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April 20, 2014

Minor Beatles

This video was over at the NY Times Crossword blog (where I discovered that I’d missed the really clever part of the theme):

I know I’m old, children, but keep in mind that that’s a minor Beatles song. And yet there is so much right about it. More or less perfect. And not nearly the best of what they gave us.

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April 3, 2014

Hackathon love

Last weekend I was a judge at the Toronto Startup Weekend – Library Edition and was reminded again not ony how much I love hackathons, but how unexpected they are.

Toronto Startup Weekend for Libraries

The Toronto event wasn’t strictly speaking a hackathon. A hundred people met, many pitched ideas, and then people formed teams. They had to come up with a business idea and pitch it to five judges, explaining their idea, perhaps including a demo, showing their research (including user surveys if appropriate), and making the case for it as a sustainable business enterprise. (Non-profits welcome.) It was a fantastic event.

But to keep things simple, consider a classic hackathon: developers get together for a day or a weekend and are challenged to write working code, usually constrained to a particular genre (e.g., games) or using an open data set (e.g., the DPLA hackathon or the Open Syllabus Project hackathon). And the amazing thing is that they do it.

Just think about all that had to happen to make a hackathon possible and not a cruel joke.

We need browsers and HTTP and the ability to request data through them.

We need well-documented, standard ways of requesting that data.

We need open sources of data.

We need Open Source software to let us build on work done by others.

We need frameworks that let us do easy things incredibly easily.

We need libraries so we can do complex things incredibly easily, such as visualizing data.

We need an Internet to connect programs to data, software to users, and everyone to everyone.

We need an ethos that encourages sharing, experimenting, and prototyping — finding what’s right in a project not all that’s gone wrong or has been left unfinished.

I love hackathons.

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March 21, 2014

Reading Emily Dickinson’s metadata

There’s a terrific article by Helen Vendler in the March 24, 2014 New Republic about what can learn about Emily Dickinson by exploring her handwritten drafts. Helen is a Dickinson scholar of serious repute, and she finds revelatory significance in the words that were crossed out, replaced, or listed as alternatives, in the physical arrangement of the words on the page, etc. For example, Prof. Vendler points to the change of the line in “The Spirit” : “What customs hath the Air?” became “What function hath the Air?” She says that this change points to a more “abstract, unrevealing, even algebraic” understanding of “the future habitation of the spirit.”

Prof. Vendler’s source for many of the poems she points to is Emily Dickinson: The Gorgeous Nothings, by Marta Werner and Jen Bervin, the book she is reviewing. But she also points to the new online Dickinson collection from Amherst and Harvard. (The site was developed by the Berkman Center’s Geek Cave.)


Unfortunately, the New Republic article is not available online. I very much hope that it will be since it provides such a useful way of reading the materials in the online Dickinson collection which are themselves available under a CreativeCommons license that enables
non-commercial use without asking permission.

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March 11, 2014

WWPD: What Would Putin Do?

Putin  reacts to a man who kisses his hand

We could attribute this to surprise or even to a democratic instinct except for the adorable “I’m gonna punch you so hard” fist Putin starts to make at the very end.

 


And on a lighter note, here’s Pres. Obama on Between Two Ferns.

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March 8, 2014

I enjoy isometric projection. You all know the isometric cube from video games:

qbert

An isometric cube’s lines are all the same length and shows all three sides equally. It is thus unnatural, assuming that seeing things from a particular perspective is natural.

This makes isometric cubes similar to Egyptian paintings, at least as E.H. Gombrich explains them.

ancient egyptian painting

Paintings in the Egyptian style — face in profile, torso turned out towards us, legs apart and in profile — are unrealistic: people don’t stand that way, just as cubes seen from a human perspective don’t show themselves the isometric way.

Gombrich talks about Egyptian paintings to make a point: our idea about what’s realistic is more infected with cultural norms than we usually think. The Egyptian stance seemed to them to be realistic because it shows the parts of the human form in the view that conveys the most information, or at least what the Egyptians considered to be the most distinctive view.

And the same is true of isometric cubes.

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February 26, 2014

Facebook provides more this-like-that instead of this-oh-that! (Or relevancy, interestingingness, and serendipity)

Facebook has announced that it’s going to start adding to your newsfeed stories that you don’t know about but that are on the same topic as ones you follow. As their post puts it:

Now, when a Page tags another Page, we may show the post to some of the people who like or follow the tagged Page.

So close.

In the late 1990s and early Oughties, the size of material being indexed by search engines busted the main metrics. Precision measured how many results of a query pertained to that query — how “noisy” the results are. Recall measured how many of the pertinent results were missed by the results list. But when you are indexing hundreds of billions of pages, total recall results in a noisy list because there are so many results that you can’t find the one that’s most relevant. Thus relevancy became much more important than before.

