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May 4, 2016

Too slow, Treyarch

I am far from the first person to notice this, but it really pisses me off.

Treyarch, the creators of Call of Duty, in the latest version let’s us decide to play as a woman. Other games have been doing this for a long time. So, have half a yay, Treyarch. Nevertheless, your player’s gender is not reflected in the script. There’s an argument I don’t want to have about whether this makes sense; it really just comes down to bucks.

But what really pisses me, and many other people, off is this character choice screen:

character model screen

This was an incredibly expensive game to design. The graphics are awesome, the sets are amazingly detailed. In single-player campaign mode, it’s a full length action movie—albeit not a very good one—and is budgeted like one.

But Treyarch couldn’t be bothered to spend $2.50 more to add some non-white faces to the roster. Really?

Here’s a fairly random screen shot I picked up from the Web.

typical scene

Keep in mind that this is about one sixth the resolution you get on a gaming PC. Treyarch can add intense detail to a gun or piece of shrapnel but can’t be troubled to design a few faces that aren’t white?

We’ve got a word for people who assume that the white race is the “real” race.

Not ok, Treyarch.

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April 22, 2016

Isaac Newton, Number One Ok Smart Guy

Until close to Newton’s time, the stars had been accepted as a fixed background to the motions of the Earth and the rest of the solar system. The idea developed that they might be bodies like our sun, but even through a telescope they still looked like luminous points, revealing nothing of their size. Newton found a way to tackle this problem (System 596). He noted that a prominent (first magnitude) star looked about as bright as Saturn. He knew how far away Saturn is; and also knew that we see Saturn by the sunlight that it scatters back towards us. Given that the intensity of light from a source falls off as the inverse square of the distance, he could calculate how far away a star like our sun would have to be to look as bright by direct radiation as Saturn does by reflected light. His result, expressed in modern terms, was about ten lightyears, which is absolutely of the right order of magnitude.”

A.P. French, “”Isaac Newton, Explorer of the Real World,” pp. 50-77, in Stayer, Marcia Sweet, ed., Newton’s Dream. Montreal, CA: MQUP, 1988.

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April 15, 2016

Revolutions in common sense

…the great world historian Immanuel Wallerstein…argues that for the last quarter millennium or so, revolutions have consisted above all of planetwide transformations of political common sense.

This is from David Graeber‘s 2013 book The Democracy Project, excerpted that year at The Baffler.

The excerpt argues that the 1960’s political movement did not fail. It changed expectations by changing our sense of what’s possible. One effect of this: it limited the ability of American politicians to blithely engage in foreign wars for a full generation…and then changed the way we engage in those wars, albeit not necessarily for the better.

Obviously we can argue about this. But that’s not my main interest in the excerpt. Rather, I’m interested in the power of changes in common sense, which I’m taking to mean our most basic ideas about how the world is put together, how it could be put together, and how it should be put together.

This is the very core of my fascination with technology for the past thirty years. It’s why I studied the history of philosophy before that.

And btw, this is not technodeterminism. “The link between technology and common sense is indirect, but real”The link between technology and common sense is indirect, but real: new tech opens new possibilities. We seize those opportunities based on non-technological motivations and understandings. When tech is radically different enough that new strategies successfully exploit those opportunities, we can learn a new common sense from those strategies. That is, in my view, what has been happening for the past twenty years.

Anyway, I now I have three books to read: Something by Wallerstein, The Democracy Project, and Graeber’s early work, Debt.

 


A tip of the haat to Jaap Van Till for pointing me to this. His recent post on the current French protests fills an important gaap in American media coverage. (I tease because I love :)

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April 12, 2016

The Ice Caps are Melting – Ho ho!

Tiny Tim would have been 84 today.

He was my mother’s younger cousin…an innocent, gentle, and very genuine soul.

The song is by Bill Dorsey about whom little is known. But what is known, the Internet has unearthed.

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March 17, 2016

Public editing in and with the public

Mike Ananny has a post at Nieman Lab that I hope the NY Times editorial board reads. It argues that the next public editor (what we used to call an ombudsperson) is deeply versed in digital life, from algorithms to social media. Amen.

Thiis timely because the current public editor, Margaret Sullivan, is leaving the Times to become a columnist for the Washington Post. I think she has done an excellent job in a very difficult position, and I’m sorry to see her leave that position.

But that does make this a good time for the Times to re-think not just the competencies of a public editor, but also the modality of the position.

Currently the public sees the public editor as a columnist who stands between them and the editorial staff of the paper. She writes on behalf of the readers, explaining and adjudicating. It is a challenging job, to say the least.

But this role should be broadened so that it includes not just the public editor but the public at large. Let the public editor continue to write blog posts — Sullivan’s have been good examples of the form. But also let the public have its say in more than comments on the posts. As a blogger, the public editor can only discuss only a small percentage of the concerns that readers have.

