Robots and other Favorite Things

Recently, a volunteer, Wen Kai, who built a registration site for a Chan retreat organization helped me navigate the new and somewhat “unconventional” website. I was so grateful at the end, but Wen Kai humbly said he is “only an IT” (he meditated for more than ten years). “Only an IT” is something I heard often–that represents underappreciated status of geeky people in our lives. The husband who gets unappreciative call whenever the router broke? The programmer who has always been a contract staff because his manager believes all he does is a “simple matter of programming?” The computer nerd whose parents thought he should go and make “real” friends? We need to appreciate geeky people and respect technologies a lot more! And this is a value I will pass to my children.

Since I blogged about my adventure of introducing robots to my kids (http://kowym.com/?p=542), so many things happened–we got board games, Hexbugs, and table-top adventure games! I always thought Zenn, 6, would receive these interests better, but Hugh never ceased to surprise us as the emerging geek in the house!

Hexbug! Hexbugs are a joy to watch, even for adults and cats! The basic Hexbugs are non-programmable robot insects which move according to preset logic. They avoid obstacles and navigate around mazes and tracks players set up. And oh they make you watch a long time. Even though Hugh loves watching Hexbug, there is no programming options for the robots except (I think) for more complex models. Perhaps this is why while Hexbug has the “wow” factor, the factor wears off, and Hugh has been asking for Dash and Dot a little more. Hexbugs are always visible in their play area though, and Hugh asked for the re-configurable habitat which dad hasn’t quite get to.

Board games. Seriously, which geek had never played board games? I first suggested board games  to my wife Lee Peng may be a year ago. We started with “Busy, Busy Airport,” “Cat in the Hat, I can do that!,” and “Busy Town, Eye Found It.” All were hits! We played these may once a few weeks. And both boys liked “Busy Town, Eye Found It” best. And the game requires simple counting which helps their maths development. Until mom found a “platinum” hit, “Sum Swamp”! It is a board game requiring players to move by doing simple dice operation–plus or minus 1 to 12. It remains difficult for Hugh (who counts much in the same way as the gully dwarf Bupu. Well, sorry geeky me, nevermind 🙂 ), but Hugh just keeps trying!

Table top adventure game. If you know what this is, you got to be an old geek. And I, the ancient sorcerer have been introducing Dungeons and Dragons to students of my general computer game class in which many expressed dismay at its complexity. I love these table top adventures, rather than the hack and slash computer versions kids nowadays tend to play; because there is so much flexibility and skills involved in mastering these games. For example, our boys went to speech and drama classes, and we love these classes which encouraged the children to pretend play, and also explaining to others, role-playing at the same time, how they would behave in various kinds of situations. Table top adventure has this element, and in fact, role-playing is a central part of D&D. Apart from that, D&D makes use of dice mechanics to determine outcome (maths), game rules to determine permissible actions (logic), and story telling to explain situations in a vivid way (language).

The two boys are too young for full-fledged dungeoneering (their dad would love that). So I started with a simplified game world known as Hero Kids. If Zenn has not yet fancied the board games and robots, he has been asking for “adventure games” nearly everyday since! And Hugh loves it just as much. (Go my little heroes!) This rekindled my passion in D&D so much I recently picked up my dusty Dragonlance books, and picked up other nearly discarded “tomes” and figurines from my fellow hero Kah Yong. For now, when the next opportunity arise, I got two more adventures waiting for them. 🙂

Dash and Dot (update). Dash and Dot doesn’t have the initial wow factor, but its programmability may yet extend its shelf live as kids age and develop more complex thinking. First, it is probably the most expensive among the arsenal of geeky things I contemplated buying. But alas, and after the initial fun (as I have blogged before), I was afraid it was going to collect dust on my TV console. Hugh was two when I bought it on Christmas 2013, and Zenn did not explicitly ask for it but only once a long while. However, recently, Hugh, now 4, rekindled his interests and actively asked to “play robot” from mom almost weekly. What is interesting is Hugh has been focusing on making the robot do things through the Wonder app, and Path app. Wonder provides a series of gamified programming tasks, and he can simply drag and drop lines indicating the sequence of how the program will be activated (or going into loops). The robot can sing, dance, and do silly moves. Path is more direct at this–and Hugh would trace a path which the robot will move and perform. I love seeing how Hugh get exciting in “teaching robot do things.” He has difficulties solving any tasks that contain loops or more than 3 functions. But at his age, its the fun and empowerment to doing that counts.

