In the course of getting a job done, we all end up doing a bit of research. Here are some of the projects I’ve contributed to, from artificial intelligence to aircraft design, tissue simulation, human-machine interfaces and Lego Mindstorms! Feel free to check it out. Wherever possible, I’ve added the presentation versions, which are a bit more visual and a lot less text!
Pretend this was a long article summarizing the incredible outreach and education opportunities that were maximized by ISS crew member Chris Hadfield during his time as Commander. From Reddit AMA’s to videos about everyday life in space, what he has demonstrated is that science outreach is about curiosity, it’s about asking questions, and it’s about trying to find out the answers for yourself.
Sure, we’ve figured out things like gravity intuitively for ourselves, but in a new environment, where ringing out a facecloth leads to crazy results, all the answers can be different, and curiosity is something that can get rewarded even in the small details. Sometimes we forget, in the era where all the basic questions have refined and polished answers, that science starts with ignorance, and the more ignorance, the better the questions. Being in orbit, all the rules change, and the answers are no longer polished or quite what was expected. Forcing a reset on intuition and common sense reawakens curiosity.
And really, the ONLY reason we do science and ask questions is ‘Why?’ and the ‘What if?’ Commander Hadfield wraps up this amazing outreach success with a “Why Not?”
In creating new content for the web – educational, corporate, entertainment – we have a bit of a pressure-cooker atmosphere. Teams are quickly assembled. Ideas are tried and tested and implemented in hours and days, and deadlines are often set with everything but technical feasibility in mind.
Of course, in web, the stakes are rarely as high as those of, say NASA. We can update, beta test, and the consequences are not typically life altering. There is always “CTRL-Z”
Nonetheless, we need good teams – exceptional teams, really – to get the job done.
Looking back over 50 years, one of the most amazing teams, goals, and deadlines was the Apollo program to land a man on the moon by 1969. 0.4% of the Gross Domestic Product of the United States at that time was diverted to NASA, and when the project had started it was science fiction – it would be like us today building nuclear starship in 15 years, just enough feasibility to not be pure science fiction.
But things did go wrong, because of the rush to meet the deadline, and because of the unique nature of risk: nothing goes wrong until things go wrong – the only symptom of high risk is catastrophe. Read the rest of this entry »
I wrote a jsfiddle sample as a demo for my brother’s control systems class at NAIT to show the differences between closed-loop feedback controllers – the tiny algorithms behind cruise-control autopilots, and autofocus in your camera.
I have to generalize it to a PID object and so on, but it is fun to play with the coefficients – and I learned a thing or two I’d forgotten about digital controller behaviour, like sampling error and sampling bandwidth. And as all Control Systems engineers are warned: Turn up your Gains slowly!
Ideas for feedback loop tuning games? The unicyclist? better cruise control, Autopilot lander? Fill the acid vat?
I work with clients who have complicated things to say to the public. Topics like physics, policy, engineering and ethics.
It is frustrating and wonderful. Here’s why:
Even though we all speak English and/or French, there are also languages we each speak that can be totally foreign to others, the Language of 9-5. We spend 8 hours a day talking to our coworkers in the language of our business: baking, nuclear physics, legal frameworks, aviation, military, medicine. The words are English or French, but the meaning, the acronyms even the assumptions are all mysterious language to people outside our 9-5 tribe.
Just try and answer “How was your day?” in any sort of technical detail to someone unfamiliar with what you do.
This is a bigger language gap than just about anyone can appreciate. In fact, you are wired to not appreciate it, because the mind is so good at turning “new and crazy” into “normal” in just a few days or minutes.
In The Art of Explanation, Lee Lefever sums this language gap up as the “Curse of Knowledge”. And lordy, does that hit home for me.
I see it when a client attempts to do public outreach. This is the frustrating part of “Frustrating and wonderful”.
Typically, they start in the middle of and concept and then dive way, way too deep. They know the fundamentals so thoroughly it’s like asking a fish about water. They have it all summed up beautifully in a PowerPoint slide that looks precisely like the Mayan Calendar Wheel of the Apocalypse. Their presentations are well received at industry conferences, so hey, they have no problem with outreach, they just need it cleaned up a bit and put in front of the public. No problem, right?
What they really need to do is step back and start from square one. The Curse of Knowledge, however, is a curse because when you know a topic well enough, you most likely can’t even find square one again. Think of it this way – could you ever unlearn to skate? Can you even remember when it was hard, or how to skate like an amateur?
