Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy New Year

I'm writing this from a hotel room overlooking downtown Ithaca, NY. Ithaca is an interesting town, it still has echoes in its architecture from its days of light industry - the long closed Ithaca gun works - but today, of course, the economy revolves around the tens of thousands of undergraduates receiving expensive private educations up on the south hill, at Cornell and Ithaca College. One of them has a building festively lit with the numbers "07" to commemorate the year's end. What will happen in the strange "post-industrial" economy of Ithaca and the United States in the coming 2008, the year after the housing bubble burst and the easy credit went away? Only time will tell.

For tonight all the best to you and yours.

Happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Kite. Powered. Cargo. Ship.

Kite powered cargo ships are more steam-punk than you!

Sadly, the kite doesn't provide all of the ship's power, just a energy saving boost to the existing diesels... but still, this is pretty cool.

Coming soon to an ocean near you... the wind-powered supertanker :)

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Today I'm gonna get some work done...

Honest! But first one more post....

This article on Slate (the microsoft-owned news magazine site) discusses the failings of Yahoo's Answers service. Yahoo Answers allows users to post a question to the site, which is then answered by other users. The idea is that this will allow a user to get answers to questions that aren't easily parsed by a search engine. The site hopes to tap its users' collective intelligence (that oft alluded to, "wisdom of crowds") by generating large numbers of answers and then allowing users to select the best answer by voting.

Practically, the site works. It has attracted some 120 million users and if you pose it a question you receive an answer (many answers) fairly promptly. Users vote on answers. The technology works.

The Slate article argues that the community enabled by the technology doesn't work as well. As an example, they provide this odd - and both factually and ethically incorrect - list of answers to the question "What beliefs and customs did Native Americans hold in common."

I'm skeptical about Yahoo Answers, for reasons I'll get to in a minute. But I'm MORE skeptical about this example. The question is terrible! It misleads readers from outside the U.S. for whom "Native American" doesn't necessarily carry the same meaning as it does for U.S. residents. In the U.S. we take "Native American" to mean "A descendant of one of the groups of people living in the Americas before the European conquest" but the use of this phrase is fairly recent, and not globally consistent. In Canada, for example, the term used is "First Nations person." A reading of the answers - including the answer voted to be the best, "Apple Pie," and a variety of other answers that criticized "Native Americans" for being fat, rude, and watching too much TV - suggests quite strongly to me that many global readers took "Native American" to mean "Native born citizen of the United States." Slate points out that Yahoo answers draws its users from "all over the world" but doesn't seem aware that worldwide differences in understanding could be affecting the site. If you take "Native American" to mean "Native born U.S. citizen," the answer that "Apple Pie" is a "belief or custom held in common by Native Americans" actually makes a fair amount of sense. It isn't a great answer, (the best answer to this essentialist question would be "nothing") but it isn't as laughably bad and nonsensical as Slate makes it seem.

The question is also misspelled, and invites the worst sorts of bigotry, mythologizing, and prejudice. Plenty of that is evident in the list of responses. The fact that the relatively benign "Apple Pie" beat out the more hateful (and sentimental) stuff actually says something good about the folks on Yahoo answers.

Still, I'm skeptical about the quality of content this system can provide. Yahoo has basically implemented an information plebiscite, drawing on users to select the "correct" answer from a list. This process is fast - which is clearly what Yahoo wants, it wants a human powered search engine - but has little else to recommend it. User bigotry and ignorance might easily win the day.

Wikipedia, which Slate compares positively to Yahoo Answers, is a different beast. The difference is not, however, best explained by Slate's assertion that "Wikipedia users work harder." The difference is best explained by the fact that, in contrast with Yahoo Answer's plebiscite, Wikipedia has implemented democracy (maybe even anarchy) where users deliberate, debate, discuss, and collaborate to produce content - rather than just voting it "up or down."

I'd love to play with the Yahoo site and see what I could find, but my diss is on Wikipedia! I need to work on that now! Yikes!

Monday, December 10, 2007

Bruce Sterling Posts an Interview with Arundahti Roy

Bruce Sterling has posted an Indian TV interview with author and activist Arundahti Roy to his blog, Beyond the Beyond. I'm a fan of both, though I wonder if Roy really means what Sterling (who can on occasion seem like a bit of a Western Chauvinist) thinks she means. Always good to hear from Arundahti Roy, though.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Today's Lesson: IRC

Well folks, I seem to have inadvertently started blogging a great deal. Probably because I have work to do, and have unplugged my TV to keep myself from getting distracted. So I distract myself with blogging instead.