So far, we did all these geeky things at home by ourselves. We have not yet found any commercial classes, or school activities they could participate in with other kids. But no fear, geeky parents! With these artifacts galore, I think it is wonderful time for kids to grow up with technologies.

“Hey, I know what this is!”: Cultural Affinities and Early-Stage Appropriation of the Emerging Bitcoin Technology

I am pleased to announce that my paper with Xianghua Ding has been accepted by GROUP’16!

In this paper, we investigated the cultural affinities as sociocultural factors that bring early-stage technology appropriators closer to the sites of the innovation, and mediate their journey of negotiating meanings with the innovation.

The sociocultural influences of technological trajectories is under-explored in HCI, despite it having relevance with many mainstream research areas, chiefly technology appropriation, adoption studies, and online communities. We chose technology appropriation as our main theoretical frame, due to appropriation exhibiting a greater emphasis on user participation and creativity (thanks for the many constructive criticisms by diverse reviewers on early versions of this paper); but we tried our best to engage the other frames as well without overcomplicating the theoretical arguments.

I hope the paper helps shed lights on relations between user cultural-histories and technological innovations.

An “epilogue” to Mediating the Undercurrents: Using Social Media to Sustain a Social Movement

Paper writing is largely thoughts seeking an audience. In the process, some thoughts are translated into words and languages, while others are reviewed, and rejected or revised. We are deeply honored to receive a Honorary Mention for the above paper, that discusses “undercurrents—the backstage practices consisting of meaning-making processes, narratives, and situated work” within the Umbrella Movement that took place in Hong Kong. But in the process of massaging the paper into a form relatable to the HCI audience, some of the original texts on the background of the movement were lost. I would like to use this opportunity to include this information–of possible interest to those conducting similar studies in and around Hong Kong.

Before 1997, Hong Kong had been a British colony for more than 150 years, until its reversion to the People’s Republic of China. While the Umbrella Movement had appeared short-lived in the media, the event was best seen as one symptom of social contradictions embedded in this post-colonial society.

In many ways, Hong Kong has exhibited features of a postcolonial society, due to daily life being deeply shaped by British rule, and its status as a global city. As Erni (2001) remarked, “writing about Hong Kong involves a triangular articulation of Chinese nationalism, British colonialism, and globalism, which also evokes the impossibility of serving three masters.” It was under this pretext of renationalization that Hong Kong was given a unique status as a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In many ways, this current protest in Hong Kong is its people’s ongoing search for ways of coming to terms with and identifying the administration that they want for the future of Hong Kong under its legitimate parent—China.

And further exemplifying the resourcefulness of the students organizing on-the-ground activities was how the scale of the Umbrella Movement was accidental and unexpected.

The gathering would have been another peaceful but uneventful congregation, if not for an incident that raised public sympathy for the protesters to unanticipated heights. Suddenly and without many protesters’ knowing, smoke canisters were thrown into the crowd. One landed a meter from Waikuen, as a participant shouted: “tear gas!” The canister exploded, causing a frenzy in the crowd trying to flee the scene. As protesters choked and gasped, they ran over cameras and hurried over barriers . Waikuen and many others retreated to a nearby parking lot. At the parking lot, protesters were recovering from the shock; many were crying—visibly shaken but also enraged by the heavy-handed response from the police force.

Waikuen and many others began to check Facebook and WhatsApp for messages regarding what happened. While Facebook was inaccessible, perhaps due to high network traffic, student participants had circulated information on WhatsApp urging others to leave the scene—citing more police officers arriving through subway trains, and circulating rumors of harsher imminent measures to disperse the crowd.

In the above text, we attempted to provide some ethnographic details on emotions of participants on that fateful night.

