Drag Race at Illini Union? Get Used To It.

I see advertisements for a Drag Queen show at the Illini Union.  And last fall there was a Gay Pride event in downtown Urbana. Furthermore, it featured a “family friendly” program in the afternoon.

Wow!  As the old song said, “something is happening here”.

Let me be clear:  I’m sure these are fine things, though I have little personal interest in it myself.  (RuPaul’s Drag Race is no more interesting to me that a NASCAR Stock Car Race.)

What you youngsters have to understand that, back in the day, “Gay Pride” stuff (not to mention drag acts) were extremely transgressive; something you had to go to a big city to experience—and definitely not family friendly. (The transgression was a big part of the fun, for goodness sake.)

Note that this isn’t something on TV, or in Hollywood, it’s right here deep in the heartland, in very main stream venues. The fact that these events are happening here, and the fact that they are so close to the mainstream, shows just how much the world has changed in the last couple of decades.  I would never have believed it if I hadn’t lived it.

Some politicians seem to want to undo these changes, to somehow put gay folks back in the closet, and pretend the “problem” doesn’t exist.  I hate to tell them, but not only has that horse already escaped, but the barn has been torn down and converted to condos.

These same politicians like to boast about “telling hard truths”, so here’s a truth for them:  get used to it.

Computer Programming — Just Say No

I often introduce myself as “I’ve been producing software that doesn’t work for more than 30 years.”  I’m pretty much out of the software biz now, at least as anything other than dabbling.

Why am I so glad to be done with that?

Computer programming is a really fun game.  As Tracy Kidder noted 30 years ago, computers are one of the most complex things humans have ever created.  And software is more complex that hardware.

Furthermore, when you are creating software you are creating your own rules for an alternative universe.  Or navigating and modifying the rules of a universe.  Theoretically, its finite and deterministic, but it is complex and unpredictable enough to be beyond the understanding of a single human. There is so much to learn and to experiment with, no one could ever know everything. And nowadays, it’s in 3D, color, with surround sound.

What’s not to love?

First, the fact is that I was actually a Software Engineer, which means that my goal was to make software that is actually usable.  Programming is about 10% of the work, the rest is testing (i.e., checking your work),documentation, and a ton of communication to make sure that you build the right thing and people understand what you actually built.  This is rewarding, especially when you see your stuff actually used.

Second, the vast majority of programming is actually debugging or related activity.  This is done through empirical study, i.e., try the software to see what it actually does, and fix it so it does it better.  There is a large component of detective work involve, and you have to have a deep understanding of computers, software, and so on; as well as a properly paranoid view of just how stupid and perverse the world can be.  This can be a fun game, too, and some of my proudest accomplishments were fixing bugs that others had failed to grok.

But here is why I’m glad to be out.

These activities were really fun the first time, and there is some much detail and complexity that the first time lasted a long time.

However, nothing is as fun the second time, and its difficult to care the nth time.  Sadly, much of programming and debugging is basically the same thing, over and over. The 1000th time I found an uninitialized variable, it just wasn’t novel or interesting.

Worse, most software has a very limited lifetime, sometimes it is obsolete before it is even finished.  So you not only spend time doing the same things, you throw away all the stuff you already did, and start over.  This is not only not fun, it is positively demoralizing.

Combine this with the poisonous tendencies in intellectual property, and you have a thankless and increasingly pointless activity.

Grumble, grumble.  Good riddance.

Another Interesting Paper: “Performing Places”

Discussion of

Gardair, Colombine, Healey, Patrick G. T., & Welton, Martin (2011). Performing places. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 8th ACM conference on Creativity and cognition, Atlanta, Georgia, USA. http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=2069629

I heard this presentation at the ACM Conference on Creativity and Cognition last fall (a conference attended by a weird and fun mixture of computer geeks, artists, and social scientists).

Gardair and colleagues at Queen Mary University London are studying the behavior of street performers at Convent Garden (London, UK), which is an open, public space set aside for pedestrians and performances. Of particular interest for the study is how the performers attract (create) an audience, and teach them to participate in the desired performances, e.g., when and where to stand, what to watch, when to cheer, etc.  Given the open, free-form venue, and the diversity of shows (e.g., chainsaw juggling), this requires non-trivial techniques from the performers.  Gardair’s ethnographic study includes personal observations, analysis of video recordings, and interviews with performers.

The paper presentation included annotated videos that illustrated some of the key findings.  She has discovered a number of principles to describe the interactions of the performers and the audiences, as well as specific techniques used by the performers to try to control the behavior of the potential audience.

This is a pretty neat piece of ethnography, but what does it have to do with computers?  Gardair herself confided to me at lunch that this question presses on her academic work, which is set in a technology department.

