Change is Good – Keeps you Fresh

As you may have noticed, I haven’t posted anything in a while, so a brief update may be in order. In the last three months, I graduated from UC San Diego with a master’s degree, got a job at Fitbit in San Francisco, and moved from San Diego to Oakland. Lots of exciting changes! With very little time to write for the site. But I’m hoping to turn that around now that things are settling a bit.


Fitbit FlexA bit about Fitbit, I’ve posted about them before and it was my interest in their products that led me to apply to work there. The Fitbit tracks your daily activity using sensors such as accelerometers and altimeters. The data is tracked in a small device you wear in your pocket or on your wrist and synced to a website and mobile app.

Changing Behavior

I got my Fitbit from the company when I joined so I didn’t buy it with the intent to change my behavior as most consumers probably do. Still, I definitely find myself making different choices because of the Fitbit, which is amazing because changing behavior is difficult stuff! Harder than changing cities and changing jobs, take it from me.

These days, if I have to choose between multiple trips carrying groceries or going the long way round, I feel the extra effort isn’t “wasted” because the Fitbit is counting. Logically, I know it’s good for my health whether the Fitbit is counting or not, but somehow when you can’t see it, it doesn’t seem real and tangible. And it does feel like wasted time. I’m the kind of person that walks the hypotenuse because it’s the shortest distance.

Easy Peasy

Another thing I enjoy about the Fitbit is the minimal maintenance of the product. It syncs wirelessly with your computer without you having to do anything. It needs charging once every week or two! I’ve posted before about how charging all your various devices can be a real pain and offset the benefits of the device itself. As described in that post, low power wireless technologies can change that and the Fitbit takes advantage of this by using Bluetooth Low Energy. It also has a dead simple interface that ensures that any user can get going without having to “learn” how to use it.

So that’s where I work right now, writing firmware for Fitbit’s next great products! And I hope to get back to writing some articles for the site as well. Thanks for reading.

Breaking the Code for Girls

Percentages of Women getting STEM degrees

Percentages of Women getting STEM degrees

This post is a bit more on the personal side. As a woman in computer science, I’ve gotten used to being one of few women in the room. I often don’t even notice it anymore. But the truth is, I’ve never understood why more young women don’t pursue CS (Computer Science).

Far more women pursue mathematics than CS, as well as chemistry and biology etc. so it’s not the “Girls aren’t good at math” stereotype. The only STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) majors that fare worse than CS are Physics and the more traditional engineering disciplines – civil, materials, mechanical etc.

Maybe a lot of girls don’t see themselves on a construction site wearing a hard hat (and kudos to those who do!), but most middle and high schoolers are comfortable with computer use. So why do girls shy away from CS?

It turns out that many boys in middle school get into programming because of their engagement with video games. Since fewer girls get into gaming, and fewer games are aimed at girls, they don’t have this same natural transition. By the time they get to college, the CS classes are filled with boys who have been programming for several years, which can be very intimidating to both male and female newcomers to the field.

Change Is Possible

Celebration of Women in Computing - Socal

Celebration of Women in Computing - Socal

In recent years however, there has been a big push at engineering schools to increase the number of women pursuing CS at an undergraduate level. One school in particular, Harvey Mudd College, has more than tripled the percentage of women in CS to an astonishing 42 percent. I went to Pomona College, and took all my CS courses at Harvey Mudd from 1997 to 2001. The running joke at the time was that the ratio of men to women at Harvey Mudd was Pi to one (haha), but that was actually the ratio at the school, the ratio at the CS department was more like 10 to 1.

So how did they bring about such a huge change? In 2006, Harvey Mudd appointed a new president, Maria Klawe. The school was in the process of revamping their introductory computer science classes and together with the CS department, designed courses that took away some of the intimidation factor and improved support and community factors for the women. You can read more about it at the NYTimes.

Maria Klawe at UCSD

I recently saw Maria talk at UCSD and part of her talk focused around inspiring a sense of community and encouragement among women in CS. All too often, we’re so busy making sure we’re as good as the guys, if not better, that we forget to build a camaraderie with the women. We’re so busy proving to ourselves we’re not different from the guys, that we gloss over the ways that we are. I learned about something called the Impostor Syndrome, where a lot of women feel they are faking it, despite being ridiculously accomplished in their field. It’s not that only women have these issues, but that when women have them, they have fewer role models to look around at and think, “Well she’s doing it, so I can too!”

