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.
I get asked every now and again about how to operate a services business offering my skills for hire. I’d like to share some lessons learned the hard (and expensive) way primarily earning income from clients for the past 15 yrs. I just got into the MIT Media Lab and am hibernating my business, so this post serves as a reference for others who might consider getting into the consulting game sometime in the future.
I am beginning a transition this week. It’s been a long time coming, actually, but there will be a flurry of activity in the upcoming weeks, and I wanted to be sure to capture these moments.
I’ve been taking daily, self portrait, narcissist photos for a long while now, but this video above documents a subset from about April of this year until yesterday. This represents the time between when I was accepted to the Media Lab at MIT until now
Software Artists or Plumbers
I really can’t complain about my career so far. I’ve made some really fun stuff with some amazing people. I’ve run a studio, have worked with “name-brand” clients, and have seen stuff I’ve built making people happy. I’ve been able to feed myself (too well, actually) all while avoiding the “9-5 grind.” (granted, it’s been more like a 24/7 grind, but at least it’s a grind of my own choosing).
With some notable exceptions, though, the past couple of years have been really difficult for me, professionally. I’ve found myself hitting a ceiling where the kind of work I’m typically hired to do is no longer creatively fulfilling. When people want apps made, they want to hire plumbers, they don’t want to hire software artists. I found the most conflict with projects where the clients just wanted me to shut up and build.
I realized I’m better than that and likely smarter than they or I have given myself credit for.
I used to talk about building avant garde robot performance art, robot ballerinas and robots that played with kids in classrooms… I used to talk about that stuff A LOT.
If you had asked me, even last year, whether or not my career has moved me closer to those visions, I’d sigh and say, “no, I’m ‘just’ building iPhone apps.”
Then, one day, I actually stopped and looked at my portfolio from just the past few years and then remembered every job and startup in which I’ve participated.
Learning. Robots. Technology. Art. Design.
It’s all there. It’s always been there.
… that’s when I got excited again. That’s also when opportunity slapped me in the face.
MIT Media Lab and Personal Robots
Since many of my projects involved building apps and robots and games for kids, a friend sent over an RFP from a professor at MIT who needed some help with Unity 3D apps for kids, Dr. Cynthia Breazeal.
I knew exactly who she was, given my long-lived interest in robots that can express emotion. She is a luminary in social robotics and human robot interaction; one of her most famous projects, Kismet, is recognized as revolutionary in the way it participates in human social interaction while simulating human emotion and appearance.
I met with her and her Ph.D student, we hit it off, and I have been working as a consultant with her group, Personal Robots, at the MIT Media Lab for about a year and half. We’re engaging in app, robot, and toy development to help in early literacy development among young people. For example, we worked with OLPC to send literacy apps to remote villages in Ethiopia.
Through all this, I still kept working with my other clients and plodding along, but I started getting hooked by the audacity of the work and the constant pushing of the envelope she and her students do every day. It’s MIT, for crying out loud.
Midway through the project, I had a long conversation with Cynthia about what it might mean for me to be a student in her group. She let me in on just how big her vision is and I realized I’d been thinking way too small.
At this point, I wanted to go all-in. I wanted this to be what I worked on 24/7, very badly.
It’s just too important and there’s no way I could do it on my own.
So, I tossed my application in last December, and earlier this year, I was humbled by my acceptance, among some of the world’s most talented thinkers and makers, into the Media Lab as a Research Assistant (i.e. graduate student) and will be beginning my work there, full-time in the next week.
I have a lot more to say about this transition. I’m slightly older than the average student (but I don’t think the oldest), I have a partner of almost 8 years who was impacted by this decision (she, thankfully, has a wonderful job two T-stops away from MIT and is rooting for me). It took a lot of number crunching to build financial ROI justification (all students have their tuition covered and get a small stipend, but it’s not pretty… I’ve decided it’s easily one of the best investments I could make right now). I’m scared to death of the intellectual challenges ahead. I hate the pace of academia. I’m not sure, yet, if this is actually a short term or long term play for me. Fraud complex is going to be a constant demon in my life. I’ll talk more about those in later blog posts.
For right now, though, I’m happy and excited.
This past summer, I’ve been practicing extensive quantified self experiments; I’ve been keeping minute-by-minute logs of how I’m spending my time, what I eat, movies I watch, etc. I have a good sense of what’s difficult to capture (ex. “who is in my proximity right now) and what’s rote (ex “what time did I get up?”).
