Category Archives: Cultural Heitage

Native American “Wellness Warriors” App

At this week’s conference, the United National Indian Tribal Youth (UNITY), released their new “Wellness Warriors App”.

There are probably a bazillion “wellness” apps out there (and, confusingly, more than one “wellness warrior”).   This app is distinguished by begin designed to be culturally-based for Native American youth.

Cool! This is the kind of thing I hope to see more of: digital apps that strengthen community and culture rather than eroding it. So I had to take a closer look.

The idea of the project is to promote “wellness from a cultural perspective – fitness through cultural dance, healthy eating with traditional Native foods, and more.” These activities already enjoy considerable participation as an expression of cultural identity and solidarity. The app adds in an emphasis on the health benefits of these activities.

These are real world, face-to-face activities. What can a mobile app really do?

From a brief trial run, it looks like that one contribution is social connection with a digital community that promotes a broad solidarity across many locations and specific tribes. The app seeks to,

encourage Native youth to interact with each other in a way we’ve never seen before.

I’m not sure that this has never been seen before (I’m pretty sure that Facebook and everything else is already widely used by these kids), but it bundles all the stuff into a single, “just for us” app.

I admit that I don’t really know all the features WWA has, or how to use it reasonably. (I, for one, could use some directions! But I’m not in the target demographic, who are digital natives.)

Many of the features are familiar from generic apps, including sharing and messaging. The “wellness” aspect including some fitness tracking and charts (I don’t know how to use them), space for contributed regional recipes and a planner.

The ‘cultural sensitivity’ appears in many forms, such as the graphic design and in channels for various Indian languages. The “wellness tracker” itself is a self report meter through which you enter your current state of physical, mental, social, and spiritual wellness. These dimensions are probably used by many such wellness apps, but in this case they should be interpreted in the context of tribal heritage. The “social” and “spiritual” dimensions definitely have important and specific meanings for Native Americans.

This app, like any mobile app, is mainly talking, not doing. The activities of interest (eating, exercising, helping each other) are real world, face-to-face things. Digitally augmented talk is not necessarily going to promote wellness or fitness.

In general, I’m not optimistic on the effectiveness of any self-reported tracking features. Aside from the problematic nature of this kind of introspection, interrupting your life to fill in the data just seems too intrusive to work for long.

Also, I’ve never been interested myself in sharing fitness data (or recipes), so I wouldn’t be motivated by these features, even if I did take time to record my wellness. But lots of people, especially you youngsters out there, like to do this sort of thing. So there you go.

All that said, the cultural solidarity represented by UNITY should, in principle, add motivation and intrinsic rewards that make this app work better than a generic app with similar features would. It is also true that there already is a social network (UNITY and its many affiliated youth organizations), so this app overlays existing social connections, and therefore is more likely to be effective.

In other words, a digital app might or might not be especially effective for promoting wellness, but one that is embedded in a strong and positive cultural context might work better. As they suggest, the aim of the  game is “Finding wellness and healing within our cultures” which is a lot more meaningful than just “promoting wellness” in general.

This app inspires me to think of additional features that might make it even better. There are many possibilities that could be done technically, though I don’t know what will fit the spirit and practices of this group.  (Perhaps spinn off apps, if these are too far afield from “wellness”..)

Things that occur to me:

  • A gratitude meter–express gratitude every day
  • Ambient nature awareness channels, e.g., Bison cam streaming coverage of reintroduced Bison herds.
  • informal (social) games (in local languages!), with cultural content. E.g., guided meditation/story telling with traditional themes and images.
    • (can you make the game so great that kids everywhere–not just Native Americans– will want to practice Native American spiritual values, because its just cool?)
  • Idea market for mutual help (think “mindsharing”, with a cultural twist)
  • Platform cooperatives for sharing stuff (think Uber or AirBnB, except owned by the users). In this case, should be embedded in cultural heritage surrounding sharing and gifts.

Anyway, I look forward to seeing what happens with this app.

  1. United National Indian Tribal Youth, Cultural-based Wellness App to Launch at National Native Youth Conference, in UNITY – News. 2017.


Baby Bison Born!

