Saturday, May 14, 2016

Learning to love conferences

Jean Yang, Nadia Polikarpova, and Shachar Itzhaky recently put together a post giving advice to a first-time academic conference-goer. Looking at this advice from where I am now, as a semi-experienced academic with several conference communities I really love to be around, the advice resonates with me, to an extent: if I prepare well, a conference can be a great opportunity to extend the breadth of my network and find new collaboration opportunities.

But careful preparation and bold approaches of strangers were not, by a long shot, how I learned to enjoy conferences. And enjoyment was, for me, a crucial step to being good at them. I don't want to say you have to enjoy conferences in order to be good at them, but, since they are primarily social & emotional labor, sincerely enjoying yourself will make the job easier.

Personally, when I first received advice like Jean et al.'s as a new grad student, I had very bad experiences. I went in believing that I was all but disallowed from talking to people I already knew, and that the path to success was to go up to strangers I wanted to meet and try my hardest to impress them with my research. Here's the problem: I've struggled with social anxiety my entire life, and only started treating it several years in to grad school. So... the first several times I mentally prepared myself to approach someone and introduce myself at a conference, I had panic attacks -- shaking uncontrollably, difficulty breathing, nausea, &c. I stopped being functional at all and had to retreat to my hotel room to recover. Not the best way to make friends at a conference!

The few times I happened into conversations with new folks, as soon as my research came up, I felt so much pressure to impress that I did a terrible job of explaining it, and utterly failed to communicate excitement or interest in my work (or theirs), because there were so many negative feelings behind the activity I felt like I was trying to take part in. I came away from my first few conferences thinking, "Networking is just one of those necessary evils of academia, where everyone has to be fake to get ahead, and I'm never going to like it or be good at it."

Reflecting on the difference between this attitude and my current one wherein I look forward to conferences and find them energizing and inspiring, I can list a few things that seem like they played key roles. Of course, combating social anxiety should definitely include professional therapy if at all possible, which I've discussed in a prior post. But allow me to stick to the conference-specific points for this post.

  1. Acknowledging that conference anxiety is common was important for me -- hearing from my peers that they, too, find conferences exhausting and socially draining, helped me feel less alone. Realize that most folks who have a great deal of facility in a given conference environment have probably built up relationships with that community over several years, and don't expect yourself to have the same facility immediately. It's okay to be a newcomer, and it's okay not to be neurotypical.
  2. Going in with a cohort and/or a buddy that I could treat as "home base." Counter to the "don't talk to people you know" advice, I'd say it can actually be really important and helpful to do so -- not constantly, but simply as an anchor point. Have someone you can check in with to say "Hey, I just met [really famous researcher] and she was super nice to me! Do you want an introduction?" or "Wow, that person was kind of rude in Q&A, huh?" or whatever. Help each other out!

    As a personal concrete example: when I was first getting to know the games research crowd at FDG last year, being in a cohort of UCSC folks, who are well known as a group, and being able to introduce myself in relationship to them, was really enormously helpful in getting a foothold with strangers.
  3. Not being afraid to sacrifice breadth for depth. Sometimes it feels like you're not winning the conference game unless you're meeting as many people as possible, and during a great in-depth research discussion, it might be tempting to say "let's continue later, I need to circulate around the room." I've actually found it useful not to do this. As someone who tends to get more mileage out of few close connections than loads of shallow ones, allowing myself to really spend time with one or two new people has had a lot better future payoff.
  4. Posting to social media (in my case Twitter) has been a surprisingly effective way to make friends at conferences. Use the conference hashtag; post your notes or thoughts about a talk; check the hashtag yourself and reply to other people conversing. Often what happens is someone will ask to say hi to you in person if they'd like to talk in more depth about a comment you've made. I'm a lot more comfortable speaking my mind online, so this has been a great way to take advantage of my current comfort zone in order to expand it.
  5. On the hallway track: a common adage about conferences is that they're "mostly about the hallway track" and "the talks are less important than the people." I agree, but it took me a long time to get there, and when I first started out, I wasn't really sure how to apply this advice, because I'd often waste the hallway tracks standing around awkwardly with no one to talk to. Then, at lunchtime or whatever, someone would ask a question about that one great talk and I'd have nothing to say because I had skipped it. As a newer member of a community, I've found splitting talk/hallway track more like 70/30 (rather than my typical 30/70 these days) to be beneficial. And be sure to ask any senior members of the community you know which talks are not to be missed. (As a general rule, don't skip keynotes).
  6. Finding my people in sometimes-arbitrary ways can be helpful. For example, if the catered lunch isn't vegetarian friendly, asking a group (online or otherwise) who wants to go visit the nearest Indian restaurant/Chipotle/fancy local vegan place can be a great way to carve a subset of people with whom you immediately have a common discussion topic. Doing this by research interest -- e.g. at FDG, my roommate and I organized a "computational narrative" informal birds-of-a-feather meetup -- can be even better. (See point 2: having a "partner in crime" to help you spearhead things like this can be super useful!)
  7. Giving myself room to acknowledge and care for my needs has probably been the most critical change in behavior for being happy at conferences. At literally every conference, even now, I pick 1 or more sessions to skip just to do whatever feels most comforting to myself: lying in my hotel room with a book, sitting in a park, working out, grabbing tea with a close local friend, even just camping somewhere inconspicuously adjacent to the conference with my laptop and working on some research code or reading Twitter. It's really, really okay to disengage to whatever extent you need to, and it's been crucial for helping me conserve energy to keep being socially involved throughout longer conferences.

