Long ago in the early 2000s when I was helping run the boutique (read: small and bad at sales) web consultancy I cofounded, we had a contract web developer named David. David worked on Drupal apps for us, and at the time the most notable thing about him to me, aside from the fact that apparently he’d infected one of my other co-founders girlfriends with chickenpox back in elementary school, is that David wanted to build dancing robots.
PHP community organizing apps (this was the era of CivicSpace) and dancing robots aren’t a super common crossover. At the time I didn’t really see how you could go from one to the other. When there’s so much web stuff to learn and new technologies constantly appear, it can feel like something like robotic art is just a distraction. I remember feeling that way when David and our office manager organized Austin’s first Maker Faire. I couldn’t really see how all this work could lead to selling any PHP or Rails web projects.
David didn’t see it that way. He did web development, but he also worked on his robots. I’m sure he passed up a lot of opportunities to make easy web dev money at a standard 9 to 5 job, but that wasn’t what he wanted. Eventually, with an amazing amount of talent and persistence, he ended up at the MIT Media Lab, where he got to make dancing robots. Fast forward to today, and many years later, he’s the Director of Technology and Digital Strategy at the MIT Museum. He kinda gets to do both. He also has a really great newsletter you should subscribe to.
Dancing robots was never my dream. I have a big weak spot for systems that run and grow and evolve by themselves, like Conway’s Game of Life, and I also really like the idea of personal robots that you can develop a connection to, like Kuri, but the ramifications of a VC funded company developing and owning a member of your family are pretty dire. But for most of my time in tech I’ve stayed in my lane, which has been back end web development, hosting, and more recently data. I may have read an Arduino tutorial or watched a projection mapping video but I didn’t really commit myself to anything. At least, until dadageek.
In 2016 some organizers of the Austin Interactive Art meetup got together to create a school for creative coding called dadageek. They were 7-ish week classes, one class a week, around a specific tech art topic. I can’t remember how it caught my eye, but one of the three debut classes was called Create Generative Sculptures with Everyday Objects Using Processing. Finally, here was a structured, instructor-led class with a fixed start and end. Something I could commit to, with people who would be disappointed if I didn’t show up. It was outside of my lane, but safely.
I went a bit off the rails with that class. Jerome Martinez, who taught it, wanted to make it useful for all skill levels, so he started with the basics of algorithms, but at the end of the class, I’d made a game. It’s called Attackle of the Grackles, and your goal is to lead a flock of grackles around the screen to pick up tacos while you avoid getting them run over by a taco truck.
You can probably play it in your browser (warning: music). For the exhibition, which dadageek has after every set of classes, we set it up on an Android touchscreen computer and let people play it.
I also made a processing sketch of a cat in a sunbeam, and an interesting undulating lines sketch, both of which you can see in the interview video around 1:29 in.
I didn’t necessarily learn a ton about coding from the processing class, but I broke out of my lane. I made pretty things for the sake of them being pretty. I built my first visual game, and people played it.
The next spring I talked Irma into taking the classes with me. We booked our babysitter for extra hours, and signed up for not one, but two classes: Intro to Analog Audio Electronics by Mickey Delp of Delptronics and Intro to Arduino for Artists by John-Mike Reed of Bleep Labs.
In the 7 weeks of Intro to Analog Audio Electronics we learned the basics of soldering, capacitors, resistors, oscillators, power and ground, pitch. For our final project I built a seven note polyphonic analog synthesizer with a variable tempo drum machine, and Irma built a multi-oscillator buzz generator.
For Intro to Arduino for Artists we learned about making sound generators in Arduino, writing interactive code, controlling LEDs, and reading data from input sources. Irma made a beautiful ambient noise generator and LED light object. I went off the rails again, and made another game.
It’s kind of like a space war or missile command game, things drop from the top and you have to move the knob back and forth and press the fire button to shoot them. There’s a soundtrack that goes with it, and sound effects, I think. The trick may be to hold down the fire button and just sweep the knob back and forth. But it’s a physical object, and it’s a game, and all you need to play it is a USB power source, and I learned how to make it and made it in 7 weeks, and that’s kind of incredible.
In the spring of 2018 we were back, taking Matt Steinke’s Intro to Robotic Art class. The framework of that class is using a Digital Audio Workstation like Ableton to pass MIDI commands to an Arduino that’s connected to servos, motors, and solenoids, thus making an object move in controllable, scriptable ways.
For this project Irma made a gorgeous cherry tree in a metal cage, with LEDs, fans that blew the petals around, and birds that moved their heads. You can see it at 42 seconds into the video below.
Here’s a closer look at Irma’s project. She later ported the control script to Python so that it could respond to the beat in any music, took it to Baltimore, and showed it off at a conference for work.
And after all that, in the end, for my robotic art project… I made a dancing robot. Well, a dancing robotic octopus DJ. Behold, the Triptopus.
The Triptopus has 6 servos, a solenoid, 3 motors, and 2 LEDs. And an artistically untalented web development girl made it, by finding a way to get out of her lane.
To put a bow on this story, several months after I built Triptopus a friend of mine (who I’d told about my robotic art project, and whose girlfriend-now-wife had been the one to get chickenpox) pinged me about helping a startup he was working with. They needed someone to create a system to deliver precisely timed auditory stimulation during sleep in response to EEG data, for the purpose of improving memory.
There was a low cost open source Arduino EEG board we could use for the EEG bit. They needed someone to integrate that board into a physical device, write a user interface and control application for it, figure out how to play the sounds at precise times, and package it all together. It sounded like fun, and after all those dadageek classes, I wasn’t as terrified as I probably should have been.
I got my day job boss’s boss’s blessing and started working on it. After a lot of trial and error, I’m happy to say it works. The hardware and software I created using the same Arduino boards and coding approach as my robotic art project (with some wonderfully smart python from an actual, you know, brain scientist) actually seems to make people remember things better.
So, if I had any advice, I’d say find ways to get out of your lane. Find good distractions. Find smart, kind, interesting people who are willing to teach you what they know, pay them for it, and see what happens.
There have been some changes around here, so I feel that I should reintroduce myself. Hi, I’m Jennifer. I’m a 43 year old married, trans, queer mother of two, with ADHD. Three of those things are new since my last blog post. Or rather, they’re newly recognized, and this post covers the first two, being a queer trans woman. So let’s go back to the beginning.
I’m not sure when I first realized I should have been a girl, but I think I remember when I realized I wasn’t allowed to be. I grew up in Spain away from American media. The only movies I remember us having were Star Wars and The Adventures of Robin Hood. I was probably in first grade when I played Star Wars with the other kids who came with their parents to our house. I wanted to be Princess Leia, she was pretty and everyone cared about her. It is strongly imprinted on me that this wasn’t ok, even though I can’t remember how I knew.
For a few years in Spain my best friend was a girl a little older than me. One time I went to a sleepover at her house. We went to the convenience store, bought some frosting, and ate it straight out of the tub. Sometimes things you think are rules are just society’s expectations. That night I woke up and got a drink from the faucet, but they were doing water main work in her neighborhood. I got sick from it and threw up. Sometimes things you think should just work don’t. A few years later we visited her in the US. We played a game where you laid down interconnecting rooms and she told me about Dr. Who. She’d grown into herself. I was still lost.
I remember sitting on the swings outside of the elementary school I went to after school one day. A boy I knew a few years older than me walked up wearing a black leather skirt. I was dumbfounded. He told me it was gender swap day. That moment is seared in my brain. There were situations where this was a thing you could just do.
We eventually came back to the US. I was fascinated with girls stuff. Whatever that was a strictly gendered expression of femininity, be it clothes, or My Little Pony. Then I started to be exposed to more media, and it became even more obvious that pretending you were a girl was wrong. People who tried, even insincerely, were the joke, and those jokes were all over TV shows and movies. It became a shameful secret.
The Middle Ages
When I hit puberty I got boobs, which didn’t seem like much of a blessing at the time. I remember my parents taking me to the doctor and instead of the correct diagnosis (gynecomastia) he told them it was just baby fat, and that he had another patient who had real developing breasts. Like that was obviously a horrible, horrible thing. It didn’t seem horrible to me. I don’t remember feeling bad for them, it was just remarkable. My parents didn’t do anything about my boobs, I just wore a coat all the time for the next 6 years and receded into myself. I can’t imagine how I would feel now if they had.
In high school I tried to be normal, had a best friend who was a guy, though we didn’t hang out much outside of school. Most of my friends were girls. I had some severe crushes which were probably manifestations of me finding someone who I really wanted to be like. I ended up at girls sleepovers a few times. They gave me scrunchies. I grew my hair really long but didn’t know how to take care of it, so it ended up a giant knotted mess.
In February of 1994 I logged in to an internet text based multiplayer role playing game called Ghostwheel and created a character named ShadowFox. She was me, the me I couldn’t be in the real world. Emotional, outgoing, caring, a mess. She lasted till November, when I told everyone I wasn’t actually a her and switched to a boy name. We were starting to have in person meetups, and the fiction wasn’t going to last.
Towards the end of high school I stumbled into getting a girlfriend. We watched The X-Files together, and I was terrified I was going to do something bad to her because everything I’d been taught told me that boys were hormonally driven monsters who’d just as soon rape you than look at you. After a few months summer came and I stopped calling. Later she got another boyfriend and we became friends again. I was better at that. By then I’d looked up surgical transition online and came to the conclusion that while it was possible, it wasn’t possible for me. If I couldn’t do something right, what was the point? I was 5’10”, stout, and puberty had done its work. I was never going to be like my girl friends.
After high school I kept finding girls who I wanted something from that I couldn’t define. Somehow they could tell that I was lost. I met an older bi poly girl and we dated for a while, which worked till it didn’t. There were too many expectations, too many hang ups, I was still growing up, and I wasn’t being honest with myself. We ended up as complicated friends.
I started hanging out with a group of friends after high school a lot, people who’d graduated after I had, but were around the same age as me. We played role playing games. I had a lot of girl characters. Same in video games. RPG? Always a girl. Femshep all the way.
Eventually, having totally failed at relationships and having moved out of my parents house for a little place of my own, I tried poking around an online dating site. I found a girls profile who seemed cool, tracked down her homepage, and sent her an email. She replied, and we started emailing. She was working after having a bad college experience. I invited her over and made dinner, badly. She was smart and funny and made me feel good, but my hang ups were still there. I didn’t know how to be in a relationship except the kind I’d seen in Disney movies. We tried being friends. She kept coming over. I figured out a little more. I’m not sure how my weird gender issues came out, but they did.
The stubborn girl didn’t give up on me, and I eventually realized we were meant for each other. I asked her, she said yes, and so Irma and I got married. She knew my secret, didn’t judge me for it, and loved me anyway. We always thought it was just going to be that, a secret.