My computers take my photo and capture what’s on my screen every few minutes or so. I’m wearing a fitbit, I’m logging everything I can think about, obsessively, and have written software and prototyped tools that make this easier and automtatic… frictionless.
I haven’t done much work, yet, on what to do with this data. I’m just excited to be collecting it, fairly robustly. I have faith I’ll develop interesting ways to process this data to give my insight sometime soon.
Ultimately, I’d like to answer questions about the conditions that lend to a more prolific creative output. Sure, I’d want to a/b test and optimize for ouput (ex. “At which coffee shop and at what time of day do I tend to write my best stories?”)… to be able to see trends that make me happier and more productive is powerful.
However, more importantly, I’m interested in how the next couple of years at MIT will change me. To do that, I need baseline measurements and tracking all along the way. I need to run experiments in an environment where eccentric experimentation is pretty normal. I will walk out of the Media Lab with terrabytes of data about my body, life, and the way I think. How do you put a price on that?
Making Things and My Blog
If I look at the times in my professional life when I was happiest, it was when I am actually making things that I 100% believed in. The more I make, the happier and healthier I am (literally — I recently discovered that my weight fluctuates with my professional satisfaction).
Indeed, this yearning for “being more creative” drove me to take the next couple of years to break out of my comfort zone and experiment wildly with intellectual ideas.
I’ve written this blog on and off since 2002. About a decade. In the early first few years I wrote some epic rants and short stories and writeups of my misadventures that still make me laugh and cry today.
In 2011, I wrote just one post. One. And it was just a stupid youtube link.
While I’ve made some really great things for clients recently, it’s hard for me to list more than a few things I made strictly for myself. Like a lot of people, I have a notebook stuffed with ideas and sketches. I have a a folder on my computer filled with half-baked code prototypes.
So here’s what I want, now:
- I want to live a healthy, curious life.
- I want to wonder about my world and ask questions.
- I want to tinker and experiment to answer those questions.
- I want to make things that demonstrate what I’ve learned.
- I want to share them with you, probably on this blog.
- Repeat every day, until I die. Indeed. memento mori
- Blinky™ on Vimeo – Horror short film about a robot helper at home – things go wrong. Horribly wrong.
I thought the robot’s smile was an especially fantastic design touch.
Furby 2012 has been (officially) announced
- Uses cheap-o LCDs for eyes
- No off switch
- some more thought to its “furbish” language processing
- “The more you speak, the more chatty it becomes — speak enough and will begin incorporating more English words into its speech”
- There is an iOS app that listens to furby speak and then provides translations
- sample coverage:
- Giddyup, Robot Doggies! Autonomous Soldiers Square Off at Army Robotics Rodeo | Danger Room | Wired.com
“For 10 sweltering days in mid-June, a small army of crawling, rolling, hopping and hovering robots invaded Ft. Benning, Georgia, a sprawling training post near the Alabama border. The occasion: the U.S. Army’s Robotics Rodeo, a competitive evaluation of the latest ground-combat robots.”
- Fritz’s, fast food with a robotic slant – Hack a Day
“Cleverbot AI and avatars talk to each other about life, the universe and everything”
Robot Wonders and Wanderings 2012-06-29
- Robot and Frank Official Trailer #1 (2012)
Near-future setting touches on themes of “robot companions for old people” w/ a dark comedy heist twist. (Frank Langella’s character on his robot): “I need him.” “What do you need him for?” “He’s my friend.”
Also something in there re: paper books and physical libraries vs. ebooks & internet.
So, yeah, right up my alley.
Two delusional toy robots plot to dominate the world in this mini-musical.
A trailer for an upcoming web series about humanoid millitary robots.
Jim Henson’s 1963 film for AT&T featuring a smoke-belching robot and discussion about machines and humans.
- Report: Robots stack up to human professors in teaching Intro Stats | Inside Higher Ed
“In experiments at six public universities, students assigned randomly to statistics courses that relied heavily on “machine-guided learning” software — with reduced face time with instructors — did just as well, in less time, as their counterparts in traditional, instructor-centric versions of the courses.” — they’re using “robots” in the headline to describe software teaching systems
Article by founder of launchpad toys, Stanford-pedigree company that built Toontastic, a puppeteering / storytelling app for iPad
some thoughts from Mindshift about motivation in learning
“Researchers at the University of Rochester have uncovered a new finding about how babies understand and investigate the environment around them. Dubbed the “Goldilocks effect”, their research shows that infants in the study are not interested in things that are too simple or too complex, but just right.”