I’m a long time Bisonophile and enthusiastic supporter of restoring wild Buffalo herds to North America. I’m particularly happy with the strong role of various Native America tribes, working through the political and technical barriers, and finding land to host the new herds. It almost goes without saying that this restoration has immense symbolic and cultural significance for the peoples who once lived with the Buffalo.

There has been a steady stream of reintroductions, notably to Banff earlier this year and  Blackfeet Reservation and Ft. Peck Reservation in earlier years This month was marked by another milestone, the birth of a calf on the Eastern Shoshone Wind River Reservation.

The birth of the bison calf catalyzes important conversations to be had about tribal protection of this spiritually important ungulate on tribal lands. CREDIT COURTESY OF JASON BALDES

You go little guy!

As part of a twenty year project to restore buffalo to tribal lands, the Eastern Shoshone received ten buffalo last fall. The new baby is a welcome sign that the Bison are settling in, and a promise of a permanent presence in the future.

Jason Baldes considers this to be more than wildlife management, for him it is a form of restorative justice. He commented on Yellowstone Public Radio,

What happened to Native people similarly happened to buffalo and we’re now isolated on former pockets of our once vast territories, you know, Indians on reservations and buffalo on national parks and refuges. And we’re kinda in a time now where we can handle that different.

At a time when knuckle draggers and latter day Medicis in Washington are plunging down a deeply destructive path, we can only hope that this little guy and his small tribe of buffalos can survive and thrive.

I’ll end with a culturally mixed welcome to the young one in Lakota, Taŋyáŋ yahí.

(I know very well that Lakota is not the same as Shoshone. But I have an online translator for Lakota, and this was an opportunity to learn a new word. I’m sure Lakota people are happy at the birth as well.)

  1. Brie Ripley, Eastern Shoshone Tribe Celebrate First Baby Buffalo Born On Reservation In Over A Century Yellowstone Public Radio.May 8 2017,


Bear Lake UNESCO Site

Peter Kujawinski wrote a nice piece in the NYT aboutTsá Tué, a new UNESCO preserve at Bear Lake in Canada. This vast area is inhabited by the Sahtuto’ine people, who have lived there for generations.

Snow- and ice-covered bushes along the shore of Great Bear Lake. It’s the eighth largest lake in the world. Credit Christopher Miller for The New York Times
Snow- and ice-covered bushes along the shore of Great Bear Lake. It’s the eighth largest lake in the world. Credit Christopher Miller for The New York Times

Unlike many other nature preserves, Tsá Tué has been placed under the formal authority of the local people, to sustain and protect for all humanity.

This approach aligns the traditional cultural connections of the local people with the lake and it’s environs, and places our faith in people who feel a deep, deep link to the area. (And for once, the priorities of the local people are treated with respect and not to be overrun by outsider powers.)

Tsá Tué caught my attention because I had dreamed of such approach to combat poaching and destruction of forests. I imagined forming a protective force run by inigenous people, including defensive bands of rangers. Who better to selflessly care for a forest or park, than peoples whose identity and culture are one with the natural setting?

Kujawinski was lucky enough to visit Deline and the lake, and reports on the beauty he found there. He also spoke to his hosts about their views and hopes. The residents and now stewards of the area speak of their language and history, and an identity inextricably tied to the lake.

He notes that many of the people are inspired by the prophecy o Sahtuto’ine elder Eht’se Ayah, who taught that the lake will be one of the last clean areas on Earth, and people would come North for refuge. Other stories recount the beating heart of the lake, and suggest that Bear Lake is connected to all the other lakes and waters of the world.

Whether you take these stories literally or metaphorically, they illustrate a commitment to defend the natural environment, a commitment that is not motivated solely by self-interest.

Not everything is honky dory, of course. Bear Lake is way up North, but hardly far enough to miss out on the twentieth century. For several decades, there was a large Uranium mine on the lake, which supplied Uranium for the earliest nuclear weapons. Many local people worked in the mine, and many died from the work. The mine is closed now, but who knows how much residual damage is there to plague the future?

I also have to think that the idea that Bear Lake, Tsá Tué, will remain pristine, and be a refuge from environmental disaster is too optimistic. Even today, the seasons are changing, which will surely stress the wildlife and waters. I’m also confident that the snow, lake, and living things already contain measurable traces of chemicals from the smoke down south. The preserve may be relatively empty, but I’m sorry to say that it is still part of the far from pristine world.

