BEN TSAI⋅BLOG

writing words on the internet since 00

I've moved

I've moved

Hey everyone, I’ve moved my blog to https://bentsai.org/. Most of my posts from here have been copied over too. The new feed is at https://bentsai.org/posts_feed. See you there!

Career advice

I've been counseling graduate students recently on their job searches, now that the CMU MHCI design capstone has wrapped up. I consolidated some of the messages I've been giving into 10 points:

  1. You’re probably not going to land your dream job. Find your reality job.
  2. You only hear about the glamorous stories, but there are the other 99% of organizations where you can do important, meaningful work.
  3. You can work in a job that doesn’t check all your marks and still build your career. It might be in an unhip city or in an industry you find boring. You can find a new job, too. Heck, you can even switch career tracks or go back to school.
  4. There are many paths to success. It doesn’t have to go through FAANG. My colleagues have come from many different fields—most don’t have graduate degrees, some are self-taught.
  5. Times are always changing. The job market may be tight now. I got laid off months after my first job after the dot com bubble burst. I had to work part-time and took unemployment checks for a while. I didn’t become a full-time worker for many years.
  6. Job searching is hard work and stressful. Don’t obsess over it and take care of yourself.
  7. Hiring is a messy, defective, and inequitable process. For the most part, it’s not you, it’s them.
  8. So much of this is about opportunity and timing. You might be a perfect fit for a role, but they may not have the budget to hire right now.
  9. Lean heavily into your personal and professional network. This isn’t about schmoozing, it’s being an engaged member of the community. Most people love to flex their expertise and help others.
  10. Be kind and stay curious. We are all learning along the way, and people you meet today may have an impact years or decades later.

Jazz recs

Due to my new excitement for jazz, I asked a friend for some recs (in particular, trios) and he delivered:

 
 
 
 

and he threw in some contemporary albums he's been enjoying…

 
 
 
 

 

Meta

i wanted to have the art for these albums, but didn't want the links to be tied to a specific streaming service. so i used songwhip (hat tip to tiv.today to create a URL there (plugging in the apple music link), then sticking the result into iframely's service.

Le Jazz

i engaged with some art last night (live and in person), listening to the jazz trio of David Throckmorten (drums), Cliff Barnes (organ), and Scott Boni (sax). this was one of the few times i've sat down and listened to jazz, and it was wonderful. this may begin a more deliberate foray into understanding and appreciating jazz.

i've always been intrigued and interested in the genre, but from a distance. i remember a schoolmate of mine who played violin in jazz band. it was obvious i was better than her technically (i grew up learning classical), but i respected what she was able to do in terms of improvisation and creativity. i didn't have the guts.

what a strange thing that when classical music was the contemporary genre, there was plenty of improvisation, but now all those pieces are frozen in time and played essentially the same across the world. i spoke briefly with Cliff about it, and he said, yeah first time i'd play Beethoven straight, but then i'd start to improvise on it.

why isn't the creativity required in jazz celebrated more? they're creating new music all the time!


i tried looking up some of these artists online, found Scott Boni's self-titled album and hit play. when track 7 came around, i was floored. this was a jazz version of Chopin's nocturne no. 20 in C♯ minor, the same piece that captivated me as a boy and compelled me to find and play milstein's arrangement of it for violin.

not only do i now want to learn fiddle, i'll be adding jazz violin to my list.

In person

A few weeks ago, two members from my UX team visited Pittsburgh for a presentation of a CMU MHCI design capstone team (Cisco is sponsoring a team).

I have never met these folks in person, and it was such a treat. I was so energized by the in-person human-to-human interaction. My heart was full from getting to know them, talking about work, talking about whatever else was going on.

It reinforced how critical it is to connect with others not only virtually, but physically, when possible. Humans have bodies with senses beyond seeing and hearing from a screen. We are meant to experience others in the flesh!

Vision Con (more concise)

I'm disappointed and disgusted by how Apple marketed the Vision Pro. The scenes in their ad that showed the headset being used around other humans were unsettling.

