About my blog

I am multithreaded, and sometimes the threads get tangled.

tagline


a Studiolab production.

FIY

food design course at TUDelft
I blog in Italian
I have a LinkedIn profile
my lab is Studiolab!
I love Jasper van Kuijk's product usability weblog

the wind I am enjoying


Disclaimer

De meningen ge-uit door medewerkers en studenten van de TU Delft en de commentaren die zijn gegeven reflecteren niet perse de mening(en) van de TU Delft. De TU Delft is dan ook niet verantwoordelijk voor de inhoud van hetgeen op de TU Delft weblogs zichtbaar is. Wel vindt de TU Delft het belangrijk - en ook waarde toevoegend - dat medewerkers en studenten op deze, door de TU Delft gefaciliteerde, omgeving hun mening kunnen geven.

Walter Aprile's pochedespès

my professional blog at TUDelft

my Arduinia on GitHub

GitHub has made it easy and even faintly entertaining to manage code. I am not so convinced by their octopus cat logo, but everything else is quite nice. I have two little projects you might want to use up there:

AFRO: Arduino FRObber. A bit like Firmata, only easier to understand. You load a program on your Arduino and then shoot serial commands at it: turn on that pin! what is the value of that sensor? Call that procedure 10 times! This sort of things. Comes with Python bindings. Afro aims at making simple installations really fast.

Ardulink: an optical data link for Arduino. With one LED you can get data out of your Arduino. With one light sensor you can receive it. The main advantage of this code is size and simplicity. If you choose to #undef RECEIVE symbol and #define only SEND, the code compiles to less than one kilobyte and runs also on an ATtiny 45. It uses one CHANGE interrupt to avoid polling. Currently the speed is pathetic, because I am not using the microsecond resolution timer. But for sending little squirts of data it is quite OK.

Three pointers on programming languages, designers, prototypes

Related to the great work that Robert Paauwe is doing, here are three tasty links from Aadjan:

 

 

  Super cool video from Bret Victor talking about his approach to programming and to life: http://www.i-programmer.info/news/112-theory/3900-a-better-way-to-program.html (and direct Vimeo link). I would say that he is slightly cheating, because he is demonstrating code that runs, draws a picture and then terminates. It would be harder to do this sort of tricks with code that has complex internal dependencies, carries a lot of state around, has a long runtime and does not produce understandable visual output. Also, he is a boring speaker, but the ideas are great. 
 
Interview with Jonathan Ive about the value of prototyping ideas.
 
Why only designers can create new programming languages: http://tagide.com/blog/2012/03/research-in-programming-languages/ – blog post from someone who knows about programming language. Interesting? Irritating?

If you can imagine that, I had to format this with an HTML table. Such are the joys.

Minibloq: a visual programming editor for the Arduino

Very lazily, just a quick link to this very exciting environment

Minibloq project and download page: http://blog.minibloq.org/

Forum: http://minibloq.net/forum 

The interface lets you put together a program by dragging colorful blocks (a bit like Scratch). Blocks roughly correspond to lines of code or fragments of expressions.

 

The blocks are converted in real time into C code for the Arduino. I think that all variables are assumed to be float. You can see the code (that you cannot edit) on screen as it is being generated. If anything in your block diagram is red, this means that something is missing in your program and the code will not compile.

 

The code is then compiled and uploaded to the Arduino. The environment includes a serial terminal (that in Arduinoland people like to call a serial monitor). There is also a console window underneath, where you can see the usual Arduino spouting of mad and mysterious gibberish that would make a lot of sense, if only years ago you had decided to become an embedded computing nerd.

If you want to see the whole interface in its glory, here it is in its 1920 pixel wide splendor.

