No. 44 • 2021-10-13

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Above: My collection of portable music players. From left: Panasonic CD player (1998), original iPod (2001), iPod mini (2003), iPod nano (2005), iPod with Video (2005), iPod touch (2007).

How innovation works

Last week was the 20th anniversary of the introduction of the iPod (Oct. 5, 2001), the iconic portable digital music player. The iPod transformed Apple from a computer company to a consumer tech giant, but I’ll argue that its impact reverberated far beyond one company or industry. The story of the iPod reveals insights into how innovation works (and how it’s misunderstood).

20 years ago, we mostly listened to music on Compact Disc (CD). Many had portable CD players, but Walkman-style cassette tape players were still common. Each was limited to about an hour of music (1 album), and you could only listen to the albums you carried with you. (I used to carry a small “book” of about 10 CDs in my bag, along with my “Discman” player.) A few of us were starting to collect music on our computers, “ripping” the tracks from CDs and storing them as digital files, but this could quickly consume most of your computer’s precious hard drive space.

The first iPod (“1000 songs in your pocket”) was poo-pooed by the nerd class of the time. Here’s an infamous review from an early blogger on tech site Slashdot: “No wireless. Less space than a Nomad. Lame.” (The Nomad was another digital music player at the time that has long since fallen into the dustbin of history). For the tech crowd there was nothing particularly innovative about the iPod… The core technologies (small-ish hard drives, tiny screens, and mp3 files) already existed. Others had introduced similar (even better spec’d) products.

What these early reviews missed was real people’s relationship with music. We love our music, but few were willing to put effort into loading their music onto devices and also deal with a bunch of tiny, fiddly buttons to locate the song we want to hear right now. The iPod focused on usability, the human-side of the problem rather than technical specs. It solved both issues, quickly syncing music files from a computer via a high-speed connector and offering an elegant click-wheel interface that could easily navigate to any of the 1000 songs on your device. 20 years later (yes, mine still works!), although the technology is antiquated, its still a highly intuitive and usable interface.

That’s just the beginning of the story… The success of the iPod fomented the desire for easier access to digital music and other media.

In 2001 you had to buy an entire album ($12-20) just to get 1 track from an artist (and then rip it yourself to an mp3), an untenable situation that caused many to turn to piracy (Napster and its descendants) to get the latest songs. The iTunes Music Store (launched in 2003) offered songs for $0.99, a convenient, inexpensive, and legal way for consumers to purchase just the tracks they wanted for their iPods. Again, this wasn’t radically new technology. It was a digital storefront like many others, but it compelled the record labels to license their content at a reasonable rate, embracing a new model and reshaping the music industry (and creating the template for modern content services).

A few years later, the iPod and iTunes Store were a runaway success, changing our relationship to music (and soon thereafter, video). Moreover, it changed consumer expectations of our devices… More and more people started to wonder why our iPods worked so well when our cell phones felt so clunky? The disconnect grew, until… the iPhone kicked off the smartphone era that still shapes our lives today. The iPhone built upon the strengths of the iPod, content and usability, added wireless communications, and the rest is history. (Think about all of the industries enabled by smartphones: social media, streaming services, ride sharing, etc). All of this was enabled by a music player, an example of how advances in one area reverberate into other disciplines and industries.