I have no doubt the device is useful, ground-breaking, and magical. But I am bothered by trying to normalize its use around other people. Yet, per Mike Rockwell in this year's The Talk Show Live From WWDC, this was one of their design principles:

But one of the second most important principles to us was we wanted you to be connected. We wanted this device to not isolate you from anybody that you were with and connect you both in the room and at a distance.

Yes, they probably achieved this the best they could, given they already decided to build an immersive computer strapped to your face. Even if we extrapolate to future generations, no matter how clever, weightless, and invisible the tech, it still takes the user's attention away from their physical reality. That's great when you're alone in your office or in specific contexts, but not in general ones like family time.

This has all the problems we currently have with addiction to our phones, but decidedly worse. Instead of being able to tuck it away in our pockets or purses, it's part of our body, and designed to be even more captivating.

I'm sad Apple envisions a future where we're watching our kids play, sharing a quiet moment with a loved one, and working around our family with a face computer.

Vision Con

i watched wwdc last week and especially tuned into the one more thing—vision pro.

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i love to give apple their flowers, and i'm usually quite susceptible to their reality distortion field (i was an early adopter of the 1st generation ipad and series 0 watch). yet i was unsettled as i watched the segment on their headset, which culminated in a fun ad for their future platform.

i had a visceral reaction. the more I sat with it, the more disgusted I got.

don't get me wrong—this is an amazing integration of technology. i have no doubt this headset sets the bar on mixed reality experiences. there are plenty of use cases that shine: work, entertainment, 3d capture and consumption.

but i was troubled any time apple showed someone donning the vision pro around someone else. why are they promoting this device for use around other human beings? especially in family and social settings? at the end of the day, we are still strapping on a face computer. this inevitably and necessarily isolates the user from reality. as good as the technology is at bringing the real world into the virtual, it's still designed to divert your attention away from human-to-human interaction.

in some ways, this makes it worse. they want to make it easier for people to enter an immersive world away from reality.

we already have this problem with phones. they take our attention away from reality, and we're all used to it

yes, and this is bad, we shouldn't make it worse. let's not normalize isolation and addition to our devices.

also, this is a paradigm shift.

phones are easily manipulated. we can hide them away in your pocket, we can shift our gaze away from them.

the vision pro is attached to your body. it is designed to stay on. apple wants you to look through it.

this is the future they envision. a dad standing at the kitchen island working on a presentation when his daughter wants to play soccer with him. why? go to your office! you can be virtually anywhere making your surfboard. it's rude and gross.

but the tech is gonna get better

let's think the future where the vision pro is invisible and weightless. it's still taking you out of reality. our attention is finite, our minds and bodies can be in one place at a time. think about how addictive our phones are now. is strapping a computer to our heads going to improve the human experience?

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tweets i posted or responded to

AI: has the 🐎 left the barn?

ai has had its moments and then some this year and the hype continues to rise. everyday conversations with aunts and neighbors and shopkeepers inevitably include the topic. i've been doing some reading into the topic and (surprise!) i'm forming an opinion.

initially, my inquiry was anchored in my belief that humans are created by God and made in the image of God. so any definition of intelligence that infringes on this tenet is a no-go. so why did it seem like ai "experts" were talking about skynet becoming self-aware and obliterating humankind? (btw, i know how our story ends—it's not sentient ais).

turns out it's not all the experts and maybe those pushing for the fantasy narratives should be ignored and we should listen to people who are currently experiencing harms and exploitation at the hands of the rich. (I vehemently disagree with the part of lecun's analogy about God not existing, but i agree with the rest of his point:).

so coming back to chatgpt and the like—lots of folks are now using this technology. some are deeming it the next milestone in the software ui revolution. what i am concerned about is, the mental model that everyday users have is wildly divergent from how large language models (llms) work.

llms are not designed to tell us what is true. they don't lie or truth-tell or hallucinate. they output information that sounds good and coherent. relating to them as agents with reason is dangerous and harmful. couple that with the fact that these major LLMs players are not transparent about the data they are trained on, and that it is perhaps impossible to secure the data of these models, we're headed down an unnerving path.