I've noticed several of these posts could be loosely organized as "Information about features of Cyberspace I find interesting." Or perhaps a series titled "Andy teaches you N00bs about teh Internets."

Today's Lesson: IRC

IRC, or internet relay chat, is one of the great grand-daddy internet applications. Its the chat utility most favored by hard-core geeks and nerds, who often spend VERY significant amounts of time chatting with people they have never met IRL (In Real Life) there. Many chat rooms on IRC are open to all, and can be a useful resource for projects that need a publicly available space for synchronous that isn't bound to a particular proprietary piece of software or website. This includes the Wikipedia project, as well as some less wholesome projects, including pirate software groups that use IRC to distribute the location of (often hijacked) FTP servers offering software for download. IRC is a fairly wild, uncensored piece of the internet that hasn't been "tamed" by recent mainstream commercial interest in the 'net like the web has.

Of course, homeland security is probably monitoring everything that goes one there, they aren't dumb.

Anyway, IRC's uncensored culture can be both liberating and fun, and abusive and cruel. Several websites I've recently discovered via Stumbleupon post excerpts of transcripts of IRC chats containing jokes, funny typos, and various comical goings on from IRC. I think they do a pretty good job of capturing both the fun and more abusive side of the culture there. (WARNING - PAGE CONTAINS SOME FAIRLY UNPLEASANT TEXTUAL CONTENT)

Here are some excerpts for y'all. (note for readers: IRC conventions put the name of the user "speaking" in angle brackets, like this <+username> followed by the utterance made by that user. The following, for example, is an exchange between a user named "thumb" and a user named "lucent")

<+thumb>do you know of any major organizations that are similar the CDC?


<+thumb>center for disease control

<+lucent>i said WHO

<+thumb>what? i'm asking you

<+lucent>World Health Organization

(Another, demonstrating the jargon of young nerdlings)

<+firefly>Time for my prayers:

<+firefly>Our Father, who 0wnz heaven, j00 r0ck!
<+firefly>May all 0ur base someday be belong to you!
<+firefly>May j00 0wn earth just like j00 0wn heaven.
<+firefly>Give us this day our warez, mp3z, and pr0n through a phat pipe.
<+firefly>And cut us some slack when we act like n00b lamerz, just <+firefly>as we teach n00bz when they act lame on us.
<+firefly>Please don't give us root access on some poor d00d'z box when we're too pissed off to think about what's right and wrong, and if you could keep the fbi off our backs, we'd appreciate it.
<+firefly>For j00 0wn r00t on all our b0x3s 4ever and ever, 4m3n.

(And another, demonstrating how speech and action are conflated in the space of IRC, and one clever user's application of this fact.)

<+mOrphz> damn it :/
<@Lego> damn it :/
<+mOrphz> stop that
<@Lego> stop that
<+mOrphz> :D
<@Lego> :D
<+mOrphz> Lego smells
<@Lego> Lego smells
<+mOrphz> /quit
quit: (Lego) (~leet@apex|Lego.user.gamesnet) (Quit)

(NOTE: I've had to add the "+" sign to usernames to keep blogger from thinking they are html tags and deleting them. Stupid blogger.)

Saturday, December 08, 2007

A Short Observation Attributed to Issac Asimov

I found via the magic of stumbleupon. I can't help but think it its connected, somewhat tangentially, to my previous discussion of the Writers' strike. It points out the way that value is socially constructed in a fairly elegant way.

The WGA Strike - A Post Long Delayed

Delayed because I suspect my views may upset even some of my friends. Thus when thmarn posted her entry praising Tina Fey for her participation in the strike I never posted anything here on the same subject, even though I really wanted to.

But yesterday I received an email from another friend on the subject of the WGA strike, and I decided I needed to write up my thoughts.

Let me begin by saying that, as a solution to a short-term problem, I support the Writers' strike. The profits being realized by distribution companies for online content, or the potential future profits on that content ought to be shared with the writers that helped to create that content.

In the long term, however, I'm conflicted. The Writers' demand makes sense in a world where the production of culture is professionalized. I'm just not sure such a world can ever be a just world.

