Making Space

How to go about creating a space that facilitates learning? As we learned from Morningstar and Farmer, there is a danger of over-designing the space and often the users don’t end up using the space in the way the designer intended. So we shouldn’t over-design. But there should probably be some kind of structure, right? Or why create the space at all? – my brain

These are some of the thoughts that were going through my head as I set out to plan my final project. Throughout the semester a common focus of mine has been the lack of a space in my own field (Electrical & Computer Engineering) to facilitate making connections between the work that goes on in the department, both teaching and research, and the outside world.

I also became interested in many of the ideas Ivan Illich presented in chapter 6 of “Descooling Society“. Specifically, how would we go about creating a network to facilitate skill exchange and peer matching? Once we have a peer-to-peer network of learners, what role does an “elder” have, and how does one become an elder?

I began by looking at some exiting peer networks and online communities that I have had either direct or indirect involvement in to see how they addressed the questions of structure, but in the space itself, and any imposed structure between peers that imposes some sort of hierarchy, or the notion of an “elder”.

1 The Linux Kernel

It has been several decades since Linus Torvalds’ original announcement of his new operating system:

From: torvalds@klaava.Helsinki.FI (Linus Benedict Torvalds)
   Newsgroups: comp.os.minix
   Subject: What would you like to see most in minix?
   Summary: small poll for my new operating system
   Date: 25 Aug 91 20:57:08 GMT
   Organization: University of Helsinki

    Hello everybody out there using minix -

    I'm doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won't be big and
    professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones.  This has been brewing
    since april, and is starting to get ready.  I'd like any feedback on 
    things people like/dislike in minix, as my OS resembles it somewhat
    (same physical layout of the file-system (due to practical reasons)
    among other things). 

since that time the Linux kernel project has grown to be the largest collaborative endeavor in the history of computing. According to one measure, there were 1,316 developers involved with the version 3.2 release, each contributing an average of 10,935 lines of code to the project. The clip found on the linxfoundation’s website summarizes how this tremendous feat is possible:

There is a fairly simple and effective hierarchy in place: individual developers submit patches to senior kernel developer who in turn review and sign off on patches before sending onward to Linus Torvalds for final approval. This is the most dictatorship-like model of any of the networks I looked at, but I think it makes a lot of sense. The stability and usefulness of the Linux kernel depends on all 15 million lines of code working well with one another, a more ad-hoc “allow everyone to contribute, fix errors later” method such as the one embodied by wikipedia probably wouldn’t be effective for this project. It’s worth noting that the rather strict structure doesn’t prevent people from maintaining and contributing to forks of the kernel other than the one maintained by Torvalds. In fact, up until recently, Google maintained its own fork of the kernel for it’s Android operating system.

2 github.com

The versioning control tool git was created by the Linux development community in response to changes in the relationship between the open source community and the company responsible for BitKeeper, the versioning control system used up until 20051. A versioning control system and git in particular, gives developers a powerful tool with which to track changes to software projects and facilitates collaboration by automating to the extent possible, the work-flow required to review changes made by contributors and merge them into one version. But to become a contributor, or find open source projects of interest, you need to know where to look. GitHub provides a hosting service for projects using the git revision control system as well as some social-networking features to help users connect with developers and projects that interest them. Users create profiles, much like they would on other social networking sites, but rather than posts about current gastronomic adventures, GitHub generates feeds of updates and changes made to various software projects.

There isn’t really a notion of a uniform social hierarchy, as everyone is the maintainer of their own project, and may act as contributor to any other project. Individual projects may be “trending” or “featured” depending on activity.

3 stackoverflow.com

Still on the geek theme, stackoverflow is an invaluable resource to many software developers, novice or advanced. Organized into a question and answer format, anyone can post a question or an answer and the site provides tools to improve the quality of questions and up-vote helpful answers. There is a notion of currency, called “reputation”, that members earn through participating on the site. Gaining reputation can unlock certain privileges that are not available to all users. With enough reputation, individuals can be elevated to moderator status, a role I would associate with Illich’s notion of an “elder”.

4 couchsurfing.org

Up until this point the sites I’ve surveyed have been what we would generally refer to “virtual” spaces. The communities and interactions exist primarily in cyberspace. Couchsurfing is a bit different. At its core it is a network of travelers who open their homes to other travelers to provide a uniquely personal and rewarding experience not available from hotels or other travel industry offerings. It is focused on helping people explore the world by connecting with other people in a particular geographic area, remote or local, so many of the interactions take place in the “real” world. However, a thriving virtual community is also an integral part of the couchsurfing experience in the form of discussion forums organized into groups of free formed topics ranging from geographic areas, to helping each other learn new languages, to everything in between.