My own view is that this work, along with the large body of knowledge from theatrical arts, is extremely relevant for the design of interactive computer systems. Gardair’s work is obviously valuable for the development of computer systems for public spaces and public interactions.

Imagine that you want to build computer systems that attract and manage audiences in public places. I can think of many reasons to want to do this:  advertising, education, or just to make the space work better.

G’s work leads us to ask critical questions about what we need to make the computer be able to do. For example, it may need sophisticated understanding of human body language and movement through the space.  It may also need to employ strategies to “teach” the nascent audience where to look, and how to act.  And it may need physical props to help delineate the space.

Finally, the most interesting question is whether a computer can or should try to do this on its own.  Perhaps the best approach would be a human-computer team, with one or more human actor to help “create the audience” for the interactive computer.

I think this sort of hybrid interaction happens all the time, e.g., when a museum docent shows visiting children how to use an interactive exhibit.  But to my knowledge, there has been little attention to this question, and I think it could yield some very interesting studies.  Yet another great topic for a collaboration of psychologists and computer scientists, and don’t forget to include performing artists.

Great study so far, Ms. Gardair, and best wishes in your continuing

Book Review: “Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain”

By A. Lee Martinez, published by Orbit Books, 2012.

Yet another strange and wonderful book from ALM.  Nothing particularly deep or serious, just a nice, wacky story.  About some likable “people”.

I’ve become a fan of Martinez’s work recently.  I think the main thing I like is that so many of his characters are not technically human, but are more human than most people.

I sometimes summarize his plots something like this:

  • Boy* meets girl*.
  • Boy loses girl
  • Boy gets girl and they live happily ever after

*”boy”/”girl” – young human** male/female***
**for certain values of “human”
***for certain values of “male” or “female”

In earlier works we have met vampires, ogres, gods, demons, angels, and more.  “Mollusk” features a number of extra-terrestrials, as well as a variety of non-human Earthlings.  But, as usual, most of them are interesting and sympathetic characters, even the villains and berserk killing machines.

I’m not going to summarize the plot or analyze the book any more than this.  Analysis of popular fiction is not my way.  The point is:  I found it fun to read, and I enjoyed his other books.  Take that for what it may be worth.

‘Nuff said.

One-to-one mentoring: sign me up!

I’m a one-to-one mentor in my local school, and it’s a great thing. Everyone should consider volunteering for similar programs in you own local schools.  It’s important, dammit.

Mentoring is about building relationships of trust between a young person and an adult for the purpose of providing support, encouragement and guidance.  Each mentor is paired with one student in 3rd-7th grade.

Mentors commit to meeting with their mentees one hour a week during the school day and continue through high school graduation. They may read together, play games, go for a walk, workout in the gym, discuss current events, work on a school project or just talk.

(This description is from my own local program, other programs may vary a bit.  But you should get is the basic idea.)

In one sense, mentoring is very easy. You don’t have to tutor, and you definitely are not there to discipline.  You just have to be there.  But you need to always be there, if possible, to stick with them all the way through high school.  Not a trivial task.

Advocates of mentoring cite strong evidence that mentoring “works”, getting many at-risk kids through school and into post-secondary life. I don’t know the statistics, but my own calculus is simple: if I can help one more of our kids get through school, of course I’ll do it.

Who can be a mentor?  Pretty much anyone could, if you can commit to the time over years.  Obviously, parents with their own school kids will probably not have the time.  Also folks with intense work and/or travel commitments may have difficulty finding consistent time.  (But please consider other volunteering roles in local schools.)

Mentoring is rewarding for obvious reasons. You are touching lives and making the world a better place.

One the additional pleasure I’ve found has been meeting other mentors.  They are an amazing cross section of our local community, people who I don’t necessarily meet every day.  But we are united by some deep, unspoken common values:

Our kids—all of our kids—don’t fail.

If what it takes is a decade-long commitment, one kid at a time, to move one kid down, sign me up.

Bravo to all the mentors out them.  Non-mentors: please join us if you can. Contact your local school for more information.

Bob’s Foreign Policy

It’s a political season in the US, so we are all being pounded with bombastic, yet uninformative advertisements, and we can look forward to many months of this embarrassing junk.

No one has asked, but here is a short note sketching my own basic political policy.

Bob’s Foreign Policy:  If it makes children and mothers cry, don’t do it, and stop it if you can.  Actually, this is my domestic policy, too.

Hunger. Pain. Sickness. Violence. Bullying.  It’s really not that difficult to figure this out.  Like I said—if it makes children cry, its probably something that should be reduced.

By the way, “bullying” means “strong people pushing around weak people”, in whatever form that takes, not just physical or mental attacks, but also unfair = legal systems, coercive “contracts”, smear campaigns, anything with the purpose and effect of beating up weaker people.

It’s not OK, no matter what the reason.  And it’s not OK, even if you dress it up as “legal”.  Legal and OK are net even close to the same thing.