I am certainly going to point ITD students to this. I am not sure if this can be used “seriously” for prototypes or if it is more of a training wheel for the first weeks of getting acquainted with Arduino. My perplexities are based on:

 

  • very direct mapping from C to blocks (no abstraction)
  • heavy use of screen space (as you can see, even in this small example the visual program is longer than the C program), which in turn will make bigger programs very hard
  • does not solve the trickyness with variables having action at a distance

 

but these are common issues with visual programming environments

 

 

Lights in the sky

Being a nerd is all about seeing things in a different light. And about absorbing vast amounts of knowledge about all sorts of things, and being able to apply it (or at least regurgitate it) when it is necessary. Or also when it is not necessary at all, but you just think it is neat. In this spirit, I once read through the Atmospheric Optics site to satisfy my curiosity about some strange colored spot I had seen in the sky.

It turns out that, of course, there are people that do whole PhDs on this type of thing. Without further ado, here is one photograph.

 

This was taken in Brussels, shooting directly towards the sun with a fisheye lens. I am holding the lens cap in front of the sun in order to reduce light ghosts and flares. If you look in the upper portion of the picture, close to the flue on the left, you can discern something like a rainbow. A bit lower, right above the sun, there is another slight spray of color like a smiling mouth. These are not artifices from the lens: they were visible then and there. To help you see them, I have increased contrast and saturation along a top to bottom gradient.

 

 

 

 

In the enhanced picture, you can see the upper arc, the lower upturned arc (very weak) and two curious spots of color on either side of the sun. The one on the right appears just behind that irritating tree, the one on the left is barely visible. I have added outlines to the pictures, so you know what I am talking about.

 

 

OK, but what are these things? you are asking yourself. They are optical atmospheric phenomena produced by the interaction of sunrays and tiny ice crystals in the high atmosphere – contrast that with the rainbow, that is produced by interaction with tiny drops of water. The ice cristals can take on various shapes and orientation, giving rise to various phenomena. The best place to see them is not Bruxelles, but rather the South Pole. You can find more detailed information at the Atmospheric Optics website.

My best identification is as follows; the lower two twin splotches of light are sundogs also known as parhelia (always at 22 degrees from the sun!), a useful word for casual conversation. The weak one in the center  is an upper tangent arc, and the big one on top looks to me like part of a supralateral arc. From this information, you can deduce many cheerful facts about the state of the high atmosphere over Bruxelles. 

 

LikeMeat, MSc graduation project

LikeMeat

 

update 23-6-2011: this assignment has already found its student. I am keeping this announcement here for historical purposes only.

This assignment is for a DFI student, preferably one that has followed the Food, Design and Culture class. If prototyping, concept development at the fuzzy front end, new food products, creativity workshops and early user involvement (e.g. contextmapping) tickle your interest, this may be for you.

LikeMeat is an
European project (partners from Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Czech
Republic, Spain, Slovenia and Belgium) which aims at developing a meat-like meat substitute / protein
source which meets the requirements of the consumers of such products.  The consortium consists of three research
partners (WUR-FBR Wageningen, Fraunhofer Germany, BOKU Austria) and ten
companies (mostly SMEs). WUR-FBR (department Consumer Science and Intelligent
Systems) is in charge of the consumer research of the project. Fraunhofer
develops a meat alternative (LikeMeat) and BOKU is mostly involved in the
microbiological safety of the product. 
The SME’s are the clients of this project and commission the research
institutes with the project. LikeMeat is also the name of the meat substitute.

 

 

Notice that we are doing this in collaboration with
Wageningen University, a strong leader in food-related science and
technology. The student working on the project will come into contact with
companies and people that operate in the highly innovative new food
world – a very good networking opportunity for future work and
research.

Assignment

Develop a novel
product or meal concept that includes LikeMeat and targets flexible
vegetarians. This can be a product concept (ready food or ingredient), or a
whole meal concept including recipes and context. Small specialized tools can
also be designed as part of the concept, if necessary.

Deliverables

The project will run
from May/June 2011 to October 2011.

Creative workshop with
LikeMeat project participants  – end of May
2011

Report on product and
menu/recipe concepts – end of Aug 2011

Report on concepts for
marketing the product, like packaging and communication – Oct 2011

Report on methods for
food product development – Oct 2011

Contact

You can contact me at w.aprile@tudelft.nl – but you can also just show up at Studiolab, I am there Tuesday to Friday. Do take a look at the complete call for a graduation student and decide if it is OK for you.

