Happiness slingshot. [Weekly Head Voices #61]

Make sure you won’t be disturbed for the next 2 minutes and 57 seconds, and then focus your full attention on this marvelous YouTube clip:

Yes people, there are apparently some brilliant human beings, the pinnacle of our society you might say, who took the time to construct a giant slingshot with which they then proceeded to shoot each other through the blue summer sky. This is the sign that we, the human race, must be doing something right.

Because I need all the time that I can get to play may part in being a good human, I will now switch to Bullet Time(tm):

  • IEEE VisWeek 2011, Mind-Blowingly Awesome Visualization Conference, took place in week 43. For the first time in years, I was NOT there. The TNR went and came back inspired. My fearless and revered ex-leader Frits Post received the IEEE VGTC Visualization Career Award, which is yet another official recognition of his awesomeness. I hope he still has some space on the mantelpiece next to the Eurographics Honorary Fellow award.
  • Through the #visweek conference twitter stream and some of the blogging that was going on, I was able to follow the conference at a distance. There was a Blogging about Visualization BoF (birds of a feather, a kind of informal meeting to discuss some topic of interest; also read Dominikus Baur’s blog report), which motivated me to revive the MedVis.org webblog! We even have a twitter account now. If you have even a mild interest in medical visualisation or imaging, please subscribe via email, your RSS reader or the twitter account.
  • This blog won one of Joe’s official SA Blog Awards! Buy me a beer when you see me.
  • A real Italian explained to me that putting sugar in your espresso is entirely acceptable and even desirable. Herewith I’m going to stop feeling ashamed about my sugar-in-espresso habit. I’m not sure what I was thinking that combining two of the best substances known to humans was a sin.
  • After spending some serious quality time with The Email Game, I wrestled both of my overgrown inboxes to the ground. Lessons learnt: 1) Even the thin layer of gamification offered by The Email Game was sufficient to motivate me to start and finish a task I’ve been dreading for weeks. 2) Inbox Zero actually is more important than I’ve recently come to think. The trick is deciding when exactly you’re going to empty it.
  • Here’s a picture of a hedgehog after a bath:
It's a hedgehog. After a bath!

So recently I was having a conversation with someone in a bar. Soon the question came up: What are you striving for in your work?

Imagine my surprise when I didn’t have an answer ready. I was surprised, because I usually spend a significant amount of time on introspection, pondering the usual questions:

  1. What makes me happy?
  2. Why are we here?
  3. What should I strive for?

I mostly have answers to all of these and more, often involving coffee drinking in some form, along with a healthy dose of perspective, and harmony. However, due to general work-related business the past few months, my moments of introspection have been few and far between. As is the case with these types of philosophical guidelines, one does need to spend time regularly pondering them, else they sink quickly deeper below the surface of everyday life.

So I spent some time trying to remember what it was that I was striving for in work. Fortunately, not that far below the surface, I found it again:

Create value.

That’s really all there is, but it works for me.

HappinessException [Weekly Head Voices #44]

Just slightly before this week is over, here’s a super quick WHV looking back on last week, #13 of the year 2011. Let’s start the show with this delightful body-motion-art music video, brought to my attention by the intriguing TNR:

The most noteworthy items of my week were the following:

  • The VisWeek 2011 deadline, together with EuroVis our most important yearly paper deadline, smashed through our lives on Thursday. I had the distinct privilege of participating in two excellent submissions, and once again came to the realisation that I absolutely love writing papers, even when chasing deadlines as serious as this. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s quite the kick crafting that perfect gooseflesh-inducing sentence. Now cross yer fingers that both of these get accepted!
  • I attended the early retirement party of one of my group’s professors. He gave a superbly humorous talk, amongst other topics on the changing culture at my employer (issue #1: Too Much Management and related to that issue #2: Research Institute Thinks it Should Act Like a Commercial Entity and Predictably Does So Embarrassingly Badly). This, as well as his compressed review of 30 years of academia, constituted serious food for thought.
  • On Saturday I had the privilege of giving a talk, in Dutch (!!), to an audience of more than 200 clinical physicists at the yearly conference of the Dutch Society of Clinical Physics.  I presented an overview of our surgical planning and guidance research, including the absolute latest results of the VisCAS survey that we’re working on (when I say “we”, I of course mean that one of my MedVis Ninjas is doing most of the hard work). If you’re also lucky enough to find yourself in Bergen, Norway for EuroVis 2011 in May/June, you’ll even be able to come and admire our poster on the topic!

