Baby's First CHI
A lifetime ago, I had a habit of getting on planes and flying to places to hang out with other computer scientists and educators at conferences. That hasn't happened in a long while. But this week I'm back at it. A nice workshop at CHI 2022 honored me by accepting a position paper about Twoville, which meant my department could send me to New Orleans. Thanks, department. In return, I will document what happened in excruciating detail.
There are two airports within driving distance of my city. One is in the capital of the United States, which sounds like a place I don't want to be. So, I went with the other airport, which is about an hour away. One of my colleagues told me that my university offers a chauffeur service. I signed up for it. I got especially excited when I learned that my driver's name was Lenny. I'd never met a Lenny before. Come to think of it, this might be my third Lenny.
My third Lenny picked me up at 8 AM in the morning. I handed him a Strite's donut as a peace offering. We talked about the transportation department for which he works. I wondered if they fill him up with coffee, just as they fill the cars up with gas. He's on his own for coffee, he said. I wondered if he names his vehicles. No, he said, but he calls every car he drives Casper. They are all white. I wondered if there is a limo or helicopter in the fleet. Sadly no. I wondered if he had to spend a lot of time waiting. Lenny said he has to wait for people to arrive at the airport or to get through a day of meetings somewhere across the state. He usually occupies himself by reading a book. I wondered if people had ever forgotten something important and asked him to turn around. It's never happened, he said, though sometimes he has to stop at Walmart so his passengers can pick up sundries.
When Cat Stevens came on the radio, he cranked it up. His station of choice is Classic Vinyl on SiriusXM. He unsurprisingly likes old stuff and feels disdain for new stuff. He lamented how students walk across campus with their faces glued to a phone. A young woman on the university softball team recently committed suicide. She had a lot going for her, and Lenny rationalized that there must have been a troubled relationship that prompted her decision to end her life. He hoped the guy couldn't sleep at night.
We arrived at the airport in one piece. I wasn't sure if tipping was expected or not. Since I wasn't going to find out any other way at this point, I asked him what the protocol was. He'd accept a tip, he said. It didn't seem to be an expectation, but I could hardly back out after broaching the subject. Maybe next time I won't tip, though, because humans are most motivated under a variable reward schedule.
The flights were wonderfully boring. The first leg was only 22 minutes in the air, which is the shortest flight I've ever taken. The flight attendant handed out little Dutch caramel wafers called stroopwafels. I listened to PDFs of papers and an audiobook. While I was waiting for the next flight, the woman at the boarding counter asked for volunteers to gate check their bags. I ignored the first request. But on the second request, she offered to bump up the boarding priority for anyone who took up her offer. Since I was in group 4, I accepted. When I boarded, however, there was no place to leave my bag and no attendant to tell me where to put it. So, I kept my bag with me and stored it in an overhead compartment. Wherever you are, gate agent, I'm really sorry.
I arrived in New Orleans. Uber, Lyft, taxis, and expensive shuttles are not a good fit for someone like me, who spent the first decades of his life being a poor farm kid. The public bus seemed a better fit for someone of my a station. But the bus I thought I needed wouldn't show up for an hour and a half. I sat outside in the warm Louisiana sun, hungry after avoiding expensive airport food. I tried to eat a stick of sausage that I had picked up from my local food co-op a few days back. But the sausage was tough and wouldn't give itself up without a fight. It could only be ravaged by a beast. Thankfully I was outside and away from people.
While sitting at the stop, I hopped on an earlier bus that would get me close to where I needed to go. The fare was $2. The machine didn't give change. Someone hopped on after me with only a $10 bill. Poor guy. He ended up staying on the bus, but I'm not sure if he paid or maybe offered to wash the dishes.
I exited the bus when it reached downtown New Orleans and walked to my hotel. There was a preacher calling out on a loud speaker in a park. Wind blew sawdust or something worse down onto me as I passed under some scaffolding. I blessed the one-way streets that made jaywalking safer.
After settling in to my room, I wrote code. I had missed it after a day of moving around in all manner of vehicles. I dined at Mothers, a restaurant just across the street. They advertised their baked ham, so that's what I ordered, with sides of grits, turnip greens, and red beans and rice. All New Orleans staples. I was hoping for some time to read from Wendell Berry's The Hidden Wound, but the food arrived too quickly. Four stars.
