Pen & Ink

So excited to see that Pen & Ink by will be released on Oct 7. Pick up a copy!  

Food + HCI

I am devoting a large part of my research this semester to investigating the world of Food + HCI. I don't know exactly where this will take me, but I do know there are a lot of interesting things happening in the food tech industry, which has major implications for the way we make, distribute, eat, and think about food.

One of the reasons I am so interested in exploring food is that it's suddenly become a "problem" that Silicon Valley feels compelled to "solve." But so far, much of the technology related to food is aimed at making cooking easier or shopping more convenient, and (unsurprisingly) it's mostly aimed at those who can afford to pay more to simplify shopping and cooking. But, what I find most troubling about so much food technology is an underlying desire to make perfect food. Take a look at Drop's copy to see what I mean: "Making sure everything comes out fantastic, and outrageously delicious, means you need to get a lot right. From finding a great recipe in the first place, to not blowing the measurements, substitutions, timing and calculations along the way. As your trusty digital baking assistant, Drop is there by your side to make sure everything goes smoothly, precisely and according to plan."

Drop may very well be a useful tool. As a baker myself, I am intrigued by the possibilities of what this scale might do for me, and yet I wonder if this device actually takes the learned knowledge and skill out of baking. I learned, over time (and through many failed attempts) how to bake, but everything about Drop seems to be about ensuring that you don't fail. And it does so by limiting what you can do. This scale has no concept of a "pinch" of salt or a "dash" of cinnamon. Those are "measurements" that a scale can't understand, and which can only be learned through practice. Baking is a skill that requires a lot of sensory knowledge, such as knowing how bread dough feels different from cupcake batter. Getting that perfect shade of golden brown on a batch of cookies doesn't just take 12 minutes; it takes a baker's intuitive sense that the cookies are done. There is value in learning through doing, even if that means not following a recipe, and even if it means failure.  

Just the other day a friend of mine referred to this phenomenon of perfect food as the "Martha-Stewarting of DIY." Indeed, DIY and maker movements have become increasingly prettified over the years. I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing; after all not everyone who wants to make stuff wants to get dirty. And I gotta say, I get a tremendous amount of joy out of creating the perfect lemon square. A yet this trend of perfection works against some of the basic qualities of food. A lot of food (say, sourdough starter or yogurt) is pretty gross looking. Gardening is a sweaty, messy ordeal. Yet, most of what we eat is beautiful, and beautifully packaged. There is something interesting in this tension, and something I hope to explore more this semester.

But this mentality of making things that are perfect, things that don't fail, is driving a lot of new food tech. Here's an example of something I find particularly intriguing: Niwa, an indoor growing system that connects to an app on your phone. 

I am extremely sympathetic to the underlying problem that Niwa is trying to address (how does one garden in urban spaces with no yard?) and I for one would love to be able to have a garden in my apartment. But, is this a garden? There's no dirt. No need for the sun or a watering can. This technology removes the sensory experience of being out in the garden. In other words, Niwa takes the gardening out of gardening. What fun is growing your own food, when you aren't actually doing any of the growing? But perhaps more importantly, how can we get a sense of where food comes from (the ground!) if this is how we experience growing food? As a culture, we are quite removed from our food and its processing and distribution, and Niwa is inadvertently perpetuating this problem. Although, I do applaud the effort to get organic produce directly in one's home. Think of all the environmental damage that occurs simply from moving produce from the farm to the store to the table. And yet, I have a deep sense that there has to be a better way to connect people to homegrown food. 

There are so many food issues that designers could (and definitely should!) tackle. From food production and distribution to cooking methods and tools to taste, flavor, and eating experiences, it's a terribly exciting time to be at the intersection of food and tech! And so I am especially excited about this semester's research. Here are a few things that I find particularly inspiring:  

Hack // MeatA Food + Tech Connect event that brings together engineers, designers, nonprofits, and an assortment of techies. Take a look at some of the winning hacks.  

Hack // Dining: From the same folks as above, a hackathon devoted to the future of food, which claims to be "about creating real solutions, not just nifty apps." Let's hope so.

Momofuko Culinary LabA research facility that is dedicated to exploring the origins of flavor and brings together scientists and chefs from a variety of traditions.

