Archive for the 'Culture' Category


Prometheus

Prometheus

Okay, so the simple fact is that I will watch any sci-fi movie by Ridley Scott.  The man does it well.

But I’m noticing a theme, here.

Alien; Blade Runner; Prometheus; and Wikipedia tells me that he’s looking at doing film adaptations of The Forever War and Brave New World.

Instead of doing work in the general theme of “the future sucks”, I want him to do a movie — ideally, called Epimetheus — in which the future, while still having potentially cataclysmic conflict, fundamentally rocks.  I’m imagining him teaming up with Iain Banks to do something set in the Culture universe, for example, or something with sentient von Neuman Probes (easy conflict: there’s a replication limit, but a malfunctioning probe starts replicating without limit; we need to stop them, but they’re sentient, so killing them is wrong …)

Yes, ultimately, I’m just whinging that most sci-fi literature is distopian rather than utopian, but I don’t think I’m being naïve in wishing for it.  I think there really is market demand for a positive vision of technology and the future, with the most obvious example to cite being Ironman.

This article and chart take a look at how far in the future sci-fi has been set at the time of writing over the last century and a half (the 1980s in particular, but also the 1970s and 1990s, saw a swathe of novels set only shortly into the future, presumably therefore suggesting that the authors imagined that the technological and cultural environments they were describing might “soon” come to be).

I’d love to see something similar in terms of how positively or negatively the author views their imagined future.  Was there ever a period offering up a swell of positively themed novels, or am I letting Iain Banks and David Brin have too much influence over my memory?


Spotify

I recently started playing with Spotify.  It seems good.  I’m particularly for them to start up in Australia so I can leach off my far-more-musical-than-I-am friends over there.

Anyway, I read today that they’ve introduced the Spotify Play Button: a means of embedding links to Spotify-hosted music in blogs.  I figured I’d give it a try, so here we go:

Actually, that’s still annoyingly complicated.  I shouldn’t have copy the Spotify URI, go to their website, paste in the Spotify URI, copy the iframe code and then paste it in the HTML view of a blog post.  But no doubt somebody will write a WordPress plugin to use this more sensibly.

 Update:  It looks like the embedded thingy still insists on opening the Spotify desktop app.  That’s also annoying.


In which I defend ‘Girls Around Me’ and Public-By-Default in general

For those people that don’t know:  A few days ago John Browlee discovered and wrote about an iPhone/iPad app called ‘Girls Around Me‘.  The app does a mash-up of publicly accessible data from Facebook and foursquare, together with Google Maps, to show you girls that had checked in to locations near where you are and some information about them.  John was not amused:

[T]he girls (and men!) shown in Girls Around Me all had the power to opt out of this information being visible to strangers, but whether out of ignorance, apathy or laziness, they had all neglected to do so. This was all public information.  […]

“It’s not, really, that we’re all horrified by what this app does, is it?” I asked, finishing my drink. “It’s that we’re all horrified by how exposed these girls are, and how exposed services like Facebook and Foursquare let them be without their knowledge.” […]

This is an app you should download to teach the people you care about that privacy issues are real, that social networks like Facebook and Foursquare expose you and the ones you love, and that if you do not know exactly how much you are sharing, you are as easily preyed upon as if you were naked.

Picking up on John’s piece, Charlie Stross took the ball and ran with it, extrapolating out into the truly horrific:

It’s easy to imagine how we could make something worse than “Girls Around Me”—something much worse. Facebook encourages us to disclose a wide range of information about ourselves, including our religion and a photograph. Religion is obvious: “Yids Among Us” would obviously be one of the go-to tools of choice for Neo-Nazis. As for skin colour, ethnicity identification from face images is out there already. Want to go queer bashing? There’s an algorithm out there for guessing sexual orientation based on the network graph of the target’s facebook friends. It’s probably possible to apply this sort of data mining exercise to determine whether a woman has had an abortion or is pro-choice.

In the worst case, it’s possible to envisage geolocation and data aggregation apps being designed to facilitate the identification and elimination of some ethnic or class enemy, not only by making it easy for users to track them down, but by making it easy for users to identify each other and form ad-hoc lynch mobs. (Hence my reference to the Rwandan Genocide earlier. Think it couldn’t happen? Look at Iran and imagine an app written for the Basij to make it easy to identify dissidents and form ad-hoc goon squads to proactively hunt them down. Or any other organization in the post-networked world that has a social role corresponding to the Red Guards.)

