Monday, November 21, 2011

The Computer Sand Society

This week begins the holiday season for many people and often with it, unfortunately, way too much stress. Maybe that is why this week (Thanksgiving week in the US) brings out some strangeness. There was the blog post forwarded by a friend about stuffing a turkey with twinkies. It is hard not to feel fondness for something that springs back into shape when you step on it, but ... make a meat glaze out of the so-called "creme filling"? Yuck.

I also received an advertisement in the mail addressed to me at "The Computer Sand Society". Walking back from the mailbox, I thought: this could be a new interdisciplinary application! In response to this inspiration, a friend sent a lovely video link about sand animation; another friend suggested that, nice as it sounds, poolside would be much better than beachside because sand is hard on laptops. Could it be worse than three bouts of sick video cards?  Perhaps, yes it could. Although I once told a cell carrier that my phone had mysteriously died when it had in fact fallen in the toilet (would you want to explain that one?), I'm not sure the computer manufacturer would buy into the notion that a gritty substance floating around the motherboard stemmed from disintegrating integrated circuits.

However, as I do believe in the power of creative thinking to spur innovation, I suspect there is opportunity for The Computer Sand Society to come into its own.

Modeling and simulation of sand castles. Has anyone developed a system, similar to those used by architectural design firms, to analyze the possibilities for ever more complex creations, factoring in the properties of sand - fineness of particles, distribution of various well crumbled crustacean shells, positioning relative to the high tide mark, mineral components?

Sand castle building is serious business for some people. The U.S. Open Sandcastle Competition bit the dust this year and its demise has many people very upset. I wonder if profits from my envisioned application might have helped hold it together? We could have perhaps drawn on the nearby expertise of the famous Scripps Institution of Oceanography, NOAA (the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) and the local surfers who are out every morning, afternoon and evening rain or shine, 365 days a year. Who understands the interactions between sand and surf better than these subject matter experts?

I have always wanted to combine my love of the outdoors with the potential of computing. A typo by some overworked marketing employee has given me the inspiration for a new hi-tech startup. All that is needed now is a really dedicated team to get it off its feet - and an angel investor.

Any takers?

Happy Thanksgiving - have some fun and forget the stressful stuff for a few days.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Interdisciplinary Computing in a Big Way: The Center for Science of Information

If you followed the 3 earlier posts on An Interdisciplinary Puzzle, the Wireless Car, and finally Banana Trucks and Stock Traders, then you know that information theory was at the heart of the discussion. And if you were really curious, and followed the link hint I provided in the last of the posts, then you figured out that there is an exciting body of work in this area going on at: The Center for Science of Information. Their mission is "to advance science and technology through a new quantitative understanding of the representation, communication, and processing of information in biological, social and engineered systems". A mouthful, but a mouthful that hopefully makes sense after reading the other posts.

The Center's web pages contain an incredible amount of information about their interdisciplinary research, teaching and outreach activities. No one institution or discipline could do their work alone; through bringing experts together from across disciplines, they hope to develop new cross-cutting principles governing the storage, compression and transmission of information (examples in the earlier posts!). Nine universities participate in the Center as well as collaborators from a wide range of corporations and industries. In addition, students, undergraduate and graduate, and post-doctoral researchers have the opportunity to become immersed in this cutting edge research. 

I had a fascinating conversation about the Center with Deepak Kumar of Bryn Mawr College. Deepak is the Associate Director of Diversity and Education for the Center, as well as a professor of Computer Science. Even prior to the creation of the Center, he has been teaching interesting interdisciplinary computing courses. One example is an undergraduate course on emergence. Emergent behavior appears everywhere in the natural world and is a perfect topic for demonstrating the utility of computational modeling.

For example, here in Southern California it is amazing to watch a group of Brown Pelicans cruise along in formation just over your head and then almost as one swoop down, realign into a row and ride the wind currents of ocean waves in the surf. They never touch each other or the ocean, although they can be inches from both.