Over the years my role playing game friend group grew and morphed and added people, and seemingly all of a sudden the group of people we hung out with was half queer and mostly girls. This suited me fine. Boys were a mystery to me. I didn’t feel like I understood most of them. It was obviously better to be a girl, but they all seemed content to be boys. We did things like a game night where all the girls tried on corsets, and I stood in the kitchen and smiled and tried not to collapse in on myself.
I didn’t like my body. I wore baggy t-shirts and jeans or cargo pants. I hated dressing up and tried to never do it. I hated having tight or even well fitting boy clothes on. The face in the mirror was weird to look at. Every time I saw a successful guy, I would try and figure out how they did it, what they had that I obviously didn’t, and what was wrong with me that I couldn’t. I got pretty good at pretending to be a guy, but I wasn’t happy.
A few years later Irma and I decided to have kids. I was terrified at the prospect of having a boy, because I didn’t know how to be one, and how was I going to show him. In the end we lost our first, and it broke us, but a year later we had a beautiful little baby girl. She was amazing. Around the same time Irma’s parents had adopted a kid inside the family, who a few years later came out to us as trans. I wish I’d been more supportive, but he wasn’t our child, and it was easy to not engage. If he’d been a trans woman, would I have felt differently? Probably. But he was a boy, and wanted to be something that I didn’t get.
Through some friends we got introduced to a trans hair stylist, and she cut my hair a few times. She was brave, I wasn’t, but she transitioned from presenting as a gay man to a straight woman, which wasn’t me. I knew I didn’t like boys. She came to one of my wife’s relative’s wedding receptions. There were jokes from people whose opinions I cared about. I stuffed my feelings down.
I went to tech conferences and started to see more trans women there. They were so brave, but seemed so lonely, or so I assumed. I complimented Ina Fried on her cute cardigan via a tweet at SXSW. I was the photographer at an AlterConf and was really proud when one of the trans woman presenters said my picture was the best one of her speaking anyone had ever taken. I joined Vox Media and worked with a trans woman while onboarding. We ended up in an elevator at a company all hands a month later with a bunch of sweaty old guys who wanted to chat. She held her composure. I was terrified for her. I was just a very understanding ally.
We were doing well, or so it seemed. We’d bought a bigger house, and had another kid, this time a little boy. I’d let myself go, and I was getting older. I got into fitness, one of my friends wanted a video-chat workout partner, so I started exercising four days a week. I lost weight, I got stronger. I was doing what I was supposed to as a guy.
Eventually the kids went to school, and I ended up on the playground during morning dropoff, five days a week sitting there watching other moms chat and be fashionable in their cute dresses or exhausted and comfortable in their athleisure. I wanted to be one of them more than anything. But I couldn’t be, I was just the very shy, loving dad. That went on for four years. I crammed everything down inside the best I could. I was blank and numb a lot of the time.
At home I started to take on the mom role more. I couldn’t help it. I loved it. I loved making the kids lunches and drawing little notes for them. I loved dropping them off at school, and putting them to bed at night. I loved making food for everyone, and seeing people sit down and enjoy it. I even sometimes liked doing the laundry. But it wasn’t enough.
Wanting to be a girl was still a shameful thing, and shameful things end up popping up in fantasy and when I was alone. It couldn’t go beyond that. The trans women I knew at work were brave and strong and lived in New York or San Francisco and were way different than me. I was just a guy who wanted to be a girl their whole life, and that was different, right? The fact that when the kids slipped up and called me mom it made super happy? Let’s not talk about that.
I had a temper that didn’t feel like mine. I’d tried testosterone injections for a while, but that hadn’t fixed me. I couldn’t really imagine the future, except through hazy visions from aspirational TV shows. I looked at older men and despaired of what I might turn into. I’d let my career be driven first by an ADHD driven distrust of authority, and then by attempting to impress my parents. It had made us comfortable but hadn’t made me really happy. Being able to put together families at work made me happy, especially as I was able to add more women to the teams I ran, but at the end of the day being a mom to some other grownups wasn’t enough. I needed to be something more.
In May of 2019 we packed up the family and went to PyCon in Cleveland. The python community, as a general rule, is nice to trans folks. I reluctantly put a ‘he/him’ sticker on my badge. But there were trans women there. Cute trans women with friends, who were accepted and celebrated, walking around in their cute dresses being cute and happy. Something inside of me cracked. I was miserable.
A month later Emily VanDerWerff came out as trans in a review of the Handmaid’s Tale. I’d loved Emily’s writing since she was reviewing Community at The A.V. Club. I’d seen myself in her writing about being adopted. She wasn’t a 20 year old, she was just a few years younger than me. She had a career. She had decided she couldn’t keep her secret anymore, and was happier for it.
I started reading experiences of more trans women. So many of them clicked. They’d experienced the same thing, had the same thoughts. They said that if you wanted to be a girl you could just be a girl. They said that it had saved their lives. In the end it turned out that it wasn’t about what I was allowed to do, or how pretty or passing I would be, or what society would approve of. It was about what I had to do for me so I could live.
A few months later I sobbingly confessed to Irma that I was a girl and I couldn’t not be. She was supportive, she didn’t try to convince me otherwise, but in that moment our whole relationship changed. The plans we had for our future suddenly evaporated, and we were back at square one.
We spent a lot of months trying to figure out what it meant. I started dressing more femme and pushing presentation boundaries. I made a lot more bad style choices. I’d been growing my hair out for a year, and Irma helped me find a trans friendly stylist who would give me a girly cut. We went on a bunch of trips that all felt like the last. I formed strong opinions about rose gold Disneyland Mouse ears. We went to Europe and I got a lot of second glances in airport bathrooms. Security folks were confused, pointing me back and forth between the boy and girl screeners, and I hadn’t even really started transitioning yet. Irma found me a place to start doing laser hair removal, trying to get rid of the beard that in nearly 30 years I’d never once grown out.
I realized if I was going to transition at work, I didn’t want to do it while I managed anyone. Forcing someone else to accept my transition seemed like too much. I left my team, and ended up floating. Vox was the most trans-friendly place I could imagine to transition, and I’d been avoiding thoughts of other directions my career could take for years because of it.
In February I came out to Emily VanDerWerff, and she invited me to a slack of hers with a bunch of other trans women. It was like coming home. Everyone had so many shared experiences, fears, hopes. I learned a ton, and had a caring group of people to vomit my fears onto who were going through or had gone through the same thing. I met straight and bi trans women who were attracted to men. I thought about it and came to a satisfactory conclusion that no, thanks, they could keep them. I even met a girl really into vintage fashion who I can share outfits and tips with.
I found a trans friendly therapist. Irma and I found an informed consent clinic where I could go and get a hormone replacement therapy prescription without jumping through too many hoops like presenting as a woman in public for a year. Irma went with me. I was so nervous when they took my blood pressure the doctor joked about how high it was. I asked the doctor how many people she’d prescribed hormones to, and how many people had stopped. She said she’d treated hundreds, and only two had stopped. One was a teen and probably hadn’t really figured things out, and the other had family pressure to not transition. That seemed like really good odds.
On Leap Day, in the airport in Dallas on our way to Japan I took my first dose of Spironolactone, a testosterone suppressant and Estradiol, to increase estrogen. Thankfully we were heading into a pandemic, and the next few weeks of traveling around Asia didn’t give me a lot of time to think about whether anything was happening. We got back, and got used to life in quarantine. Irma’s 16 year old trans brother moved in with us. We made sure to use the right name and pronouns. I didn’t have anger triggers like I did before. I could feel emotions more. Things that had been pushed down for so long were breaking loose. Animal Crossing came out and I setup my Nintendo Online account as Jennifer. It was just out there for all of my friends to see.
I got the opportunity to take a security role at Vox working for one of our only women Directors, the kind of savvy New Yorker who I was both in awe of and kind of terrified of. A few months later I told her, and asked her to look into what it would take to transition at work. She was nice and supportive and everything I needed.
Being extremely online since the mid 90’s, I’d gotten my first or full name as my username at a lot of places, something that came back to bite me. I wrote some python code tried cramming unique words together to find something that was broadly available. I landed on objectfox, throwing it all the way back to that text based role playing game 25 years before. I started changing usernames and switching account names to ‘J. Kramer’.
Irma and I created a spreadsheet of people we needed to tell. This person before that. Kids before parents. Parents before family. Family before work. Work before Twitter. We tried to figure out what to do with Facebook. In the end I mothballed it and started fresh.
I told the kids on June 12th. They took it well. My daughter was on board immediately. A little while later we were able to get our ears pierced together, which was a great mother/daughter bonding experience. My son took a little longer till he was there. He’d seen a lot of transphobic jokes and imagery in TV. It made him uncomfortable. Having a trans kid in the house already helped a little with the concept, but not so much with the execution. There weren’t as many jokes about trans men. But he came around, and he’s excited to have two moms.
I told Haley, my personal trainer a few days after the kids. She’d seen me go from paint splattered gym shorts to mauve leggings over two years, and even a pink unicorn onesie that one Halloween, and was one of the people I talked to most. I was anxious to tell her, because like every friendship, I treasured it and didn’t want to lose it, and like almost everyone I told from then on, she was super happy for me. Once I was out to the kids and out to Haley it was easier to go full time at home. Irma did my nails, something I’d never done before. I started ‘borrowing’ clothes I thought were cute from her side of the closet. The kids started calling me mum.
I told my parents on July 1st, and Irma told hers the next day. After months of presenting more femme before the pandemic, my parents weren’t surprised. They may have memories of me pushing the gender boundary that even I’ve forgotten, but they haven’t shared them yet. It took them a while to come around, but they eventually did. They compliment me on my cute dresses and tell me how much happier I seem.
A week after we told our parents I came out to our friends in Slack. Everyone was nice. I was scheduled to come out at work a week after that, but ended up having to push it a week at the last minute. That hurt, but Irma had arranged for a surprise drive by coming out party with our friends, which was beautiful and amazing. A week later when I came out at work everyone was nice. People I’d never even talked to wished me well. Two days later I posted a tweet to Twitter, and a few days after that a story on Instagram, and I was out. I was Jennifer. From beginning to end it took 2 months.
Transitioning in the pandemic has been a mixed blessing. I was able to basically go full time only 4 months into hormones, because my style is super femme and I wear a mask whenever I’m out. On the other hand, I was only able to come out in person to Nadia, my friend and editor of Eater Austin, and I haven’t been able to give people hugs I’ve been dying to give for years. I also can’t hang out with the other moms at school, because dropoff is a quick, contactless affair in a time of COVID. But those things will happen in time, and they’ll be just as sweet when they do.