You may also want to read a handy guide I wrote: How to be my graduation student

for non-Delfters: a graduation student is a student who is doing his final MSc project.

(this project has also been announced through the usual channels – this is just extra exposure)

sustainability rant stuff

I am collecting stuff for a rant about sustainability. Since Firefox is creaking under the weight of a bazillion open tabs, here are some of the links. Somebody else may find them interesting or provocative.

When energy efficiency sullies the environment, John Tierney, NYT 7/3/2011

The Sins of Syn Bio, how synthetic biology will bring us cheaper plastics by ruining the poorest nations on Earth, Jim Thomas, Slate, 2/2/2011

Ugandan scientists grow GM banana as disease threatens country’s staple food. Ban on GM crops waived after bacterial disease causes annual banana crop losses of $500m, Xan Rice in Galamba, The Guardian, 9/3/2011

Disease v. culture: Botulism in the Arctic, Maryn McKenna, WIRED, 5/2/2011

Sinistra divisa sui «fagiolini equi» della Coop. Il Prc attacca un progetto che coinvolge la Toscana: danneggia i nostri contadini e quelli del Burkina. La replica: sciocchezze, Sergio Rizzo, Corriere della Sera, 25/3/2007

Birkeland, J. and E. Corporation (2002). Design for sustainability: a sourcebook of integrated, eco-logical solutions, CSIRO.

Sherren, K. (2007). "Is there a sustainability canon?" The Environmentalist 27(3): 341-347.

I wouldn’t want to leave you hanging – the point I would like to make is that sustainability is a bad design driver because it is anti-historical, impossible to verify a posteriori and useless as a heuristic a priori. The much less grand efficiency, on the other hand, is a good design driver. In other words, if you do design for sustainability I really don’t understand what you are doing (or how you can do it).

Apple users are masochists

I have just realized what is so amazing about the iPhone: its users. It is not the interface, or the battery or the OS or even the interaction design. It is the users. The iPhone users are primed to accept anything that comes out of Apple as the greatest thing ever invented. And they are ready to believe that it was invented by Apple. This is an important part of why You Can’t Innovate  Like Apple (and if you want to discuss Apple as a designer in the future you really need to read that article) – your users are not like their users.  Or rather, they may be the very same users but they have a different relationship with you, if you are not Apple.

The best part is that Apple users are happy to pay for everything, or at least to wait for it.

Tethering? You mean, actually using your phone as a modem for a PC? Something I used to do with my stodgy Nokia 5120 rubberphone what, eight years ago? 

but perhaps the best example is the amazing Find My iPhone, an exciting app with the following features (cut and paste from the Apple site)

Find myIphone Alternative
Locate your iPhone or iPad on a map Google Latitude has been out for a while.
Display a message and optionally play a sound for two minutes at full volume (even if your device is set to silent) SMS Flash messages plus making silent mode expire after a few hours (many phones can do this). Flash SMS have been around for ages.
Remotely set a passcode lock on your device, or lock it using your existing passcode Nokia phones do this but in a different way. 
Remotely wipe your device to permanently erase all of your personal data This is probably a bad idea. I am waiting for the first exciting exploit, and the following global wail of despair.

the big news is that now Apple made the software free.  The cognitive peculiarity of the Apple user is that, instead of being irritated at the company for making him pay previously, he is delighted because now it is free!

Other excellent examples would be cut-and-paste and multitasking. What good is a device like the iPhone when it does only one thing at a time – making you choose between e.g. running some IM program OR browsing the web OR running Skype OR checking your calendar? It beats me. But I am not an Apple user. So I cannot join in the delighted cheer for the multitasking in IOS4: I am still too flabbergasted by the absence of multitasking in IOSx, with x<4. Of course, all the update goodness does not distribute evenly across iPhone models: slightly older ones get little or no loving. But the Apple user does not care! Because now he can convince himself that he desperately needs multitasking, the same feature that he had previously rationalized away as Android nuttiness only good for techies: which means that he can make one more happy trip to the Apple store, preferably with a queue that starts at 4AM.

