Michael Karlesky

A cabinet of wonders. Minus the cabinet. And possibly the wonders.

Readin'. Writin'. 'Rithmetic. Ridiculous.

One of my classes does, in fact, use an old skool chalkboard. The photo above is something I found online of a computer-y class. Sorry to disappoint. Sadly, I didn't think to get a shot of my computer graphics class chalkboard last night.

I've gotten many questions about what classes I'm taking and what in the world it is I'm doing for this whole graduate school thing in the first place. So here we go. Buckle up and settle in. This is gonna be a long ride. I'm summarizing as much as possible.

Let's start with some background. I didn't go looking to get a Ph.D. I needed to do something different than what I had been doing with my working hours, and it turned out that that something different was all wrapped up in deep, searching questions of purpose. Answering those questions took several years, several false starts, lots of conversations, a key story in a book, remembering just how much I love amusement parks and miniature golf, and maybe even ultimately led to a calling.

Having clarity on what I felt compelled to do (I'll get to it — hold your horses) it became obvious that there were no employment opportunities for me to pursue. Companies aren't working in the area I want to work. Even if there was a mythical employer with a mythical position just for me, I'm not qualified for it. So my thinking was — let's go back to school so I can work on this stuff I have in my head and then go do something entrepreneurial after that. Heck. Why stop there. Why not just go ahead and change the world? But first things first. Education. Trouble is there weren't any academic programs doing exactly what I wanted to do either. That led to more hurdles and more searching and more dead ends. Long story short I met my advisor who really got what I wanted to do and laid out a whole plan including funding for it. School. Discipline. Degree. All those were her idea. If I wanted the opportunity she presented it meant a Computer Science Ph.D. at NYU•Poly. Boom. Just like that.

So what is it exactly I'm doing? Great question. You know video games? Right. Not that. Humans have been playing since as long as there have been humans. Games are just one type of playing. The structured kind. Computers are also structured. So the two paired up quite nicely and now we have all manner of amazing ways of playing games thanks to advanced technology. What we don't have is the same thing in all the other unstructured ways of playing — playing with blocks, dress up, make-believe, play fighting, storytelling, climbing on jungle gyms, exploring, creating, etc. Sure. We have toys with blinky lights, but they're novelties at best. I want play and technology to come together in entirely new ways. The sorts of ways that can transform how we work, learn, and relate to one another. Play is creative, exploratory, social, and, in fact, entirely spiritual. It's so very human and even divine. I believe we've forgotten how to play and can go so much further with it than we ever have before. Play really can change the world. And that's where technology comes in.

Technically, my area falls under Human Computer Interaction (HCI) and Affective Computing (fancypants words that mean computers that engage and respond to emotion). I call what I'm trying to do Playful Technology or Playful Media. Sometimes I just say “Disney 2.0.” That's the thing, you see. I don't really know what it is yet exactly. Nobody does. And that's how a Ph.D. program is supposed to work. It's supposed to be far enough out into unknown territory that it's just making stuff up as one goes along. There are classes, of course, and there's a foundational curriculum for me to follow. (I need more class credits than are represented in the core curriculum I just linked to. For some of those credits, I'll probably get to pull in classes from elsewhere within NYU like ITP.) My classes do not make the degree, however; they're merely meant to be in support of whatever direction I, the intrepid, wide-eyed doctoral student, am exploring. I've been writing on play + technology for a while so you can get some sense of where I'm going. Eventually I'll write a book-length dissertation that brings all this together in a single project. If it goes well, some day some people in funny robes will give me an elaborate piece of paper and tell me that I'm now to check the "Dr." box when I fill out my name on forms. I'm already thinking about how to make the dissertation itself something much more than lots of words on lots of pages.

Still with me? So here's what classes look like. For a grad student nine credits (three classes) is a full load. Grad classes are often at night after the undergrad courses. I have two traditional courses this semester; both are from my core requirements:

  1. CS 6533 Interactive Computer Graphics
  2. CS 6813 Information Security & Privacy

In addition to these traditional classes I have three credits of independent study with my advisor. My funding right now is connected to security topics and a set of interdisciplinary requirements (this will change in the future). She and I are working out our own “class” and project. It's a work in progress. Here's the abstract I wrote up for it:

CS 9963 — Aligning Authentication and Usability in Secure Systems Using Game Mechanics & Playfulness

Traditionally, the burdens of authentication in secure systems are seen to be in tension with the needs of usability. Very secure systems tend to also be very unusable. Ultimately, a certain low threshold of security may develop — either security is weak so as to be usable, or it is weakened by user circumvention (e.g. posting passwords next to input terminals or choosing easily guessable PINs). Can this authentication/usability tension in secure systems be broken by altering the economics of authentication expense? Might we offset a high authentication cost with a user interaction reward of delight and fun through an interface incorporating game mechanics and playfulness? How can we present a game-like authentication process without an unacceptable interaction time cost? What is the balance between enjoying a fun experience and becoming taxed by engaging a dynamic authentication process anew each time? What are the trade offs and potential security holes of a dynamic, playful authentication scheme?

My week consists of two long classes, two and a half hours each, on Wednesday and Thursday evening respectively; lots of reading; homework projects that require several days each to complete; and lots of looking up crazy articles and chewing on topics and ideas that very well may never have been considered before. Of course, most of them are probably terrible ideas. But if there's anything I've learned in all this, it's that it takes a while to go anywhere worth going…


Chalkboard photo by Tim Lucas, used by permission under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.