My voice is still awful. Hormones don’t do anything for that, and after 3 attempts I’m still without a voice therapist. I need to do something about the blonde hair on my face that laser didn’t get, but we’re looking into options for that. Hormones can make your feet and hands shrink and can make you shorter, as the fat redistributes and the cartilage changes. I may have lost half a shoe size, but I’m still 5’10” and wide shouldered. Fortunately fat is moving around other places, which is nice, and when I look in the mirror I can kinda see something that I like. I have no idea how well I pass, which isn’t something all trans women want, but is something that’s important to me. I still have a long way to go, but those first big steps have been taken, and I love who I am.
I try not to think about transitioning earlier. I have friends who’ve transitioned at 23, and some who’ve transitioned at 53, and we’re all kind of jealous of the kids who transition at 13. We have the same fears, some of us just have more mileage. We all try to have hope for the future.
Our future is still hazy, and transitioning has cut off a lot of options. I’m glad we went to Africa before I transitioned. There’s a lot of anxiety about even visiting Mexico. But there are nice things, too. I love being me and being accepted in women’s spaces I was a stranger to before. I love being able to have honest conversations with my girl friends as myself. I love swapping hair and makeup tips with the waitstaff when I pick up to go dinner. I love that Irma and I merged our closet together. I love putting time into doing my hair and knowing it looks good, and I love not wanting to bother and throwing it into a hairclip. I love being more emotionally honest. I love people who haven’t come out yet reaching out and letting me know that I encouraged them. And now I can look at older women and go ‘hmm, yea, that seems nice, I could be her and be happy’.
October 2020 Note: I wrote this blog post back in 2015, in the wake of Oberfell v. Hodges when a lot of my friends were getting their rights. Back then I hadn’t admitted how important these thoughts and feelings were, and it would be another 4 years before I finally acted on them. A lot of things in this post are ignorant and wrong, and having gone through some of it I know better now, but we all start somewhere.
[Spoilers for The Rapture of the Nerds follow, as well as triggers for: Fashion, anime, gender identity, religion, politics, Star Wars and the singularity.]
In the book The Rapture of the Nerds, half way through the narrative the main character is turned from a male into a female by a swarm of cyborg ants who are using the character as a conduit to communicate with a solar-system wide post-singularity society. It’s that kind of book. For reasons which will eventually become clear, this plot twist has led me to some thoughts about gender, computers, what normal really means, and what the technological future holds.
Trope, Trope, Trope…
It speaks to what gender is turning into that The Rapture of the Nerds is a book where the main character switches gender, and the main character’s love interest is gender fluid, and it isn’t a book about that. The switch between genders takes up at most a page, and then it’s just done. Things are different, but also the same. Different viewpoint, people treat you a little different, but you’re still you.
Gender fluidity is a powerful plot device because it’s so far from our accepted understanding of how the world works. We see people get taller (though not often shorter), we see hair change color after a trip to the salon, and weight goes up (generally) and down (rarely). All of these things effect their perspective on the world, too, but nothing has quite the bite gender has. Neil Gaiman plays around with it in the world of magic in Stardust, turning Bernard the goat herder into the Witch Queen’s pretend daughter. In the movie it goes about like you’d expect. I’d forgotten that Charles Stross had played with the trope before in Glasshouse, where people switch gender as a component of reinventing themselves, since they can live essentially forever.
There are gobs more of these references on TV Tropes. One I’d forgotten before I started writing this post was Ranma 1/2, where the whole show is based around the character switching genders when doused with cold or hot water. In that show it’s a magical spring, and after getting used to the gender switch ability, Ranma starts to use it to his/her benefit (when it isn’t being used for hilarious comedic effect).
Nature vs Nurture
Gender is on a long list of things that some people don’t feel correct about. I have friends who are really tall who probably hate it, friends who are really short who hate that, friends whose genetics (aided by our national food production system and our society’s cavalier approach to work/life balance) leaves them way bigger than they want to be.
I bet quite a few people who are 4′ 2″ would say they don’t feel short on the inside. 6′ 5″ people probably don’t always relish their tall-ness. We watch TV and movies and all see the world from the same viewpoint, but once you look around in person, suddenly you’re towering over or being towered over. My wife and I just started playing the two most height-contrasting characters in the video game Borderlands 2. Zer0 is tall, my wife playing him is 5′ 2″. I’m playing Salvador, who’s super-short, and I’m 5′ 10″. The weirdness in perspective comes up in our conversations a lot.
Spend much time with kids, and you start to notice nascent gender identity dissonance. Boys who want to play with purses or wear tutus. Girls who only want to wear jeans and t-shirts. We have a couple of these in our extended family, and they’re interesting to watch, because at that age they aren’t savvy enough about the world to hide what they want. They don’t know what they’re going to turn into, they’re just bewildered little proto-people, dealing with things they don’t have words for yet.
Some people would say that kids just grow out of these kind of issues, and some do. It’s entirely possible that they tend to one gender identity or the other for a while due to an emotionally impactful circumstance or a strong authority figure, but there are more than a few kids whose bodies and mental models just don’t add up.
As you get older, puberty hits, the whole world is a confusing maelstrom of wants and needs and desires and eventually in your 20s you get spit out the other side. By this time I’d guess that most of the people whose brains and bodies don’t match have gotten really good at not mentioning it, because once you get past elementary school, it starts to be less cute and more cognitively dissonant for a large portion of society.
Over the last few years I’ve been lucky enough to make a whole bunch of gay and lesbian friends. They’re making huge strides towards general societal acceptance, and that’s awesome. Those whose disconnect isn’t with society’s assumptions but with physical manifestations still have a ways to go. Some people at the top have their back, but it’s probably going to take another generational shift for full acceptance.
The True Hero of Star Wars
When I was a kid I lived in Spain, and while we didn’t have TV, we did have two movies that I can remember. One was Star Wars (A New Hope) and the other was 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, with Errol Flynn. Kids repurpose roles they identify with, and I wanted to be Princess Leia.
I’m going to digress a little here and make an argument that Leia is by far the most heroic of the Star Wars cast. Which character in Star Wars actually confronts the bad guy face to face (and survives)? Which one has the fortitude of spirit to not break under torture? Which one takes charge when the mission goes awry? Which one is resourceful enough to pull the Jedi Knight who was just bumming around back into action at the appropriate time? Princess Leia, of course. While the other characters are wandering around, frozen in carbonite or throwing rocks at big monsters in a pit, she kills a bad guy single handedly. While wearing a bikini. She’s so totally obviously the hero! Anyway.
I also wanted to be Maid Marian. I don’t have a really good argument on that one. Olivia de Havilland is the bomb, though. Olivia won two Oscars, to Errol’s none. She was knighted in France in 2010, and still bums around Paris today, at 96, showing up at Cannes or getting National Medals of Arts from US Presidents. Errol died from a heart attack at 50 and had a thing for jailbait. Which one would you want to be?
The crazy thing about gender identity is how distinct desire can be from identity and physical manifestation. There are boys who are born male who like girls, there are girls who are born female who like boys, but there’s also every other varying combination, and even varying degrees.
Some more conservative minded might view this as a bad thing, but in the context of a rapidly accelerating civilization, this mix is an awesome feature of our crazy genetics. Diversity of views and opinions gives you the East Village and the Internet. Homogenous, hierarchical group-think gives you Jonestown or Hitler. As a society that’s more and more interconnected we continue to create bigger and bigger problems, and problems that can only be solved by a diversity of thought. As a society we can’t go down into the fallout shelter and play Pleasantville, that’s just not feasible. We have to go forward.
Dealing With It
I’m lucky in so far that I like girls. If I didn’t, my life would be a lot harder. My gay friends go through a lot, and they go through it every day. What do you do when the hospital tells you that you can’t be with your husband/wife when they’re ill, or get their survivor benefits when you’ve been the homemaker for fifty years and your partner dies? That’s messed up. Other folks on the spectrum bear an even bigger burden, people don’t want to accept that everyone isn’t born the way they feel they are inside. Just go read this MetaFilter post and linked McSweeny’s column and tell me it’s easy and that it isn’t heartbreaking to be so awkward and weird in your body. Go on, I’ll wait.
Societies evolve to deal with gender dissonance issues in different ways. India has the Hijra, biological males who take on a female gender identity. In the Balkans you have the burrnesha, women who take a vow of chastity and live as men. Native American tribes had Two-Spirit People, who manifest both masculine and feminine aspects. Thailand has its share of gender identities. This isn’t a new thing.
Your physical gender, just like your height, the size of your feet or your weight is something you just have to deal with. Human beings are really, really good at just dealing with situations they’re in. It isn’t optimal, but we can put up with a lot, and desensitize to a lot. I think that’s what people are referring to when they say that a kid will grow out of it. They learn to blend, because it’s easier. Life’s hard enough. You make friends, you get a job, you start a family, and suddenly there are obligations that steer you towards the normal you didn’t have before. There are probably still bits of that identity floating around, though. It isn’t something that just disappears.
Gender as Metadata
So, back to the Technium. Technology likes to solve problems, and gender dissonance and figuring out who you are and what you want is definitely an addressable problem. It isn’t a surprise that people play with gender presentation a lot online. You can’t tell who’s behind the keyboard, and for a lot of people playing a video game or logging into an online game or chat is the perfect environment to try and get a better handle on gender identity.
When I logged in to my first online game I created a female character. It was a safe place where no one knew me and I could be whatever I wanted, and what I wanted to do was play with the experience of gender. We do the same thing with paper Role Playing Games, when we watch a movie or TV show told from the opposite gender’s viewpoint, or when we play pretend as kids. It’s the process of pulling that identity out, playing with parts of it, and seeing how it feels. After a year with that character (and a couple teary emotional breakdowns that would have been a lot worse at school) I switched to a male character, not coincidently around the same time the game started having real-life meetups. Nobody really cared, it was what the game was for.
Some video games take a stab at addressing that gender dissonance, possibly inadvertently but probably not. When you create a game where players can be either gender, have relationships with either gender, and wear a bunch of different kinds of clothes, people will naturally play around with it. I’ve known a couple of people who ride that gender identity boundary, and some of them make livings designing games. It’s a safe place to play, and it’s fun to enable.
I’ve written a blog post about Weavrs, little social software bots with personality that you wind up and let go to live their virtual lives. I have a Weavr named Keiko. She lives in Yokosuka, Japan, where I lived for a little while when I was tiny. In a way, she’s a really, really simple virtual manifestation of the dimorphism of gender, sprung from my id. I created her, there’s part of me in her interests and location, but she’s a she, and I’m not. That plays with the concept a little, and it’s an interesting place to start.
Having a female WoW character or a female Commander Shepard is nice, but it doesn’t encompass the entire female experience. (That is possibly the biggest understatement of the year.) Change to enable a full experience is hard, but that may be the next great frontier in the application of gender technology.
