Cognitive Science Alumni

Our Department isn't defined by the physical space we occupy on the campus of UCSD - it is defined, rather, by the remarkable individuals who make up our community. The lifeblood of any community is its people, and this is especially true of a community that relies on ideas and innovations. In recognition of this, the Department of Cognitive Science at UCSD presents our new "Alumnus/Alumna of the Month" feature.

The goal of the Alumnus of the Month program is to celebrate some of our outstanding Alumni, while giving all students - past, present, and future - an opportunity to meet some of our graduates, and to see some of the amazing things that people from our community have accomplished - in the field of Cognitive Science and beyond.

The hope is that it will both put a more 'human' face on Cognitive Science, as well as be a testimony to the wide range of interesting things that one can do with a Cognitive Science background. In addition, of course, it's a means for CogSci alumni to see what other alumni are up to.

Alumnus of the Month: Gary Perlman, 1982

Gary Perlman

Dr. Gary Perlman was doing Cognitive Science at UCSD even before there was a Cognitive Science department! While here, he worked with many people who were founders of the Cognitive Science community, such as David Rumelhart and Don Norman. Gary received his Ph.D. from the Psychology Department, but his interest in Human-Computer Interaction and his desire to improve usability led him to take advantage of the resources offered by the Computer Science Department as well.

Since then, he has continued to pursue his desire to create useful and usable information systems both in the academic world and in industry. Right after leaving UCSD he worked for Bell labs, creating user interface software tools, and then became a professor in Computer Science at Ohio State University. He has also done extensive consulting work, addressing information retrieval and management, software engineering and user interface development, for several software companies as well as for the Wang Institute of Graduate Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Carnegie-Mellon University, and the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC).

The author of many papers and articles, one of which was included in The Best of the Journal of Irreproducible Results. In 2007 Gary was awarded a service award by the Canadian Human Computer Communications Society for "substantial contribution to the international research community in the field of human-computer interaction". The award recognized his work as the founding director of the HCI Bibliography (hcibib.org), a free-access online resource of about 40,000 records that provide access to the HCI literature and related subjects.

After 30 years of living in the United States, Gary returned to his native Montreal, Canada, where he now lives with his wife and two children. Currently, Gary works as a full-time consulting research scientist for the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC), improving the usability of libraries around the world.

An Interview with Gary Perlman

by Kim Sweeney

What was the most valuable thing you learned while at UCSD?

When I was at UCSD (1977-82) there was no Cognitive Science department. Cognitive Science was just starting as a field in the late 1970s. I was in the psychology department for most of my time, advised by Dave Rumelhart, and computer science for a year. So maybe the most valuable thing I learned at UCSD was that for what I wanted to do, which was at the intersection of many fields, it did not matter that much what department I was in. UCSD was an interdisciplinary place even then, and although I might have wanted to spend various percentages of my time in different disciplines, those percentages were not as important as having access to people in the disciplines. Even before there was a Cognitive Science department, my funding by the Canadian Government (what is now the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council) gave me the flexibility to explore my interests in other departments. I learned that when what I wanted to know was not readily available, it was still available.

What advice would you give to current students?

As my undergraduate advisor at the University of Rochester, David A. Taylor, advised me when I was deciding among grad schools, "Anyone who gives up the chance to live in San Diego for a few years is an idiot!' or something along those lines. Besides the weather and the beach, there's the desert, the mountains, Los Angeles, northern California, Mexico, and a dozen great national parks within a one-day drive (that's one day on a grad student's stamina, mind you). My advice is to enjoy all that with fellow grad students, family and friends. I don't think I will ever find a group of people I was more comfortable with and with whom I can pick up any time, any place, because we have so much shared experience. My transcript from UCSD is remarkable if only for its length. Starting my third year, I signed up for three phys-ed classes each term: tennis, volleyball, and dance. Time well spent, I think, although I wish that my shoulder had held up better.

How did your education at UCSD train you for what you are doing today?

I spent a lot of my time at UCSD developing skills in empirical science, computer science, and mathematics. Those have clear uses in what I do now. I also worked to improve my writing, mostly by writing, and aided greatly by Don Norman's editing flair. Sometimes he handed back a page that looked like a bloodbath of red ink, but other times it was just a light ogive through an entire page (or two, or five). As a professor, I used a different tact. I used green.