Science + Food at UCLA: A group of scientists and engineers at the UCLA Division of Life Sciences and Department of Integrative Biology & Physiology.

Eat, Cook, Grow: Mixing Human-Computer Interaction with Food-Human Interactions: The first book on my reading list :)

Food is the source and solution to many of the world's problems. I truly believe in the power of food to heal and hurt, perhaps more than almost anything else on earth. But it's also a deeply cultural phenomenon. The way we think about food and interact with it is a profoundly important part of our experience. Technology and design have always played a large role in our food lives, from agricultural practices to domestic technologies, we are surrounded by devices that influence our relationship to food. I'm only two weeks into the semester, and I've already got a million ideas bouncing around in my head. Like I said, it's an exciting time for us foodie tech folks.

Vintage Camera Ads

As a follow-up to my last post, so many amazing vintage camera ads:

On Cameras and Search

I have been considering buying a new camera for the past few weeks, and it's been almost a decade since I actually bought a camera. The last two cameras I owned were gifts/handed down. Over the past few years, though, I have relied on my phone to take photos, and have realized that miss the intentionality of shooting with a camera. There is something fundamentally different about going out into the world with the expressed purpose of taking a photo, as opposed to just snapping at random with my phone. Which is not to say that I don't enjoy the random snapping. I really do. Instagram is far and away the most accurate public representation of my life, and the only social app that I would be sad to lose. And I love the ability to take photos immediately with no explicit concern for composition, light, etc, etc. But still. I miss real photography and more to the point, I miss cameras.

I received my first "real" camera when I was around twelve, a brand new SLR Pentax, which I carried around like a purse, always slung over my right shoulder. Prior to this I had shot with a variety of point-and-shoots and disposable cameras (hey, remember those?!). But this, which I received as a birthday present, was not only the most expensive thing I'd ever owned, but also the most precious. More precious than my bike, my books, my walkman, my stereo, or well, anything else I can remember prizing at that age. It was something that I handled with care.

Pretty close to my first camera, via jacme31 CC Flickr.

Pretty close to my first camera, via jacme31 CC Flickr.

One of the first sets of serious photography (well, it was very "serious" to me) that I remember taking (and actually liking) was of a burned-down house in my neighborhood. I was walking around the north end in Boise, and was about half a mile from home, when I discovered a house that was nearly burned to the ground, a ghosty structure still half-standing, charred. It was twilight and the sun was filtering through the skeleton house and illuminating piles of ash, blackened furniture, and faded boards. There was a bright yellow sash of caution tape around the house, which of course, did not stop me from entering the structure. I snapped a role of black and white film, at the time 24 photos. Much has been written about the ubiquity of photos in the digital age, and I don't have much to add on that account, but I do vividly remember being very careful with my photos and very aware that I had only 24 chances to capture something good. The idea of a throw-away shot was not something that I believed in. I don't have any of the photos from that day, with the exception of this, a poorly-scanned version of a print that I had long ago.

From the burned-down house, circa 1994.

From the burned-down house, circa 1994.

Perhaps what was so magical about that time (aside from that fact that everything is somewhat magical when you are twelve) is that I developed the photos myself. I took a class at the community art center, which to this day, remains one of the most important educational experiences of my life, where I learned how to develop in a dark room. This is an experience that no one past a certain age will likely ever have. Are dark room classes still offered anywhere? Despite the practical obsolescence of film, I hope they are. It wasn't so much the magic of images appearing on paper (though there was that) but for me, it had more to do with the physicality of the activity. The exactitude. The use of one's hands. Exposing the film for a certain period of time, moving the paper from liquid-filled buckets, all lined up on the table, and eventually shaking the developer off and hanging the photos from a string across the room. The strange red light, the solitude and extreme quietness, and the repetition of each step. All of this appealed greatly to my methodical side, but it was also a way to use my hands that was entirely alien to anything else I did with them.

All of which is so say, that I have been feeling lately that I would like to take more photos with something other than my phone. Although the dark room experience is more or less dead to me now, I want to capture, at least in part, some of that magic that I felt as a kid. I actually can't believe how infrequently I use the cameras I currently have and as I was examining them (a Canon Rebel and a Nikon CoolPix) I realized that it was the physical form that bothered me. They are so slick. So modern. All smooth, plastic and metal. Quiet. Limited buttons and mechanical movements. Which is, more or less, the way my phone feels. And come to think of it, my laptop, my tablet,  and well every other digital device in my world. What I really wanted was a digital version of my old Pentax.