Ray Kurzweil thinks we’re heading for the techno-fication of biology. Nanomachines, personally-tailored genetic re-writers, that sort of assumption-breaking technology. We’re probably not looking at a world like Neil Gaiman’s Changes, where a pill turns you from boy to girl or back overnight, but it isn’t inconceivable to think that our grandkids could be living in a world where their friends take a couple month vacation and come back as Mr instead of Miss, or Miss instead of Mr. Once that starts to happen, or even starts to poke its head over the horizon, society’s going to have to deal with it, and a sizable silent population might suddenly appear and say “Hey, that’s us.”
What the baby steps toward that future look like, I don’t know. Right now gender reassignment takes a lot of drugs and knives, and is terrifying. I’m amazed anyone is that brave. In fifteen or twenty years, you might get an injection of nano-machines with RNA-rewriting protein engines that do all the work with none of the fuss. In that future your gender might just be a temporary tag, just like your other physical attributes, like how old you look or what race you present as. At that point does it matter what you were born? If you can be short or tall, skinny or curvy, boy or girl, will making those changes be as common as dying your hair?
Far into the future, once the singularity hits and we all upload our brains into machines, we can pretty much do whatever we want. Flip a virtual switch and change your simulated meatware, like Second Life but hyper-real. Multi-hued dragon one day, Siamese cat the next.
I imagine there will be a lot of Ryan Goslings and Scarlett Johanssons (or whoever the equivalents might be in 2070) wandering around. But not me. If I’m still kicking it then, when I’m not a Falcon or Harrison Ford, I’m totally going to be Olivia de Havilland.
Half way through the interview loop I realized that things had changed. Sometime in my 20 years of web development, I’d become the seasoned hand. The voice of experience. The old guy.
The startup whose conference room I was sitting in was young. Established, but still maturing. Three of their junior developers sat across the table from me. We’d run out of questions early. What do you ask someone who’s been developing for the web since before Netscape 1.0, and who’s about to leave a great gig at a top technology company? The only question that seemed relevant was the obvious one, asked after the formalities had run their course: “So, why do you want to come here?”
Time for a Change
Let’s wind the clock back to April, when I was a Tech Lead on the Big Data team at HP Helion, their enterprise cloud product. Before I joined HP I’d never considered myself a big company person. I figured that there were people who went to school and got CS degrees and did corporate development, and there were the rest of us who scraped up knowledge where we could and built the web. But at the end of 2010, thanks to some friends I’d made building said web, I found myself at HP, doing DevOps work on their Cloud offering. Over the next four and a half years I had the opportunity to learn Python, build a PaaS from scratch, file patents, speak at conferences, and finally, build and lead a team shipping a major tentpole feature on a major product. I even got to create a weekly engineering newsletter. It was a great run, and I was very lucky to have it.
Four and a half years is a long time, though, and the industry landscape has changed significantly. The Nest thermostat, Raspberry Pi, Minecraft, AR/VR resurgence, mobile as a serious platform, IoT, AI. All of them have exploded since I joined HP. While working on the cloud was interesting, you can only build ‘give me some servers with some software on them’ so many times. So this spring, after shipping Helion Development Platform 1.0 and handing off my team, I started looking for the next thing.
My criteria for the next gig were:
Somewhere I could learn something totally new (not a cloud hosting service or product).
An exciting industry or a space experiencing a big transformation.
A smart team and smart founders.
An office in south/central Austin so I could see people face to face.
A flexible work-from-home policy since the kids are small.
A progressive company with a social conscience.
Make enough to pay the mortgage and keep the kids in school, but not so much that I’d feel obligated to work every waking moment.
Unfortunately, aside from sending feelers out to my network, I didn’t have a good idea of where to find this gig. Most of the folks I’d worked with at HP had moved on to similar cloud projects, or were working on service mechanics. After four and a half years of working primarily for people outside of Austin (and having kids, which makes meetups hard), I’d lost touch with what was going on here in town. So how would I find the companies looking for talent in Austin who’d be interested in me? I didn’t know, and to make things more complicated, I had a really short time window. The project I was leading was about to start a serious development cycle, and I felt like my departure wouldn’t have as big a negative impact if I could give them notice before the planning really started. HP had been good to me, and I wanted to do the classy thing. In the end, my job hunt window was about three weeks.
One of my buddies is a Director of Engineering at a growing bay area software firm, which means he’s always on the lookout for talent. Whenever I started talking about the next thing, he would say, “You should check out HIRED.” HIRED is a curated tech placement matchmaking service, and I hadn’t payed them too much attention until this year, because they hadn’t been in Austin. But now they were, and by funny coincidence, they’d just sponsored the PyLadies Austin meetup that my wife helps organize. So at the beginning of April, I signed up.
The first step at HIRED is filling out a profile. They can import from LinkedIn, which is what I did. After a little text tweaking, you’re set for their staff to review you. The next day I had a phone chat with Amanda, their talent advocate here in Austin. You can think of Amanda as a tech yenta. She knows what companies in town are looking for, and she talks to candidates to figure out what they’re looking for, and she tries to make good matches.
After my chat with Amanda (which was short, because I’d lost my voice the day before), my profile was set to go into the weekly batch. HIRED releases their resumes on Monday mornings to the companies using them. Those companies get to look through the candidates, and pick who they want to send an interview request to.
By Monday afternoon I had three interview requests, two from Austin startups, and one from a distributed company headquartered in the bay area. None of them were companies I’d heard of before, and one of them was doing really interesting product development for humanitarian purposes. So far, exactly what I was hoping for.
Monday afternoon, after the most pro-active companies had checked the new candidates and sent their interview requests, Amanda looked through the system and sent me a half dozen ‘Would you be interested in…?’ emails. Of these companies, I’d heard of three before and had either had initial conversations with them or knew it wasn’t the right fit. The other two seemed promising, so I had Amanda contact them on my behalf.
I had initial phone conversations with the companies, some of which went really well, a few of which weren’t a great fit. After an interview you can rate it, and if it didn’t go well, HIRED can let them know you aren’t interested. It makes saying, ‘Thanks, but we’re not right for each other,’ really painless. Some front-runners were emerging. I started making pro and con lists. The most promising companies in town wanted to do face to face interviews, so we started figuring out times. I was speaking at ApacheCon, which ended up pushing them all to Friday.
Friday came and I ended up with two face to face interviews, both for Senior Rails Developer positions, both for companies doing an interesting blend of software platform and physical product. Which is how I found myself sitting across a conference room table from a trio of junior developers, amazed at how the time had flown since I was the junior kid sitting across the table.
A Wild Media Company Appears!
So where did I end up? I had three HIRED companies on my short list, but eventually, it came back to some advice I’d gotten from the friend who referred me to HIRED. “Figure out what you really want to do.” It’s easy to take that with a grain of salt, but if you’re serious about it, and figure out that one thing that you would drop everything for, suddenly everything can become clear. I want to work on the intersection of machines and stories. I think interacting with a software bot or agent is going to be a super-prevalent paradigm in the next few years. I did a whole presentation about it at SXSW 2013, and another one this year.
One of the feelers I’d sent out before I joined HIRED was to Trei Brundrett and Skip Baney of Vox Media. I’d worked with Skip at Polycot in the mid 2000’s, and Trei had referred some of our best clients to us. We had lunch during ApacheCon, started talking about narrative software, and Trei said, “Hey, you should come join us and make cool stories.” So now I’m at Vox Media, making VR experiences and hacking on a bunch of stuff I wouldn’t have been able to at a company that’s more diverse in people and expertise than anywhere else I was looking.
The experience of using HIRED was great, though, and I’d recommend it to anyone (and have). Amanda was awesome. If you’re in a position where you’ve either gotten out of touch with your local tech community, or you’ve moved to a new city and you don’t have a feel for the local market, I’d definitely give them a shot. All total I talked to 7 companies, had 3 on my short list, and did one serious interview loop. Everyone I talked to was great, and while they were all doing cool work, the opportunity at Vox was just too good to pass up.
Your profile stays up on HIRED for 2 weeks, but you get the bulk of your requests in the first week. I had a mix of contacts, some from hiring managers, some from CTOs, and some from CEOs. Some of the conversations with CTOs and CEOs were so good, and the companies were doing such interesting work, I’ve referred other people to them. For the hiring companies that use the service to it’s full potential it’s a great way to get past the recruiter/hiring manager firewall. If you’re thinking about making a move, I heartily recommend them.
Spring break has come and gone in Austin, which means that we’re recovering from another amazing SXSW Interactive festival. This year for me was a year of narrative story technologies and Community. For the last several years I’ve been going to SXSW with my wife, Irma, and this year she had her own session. That meant she spent a lot of time in the women in tech tracks, and we didn’t see each other as much as usual. It’ll be interesting to read her write up, when she gets to it.
Friday – Al, Tim, BBQ, Old Friends, & 3D Printed Clothes
While we didn’t have time to get to the Life in the OASIS session, we had some time to burn till the session after, so Irma and I headed to Exhibit Hall 5, which is big and always has a lot of room to plop down and get your stuff sorted. SXSW is the kind of conference where you can be just looking for a place to get your bearings and end up listening to Al Gore talk about climate change, the Pope, and his newfound optimism, which is exactly what happened.
After Al we moved up front for a presentation from perennial SXSW personality Tim Ferriss, who had a 30 minute How To Rock SXSW in 4 Hours talk, followed by QA. It’s always weird for me to see Tim at SXSW. I was on the first row of his first SXSW talk on the tiny Day Stage promoting the about to be released 4 Hour Work Week, way back in 2007. To say our paths diverged would be an interesting understatement. The main points of Tim’s talk were: Don’t be a jerk and treat everyone like they could make your career (because they probably can),. He had some hangover cure suggestions (eat avocados before you go party), and reminded all the introverts to take the time to breathe.
One anecdote he told on the treating everyone well point was from one of his early CESes. He spent most of his time in the bloggers lounge (a good place to meet people), and while everyone was trying to get the attention of Robert Scoble, he chatted up the lady checking people in. Eventually he made a comment about Robert, and she said, “Oh, you should totally talk to him. He’s my husband, let me give you a ring back in San Francisco and we’ll have lunch.” So yea, you never know who people are. I was standing in line at a session later in the conference and started talking to the lady next to me, who turned out to be the head of innovation at Intuit.
After Tim it was time for lunch, and we ended up at Ironworks BBQ. They have a $16.45 3 meat sampler plate (beef rib, sausage, and brisket), and well… a picture’s worth a thousand words…
Our buddy Matt Sanders (formerly a Polycot, then an HPer, and now at Librato) was in town from San Francisco for the conference, and joined us to indulge in smoked meat. We ended up eating at Ironworks at least 3 more times, which was kind of expensive, but fast and good.
