Well, I’ve been bad about writing—mostly because I’m actually teaching now. Since active reflection is critical at this point, I’m going to skip over 2-3 months of course development, hopefully to return to it later. See: part 1.

I was prepared for quiet students, but now I sympathize more than ever with my past professors and TAs. Isn’t that the great challenge of teaching, though: to help students find their own voices? To then, at some point down the road, get them to feel as passionately about the material as you do?

I don’t think it helped that it took four weeks even for just the roster to settle down. At the last and “final” count, I have 11 students from a variety of disciplines, including Anthropology, Design | Media Arts, Economics, Philosophy, and Cognitive Science.

The first week was very experimental. I had a lesson plan, but I found that real life didn’t often abide by the time limits I’d allotted. And I was all nerves. Thus there were threads of ideas and fragments of conversations that were later dropped entirely. Even the introductory icebreaker fell flat, rang hollow. I knew that some of this would be alleviated when people started opening up, but I didn’t know how long that would take, and I couldn’t wait.

So Week 2 was a little different. I tried showing some demonstrations, including an implementation of Conway’s Game of Life. Again, though, I’d feel like I was babbling. I was gratified when students had actually done the readings. (Each week, I require them to write 2-3 paragraphs in response to guiding questions that I pose.) Although discussion picked up in comparison to the previous week, I had my first worries of a different kind. One of my students was older, in his 30s or 40s, and he was clearly familiar with the material. Though he had much to offer on the topic, he began to lead the discussion in a way that, I felt, both undermined my authority and—more importantly—intimidated the other students. Although this was initially disconcerting, I was prepared to consult with him individually if the need arose; however, he later sent me an email saying that he couldn’t stay in the class with his current commute and academic circumstances.

I decided to do something a little different in Week 3 by hosting a small debate. The topic: “Are We Spiritual Machines,” excerpts of which were assigned for the week. I split students into three groups: one “for” strong AI, one against, and the third as a panel of judges. I guess I had less experience with debates than I thought I did; by letting the groups have a back-and-forth conversation, the second group to go didn’t have a real chance to deliver their opening argument. Between making each side deliver a closing statement, having the judges critique each group, and giving the groups a chance to rebut, the logistics of the debate were a little fuzzy. Still, I think it was a good way to close this particular unit on “Intelligence, Consciousness, and Humanity.”

To be continued in the next installment.


Augmented reality

September 11, 2009

It’s hard not to think that this “Virtual Box Simulator,” developed by AKQA for the USPS, might be fake:

But it is quite real, and opens up a lot of territory for imaginative speculation. What’s the most complex object I can “beam” over to someone? If I attach sensors to my fingers, will I be able to manipulate the hologram in true sci-fi style? I can’t wait for someone to make something ridiculously cool out of this idea.

With all the augmented reality apps that have recently, to great to-do, become available for the iPhone (I’m thinking of the Yelp app in particular), it’s nice to know that Apple won’t have a complete platform monopoly on this kind of technology. I, humble bearer of CDMA phone, can wonder about what my laptop webcam will be able to show me in a few months’ time!

If I were a computer, I would be happy to crash once in a while, because if it were not for the occasional crash, the computer’s human user would waste all of his or her life huddled over a pile of metal and plastic. If the computer truly loved its human, it would want the human to take a break once in a while. To crash is a noble act of sacrifice by the computer.
—John Maeda

As the school year comes to a close, so too does my affiliation with Human Complex Systems Society. I was the vice president this year, in a healthy position to take over as president. So why quit?

I’m out of touch with the HCS program at UCLA. I picked up the minor at the end of my freshman year because I didn’t know what I’d be majoring in, and HCS classes seemed like an interesting way to pass the time; I finished the requirements by junior year. My first class, Artificial Culture, was difficult. Every week there was a new 4-6 page reading response, programming assignment (C++), and a writeup on that. I felt like it was jolting me out of high-school slacker mode and into the college academic life.

But now that the professor who taught it has departed UCLA for Duke, I haven’t felt myself quite as challenged or as invigorated by any of my classes. Sure, geography is cool, but if HCS were a major I’d probably opt for that instead (or too—would it be overachieving of me to have three majors?). And despite the Society’s best efforts, I don’t foresee the program making that crucial step anytime soon.

That’s why someone’s suggestion to “just teach it yourself” has been pulling at me for the past couple of days. The thought is taking over my brain, energizing me to the point of frenzy. It’s why I’ve been up since 5: because I’m thinking about the readings I would use. Yeah, why not do an undergrad-led seminar? Wasn’t I thinking about going into academia after college?

As hat-tips to that professor I admired so much, I’d have to include “A New Cosmogony” or “Finite Nature” by Edward Fredkin, Permutation City by Greg Egan, and Society of Mind by Marvin Minsky.

But the majority would probably be popular pieces, such as this Wired article. I’d likely include selections from Robert J. Sawyer’s Wake, the first in a trilogy about the emergence of consciousness in the World Wide Web. I’ve yet to read it, but it sounds like it’d be up my alley. That’s sort of the focus I would want to take—less theoretical, more real world… at least in imagination. Realizations of artificial intelligence or environmental modeling (not really HCS?) in popular culture and media: Jennifer Steinkamp’s interactional artwork (above); 200,000 CG extras in the Helm’s Deep battle sequence in The Two Towers (made possible by a program called MASSiVE); even video games. Is my nerd showing yet…?

Anyway, it’s just a think project for now, and it may implode under the pressures of self-doubt, but this is something I’d truly like to embark on. Suggestions would be welcomed.