For my truly backyard philosophical conclusion, I’d like to refer to an interesting piece in this weekend’s Volkskrant on Pascal Bruckner, a real-deal non-backyard philosopher, and his refreshing view on our eternal quest for happiness. Bruckner makes the point that happiness used to be the exception, implying that then it was already quite an achievement just being able to survive.

These days, because we have access to infinite amounts of fat and sugar, and other important foodstuffs such as beer, and our survival has become almost a given, we have come to believe that it is our duty to be happy. Even worse than that, we have come to expect it of each other, finding it strange when someone is temporarily not in the throes of passion or happiness. Paradoxically, or maybe not, this expectation leads to much unhappiness, or as Bruckner puts it, the more we have, the more discontent we get.

Being French and a philosopher, he makes use of his unique prerogative by concluding with a quote by Voltaire from Candide:

l’homme est né pour vivre dans les convulsions de l’inquiétude ou dans la lethargie de l’ennui.

(go look it up on Google Translate, you have-it-all human! don’t forget to leave a comment on this blog.)

On the importance of taking notes. [Weekly Head Voices #38]

Post summary: Part one is about friends graduating from Evil School, part two is rather short mentioning vague bits of good news and part three is 100% time management and productivity boosting goodness! Feel free to skip, skim or reorder!

One

On Thursday, February 10, 2011, my dear friend Mister Krekel graduated from Evil School after years of hard work and evil-doing, and will henceforth go through life as the formidable Doctor Krekel. Please do watch out.

Evil School. (Photo by the talented fpixel.wordpress.com.)

The joyous transition took place in the Evil School’s Academiegebouw in Leiden, and this time yours truly (I’m referring to me in a round-about fashion) even had the great honour of playing a part in the formal proceedings. If you’re curious as to what exactly this ritual constitutes, see this previous edition of the WHV on the graduation of another terribly evil colleague. I believe that the bunch of us now constitute a bona fide Axis of Evil. No, the evil jokes can unfortunately not stop yet.

The Party was held in a secret cafe nearby. You will notice that I’ve capitalised Party, as it was not your average run of the mill Evil School graduation affair, but a social event of note. Here in Holland, the PhD defence and graduation are a combined affair, and so the whole day is dedicated to just one person. It is actually very special: People take time off from work, sometimes even temporarily put aside their differences, and travel from all over to attend the festivities. It’s like a wedding, except that there’s only one of you. I can only recommend it very highly. At the Party, everyone had clearly read the memo, and they were there with that singular goal in mind: Celebrate the freshly minted Evil Doctor. Presents were given, speeches were held, photos were shown, beer was imbibed and, flying in the face of all advice concerning the mixing of alcohol, cameras and social networking, the best evil photographer in town, who’s coincidentally also in Evil School, took the most amazing photos that you should be able to see on Facebook if you’re one of the privileged few to belong to The Network, also known as The Friends of the Axis of Evil.

Two

On the good news front, you’ll see (or not) on the list of EuroVis 2011 conditional accepts, that a paper by cool colleagues from far away, to which I contributed a small part, has been conditionally accepted, and hence has a significant chance of being presented at said event in Bergen, Norway (May 31 to June 3). We also have plans to submit a poster (or two), so there’s an even more significant chance that I will make an appearance at this fantastic conference! We’re also cooking up various odds and ends that will hopefully crystallise sufficiently by the end of March to be submissible for VisWeek 2011. Cross yer fingers.

Three

Today’s backyard time management section is in fact more about planning than it is about notes. However, my Pro-Tips involve combining them in an easy to implement productivity booster. When people start out in research, one of the first bits of advice they get is keeping some kind of lab journal. I think this advice applies to more than just research: If you do any kind of independent or project work, jotting down your activities, thoughts and results during the day is useful in helping to structure your thought processes, and also very helpful when you have to backtrack a complex multi-day procedure. During my Ph.D., I filled a number of real cardboard-and-paper books with notes. More recently, I’ve started using Google Documents for the same purpose. Besides all the other advantages, having to document explicitly your work output keeps you productive and on your toes.

