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July 20, 2017

I didn’t like the new Planet of the Apes movie. [No spoilers.]

War for Planet of the Apes has 95% positive ratings at Rotten Tomatoes. Many of the cited reviews are effusive. For example, Charles Taylor at Newsweek calls it “a consistently intelligent, morally thoughtful and often beautiful picture.”

I’d rephrase that a bit. I think it was a dumb, predictable, boring movie with a couple of nice landscape shots. We went to see it on one of our few movie nights out because we’d enjoyed the first two in this series.

If WARPA weren’t about apes but was instead about the actual human ism‘s it intends to get us to see from the Other’s perspective — racism, colonialism, militarism — we’d view it as embarrassingly trite and shallow. Casting apes as the victims doesn’t make it any less so.

It doesn’t help that while the facial animations are incredible, the ape bodies look like pretty good animations of people wearing ape suits. Plus, I have to say that these apes’ lack of genitalia or assholes diminishes the vividness of the premise of the movie: the apes we’ve treated as an inferior species are deserving of respect and dignity. Instead, we get damn, dirty hairy aliens.

But most of all, there isn’t a cliche the movie doesn’t miss. If you’re sitting in your seat thinking that the next obvious thing to happen is X, then X will happen. Guaranteed. The only surprises are the plot holes, of which there are many.

The music is bad in itself and is used as a cudgel. They might as well have skipped the music and just put in subtitles like “Feel sorrow here.”

Full marks to Andy Serkis and the motion capture crew. As others have suggested, he deserves his Special Achievement Oscar already. Well, he deserved it for Lord of the Rings, but his work in this movie is absolutely its highlight. Steve Zahn also has a good turn as the comic relief. But poor Woody Harrelson is stuck with ridiculous lines and a clumsy narrative attempt to give his character some depth. His best moment is when he shaves his head in one of the movie’s embarrassing flags that it thinks it’s on a par with films like Apocalypse Now.

Also, this movie is no fun. It’s grim. It’s boring. It’s unfair to the humans.

That last point is not a political complaint because lord knows we deserve all the monkey feces thrown at us. It’s instead a complaint about the shallowness of the movie-making.

Overall, I’d give a 95% chance of disappointing you.

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July 18, 2017

America's default philosophy

John McCumber — a grad school colleague with whom I have alas not kept up — has posted at Aeon an insightful historical argument that America’s default philosophy came about because of a need to justify censoring American communist professorss (resulting in a naive scientism) and a need to have a positive alternative to Marxism (resulting in the adoption of rational choice theory).

That compressed summary does not do justice to the article’s grounding in the political events of the 1950s nor to how well-written and readable it is.

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July 17, 2017

The Internet is also a thing

A list I am on is counseling that a particular writer not to be taken in by a tour of a data center or network operations center. These tours are typically given by PR guides and can leave the impression that the Internet is a set of writes owned by a corporation.

I certainly agree with both concerns. But, having been a Rube on a Tour more than once, I think technologists who are deep into protocol issues may underestimate how shocking it is to most people that the Internet is also a physical thing. Yes, I understand that the Internet is a set of protocols, etc., and I understand that that is usually what we need to communicate to people in order to counter the truly pernicious belief that Comcast et al. own the Internet. But the Internet is also, as instantiated, a set of coiled wires and massive industrial installations. Seeing the blinking lights on a bank of routers and being told by the PR Tour Guide that those signify packets going somewhere is, well, thrilling.

Every Internet user understands that there is a physical side of the Net. But seeing it in person is awesome and inspiring. That’s why Shuli Hallak‘s photos in Invisible Networks are so impressive.

It is tremendously important both conceptually and politically to understand that the Net is fundamentally not a thing and is not owned by anyone. But seeing in person the magnitude of the effort and the magnificence of the hardware engineering also teaches an important lesson: the Internet is not magic. At least not entirely.

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July 12, 2017

Net neutrality still matters. A lot.

Net neutrality regulates the organizations that provide access to the Internet — to our Internet — to make sure that they do not play favorites.

Net neutrality is not a layer on top of the Internet. It is not a regulation place on the Internet. It is the Internet, as Doc Searls and I explained way back when in a post called World of Ends.

Tell the FCC that this matters to you.

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June 30, 2017

Hallucinating, not lying?

If we listen to what Donald Trump is telling us in plain and strong language, we should conclude that he is suffering from hallucinations — hallucinations of women bleeding.

Twice now he has claimed that blood was pouring out of women he feels were antagonistic of him: Megyn Kelly and Mika Brzezinski. We all saw that Kelly in fact was not bleeding. Brzezinski flat out denies her face was bleeding and says there are photos to prove it.