After lunch Matt and I headed over to the new JW Marriott to a panel from Dutch fashion designer Pauline van Dongen titled Ready to Wear? Body Informed 3D Printed Fashion. This session was a perfect example of what makes SXSW such a unique conference: It’s a subject that I’m curious about, but one I’d never go to a conference specifically to see. Pauline was wearing some of her tech-enabled fashions (a shirt with solar cells embedded in it), and talked about how fashion meets technology and how often in technology we design for the static (interlocking shapes), not the organic. She profiled two of her projects, one a sleeve that morphs based on the wearer’s movement, and the other a neck ruff that uses electrically contracting wire to ‘breathe’ while worn. The challenges she faced (48 hour print cycles, unpredictability of material behavior) and insights discovered were really interesting, and it was one of the panels I kept thinking about most over the next few days.
After this panel I wandered through the job fair for a bit, which has expanded significantly in the last year. It was interesting to see Target and Apple looking for candidates at SXSW.
Saturday – Storytelling Machines, Future Crime, New Parents in Tech
First thing Saturday morning was my session with Jon Lebkowsky: Machines That Tell Stories. We had a great turnout, and there are notes from the discussion at the link. Looking over the schedule, storytelling and storytelling systems were a very hot topic. I was talking to Deus Ex Machina (an interactive theater project) producer Robert Matney later that it felt like the story zeitgeist erupted out of nowhere, and the flood of sessions made for a very interesting conference. The discussion was really interesting, and it was gratifying to hear that there was a lot of cross-pollination between attendees. I even heard that people were still connecting at the airport on their way home.
Chris Hurd, one of my friends and the guy behind DVinfo.net, gave me a tip one time from his years working big trade shows like NAB: The best way to keep a spring in your step at a long conference is to change your socks in the middle of the day. So after leading our session, and stopping into the 3M booth, we went back to the car, dumped our stuff, and I changed my socks. We had a long day ahead of us, and it was definitely worth it.
Next I went to a session titled Future Crimes From the Digital Underworld by Marc Goodman. It’s always interesting to see the people who’ve given a talk a lot of times versus people who are presenting the material for the first time. Marc’s obviously really practiced at this talk, complete with jokes, audience-call-outs, and what have you. It’s a fun talk, but the net-net is that everything in security is terrible, and it’s just going to get worse with trillions of IoT devices. I didn’t need Marc to tell me that. I have TaylorSwift.
After that was Irma’s meetup: New Parents in Tech. She had an interesting turnout, with only one other woman (there was a lot of competition for the women technologist this year, with a strong moms in tech panel opposite), but a lot of dads. Two product guys from Fisher Price showed up, too, and I had an interesting discussion with them about Baby’s Musical Hands (Clara’s first app) and iPad cases (they don’t sell many anymore, possibly due to the kid market saturating with hand-me-downs). After a good discussion, it was on to…
Ok, I’ll admit it. Community is my biggest takeaway from SXSW. It’s my favorite TV show, the only thing I watch obsessively. I’ve seen every episode, most of them a half dozen times. I follow the actors (even the lesser-known ones) on twitter. Fanboy = Me.
Yahoo! Screen picked up Community last year after NBC didn’t renew it. The switch from broadcast to streaming distribution made it perfect SXSW fodder, especially after the Harmontown documentary premiered at SXSW Film last year. Yahoo! pulled out the big guns, though, and beyond just having Dan show up to talk about the switch, they brought the whole cast, and premiered the 1st episode of the new season a few days early for the fans. It was epic.
We had great seats for Harmontown, and were next to the stage when they brought out the cast and showed the season premier. When they showed the episode everybody sat down on the floor, and in one of the most amazing things I’ve ever been in the middle of, we all sang along kumbaya style to the theme song.
The episode was great, and we had a wonderful time.
The next morning, after a panel I’ll talk about in a second, was a SXSW panel with the Community cast. Everyone was there again, and there was a great discussion about the show. For my money, it was even more interesting than Community’s previous Paleyfest discussions, probably due to the fact that there wasn’t a real moderator, just Dan Harmon asking the cast questions. We had front row seats for that one, too.
Some notes for Community fans:
In the QA someone mentioned Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design as their favorite (it’s my favorite too, I was the weirdo in the audience who applauded at that), and Dan told a story about how they essentially threw out the last 1/3rd of the episode (the original ending involved the teachers creating the conspiracy) while they were shooting. The final scene didn’t get scripted until they were in the study room blocking it off. They had NBC Standards and Practices on the phone, because there’s a lot of gunplay, and they were describing it, and finally the person from Standards and Practices said ‘Is there any way you can make it about gun safety?’ And if you’ve seen the episode, that’s how the ending happened. Lots of Community episodes come together at the last minute.
The speech Ben Chang gives in Analysis of Cork-Based Networking (about the character being a real person, but just being portrayed as crazier and crazier) was lifted nearly verbatim from an email Ken Jeong wrote to Dan Harmon about the character. When Ken was performing it, he teared up (those are real tears) because he was so touched.
Alison Brie’s contract is up this season, we’ll see if she’s back if they make a movie or Season 7.
In discussing the longer episodes now that they aren’t constrained by NBC commercial breaks, Joel McHale noted that The Dick Van Dyke Show episodes were 29 minutes, which made me think that there’s an interesting comparison between The Dick Van Dyke Show as Community and I Love Lucy as The Big Bang Theory.
Before the morning Community panel was a session titled Worlds Without Boundaries: Books, Games, Films, with James Frey (author and media maker) and Jon Hanke (architect behind Google’s Ingress game). It was a fascinating discussion about media that crosses boundaries. James mentioned he was heavily inspired as a kid by the book Masquerade, which included puzzles and a treasure hunt in the real world. In his series, Endgame, there’s a puzzle pointing to keys that unlock a chest in the Caesars Palace casino in Las Vegas holding $.5, $1, and $1.5 million dollars in gold (per book, respectively). They’re doing an app with Niantic Labs (Google), and they’re planning films. It’s an interesting product development scheme: Have a stable of creatives come up with a world. Sell some of the rights (film, TV), partner to do some products (games), and do others in house (books, novellas).
After the Community panel I spent some time in the SXSW trade show. General themes this year were lots of Japanese hardware startups (on Kickstarter, natch), lots of countries, and almost no hosting or cloud booths (save for Softlayer). A lot more music, and a little ergonomic furniture. Overall a less interactive-heavy trade show than years gone by. I’m not entirely sure why that was, but there you go. Wordpress didn’t come with their great t-shirts this year, so I guess I’ll have to actually go to the store to buy my clothes. I did manage to pick up a new Olloclip, though, and even got to see it built in front of me.
In the afternoon I made it over to Automated Insights panel When Robots Write The News, What Will Humans Do?, moderated by James Kotecki, Automated Insights’ PR guy. This was an great discussion between Robbie Allen, the CEO of Automated Insights, and Lou Ferrara, a VP from Associated Press. Automated Insights’ software produces AP stories in sports and stock reporting from raw data, and it was interesting to hear their discussion about what will be automated and where human value really lies. Automated Insights thing is producing one billion pieces of content for one person each, which I think everyone can agree is where a large part of the content we consume is headed.
After the Automated Insights panel I headed over to SXSW Create, the free maker area of the conference. While I was there I got to try out Lumo, a new interactive projector for kids that’s about to hit Indiegogo. More on that later.
The Gaming Expo next door to Create was as crazy as ever, and really starting to outgrow the space they have for it. The only larger space downtown is the Convention Center, though, which puts them in kind of a bind. VR headsets were everywhere (almost always accompanied by lines of people waiting to use them), and it was good to see indie games like That Dragon, Cancer represented.
Monday – API Fails, Narrative Systems, Non-Linear Story Environments, Enchanted Objects, Home Projector Installations, & BBQ Science
Instead, Matt and I went to the MedTech expo, and saw an interesting startup doing a small wireless body temp monitor for babies (slap a bandage over it, battery’s good for a month), some interesting sleep trackers (lot of quantified self folks at SXSW) and of course Withings with their smart watch whose batteries work for 8 months.
Elena and Michael’s presentation was one of the most meaty of the sessions I attended, full of helpful, hard-won insights into interactive projects. Slides are available here, and audio is here.. They showcased three: Deja View, a project for Infinity where actors you see on screen talk to you through the phone (dynamic video branching and voice recognition), Hunted, an ARG-like that used some clever magic tricks to make users think they were being controlled, and a project for the From Dusk Till Dawn TV series, where players could call in and talk to the character Santanico Pandemonium and she would try to recruit them for her cult (branching narrative, voice recognition).
Some of my major takeaways from the presentation:
MaxMax: Elena talked about how while in games you program for MinMax (system constantly minimizes the players chances while maximizes the games chances, by attacking the player, moving enemies toward them, etc), in interactive story experiences you want to optimize for MaxMax, where you give the users as much of a chance of progressing as you can. They’re likely only going to experience it once (replay value not being high, except for people who want to understand how the system works), so work as hard as you can to make sure they succeed.
Embrace Genre: When you’re giving people a new and unfamiliar experience, ground them in tropes and genre conventions they already understand. That way they have something to hold on to.
3 Act Structure: Use the standard exposition, rising action, climax story structure. Everybody understands it, it works, if you’re re-inventing all the other wheels, don’t re-invent that one.
Magic!: There’s an interesting cross-over with the magic community. They worked with a magician to design some of their interactive tricks (powered, in the end, by people sitting in a call center). Fooling the brain is what they do, and is what delights our users.
Don’t Branch: Traditional Choose Your Own Adventure stories use a branching structure, which leads to some short experiences and some long ones. That’s a negative for experiences you want users to fully enjoy, so instead of branches, create a looping structure where each act breaks into sections, but they all come back at the end. Something like this: -=-=-=-
Test: When you’re testing an interactive narrative, write out only the main 80% line first, and test it on 5 people. This will validate your assumptions about how most people will view it, and won’t waste your time creating alternate paths if your base assumptions are broken. Once you’ve passed 5, write out the rest and test on 50 people (I think this was how it went, they should post the slides soon) to validate your overall script. Then run a production beta test on as many people as you can to get data for all the subtle things you wouldn’t expect.
On the way to my next panel I walked by the SXSW bookstore, and noticed that David Rose whose book Enchanted Objects I’d done a double-take on a few days before was going to be signing it just about then. So I bought a copy and a few minutes later David showed up, and we had a great 10 minute long conversation about projection mapped interactive art objects. David teaches at the MIT media lab, in addition to a lot of other stuff, and his book has moved straight to the top of my to-read stack. It sounds exactly like a subject I’ve posted about here before, and something that feels like it’s moving from Bruce Sterling design fiction to real world product very quickly.
