söndag 30 oktober 2011

Radio the the future futures

The last time I wrote about my "Future of radio/Radio of the future" project course was a month ago. A week ago 11 project groups finally handed in their revised project plans (after having formulated and then gotten feedback on their original project ideas). These are the 11 project groups in the course:

A convergent cloud service that combines tags and algorithms that are based on your earlier preferences in order to navigate, filter and choose from an almost infinite amount of content.

Niche podcasts for students who have started or is about to start studying a course. An entertaining and inspiring way to learn about the topic of a course though and interview with the responsible teacher and also a way to bridge the gap between students and teachers through the use of stories.

What do people listen to and why? What could public service be in the future? What would a product portfolio look like that attracts and satisfies many different target groups?

What if the power grid and mobile communications goes down in a time of crisis? What if people don't have radios and batteries at home any longer? How will information be disseminated? How will people in need of information get it?

Can radio be used to cover what is happening on the Internet? "How can Internet content of journalistic value be found, processed and incorporated into the radio medium?" If the Internet is considered to be a geographic region (or perhaps a continent consisting of many countries), "can the regular journalistic process from foreign correspondents be applied"?

Radio + social media ≠ synergies at this point, but how could those synergy effects be found? How can radio be integrated into Facebook?

How can we get young people to listen to radio in the future? By developing radio stations or program concepts for 16-20 year olds based on young people's habits, attitudes and expectations.

GPS, tagging and information about the user's current situation (sounds in the background, location, pulse) is used in order to present the "right" information to the user.

"You tap your phone against the car's radio and continue to listen to the podcast as you take the elevator to the top floor of the building. When sitting down at your desk you obviously want to finish listening and you simply tap your computer and the podcast seamlessly starts playing on your computer speakers"

Will map a variety of dramatically different future scenarios and economic models. But "what is the likelihood of some of these business models killing radio or changing radio, as we know it? How big a part will advertising have on future revenue? Will product placement invade radio?

Or, the project could be called "In-game radio" as it is about integrating radio with computer games (for example having access to radio channels inside computer games). Such a radio channel could broadcast both real-world information, news, music, but also enhance the gaming experience by also broadcasting results from the game and info that is relevant/interesting to the gamer or the character.

söndag 23 oktober 2011

Green hackathon

I went to check out a "Green hackathon" event at KTH this weekend (Friday afternoon - Saturday afternoon) and it was organized by two Ph.D. students at my department, Jorge and Hannes. Hackathons (or perhaps rather Hack days) come in many different sizes and shapes, but the basic format is a computer programming 24-hour concentrated programming effort, with teams going from inspiration --> ideas --> concepts --> demo in a very short amount of time.

This hackathon had a "green" (environmental) profile, so the task was to develop ideas and demos that could make the world better (in some way), i.e. decrease our carbon footprint, visualize data and information to help people make better (environmental) decisions etc.

I've never been to one of these events before and I didn't participate in this one either, beyond going to the kick-off and then attending the presentations of the finished projects one day later so I'm basically still pretty clueless. I did talk some to David K. though and he might have been the most experienced participant with a dozen or so hack days under his belt (24 hour business camp, music hack, green hack etc.). He did citysounds.fm at a music hack and it seems to be a pretty cool way of choosing a city and listening to that city's local music.

I can see how a hack day can be a great way to generate ideas and plausible promises of more to come. The whole hack day concept is built on the idea of accessing different kinds of open data that is available on the Internet and to aggregate, integrate and present something that can be pretty impressive despite the short time spent putting it together. The developments of powerful and easy-to-use web technologies are the enablers that can allow hack day participants to whip something useful and original together in just a day.

David K. mentioned that it wasn't really the social aspects that drew him to these events, but rather the chance to fully concentrate on working with a few friends to make an idea come true in limited time and though a concentrated effort. He might think about something cool, but never have the time to do it. Enter hack day and the opportunity to go from idea to demo, and the fact that there is an audience there waiting to hear you present your (hopefully) Great Idea adds an element of pressure to come up with something and to produce.

A hack day is not much of a "competition" though compared to the much tougher team-based programming competitions (championships) I wrote about just a few days ago. Green hack day seem more to be a festival, a get-together or a hangout for people who are interested in computers and programming and perhaps also in changing the world (a little). Here are some specific observations:

- The organizers said they had a hard time thinking of prizes that weren't environmental disasters. First prize was a Kindle ebook reader, or if the winner(s) already had a Kindle, a voucher for e-books for the same amount of money.

