Category Archives: design

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 the STEAM Argument is One-Sided

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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.

Formalized Synesthesia

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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].

Creative Disturbance

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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?

Meeting on the Knowledge Bridge

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Most of our research in the Creative Automata Lab is devoted to better understanding mathematics and dynamic system modeling through multiple modalities and representations. This strategy is partially art-based, and stresses an individual orientation toward education rather than one based on standard notations pushed to the masses. The lab stresses having more people understand modeling. Last month, I was intrigued by news of someone in the UK holding a professorship entitled the Public Understanding of Philosophy. And I found information on two faculty (Richard Dawkins and Marcus du Sautoy) who hold the title of Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford. The emphasis on public understanding of an academic area has a strong fit with our lab goals. But, there is something deeper happening: Ideally, all university faculty should strive toward a public understanding of their disciplinary topics. Engaging the public directly, and speaking more broadly about an area, should be explicitly encouraged and rewarded by university administration at all levels. As faculty, we need to maintain deep disciplinary depth, but we must also strive to gently establish tendrils throughout the university knowledge infrastructure. A justification for this need can be seen in the latest version of National Geographic entitled "Why do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?" Perhaps fewer people would doubt science if universities made a stronger effort at public outreach and communication. Public outreach is not a speciality; it should be a job requirement within the academy. Publishing in a society transactions moves a field forward, expanding our essential knowledge base. Talking and publishing to a wider audience brings more people into our fields. More people on the planet become better educated. If we try, we can achieve both breadth and depth of knowledge. If you are a faculty member at a college or university, you find yourself in a park on one side of a bridge. The public is waiting for you on the other side. Meet in the middle?

Design It For Yourself

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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

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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.

 

The Illusion of Usability

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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.

Personalized Simulation Modeling

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Artists created the first virtual realities -- sometimes in the forms of cave drawings, paintings, and friezes.  The above photograph is a woman who is experiencing the virtual experience of stereo viewing of a remote object or scene with a stereoscope. As modeling and simulation researchers, we should think of new ways to represent models of observed phenomena. Do you use equations, statistical plots, or diagrams with pointy arrows and boxes? With the rapid expansion of the web, we are reaching a state where multiple representations for any abstract concept are at our fingertips. Seeing one abstract concept 300 different ways. This is especially important for those outside of engineering. Modeling and simulation, as a discipline, is becoming so widespread that we need to bring the academic knowledge of our area into the hands of everyone. We are not going to reach the masses with limited human experiences for modeling. That means diversity in model representation. Want to model something but not in Simul8 or Arena, but instead in Minecraft? Go for it. For the professional engineer, Minecraft is the wrong choice. But for teaching the student who grows up in these new powerful multi-player virtual worlds, why not use environments that attract them rather than conforming to a perceived set of standards employed mainly by a limited set of professionals. Strap on your Victorian-era stereoscope and come with me on a different sort of simulation modeling adventure.

 

Modeling Connections

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About a year ago, two of my colleagues (Bonnie Pitman and Cassini Nazir) and I got together and decided to connect.  The idea was to connect ideas using Liz Larner's sculpture, appropriately entitled "X". Larner's sculpture was first modeled in wood (above) and then resculpted in steel. The sculpture was on loan to us in the Art & Technology (ATEC) building, and is now heading back to its home at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas. The three of us imagined a web presence and asked everyone to make connections to "X". Making these connections creates bridges across the university, poking holes into the vertical silos defined by colleges, schools, and departments. These connections are part of an online exhibit of perspectives on, and views of, the object. The ideas of modeling, found within the simulation and modeling field, are found in these perspectives. Models are perspectives on a thing: abstracting out space and time. These ideas were brought home for me yesterday when visiting the Brooklyn Museum where they have an exhibit Connecting Cultures. Museums are places where we are encouraged to make connections among people, places, and things. Models are language-based artifacts that assist us with forging new cultures around ways of modeling. So, the worlds of museums, sculptures, and scientific models may have stronger connections than we might think.

A Return to Physicality

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Physicality is defined by Merriam-Webster as  "intensely physical orientation :  predominance of the physical usually at the expense of the mental, spiritual, or social." The above photograph is from a post within a list of physical visualizations. The list begins with the corporeal concept of number in the form of Mesopotamian clay tokens from 5500BC. Included are many fascinating realizations such as a "sculpture" from the Tohoku Japanese earthquake data. The photo from 1985 of Rick Becker of AT&T Bell Labs is particularly striking because on the left, we have a tangible representation, and on the right,  something flat on a green screen. To be sure, the screen representation had the advantage of being dynamic and more efficiently constructed. At the same time, something was lost in the evolutionary process-- the physicality disappeared. We may need to revisit the past to see what can be reconstructed, but with a new flair guided by technologies such as 3D printing and embedded micro controller-based systems. We may also need to evolve our culture because we have lived in flatland for so long. [Related post The Disappearing Trick of HiTech]

 

Gender, Computing, and Modeling

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Computer science and engineering as a field doesn't have that great of a track record when it comes to gender balance. While I was Director of Digital Arts & Sciences (DAS) at the University of Florida in 2012, I published a piece in Leonardo demonstrating that a core computer science degree can indeed achieve a better balance. The DAS program encompasses an undergraduate (BS) and graduate (MS) degree in computer science with a strong shell of human-centered computing (HCC) surrounding the CS/Math/Science core. The paper represented a 10-year comprehensive summary of what worked, and what didn't, along with statistics. There are others around the country that have tried similar programs involving media and the arts. At the University of Texas at Dallas, we have computer scientists, engineers, designers, and artists working in the same building (Arts and Technology). The gender situation is complex and it isn't clear what works and what doesn't work in every situation. However, there appears to be hope on the horizon in the form of programs that have a strong social/human-centered approach to computing.