March, 2011

Mar 11

HCI:20 and me

This post is a little bit random — some reflections on my own past triggered by an event at Stanford — might be of general interest, might be of interest just to me. That’s sort of why I blog. 🙂

Anyway, a few weeks back I was lucky to attend HCI:20 at Stanford, a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Human-Computer Interaction program at Stanford, started by Terry Winograd. There were a bunch of themes that I found noteworthy, and it was great to reflect on the origins and history of the program. And it was really fantastic to hear colleagues and friends of Professor Winograd talk about his contributions and impact over many years.

One of the first speakers talked about a paper Winograd published in January 1971 — coincidentally the month I was born. It was an AI paper on some work he was doing at the AI Lab at MIT — really focused on computers understanding human language. And that was Terry’s focus for quite a long while, doing work with Flores on computers and cognition. It’s amazing to think about that — that so much of the modern discipline of HCI and interaction design grew up from roots in getting computers to understand and communicate in natural language. It makes total sense, of course — that the same people who were trying to figure out how to get computers to understand how to interact with us are the people now trying to build more effective interfaces — the interfaces have just changed.

The line up of speakers was incredible — sort of a historical trip from then until now — here are a few:

  • Danny Bobrow & Stu Card (early NLP)
  • Fernando Flores (who Terry wrote Computers and Cognition with)
  • Eric Roberts (who worked early on CPSR and the ethical foundations of computing)
  • Reid Hoffman (trained in Symbolic Systems & philosophy)
  • Don Norman (trained as an EE and a psychologist)
  • Steve Cousins (robotics)
  • David Kelley (founder of IDEO, and the Stanford

So you see a journey from language/AI through philosophy & psychology and on to design thinking — in my view, that’s when things really started taking off. The foundations in linguistics and computation (not to mention ethics) were extremely important, but it was when iteration and design thinking got into the mix that the field really started gaining momentum and influence.

I started my own interest in HCI in about 1991, when the work was just starting to be oriented around design thinking (Bill Verplank from PARC, IDEO and Interval) and anthropology. The program had just started; I was probably a sophomore or junior at the time, and a senior friend of mine named Sean White kept telling me that I should look into it, that I would like it a lot. I kept brushing him off — I thought my path was going to be in (what I thought was the significantly more technical and higher impact world of) computer architecture design (RISC is the future!).

There were two events that were pivotal for me (beyond Sean’s good-natured prodding). [and a short aside here is in order — not only did Sean affect what my course of study would be, but about a decade later, having not been in touch for many years, out of the blue Sean sent an e-mail introducing me to someone named Reid Hoffman, then an exec at PayPal. No agenda, no motive, the note just said that he thought we might like knowing each other. That was the start for what’s turned into an exceptionally productive relationship — Sean profoundly affected my life a 2nd time!] But back to this story…

The first pivotal event was an internship I had at Sun Microsystems, working on graphics hardware. At the time it was obvious that Silicon Graphics was the important competitor and that hardware architecture was the important thing to work on. (Note to self: what seems completely, totally obvious today often seems pretty ridiculous in hindsight.) But fortunately that was a time when Scott McNealy was CEO and he really opened up the place to interns — he really encouraged us to poke around inside Sun, to talk with interesting people, and to generally make nuisances of ourselves. One of the guys I’m sure I annoyed was Bob Glass, a UI designer nicknamed “Dr. Bob” who had come to Sun from Apple to “drain the swamp or pave it over” — talking about the crappy UIs that Unix always had (especially) compared to Apple. Clearly, he didn’t really win that particular battle, but he framed an important problem for me as we talked in his office. He said this: “Who cares how fast the architecture is if nobody uses it?”

That single question, quite literally, changed my life.

I finally started to understand what Sean White had been saying all along, and started looking seriously into pursing HCI at Stanford. The second pivotal moment for me came shortly after, when I read an essay by Mitch Kapor making the case for software design as a profession.

After that series of events, I was pretty well hooked, and dove into learning everything I could about how to design systems that people actually wanted to use; software that made people’s lives better. I started working on my master’s degree at Stanford with Professor Winograd as my advisor.

There were only 2 courses in the curriculum at the time: CS247A, something like fundamentals of HCI, taught by Bill Verplank, and CS247B, something like using anthropological techniques to do needfinding, taught by someone who I remembered liking a LOT, but who I can’t recall anymore.

At that point, I became the Annoying Junior Design Guy, quoting a (complaining) Don Norman all the time, asking everyone why the clocks on their VCRs and microwaves were always blinking “12:00” and generally just bitching about how badly designed the world was. I’m sure I was a real treat to be around. But then I got involved in a few more classes that I just really loved.

