Category Archives: art

You Don't Know Jack

Love Jack? Turns out to be an icon at the university where I work: University of Texas at Dallas. To be perfectly honest, none of us really knew Jack before the start of the Spring 2016 Creative Automata class, however, because of my students' admirable diversity, we can really know more about Jack. This is the biggest project to date, and the Jack adventure began with a challenge to the students to explore the sculpture (which is located in the courtyard of the ATEC building) from different perspectives. What perspectives could be better than those that are natural to the students' interests and backgrounds?  The class contains computer scientists, artists, and designers--often with students crossing over among areas and interests. A smartphone app accompanies the main Jack web page, so that when one is near the Jack, the perspectives can be browsed. Interested in the artist's history, how Jack relates to computer science and mathematics, modeling & simulation,  graphic design, digital fabrication, the connection of art to science? It's all there. A beacon is next to the sculpture to facilitate object-based learning discovery across STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics). You can also start with STEAM and browse based on interest.

Why we are all librarians

The British Library Reading Room inside the British Museum, Bloomsbury, before the move of the British Library to its current location at St.Pancras.

You remember the library. It is where you can find lots of information about everything.  But the library would not be anywhere near as fun and interesting without the librarians. This is because librarians guide us toward knowledge. But, sadly, we find items in the news such as this one from last year where libraries are struggling to survive. Take a step back from libraries and librarians to look at our landscape for knowledge delivery--specifically places of learning like K-12 schools, community colleges, universities, and museums. Those of us who work in these institutions are becoming more like librarians, and that is a cause for celebration since we are entering a new era for learning, and encountering new modes of knowledge engagement. Let me tell you about my evolution in teaching.  At one time, I used to stand in front of the classroom and deliver discrete packets of information. This used to be called teaching, but this mode of learning is dead except that many of us have not yet realized it. We are still living in a dream from the last century. The flipped classroom is a sign of the future where we are becoming more like guides to facilitate learning. Students are assigned things to think about ahead of time, and the classroom experience becomes a place for active engagement. I recently visited the Plano ISD Academy High School, and was impressed because there were no teachers, but rather, facilitators. But it's not just about the flipped classroom where class time is devoted to real personalized learning. It is also about where the knowledge comes from. The knowledge in libraries is in books, journals, and media that come from outside of the library. This idea is rapidly occurring everywhere. Consider all of the online resources and digital academies -- we must let go of the idea that inside of our brick institutions, that we generate all of the knowledge. Forget that-- this mindset is unsustainable for the future of learning. This goes for museums as well as places for primary, secondary, and higher education. Embrace outside knowledge. Guide rather than dictate to the learner. With all of the diverse knowledge on the web, we cannot hire people fast enough to keep up using a not-invented-here (NIH) approach to knowledge. So, are librarians needed? Absolutely. You are evolving into one.

Why the STEAM Argument is One-Sided


Full steam ahead. Or should I say STEAM ahead? STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics and has been a driving force initiated by the National Science Foundation to focus education policy within technical areas and their associated disciplines. More recently, the letter "A" has been added to create a new movement called STEAM. The "A" stands for the arts, and according to a leading site devoted to STEAM, STEM + Art = STEAM. Since I spend much of my time thinking about the interconnections between STEM and the Arts, I welcome the STEAM movement. And yet, I have deep concerns about the movement's three published policy goals stated on the STEAM site:  (1) transform research policy to place Art + Design at the center of STEM; (2)  encourage integration of Art + Design in K–20 education; and (3) influence employers to hire artists and designers to drive innovation.  These are worthwhile goals, but notice how all three goals seem to be about getting STEM-oriented folks to hire artists and designers, and placing art & design at the middle of STEM? Let's flip this. What about having STEM at the center of Art and Design? I am not suggesting doing away with the three STEAM goals, but I am recommending some sort of balance by extending or broadening these goals; the current ones are lopsided. I strongly advocate new ways of starting with design and the arts, and then surfacing STEM concepts from within art and design. For the STEM subset of computing, this advocacy resulted in the aesthetic computing movement. Recently, this approach has taken root in learning systems thinking in the art museum.  I am not the first to suggest this if we consider the larger literature base of  blending STEM with the Arts. Take Martin Kemp's book The Science of Art where he explores mathematics and optics via art. Also, the MIT Press Leonardo journals edited by Roger Malina has extensive historical coverage of intersections of STEM and the arts.  Leonardo was founded in 1968, and so its publications contain a treasure trove of knowledge, suggesting new ways to get to the heart of STEAM.  To advocates of STEAM, my suggestion is to rethink of STEAM as two-way traffic: two steam locomotives, two tracks, perhaps with some switches here and there.

