Post-CMU Update

Alright, let’s not beat around the bush here – it’s been a ridiculously long time since my last post. Let’s start with the obvious – I graduated! From Carnegie Mellon. With my Masters degree in Tangible Interaction Design. The program was a great experience – but the obvious question left was, what now?

Well, while I was at Carnegie Mellon, I realized just how much of my interest in design was rooted in business and the act of *shipping* completed designs. So I decided that academia really wasn’t for me at this point in my life, and decided to dive firmly into product design and entrepreneurship.

I did this in two ways in particular. First, I began working a mix of full-time and part-time for an old professor’s startup, Intellisys Group, here in Cambridge. And second, I began working on some web projects on the side with my friend Michael Borohovski (“Borski”), in hopes of turning one of them into a sustainable business.

It’s been a busy year, but both of those endeavors are finally starting to turn into real projects that I can show and share with the community:

*With Intellisys, the first thing I’m able to show off is Redigi – a service that lets people buy and sell used digital music files. (How is it legal? Well, that’s a long enough post for its own entry – but suffice it to say they’re taking an interesting approach and have a lot of lawyers to back it up. :) )
In particular, I’ve been designing and building a Windows (Ugh!) client application to help explain the sell process and take users through the process of finding music to sell, selling it and resolving copies of sold songs that are accidentally copied back onto the computer. Sign up for the beta! It’ll be fun. Or at the very least, it won’t break your computer. We hope.
I’ve also been working on some Android code more along the lines of my typical mobile / urban computing schtick, for use by skateboarders “in their natural habitat” – but that work is still hush-hush for the moment.

*As for my side work, Borski and I worked on a number of projects, including RentDog, a site that crowd-sources local apartment rent information, Taskerous, a site for reminding oneself of various, well, tasks, and Tinfoil Security, an automated security service for startups. These projects were a great, great experience for me, as they gave me a lot of first hand experience in not just designing the concepts and product itself, but actually building the thing and sorting through all of the little details it takes to actually *launch* something. The launch of RentDog was a fabulous experience in “Getting Things Done” – and while we immediately saw flaws on our design, we also learned first-hand the benefits of launching only a month after coming up with an idea. :) We also got to pitch our ideas in person to Paul Graham and the other good folks at Y Combinator (who, as you can imagine, didn’t bite, or I’d be writing this from California right now).
Borski’s now working full-time on Tinfoil Security with his girlfriend, trying to start a “couple company.” How adorable. <3. Excited to see what they come up with (and to help them with their designs in the future, perhaps!). So, I’ll keep this brief, in hopes that I’ll get myself to come back and post the other stuff in my life as future blog posts! :) As always, thanks for swinging by my website!

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Interaction10 – Fin!

Interaction10 was fabulous. My flight today was canceled, so after one more night in town I’ll return to Pittsburgh tomorrow. Meanwhile, I wanted to quickly toss up my slide deck for my talk from this afternoon on Citizen Volunteerism and Urban Interaction Design, for those going through their business cards and stumbling upon my card and this website. (This deck has low-resolution images – if you’d like a huge high-resolution version, ping me.) I also wanted to thank the Interaction Design Association for both an incredible, humbling opportunity and an amazing experience that I won’t soon forget. It’s not often that a conference leaves me so inspired and energized that I’m eager to get back to building and designing – but then again, there aren’t many professional groups as willing to experiment, be honest, take deep pride in their mission and simply have fun as IXDA either. Here’s hoping I’ll be able to make it to Boulder for Interaction11. :)

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On the simulation of man-made rules

Another “Looking Outward” blog post that I’ve written for my studio course with Golan Levin, copied here for posterity. He’s got us all thinking very interesting things about the nature of computation and how we can use it to learn about the world around us. I’d be interested in comments, now that comments are on! :) -Sol

My last project on visualizing resumes had me thinking a lot about the nature of rules, and how they are applied and misapplied in our society. Our next project prompt, to design a “simulation”, got me thinking about the things we simulate and the things we don’t – and why.

