A. Lincoln Still Important

It’s Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, how could I forget!? He lived here, and somehow is still relevant today.

A favorite Lincoln anecdote:

A friend of mine, a new immigrant from China, was studying to become a US citizen. He told me he went to the local library and asked if they had some history books to help him study. (Oh, yes, yes we do!! This is what public libraries were created to do!!)

He told me how amazing George Washington was, winning independence, leading the country, and then returning to private life. (Imagine how different China might be, had Mao stepped down after 8 years.)

I happened to be reading about Abe Lincoln at the time, so I commented, that Washington was cool, and wait until you get to Lincoln.

Then he surprised me:  he told me that he already know about Lincoln.  They teach about him in schools, even out in rural villages in China!

I guess, if you liberate a people, they will teach you everywhere. Nice.

This made me consider what Abe would think about Chine, as well as the waves of immigrants to America from all over Asia and the Americas.

I’m pretty sure he’d be way into it, and absolutely fascinated by China and India and all “the South”.  And I’m pretty darn sure he’d favor legalizing immigration, for goodness sake.  This is America, he’d say. Come on in. Welcome.


Kurt Luther on Crowd Creativity

This week I attended a good talk by Kurt Luther, a postdoctoral fellow in the HCI Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.

He’s studying “crowd creativity”, technologically enabled, distributed collaborations.  This is one of the new ways of working, and some might say it is the “future of work”.  How important this might ultimately be, it is very, very interesting.

There is a growing literature exploring this form of social computing,  and L uther draws on ideas from computer science, design, and business leadership.  He uses ideas of distributed leadership and distributed cognition, which leads him to ideas about “Redistributing leadership in online creative collaboration”.

Luther focuses on issues of coordination and expertise, and designs tools which let projects adjust the way these functions are distributed.  He illustrates this adjustment by contrasting a “Mechanical Turk”, which is a fully centralized, master-slave, organization; to a Wiki, which is often fully decentralized.

He has created a number of experimental tools, which may be of interesting for many uses.  One that is easily available is “pipeline”, which offers flexible support for distributed project management.

See his papers and other info, at: http://kurtluther.com/

Bitcoin crashes (again), and exchange has problems

As I predicted a while ago, Bitcoin is crashing after a big run up.  In addition, MtGox the key BC exchange is wheezing badly and complaining about flaws in the protocol.  Authorities are also causing “friction”, introducing real world grit into the perfect vaporous world of virtual money.

A glance at the technical analyses suggests that weaknesses in the protocol combined with wobbly implementation of the exchange have made things messy.

It is turning out that using BC involves trusting opaque and untrustworthy organizations, systems, and technology, just like bad-old “government money”, except they are all devils we don’t know instead of the usual devils we do know.

Money that depends on the correctness and reliability of computer hardware and software–what could possibly go wrong?  Replacing the irrational “In God We Trust” with the irrational “In Open Source We Trust” isn’t necessarily a good idea.

Remember Bob’s first law of computing:  “If you have enough computers, some of them are broken.”

(Bob’s zeoreth law of computing: “All software is broken.”)

Snowden Used Web Crawlers

I already pointed out one of the lessons of L’affaire Snowden, “be nice to your sysadmins“.

The NYT reports more details, indicating that Edward Snowden was able to suck out his trove of documents using simple web crawler technology. (I know it is simple, because, long, long ago, I built one of the first ones in about an hour–it’s basically trivial.)

Unfortunately, he may also have crawled internal wikis, intended to improve collaboration and information sharing, as an aid to finding juicy stuff to grab. I hope this doesn’t lead to measures that make it too much harder for NSAers to (appropriately) share and collaborate. That would be bad.

But, the point is, Snowden got away with it because, as a sysadmin, he needed to do stuff like test networks and move data around, which required access to lots of stuff.  There just isn’t any way around the fact that you have to give sysadmins access to your systems.  So be nice to them. For example, don’t shaft them and then insult their intelligence claiming that you cut their pensions because someone had a baby.  You are beggin’ for a thumpin’.

