Thursday, June 25, 2009

Sartre on the Subway?

From the BBC NewsHour this morning...The Tube in London is now reading quotes from people like Sartre and Gandhi whenever the train has to stop unexpectedly! Much better than Chicago's "We are being delayed waiting for signal clearance. We expect to be moving shortly."

However, I found it sort of amusing that the article I found about it states that the Sartre quotes are designed to "cheer up passengers."


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Placeshifting Content

So timeshifting content is cool (e.g. TiVo or Hulu allowing me to watch programs at any time), but placeshifting is even cooler. As most of you in Chicago know, this week WBEZ (aka Chicago Public Radio) is doing its pledge drive. That mean that on my 7 minute drive to work, I get no news, no content of any kind except for hearing Ira and other beg for money (which I've already given them!). I really hate pledge drive week, and usually just end up turning on a music station and dealing with that for a week twice each year.

But on Monday I got thinking and realized that I had the NPR app on my iPhone and that I could connect my iPhone to my car stereo. So while stopped at a stoplight, I got WBUR playing and hooked it up. In 5 seconds, I was transported to Boston. Content that would not have been available to me in Chicago a year ago was now streaming through my car speakers. And I discovered that BUR has the BBC News Hour on during my drive, so might be sticking with this option more even after BEZ's pledge drive is over.

It's really interesting to have content from anywhere in the world available anywhere. Ubiquitous internet and content are a really interesting combination. I'm really interested in other types of place-shifting, more of the mobile presence type stuff, where people almost feel like they are somewhere else or with someone else who is not co-present. I wonder how some of these place shifting content applications can be a start to that. Just hearing a Jordan's Furniture commercial on kiss108's streaming radio makes me miss Boston and my friends there a little more than usual.


Monday, June 22, 2009

Being challenged

I've been talking to a lot of friends over the past few weeks and months about the concept of a challenge, especially intellectual ones. As most of you know, intellectual challenges drive me. Over the past 7 years at Motorola, I've had some amazing challenges that have made me think as hard as I ever have. Some have been challenges in understanding people and the way that they communicate. Some have been figuring out ways to use nascent technology to do things it was never designed to do in order to make people's lives easier/happier. Some have been challenges on making sense of thousands and thousands of data points in an academically meaningful way. And these challenges have excited me more than anything else and driven me to work MIT-style hours in corporate America.

I work with a great group of people: computer scientists, designers, anthropologists, and MBA-types and over the years our lab has been a really fun place to be. We work so well together and have come together to do some pretty amazing things. But for the past year, the challenge has been gone, the light in all of our eyes extinguished. As the word "labs" was removed from our organization, the challenges that came with that moniker followed quickly behind.

Sure, I've been "challenged" in this past year. Two of us were responsible for creating 100,000 lines of code. We had to organize a half dozen trials at live sporting events. All of the design bits had to fit ever more complicated interactions. Yet none of this was an intellectual challenge. What did we learn in all that time that will make a real difference for people in their lives and relationships with those they care about? And on a personal level, nothing in the last year has made me think really hard about something really hard. It was more just lots and lots of little amounts of organizational energy here and there. Making sure every little thing was in its place. Which just does not excite me in the ways that a wall full of unorganized data or a design idea that I have no idea how to make does.

I'm lucky to have found a place that has been able to challenge me so much over the past 7 years. Many of my friends still have not found a place that lets them think until their brains hurt (Which really is a pleasurable activity to most of my friends!). I recognize how lucky I am to have had great management that has looked out for me and helped me find my way into the academic parts of my life that I enjoy so much. Without teaching at MIT this spring and serving on various program committees, I think my brain would have started to rot in my head. But I need more than that. I need to be able to create and think and rack my brain on a daily basis, not just after a paper deadline when I get to think critically about other peoples' work.

It's a tough time for a lot of companies out there right now. I hope that now more than ever, they can see the value of research. The value of people thinking up ideas just beyond what's possible today and pushing those boundaries to help bring new ideas and experiences into people's lives. I know what type of work makes me happy and I yearn for a day when I can do it again. I want to end each day knowing that something I did that day will make people's relationships with each other stronger and help them to live happier lives. And I want that something to be something I have no idea how to accomplish when I start trying to do it.


Sunday, June 07, 2009

European Vacation

I'm now back from a wonderful trip to Germany and the UK. After the Paralympics were over, I decided that I definitely needed a break and should take advantage of the fact that I was in Europe. Plans called for Frankfurt, Berlin, and London and seeing a bunch of old friends along the way! This was the first long vacation (other than visiting my parents over Christmastime) that I've taken in the 7 years I've been at Motorola, and I think I have to take many more now!

Vacation started with a flight from Manchester to Frankfurt. I flew my most-hated airline, Lufthansa. The flight was late as always and they had no vegan food, but at least I got some United miles for the trouble :) The day before, I had talked to my friend Helen up in Bonn and we figured out some dinner plans, so after checking into my hotel in Frankfurt, I got on the 300km/hr ICE train and made my way up to Bonn.