If you look under the hood of a simulation, you’ll see that the foundation of any simulation is rules. Lots and lots of rules, applied over and over again, maybe in response to various stimuli (in the case of physics simulation), or maybe randomly (in the case of evolution) The rules that we simulate seem to be heavily biased towards natural phenomena (physics, light, genetics). Are there less obvious rules – in particular, man-made rules – that we can simulate? Can we simulate the rules that *people* have, for things like social interaction? And if we have real people as actors in the simulation, is it really a simulation anymore?

Simulating man-made phenomenon and rules is not new (as any video game player can tell you.) What’s interesting, though, is that rather than “guessing” these rules, now we seem to have an opportunity to use the ACTUAL real-life man-made responses to stimuli and input around us in simulations.
For one, cities and other man-made systems are starting to make their data from actual events in life available to the public. What if, in SimCity, instead of using a set of probabilities to determine how pissed off your town gets to a tax increase, we could in real time find a city who had made a similar tax increase with a similar population, and use *that* city’s real reaction to the tax increase in your simulation? It’s still a simulation, in that an actual town doesn’t have its taxes raised – but it’s based on real reactions.

UPS Tracking – Using the real world as a tool for simulation

For another, the ubiquity and cheapness of digital devices means that we can actually use man-made rules and systems being applied to real items *in real time* to our simulations. A concrete example of a system that everyone can play with is the United Parcel Service – a huge, man-made machine designed to get packages from point to point in arbitrary times (with the rules designed to create a profit.) With tracking numbers, a computer can see, for any package, how far and how fast it travels in real time. What’s interesting about this is that you can today imagine a simulation, cheap enough to build at home, that uses programming and cloud services like L-Mail to *physically mail packages* in order to calibrate itself. We can use real-world encounters to make further decisions about, say, when to send packages to make sure everyone receives them at the same time…effectively creating a hybrid physical-digital simulation tool that takes into account the real operation of UPS. What we’d use this particular example for is beyond me – maybe to know when to send admissions letters for college so everyone gets them at the same time? But it’s wicked cool that it’s even conceptually possible. And it translates to many other man-made systems, from tax filing to phone dialing to using Mechanical Turk to get people to ride the bus places.

Weird, huh? So where does that leave us? This resume project has made me interested in simulations that take into account real decisions make about real people. What if, as part of a simulation, I sent off 100 fake resumes to 100 actual companies? As in, I use a computer to create 100 fake resumes, maybe based off those of real people, and *actually* – not simulating – mail them to 100 companies across the united states. And say, 10 of those resumes were offered interviews. My algorithm can see which have gotten interview requests (by logging into the fake person’s e-mail) and pick 10 resumes to be the “most fit” resumes, and kill off and mutate the old resumes accordingly, before coming up with a new batch of 100 resumes, to send off again to a new set of companies. Such a simulation would use real-life HR decisions as its own engine – but yield “simulated” results that point out rules in our employment decisions that people don’t even realize. With sites such as EarthClassMail L-Mail and (more generally) Mechanical Turk , there’s any number of “physical” man-made systems of rules we can access programmatically in our simulations.

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Atoms are the new bits

So says Chris Anderson, in this month’s cover story of Wired. It’s worth reading – he makes a good case for how individual access to tools and manufacturing pipelines will alter the workforce and change how business is done. In typical Chris Anderson style, it’s a bit over-the-top, but also largely correct. Well, if that’s the case, then I’d better start assembling some atoms, eh?

I’m taking two courses this term that are largely skills classes in “atoms-building,” in this sense. The first, “Gadgetry”, focuses on the atoms of electronics – covering everything from PCB layout and production to low-level microcontroller programming (and I mean low-level – if anyone can tell me what registers to enable to turn on PWM waveform generation on an attiny25, let me know, because these data sheets aren’t exactly light reading.)

The second, “Digital Fabrication for the Arts”, focuses on atoms of all things *except* electronics. Basically, it’s a crash course in rapid prototyping – laser cutting, 3d printing, plastic molding, CNC, etcetra. Each week we hit a new tool, and attempt to make interesting things with that tool, with a final project at the end. We’re only two weeks in, and I’ve already made two things! Wanna see? Well, unfortunately, my blog is only so adept at dynamic conversation – so you don’t get much a choice.