Have you ever watched a flock of birds and wondered why they never crash into one another? I wonder: How do the Pelicans all know when to turn sharply, descend in unison, line up exactly the same distance from each other, and at some point, without apparent reason, rise up together again into the sky? If I watch any one bird, I can identify how it behaves. But somehow, and this is the puzzle, a group behavior emerges. Flocking birds are a classic example of emergent behavior which can be studied through computational modeling and Deepak uses this example in his course.

If birds don't suit your fancy, there are emergent behaviors to be studied computationally in linguistics, social networks, epidemiology (just for starters). Bryn Mawr is a perfect institution to be part of the Center for Information Science team not only because of courses like this, but because they have a  minor in Computational Methods that actively collaborates with departments across the college.

I asked Deepak to tell me more about the role computer scientists play in advancing information theory. He obliged; here are a few things he shared. [I'm going somewhat technical for the rest of this paragraph] For starters, computer scientists understand algorithms and complexity. They know that how a problem is modeled will lead to various algorithms with different complexities. Which one(s) best fit the constraints and goals of the subject matter? A computer scientist can help determine what kind of processor to use, what algorithms to use, all the ins and outs of dynamic problems and dynamic programming. Computer scientists have an expertise in the classification of problems; they can identify a set of problems as of a certain type (e.g. NP-hard) and the relationship between how a problem is modeled and the resultant effect on the model. There is more, but you get the idea.

Next year Deepak will be teaching a course in the Science of Information. This class will bring the work and ideas behind the Center for Science of Information directly to his undergraduate population. The course, and related activities such as internships and mentoring, will provide opportunities for his students to interact with other institutions and personnel on the Center team. Deepak is very excited about running this course; in fact he told me that the most inspiring aspect of his role in Center activities is the opportunity to bring new superstar research to his computing students and to make it outward looking.

It is going to be very interesting to watch how all of this work develops over the next few years. 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Interdisciplinary Computing Meeting 3: Day 2

My computer screen is still on an acid trip - perhaps more so. Tonight it is purple and orange with green swirls and oozing deep amoeba-like dripping drooling things. But the keys work, so I can continue to talk about the meeting. The same caveats apply as yesterday, about typos, lack of links and copy editing. My notes from today are doubly challenged as I not only took them half blind but am now reading them back to myself more blind. However, I consider this an interesting cognitive challenge.


We started the morning with a faculty panel that seeded a discussion of challenges to Interdisciplinary Computing (IC) as well as interesting experiences. One particularly interesting speaker was Teresa Nakra from the Music Department at The College of New Jersey. She conducted an opera as part of her early music studies and later went to the MIT media lab where she worked with Rosalind Picard (of Affective Computing fame) on digital opera. Teresa spoke about designing a jacket for the conductor to wear which took readings of a variety of activities that were going on during the performance of the opera. Teresa spoke about the interdisciplinary nature of opera, which is probably not something many people in computing think of. This subject matter rang some bells for me, as one of my undergraduate degrees was in Drama, which field led me indirectly into the computing field. At that time everything was analog (certainly not the case now) but there were these interesting engineers in the lighting booth and one thing led to another and...

We spoke in more depth today about the various constituencies that are involved in the success or failure of IC and discussed ways to engage with them and foster a climate conducive to IC. A particularly interesting question came up:

Would it be preferable, in an ideal world, to have a greater preponderance of dual (or multi) subject matter experts or to have a greater number of computing professionals who are fluent enough in another field to hold serious conversations in that (those) field(s) without being a SME (pronounced "SMEE")? 

We as a group had varied views on the matter and this led to a very productive discussion of the implications of each. What do you think? What scenario would be better for the fostering and ongoing success of Interdisciplinary Computing?

In another breakout session that I sat in on we discussed obstacles faced by industry. Interestingly enough, one of the topics that came out without my initiating it, was the very interdisciplinary nature of UX work in industry - short for User Experience if you aren't familiar with the term. Interesting to me, because I have been working on UX , and have written about UX a few times in this blog. It is clearly an interdisciplinary  area of work - computing, psychology, art, design, development - depending upon one's emphasis, these and other disciplines can be central. UX is a clear point of connection between academic interdisciplinary computing work and industry. Much of Computer Science Education research work can or does fall under the UX umbrella.