I don’t think I’ll be visiting Bear Lake soon, it’s too far away. But I’m glad to know that it is in good hands.

  1. Peter Kujawinski, Guardians of a Vast Lake, and a Refuge for Humanity, in New York times. 2017: New York.
  2. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Tsá Tué. 2016,


3D Viz Display of Mummy

Museums offer many opportunities* for digital augmentation, to visualize the unseen, provide context, and allow more human interaction with fragile and rare objects.

There are many technologies that could be interesting, including visualization and animation (2D and 3D), Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and imaginative combinations of techniques.

The digital technology is particularly valuable when it can give new views of objects to make the invisible visible, and to help tell their story.

Anders Ynnerman and colleagues discuss a clever interactive visualization of a mummy on display in the British Museum. The exhibit is “simple”: a digital display lets visitors explore the insides of the mummy. The digital display presents detailed 3D visualizations computed from MRI scans of the mummy.

[The] mummy is shown on the surface of the table, but, as a visitor moves a virtual slider on the table, the muscles, organs, and skeleton reveal themselves as the skin is gradually peeled away.” ([1], p. 73)

The article sketches key elements of a “work flow of scanning, curating, and integrating the data into the overall creation of stories for the public can lead to engaging installations at museums” (p. 74)

  1. Scanning
  2. Visualization
  3. Interaction
  4. Story telling

The scanning employs now ubiquitous CT scanning, though scanning dehydrated mummies requires adjustments. On the other hand, radiation dosage is less an issue.

Scanning protocols for mummies require custom settings, as the body is completely dehydrated and regular CT protocols assume naturally hydrated tissues” (p. 75)

The data is visualized by volume rendering, which can be done via ray casting. They remark that this is a highly parallel process, and therefore quite suited to contemporary GPU systems. (Game Processor Units (GPUs) are vector coprocessors (a la Illiac IV) designed to rapidly generate 3D scenes, i.e., for video games.)

The algorithm calculates a representation of the tissue depending on settings which reflect the physics of the materials and the X-ray data. Different settings reveal different types of tissue, and the rendering works to make the view understandable through color, texture, and other features.

These techniques generate huge amounts of data for a single study. Continuing developments in storage and data management have made it much easier to handle CT scans. High end, custom systems are no longer necessary to store and manipulate these volumes of data.

The display system is interactive, and projected to a large touch screen. This type of interface is used by experts (as seen on TV), but a public display needs to be more fool-proof and self-explanatory. They also comment that the system needs to be robust (to run unattended for hours without failing) and have consistent performance with no lags or noticeable artifacts.

Finally, the exhibit is designed around a story. In the case of the Gebelein Man mummy, the exhibit tells about the evidence of an apparently fatal wound (a stab in the back), and the suggestion that the individual was “murdered”. This narrative ties the archaeological exhibit to familiar contemporary police fiction, and helps visitors imagine the remains as a fellow human.

To date, developing such a visualization is labor intensive and requires considerable expertise in visualization and data handling. This process can be improved in the future, to make it easier for domain experts to create interactive visualizations to present science and stories to the public.

  1. Anders Ynnerman, Thomas Rydell, Daniel Antoine, David Hughes, Anders Persson, and Patric Ljung, Interactive visualization of 3d scanned mummies at public venues. Commun. ACM, 59 (12):72-81, 2016.

* Opportunities to teach and learn and enjoy, but not  necessarily opportunities to make piles of money. Museums are generally underfunded and over-committed.

Computer Music From Alan Turing’s Lab

I have sometimes pointed out to people that the early and ubiquitous development of computer music is scarcely surprising. Humans make music. (Neanderthals probably did, too. [2]) We make music with everything, and if we have nothing else, we make music with our body.

Every technology ever developed has been deployed first to stay alive, then to kill things, and then to make music. Computer technology is no different.

Evidence: Alan Turing’s lab used the computer to generate music.

Think about that for a second. There could not have been more than a handful of computers in existence, and no one had any idea what these expensive beasts were for except maybe calculating math tables.

