It does, you know. You just have to get it hot enough.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Engaging Contemporary Communication Technologies

[1) Worst. Title. Ever. I know.
2) This is probably the sort of thing that I could send to a sekret group of people who Make Things Happen. The problem is a) I don’t know who they are; b) I don’t know who all to CC for “and these people agree with me”; and c) I believe in public self-organization, so I should put up or shut up. Comments via email will not be shared with anyone, but I’d prefer a public dialog on the topic. –jet]

I’m the first to admit that I have a problem with constructive criticism. I’ve never been terribly good at gently nudging someone onto the right path with kind words; I’m much better at beating them with a stick when they go down the wrong path. I apologize in advance if this comes off as harsh, it’s really not my intent. I want us to be brilliant, I don’t want to score points by pointing out where people are screwing up.

I recently started reading RISD’s latest blog (yes, they have more than one), “RISD by Design” and my response was something like

“Oh yeah? Well we just updated our website design after 10 years! So there! Ok, well, we updated some of it, like the main page and a couple other things and a lot of the departments and the search engine still have the old style and there’s not much visual coherence across the campus other than.. uh… so, how about those Stillers?”

That’s not much of a response. As a matter of fact, it made me angry thinking about it.

How is it that a university doing leading-edge research in pretty much every domain including Internet technology (ex: CAPCHA) doesn’t have any sort of, “Hey, look at us!” blog or journal at the university level?

Sure, there are some people working on departmental and project blogging, but that’s a local level. Peter Lee has CSDiary that covers the activities of the CS department and Golan Levin has a personal blog where he talks about issues related to teaching and being a good student. CMU Design has a Twitter feed, which is really great for students in Design, and a couple of classes have had per-class blogs.

But where’s our flagship blog, authored by someone from the President’s Office or at least someone in PR? Why were we not one of the first universities to have a major public blog/journal?

Thinking about past organizations I’ve been in, some possible answers that come to mind:

  • We don’t have to. Admission to Carnegie Mellon is highly competitive, anyone we want as a student or donor already knows who we are. There’s simply nothing to be gained from investing in some sort of Maeda-like showcase blog.
  • It’s not a high enough priority. Various senior people think it’s important, but we have limited resources and can’t do everything we want to do.
  • It’s a bad idea. For whatever reason, enough people at senior levels are simply opposed to the idea of having a presence in blog-space that they can block anyone else who wants to make progress in this area.
  • We don’t think the contemporary online world is relevant to the education process.

I’d like to think it’s the first reason (“we’re so great we don’t need to advertise”) but on my grumpy days I suspect that it’s one of the latter.

Here’s why.

Last semester I helped with a class called Making Things Interactive. If you go look at the class blog, you might notice that it’s hosted at, not at

Why? Well, we don’t have any blogging infrastructure at CMU. Nada. Zip.

Individual people have individual accounts on the campus network and some folk have installed blogging software on their accounts. However, the bandwidth limitations are pretty tight as my fellow student Jennifer Gooch found out the hard way. When her project One Cold Hand got national press, her site got hammered and was quickly shut down by IT because it was using too much bandwidth. It took several days to convince people within the system to change her bandwidth limits, during which she ended up moving her site to another hosting facility.

Think about that a second or two: We were getting really good PR on a national level for a student’s work and that student’s account got locked down because too many people found her work interesting.

Of course, many groups/departments have their own computing resources and self-host their servers, but by doing this they’re duplicating effort and wasting resources. In my program there’s a tiny little *nix box sitting in someone’s office running yet-another install of gentoo/apache and some custom CMS software. Why can’t we just fill out some sort of web requisition form and get a wordpress install up and running on a hosted campus facility? I host several sites (including this one) at dreamhost, so I can honestly say that it’s pretty trivial to set up a domain and get blogging software up and running if the basic infrastructure is in place.

In the short term, what we need is a blogfarm running WordPress. We don’t need CS to go into NIH mode and create yet another parallel-but-different-solution, we just need a bunch of blades in racks running wordpress and some support from IT in the keeping-it-running-and-updated department. Even if the Powers That Be don’t get blogging, at least give those of us who do the infrastructure we need to set up and run blogs on local, supported servers.

Once the infrastructure is up and running and people are using it and we start getting attention, we can more easily convince the Powers That Be why blogging/journaling is so important to the future success of our university. If a mere art school like RISD (sorry, cheap shot, I know :-) has a public face in the online world, why doesn’t a cutting edge, interdisciplinary research university like Carnegie Mellon have a public face that’s an order of magnitude better?

I have negative free time to help with this sort of thing, but my program could really use a locally hosted blog/website where we could show off all of our work. Right now I’m looking at setting up something on ning to promote our program and asking my advisor to spend a few $ to make the ads go away; I’m more than happy to help someone who has the time/energy to lead this charge.

