commentary

I know nothing about Robin Williams

August 12th, 2014  |  Published in commentary

Well, that may not be quite true. I know that he was in a bunch of films that I enjoyed, but I have no way of knowing how similar on-screen Williams was to off-screen Williams. So when I ascribe things to him, know that I am talking about neither of those people, but rather the version of him that lives in my head (who probably has little relation to either). That being said, he died yesterday. Well, off-screen Williams died, on-screen Williams can still be watched and there are millions of versions of himself running around inside the heads of just about everyone who has been influenced by him. Where am I going with this? Oh yeah, the Robin Williams who lives in my head says not to mourn him. As far as I can tell, Robin Williams made the world a better place, and that is a truly noble thing. I won’t catalog the things he did, as others will do a much better job of it, rather, I will repeat what I learned from him: Laugh. Laugh at things that are hard to laugh at. Laugh at yourself. Laugh at the things you take seriously, and if you can’t laugh at them, I would suggest that perhaps you aren’t taking them seriously enough. If you want to honor his memory, lighten up and make the world a better place, and maybe go ride a bike.

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Good points, but hold the elitism please.

June 9th, 2014  |  Published in commentary

The other day I ran across an article in Forbes, “Kids Don’t Read Books Because Parents Don’t Read Books,” by Jordan Shapiro. The central point was that the print vs. digital debate is much less important than it is made out to be, and that the real story is how parents’ reading behavior affects that of their children. On board so far. Then I came to this paragraph:

I’ve met highly educated elite individuals who have told me they just don’t have time to read books. They skim the NY Times book review so they can participate in cocktail party conversations. They buy executive summaries from the back of in-flight magazines. I’m shocked by the number of people who ask me if there are audio versions of my books available.

That last sentence bothered me. Although he isn’t explicit about it, it looks a lot like Mr. Shapiro is equating audio books with executive summaries and book review articles. Huh. Even if I’m misinterpreting that, it is pretty clear that he is disappointed by these people who want to listen to his books rather than read them. Now, I won’t argue with the fact that listening to an audio production of a book is a different experience than reading the text of it, but it seems that I missed the part where he provided justification for implying that it is an inferior method.

The written word is a way of transcribing the spoken word, not the other way around, and though some books do not make the transition to audio very well, suggesting that text is the superior way of experiencing prose sounds to me like saying that we shouldn’t watch productions of Shakespeare as reading the plays is clearly far superior. Given his words in “Phaedrus”, I suspect that Socrates would side with me on this point. Or perhaps Shapiro’s derision is because listening to books can be less work than reading them on a page or a screen. Fair enough, but I would argue that the work of reading a book isn’t in how the text makes it from the author’s brain to your own, but rather with what you do with it once it gets there. Let’s not mistake audiobooks for television here.

Finally, it seems he has a bit of a double standard. He writes: “My kids read on the iPad, the e-reader, and paper. I make sure of it. I read to my kids every night.” I’m not exactly sure why a parent reading a story to their kid is worthy of praise and an adult having a story read to them is worthy of scorn. Perhaps it is because this inferior form of prose is okay for children, who cannot read on their own, except that he points out that his kids can and do. If, as parents, we need to model good reading behavior for our kids, it seems somewhat arbitrary that we should avoid modeling the enjoyment of listening to a book ourselves while encouraging our children to enjoy books that we read to them.

On another topic, at the end of the essay, he talks about some interesting findings from a recent study about what kids are reading. The one which caught my eye was the third:

3. Books like Twilight and Hunger Games are more popular than literary classics. These days, teachers assign these more often than Shakespeare or Don Quixote. Most of them will tell you that it is because they figure any reading is good reading and books like these increase student engagement. On the one hand, this makes sense. On the other hand, we should remember that popular fiction prioritizes sales over content. They are revenue generators first and literary explorations of the human condition only afterward. This doesn’t necessarily mean popular fiction is bad, but there’s also a reason that certain books have transcended the economic, political, and epistemological trends of particular centuries.

I’m not sure that most teachers would say that the reason they might assign a popular book is that “they figure any reading is good reading and books like these increase student engagement.” I missed the supporting evidence for that bit. Perhaps the teachers are just trying to assign books that their students will find entertaining and relevant. Perhaps these teachers are trying to show their students that reading is fun and rewarding. Perhaps the historical importance of the first contemporary novel is not the thing to create lifelong reading habits.