Modeling as the New Rhetoric


I just Googled "rhetoric." The top search result defines rhetoric as "the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, especially the use of figures of speech and other compositional techniques." Rhetoric is one of those topics that is fundamental to our society, and one of three ancient arts of discourse.  But, something interesting about rhetoric has been going on for the last half-century, and modeling and simulation (M&S) is at the core of the excitement. A quick diversion to Syria and Palmyra with Wired Magazine's article entitled "A Jailed Activist's 3-D Models could save Syria History from ISIS." Bassel Khartabil created 3-D models of the ancient ruins of Palmyra and is currently jailed in Syria. There is a group of online "activists, archivists, and archaeologists" releasing 3D models under the name The New Palmyra Project. First, this is a welcome project and a great humanitarian cause. Second, New Palmyra is an example of how rhetoric has been changing in the digital age. Rhetoric is no longer limited to videos, photographs, and written texts. Models, in the form of models of geometry and dynamics, represent the new rhetorical force. If you want strength in your argument, you rely on models. The Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report Summary for Policymakers is based on multiple models of climate. While data charts are interesting, it is what is hidden behind the data that is even more interesting: models of how climate changes, with its many effects (e.g., flooding, wind damage). Speaking as a member of the modeling and simulation discipline, we need to embrace modeling with a capital "M", meaning models of information, dynamics, and 3D models like those initiated by Bassel Khartabil.

The Beauty of Small Data


I started playing chess at a young age when my uncle in England sent me a tiny plastic chess set for Christmas. What were these strange pieces? How did they move? Before long, I learned that they could make interesting patterns on the checkered board. I followed Fischer vs. Spassky with an almost religious fervor. Over time, I became interested in computer science and followed those who made chess machines and software. And then came the inevitable day when the machine beat the reigning world champion (Kasparov).  What were we to do now? I guess there goes chess out the window. But no. Humans continued to play chess, and the game is as popular, or more, than ever. There a lesson here. Just because we teach machines to excel at artificial intelligence and at machine learning doesn't mean we stop our quest for life-long learning and enjoyment. Big data is hot. The machine can run through an array of sophisticated algorithms so that, for instance, your search engine experience is more meaningful. I am grateful for this capability and the research that goes into it. Think of the massively complex data networks and automated inferences and patterns generated from them. And yet, I find myself interested in teaching students to draw small networks for things that they see around them. By doing this, students learn something about semantic networks and concept maps (ideas developed by artificial intelligence researchers in the 1970s). The learning that occurs is personal and in this case, does not require the big. It requires an attention to detail and a never-ending fascination with discovery.

Formalized Synesthesia


I recently engaged in a three-way podcast conversation covering research that we do in the CA lab, as well as activities in the Creative Automata class that I teach--if that is even the right word. Guide? The title of this post is gleaned from Christopher White who works with Elecia White. I engaged in dialogue with both of them, and thoroughly enjoyed our discussion. Elecia and Chris produce a podcast called Embedded where the main theme is embedded systems and electronics. But they tackle a wide variety of interesting topics around this central theme. This audio podcast name Bubblesort Yourself was invented by Elecia, and the hour long podcast can be found here. Their Embedded podcast can also be accessed using the Apple podcast app or the equivalent app on Android phones and tablets. I listen to their podcasts regularly, and also to other podcasts while I take long walks. For some of you, driving the car or working out in the gym may be good times for podcast listening. Chris White also posted an accompanying blog entry where he expands upon formalized synesthesia. Is that what we do when we model in simulation? It seems to be on the basis that we employ many models, each of which contains a hidden set of analogies. The models are encoded with respect to our senses [credit: artwork Synesthesia above is from Nuno de Matox].

Modeling the New You


If you go to Google Images, and you type in the word "modeling," if you are like me, you might expect to see all sorts of equations, diagrams, and software interfaces allowing scientists and engineers to model complicated things. Instead, from the public's perspective, or perhaps from the perspective of the advertising industry, modeling means to model clothing. Fashion. Runways. The above image is from Top Ten Modeling Agencies. At first glance, this type of modeling is something we might be tempted to dismiss as irrelevant to our supposedly higher ambitions within mathematics, science, and engineering. But, this type of modeling is ubiquitous and serves as a good way to talk about modeling to others. Why not talk about models by covering fashion? You probably have heard of a "model house" or a "model kitchen." This type of model refers to model as prototype. Rather than modeling a pre-existing phenomenon like automobile traffic or heat exchange, model as prototype brings in design as a type of modeling. The model house may be one you'd like to live in. The model kitchen gives you ideas of how you'd like your kitchen to look and function. So, if you want to explain what you do as a modeler to others, begin with common terms and experiences. Meet people on their ground, with their understanding of model. And wear something suitable like a well-designed pair of jeans. You might be surprised when the next day, your friend shows up wearing the same clothing. You have become a model. [Source concept: from a column that I did long ago for the Society for Modeling & Simulation International].

Creative Disturbance


In a recent audio podcast, three of us were discussing personalized modeling from different angles--including using art and craft-inspiration, and engineering culture. Karen Doore, Sharon Hewitt, and I engaged in a short conversation that is part of a series of podcasts called Creative Disturbance. Anyone who has been to a modeling and simulation conference notices that...the people attending are all quite different. Often having different degrees and from different departments and schools. There is good reason for this: modeling is inherently an area that connects different people and things together. This diversity plays out, also, in our modeling choices. What is your favorite modeling system or language? What underlying analogies are used?

