Archive for May, 2011

The titles of philosophy

Philosophers Carnival at Philosophy, etc. points to philosophical posts from around the Web over the past three months. Many of them weigh in on age old questions about the continuity of consciousness, whether objective morality is possible without Heaven and Hell, and whether time travel is possible.

But I was especially struck by the online sites and journals where the articles were posted:

This is a far cry from titles such as the Review of Metaphysics and Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies typical of the printed output of the old school. (Browse a list here.) The new titles seem to mock the academy, even though many of the papers would be at home in its traditional publications. But slowly the wrapped will take on the properties of the wrapper…


Remember what it was like to be dumb?

No, kids, you probably don’t.

I used to be a terrible, horrible, miserable hobbyist programmer. I enjoyed it a great deal, but land-o-lakes was I dumb!

I learned out of books, most of which are still bending the shelves they sit on. A good programming book is a pleasure. It teaches you the principles and the basic moves. But, programming is fun because it’s so specific. You need to measure the length of a line displayed in a particular font, or you want to set the opacity of a circle based on its diameter, and the book you’re using just does not happen to hit those examples. The time I used to spent guessing and poking around was not instructive and did not build character. It was simply what you had to do when you were dumb.

I am still a terrible, horrible, miserable hobbyist programmer. But my ability to solve problems, and, yes, eventually even to learn, has gone up orders and orders of magnitude because of three inter-related things:

1. All problems only arise the first time in a population once. Therefore, most problems have already been addressed by someone before you. They’ve either been solved by someone else or, if there are no solutions, someone has already discovered that.

2. It’s now so easy to make your work public

3. The hacker ethos has resulted in superb developers making their work available as examples and as entire libraries.

The second and third together has resulted in an enormous and public repository of questions, answers, examples, and explanations. (For example, see Rebecca Murphey’s introduction to JQuery…and then consider the centuries of engineering time libraries like JQuery have saved us. (Hat tip to ReadWriteWeb for the link to Rebecca’s book.))

4. Search engines are so damn good that we can find our way through that gigantic, unplanned repository.

You know every single thing I’ve just said. Still, it’s just good to remember now and then how amazing it is that we all know this as if it were always so. Especially if for you it has always been so.


Ethan on serendipity and cosmopolitanism

Ethan Zuckerman blogs the brilliant and delightful “extended dance mix” of his talk on serendipity at CHI 2011.

He begins by wondering why people migrate to cities, even when those cities have been vastly unappealing, as per the stink of London in the mid 19th century. “You came to the city to become a cosmopolitan, a citizen of the world.” You may still have encountered a tiny stretch of humanity that way, but you’d at least be in a position to receive information about the rest of the world. “To the extent that a city is a communications technology, it may not be a surprise that early literally portrayals of the internet seized on the city as a metaphor.”

Ethan wonders if cities actually do work as “serendipity engines,” as we hope they do. Nathan Eagle “estimates that he can predict the location of ‘low-entropy individuals’ with 90-95% accuracy” based on aggregated mobile phone records. [Marta C. Gonzalez, Cesar A. Hidalgo & Albert-Laszlo ? Barabasi recently in Nature made a related claim.] We are not as mobile as we think, and our patterns are more routinized than we’d like to believe. Even in cities we manage to mainly hang out with people like ourselves.

Likewise on the Net, Ethan says. He’s analyzed the media preferences of 33 nations, and found that countries that have 40+ million Net users tend to strongly prefer local news sources. The result is “we miss important stories.” Even if we are well-plugged in to a social network, we’re not going to learn about that which our friends do not know. Ethan reminds us that we need to worry about “filter bubbles,” as Eli Pariser calls them. While social filters are powerful, if they only filter your own network, they are likely to hide more than they show.

Against this Ethan recommends serendipity, which requires “an open and prepared mind.” We should learn from cities when designing Web spaces that enable and encourage serendipity. “What makes cities livable, creative, vital, and ultimately, safe is the street-level random encounter that [Jane] Jacobs documented in her corner of Greenwich Village.” Design to “minimize isolation.”

Ethan then talks about some of the ways we get guided serendipity in cities — friends showing you around, local favorites, treating a city like a board game via geocaching, etc. As always, Ethan has some amazing examples. (He even points to the Library Innovation Lab‘s ShelfLife project, where I work; I promise I didn’t realize that until I’d already started blogging about his post.)

