Archive for September, 2008

Sep 27 2008

Haight Street Bingo

Sometimes I just love San Francisco, and its unprovoked urban creativity.

Is it not just this act, in every sphere and on every scale, that makes the world a place I’d want to live in?

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Sep 24 2008

Iranian Bloggers Fail to Live up to Stereotypes

Map of the Iranian Blogosphere

A new study by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society opens with the following narrative:

Iran, a country rich in history, culture, and education, supports a large online community, including perhaps the fourth largest ‘blogosphere’ in the world (or the second, third or seventh). Because the Iranian press is under the control of religious conservatives who sit above elected officials in Iran’s peculiar hybrid political system, and because that conservative control is used to silence dissent, Iranians who think differently go online to express their views. Here, the inherent freedom of the Internet (anonymity, decentralized control, etc.) allows the true minds of Iran’s youth, journalists, and intellectuals to be known publicly. In their blogs and online chats we see their rejection of the regime, its brutal paternalistic control, its enforcement of archaic sexual mores, its corruption and incompetence, and of the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic itself. The government, worried, has cracked down. Bloggers have been sent to jail, websites are being blocked, and user bandwidth is constricted, but the Internet continues to be one of the best hopes for homegrown democratic change in autocratic Iran. If you read Iranian blogs, it is clear that many Iranians want drastic social and political change.

The authors of the paper then do the homework to ask if this story is true. And it is true– but so is a story about social and religious conservatives using the internet, or a story about the many sites devoted to Persian poetry and literature. Part of the confusion here is that we have, in the West, our own story about what it means to be liberal, freedom-loving, democratic, as contrasted with closed, repressive, backwards. Our ideas about the social and political struggles of Iranians do not map neatly to reality.

Continue Reading »

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Sep 19 2008

Cyberspace is Everting

The phrase is due to William Gibson in his novel Spook Country, where artists use WiFi and GPS and VR goggles to create a new kind of art: virtual installations ghosted over the real world. Slip on the glasses and see River Pheonix’s body lying on the sidewalk on LA, or a giant squid hovering over Tokyo. Cyberspace begins to reach out to us, becomes “outside” instead of “inside.”

The thing is, you could do this now with an iPhone.

Here’s the plan: use the GPS to get an approximate fix, down to a few meters. Then look out through the camera to get a shot of the environment. Match this against data from Google Street View to recover precise camera position and orientation — the algorithms already exist. Composite in the ghosts, and display the result on the screen. The iPhone is now a window into cyberspace.

You could use it to visualize reviews tagged to store windows. Watch data packets fly between cell towers. Follow a line on the sidewalk to your destination. Remind yourself of people’s names. Or, of course, for art. Imagine a real-time version of the strangely delightful Death Star over San Francisco.

Of course, there are problems. The iPhone doesn’t have the processing power to do this in real-time, so you’d be limited to snapshots on current hardware, a ghostly camera instead of a camcorder. Google Street View is also copyrighted data, an expensive and proprietary data set (not to mention controversial) and it’s not clear how they’d react to such novel uses. But our phones are becoming ever-more powerful, and open maps are inevitable (either wiki-style, as in OpenStreetMap, or through data mining, as Photo Tourism does with Flickr.) The pieces of a personal cyberworld viewing device already exist, and they’re getting faster and cheaper.

And of course, as soon as they’re fast and cheap enough, we’ll start to get used to the idea of seeing the world through an image-processed lens. We’ll instantly find new things to do with it; the old McLuhan/Gibson/Banks notion of externalized perception and cognition will suddenly become solidly mainstream and consumer.

I’m here to tell you it’s not long now.

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Sep 18 2008

Moving Things With my Mind

I used to think I could move things with my mind. I could postulate parking spots into existence. I walked beneath streetlights and they would suddenly go out, victims of my weird and powerful energy. I was taught to believe this. I was taught that I could anything, and I excelled in everything I tried. The world is a wondrous place when nothing is impossible.

Then there was a moment, or perhaps a period of my life, when I lost this. I shed the mysticism I had been raised in; I raged at its flaws and threw it out entirely. It bound me too much and I had to get rid of it. I no longer believed that I could will the world into existence. I realized that I had no idea how often streetlights mysteriously went out when I was not standing under them.

I remember a night shivering in my apartment like the newly sober.
Continue Reading »

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Sep 15 2008

Campaigning for Myself

If I was an anarchist skate punk I’d tell you that the whole system is so fucked it doesn’t matter who gets in. Or I could be a Berkeley vegetarian and see loving animals as the road to peace – as in actual world peace. Or I’d say that repealing the drug war will save us, or green energy, preschool programs, fair trade, mothers against drunk driving, online privacy, and a crosswalk on 4th street. To which my response is, screw all that. I’ve seen too much for causes. You permaculture freaks can bite me.