I really enjoyed Bonn and the quick tour of town Helen took me on. I find in funny that everyone I tell about going to Bonn asks if I saw Beethoven's house, and yes, I did! Bonn looks like a nice city, and we had some great Thai food before I had to jump back on the train to Frankfurt.

Frankfurt, part 1, was fun as well. I spent the morning wandering around town seeing some of the more historic parts as well as the new crazy mall designed by Fuksas. For dinner, I met up with my old MIT friend Eliza-Beth for an adventure at a veggie restaurant there. The food was great, but I had a curry that didn't come with rice. Oh well, it was thick and tasty :) And wonderful to catch up with an old friend!

The next part of the trip took me to Berlin on the ICE. One of the most interesting things to me was all of the wind turbines that I passed along the train route. The 50 mile stretch outside of Berlin in particular was just full of them. I wonder what percentage of Berlin's power comes from wind? I am just so impressed with the German train system. From the giant boards that show the arrival and departure time of every train on every track all day long, to the boards that show you exactly where every car of every train will stop so you can line up, it's just so amazingly organized and nice.

I spent a few days in Berlin and tried to take in as much as I could. From the super-touristy things like Checkpoint Charlie and the Holocaust Memorial, to some of the museums. The Pergamon museum was fascinating with a whole Greek temple moved to Berlin. It was a temple to Athena, so it was fun to see a bunch of Athena statues and such there. They also had a recreation of the entrance to Babylon which was impressive. The IM Pei Wing at the German History Museum was really interesting and they had some temporary exhibits in there including one on tearing down the wall. It's amazing to think that it was only 20 years ago. It's crazy to think that everything capitalist in what was East Berlin that's there today was built since that time.

One of the most amazing sights was the Reichstag, which was designed by Foster and has these mirrors all along the length of it that rotate to provide natural light to their parliament throughout the day and has some crazy natural ventilation systems in it so that they don't need to heat or cool the building most of the time. With that and all of the wind power and trains, it's so amazing how far behind we are in America.

I must add in here how much I love Starbucks in Europe. Not only do a lot of people stay in to drink their coffee, but they also give you big Starbucks mugs instead of paper cups if you're staying in. As a big coffee mug fan, that's just awesome :)

I had some good food in Berlin, including a Thai place called Restaurant Goodtime. They had some amazing veggie spring rolls and really nicely cooked tofu in their mains. Across the street was an organic cafe that I had lunch at one day. Very excellent curry soups!

From Berlin, it was back to Frankfurt on the ICE. I was mainly just back there to catch a flight the next morning to London, but saw that they had a big river festival going on (thanks to the little translator app on my phone!). FlussFestMeile, as it was called, was a fun music and food festival along the river front. They had lots of vegan food - african, indian, thai - and lots of great music. I had time to take in one band, Fräulein Wunder, and they were fantastic. An all-girl rock band with some very addictive songs. They definitely put on a fun show! They were just the opening act though, but so many people came to see them that after they finished most people left. The organizer was up on the stage on the mic repeating "Das ist nicht gut!" and begging people to come back.

I took an early flight to London (a Lufthansa flight that also was late) and made my way into town. I love that I can get around London without a map now. That evening, I met my high school friend Jess for dinner at a fun veggie restaurant near Baker St called Eat and 2 Veg. Weird name, but great food! I had gone here for tea and cake with a colleague last summer, but had never sat down for a proper meal. The food was fantastic and it was great to hear what Jess was up to out there!

My final day of vacation was filled with being touristy with Alison and her family. We started the day out with the Tower of London, which was much larger than I had thought just going past it on the bus or seeing it from the London Eye. The crown jewels were crazy and it was interesting to see all of the places where prisoners were kept over the years, and read about how the political ones were fairly free to have guests and live a fairly normal life, except for not leaving.

From there, we went on to the National Galleries. Stacie and I had spent about 2 minutes in there when we first came to London, but Alison and I got to spend a few hours there. The Monet's were amazing as expected, and they had another of Serat's works from the island that goes along with the one at the Art Institute in Chicago, so that was fun to see. We also made it to the National Portrait Gallery, where they had a few rooms devoted to portraits of scientists and scholars throughout British history. Which of course Alison and I could not pass up :)

We also couldn't pass up a photo at Platform 9 3/4 at King's Cross. We just had a few minutes as we had to get back to change for dinner, but I knew exactly where the platform was. Or so I thought! We made our way over to the track to Cambridge, but everything over there was under construction. And right where the platform should have been was a wheelbarrow and other construction equipment. But they had a little sign with directions to where they had moved it, and we got our pictures :)

The day ended, as I think all of my trips to London do, with a trip to Hakkasan! It was just as amazing as always, although they took down this really cool candle wall that Stacie and I liked. But the food was wonderful as always including their veggie chicken. This time I was there with a meat-eater, so I had Alison try it to see how much it really tasted like chicken (since I have no idea after 8 years of vegan-ness). The was chicken to her :) I really wish there was something like Hakkasan in Chicago with so many great veggie options.

All in all, a wonderful vacation. The next day I was back home and back to work. I really need to take the time for vacations like this more often. I came back all energized and ready to go. And really happy to have spent time with so many awesome people that I don't get to see nearly enough!