I’d started blogging about Ethan’s post because I love what he says even though I have a knee-jerk negative reaction to much of what people say about serendipity on the Net. Ethan is different. His post represents a full-bodied conceptualization. I read it and I nod, smile at the next insight, then nod again. So, what follows is not a commentary on Ethan’s post. It’s actually all about my normal knee-jerk reaction. (Oh, bloggers, what _isn’t_ all about you?) I’m trying to understand why serendipity doesn’t square with the hole in my own personal pegboard.

Perhaps the problem is that I think of serendipity as a sub-class of distraction: Serendipity occurs when something that hijacks our attention (= a distraction) is worthwhile in some sense. We now have social networks that are superb at sharing serendipitous findings. So, why don’t we pass around more stuff that would make us more cosmopolitan? Fundamentally, I think it’s because interest is a peculiar beast. We generally don’t find something interesting unless it helps us understand what we already care about. But the Other — the foreign — is pretty much defined as that to which we see no connection. It is Other because it does not matter to us. Or, more exactly, we cannot see why or how it matters.

Things can matter to us in all sorts of ways, from casting a contrasting intellectual light on our everyday assumptions to opening up sluices of tears or laughter. But cosmopolitanism requires some level of understanding since it is (as I understand it) an appreciation of differences. That is, we can (and should) be filled with sorrow when we see a hauntingly disturbing photo of a suffering human in a culture about which we know nothing; that’s a connection based on the fundament of shared humanity, but it’s not yet cosmopolitanism. For that, we also have to appreciate the differences among us. Of course, appreciating differences also means finding the similarities. It is a dialectic for sure, and one so very easy to get wrong and impossible to get perfectly right: We misunderstand the Other by interpreting it too much in our own terms, or we write it off because it is so outside our own terms. Understanding always proceeds from a basic situatedness from which we make sense of our world, so cosmopolitan understanding is always going to be a difficult, imperfect dance of incorporating into the familiar that which is outside our usual ken.

This is why I don’t frame the failure of cosmopolitanism primarily in terms of serendipity. Serendipity sometimes — not in Ethan’s case — is proposed as a solution as if we can take our interest in the Other for granted: Just sneak some interesting African videos into our usual stream of youtubes of cute cats and people falling off of trampolines, and we will become more cosmopolitan. But, of course we will fast forward over those African videos as quickly as we used to turn the pages in newspapers that reported on Africa. The problem isn’t serendipity. It’s that we don’t care.

But, we can be brought to care. We know this because there are lots of examples (and Ethan recounts just a handful of the trove at his command) of our attention being arrested by cosmopolitan content. To generalize with a breadth that is sure to render the generalization vapid, cosmopolitan content that works — that gets us interested in something we hadn’t realized we cared about — seems to have two elements. First, it tells us what we need to know in order to let the otherness matter to us. Second, it is really well done. Both of these are difficult, and there is not a known formula for either of them. But there are also lots of known ways to try; Ethan gives us bunches of examples. Creating cosmopolitan content that works requires craft and, if it is to be transformative, art. It can range from the occasional Hollywood movie, to New Yorker articles, to blog posts, to Anthony Bourdain, to Ethan Zuckerman. Content that creates interest in itself may be extraordinarily difficult to craft, but it is a precusor to the possiblity of serendipity.

Take the wildly successful TED Talks as an example. They satisfy a need the “market” didn’t know it had, and if asked would probably deny: “Hey, do you have a burning interest in questioning the assumptions of bio-engineering?” TED Talks ripple through the social networks of serendipity because they create interest where formerly there wasn’t any. That’s how social serendipity works: It begins with works that through skill, craft, and art generate their own motive power. TED shows us that if we are trying to remedy the dearth of intellectually stimulating materials passing through social networks, we should worry first about creating materials that compel interest. Compelling materials create social serendipity. And the corollary: Nothing is interesting to us until it makes itself interesting to us.

But perhaps it simply comes down to this. Perhaps I don’t frame the failure of cosmopolitianism primarily as a problem with the lack of serendipity because I personally approach the world as a writer, and thus focus on the challenge of generating interest among readers. When I see people passing over a topic, I think, “Oh, it must not have been written well enough.” And on that idiosyncratic worldview, I would not seiously base an analysis of a topic as vast and important as the one that Ethan Zuckerman continues to address so profoundly.


