Thursday, June 24, 2010

I'm not dead yet!

I think I'll go for a walk now...
I feel happy! I feel happy! I... *thump*

Hey DNI isn't the only thing I've neglected. I haven't even had time to sit down and do my bills, which I realized when my electricity abruptly shut off yesterday at 11am. Whoops!

So just a quick wave hello and a thinking point.

Sleep researchers have been quietly warning about the proliferation of electronic devices (further) damaging our sleep habits. How? Well, we're wired to get sleepy as the sun goes down - less light leads to more melatonin. Light to melanopsin expressing ganglion cells in the retina (and some rods and cones) to the suprachiasmatic nucleus of the anterior hypothalamus (where pacemaker cells reside) to the pineal gland to some rockin melatonin release.

Increase the length of daylight and you stay up late because, after all, the length of the day varies throughout the year. Deprive rats of light and their schedule drifts into what scientists now call the "Grad Student Sleeping Schedule", or around the equivalent to a 26-28 hour day length. Add light and the rats lock back on to a 24 hour schedule.

Why am I mentioning this? The iPad. Touted as the end all be all of ebook readers, the one place it ironically falls short is when you can read it. Not only are LCDs notoriously tough to read in direct sunlight, but reading before bed means exposing this light sensitive circadian rhythm pathway to a slab of light. The iPad is no worse than staring at a computer screen, but E-Ink clearly has a niche here. Sure you need light to read, but a single LED book light isn't anywhere near the number of lumens as the the iPad's screen.

If you do have an iPad, fear not. Most ebook reading apps have come ability to adjust colors or brightness, so be cognizant of the idea, since most people, including myself, love displays with high contrast ratios.

Friday, May 14, 2010

DNI goes Hollywood

Well, not really. But, I did help a couple friends with a short film project that was accepted to the Cannes Film Festival. Yeah, THAT Cannes. While it isn't as amazing as getting a judged feature in, it's still a crazy awesome opportunity, so here I am.

For those interested, the short is called Hushed and is a psychological thriller based around the idea of choice and free will. We used a religious theme, a group of folks going door-to-door witnessing for their unspecified religious sect, but isn't about, or pro, or con, religion. Since shorts are designed to either sell the story or the production group, there are a bunch of decisions you have to make regarding content. You want to show an understanding of the film making process, the business, and the showcase some creative talent. We really did do this in spades. The story is left open at the end, even though you generally have the illusion of thinking you know what it means. The main character remains a blank slate the whole way through, even though most people are sure they could describe him at the end (and these descriptions aren't consistent from person-to-person based on our polling, and people thought they were accurate in their descriptions). Basically, we played on biases heavily.

The religious theme was to create an immediate relationship between viewer and characters - it doesn't matter if you are a bible thumper or Richard Dawkins. You can root for them or against them. In a way, it is a perfect expose on innate bias. If you want to hate the characters and think they're screwed in the end, that's possible. If you love them, but think they got screwed and that the message is confrontational, you can think that. If you love them, and think they work it all out in the end, yup, there's that. The film is a product, and as a product, I think it rocked.

On the downside, we had nowhere near enough time or money to really do what we did. I mean, we did finish, but the timetable was so rushed that we couldn't do many takes of scenes. Shooting conditions, basically, left much to be desired, and a better schedule could have resulted in a better overall film. The result is some amateurish looking bits. But, we got through it. Also, while the actors and actresses did their best, the levels of experience varied greatly. That with the ramped up schedule means they are probably not portrayed as performing at the best of their ability. Awesome folks, though, and they stuck through the whole deal like champs. I know there are some scenes that could have been better, but there was just no time.

So, what did I do? Well, I was one of the 5 writers of the story and screenplay. I helped with a good deal of the technical aspects, was on set for every shoot (except one make up shoot), co-casted the talent, set photography, and basically odds and ends stuff. I was supposed to manage the post-production, but that fell suddenly and at the same time as major lab events began unfolding. Same goes for the website, which I started (the current one is the early alpha version, but unannounced deadlines and ramp up in lab work kept me from moving too far on that. So, I've been a busy beaver.