Here’s my Week One design for “dFab” – a pair of sunglasses made on the laser cutter. The prompt was to “design an item a cult might use” – combining that, with my girlfriend’s desire for me to make the sunglasses Lady-Gaga esque, led to this strange design, with curves blocking ones view. (The idea being that this cult would be such slaves to fashion that functionality was verboten.)

And here’s my Week Two design – a USB drive ring, made in plastic on a 3D printer. The prompt was to “design a prosthesis that works on a part of your body”. I designed this thing to let myself ask what would happen if digital data was part of my physical body, and you physically “plugged yourself in” to things to communicate with them. (Now that the thing exists, I can say that it’s surprisingly comfortable to wear – but its mere existence begs questions about how it’d be used and misused.)

Yep, that’s a real flash drive in there! I was happy I was able to pull that off. Making things to the dimensions of real, physical items is tough – object measurements for the flash drive on Amazon are great for shipping, but they’re not sufficient for custom-machining a slot that would fit the flash drive snuggly while still allowing it to slide in. I was off by a millimeter or so, so the drive had to be glued in. Still, the fact that it fit in there at all – and that the ring fits on my finger! – was good news to me.

These assignments were somewhat bound, in particular, to get us thinking about the human form and how parts need to be designed to real-world physical constraints. This has been useful for me, in that I’m still very used to my designs being abstract – even as mobile and ubiquitous computing is concerned, one rarely has to deal with things fitting together nicely and adhering to naturally occurring shapes until they really get into making “stuff”. We’ve been working in Solidworks so far – fortunately other students in the MTID program are mechanical engineers and industrial designers, so I bother them frequently when things go awry.

If you put these two courses together, you probably get something roughly equivalent of MIT Media Lab’s “How To Make Almost Anything” course. I always wanted to take it at MIT, but never could – and getting coursework in fabrication like that course was a big reason that I picked my Tangible Interaction Design degree in the first place. So I’m extremely happy, and excited to see what I’ll be able to make for my final projects at the end of term.
(BTW, the Media Lab’s course site has fabulous resources on these topics and more. It’s quite self-serve, but they have everything from demo eagle files, to serial communication python code, to lists of graphics libraries. I’d put it on any aspiring Maker’s list of bookmarks.)

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Comments are now on.

Yep. Not much more to say about that. I think I’ve got my WordPress instance locked down enough to take it. Prove me wrong, spambots, prove me wrong.

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On end-user programming and the nature of art and design

I’ve been writing some weird stuff for my weekly blog entries in Golan Levin’s “Special Topics in Interactive Art and Design” studio. I thought I’d move some of that writing over here as it goes up over there, on the off chance people besides me and my classmates find it interesting.

This week, the User Interface Design group at MIT* got some buzz for their work on a new end-user programming tool, Sikuli. End-user programming itself is hardly a new concept, but the levels to which this paper succeeds – letting people merely visually identify and “select” parts of any open website or application in order to command its actions – pulls up larger questions about the nature of art and design. Who makes art, art? Is it fluency in a medium? Creativity? Or some concept even more amorphous and impossible to talk about?

Projects like this make it clear that programming is what typing was some twenty years ago – a skill that is hardly understood, and mastered by “a chosen few”, but clearly needed by large sections of society.

When I was first taught to type in elementary school, I was taught very formal methods. I was told to keep my fingers on the home row, to keep a proper “posture” – and to never look down at my fingers. (Heck, they even stuck a box over my hands so I couldn’t see.) Only then, my teachers surmised, could I achieve the typing speed of “the typists” – true members of the New Economy, who could type at the lightening-fast speed of 100 words per minute. So much emphasis was placed on raw speed that even my Mario Teaches Typing game kept a constant numerical score of my typing speed in the upper corner – making it clear even to children that always faster was always better.

As it turns out, I didn’t really listen. (I didn’t listen to much back then, but that’s another story.) And years passed, and I grew up typing all funny, and I entered “the New Economy” with a typing speed less than half of the “typists” of the 80’s. Yet somehow, my typing is still enough to get me through society – as typing became a critical part of everything I did, at a variety of speeds. Even my mother, who didn’t take a formal typing class, and was not “chosen” from youth to learn the home-row method, picked up typing as well – in her own unique way, starting one finger at a time and learning via muscle memory a technique even half as fast as mine (but still useful for her needs).

