connections you make, the fellow human beings who will be your friends going forward in this life, wherever you or they may be on the planet.

It’s good to know that some things — arguably the most important things — are not at all subject to questions of technology. Would you want it any other way?

Vast and various

Wednesday, May 8th, 2019

When something is so vast and various as the SIGCHI conference, every day contains more intellectual revelations than I can process. As I listen to these talks, I find my mind traveling into new and unexpected territories.

These last days I have been writing lists of projects I want to do, inspired by all that I have seen and heard here. I will never get the time to do half of them, but simply writing these thoughts down has been deeply satisfying.

The take-home for me is that the world of ideas is a vast and unending cornucopia. We simply need to keep our minds open.

In the words of my dear departed friend Lance Williams, the possibilities are “limited only by your imagination.”

Pill game

Tuesday, May 7th, 2019

Here at the SIGCHI 2019 conference in Glasgow there is a wondrous diversity of paper presentations. Perhaps the most surprising one I attended was during a session on original interfaces for multimedia games. For this paper, the presenter explained their game via a short video.

The video starts at the outset of the game, when the player swallows a little pill. This pill contains a temperature sensor and a tiny bluetooth transmitter. There is an app on the player’s smartphone that shows the current temperature of the pill.

The goal of the game is to maintain the pill at a target temperature. At first, when the pill is in the player’s stomach, the game is pretty easy. The player just needs to drink the proper amount of hot fluids. At this point the video shows people drinking coffee and hot soup.

But then, when the pill arrives at the player’s small intestine, the game becomes more challenging. In order to maintain the proper temperature, the player needs to exercise, which raises body temperature just the right amount.

At this point the video shows people running down hallways within office buildings, while checking their phones to see whether they have hit their target temperature.

The narration then helpfully explains that part of the fun of the game is that you don’t know exactly when it will end, although generally the game ends after somewhere between 24 and 36 hours.

At this point in the video, we just see a discreet shot of the door of a bathroom, and we hear a flushing sound.

I think this is a wonderful paper. For one thing, it totally gives me permission to submit my most outrageous ideas to SIGCHI 2020. After all, I’m pretty sure that nothing I come up with will top what I saw today.

You take a moment

Monday, May 6th, 2019

You take a moment
The whole world stands still, while you
Draw a single breath

Even if

Sunday, May 5th, 2019

Even if you were Donald Dewar, the inaugural first minister of Scotland, and even if you were revered in your lifetime, and even if your countrymen have erect a nine foot tall statue in your honour at the top of Buchanan Street at Concert Hall, in the very heart of Glasgow,

even if all of that is true and more, it is also true that the world will continue to change around you to something you might not have recognized, and it is also true that down through the years birds will continue to stand atop your head.

The Jedi and the Bumblebee

Saturday, May 4th, 2019

This evening we had a rather deep philosophical discussion about the difference between male and female hero narratives. As it happens, last night on my flight to Glasgow I saw the latest Transformers film Bumblebee.

This film is very much a woke feminist narrative. It centers on a young woman who works together with a Transformer character to save the world.

In our discussion this evening we contrasted the arc of this story with that of young Luke Skywalker. Luke, like young King Arthur before him, is, from birth, destined for greatness.

A fundamental trope of most male “hero’s journey” narratives is that the young man is born to greatness. Like Neo in The Matrix, in order to succeed he mostly needs to learn to accept his natural birthright.

But hero’s journey narratives with female protagonists often follow a different convention. Rather than seeing the hero as being born to greatness, the narrative generally develops along the lines of evolving character.

Our female protagonist is not a hero by birthright, but rather by force of personality. She becomes the hero who saves the world.

It seems that this difference is essential to understanding our unconscious gender bias. We readily extend to male heroes the mantle of royalty, yet we are not so generous with our female heroes.

But maybe in the long run that is better. After all, a hero who succeeds on her own is far more interesting than one who had a boost from culturally determined mythical or narrative magic.

May the fourth be with you!

Being nowhere

Friday, May 3rd, 2019

I am currently at Newark International Airport with two of our Ph.D. students, waiting at the gate for a United Airlines flight that will take us to Glasgow, Scotland. For the next week I shall be immersed in the world of the annual conference of SIGCHI (the Special Interest Group of Computer/Human Interfaces, which is one of the ACM (Association of Computing Machinery) SIGs (…)).

Sorry, nearly got caught in a recursion there. Where was I?

Oh right. Newark Airport. Looking around, I realize that I am situated in one of those odd liminal places that exists only to come from some other location in order to go to some other other location.

This is a place, but not a “place”. After all, nobody is really here because they want to be here. In fact, they are here precisely because they want to be someplace else.

Train stations, bus depots, taxi stands, these are all liminal places. But airports are different because of the sheer amount of time one tends to spend in them.

The nature of air travel requires you to wait before you can depart — and sometimes to wait a very long time. Being in airports may be the longest amount of time that I spend essentially being nowhere.

Wandering Denisovans

Thursday, May 2nd, 2019

To me the most exciting news today was the discovery of ancient Denisovans far from the single small region where they were first found. I am not sure why I find this news to be so thrilling, but I do.

Perhaps because it is a welcome respite from the ordinary. People seem to spend so much time these days either griping about the current state of the world or else escaping into artificial fantasy universes.

Yet here is a discovery that is magnificent in its sheer temporal scale — a new window into the vast prehistory of our shared human heritage. It is also a mystery.

For what were these people like? What kind of language did they speak? What were their views on love? What sorts of ideas ran through those very large brains of theirs?

We may never know the answers to these questions. Yet in the simple act of asking, we are lifted out of the quotidian, and we find our sense of wonder restored.