In sum, these texts ought to be cut for a design-centric audience; but by including them in this post, I hope to inform those seeking more details about social movements in Hong Kong.

References

Erni, John Nguyet. Like a Postcolonial Culture: Hong Kong Re-imagined. Cultural Studies, 15, 3/4 (2001).

A Programmable Robot for Christmas Fun!

Something fun arrived in a package just in time for Christmas! Dash and Dot are two programmable robot toys, developed by Wonder Workshop (formerly Play-i), for kids 5 years and older to learn programming. I pre-ordered these in December 2013 and due to repeatedly delayed shipment, did not expect them to arrive in time for this Christmas. So it was a pleasant surprise as they arrive just in time in Singapore!

As Zenn and Hugh, my 4-year-old and 2-year-old, did not ask for this, I told them it was Papa’s toy. On the morning of Christmas day, we unwrapped our presents, and Zenn was insatiably curious what Papa had got in the big box from Santa. I wasn’t sure at first if they would be interested in Dash and Dot, but they quickly found ways to interact with them as soon as I hooked the toys up using some iPad’s apps.

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Dash, the robot seen in the following picture, has to be synced with an iPad over bluetooth to be told (i.e., programmed) what to do. The basic app that even Hugh can use if the Go app. The Go app provides touch screen control of Dash to move in any directions, moves its head up/down, left/right, and also its LEDs lightings. While Zenn is old enough to formulate imaginative scenarios, Hugh’s controls are more random but to him is equally fun. Here, they are taking turns to control Dash and see what he can do.

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I taught the boys how to make Dash “talk” (i.e., saying “hi” or making sounds like “meow”). Zenn quickly learned that it could interact with his favorite Red Panda. All except the robot was reacting somewhat incoherently tp the panda’s presence as Hugh was controlling it randomly.

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Another app that is within Zenn’s capacity to use is Path. Path allows the kids to plot a line from Dash’s position to anywhere on a grid. The kids can also insert way points at which Dash will perform actions (e.g., vibrate or make a sound). This way, Dash can be commanded to move from one point to another through many different ways.

Wonder Workshop also provides a Blockly app, which is in effect Scratch but customized for the two robots. Using Blockly is mostly beyond Zenn. At his age, Zenn can certainly understand a sequence of actions, while loops may be a little too complex for him. But using Blockly also requires reading and Zenn is still picking up on this skill. I mostly use Blockly to create interactions that the boys have found fun. For example, Dash can be made to respond to human voice, such as to reply “hi” and look/walk towards the direction of that voice.

Zenn and Hugh are certainly taking an interest in these robots. Yesterday, Hugh was asking to play with it. These gadgets are certainly not replacements for their favorite activities (e.g., drawing, play doh, scooting, and cars), and is more effective if an adult can join as their play partner. But I am glad the robots are finding acceptance as part of their arsenals of imaginative play things–and quite modifiable ones at that!

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update:

Amazingly, both of them (but Hugh particularly) still ask to play with the Dash. They have figured out the Dash’s basic movements, and love recording their own voices so that Dash would ‘say’ things. More recently, we started building lego on Dash using the connectors.

A book by Jaron Lanier on “Who Owns Our Future”

Every ten years or so, we will witness a new technology that impacts our lives. There was electricity, computer, digital media, Internet, and social media (we are still living this). But at times, these innovations also create unexpected consequences to our society. Previously, I had written about problems faced by peer producers creating and sharing software for free.  And I also wrote about how a better division of wealth between corporate IP owners and free sharing content creators could result in a more sustainable production eco-system. I have no idea how this balance could be achieved among monolithic organization; but Lanier, in this book, discussed some fruits for thought.

In a nutshell, Lanier argued that (as many researchers in media studies and games already did) that social media are really informative and enjoyable due in part to free giving content creators. But companies are currently appropriating these user created content for their own profits–due in part to the ways copyright laws are historically formulated. What we need is a system in which “nanopayments” could be paid to content contributors, so as a achieve a fairer division of wealth within, an effectively, a new production eco-system. (I admit that I am missing key points where Lanier discussed wealth as being increasingly centralized by a few companies at the detriment of the middle class. And that nanopayments can help enrich the middle class. I felt that these are more speculative and may be something to be left to the backburner.)