So. Time to “shut up and skate”, as we said back in the day. I don’t have time to help build a ramp, but I’m happy to help sweep leaves out of an empty pool.

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posted by jet at 21:01  

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Omnibus School Update

Way behind on the journaling thing, but I’ve been kinda busy.

This wraps up week 5 of my 32 week adventure in getting a one-year master‘s. Intensive programs are, well, intensive. I’m taking four studios + an elective (the somewhat non-trivial Advanced Japanese) and that accounts for most of my waking hours.

Because mTID is still a new program, the courses I’m taking are relevant to my degree but offered from other departments. This semester, one of my design studios is in the English department and another is in HCI so I’m getting to interact with a lot of people from other graduate programs. The other two studios are basically a single massive studio under mTID where I’m doing a self-directed research project. (If you know the Carnegie Mellon unit system, I’m taking 51 units, 42 of those are studios.)

My research project is going really well so far. I’ll post more details when I’ve got a rigged demo, but I’m basically looking at ways to visualize Hertzian space using tactile and haptic outputs. Like many of my grand schemes, I give it a 50/50 chance of actually working instead of being an example of what not to do. There’s a fair amount of research in haptics for manipulators and engaging virtual worlds, however I’m personally leaning towards personal-level implementations that transmit abstract information. Instead of trying to provide realistic physical feedback to someone teleoperating a waldo I’m trying to provide physical encodings of data/information about an invisible environment.

At the end of week 5 I’m where I should be at the end of week 8 and I have 11 weeks until the end of the semester. I’d really like to have something to show at the CHI ’09 vignettes or alt.chi in April and the application deadlines are during winter break. I’m feeling pretty good about the progress I’m making, especially if I can work on this after the semester is over and have a really good submission for CHI.

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posted by jet at 15:43  

Monday, September 22, 2008

Finding Inspiration in other Media

My current distraction is mashups and remixes. I have no desire to make these, but seeing other people be creative often gets me out of whatever stuck state I happen to be in.

The problem is that most (ok, almost all) mashups suck or are at best novelties. You might listen to them once and think, ‘how clever, they made something using “16 Tons” and “Material Girl”’, but you’ll never voluntarily listen to it again or wander around singing it in your head. Simply finding two songs in a similar key/tempo and blending them does not guarantee it’s actually good music.

However, there are a few artists that take songs that sound good, mash them all together, and make a better song than any of the originals. “Gosh, if only this song had a better bridge and this one had a better drumline, hey, I know…” Better still are the artists that don’t stop at two songs, the ones that take three songs, mash them up, and filter/mix them so it sounds like it’s one big band. And then there are the really good ones that make videos to go along with their remix/mashups.

I recently discovered this collective in Japan that works under the name “Orcrec” that does almost everything perfectly. They have a blog filled with work , but it’s on the other side of the pond and the connection is iffy. Lucky for us there’s the Youtube.

First, there’s their Starry Sky YEAH! Remix, which is based on three other songs:

But you put them together properly and “holy fuck this is a great song!” Note that they also mixed three videos together as well and also filtered the audio tracks for better transitions.

The second amazing Orcrec track, Gamegirl Master, is based on Underworld’s “Rez/Cowgirl”, Fatboy Slim’s “Renegade Master (Wildchild)”, and Perfume’s “Game”.

I happen to like two of these songs to begin with, and while Orcrec didn’t put as much effort into the mixing as they did with “Starry Sky YEAH!”, they made an all new video for the mix using footage from TRON. Even without the snazzy new video, the mashup they made is still better than the sum of the parts and arguably better than two of the three songs. (Rez/Cowgirl is arguably one of the best 10 electro songs of all time.)

The thing is, you can waste all day on youtube looking at stuff like this. At least %90 of it is crap made by kids who didn’t change the music, they just made a new video (aka AMV) for one of their favorite songs using stuff from anime and movies or video of themselves dancing and lipsyncing. But if you’re lucky, you’ll stumble along someone with the skills of Orcrec and rethink what the limits of your medium are.

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posted by jet at 08:36  

Thursday, September 4, 2008

“I want to be a designer because” 2008 edition

Two years ago, one of my professors asked us to complete this statement every year while limiting our answer to 15 words or less.

I want to be a designer because….
…designers can help people solve problems, including ones they might not be aware of yet.

In 15 words and with no qualification statements!

Thanks, Brett. This is one of best questions anyone’s ever asked me in the classroom.

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posted by jet at 22:44  

Thursday, September 4, 2008

RISD/Maeda/Future redux

The Wall Street Journal has a nice article on Maeda and the future of RISD.

“Everyone asks me, ‘Are you bringing technology to RISD?’ I tell them, no, I’m bringing RISD to technology.”

I wonder how many design schools could benefit from that way of thinking.

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posted by jet at 20:39  

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