With access to Sensei Alan’s hulking Mark II computer, Christopher Strachey thought, “Whoa! Let’s make music!” (Sensei Alan himself used the sound effects for what we now call ‘sonification’.)

With an all night hackathon (yes, children, we did this long before you were born!), he made it do music! And, as Jack Copeland and Jason Long comment, “In the wake of Strachey’s tour de force a number of people in the lab started writing music programs”.  And we have never stopped.

This month researchers in NZ released recovered audio from 1951, documenting what must be one of the first ever computer generated tunes. Awesome!

Copeland and Long note, “There are unsettled questions about the authorship of the three routines that played these recorded melodies”, because people immediately started hacking and modifying the code. Even at this early date, digital music was problematic!

  1. Jack Copeland and Jason Long, Restoring the first recording of computer music, in Sound and vision blog. 2015, British Library.
  2. Steven Mithen, The Singing Neaderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2006.


Digital Preservation is Hard

Actually, any kind of historical or archival preservation is hard: in general, the “significance” of an entity is a complex social context.

As I have often remarked, preserving Henry Aaron’s uniform, however carefully done, cannot really portray the significance of his career, his significant in American race relations, what it meant for a black man to break Babe Ruth’s record—in Atlanta!—in the 1970s and so on.

These problems are even more acute in the case of “digital preservation”. Preserving a collection of bits is difficult enough, and rarely sufficient to be particularly meaningful.

I often point out that my own academic work from the 1990’s is mostly “preserved” somewhere, including images of official thesis papers. Many of the files are difficult to actually process (Postscript Version 1.x is not supported by contemporary tools!), and any software is completely junk: the technical context and software stack no longer exist.  (How many of you even know what “Xenix” was?)  In fact, these facts were not even documented at the time, so who knows what would be needed to recreate the context?  If you even wanted to, which no one does.

So the work is basically gone, except for whatever words and pictures I may have left behind.

David P. Anderson writes in Communications of the ACM about these same challenges when trying to “preserve” digital art works, which, he correctly terms “Hybrid Objects” [1]. By this term, he means that the overall “object” of interest has both digital and other component. As he says, “artworks are not ‘only’ digital…and any preservation approach that does not acknowledge this is doomed to failure.” (p.45)

To back up a bit, why would we even care about “preserving” digital works of any kind?

The primary reason must surely be a desire to make the culture and knowledge of the past (and present) available to future generations. It is impossible to preserve everything, and equally impossible to know that people in the future will wish we had preserved. But surely it is worth trying to preserve “significant” things, so that they might be available in the future.

In the case of digital artworks, or, I would say, most digital “objects”, the entire point is how the user (?) experiences and interacts with it. Art projects may now employ hardware and software which can, in principle, be preserved and recreated in the future. But they also may employ data from live streams, from the Internet (e.g., search results) or social media. These works may visualize contemporary life in ways that are extremely interesting or beautiful, but totally ephemeral and irreproducible. Furthermore, digital artworks can be interactive, enabling the “user” or users to participate in the expression.

Anderson’s main point is that “any inclination one may have to believe that preserving artworks is primarily a matter of developing an appropriate set of software tools and workflows, is quite mistaken.” (p. 46) He is also right on target to say that “This is a lesson that is well worth extending into other areas of preservation.” (p.46)

Actually, I would go farther to say that these problems are at the core of all efforts at cultural preservation, digital or otherwise.

Anderson’s thoughtful article also illustrates the value of cross discipline collaborations. As he indicates, his understanding of the field of digital preservation was enlightened by “Working with contemporary artists”, and “spend[ing] time exploring preservation issues” with artists.

My own experience reflects the value of these collaborations, not only for understanding preservation. If you want to understand human computer interaction, you would do well to learn from performing artists (as Brenda Laurel did so long ago [2]). And if you want to build embodied systems, then you really need to work with expert dancers [3].

  1. David P. Anderson, Preserving hybrid objects. Commun. ACM, 59 (5):44-46, 2016.
  2. Brenda Laurel, Computers as Theatre, Reading, MA, Addison Wesley, 1991.
  3. Mary Pietrowicz, Robert E. McGrath, Guy Garnett, and John Toenjes, Multimodal Gestural Interaction in Performance, in Whole Body Interfaces Workshop at CHI 2010. 2010: Atlanta.