While Lanier did not discuss how nanopayment systems could be designed, I felt that the degree which the problems Lanier mentioned are real and urgent is a strong justification for some slacks in his proposal. This is afterall a starting point for stakeholders (us) to consider if the way we are dividing wealth among Internet participants is flawed, and if so, what should we do about it?  Overall, a very thought provoking read.

DML Research Hub Working Paper Series: “Crafting the Metagame: Connected Learning in the Starcraft II Community”

I am excited to announce the publication of our report that was long in the making. I have been working on StarCraft II research with Timothy Young since late 2011 to examine the players’ learning ethos and practices, and paid most attention to their experiences at home, in school, and in the community. In this working paper series, I also have the honor of working with Katie Salen Tekinbaş from the Institute of Play, who had obtained unprecedented access to interviewing Blizzard Entertainment designers and developers to understand their design perspectives. By analyzing both the players’ and developers’ perspectives, we described how these different kinds of localities–home, school, community, and work place–are playing complementary roles in cultivating technical skills, social ethics, learning attitudes, and social networks that are invaluable to these high achieving young geeks in their future careers.

 You can find the paper at: http://dmlhub.net/publications/crafting-metagame-connected-learning-starcraft-ii-community

Formalizing and Securing Relationships on Public Networks, by Nicholas Szabo

For anyone who is interested in the future of information and networked society, I found this paper, written by a very early proponent of digital money, Nick Szabo, to be quite relevant. Szabo is most famous for his articles and blogs, which covered a wide range of subjects from history, economics, to cryptography–which may have influenced the development of Bitcoin. But to my delight, I have also found a First Monday paper written by Szabo on the rationales and approaches to digitizing paper contracts using cryptography, and social issues that we have yet to resolve.

This paper addresses what Szabo called the “smart contracts.” To quote what he has described as a benefit of smart contracts:

Control protocols, and the professions of auditing and accounting based on them, play a critical but ill-analyzed role in our economy. … Controls allow a quarrelsome species ill-suited to organizations larger than small tribes to work together on vast projects like manufacturing jumbo jets and running hospitals. These control protocols are the result of many centuries of business experience and have a long future ahead of them, but the digital revolution will soon cause these paper-era techniques to be dramatically augmented by, and eventually integrate into, smart contracts.

According to Szabo, “The basic idea behind smart contracts is that many kinds of contractual clauses … can be embedded in the hardware and software we deal with.” For example, when ‘company A’ sends money to their ‘distributor B,’ this transaction can be recorded digitally on public networks, but encrypted in a way that its details are only accessible by authorized persons, e.g., shareholders and auditors. That is, the public will know that company A and company B signed a contract, but the details are kept secret, as per standard business practice. This reduces fraud and increases accountability of companies; auditors will not need to rely on uncooperative (perhaps incompetent or dishonest) accountants to provide figures and thus more likely to deliver more accurate judgments on corporate performances. There are also sections discussing other forms of transactions, e.g., reputation, credit, and content rights management.

The paper may not be written in the best language, but for its raw merits in describing something truly revolutionary, I believe it has contents that will benefit information scholars.

Bitcoin In-use #4: Buying lunch

A Hong Kong food outlet has been accepting bitcoin for a while now, and is becoming a favorite among some local bitcoiners. Mr Bing, a Chinese crepe chain store, sells delicious “Chinese crepe” with stuffed ingredients. And I enjoyed their crispy and spicy Peking Duck stuffing most. Only their store in Central, Hong Kong, accepts bitcoin.

Central is the financial district of Hong Kong, and also the location of Lan Kwai Fong. the famous expats’ hangouts for drinking and clubbing. There are usually numerous people here who dressed much better and prettier than how they were born. To avoid the crowd, I went there in a Tuesday noon. Mr Bing is just about a ten minutes walk from Central MTR (subway) station. The store is nicely tucked round the corner down a side street. It is, however, difficult to miss its bright orange color.

