Thursday, March 21, 2013

Apps I’d like to see

I learned this morning that in the drawer of pessimists, I lie in the corner of existential pessimists:
“Pessimists are of two types, the catastrophists, that is to say the types who look up in the starry heavens and see (metaphorically) only asteroids in the sky racing towards us to wipe us out as the dinosaurs were wiped out; and existential pessimists, that is to say those who see dissatisfaction as the permanent condition of mankind because of his inherent makeup, his contradictory desires and emotions, dissatisfaction that is perfectly compatible however with a great deal of enjoyment of life.” [Source]
Which is why I totally appreciate the internet in all its glory, and yet I am doomed to always complain about something that isn’t quite as good as it should be. Why, for example, doesn’t gmail mark messages that I have already replied to, which a program as dumb, clumsy, and stupid as Windows Mail could do for me? And why does facebook roll out a search function that nobody needs and nobody wants, instead of allowing me to simply search my timeline for a keyword. (Don’t tell me to use CTRL+F on the activity log while scrolling, I tried that and it didn’t work.) If I could assign tags to links posted on fb it might actually become a useful archiving system, but usefulness is clearly not Zuckerberg’s vision. And why, oh why, did Google have to kill the Google reader?

Leaving aside my complaints about current affairs, here’s something I would like to see in the future:

Scientific Seminar Channel

I’d really like to see that all institutes with a good AV equipment lifestream their seminars, and that all their seminar announcements are collected in some common channel. I could browse there for areas of interest, mark upcoming talks I’d like to listen to, and get a timely reminder, no matter where on the planet the talk takes place. And needless to say, there would be a way to log in and virtually “raise hand” to ask a question. I’m visualizing that in the back of the room there’s a screen showing avatars or video streams of people logged in from remote places. The technology is clearly there, so where’s my seminar channel?

Shopping cart for seminar speakers

Something that I’ve wished for whenever I organize a conference is a simple way to find people who could give talks on a specific topic, ideally filtered by location. The way I do this presently is by browsing my memory, personal referral, or searching the arxiv for keywords and then looking up author names on Google, hoping they have a descriptive webpage. This isn’t only time-consuming, but also ineffective. I am thinking this could be useful also for reasons of science outreach. You could look up on such a website speakers on topics of current interest in your area and invite them for a public lecture or a coffee house talk. Ideally, people could also upload slides or videos of some representive talks so you could form an impression on what to expect from them. Maybe one would want to add a possibility to rate speakers.

Remote Robot

This isn’t so much something I’d like to see, but something I think we will see. The intelligent robot that will do your household while you’re at work is still science fiction, and it will remain so for quite a while. But once you can construct a robot with a similar mobility as a human, it would be handy to have one at home that you could move around while you’re physically absent. Put the laundry from the washing machine into the dryer. Close the window. Water the plants. It seems to me that the technology for this is almost there. The economy probably isn’t.

Gamified PhD Life

You might have heard of the recent trend to gamification, inventing games around peoples’ self-set goals that they can use to collect points and virtual rewards whenever they make good decisions. Healthy living for example. You gained two points by not adding salt. The life of a PhD student would make for a good gamification. You gain points for each talk you give, conversation with your supervisor that you survived, group meeting that you didn’t fall asleep in, and if you have amassed 10.000 points you’re ready for the final battle.

Two apps that really exist and that you might appreciate: The particles app for the iPad and GmailTex.

What app would make your life a little better?


  1. There's a general gamifacation/life tracker thing at It's still kind of buggy, and obviously it doesn't have PhD life programmed into it to start with, but you can customize it. It seems like it's being rapidly developed at the moment, and I bet there'll be a smartphone app to accompany it soon. I'm a grad student and I use it basically how you describe, so clearly, the future is now.

  2. Does it work? I mean, is it helpful to you?

  3. I haven't been running my life through it, so I can't issue a very thoughtful verdict. As I say, it's kind of new so the occasional glitches have been a little discouraging to getting totally caught up in it. For instance, it will sometimes forget you've checked stuff off, added todos etc...then you come back the next day and it subtracts 'health' thinking you've missed a deadline, and you can't correct it. Or the servers will overload and you can't get to it for like an hr. So with stuff like that happening currently it is hard to rely on too much.