My reasoning is simple: professional culture (this includes the music, publishing, and film/TV industries, as well as the educational industry that I myself work in) = exploitation. Everyone who gets to make a living writing, singing, teaching, researching, etc. is - in our current economy - fed and clothed with the surplus labor of others.

During the summer of my 17th year, I spent two weeks on the floor of a plastic factory in Elbridge, New York. I meant to spend the whole summer working there, save up for a vacation, but I just couldn't hack it. After two weeks I chickened out and quit. The factory was a windowless corrugated aluminum box. It reeked of molten plastic - a thick, strangely sweet stink. My tasks included counting and boxing parts, and removing parts from molds. The presses moved so fast you couldn't think while you worked on them, any half-formed thought was destroyed by the need to watch for the next part, perform your tiny task at the right moment. Time seemed to stand still. I worked second shift. I would get home at 11pm wired, unable to sleep. I would finally pass out around 2 or 3 am, wake up again at 11 or noon. Just in time to get ready, and drive myself in to report to work at 2:15. I spent two weeks only seeing the sun for an hour and a half a day. I couldn't do it. I had the luxury of being able to quit. So I did.

Some do not have that luxury. Some must stay. Those who stay, both there and in other places around the world, make all the things that take care of me. Their being trapped in a place like the one I fled frees me to spend my days writing, researching and teaching. Morally, I am indebted to them.

The only way I can think of to repay that debt is to work on scholarship and pedagogy that tries to imagine a world without these class stratifications, tries to imagine a world where some are not fated to toil while others are fated to sing.

Thus, when I read Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation, write of how he hoped his work could lead towards a vision of a "post-scarcity world, where nobody will have to work very hard to make a living." I thought it was an interesting idea to investigate.

Stallman's language is naive, and he underestimates the difficult task he has imagined, but I think the goal remains a worthy one. Free Software Foundation was one of the earliest organizations to work on the GNU/Linux operating system. The GNU/Linux operating system was one of the first prominent and successful Free Software Projects. Free Software was one of the earliest examples of what is now being called, "user created content."

Do you see what I'm getting at here?

In my opinion the technologies that enable "user created content," wikipedia, youtube and the like. Can be developed in one of two ways, depending on the social, political, and economic choices we make as a culture.

In one scenario, they can be developed in such a way as to use users as the ultimate low-payed labor. To exploit them as free labor while the profits and control decisions remain in the hands of distributors. This scenario sees capital use the idea of user creation as an ideological tool. A mere cover for its continuing exploitation. The post-scarcity society would be assumed, rather than created.

In the other, user created content could be used as part of a larger movement to explode our society's contemporary caste system and open up the possibility of creativity to everyone. The larger, more democratic field of meaning making could help transform ideology and open up the social imagination to begin working out ways we could have a world in which "everyone's life could be a work of art." This scenario sees social movements and activists get on board with user-created content projects, pushing their boundaries and motivating users to become politically and socially active in helping to redefine the meaning of intellectual property and extending the reach of these projects beyond the elites they currently serve.

This entry is a mess of thoughts in the process of being worked out. I hope I've made at least some sense.

In short, I support the Writers' in the sense that I don't think that the distributors should be allowed to hog the profits they are making on distributing their intellectual property online. However, in the end I don't believe a system of cultural production based on profit and property can ever be just. We need to start imagining a new one. User-created content models could be a place to start, if we get involved and keep them from being used as an ideological cover for continued profiteering.

So, that's me. What do other folks think?

Thursday, December 06, 2007

And Now For Something Completely Different

My wiki research has lead me to branch out from wikipedia, and look at some of the other wiki sites hosted by Jimmy Wales' Wikia project. These sites use the same mediawiki software as wikipedia and share many of the same community production practices. The goals of these sites, however, are not the same as Wikipedia's.

Many of the sites, such as wookiepedia, are fan sites, essentially replicating the wikipedia project of compiling encyclopedic knowledge, only for some fictional universe (wookiepedia, as the name suggests, is devoted to the star wars universe) rather than the actual universe.

This is pretty interesting in and of itself. A bit like falling into one of Borge's mythical libraries and finding all those guidebooks and maps to places that never were.

But what really has sucked me in these last few days is Uncyclopedia. Billing itself as "the content free encyclopedia" (a play on Wikipedia's subtitle "The Free Encyclopedia") Uncyclopedia is a gallery of the absurd, offering up things like blatantly false Biographies and lists of such useless and silly ideas as the "List of weapons that shoot other weapons which don't exist but should." The site even uses its own structure to poke fun at wikipedia and revel in the absurd by organizing articles into ridiculous categories such as: things George Bush most certainly cares about and things god hates according to Fred Phelps.