Frankly, if I have to choose between a teen reading “Don Quixote” in high school and coming to the conclusion that reading is tedious or that same student reading “Hunger Games” and coming to the conclusion that reading is fun, perhaps even later in life listening to an audio production of “Don Quixote”, I’ll pick the latter any day of the week. As important as the classics may be, and as much as we should encourage people of all ages to read them (in whatever format works for them), how about we give them the tools and opportunity to decide to do it on their own first.

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Judge Dixon, you’re doing it wrong.

May 19th, 2014  |  Published in commentary

Last year, a guy decided to drive his Ferrari through downtown Olympia at 100 MPH, while drunk and being pursued and with a captive passenger. It was his 7th DUI. He recently plead guilty to felony charges of the DUI as well as eluding a police officer. His sentence: no jail time and a one year work release program. WTF?

Reading about this, one has to wonder what Judge Dixon was thinking. It looks an awful lot like corruption, and even if it isn’t, when you’re talking about the judiciary, there is little difference between the appearance of impropriety and impropriety in fact. This sort of thing damages the perception of the courts, and therefore the fabric of society (insofar as we are a nation of laws). I doubt that much can be done at present, but until it can, lets just hope that the defendant decides against vehicular manslaughter, as the courts seem to have no interest in doing anything about it.

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What does your ringtone say about you?

February 3rd, 2014  |  Published in commentary

So I have this theory (okay, I have a lot of theories, most of them likely wrong, but bear with me), and if you started this article by reading the title, you might have guessed that my theory is about classifying people by their cell phone ringtones. Yes, I realize that I am painting with the broadest of brushes and that I have a definite preference for not being aware of other people trying to contact you while I’m talking to you, but this blog has been on my To-Blog list for over a year now, so I kind of have to write it down at this point, as it has reached the internet age of majority and will soon sue me for confinement. So what does your ringtone say about you? I’ll divide this into two portions: volume and type of tone. After going through this, you will be a better person.

Volume

The volume at which you have your ringtone set says a lot about how you view the people in close personal proximity to you. Here is the range:

  • LOUD: The people who are near you, physically, are nowhere near as important as whoever might call you. And how could they be? You already know all about them, they’re right there next to you, after all. Chances are, the people you hang out with share many of your values, and so their cellphones are set just as loud as yours. Alternatively, you might have hearing loss.
  • Moderate: Most of the people who call you are actually people you might need to talk to, and although you want to make sure that you don’t miss the call, you also don’t want to annoy the people around you. This would also be the setting for someone who would normally be the LOUD personality type but is forced to adopt a less irritating persona for the sake of appearances (think corporate executives).
  • quiet: The people around you are more important than those far removed, but occasionally you do need to hear what the person on the other end of the metaphorical line has to say, though if you miss it the world will not immediately go off the rails.
  • vibrate: You find buzzing things to be calming. Or more likely, you aren’t planning on answering your phone but you want plausible deniability (“Sorry, didn’t feel it go off, but I can’t turn it up at work. No, I don’t have a reason for why it took a week to get back to you. What, the problem has resolved itself without my intervention? Splendid. I think my work is done here. Bye.”). You are a good person.
  • silent: Answering your phone is simply not a priority. Not as in low on your priority list, but more akin to not on the list at all. Alternately, you might have AT&T and so have long since given up on actually being able to use your phone as a phone. Either way, you may want to talk to someone about that.

Tone

Whereas the volume of a cell’s ringer indicates how a person views the world, their tone is all about how they perceive themselves or want themselves to be perceived.

  • Music: Either you really like listening to music in short, randomly spaced snippets or feel that dressing just like your friends leaves a little to be desired in the individuality business.
  • Preloaded Quasi-Musical Ringtone: Just like the Music type above but attaching a much lower value to individuality. Alternately, you might just be trying to prove how hip you are.
  • Theme Song to Quantum Leap: You want the rest of the world to recognize your awesomeness, but instead finds that whenever your phone goes off you look for whoever that cool person is with the cool ringtone only to realize that the cool person is you and your phone is about to go to voicemail.
  • Combination of Beeps and Tones: You hold tight to the outdated idea that a ringtone’s job is to alert you to an incoming call. You probably don’t even have a colorful protective case. If you are not in this category, avoid these people, they might attempt to convince you that individuality is about the way you live your life, not how you decorate it. If you are in this category, it is probably too late for you.
  • Silent/Vibrate: You don’t believe in ringtones and are probably actually a luddite who only grudgingly goes along with societal norms. Get help now.