Not surprisingly, people freaked out.  Foursquare pulled the app’s access rights to their data, Apple pulled the app from the iTunes store altogether and — no doubt to the great relief of people like John and Charlie — a lot of people started talking about internet privacy in an era of social networking (e.g. a BBC News article).

Both John and Charlie emphasise that their concern is not with the app itself, per se, but with the approach to privacy (public by default) built-in to social networking websites’ very business plans that allowed the app to exist in the first place.

I want to defend that approach to privacy.

Let me repeat the first bit of that John Brownlee quote:

[T]he girls (and men!) shown in Girls Around Me all had the power to opt out of this information being visible to strangers, but whether out of ignorance, apathy or laziness, they had all neglected to do so.

Here is Marie Connelly, one of the girls that John apparently had around him, in response to the whole kerfuffle:

I have a problem [with this], because I’m not ignorant, apathetic, or lazy.

I’ve made a choice to participate publicly in the internet. I try to be careful about what I make accessible and what I share with everyone, and for the most part, I think I’ve found a balance that works pretty well for me. […]

The whole tenor of this, however, has been that if you are in this app, if you have been posting information publicly, especially if you’re a woman, you’re doing something wrong. […]

Checking in at your office, or a coffee shop, or The Independent (which is a great bar, by the way), whether publicly or not, doesn’t mean you’re “asking” to get stalked, or mugged, or anything else. People generally don’t ask for bad things to happen to them, and by and large, I don’t really believe anyone deserves to have something bad happen to them.

Kashmire Hill captured the same point in her excellently titled post, “The Reaction To ‘Girls Around Me’ Was Far More Disturbing Than The ‘Creepy’ App Itself“:

  • All men are creepy stalkers looking for new digital aids to help them catch and rape women.
  • All women are damsels-in-distress who have no idea how much danger they are exposing themselves to with every Foursquare check-in.
  • “You’re too public with your digital data, ladies,” may be the new “your skirt was too short and you had it coming.”

Those are my takeaways from the past week’s furor over “Girls Around Me.” […]

Many of us have become comfortable putting ourselves out there publicly in the hopes of making connections with friends and with strangers, whether through Facebook, Twitter, or OKCupid. It’s only natural that this digital openness will transfer over to the ‘real world,’ and that we will start proactively projecting our digital selves to facilitate in-person interactions. (For example, KLM is now allowing passengers to link their digital identities to their seats on the plane so that people can choose seatmates accordingly.) […]

In rejecting and banishing the app, we’re  choosing to ignore the publicity choices these women have made … in the name of keeping them safe … If you extend this kind of thinking ‘offline,’ we would be calling on all women to wear burkas so potential rapists and stalkers don’t spot them on the streets and follow them home.

I’m sorry, my friends, but I think apps like ‘Girls Around Me’ are the future … We don’t fear making connections with strangers; we crave it. […]

Yes, think about your privacy settings. They’re important. But critics, also remember that some of us have thought about our privacy settings, chosen accordingly, and don’t mind showing up on geo-mapping apps. We’re not all damsels-in-distress going pale at the thought of being seen in public places and digital spaces.

I couldn’t possibly agree more.

I’m happy to require by law that all websites that gather personal information give plain-English explanations of how your information might be used under each setting.  I’m also happy to be very, very angry at Facebook for changing their policy in such a way as to change your settings from “keep this private” to “make this public” after you made an explicit choice (although, to be fair, social networks are still a new industry and should consequently be granted at least some leeway for their frequent adjustments).

But there’s a much bigger topic here.  Whether or not public exposure has negative consequences is a social norm, based on co-ordination effects.  It’s socially acceptable in America for girls to wear bikinis at the beach, for girls in France to go topless at the beach and for people to use mixed-sex saunas and public showers throughout Germany and the Scandinavian countries.  It’s not as though they have massive rates of rape or sexual abuse.

The reason I see no problem with apps like ‘Girls Around Me’ is because I believe they represent the emergence of a new social norm that supports and encourages the public sharing of information about yourself, perhaps even a step towards David Brin’s Transparent Society.  Disagree with me?  Well, I would argue that of those people that (a) are doing it; (b) don’t realise they’re doing it; and (c) would actually care if they were to discover they’re doing it, the vast majority are over the age of 30.  In other words, this is a generational development.

