Rebooting my Blog for 2015

Journal / Meta

I’ve had moments where I’ve made sweeping, public declarations of reboots and fresh starts. These pronouncements have ranged from triumphant to cringe-inducing. This is one of those posts.

Existential crises keep me up at night, and If I’m to be honest, have probably haunted me for at least a decade now. They reach a boiling point, and suddenly it’s time for blog reset… as if writing out loud would make things manifest in a more certain direction. Magical thinking.

Don’t get me wrong… I enjoy some privilege… you know, water and electricity (not to mention amazing partner and genuinely exciting opportunities all around).

There’s just a nagging sense of creative stagnation. A little version of me sitting on my shoulder tugging my earlobe, “ok, but you’re not quite there yet…. And it’s now or never, chief.”

I know I’m not the only one that feels like this sometimes, and yes, there’s probably a lesson somewhere about contentedness and happiness and mindfulness I should investigate. I’ll put that on the list.

For now, I’m installing WordPress plugins and restoring past blog posts.

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Week Notes 1831-1835 – Major Projects LEGO & Silos

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robot_dino

Trying to catch up on a month of very intense activity is a really daunting task. I have a (small) breather before Thanksgiving, so figured it’d be good to squeeze this out before the real end-of-semester crunch begins. I’ve been keeping pretty detailed time logs, though, showing what’s been going on every day (indeed, every minute) these past months; these are coming in handy as I reflect.

So here we go. An attempt to recap and summarize briefly the last month or so.

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Week Notes 1830 – Short Week

weeknotes
dumplings

This is a short blog post for a short week, last week. It was a bit of a recharge / reset week; when people have been asking me, lately, “how are things going?” I noticed I’ve been responding with rather draining, “they’re going fast” and “can you believe it’s already October.” That’s a pretty large red flag, I think. The “woe is me” rhetoric doesn’t really do justice the things which are exciting to me.

For example, I met with Ethan Zuckerman, my mentor/coach for the Data Centric Project class I am taking to help craft a data story about the Ethiopia tablet project. Here’s a snippet of a follow up email I sent about what we discussed re: general scope of data:

We have too much data. It may likely hold lots of compelling answers, but I haven’t asked even basic questions, yet.

There is still a bit of work to do on gathering up data, logistically — it exists across a few different servers in multiple formats. It’s not normalized and much of the data is noisy/dirty (won’t try to solve that yet).

…and about the research questions:

Ultimately, I am trying to tell the story of how tablets get used by kids (and possibly their families) and see if usage patterns emerge in an instructive way. As a beginning question, I’m going to look at the “who, what, when” for one tablet. I hope to visualize the “usage trajectory” over the course of a week for a tablet — when was the screen on and off and then what apps were open over the course of the timeline.

Next, I will attempt to associate users, via photos, on this timeline.

I hope a pattern of usage will appear, but multiple tablets will need to be investigated to see if there are some generalizations we can start to build (or unexpected, novel usage patterns)

If usage patterns appear, I will see if these can be grouped or generalized by “category” or “nature” of interaction. (unclear what how this might actually manifest… the hope is that I can review a brand new set of data from a tablet and “fit” it to a usage pattern I’ve seen before) — This baseline will be valuable, especially if we hope to scaffold or direct learning activity in any interesting way

I will look at how usage patterns change over time for a given tablet (ex. do users start their use by “sampling apps” and then hone in on single apps?)

I’m also excited about starting to formulate some interesting project ideas for ‘side’ work.

New ideas are awesome, but as the “do-acracy” of the lab (and, let’s face it, the world) dictates, ideas are much, much less respected than actually shipping projects; I have a few things in motion, now, so really want to put down the fiinishing strokes.

There is an event that happens every semester at the Media Lab where members (i.e. “sponsors”) of the lab come to visit and see the current work of students. There is some lore around these events as crunch times — people are pushed to desparately make something new.

I, however, kind of wanted the stretch goal. I wanted to force myself to make something crazy, in a hurry, for this largely artificial deadline. So I’m, a bit secretly, working on a small project for me to present to satisfy this urge.

A very dangerous devleopment: I discovered I can get cable tv delivered to my computer while in the lab. Yay for watching football, boo for productivity.

