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April 4, 2016

Dance is America

My wife and I have been going to dance competitions and multi-troupe performances for the past few years because our son and his partner are in various dance companies. This puts us into environments where we do not belong. It’s pretty awesome.

Dance is big in Boston. There are tons of groups, and when they get together they fill large auditoriums; a competition this weekend had about fifteen groups performing in front of a standing-room-only crowd of over 1,500.

And what audiences! They are beyond enthusiastic. They cheer on the teams at an astounding number of whoos per minute.

The teams are remarkable, and not just because of the high level of performance and choreography:

They are diverse in every direction: gender, race, sexual and gender identity, body type.

The dances are often gender indifferent in their choreography, although there are tropes that remain: men lift and catch women more than vice versa. Still, the women hit as hard as the men.

They are dancing to some of America’s cultural gifts: hiphop, jazz, show, and their mashups.

They have worked hard on a shared project with occasional star turns — the guy who can windmill, the woman who excels at pop and locking — but without stars.

You can be the oldest people in the audience, as my wife and I usually are, and be forgiven for thinking that no matter how cynical this generation may be, they are dancing the American dream.

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March 26, 2016

My secret life as a gamer

David Wolinsky‘s Don’t Die is running a long interview with me this week about games, culture, and why I’m embarrassed to be a video game player.

It is a long form interview, and basically unedited: I did a little clean-up for clarity, but it’s still got conversational ambiguities, as well as some thematic inconsistencies because David was asking me questions I haven’t thought about.

In the interview I do talk a bit about why I’m embarrassed about being a gamer. “The first step is admitting just how much of a gamer I am”The first step is admitting just how much of a gamer I am. I’m pretty much of one, going back all the way to the original Colossal Cave adventure. I’ve tried most genres but seem to get the most enjoyment from various forms of first person shooters. I’m no good at platformers or other forms of twitch games. RPGs are too slow for me because I don’t get invested in the characters. Most online games are too hard for me, so I feel like I’m slowing down my teammates, although I’ve spent a lot of time in Left 4 Dead 2. Some other favorites: The Bioshock series. Portal 2. The original Doom and Wolfenstein. The Luxor games. Some pinball games. I enjoyed Dead Rising 3 and even Max Payne 3. Far Cry 4, too. I guess it takes at least three tries to get games right. Anyway, I’ve never had a systematic memory, so those are just the beans that fall out when I shake the ol’ pod, but they’re probably representative.

Games are literally a pass-time for me: I tend to play them as a break from work. I would count programming as a hobby, not a pastime because it’s got an outcome, like a crossword puzzle that once you’re finished you can use for something. When programming, I feel like I’m doing something, even though mostly what I work on are utilities that cost me hundreds of hours and by the time I die will have saved me minutes. Games simply fill the gaps in my interest.

So, why is it embarrassing to me? For one thing, many games support values that I detest. The most obvious is violence, but I haven’t found that a lifetime of killing screen-based enemies has inured me to real violence or has led me to favor violence over peaceful solutions.

“The hypermasculinity of action games concerns me more”The hypermasculinity of action games concerns me more because few people are going to be convinced by games that shooting hordes of aliens is normal, but many will be further confirmed that men are the real heroes of life’s narratives. Although games have become less grossly misogynistic and homophobic (e.g., female action leads are now not uncommon), if you have any doubts that they still trade on harmful stereotypes and assumptions — and why would you? — Anita Sarkeesian’s brilliant “Tropes vs. Women” videos will set you straight.

But I’m more embarrassed about playing games than I am about watching action movies about which those same criticisms can be made.

In part it’s because games are associated with children. In the Don’t Die interview, I point to games that are more sophisticated and adult, but many of the games I listed above are no more sophisticated emotionally or narratively than a very bad TV show. So, mainly because I’m interested, here’s what I find appealing about the games I’ve listed:

  • Left 4 Dead is beautifully designed to encourage genuine collaboration among four players.