Here’s an excellent example of that generational change.  Earlier this year the NY Times wrote about teenagers’ new habit of sharing their passwords with their (boy|girl)friends:

Young couples have long signaled their devotion to each other by various means — the gift of a letterman jacket, or an exchange of class rings or ID bracelets. Best friends share locker combinations.

The digital era has given rise to a more intimate custom. It has become fashionable for young people to express their affection for each other by sharing their passwords to e-mail, Facebook and other accounts. Boyfriends and girlfriends sometimes even create identical passwords, and let each other read their private e-mails and texts. […]

In a 2011 telephone survey, the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 30 percent of teenagers who were regularly online had shared a password with a friend, boyfriend or girlfriend. The survey, of 770 teenagers aged 12 to 17, found that girls were almost twice as likely as boys to share. And in more than two dozen interviews, parents, students and counselors said that the practice had become widespread.

Knowing their audience, though, they couldn’t help being a little worried about it (and, of course, nothing sells newspapers like sex):

Rosalind Wiseman, who studies how teenagers use technology and is author of “Queen Bees and Wannabes,” a book for parents about helping girls survive adolescence, said the sharing of passwords, and the pressure to do so, was somewhat similar to sex.

Sharing passwords, she noted, feels forbidden because it is generally discouraged by adults and involves vulnerability. And there is pressure in many teenage relationships to share passwords, just as there is to have sex. […]

Ms. Cole’s mother, Patti, 48, a child psychologist, said she believed her daughter would be more judicious now about sharing a password. But, more broadly, she thinks young people are sometimes drawn to such behavior as they might be toward sex, in part because parents and others warn them against doing so.

“What worries me is we haven’t done a very good job at stopping kids from having sex,” she said. “So I’m not real confident about how much we can change this behavior.”

Speaking of sex and intergenerational concerns, this whole affair reminds me enormously of a post I wrote back in 2008 about the increasing public acceptability of sex for it’s own sake:

These developments are not without their concerns. Sara Montague – a presenter on BBC Radio 4′s Today programme – is clearly concerned, noting that much of the movement seems grounded in the hope of empowerment and self-confidence, but worrying that this serves indirectly to promote eating disorders among girls and the acceptance of rape among boys.

The main problem that Montague faces is that for most people, embracing public sexuality is non-harmful – not every girl gets an eating disorder and not every boy contemplates forcing himself on a girl – and is undertaken by choice. Montague is, in essence, faced with Douglas Adams’ cow that wants to be eaten. […]

By all means work to increase support for those burdened excessively by concerns of body image. By all means increase support to rape victims and ease the ability of the state to bring those guilty to justice. But that doesn’t mean we should fight to stop it altogether if people choose it freely and feel that it helps them, or even if they just enjoy it.

Anyway, that brings me back to ‘Girls Around Me’.  It — and other apps like it — really are designed to be fun, to let Kashmir and people like her make connections with strangers.  Yes, of course Facebook and Foursquare can be used by creepy stalkers and Rwanda 2.0 ethnic cleansers.  So what?  I have a 20cm Global Cook knife beside me right now.  I could use it to cut chunks out of hipsters, but that doesn’t make it flawed by design.  My credit card can be used to fund the KKK, but it’s also useful for other stuff, too.  There’s nothing wrong (and there should be nothing illegal) with having information.  It’s only when somebody acts on information in a manner harmful to others that we should care.  ‘Girls Around Me’ was about sharing information; how people act on that information is up to them.

Let me finish with this incredibly relevant and, as ever, excellent comic from xkcd:


The origins of ideology

With the US Federal Government looking like it might go into a shutdown over budget negotiations (as I type, Intrade puts the chance at 40%), you can expect to see more articles around like this one from the Economist’s Democracy in America.  Here’s the gist of what they’re saying:

As Steve Benen points out, it definitely isn’t (or isn’t just) a function of Democratic legislators’ lack of determination. It’s partly a function of the fact that, as recentNBC/Wall Street JournalPew, and Gallup polls show, Democratic voters want their leaders to compromise, while Republican voters don’t. Jonathan Chait argues that what we have here is a structural issue that forces Democratic politicians to be wimpy:

Most people have the default assumption that the two parties are essentially mirror images of each other. But there are a lot of asymmetries between the Democratic and Republican parties that result in non-parallel behavior. The Republicans have a fairly unified economic base consisting of business and high-income individuals, whereas Democrats balance between business, labor, and environmental groups. The Republican Party reflects the ideology of movement conservatism, while the Democratic Party is a balance between progressives and moderates.