So, if you believe my rant above, it would seem that in 30 years, people would be “programming” in many different ways. Maybe not in the syntax that we call programming today, but typists traveling in time from the 1980’s would be amazed at what we do today with a few, slow keystrokes and the click of a mouse.

So, let’s tie this back into art and design. There’s a running idea that “everyone is a designer”, and that given the right toolkits, people will be able to design themselves usable and meaningful experiences. This idea is right, in many ways – and end-user programming work like this will allow truly creative people without “programming skill” to, well, program things no one has ever dreamed of. At the same time, there’s a distinct implication throughout the *practice* of art and design that progress comes from mastering new and unusual *mediums* through which to express your ideas – be it the repositioning of atoms with small laser beams, or controlling a 10-foot tall, six-axis welding robot. When people are asked if they are designers, they often answer in terms of mediums – saying “Oh, I can’t draw”, or “I’m more of a back-end programmer” (referring to HTML and CSS as a front-end, “designery” programming medium.) I don’t think an average person would say “I’m not a designer because I’m not creative” – indeed, American society encourages creativity in all aspects of life, in line with our individualistic (“cowboy?”) values. I might even go so far as to say that all Americans are somewhat creative (assuming they were encouraged to color in kindergarten.) But are all Americans artists or designers?

Suppose I work for UPS. If a off-the-shelf tool like Sikuli allows me to quickly create a version of “Flight Patterns”, but instead tracking UPS trucks for a UPS marketing campaign, am I still making art or design? (Let’s assume for simplicity that no “plagiarism” is occurring; due credit is given by me to the original “Flight Patterns” creator, who is in turn fine with me creating it.) To viewers of my piece unfamiliar with “Flight Patterns”, my UPS marketing campaign might look totally original. In that sense, it would have just as much value as an art piece in terms of getting people to think (perhaps even moreso, with its massive outreach.) In that sense, the project is still “art” in the sense that it might let people see something for the first time. Yet there’s a distinct sense that, in this scenario, such a project would be uninteresting – or, worse, part of “marketing”, design’s bastard younger cousin. Now, let’s say that UPS built this same project, but gave it a slight spin – they occasionally zoomed it into Kentucky so people could watch the rhythm of trucks around their international air hub in Louisville. Here, UPS has embodied their design with an insight that “Flight Patterns” could never have – but is just bringing new information into an existing visualization enough to make it an act of creative design? How about art? Is an application interface hand-coded in Intel-chip assembly, or sewn together from tin cans, somehow more artistic or designery than a version written in PyGTK in 3 days for an anxious client?

At least today, it’s impossible for me to really answer these questions in any satisfying way. All I know for sure is, using just Processing (a tiny subset of Java, a clunky programming language which is itself nearly 15 years old) our class of students was able to reproduce the earliest 1963 digital artworks of Michael Noll in approximately 15 minutes each. As better and better end-user programming tools find their ways into artists and designers – and perhaps wanna-be artists and designers – it is inevitable that these tools will be created for new mediums even faster than artists can “master” them. At that part, is everyone a designer, or is no one a designer? I’m rooting for the former.

*Yes, I have unavoidable biases on anything coming out of MIT. So it goes.

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Death by a thousand papercuts

We’re settling into our final weeks in the first term of the Tangible Interaction Design program. I thought to give you a good example of some of the things I’m working on here, I’d run you through the various injuries I’ve done to myself this week. Anyone who knows me knows that as a computer scientist, I’m traditionally horrible with my hands. A clutz, really. But through the insane amount of practice I’m getting here with soldering, drilling, hammering, laser cutting, sawing (both mechanical and hand), I’m finding my dexterity and my ability to dive into new things improving quite a bit. That said, let’s tally the damage:

*While hacking a miniature (9g) servo motor to run continuously (specifically, removing the gear blocks at 180 degrees from the plastic), my Exact-O knife slipped and stabbed straight into my thumb. I got lucky; the blade was dull and only went in half an inch or so (just shy of needing stitches). Nevertheless, painful.
*I had to get a tetanus shot to help recover from the stab wound – but of course, that means my arm will barely move for the next few days. (Side effect of the shot.)
*While looking through sheets of metal (for a magnetic one) to test my “fluttering LED throwie” project, I managed to crush my pinky under about 100 pounds or so of metal. Nothing major, but a lovely little blood blister.
*I ordered neodynium magnets for my “fluttering LED throwie” project, but quickly discovered when I opened the box that neodynium is too strong. Way too strong. (I needed magnets that are strong, but still weak enough to be shaken or pushed off the surface mechanically.) In fact, when I finally managed to slide the neodymium magnets apart, the one that I slid off flung back around and stuck to the magnet again, *on the opposite side of my finger.* Another finger injury (that makes 3). Yep, apparently these things are strong enough to pinch your finger together. Apparently, these things can be so strong that they crush human bones, but Digikey was kind enough to sell me “weak” ones.

So, yeah, at least the week is over. That said, my dexterity is improving (and my injury rate is, believe it or not, declining.) Part of my improvement in dexterity is just an increased awareness of how my level of energy affects my physical dexterity. I’ve found that I can’t quite work the same hours as an engineer anymore, at least not on physical things. This is something you don’t realize till you’re in the thick of it, but if you check in the wrong code at 3am, it’s not a big deal…and if you put the wrong end of the soldering iron in your hand at 3am, it’s a much bigger deal. So you schedule your work for the day accordingly. My hope is that I’ll graduate with nothing but papercuts…and get myself home from lab early enough each night that I don’t die of them.

To my mother, if you’re reading this: I’m fine, really. All of these things are healing nicely.

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Quick updates – Savannah, Boston, Hotlanta

A few posts are backed up both in my wordpress queue and in the imaginary wordpress queue of my mind. I wanted to quickly throw a few things out there that are a bit more time sensitive:

*I bit the bullet and decided to wrap some of my thinking and work around urban computing, volunteerism and the public sector into a submission for Interaction10 (to be held in Savannah, Georgia this February). Interaction10 is the annual get-together of the Interaction Design Association (IXDA). I attended a lot of the Boston IXDA meetings when they first formed the chapter there, and they’re a swell group of forward-thinking-yet-pragmatic practitioners whose input I think would really help my work here at CMU. There’s a public comment period on the work until October 1st, so if you could swing by and take a look, it’d be appreciated:

*I’ll be escaping the post-apocalyptic G20 scene and heading to Boston the weekend of September 25th. I can’t say I’ll have a *ton* of time there, but if you want to see me, drop me a line – I’d like to see as many people as I can.

*Lastly, I’ve gone ahead and signed up for the CHI student volunteer lottery again. CHI this year will be in Atlanta, Georgia in April. If I’m picked, it’ll be my third time volunteering for CHI – and I’m just as excited at the prospect as I was the first time I did it (if not moreso.) Highly, highly recommended – register for the lottery here between now and November: You can always turn down a spot if you’re awarded one, so if you’re even remotely considering it, you should sign up! It’lll be a hoot.

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Fall 2009 Course Round-up

It’s been a little disorienting, being back on a college campus. Mostly it’s the sheer number of people that I really notice – CMU has 6,000 undergrads and 5,000 graduate students in a campus space maybe 75% of the size of MIT’s campus. Moreover, much of CMU’s campus is open, visible grassy fields connecting seperate buildings (as opposed to MIT’s buildings on top of other buildings) – so the constant flow of people between places is plainly visible from everywhere on campus. That said, the fact that I’m the oldest student seemingly everywhere I go can’t be helping.

Anyhow, enough with my identity crisis. :) I started writing this post to document my courses for the fall semester, so here we go. I’ll update this post as my schedule changes (though hopefully, it won’t.)