An equally dangerous discovery: I have a newfound love of soup dumplings (Xioa Long Bao). I had them twice last week. If this keeps up, I’ll turn into a dumpling!

Week Notes 1828/1829 – Two Types of Media Lab Presentations

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tinder_featured

It’s already October and well into the semester. Deadlines for adjusting course schedules have passed. Project deadlines are coming up and whatever passes for “routine” around here is taking over.

I think this is all best characterized by something Laura (another new student) said to me earlier today, “We’re pretty much done with the ‘settling in’ time.” Indeed, I’m not going to get any more settled than this. It’s now squarely time for disruptive thinking and making. Read More

Week Notes 1827 – Bad Week for Art

weeknotes
arthack

I’m falling into a few old patterns of not being able to apply a good filter on things I want to be working on. This is especially problematic at a place where opportunities come really fast and constantly. How do you say no to awesome, shiny bobbles that are in high supply at MIT?

I used to really be disappointed that Media Lab people rarely showed up at Dorkbot-Boston events. I’m beginning to understand why. There is just too much to do here & it’s hard to break away!

One amazing thing MIT offers is an Art Loan Program where items from the MIT collection are available for students to take home or to their offices. There’s a lottery system, though, and a few weeks ago, Lauren and I picked out 3 great pieces and crossed our fingers. Sadly, we weren’t selected, so no art for us.

I also half-way participated in art hack day – boston this past weekend. The organizers were friendly and helpful; they arranged for great food and did their best to provide a comfortable hacking environment. They went out of their way to connect teams with resources needed to complete their projects, and the end result was a set of wonderful ideas. Read More

Week Notes 1826 – Scheduling and Routines

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tech_in_classrooms

A couple days late with this week note. I wrote a good chunk of this over the weekend, but didn’t finish editing until I realized I hadn’t posted. I backdated the posting date, at any rate.

Another week flying by at MIT. This one was all about trying to settle into a schedule and a bit of structured routine. I find that I do my best work in the early morning; when I can get myself up, my day goes so much better if I hit the ground running and get 3-4 hours of work in before breakfast. This early morning tendency is both a blessing and a curse at MIT. It seems most people tend to wander in mid-morning/lunchtime. This means if I can get into the lab super early, I can get a lot of uninterrupted thinking / making time to myself. For me, the afternoons are great for meetings, meanderings, and brainstorming work when my focused energy is low. Might be a good time to visit the gym, too, for that matter. (I have rented a locker at the MIT gym, but I couldn’t actually find it after 20 minutes of searching.) Read More

Review: Robot & Frank

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Production Still from Robot and Frank. Photo: © 2012 - Samuel Goldwyn Films/Stage 6 Films

SPOILER ALERT: I reveal plot points of the movie, Robot & Frank, in this post.

paro

Paro robot seal with elderly patient. Photo: Reuters

For my Human-Robot interaction class, I was assigned to go watch the indie movie, Robot & Frank and do a warm-up writing exercise to critique what I saw as it relates to social robotics. In the movie set in the near future, a companion / healthcare robot interacts with a man suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Hilarity and tearjerking ensues. A particularly enjoyed the “grumpy old man” moments as played by Frank Langella.

Robots are already used for soothing, theraputic purposes, incidentally. A significant segment of the social robotics field focuses on elder care, work with autistic children, and other healthcare applications.

Design of Robot

I found the physical and behavioral design of Robot provocative. It was approximately three quarters of the size of the humans around it and humanoid, mostly (unlike the library robot which appeared to be designed to be more functional in its environment with some limited social behaviors; it could talk and noticed when its human operators entered a room). Because Robot needed to operate in typical human environments (home, store, walking on street, etc) and also needed to evoke non-threatening social connections with its patients, a diminutive humanoid seemed an appropriate choice.

Robot’s physical design seemed to have a clear influence from robots like Honda’s Asimo with a shiny plastic exterior and dome “face.” This may be a poor choice; indeed, Frank, the patient, suffering from memory loss and confusion was initially scared by Robot’s appearance by his bed, “What are you?!” and even called the robot a “spaceman.” I would have expected the design of a robot companion to be a little more comforting like the Paro Therapeutic Robots used for Alzheimer’s patients. (Question: is this a matter of uncanny valley? If the robot was any more realistic, would it have been equally scary to Frank? Should the robot have a face?)