I’ve seen the world and I’ve lost religion. I know that no single victory will save us. Also: no one ever does anything for completely selfless reasons, and it’s a mistake to think that they should. This is the only standard I think I can actually live up to, and it’s more honest anyway: saving the world is just too easy a way to feel good about yourself, to feel different and special, or to forget the girl who dumped you.

Nonetheless, I spent four hours yesterday afternoon calling voters for Barack Obama. I did not expect to feel good about it. I do not even really expect that it will make a difference. But it seems a bloodless sort of way to support the world I want to live in. Also – and this is the real reason – I was damn curious. About myself, mostly.

I’ve seen better and worse governments, and while they all seem sort of fucked, some are far more fucked than others. In the United States, no one is getting shot for their politics, and that’s not nothing. Not every country is like this. That is civilization, my friend. That and clean water. So it’s easy for me to believe that the system isn’t completely screwed. My toilet flushes. Seems like a minor thing, until you don’t have it and people start dying of cholera. True story.

I don’t need people to believe. I don’t believe myself. I just want a president who at least talks about sustainable energy and universal health care. I don’t give a shit that the guy’s charismatic, other than the fact that it’s an asset in his game. I just want to live in a certain world, and I think that Obama will bring us closer to it. Fun fact: while Obama’s domestic support is around 50%, something like 80% of world citizens want him to be president. Curious, isn’t it?

So I stepped into the system and made those calls, because I wonder just how far within the status quo it’s worth working. And I wonder how I’ll feel about participating in utterly mainstream politics, the CNN circus. I called voters in Nevada and tried to convince them to vote for Barack Obama, and I did it mostly because I wanted to see how I felt about myself at the end of the day.

This made me somewhat reckless on the phone. And that made me real, because I could say whatever the hell I wanted. I’m still working out what that is.

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Sep 10 2008

Too Safe, Too Funny

In the post Is Safer Always Better? I argued that modern Western Civilization, especially American civilization, has become obsessed with safety to the point of absurdity. I think I now have definitive proof. Johnson & Johnson has produced, for the benefit of single mothers and tort lawyers everywhere, a booklet on how to walk safely:

Apparently this was distributed to all J&J employees, perhaps in the hope that no one would sue for slipping on the immaculately maintained non-slip flooring. Let’s peruse, shall we? Continue Reading »

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Sep 05 2008

Beauty is Not in the Beholder

The “beauty myth” holds that attractiveness is a cultural construct, a control mechanism of the patriarchy, a way to sell us cosmetics we do not need. Modern social theory says that the beauty of the face and body depends on when and whom you ask, and that we could learn to love anyone if only our iron-maiden social norms permitted it. This is a pleasing thought. It says that accidents of ancestry do not truly count. Unfortunately, when we actually do the experiments and test nature versus nurture in the case of facial attractiveness, genetics wins. Facial beauty is, quite emphatically, not culturally defined.

The best survey is a meta-analysis by Langlois and colleagues, published in the Psychological Bulletin in 2000. They did an exhaustive search of the experimental literature on facial “attractiveness” and ended up including 919 separate experiments on how attractiveness is perceived, how we judge ourselves and others based on attractiveness, and how attractive versus unattractive people actually behave. It turns out that facial beauty is “real” in the sense that it does not depend on who you ask; ratings of attractiveness are very stable across ethnicities, cultures, age, and gender:

Both our cross-cultural and cross-ethnic agreement effect sizes are more than double the size necessary to be considered large, suggesting a possibly universal standard by which attractiveness is judged. These analyses seriously question the common assumption that attractiveness ratings are culturally unique and merely represent media-induced standards. These findings are consistent with the fact that even young infants prefer the same faces as adults.

If beauty was a cultural construct, we would expect different cultures to rate the same people differently. However, we might imagine that global media has erased the diversity that used to exist. This is why the experiments with children and babies are so important: if beauty is learned, then children would have to learn it, presumably beginning in early childhood. Yet the age of the beholder seems not to matter at all in subjective rankings of the attractiveness of others, and even newborn babies will look longer at photographs of people that adults have judged “attractive.” This cannot be learned behavior.

When we check the evidence, (facial) beauty standards seem to be universal and innate (biological). Doubtless, this is going to upset some people.

Here is what I think happened: we saw beauty used as a weapon. We saw women especially destroying their self-image under the assumption that they were ugly. Capitalism grew up around selling to our insecurities, and yes, the patriarchy said that girls were only as valuable as their looks. In defense, we decided that beauty was a myth. We tried to escape from these traps by telling ourselves that the object of contention didn’t exist.

But it does. Some people really are more beautiful than others, says our universal physiological nature. Accepting this implies a new social project. Rather than trying to teach ourselves that beauty does not exist, perhaps we should be trying to decouple value from beauty. It’s not that everyone is equally attractive, it’s just that attractiveness, like intelligence, doesn’t actually make you a “better” person. The corollary is that it’s worth understanding what roles beauty actually plays in human life, both cultural and psychological. What emotions does a beautiful face trigger in others? What assumptions are made? What does beauty actually do? While beauty may be objective, our reactions to it may still be learned.