  • The Bioshock series creates imaginative science fiction worlds that would be better termed “political fiction.”

  • Portal 2 is a great logic game — a few rules and ingenious problems. But it is also an hilarious social commentary with Pixar-quality touches of brilliance. Example: the singing sentry guns.

  • The original Doom was scary as hell.

  • The original Wolfenstein let you explore a maze with surprises.

  • Luxor is an arcade game that is at a good challenge level for me. Also, the balls make a reassuring sound. (I am particularly fond of Luxor Evolved, which is “trippy” and somehow appeals to my lizard-brain-on-acid.)

  • Max Payne 3 was dumb fun in a well-realized setting.

  • Dead Rising 3 mocks its genre while indulging in it. It does not require precise control, of which I am lacking.

When I think about it, almost all of these games share some traits. First, they are easy enough that I can succeed at them. Most games are not. Second, they tend to have pushed the graphic envelope when introduced. I remain in awe of what those computer dohickeys can do these days. Third, “many of them are meta about their genres, which is often just an excuse for being retrograde”many of them are meta about their genres, which is often just an excuse for being retrograde in their values. Apparently I fall for that.

I think it comes down to this: If embarrassment is the exposure of something private that doesn’t match one’s public persona, then clearly, the major reason I find gaming embarrassing is because I am publicly a thoughtful person. Or at least I try to be. Or at the least least, I pretend to be. Most of the games I play are not thoughtful. Sure, Portal 2 is. Going Home is. Bioshock is in its way. But Dead Rising is mindless…except for its meta-awareness of its tropes and its own ridiculousness; I completed large chunks of it while dressed in a tutu.

This is not what a semi-academic is supposed to be doing. Or so my embarrassment tells me.

 


 

PS: In the Don’t Die interview, the game I’m trying to remember that has the word “dust” in its title is “Spec Ops.” There is dust in the game, but not in the title.

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March 19, 2016

Unfiltered.news: Fulfilling the promise of the Web

Jigsaw — the Big Ideas do-tank of Google — has created a site that wants to pop your filter bubble. It’s pretty awesome.

Unfiltered.news visualizes on a map the top topics in countries around the world. Click on a topic — all of them are translated into your langue — to see how it’s trending in different localities. Use a slider to go back in time. It’s all very slick and animated.

Best of all, it automatically shows you the topics that are not trending in your region. That makes it more MultiFiltered than Unfiltered, but that’s actually what we want. (HeteroFiltered? Nah, that sounds very wrong.)

The Web was supposed to enable the world to talk amongst itself. It has left us way ahead of where we were but far behind where we want to be. This is not a failure of the Web but the result of the way understanding and attention work: understanding is a semi-coherent context (AKA echo chamber) that works by assimilating the novel into the familiar. Attention notices the novel based upon its sense of the familiar. It’s impossible to break out of this cycle. Even G-d couldn’t do it, having to show Itself to Moses as a talking, burning bush — weird, but a weird combination of familiar elements.

(This “hermeneutic circle” may be inevitable, but as you traverse it you can still be open-minded and curious or a self-righteous a-hole.)

I would love to see an integration of Google News and Unfiltered so that it doesn’t require you to remember to go to the site after you’ve gone to Google News. If Google News were integrated into Unfiltered.news, we could make the latter our main news site. Even better, Unfiltered could be integrated into Google News so that everyone who uses that very popular site could have their curiosity piqued.

Until then, I hope to make Unfiltered a regular part of my news behavior.

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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 6, 2016

Reason #1,775 I'm going to miss President Obama

This is a tiny thing. A little gesture. It’s his response to a post about an Iranian boy boy who quietly gives away apricots from a bag he is carrying home.

Er, what I mean to say is: That father ought to lose his parent license! That’s not the art of the deal, that’s the art of the loser! I would have turned that bag of apricots into two luxurious apartment buildings and a golf course for white people!

Yeah, that’s the ticket. No, seriously, that very likely will be the head of the Republican ticket.

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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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