Sunday, December 19, 2010

Programmable wristwatch for self-experimentation

If I wanted to lose or gain weight, that would be easy to measure.  I would just weigh myself every day.  But what if I want to gain energy, say?  Or lose anxiety?  That is not so easy to measure.  And if you can't measure it, you can't really apply much science to it, and as that's kind of my goal, I'd like to measure these things.

Ideally, I'd be able to make a mental note, just say "I feel about 70% energetic now", whenever I think of it, or at fixed intervals, and then call up all the data later and do some statistics on it.  ("experience sampling", they call it.)  But we can't do that mentally because we forget things; the best we can do (that I know of; do any of you readers know anything better?) is cell phone apps.  And that takes about 10-15 seconds of overhead, it's kind of annoying, and I can't always do it easily (say, if I'm in a meeting).  Pencil and paper is even worse.

The best feasible thing I can think of is a watch.  We're used to watches, they're pretty unobtrusive, and if it has 5 buttons, you could theoretically input how you feel on a 1-5 scale in under a second.  That's my goal; I feel like a lot of other research will become possible once I can do that.

To that end, I ordered an eZ430-Chronos watch from Texas Instruments.  Now, I'd like to go play with it, but -- Windows and Linux only!  (at home I only have a Mac.)  D'oh.  You'd think I would have checked this first.  Another reason I'd like to go back to Linux.  Well, I'll keep you posted if I make anything cool.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Emotions and Attention: two different things

A lot of things I want to study- mindfulness, attention, left prefrontal cortex activation, being-one-with-the-universe, enlightenment, happiness- are all kinda the same thing.  If you're very mindful, if you're skillful at directing your attention, if your left prefrontal cortex is operating at full capacity, you'll be enlightened/happy.  More or less.

So I feel like whenever I have to answer the question "what do you want to study?" I want to say "you know, everything good in the universe."

I kind of like emotions too.  And I think those are pretty different.  Having good command of your emotions seems like one part of being a happy superman, but only one part.  It's popular nowadays, and for good reason: we've been neglecting it for a while.  (sort of like spatial intelligence, and physical intelligence, and pretty much all the intelligences besides "the mathy one" and maybe "the writing one.")

But I think, given a choice, I'm more interested in The Big Kahuna.  Mindfulness.  Enlightenment.  Whatever it is that Siddharta Gautama had and I do not yet.  It will be interesting to see if this is as rich a research field as emotions.

Interesting unrelated note about emotions: so I was in the Slice Cafe at Google HQ in California (the best place to get breakfast after 9:30AM, and one of the best places on campus, although now that Nourish is open I'm not so sure; seriously, Googlers, go to Nourish if you're in MTV, it's awesome) and Jens Lekman's "Pocketful of Money" (of all songs!) came on, and I got overcome by nostalgia and sadness and also depth and the sense that my life is a really grand movie adventure, and I realized I had this mixed up ball of emotions that really wanted to get out!  I mean, I just wanted to find someone else listening to this song and be like "aaah it's the saddest" and for him/her to be like "I know!", okay I sound like I'm 14 years old, shut up.

The point is, why do we have this compulsion to share emotions?  Particularly the more extreme they are.  It's as if the emotion has a life of its own, like it's a bucket of water, and you want to dump it on other people; but it's not enough to just dump it on them, you want them to soak it in like towels, not just let it run off.  Curious!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Beauty is morality, morality beauty; that is all ye know in America, and all ye need to know.

The paper is about SenseCam, which is a device that takes pictures every so often (hey, sounds familiar).  The study was basically a bunch of surveys, asking people "if I had a device that were taking one picture every minute or something, would you be okay with that?  what if it were to help my Alzheimer's?  what if it recorded audio?  would you like me to ask your permission first, or just let you ask to delete it later?" etc.

Good stuff to know, if you're designing a life-logging camera.  Not super interesting overall.  But I came across this cool zinger:

"Despite some basic similarities in the history and ideals of beauty across many Western countries, Americans have typically been alone in tying beauty tightly to good moral character. In other nations, being overweight or unattractive is not a positive feature, but it is also not a sign of moral weakness.  The American striving to be attractive faces the fear of social disgrace and moral failure, whereas other Westerners in the same situation can focus on being attractive without a “personal demon to exorcise”."

Damn!  On second thought, yeah, that bias DOES exist.  On third thought, it's surprising that it's only in America.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A nice metaphor hit me on the way home from work today.

"I want System Monitor/top/Task Manager for the brain."
(If it could End a Process, all the better.)

Incidentally, I heard about iRhythm recently.  A heart monitor that looks like a band-aid, that you wear on your heart.  Unfortunately, looking at their site, it looks like it's a prescription device.  So I searched for "apple heart rate monitor" and came up with this article about a patent application?  Interesting.  Oh, looks like someone already made it.  That whole Nike+ shebang.  Hmm... I wonder if that can be worn (and can collect data) for long periods of time.  Anyone tried it?