Lee often shows a particular species of graph in his book: at one end of this graph is the audience and at the other is you – the person that wants to get a message across and have the audience understand it. Really understand it. The space between – that’s the gap in language, and your audience never agreed to meet you in the middle. You are making a promise in Public Outreach, to fully bridge the gap, and bring the public along for the trip towards your end of the spectrum – to better understanding.
So, you are going to need some tools to bridge this gap, to bring the audience to your side, to the “I get It!” side. His book is a toolbox, carefully organized and complete.
He begins with two chapters that diagnose the problem in clear and brutal terms: What is an Explanation and Why Explanations Fail. They essentially remove any sort of illusions you might have about the traditional approach of getting an idea to an audience AND having them understand it. It’s like finding out your team is all quarterbacks and no receivers. It kind of hurts to read, actually.
However part Two is where the toolbox is opened up and the steps needed to build a bridge of explanation and understanding are laid out one at a time: Context, Story, Connections, Description, Simplification, Constraints, and finally the end where most people start: Writing.
The book itself is an example of the craft of explanation – you would expect it to be. There are analogies, examples, clear writing, storytelling, and yes, it works. And it feels scientific – you will understand the method behind the Magic that makes a good teacher or good documentary, or great BBQ assembly manual. You will also find that many of the things that are sacred, like Accuracy, can hinder an explanation. In fact, this is where we find it the most challenging when working with clients – there is often no place for high-resolution HD accuracy when an impressionist painting of a concept is what’s needed. The broad strokes, not the bristles. I’ll get into that next time: what is the Right Kind of Accuracy?
In the meantime, have a look at the book if you have Explanation as part of your day. It’s not just for Outreach people, it’s for anyone giving a presentation or sharing an idea – who want other people to be interested, to be curious; and really, that’s the soul of communication.
In this interview, he alludes to the original intent of universal and portable computing (tablet-like computers) as “symmetric authoring and consuming”. Where is the symmetry now? He regrets the idea that these have simply become media consumption devices.
I think it is arguable that this is simply the least-effort mode of use. These are general purpose computers, and most people, most of the time, will use them for the most human things – communication and entertainment. It raises a few questions for me, too.
Question One - ”What constitutes Authoring?”
Is a tweet a creation by those metrics? Or a doodle? or an email, or a post, or playing Minecraft?
When you do any of these, you create and leave an artefact of your design. Not everyone can write a good tune, or a story, or draw. But they can do the down-to-earth things like chat, or participate.
The symmetry that Alan Kay wants may not be possible, but what these devices do provide are a wealth of new canvases for creation – ones which are more accessible, though perhaps less expressive.
How is a tweet any different than a haiku, looking over the span of centuries, if both were equally eloquent? Or a finger painting on a tablet different than a impressionist piece done quickly on a 8×8 inch canvas?
I understand the frustration at seeing the Universal Computer into glorified TV’s (the wasteland of prime time TV was lamented even as early as the 1950′s). But on the other hand, no one programs in binary (except engineers in school on Motorolla 68000s) – we have tools that layer stacks of meaning and context onto one another, and link our voices, and lower the barriers of creativity and public broadcast and participation.
Even by our aggregated Google searches, we are creating a collective database mind that ‘knows’ us better than any one of us really can, because it can listen to a billion voices at once.
Question Two – Is creativity destroyed by the Walled Garden?
Tablets and the like get partially locked down for the sake of monetization. Walled gardens impose access control for the sake of profit.
I agree that walled gardens can betray creativity via sharing – that censorship is typically a friction added to get control or profit. But these are to a degree self regulating – too much control drives away the variety that attracts users and profits, and too little control takes away the margins needed to support the gardens in the first place. The same iPad can be used to arrange a symphony, or have 100 people contribute to the same piece of music. Or you can just drop $1.29 on a track. The tablet that allows most accessible choice will get the market share.
And being able to simply buy a movie to watch does not keep someone from editing their own movie on the same device. These tools do not hold back the geniuses that emerge from time to time, so in a way the original vision is still valid, but extended to the smaller creations we make everyday, and our little pushes of creativity and contribution have a place to add up and gain momentum, even if no single one of us is a genius.
The vision is not in the technology, but the culture.
I see this most in the fight over intellectual property – most people will end up on both sides of this at one point or another, and the freedom to create can be at odds with the freedom to share or extend. Alan Kay’s vision sits not in the hardware but in the ethics and laws surrounding creation and sharing – those things that enable it and promote it are as much about legalities as they are about technology.
What that means is that we have to come to terms with what ownership and sharing of ideas and their products will really mean, when everything can be perfectly duplicated and extended upon, and incremental additions are as much a part of the creativity as the initial concept.