CS447, taught by Terry Winograd and David Kelley, was a design lab affiliated with the then-annual Apple Design Competition — I learned a lot about how hard it is to actually make things that don’t suck. (Which, happily for everyone, subsequently reduced the amount of complaining about bad design that I did.)

I remember taking a class on Filmcraft in User Interface Design that pretty much blew my mind. The instructors of that class were Chuck Clanton and Emilie Young from First Person, a Sun spinout building a set top box that would fail, but would ultimately be the foundations of the Java programming language. They were really pioneers in thinking about how to use animation in computer interfaces — very early forerunners of the physics in the UI of today’s iPhones.

Many foundational elements were put in place by Professor Winograd and friends in the early nineties — but I think that maybe the most important was getting the IDEO folks, and David Kelley in particular, involved. It brought a human-centeredness to the work that we did and that Stanford taught, and a religion around iteration that has served the program well since, and paved the way for a lot of what the Stanford d.School is today. Winograd did all this stuff at a time when, especially among “proper” computer scientists it wasn’t very fashionable — but he had conviction and passion around the work — and of course he was right to.

From the vantage point of 2011, it’s clear that the work done by Winograd and the rest of the growing HCI group there is important and has had a large impact on creating thoughtful designers.

It’s also very, very clear that our educational system hasn’t produced nearly enough good designers who are technical enough and talented enough to build all the great products and companies that Silicon Valley (and the world) are trying to build. That’s not particularly an indictment of the educational system — we’re in a golden age of technology development — a sort of New Cambrian Age of personal digital life. There are so many new things to build, so many new areas of communication to explore and create, so many new interactions to create from whole cloth — as a society and as an industry, we’re going to have an insatiable appetite for great designers certainly for the coming decades.

We’re in a time now when everything’s changing; everything is up for grabs. I’m just incredibly glad that Professor Winograd and his colleagues had the foresight to set the foundations that we’re building on so quickly today. And personally grateful for Sean White pushing me to notice the things that were happening right under my nose.

Mar 11

Parenting, Data & Outcomes

I tweeted over the weekend that we learned last week that SPL was accepted into the Mandarin Immersion program at Ohlone Elementary School for next year. It’s a huge development for us — it’s why we moved to Palo Alto a few months ago, and something we didn’t really expect to happen, given that the odds were stacked against.

So we were pretty overjoyed about it, and still are. Of course, like in any endeavor, you celebrate and move on, and now we’re puzzling over any number of implications and next steps.

As we’ve been talking about it with other parents, everyone has been hugely supportive and congratulatory, and ask how we’re feeling about it. And as we’ve been answering, what’s become clear to me is this: parenting is a series of decisions that could have profound implications years from now that you have no way of really, truly understanding now. There’s an unfortunate lack of data on what works in education generally, let alone in language immersion programs.

(Although it’s important to say this: we know a LOT more about what works in education than we actually use in practice. Lots and lots of reasons for this: many are industry structural, many are cultural — we have a lot to learn about best practices in teaching still, in a data-and-outcome-oriented way — but it would be a big step to be able to use what we DO know.)

In the case of SPL and Mandarin, we really are excited about it, and SPL is, too. But it’s very hard to tell what it will mean in the long term. It’s been really clear so far that learning Chinese and English at the same time (since he was about 3) has been challenging, and that it’s affected the order of his skill development (in particular in terms of reading and writing, since he’s learning a couple of very different systems simultaneously). There’s some new research that suggests that in general, dual-language learners develop more slowly in terms of reading & writing until about 4th grade, at which point they catch up and develop normally. There’s other literature that suggests that kids who grow up bilingual have better executive function as adults, presumably because their brains become good at making snap decisions on which language to use in any given situation.

But in truth, who the hell knows? The data sets we have on this stuff are vanishingly small. As I wrote about Ohlone, in our experience there just aren’t any other schools that are constructivist and whole child and Mandarin immersion — so the data we have to look at is really just the 4 classes that have come before us. So we’ll see.

I’m not saying we haven’t worked the angles on this. Like so many of our friends, we can be a little, um…detail-obsessed and maybe even have OCD tendencies. And since Kathy’s a teacher, you might imagine that we’ve done a lot of thinking and talking about this with lots of friends and educators. And so we have good feelings about it, based on pretty good reasoning.

In that way, parenting is sort of like trying to operate a startup. You never have nearly the information you need to make decisions; and lots of times when you’re trying to make certain decisions you not only don’t even understand the implications of what you’re deciding, but often don’t even really understand the data that you think you do.

So now we’re off to the races. Will SPL embrace his Chinese over the years? Will he work in China 20 years from now? Will he reject it like so many kids reject piano lessons? How will it affect the way he thinks, the way he looks at the world, the way he makes his own way?

