Robin Zebrowski

Robin Zebrowski

Assistant professor of cognitive science

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Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm an assistant professor of cognitive science at Beloit College. I have joint affiliations with the philosophy and psychology departments and the computer science program. I work in the theory side of artificial intelligence, extended mind hypothesis, cyborg theory, robotics, and embodiment theories more generally.

What hardware do you use?

A PC laptop (I go through 1 a year, either as a result of too much travel and 18 hours a day of use, or the Gabriel Effect which I'm pretty sure should be called the Robin Effect). I currently use a Toshiba Portege R705. My work laptop is a Dell, but it's brand new and I haven't even gotten my files copied over yet so I have nothing useful to say about it. I also have a homemade desktop PC that my husband built for me so that I could run Skyrim and Diablo 3.

I have a 16 gig first gen iPad and a Toshiba NB505 netbook that get some use during international travel for conferences. As an academic, backing up files is one of the single most important things I need from my hardware, especially as I bust up a laptop almost every 12-15 months. To that end, we have a Drobo FS that keeps my constant hardware turnover from being catastrophic.

I'm a traditionalist in my classrooms, and I use blackboards, whiteboards, and chalk. When I teach Cognitive Robotics, I use LEGO Mindstorms (NXT) to teach embodiment theories. We've also got a Scribbler Robot that we haven't played with yet, but hopefully I'll give it a spin before the Spring semester. I use my iPhone 4's basic camera app to take photos of my blackboards at the end of every class I teach, and I later upload the photos to our course management software (see below).

I recently learned there's a Makerbot in my building but I think they're hiding it from me so I don't play with it all day. In the near future, I hope to try out the Makerbot's capabilities in relation to DIY robotics, to use in my classroom.

I prefer to use books made of dead trees, which could get filed under either hardware or software depending on my metaphysical commitments on any particular day. Some of the books I use to teach with are comic books, because there's no better way to teach philosophy (and in particular ethics) than through our heroes and villains writ large with excellent artwork.

When I need a break from work, my hardware of choice includes Addi Turbo knitting needles and Madeline Tosh Merino Light yarn.

Since I started traveling often for work, I've also started trying to learn something about photography. I use a Canon EOS Rebel T3, as well as the earlier version of the Digital Rebel (the XT). The only lenses we have are a Canon EFS 18-55mm (which comes in the camera kit) and Canon macro EF 100mm. I love the Digital Rebel (as evidenced by the fact that we've got 2) because it's such an excellent beginner's camera. Sometimes I look like I know what I'm doing. Not too often.

And what software?

My college uses Moodle for course management software since it's open source. I use it to store course readings as well as photos of our blackboards from each class, which helps the students remember what we were doing on any given day.

I use LEGO Mindstorms software when I'm teaching robotics. Since I'm at a liberal arts college, my robotics class, which is team-taught with another member of the computer science program, is open to all students in all departments. We use the drag and drop Mindstorms language to teach some basic programming skills. We're considering switching from the drag and drop NXT software to NXC using Bricx this Spring.

I do my writing in MS Word and, on occasion, Notepad. Like chalk and blackboards, there are some things that are best left simple.

I rely pretty heavily on Twitter to keep me in the loop on current research (when some of the best journals tweet their new articles, and lots of other cognitive scientists and philosophers talk shop in 140 characters, it makes it easy for me to stay on top of the most recent work in my fields.) Twitter gets some bad press in academia. I don't think it's all warranted. I use twhirl as a desktop client for Twitter.

I've been using Taskk.it for the last few months to organize my To Do lists, and I'm really liking it so far, in spite of the fact that I'm still not getting everything done. It forces me to think in advance about how much time each task will take me, as well as how much time I expect to have on any given day, so there's a higher level of planning involved than with most task management software.

I'm pretty oldschool in my presentations and almost never use Powerpoint, but I've been playing with Prezi and trying to convince myself to start using it regularly for conference presentations.

I have a WordPress blog that I recently wiped clean for the third time to start over. I intend to use the space to mostly blog about peer reviewed research. We'll see if it works this time. When I blog, it always seem to devolve into me ranting about sexism, politics, and the problems with evangelical futurism.

I prefer Firefox in spite of its recent performance problems. I've tried Chrome but I alway end up back with Firefox. I use a handful of useful addons, including DownloadHelper, Adblock Plus, Check4Change, PrintPDF, and, when traveling, HTTPS Everywhere.

I keep all of my books cataloged on Librarything so I can keep track of what I have and where it is. My personal library is a bit large because I like physical media, and Librarything has made keeping track of everything really simple. I use comicbookdb for the same reason but to keep track of my small comic book collection.

I use PhilPapers and PhilEvents both pretty heavily. I don't keep my own work updated on PhilPapers, but someone else usually uploads it when I don't. PhilEvents is a better conference and journal announcement aggregate than almost any of the others I use.

Surprisingly, I've got to list Facebook here as a valuable piece of academic software. Not only does it keep me socially connected to the brilliant people I meet at conferences, but a few of the Facebook groups are host to valuable discussions and link aggregators (the RoboEthics group comes to mind here).

And my favorite hobby sites lately are Ravelry and Flickr.

What would be your dream setup?

I had dreams of setting up a Cyborg Lab at my current college, but I just don't know if the resources are in the cards. Someday, maybe. My dream Cyborg Lab includes:

  • Some of the EEG toys that go through phases of popularity and can be used to demonstrate EEG feedback tech quickly (things like The Force Trainer, etc.) Additionally, I'd like one of the Emotiv eeg or neuro headsets, for the same purpose. I'd also love the time to build my own with OpenEEG. Really, any brain-computer interface that I can use to show my students how awesome brains are is on my wish list.

  • There are a lot of haptic wearables I'd love to get my hands on. Some stellar examples are the Flutter Dress and Steve Mann's Eyetap device.

  • A TMS device (I was taught at a workshop recently how to make a DIY version with a 9-volt battery and spend about $12 total, but the real devices cost closer to $20-30k. I don't mind DIYing this stuff for myself, but if I'm going to subject my students to it, I'd like there to be safety precautions in place.)

  • A Feelspace Belt.

  • A Brainport device.

  • A Suidobashi Heavy Industry mech (or two).

  • Stelarc's 3rd arm.

  • The Media Lab's Sixth Sense device.

I'd also really like more options for the robots we use in my classes. The Mindstorms are pretty limited, and there are a bunch of alternatives these days but I haven't sampled enough of them to know what the best options are. For example, the Vex kits seem worth looking into, but I haven't really explored my options yet.