And he can have one more unboxing experience, which, as we know, is an important part of the Apple product experience.

But again, I am not a boxophiliac iPhone user. I have the privilege of knowing many, though. I can see how hugely insincere they are when they complain because the display of their phone broke: actually they are delighted because they can give another lump of money to Apple. And I am ever amazed by their inner strength. This is from gizmodo:

In previous versions of the iPhone OS,
if you are working on email and there’s a link to a web page, clicking
on that link will open Safari and close Mail. Then, once you were done
watching that web page, you close Safari, get back to the main iPhone
menu, click on the Mail icon, and go back to your mail.  (from Gizmodo, How Multitasking Works in the New iPhone OS 4.0 published on 4/4/2010, dowloaded today)

The amount of fortitude required to engage in something like this is, I am afraid, beyond me. I have been spoiled in my youth, and I can’t put up with this amount of crap any more. Of course, I have used computers that do not multitask and don’t even switch tasks, but it was in the Eighties (home computers: Commodore and Sinclair). Then I found out about UNIX, that has been multitasking since 1969 (when it was created to run on computers whose memory was measured in kilobytes). To say the least, you could call multitasking a pretty well established idea in the field. I am too much of a wuss now for single-tasking computers, with the exception of the Arduino.

The condition of the Apple user is similar to somebody who is in thrall to a demanding, expensive, prostitute. You buy her affection with money (or you imagine that you are buying it), and she stingily doles out her favors, turning every little element of life into a theatrical show where you have to pay and pay. She can do everything for you, provided it is what she wants to do. And you pay, you watch the streaming video shows where the Wizard sells you whatever he feels is right and you read the fawning press. And of course, you import the phone from faraway countries where you can get it unlocked (imagine that!), jailbreak it in complex and dangerous ways, terrified that your wife might find out… it is all there inside Venus in Furs. I am indeed going to pay a high compliment to the Apple user, by comparing him to the Baron de Charlus in À la recherche du temps perdu and his passion for being whipped.

In short, his desire to be chained and beaten betrayed, in its ugliness, a dream just as poetic as other men’s desire to go to Venice or to keep a mistress.

Or, as it were, to be Apple users.

Now putting on my assistant-professorial hat (it looks just like a professorial hat, only it is smaller, less furry and the sequins are silver) I will point you to a an enlightening post about the iPad ecosystem and how you would need to create one if you wanted to make very succesful tablets, and to an old post about the chicken-and-egg problem by Joel Spolski, a very sharp software guy. BTW, chicken and egg is another way of saying "you need the whole ecosystem, otherwise you are just a hardware pusher putting lipstick on a sow".Slightly less techy but still on the ball you can read an NYT article, "The power of the platform".

“Surrogates” (2009) – on neophobia and rooting for the bad guys

Surrogates is a 2009 movie featuring Bruce Willis, Rosamund Pike, Ving Rhames and James Cromwell, one of my favourite actors that specializes in truly evil, creepy bad guys in position of power. Surrogates is set in a slightly science fiction future where robot bodies are common. The robots are actually telerobots controlled by teleoperators from their homes.

 

Bruce Willis does not like the future, so he is going to mess it up for everybody.

 

So all these robot bodies, some very beautiful, some very utilitiarian and machine-like, roam the streets and do stuff, like working at a beauty saloon or fighting wars. And their operators meanwhile are in vaguely creepy, red-lit couches with scary devices on their eyes, managing the remote body. Some people work from home, others from giant offices.Our protagonist is a cop, a profession in which the use of a surrogate body is really a good idea. The protagonist being Bruce Willis, you can bet that his surrogate looks exactly like him plus a stupid blond wig.

The movie has a plot, in the way a sea cucumber has a nervous system. It is tiny and underdeveloped, but it is good enough to manage the sea cucumber’s affair in a pretty decent way. Nobody has ever complained, at any rate. I will not hypothetically spoil the tiny plot for you, although you will be able to deduce all of it about 10 minutes into the movie.