Friday, October 29, 2010

Ubicomp at UW

This is a lab that I am very psyched about.  Here's their website.  I was lucky enough to see a bunch of these guys give talks the other day on campus.

I feel like they've got 2 main focuses: house-level stuff, and person-level stuff.  House-level stuff is really mind-blowing: you put a single sensor by your main electrical box, and it tells you which device you're using.  Or your gas meter.  Or your water meter.  And shoot, you've got water rushing through here, why not use it to power the measuring device?  Or maybe you want to put out a bunch of sensors for some task, but you want them to be wireless, but it takes a lot of power to transmit to the central base station.  Why not transmit to the nearest wall instead, and let the power lines in your home take it to the base station?  Whaaaa?  This is some kind of magic.

Slightly less magical, but more interesting to me in its applications, are their personal things.  What if you wanted to get some info from your phone, but your eyes and ears were busy?  How about squeezing it?  There's a surprising amount of info you can get from that.  Or maybe something that generates its own power?  Or, okay, we have a powered computer in our pockets... maybe you forgot something you just heard a few minutes ago.  It'd be nice to press rewind on your auditory life, wouldn't it?

What if a human could wear something like this all the time?  What could you do then?

It's all low-power and low-setup-cost, and it all hacks the physical world in cool ways.  Getting information that you wouldn't think you could get.  Allowing more sensors to be deployed more easily.  Maybe with personal health applications.  Maybe with personal mental health applications...

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

And about that last post

In rereading it, I feel like I'm computerizing humans.  I don't want to do that.  The ultimate goal of my research is to make us humans the happiest, not to make us the best at computing.  And it's a tricky trap to fall into, because you start thinking "well, if I always make the best decisions, I'll be the happiest", which is not necessarily true.

That's all for now.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Emotions as quick mental computing

Here's a neat idea, and I'll jot it down even though it's not very polished.  (I think I'll start doing that more here; seems a good place for it.)

Emotions offer quick and sloppy reactions.  You see something that looks like a snake, you run away; only later do you realize it's just a hose.  You could sit down and concentrate and take in all the details of the scene and mentally label everything and say "that is a hose", but that takes too much time.  Emotions are quick at the cost of being precisely correct.

Similar things are going on in the computing world.  You hear about how SQL is getting used less and new sweet techniques (BigTable here at Google, for example) are taking its place.  They're not always 100% correct, for some value of correct; for example, when you search for something, it doesn't tell you the exact number of pages in the Internet that contain that word.  It gives an approximation, which is fine, because the number is about 12 billion anyway.

When I'm playing Dominion, there are 16 cards, and I don't want to exhaustively research every possibility every turn; that'd take forever.  So I pick a card that "feels" good.  Even more when I'm playing a long match of rock-paper-scissors, I have to just go based on gut feeling.  It's not 100% right, and sometimes I make mistakes (playing rock against someone who always plays paper, for example), but it is quick.

So what if we could train our emotions better?  You'd get the kind of tradeoff you get between trying to use SQL for everything and using new better storage solutions.  It's like the difference between Google search and, well, some slower search engine.  Fractions of a second?  Totally worth it.  Instead of trying to put them aside and compute exactly, take advantage of them and learn to make better quick calculations.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

No deferrals? Plus, search by brute force.

First of all, it seems harder than I thought to defer grad school admission (apply now for 2011, and then say "I'm coming in 2012 instead").  It was a thing you could do in undergrad admissions, and my advisor seemed to think it was pretty reasonable for grad school too, but maybe not:

Stanford CS: "A student admitted to the Ph.D. program can defer admission for one year only. However, very few deferrals are granted, and then only for compelling reasons." (I'm assuming "I want to travel" is not a "compelling reason.")
CMU CS: "This policy may vary from program to program. After you are admitted, please contact your program coordinator."
The MIT Media Lab, UW, and U. Michigan all say nothing about it, and Tufts says flat out no.  Maybe I'll be applying next year instead.  That's too bad, because it feels like I was getting to the point of sending out apps, and then I'd be done with the application process.  I guess on the plus side, I've got another year to prepare.

Well, s'okay, it's been a bit of a slog anyway.  How do you find the right professors at the right schools when your goal is specific, interdisciplinary, and without a good name?  "Improving our minds in not-necessarily-cognitive ways with small computers" doesn't have a department at most universities.  So I've been looking mostly at HCI departments, but also media/etc programs, learning departments, neuroscience, and stuff as far afield as communications.  It's almost a buzzword search (which I'm not entirely proud of, but meh): "ubiquitous", "cognitive", and "persuasive" all get +1; "affective", "emotions", "brain-computer interface",  and "attention" all get +2, and "mindfulness" or "neuroplasticity" would get +5 if I could find them.

I was going from conferences first: reading the last 2-3 years of CHI, Ubicomp, and ACII, finding some papers that interested me, and looking up their authors.  But this clustered around MIT, CMU, Stanford, and UW, with a LOT of one-offs from other universities.  It's like trying to figure out what baseball teams are good, when only given a list of home runs and who hit them.  I already know those 4 schools are all-stars; where else can I apply too?

