On The Road: Insights from Dogs, Babies, and Hard Drive Crashes

I’ve been on the road for over a week now, travelling around California for business and pleasure. The business: the museum test of the interactive exhibit technology that I’ve been working on with Inquirium, a learning sciences and design firm I’ve worked with in the past. The pleasure: celebrating the 40th birthday of high school buddy and former co-conspirator Mark Kern.

The problem: Mark’s chocolate lab Chloe, a bouncy 4-month old puppy with an admirable enthusiasm for visitors.

On the very first day in California, Chloe joyfully knocked my Macbook Pro out of my lap and onto Mark’s lovely hardware floor. It didn’t seem to land that hard, so I thought nothing of it. But I noticed that the machine had started to act very sluggish. After killing some processes and determining it wasn’t some weird network-related thing, it turned out that the operating system was locking up because the hard drive was unable to read data from the hard drive reliably. In other words, the computer was hosed, along with all my work applications and data. The dog was not blamed or punished, as it wasn’t her (or anyone’s fault), but it did mean that I was doomed to enjoy my time in Southern California without doing a lick of work. In a way it is a good real-world test of my mobile development setup. This is the first time I’ve lost a hard drive to an accident like this; better it happen while I’m in California than, say, Costa Rica. I would have preferred that this didn’t happen before travelling to San Jose for 10 days of intensive development work. I was also pretty much offline until Tuesday night.

AppleCare Not

When I got to San Jose, my cousin Ben arranged for an appointment at the Apple Store Genius Bar, but ultimately they could not do what I wanted: give me rapid hard drive replacement and allow me to keep my old hard drive to recover my data. Apple Store policy, apparently, is to exchange hard drives; someone told me that Apple refurbs the returned drives and uses them again, but I can’t confirm this personally. Plan B was a visit to Mac Pro, an independent Apple Macintosh store that’s been around since 1988. I’d visited them for the first time a few months ago, because they just happened to be the exclusive North American distributor for those nifty Levertigo 17″ MacBook Pro Bags I was eying, and were conveniently nearby. Mac Pro’s staff were friendly and pretty helpful, and they possessed that fine balance between critical geeky competency and a desire to help their customers without making a lot of excuses. I had them take care of the laptop for me over the next two days while I was on-site at the museum. Though I could have waited until I got home and done an AppleCare exchange, I decided to just bite the bullet and get a new hard drive, upping the capacity to 320GB in the process. I used a SATA-to-USB drive interface to recover my data from the old disk, and restored a Windows XP bootable partition–yes, I’m running Windows XP on my MBP through Boot Camp. Although all my creative apps await restoration when I return home, all my source code and assets are on my Subversion server, and I was able to re-install Visual Studio 2005 without mishap.

One other good thing came out of this experience: the discovery of Portable Thunderbird for my email needs. I was without my own computer for a week, but I did have a 4GB USB thumb drive. With Portable Thunderbird, you can install your entire email program on a USB drive and carry your account profiles with you. While it’s a little sluggish compared to having the app installed on your hard drive, it’s very usable for day-to-day email checking. You can get a lot more open source apps from PortableApps website, such as Open Office Portable, Pidgin (formally Gaim) Portable, Firefox Portable, and The Gimp Portable. I’m pretty excited about Pidgin, the multi-protocol Instant Messaging client, because I can now have one master instant messenger setup that I can use on whatever computer I happen to be on. And even better: when I upgrade my computer, I won’t have to lose all my logs and re-setup. That’s a pain in the ass.

Hanging Out at the San Jose Tech Innovation Museum

As I’d mentioned in past posts, I’ve been working with Inquirium to create an interactive museum exhibit technology platform based on 3D motion tracking cameras and a high-end graphics PC. One of Inquirium’s contacts got us into an unused part of the San Jose Tech Museum of Innovation, complete with a small video projector and screen, which is just right for our test. The museum staff has also been super-friendly and accomodating despite all the other stuff they have to do, providing us with some space and running cables for us.

On the technology itself: we have been able to use the infrared illuminators we got from Fry’s Electronics to improve the 3D camera tracking accuracy without washing out the projector screen, though it’s still prone to jittering and false positives. We think we can tune the interaction and jump detection further, but our greatest challenge is the small size of the interaction area. To accomodate dozens of kids flowing through the space, we’ll have to make some adjustments to our expectations of how to best manage traffic through adaptive interaction while retaining our commitment to delivering our core message in a non-superficial way. That’s what the rest of this week will be about. We’ve also learned a lot about the kind of code development we need to tackle next to support the next phase of interactive prototyping. I’m looking forward to writing that up.