Performing Archives: Dancing Encryption?

Archiving is an interesting and, to me, tricky intellectual enterprise. Generally speaking, archives seek to preserve a record of our culture, as much as possible, as best as possible. The digital explosion of the last fifty years has create the need for digital archives, to preserve a record of digital culture.

There are many, many deep problems with this enterprise—digital or not—starting with the question of who would use this data, and what (tiny fragment) should be preserved, and just what preservation means at all.

In this light, I was interested to look at The Living Archives project, which centers in performing arts. The project is motivated by the goal of, “Revitalizing public archives into living social resources implies shedding the conception that they are the dormant and disembodied narratives of a dominant culture.” They approach this with, among other things, a track called “Performing Memory.

Archives are so often “dormant and disembodied” because they are designed by, well, archivists, who are concerned about curating collections. (Archives are expensive, so they do tend to be implemented by wealthy elites. Controlling the official record is almost the definition of being a “dominant culture”, no?) So what will performing artists do differently?

First of all, the project dives right into tough issues far outside the technical issues of curation, such as the tension between open data and personal privacy. It’s interesting to see how performing arts may bring these issues to light, and help people make intelligent decisions.

One recent “performing memory” project that caught my eye was Performing Encryption—an intriguing title!

This is an interesting interactive dance workshop, that invites participants “to generate a digital encryption key using your own gestures and movements.” Cool! A whole body interface, implementing “personalized” encryption key generation!

I think the overall idea is to make a very concrete and visceral connection between you and personal data collected about you, and the role of encryption in controlling access to personal data.The point is made nicely because your dance is captured in video, which is encrypted with the key you generate via your dance. At the end, you get a copy of the video which no one can view unless you share the key with them.

Technologically, this project is pretty straightforward. They use a key generation program that is designed to use random mouse movement as the random input to create a secret key. This software is modified to use traces of you body movement, collected with Microsoft’s Kinnect. It uses the same principle, but you use your whole body. I imagine that everyone who did this workshop has a much better intuition for how key generation works, however you seed it.

The underlying cryptography is standard and widely used, and frankly, doesn’t care how the private keys were generated. While the project materials make comments about how the key is personalized because it derives from your own unique “dance”, that is rather misleading. The key is derived from numbers sampled from measurements of the motion, and even if the sampled numbers are meaningfully related to the motion, they are basically used as random numbers in the key generation. The resulting key is derived from your data, but is not semantically representative of it—that’s actually the critical feature of a private key, it must not be possible to know the original input.

It should occur to the you and the workshop participants that you might be able to use this methodology to create a lock that opens only if you dance the correct “secret”. I.e., you should be able to generate the same key, if you can dance your dance the same way. This would be cool, and I’m sure there are or soon will be simple versions of this available. (This is probably not a very practical security measure—how do you keep people from watching you dance your “secret” code?)

I’m pretty sure that won’t work with this particular technology, because it would be difficult to match the movement closely enough to replicate the key. In fact, it may start with a different initial seed (e.g., from a timestamp), which would make it impossible to replicate the key even in you danced exactly the same. (This is the usual design for encryption, in order to prevent hackers from capturing and replaying a recorded stream of data to recreate the password and break in.)

Anyway, the workshop is kind of cool, and I suspect that many people will both enjoy this approach and feel more personal attachment to the resulting key, and to data encrypted with it.

“Trace the body in the algorithm, reaffirm physical presence in Big Data, and see if your digital encryption key feels more like yours if it was generated as a duet between your movement improvisation and computational processes.”

 I imagine that the workshop discussions help relate this exercise to all the other personal data that we create, and perhaps some understanding of how we might choose to use encryption to control personal data.

I don’t know if this workshop advanced the cause of digital archiving, or not. But it is kind of a cool participatory dance project, and a real, honest to goodness, whole body interface that actually does something practical.

I have not really given sufficient attention here to the overall “Performing Memory” thread of this project, which has some deep and intriguing ideas about the relationship of bodies and action to digital life. I will return to this project in a future post.