Before settling in for the night, I walked down to the riverfront and entered a Puma store. I had gotten a Puma running shirt on a similar conference trip in San Diego back in 2014. Eight years later, the shirt feels like it's about to disintegrate. I guess I'll find out if it will, because this store didn't have any running shirts.
My preferred way of getting to know a city is to run through it. The streets were too busy for me, so I headed down to the riverfront. At the very first stoplight, someone tried to ask me for something, but I didn't catch what. He may have asked for money. He may have asked for a light. He may have asked for help with a programming assignment. A tugboat named the Michael S. was docked on the riverfront. I regret not taking a picture for my colleague Michael S. He was the one who tugged me to this conference.
After a breakfast of fig newtons, I headed to the Reimagining Systems for Learning Hands-on Creative and Maker Skills workshop. The workshop was led by Dishita Turakhia, a student at MIT. She was hoping to get at least 12 people together to talk about maker education, but she got 42 instead. The introductions were slotted to take 15 minutes, but they took an hour. This threw off the agenda for the rest of the day, but they were probably the most important part.
I had a chance to meet some folks whose papers I've been reading the past few years, including Stefanie Mueller and Jennifer Jacobs. When all you know of a person is their academic papers, you see them as an abstraction, a very large brain from which genius pours forth. I was happy to find that these folks were normal human beings. Never once did they make me feel like a very small brain in comparison.
During a brainstorming session, several of my group members spoke of the value of students programming in G-code, which is the language that drives the motors of 3D printers and cutting tools. I have never felt any nudge to learn or teach G-code. This strikes me as funny, because I don't feel the same way about assembly. I think my students benefit a lot from learning how assembly works and have made arguments for it similar to those put forth by the G-code apologists. Do I have a double standard? Or is G-code's relationship with higher-level drawing languages different from the relationship that assembly has with higher-level programming languages?
In the afternoon, many group members shared what were supposed to be 3-minute talks about our projects. Dishita picked me to go first. I showed off Twoville and handed out stickers of the wiggly wurf that one of my sons had made:
The attendees shared projects on telepresence robots, synthesis of clay pots using displacement mapping, proximity-based connections in dataflow programming environments, and a great many other topics. In the final session of the day, we broke into small groups and offered directed feedback on the projects we presented. Several folks wanted to see what Twoville could do. We modeled a heart using Bézier curves. Normally I shy away from attention, but I felt good about receiving it from like-minded people.
As I walked back to the hotel, I learned that my colleagues had arrived in town. We met up and walked to a gelato shop. I asked the man behind the counter what I should get. He recommended mango sorbet. Secretly I was hoping he'd recommend the mint chip or peanut butter crunch, as I rarely get fruity ice cream or gelato. Nevertheless, I went with his recommendation and told him I was violating my principles. He felt honored that I would listen to him and said he'd put the moment in his “memory palace”. This was a striking turn of phrase because I had just finished reading Moonwalking with Einstein, a book about a journalist's study of memory champions who compete to remember sequences of numbers, decks of cards, and poetry. A common technique is to situate the content they are trying to remember in a well-known structure like their childhood home. Our capacity for memory is much stronger when it's spatially anchored. I told the man about the book. In return, he charged me for a single instead of a double. And he recommended to me the book he had just finished.
The streets of New Orleans were filled with people in town for a jazz festival. Kids were out banging drumsticks on five-gallon buckets. A group had brought out their collection of pythons for people to wear as they got their picture taken. Alcohol flowed freely. My colleagues and I meandered our way though the crowds to an oyster pub, where we waited in line for an hour. Now I can say I've had oysters. Two of them.
Sunday was a free day. The main conference hadn't started yet. So I went for another run. Just as I stepped outside, rain started to fall. No big deal, I thought, until the lightning flashed. I ran along the conference center canopy. Thankfully the conference center itself is over half a mile long.
For lunch I headed to The Daily Beet and got an avocado, egg, and quinoa bowl. Eating it made me feel healthy, but the greens underneath had the fractal coastlines of thistles. In The Hidden Wound, Berry talked about how the Confederates sanctified their leaders to give cover for their atrocities. And how we do too.