Honda Asimo

Honda Asimo

In the movie, Robot exhibited behaviors and actions that would be far beyond any realistic robot performance today. It moved around too fast over a wide variety of terrain (including an uneven forest floor), could climb up buildings and stairs, it was very light (one character was able to lift it easily from a car trunk), and its manual dexterity seemed exaggerated. It only had a thumb and forefinger with flipper third through fifth fingers, and yet it was able to accomplish a variety of specialized tasks like lock picking and making elaborate egg breakfasts. It seemed able to adjust to new environments without any prior planning or knowledge; for example, it could find its way around Frank’s kitchen when it first arrives at his home and was able to navigate its way through a chaotic cocktail party scene while finding Frank and responding to his commands from across the room. This unrealistic portrayal of robot capabilities was necessary for the storytelling, but it may also create unrealistic expectations of current robots for audiences.

Robot’s voice was soothing, reassuring, but firm. Its movement seemed deliberate and it used subtle, non-verbal cues (like tilts of the head to indicate attention or upturned palms to emphasize points while talking). I was amused by the moments when Robot “looked off into space” as it was calculating or “thinking.”

Frank’s interaction with Robot

Frank’s physical interaction with the robot is limited. He rarely touched the robot except for overt examples like arm wrestling or transferring bags of groceries. The robot’s walking pace matched Frank’s when they were on sojourns together (although in one scene, when Frank was a little more excited, he admonished Robot to “keep” up). Matching pace and body language of a counterpart is a technique for developing rapport and trust. (Question: what work has been done in robots building rapport through mimicry of human counterparts?)

Robot’s purpose was to provide both companionship and care to its patient and would alter its behavior to that end. He routinely refused some of Frank’s commands (like serving breakfast cereal), but was also willing to negotiate with Frank if it had a belief that it could ultimately improve Frank’s health through a sequence of actions (even if those actions were, on their own, of dubious merit). It also seemed able to tell Frank knowingly incorrect information to induce guilty feelings from Frank. This would indicate a very sophisticated model of other minds in Robot’s AI; it was able to reason about Frank’s intentions and motivations.

vgc-60l

Frank seemed to bond with his robot. The entire metaphor of the movie (Frank the alzheimer’s patient with memory issues vs. Robot the machine with a volatile memory, itself) played out in the poignant, final scene between Frank and the Robot. In order to erase the robot’s memory, Frank needed to reach behind the robot’s head and depress the off switch. This resulted in an embracing interaction (another example of touching) between Frank and the Robot, “I knew you had an off switch”

Moments like these, implied intentions of Robot, and Robot’s communicative interaction with Frank helped the movie audience empathize with a non-human character.

Robot’s Social Place

The movie attempted to address an overarching question of what it means to be human and how a robot companion might fit into the social structure of a family. I’m not convinced the characters worked this out completely. For example, the human characters never gave Robot a name; instead, they used terms like, “slave,” “butler,” “babysitter,” “companion,” “thing,” “appliance,” and “friend” to describe the robot’s relationship to the family depending on the current circumstances. It seemed that the characters had difficulty and confusion assessing the robot’s place in their social structure. The daughter felt there were ethical concerns with the robot’s place in the household whereas Frank alternatively seemed to find the robot a “friend,” “co-conspirator,” and even a “tool” to accomplish some underhanded goals (i.e. burglary).

Robot did exhibit selfless behaviors in its final act to his companion — knowingly willing to erase its memory in an attempt to protect Frank. The robot “knew” that it was not alive and did its best to assure Frank that it could not die.

Week Notes 1825 – First week at MIT

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IMG_0809

I’m reviving a practice of writing weekly summaries called Weeknotes, inspired by Berg’s weeknotes. A friend sends out daily messages he calls “wilts” (short for “what I learned today”); he uses those posts to share what’s on his mind or to present interesting problems or ideas. I’m hoping my weeknotes posts function like “wi*w”… what I wondered/tinkered/learned/built/shared every week.

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