Conclusion

So there you go, you can tell everything you might ever need to know about a person simply by the volume and tone of their phone. All without ever having to actually get to know them. Think of how much time this is going to save you!

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Meme Culture

April 24th, 2013  |  Published in commentary

Sometime last year, I stumbled across a blog post about how Star Trek had prefigured the direction our language and culture is heading in. In essence, there was an episode that dealt with a race that communicated purely by metaphor, the author then compared this to the rise of memes and reaction gifs. Of course, these things were around long before that post was written, but it wasn’t until I read it that I saw the connection between memes and language. And now I can’t unsee it.

More and more, I see emails and facebook posts that consist of nothing but a meme or reaction gif. These things can be fun, and I know that I’ve spent my share of time looking at lolcats, but when they become a substitute for communication, I begin to worry. These things are sort of like the graphic equivalent of cliches. Both are useful for expressing a common sentiment to someone who shares the same cultural frame of reference to yourself, both make it difficult to say anything interesting, novel, or memorable. The main difference is that I would guess that there are fewer memes/reaction gifs than there are cliches, due to the higher cost of production and the shrinking half-life of popular culture phenomena.

To be clear, I am not worried that using memes and reaction gifs will start us on the slippery slope to complete illiteracy. Rather, I feel that their use constitutes a vocabulary of expression, and a small one at that. The capacity of expression of ideas and sentiments seems as though it could limit the occurrence of them, or put another way, if you cannot express something, how fully can you be said to experience it?

On the other hand, if you’re reading this, you speak the English language, and if those upstarts over at Oxford Dictionaries are to be believed, “there are, at the very least, a quarter of a million distinct English words, excluding inflections, and words from technical and regional vocabulary not covered by the OED, or words not yet added to the published dictionary”. This number likely also doesn’t include cool untranslatable words like fingerspitzengefühl, or neologisms (look at what Shakespeare did to the English language). Taken together and considering that most things will be expressed by a combination of words, and the possibilities appear to be virtually endless.

The Devil’s Advocate in me responds to all this by saying that creativity is often the result of artificial limitations, and so reducing our vocabulary to a handful of memes might actually act as a font of creative expression. I would have to disagree. As a culture, we use memes as a shorthand for complex ideas and sentiments, as a shortcut. Words, on the other hand, are hard to use well, much like representing three dimensional objects on a two dimensional medium. As such, it would seem that words are inherently more limiting, and thus more beneficial to creativity (which also helps to explain why we have a quarter million of them in the English language).

So the next time you feel the urge to reach for that comfortable meme, take a moment and do yourself and your culture a favor. Just put it into words. Don’t worry, we won’t run out any time soon.

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Organization: what it is and why it matters

April 17th, 2013  |  Published in commentary

When we talk about organizing and organization, we often think about it in terms of optimizing an existing organizational structure. This is all well and good, but the concept of organization has become so ingrained in our culture and language that it is often assumed as a given and little thought is given to what it means to organize and how the resulting order differs from disorder. So I’m going to do some thinking out loud on the subject.

First, what is organization? Following the word’s etymological trail leads one eventually to the greek organon which apparently translates literally to “that with which one works”. In short, organizing is the act of creating something that is useful, an infrastructural element of getting things done. One could think of it as the fundamental aspect of toolmaking. All of this is good if you’re making a musical instrument (something else that pops up when looking into the history of the word), but how does it function when applied to people? Sure, forming a task force to get something done fits the notion, but a couple of interesting ideas come from it:

  1. Organization is a multiplier of force. For example, take a mob of people who want to effect some sort of change. As a mob they have certain amount of ability to influence the world. Now, arm the mob, give them all guns. The mob has exactly one more option, violence (and even that isn’t really anything new, any mob is capable of violence with or without weapons, arming them just makes that option more effective and more likely). Okay, so go back to the original, unarmed mob. Instead of giving them weapons, organize them. Get them talking to each other, have them work out what it is they want and delegate tasks to individuals or subgroups. All of a sudden, the mob (although it is no longer a mob, really) has as many options as it has ideas, and the amount of ideas in proportion to its size. Instead of adding to its options, the mob has multiplied them. This is specifically why governments are leery of any well-organized group, they are more dangerous than an armed crowd ever could be.
  2. Mindset. Unorganized groups (and individuals within the group) approach problems from the perspective of the individual, organized groups (and individuals within the group) approach problems from the perspective of the group. This may not sound like a big deal, but it is in fact the difference between powerlessness and power. Many of the issues that we find troubling in our world are not problems at the individual level but problems at the neighborhood, town, state, national, or world level. Dealing with problems on those scales as an individual is difficult, if not impossible (which is why superheroes seem to be such a dangerous fantasy to me, almost no one can deal with those problems on an individual level).

All of this is not to say that there aren’t problems with organization. Take for example the Stanford Prison Experiment, which suggests that it is possible for our individuality to be overridden by group identity. Despite this, I don’t honestly believe that there is a better option, yet.

In short, organization is a process by which useful things are created, multiplying the options of a group and providing the potential for hope against long odds.

So why am I going to the trouble of working all of this out? Aside from the subject being interesting in its own right, I’ve wanted to write something about organizing in a post-privacy society, and so this post was a necessary prerequisite. I’ll try to get that (more interesting, I promise) post written in the next week or two.

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Tolerance

April 12th, 2013  |  Published in commentary

Back when I worked in a bookstore, I would frequently hear the following sort of exchange between my co-workers. One of them had been asked where the bibles are kept, and told the other that they had been tempted to tell the person that they should look in fiction. Both of them would have a good laugh. Even though I’m not a Christian (not even close), I always got a bit offended (but, to my shame, never said anything). Now, I’ll be the first person to say that if you can’t poke fun at your religion (or handle others doing so), you might want to consider changing it. But the fact is that for anyone who spends much time thinking about it, coming to terms with your own mortality is one of the most important and difficult things that you will do in your lifetime. Belittling someone else’s choice on this matter is not a sign of enlightenment, but rather of insecurity and immaturity.

Of course, reading the above paragraph puts me in mind of the stereotypical retiree waving his cane at a group of teenagers and telling them, “Get off my lawn!”. Then again, if that is the price of tolerance, so be it.

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As I was saying . . .

April 9th, 2013  |  Published in commentary

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about some of the issues that arise when a for-profit company offers a free service. A week later, as if to prove my point, it was announced that Amazon has purchased Goodreads. There has been quite a bit of outcry about this, ranging from indifference to outrage. I’m somewhere in the middle. I think that there is a value in an independent social book review site that is incompatible with a retail-owned version of the same. But the change will be gradual, and there will be plenty of time for something else to come about (and perhaps something even better). In short, I won’t be deleting my account, but I will be keeping my eyes on the horizon.

But what do I mean about the values of Goodreads being incompatible with ownership by amazon? Well, the reviews on Amazon suck, and they suck for a simple reason: there is money to be made, and so reviews are posted that reflect not the opinions of actual consumers but rather the purchased opinions of whoever stands to make money when you choose this book over that book (not Amazon, who doesn’t care which book you buy so long as you buy a book, preferably both books). Although Goodreads no doubt has this same dynamic present, it is much less pervasive, as the site was focused on the readers, not selling the books.

On another topic, what I find really interesting about this is that the value of Goodreads was largely created by the users. Users wrote the reviews, rated the books, categorized the books, and Goodreads’ part in all this was largely that of facilitator. And yet, when they sell, the money goes to the facilitator, not the people responsible for most of the value (Amazon could have written similar software for far less than what they no doubt paid for GR, what they were paying for was the stuff you and I put in). Now, this isn’t to say that users weren’t compensated for any of this, when you receive a free service, that can be viewed as a form of compensation.

So what to do if you care more about the service than the compensation? Well, you’ll just have to pay for it.