Check out the movie's site, if you're interested, and if you happen to be in Cannes, France or nearby and want to meet up for cafe', feel free to drop me a line.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Redesign notes

I got a little distracted by... ooo shiny thing over there... oh sorry... by general web design stuff and stumbled across the new Blogger 'In Draft' features (basically Google Apps for Blogger). The new design is still a work in progress, for instance, I'm not wild about the background pic, but it's a little taste of things to come. Just a few things to note on here now:
  • New social bookmarking links on the right - these will likely be expanded and changed slightly, but you get the idea. Easily add DNI to Delicious, Digg, Facebook, etc. NOTE: To avoid the massive amounts of spam this could generate, please add a personal message whenever a service allows it, so I know you are a human, or at least partly human.
  • New tag cloud spinning ball thingy. I like the way it looks, but I'll probably replace it with something that takes up the same amount of space and doesn't have the processor overhead involved in this neat little ditty.
  • News feed - I'm forgetting which things I said I would 'star' versus 'share' in Google Reader, so for now it is set to my Starred items. Again, this will soon be replaced by a more snazzy widget that is more multi-functional. But I'd like to get the rss feed items up there so that visitors can keep up on the news items I've noted.
  • More complex layout - Personal/contact info at the top, minimal. News/feeds in a wider column format. Utility links, like archives, in narrowed columns within the right column. There's some tweaking to be done, like too much padding and combining elements, but it's pretty close to what I want.
  • Color! Yeah, I know. Shocking! I like blue.
Anyhow, enjoy! And feel free to leave any comments if you like certain things or you spot any major problems. The site renders fine in Firefox 3.6, Chrome 5, and mostly in IE (tag cloud fails to render, so another reason to replace that).

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Visual Studio and other Microsoft programming tools free

For students, that is. Nevertheless, it does include the brand-spanking new Visual Studio 2010 Pro, which, if your university has annoying IT/software access policies like Brown, can mean less frustration for you. So far I've procured 3 copies of Windows 7 Pro x64, Visual Studio 2008/2010, and Expression Studio 3 for $30 (cost of a student IEEE membership). And there's still plenty more stuff available to play with should I suddenly become inspired.
The weird thing is that Brown University has an MSDNAA agreement (the MSDN Academic Alliance program, which allows schools to provide free and deeply discounted MS software to students). In fact, we have 4+ agreements! Check if your school has a sane policy in place. Here, I'm a grad student in the Dept of Neuroscience, working in a lab that's part of the Engineering Dept. Somehow, I qualify for almost nothing, as far as these MSDNAA memberships go. Oh, wait. I can get a free copy of Windows XP! Woo! The school pays me, through grants to the lab, but I don't qualify as an employee or staff member. Fair enough. But I don't qualify for the CS Dept or Engineering Dept programs because I'm not taking any classes in the departments. I could TA, but even then I'm not technically enrolled. I've fired off a few hot-headed emails, but the responses have been the usual Brown hand-waving/"Wait until we start the Program"/"We're talking with people about that" types. It was easier for me to sign up for the IEEE and hunt down offers like this, rather than deal with my own school, which still gets paid $45k/year for tuition. Amazing.
Aaaanyhow, get yer software at the Microsoft DreamSpark site.

If you're not a student, there are 'Express' versions of many Visual Studio tools available for free. These lack MSDN Library access, which is a great thing to have, as well as 64-bit compilers and some of the more powerful tools, but they're free, legit, and lack alot of the bloat you would usually just throw into a new install. (Am I going to be using SQL Remote Doppleganger USB Ninja FlipFlap elements? I dunno. Meh, just install all of it.) Get them here.