New Dance@Illinois, “Kama Begata”: You had to be there

For the past decade of so I’ve been thinking hard and experimenting with digital technologies that reinforce community and personal interactions—applications that only work if we are present, together.  I’m looking for things where you have to  “be here, now” for the app to work, and where the app improves here and now.  Last spring I contributed to a classic case, augmenting a public graduation ritual at Illinois.

One area of interest is performing arts, because music and dance really only work right if you are in the same space together. A few years ago I enjoyed working with a number of technically savvy performing artists, and learned a lot about the state of the art, what is possible, and how to do it.

As I posted earlier, this week some of my friends put on a new, technologically enhanced, dance performance at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Illinois in Urbana, Illinois.  I attended the Saturday performance, and here are some comments. Not being a gifted or trained performer, I’ll focus on the sociotechnical aspects, specifically the “be-here-now”-ness.

The program included 5 pieces created and performed by University faculty, students, and guest artists.

The program was quite varied, and I liked some works better than others.  (The costumes were excellent thougout)

The third piece was called Kama Begata Nihilum, was particularly interesting in its incorporation of contemporary IT, and because I know two of the technical artists, Tony Reimer and Professor John Toenjes, and quite a bit about the technical details

Each dancer was equipped with an iPad, with a custom app that connected the movements of the tablet into the audio and video stage effects.  In this way, the dancers were able to “play” the stage space (at least some of the time), which formed a “dance-computer interface” for the computer software.  This was a super example of the principles of place specific, immersive interfaces.  Let’s see an Internet bot replace these dancers!

Not content with this cool application, the team added a special effect for the audience.  Members of the audience could load an app into their Apple or Android handheld, and during the intervals the audience could point their device at the stage and encounter an augmented reality effect leaping out toward the seats. If you haven’t seen real AR, it’s certain an “ooh, aah” experience.

I note that this is a creative way to deal with the never ending game of “please turn off your cell phone”, which every passing day makes less and less supportable.

The crucial thing, though, is that the audience is invited to participate, in a very specific and demanding way.  The special effects were not only local to the performance space, they were visible only through a very personal interface, and only if the individual acts out their own part by loading and operating the app.  We were drawn into the performance, and, because we had to help each other, were drawn together in that place and time.  Nice.

Finally, in an element of circus-like wonder, the performance feature ‘iPad Man’.  Never mind whether this effect was necessary or even made sense–it was an awesome spectacle. You had to be there, then.

Well done all.

Looking critically, I can say that this piece illustrated two important issues I see in a lot of works.

First, it was not at all obvious to the audience what was going on with the computers.  I suspect that the dancers were interacting with the music and graphics, with gestures triggering events or tones, but it was impossible to tell.  I know what these guys are capable of.  In this case, the artists did not really intend the audience to know about any interactions.  But sometimes they do, as in Astral Convertible.

Partly, this is a matter of familiarity. As audiences become familiar with gestural interfaces, they will easily perceive what the performers are doing. On the other hand, sometimes the goal is “magic”, and you want to hide the technique from the audience.  As everyone gets familiar with these interactions, artists will need to conceal and misdirect the audience to preserve a magical experience.

A second issue was the Augmented Reality.  The AR in this piece was very basic, we can do so, so much more!  But it also didn’t really fit with the rest of the piece, and was pretty distracting.  With so much else going on, the AR wasn’t really a plus.

I’d say there is much to learn here.  How can the AR be better used?  How about the dancers and audience sharing the same AR experience (all dancig together?)  How about making the audience move in particular ways to see the AR?  How about making two or more phones together trigger something special in the AR.

“Creative” Communities in a Culture War?

Speaking of “Cultural Narratives“, I’m starting to really wonder about an apparent “culture war” emerging in the (primarily young) “creative” and entrepreneurial communities.

Building on the exact same technology, and surprisingly similar views of the way the world works (especially the view that governments are incapable of useful action), yet promulgating significantly different views of “what it all means” and how to live right.