Then there’s this new story about Trump telling twenty Congressmen about seeing blood coming out of Brzezinski’s eyes and ears on another occasion.

These comments are so weird that the best explanation the media has put forward is that they are metaphors that illuminate Trump’s dark, dark reaction to being challenged by strong women.

But I think we should seriously consider that he was not talking metaphorically. He saw blood coming out of their faces.

At least the question needs to be asked of him. And then we need to re-read the 25th Amendment.

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June 28, 2017

Re-reading Hornblower

I read all of C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series when I was in high school.

I’m on a week of vacation — i.e., a nicer place to work — and have been re-reading them.

Why isn’t everyone re-reading them? They’re wonderful. Most of the seafaring descriptions are opaque to me, but it doesn’t matter. The stories are character-based and Forester is great at expressing personality succinctly, as well as taking us deep into Hornblower’s character over the course of the books. Besides, all the talk of binneys ’round the blaggard binge don’t get in the way of understanding the action

Some prefer Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin “Master and Commander” series. They are wrong. I believe the Internet when it says O’Brian’s battles are more realistic because they’re based on actual events. I don’t care. I do care, however, about O’Brian’s clumsy construction of his main characters. I can sense the author trying to inflate them into three dimensions. Then they’re given implausible roles and actions.

Of course you may disagree with me entirely about that. But here’s the killer for me: O’Brian relies on long pages of back-and-forth dialogue…while not telling you who’s talking. I don’t like having to count back by twos to find the original speaker. All I need is an occasional, “‘Me, neither,’ said Jack.” Is that asking too much?

Anyway, take a look at Hornblower and the Atropos to see if you’re going to like the series. That begins with a few chapters of Hornblower arranging the logistics for the flotilla portion of Lord Nelson’s funeral. If you find yourself as engrossed in chapters about logistics as I did, you’re probably hooked forever.

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June 13, 2017

Top 2 Beatles songs

About a week ago, out of the blue I blurted out to my family what the two best Beatles songs are. I pronounced this with a seriousness befitting the topic, and with a confidence born of the fact that it’s a ridiculous question and it doesn’t matter anyway.

Vulture just published a complete ranking of all Beatles songs.

Nailed it.

Their #1 selection is an obvious contender. #2 is controversial and probably intentionally so. But, obviously, I think it’s a good choice.

If you want to see what they chose, click here: #1. Day in the Life #2 Strawberry Fields

By the way, the Vulture write-ups of each of the songs are good. At least the ones I read were. If you’re into this, the best book I’ve read is Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head, which has an essay on each recording with comments about the social and personal context of the song and a learned explanation of the music. Astounding book.

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June 6, 2017

[liveblog] metaLab

Harvard metaLab is giving an informal Berkman Klein talk about their work on designing for ethical AI. Jeffrey Schnapp introduces metaLab as “an idea foundry, a knowledge-design lab, and a production studio experimenting in the networked arts and humanities.” The discussion today will be about metaLab’s various involvements in the Berkman Klein – MIT MediaLab project on ethics and governance of AI. The conference is packed with Fellows and the newly-arrived summer interns.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Matthew Battles and Jessica Yurkofsky begin by talking about Curricle, a “new platform for experimenting with shopping for courses.” How can the experience be richer, more visual, and use more of the information and data that Harvard has? They’ve come up with a UI that has three elements: traditional search, a visualization, and a list of the results.

“They’ve been grappling with the ethics of putting forward new search algorithms. ”They’ve been grappling with the ethics of putting forward new search algorithms. The design is guided by transparency, autonomy, and visualization. Transparency means that they make apparent how the search works, allowing students to assign weights to keywords. If Curricle makes recommendations, it will explain that it’s because other students like you have chosen it or because students like you have never done this, etc. Visualization shows students what’s being returned by their search and how it’s distributed.

Similar principles guide a new project, AI Compass, that is the entry point for information about Berkman Klein’s work on the Ethics and Governance of AI project. It is designed to document the research being done and to provide a tool for surveying the field more broadly. They looked at how neural nets are visualized, how training sets are presented, and other visual metaphors. They are trying to find a way to present these resources in their connections. They have decided to use Conway’s Game of Life [which I was writing about an hour ago, which freaks me out a bit]. The game allows complex structures to emerge from simple rules. AI Compass is using animated cellular automata as icons on the site.

metaLab wants to enable people to explore the information at three different scales. The macro scale shows all of the content arranged into thematic areas. This lets you see connections among the pieces. The middle scale shows the content with more information. At the lowest scale, you see the resource information itself, as well as connections to related content.