- The first winning team did a small plug-in for a web browser that besides destination and price also showed the carbon footprint of last minute trips to near- or far-away destinations. The second winner managed to put carbon emissions into the popular game Minecraft. It was a little ironic that the second winner couldn't accept his price in person because he had left in a hurry to catch his plane back to London!

- Nobody wants to be a party pooper, but I did find it slightly problematic for a green hack day that so many of the participants had traveled so far to participate in the event. With people flying in from Helsinki, London, Berlin, Rome, Greece and the US, the ideas generated at the event can hardly make up for the carbon footprint of people traveling to and from the event...?

- Another uneasy observation was the implicit belief that many (most?) problems can be fixed just by making things visible and transparent. While that's a good start, and while I'm all for transparency, I'm not sure it's that easy to fix all those hard problems we are facing having to do with energy use, carbon emissions, first world luxury lifestyles etc.

- Another interesting observation was that the green hack day site, R1, is the first experimental nuclear reactor in Sweden - now being repurposed for an event attempting to reduce our energy usage!

- One of the organizers, Jorge, didn't really have the time to participate, but did still found the time to contribute to a solution for whenever you stand in a shop and ask yourself if you need this thing you have in front of you - check out his solution at shouldibuythis.org!

PS. My colleague Jorge who was also one of the organizers has summed up the event here.

PPS. I will list new hackathon themes as I come across them:
- First International Women's Hackathon & LadyHacks (July 2013).

torsdag 20 oktober 2011

World championship in programming

I've been interested in computer game competitions (or "electronic sports", e-sports) and went to the World Cyber Games in Italy in 2006 (the "Olympics" of e-sports) to check them out. That trip eventually resulted in a paper, "Exploring E-sports: A case study of gameplay in Counter-strike" (available online).

I had earlier give a Ph.D. course on "Cultures of programming: Hackers, crackers and open source". One of the participants who was then a Ph.D. student wrote an analysis of the open source movement in terms of sports/competition. His course paper, "Open source athletics" was eventually published in First Monday (available online). We later discussed a variety of "strange" intellectual activities that were made into competitions - including competitive programming - but nothing came out of it (and, he had a Ph.D. thesis to write at the time).

This interest of mine was rekindled when two students of mine wrote a pretty good (Swedish-language) bachelor's thesis this past spring; "Starcraft: A spectator sport for a wide audience?" [Starcraft: En åskådarsport för bred publik?"] (available online). From the abstract: "This study will examine what opportunities Starcraft 2 has to become a spectator sport for the non-Starcraft players. The focus of this investigation is on the spectator but we have also conducted interviews with two companies that are involved in the broadcasting of Starcraft".

I have thus for the longest of time been aware of the fact that some of the "neighboring" computer science students have participated in the ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest (ICPC). I was "almost" invited to come along to the ICPC "world championships" in Florida in May this year, but it didn't quite come together for various reasons. I might go to the world championships in Warsaw this spring though, and as part of the preparations I earlier this week "interviewed", or rather had a two hour long chat with a Computer Science teacher, Mikael G, who has been heavily involved in these activities. I was sort of fishing for interesting basic information that I could turn into great ideas for a study - and boy did I learn a lot!

I don't really know where to start as there is a ton of things I could write about based on what I knew beforehand and on my informal talk. I will however limit myself by "only" covering three different aspects of competitive programming here (and it's still probably one of my longer blog post to date).

1) There are lots of qualification competitions (national, regional) and around 40 regions worldwide (9 regions in the US alone) in the ICPC. In the 2011 competitions, more than 8000 teams from 2000 universities in 88 countries competed and 100 three-man teams make it into the finals (next year's finals will be held in mid-May in Poland). Each university can be represented by only one team in the finals, so the 100 finalists also represent 100 universities.

Some countries and some universities consistently do much better than others and Russian and Chinese teams are for example not seldom among the top contestants. IBM is the one major (and actually pretty much the only) sponsor for the competition, and beyond the prizes (10 000 or so US dollars plus a brand new heavy-duty computer for each of the winning contestants), Russian champions have also gotten a medal from Vladimir Putin's hand and a guaranteed spot in graduate school (perhaps with a scholarship of some kind?). That is, in some places these competitions are a Big Thing, but not so in the United States.

If a prestigious US university would win, nobody would expect less, but if they loose "everybody" would be disappointed. So there really is no upside for the best and brightest at the MITs and Stanfords out there to partake in the competitions - and so they don't. Or rather, the teams that represent these universities often aren't among the best. Perhaps the best and brightest young programmers in the US are busy thinking about business angels and venture capital and about how to start the next Google or Facebook already when they are university students in their early 20's?

