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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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March 1, 2016

[berkman] Dries Buytaert

I’m at a Berkman [twitter: BerkmanCenter] lunchtime talk (I’m moderating, actually) where Dries Buytaert is giving a talk about some important changes in the Web.

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.

He begins by recounting his early days as the inventor of Drupal, in 2001. He’s also the founder of Acquia, one of the fastest growing tech companies in the US. It currently has 750 people working on products and services for Drupal. Drupal is used by about 3% of the billion web sites in the world.

When Drupal started, he felt he “could wrap his arms” around everything going on on the Web. Now that’s impossible, he says. E.g, Google AdWords were just starting, but now AdWords is a $65B business. The mobile Web didn’t exist. Social media didn’t yet exist. Drupal was (and is) Open Source, a concept that most people didn’t understand. “Drupal survived all of these changes in the market because we thought ahead” and then worked with the community.

“The Internet has changed dramatically” in the past decade. Big platforms have emerged. They’re starting to squeeze smaller sites out of the picture. There’s research that shows that many people think that Facebook is the Internet. “How can we save the open Web?,” Dries askes.

What do we mean by the open or closed Web? The closed Web consists of walled gardens. But these walled gardens also do some important good things: bringing millions of people online, helping human rights and liberties, and democratizing the sharing of information. But, their scale is scary . FB has 1.6B active users every month; Apple has over a billion IoS devices. Such behemoths can shape the news. They record data about our behavior, and they won’t stop until they know everything about us.

Dries shows a table of what the different big platforms know about us. “Google probably knows the most about us” because of gMail.

The closed web is winning “because it’s easier to use.” E.g., After Dries moved from Belgium to the US, Facebook and etc. made it much easier to stay in touch with his friends and family.

The open web is characterized by:

  1. Creative freedom — you could create any site you wanted and style it anyway you pleased

  2. Serendipity. That’s still there, but it’s less used. “We just scroll our FB feed and that’s it.”

  3. Control — you owned your own data.

  4. Decentralized — open standards connected the pieces

Closed Web:

  1. Templates dictate your creative license

  2. Algorithms determine what you see

  3. Privacy is in question

  4. Information is siloed

The big platforms are exerting control. E.g., Twitter closed down its open API so it could control the clients that access it. FB launched “Free Basics” that controls which sites you can access. Google lets people purchase results.

There are three major trends we can’t ignore, he says.

First, there’s the “Big Reverse of the Web,” about which Dries has been blogging about. “We’re in a transformational stage of the Web,” flipping it on its head. We used to go to sites and get the information we want. Now information is coming to us. Info, products, and services will come to us at the right time on the right device.”

Second, “Data is eating the world.”

Third, “Rise of the machines.”

For example, “content will find us,” AKA “mobile or contextual information.” If your flight is cancelled, the info available to you at the airport will provide the relevant info, not offer you car rentals for when you arrive. This creates a better user experience, and “user experience always wins.”

Will the Web be open or closed? “It could go either way.” So we should be thinking about how we can build data-driven, user-centric algorithms. “How can we take back control over our data?” “How can we break the silos” and decentralize them while still offering the best user experience. “How do we compete with Google in a decentralized way. Not exactly easy.”

For this, we need more transparency about how data is captured and used, but also how the algorithms work. “We need an FDA for data and algorithms.” (He says he’s not sure about this.) “It would be good if someone could audit these algorithms,” because, for example, Google’s can affect an election. But how to do this? Maybe we need algorithms to audit the algorithms?

Second, we need to protect our data. Perhaps we should “build personal information brokers.” You unbundle FB and Google, put the data in one place, and through APIs give apps access to them. “Some organizations are experimenting with this.”

Third, decentralization and a better user experience. “For the open web to win, we need to be much better to use.” This is where Open Source and open standards come in, for they allow us to build a “layer of tech that enables different apps to communicate, and that makes them very easy to use.” This is very tricky. E.g., how do you make it easy to leave a comment on many different sites without requiring people to log in to each?

It may look almost impossible, but global projects like Drupal can have an impact, Dries says. “We have to try. Today the Web is used by billions of people. Tomorrow by more people.” The Internet of Things will accelerate the Net’s effect. “The Net will change everything, every country, every business, every life.” So, “we have a huge responsibility to build the web that is a great foundation for all these people for decades to come.”

[Because I was moderating the discussion, I couldn’t capture it here. Sorry.]

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Wooden pliers

The surprise ending to this is that he makes wooden pliers. But, trust me, it’s a surprise.


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February 29, 2016

Republicans for Hillary

In 1964, Barry Goldwater was the Republican nominee, running against Lyndon Johnson. Goldwater was from what was then the furthest acceptable edge of the right wing. He was so effectively presented as an extremist that famously in his nomination acceptance speech he responded, “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”

In one of the most famous political ads of all time, LBJ successfully painted him as too irresponsible to trust with nuclear weapons:

Nate Silver now has dug up another ad from that campaign: “Confessions of a Republican” voting for LBJ. Silver calls it “strange and kind of amazing.” I’d add “mesmerizing.”

Silver wonders if Hillary Clinton is studying it. She should.

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February 27, 2016

Trump doesn't want to govern

There’s an excellent article by Sultan Al Qassemi on what the Gulf States can expect from a Trump presidency. (I found this at Parlio, a site for civil discussion.) I learned a lot. But don’t think there’s much sense in trying to predict what President Trump would do. He is not in it to govern.

I believe (based on no real evidence, of course) that when he closes his eyes at night, he’s not dreaming of all the good he could do in the world as president, but about the press coverage, the world’s leaders fawning as they approach, the salutes as he reviews the troops, his feet up on the Resolute desk in the Oval Office. He’s in it because he sees the presidency as the biggest reality TV show there is.

So, it’s impossible to predict what his policies will be. He doesn’t care. He’ll delegate that job to whomever he’s appointed, and we have no idea who that would be, other than that they will be sycophants up and bullies down.

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February 26, 2016

Obama's Librarian of Congress nominee

I’m very happy with Pres. Obama’s nomination of Carla Hayden to be the next Librarian of Congress.

She’s been a people’s librarian as the head of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore — an actual librarian rather than an historian or academic. I expect her to work to make the treasures of the Library of Congress even more accessible to all.

She’s is on the board of the Digital Public Library of America which has a thorough commitment to open access and to the use of technology to unlock the riches of library culture.

It is also worth noting that she is not an elderly white man. Having a black woman as the head of the Library of Congress says something important, starting with “It’s about time.”

We’ll see where she stands on copyright issues. I have some hopes about that.

This looks like a brilliant choice.

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