Sarah Newman talks about how AI is viewed in popular culture: the Matrix, Ahnuld, etc. “We generally don’t think about AI as it’s expressed in the tools we actually use”We generally don’t think about AI as it’s expressed in the tools we actually use, such as face recognition, search, recommendations, etc. metaLab is interested in how art can draw out the social and cultural dimensions of AI. “What can we learn about ourselves by how we interact with, tell stories about, and project logic, intelligence, and sentience onto machines?” The aim is to “provoke meaningful reflection.”

One project is called “The Future of Secrets.” Where our email and texts be in 100 years? And what does this tell us about our relationship with our tech. Why and how do we trust them? It’s an installation that’s been at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and recently in Berlin. People enter secrets that are printed out anonymously. People created stories, most of which weren’t true, often about the logic of the machine. People tended to project much more intelligence on the machine than was there. Cameras were watching and would occasionally print out images from the show itself.

From this came a new piece (done with fellow Rachel Kalmar) in which a computer reads the secrets out loud. It will be installed at the Berkman Klein Center soon.

Working with Kim Albrecht in Berlin, the center is creating data visualizations based on the data that a mobile phone collects, including the accelerometer. “These visualizations let us see how the device is constructing an image of the world we’re moving through”These visualizations let us see how the device is constructing an image of the world we’re moving through. That image is messy, noisy.

The lab is also collaborating on a Berlin exhibition, adding provocative framing using X degrees of Separation. It finds relationships among objects from disparate cultures. What relationships do algorithms find? How does that compare with how humans do it? What can we learn?

Starting in the fall, Jeffrey and a co-teacher are going to be leading a robotics design studio, experimenting with interior and exterior architecture in which robotic agents are copresent with human actors. This is already happening, raising regulatory and urban planning challenges. The studio will also take seriously machine vision as a way of generating new ways of thinking about mobility within city spaces.

Q&A

Q: me: For AI Compass, where’s the info coming from? How is the data represented? Open API?

Matthew: It’s designed to focus on particular topics. E.g., Youth, Governance, Art. Each has a curator. The goal is not to map the entire space. It will be a growing resource. An open API is not yet on the radar, but it wouldn’t be difficult to do.

Q: At the AI Advance, Jonathan Zittrain said that organizations are a type of AI: governed by a set of rules, they grow and learn beyond their individuals, etc.

Matthew: We hope to deal with this very capacious approach to AI is through artists. What have artists done that bear on AI beyond the cinematic tropes? There’s a rich discourse about this. We want to be in dialogue with all sorts of people about this.

Q: About Curricle: Are you integrating Q results [student responses to classes], etc.?

Sarah: Not yet. There’s mixed feeling from administrators about using that data. We want Curricle to encourage people to take new paths. The Q data tends to encourage people down old paths. Curricle will let students annotate their own paths and share it.

Jeffrey: We’re aiming at creating a curiosity engine. We’re working with a century of curricular data. This is a rare privilege.

me: It’d enrich the library if the data about resources was hooked into LibraryCloud.

Q: kendra: A useful feature would be finding a random course that fits into your schedule.

A: In the works.

Q: It’d be great to have transparency around the suggestions of unexpected courses. We don’t want people to be choosing courses simply to be unique.

A: Good point.

A: The same tool that lets you diversify your courses also lets you concentrate all of them into two days in classrooms near your dorm. Because the data includes courses from all the faculty, being unique is actually easy. The challenge is suggesting uniqueness that means something.

Q: People choose courses in part based on who else is choosing that course. It’d be great to have friends in the platform.

A: Great idea.

Q: How do you educate the people using the platform? How do you present and explain the options? How are you going to work with advisors?

A: Important concerns at the core of what we’re thinking about and working on.

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June 3, 2017

1.5 random thoughts

1. Life Pro tip: Aim at what you hit.

2. A metaphor that may come in handy someday: As undignified as a child climbing a slide.

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May 29, 2017

The Internet is an agreement

Jaap van Till has posted an aggregation of thoughts and links to remind us of what it seems we have so much trouble remembering: The Internet is not a thing but an agreement.

An internet, network of networks, is a voluntary agreement among network operators to exchange traffic for their mutual benefit. (The Internet is a prototype internet.) That’s all — it’s an agreement.

That’s from an earlier post by Jaap, which along the way links out to the World of Ends post that Doc Searls and I wrote in 2003 that aimed at explaining the Internet to legislators.

I sense that we are due for a shift in tides, maybe over the next two years, in which the point that needs making is not that the Internet is dangerous and sucks, but that it it is dangerous and sucks and is the greatest invention in the history of our species. Cf. Virginia Heffernan, Magic and Loss.)

This pendulum swing can’t come soon enough.

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