Monday, November 23, 2015

IEEE Hack-a-home

Justin Tsang
HSS 371
Blog #7 – IEEE Hack-a-home

My Experience at Stevens Hack-a-home

            Over this weekend, Stevens IEEE hosted its first hack-a-home where teams of four Stevens undergraduate students would modify home appliances to become smart appliances. The team I was a part of was given a coffee maker, a CanaKit Raspberry Pi 2 starter kit, a two-channel relay module, and an Arduino UNO. My initial thoughts coming into this competition was mainly fear because I was entering an engineering competition as a computer scientist. I had minimal knowledge on circuits and experience with hardware programming, so I felt that I would make my team lag behind. The other teams who entered the hack-a-home consisted of engineers who knew what they were doing with years of hardware experience. It was intimidating seeing other teams already building circuit boards that were populated with a bunch of intertwined wires connected to sensors and LED’s. However, with the assistance of my team members as well as the vast resources on Python and the Twitter API, I was able to take up the responsibility of programming the entire software to allow the Raspberry Pi communicate with the buzzer as well as the relay module that controlled the electricity flow to the coffee maker. In the end, our design of the smart coffee maker allows the user to tweet to the coffee maker to request the appliance to make coffee at a certain time for a certain amount of cups. The raspberry pi sets an alarm for set time and 5 seconds before the designated time will set off the alarm for 5 seconds. After, the relay module allows electricity to flow through the coffee maker and make coffee. Then, a tweet is sent back to the user to notify that the coffee has finished brewing.
In my opinion, I would prefer working alongside engineers over programmers. I have participated in past software development projects with other Stevens computer science students, but all of my experiences have failed. Every time I have worked with programmers, they always wanted jump into the code without investing time into the design process. As a result, we always became desynchronized where one guy would write code that only worked for his part of the project but not for everyone else’s. This ultimately led to hours spent afterwards editing the code so one part of the program would still function when augmented in the whole program. My partner would start programming without allowing me to catch up, so I would start coding my own program. I never felt like there was a feeling of teamwork when I worked with other programmers. However, my experience this weekend was completely different. Because my partners were all engineers, they know the importance of the design process before beginning the actual implementation of the design. When the competition officially began, we invested the first hour and a half on solely discussing and drawing out different design propositions, and when we finally decided on a design, we discussed the different components needed to make the idea work. I liked this more because there were fewer faults later down the implementation process. When I was lost in how the pin on the Raspberry Pi would send logical bits to the relay module to allow voltage to flow, my engineering friends would always stop and prioritize the team over the work. My friends care more that everyone was the same level and no one was confused about any components of the project. As a result, the team becomes more efficient because no one person will lag behind the others and slow down the design process. I like this more because there is more communication in the team. With programmers, there is no communication because everyone would start coding and wanting to solve the problem his, or her, own way.

Meaning in Entertainment

“Shallow, unaccredited noise...”
                - Some guy on the Internet

Last class, there was a fairly involved discussion about the 'value' of entertainment. Some people did not seem to understand the basic difference between art that challenges you in a deep and meaningful way and art that does not, or why listening to the former is preferable to the latter. So I thought I would attempt to explain.

I don't want to sound pretentious and elitist (not everything you need to listen to needs to be experimental art music), but people will think I am anyways so I might as well roll with it. And, in the spirit of being as obnoxiously pretentious as possible, I’m going to run my explanation through a comparison of two Death Grips songs. (Death Grips is widely considered one of the most pretentious and ``modern-art'' groups of the 2010's.  If you haven’t heard Meme Grips yet, be warned: their music is quite violent and, to be honest, doesn’t really appeal to most people.)

The first song I would like to discuss is a fairly celebrated track off the album Exmilitary, called “Culture Shock”. The song is an unashamed criticism of the modern addiction to information overload. The author rails against Hollywood and the media for producing intellectual garbage, as well as society for consuming it in disturbing and unnaturally large quantities. He warns his audience that the unrelenting bombardment of data jetsam destabilizes and weakens their minds, as well as opening them up to undesirable influences, both from their own vices and from third parties wishing to do them harm.