After the introduction of the iPhone, the influence of the iPod rapidly faded, but 20 years since its introduction, it offers an important insights into innovation. In general, too much emphasis is placed on capability rather than usability. Yes, the capability (storage, computation, wireless communications, etc.) must exist, but it is useless without a way to wield that capability. Usability is far more than graphics or the design of menus and buttons. It requires a deeper understanding of the needs of real people (not just tech nerds). Steve Jobs famously pronounced that Apple represented the intersection of Technology and the Liberal Arts, and the iPod was truly an embodiment of that. I call it STEAM (integrating STEM and the Arts), but this bridging of capability and usability is still not well-covered in traditional academic training. Given the acceleration of technological capabilities, the demand for making them usable and more accessible will be enormous. I believe the true innovators will continue to be those who find the best ways of bridging that gap.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • America [The Swingles] A lovely rendition (and beautifully creative video) of Paul Simon’s classic song by this world-renowned a cappella ensemble.
  • Philadelphia Public Orchestra [Curtis Institute & Drexel Westphal College of Media Arts & Design] A unique project to rethink and broaden participation in music making, to form a 50-person ensemble (the ability to read music is not required). Applications open through October 28.
  • Captain Kirk goes to space [Blue Origin] It’s not a joke… 90-year-old William Shatner was on board today’s successful rocket launch from Jeff Bezos’ side hustle hobby. You can watch the archived live stream of the launch and return. Also, who can forget his rendition of Rocket Man?
  • James Bond Theme [Jared Halley] The new James Bond film has finally been released! Here’s a great a cappella rendition of the classic Bond theme.

What I’m creating…

We’ve started recording the Fall 2021 series of So Where Do We Go From Here?, my podcast with co-host Melinda Steffy and guests from Philly’s creative community. Here’s a selfie from our recent session with Sean Kelley, Senior Vice President and Director of Interpretation at Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site. New episodes will drop later this month!

No. 43 • 2021-09-27

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B.PHL Festival 2021

The B.PHL Innovation Festival is back this week (Sept. 29 – Oct. 1)!  This third year of B.PHL is a hybrid event: the full program will be streamed online, but most sessions will be presented before a limited, in-person audience (proof of vaccination required). The program celebrates innovation in all its forms (technology, arts & entertainment, education, social justice, healthcare, and more), and this year features such well-known speakers as CNN’s Don Lemon, Grammy Award-winning artist Eve, and 76ers President Daryl Morey. Registration is free for both virtual and in-person attendance!

I am very excited to host a conversation with renowned tech blogger, podcaster, and Drexel alumnus, John Gruber. He is the creator of the highly influential blog, Daring Fireball, read by millions each month. He is also host of the podcast, The Talk Show and co-host of Dithering (with Ben Thompson). And he’s also the inventor of the ubiquitous Markdownlanguage, used by platforms like Slack, GitHub, and Discord for formatting. This “fireside chat” will cover his career trajectory in Philadelphia, including reflections on the city as a hub for technologists and independent creators. We will discuss his views on the “1000 true fans” approach to building a business and his advice on curating one’s own content and developing an audience. It’s sure to be a fascinating conversation for anyone interested in the future of tech, design, and innovation! Our session is Thursday, September 30, 2:15-3:00pm and (free) pre-registration is required (more on that below).

Some other B.PHL sessions also feature Drexel presenters:

  • Hi! We’re Your Creative and Entrepreneurial Mindsets. Let Us Help Inspire Your Innovation (Sept. 29, 2:15pm): My colleagues Liza Herzog, Dr. Barrie Litzky, and Charles Sacco (Close School of Entrepreneurship) and Dr. Larry Keiser (School of Education) will lead a discussion about the power of creativity in entrepreneurship and help participants identify their own creative and entrepreneurial strengths.
  • Transforming Organizational Culture Through Inclusive Communications Strategies (Oct. 1, 11:30am): Faith Kellermeyer, assistant director of Digital Strategy and Design at Drexel’s College of Computing & Informatics, will co-host a workshop about how organizations can use social media to respond to social change and support antiracist causes.

The festival is packed with great speakers and sessions, so take a look at the full program at BPHLFest.com. To attend sessions, either virtually or in-person, you must sign up on the website for a B.PHL ticket (it’s free!). Important note: To participate in-person at Location215 (990 Spring Garden), you must also pre-register for each session you wish to attend to save your seat (occupancy is highly limited to allow for social distancing). And remember that proof of vaccination will be required at check-in.

Hope to see you there!