So I went bottom-up.  (or "top-down"?  I dunno.)  I went to schools that I heard were good at HCI, and looked through all the HCI professors.  It's borne a little fruit, not a huge amount of fruit, but some fruit.  Here's what I've found:

UC Berkeley: surprisingly little that's interesting to me.  Big HCI lab, but it's big on collaboration, new interfaces, and vision.

U of Maryland: probably not in HCI.  Again, interfaces, visualizations, collaborations, work with kids, physical devices.
There's interesting stuff in other labs on the AI side, but then this veers into the whole AI can of worms, which I'm not interested in.  I want to understand how we think (and feel and act), and help ourselves currently, not make computers think how we think.

U of Toronto: nothing in HCI very interesting to me.

U of Michigan: some work going on with a project called D-Sense, to try to help with the management of depression.

VA tech: again, not so much in HCI.  Maybe the Mind-body lab, more psych-ish and less computery.

Tufts: surprisingly interesting.  They've got a lab doing brain-computer interfacing, within a larger HCI lab, that sounds pretty neat.  Harvard too, doing some BCI work.  Either of these places would be cool, because I know that they've got solid programs in many departments, and they're in Boston.  (I imagine MIT collaboration is, well, not unheard-of.)

UC Irvine: has a cool ubicomp lab, but I'm not so interested in just straight-up ubicomp anymore.

Georgia Tech: I haven't actually looked at them, because I don't really want to live in Atlanta.

... perhaps with another year I'll find some more options!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

I think I've distilled my research goals to one sentence:

"How can we use wearable and ubiquitous computers to help people better understand and improve their own minds?"

So the affective computing is obviously a big part of this.  The cognitive level of computing has been studied a lot (learning research, for example), but that's less interesting to me, because it's just logic.  But what's happening at the emotional level, how can we detect that, and if we can't actually tell what's happening*, how can we at least work with that and use it to help you?

*because it's really just a lot of neurons firing; what do you mean by "what's happening"?

The persuasive technology is a big part too.  I see it as the more applied end of the spectrum.  We don't really know how you decide to eat a burger or a salad, but we can apply little tweaks that will actually work.  And because we don't really know the whole process of how your mind makes decisions, we can't really do big overhauls.  But we can apply little nudges here and there, and this technology could (and does) ship today.

There's more than this; lots of psychology and neuroscience, which I haven't delved too deeply into yet.

And the "how" is often really interesting.  The wearable computers, new input/output methods, that are in the state of "really cool but not used in practice yet"... it would be great to put them to good use!  Brain-computer interfaces are on my radar, but I'm not as excited about them because they're not as far along yet.  As I understand it, it'd be really tough to fit an EEG into your everyday life right now.  (but it would be great if you could!)

These goals will keep evolving, I'm sure.  But I'm finding lots of good stuff that people are doing in these areas, so it looks very promising.

On a side note, I'm psyched about a new series that Cal Newport is starting up.  "The Romantic Scholar."  His blog has been a big influence on how I think about what I want to do with my life for the last year or so.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A non-exhaustive list of things I find cool now:

Four groups at MIT:
Affective Computing group. Emotional-computing stuff, cool wristband skin conductivity sensor.  I'm reading Rosalind Picard's book about Affective Computing.  This looks like a big ol' group right now, and that's potentially pretty cool, as the stuff I'm interested in would possibly be affiliated with them.
Fluid Interfaces group. Particularly the JotWatch.  This is a little more artistic, and more on the "how to do it" instead of "what to do."  Still, it's neat.
Human Dynamics group.  This is a little more experimental, and I haven't looked into them as much yet.
Eric Klopfer and his collaborators.  Looks like cool stuff about simulations/games for education.

One group at Stanford:
Persuasive Technology group.  Using computers, particularly the ones in your pocket, to change behavior. Sounds good, eh?

One group at UW:
James Landay and friends.  A lot of cool things with cell phones, persuasive technology, quick prototyping, and more to come.

Not at universities:
Beta, alpha, theta and delta brain wave states.  You get in different states when you get hypnotized, and it feels like it's the same as a good meditation.  I think you also get into different states when you're about to fall asleep, and if that's so, then theta is a lot of fun!
Lucid dreaming.  (along with the previous point.)
As ever: mindfulness, enlightenment, metacognition, whatever you want to call it.

Okay for now.  I hope to keep this updated a little more, and probably will now that things are calming down a bit.  But as I'm doing a lot of searching, there's not going to be a ton of real content just yet.  Mostly "stuff I find cool."

Friday, July 23, 2010


I write code a lot. Tips about that will go on I Lessen Data, my programming blog. This here is for more abstract stuff: ideas, musings, and research interests. Generally, I'm most interested in Cool Things On Your Smart Phone or Other Gadgets You Might Have On You. Beyond that, a little bit about software engineering or servers might creep in here, or maybe something about CS as a whole.