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.

Technorati Tags: , ,

posted by jet at 21:01  

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

xref: Physical Computing’s Greatest Hits (and misses)

Been busy, but time for a quick xref: Tom Igoe has a really nice write-up of common projects in physical computing classes. More importantly, he explains why all these (often) obvious projects are still worth doing in class and why students shouldn’t feel like they’re just duplicating someone else’s efforts.

Technorati Tags:

posted by jet at 11:05  

Monday, June 16, 2008

Universities and the 21st Century

If you’ve been living under the same rock I hang out under, you might have missed that John Maeda is now President of RISD.

Yes, that John Maeda and that RISD.

So, pretty cool, huh?

What’s even cooler, is that Maeda is blogging regularly about RISD-related stuff at “Our RISD“.

I’ve never met Maeda and I’ve little desire to go to RISD at the moment, but I appreciate the opportunity to reading the thoughts of someone whose work I respect and admire and get a behind-the-scenes look at a major design school.

Technorati Tags: , , ,

posted by jet at 13:31  

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Simplicity and Octopart

I like simple things. While I often like gaudy, baroque, Victorian, overdone decoration, I like things I use to be as simple as possible. I don’t feel the need to make arbitrary rules like, “no buttons anywhere on the product”, but I try to make things simple and keep them that way.

Visually, this is a pretty boring journal. But journals are about words, and because I stay focused on words, it’s easy to read this journal on just about any device, from my XV6800 phone to a high-end PC. (Just checked and it looks pretty good in lynx as well.) I spent very little time making it simple, I just started ripping things out if I couldn’t justify their existence. So, there’s no autobiographical photo, no fancy widgets showing what music I’m listening to right now, no countdown-until-W-is-gone clock, do dynamic code generation, Flash animations, or any of that. True, if I were a freelance graphic — sorry, “communication” — designer I’d probably put a lot of effort into having a rockin’ web site that shows off my chops. But I’m not, so I don’t.

So, back to simple. If you’ve ever ordered anything from a supplier like Grainger or DigiKey, you know what a nightmare it can be to find what you’re looking for. For awhile now, McMaster Carr has gotten more of my business than, say, MSC Direct, simply because the McMaster Carr site is so damn simple and easy to use.

McMaster Carr is great for the hardware I’ve needed for some metalworking probjects, but in the past year or two I’ve also gotten back into tangible computing (aka “making electric things with embedded CPUs”). The work I’m doing now is mostly based on the Arduino, an AVR-based single board computer. The Arudino does for physical computing what high level languages did for programming — open the field up to more people by simplifying the interface and the programming environment. Yea for simplicity!

Getting back into tangible computing also means dealing with the dreaded mail order supply titans like DigiKey, Newark, Mouser, Allied, etc. Typically when you’re ordering parts, you make a list of what you need, then try and find each part in each catalog, get the price, sum everything up, figure out shipping, then go find out if the parts are actually in stock. It’s an hour or two with a spreadsheet and often both the online search engine and the printed catalog.

Octopart changes everything. It’s a search engine for electronics, but more importantly, it pulls data from all the major vendors and shows you — in real time — pricing and availability. You can make a parts list, then easily compare prices and availability across most major vendors then build individual shopping carts and place orders.

It’s an amazingly useful resource, but most importantly, it’s simple. Simple, simple, simple. There are no garish colors, no image maps, no egregious animations, no masses of corporate logos showing everyone they are affiliated with. Just plain text, thumbnails for search results to help identify parts, and navigation that doesn’t require FPS-developed reflexes.

Go play with it — even if you don’t know anything about electronics — and see what you think. If you think you’re ignorant of things electronic, then search for something you’ve used or heard of, like “9v battery” or “transistor” and just poke around a bit. By keeping things simple, they’ve taken something very complex — component selection and ordering — and made it a much easier task.

Technorati Tags: , ,

posted by jet at 17:42  

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Positive and negative examples

A few things I’ve wanted to write about in detail but I’m kinda swamped with work and school.

Ishkur’s Guide to Electronic Music. A collection of graphs showing the history and interconnections between various genres of electronic music. Lots of samples and written descriptions to go along with the graphs.

Processing, a new environment from Ben Fry and Casey Reas. Processing makes it easy for non-programmer types to do simple visualizations of data. Processing built on Java, and programmer types can easily take advantage of the full Java environment if they wish.

A Timeline of Timelines, from Cabinet Magazine.

James Victore will speak at Carnegie Mellon on Monday, March 19 @ 7:00 pm. His topic:
“Graphic Design Just Isn’t That Interesting: A discussion of the role of the designer in relation to ethics, morals and selling crap to people who don’t need it.” Margaret Morrison Breed Hall, Carnegie Mellon, Pittsburgh, PA.

Visual Complexity, a blog about complex visualizations of data.

Technorati Tags: , , ,

posted by jet at 11:23  
« Previous PageNext Page »

Powered by WordPress