I wasn't sure where to spend the afternoon. A spotty rain was still falling. The public library was closed. My hotel room felt off limits. I decided to head to the convention center. I hid away on one of the couches on an upper floor and wrote a little web service that would dynamically convert my markup language into HTML and pull in media.
In the evening, my colleages and I attended a celebration to mark the 40th anniversary of the conference. The event was held at Mardis Gras World, a museum of sculptures that had been featured in parades since 1947. There were sculptures of storybook characters, athletes, dragons, famous people, and lots of jesters. The sculptures were exactly the thing people should take pictures of to show the folks back home. I'll take pictures later, I told myself. After emerging from the museum, we found three food trucks waiting to feed the mass of conference goers. We snagged savory crepes, but the long lines deterred us from getting any other food. A very loud DJ owned the seating area, making conversation difficult. We left, only to find that the museum we had passed through was closed. I never got any pictures.
The first full day of the conference started at the Ruby Slipper Cafe with biscuits and gravy and stories of appliance failures from one of my colleagues. Folks in the field of human-computer interaction are constantly adding to their appliance story repertoire. I finished my food, but my colleagues did not. One of them said it was more wasteful to eat in excess than to throw food away. I'm pretty sure his statement needs qualification.
Game researcher Dr. Kishonna Gray delivered the opening keynote address. She shared stories of failures in game design and game criticism. For example, in Dead Island, the main character—a Black woman—can gain the skill Gender Wars, which increases her attack damage against males by 15%. In the code, this skill is named
feministWhore. The Black College Football Experience was a game that featured a bunch of teams from historically Black colleges. Critics panned the game, perhaps fairly, but Kishonna observed that some critics completely ignored a major event of the game: the half-time show.
I attended a paper session on games. After a couple years of Covid, many conferences are supporting a hybrid format. Folks may attend and even present through Zoom. This is an amazing accommodation that reduces travel, lowers costs, and opens the conference up to many more people. However, the first 15 minutes of this first session was lost as the audio-visual team tried to get the speaker up on the screen. In fact, every session I attended suffered because of technical issues caused by the hybrid format.
One of my colleagues wanted to visit a record store that we could walk to in 45 minutes. That seemed like too much time, so we hired a Lyft. I've never used a ridesharing service before. It went okay. I tried asking the driver about good ice cream places. He didn't have anything to recommend. I tried asking him about some trees on the side of the road. He didn't know what they were. I'm not sure I'm going to use any more ridesharing services.
The record store was full of vinyl and people. One of my colleagues started up a conversation with a stranger in which they wondered how people discovered music without stores like the one we were in. The stranger didn't think they discovered new music at all, despite acknowledging the existence of Spotify. Privately, I didn't agree with anything they were saying. I never discovered music by looking at jewel cases or cardboard sleeves. However, I've learned about a whole lot of musicians through Spotify and Tiny Desk. A couple of my colleagues bought vinyl records. Somehow they will get them home on a plane.
The lunchbreak was nearly over, so we found another Lyft back to the convention center. We drove by a chess master who had set up a table to challenge passersby. A moment later, I found the driver looking at the chessmaster's Wikipedia page on his phone. Traffic is pretty stop and go in downtown New Orleans, so his phone usage seemed pretty safe. I asked the driver what advice he'd have for me if I wanted to quit my job and start driving people around New Orleans. He said I'd just need to drive. The company apps tell one where to go. I gave him some advice in return. I told him that if he ever left his job and became a software developer, he should just write one line of code at a time and then test it.
In the afternoon, I attended a session on tools for supporting creativity and another on fabrication materials. People are doing interesting things, but I'm honestly struggling to figure out what I should be taking away from the talks. Presenters share stories and technical details that are very specific to their project. They work at institutions that are swimming in grant money and equipment. I guess I'm mostly here to learn what other people are working on so I can cite the right papers. The peer review process is brutal to writers who don't know what their peers are doing.
My colleagues and I attended a reception in the evening. Conferences tend to put food and posters in the same area to promote engagement. We ate the jambalaya, fried green tomatoes, and pralines while engaging with each other. One of my colleagues delights in connecting people. He introduced me to a fellow who wanted to see Twoville and discuss leaving his job, as I did a couple of years ago.