After talking to David I headed to the Storytelling Engines for Smart Environments panel, which had Meghan Athavale (aka Meg Rabbit) from Lumo Play on it. Meg’s been doing interactive projection installations in Museums for many years, and has had the question ‘Can I get this in my house?’ posed more than a few times. Recently component prices have been dropping, so she’s designed the Lumo Interactive Projector, a projector based toy for kids, and is about to run an Indiegogo for it. Meg’s the kind of entrepreneur you can’t help but root for. She came to SXSW by herself, set up a booth in Create, and is trying to drum up as much excitement as she can. I really hope her Indiegogo is a big hit.
After Storytelling Engines I headed over to the GE BBQ Research Center with Matt and Irma for some free BBQ. It was good, but Irma didn’t care for it. Research accomplished!
Tuesday – AR/VR, Moonshots, New Assets, Space Cleaners, & Happy Bruce
Tuesday morning I hit the Mixed Reality Habitats: The New Wired Frontier panel presented by IEEE. My biggest ‘wow’ takeaway, aside from the fact that nobody seems to know what Microsoft’s up to with Hololens or those Magic Leap guys (light fields?) with their headset, was from Todd Richmond, Director at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies, who said his group felt that most people would be wearing headsets (Google Glass-like or Hololens AR like, or Oculus Rift VR like) 8 hours a day for work in 5-10 years. When someone says something like that, I think it’s time to take notice. Consider the headsets of today as the original iPhone. Think about how far we’ve come in the 6 years since that was released.
After that I watched Astro Teller speak about Moonshots at Google [x]. His main point was that they always strive to fail quickly and get real-life feedback as fast as possible. He talked about a bunch of wild projects they’re working on like delivery drones, internet by high-altitude self-driving balloons, kite-based wind power, the self-driving car, and others. With each he emphasized how failure early lead to faster learning.
I hit a session entitled How to Rob a Bank: Vulnerabilities of New Money, with some fairly impressive speakers. Their main point seemed to be that your personal information is an emerging asset class that you should be concerned about. That just like your dollars in a bank, your purchase history and address and Facebook posts have value, and we don’t really know how to protect that yet.
On our way back through the trade show Irma and I ran into Astroscale, a company from Singapore started by some Japanese ex-finance guys (follow me, here). They’ve hired engineering resources to design a satellite that will de-orbit space debris. Imagine that your $150 million dollar satellite is going to be impacted by a bit of out-of-control space junk. You pay these guys $10 million, and then go find that space junk, attach their micro-satellite to it, and de-orbit it before it can crash into you. And they’re running a promotional time capsule project with Pocari Sweat and National Geographic to collect well wishes from kids and send them via a SpaceX launch to the moon. So yea, 30 years after Reagan’s Star Wars and Brilliant Pebbles, and here’s what we’ve got. I’m surprised it isn’t on Kickstarter.
The end of SXSW is always Bruce Sterling’s talk, and this year was no different. Bruce was kind of happy this year, and was almost channeling Temple Grandin in appearance, but happy Bruce isn’t always most interesting Bruce. If you’d like to give his talk a listen, it’s up on SoundCloud. Hopefully next year he’ll have some tales from Casa Jasmina to share.
So that was it, SXSW Interactive 2015. 5 days of old friends, new friends, stories, the future, BBQ, and space junk. I can’t wait to see you next year!
Last Saturday at SXSW InteractiveJon Lebkowsky and I curated a Core Conversation titled Machines That Tell Stories. I proposed the topic as a book project to Jon last year, and we put together this discussion as a stepping stone. Software storytellers are in the air. There were over a dozen sessions at SXSW this year on storytelling systems, and that kind of consensus usually heralds a new wave about to break. We’ve setup a twitter and tumblr for this project, if you want to follow along.
Our argument: Software is moving beyond raw data and into narrative. First it will help you weave the tales you want to spin, but soon it may be telling stories better than all but the best human storytellers.
The conversation was all over the place, and I don’t think anyone recorded it, but here are some notes and references that could be helpful…
Lisa Cron’sWired for Story: “A story is how what happens affects someone who’s trying to achieve what turns out to be a difficult goal, and how she changes as a result.”
Wired For Story Takeaway: Story is about mechanics, the trappings that you think of as important aren’t as critical as hitting the right beats that resonate with the human brain.
Games by Angelina – Procedurally generated videogames, played through brute-force to see if they’re solvable. Potentially compare play throughs to known-pleasing physical interactions (progressively more complex button presses and movements)
Mechanical Turk as a part of a story machine, using human filtering to produce more compelling procedural content
Turing in The Imitation Game: The question isn’t whether machines will think like humans, it’s whether machines will think like machines.
tmbotg – Random TMBG tweeting bot, sometimes interacted with by humans due to serendipity
Why limit to text? Is software that generates a song based on your day’s quantified self data creating a story?
Some thoughts on RPGs and God games that keep playing when you aren’t watching, and what new hardware platforms like the Raspberry Pi and cheap tablets might mean for them.
A few days ago a new iOS app called Dreeps landed in my news feed, heralded with headlines like Maybe The Laziest RPG You Could Ever Play and A Video Game That Plays Itself. Dreeps is an app where a little robot boy goes on an adventure, Japanese RPG style. You set an alarm to tell him to rest, and that’s it. When the alarm goes off, he gets up and gets on with his adventure, fighting monsters and meeting NPCs. There’s pixel art and chiptune audio. Dialog is word balloons with squiggly lines for text. It’s all very atmospheric. You just don’t do anything, really, but watch when you want and suggest he get up when he’s resting after a fight.
Dreeps is a lot like Godville, a game I talked about in a post about Pocket Worlds back in 2012. They’re games that (appear, depending on the implementation) to be running and progressing even when you’re not around. While Godville does its magic with text, Dreeps has neat graphics and sound. They’re essentially the same game, though. A singular hero you have slight control over goes on a quest. In Godville it’s for your glory (since you’re their god), in Dreeps it’s to destroy evil (I think).
Both Dreeps and Godville are passive entertainment experiences, they’re worlds that are all about you, but not really games you play. They’re games you experience, or perhaps we need a new word for this kind of thing. While books and TV shows and music (although not playlists, as we’ve seen with Pandora) are hard to create for just one person’s unique enjoyment, games are great at that. They can take feedback and craft an experience just for you, and as we built more complex technology and can access more external datasets, they can get even more unique.
Imagine a game like Dreeps where the other characters (or maybe even the enemies) are modeled algorithmically after your Facebook friends (or LinkedIn contacts). Take their names, mash them through a fantasy-name-izer, do face detection and hue detection to pick hair color and eye color, maybe figure out where they’re from (geolocated photos, profile hometowns or checkins) for region-appropriate clothing. Weather from where they are, or where your friends live, maybe playing on an appropriate map. You could even use street view and fancy algorithms to identify key regional architectural elements and generate game levels that ‘feel’ like the places they live. That starts to get pretty interestingly personalized, though much less predictable.
Mike Diver over at Vice posted an article about Dreeps titled I Am Quite OK With Video Games That Play Themselves, where his main point was that he’s figured out that he’s actually bad at games, and it’s nice to have something where you can enjoy the progression without working about your joystick skills. Maybe Mike should spent more time with Animal Crossing, a game series I think Dreeps shares a lot of DNA with. In Animal Crossing your character inhabits a town that progresses in real-time. You can go fishing and dig up treasure and pick fruit and talk to the other inhabitants in your little village, but the world keeps going when you’re not playing, so if you leave it alone for a long time, you come back to a game that’s progressed without you (with the game characters wondering where you’ve been). Dreeps is like that, but without the active user participation. It’s like a zen Farmville. Take out the gamification, add in some serenity.
It feels like Dreeps could be a really fantastic lock-screen-game, if that’s a thing. You nudge your phone awake, and see your guy trudging along. He’s always there, in a comforting, reassuring, living way. Maybe Samsung or someone with some great cross-vertical reach could implement lock-screen or sleep-screen as a platform across TVs, phones, tablets, fridges, etc. That’d be something.
I was talking to a friend of mine about these kind of games yesterday, pondering where this is headed, and I mentioned that the experience almost feels like an Ecosphere. Ecospheres are those totally enclosed ecosystems, where aside from providing a reasonable temperature and sunlight, you’re a completely passive observer. There’s something nice about walking by and peeking in on it every once in a while. Something comforting about knowing that even when you’re not watching it’s going on about its fantastically complex business without you. But there’s also a spiritual weight to it, because it’s a thing that could cease to exist. I could cover the Ecosphere with a sheet or leave it out in the cold, I could delete Godville or Dreeps from my phone, or have my phone stolen, unable to retrieve my little robotic adventurer.
It isn’t a huge weight now that we carry with these sorts of things. In fact, I stopped checking in on my Godville character a few months ago, after over a year of nearly daily care. Sometimes you just lose the thread. But these systems are going to become more complex, more compelling. They’re going to have more pieces of ourselves in them. How would I feel if a friend of mine was a major character in Dreeps, always showing up to help me out, and then he died in real life? What if Dreeps decides to shutter their app, or not release an upgrade for the new phone I get after that? Would I leave my device plugged in, forever stuck at iOS whatever, just so the experiences could keep going? The Weavrs I created for myself back in 2012 are gone, victims to this onward march of technology and unportability of complex cloud-based systems. I’m fortunate that I never got too attached. Droops is an app, but there’s still a lot there outside of my control.
I’m particularly interested in where this stuff intersects with physical objects. Tamagotchis are still out there, and we’re building hardware with enough smarts to be able to create interesting installations. There’s an Austin Interactive Installation meetup I keep meaning to go to that’s probably full of folks who would have great ideas about this. Imagine a pico-projector or LCD screen and a RaspberryPi running a game like Dreeps, but with the deep complexity and procedural generation systems of Dwarf Fortress. Maybe a god game like Populous, with limited interaction. You’d be like Bender in Godfellas, watching a civilization grow. Could that sit in your home, on your desk or by the bookshelf, running a little world with little adventurers for years and years? Text notifications on your phone when interesting things happened. A weekly email of news from their perspective? As it sat on your desk for longer, would it be harder and harder to let go of? When your kids grew up, would they want to fork a copy and take it with them?
4 years ago there were no low-power GPU sporting Raspberry Pis or globally interconnected Nest thermostats or dirt-cheap tablet-sized LCD screens or PROCJAM. Minecraft was still in alpha, the indie game scene hadn’t exploded, the App Store was still young, procedural content generation was a niche thing. Now all those pieces are there, just waiting to be plugged together. So who’s going to be the first one to do it?
Saturday was Data Day Texas (twitter), a single day conference covering a variety of big data topics up at the University of Texas’s conference center. I went in my HP Helion big data guy role, and my wife Irma went as a python developer and PyLadies ATX organizer. I’ve written up some notes on the conference for those interested and unable to attend. As far as I know, there weren’t any recordings made, so this may be more useful than some other more archived conferences.