Pro Tip #1: Keep a lab journal, even if you don’t work in a lab.

I’ve mentioned before that my resolutions for 2011 included more concrete planning. This has manifested in a work-in-progress planning for the whole year, including milestones, awards won, and so forth, but much more practically, it has manifested in a little lab-journal-compatible trick. Every morning when I sit down to begin the day, I spend a few minutes thinking and then start the day’s journal entry by writing down, as concretely as possible, the tasks that I plan to complete by the end of the day. This also ensures that I spend effort on the important things, and not only on the urgent things. So, that brings us to:

Pro Tip #2: At the start of each day, write down in your lab journal exactly and concretely what you plan to accomplish by the end of that day.

These pro tips appear to be quite straight-forward, but together they help one to focus, and to keep tabs on one’s effective productivity. In other words, just being terribly busy the whole day gets you nothing; the trick is being terribly busy in all the right directions.

P.S.

Somebody is clearly pushing the boundaries of awesomeness… cowboys AND aliens!

Futuristic Betting at VisWeek 2009.

So I went to IEEE VisWeek 2009, and it was far more awesome and enjoyable than even my most optimistic expectations. Besides contributing to the tweetstorm (see #visweek) but not being able to liveblog due to higher priority activities, attending paper presentations and chatting with as many cool people as possible (much higher priority activities), this year I’ve also made a number of elaborate bets with a subset of said cool people concerning the future of our technology. If all goes according to plan, the bets’ll end up being visionary, if not, they might be slightly embarrassing and we’ll have a good laugh at VisWeek 2019.

Because these bets only realise in 10 or 20 years, I’ve told my betting partners that I would write it up on my blog so that we could check in that much time, and that they would then owe me copious amounts of beer. This also gives them the opportunity to check my wording for suitability, as we might have to cleave hairs when the time comes.

Bet #1: At VisWeek 2019, I and at least one other person will be wearing a HUD pretty much all the time, OR I will have at least one bionic eye.

Courtesy of Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft.
Courtesy of Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft.

I made this bet with the infamous Dr. Bob Laramee, proprietor of the 5-star webpage.  This came up in a conversation about having some form of non-intrusive display device always available with which things could be looked up, relatively unobtrusively, during for example a conversation.

I do expect that sometime within the next 10 years, HUDs (heads-up display) will be offered as an option with every new set of spectacles.  This is definitely not a push-over bet, but that makes it all the more exciting.

I’m not sure how the bionic eye clause slipped in there, honestly!

Bet #2: 19.5 years from now, there will be more cars with alternative propulsion systems than there are cars with fossil-fuel based internal combustion engines.

This one was made with Dr Helmut Doleisch, linked view data analysis guru and now CEO of SimVis (hey man, BUY THEIR SOFTWARE!).  He is concerned with all the vested interests in fossil-fuel combustion, whereas I think that 19.5 years is more than enough time to introduce non-fossil fuel based propulsion systems on the road, so much so that less than 50% of cars on the road will have need of fossil fuel.

Brazil with its 190 million inhabitants is an interesting example in this regard: A large number of their cars already run on either gasoline or sugarcane ethanol – clearly a great step in the direction of non-fossil fuel options.

Bet #3: In 2029, distributed conferences with tele-presence will be common.

In this case, the beer-donor is Dr Stefan Bruckner, master of all things volume visualisation and father of the VolumeShop software system.  My contention is that in 20 years, conferences where attendees take part via tele-presence systems, whatever they may be, will be common-place.

I’ve called one of the models I envision of this “clustered telepresence”, which would entail that groups of attendees would indeed gather physically, but that these remote clusters would be connected by advanced tele-presence systems, involving advanced displays (think very large, or perhaps even some form of mobile volumetric displays) and distributed and mobile sound.

During the discussion preceding the making of this bet, valid concerns were raised with regard to the efficacy of remote socialising, especially beer-drinking.  I agree that this is an issue of utmost importance, but still contend that technology and efficiency concerns will conspire to address this problem in a way that is at least good enough to fool, to a sufficient extent, all parties involved.