New term, new schedule! For Fall 2021, I’m going to try to publish the newsletter on alternating Mondays (there will be some adjustments for holidays).

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Dear Evan Hansen Medley [Jared Halley, feat. Peter Hollens] Great arrangements and performances of my favorite tunes from the hit Broadway show (and movie, which just premiered).
  • La voix humaine [Opera Philadelphia Channel] A new film of one of opera’s most powerful monodramas, starring acclaimed soprano Patricia Racette. Described by composer Poulenc as “a musical confession,” it’s the story of one woman as she grapples with grief, denial, and anger in the face of unrequited love, all shared through a one-sided telephone call.
  • Re-Opening Party w/ SnackTime & Deborah Bond [World Cafe Live] Yes, live music performance venues are re-opening! (Proof of vaccination required.) Really glad to see this event and upcoming acts on the calendar at our neighbors in University City!
  • Goldeneye [VOCES8 ] In honor of the new Bond film coming out in less than 2 weeks, here’s the theme from one of my favorites in the series. Our friends VOCES8 will also be touring North America in October (see here for dates and locations).

What I’m creating…

I wrote about the Minecraft Drexel Build last week. I am hosting a virtual information session and building tutorial for the project later today (Mon 9/27) at 5pm (on Zoom). All those interested can register here. (The session will be recorded for those who can’t make it.)

No. 33 • 2021-04-23

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Above: From the New York Times, number of COVID-19 vaccines administered in the US. Note how it is trending downwards in recent weeks.

STEAM and the Vaccination Race

The COVID-19 vaccines are a triumph of science and technology. This is, by far, the fastest a vaccine has ever been developed and deployed on a mass scale. Vaccines are now available to all over 16, and I recently received my second shot. I hope you’re getting yours, too, and I’m looking forward to greater activity in the coming months. It’s also looking like teenagers will be able to get the vaccine this summer, greatly increasing the probability of an in-person return to school in the Fall.

But make no mistake, we are in a race against the virus: we must vaccinate most of the country/world faster than the virus can spread and mutate into more resistant variants. So while there’s cause for optimism, time is critical. This makes the recent decision to pause (and likely, unpause) the Johnson & Johnson vaccine all the more frustrating.

There’s been vigorous debate on whether a full pause was the right approach. My fear is that this decision will reduce public confidence in this vaccine and the COVID-19 vaccines, in general.  We were already starting to plateau in doses administered, as the “early adopters” have received theirs. Approximately 40% of adults have received at least one dose. We’re now at the stage of trying to vaccinate those who are difficult to reach or are more cautious, reluctant, or suspicious of the vaccine. What’s particularly frustrating is that the J&J is the better vaccine at this stage. It requires only a single dose, and it can be stored using normal refrigeration, not super cold storage. It is the best weapon against the virus for hard to reach areas and populations. 

Of course, potentially catastrophic side effects must be taken seriously. And there were 6 reported cases of serious blood clots that may have been related to the J&J vaccine, with one death. Any of those incidents is tragic, and I feel for those affected, but that’s out of 7 million doses administered. That’s an extremely rare occurrence, and many times less than your chance of dying from COVID. But the CDC decided to pause the J&J out of “an abundance of caution”. 

I understand the reasoning behind the pause. Ignoring potential side effects would have been catastrophic, also providing future fuel to vaccine deniers. It’s a difficult and terrible choice and complicated one. But this is where a perspective beyond the expertise of the members of the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (physicians, scientists, and public health specialists) may have been beneficial. The core question goes beyond the scientific: it is literally how do we weigh the needs of the many vs. the needs of the few? It involves emotion and group psychology, not just the raw data or any one individual’s response.

In STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, and Math) fields, we are trained to avoid emotion. The traditional belief is that emotions hinder logical and unbiased decision making (e.g., Mr. Spock or Data from Star Trek). But that ignores the other perspective: emotions are fundamentally human, and to ignore emotion is to deny our humanity (see again, Star Trek). In the case of vaccine side effects, there’s a great deal of complexity to weigh. But what seemed missing from the decision and announcement surrounding the pause was a narrative that could acknowledge the side effects while still maintaining confidence and support for the vaccine.