To scale this, the Times could set up an open forum in which the public can raise topics that readers can discuss and upvote. Or, perhaps a Stackoverflow sort of board would work. No matter how it’s done, the public would get to raise issues, and the public would get to discuss and promote (or demote) issues . Most of the issues are likely to be handled by the readers talking amongst themselves, but the public editor would watch carefully to see where she needs to step in.

Maybe those implementations would fail or spin out of control. But there is very likely a way to scale the conversation so that readers are far more engaged in what they would increasingly see as their paper.

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March 16, 2016

Advanced advanced Google search

Suppose you want to find pages that use the word “Disneyland” as a link, as in: Disneyland?

I looked and looked but could not find a way to do that at Google. The first return at Google for the query “google advanced search” takes you to a form where you can construct a more finicky search than normal. The Google help page for advanced search has some interesting operators, but not what I need. Limiting my exploration to Google.com (advanced search site:google.com) I could find no explanation of how to do this.

Fortunately, Gary Stock knows more about this than I do. He told me about “inanchor.” Once you know what to look for, you can find some well-hidden Google pages that mention it, such as this aging Google Sites page. Inanchor gets close to what I’m looking for. In fact, for my particular purposes, it’s better.

The following query will return all the pages linked to by the word “Disneyland”:

inanchor:disneyland

For example, if you click on the link in the first paragraph of this post, you’ll go not to Disneyland.com but to a page about Disney’s role in tightening copyright restrictions. If you run the inanchor query, that page about copyright will show up in the results, because it is a page linked to by the word “Disneyland.” In other words, you don’t get back a list of the pages that contain a link that uses the word “Disneyland”; you get back the pages that those pages link to.

A better example might help. If you search for:

inanchor:”most likeable person ever”

you’ll find the pages people have pointed to with a Most Likeable Person Ever link. (“allinanchor” searches for links containing the words that follow in any order.)

I’m not 100% sure inanchor actually works because I don’t see a way to get the pages that contain the links. Maybe I’ll ask Gary.

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March 13, 2016

You can be inauthentic, but can you be authentic?

I’ve always had a problem with the concept of authenticity.

Authenticity is usually taken to mean that you are being who you truly are. But that “truly” implies that you have something like an essence, and that essence is somehow apart from how you behave, particularly in public.

In ordinary parlance, that essence seems to be some set of personality traits: you act nice but you’re really not, so you’re inauthentic.

In philosophy, that essence tends to be more universal, even if it’s self-abnegating. For example, for Heidegger to be authentic is to accept that one is thrown into a world not of one’s making, that we are going to die, that we are groundless, etc. For Sartre, our essence is to be free to choose, and to be authentic is to choose with full commitment while recognizing that that choice is baseless.

However you slice it, being authentic rests upon beliefs about what’s “really real” about us. We often conceptualize this as being true to our inner self. But our selves are fully social. Our private selves are temporary deprivations of our social selves. Even when we’re alone, the rest of the world is still with us as that which we will return to, and that which brought us to where we are.

In any case. authenticity isn’t something we can try for. “’Be authentic’ is not helpful advice.”“Be authentic” is not helpful advice. “Be sincere” can be helpful because we do have thoughts and opinions that we can keep private. We have at least some control over whether we lie, flatter, fib, prevaricate, or shade the truth. Sincerity applies to acts of speaking. Authenticity applies to our selves, to our being. I don’t find it to be a helpful concept, term, or piece of advice.

But, even if authenticity isn’t a useful concept, the concept of inauthenticity has lots of uses. It captures something we’ve all observed in others, although I’m not sure we can observe it in ourselves. I’ve met people I’d probably call inauthentic. They seem to be pretending to be brave or caring. If through drugs or therapy they were to change, I might notice it and even come to trust it. I might even say, “S/he seems more authentic these days.” But what I really mean is, “S/he isn’t as inauthentic as she used to be.”

For the rest of the people I know, I wouldn’t know what I meant if I called them authentic. For inauthenticity is our natural state: a measure of distance from our actions, thoughts, and even feelings. We are not creatures of pure reflex. That wedge keeps us from being who we “really” are, because that distance is who we are.

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March 8, 2016

Making library miscellaneousness awesome

Sitterwerk Art Library in St. Gallen, Switzerland, has 25,000 items on its shelves in no particular order. This video explains why that is a brilliant approach. And then the story just gets better and better.

Werkbank from Astrom / Zimmer on Vimeo.

That the shelves have no persistent order doesn’t mean they have no order. Rather, works are reshelved by users in the clusters the users have created for their research. All the items have RFID tags in them, and the shelves are automatically scanned so that the library can always tell users where items are located.

As a result, if you look up a particular item, you will see it surrounded by works that some other user thought were related to it in some way. This creates a richer browsing experience because it is shaped and reshaped by how its community of users sees the items’ inter-relationships.