The largest fault line seems to be about what sort of business to be in, and, deeply connected to that, what sort of life to live.  Many “culture wars” are really about “how to live the right way”, so this is actually a remarkable case where the basic issue is explicitly on the table.

I need to do a lot more looking and thinking about this, but here is a crude example to show what I mean.

At one extreme, we find techies who not only value the entrepreneurial lifestyle (with its wealth and privilege), but sneer at everyone else. The logical extreme of this attitude is a  dream of secession, of moving “offshore” to some utopia (where there are no poor people, I assume).

At the other extreme, I know many “social entrepreneurs” and “creatives”, who take an almost opposite tack: we are in business to solve social problems. (This is very confusing to an old line socialist such as moi, who generally wants to separate what you do for good from what you do for money.)  This is often embeded in pseudo-communal “networking”, which could be interpreted as a life-style or even an end in itself.

There are plenty of interesting questions to pose. Assuming there are such divergent “narratives” being lived out (they are certainly being told, but I don’t know how many people are actually doing them, if you know what I mean), who does it and why?

I have noted that the underlying technology is identical, so we have a clear cut case of “technological nondeterminism”. It looks to me like the general political economics are similar. Almost everybody fervently supports “net neutrality”, for example. The funny thing is, even the farthest out “secessionist” really is only millimeters away from a startup that seeks to fight poverty or suffering.

There are also some strange local/global things going on. I see a lot of what appear to be physically localized communities (not least including corporate campuses and co-working nests), yet much of the communal feeling is from Internet social media. I’m wondering how these social interactions play out at their different scales and affordances.

Readers of this blog certainly know where my general sympathies lie. But before I declare this stuff “mostly harmless”, I should examine it rather more critically.

File this as “under investigation”.

Looking at the American Archive of Public Broadcasting

Jack Brighton (from one of our local Public Media organizations) points to an important project, the American Archive of Public Broadcasting.

He and I have long shares a term concern about the preservation of access to digital content of many types, and this initiative is an example of what must be done. The US National Archives has some important work in this area as well.

There is so much more that needs to be done by libraries, universities, and others. Of course, there is certainly question about what it means to preserve digital research. What do you have to preserve to preserve a piece of software? What metadata is relevant? And what is the goal of such archiving, anyway?  Documentation? Knowledge dissemination? Reproducibility?

But, ironically, this isn’t actually a difficult technical problem so much as a financial and organizational issue.  (I should be careful to note that there are technical challenges in digitization and preservation of pre-digital data, which Jack and others in Public Media certainly excel at.)

Sometimes I explain this challenge with two personal anecdotes from my academic career.

I completed a Masters degree at Illinois, and my paper is duly deposited in the library and DAI. The paper describes a project about computer software, but there is no possibility that you could replicate, build on, or even check my work.  The software is long gone, as is the programming language, the operating system, the computers used, and even the division of the company involved.  So what is the use of preserving the paper?

Years later, I completed a PhD, and deposited my paper in both paper and electronic form, the PDF was automatically archived as well, but no provision was made to capture any relevant digital materials, such as code or data. Progress but still not much use.

Once again, the paper described computer software.  The carefully archived paper is nearly useless without the software and data that is the actual research project. In this case, the bit decay was even more rapid: due to a fatal crash on a laptop, the software didn’t even fully work by the time the paper was in the library.

The University acknowledges a mission to permanently preserve a record of the research. Great care (and red tape) is applied to capture and document the official papers associated with advanced degrees. The supposed purpose is to assure access to the knowledge generated.

But not only was the software and data associated with my degree-related research not preserved and not made available, there was no way for me to do so, even though I wanted to. (Yes, I did raise the issue at the time.)

I note that a very substantial fraction of all graduate and other research at Universities involves and/or creates digital data and software of various kinds.  Losing these links and artifacts effectively fails to preserve the knowledge.

Preserving software and data is not a trivial problem, but it is essential to the entire enterprise of learning, teaching, and discovery.

Kudos to those few in public media, libraries, and other digital archives who are doing something.  And get your thumb out Universities and libraries–it is far past time to be archiving data and software.

A personal blog.

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