The situation is somewhat analogous to the violent impulses that everyone is capable of: rather than pretending that anger doesn’t exist, we learn to deal with it in some healthy way. Similarly, it seems to me to be far healthier in the long run to acknowledge that beauty, at least facial beauty, is real and universal. To the best of our knowledge so far, this also has the advantage of being true.

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Sep 04 2008

Intelligent News Agents, With Real New

You cannot read all of the news, every day. There is simply too much information for even a dedicated and specialized observer to consume it all, so someone or something has to make choices. Traditionally, we rely on some other person to tell us what to see: the editor of a newspaper decides what goes on the front page, the reviewer tells us what movies are worth it. Recently, we have been able to distribute this mediation process across wider communities: sites like Digg, StumbleUpon, or Slashdot all represent the collective opinions of thousands of people.

The next step is intelligent news agents. Google (search, news, reader, etc.) can already be configured to deliver to us only that information we think we might want to see. It’s not hard to imagine much more sophisticated agents that would scour the internet for items of interest.

In today’s context, it’s easy to see how such agents could actually be implemented. Sophisitacted customer preference engines are already capable of telling us what products we might like to consume — the best example is Amazon’s recommendation engine. It’s not a big leap to imagine using the same sort of algorithms to model the kinds of blog articles, web pages, youtube videos, etc. that we might enjoy consuming, and then deliver these things to us.

There is a serious problem with this. You’re going to get exactly what you ask for, and only that.

True, we all do this already. We read books and consume media which more or less confirm our existing opinions. This effect is visible as clustering in what we consume, as in this example of Amazon sales data for political books in 2008.

Social network graph of Amazon sales of political books, 2008

This image is from a beautiful analysis by orgnet.com. Basically, people buy either the red books or the blue books, but usually not both. The same sorts of patterns hold for movies, blogs, newspapers, ideologies, religions, and human beliefs of all kinds. This is a problem; but at least you can usually see the other color of books when you walk into Borders. If we end up relying on trainable agents for all of our information, we risk completely blacking out anything that disagrees with what we already believe.

I propose a simple solution. Automatic network analyses like the one above — of books, or articles, or web pages — could easily pinpoint the information sources that would expose me to the maximum novelty in the minimum time. If my goal is to gain a deep understanding of the entire scope of human discourse, rather than just the parts of it I already agree with, then it would be very simple to program my agent to bring to me exactly those things that would most rapidly give me insight into those regions of information space which are most vital and least known to me. I imagine some metric like “highest degree node most distant from the nodes I’ve already visited” would would work handily.

You can infer a lot about somewhat from the information they currently consume. If my agent noticed that I was a liberal, it could make me understand the conservative world-view, and vice-versa. If my agent detected that I was ignorant of certain crucial aspects of Chinese culture and politics, it could reccomend a primer article. Or it might deduce that I needed to understand just slightly more physics to participate meaningfully in the climate change debate, or decide (based on my movie viewing habits) that it was high time I review the influential films of Orson Welles. Of course, I might in turn decide that I actually, truly, don’t care about film at all; but the very act of excluding specific subjects or categories of thought would force us, consciously, to admit to the boundaries of our mental worlds.

We could program our information gathering systems to challenge us, concisely and effectively, if we so want. Intelligent agents could be mere sycophants, or they could be teachers.

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Sep 01 2008

What Foxmarks Knows about Everyone

I recently installed Foxmarks, a Firefox extension that automatically synchronizes your web bookmarks across all the computers you might use. Refreshingly, the developers got it right: the plug-in is idiot-simple and works flawlessly.

This is accomplished through a central server, which means a lot of bandwidth, hardware, reliability costs, etc. In short, it’s not a completely cheap service to provide. As there is no advertising either in the plug-in or on the site (yet?) I began to wonder how they planned to pay for all this. I found my answer on their About Us page:

We are hard at work analyzing over 300 million bookmarks managed by our systems to help users discover sites that are useful to them. By combining algorithmic search with community knowledge-sharing and the wisdom of crowds, our goal is to connect users with relevant content.

Of course.

There is a lesson here: knowledge of something about about someone is fundamentally different than knowledge of something about everyone. As with Google, Amazon, or really any very large database of information over millions of users, there are extremely valuable patterns that only occur between people. The idea is as old as filing, but the web takes this to a whole new level, especially if you can convince huge numbers of people to voluntarily give up their information.

So far, I haven’t said anything new. What I am suggesting is a shift in thinking. Rather than being concerned primarily about our individual privacy rights when we fill out a form full of personal details, perhaps we should be pondering what powers we are handing over by letting a private entity see these large-scale intra-individual patterns — patterns that they can choose to hide from everyone else’s view, naturally.

I am beginning to wonder very seriously about the growing disparity between public and private data-mining capability. Is this an acceptable concentration of power? What effects does this have on a society?

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