The conference was held at the University of Texas’s Conference Center. It’s a nice facility, and probably appropriate for the number of people, but I think the place they hold Lone Star Ruby’s a little more friendly. Conference organizers estimated the turnout at about 600 folks. From what I saw, when presenters asked questions like ‘how many of you are x’, the audience breakdown was something like:
70% app developers (not clear # of big data app vendors vs devs wanting to use big data)
10% data scientists
10% business types
10% ops people
Big takeaways were that landscape immaturity is a big deal, and that’s forcing people to weigh trade-offs between the approaches they think are right, and the ones with the most traction (specific example was samza vs spark streaming at Scaling Data), because nobody wants to commit to building out all the features themselves, or getting stuck with the also-ran. This is a problem for serious developers who want to architect or build systems with multi-year lifespans. Kafka got mentioned a lot as a glue piece between parts of data pipelines, both at the front and at the back. Everybody was talking about Avro and Parquet as best practice formats, and lots of calls not to just throw CSVs into HDFS. There was a Python Data Science talk that ended on a somewhat gloomy note (the chance to build a core Python big data tool may have passed, and a lot of work will need to be done to stay competitive, slides at http://www.slideshare.net/wesm/pydata-the-next-generation).
He emphasized focusing on features, not algorithms as you develop your big data solutions. Don’t get tied to a model, as our practices are all around proving or disproving models. Build something that helps you build models.
Mark talked about likely tradeoffs weighed in building a Google Analytics style clickstream processing pipeline. Talked about Avro and Parquet, optimizing partition size (>1 gig data per day = daily partitions, <1 gig = monthly/weekly), Flume vs Kafka and Flume + Kafka, Kafka Channel as a buffer to ensure non-duplication, Spark Streaming as a micro-batch framework, and the tradeoffs of resiliency vs latency. I think the clickstream analytics example is one of the ones in the book, so if this is interesting and you want more details, just buy an early access copy.
He talked about how Spark follows the DAG to re-create results as its fault-tolerance model. This was pretty cool, and an interesting way of thinking about the system. Because you know all the steps taken to create the data, you can re-generate it at any time if you lose part of it by tracing it back and running those steps on that data subset again. Spark uses Resilient Distributed Datasets to do this, and Spark Streaming essentially creates timestamped RDDs based on your batch interval (Default 2 seconds).
There’s good code reuse between spark streaming and regular spark, since you’re running on RDDs in the same code execution environment. No need to throw your code away and start over if you want to do batch vs micro-batch.
On the container and microservices front, Paco recommended watching Adrian Cockroft’s DockerCon EU keynote, State of the Art In Microservices. He then walked through an example using textrank and pagerank as a way to create keyword phrases out of a connected text corpus (specifically apache mailing lists).
Kite is an abstraction layer between the engine and your data that enforces best practices (always use compression, for instance). It uses a db->table->row model that it calls namespace->dataset->entity. He mentioned that they’d seen little performance difference between using raw HDFS vs Hive for ETL tasks, all things considered. Use Avro for row based data (when you need context) and Parquet for column oriented data (when you need to sum/scan or only deal with a few columns).
Building a System for Event -Oriented Data by Eric Sammer, CTO of Scaling Data
A great talk on practical problems building large scale systems. Scaling Data has built a product that essentially creates a kafka firehose for the enterprise datacenter, re-creating a lot of tooling I’ve seen at Facebook and other places, and making a straightforward-to-install enterprise product out of it. They pipe stuff into solr for full text search (ala splunk), feed dashboards for alerts, archive everything for later forensics, etc.
He recommended this blog post by Jay Kreps at Linkedin on real-time data delivery mechanics:
Said their biggest nut to crack was the 2 phase delivery problem, guaranteeing that events would only land once. They write to a tmp file in HDFS, close the hdfs file handle and ensure sync, then mark as read in kafka, then go process the tmp file.
Also talked about Samza (best approach for the transform part of the pipeline, in their opinion, but low level and lacking community support), Storm (rigid, slow in their experience), and Spark (they hate it, but the community likes it, so they use it).
It was a harried (no lunch break, no afternoon break, if you were feeling burned out, you had to skip a session) conference, but that might be the nature of a one day brain-binge. The organizers were happy to reserve a table for PyLadies in the Data Lounge, and they had a mini-meetup and got a little outreach done.
Two weekends ago SXSW Interactive graced our fair city, and as usual, I was there and even spoke a little. Thankfully my house wasn’t robbed this time.
This year’s SXSW Interactive was heavy on privacy, internet security, and wresting our freedom back. There weren’t keynotes from social players aiming to get you to join their thing, instead it was Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson telling you to learn and think for yourself. It’s a refreshing change, and I’m eager to see what the tone of next year will be.
SXSW started really going on Friday this year, as the conference pushes up against it’s 5 day time window. There wasn’t much in the morning on Friday. Eric Schmidt, Jared Cohen, and Steven Levy had an interesting talk, mainly riffing on their book, The New Digital Age. Eric and Jared are mainly concerned with technologies greater impacts, but there’s a certain large corporate mindset in what they say that clearly paints Google as a crusader for good. You wouldn’t expect much else from the authors, but if you read it, keep that in the back of your mind. There are other opinions. One notable excerpt considering the Wikileaks presentation the next day were Eric Schmidt’s arguments against transparency, which boil down to ‘Imagine what would happen if everything was transparent and open, nations wouldn’t be able to defend themselves from aggressors because they’d have to publish their attack plans before hand,’ which is just, well. Ugh.
Next up was Austin Kleon, who’s on tour supporting his new book, Show Your Work! Austins keynote was the first one I really got something out of, my first big takeaway of the conference, which was that the concept of the lone creative visionary genius was patently false, and that we’re all products of the environment we’re in, and by showing your work in progress and getting involved and contributing, you can bea Scenius (hat tip to Brian Eno, there). The people to avoid when you enter a creative community are the Vampires (people who feed off others energy to create their own work) and Human Spam (people who exist only to promote their thing, and are tone deaf to anything else). Once SXSW pushes up video, Austin’s is a keynote worth checking out.
Saturday was Julian Assange, and you can watch the talk yourself here, but the long and short was that privacy is good, governments do bad things, people will act better if they know that what they’re doing will be made public later, and it’s impossible to do bad things on a large scale without creating a paper trail. Julian is obviously a smart guy, but he isn’t a very dynamic speaker, and takes about three times as long to answer a question as he should. He was in front of a green screen, and they use this constantly dripping wikileaks graphic that is incredibly distracting. Pair that with his slow delivery, and it doesn’t make for a very exciting presentation.
There were exciting people at SXSW, though, and this years most exciting (to the point that he won Speaker of the Event), was Neil deGrasse Tyson. Neil is a dynamic speaker, knows how to rally a crowd, and was there on the eve of the premier of his new series, Cosmos. Takeaway from Neil is that science is cool, we keep learning new things, the universe is an amazing, mind-bogglingly-immense place and if you consider it in relation to our tiny planet and our tiny lives, it really puts everything in perspective the next time the kid is screaming and smearing blackberries on the table.
After Tyson’s talk we headed over to the SXSW Gaming Expo, which is a free event and a lot of fun for children of all ages. They had a pretty big CCG pit, shown above, an area just for indie video games, and a big Gaming Tournament area where they were playing something I don’t keep up with anymore.
Saturday night was the EFF-Austin SXSW party, In the future everything will work: Cyberpunk 2014. It was a great time, with a cool Museum of Computer Culture exhibit of old machines and cutting-edge-way-back-when Hypercard decks. Due to another commitment we weren’t able to stay late, but there was a panel discussion with Cory Doctorow, Bruce Sterling, Gareth Branwyn, William Barker and my buddy Jon Lebkowsky. I’m bummed that I missed that, but you gotta do what you gotta do.
After my talk we hit the trade show. There was a bitcoin ATM this year, and NASA had a great booth with a 1/10th scale inflatable model of their new rocket that’s intended to take astronauts to Mars (this is Irma with a smaller model). There were some other interesting booths, including another good WordPress offering. Irma and I grabbed some lunch, and while we were eating made our biggest missed connection of the whole conference, when only a sheet of glass separated us from Community’s own Troy Barnes, Donald Glover. It was a very squee moment. Donald was in town as Childish Gambino on his Deep Web Tour, and did a hackathon with WordPress. We didn’t make it out to any of his events, which is a shame, but it was nice to have him here.
Monday started with Cory Doctorow talking with Barton Gellman about security and privacy and leaks. It was arguably a more interesting talk than the actual Snowden interview that followed. The Snowden (video here), in a videocast with more technical challenges than Assange’s. Assange was using Skype, though they lost audio. Snowden was using Google Hangouts, but said he was bouncing through 7 proxies to get there. The Snowden discussion was setup with two other speakers from the ACLU, so if he couldn’t make it, there would still be a talk, but this relegated him to a ‘voice on the phone’ role. He’s very sharp, that Mr. Snowden, and knows how to make his point quickly. It was an interesting contrast to Assange. There weren’t any big bombshells from the Snowden interview, but it was an interesting moment in time.
After the Snowden talk I walked over to the Identity, Reputation, and Personal Clouds meetup session, as the organizers had been kind enough to come to ours. We had a good discussion, and I ran into Chris Dancy, who I didn’t know before but seems to be the most connected man on the planet. It was nice of him to come to the meetup, and we certainly had a rousing discussion.
After the meetup was a great talk and interview with Adam Savage (I walked by someone I eventually recognized as Jamie Hyneman on the walk back to the Convention Center), I tried to get into the Infinite Future panel with Joi Ito, Bruce Sterling, Warren Ellis, and Daniel Suarez, but the room was tiny and way overbooked, and Irma couldn’t get in, so we headed back to the trade show instead, and then home. I heard it was great, I hope there’s video or a recording somewhere.
Tuesday was a quieter day, we showed up for George Takei’s interview, which was funny and interesting, though for someone who the US put into a detention camp, he has some interesting ideas on what Ed Snowden should do. After that we bumped into our friend Carlos Ovalle, who’d been live tweeting the conference. Carlos won my Personal Cloud SXSW Badge Contest the year before, and it was great to see the conference was good enough for him to come back.
After lunch it was Tim Ferriss talking about his new show The Tim Ferriss Experiment. He regaled us with stories of the brutal nature of shooting reality TV on a tight schedule, but the biggest takeaway I had was a quote from Jim Rohn on the law of averages, that: “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” That really struck me, as I can see that pretty clearly, but it’s interesting to quantify.
