Monday, May 2, 2011

Interdisciplinary Computing Meeting Number 2: Day 1, Part 2

In our afternoon discussion of faculty motivation for interdisciplinary computing (IC) I learned several interesting things. First the small but amusing: we had been flinging acronyms around quite a bit, and at one point someone used UTA right in the middle of a sentence. No one asked what this meant so I was brave. UTA: Undefined Three Letter Acronym. Cute.

Some food for thought items came out of the motivation conversation that addressed the questions (what is motivating about IC, how to support it) in a memorable way. I'll start with those.

 - "The transaction between 2 people in different domains is what makes each one better informed and knowledgeable." This might be taken as a a given, but it is interesting to consider it under the realm of "motivation". The affective side our reactions is often as or more motivating than the cognitive side of our reactions. If a synergy develops between two people discussing, brainstorming, and creating, then yes, this can be exciting (an affective response) - hence motivating.

- "It's data; it's representation. The domain doesn't matter". There were some interesting examples of this, such as all the ways to represent data in a form other than rows and columns or bar graphs. We saw a magnificent and beautiful simulation of what happens when people get into an elevator. Apparently this has been studied quite a bit. There are definable patterns of behavior that have a very mathematical predictability. The more data (people) you add, the more interesting the scenario gets. The collaboration was between CS and Art. We watched a colorful square show how people realign themselves as more people enter the elevator. For example, at first one or two or three (ish) people arrange themselves equidistant to one another. Then as more people enter, people spread out towards the walls, leaving a central open space. As more people enter, there is a shuffling around until everyone has almost exactly the same amount of space between them and are fully distributed through the elevator.

Now here is the even cooler part. If you REALLY want to make someone uncomfortable,  move over next to them - we watched this on the simulation as the little colored dots shifted around. If you do this, the other person will immediately try to reposition to regain their equidistant space. This can set off a domino effect of the entire elevator realigning itself.

Later on, a friend and I got in the elevator and watched people's behavior and yes, all of this was absolutely true. It all seemed to happen without anyone consciously thinking about it. We had a little conversation about whether or not we should test out the last part of the theory by engaging in conversation while casually moving closer and closer to someone. But we didn't carry through on that.

The elevator simulation was just one engaging example resulting from close collaboration and the synergy it produced.  It could not have been developed without the art and cs faculty in close communication.

Originality: One of the meeting participants gave us a short demo about teaching algebra using a rope. Someone suggested obtaining a video of the performance and posting it on YouTube. I sure hope that happens; I'll link to it. Hard to describe but the basic idea is that knot tying can demonstrate algebraic concepts e.g. "single instruction, multiple data = sheep shank". The premise is that math can be mapped onto many different systems; in this case the system was a rope. I'm telling you, the math concepts stuck in my head better than I ever remember from dragging my way through theoretical descriptions and chunking through example after example of plugging in numbers. We, the group, were transfixed and the presenter was clearly enjoying himself - very motivated.

We focused much of our conversation about Action Items (to support motivation for IC) in breakout groups. There are far far more than I can list here; some of them made it into my previous post. Many of the ideas related to putting in place support mechanisms to ease logistical hurdles (geographic, fiscal, advancement/promotion, departmental assessment/accreditation mechanisms, etc). The list was long. The ideas varied from top down to bottom up. Just to give you a flavor, here is one top-down item: Because they have clout, organizations, leaders, funders should voice public support for IC;  people who otherwise might not listen, will often listen if the message comes from someone in a position of respect and authority. One bottom-up item: hold a mashup of people who come together to discuss and address an issue: get them all in the same room to attack a given problem. (Sort of like what all of us were doing)
To try to sum up (a difficult task): An overarching action item: Develop a Framework of how to solve IC problems.


  1. I was in Haiti 25 years ago and had the experience of commuting into Port-Au-Prince via a Tap-Tap [small urban bus.] When my journey started the bus was nearly empty. When I reached my destination people were sitting 2 deep on each other's laps. I was standing, but sandwiched very tightly. No one seemed to mind.

    An elevator full of Haitians would probably show different pattern than the ones in this article. It is not surprising that there is a link between culture and personal space, but it is exciting to realize that precise metrics could be derived by analyzing these patterns and the implications are probably very broad.

  2. Hi Mike,

    I think it would be *very* interesting to do this same exploration and mapping with different cultures. I suspect you are correct and the results would differ.

    I would like to see side by side live motion pattern generation analysis from several cultures. Probably fascinating. I agree that the implications are broad - it is possible someone has done a culture-based analysis, but I do not know.