the problem is very human. we want to believe. we crave relationships. (the bot love podcast series shows how deep and profound this can get). no doubt that many of us finding the tools useful. but what is happening when we engage with these bots seeking truth and answers and relationship? i feel like the rug could get pulled out from under us.

and yet all the big players (microsoft, google, openai) are heavily marketing these tools as agents you can have conversations with and find answers. a whole generation of companies are currently building on top of these platforms promising to help make business decisions, improve mental health, take users out of user research, and cure cancer.

i'm an even bigger ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ on ai now.

wow and meh for ai

i just had another “wow” moment with ai—it took my rambling verbal thoughts (i’m using audiopen) about a somewhat technical topic that i was not expressing very well and somehow it summarized it and pulled out relevant details.

overall i've been hesitant and unwilling to be bullish on ai. why? it’s not intelligent and it’s overhyped. i’m disheartened by what is says about us in general. we are enamored and convinced by the form, and few people are willing to mine their way to the content.

it also means most of the time the level of our discourse is regurgitating the same points and information. granted, this is what the majority of work in my world looks like—a slow march between mediocrity and less-mediocrity. chatgpt is great at combining what’s already been said and presenting it in novel ways.

but if our goal is to make a dent in the world—to push beyond the status quo—we have to put forth and develop ideas that are unexpected and not always plausible. but also not with tech bro hubris, but with humility and consideration of harms (too many negatives, but certified not-chatgpt).

the power of prototypes

A presentation slide with a profile picture of Mike Tyson from the NES game. The text states "Everyone has good product ideas until they see how humans interact with their prototype."

i gave a talk with Jeff Stonebrook yesterday entitled Early prototypes to validate the value of a design to the current cohort of CMU MHCI students. my main point was that prototypes are a powerful tool that make a significant impact on a project. they are all the more effective in processes that lack natural avenues to user feedback, like the agile-transformation-has-warn-off-waterfall habitat i live in.

our product org is large and almost necessitates hand-offs. teams get requirements from product management, designers start designing, researchers scramble to talk to people, developers estimate and start getting infrastructure in place. there are power points, JIRA tickets, documents, meetings, and recordings of meetings. everyone is in thoughtland. even worse, each person is on their own private thought-island.

the whole conversation changes when you build something tangible that others can interact with. once you have something you can experience, now everyone involved can form an opinion and perspective that is grounded in reality.

everyone’s personal thought-islands get blown up—you can’t live there anymore.

every time i’ve put a prototype in front of a human being, i learn something that impacts the project. most of the time, it is fresh and not something i anticipated. we have talented designers, but we never get it “right” the first time out. and that's not the point. the prototypes are a research tool that help us understand and help us close doors and open others.

the prototype power move

Damien Newman's design squiggle with pow and fist emojis at various points

i was reminded of this design squiggle that ostensibly describes the design process. we start off on the left in chaos. thought land. we start to do research and design and iterate. and the path forward becomes clearer. now, prototypes to me feel like power moves that provide a little extra boost in this process. you’re going one way, you think you’re on to something, you put it in front of users, and 💥pow. nope, that didn’t work, no one saw the button, even though it was red. then you go back, make some changes, build another prototype and test. 💥boom, this one raised some really interesting questions, we should go explore that area more.

it’s an iterative, exciting process because you are always going to learn something new. humans are infinitely complex and nuanced, and putting that together with an experience, product, service, i find that so fascinating and rewarding.

my charge to the students

what’s the takeaway? make something tangible that your clients can experience. what are the big questions you currently have, and how might you answer them with a prototype? a prototype doesn’t have to, and probably shouldn’t, resemble the final product.

and as you leave this place a find a job, whether you’re at a loosey-goosey startup or a “traditional” megacorp, have a posture of always learning and experimenting. people listen and engage when they can experience something tangible because now it involves them in a personal, visceral way.