On the conference organization side, here are some things your committee can do to help guests with (my particular flavor of) social anxiety feel more comfortable and welcomed:

  1. Host the conference either in, or very close to, the hotel(s) where folks are staying so that it's easy to get back to your room.
  2. Host the conference somewhere in an environment where it's easy to get away for short durations: an urban environment, a campus with public spaces, or somewhere close to good transit options.
  3. Have a quiet room.
  4. To the extend that budget allows, do catered or otherwise on-site lunches (taking care to accommodate a wide range of diets!). It avoids awkward "will the team captain pick me last" situations where people have to self-organize into meal groups.
  5. Do some (optional) group off-site activities like hikes or board game nights, which allows folks to interact in a more casual, low-stakes environment if they wish.
  6. Hold post-talk discussions in their own room rather than doing Q&As, so that even those who are nervous about talking in front of large groups of people can have their thoughts about a talk heard. (Bonus: this saves time in the talk schedule!)
  7. Have a mentoring workshop or doctoral consortium to help acclimate junior researchers to the conference environment and provide a space for asking "beginner questions."
  8. Especially for the mentoring activities noted in (7), but also just in general, do all the usual things for ensuring you have a diverse line-up of conference speakers and leadership. There's nothing like being not only a brand-new member of a community with few connections but also feeling like a total outsider in terms of your core identity.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Two new drafts

I'm pleased to report that two new papers have been accepted to upcoming conferences!

A short abstract "Towards Computational Support for Experimental Theater" (2 pages) has been accepted for presentation at FDG/DiGRA.

And a new collaboration with Rogelio Cardona-Rivera on "Discourse-driven Comic Generation" (8 pages), building off work previously featured on this blog, has been accepted for poster presentation (and inclusion in proceedings) at ICCC.

These papers both represent very preliminary work, so I'm looking forward to conversations about these ideas with the broader community.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Call for Papers: International Conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling (ICIDS 2016)

I'm on the program committee for ICIDS 2016! CFP copied below.


ICIDS 2016
November 15-18, 2016

The Institute for Creative Technologies
The University of Southern California
Los Angeles, USA

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Call for Papers: Trends in Functional Programming 2016

I'm on the program committee for TFP, the Trends in Functional Programming Symposium! TFP is an unconventional conference: papers are very lightly reviewed in order to be accepted at the symposium, then after they are presented, another phase of refereeing happens to select a subset of the articles for formal publication.

The Symposium is June 8-10 at the University of Maryland, and draft paper submissions are due April 8!