And so, I began my search where one begins such things: Google. Within about ten minutes I was incredibly frustrated by both the pure lack of useful information as well as the inability to compare cameras/specifications in one place. At one point I literally had every major camera manufacturer open in individual tabs, while simultaneously attempting to figure out where I could actually buy the camera I wanted, which bizarrely is not possible through most manufacturer sites. Then, I thought: I should just go to a PHYSICAL CAMERA STORE. Of course there isn't one in Bloomington, unless you consider Best Buy a camera store, which I do not. So I made my way to Indianapolis, where there isn't exactly a plethora of camera shops, but at least there are a couple. I really don't know how to describe the experience of shopping in a physical camera store, other than to say that it was demoralizing. Two main reasons why: first, a terrible salesperson, who didn't give me any useful information whatsoever about the camera I was looking at, and second, all the cameras are under glass, so it's impossible to get at them without having a salesperson pull one out. All in all, it was a totally unwelcoming experience, which left me feeling cold. I would be willing to chalk this up to one bad store, but since I went into two, and had identical experiences I wonder if camera stores are just shitty now? Just the ones in Indy? I don't know, but I can't remember ever having such a bad experience in one before, but hey, it's been a long while since I've actually been in a camera store. So, I went back to the internet, where on and off for a few days, I scoured for useful information, which as it turns out comes primarily from individual bloggers who (bless them) take the time to obsessively recount every feature of a camera and include samples photos taken with said camera. There are a handful of good camera blogs and tech blogs that feature cameras occasionally, but why isn't all this information centralized in some way?

Maybe it's just because I've been semi-removed from the camera world for so many years, but it never occurred to me that in 2014 it would be so damn difficult to simply gather information about a variety of different cameras. The thing about the information age is that, yes, it's there; I can technically access all the information in the world about cameras, but the problem is: it's not in any coherent container. It's just out there. And through an endless (yes, it was endless) series of clicking, I more or less figured out what I needed to know and narrowed down my options. I can't imagine I am the only person who has had this experience. And I have a decent amount of knowledge about cameras. Imagine knowing absolutely nothing, and trying to navigate this landscape of random blogs, retailers, and manufacturers. 

One of the biggest problems designers will have to tackle in the future (and preferably in the present, though few people seem to be doing it) will be a meaningful visual organization of massive amounts of information. Yeah, Google does the sorting, but the display of a vertical list of links feels like a totally primitive way of approaching search. Considering the camera, which really isn't THAT big of a data set. How many working camera models could reasonably exist right now? A few thousand? This doesn't seem like an impossible problem to solve, but the problem is that it's not just cameras. I could be trying to buy a fridge or a sofa or a car. It just so happens that I had this experience while shopping for a camera. One can imagine that this kind of eternally frustrating search experience exists for nearly every product. Of course, there is a lot more to be said here, but instead of fully fleshing out this argument (which I will do someday), I'm going to leave you with some beautiful cameras that I found while I was in the mire of endless clicking: 

Argus C3, refurbished by ILOTT

Argus C3, refurbished by ILOTT

Canonet, refurbished by ILOTT

Canonet, refurbished by ILOTT

Leica X2, Paul Smith Edition

Leica X2, Paul Smith Edition

Interactive Personal Narratives

The Designing Interactive Systems (DIS) conference kicked off in Vancouver today with an excellent keynote from Peter-Paul Verbeek. In addition to Verbeek's fascinating thoughts on the mediative nature of technology, there were a lot of interesting presentations throughout the day. There was one paper in particular that really caught my attention: "Interactive Personal Storytelling: An Ethnographic Study and Simulation of Apartheid-Era Narratives" by Ilda Ladeira and Gary Marsden. 