 

At the beginning of the movie we are told that surrogates have dropped the crime rate by 99% and that basically the world has turned into the land of milk and honey. You would say dude, this is great, we have a good economy, no crime, go surrogates go! But no, this would place you in the Bad Guys camp.

Bruce Willis has some sort of growing objection to the whole surrogate idea. It has mostly to do with him feeling estranged from his wife, and she refusing to let him see her "real" body, because she thinks that with time she has become hideous. And you know what? She is quite right. Her surrogate looks like Rosamund Pike in full battle paint. In the first scene where the real woman is visible, she looks like she has been sleeping wrapped in her own hair under a sofa for ten years. If I were in that state, I would not want to meet mr. mature male hotness Bruce Willis.

 

this is what Madame Willis looks like, every day, all day. Would you have any complaints with it? I mean, seriously. And her friends are all good looking too. 

 

Bruce Willis (ignore his character’s name in the movie: you will think of him all the time as Bruce Willis anyway) does what he does in every movie, that is he gets hurt in the face, bleeds, sweats and gets smeared with one thousand different kinds of dirt, most of them greasy and black. His surrogate gets destroyed by hairy, Mad Max like people who reject surrogates because they have no souls and are an abomination unto God. The Mad Maxers live in scary reservations made mostly of ripped-up containers and run their parallel economy, based on holding demonstrations and trading tomatoes among themselves. Their personal igene also leaves something to be desired, as does their fashion sense.

I was not able to find anywere in the Bible any prohibition about teleoperated robots, or any claim that teleloperated robots are supposed to have souls.

At any rate, Bruce has a sort of a very subtle conflict there (this movie is all about extreme subtlety, shades of motion, delicately calibrated grays and Bruce Willis blowing shit up with cool gadgets) because as a cop and a surrogate user he is supposed to be against the hairy and scary Mad Max people, but as a guy that hates surrogates because he would like to get sweaty and greasy with the real body of his wife, indeed he is slightly in favor of the Mad Maxers and their weird, hairy prophet (Ving Rhames, but I don’t need to say that to you). So we have a conflicted protagonist, something that already goes beyond a sea cucumber understanding.

 

The wig is supposed to make the Willis’ body much younger and fresher. Instead it makes him look like an extra in a Swedish tv serial. A low budget one. On the other hand, iceblock tough cop Radha Mitchell wears her surrogate like a Chanel.

 

The movie ends up with a crazy nutjob trying to destroy all the robots and their operators. This is partially prevented by The Willis, who manages to save the human operators but lets a crazy powerful virus thing spread around the network and permanently fry all the robots. The world comes to a standstill, as all the robots picturesquely flop to the ground, and the real people emerge from thir houses looking like shit (I hope I am allowed to use the word shit in a TUDelft blog post). So here they are, in the street, wearing dressing gowns and slippers, smelling the air and looking at the sky and each other, and probably having great street community parties (but this is only implied).

This leaves a gigantic plothole that manages to make Bruce Willis’ character look much worse than the baddies. If the whole world is mostly operated by surrogates, and all these surrogates suddenly… cease to be, I think that there will be a bit more problems than a few low-speed car crashes. Like ships colliding with each other, airplanes falling out of the sky, power stations and factories blowing up… Flash Forward got this quite right: disasters and devastation with just a few minutes of blackout. So there would be quite a few dead instantly, and then I can predict a few million indirect deaths as the world’s economy first crashes and then slowly picks up again while all the slug people come out of their houses and get, I don’t know, terrible sunburn. 

And all this why? The only reason is that Bruce Willis has a problem with his wife. So he decides to cause quite a lot of disaster and devastation to a world that -clearly- has decided that they actually like using surrogates. But once the Willis has decided, there is no turning back or offering alternate views.

The true cherry on the cake is the Ving Rhames character, the Prophet. The Prophet characterization was not, shall we say, very light handed.

 

I thought this gesture was reserved for Mafia dons when they say "come to me, my son". No hairspray has been spared to achieve this level of dreadness. Check out the rings too.