The coolest thing about this site is the way it seems to directly invert wikipedia's goal. Where wikipedia seeks to create and organize meaningful, useful information uncyclopedia spins a frantic bricolage of meaningless, useless nonsense. It is rather like the Dada movement with web access.

At least, at its best. Much of uncyclopedia's "content" (anti-content??) falls short of the mark of being truly absurd and is merely silly and sophomoric, often misogynist, racist, and homophobic.

However, I think this entry manages to get it right, to break the bounds of hegemonic meaning and its endless quest for "useful forces" and "productive bodies", to float out as far from power/knowledge as you could reasonably hope to get.

Nothing, of course, is really free or innocent. But man. That gets close.

Robin Weirauch for Congress!

I don't think I actually have any readers here where I live in Ohio's fifth congressional district, but in case I do I would like to inform them that Greatconcavity officially endorses Robin Weirauch in the upcoming special congressional elections here! Here are some of her campaign ads!

If you are in favor of helping build the democratic majority in congress and undermining some of the lousy stuff the Republican party is doing to our country, please help get out the vote for Robin. She has a shot at picking up a seat that the conventional wisdom says should be a safe bet for the Republicans. Her campaign is getting national attention and support. This one is for real.

Even if you are outside the district or state, you can still volunteer to be a part of the virtual phonebank and get out the vote.

Click here for information on virtual phonebanking.

If I'm reaching anyone on Ohio 5, please get out and vote in the special election next Tuesday, December 11. Turnout will be small in this special election and every vote will really count.

Monday, December 03, 2007

For my Loyal Readers in Minnesota

I was cleaning out my pictures folders on my hard-drive in an attempt to free up some drive space and found this gem. It brought me back to some good times this summer, and I hope it brings you guys back too.

Teh Funny

I found this over at the ol' Talking Points Memo. Thought I would do my (small) part to help its viral spread:

Here's What I am Working On

This is the very poetic introduction I have written for my diss proposal. It is sort of useless as far as the proposal is concerned, and may be cut, but I thought I would share it here... cause I kinda like it.

At the climax of William Gibson's Neuromancer, Case, the protagonist, is in a bit of a pickle. An amoral computer intelligence answering to the callsign “wintermute” has blackmailed him into doing its bidding by inserting time-release capsules of a crippling toxin into his bloodstream. Capsules only wintermute can disarm. Over the course of the book, Case has jumped through an increasingly unlikely series of hoops, all with the goal of appeasing the AI and saving his nervous system from the poison. He has helped engineer a riot, stolen a digital recording of his dead mentor's personality, ascended into earth orbit, and helped break into the elite Tessier-Ashpools family's private section of a resort space station. Now one final challenge remains. He must convince the bored, decadent heiress of the Tessier-Ashpools – a sociopathic clone called 3Jane – to speak the secret password that will free wintermute from electromagnetic bondage and thus fulfill Case's obligation. Case finally exhorts her, “Give us the fucking code [...] if you don't what'll change? What'll ever fucking change for you? You'll wind up like the old man. You'll tear it all down and start building again! You'll build the walls back, tighter and tighter .... I got no idea at all what'll happen if Wintermute wins, but it'll change something!” She relents. The word is spoken. Wintermute is emancipated. Something changes.
Exactly what that something is is difficult to judge, even after Gibson's pair of sequels attempt to explain it. It doesn't much matter for the purposes of this dissertation. What matters is 3Jane's decision, to set free an unknown, possibly dangerous (we know, for example, that one part of Wintermute's escape plan involved the murder of a child) technological entity in return for the vague promise that it will “change something.” Her choice is in many ways emblematic of my own feelings about the information technologies I study. I know these technologies are not innocent. As Donna Haraway and others have pointed out, they were originally conceived in the heart of cold war weapons labs as part of that era's terrifying dance with nuclear annihilation. Yet still, faced with the dismal prospects of status-quo industrial capitalism, the allure of advanced electronic technology might change something is undeniable. So we set the machines free, and wait to see what happens. This dissertation will be an attempt to chart some small piece of what has happened. An attempt to begin to understand what is changing, and where those changes might be leading us.