What do you feel is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

I have had four jobs since getting my Ph.D. at UCSD. (1) I went to Bell Labs where in just two years I was overwhelmed by corporate life (to the extent BTL had what people would call corporate life) during the breakup of AT&T. There was nothing rewarding of that job except that it placed me where I would meet my wife, Caroline Palmer. (2) I taught software engineering to experienced hand-selected masters students in the Boston area, and (3) I was also a professor in computer science at Ohio State, where I saw a much broader range of students. I enjoyed teaching and advising students immensely. I have always liked doing things that are useful to others, the more people the better. For me, this has often taken the form of creating software and services that get used by a lot of people. After a few years splitting my time between academia and consulting, (4) I took a position at my favorite place to consult, OCLC, where I get to help libraries around the world make their services more useful to their patrons.

How did you first get involved in human-computer interaction/user interface design, and what do you do with it now?

It all started at UCSD with the statistical packages we used for data analysis. They were completely unusable. The way that people had to specify the format of their data and the analyses that were wanted was a prescription for error. Also, during my year in computer science, sometimes I felt like the notation used was designed to confuse people. The awful stat packages and the lack of a package on our lab's computer motivated me to write my own stat package that is still widely used three decades later. The awful notation examples motivated me to write a short opinion piece on more meaningful notation for a mathematics education journal, which was the informal basis for my dissertation (Natural Artificial Languages). All this was in the context of intimate "design group" meetings in Don Norman's office, perhaps the most inspirational meetings I ever attended. Since then, I have been an educator, researcher, and developer with a focus on HCI. Although I do not do many controlled experiments these days, the empirical aspects of my background are always present. I am always gathering data to understand what's going on and help make decisions. I work primarily on information retrieval systems for libraries and their patrons, and OCLC, as the world's largest library cooperative, is a great place to make my work have the most leverage.

In what way do you feel your training in Cognitive Science gave you an advantage in your field, as opposed to one of the more traditional disciplines, like Computer Science?

If you can bring a new dimension to a team, you add a lot more than one more worker like all the others. Cognitive scientists have many dimensions, because at the core of Cognitive Science is multidisciplinarianism. Just being able to communicate with people with different backgrounds has tended to put me into the center of many projects instead of the periphery. Part of that has been the ability to take different viewpoints on problems: usability, performance, maintainability, and so on. So I work on analysis, design, coding, and testing (both functional and usability). Growing up in Montreal, I speak French (not well, mind you, but that's another story). I know that word order, gender and number agreements, and so on, vary across languages. At OCLC, by virtue of my knowledge of French, I am considered an expert in translating user interfaces. (It may have helped that I helped create OCLC's first multilingual system.) Similarly, someone with a Cognitive Science background would be the expert linguist or psychologist among computer scientists, or the expert computer scientist among linguists or psychologists, or the ethnographer to all of the above.

In the course of your career, what has most surprised or excited you within your field?

I have always been surprised at how difficult it is to apply the psychological literature to practical problems of design. That's been more depressing that exciting, though. I have also been surprised by how bad user interfaces can be, even after so many years of shared experience, especially on the web. I am excited to have such employment security.

What is the most challenging aspect of your job and/or career?

Gaining consensus is always challenging, but often the most rewarding.

How do you maintain a balance between your work and the rest of your life?

Oh, that's easy to answer! I focus on the rest of my life. You know the expression "No one on their deathbed ever said they wished they had spent more time at the office." But I have some data to bear on the issue of the significance of one's life's work. In 1988 or so, I decided to create The HCI Bibliography, which has about 40,000 records of publications in a searchable database that handles about a million searches a year (mostly by robots, mind you). If I look at a list of the most published authors in HCI (not all HCI work is represented in the bibliography, of course), I am struck by the disparity of the number of researchers (tens of thousands) and the number whose work has been influential (by whatever measure you like). My conclusion? I matter a lot more to my family and friends than I will ever matter to my work.

If you could choose another profession to be in, what would it be?

Maybe a lawyer. My compulsive need to organize information would be useful there.

To Nominate Someone

To nominate someone as an alumna/alumnus of the month, or if you would be interested in being featured yourself, please contact us at alumnusofthemonth@cogsci.ucsd.edu.