Ladeira (who now works at Microsoft Bing) presented an ethnography from her PhD at University of Cape Town. She spent several years observing the "resident storytellers" at the District Six Museum in Cape Town, South Africa. Just to give a quick history of the area, District Six is a neighborhood in central Cape Town and during apartheid in the 1970s everyone who lived there was forcibly removed and the neighborhood was razed. To this day, the area remains vacant. Near the edge of the land, there is a museum dedicated to telling the stories of District Six and its residents. Ladeira observed two museum guides who told their personal stories to the museum's visitors. The focus of her research was to think about what would happen when all of the District Six residents have died, which will happen within the next 20-30 years. What will happen to their stories? This isn't an uncommon concern. As time moves forward, we lose generations who have first-hand experience of historical events and, often, their stories die with them. 

District Six Museum, Cape Town

District Six Museum, Cape Town

One might argue that we could simply record all the personal narratives and keep them forever. In a sense, this is true. We can maintain a kind of record of these narratives, but one of the key facets of the District Six stories is that they are somewhat interactive. The guides engage the visitors by asking questions and inviting questions and encouraging a back and forth conversation. That kind of experience is very difficult to capture. During her research, Ladeira discovered some key aspects of the narratives, and pulled out 5 repeated narratives, which the storytellers shared with every group that came to the museum. She then created an interactive storytelling prototype to evoke the same kind of experience that one might get in-person at the museum.   

What was so strange about this paper is that I remember having this exact conversation about ten years ago when I lived in Cape Town. I visited the District Six Museum, and afterwards talked with a few friends about personal narratives and we wondered what would happen to stories after the storytellers died. Of course, at the time, it didn't occur to me to replace these people with interactive technology (honestly, even now, that wouldn't occur to me) but it was so exciting to see Ladeira's research. She is trying to solve a very important problem. But I am left with a lot of questions. Understandably, her prototype was a bit primitive and she admitted as much, but even looking beyond that (I could certainly imagine a snazzy, polished version of her software) there are some fundamental aspects of human storytelling that are excluded from the digital experience, such as the individual personality of the storytellers, their sense of humor, their ability to capture details, and shape their own memories in unique ways. How can a computer do any of this? How can a computer field questions when it doesn't have the experience ingrained within it? I'm not convinced that we can replace a human storyteller with any kind of digital tool, or that we would even want to. Nevertheless, this paper was really provocative, and even though we don't yet have the capabilities of fully capturing the human experience via a digital system, we must consider new ways to maintain interactive personal narratives. Will be very interesting to see where this research goes in the future.   

Summer Commune

Hey, Summer Commune is coming to Bloomington in July! 

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What is Summer Commune, you might ask. Take a peek at the site for the long answer. Here's the short answer:

"It’s a diverse & temporary intentional community. It’s like summer camp but with more potlucks and no curfew. It’s a utopian social experiment, an experience that we create for each other and that changes day to day and summer to summer.

The talent in the community we build at Summer Commune could incubate the next stellar start-up, be an opportunity to meet future coworkers, or inspire the next band, novel, web series, or film. And the conversations this experiment encourages will inform how we live when Summer Commune is over."

Bookshops of New England

Discovered a handful of great little bookshops on my trip. It was nice to see so many local bookstores, not only existing, but thriving. Each place was really unique and full of regional flavor. Here are a few of my favorites... If you find yourself in the Northeast, take a little time to stop by some of these bookish places:

Book + Bar in Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Book + Bar in Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Gus and Ruby Letterpress in Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Gus and Ruby Letterpress in Portsmouth, New Hampshire

The Athenaeum Library in Providence, Rhode Island

The Athenaeum Library in Providence, Rhode Island

Rhode Island School of Design Shop and Bookstore in Providence, Rhode Island

Rhode Island School of Design Shop and Bookstore in Providence, Rhode Island

Sherman's in Portland, Maine

Sherman's in Portland, Maine

Symposium Books in Providence, Rhode Island

Symposium Books in Providence, Rhode Island

Longfellow Books in Portland, Maine

Longfellow Books in Portland, Maine

OR Books

Colin Robinson, a co-publisher at OR Books, has a fantastic op-ed in The Times today about the various forces that are currently working against the mid-list. You should go read it. But the point of this post isn't to talk about his piece (although I probably should because it so very well nails all the problems) but I'd rather just bring to your attention the beautiful work that OR is producing. I wasn't familiar with this publisher prior to this morning, so I did a bit of investigation, and found some really lovely and intriguing books, which I plan on adding to my reading list: 

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