I asked if some universities are consistently among the best, taking into account the fact that no individual person can be among the 300 finalists more than twice in their lives (i.e. fast turnover of contestants). Yes, some universities, for example a particular university in S:t Petersburg, very often do very good. I presume there is some kind of "sustainable" structure in place at such universities in order for them to repetitively and consistently "grow" talents and good teams? Yes, there probably is. And then Mikael G told me about the structure that is in place at KTH.

A bunch of people among the Ph.D. students and the faculty have partaken in these competitions and later come to work as coaches after having "graduated" from the competition itself. In fact, there is a formal course in place for the 4th year computer science students called DD2458, "Problem solving and programming under pressure" (responsible teacher = my informant, Mikael G). This course is limited to 30 students and the presence of this (optional) course is a good way to intercept and catch students who might be interested (and the students naturally get university credits in exchange for them trying out the concept even if they decide that this is not their cup of tea). DD2458 is for sure the natural place to encourage and search for talent.

That course is then followed by pretty informal voluntary practice sessions under the tutelage of a coach (previous contestant) - and the coach gets some credit for his work as a tutor/coach by KTH (i.e. can to some extent work with this as part of his job description). These two structural foundations introduce a level of stability that gives KTH an edge over many other Swedish universities.

What are the key factors that determine if a KTH team will make it all the way to the finals? According to Mikael G, the critical success factors are: 1) raw talent in students that apply for studying computer science at KTH (we'd like Sweden's best and sharpest young programmers to come here) and 2) An interest on the student's behalf of using his (sometimes her) raw talent for competitive programming/programming under pressure.

Note to self: Do a preliminary interview study of DD2458 students and teachers and those who participate in the follow-up practice sessions? How about a spin-off about the history of the "institutional support" around programming competitions at KTH that later branches out into a study of corresponding institutional support at ICPC top-performing universities? How much effort (time and money) is poured into these activities and how are such efforts (locally, regionally, nationally) justified? Why is competitive programming "good for you" in the first place?

2) Some people work more-or-less full time year round with organizing the ICPC, but this is not the same as them necessarily getting paid for it! Some people who organize the ICPC work for IBM and can officially use part of their time at work for arranging these contests. There are three technical systems and three different technical groups that manage these crucial technical systems.

The first technical system encompasses all the front-end stuff like the 100 100% identical computers that the contestants use. These computers are high-end souped-up never-before-touched (IBM) computers, and the hardware and software specifications are spelled out in detail so that teams can practice at home using the same/similar set-ups. My understanding is that this sysops group is primarily run by Americans/Canadians/IBM employees and that these are the heavyweight guys who make all the really important decision.

The second technical system is the back-end server(s) that accept contestants' programs, compiles these programs and runs the programs. This system also has different interfaces for presenting data to contestants, to the audience, to judges and to other persons who are involved in the competitions. A custom-made score board seems to play an important role in communicating the status of different teams during the competition. The software for the back-end system is based on software that has been developed at KTH to automatically judge/grade the results of undergraduate students' programming labs. It is in fact my informant, Mikael G, who is responsible for this software.

The third technical system has nothing to do with computers, but all the more to do with media technology as it is a system for producing video and for distributing live coverage of the event to people who want to follow the competitions (for example all those teams that didn't qualify for the finals). The video production unit is run by another KTH guy, Mex, who is an acquaintance of mine. The first time he/they did this video production thing around the competition was when the championships were held in Sweden - at KTH - two and a half years ago.

Note to self: How about a study of how competitive programming has developed from more open-ended games and play (like the "Green hackathon" I will attend this weekend) into a competition with formal rules? What are the steps in agreeing on a format (emerging consensus about about suitable problems, time frames, ways of judging contributions etc.)? How does a competition become a "spectator sport"; something that others (few or many) watch? Is there an emerging format of video production and ways of trying to visualize what happens in peoples' heads and impart drama (of kinds) into competitive programming? Although probably not applicable to competitive programming, how does an activity (contest, "spectator sport") become commercialized with the whole shebang including revenue streams and business models?

3) As stated, I've had a long-time interest in the relationship between work and leisure, and the movement from fun and games to competitions in the computer game/hacker culture. Even though I've now written this quite hefty blog post while still only covering parts of what I learned this week, chances could easily be that nothing much will come out of it... were it not for the fact that there will be workshop in Copenhagen about the interplay between sports and computer games, "Beyond sports vs. games", in the beginning of next year.

