Back in October, I attended a Meetup on databases focused on 2 SQL-esque databases.
TimescaleDBis an open-source database built for analyzing time-series data with the power and convenience of SQL — on premise, at the edge or in the cloud.
CockroachDB – Architected for the cloud, CockroachDB delivers resilient, consistent, distributed SQL at your scale. CockroachDB is built by Cockroach Labs.
The presentations were very thorough, and as a result I found some of the details were a bit…esoteric. I don’t know that much about databases. (I was hoping for more IoT.)
But I did learn something about databases, replications, different types of databases, and node setups. Who knows where this information will squirrel itself away and pop up again in the future.
The NYC Databases of the Future: CockroachDB and TimescaleDB
Wednesday, Oct 30, 2019, 6:30 PM
Cockroach Labs 53 W 23rd St New York, NY
20 IoT’ers Went
New York City is known for many things… The perfect NYC slice, the lights of Broadway, and perpetually delayed subway trains. It is now known for something new and innovative, the databases from Cockroach Labs (distributed SQL) and Timescale (time series). Join us for networking, pizza and beer, and fantastic talks from Timescale and Cockroach La…
A quick overview of generative adversarial networks (GANs) — a type of artificial intelligence that are capable of generating, among other things, pretty realistic looking photos of humans that do not exist.
Shout out to those hard-working generative adversarial network (GAN)! Ok, I don’t really know about hard-working, but it is pretty cool. Let’s review.
Intro to GAN
GAN technology came out in internally at Nvidia, the computer graphics company, in 2014 and released publicly in 2018 (as StyleGAN). The studies are linked.
I’m not going to pretend I understand the details of either study. But based on the Wikipedia article linked above, what I can explain is that a GAN is the result of two neural networks that compete against each other, in one of those mathematical, strategy “games” researchers like to play. The networks study photographs (or text) and then decide which elements to use to generate something new.
I think some people will find it creepy, but I think it’s cool. For the human photos, it’s hard to not project a humanity into the faces, even though, logically, these are people that have never existed. The generated fake people seem, somehow….special.
Here’s a quick intro to some GAN and some links to explore. Enjoy!
Explore Some Fake Stuff
As I said above, one of the possible outputs of a GAN can be a surprisingly realistic looking photographs. View some of them at thispersondoesnotexist.com. Every time you refresh, you get a new person that has never existed. It’s like dreaming for computers.
This github repository has a list of a few more websites of GANs that generate photographs of humans, fake rental ads, articles, anime, and more results that don’t exist. There are fake cats, but computers seem to have trouble with animals. I suggest not looking at them. (They’re creepy.)
Test Yourself, Human!
Some of these faces look pretty realistic. For instance, the image above-left is an “image of a young woman generated by StyleGAN, an generative adversarial network (GAN). The person in this photo does not exist, but is generated by an artificial intelligence based on an analysis of portraits.” The ad on the right is fake, too. Could you tell?
If you want to really test yourself, the website Which Face Is Real throws up 2 side-by-side images.
Unless you’re a dog cat on the internet, you can probably tell the difference (and probablyevenespecially if you are a cat). The fake images have a few tell-tale signs like smudged backgrounds, odd looking teeth, unusual wrinkles, and some of them just don’t seem right.
You can also test yourself with the fake poems at Bot Poet.
Composites – There are some offshoots of the original technology, like this github repository which shows an example of a composite generated image using a StyleGAN image + an image of the Mona Lisa.
Digital “models” – I wouldn’t say these examples are quite the same, but there are already digital “models” on Instagram and in advertising campaigns. Lil Miquela has over 1.5 million followers on Instagram, and there’s a modeling agency specializing in digital “models”.
Video – The one below is uses around 8 frames of video to train their neural network, resulting in a real-time talking head model. It could be like one of those “deep-fake” videos, except the new heads are people that don’t exist. And you can kind of tell, if you watch the video below, human, the new heads do not really look too realistic (yet).
Few-Shot Adversarial Learning of Realistic Neural Talking Head Models
Statement regarding the purpose and effect of the technology
(NB: this statement reflects personal opinions of the authors and not of their organizations)
We believe that telepresence technologies in AR, VR and other media are to transform the world in the not-so-distant future. Shifting a part of human life-like communication to the virtual and augmented worlds will have several positive effects. It will lead to a reduction in long-distance travel and short-distance commute. It will democratize education, and improve the quality of life for people with disabilities. It will distribute jobs more fairly and uniformly around the World. It will better connect relatives and friends separated by distance. To achieve all these effects, we need to make human communication in AR and VR as realistic and compelling as possible, and the creation of photorealistic avatars is one (small) step towards this future. In other words, in future telepresence systems, people will need to be represented by the realistic semblances of themselves, and creating such avatars should be easy for the users. This application and scientific curiosity is what drives the research in our group, including the project presented in this video.