It’s an alright song. By the second or third listen, you might begin thinking to yourself that, yep, I get it already. That’s because the song, while it brings up some interesting ideas about the author’s views of society, is pretty straightforward. You, as a listener, are told exactly what the author is thinking, and very little about how or why, to boot. The gubment is bad, mmkay? Down with the man!
The second of the two is a significantly less appreciated song, the opening track to the group’s album No Love Deep Web, titled “Come up and get me”. The entire album is a musical personification of crippling paranoia, drug use, and physical and mental control, as well as a disturbing warning as to the consequences of abuse of or overexposure to these sins. “Come up and get me” really gets the ball rolling with this.

What makes “Come up and get me” an interesting song, lyrically, is the layers of abstraction. Powerfully described is this notion of a man cracked out and alone in an abandoned building on the eight floor, with a police task force blocking off his exit. However, MC Ride takes this terrifying vision, which he has built in only a few verses, and starts tearing it down. His description of his assailants as ‘Nazis’ and ‘the world’ suggest that he may actually be speaking about a society which he feels is authoritative and oppressive. His admittance that he cannot really determine the identities of his demons due to his own ‘fragmented mind’ suggest that they may not even be there at all, that he himself is the enemy. In the end, the speaker decides that no matter what, conflict and its potential consequences are preferable to endless paranoia and dread, and screams at his demons to ‘come up and get him’, whoever they may be.

The lyrics are intentionally vague. This allows the artist to make a decisive, concrete statement (COME UP AND GET ME wuhbwuhbwuhb) but at the same time, forces the viewer to make a decisive, concrete statement about what he believes by deciding what the speaker is actually talking about. Is the speaker a victim or his own enemy? Your answer to that question is a direct reflection of your opinions on the topics he is discussing. Ultimately, there is no right answer, and that’s the point – all that’s left is the assertion that you shouldn’t take whatever is assailing you lying down. Whatever the meaning behind the song, its complexity certainly makes it more valuable than the one-dimensional counterpart.

Death Grips is very much music reliant on its shock value, which is in itself limiting in some ways. These songs are absolutely not the deepest, most engaging pieces of music you will ever hear. However, it is precisely because neither of these tracks are untouchable masterpieces that it’s easy to see the clear difference between them. One, a musical exploration of otherwise unrelated themes by attempting to construct a conflict around them. It is interactive (the listener decides what to think, ultimately) but also clearly directed (as in, the artist has intent behind writing and performing the song, and wants to send a message). The other is just a very angry rapper telling it like he thinks it is. If you understand the difference between these two songs, you will understand why Professor Vinsel thinks Star Wars sucks.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Communications via technology

Technology is very instrumental in communications between people.  I realized this after doing my tech diary.  Most of the times that I’ve talked to my old school friends are through a Skype call.  We sometimes have a call going for nearly the entire day as people enter and leave the chat room.  This is showing me the importance of how technology keeps us together.

I want to discuss how technology allows us to keep in touch with our friends.  Before I discuss this, I want to say that I do not use snap chat, Twitter, Facebook, or other similar websites or apps.  These sites I see as being mindless vortex of information.  I will acknowledge that that Facebook is a useful tool when used to keep in touch with old friends.  I don’t think it should be used to keep a day to day diary on the internet.  I also don’t understand the need to post pictures of what you ate for dinner.
No, the usefulness in technology comes from proper usage of devices.  The primary device I use is Skype.  I find this program fascinating because it allows all of my friends across the state to essentially be together in the same ‘room’ and talk to each other.  Personally, I have a preference when it comes to communicating with others.  First and foremost, I like to talk in person.  Next, I enjoy talking over a phone or Skype.  My least favorite is communicating via messaging.  As stated earlier, Facebook can be a useful tool.  I have heard of stories where companies look up potential employee’s Facebooks to see what their personalities are like and dismiss those who post degrading material of themselves.  Another use of Facebook is how my brother found a house to dorm in during collage by posting up a status of where he was going and what he liked.  His dorm mates saw his status and decided to invite him to stay with them.

I know that I’ve stated this before, but in the future I really want there to be a VR chat room.  Imagine being able to talk to each other ‘face to face’ in a virtual room, though it would probably take a long time before we could perfectly render our faces so we would have to be content with generic faces or customizable faces like in popular MMORPGs.  Currently we could face chat, but none of us want to pay for that functionality, so we settle with simple voice chat.