Quoting the scope from the official CFP, TFP is interested in the following kinds of articles:
  • Research Articles: leading-edge, previously unpublished research work
  • Position Articles: on what new trends should or should not be
  • Project Articles: descriptions of recently started new projects
  • Evaluation Articles: what lessons can be drawn from a finished project
  • Overview Articles: summarizing work with respect to a trendy subject
Topics of interest include (but are not limited to):
  • Functional programming and multicore/manycore computing
  • Functional programming in the cloud
  • High performance functional computing
  • Extra-functional (behavioural) properties of functional programs
  • Dependently typed functional programming
  • Validation and verification of functional programs
  • Debugging and profiling for functional languages
  • Functional programming in different application areas: security, mobility, telecommunications applications, embedded systems, global computing, grids, etc.
  • Interoperability with imperative programming languages
  • Novel memory management techniques
  • Program analysis and transformation techniques
  • Empirical performance studies
  • Abstract/virtual machines and compilers for functional languages
  • (Embedded) domain specific languages
  • New implementation strategies
  • Any new emerging trend in the functional programming area
More information can be found on TFP's website.

Friday, February 5, 2016

OBT 2016: Operationalizing Creative Theories

Below are the slides for my keynote at Off the Beaten Track (OBT) 2016, co-located with POPL:

Since my preference for sparse slides makes this deck difficult to follow sans soundtrack, I'd like to recap some of the ideas I presented. If you'd like to open the slides in a new tab, here they are on Speaker Deck.

I titled the talk "Operationalizing Creative Theories" before I knew what the talk was going to be about, so it's not a perfect title. I initially picked the word "operationalizing" in the sense of Eger et al.'s "Operationalizing the Master Book of All Plots," which I like very much as the verb referring to the Generative Methods idea of "taking a formal, declarative specification of what a creative domain is made up of and turning it into an algorithm for constructing instances of that domain."

I talked a little bit about operationalization, but mostly I talked about interrelations between formal logic and the concepts of world simulation and generativity in games. The first few slides allude to Dave Walker's POPL keynote on Research Confluences, instantiated at the confluence of POP methods (computational logic) and EIS methods (expressive game design). (Since EIS is pronounced "ice," it just occurred to me that I missed an opportunity to make an ice-pop pun. C'est la vie.)

Text to the accompany the slides after the introduction follows.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Generativity & interpretation: a study of generated comics

In Scott McCloud's classic comics theory book Understanding Comics, he introduces six kinds of panel transitions:
Since my last reading of the book, I've been curious whether these transition types can be operationalized toward any of the following goals, approximately ordered from "most human effort needed" to "least human effort needed":
  • A Dadaist/Oulipian collaborative cartooning game where players take turns rolling a six-sided die and drawing a panel on a shared piece of paper according to the transition type determined by the die roll.
  • "Fridge poetry" for comics: come up with a fixed set of panels that link together via the different transition types, then let humans decide how to order them.
  • A board game in which each player has a "hand" of panels, as well as some goals that align with good global comic construction, and use the same die-roll mechanism as in the first idea.
  • A mixed-initiative digital comic creation tool in which the system suggests possible next panels based on transition types, and the human selects and modifies these panels.
  • A comic-generating program that creates abstract "comic specifications" by automating next panel selection, and lets a human render the comic concretely.
  • A fully-automated comic generator that does all of the above plus visual element placement and rendering.
A few days ago, I did an experiment in which I made some panels out of index cards and a combination of two sticker packs, then used die rolls to select the first and each next panels. At first, I tried straightforward application of McCloud's transition types, which meant doing a lot of human work to interpret panel sequences in certain ways, and add modifiers/emotes to make that meaning more visible. Here are the first few generated results:

Friday, November 27, 2015

Conference Report: AIIDE 2015

Earlier this month, I traveled to Santa Cruz, CA for two purposes: starting a new postdoc with the Expressive Intelligence Studio (which I'll be working on remotely for the time being) and attending AIIDE, a conference about AI in games, at which I was presenting a paper. I also attended two pre-conference events, the INT workshop on narrative tech, and the EXAG workshop on experimental AI in games.

In this post, I want to mention a few highlights among the many exciting things I learned at the union of these activities, and draw out some common themes.