It is easy to see how a study of competitive gaming would fit neatly at this workshop, and the November 15 deadline for a 500-word abstract is also pretty neat and do-able. I think I could get access to some pretty great material, but my problem is that I don't, at the moment, know what I would make out of it or what material to collect in the first place. What question(s) would be of greatest interest to ask about the phenomenon of competitive programming?

If I make a study and write academic stuff up, where could it be published? Well, actually, if I could whip together something that is "good enough" that would qualify me for workshop attendance (limited to a dozen or so participants), the workshop in itself might be the perfect place to trawl for further ideas and for theoretical and other insights and frameworks. It is stated in the invitation to the workshop that "topics can range from empirical studies to theoretical or conceptual work that uses sports as a new interpretative frame for digital play". Most of the examples of proposed topics that are suitable for the workshop can very easily be adapted to me doing some kind of case study on competitive programming:
  • Sportspersonship and digital games. In my case sportsmanship and competitive programming; quite some energy is actually expanded to counter attempts (real or imagined) to cheat at these competitions.
  • Designing for digital sports/competitive programming.
  • Play as sporting performance, expertise and virtuoso play. In my case competitive programming as... and so on.
  • Sporting outsiders, alternatives, and rebels. Competitive programming vs other hacker/programming cultures/venues; white/black hat hackers, open source, engineers and other salary slaves etc. What happens with ex-competitive programmers? What do they do, where do they work and is it possible to find any patterns? Is participation in the competitive programming circuit seen as a career-enhancer?
  • Amateurism & professionalism. Competitive programming and the (future) programming career. What is the objective "utility" or "use" of learning to cooperate/compete under time pressure? Why do some nebulous "we" (somewhat) "want" people to be good at competitive programming? Or are these skills of no real use - it's just fun to those who are into it - and isn't that is reason enough? Not all great programmers like competitive programming; who likes/dislikes it and why? What does the act of reshaping programming into a competition between students and universities (and countries?) say about the (post-modern?) times we live in?
  • Coaching, leading, and mentoring teams. I have excellent possibilities to write something on this topic. I have to some extent already started (above).
  • Spectatorship, audience, and digital sports/competitive programming with a focus on the last three years of opening up the finals to "the world" through live video coverage and different efforts to reshape competitive programming into a spectator sport.
  • Rules and regulations of play/competitive programming.
  • Computation and sports/competitive programming.
  • Sport ethics and digital games/competitive programming
I know I could pretty easily write a 500-word abstract (this text is almost five times as long)! But could I deliver a (draft) paper by February? And can I deliver a paper of some merit and potential by February? Although I believe I could get access to some really exciting and original empirical material, what would be the purpose and what would be the angle (and goal) of a study of mine and of the resulting paper? Where would it be published? On a larger scale, if this paper was to be part of an imaginary research application, what would that application be about (I'm trying to link the large to the small; research program - study - empirical material so as to find the right motivation and the right research question to guide a study).

I have to think some more about this. Do you dear reader have any suggestions or comments?

PS. In preparing for (perhaps) writing a contribution to the workshop, I allowed a book to jump the queue and started reading Allen Guttman's "From ritual to record: The nature of modern sports" yesterday.

söndag 16 oktober 2011

On books on "Big Ideas"

I've subscribed to The Atlantic (previously called The Atlantic Monthly) for 8 years or so. Most is good, some is great. A short article in their latest issue (October 2011) is great. I read it yesterday. It's called "Meme weaver" and it's written by Marshall Poe. The style is great:

"When I was young I wanted to write a challenging book of ideas. [...] Unfortunately, I didn't really have anything deep to say. So [...] I went to graduate school. I found nothing deep to say there. Instead, I learned to do research and write clearly. In the years that followed, I wrote books, but not deep books about ideas. My books were focused, well-documented demonstrations about some minor fact about the world. They added to what we know. That's something."

But the content of the article is even better, a behind-the-scene story of the publishing industry and of best-selling tech books. It is the story of how Poe, after he switched to work for a magazine, "stumbled" over Wikipedia in 2005 and wrote an article about it. The timing was right and Wikipedia was hot when the article was published. Could this be his moment? He sent off an email to a literary agent about writing "a book about Wikipedia-style collaboration on the Internet". The agent called back within minutes.

To get a book contract, three things were needed; 1) A platform, 2) A big idea and 3) A catch phrase:

Platform: "Professor" is a platform, "writer" is another one - check!