It’s challenging to distill a complicated decision into an emotional core, and STEM trainees (I’m including medicine here) are not particularly good at developing such narratives. But you know who are?  Artists, writers, and performers. There should have been a storyteller in the room. Or even better, the training of scientists and policymakers involved should not only have been traditional STEM, but STEAM (STEM + Arts), integrating artistic experiences. There are also writers and fluent in science and medicine who could have been brought into the decision making process.

How many books, plays, and movies are tales of “the greater good”? Protecting humanity from the virus is the greater good and that sometimes entails heroic sacrifices. Those who suffered ill-effects from the J&J vaccine are heroes and should be celebrated as such. Taking this narrative approach may have been better for both advising the public of the situation, maintaining confidence in the vaccine, and most critically, staying ahead in the race against the virus.

Unfortunately, according to some polls, the pause has undermined confidence in the J&J vaccine, and may be a significant setback in achieving herd immunity. Of course, we’ll see how this will ultimately impact the vaccination race over the next several months, but this incident strengthens my belief that STEM professionals would benefit from broader STEAM training.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • No Tears Left to Cry [TONEWALL] A divine virtual performance of this Ariana Grande song by “the super-charismatic queer a cappella band” of the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus.
  • Phantom of the Opera Medley [Jared Halley] Another a cappella masterpiece (more than 9 minutes!) by the premier solo a cappella YouTuber. This time, it’s a medley of classic songs from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s megahit musical.
  • One Day More [Stuart & Heather] More musical theater! I’m one of those people who has fantasized about singing all the parts to this Act One finale of Les Misérables (just ask the staff at ExCITe). These two (fantastic singers) actually did it… really well!
  • Gloria & Et in terra pax [VOCES8 & Academy of Ancient Music ] This joyous Easter performance of Bach’s B-minor Mass, part of the Live From London series, really brightened my day. It truly is “peace on Earth and goodwill to all” expressed in music.
  • The Rite of Spring Toy Orchestra [Chris Ott] I’m sure you’ve always wanted to hear the beginning of the 2nd movement from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, performed with toys. Perfection… or something.

What I’m creating…

Sorry, I’m working on several projects, but nothing that’s ready for public consumption. Watch this space!

No. 28 • 2021-02-05

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STEAMshop 2021

Followers of this newsletter know that I frame my work not in terms of STEM, but rather STEAM: Science, Tech, Engineering, Arts, and Math. But STEAM is much more than simply exposure to the different disciplines; it’s the potential of better research, learning, creative work, and even products through the integration of disciplines. As you’ve probably noticed, I’m a strong advocate for learning about STEM concepts through creative work. This framework forms the core of the ExCITe Center’s activities, and since 2015 we’ve hosted an annual workshop on Presidents’ Day for educators in the region to highlight exemplary transdisciplinary work in education.

Our upcoming 7th Annual STEAM Education Workshop on February 15 (9am-12pm) will be a little different. First off, it will be all-virtual. Second, this year’s event will focus on specific integrations spanning learning science, pedagogical practice, racial equity, and social justice. I am thrilled that the program will feature a keynote by renowned author and researcher, Dr. Bettina Love (University of Georgia), co-founder of the Abolitionist Teaching Network, who will address an audience of those in Pre-K-12 as well as higher education:

We Gon’ Be Alright, But That Ain’t Alright: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom
Dr. Love’s talk will discuss the struggles and the possibilities of committing ourselves to an abolitionist goal of educational freedom, as opposed to reform, and moving beyond what she calls the educational survival complex. Abolitionist Teaching is built on the creativity, imagination, boldness, ingenuity, and rebellious spirit and methods of abolitionists to demand and fight for an educational system where all students are thriving, not simply surviving.