This picture shows the store’s exterior, with a Bitcoin Group HK sign sticking on the top right corner. Bitcoin Group HK is a company that has just started installing bitcoin ATMs locally. Mr Bing has few sitting space inside the shop. I reckoned that most customers would buy and go. The cashier girl seems a little reluctant, so I did not take many interior photos.

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I looked at the menu and ordered my usual Peking Duck Crepe. The cashier girl entered my order and after I had asked for bitcoin payment, she started entering some information onto an iPad. It does take a minute or two at this instance. She held out the iPad with a large and conspicuous QR code in front of me.

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I expertly took out my phone, started my Mycelium app, and scanned the QR code. The payment amount, 0.0139 BTC, appeared on my app. I clicked “Send,” and the payment went through. The cashier girl inspected her iPad, and in less than 3 seconds, told me, “OK.” I knew the payment went through. Figure below shows my app displaying a payment of about US$5.07 being sent through the network, and also my receipt that indicated HK$49 was accepted through the bitcoin payment processor, BItpay.

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While I was waiting, I could clearly see a bitcoin ATM installed by Bitcoin Group HK, sitting at a corner within the store’s confined space, calling to be used.

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I chatted a little with the cook, a friendly Chinese senior age lady, who saw me taking photographs. She asked if I love Mr Bing. I said I do. I wanted to tell her I love bitcoin too, but paused for a while wondering if she would understand. Before I realized it, my crepe was ready!

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I love bitcoin, and the crepe as well!

Bitcoin In-use #03: Buying bitcoin in a retail store

There is a bitcoin retail store in Hong Kong! The store, operated by ANX, is tucked away in Sheung Wan, in an old Hong Kong district where you can still find trolley buses and colonial houses. The store, almost a hole in a wall, occupies a shop in an inconspicuous mall where you can find tenants like travel agencies, family owned restaurants, and a jockey club outlet (one of the travel agency actually accepts bitcoins). It is not the most glamorous of places, but it is very exciting for me! Have you seen any other retail stores selling bitcoin?!

This is how the store front looks like.

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I am aware of ANX retail store through their publicity effort a while ago, which was circulating in the Hong Kong community. Quite impressive for the nascent and highly global community.

There are two front desk assistants in the store, and let me call them Freddy and Jenny. The store was new when I visited. And Freddy had only learned about bitcoin for five days. Naturally, I sensed hesitation when I said I wanted to try buying HK$100 worth of bitcoin. Buy Jenny, having about half a year experience with bitcoin, quickly come to the assist. I waited as Jenny helped Freddy through the steps of verifying my account information. I would have needed to register for an account with ANX, with my id and all, but I had already done that with them online before I came visit.

In not more than five minutes, Jenny showed me the numbers, and she smiled for the camera.

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That is, for HK$100, they could sell me 0.01778354 bitcoins. This moment felt like a typical moment at a money changer, but with just slightly more paper work.

Freddy and Jenny then get back to the computer to confirm the trade, and handed me the receipt.

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I had expected that I will receive the bitcoins in my wallet. But instead, it will be deposited into my web account. The whole process took about 10 minutes, but can possibly be completed in 5 by trained hands. There was more paperwork than I thought is reasonable, as money changers do not require IDs if the value of the exchange is below a threshold. But it is the first retail store of a highly scrutinized artifact–so kudos to the pioneers!

How do governments keep getting bigger?

Milton Friedman had believed that governments have natural tendencies to get bigger, and bigger government means more taxes, but not necessarily a more efficient society. I am still pondering this idea while reading his book Capitalism and Freedom, and then I came across a blog post Theory Weary by a very accomplished CSCW scientist Jonathan Grudin. (And in that regard, I completely agree that HCI papers should be entirely theory-less and data-driven! –unless of course when they are framed under Activity Theory 🙂 )

I enjoyed reading the post, but I couldn’t help but keep revisiting one sentence in it, “With CSCW acceptance rates again down to around 25%, despite a revision cycle…” So we had just added more administrative work (something like a bigger government), but essentially having the same outcome? How uncanny that Friedman’s foresight seems to apply to HCI.