Big idea: "A big idea is an enthusiastically stated thesis, usually taking the form of "This changes everything and will make you rich, happy, and beautiful". [...] In my case, the this had to be Wikipedia, so my big idea was "Wikipedia changes everything". I had done no research to substantiate such a claim" - check (with some hesitation).

Catch phrase: "I needed a catch phrase title like The Wisdom of Crowds, The Tipping Point, or The Long Tail." The trade editor suggested "WikiWorld" - check.

Poe had all three, and after a round of bidding ended, he also had a publisher and a promise of a large number of $$$. "But what was the book going to be about? We weren't sure. Something to do with mass collaboration and how it changes everything. We'd work it out". He was asked to complete the book in six months. Impossible! Well then, do the best you can.

So Poe started to do research. He unfortunately had to retire the idea that "Wikipedia changes everything", because while it changed some things, it obviously didn't change everything. Reality is convoluted, complex and messy, and it can't be boiled down to catchphrases and anecdotes. Poe strayed from the big-idea template.

Still, everything was fine and dandy with the editor up until the moment when it wasn't. "E-mails went unanswered, phone calls unreturned. What had happened? My agent explained that my big idea - which in fact was no longer my big idea - had a short shelf life. That's why my editor had wanted the book in six months. Other Wikipedia books were in the pipleline. Some of the authors had higher platforms, bigger ideas, and pithier titles than mine. The clock was ticking. After six months, my editor [who previously liked the book] no longer liked the book. Too complicated for the average trade reader. He advised me to speculate. "Unleash your inner Marshall McLuhan," he said, and rewrite the book. This was excellent advice from a smart man with decades of experience in trade publishing. But I realized that I had no inner Marshall McLuhan."

In the end, Poe couldn't write a big-idea book, because he realized he didn't believer in big ideas. "reality is as complicated as it is, not as complicated as we want it to be. Some phenomena have an irreducible complexity that will defeat any big-idea effort at simplification. Detailed research has, not surprisingly, cast doubt on the reality of wise crowds, tipping points and long tails."

He submitted the manuscript to his editor, who rejected it. "Wikipedia's moment had passed, and my big idea had vanished. He killed the book, and the big number disappeared. I don't blame him, he was just doing his job."

End of story and time for a few reflections of my own:

1) Everyone was just doing their jobs, playing their pre-determined roles like marionettes, but the result is a race to the bottom. While Poe realized that he didn't believe in big ideas, such ideas are just complicated enough (i.e. simple enough) to sell with gusto - so both the prospective audience and publishers love them. A simple big idea dressed up in a bombastic book-length suit makes the reader feel smart. So what if reality is more complicated than what can be captured by a big-idea book? Well, money doesn't lie! The real complexity of reality (and of emerging technologies, and our use of them) is taxing, contradictory, confusing. The real complexity of reality is road kill on the information superhighway, something best left to (full-time) academics with time on their hands.

2) Poe obviously doesn't much like Surowiecki's "The wisdom of crowds: Why the many are smarter than the few and how collective wisdom shapes business, economies, societies and nations", Gladwell's "The tipping point: How little things can make a big difference" and Anderson's "The long tail: Why the future of business is selling less of more". They over-simplify a complex reality would be his verdict. But my students love them and often mistake these big ideas for self-evident truths! Their intellectually curiosity (as it may be; sometimes great, oftentimes not-so-great - any student of mine reading this text is obviously an exception) not seldom both starts and ends with Anderson's Long-tail-concept. And us teachers accept it (happy that they read something beyond the course literature rather than nothing?). But uncritically parroting someone else's big-idea concept is not the same thing as thinking deep for yourself. Note to self: I have to think more critically about how I treat students' references to big-but-simple ideas in their (master's) theses and elsewhere.

3) Even though I cant find Poe's Wikipedia book, there is another book called "WikiWorld". It's was published in January 2010 by Pluto Press and it's written by two Finns, Juha Suoranta and Tere Vadén (I've never heard of them). No Amazon customer has reviewed their book yet. It's at number 1.9 million in Amazon's best seller list. It's safe to say that their book isn't a big-idea book; "The tension between technology and society is presented with reference to Marx, Heidegger, Nietzsche and Marcuse".

4) I didn't like Gladwell's tipping poing much and don't understand why everyone else did. Surowiecki's book is still on my desk (will probably be read and probably within a year from now). I have no plans to have a closer look at Anderson's long tail. I've read so many references to it that it feels like I have an intimate knowledge of Anderson's big idea and don't need to actually read the book - not that his big idea was that complicated or difficult to understand in the first place... Or, I might change my mind and read it just to try to call him on his "bluff" (?). The original book is five years old but the revised and updated editions is "only" three years old.

onsdag 12 oktober 2011

On work habits and on getting things done

I don't feel I have a problem with the topic of my previous blog post - procrastination. At least not at the moment (this autumn - although I have to say I had a very hard time to get going after the summer vacation). Sure, there are several things I'm running late on doing, but that is not because I'm procrastinating, but because I choose to do other, more important things first (some tasks unfortunately gets continually pushed down in the queue).