We don’t know — we’ve really got no idea at all. But that’s sort of the mystery and the magic of it. We’ll learn as we go. Nobody’s seen this particular movie before, and that’ll make it challenging, and interesting, and human.

Mar 11

Moonwalking with Einstein, by Joshua Foer

Great, fun book — loved it, and read it in a couple of days. Joshua Foer is a journalist (and younger brother of Jonathan Safran Foer, one of my favorite novelists) who was covering the US Memory Championships one year — an annual contest of around 3 dozen “Memory Athletes” who compete to see who can memorize the most digits in five minutes, the order of a deck of cards the quickest, and other contests like that.

While covering the event, he got interested in how memory itself works — can it be learned & trained? — and in the subculture of the memory athletes themselves. So he decided to train for the championship the following year, and to enter it himself.

I love books like this — coverage of deep subcultures of our society that are funny, but without making fun of them. (Candy Freak, by Steve Almond, is one of my favorites.) Here’s what he said about the contest itself: “The demographics of your average memory contest are pretty much indistinguishable from those of a ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic (five of spades) concert. An overwhelming number of contestants are young, white, male juggling aficionados.”

Lots of interesting stuff in this one, including going through some of the systems for memorizing long strings of items. The millennia old Memory Palace technique, the newer (just a few hundred years old) Major Method, or the even newer PAO system (that the title of the book alludes to). A fair amount of coverage (but not all that deep) on how our memories work, what happens when parts of our brains are damaged, etc.

One of the funniest realizations in the book: “Not long after returning from England, I found myself sitting on a folding chair in the basement of my parents’ home at 6:45 a.m., wearing underpants, earmuffs, and memory goggles, with a printout of eight hundred random digits in my lap and an image in my mind’s eye of a lingerie-clad garden gnome (52632) suspended over my grandmother’s kitchen table. I suddenly looked up, wondering—remarkably, for the first time—what in the world I was doing with myself.”

He also included a chapter on his conversations with Gordon Bell, early at DEC and of late trying to record and externalize all his experiences and memories, so he can recall everything that’s happened to him with a few keystrokes. There are threads in the book that talk about how we read today compared to how we used to read (internalized versus externalized), and what memories are for at all. Some profundities for sure, like this one:

“So why bother investing in one’s memory in an age of externalized memories? The best answer I can give is the one that I received unwittingly from EP, whose memory had been so completely lost that he could not place himself in time or space, or relative to other people. That is: How we perceive the world and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember. We’re all just a bundle of habits shaped by our memories. And to the extent that we control our lives, we do so by gradually altering those habits, which is to say the networks of our memory. No lasting joke, invention, insight, or work of art was ever produced by an external memory. Not yet, at least. Our ability to find humor in the world, to make connections between previously unconnected notions, to create new ideas, to share in a common culture: All these essentially human acts depend on memory. Now more than ever, as the role of memory in our culture erodes at a faster pace than ever before, we need to cultivate our ability to remember. Our memories make us who we are. They are the seat of our values and source of our character. Competing to see who can memorize more pages of poetry might seem beside the point, but it’s about taking a stand against forgetfulness, and embracing primal capacities from which too many of us have become estranged. That’s what Ed had been trying to impart to me from the beginning: that memory training is not just for the sake of performing party tricks; it’s about nurturing something profoundly and essentially human.”

But mostly just a fun journey through a subculture that most of us haven’t ever experienced. Very quick to read; both fun and worthwhile.

Mar 11

TED 2011 for me

I’m at the airport waiting for my flight home from TED 2011, my third trip to TED. TED is an amazing conference and community – every time I’ve been it’s been different but also a little bit the same.

I’ve watched the videos for several years, of course – they’re a monumental source of inspiration and erudition and passion and intellect – not to mention sort of a master’s class in presentation skills. So when I was able to attend for the first time in 2009, it was a little mind blowing. I was overwhelmed with everything. The content, the experience, the caliber of attendees, everything. Browsing the bookstore with Peter Gabriel. Sitting behind Paul Simon for one of the sessions. Using a urinal next to Bill Gates. (it seemed notable at the time. Now not so much.) Everything was overwhelming. I spent the week just soaking it all up, attending most every presentation and just loving it all.

My second time, in 2010, was really different. I had decided I was going to leave Mozilla, and so a lot of what I was starting to work on was figuring out how to make that happen in the best possible way. That meant I was working more – doing email, talking with people to brainstorm about potential candidates, etc. TED is structured physically in a really interesting way – there’s the main auditorium where many people watch the talks, but there are also many spaces around the auditorium and even in tents outside where the talks are simulcast and provide spaces to work without bothering other audience members. It’s a way to watch but with a little less investment; it’s also a way to be more social as you process the content. And of course it’s a way to watch with friends. So I didn’t connect with as much of the speaker content then as I had the previous year, but a couple of talks were revelatory, and I noted a bunch of them to watch later (which I did for the most part.)