I learned about Quix today. It’s a bookmarklet-driven shortcut tool for web browsing and has LOTS of potential for shortcuts and helpful information processing workflow due to its built-in and custom command features.
Here’s an example of my custom quix.txt configuration file. I expect this will evolve rapidly over time
(and I’ll eventually get this into github or something)(Done!)
I use Chrome as my primary browser. Unlike safari, it does not allow for keyboard shortcuts for bookmarks or bookmark (ex. if you press cmd-1 while in Safari, the browser launches the first bookmark in the bookmark bar.
To hack this into Chrome (without using one of the clunky extensions available for this purpose), you use the Mac OS X System Preferences > Keyboard > Keyboard Shortcuts.
Instructions to set keyboard shortcut for bookmarks in Chrome
1. Go to System Preferences > Keyboard > Keyboard Shortcuts. Select Application Shortcuts and click + to add a new shortcut. Pick Google Chrome exact name for the Quix bookmarklet. 2. I choose ctrl-1, which works pretty well since I use the caps lock key as a second control modifier. You should see the keyboard short right in Chrome’s Bookmarks menu 3. Just ctrl-1 your way to productivity. An added benefit over the extension route is that the shortcut works even if the omnibar has focus.
So the workflow becomes:
- bang on ctrl-1
- type mt
- bang on cmd-c to copy the already highlighted markdown-formatted link into clipboard
Fast and no mouse required!
- 2012-01-26: changed link to github gist
Originally Posted on DINO Studio’s blog
Aaron and I are on our way to Book^2 Camp in New York. It’s an “unconference,” an event that has a participatory style of generating bottom-up content from the attendees rather than providing top-down, pre-determined content. In the tech industry this is a very common format. After talking with a couple of our clients also attending, I realized that to people used to “normal” conferences, the notion of unconferences can seem really, really strange.
So in advance of the Book^2 unconference, and in the spirit of open participation that defines this format, I thought I’d jot down a few notes and approaches if for no other reason than to prepare myself for the weekend.
Originally Posted on DINO Studio’s blog
(this was meant to go up last Monday. Oops.)
Ugh. Halloween, and by extension, October has come and gone. 2010 is nearing its end.
This has been a hectic couple of weeks for us. Transitory periods have a way of making you feel like time is rushing past and also like you’re not going fast enough.
Some highlights from the past these past couple of weeks:
- Aaron and I participated in the IBM Place Summit 2010 conference. That deserves its own post.
- We shipped some initial story scenes for our current book clients… these are going to be really, really amazing pieces — We’re helping these publishers put enormous amounts of thought and care into the experience of storytelling
- I watched The Social Network, and coincidentally(?) we had a meeting w/ our lawyer to review a few things. 🙂
- We pitched a Facebook-oriented “personal story of wellness” game for a potential client.
- I listened to a panel on ebooks at the Why Books? conference at Radcliff/Harvard. Post to follow.
- We launched a very cute flashcard app for toddlers for our client, Mezmedia.
- Aaron has put some great effort into sorting through some infrastructure of AMP, our skunkworks project.
- I bought a bottomless coffee cup from the nearby bagel place — either the smartest investment of the year or the direct contributor to my impending mental breakdown… probably both.
- Iggy, our green-scaled HR director, has been unusually frisky… making laps around the studio — climbing onto her high perch and through the supplies shelving. Her request for her new heating pad finally went through, so she’s in a good mood overall. Also, we’re thinking she may be gravid.
Originally Posted on DINO Studio’s Blog
The last weeknotes post was 38 weeks ago. Writing weeknotes, obviously, is one of those things that is very difficult to maintain as a habit, but it feels like one of those things that is really important, as well.
Before I left for a badly needed holiday last week, Aaron and I sat for coffee to have one of our quasi-regular “what the heck are we doing, here?” sessions. Half business and half therapy, it’s a conversation we have with each other on a micro/tactical and also a global/strategic level. It is a good chance for us to put the sales and production pipelines on hold and take stock of our direction.