Monday, April 12, 2010

iPhone app worthy of "WOW!" and a Chrome fix

They thought it wouldn't get through the mysterious Apple approval process, but Opera Mini is officially available for (free) download at the App Store. And boy is it a whole new ball game for regular ole 3G (non-3GS) owners. It's friggin blazing fast. It feels like my iPhone did when I got it - instantly launches, instantly renders the page, and just a great experience all around. The only downside is that your bookmarks don't automatically sync. I'm betting there's some type of limited access to user info, like bookmarks, that Apple prohibits, but that's totally speculation. There is syncing built in, but only to an Opera account, so I'll have to look into ways of getting that to sync with Firefox or Chrome. The desktop Opera app is actually very good, and similarly speedy. Alas, every time I try to stray away from Firefox I end up running back for the add ons. But, definitely worth checking out if you haven't.

(And as an aside, if you have Firefox on your PC, get this add-on. You're welcome!)

Next up, Google Chrome. I've been using Chrome for DNI related stuff and Firefox for my everyday browser. One thing that had been driving me NUTS was that using my mouse's 'back' button jumped me back two pages instead of one. Every friggin time. Maddening!
So, a little ninja intuition after a hearty googling returned plenty of people with the problem, but no solutions that worked for me, and I figured out how to fix this issue. This might not work for everyone, but I figured that there were 500+ page forum threads on the topic and a few people might be helped by this.

The problem for me was that my mouse (Logitech G9) had the 'Back' and 'Forward' commands bound to the Back and Forward buttons. And the problem with that is...? It appears that Chrome will detect that you have a multibutton mouse and execute the back and forward commands if the appropriate button is pressed. BUT, somewhere in the process of drivers, mouse software (SetPoint 5 or 6 in my case), and Chrome handling mouse events, the button press is detected as a 'back button press' AND 'execute the back command'. In other words, Chrome says, "Hey! That's a spiffy mouse! I'll hook into that button and do what comes natural." But, the Logitech software says, "I don't know what's going on, and I don't care. All I know is that when you hit that button, I send the 'back dat ass up' command." You hit the button, Chrome backs up a page, and the mouse software sends the back command, making Chrome back up another page.

The solution: bind the mouse button to GenericButton4 (for back) and 5 (for forward), or the equivalent in your mouse's software. It might even be listed as 'no function' or 'do nothing' or 'default'. If you use the Back binding in other programs, this can be a pain because it forces you to choose whether Chrome works or your other programs work.

So, try getting Chrome to work and then go about using your PC as normal. If you're missing the back command in some programs, you have a couple options.
  • If you have a mouse with customizable software, like the Logitech SetPoint software, make a special profile for Chrome, set the mouse buttons accordingly, and use application switching detection. This is what I ended up doing.
  • If you have a tilt scroll wheel, the kind that lets you scroll left and right, you probably don;t use the function (I've had the function on my mice for about 5 years and have used it about a dozen times total). Rebind the left right scroll to forward and back or genericbutton4 and 5.
  • You can try searching out some freeware, like this program: X-Mouse (note: I've never tried this, so no idea if it will blow up your computer and eat your children)
  • AutoHotkey might be a decent option if nothing is working and you're minutes from a a Chrome Navigation Bug Induced Triple Shotgun Homicide. Much more technical, but I would bet the actual script would be pretty simple.
  • Search out a registry tweak, though if the above didn't help this probably won't either.
Hope that helps someone out there!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Friday, April 9, 2010

Interface news avalanche

While I've been too busy to post, hopefully you've taken a gander at the various DNI RSS feeds. Right? Well, if you haven't been keeping up, the HCI/interface world has been a non-stop flurry of exciting and interesting innovations.

Why all the excitement? Three things.

One, battery technology and device efficiency have gotten to the point where rich media on portable devices doesn't drain the power before you're done thinking, "Hey, I'd like to experience some rich media content right now?"

Two: The lines between every traditional computer category are collapsing all around us. Your phone is a slim client, your ebook reader is a netbook, your htpc is a nettop, your desktop is always connected and serving up content, up is down, down is left, cats and dogs are living together! And all this requires that we think a little differently about how we handle, view, sort, and access our delicious data.