 

A perfect example of the trope called the Magical Negro, Rhames prophetically surrounds himself with large, gun-happy idiotic bodyguards. He dies at some time, but his valiant sacrifice fails to provide the "Wow, dude!" plot reversal moment that the writer was probably hoping for.

The problem with this movie is that we are never really told what drives this whole chain of events, and what exactly is so terrible and inhuman and overall super-unbearably-BAD about using surrogates. It is not like they are planning to take over or develop autonomy. Moreover, the fact that the anti-surrogate point of view is championed by fundamentalist technophobic muddy idiots does not help to make it more respectable or attractive (actual plot line, crazy fully human lady with shotgun: "You are an abomination! KABOOM."). We even get a batty old scientist that fails to make a point about why surrogates are so dehumanizing. They just are.

Basically, it is a neophobic movie where the new is bad because it is bad. Perhaps this is entirely appropriate for our neophobic years, were anything can happen and anything can be done, as long as it is done in a virtual world or online.  This is why when watching this movie I was rooting hard for the bad guys. I also found the scene where all the perfect robod bodies fall to the ground never to rise again unbelievably sad. It’s back to the old meatbag for you all! Bruce Willis has decided for you!

 

Arduino pointers and WoOz

 

 

 

Just a few pointers to useful posts and pages about Arduino activities that my students could find interesting:

  • Arduino and the I2C bus, an easy tutorial from Littlebirdelectronics. Make your Arduino talk with other Arduinos and thousands of electronic parts over this simple two-wires bus. Slower than serial but much lighter.
  • First steps into Arduino, from an experimenter called Will Eatherton
  • Reading a gas meter with Arduino, interesting and adaptable to reading other types of meters (electricity, for example) or measuring the movement of moving parts in genera. Uses also the Ethernet shield.
  • Building an Arduino based laser game, from the IBM developerWorks. Superbly detailed and clear, explains how to transmit small pieces of data over a laser beam (and it would also work with visible light).
  • Using interrupts to measure time, to go beyond what pulseIn can do for you (this is an Arduino board discussion thread, read and use with caution)

In other news, we got a fine example of the Wizard of Oz technique at the Interactive Environments minor:

The MindHive team was busy controlling two interactive blocks with RGB leds. Two team members manipulate three sliders each, and another team mate does the talking and demoing. Click on the picture to get it in full resolution (3.5 Megs). Read all about it in their blog post.

Pointers for photography

Today I gave a little presentation inside the Computer Visualization class, run by Daniel Saakes. During the talk, I mentioned a few websites with very useful material. Here they are:

  • photo.net is my standard pointer for introduction to photo technique. A very large site with a vibrant community and many useful tutorials
  • Computational Camera and Photography MIT Opencourseware site centered on the near future of digital photography. Unusual techniques to make you rethink photography.
  • Digital Photography from the School of Computer Science at Stanford. Includes applets to simulate photographic phenomena like depth of field. Very good in depth explanations of colorspaces and the gamma function.
  • dpreview.com Technical reviews of photographic equipment. If you want to see diffraction demonstrated, take a look at any of their lens tests and watch what happens when you stop down the lens.
  • Strobist will teach you how to use strobes and, more generally, how to think about light in photography. If you are thinking "I hate strobes", this is the site for you. If you love existing light photography, this is the site for you. 

Why not include the two extreme examples I showed today? So, extreme depth of field and extremely shallow depth of field:

 

This was shot in Overschie this morning with a 10.5mm lens stopped down at f5.6, which guarantees that pretty much everything you see is in focus.

this, on the other hand, was shot with a 100mm lens at f2.8 from about one meter of distance. The Depth of Field applet you can find on the Stanford site lets you compute that the DOF was just a few centimeters. You can tell by the fact that the eyebrows are sharp but the eyeglasses frames are not, nor is the ear.

If you click on the photographs, you can download a higher-but-still-reasonable resolution version where the DOF difference will be even more apparent. Many thanks to super-photographer Bruko for reminding me of Strobist.

© 2011 TU Delft