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.

Part 1 of a hopefully ongoing series as I continue to document my teaching experiences.

A chuckle; a joke. “Just teach it yourself.”

The words were rolling around my head when I went to bed that night. A few short, fitful bursts of sleep. At 5 AM, I was wide awake.

Just teach it yourself.

I sat down and began to write.

I had my eyes on UCLA’s Undergraduate Student Initiated Education program. Through it, I would work with a faculty mentor to design, propose, and facilitate a 1-unit, 20-person seminar. When my thoughts were finally drained, I hit Publish. And, citing “the pressures of self-doubt,” I allowed myself to forget about it for a while. That was in June.

In July, I received word that I’d be working for NASA in the fall. I had something new to lose sleep over.

The JPL internship was a full-time stint at 40 hours/week. The commute to Pasadena made it more like 50. Suddenly, it was November, and I had a week to submit the application for my class. I hadn’t met with any faculty mentor. I hadn’t brought the idea to anyone’s attention. I couldn’t even articulate my thoughts to myself, much less to a faceless group of judges. I was jingling the keys, afraid to try the first one.

Luckily, my chosen professor was a veteran to this arena. As he looked over my application, he coolly told me that he’d signed on as mentor for three other proposals—one on the brain, another on the Singularity, a third on transhumanism. (For a brief moment, artificial intelligence didn’t seem so cool. I felt fearful again.) We worked, reworked my proposal. “This tells me what you’re going to teach, but you’re writing for the committee. Dumb it down, and make sure they understand why it’s relevant.” Straightforward; no-nonsense. He liked the way I’d structured my ten-week schedule. It was the first time I’d talked to anyone about my ideas, and I was beginning to feel that it might actually work out.

The deadline approached. I must mention here that I am deeply indebted to J., who kindly acted as my proxy—obtaining my transcripts, printing out the application materials, and physically turning them in—since my 9-to-5 job (7-to-7?) precluded me from setting foot on the UCLA campus.

Not two weeks after submitting the application, I received an acceptance notice in my email.

It was on.

To be continued in the next installment.


September 7, 2009

This summer, I walked past a certain computer lab in the Public Affairs building every week, on my way to class. In late July and early August, the lab was filled with kids attending a junior computer camp. The walls were done up with huge printouts of Mario characters and other morale boosters. Everything shone in the green color of the camp logo.

Then, as suddenly as it had started, the camp was over. The kids disappeared. The lab was quiet.

But the other day, I walked by to see that all of the perhaps fifty computers were on. Each displayed an esoteric command prompt, running through thousands of lines of code. Nobody sat at any of them.

I know that they were just being ghosted, but I felt a little like Neuromancer‘s Case, when he walks past a line of public phones, and each of them rings as he goes by. In that moment of twilight at the end of the day, when everyone has gone home and you’re the last one in an abandoned building, when the dog days of summer are on their last legs, the imagination runs wild.

Red tape

July 17, 2009

I had the pleasure of stumbling upon the open letter “Dear American Airlines” by Dustin Curtis, in which he suggests a redesign of the American Airlines website. I recommend reading the article and looking at his supplementary redesign, which is really miles (hah) better.

Dear American Airlines

But the response that Curtis received from American Airlines, “Dear Dustin Curtis,” is truly illuminating. If you don’t want to click through, the gist of it is that a user experience architect who works on AA.com completely agrees with Curtis’ arguments, but because AA.com is such a huge corporate undertaking, with so many different departments who have their hands on it, it’s impossible to push anything through the red tape.

Simply doing a home page redesign is a piece of cake. You want a redesign? I’ve got six of them in my archives. It only takes a few hours to put together a really good-looking one, as you demonstrated in your post. But doing the design isn’t the hard part […] Those of us who work in enterprise-level situations realize the momentum even a simple redesign must overcome.

But Curtis thinks that the simple fact “I work for a large company” is a cop-out. He blames the AA.com suckage on a corporate culture of bad taste; the company is so complacent that it never strives to achieve greater things.

The ideology permeates the entire organization, lowering the required level of awesomeness expected from each employee. Companies like this just float along, in the background of capitalism, exchanging goods and services for money. And that is it. They suck. […] The reason large companies with bad design are the way they are is because they are run poorly from the top, with philosophies that force the entire company to behave like its lowest common denominator.

Indeed, when his superiors found out about the letter he wrote to Curtis, said UX architect was fired. How’s that for forward change?

Now that I’m taking on a more managerial position at my job, I find that these are exactly the roadblocks I’m encountering: superiors whose styles are more “reactive” than “proactive.” They don’t want things to get better. They want things to keep in step. Design overhaul? Sure. As long as it matches the rest of the godawful university website—which isn’t even consistent with itself.

I do want to change the system, and now it looks like I’ll have an even longer timeframe in which to attempt it. But it can’t be a revolution; it has to start with baby steps. And that is perhaps the most frustrating thing of all.

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.

In search of lost time

February 27, 2009

In UCLA’s basement, just some steps removed from the the hallowed steam tunnels, is a secret treasure: the Benjamin and Gladys Thomas Air Photo Archives.

Entering the room—at the going rate of $40 per hour—is like stepping into temps perdu. You can see Orange County back when it had orange groves. They’re gone now; replaced by a moniker that Arrested Development tells me I shouldn’t use. You can see the groves as they surrounded Disneyland, back before the latter became a sprawling megalopolis—when it was just an 8-acre family park. You can see the university when it was just a few years young and consisted of nothing more than three or four buildings.

In this photograph from 1923, Bunche Hall (which houses the Air Photo Archives) was just an empty arroyo. The road that bisects present-day Dickson Court, a.k.a. the Sunken Gardens, looks like a bridge because, well, it used to be one. It’s visible there on the right.

One of the most interesting aspects of working in an office whose userbase includes every UCLA student, past and present, is being able to speak to people older, sometimes much older, than I. Last week, an elderly couple entered and sat at the stained-glass window that faces the student union’s wall. Quietly, they remarked that the very same window had overlooked rolling fields when they had attended in the 30’s.

I had the pleasure also of assisting a distinguished and articulate gentleman who was much tech-savvier than most his age. A program was behaving erratically and would not install on his computer because of what seemed to be a conflict with the remnants of a previous installation. He observed pithily that it wasn’t unlike drugs and medicines in the human body. (The bottom line, though, is that Conficker sucks, and following so many years spent virus-free, I nearly had a heart attack when I found that it had spread from his laptop to my personal flash drive!)

This one isn’t an aerial photo, but it was taken in 1932. Who says it never snows in California?