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The Problem(s) With Free

March 27th, 2013  |  Published in commentary

A couple of weeks ago, you might have heard from your geekier friends that Google has decided to “power down” their Google Reader service, which, even after they hobbled it, was still a great service. This prompted me to write a lengthy post on the topic . . . just in time to find someone who said it better. I do still have some things that I wanted to add, however, so no concise blog post for you today.

When looking at web services offered by for-profit companies, here is a simple rule: If you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product. Companies like Facebook do not make money off their users, they make money off of advertisers, which means that those advertisers are the actual customers, not you. What Facebook is selling to those advertisers is your attention and your data (whether that be direct information like name and hobbies or indirect information like anonymized browsing and social networking trends).

Of course there is a moral component to all of this, nobody wants to be a product, after all, and it is easy to get worked up over having your information traded between third parties, but I’m going to ignore that. What this relationship means is that for companies like Google or Facebook, their loyalty is to their advertisers, not to you. And when it comes down to it, if you are not that good of a product (Google Reader was apparently difficult to monetize), if that product doesn’t sell, they will find a new one. And so Google Reader gets dropped in favor of Google+, whose users are apparently much shinier products. (Of course, there is doubtless more to the decision than this, Google appears to be attempting to build a large, integrated platform with G+ and Reader simply didn’t fit in, I do not begrudge them their business decisions).

On the other hand, when you are paying directly for a service, you are the customer (or at least a customer, there is nothing to keep that service from selling your information). The company has a vested interest in keeping you around, as you provide revenue. That doesn’t make all paid services better than their free equivalents, but a lot of them are.

Of course, this starts to get complicated when you are talking about minors or college students, who are often defined by their inability or unwillingness to pay for things that they could otherwise get for free, so regardless of icky ethical practices or instability, free services will continue to dominate the market, but I imagine that in the coming years we will see an increase sophisticated premium services, and equally sophisticated methods of paying for them.

Finally, much of this post was inspired by NewsBlur, a social RSS reader based on a subscription model (although they do offer a free, limited, account). When I got it working (it took a while due to them being slammed from the Reader announcement), it felt like home: a visually pleasing RSS reader with a solid social network built in. In some ways, I kind of wish that I had jumped the Reader ship earlier, but I was unaware of the alternatives. And although it may sound like they are paying me to say this, I am in fact paying them, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Stuff that I came across after I had finished writing this post (but that I don’t feel like editing into the post):

  • Tobias Buckell mentioned a post by Jeremiah Tolbert that talks about why having a website is important. The article goes over some of the stuff that you just read, and other things as well. Also, that rule that I stated above about being the product? Apparently I was remembering it, not creating it (thanks for bursting my bubble, internet). I guess that the idea has just become so deeply embedded in my worldview that I have a hard time remembering that at one point I didn’t know it (“The step after ubiquity is invisibility” and all that)
  • Forbes: Google Reader Shutdown a Sobering Reminder That ‘Our’ Technology Isn’t Ours – “We are all participants in a user driven Internet, but we are still just the users, nothing more. No matter how much work we put in to optimize our online presences, our tools and our experiences, we are still at the mercy of big companies controlling the platforms we operate on. When they don’t like what’s happening, even if we do, they can make whatever call they want. And Wednesday night, Google made theirs.”
  • NPR’s All Tech Considered: ‘Keep Google Reader Running’ Petition Hits 100K; Fans Audition Replacements – Of course, 100k isn’t that many people to Google, especially considering that Reader doesn’t really fit in with G+ (and probably competes with it).
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Applied Logic

March 20th, 2013  |  Published in commentary, logic

Earlier this month, a bit of a kerfuffle broke out between Representative Ed Orcutt and the Washington state bicycle community. There’s a lot of interesting stuff in the linked article, and I suggest you read it, but what I want to talk about is logic.

Logic is the study of the connections between things, and is often not taught explicitly until college (although Geometry class might cover it). In short, logic is the difference between being told “one one two” and “one plus one equals two”. The first example is just a bunch of numbers, the second is a logical statement. Simple, right? Not exactly. The thing about logic is that it is not about whether or not the individual elements are true, but whether the connections between them make sense. Take, for example: “All pigs are green. I am a pig. Therefore I am green.” On the face of it, this argument is wacky, but the logic works out, if all pigs are green and I am one of them, then I must be green, too, right? The connections between these false statements make sense even if the content being connected is factually incorrect.