And let me be very clear, I mean its not OK, even if you think it serves a higher purpose.  I definitely don’t mean, this is terrible except when I agree with it.  I mean it is never OK by me.

Antiquities and Art Trade – a bad idea for so very many reasons

One of my hobbies is reading about art fraud.  For me, this is a harmless pastime, since I don’t by fine art or antiquities, and even if I had money to burn, I certainly wouldn’t.

This is very entertaining, since most of the key player are rich people and well-groomed confidence men and women, with the help of prestigious museums, auction houses, and some interesting criminals.  Basically, I have little sympathy for most of the people involved, and I love to see these schemes exposed and prosecuted.

What I’m talking about here is the traffic in old art and antiquities (such as Greek vases or Mayan carvings).  These artifacts are considered to be valuable because they are old, rare, and—according to shifting fashions—beautiful.  The trade flows from the sources, through dealers, to wealthy collectors and museums.

The trade is restricted by many countries, with the aim to preserve cultural heritage within their borders.  But the lure of wealth buyers in the US, Europe, and elsewhere assures a steady flow of materials despite the legal blockades.  How is this possible?

Almost all legitimately owned items are in museums or other known collections, and mostly not for sale.  So where do the new materials come from?

Dealers and other enablers concoct stories of “chance finds”, items discovered in an attic, or ploughed up by a peasant.  Sometimes they refer to “old family heirlooms”. And the piece is amazingly perfect, wonderfully restored.  And so on.  Wink, wink.

Where do they really come from?  In the case of ancient materials, they are looted and smuggled (e.g., Chippendale & Gill 2000, Watson & Todescini 2006).  There is a fair probability that they are modern fakes, too (see Jones 1997).

But wealth collectors (and prestigious museums) can’t have this kind of mud on their reputation, something must be done to make things seem OK.

First, we certainly ditch legitimate archaeology, history, and science, which is more interested in truth than the well being of rich art lovers.  Unfortunately, this also means that the cultural meaning of the artifacts are lost (Brodie et al 2001).

Second, we need to launder the provenance to hide or falsify the actual source and history.  This is made easier by compliant “experts” in the trade (Mason 2004, Watson 1997) and at Museums (e.g., Chippendale & Gill 2000).  These institutions “publish” artifacts with vague or non-existent accounts of context and history, not to mention fictions. “Said to be from outer mysterostan, possibly similar to the school of ‘X’”.  Much of the “scholarship” is based not on science or documentation, but on connoisseurship (i.e., supposedly refined perception by experts).

This may sound good, but it is basically promotional fluff to hide the facts:  the articles are looted and smuggled or faked.  It is a license for chicanery and faking (Hebborn 1993, 1997; Jones 1997)

When a prestigious museum lends its name to such a publication, the story is thereby somewhat legitimized and the items possibly worth far more money.

Who profits?  Presumably the collectors get their kicks (and profit, and tax write offs).  We know dealers get rich.  And we know that smugglers and fakers get rich.  Museums may gain access to fine materials, without directly violating their own ethical rules.

Who is hurt?  Some people get ripped off by fakes.  Priceless treasures are stolen from their origin, which often as not is a poor country that would benefit from tourism and legitimate trade.  I’m sure that taxes are evaded.

And history and archeology are completely obliterated (Brodie et al 2001).  Not only are the museum pieces scientifically useless, valuable scientific information is destroyed—anything that is not sellable is discarded or destroyed without record, and in some cases materials are “restored” beyond any recognition.

Its just ridiculous.  But I don’t expect it to end, since there are always people with far more money that sense, and other people who will sell them a good story.


Brodie, N., Doole, J., & Renfrew, C. (Eds.). (2001). Trade in illicit antiquities :the destruction of the world’s archaeological heritage. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.

Chippendale, C., & Gill, D. W. J. (2000). Material Consequences of Contemporary Classical Collecting. American Journal of Archaeology, 104(3), 463-511.

Jones, M., Craddock, P., & Barker, N. (Eds.). (1990). Fake? : the art of deception. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hebborn, E. (1997). The Art Forger’s Handbook. Woodstock: The Overlook Press.

Hebborn, E. (1993). Drawn to trouble : confessions of a master forger : a memoir. New York: Random House.

Jones, M., Craddock, P., & Barker, N. (Eds.). (1990). Fake? : the art of deception. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Mason, C. (2004). The art of the steal : inside the Sotheby’s-Christie’s auction house scandal. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Watson, P. (1997). Sotheby’s : the inside story. New York: Random House.

Watson, P., & Todeschini, C. (2006). The Medici conspiracy :the illicit journey of looted antiquities, from Italy’s tomb raiders to the world’s greatest museums. New York: BBS PublicAffairs.

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