This year felt different yet again. It was my first time here that I felt, more than anything, like it was a gathering of my community, of my friends, and I felt like part of it, rather than attending a conference. I happened to know a few of the speakers and got to talk with them both before and after their talks. Instead of just being excited to be around folks, I got into really, really interesting conversations with them about areas of their expertise, of my expertise, and then a bunch of areas where none of us knew much of anything. (I felt particularly lucky to spend time with Mohamed Nanabhay head of Al Jazeera English online – and to hear him talk about what it was like in the Doha newsroom when Mubarak left. Inspiring.) Like last year, though, I worked quite a bit, whether it was talking with other technologists and investors or paying attention to my e-mail. As a result, I again felt a little distanced from the content unfortunately, except for a few of the sessions. That’s something I plan to change next year – I’ll still have plenty of work to do, but I’m going to work hard to make sure that when I’m around the presentations that I let myself engage, focus, and let the content surround me more.

Even so, TED has a way of sneaking up on you, and the last day was tremendously inspiring. Was great to hear Jack Horner talking about building dinosaurs out of chickens (and I’m excited to visit him in Montana this summer). Was amazing to hear General McChrystal talk about leadership, and Kathryn Schulz talk about being wrong. But the last two talks were the gems for me. John Hunter, a 4th grade teacher from Virginia got up to talk about his “Peace Game,” which he’s been using to teach for 30 years. (there’s a documentary about him called World Peace and other 4th Grade Accomplishments). Hard to summarize, but take my word for it: watch it when it’s released online. We need more teachers like John getting their voices heard by folks more often. It’s very very easy to be discouraged and cynical about the state of education today – I often am myself – but that glosses over the fact that there are thousands – tens of thousands – of minor miracles happening every day in our classrooms. There are thousands of incredible, inspirational, talented teachers who are helping our kids understand, and build, and become. The system is busted, sure. But there are teachers like John who are revelatory, and they should get more chances for their voices to be heard and inspire us all.

The conference finished up with a Roger Ebert, who talked quite literally, about losing his own voice and finding it again. As he noted himself, it’s a little tough to look at him – he lost his jaw to cancer several years ago, nearly died several times, and can no longer eat, drink or speak. But the guy has always been an incredible communicator, and still is. When they were setting up for his talk, they put 4 chairs on stage, which had me scratching my head. He came in and sat down and (of course) played a movie clip from 2001 of HAL being shut down. Then 3 people joined him: his wife, Dean Ornish, and John Hunter (who I mentioned above). And they brought out his MacBook for him. He used the voice synthesizer on his laptop to start his talk – and he provided a sort of narration on top by using his (very expressive) facial expressions as an accompaniment. Then, as he noted that synthesized voices tend to put people to sleep, he had his wife, Dean, and John each read parts of his talk for him, again, adding his own visual expressions as they went. The talk was about, in the main, his journey of losing his voice to using technology like voice synthesis and blogs and Twitter to find it again. It was a wonderful meditation on what it means to literally lose your voice, and to look disabled but not to think that way. The most emotional part of the week was experiencing his wife reading his words about how others see him now, disfigured, and the assumptions that he sees them make. She had to pause for part — it was the most amazing thing to watch. Because Roger had written very matter-of-fact words about how people perceive him present state – they assume he’s broken in other ways – and he seems to have come to peace with it. But watching the emotion from his wife as she tried to read those words – what was incredibly, incredibly clear is that she doesn’t seem him in that way at all, doesn’t think that others do, that she hurts that he feels this way about his relationship to the world, whether he’s at peace with it or not. And mostly that she just really loves him in a profound way. It was a beautiful, touching thing to experience – I was pretty much a wreck, and I’m sure that most everyone in attendance was.

So that’s the thing about TED. Every time I go, there are at least a couple of experiences that I have that change the way that I look at the world, the way that I want to be when I go home. TED makes you want to be better, smarter, more present, more thoughtful, more impactful, more human. To be a better citizen and a better professional and a better dad and a better husband and a better friend. That type of inspiration doesn’t happen all that much, and it’s worth the price of admission every time.

And that’s why June Cohen and Tom Rielly, on the TED team are two of my true heroes. They both have chosen to spend their lives working on building up TED outside of just the week of the conference every year. Tom has built the TED Fellows program, which started out pretty damn great and at this point is starting to move into basically ass-kicking-terrifyingly-awesome territory. And June, who put TED Talks online for everyone to see, including subtitling into 80+ languages.

That, my friends, is how you change the world.

That’s how you take this beautiful, wonderful experience for a few people in California each year and turn it into something that anyone — anyone! — can use to make themselves, their community, their world better themselves.