My Fall 2009 MTID schedule:

Tangible Interaction Design Studio: The only truly required class in the Masters of Tangible Interaction Design, 9-18 units of Tangible Interaction Design Studio are required every semester a student is enrolled in the program. This class is taught by MTID’s founder/advisor/fearless leader, Professor Mark Gross. In the fall studio, students begin to form their MTID Advisory Committee by finding a professor or two somewhere at CMU with which to design and build a “tangible interaction design” project over the entire semester. The end deliverable is a single, large project intended to tie together a student’s classwork for the semester.
The name “Studio” is probably somewhat misleading here – unlike, say, a typical undergraduate architecture studio, Professor Gross seems to prefer a much more experimental teaching style. Rather than having all MTID students do common exercises, each student defines and builds a project that “asks a question” of their choice. This works nicely for the three of us currently in the program, as we are all coming at the field from very different angles, and are hoping to learn tangible interaction design for very different reasons. The space I’m particularly interested in is that of public computing (both in the sense of public as in urban and shared space, and public as in community and government influenced and/or controlled). More on that to come.

Making Things Interactive: A de facto MTID requirement (to the extent that Professor Gross believes in hard requirements), this class builds a basic understanding of how physical objects can be integrated with technology, along with the reasons one might want to do such a thing. This boils down to a basic understanding of sensors, motors/mechanical activity, electronics, and Arduino programming. The end deliverable is a single, tangible interactive object or environment – not unlike the studio, except that the project is only done in the last month of this course, with the prior months spent on “mini-projects” designed to master Arduino and the various other skills. I’ve learned all of those skills independently of each other, but I have yet to really hone the ability to tie them all together in physical projects – hence my needing to take this course parallel to the studio. (Future MTID students who come with tangible computing projects under their belt would probably be given a pass on this requirement, but don’t quote me on that.)

For those reading back in Boston, this class is in every way analogous to the MIT Media Lab’s “Tangible Interfaces” class. Which isn’t shocking, given that Professor Gross worked with (maybe under?) Nicholas Negroponte in the 1980’s, back before Negroponte co-founded the MIT Media Lab. In much the same way that MIT Media Lab and MIT Design Lab are kinda-sorta (and officially) part of MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning, the MTID is kinda-sorta (and officially) part of CMU’s School of Architecture.

For those reading back in Boston who are NOT in design or computer science, this class is not unlike a class at the MIT Media Lab, a group at MIT world-renowned for convincing companies to give them money to let them build really cool and useful shit with technology. The hope is that by taking this class (and this degree), I’ll be able to keep making cool and useful shit for a living, except that I’m focusing more on things you can actually physically touch and experience, in addition to websites like this one. :)

“Visualizing Information”/Design Drawing I: Exactly what it sounds like. For engineers entering the MTID program, one of the skills we’re encouraged to pick up is that of visual communication – the ability to express ourselves and our ideas visually. The three of us engineers in the program (we have no traditional artists/designers enrolled yet, sadly) all decided that the best place to start with this was through classes in good old fashioned pen and pencil sketching.
I believe that pencil sketching is particularly important for me now as a tangible interaction designer, even moreso than in my previous HCI and interaction design roles. As a screen interaction designer back in Boston, I was able to do very compelling design mockups by combining Visio, Omnigraffle and other visual approximation tools. I personally grew to prefer pencil and paper sketches on the job, but they were not truly necessary – in a pinch, I could become fast enough at Visio that all of the basic screen affordances could be mocked up for a ten screen application in, say, a day. However, how does one begin to digitally prototype a physical form – let alone a form with both digital and physical interactivity? Programs like CAD are often too heavy-handed for very rough thinking, and once you’re embedding technology into an environment, you’re talking about having to combine many different digital and physical design prototyping tools (in those cases where useful tools exist). Someday the design tools will catch up to this field – but for today and tomorrow, it’s going to be that much more important that my rough visual sketches and storyboards are clear and compelling.

Activating Environments: A class in how technology can be designed for and integrated into built and natural environments. The class so far seems to combine traditional readings on theories of place (from fields like urban studies) and ubiquitous computing with the development of hands-on design skills useful in examining the nature of environments and quickly prototyping potential interactions for them. Ok, now I’m just regurgitating the syllabus – to put it another way, the class seems to study technology instances as elements of a lived ecosystem of real-world and digital interactions, and how we can design for the health of those ecosystems. It touches on ideas of interaction design, public services (and public service) and government that I’ve been interested in since finishing my Master’s thesis. In fact, the professor for this class, Professor Eric Paulos, is a guy whose work has kept crossing my paths through HCI, mobile computing and IxD for years now. Anyhow, it’s been a pleasure so far (all two lectures) to take his class and finally see him in action.