    I'm talking it down more than I should though, they are clearly in a testing period, improving it constantly, and it seems really promising. It has a nice set-up of Behaviors, Daily Habits, and To-dos, which is a pretty decent way of dividing up your life. I find that the first two legitimately help nudge me to keep up certain good habits daily, (which is good for me because I'm one of those people who often works more in bursts and getting into routines is clearly better). So yeah, thinking about things in that way is certainly helpful for someone like me, especially as one of the most difficult aspects of grad school can often be the lack of structure.

    Obviously it won't really make you do anything, but when they get it working more reliably, and (for a lot of people) get it into a phone app I think it'll be great. It's definitely more fun thinking about stuff that way than just crossing things off a list and trying to remember that I wanted to make myself wake up earlier this month or whatever.

  4. The doctoral experience as a game? Too boring. Who gets a job at the end would be simulated by rolling dice. :-|

    I am always amazed by folks who use Google, Facebook etc then complain how bad it is. Why not just use good software? Who cares if it's popular?

  5. Lines we would like to see male actors utter in pornographic movies, #38: "Does it work? I mean, is it helpful to you?"

  6. "Why, for example, doesn’t gmail..." Somebody else's patent. Answered entries' titles will be user-specified brightness, font, effects, and/or colors rather than being marked. "The intelligent robot that will do your household..." Tack down everything, blast through live steam. All accesses will be locked for safety, then everybody in the home is ordered to immediately leave.

    I have zero apps in my life. This is a tremendous timesaver. There should be an app for it.

  7. Regarding the seminar calendar thing, before we get to that we should at the very least have an open repository of pre-recoded talks. In fact, Lucien Hardy's original intention for PIRSA was to provide something like this for the whole of physics, so that talks would have a citable arXiv-like permanent URL. In the event, it was never opened up to other institutions because the challenges of transcoding and hosting video are a lot greater than converting and hosting papers. However, I think it would be good to open source the PIRSA codebase so that other institutions can host their videos in a common format. If it is made compatible with OAI-PMH then the metadata could be harvested and collected in a single site, as currently happens with institutional repositories for papers. I think it is very important that open standards are established for metadata on talks to the same extent that it has been done for papers. I usually learn much more from talks than from papers, so if you really want to have open science then this must be done.

    Encouraging streaming and opening the access to it would be the next logical step after pre-recorded talks. I don't know if OAI-PMH can handle this, but if not then we need to establish some open standard for the metadata and incorporate it into all the livestreaming solutions. Having the metadata be harvestable is a better option than requiring people to enter data about talks into a central database. I am sure that Google Scholar and the other main academic search engines would then want to harvest this data.

  8. Phillip: Yeah, maybe the doctor who signed the prescription?

  9. Hi Matt,

    Yes, I recall this vision for PIRSA and I find it a shame, really, that it never turned into reality. It would have been a great resource. Best,


  10. Hi Ryan,

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I find it very interesting indeed. It seems to have a great potential to change consumer behavior because it's a simple way to aggregate lots of information and present it to people in a simple way.

    What I am thinking is for example that people would fill out some questionnaire about what is important to them and how important it is. For example to support the local economy or the national one, ecological or ethical worries, quality versus quantity, company reputation, and so on. Then they could go into a score and scan a few products and see which one aligns best with their values. Imagine how useful this could be to alleviate some of the alleged "irrational" decisions that people make because when they're standing in a store they simply can't process all the information that they allegedly take into account when buying products, with the result that their purchase decisions often do not align with their political or social values.

    Does the app you're using have some functionality that goes into this direction?



  11. An "eBay" for developers - post your job, receive bids, select a developer, get your requirements implemented - at your own risk, of course.

  12. Bee - I guess you must have watched too much "Jestons" when younger. I think Rosie is still a few decades away :(

    Personally I would like an app that would make me not hate Java so much so perhaps I could write more apps.

  13. What a great idea for a research seminar channel. There used to be a research channel on Dish Network but they seemed to have few seminars and no way of finding out what shows were upcoming.

    Do you know of any good resources currently available for finding research seminars online short of a research seminar channel?

  14. I hope its okay Bee to post this?

    Just a little plug here about broadcasting system development for institutes of higher learning.

    Any progress there and development could help with a system for broadcasting information within certain spectrum. Any work in that effort would not only help with the Institutes broadcasting and lectures, but would also provide for a format of such, developing a *free* community based information development system between existing frequencies.

    I hope somebody jumps on this.


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