And Three: Ohhhh how much data we have! And it's cheap to store. And for the price of a 14" CRT in 1993, you can grab a high def 60" mega-monitor (okay, you'd have to get it second hand and last year's model, but still...) In other words, we have more sand and bigger sandbox to play in.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Bipolar happy paranoia

I know, I know. No posts, no Super Paper Fridays, no random techno-babble. I feel I owe the folks that check in from time to time an explanation. So, here goes...

Personal issues abound.
I've had a disturbingly high number of family members pass away in the last 6 months, including 2 grandparents. I was extremely close with one, and the other was the last immediate family member from that entire half of the family (so that adds estate issues into the mix). If that wasn't enough, my mother has recently had some serious health problems, as did my aunt (the mother issues are just in the early phases, the aunt issues are hopefully over). So, if I'm not working, I'm thinking too much about all the other chaos, and generally not feeling the 'will to blog'.

Lab excitement and frustration
I REALLY want to talk about the experiments I'm running and the really, really interesting data I'm collecting, but I can't. It is isn't clinical trial related concerns, it's the sense that I've got something big and want to be extra careful at all stages of analysis and interpretation.

My super-secret project (shhhh!) is going along swimmingly. It took me about two years to assemble it conceptually, and (prepare for some ridiculous bragging) the resulting flow is simple, elegant, practical, and far reaching for the field. It doesn't interrupt any ongoing studies that others might be running, requires minimal dedicated time (a major issue when you have a dozen people trying to schedule their experiments with the limited number of subjects), and has an early lynch pin (if it was going to have major problems, they would have been apparent within the first session). The setup requires no major alterations to what's already in place and can be adapted easily as the underlying tech changes, but is separate enough from other projects to allow me to claim my own niche. As the results come in and we begin thinking about their implications, the effort put into this branch of the grander scheme can be fed back into other projects. Perfessionally (personally+professionally), it has given me the flexibility to essentially dust off some of my old skills and gain the experience of pushing through nearly every step of the system, rather than just making a minor change to something that already existed. So, yeah, I'm very happy with how the science is working out so far. Hopefully I can start to dish out some actual details as the papers start to flow.

Information visualization abomination: Matlab
Yes, I know it rocks for matrix operations and fast prototyping. I try to think about how nice it is to easily plot simple graphs, really I do. BUT, I would like to stab the GUI editing tool (GUIDE) in the face. You got Matlab (any version at least after 2007a-ish)? Okay, draw 5 pop up menus, 5 radio buttons, 5 toggles, I dunno... throw a dozen uicontrols on a new empty figure with GUIDE. Okay, now select them all. Now tap the arrows on your keyboard a couple dozen times. It you were able to move those demon-spawned cinders of UI evil more than a couple dozen times without sending Matlab into a tailspin of Java heap space disaster, you're doing better than I am. And the med school student working with me. Across 6 computers with 3 OSes, some with as little as 4GB of memory, some with as much as 16GB. The Java heap space doesn't care how much memory you have. You might as well be working on a circa 1985 Tandy.

There are other things that drive me nuts about that venerable development platform, like sometimes I just want a null value. Matlab Roulette time! Will the null value be treated as an empty matrix, NaN, a string containing 'NaN', or will it just delete those entries in the data structure? Did you pass a row or column vector? Doesn't matter much, since you'll have to babysit the results - that's what I call it when you can't just call a function and know the format it returns. It results in an annoying trial-and-error or single stepping drudge at every other step. And don't get me started on graphing's voodoo properties. Alright, I got my axes set up with all the labels and fonts, and tick marks etc etc etc just as I want them... aaaand plot... joy! Matlab has decided to results every third property to some default value. Not all the properties, but enough to waste 15 minutes of wondering why it decided to change the 'DataAspectRatio' to 'CowsGoMoo'. Oh, and it halted before the figure handle was assigned (or you forgot to bow to your benevolent overlords {}, [], (), ., and ', leading them to eat your CloseRequestFcn), so your figure like some nerd-rage fueled zombie window that refuses to close.
ohGodNotAgain = allchild(0);
for pleaseKillMe = 1:length(ohGodNotAgain)
clear all;
The last line wasn't real, but then again, guess what clear all does? Sometimes it clears all. Sometimes... I think it works on alternating Tuesdays when clear objs is busy.

