Affective Computing and Adaptive Help

Several months ago, I saw Dr. Rosalind Picard give a talk on Affective Computing. I took notes and thought a lot about what she said but let my thoughts fester rather than follow up on them. Then last week, I read Emotional Design by Donald A. Norman, which reminded me of Dr. Picard’s work and my initial thoughts about affective computing.

There are two elements to affective computing:

  • People interact with technology and devices as though it has a personality (and devices and interfaces without personalities can be distasteful to use).
  • Cameras, wearables, and other technology can be used to determine the emotions and affective responses of a person using technology with surprising accuracy.

Websites and applications are personalized by tracking your browsing history, collecting advertising preferences, device usage, and demographic data. Using affective computing, they could soon be personalized by tracking your emotions.

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Accessibility, Sound, and Communication

My birthday was yesterday! To celebrate, I ate an overly large and overly expensive steak and sorely undercooked brussels sprouts. Do yourself a favor and always roast brussels sprouts until they are caramelized and crunchy, then put some reduced apple cider and maple syrup on top. YUM!


Technology, while making the world more accessible than it has been in the past, has a lot of work to do for people with disabilities. A huge example of this is the shortcomings in OCR (optical character recognition) technology. In short, OCR sucks. And when we use it to simplify our lives (make a PDF into something that I can copy-paste into a text file), then when it fails it’s a minor inconvenience, and a silly one at that.

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Prescriptive Design and the Decline of Manuals

Instruction manuals, and instructions in general, are incredibly important. I could be biased, since part of my job involves writing instructions for systems, but really, they’re important!

As this look into the historical importance of manuals makes clear, manuals (and instructions) make accessible professions, tools, and devices to anyone that can read them (which, admittedly, could be a hurdle of its own):

“With no established guild system in place for many of these new professions (printer, navigator, and so on), readers could, with the help of a manual, circumvent years of apprenticeship and change the course of their lives, at least in theory.”

However, as the economy and labor system shifted, manuals did too:

“in the 1980s, the manual began to change. Instead of growing, it began to shrink and even disappear. Instead of mastery, it promised competence.”

And nowadays, manuals are very rarely separate from the devices or systems they seek to explain:

“the help we once sought from a manual is now mostly embedded into the apps we use every day. It could also be crowdsourced, with users contributing Q&As or uploading how-to videos to YouTube, or it could programmed into a weak artificial intelligence such as Siri or Cortana.”

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Women, the Web, and the App Takeover

Here’s what was important this week…

Today is Pi day. Here is more than you probably ever wanted to know about pi day.

Last Saturday, March 8 was International Women’s Day. Started as a revolutionary holiday to honor the achievements of women, International Women’s Day is recognized in many countries. However, in Nepal it is recognized by women only, rather than as a day where men pay tribute to the women. Nepal also has another holiday that only women observe:

“In early September in Nepal, Hindus – who make up 81 per cent of the country’s 30.5 million people – celebrate Rishi Panchami, a festival that commemorates a woman who was reborn as a prostitute because she didn’t follow menstrual restrictions. It is a women’s holiday, and so Nepal’s government gives all women a day off work. This is not to recognise the work done by women, but to give them the time to perform rituals that will atone for any sins they may have committed while menstruating in the previous year. (Girls who have not begun menstruating and women who have ceased to menstruate are exempt.)”

However, the interesting thing about a cultural distaste and monthly banishment that occurs surrounding menstruation, is that “they talk openly – more openly perhaps than the average teenage girl in the UK might – about what they use for sanitary protection. Some use sanitary pads, some are happy with cloths, although they dry them by hiding them under other clothes on washing lines.”

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Design, Destruction, and Reading

Here’s what was important this week…

As the web and technology become ever more ingrained in our day to day lives, the role of designers becomes more apparent. Designers have been around since things began to be created, and according to one man, they’ve destroyed the world.

It’s a bold statement. But designers (architects, if you’re a designer of buildings and structures) have designed prisons, and even the solitary housing units (SHUs) that unconstitutionally detain inmates.

Mike Monteiro wants to change that. In his 45 minute long talk (it’s worth it, though I admit my attention was wavering at the 40 minute mark), he passionately declares that it is the responsibility of all designers to be gatekeepers for bad, and outright harmful, design. And he has a point. If something isn’t designed, it can’t be built (or at least, not very well). He calls on designers to recognize the power that they have, even if they don’t realize it.

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