The upshot is that the Democratic Party is far more dependent upon the votes of moderates, who think of themselves in non-ideological terms and want their leaders to compromise and act pragmatically. The reason you see greater levels of partisan discipline and simple will to power in the GOP is that it has a coherent voting base willing to supportaggressive, partisan behavior and Democrats don’t. This isn’t to say Democrats are always wimps, but wimpiness is much more of a default setting for Democrats.

The article then goes on to discuss the psychological origins of ideological allegiance.  The upshot is that certain people have certain preferences and the political parties are representations of those groups of people.  There’s an implied assumption that all of this is exogenous to the system at large; that there’s nothing you can do about it, you just need to take it as given in your deliberations.

For anybody interested in this stuff, I strongly encourage you read Steve Waldman’s opposing view:  “Endogenize Ideology“. Here is his basic point, from quotes arranged in a different order to that in which he provides them:

Many [people] treat ideology or “political constraints” as given, and perform the exercise that economists perform reflexively, starting with their first grad school exam: constrained optimization. Constrained optimization is a mechanical procedure. The outcome is fully determined by the objective function and the constraints.

However …

That’s the wrong approach, I think. Rather than treating ideology as fixed and given, we should treat it as dynamic, as a consequence rather than a constraint of policy choices.

Ultimately, he argues, in a world of hard-nosed ideologues versus constraint-respecting policy wonks …

Rather than two optimizers, one of which has strictly less information than the other, in the real world we’ve seen two satisficers, one of which has adopted the strategy of optimizing subject to fixed constraints and the other of which has neglected pursuit of optimal present policy in favor of action intended to reshape the constraint set. A priori, we would not be able state with certainty which of the satisficers would outperform the other. If the constraint set were, in fact, strongly resistant to change Team Obama’s strategy would dominate. But if the constraint set is malleable (and constraints frequently bind), then Team Bush outperforms.

Just to really kick it home, he pulls out this quote from Karl Rove:

[Probably Karl Rove, talking to Ron Suskind] said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”


A cool idea: the book tuner

I’ve just come across The Book Tuner (Twtter feed), which tries to match books with the perfect musical accompaniment when reading them.

It’s still pretty new and there aren’t many pairings lined-up yet, but here’s their latest suggestion:

The bio on the first page of Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming gives you a taste of the paucity of detail that lies ahead: ‘Steven Amsterdam is a writer living in Melbourne’. Further in, Amsterdam carries you on an episodic journey, starting with a father and son camping out on the eve of the then-impending Y2K global disaster. Each story revisits the son at various points throughout his life, in a parallel future to our own, a world seemingly ravaged by floods, disease and anarchy. This unnamed main character must negotiate chaotic and emotionally charged scenes of barricades, checkpoints, communes and rescue teams.

Noticeably absent from the novel is any description of the events that have left the world in this state. Without a Hollywood-style visual of towering tsunamis or flaming meteors, readers are free to project their own fears and anxieties about worst-case scenarios into the blank spaces. This has the unsettling effect of personalising the story, forming an instant bond between us and the anonymous son, so that we see and assess his actions as our own. Thankfully, despite the dystopian surroundings and grimness of the survivalists, Amsterdam shows us that there’s still room for hope and compassion in whatever future awaits us.

DJ Shadow’s 1996 debut release Endtroducing holds the Guinness World Record for the first ‘completely sampled album’. As later mash-up masters like Girl Talk have shown, when you rely completely on other people’s material, the skill comes from the way you mix the samples together. With Endtroducing, Shadow’s skill manifests in a spookily atmospheric composition.

The album creates the same vague sense of discomfort as Things We Didn’t See Coming. You know that something bad is happening, but you can’t quite see what’s around the corner: it’s dark, and you’re frightened. Hints are occasionally given: in ‘Stem/Long Stem’, a suitably haunting piano refrain is interspersed with the ramblings of a man terrified the police might hold him indefinitely for traffic offences (and what’s to stop them?). ‘Midnight in a Perfect World’ is another moody masterpiece – like the spaces between Amsterdam’s words, DJ Shadow allows breathing room in his songs for your own thoughts (dark or otherwise) to flourish. They make perfect companions as you settle in with your wind-up torch, tinned pineapple and sleeping bag for the long nuclear winter.