(audit) Principles of Human Robot Interaction: I hate to short-change this class, but you’re probably tired of reading all of this. (In much the same way that I’m sorry I can’t take this class for credit – but there’s simply only so many hours in the day.) So suffice it to say that this class brings up a myriad of awesome questions pertaining to the design of robots and the theories behind what makes robot computing different than other forms of technology. It’s nice to get a look at robotics in particular, a field I know little about – my only past exposure is three weeks as a freshman being chased by Harvard police while putting up subject-recruitment posters for roboticist Cynthia Breazeal (of Kismet fame). It has a project requirement, which I probably won’t have time to do, as well as a ton of readings in philosophy, AI, psychology, technology and design, which I am doing basically so the professor lets me attend his swell lectures.

By the way, this is the part of the blog where I realize that I’m creating one of the only student accounts in existence of a degree program that, hopefully, lots of people in the future will consider becoming a part of (and perhaps even Google, leading them to this post). So let me caveat now – everything I say here is my informal impression of the program, and should be taken with a grain of salt. The program is so new that it is constantly changing, and for all I know some of what I’m saying is incorrect even today (or perhaps is correct, but not for the reasons I think it is.) All requirements and rules (and lack thereof) are only made and set by the Masters of Tangible Interaction Design program and the Carnegie Mellon Department of Architecture.

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Adventures in Cooking

In Boston, none of my friends cooked – so I never cooked. However, in Pittsburgh, everyone I know cooks dinner for themselves at home. I suspect this is less an factor of there being no good eating (although I do miss Boston’s Italian food), and more a factor of design-minded folks having more cooking ability than the typical software engineer. So, when in Rome….

My attempts at cooking has been coming along decently, slowly but surely. I’ve moved from pure pastas, to pastas with sauces, to various attempts at meat and vegetables, mostly using the skillet in various simple ways. Soon maybe I’ll even go crazy and try to combine food groups! That said, it’s had it’s ups and downs. In an attempt to up the ante, I decided to celebrate the end of my first week of classes by cooking myself a steak. Somewhat embarrassingly, this is the first time I’ve ever cooked a steak – and it was a big one at that, a full pound T-bone. To make matters worse, I don’t have a grill – so I found myself balancing this giant steak on my spatula in a vain attempt to pan-fry it. After 6-12 minutes of flipping and minor oil burns on my hands left the meat still bleeding, I panicked and tossed the thing into the convection oven for a few minutes to finish the job. It was surprisingly edible – the only minor problem was dryness, which was fixable with some steak sauce – but don’t expect a cooking blog from me any time soon.

While I’m on the topic of cooking, I’ll give you another reason not to trust any food I make. The other day the MTID advisor invited the entire lab to his house for a potluck dinner. I decided I’d be cute and attempt to make my girlfriend’s cookie recipe. (Conveniently, my girlfriend’s cookie recipe is also the recipe on the back of every package of Nestle’s Milk Chocolate Morsels.) After about 2 hours buying ingredients, beating eggs, and awkwardly standing by and peering into my oven, I presented my roommate with a pile of 50 cookies. He took one off the top, and declared that they tasted pretty good. Success! Or so I thought. Relieved, we sat down and decided to help ourselves to some of the broken cookies that were unfit for serving. Eventually, I get to the last cookie on the plate, and take a bite…and ow! I feel something sharp and pointy. I chew down again, and I can’t break this thing…so I take it out of my mouth, and it’s a small bit of plastic. I check all of my supplies and equipment, and it turns out my handheld beater literally chipped a small number of pieces of plastic into my batter. At this point, it’s 1AM, and I had used all of my chocolate chips – so my choices were either go out and buy more ingredients, serve the cookies without telling anybody, or just keep them around my house for (careful) personal consumption. Well, it turns out you *can* trust at least the cookies I serve you – because I decided to keep them around for myself. If I die unexpectedly of a plastic shard ripping my insides, please point the proper authorities to the blog for cause of death. :)

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