In discussing the challenges faced by industry it became clear that there is no universal set of challenges and it is hard to make any generalizations that stick. Large companies may have more time to allow people to come up to speed and may have time and resources for some cross training; small companies may have to get something delivered yesterday. Traditional hi-tech companies may have one set of IC needs whereas the health care IT industry may have a vastly different set of requirements (must one have medical background? someone suggested this might well be the case). Non-profits, for-profit companies - different types of missions, thus different challenges. These discussions also led to a brief conversation about how to prepare students in very concrete ways - such as providing advice on developing resumes. Does one want to be a generalist or a specialist within the IC world? If one is working in an IC area, in other words, to what extent should one narrowly niche and to what extent should one be broad? These questions relate back to the question about whether it would be preferable to have dual SMEs or single area SMEs with a solid working knowledge in other areas.

So you see, we were beginning to pick up on patterns of issues that have to be carefully considered and addressed (and we did have discussions on these subjects). I wish I had room to delve deeply into it, but there will eventually be a formal report from the organizers  of these meetings (Ursula Wolz and Boots Cassel) and some of the ideas I mention will no doubt be part of the discussion there.

Another theme that came up again and again, yesterday and today, was the need for communication strategies among people who are involved in IC. Support mechanisms to facilitate communication, formal (workshops, meetings, regional structures to support ongoing conversations) and informal (funded lunches as one idea. A little pizza can go a long way), in-service activities specifically targeted at IC collaborations, mentoring opportunities to bring in and support new colleagues.

Publicity, outreach, and awareness raising came up a lot today. If we are to affect Hearts, Minds and Culture, (a phrase from yesterday) then we must start putting the whole notion, appeal and benefits of Interdisciplinary Computing into people's minds in many different ways. If the general citizenry and youth perceive IC as interesting, and a part of the fabric of society, then we will go a long way towards achieving a major shift towards accomplishing many of the more discrete goals of IC.

Along these lines, I will conclude this once again longish post (and one that is killing my eyes!) with another amusing moment from today. Someone brought up the information that when the original Chuck E Cheese was developed it incorporated a model of exposing entire families to the "product" and thus gaining buy-in from families, and that, get this, Chuck E Cheese was THE premier place for showcasing technology to children through robotics. A member of our group personally remembered this. According to one perspective, the robotic approach didn't quite work out because it scared children (oops).

However, overall the "engage the entire family" model was successful and has continued, spreading to many other companies. Some highly creative soul in our group suggested "CyberCheese" as a name for an Interdisciplinary Computing marketing campaign. Engage the entire family in computational interaction. If the entire family is engaged, parents, kids, extended family, friends - things could take off.

After I about died laughing at the name, I realized...hey...this idea isn't so bad is it?

This post was updated on 11/10/11 to fix typos and add links.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Interdisciplinary Computing Meeting 3: Day 1

This is quite the post for several reasons. I am in Washington DC attending the third Interdisciplinary Computing meeting. I posted about the previous two earlier this year [the January meeting, the April meeting] . When we were at dinner, I was sitting next to someone who is in the arts and telling him how I was very interested in finding an interesting project that crossed over computer science and the arts for a chapter in a future edition of my book. Well, I got back to my hotel room and discovered that the video card on my motherboard has gone out. So I am writing this post on a psychedelic smeary LSD reminiscent screen - and I can't really read what I'm writing. This is not exactly what I had in mind when I asked for a convergence of art and computing. Beware what you ask for! For the next two days I'll be writing this way, as a replacement part will be meeting me back in San Diego later this week. Meanwhile...have patience with the typos and lack of editing because I can't see beyond the pulsating purple and lime green.

So on to the meeting report.  As always, all of the comments in this post are my interpretations and reflect my perspective on what occurred. They are not any "official" pronouncement and there may be others at the meeting who have a different set of thoughts. If that is you, please chime in!

Today was the most incredible example of synergistic conversations that can come out of putting passionate widely divergent thinkers together. 