But even relevancy doesn’t cut the mustard when you are browsing the hay more than looking for the needle. Thus, over the past ten years or so we’ve seen interestingness become important in some environments. Sorting Flickr search results by interestingness turns up some of the most striking photos.

drops on a needle example of interestingness at Flickr

Search for “needle,” sorted by “Interesting” at Flickr (cc-by-nc-sa dmelchordiaz)

Reddit‘s community upvoting mechanism results in a front page that reflects not precision, recall, or relevancy, but interestingness. Reddit’s front page also illustrates that when we ask for results sorted by interestingness, we apparently tolerate far more noise than with any of the other three metrics.

These four criteria obviously each have circumstances in which they have value. If you know what you’re looking for, precision counts. If you need to do a complete review of the literature, or just need to cover your backside — an “Oh crap I didn’t come across that” moment is not permissible — then recall is your friend. If you are finding your way through a new topic, then relevancy will give you a feel for the terrain. But if you want to find something that will stimulate and amaze you, click on the interestingness button.

Facebook has opted for relevancy. This makes sense for them from an economic standpoint: You will be a happy Facebooker if you are shown stuff you didn’t know about that conforms to your existing interests and values. In their blog post explaining the change, Facebook takes as their paradigmatic example showing you a post of a photo captioned “James Harden and Dwight Harden throw down some sick dunks during practice” because you “follow or like Dwight Howard.” Highly relevant. And if Facebook started showing its users posts as noisy as what you get on the Reddit homepage or from a Flickr stream sorted by interestingness, its users would likely revolt.

So, I understand how this new move makes for happier users and thus makes Facebook richer and safer.

But…

It’s a missed opportunity for helping to break us out of our “filter bubble” — Eli Pariser’s term for always being shown items that too closely reflect our existing interests and worldview, and that therefore confirm that worldview rather than expanding it. (See Eli’s excellent TED Talk.) It would have been far more helpful if Facebook had chosen to expand our worldview through interestingingess rather than reinforce it through relevancy.

Interestingingness is the key to serendipity, a term that, like precision and recall, doesn’t scale very well. Those who call for greater serendipity are trusting too much in the randomness now that the domain of possibilities is so huge. For example, one could create a site (which means that it’s already been created) that uses truly random ways to create a set of links to Web pages. Randomized Page Roulette. But how long do you think you would spend visiting those pages if they’re truly random? The list would be serendipitous but highly unlikely to be either relevant or interesting.

So, instead of serendipity, think about how Facebook could provide us with interesting links instead of links it knows we’ll like. It could use its awesome Social Graph to guess at enticing content that is outside our normal interests. These links would would have the sort of appeal that Reddit does, especially if it were marked as a stab and what you’ll find interesting rather than as stuff FB is confident you’ll like.

These links would be a powerful addition to Facebook’s value, for nothing is more stimulating to us than the discovery of something unexpectedly interesting or, even better, the discovering a new unexpected interest.

Most important from my point of view as a non-shareholder in Facebook, it would use what Facebook knows about us to expand our vision rather than adding another brick to the walled garden of our existing interests.

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February 22, 2014

Releasing an Independent Record: The 1994 Version

For $3 at a library book sale I picked up a copy of Releasing an Independent Record, revised 4th edition, by Gary Hustwit, published in 1994 by Rockpress Publishing Co. The short review is: Times have changed.

Gary’s advice is that if you want to get your music out, don’t go to one of the existing labels. Start your own. In 1993, that was pretty radical even though it required you to emulate the major labels’ processes, albeit starting from scratch and with no budget. So,the bulk of Gary’s manual is a directory of the services you’ll need to hire. He assumes you’ve already got a tape of your music. So, now you need to find a tape duplication house. You also need to get the paperwork done to set up your label’s bank account, and don’t forget the rubber stamp: “Depending on what formats you release, you’ll need a ton of different sized envelopes, and stamping the return address is easier than having them printed or writing it by hand.”

There are also handy, multi-page lists of the press to contact and the local radio stations (remember them?) to flog your songs to. And booking agents and promoters. And record labels so you can “See if your label name is already taken.” Oh, and you might want to check “if they’re interested in licensing your record.”

A quick google reveals that Gary is now a director of documentaries. I saw and liked Helvetica, and Objectified is on my Netflix list.

 


On the last page, there’s an ad for Rockpress’ other four books. My favorite is Hell on Wheels, by Greg Jacobs:

A compilation of tour stories from 40 bands, including ALL, aMINIATURE, Babes in Toyland, Big Drill Car, Buck Pets, Buffalo Tom, Butthole Surfers, Cadillac Tramps, Chune, Circle Jerks, Coffin Break, The Cult, Descendents, Doughboys, The Dwarves, Ethyl Meatplow, fIREHOSE, The Germs, God Machine, Kill Sybil, King Missile, L7, Luscious Jackson, Mary’s Danish, Melvins, Minutemen, Naked Raygun, Overwhelming Colorfast, Popdefect, Rockets from the Crypt, Screaming Sirens, Skin Yard, Superchunk, Supersuckers, Surgery, UK Subs, and X.