The library has now installed Werkbank, which is a plain old table where you can spread out a pile of books and do your research. But, unlike truly plain old tables, this one combines RFID sensors and cameras with recognition software so it knows which works you’ve put on the table and how you’ve organized them. Werkbench notes those associations, and stores them, creating a rich network of related works.

It also lets the individual save a research set, and even compile a booklet documenting those items, with notes. It can be printed on the spot and taken home … or put into the shelves as a user-generated lib guide.

This is awesome.

Here’s a bit more about it:

…the new table sports a grid of 12 an­ten­nas. It also has two cam­eras at­tached: one for scan­ning the tab­letop and through cus­tom image re­cog­ni­tion soft­ware de­term­ine the exact po­s­i­tion and ro­ta­tion of books; one for mak­ing high-res­ol­u­tion scans of pages, notes or ob­jects not yet in the Sit­ter­werk cata­logue. Just like be­fore, the new server and its in­ter­face provides a real-time di­gital ren­der­ing of the table and its con­tents, but in two di­men­sions in­stead of one. It also lets you at­tach scans, pho­tos and texts to in­di­vidual ob­jects, and to the vir­tual table it­self. Once you save your col­lec­tion, it merges with a grow­ing net­work of other col­lec­tions, books, ma­ter­i­als, thoughts and people

Anthon Astrom tells me that the project currently runs against an internal API, and they are planning to create a public API at some point. That way, the world can benefit from what Sitterwerk’s users are teaching it.

 


 

At the Harvard Library Innovation Lab, we wanted to do something that touches on some elements of this. With 73 libraries and 13 million items in Harvard Library it never even crossed our minds to install continuous RFID scanners in the stacks. So, our StackLife project and the LibraryCloud platform underneath it wanted simply to record which books were checked out with others, on the grounds that those clusters often have meaning. But, Harvard cyber-security researchers warned that this could be used to identify who took the books out. We thought about ways of smudging the data, and about making it opt-in, but it was not a fight we could win at that point. Werkbank might have the same issues when recording clusters but because it’s an art library, there may be less concern about the government demanding to know who was researching The Scream, Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, and Guernica because that person is clearly up to no good.

In any case the Sitterwerk library and Werkbank have far exceeded our imagination. More than that: it’s real. Awesomely real.

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March 5, 2016

Informed consent for human sensors

In a post at Nature Biotechnology, John Wilbanks (Chief Commons Officer at Sage Bionetworks) and Stephen H. Friend (CEO at that same outfit) write about a project in which users of a health monitoring app have given informed consent to have their data made available to other researchers. It is not open data, as John points out, but it is open to any researchers who make it through the vetting process.

How to get informed consent via an app? It’s an interesting question to which John and Stephen have given a lot of thought. That’s what the post is about. It seems well-designed to me, but I am not qualified to have an opinion.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that we want something like this, for the data being generated could well be of use to researchers who do not yet know that the data exists, who might be stimulated to think new thoughts on the basis of this data, or who have not been born yet.

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March 2, 2016

Keep prayers out of public school

I received an email from Rep. Vern Buchanan (Republican from Florida) asking:

The Supreme Court has ruled that opening public high school sporting events with a prayer is unconstitutional. Do you support this decision?

Rep. Buchanan's form

I said yes. In fact, I called his office to tell him why. Had I not been compressing a message for one of his aides, here’s what I would have said:

I grew up in the school district where parents brought the suit, Engel v. Vitale, that resulted in the 1962 Supreme Court decision. I was twelve. I remember the cross-burning down the street from us when the results were announced.

The school had adopted what it considered to be a non-denominational prayer. There is no such thing. Even if there were, how one prays varies in different religions. Jews don’t kneel, clasp their hands, and bow. In fact, Jews don’t pray together in public places as part of their usual ritual. (Exception: Part of the Yom Kippur service entails kneeling.)

Not to mention that I’m an agnostic atheist, so I don’t pray. I remember availing myself of the option to sit quietly while the rest of the class said the prayer. Why would anyone think that that’s an acceptable option to give a kid? My school was half Christian and half Jewish, and it was a very tolerant place, so I didn’t feel ostracized. But I was lucky. “Starting a class with prayer tells a kid what’s normal.”Starting a class with prayer, and understanding that this is a school policy, tells a kid what’s normal. If you don’t pray, or don’t pray that way, how could a child not draw the conclusion that she or he is not a full-fledged member of the class?

I’ll be happy to reconsider these views when I hear about the first public school where the kids are mainly or entirely Christian that mandates starting the day by saying a “non-denominational” prayer that refers to G-d as “Allah,” and that requires the children to kneel while facing Mecca. Then maybe I’ll believe that the push for school prayer isn’t based on Christian assumptions.

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