When I think about it, it has become almost second nature for us to call each other via our phones when we want to contact someone or send a text.  This habit has developed after constant exposure to our mobile smart phones.  I don’t think that it would be too far fetched to say that if some VR technology like Google Glasses or Oculus Rift became readily available along with communication capabilities, it could become second nature to communicate via virtual reality. Food for thought. I know I was very biased in my blog today, but it can’t be helped because I have chosen not to use those websites and apps.

Little Brother Conundrum

It is unbelievable to me that my little brother Ben just started high school! He always was a computer whiz and had no doubt that he wanted to follow in my footsteps and apply to the computer  science department of Bergen County Academies.  It turned out to be a totally right decision for him, and he is already skipping levels in math and programming. We love talking "geek" as our sister teases us.  Sometimes we code games and apps just for fun. My parents are both computer programmers and we routinely discuss interesting innovations and leaps in the field of computers. I was encouraged to build my own computer in middle school. My mom made a Trader Joe's app to help her make shopping lists. My dad created a debit/ credit program to balance our bank accounts way before online banking was even a concept. My little brother participates in all local hack-a-thons. Even my sister took Java class her Freshman year as a birthday present for our dad.

Everyone in my family was excited when I was accepted into Stevens Institute of Technology. My desire to go to this school started during summer of my Junior year when I participated in robotics camp. We had such a great time and had a final project presentation with NASA. Also, for my Senior Experience in high school, I chose to work with Professor Duggan. Our goal was to collect data from patients in Cameroon using Android tablets rather than in Visual Basic on a computer, which they had running Windows 95. Being accepted into Stevens meant that my future would be always revolving around computer software; and that I would be fulfilling my childhood dream. I am still pretty happy with my decision and always encouraged my brother to look into applying to Stevens. He always agreed that Stevens is the best possible choice for him because Ivy League schools are overpriced and overrated, and have a lot of mandatory classes that are irrelevant to computer programming. Then, on Friday, I received an email from him that blew my mind. He read an article that one of the esteemed world schools Technion was planning to build a Tech Department campus in New York City with affiliation with Cornell. The year the new school is planning to open is 2019- exactly the year of my brother's graduation from High School! I was speechless and stunned by the news. I always imagined us sharing stories and anecdotes not only about Bergen County Academies, but about Stevens as well. Also, I was very doubtful about the quality of teaching and curriculum in a brand new school VS a well established one. It might seem to be fun going to school that no one had ever gone to before, and to be its very first graduate class. But, at the same time, what about a school that proved to be most useful in providing a great education and career to multitude of students?

This conundrum made me ponder the role our choice of college plays in our future life. Is it absolutely crucial to find a perfect match or is it enough for the school to be reputable in your chosen field? Questions, questions... I guess my life will give me the answers.

YouTube Fights Back for Fair Use

                For as long as I’ve been following technology in any sort of meaningful way I’ve been hearing about the problems of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act is. Under the DMCA, companies are able to send “take down requests” to those companies who are violating their copyrights. Seems reasonable enough, but it lacks due process, which is an obvious problem. Companies like YouTube have to setup infrastructure that allows them to process these requests. Because o f the nature and scope of the problem, it is cost prohibitive to involve humans at every step of this process, which is unfortunate because copyright is too complex for programs to handle everything correctly. Fair use specifically makes this almost impossible. A human is required to judge what is and what is not an example of fair use.
                Just to demonstrate this let’s look at an example of fair use. One place where fair use applies is in news and criticism. Imagine you’ve just bought a game recently and it was so bad that you just had to tell someone, so you make a review of it that tears it apart. Fair use should protect you from any sort of copyright issues with this video in theory. It makes sense that it would work that way, using copyright law to silence criticism would be awful.
                You know what really sucks? That kind of thing actually happens on YouTube. Companies abuse copyright law to try to silence critics.  I really don’t know why, it’s about a good idea as trying to put out grease fire with water, you just make it worse. If the person who has their video taken down knows what they’re doing, they’ll manage to make a big deal out of the situation. They may even be able to get Twitter to form an angry mob (who can blame them, it’s not very hard and I bet it’s a TON of fun).
                Unfortunately angry twitter users don’t mean anything when lawyers get involved. Actually, maybe it’s fortunate.  Regardless, when the copyright holders try to take legal action outside of the DMCA’s takedown system, many of the time content creators are not equipped to deal with this. If the content creator can’t fight back, then the censors win.
                After years of problems with intellectual property on YouTube, Google finally did something that might start to fix the problem. In a post on the Google Public Policy blog, they announced that they would be offering legal protection to select number of videos. If the creator gets sued for their fair use video on YouTube, Google will pay for the court costs to defend themselves in any legal battle that may arise. There is another caveat with this; the video will only remain available in the United States. This is to ensure that any case would occur under U.S. jurisdiction. Depending on the video, this may basically render the service useless, but it’s better than nothing.