While out for an early run along the waterfront, I saw a rat scurry across the sidewalk. He probably told his family something similar: "I saw a human scurry across the sidewalk." By this point in the week, I was mostly uninterested in food, so I skipped breakfast and headed to the conference center. The first session was on games. The remote speaker could not get his microphone to work. The session chair tried communicating with the audio-video technician across the room with tentative statements that were not interpreted as calls to action. The student volunteer did not move. Throughout the conference, technical help has generally been slow to arrive. The microphones do not get switched on in time, forcing the speakers to repeat themselves. Videos are not played promptly. Dialog boxes cover the slides. The student volunteers are not proactive in distributing the microphones for questions. Yet the session chairs pour forth gratitude to the student volunteers and technicians at the end of a session. The gratitude seems dissonant.
My workshop organizer Dishita gave a presentation about incorporating physical fabrication into video games. I was reminded of the time my sons and I modeled and printed a key after playing the game Braid. Someone asked Dishita about the waste that would be generated if her idea scaled. Her response was that they were looking for ways to make the fabricated objects more valuable, by tying them into the gameplay somehow. My unspoken response was that plastic junk tied to games is already a problem. Perhaps by empowering players to make their own junk, there would be less of a market for mass-produced junk.
The next session was on 3D printing. One paper described a technique for hiding QR codes within a 3D model using filament that was transparent to infrared light. An audience member aptly questioned how people would discover that there was a QR code to be scanned if it was hidden. Another paper proposed a scheme for arranging the finger joints of laser cut sculptures so the user could not accidentally assemble it incorrectly.
We met up with another group from our university for lunch. A professor of design had brought four students to the conference to participate in a design competition. We deliberated about lunch and ended up heading to a taqueria. My colleagues tried to enlist my help with a music education tool they've been working on. I'm interested in helping, but time is scarce. Maybe I can enlist the help of my sons this summer.
The next paper session I attended was on dance and sound. Some of the projects presented at this conference on human-computer interaction are strangely devoid of technology. One paper anticipated the features a hypothetical dance system. I guess building the system comes next. During a break, I met some folks from the University of Florida who were friends with the PhD student my department just hired. In the last session of the day, a fellow from Wales lamented climate change and proposed using light to bring art into the world in sustainable ways. Leah Beauchley talked of learning to work with clay from local artists and then designing a system to helped form pottery. She lamented how technology changed the artistic process and advocated for computational modesty.
Not knowing what my colleagues were up to, I headed back to the hotel and wrote code. Around 7:30, they texted me to see if I wanted to head to a pub with a crawfish boil. I wasn't so sure about the crawfish, but I did want to be sociable. The pub had a bunch of rules about ordering and filling up trays with crawfish, and she walked us through them. My colleague commended her teaching and made some comment about wizardry. The Hobbit was playing on the television behind the bar, and I pointed at Gandalf. For a reason unbeknownst to me, the bartendress leaned close to me and kissed me on the cheek. I was embarrassed, and my colleagues reminded me for the next few days about how I wasn't being faithful to my wife. The biggest ribber was a friend from Ecuador, where they kiss each other all the time.
The crawfish was served out of a big cooler, and I didn't think I could stomach chowing my way through a pile of bodies. I got the tenderloin instead. Our group was joined by a guy starting out his PhD at Virginia Tech. One of my colleagues was trying to recruit him to work on the music education project that he had earlier pitched to me. After we left the pub, I suggested we find some gelato or ice cream. The only place still open was Amorino. Once again I made the mistake of asking for recommendations. The server suggested melon, which I don't like. Yet I accepted her recommendation and accompanied it with a scoop of lime and basil. I do not regret my mistake.
Back at the hotel, I should have gone to sleep. But I had gotten the itch to add
pop nodes to Twoville so that I could generate branching paths, like this randomized tree:
push command saves the turtle's position and heading on a stack. The
pop command returns the turtle to its most recently pushed position and heading.
The next morning we met up at the Ruby Slipper Cafe for our last meal as a big group. I was at the point of the conference where food no longer sounded good. So I ordered some cleansing grits. Two of our group headed out to the airport. My Ecuadorian friends went their separate way. All that was left of the fellowship was one colleague and me. We headed to the convention center together but went to separate sessions.
