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Sometimes I Wish That It Would Rain Here

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

insufficient information

last week, I saw a talk by Paul Dourish on the Culture of Information about ubiquitous computing and representations of reality. in it, he talked a lot about information; how it started out as the process of informing someone and later was reified by Shannon's mathematical work on information theory to become an actual object that lives in our environment. he stressed technologies of information over information technology. he argued that rather than having information in space as an object to be extracted from our environment, we should think about informative spaces (the difference I think being that the focus in the former is on the space itself, vs in the latter that the focus is on how people expenience the space). he talked, among other things, about how the Aboriginal Australians experience their landscape not just as the land itself but having cultural, mythical, and historical significance. he argued that due to things like wifi and cell phone coverage, similar overlays exist in our culture that change a space from what it is just physically to have other significances. these things obviously have implications in ubicomp.

however, I left the talk feeling a little weird. he's talking about making a transition from information in space to informative spaces. I think the basic premise here is a good one; when talking about ubicomp applications, we should think about how people experience a space and address how our designs will affect or change those experiences. that's great. what's not so great is still thinking about it in terms of information. I'm not saying that his approach does, but the terminology sure seems to indicate it. the difference between information in space and informative spaces is a shift in focus from the space to the user.

but it's still talking about information. once we start talking about how people experience a space, the notion of information becomes inadequate. Weiser claimed that there "is more information at our fingertips during a walk in the woods than in any computer system." I claim, however, that information is entirely the wrong notion to describe a walk in the woods. maybe I am a child of Shannon's information era, but information to me is bits, and bits are insufficient to describe a walk in the woods.

allow me to elaborate. there are many components to a walk in the woods. the sight of the trees. the smell of the cool, crisp air. the crunch of twigs and leaves underfoot. the feel of your finders running over bark. sunlight peaking through the trees. given enough time and the proper methods, it might be possible to encode all these sensory experiences as "data" in the form of video feels, audio feeds, haptic gloves, etc. (there are even experimental devices to reproduce certain smells). however, all this information may describe the experience, but it is not the experience. what it's like to be in the woods, the actual experience of taking a walk in the woods, cannot be encoded in information. if we want to focus on the experiences of people in a space, information is entirely the wrong modality in which to think about it.

so what is the right modality? I might advocate an approach based on Pirsig's notion of Quality, but I'm not entirely sure that's actually that helpful. it could be, but it'd take some convincing. the reason people like to think about things in terms of information is that it codifies things, makes them easier to understand by classifying them in nice neat little boxes. actual experiences, however, cannot be easily codified in such a manner. this not only argues against using information, but it sort of sounds like an argument against using theory at all, which is not what I'm trying to advocate. rather, I'm saying that whatever theory we use, it should not to restrict and classify but rather encompass a rich (thick?) description of experiences as they exist.

Monday, November 21, 2005

the real war?

I'm not normally political, but I got this link from a friend of mine (thanks Matt), and I couldn't resist posting it.


it's ostensibly gun pron, and most of the comments reflect that, but that's not what I find interesting. rather, I think it's interesting to hear what the combat in Iraq is like from people who are actually on the front lines. particularly interesting are what they see as discrepancies between the actual situation and its portrayal in the media. is the media just echoing the whim of public opinion that we don't feel like being in Iraq anymore? (sort of a vacuous question, I realize, but one whose answer is nonetheless significant)

it's possible that this is just something someone made up, but if you read it you can tell that it just feels true, it feels like it was written by someone who's been there.

the article really speaks for itself. if you're not into guns, you can skip that part, but I really suggest reading. even if not entirely factual or representative, I think it's quite informative.

a different breed of math

I haven't blogged in about a month, and I just wrote a really bad essay, so I'm feeling the need to put something up here.

this quarter, I'm taking the graduate-level statistics I course taught by Hal Stern (totally awesomely geeky). now, granted, stats has never been my strong suit; I only took the very basic introductory stats course in undergrad. the professor spent most of the time saying "I don't know where this formula comes from, it's calculus or something, but just use it." most of the probability was a rehash of stuff I'd learned in discrete structures and math courses. half way through the semester, I stopped going, and my exam scores went up. the course here is a total contrast to that. Hal is a way bad ass teacher; he's great at explaining stuff at any level, so that the statistics ph.d. students understand it as well as the business students and others like myself who had barely any undergrad stats.

however, despite the phenomenal instruction, the course has been one of the most challenging I've had since I got to grad school. the next hardest thing would probably be the grad level formal languages and automata course I took while an undergrad. or at least, it was that difficult for about the first month. once I got the swing of it, it was able to keep up alright. not that I've been doing that well on the problem sets and exams, but at least I feel like I'm getting the concepts. part of this may be due to the fact that I haven't taken a non-computer science style math course since calc 3 my first semester of college. however, I think the lack of preparedness goes deeper than that.

statistics is a very different sort of math, similar to the way that discrete math is different from calculus, and geometry is different from algebra. it's a different way of thinking, a different mode of reasoning. yes, the guts of statistical theory is built on some pretty hardcore calculus, but the way most people use statistics seems to require a different mind set from other sorts of math. I learned arithmetic, algebra, and geometry from a rather young age, so i didn't really have a problem grasping calculus. also, in middle school, I was in the MEGSSS program, this wacky alternative math program for middle schoolers in FL. the first year curriculum teaches more or less set theory, functions and relations, and modal logic without calling them those things. when I got to college and took discrete math, these concepts came back up. I think I was able to pick it up because I had seen the stuff before.

but stats I never saw until I got to college, and even then the professor was less than helpful. I think, had I been exposed to a statistics course as a middle or elementary schooler, it would not be nearly so difficult for me to pick up now. I suspect a lot of people would argue that most kids wouldn't be able to understand stats at such a young age. I think kids are capable of way more than we give them credit for. since schools in general suck, kids aren't interested in learning and so don't really push themselves. there's also this cultural stigma that it's not cool to be smart (which is slowly lessening, but it's still there). however, these are subjects beyond the scope of this post.

also, I think some people would argue that most people won't need to know or use statistics. nothing could be farther from the truth. it's difficult to go a single day without reading something in the news that cites statistics or says that some result is statistically significant. what does that mean? people sort of take for granted that it means something, but what? having at least a rudimentary understanding of statistics not only helps one understand what statistics mean, but it also helps one realize that, with the proper manipulations, statistical data can often be massaged into saying whatever the researchers organizing the study want them to say. yes, this makes it more difficult, because you can't accept everything at face value, but one would hope you weren't doing that, anyway. furthermore, it gives one the ability to see where studies have been constructed with flaws or biases that affect the results. a working knowledge of statistics helps foster a healthy skepticism and critical judgment.

so, as much as I hate standards for public education, I'm calling for a new math standard that incorporate a statistics course somewhere in both the general middle school and high school mathematics curriculum. I don't really know where this would fit in or if it's practical at all, but I'd love to hear if someone else has thoughts on it.