The program also includes brief presentations and a panel discussion with Drexel faculty. Participation is free and ACT 48 credits are available for Pennsylvania teachers. All are welcome to register here (the event is free, although space is limited).

Dr. Love’s talk is brought to you through the generous support of the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, the Academy of Natural Sciences, the Center for Black Culture, the College of Arts & Sciences, the College of Engineering, the Office of Research & Innovation, the Office of University & Community Partnerships, the School of Education, West Philadelphia Action for Early Learning, and the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Caledonia [Stay at Home Choir with VOCES8] I’ve been really looking forward to this latest collaboration between our friends VOCES8 and the many thousand-member Stay at Home Choir! Premieres Feb. 6 at 1:30pm (for the US Eastern Time Zone). 
  • Save the Boys [Opera Philadelphia Channel] Wow, Opera Philadelphia is really nailing this streaming thing…. This is the first of four digital commissions set to debut on the channel in 2021. Newark-born Composer in Residence Tyshawn Sorey, premieres a new work inspired by an 1887 poem by abolitionist, writer and Black women’s rights activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (premieres Feb. 12).
  • Virtual Choirs & Orchestras [Alternative Classical] A nice summary of virtual singing and instrumental ensemble opportunities. It’s focused on the UK, but when you’re collaborating virtually, national borders have little meaning.
  • Eye of the Tiger [Jared Halley] Another great one-man a cappella performance from this prolific YouTuber. A classic 80s tune associated with Philly’s most famous fictional athlete (it’s from Rocky III).
  • NFL 2020 [Bad Lip Reading] In honor of this weekend’s Super Bowl… there’s always something for everyone in Bad Lip Reading’s videos. They also sometimes make music videos, like this classic.

What I’m creating…

I mentioned the videos I’m creating for my class this term, Applied Digital Signal Processing (DSP), a senior-level undergraduate engineering course. Ultimately these will form a “video textbook” for this class, but those of you really interested in DSP can check out the first 5 episodes here.

No. 24 • 2020-12-02

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Ready Player… Meh

Happy December!  Over the long Thanksgiving weekend I was eager to start (and then managed to slog through) reading Ready Player Two. My one word review:

Meh.

This is Ernest Cline’s sequel to his best seller, Ready Player One. For me, the original was a highly entertaining nostalgia trip, combining callbacks to ’80s pop culture (my formative years) with an all-consuming virtual reality world (called the Oasis). I thoroughly enjoyed that book (let’s not talk about the movie), and like another popular VR media touchstone, The Matrix (one of my all-time favorite movies), it probes the questions: If a virtual simulation becomes indistinguishable from the physical world, is there a difference? What does that mean for us as individuals? As a society? As a planet?

(And yes, there are horrible parallels between our current online world and The Matrix / The Oasis, but that’s a topic for another day.)

While not quite the dumpster fire of The Matrix sequels, Ready Player Two similarly retreats from these somewhat interesting philosophical questions and instead falls back to basically the following: Virtual reality is awesome (and might save the planet!).

We’re still very far from a virtual world indistinguishable from our physical reality. Unfortunately, the popular notion of “VR is awesome” has done a disservice to education, particularly in our current state of mostly remote, online learning. It has reinforced the notion that the best (only?) virtual learning experience is to simulate the physical classroom and the conventions and interactions of that setting (one person speaking to many, forcing eye contact with students, dispensing Socratic questions, etc.). I get why most instructors go there… it’s familiar and what we’re used to. But ultimately, it doesn’t make sense.

We’ve learned that the best way to travel through water is by swimming, not by trying to run through it. If our physical medium changes, we don’t expect to do the same things. Carrying over the conventions of in-person teaching into an online setting is like trying to run in a swimming pool: you can kind of do it, but it’s slower and distorted (and there’s a lot of extraneous flailing about).