The last session of SXSW is where Bruce Sterling gives his thoughts, and this year was no different. My buddy Jon Lebkowsky introduced him (left). Bruce’s talk was subdued this year, covering notable people who weren’t there (or were only there virtually), and who should be invited later. It wasn’t a barn burner like it had been in the past, but I think Bruce’s thoughts were perhaps more with the things he is building and making, where he’s getting his hands dirty with real stuff. It’s worth your time to track down some previous talks, though, becausethey’regreat.
To close off, I will leave you with this, a photo of the traditional slice of Peanut Butter Mousse Pie that we had at Moonshine after SXSW wrapped up. Moonshine and this pie is almost a tradition in itself at this point.
Following up on Austin’s idea of scenius and sharing your work, I’ve started a newsletter, Muniment. I send it out every week or two, and preview new stuff that will end up on the blog, or put more context around interesting stuff I see. You should sign up.
With On Intelligence, I find myself in the unique position of having heavily evangelized a book before I’ve even finished it. I read half of it and started buying copies for friends. This is something I’ve never done before, so if you’re busy, you can take a quick tl;dr, and assume that if you’re interested in how intelligence works, namely how the brain functions at a high level (learning patterns, predicting the future, forming invariant representations of things) and how we might functionally simulate that with computers, do not pass go, do not collect $200, go buy a copy (Amazon, Powells) and read it.
Still here? Good, because I have a lot to say. This isn’t really a book review, it’s more of a book summary and an exhortation to activity. You’ve been warned.
A Little Backstory
Earlier this year I went to OSCON, and at OSCON the keynote that impressed me the most was by Jeff Hawkins, creator of the PalmPilot and founder of HandSpring. Here’s the video:
As appropriate for an Open Source conference, Jeff’s company, Numenta was announcing that they were open sourcing their neocortical simulator library, NuPIC, and throwing it out there for people to hack on. NuPIC was based on the work Numenta had done on neocortical simulations since he wrote the book, On Intelligence, in 2005. NuPIC is software that simulates the neocortex, the sheet of grey matter on the outside of your brain where all your experiences live. 3 years of French? It’s in the neocortex. The ability to figure out that two eyes and a nose equals a face? The neocortex. The neocortex even has the ability to directly control your body, so that muscle memory you rely on to do that thing you do so well, like riding a bike or painting or driving a car? That’s all in your neocortex. It’s the size of a large dinner napkin (the largest in humans, but every mammal has one), is about as thick as 7 business cards, and wraps around the outside of your head. It is you.
Intrigued, I went to the full length session that the Numenta team presented…
One of their main demos was an electrical consumption predictor for a gymnasium. When initialized, the NuPIC system is empty, like a baby’s brain. Then you start to feed it data, and it starts to try to predict what comes next. At first, its predictions fall a little behind the data it’s receiving, but as the days of data go by, it starts to predict future consumption an hour out (or whatever you’ve configured), and it gets pretty good at it. Nobody told NuPIC what the data was, just like our DNA doesn’t tell our brains about French verbs, the structure is there and with exposure it gets populated and begins to predict.
At the end of the talk, their recommendation for learning more about this stuff was to read On Intelligence. So, eventually, that’s what I did.
A Little Hyperbole
The simulation, in software and silicon, of the biological data handling processes, and building software off of that simulation, is the most interesting thing I’ve seen since Netscape Navigator. Everything up to your iPhone running Google Maps is progressive enhancement and miniaturization of stuff I’ve seen before. Building brains feels different.
I have a Newton Messagepad 2000 around here somewhere. It had mobile email over packet radio with handwriting recognition in 1997. In 2001 I was using a cell phone with a color screened to look up directions and browse web sites in Japan. It’s all iterating, getting better bit by bit, so that when we look back in 10 years we think that we’ve made gigantic leaps. Have we? Maybe, but software is still stubbornly software-like. If I repeat the same error 10 times in a row, it doesn’t rewrite itself. My computer doesn’t learn about things, except in the most heavy handed of ways.
Looking beyond the game space, a few weeks ago I was talking with a large networking company about some skunkworks projects they had, and one of them was a honey pot product for catching and investigating hack attempts. The connections between deep simulations like Dwarf Fortress or the AI Storyteller in Rimworld and how a fake sysadmin in a honey pot should react to an intruder are obvious. If it’s all scripted and the same, if the sysadmin reboots the server exactly 15 seconds after the attacker logs in, it’s obviously fake. For the product to work, and for the attacker to be taken, it has to feel real, and in order to fool software (which can pick up on things like that 15 second timer), it has to be different every time.
One thing that these procedural and emergent systems have in common is that they aren’t rigidly structured programs. They are open to flexibility, they are unpredictable, and they are fun because unexpected things happen. They’re more like a story told by a person, or experiencing a real lived-in world.
I believe that to do that well, to have computers that surprise and delight us as creators, is going to require a new kind of software, and I think software like Numenta’s NuPIC neocortical simulator is a huge step in that direction.
Let’s Deflate That a Bit
Ok, so NuPIC isn’t a whole brain in a box. It’s single threaded, it’s kind of slow to learn, and it can be frustratingly obtuse. One of the samples I tried did some Markov chaining style text prediction, but since they fed each letter into the system as a data point instead of whole words, the system would devolve into returning ‘the the the the the’, because ‘the’ was the most common word in the data set I trained it with.
Neocortical simulators are a new technology in the general developer world. We’ve had brute force data processing systems like Hadoop, methods developed to deal with the problems of the Google’s of the world, and now we have NuPIC. The first steps towards Hadoop were rough, the first steps towards neocortical simulators are going to be rough.
It’s also possible that we’re entering another hype phase, brought on by the rise of big data as the everywhere-buzzword. We had the decades of AI, the decade of Expert Systems, the decade of Neural Networks, but without a lot to show for it. This could be the decade of the neocortex, where in 10 years it’ll be something else, but it’s also possible that just like the Web appeared once all the pieces were in place, the age of truly intelligent machines could be dawning.
Oh, This Was a Book Review?
It’s hard to review On Intelligence as a book, because how well it’s written or how accessible the prose may be is so much less important than the content. Sandra Blakeslee co-wrote the book, and undoubtedly had a large hand in hammering Jeff’s ideas into consumable shape. It isn’t an easy read due to the ideas presented, but it’s fascinating, and well worth the effort.
In the book Jeff describes the memory-prediction framework theory of the brain. The theory essentially states that the neocortex is a big non-specialized blob that works in a standard, fairly simple way. The layers in the sheet of the neocortex (there are 7 of them), communicate up and down, receiving inputs from your sensory organs, generalizing the data they get into invariant representations, and then pushing predictions down about what they will receive data about next. For instance, the first layer may get data from the eye and say, there’s a round shape here, and a line shape next to it. It pushes ’round shapes’ and ‘line shapes’ up to the next level, and says “I’ll probably continue to see round shapes and line shapes in the future”. The bouncing around of your natural eye movements gets filtered out, and the higher levels of the brain don’t have to deal with it. The next level up says, “This kind of round shape and line shapes seem to be arranged like a nose, so I’m going to tell the layer up from me that I see a nose”. The layer up from that gets the ‘I see a nose’ and two ‘I see an eye’ reports and says, “Next layer up, this is a face”. If it gets all the way to the top and there’s no mouth, which doesn’t match the invariant representation of ‘face’, error messages get sent back down and warning flags go off and we can’t help but stare at poor Keanu…
These layers are constantly sending predictions down (and across, to areas that handle other related representations) about what they will experience next, so when we walk into a kitchen we barely notice the toaster and the microwave and the oven and the coffee maker, but put a table saw onto the counter and we’ll notice it immediately.
As we experience things, these neurons get programmed, and as we experience them more, the connections to other things strengthen. I figure this is why project based learning works so much better than rote memorization, because you’re cross connecting more parts of your brain, and making it easier for that information to pop up later. Memory palaces probably work the same way. (I’m also half way through Moonwalking with Einstein, about that very thing.)
So, Have We Mentioned God Yet?
This is where things start to get weird for me. I grew up in a very religious family, and a large part of religion is that it gives you an easy answer to the ‘what is consciousness’ question when you’re young. Well, God made you, so God made you conscious. You’re special, consciousness lets you realize you can go to heaven, the dog isn’t conscious and therefor can’t, etc.
About a third of the way into On Intelligence I started having some minor freakouts, like you might have if someone let you in on the Truman Show secret. It was like the fabric of reality was being pulled back, and I could see the strings being pulled. Data in, prediction made, prediction fulfilled. Consciousness is a by-product of having a neocortex. (Or so Jeff postulates at the end of the book.) You have awareness because your neocortex is constantly churning on predictions and input. Once you no longer have predictions, you’re unconscious or dead, and that’s that.
That’s a heavy thing to ponder, and I think if I pondered it too much, it would be a problem. One could easily be consumed by such thoughts. But it’s like worrying about the death of the solar system. There are real, immediate problems, like teaching my daughter how stuff (like a Portal Turret) works.
Let’s Wrap This Thing Up With A Bow
I’m sorry this post was so meandering, but I really do think that neocortical simulators and other bio processing simulations are going to be a huge part of the future. Systems like this don’t get fed a ruleset, they learn over time, and they can continue to learn, or be frozen in place. Your self-driving car may start with a car brain that’s driven simulated (Google Street View) roads millions of miles in fast-forward, and then thousands of miles in the real world. Just like everyone runs iOS, we could all be running a neocortex built on the same data. (I imagine that really observant people will be able to watch Google’s self driving cars and by minor variations in their movements, tell what software release they’re running.) Or we could allow ours to learn, adjust its driving patterns to be faster, or slower, or more cautious.
The power of software is that once it is written, it can be copied with nearly no cost. That’s why software destroys industries. If you write one small business tax system, you can sell it a million times. If you grow a neocortex, feed it and nurture it, you’ve created something like software. Something that can be forked and copied and sold like software, but something that can also continue to change once it’s out of your hands. Who owns it? How can you own part of a brain? Jeff writes in the book about the possibilities of re-merging divergent copies. That’s certainly plausible, and starts to sound a whole lot like what I would have considered science fiction 10 years ago.
We could throw up our hands and say we’re but lowly developers, not genius computer theorists or doctors or what have you. The future will come, but all we can do is watch. The problem with that is that Google’s problems will be everyone’s problems in 5 years, so for all the teeth gnashing about Skynet and Bigdog with a Google/Kurzweil brain, it’s much more productive to actually get to work getting smarter and more familiar with this stuff. I wouldn’t be surprised if by 2020 ‘5+ Years Experience Scaling Neocortical Learning Systems in the Cloud’ was on a lot of job postings. And for the creative, solving the problem of how the Old Brain’s emotions and fears and desires interfaces with the neocortex should be rife with experimental possibilities.
Here’s a video from the Goto conference where Jeff talks about the neocortex and the state of their work. This video is from October 1st of 2013, so it’s recent. If you have an hour, it’s really worth a watch.