1. The state of the art in computational narrative is social & emotional believability.

INT this year was joint with SBG, Social Believability in Games, and the themes of the talks blended so seamlessly that it was difficult to remember there were actually two workshops. Iolanda Leite gave the keynote on human-robot interaction; specifically, how to create conversational agents that would maintain children's interest over long-term durations, rather than the usual focus on a single interactive session. Her talk set the stage for other presentations on conversational NPCs, social mediation AI for MMOs and social networks, and the production of socially and culturally appropriate behavior.  I also had several chances to chat with members of the budding research group at American University consisting of UCSC alums Mike Treanor, Josh McCoy, and Anne Sullivan, who organized SBG, and learn about their work on the next generation of Ensemble, a scripting tool for social physics.

The underlying premise of all of this work seems to be that responsive narrative depends on socially believable characters. Meanwhile, social believability is still really hard! There are a lot of pieces to it, like cultural context, social norms within that context, the human interactors' personal/emotional context, the fact that humans remember, forget, and lie (which there was actually an EXAG paper about), and more.

So I'm of two minds about this premise. On the one hand, there are an awful lot of interesting problems in social believability, and I'm really excited to see what comes out of that area in the next few years (especially if epistemic modal logic might be involved). On the other hand, I think it's a mistake to suppose that advances in computational narrative can't be made without it. In some ways, stories are a lot simpler than characters, while it might be tempting to assume that good stories will naturally emerge from any set of sufficiently interesting characters (the premise of reality television), I find myself increasingly intrigued by the possibility of operationalizing approaches like the collaborative storytelling system Microscope, wherein the unit of content isn't a character interaction but an era, epoch, or historical event, each of which may involve characters as instruments, but more fundamentally, must fit together in a global way to meet the demands of narrative structure.

Somewhat tangential, but also related to social and narrative games: at AIIDE proper, Mitu Khandaker-Kokoris gave an amazing keynote (available to watch online) making the point that, often, what makes systems feel social is less about detailed digital realization and more about the gaps that we humans fill in with our willingness to suspend belief and project humanity onto said systems. Katherine Isbister also gave a keynote (unfortunately not recorder), centering on many similar themes, especially the idea that games can be vehicles for emotional and social bonding, providing context for her work in wearable game interfaces. I strongly recommend following Mitu and Katherine's groundbreaking work.

And speaking of social play and storytelling...

2. There's a lot of excitement right now at the intersection of human-driven collaborative storytelling and computer-driven play.

Ian Horswill gave a cool talk at EXAG on generating Fiasco playsets with Prolog, the upshot of which was basically "play Fiasco" (I still haven't), but I'm also enamored of the idea of using computational assistants for primarily human-driven improvy storygames.

Markus Eger spoke at INT about operationalizing PLOTTO, the "master book of all plots," and, at Ian's suggestion, a bunch of grad students and I got together to do a story jam where we semi-democratically made choices about which plot development options to accept until we reached a terminal node. Some notes and sample output here. An interesting thing we learned was that the plot developments don't necessarily come in causal order, but in many cases it is possible to read a development as further elaboration or backstory on a previously-described situation/event. This fact again touches on the idea of iterative and global, rather than linear and simulationist, story generation. (Of course, a downside of PLOTTO is that it's a 1-Markov chain in terms of expressiveness, i.e. it only maintains a history of the previous choice to influence future choices. So there wind up being a lot of loose story threads that never get called upon again later.)

I also spoke at length to various attendees about interactive/immersive/participatory theater. It seems like tons of games people know about, and are intrigued by, Sleep No More, the multi-room concurrent production in New York. (I still need to get my butt on an Amtrak to go see it, but I've heard and read plenty of descriptions at this point.) Pittsburgh's own thriving experimental theater scene has introduced me to Tamara, which I wrote about previously (on this blog and in my thesis), as well as Strata, a gauntlet of immersive/interactive vignettes, and Uncumber's suite of interactive work, including Her Things, a room full of explorable artifacts designed to be pieced together in pursuit of a narrative, held together by improvising actors. These productions serve as interesting points in a design space for collaborative storytelling, in which roleplaying, storygames, and computational fiction all share certain objectives -- blur the line between audience member and story-maker -- but which differ substantially in others (allow participants to alter the story fundamentally, or simply to choose a trajectory through it? allow participants to interact with one another? are participants characters or observers?). I'm very interested in how computational approaches can learn from recent participatory theater experiments and vice-versa.


While I have quite a bit more to say about the conference, I'll curtail the post here in the interest of length and thematic coherence.