But what if instructors learned how to properly “swim” in this online medium? And what does “swimming” look like in the medium of remote learning? We are still in the process of figuring that out, and it takes practice and effort and time (I’ll bet you didn’t learn to swim in one day). But rather than starting with “How can we adapt our existing class / curriculum to be offered online” (running in a swimming pool), I believe we must start with “What are alternative pathways to learning the course material?” and then develop content, tools, and practices that are authentic to this online environment.

(This is primarily directed towards higher education, where I have the greatest experience, and perhaps high school. I believe online learning is much different, and in many cases inappropriate for younger students.)

“Swimming” requires an understanding of the conventions of online interaction: text over voice. Video over lecture. And projects over problem sets. Those who’ve already incorporated project-based learning in their instruction have a head start. Let’s face it, our students have to do much of this on their own, so there’s never been a better time for interest-driven projects.

(And I mean actual project-based learning, where students are given agency to develop their own problem/project and create a solution, not where students are given materials and a set of IKEA-style instructions to construct a pre-determined artifact.)

“Swimming” also requires creativity and a willingness to experiment, which is why I’ve been so fascinated with artistic collaborations since the start of the pandemic. I think there are better examples of such creativity and experimentation happening in the arts, at all levels (so many high schools produced virtual musicals this Fall). But that willingness to try something new (and learn from failure) needs to be present for all subjects.  

Sadly, some are talking about this as a “lost” academic year, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be an authentic opportunity for learning and growth, both for instructors and students. While it’s incredibly difficult to get people to see possibilities beyond their own experiences of in-person instruction, that’s exactly what we’re asking of our students; that’s education. In this year of disruption, let’s embrace the fact that we’re on a shared journey. Let’s lean into the distinctions between IRL (“in real life”) and online. If we learn to “swim”, and figure out ways to learn better together online, it won’t be a lost year.

I publish the Creating at a Distance newsletter every two weeks. The next issue will land on December 16.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • WPA 2.0: Envisioning a New Era of Public Arts Funding [Mural Arts & Carpenters’ Hall] A virtual panel discussion on how FDR’s Works Progress Administration could serve as a model for sustained public investment in our nation’s cultural infrastructure, moderated by Jane Golden (Today, 12/2 at 5:30pm). 
  • Global Ode to Joy [Live with Carnegie Hall] Originally conceived as performances across six continents, this global celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday has gone online, inviting artists of all disciplines to share videos that inspire joy. Featuring a performance with the thousands of voices of the Stay at Home Choir (Thursday, 12/3 at 7:30pm).
  • Teaching music over Zoom is hard, but Drexel app makes it easier for Philly high school students [Philadelphia Inquirer] In-depth article about the virtual choir collaboration between local schools and Grammy Award-winners, The Crossing, using my Virtual Chorister app.
  • Live from London – Christmas [VOCES8 and many friends] A holiday sequel to this summer’s fantastic Live from London vocal festival, with 16 concerts featuring a starry line-up from the UK, the US and across Europe. The festival also supports the VOCES8 Foundation’s global message of music education for all (December-January).
  • LightsOn [Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance & Philly Culture United] Express your support for the arts by joining this letter writing campaign to Philadelphia City Council advocating for arts and culture to be included in any comprehensive relief package for the city.
  • A Jazzy Holiday Overture [Drexel Jazz Orchestra and ACE-Lab] This virtual concert features Duke Ellington’s “Nutcracker Suite” in an immersive 3D environment using visual animation by Drexel colleague Nick Jushchyshyn and his students in the Animation, Capture & Effects Lab (Thursday, 12/3 at 7pm).
  • ABBA A Cappella Medley [Jared Halley] Pure ’70s fun. I only recently stumbled upon singer-producer Jared Halley’s many creative works (always 16 tracks of him, a cappella), but I’ll be following now, for sure.

What I’m creating

Messing around with Arduino and 600 individually addressable LEDs for a new home project for the holidays. I’ll be back with an update in two weeks…

ECE-101 Fall 2020 seminar speakers to date