This procrastination thing grows on you though, so I thought I would write down some reflections about my own work habits, as I do have problems to finish some things and have often felt that short, specific tasks that has to be completed immediately tends to crowd out long tasks with indefinite deadlines (like writing an article for a conference or a journal, or writing a research application (can always wait until next year when I'll know more about the topic and can write a better application)).

I have thus noticed and during the last year worked towards compartmentalizing my work a lot more. I use certain times of the day, or certain situations, for doing certain things and have thus found some "perfect matches".

One thing that easily tends to not get done is reading academic books from cover to cover. So I have a daily quota for reading them and the books "magically" get read over time. The pace isn't great, but I'm still probably above average even for academics when I clock in around two read books per month. I've written about this specific topic before.

As to writing, I have so many ideas, sketches and half-done articles, but I never seem to have the time to actually write them or the discipline to finish them instead of thinking about something new. It is difficult to sit in my office surrounded by so many small, short "urgent" tasks and take the time off to close the door, preferably unhook the telephone and sit for one, two or three hours just thinking and writing concentratedly. So this semester I have done something slightly radical when I block off one day per week and head of for the Royal Library [Kungliga biblioteket, KB]. It's within walking distance from KTH, but it's even better to not pass by KTH by at all during one of these gloriously blocked-off days. There are few distractions at KB and you are surrounded by other people doing much the same thing as you. The environment is conducive to writing and to concentrating on you writing. You are alone with your thoughts (and your computer screen and the texts you've brought with you) - and it's a wonderful place to be for a person like me.

I love it and I have fond memories as KB was the place where I went when I needed to finish my ph.d. thesis ten years ago. I sat at KB more or less from when they opened until they closed (eight at night) five or six days a week. Even outside of the opening hours I for a period of several months had a hard time not thinking about my research, the material I had collected, my interpretations of it and the text that I had written or would write the following day. I had a hard time talking to people unless it in some way related to my thesis - a topic which I constantly brought into the conversation. I was on an maniacal intellectual "high" for months and my drug was ideas. I detested when my then-girlfriend-now-wife chided me for be totally nerdy and tried to make me talk about mundane everyday stuff - things that emphatically did not relate to my thesis and the world of ideas that was my constant companion during this period of my life. I still think the thesis holds up pretty good for anyone interested in hacker culture, virtual communities and online meeting places.

Back to the present I don't have the luxury of that kind of zoomed-in total focus with a wife and two kids clamoring for my attention at home and university courses and literally dozens if not hundreds of students clamoring for my instructions, directions and attention at work. The best I can manage is these one-day per week excursions into the wonderful world of thinking and writing and saying hello to my own brain (my best company at the library).

Yet a third match is the one or two or maybe even three hours I can spend late at night some weekdays at home, doing a task that is in need of a concentrated effort but that can (preferably) be finished in the allotted time that very weekday. Taking the time to develop and write up a master's thesis proposal based on some hastily jotted-down ideas would be one such task (although I haven't done that specific task lately). Writing down a page or two of medium-complicated instructions for a course would be another example (I did that just last week). Reading a thesis draft from a master's student in preparation for a meeting is a task that is perfect for late nights after the kids have gone to bed.

Other tasks I pointedly abstain from doing at home. Printing something, checking and changing it some and printing it again several times is a task best left to do at work. If I need to check things out with other people, I don't even bother to think about them at home. I have also come to prefer to at the most screen my email at home and perhaps answering and sending off a few select emails to remind someone (could be myself) of something. Serious email reading (and performing all the small tasks that follow from reading 10 or 20 e-mails in a chunk) I have come to do first thing in the morning when I get to work and then (some) throughout the workday. I try my best to not even look too much at my mail when I'm at KB.

I anyway (right now) feel that this compartmentalization is good for my work habits and for getting things done - the right task at the right time and the right place. I'm a little concerned on my student's behalf when it seems some of them just can't turn Facebook off at all. I look forward to find out more about our media technology students' procrastination habits a few weeks from now and during the coming academic year. It is most certainly a topic I will write more about here on the blog!

lördag 8 oktober 2011

On procrastination

"One of the greatest labor-saving inventions of today is tomorrow" - Vincent T. Foss

I'm responsible for the Program-integrating course this academic year (again). The last time I wrote about that course here on the blog was in June when I summarized last year's course.