Design It For Yourself


Design is a big word, and something we all feel passionate  about. We know from Jonathan Ive of Apple that well-designed things can enrich our lives and, indeed, do quite well in the marketplace. Think of products such as the iPhone, iPad, and the upcoming iWatch. These products are well designed by Apple, and meant for you, the consumer. There are ways to customize the look and feel of the human interface in these devices. But, is it possible for people to design things for themselves? Yes, but for a different type of market: self-education. Imagine that you are in a class, trying to learn something hard like computer science or calculus. Further imagine that the teacher, rather than dishing out pre-designed computing and mathematical structures plays the role of facilitator, allowing you to design your own objects. Design your own code. What would it look and sound like? Design your own integrator. Make your own personal language. Design your own representation for equations. This isn't about markets and sales. It is about allowing you to craft your own self-inspired representations--as a way to promote self-interest and creativity--you may come to learn better because you have been given an opportunity to create rather than to interpret the symbols of others. This approach of designing something yourself to learn something goes by another name: art. Let's promote learning by creative representation and creative design. Design, in this particular instance, not of creating something for other people, but creating something because it moves you.

Personalized Model Learning

Property release:3 Model release:Q,E,J


Much of what we do in the Creative Automata (CA) Lab is oriented around multiple representations of a single abstract mathematical concept--such as integration in calculus or sorting in computer science. How can we personalize approaches for learning something like integration? Is it possible to leverage our multiple cultures to engage and motivate the learner? The lab just submitted our video entry to the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) Grand Challenges for Engineering Video Contest called E4U2. Sharon Hewitt from the CA Lab designed and produced this video. The video segments include representations of a virtual analog computer based on the sand-like flow in PowderToy, as well as several personalized models of the Lotka Volterra model. Instead of  making models for other people, consider that you can learn about modeling by making these wonders for yourself. In this arts-based approach, you will also interest other people in modeling.


Naked Rabbits


This is a circuit created by a Creative Automata Lab research assistant David Vega. The circuit is a physical incarnation of the Fibonacci difference equation f(m) = f(m-1) + f(m-2), where "m" equals the current month in decimal. We begin the Fibonacci sequence by iteratively solving, beginning with f(0)=f(1)=1. These values jump start the difference equation: f(2) = f(1) + f(0), f(3) = f(2) + f(1), and so forth. The sequence ends up as 1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34 until we decide to stop. These numbers are termed Fibonacci numbers. There are all kinds of interesting real-world patterns related to these numbers, including the spiral pattern found within a nautilus shell. This equation represents an idealized model of rabbit population growth. The equation was re-represented as a visual Max/MSP patch, and then translated into an equivalent electronic circuit using Teensy 3.1 microcontroller boards. The boards, populating the breadboard above, are connected using serial communications, and there is "software clock" that regulates the data flow. In Max/MSP this clock is programmed as a [metro] (short for metronome) object. This circuit will be transformed yet again into a tangible artwork where the Teensy boards are housed in 3d printed rabbit objects. I'll post another entry when we get to that stage. You've probably heard of "embedded systems," so this is a case where the embedding is meant to draw in the participant in a way not really possible with the textual difference equation.

The Illusion of Usability


Usability is a key topic and frequently thought of from the perspective of the human-technology interface. How easy is your oven to use? Is your exercise bracelet elegant, but hard to put on your arm? The illusion of usability is related to my previous post, since usability depends on the person using it. There is no such thing as generalized usability. Let's take a famous graphic--shown above--created by Charles Minard. This graphic is a map of Napoleon's disastrous Russian campaign of 1812. This is a visually striking map and elegantly shows a number of variables (6 types). The diagram is probably adorning walls and in coffee table books everywhere. According to a Wikipedia article, "modern information scientists say the illustration may be the best statistical graphic ever drawn." If your expertise is statistical graphics, knowledge of such a map is undoubtedly of significant academic use. What if you just wanted to know how many soldiers died during the walk to Moscow and back? What if you were not interested in knowing the temperature, or the lat/lon geographic coordinates? Perhaps you'd rather experience what it was like in 1812 during the slow frozen march? Representations are only as good as the explicit, and unique, purpose required by a viewer. An eight year old might do better with a verbal description, or a reproduction of a painting that is not too graphic. I attended a talk recently, where the speaker spent some time crafting a story using a slide containing Minard's graphic--the illusion was that the image was telling the story, when in fact, one had to consider the medium being used, the speaker's voice, the elements left in, and left out of the story. The image itself has no story to tell; one requires human interaction to achieve that effect--it was his theatrical performance that brought Minard's graphic to life. Models are just like Minard's masterpiece--you have to design them very carefully for one specific type of user.  Ideally for a single person. Is there a simulation model equivalent to Minard's graphic? The notion that one size fits all is false at best, and dangerous at worst.