[berkman] Culturomics: Quantitatve analysis of culture using millions of digitized books

Erez Lieberman Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel (both of Harvard, currently visiting faculty at Google) are giving a Berkman lunchtime talk about “culturomics“: the quantitative analysis of culture, in this case using the Google Books corpus of text.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

The traditional library behavior is to read a few books very carefully, they say. That’s fine, but you’ll never get through the library way. Or you could read all the books, very, very not carefully. That’s what they’re doing, with interesting results. For example, it seems that irregular verbs become regular over time. E.g., “shrank” will become “shrinked.” They can track these changes. They followed 177 irregular verbs, and found that 98 are still irregular. They built a table, looking at how rare the words are. “Regularization follows a simple trend: If a verb is 100 times less frequent, it regularizes 10 times as fast.” Plus you can make nice pictures of it:

Usage is indicated by font size, so that it’s harder for the more used words to get through to the regularized side.

The Google Books corpus of digitized text provides a practical way to be awesome. Erez and Jean-Baptiste got permission from Google to trawl through that corpus. (It is not public because of the fear of copyright lawsuits.) They produced the n-gram browser. They constructed a table of phrases, 2B lines long.

129M books have been published. 18M have been scanned. They’ve analysed 5M of them, creating a table with 2 billions rows. (In some cases, the metadata wasn’t good enough. In others, the scan wasn’t good enough.)

They show some examples of the evolution of phrases, e.g. thrived vs. throve. As a control, they looked at 43 Heads of State and found that the year they took power usage of “head of state” zoomed (which confirmed that the n-gram tool was working).

They like irregular verbs in part because they work out well with the ngram viewer, and because there was an existing question about the correlation of irregular and high-frequency verbs. (It’d be harder to track the use of, say, tables. [Too bad! I'd be interested in that as a way of watching the development of the concept of information.]) Also, irregular verbs manifest a rule.

They talk about chode’s change to chided in just 200 yrs. The US is the leading exporter of irregular verbs: burnt and learnt have become regular faster than others, leading the British’s usage.

They also measure some vague ideas. For example, no one talked about 1950 until the late 1940s, and it really spiked in 1950. We talked about 1950 a lot more than we did, say, 1910. The fall-off rate indicates that “we lose interest in the past faster and faster in each passing year.” They can also measure how quickly inventions enter culture; that’s speeding up over time.

“How to get famous?” They looked at the 50 most famous people born in 1871, including Orville Wright, Ernest Rutherford, Marcel Proust. As soon as these names passed the initial threshhold (getting mentioned in the corpus as frequently as the least-used words in the dictionary) their mentions rise quickly, and then slowly goes down. The class of 1871 got famous at age 34; their fame doubled every four years; they peaked at 73, and then mentions go down. The class of 1921′s rise was faster, and they became famous before they became 30. If you want to become famous fast, you should become an actor (because they become famous in the mid to late 20s), or wait until your mid 30s and become a writer. Writers don’t peak as quickly. The best way to become famous is to become a politician, although have to wait until you’re 50+. You should not become an artist, physicist, chemist or mathematicians.

They show the frequency charts for Marc Chagall, US vs. German. His German fame dipped to nothing during the Nazi regime who suppressed him because he was a Jew. Likewise with Jesse Owens. Likewise with Russian and Chinese dissidents. Likewise for the Hollywood Ten during the Red Scare of the 1950s. [All of this of course equates fame with mentions in books.] They show how Elia Kazan and Albert Maltz’s fame took different paths after Kazan testified to a House committee investigating “Reds” and Maltz did not.

They took the Nazi blacklists (people whose works should be pulled out of libraries, etc.) and watched how they affected the mentions of people on them. Of course they went down during the Nazi years. But the names of Nazis went up 500%. (Philosophy and religion was suppressed 76%, the most of all.)

This led Erez and Jean-Baptiste to think that they ought to be able to detect suppression without knowing about it beforehand. E.g., Henri Matisse was suppressed during WWII.

They posted theirngrams viewer for public access. From the viewer you can see the actual scanned text. “This is the front end for a digital library.” They’re working with the Harvard Library [not our group!] on this. In the first day, over a million queries were run against it. They are giving “ngrammies” for the best queries: best vs. beft (due to a character recognition error); fortnight; think outside the box vs. incentivize vs. strategize; argh vs aargh vs argh vs aaaargh. [They quickly go through some other fun word analyses, but I can't keep up.]

“Cultoromics is the application of high throughput data collection and analysis to the study of culture.” Books are just the start. As more gets digitized, there will be more we can do. “We don’t have to wait for the copyright laws to change before we can use them.”

Q: Can you predict culture?
A: You should be able to make some sorts of predictions, but you have to be careful.

Q: Any examples of historians getting something wrong? [I think I missed the import of this]
A: Not much.

Q: Can you test the prediction ability with the presidential campaigns starting up.
A: Interesting.