At this point you might be thinking to yourself, “And this guy thinks this green pig nonsense is more likely to make me study logic? Maybe he is a green pig.” I’m glad you’re thinking critically about what I’m saying, but I have a point, so bear with me.

When someone makes an argument, it can be approached in many ways. I would argue that there are three basic approaches, and I will focus on those: emotional, fact based, and logic based. The emotional approach is basically evaluating an argument based on how it makes you feel, and many arguments count on this, which is why so many politicians try to induce fear or anger when they speak. Unfortunately, it is wide open to manipulation, as it makes you want to just react, rather than thinking about it. Fact based evaluation is what you most likely did when you first read the green pig argument. You most likely rejected it based on the fact that you had never seen a green pig, and that it would be very difficult for me to type this with cloven hooves instead of fingers. Logical evaluation is the analysis of connections, which entails ignoring whether or not the statements in an argument are true and instead assessing whether or not they necessarily lead to the conclusion.

To be clear, I’m not advocating the use of one of these over all others, but rather that you should expand your evaluative toolbox and use whichever method or combination of methods is most appropriate. If something feels wrong emotionally, then there is a good chance that something is wrong with it. If you don’t have the right facts, you can be convinced that I am a green pig. If you don’t have good logic, you can be led to bogus conclusions from accurate facts.

You might be thinking that in this networked age, where an unprecedented amount of information is available, we should just be able to fact check everything. Yes and no. We can fact check a lot of things, but the truth of the matter is that when someone is trying to convince us of something, there is a good chance that we simply will not have time to check all of their assertions, and even if we did have the time to do that, we probably would not want to. And so we might just have to rely on logic. Finally, as I mentioned earlier, true assertions can lead to false conclusions if they are not linked logically, and Rep. Orcutt’s argument is a perfect example of this.

Here is an excerpt from his email (the whole thing is available in the linked post):

Also, you claim that it is environmentally friendly to ride a bike. But if I am not mistaken, a cyclists (sic) has an increased heart rate and respiration. That means that the act of riding a bike results in greater emissions of carbon dioxide from the rider. Since CO2 is deemed to be a greenhouse gas and a pollutant, bicyclists are actually polluting when they ride.

And here is a breakdown of his argument:

  1. Cyclists have increased heart rate and respiration.
  2. Increased heart rate and respiration result in increased CO2 output.
  3. CO2 is a greenhouse gas and a pollutant.
  4. Therefore, cyclists are polluting when they ride.

This is a solid argument. The facts check out and the logic is sound. The problem comes in when you look at the claim that he is attempting to disprove: “it is environmentally friendly to ride a bike.” On the face of it, this looks fine, if we define environmentally friendly to mean “not harmful to the environment” in an absolute sense. Unfortunately there is context. The assertion that he was responding to was: “Additionally, bicyclists produce fewer emissions and reduce healthcare costs through increased physical fitness.” (full text of original email, if you’re curious). To rephrase, skipping the bit about healthcare, “Bicycles produce fewer emissions than cars.” Which brings us to the wonderful world of logical fallacies.

There are forms of arguments that are always invalid. One of the most common is the straw man. In a straw man, a person is confronted with an argument. Instead of attacking that argument, they create a weaker argument (a straw man, if you will) and attack that instead. For example, it is much easier to attack the argument that bicycles cause no pollution than the argument that bicycles cause less pollution than cars. Rep. Orcutt never said anything about the original argument, but tried to trick us into believing that he had. His argument makes no sense and can be safely ignored.

Whew. That may seem like a lot of work to go through simply to call bullshit on a politician for acting like a politician, but once you get used to thinking like this, you will read a paragraph like that and immediately realize that there is no connection between what he is saying and what he wants you to think he is saying, no fact checking required.

On a final note, Rep. Orcutt did issue an apology, saying that the issue of bicycles not being zero-carbon “was not a point worthy of even mentioning” and went on to sound like a much more reasonable person. Nonetheless, the fact remains that he used a straw man in dealing with a constituent. Either he did so knowingly, which is a form of dishonesty, or unknowingly, in which case I would question his competence as political representative.

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