So, that's my life right now. Don't get me wrong... it's been great (aside from the family insanity), but I'm too busy to really post much. Besides, every news story seems to be covered so completely that I'd rather tag the RSS feeds and pass them on (lots on the 'Interface and HCI' feed) in order to reserve posting for stuff that I can add to the discussion on (time permitting). Check out the feeds for interesting, exciting, awesome and buoyant stories.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

DNI: Dumb Name iPad

Ah yes, been a while, but I thought I would suckle on the sweet, sweet nectar of iDevice frenzy. “Wha?!?! That’s not BCI related!” you say. I know, but I’ve posted in the past about my search for the perfect ereader, my love of tablets, and general techno-fetishism. How could I not post?

Want the short version? Completely unimpressed.

Sure the, oh gawd, do I have to actually type this name…., grrr… Sure the iPad could never live up to the hype the preceded it, but really, the iPad barely lives up to the abilities of the Apple Newton. Really? Sure the iPad has fancy things like color and 3G, but but the Newton had handwriting recognition and a PCMCIA card slot. Otherwise, both rely on a specialty OSes unable to run full desktop apps, cost about the same, and have the same ridiculous bezel to screen ratio. Okay, enough with the kinda ridiculous comparison.

What’s the bright side of the iPad’s annoucement?

I’m actually excited about the iPad. Not the iPad itself, but the interesting apps it inspires. Remember how unspeakably crappy the smartphone market was before the iPhone? It was mind-numbing. If you approach the iPad from the ebook reader perspective, you can see where that market is going.

10 hours of battery life while watching movie. Yes, very nice. Whether this is still true after a month of burn in and OS patches, we’ll see. There are a few magic numbers for battery life: 3 hours – plane ride, movie plus other activities, usage during single ‘events’. 6 hours – leave the house for an outing and recharge when you get back, equal to all day for semi-infrequent daily use. 10 hours – effective all day use for always on, but sleep capable devices. 16 hours – all day use with regular-heavy usage. After that it’s a matter of days between each step. There are netbooks that have made the 10+ hour mark, but cheers to Apple for being there right from the get go.

Really, that’s about it for the pluses. Minuses?

If you approach the iPad from the netbook perspective, there are plenty of app launchers on Windows that do everything from simulate the OSX dock, the iPhone springboard, and about a million other crazy options. How much access Apple will give devs to the GUI is yet to be seen, but if the iPhone or OSX are any indication, you’ll be lucky if they allow you to change the clock’s font.

The worst, unApple-like thing about the iPad is the near total lack of inspiring features. Where are the revolutionary interaction techniques, the device-centric interface reimagining, and those little bits of the unexpected? iPod – the navigation/click wheel. iPhone – multitouch, accelerometer, proximity sensor. iPad – ? Did they run out of ideas? Just make it a big fucking iPhone. That’ll be good enough. Um, no.

For all the crap that Microsoft has taken for the early tablet PC implementations, the iPad is downright embarrassing in comparison. They just took Windows and slapped a pen in your hand. Hey, at least you got a pen…

Which brings me to that. A stylus. The iPad could have gained all the whiz-bang features of a… pad of paper. It could have been used for class note taking, composing messages, drawing/sketching, and so much more. Instead you get an awkward keyboard with no tactile feedback (not even an attempt to make a keyboard you could use while standing up?) and fingerpainting. Not sure if they figured out a way to make the touchscreen pressure sensitive, but if not, what a mess.

Other quibbles are mentioned in this excellent rundown on Gizmodo titled 8 things that suck about the iPad. Enjoy your dongles, iKids. I’ll be over doing something exotic, like running TWO apps at once, swapping out a battery, opening an actual file, or placing an icon on the bottom of the screen before there are 20 above it. Put that on your SD card and… oh, no expandable memory slot. Right.