Two of our meeting goals (as laid out by our trusty leaders Boots Cassel and Ursula Wolz) are to identify the breadth that is Interdisciplinary Computing (IC) and how to Facilitate Interdisciplinary Computing. Lynn Andrea Stein from Olin College talked about the interdisciplinary nature of Olin, an engineering school that was able to design interdisciplinarity into itself in a holistic way in part because they were able to start from the ground up approximately 10 years ago. Valerie Barr from Union College, founded in 1795 and the first college in the United States to offer engineering programs, provided an interesting contrast as she spoke about her work with a large range of successful IC programs.

A common theme was the infusion of computing into courses outside the traditional curriculum as well as a major rethinking of CS coursework - both institutions are having great success, attracting more students into the CS courses and increasing diversity.

With the audience of CS faculty, arts faculty, education, math (and more) faculty chiming in and asking many questions the phrase came up: Hearts, Minds and Culture. All three must be addressed. Further discussions delved into what that means. At the faculty level, student level, institutional level.

We had two breakout sessions and in both I was extremely priviledged to sit with some of the most interesting and engaged people. We wrestled with tough questions such as:

Outcomes are important (we all agreed) as are Goals - should Goals come first, followed by Outcomes followed by metrics for assessing them, or perhaps should desired Outcomes be the starting point with the other items emerging from there? It turns out to be a fascinating way to turn your thinking on its head.

Verbs vs. Nouns. Several breakout groups  (including ours) independently came up with this terminology to describe how we must stop thinking in terms of Nouns (e.g. "content") and think in terms of Verbs (what do we want to DO, to have students DO). And if we make the mistake of framing Goals in terms of Nouns instead of Verbs, we will undercut the whole purpose of trying to be innovative and creative and flexible in our approaches among different departments. Noun (content) orientation can lead to "content wars" in many cases and a lose-lose situation, as opposed to a win-win situation in which everyone can find common ground.

Very interesting idea. Think in terms of Verbs - it makes sense that this orientation would lead to a greater chance of finding mutually beneficial modern ground among widely diverse faculty. Gets us away from the dreaded "coverage debates" many of you no doubt know too well.

I'm going to short change some of the day's activities a bit in order to keep this to a reasonable length for a post, but there is one last item that energized me so much I must mention it. One participant, during a full group discussion, asked the question: should we think of Interdisciplinary Computing as "corrosive"? Corrosive in that it breaks down institutional boundaries and structures? And if so, is it corrosive by its very nature or is it something that those involved would want to specifically focus on? Corrosive. Fascinating. That is such a vivid word. Think about that will you? 

The same person followed up with this thought: if Interdisciplinary Computing is indeed corrosive, then the theoretical ground of doing IC work changes. 

IC is rhizomatic he posited. I know what a rhizome is (in a general sense), but I had to ask for an explanation in the context of this conversation. He explained, (and I try to closely paraphrase) – you can’t teach what you want to teach from any one source. You break something and it will find its way around via  a different route.Wow... think on that one too won't you? This is what you get when you work with interdisicplinary minded people from different disciplines. 

Finally, my vocabulary was expanded even further in the context of IC when in a breakout session we were discussing the topic of forming and sustaining IC community. One member of our group brought up this idea, which we all latched onto: the notion of the Interpersonal as equally important to the notion of the Interdisciplinary. The importance of realizing that it is relationships between people that will make or break IC and that a strong focus on developing, supporting and maintaining interpersonal relationships among *people*, not just "disciplines" is vital. 
Interdisciplinary vs. Interpersonal. Put another way: There is interdisciplinary work but there are interpersonal relationships b/w faculty and we need to find ways to facilitate and support those relationships. Equally or possibly even more important. 

And finally, the most mind blowing IC vocabulary expansion  for my afternoon came with someone in our group suggesting we think about IC this way: as Inter-Epistemological.

Inter-epistemological – theories and ways of knowing. The interconnectedness of different models of ways of working. 

In digging around for some definitions of "inter-epistemological" someone found a previously published paper with an eerily provocative title: 

“Moving beyond interdisciplinarity: Academic Reflexivity in an inter-epistemological research program, celebrating indigeneous knowledges: Peoples, Lands and Cultures” 

 Think about Interdisciplinary Computing (corrosive and rhizomatic) in terms of that phrase. 

From purple smeary-land, over and out for the evening. 

This post was updated on 11/10/11 to fix typos and add links.