I recognize a couple —it’s not my demographic, people — but that list’s got a bit of Key and Peele about it, don’t you think?

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February 16, 2014

First post at Medium.com: The Internet is not a Panopticon

I’ve been meaning to try Medium.com, a magazine-bloggy place that encourages carefully constructed posts by providing an elegant writing environment. It’s hard to believe, but it’s even better looking than Joho the Blog. And, unlike HuffPo, there are precious few stories about side boobs. So, and might do so again.

The piece is about why we seem to keep insisting that the Internet is panopticon when it clearly is not. So, if you care about panopticons, you might find it interesting. Here’s a bit from the beginning:

A panopticon was Jeremy Bentham’s (1748-1832) idea about how to design a prison or other institution where people need to be watched. It was to be a circular building with a watchers’ station in the middle containing a guard who could see everyone, but who could not himself/herself be seen. Even though everyone couldn’t be seen at the same time, prisoners would never know when they were being watched. That’d keep ’em in line.

There is indeed a point of comparison between a panopticon and the Internet: you generally can’t tell when your public stuff is being seen (although your server logs could tell you). But that’s not even close to what a panopticon is.

…So why did the comparison seem so apt?

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February 13, 2014

Wearing our tormentor’s mask

A small anecdote in a “Talk of the Town” article by Michael Schulman in this week’s New Yorker (Feb. 17 & 24, p. 36) struck me harder than I would have thought. The article — “Get me rewrite” — tells of the controversy when a private middle school decided to perform the musical “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” The co-author of the script, Dick Scanlan, defended a scene as a satire of the Chinese stereotyping in the 1967 movie version, a point that was perhaps just a tad too subtle for middle school, and perhaps just too subtle.

What got to me, though, was what Scanlan, 53, told the student cast about “how he dealt with getting ‘brutally teased’ for being gay as a kid in Maryland”:

I would go home and imitate the imitation of me in the mirror — “Hi, my name is Dick Ssssscanlan and I’m soooo excited — and I would think, That can’t be the way I’m behaving, because I can imitate that and it doesn’t feel like me.

This simple story hit me at a couple of levels.

I’m 63 and graduated high school in 1968. Some of our crowd were obviously gay, but we had an informal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell social policy. (It was sometimes ok to tell, too: my girlfriend came out to me on the night of the senior prom. Long story.) We didn’t call our gay friends names or mockingly imitate them behind their backs, but we also didn’t know how to talk about it, and public displays of affection just were not in our vocabulary. And, I’m not sure how we phrased it, but we assumed (along with the rest of America) that something had gone wrong to make them that way. It was a syndrome, maybe caused by a domineering mother. So, at Herricks High in middle class Long Island, it could have been a whole lot worse. But it could have been a whole lot better.

So, when I hear Dick Scanlan talk about standing in front of a mirror to see if he was truly like his tormentors’ image of him, a bit of my heart breaks. I can too easily imagine my friends doing that. Having to try on the clothes the bully hands you has to be so unsettling, even if you are wise enough to come to the conclusion that Dick did.

The anecdote hit me hard also because I know I’ve done the same thing for the weaknesses I think others perceive in me. In these cases I’m internalizing my own bully, so it’s by no means as serious as what Dick and many of my gay friends went through. But I think I understand it.

I know I’ve talked about this topic before, and I expect I will again. When a change this deep and liberating occurs so quickly — we’ve come so far albeit not far enough — and when it’s a change not only in your culture but in your own attitudes, and when you don’t have the luxury of thinking that the old attitudes were held only by other people who you can write off as bigots, then what can you do but dwell on it and try to understand how wrong things could have seemed so right and how then so quickly have gotten better.

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February 7, 2014

When the Web was young and neither was I

Christian Sandvig has a fun post that looks back at his home page from 20 years. (Your “home page” was a place where you could express yourself to others on the World Wide Web.)


Unfortunately, the earliest versions of my home page (hperorg.com/evident.com) and of my newsletter site (hyperorg.com) archived by Archive.org’s WayBack Machine date back only to 1998. Here they are: Evident Hyperorg (and here are screen captures: Evident Hyperorg).


Evident was the home page for my business, Evident Marketing, Inc. I registered that domain in 1994, I think, so I know I had a home page up for a few years before the archived one. Likewise, Hyperorg.com was the site for my JOHO newsletter (Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization), and it had been running for a couple of years before 1998.

I was surprised that Hyperorg page didn’t have instructions for surviving a nuclear war, but Google helped me to remember that that was on its own page. Here are the two key illustrations, both taken from How to Survive an Atomic Bomb, by Richard Gerstell, Ph.D., Consultant to the Civil Defense Board (Bantam Books, NYC, 1952).

Lie face down in a ditch to survive a nuke

Wear a hat to survive a nuke

My old font graphic was there, though:

know your fonts, period

And then there’s this lovely animated gif I made to explain the basic principle of the Hyperlinked Organization:

know your fonts, period

I think that’s self-explanatory, don’t you?

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