The first session was on programming. Someone had built a notebook environment for generating music. The other papers were delivered remotely. Something I've noticed about myself the last few years is that I do not pay attention to recorded or scripted talks. Perhaps Zoom did this to me. If the sessions were differentiated into live and remote speakers, I'd attend the live sessions even if they weren't relevant to my interests.
During break, I was slurping down a parfait at a table by myself when a fellow from Clemson joined me. We exchanged our interests, and I demoed Twoville. He had been looking for tools to use in summer camps and wanted to talk further. Thus I got my first business card of the conference.
I sensed that I needed to step away from the conference for a bit. I found a quiet corner in the convention center and spent the afternoon writing code. Since I was on my own now, I got to pick where we got supper. My choice was the Lebanon Grill, where I got the falafel platter. I felt like an imposter, however, because I left a few black olives on my plate. They had started to make my stomach turn.
Back at the hotel, I wrote more code. Branching trees are commonplace in algorithmic drawing, so I went looking for other recursive shapes to show off
pop. I liked the look of these rounded branches:
In writing this program, I happened upon a new way of specifying arcs of a circle. The new
curl command draws out a circular arc that is continuous with the path that precedes the arc.
Skipping out on part of a conference always makes me feel guilty, so I made sure to attend the final paper session and keynote. One of the papers was about designing features to help users manage screen time and another was on a sensor that someone had built to help study the biomechanics of pinching and zooming. The session was another exhibit of broken communication. A speaker asked if people could hear her. The session chair, who was remote, said she could. But no one in the room said anything. Only the student volunteer had the ability to respond, but for whatever reason, a response was not forthcoming.
In the final keynote, Dr. Payal Arora talked about what tech companies need to do to grow in markets in the Southern Hemisphere. I couldn't tell who the audience for the talk was supposed to be. Dr. Arora does a lot of consultancy work and frequently remarked on her meetings with high-profile decision-makers. The talk seemed to promote a global mindset as a way to achieve one's capitalist endeavors. She regularly described herself as “homeless”. She meant that she wasn't tied down, but this was a poor choice of words in New Orleans. Perhaps I just missed the more noble parts of her talk. I admit I was districted because a famous blogger was sitting in the row right in front of me, and I was watching how she assembled a reflection post of the conference on Medium and had it published before the talk was over.
The conference ended, and I made my way to Meals from the Heart Cafe, a vegan restaurant that served me a crab cake po'boy and carrot juice. Then I walked around looking for gifts and postcards for my family. I couldn't bring myself to enter any of the cookie cutter gift shops that all sold the same T-shirts. Instead I found a fancy pen shop and got my four sons signet stamps of their first initial. I also got some beignets because I sensed that I would regret not having gotten any. I preferred to regret having gotten them.
Back at the hotel, I wrote five postcards to my immediate family members. Then I took a short walk to pick up some groceries for the trip home and get an acai bowl for supper. The night was still young, but I was not. I settled in for the night and started watching A Silent Voice, an anime recommended by some students.
I woke up at 6 AM, later than I wanted. There was no time to do the Wordle. I packed up my things, checked out, and made my way to the bus stop. My flight wasn't until 11:30 AM, but the last airport shuttle of the morning picked up at 7:35 AM. I got to the stop at 6:55 AM; I wasn't going to take any chances.
Forty minutes of waiting is actually forty minutes of listening to an audiobook. While I was listening, I saw that there was also a 7 AM bus. But I didn't know which side of the street it picked up on. I ran across the busy intersection and asked a driver where the 202 picked up. Right where I was, she said. But then I looked up and saw the 202 parked at the stop I had just run from. Ignoring her, I ran back across the street and hopped on the 202. It promptly did a U-turn and picked up at the second stop. The driver was right. Sorry, driver. My extreme earliness paid off when a heavy downpour began a few moments later. I arrived at the airport dry.
On my first flight, I had to gate check my bag, which was disappointing. My two seatmates both had masks on, so I figured I needed to wear mine too. In retrospect, this was probably a good idea. Many people at the conference posted on Twitter that they had tested positive for Covid. On the second flight, the captain warned us that the weather might be too severe in Charlottesville, in which case the flight would continue on to Richmond. Thank goodness this did not happen. We landed in Charlottesville in a light rain. There I found my driver. She never told me her name. But because I'd been married to her for 19 years, I knew she wasn't a Lenny.