We realize that our technology can have a negative use for the so-called “deepfake” videos. However, it is important to realize, that Hollywood has been making fake videos (aka “special effects”) for a century, and deep networks with similar capabilities have been available for the past several years (see links in the paper). Our work (and quite a few parallel works) will lead to the democratization of the certain special effects technologies. And the democratization of the technologies has always had negative effects. Democratizing sound editing tools lead to the rise of pranksters and fake audios, democratizing video recording lead to the appearance of footage taken without consent. In each of the past cases, the net effect of democratization on the World has been positive, and mechanisms for stemming the negative effects have been developed. We believe that the case of neural avatar technology will be no different. Our belief is supported by the ongoing development of tools for fake video detection and face spoof detection alongside with the ongoing shift for privacy and data security in major IT companies.
Slightly off-topic, there’s a new Frontline documentary on AI. It’s 2-hours, so it’s a commitment. It doesn’t really go into the GAN-side of artificial intelligence, but it does discuss automation, privacy, and surveillance.
The documentary provides many reasons to be afraid of AI, particularly with regard to surveillance and use of AI by governments. We can’t really predict what governments will do, but if behavior control is a goal of AI there’s a natural user group: people who have trouble controlling their behavior. This would be people who have or have had issues or struggles with:
chemical imbalances in the brain
loss of motor control
Or even just reminding people to eat better and go outside more. I’m sure there are more. Anyway, that’s my thought. Seems fair to be afraid, but also there are some opportunities that shouldn’t be overlooked.
And now on the cultural side : the trailer for Her. I don’t know if it’s possible to have an OS this advanced, but there are some interesting fantasy explorations in this movie.
What got me interested in this topic was a video I watched about a rural Japanese town where pretty much the only people left were older residents; many young people had moved to big cities.
Despite everyone being 65+, the residents still try to maintain an active way of life. The video comes from two researchers focused on a study centered on “active” aging — “active” being a term created by the World Health Organization. You can read more about “active aging”, the Global Age-Friendly Cities Project, and also download the brochure on their website.
Being Old in Rural Japan
Synopsis: The story portraits two single-living seniors: the 84-year-old Shimako, a former farmer wife, with a husky deep voice, who still grows vegetables. She regularly meets her neighbors for tea chats and joins the village choir and gymnastics course. Her biggest passion however is gateball, a very popular senior team-sport in Japan, similar to croquet. And there is the 93-year-old Genichi, the oldest man in his village with driving license, who hates sport but loves composing short poems (tanka) on daily events. As he enjoys his freedom in old age, deciding for himself when to get up and when to work, he refuses to live with his son’s family. Also he still cultivates his agricultural field for self-subsistence.
I thought it was a fascinating video. It’s about 35-min long, in German with English subtitles.
The talk was co-organized by New Food Economy; Design and Urban Ecologies, Parsons, The New School for Social Research; and Slow Food New York City. Presented at the Japan Society as part of their Innovators Network.
Our first speaker was Richard McCarthy, from Slow Food USA. He went to Japan to discuss and explore rural strategies through the Innovators Network. There was a moderated discussion following the presentations, led by Kate Cox, New Food Economy editor.
Rural Japan and Kuni
The Japanese speaker, Tsuyoshi Sekihara, is an artist who is involved in rural Japanese development. He was sharing the concept of Kuni and how it developed.
It’s easier to show the manifesto rather than explain it.
Explanations of Kuni:
Rural US and the Aspen Institute
I learned a few interesting facts from the Aspen Institute speaker, Janet Topolsky, focused on Rural Development Hubs:
About 49 million Americans live in rural communities
Over 50% of the Native American population live in rural communities
The top industries in rural areas are: education, health, and manufacturing, in that order
Seems like there are a lot of business opportunities in rural areas for creative entrepreneurs. Rural areas tend to get overlooked. Traditionally, businesses focus on scaling up. Rather than focus on scalability, the speakers suggested focusing on penetration. That is, what percentage of a population is using your business.
Marketplace, on NPR, recently discussed the lack of broadband access in rural Georgia.
A lot of rural America is a desert when it comes to high-speed internet access. And that’s a drag on economic growth: Communities without broadband have a hard time attracting new residents and businesses…
Another problem rural communities have is dwindling populations. Here’s a recent CBS Sunday Morning video about the population struggles of small towns in Japan, now facing extinction, as the country’s overall population decreases from a peak a few years ago. For instance, in the town featured in the video, the school’s 6th grade class now only has 6 students, down from dozens.
The video above reviews some of the more creative and technological solutions Japan has invented. Ideas range from repurposing malls to senior centers, to high-tech mausoleums, to robots — Japan likes robots — officiating weddings due to a shortage of monks. Lot of interesting concepts to think about.
Now that I think about it, this story of rural villages populated by an aging population reminds me of Tokyo Story, by Yasujiro Ozu.
A review into the current state of my portfolio and thoughts for the future.
My last blog post was an account of what I have accomplished in my portfolio journey and ended with some ideas about next steps.
At the time, I said I would try and create a design using Tachyons, a lightweight CSS framework. That sample page, pictured, is available on github.