The San Jose Tech Museum, AKA “The Tech”, is itself very cool; it’s been a while since I’ve visited any science and technology museum, the Boston Museum of Science nearby. I haven’t been to the MOS in quite some time, but I remember it being a somewhat cramped and dark space. The Tech, by comparison, has a very light and open hub by the entrance, with each floor running its own warren of technology-based activities. I haven’t really had a chance to spend much time with the exhibits there yet, though in my quick run through I saw several things I wanted to try, like a video-feed controlled submersible ROV in an enormous fish tank, a simulated space walk chair that uses jets of compressed air position yourself under a satellite, and a whack a spam machine situated in the informative yet festive Internet exhibit. There are also permanent exhibits on Invention and Innovation, which are subjects close to my heart; in particular, there are some life-size pictures of actual inventors photographed against white backgrounds with some words about what they do. I found the presentation to be striking while humanizing the invention process. I don’t know if kids would be as moved, but I certainly was. Next time I’m out on the west coast I should also check out The Exploratorium up in San Francisco, now that I actually have met someone that works there.

Insights Away from Home

Five years ago I would have said that the part of New England I’m from suits my temperament best:

  • people are naturally reserved and keep their distance
  • we have real contrast in our seasons
  • the likelihood of earthquakes, tidal waves, poisonous snakes, tornados, tarantulas, scorpions is very low

Surprisingly, I find the San Jose area growing on me. It might be the combination of Fry’s Electronics, plentiful quality asian food, nearby relatives, and the mildly warm weather in comparison to the long winter. The ethnic diversity is also refreshing. There are also a lot more people here, and I’m finding that the relaxed atmosphere coupled with the high density of geek culture in Sillicon Valley rather attractive. I am missing home, though, because I have the nagging feeling that I’ve my life back home is “on-hold” while I’m out here working. While it’s only been two weeks, this is the longest amount of time I’ve been away since 2000, when I flew to Taiwan for my grandfather’s funeral. My friend Erin and I have a theory about “experiencing the true nature of a place” that relates to this: it takes at least two weeks to feel like you’re “there”, so you need to commit to at least four weeks before you’ll know what it’s like to live there. On this trip, I’m also finding it takes about ten days for me to start really missing home, and I think this helps corroborate the theory for my own use. I’d like to experience more places over longer periods of time. I think this might help reveal who I really am, whatever that means.

Also, while having the day-to-day continuity with real live people is really important to me, this trip has made me aware that there are “anchoring activities” that I can bring with me wherever I go and still feel pretty good:

  • I can write to people: Without a working computer, I realized that of all the things I do the most, it’s writing to people. It’s impulsive and obsessive and a source of feeling connected. Being without a computer has been tough, but mostly because I have been out of touch with people. Because I’ve been so busy also, I haven’t maintained the regular dialog with whoever is out there listening. The urge to communicate is, I believe, my passion. It doesn’t matter what I’m communicating, so long as some connection is made and ideas are conveyed across it authentically.

  • I can take pictures: Taking pictures helps me remember places, and relate my experience when I email them later. I need to add video to the mix. As I edit and arrange the imagery at night, I find myself reliving the experience. This is kind of relaxing…it might be the closest thing I have to a hobby. Digital photography combines my enthusiasm for instant results while providing the raw resources for later reflection. It also gets me out of the house to look for new experiences.

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p>So if there’s a remote job I could do, it might be as a journalist for my own publication (this blog) and so long I had regular contact with the important people in my life, I might have a good time.

Resuming Life

There are a bunch of projects I left dangling at home that I want to pick up again: the gospel music project, for example, has been on my mind quite a bit as I’ve been listening to different kinds of music on the road. A couple realizations—that gospel music needs to be singable by a church congregation imposes a certain structure, and that you can get away with some pretty simple verses—has me itching to get back to it. I also miss my cats and my regular routine at the coffee shop and the gym; there’s a certain “cat energy” and “friend energy” that I guess helps power me through the day. Weird. Lastly, I saw myself in some photographs and I realized that despite improved cardiovascular endurance, I’m still way too fat. Certainly, my mental body image does not match what I see in photographs, and I am finding this extremely annoying and somewhat depressing. So I’m thinking of initiating some kind of intensive regimen to see what I can get done in a month, just to see what it’s like.

I’m still going to be on the road for a while, so all this will have to wait for a week.