                Personally, I love the theory behind this. Google has been putting millions of dollars into YouTube to encourage better content. The specter of Google’s legal team with millions of dollars to spend should also help encourage content creation. Without even going to court, this should be able to make a difference. I anxiously await any data on what this new policy actually does.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Too Many Group Chats

This piece, you will notice, deviates slightly from my typical work. This will be more or less an opinion piece supported by facts which have led to these thoughts.

A little over a year ago, a fellow member of the Stevens Game Development Club Executive Board decided it was time to switch our built-in, cellular-based group chat over to the popular group messaging service GroupMe. I had of course heard of similar services, but I saw no reason for this switch. Why would I install an additional application that did what my native texting application already could? I also already had the Facebook Messenger application, which supported a faster, web-based group messaging service like GroupMe. With these thoughts as drivers, I participated in the new GroupMe chat via their SMS service, which uses a single number and delivers all texts to the non-app user with the senders name at the front. For example, If Jason and Pat messaged me, both messages would be received from the same arbitrary phone number, but Jason's would be prefaced with "Jason: ", Pat's with "Pat: ", and so on.

I had been in other group chats, of course, but all of these were handled through SMS/MMS and were connected with primarily iPhone users. iPhones use iMessage to connect to other Apple devices via the internet, thus obtaining a faster speed and higher quality service than standard SMS. Because most of the chats' members had iPhones, the speed of our group chats was rarely a concern and thus any argument ever made for switching a chat to Facebook was shot down by the iPhone users and their comfort with their current application.

After about a week of using the SMS GroupMe subscription, the clunkiness of SMS services became as apparent as ever. The other members of the Executive Board, who were all using the internet-based app, could deliver far more messages in a much shorter time, making it difficult to remain an active part of the conversation. Having an option I had never had with my iMessage loving friends, I chose to switch to the application version and began to use GroupMe. It was great, to say the least. I could add and remove members, change the group name, change my nickname, change the group avatar as well as my personal profile picture, send animated gifs and other pictures, send emojis, and many more very useful things. It even had a like button to accompany every message sent; I loved GroupMe.

Each of my group chats which were based on Facebook or in an SMS/MMS chat quickly moved to GroupMe and countless other chats were formed due to the convenience and ease of use that GroupMe offered in addition to its socially encouraging features. Finally, after months of fighting, I convinced my last iPhone-loyal friend group to switch to GroupMe. Eventually, after getting used to the change and seeing all it had to offer, they loved it too. In friend groups and organizations everywhere, GroupMe had successfully taken over. It turned out, however, that GroupMe was not the only service making its move over the last couple of years.

My friend Adam, with whom I was in multiple group chats, convinced one of his Facebook group chats to switch over to Telegram. With an easy-to-use bot API available, Adam had written a bot for the application Telegram with which the users in the chat could call a number of functions. With an otherwise similar (and in my opinion lesser) feature set to GroupMe, Telegram offered no clear advantages to me. Last September, however, the draw of the bot lured one of my group chats to switch from GroupMe over to Telegram. As such, I was forced to comply (or otherwise not participate) and add another messenger to my phone. With this new messenger to play with spawned a variety of new group chats, most of which I have decided to mute because they are simply excessive

Similarly, the service Slack has been invading the Stevens Institute of Technology campus for some time now. Claiming to offer much more than typical group chat applications and services, Slack is a team working service which allows users to have multiple channels per team, file sharing, and an overwhelming variety of other supported features. Recently, the Student Government Association has agreed that it will be making a Slack for its members to help cut-down on on email-chains. Having surrendered to the fact that yet another group messenger will end up on my phone, I also agreed to use Slack as the medium for starting the SGDC general body chat, which would be more inclusive than the previously existing e-board chat.