So if you’re in Computer Science, male or female, look around and see if you can’t encourage a young woman who’s got the talent to be a great engineer. Help them go to a Grace Hopper Celebration, a computing convention just for women. The truth is, Computer Science is a great, well-paid field, that is applicable to almost any aspect of the world you can think of. We just need to spread the word that it’s not a twitchy, anti-social boys’ club, but a fun, exciting and varied career option for women as well.


PhotoXplore Helps You Shoot Manual

Explanation of shutter speed

Typical explanation of shutter speed

This quarter I took a class in Information Visualization, a topic I introduced in this post. I was particularly interested in ways to visualize information related with photography. One obvious component of photography that we don’t get to see often is how the photographer got the shot i.e. the settings he used.

While many sites, such as Flickr, let you view the EXIF information in the photos, there’s no easy way to view them for groups of photos, or get a sense of what settings people use for a certain genre of photography.

For example, say you’re at the Eiffel Tower and want a beautiful night shot and you’ve got your brand new DSLR out. But despite your best efforts at plowing through explanations of shutter speed and aperture, the crazy fractions and notation continue to defy you. That’s where my project, PhotoXplore, fits in.

Shimona's Photos on PhotoXplore

Shimona's Photos on PhotoXplore

Basically, the idea is that by visualizing the images in a simple interactive chart, you can make connections and begin to understand the relationships without needing to understand the numbers… for now at least. You can explore the chart by highlighting areas (called brushing) and watching the gallery area change. Vice versa, if you see an image you like, you can mouse over it and see where it pops up in the chart area.

The quarter system is way too short for a full project, so I wasn’t able to do any user studies, but I did notice some fun things while using it myself. For one, by plotting different photographer’s work, you can see what settings they like to use. Apparently, I like to stick to wide apertures and handheld photos – knowing this motivates me to branch out a bit.

Photos of Northern Lights

Photos of Northern Lights

I discovered another cool thing while exploring the Iceland Landscape photo set. There was an interesting clump of photos in the one area of the chart that was somewhat separate from the rest of the photos. On brushing over them, the gallery immediately repopulated with photos of the Northern Lights! It was immediately clear that to shoot the Northern Lights you need a wide aperture and a very long exposure. This little discovery captures the concept behind the PhotoXplore interface – it aims to provide a fun way to explore photos where the images and the settings are presented together making such discoveries easy and intuitive.

Quick disclaimer, all images are off Flickr using their API and credit goes to the original photographer. If you click on an image in the gallery, you can link to the original page on Flickr. Also, it’s not complete yet, I’d really like to let users come up with their own searches and save them, but for now its pre-populated with some sets of data. If you’d like a new set of images added, I can generate it and add to the list. Check it out and let me know what you think!

The Alpha and Omega Post

So this is the fated first post, the one most blogs begin and end with. To avoid this phenomenon, I’ve already written my second post!

I decided to start this blog to post interesting articles and innovations in the area of Ubiquitous Computing, Human Computer Interaction and Embedded Systems in general. I’m interested in how humans use computers and how we can design better products to make this interaction seamless, enjoyable and useful. Computers are everywhere these days, but I especially like the ones that become a part of our lives without our necessarily paying attention to them.

Attention Suckers Suck!

We’ve all had the experience of being at a party and suddenly it seems everyone is playing Words with Friends or texting somebody else, and it’s not a party anymore. I go home every evening and hate that I’m either in front of a computer screen or a TV screen, both of which completely consume my attention. Sometimes, I get my laptop out in front of the TV, so I can be doubly totally consumed.

On the other end of the spectrum, I just found this simple app on my cellphone (Silent Time Lite) that silences the ringer right before my weekly classes and turns it on right after.┬áIf that’s not a huge mental load to you, lucky you – it’s just this sort of simple thing that my brain refuses to handle. But once I configure this app for the semester, I’m done! I don’t have to worry about my phone going off in class, or about missing phone calls or messages for the rest of the day. That’s just the kind of seamless usefulness I find compelling.

I think we are finally reaching a point where we can have many little computers and sensors in our environment that are able to augment our experience. Our cellphones are a great example but as mentioned above, they are quite the attention-seeking little divas. In the future, unique embedded products will be able to intelligently interact with us, without becoming a chore, or taking our attention away from real life. I’m hoping to search for such products and research and post some interesting stuff on this blog.