I also wrote about fears using vanilla HTML/CSS, related to updates. I ended up going with DIY anyway. I still have that fear. I also wrote about using WordPress as a portfolio. I considered I installing WordPress in multiple folders and testing out different options.
Current State of My Portfolio
My portfolio is still at the same domain, but now it’s at a subdomain: alliwalk.com/ux. The reason is it gave me more navigation options rather than putting everything on the homepage.
I ended up using Tachyons for the entire site. It took a while to get decode the classes, which are a bit cryptic. I wrote some CSS, but not that much. I kind of missed writing it. But it was also a very interesting way to implement styles. And it looks pretty clean.
As I mentioned in my last post, one of the long-term strategies I had in mind for the site was to create more than one portfolio for my different interests, blogging, art/design, and UX. I got the idea of multiple portfolios after watching a YouTube focused on PDF portfolios for graphic designers.
This video is linked to the appropriate moment in time, or you can watch the relevant 40 seconds here.
To alleviate one of my fears about updates, I created a landing page with nav links to each of my three interests. Now I can modify the link destinations, if I need to take a portfolio offline for some reason.
And finally, I did test a WordPress option, but it’s never as quick and easy at it seems. My portfolio went through a few versions, including PDF and a test in WordPress.
Strategy: Some designers create their portfolio as a PDF to supplement their online portfolio. I’ve tried this before and I did not have good results. However, I thought that using my new font and style would help created compelling layouts. Plus, I needed something to point people to while working on updating my website.
Actions: I went through several iterations. I created PDF versions, which I created in Google Docs and Sketch. I attempted to use the J. A. Van de Graaf canon, popularized by Jan Tschichold, to lay out the content. I referenced the book Grids, by Gavin Ambrose and Paul Harris, for inspiration.
Aside: I could write a whole post on page layout, Tschichold, Van de Graaf, but instead I’ll just share a few short videos.
Review: I shared both versions as direct links or by uploading to Behance. I used both for job applications. Neither got me very far. So essentially, my previous experience was the same as it is now. However, creating them helped me later on when I was testing out my blog/website. And I now have portfolios available for future discussions, that I can present and discuss on the phone or in a group.
Quantitative Research and Analysis
Strategy: As per my previous post on portfolio resources, I found that although I had a lot of summary and raw data on portfolios, I hadn’t fully analyzed it. My strategy was to thoroughly research the portfolios listed in one of my linked resources. I wanted to answer questions like:
How many portfolios are from students and do they seem different?
What types of profile images to designers use of themselves?
What is the most common greeting on portfolios?
How many designers use their own domain?
What do most people use to create their portfolio?
Action: It took a while, but I completed a significant amount of quantitative research. I have not yet shared my report, but I’ll probably post it on SlideShare and link to it. I hope to present it at a UX related talk.
Review: My research clarified many questions about portfolios and helped answer questions on how to design specific areas of the site. For instance, previous reviewers suggested using my own domain (vs using cargocollective). I didn’t understand why this was so important until I concluded my research, which showed the vast majority of designers used their own domain.
The reviewers also made comments related to not getting a sense of who I am. I always find this difficult to articulate, but the research helped again. Ultimately, I decided that this blog would be able to serve as a supplement for anyone to learn more.
The research also helped guide my headlines. Most designers used a very similar type of greeting on their site. I chose to use something that stood out a little bit more. I also used yellow on my landing page, to help people remember that yellow site, if they enter from that page.
WordPress or DIY
My research revealed that most designers, about two-thirds, use a CMS to build their portfolios. The 2 most popular are WordPress and Squarespace. The rest, or one-third, use a DIY solution.
Initially I thought WordPress could be a good option. It’s free, I’ve used it for many years, I know how to install it. I decided against using this blog as a combo portfolio+blog website. I’ve been using it as a blog for too long. And also, I wanted to keep the size of the database down. I considered installing a WP blog into a subdomain.
Free or Paid Themes. Many of the popular WordPress themes, such as Semplice, are not free. But found a solution. As I wrote previously, WordPress Twenty Twenty will be based on the free Chaplin theme by Anders Norén who leads WP 5.3 development. I went to Anders Norén’s lovely website and found multiple free templates.
I created a test site, uploaded images, and added some write-ups. At the same time I was also created some test pages using Tachyons. Ultimately I decided against using WordPress. Anders Norén’s templates are beautiful, but I felt that in order to have a portfolio that could compare to the portfolios I reviewed in my research, I would need to still need to make a number of customizations. DIY was simply more fun and enjoyable.
Present and Future
And, I have some ideas about updating the layout of the yellow landing page. It might give me a chance to use more of my own CSS.
Maybe one day I’ll use one of the templates on Anders Norén’s WordPress theme site for this blog.
I’m still using the cargocollective account, but I’ve re-repurposed the site and it’s now back to showing creative/art/design projects. If that site gets too full, maybe I’ll create another portfolio focusing on one or two of those interests.
The next time I write about this, I hope it will just be about my research. Because on this, I’ve written a lot!
For now, I’m happy to be done writing with this topic. Plus, I’ve written a number of other posts that are waiting in drafts to get posted.