What scared me even more, however, was when I heard that one of the biggest Slack supporters on campus commented that "Slack is getting too mainstream, we have to switch to a different open source service."

With four different group messengers on my phone, each offering some unique feature set but all grounded in the same premise, it is beginning to feel redundant. Keeping up with all four of these messengers, Facebook. Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, emails, and (and maybe this is crazy) normal text messages (gasp!), my phone is used less as a communication and work tool and more as an over complicated social chain. With so many services and each service providing so many sub-services and different chats, it is sometimes impossible to actively follow every conversation and interaction. Additionally, group chat psychology has another series of interesting (and probably quite disputable) implications, however, I will leave that to be possibly examined in a follow-up piece.

The point I'm getting at and the question I'm posing is "Why do we need so many different social services?" At what point are we going to say it's too much? Apps used to offer something unique and cool, giving you new features to access on your mobile device. Now, however, despite being a mobile developer, I still spend a majority of my time on my phone using one of these same four applications which all accomplish the same fundamental goal: group communication. So many resources are being put into developing these free messaging applications (for seemingly no point), and I wonder what those developers could be doing instead. What could I have better spent my time doing instead of learning four different ways to contact multiple people at once? And even more, each time I need to re-create my profile. I have so many profiles that I have a special task-bar on my personal website specifically for organizing all of my profiles.

This, to be blunt, is ridiculous. There are too many group messengers, and we need to pick one and move on.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Lifehacks and You

             A few nights ago as I bashed my head into my floorboards, fruitlessly trying to invent new ways to clean hardwood, my roommate showed me an image macro. A picture of a Swiffer – wrapped in a sock. “Clean your floors with socks”, bold overlaid text read, “If you run out of Swiffer pads”.
            That picture was a genius. My floor sparkled. It was the first time that I ever used a lifehack.
Lifehacks are advice – good or bad – that are meant to show novel ways to make your life easier. Typically presented as an image macro, they’re their own subgenre of internet meme.
That’s everything I knew about Lifehacks.
To me, they’ve always existed somewhere in the background of the internet; something that exists, definitely, but not something I care about. I’d become jaded to the splendor of free advice offered by strangers.
So I thought I would change. I wanted to find out the history and the meaning of the lifehack.
            As luck would have it, I didn’t have to go very far back. The term was coined in 2004. During the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference, tech writer Danny O’Brien used the term to describe the quick, dirty solutions that many IT workers used to get things done. It’s a portmanteau of the words ‘life’ and ‘hack’, which should be immediately obvious. Less obvious is the reason these words were chosen. The word ‘hack’ has many meanings; in this case, it’s used to refer to a  cobbled-together solution to a problem that’s only meant to get things done quickly. The word ‘life’ suggests applying this hack-methodology to everything.
            Since 2004, when it was meant to refer to badly-written scripts by tech professionals, the term lifehack has come into its own.  By 2005, the word ‘lifehack’ was awarded runner-up for ‘most useful word of 2005’ by the American Dialect Society. 2005 also marked the launch of – the first of many lifehack aggregation sites.
            After 2005, the lifehack remained dormant for eight years, like some species of arctic frog. Starting in 2013, however, the lifehack explodes in popularity. According to Google Trends, the term begins to spike all over the web, and especially on news sites. This popularity has maintained itself.
            What are the reasons for this popularity? Just about the same fifty image macros from the late 00’s make up the majority of articles today. Buzzfeed,, and pass around and reassemble the same pictures into new articles like a co-op Frankenstein’s monster.

            I would argue that the lifehack represents the ideal of internet culture. You can make long articles of lifehacks out of easily subdivided blurbs; all the better to split your attention with. The concept of the lifehack is that ephemeral promise of an easier life, streamlined and multitasked to perfection. And, they’re eco-friendly; most have been recycled since 2006.