This year's theme for the course (instructions for 300+ students will be sent out this coming week) is "procrastination", i.e. the habit of postponing and delaying stuff, or, more poetically, the gap between intention and action†. Almost all of us do it now and then. Students do it more often, especially concerning their studies (as shown by research). It is for example notoriously difficult to start working on your thesis when the deadline is many months from now. Many students start doing things way to late, with studying for exams being the primary example. I don't know how often I've read the words "during the next period [next quarter] I will start studying directly when the courses start" in the documents students hand in in the Program-integrating course.

So, procrastination is a relevant and timely (timeless?) topic and we have some good starting points for this theme/course. The students will start by filling out a short questionnaire. After having answered nine questions, they can find out if they are habitual or only average procrastinators. We continue by reading some popular texts and finish by having students think and write some about their own habits.

In this course, students usually answer questions such as "what did you do during the past period?" (last quarter). This time they will also get the opportunity to answer the question "what did you NOT do during the last period (what did you delay or postpone that you "should" have done)?". The students are furthermore also encouraged to make promises in the form of a voluntary "pledge", and we will come back to and evaluate the outcome of these pledges half a year later. We are also especially interested in the role of (new) media technologies and services in students' procrastination habits.

Procrastination as a topic was suggested by my colleague Björn H. who also has a good grip on the field of "procrastination research". Just talking about and planning this stuff has been fun as you can make so many jokes about procrastination. It for example turned out that me and Björn together own three books about delaying stuff and about getting things done - but that none of us had read any of these books! ;-)

† For primers on procrastination, see the Wikipedia entries for procrastination, student syndrome and cramming.

söndag 2 oktober 2011

Clueless AI researcher

I listened to a 45-minute long drive-by talk by a guest (German AI researcher) at our weekly meeting. It was depressing. I can bet 1000-to-1 that he hasn't read Joseph Weizenbaum's 1976 classig "Computer power and human reasoning: From judgement to calculation".

Weizenbaum was one of the pioneers of AI (Artificial Intelligence), but he was shocked by the emotional attachment people exhibited even to early (simple, stupid) computer programs that haltingly chatted with users. He didn't turn against AI as such, but he did turn against the technocratic agenda of attempting to use (fancy, "exciting") computer tools for anything and everything without thinking about the resulting systems and the consequences in terms of (for example) human dignity. Should we replace psychiatrists with computer programs? Should we develop computer-enhanced remote-controlled animal "tools" (weapons, spies)? Weizenbaum's empathic answer was "NO!" and for that reason he became disliked by other AI researches that were fattened by suckling grants from the generous purses of the US military (Edwards 1996).

So, here we have a researcher who lives by and for applying for money for pan-European EU projects, but who doesn't seem to care (or think about, or notice) the larger agendas that are inextricable parts of his research, or the consequences of using his "solutions" in modern society. Anyone can apply for money to build a system, hallucinate and write down some potential beneficial uses of said systems and then stand back and hope for the best. But computer systems and artifacts do have politics (Winner 1986, Friedman 1997), and some systems have a much higher potential for being used in destructive ways and for putting down, controlling or sometimes even killing other people (more "efficient" weapon systems like for example attack drones would be a prime example), rather than for empowering users and for the benefit of humanity and. In the first Amazon review of Weizenbaum's book (above), "A Customer" (Jan 1997) writes that:

"This remains one of the best books about the role of computers in our society, dealing with such topics as: [...]
(3) The social responsibility of technical workers, who generally are myopically focused on "efficiently" doing whatever they do, without being concerned about what should be done or whether what they are working on is something that should be done differently or not be done at all"

Some systems are just a waste of time and effort. Why not solve simple problems with simple solutions? Why attempt to solve simple problems by building complicated (AI) systems? Why build a worker's vest with lots of sensors and computing power and expert systems and a large research budget in order to monitor the order that a worker fastens screws to an airplane hull - sending a warning/error message if this is done in the wrong order? Wouldn't it be a lot easier, a lot cheaper, a lot more empowering and dignified for workers to solve this problem themselves by pairing up a more junior with a more senior worker?