Q: How about voice data? Music?
A: We’ve thought about it. It’d be a problem for copyright: if you transcribe a score, you have a copyright on it. This loads up the field with claimants. Also, it’s harder to detect single-note errors than single-letter errors.

Q: Do you have metadata to differentiate fiction from nonfiction, and genres?
A: Google has this metadata, but it comes from many providers and is full of conflicts. The ngram corpus is unclean. But the Harvard metadata is clean and we’re working with them.

Q: What are the IP implications?
A: There are many books Google cannot make available except through the ngram viewer. This gives digitizers a reason to digitize works they might otherwise leave alone.

Q: In China people use code words to talk about banned topics. This suppresses trending.
A: And that takes away some of the incentive to talk about it. It cuts off the feedback loop.

Q: [me] Is the corpus marked up with structural info that you can analyze against, e.g., subheadings, captions, tables, quotations?
A: We could but it’s a very hard problem. [Apparently the corpus is not marked up with this data already.]

Q: Might you be able to go from words to metatags: if you have cairo, sphinx, and egypt, you can induce “egypt.” This could have an effect on censorship since you can talk about someone without using her/his name.
A: The suppression of names may not be the complete suppression of mentions, yes. And, yes, that’s an important direction for us.


[collabtech] Blurring classroom control

I’m at CollabTech at Case Western, and came in late on a session about blurring the lines of ontrol in classrooms.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

As I come in, Bill Deal is talking about encouraging students to tweet material related to the class. The students took to it, posting links to materials from around the Web. They averaged about 15 tweets (if I got that right). He says he’s tried other tech in classrooms, but this one really worked. In response to a question, he says that there was no interaction among twitterers outside of the class; they discussed using a hashtag, but some students wanted to keep their tweets private-ish.

Bernard Jim talks about his experience teaching 17-student seminars in which the students are expected to produce knowledge, not just consume it. He says the physical geography of the classroom puts all the tech at the front of the room, under the teacher’s control. [Surely they have laptops, though.] He begins each session by playing a song relevant to the day’s topic, and invites the students to play their music. The students initially resist this, but then take it up. The aim is for them to take possession of the tech in the classroom. He also wants them to understand that their cultural experiences are relevant to the course. (Bernard is a cultural historian.)

For example, he has them reading Burke on the sublime, who references Milton. “So, I’m teaching an 18th century philosophy who references a 17th century poet, to 21st century students who can be put off by a movie if it’s in black and white.” Burke asks what a frightening sound is: “a low tremulous intermitting sound.” So, Bernie plays a YouTube of the Halloween theme, to try to connect their experience to Burke.

Sometimes the students bring in their own references. E.g., in a class on letters discussing a letter from Abelard to Heloise (or was it vice versa), they brought in “Dramatic Reading of a Break-up Letter.”

In a different class they were talking about hypermasculinity, as in some of Michelangelo. The students responded with College Humor’s Power Thirst.

He also has a class on puzzles, which is “an extremely interactive class.” Once a week they have a puzzle challenge. On Pi Day (3/14), they took the Pi Day Challenge, up on the big screen. “You have a whole bunch of students yelling at me, which is what I like.”

Q: Do you ever get inappropriate student suggestions?
A: Yes, sometimes.
A: [bill deal] One tweet was “Great film of boobies” that turned out to be about birds.

Michael Kenney who teaches chemistry provided Kindles to 50 students. A third loved it. A third thought it was great for reading books, so they gave it to their parents [he says jokingly]. And a third sold it on ebay. Within class, it usefully kept all their texts in one place, although the lack of a file structure was a problem. But he got sued. ‘[He doesn't say why and I didn't find any info on a quick search.]

So, now they use the Entourage eDGe, which has a touch-sensitive Android tablet on one side and an ebook reader on the other. He’s hoping students can use these as their lab notebooks. [See Jean-Claude Bradley's open notebook idea.] So far, he’s having the same results as with the Kindle. For one thing, the OS is underpowered and out of date. The eDGe concept “is very good, but it’s not going to replace” analog devices. His sits on a shelf, unused.

Q: [me] Have you connected with J-C Bradley.
A: Yes. Our aim is to have a cloud-based note-taking system. Bradley’s ideas are very good,.

Christine Hudak [twitter:infomatics1] , in the nursing school, has her students use twitter feeds to keep up with the ever-changing info. All the nursing students had to tweet, because social media are now being used with patients in hospitals. No personal tweets were allowed, although some students ignored that rule. They also had a private Facebook group page that they used for info sharing and communicating about projects; it was strictly student-driven. Christine didn’t see it until the end of the semester, and was very impressed. The page is being passed on to next year’s class.