Some computer systems should not be built purely based on the balance between system costs and system benefits. Other systems should not be built at any cost for moral or other reasons. I have noticed that I am becoming more and more doubtful, perhaps even hostile to the concept of research for its own sake. Here we have a guy who belongs to a privileged class and who shuttles around Europe (sending the bill to the nowadays hard pressed European taxpayers) in search of partners for the next "great" idea and the next research application - for project that I personally hope will never come to fruition. I got the distinct feeling that what we had here was a loose cannon, an (amoral - not immoral) traveling salesman of a "solution" and a set of tools in search of a problem. I got the feeling that "anything goes" (as long as there is a juicy computational challenge involved, and as long as there's money to be found to support an inquiry into the topic in question). So I got an urge to ask him a question.

In my question I asked if there was not a contradiction between on the one hand the "participatory design" aspects of one project (the terms was placed centrally on the slide, in the middle of a circle), and on the other hand some conspicuous aspects of some other of the presented systems (hinting at his systems stripping people of their knowledge and their agency, reducing them to becoming generators-of-data for sensors and "smart" AI systems and experts/doctors who will do all the interpretation of said data). The answer I got was incoherent and it was embarrassingly obvious that this researcher had not thought about any of these aspects before. Being socially well-adjusted human beings, we all nodded and pretended he said something that made sense (even though it was incomprehensible).

My first epithet of this guy was "clueless AI researcher", but with that non-answer of his I choose to change it to "clueless (accidentally misanthropic) AI researcher". That's a tough judgement but I stand by it (writing about an anonymized researcher and communicating it to a for the most part anonymous audience on the Internet makes me really brave :-)

PS. I thought one thing he said was interesting. He organized computer systems on an axis:
Implanted --- Wearable --- Mobile --- Tangible --- Ambient.

lördag 1 oktober 2011

Our Radio Day guest lectures

The start-up phase of my course on "The future of media" - this year featuring "The future of radio" - will start to wind down in a week or so. We've had no less than 15 guest lectures over the last five weeks and will have a yet another handful over the next 10 days.

By lucky coincidence, a number or Swedish radio organizations (Sveriges Radio, Utbildningsradion, MTG radio, SBS Radio and Radioakademin) organized the annual "Radio Day" [Radiodagen] and "Radio Gala" [Radiogalan] this past week. A whole day devoted to all things radio and an evening of gala and prizes.

The Radio Day in Stockholm (Thursday) is coordinated with similar radio days in Norway (Friday) and Denmark (Saturday), and this makes it possible for them to invite a number of international (in this case almost exclusively British and American) guests. So after the program the was announced (a month ago), I did some Google research and found contact information for most of the International guest. I then sent off a bunch of e-mails and invited them to give guest lectures in our course at the Royal Institute of Technology. To my surprise, all of them accepted. Four international guests thus came to KTH this past week and one will come 10 days from now:

- Simon Redican & Mark Barber, "Media and the mood of the nation"
- Valerie Geller, "Becoming a more powerful communicator"

Nino, Claire and Nancy came the same day and we thus had a packed afternoon with six straight hours of lectures (13-19). Phew!

The coordination between the Radio Day and our course is so good it is a pity we only have a radio theme this year (last year's theme was "The future of music" and next year there will be yet another theme).

I think it is interesting to reflect a little on the three Wednesday lectures. Nino and Claire had information-packed talks and their ambitions PowerPoint presentations were full of lists with bullets, pictures and transitions. They were fact-filled and I was afraid we would not have any energy left to listen to our last speaker. But instead of another batch of fact-filled slides, Nancy only used her voice and sound clips - excerpts from radio programs she had done. She talked at a slower pace, with pauses and directly to the audience, asking for feedback and sometimes pointing at someone and asking him/her a direct question. She used the audio clips to support her telling of a story about herself (her personal history, her love of radio and her career in radio) and about the radio show she works with (This American Life). It was an unusual lecture, and the personal dimension of her talk broke with the usual fact-filled "value-neutral" format of university lectures.

Nancy's main point was that radio isn't old-fashioned, but rather a timeless medium for telling stories about people. In her opinion, radio is an unbeatable way to get close and intimate both to the person being interviewed and to the listener. Also, it's so inexpensive - all you need to do radio is one person with a recording device. You can thus try out (and discard) different concepts and things with little costs (as apart from movies/TV).

What I found most interesting was that Nancy was a storyteller, and she came to us to tell us a story, her story. Her story was a story about another storyteller - radio. And radio of course houses Nancy's own radio show, This American Life, where she spends her days spinning and telling stories to (literally) millions of people. Voila, the circle is closed! I loved her captivating low-key talk about the characteristics and qualities or radio and the fact that she didn't just talk about them, but also used them in her own talk about radio.