One of the first questions asked by couch surfing skeptics is “is it safe”? There seems to be a common fear among those who do not couchsurf that most strangers are creeps who would sooner steal your wallet than let you stay for free on their couch. While most of those who join couchsurfing do so because they naturally have a more optimistic view of humanity, safety is a high priority and a clear set of community guidelines are published to help ensure everyone has a safe, enjoyable experience.

Most importantly though, is the system of references in place that enable members to rate the experience they had with other members. References themselves do not directly lead to any increased privileges in the community: members are free to use the information as they see fit. Some opt to only host or otherwise connect with people who have received a lot of positive references while others will accept hosts or guests with few or no references. I have never come across a profile with negative references. I suspect that this is not because there are no negative experiences (in fact I have heard of a couple from witnesses), but that people with negative references don’t last long in the community. While there are many people who would help those new members who do not have any references yet, I think few would choose to welcome someone who has violated the spirit of couchsurfing in some way.

Separate but related to the reference system is the vouching system. This is a more formalized approach to building trust networks and is a more integral part of the structure of the site in that being vouched for can grant certain privileges, namely, the ability to vouch for others. Unlike references, vouching is intended to ONLY apply to people who have met face-to-face, though the enforcement of that rule is left to the community itself.

5 illichvillich.net

The greatest challenge I have faced in the creation of a space for learning has been to identify which aspects of the previously mentioned successful virtual communities should be integrated, and how. At its core, the inspiration came from my understanding of the role english coffee houses played in the 17th and 18th century. While the idea of gathering around a particular beverage was not unknown at the time, the precursor to coffee was ale and along with the switch from a depressant to a stimulant also came a marked change in the intellectual culture surrounding these popular gather spots. People from all walks of life were able to mingle and share ideas and the space became an intellectual breeding ground separate, but connected with the universities of the time. I can only imagine that without any set curriculum the topics of discussion varied greatly with the interest of the participants and the local events of the time.

It goes without saying then (and yet, here I am, saying it), that topics must be defined and controlled by the members. But I don’t want to create yet another forum site.

Of the four networks defined by Illich to enable his vision of a deschooled society:

  • Reference Services to Educational Objects
  • Skill Exchanges
  • Peer-Matching
  • Reference Services to Educators-at-Large

I was most interested in building a Skill Exchange and Peer-Matching network. I feel that if I can create a space that is successful in that goal, the two “Reference Services” networks should follow organically, as it seems the primary challenge there is collecting the information, there are already well defined implementations of “reference services”.

On the face of it, implementing a skill exchange and peer-matching network is just a matter of defining a data structure that can associate a set of skills with a particular individual and then an algorithm that will match people who have mutual skill-learning interests. That’s the easy part. The challenge, which was brought up during the final presentation day, is that most people are probably not going to want to spend any amount of time entering individual skills and interests they have and those they want to learn. Ideally all a user would need to provide are links to existing blogging and micro-blogging feeds, in which case we would need an algorithm that would parse content that is already being created by each user to determine skill sets and interests. This is the challenge, and a complete lexicographic analysis is well beyond my current knowledge of algorithm design. What would be relatively straight forward is grabbing tags from existing structured feeds that provide that information. It would still depend on self-reporting, but ideally self-reporting that is already being done anyway.

The real challenge has been to figure out what more to do. What I have mentioned so far would be useful, but not particularly unique. In fact, couchsurfing already has a notion of “Learn, Teach, Share” built into the profiles, though the system doesn’t really facilitate searching for people based on that information. The more I have talked with Illich enthusiasts, the more it becomes clear that the real potential lies in creating more of a platform for exploring ideas, rather than just a repository of information. The last brainstorming session I had quickly turned from the details of setting up a skill exchange network to the much more difficult questions of

  • how is a unit of information stored?
  • who decides what a unit of information is?
  • how are individual units of information connected with one another?
  • how does a user effectively navigate a space of interconnected units of information?
  • how does a user track their personal path through a network of information nodes?
  • how does a user share their path through a network of information nodes?
  • who writes the information nodes?
  • should nodes have structural support for quizzes/practice exercises to help learners decide if they have mastered a particular topic well enough to move on to another?

And then implementation details involved with all of those are of course somewhat overwhelming at this point.

I plan to have another brainstorming session tonight, with a different group of hackers and see were these ideas lead. In the mean time, I will continue to get a working implementation of a basic skill-matching network up at illichvillich.net, just as soon as I’m finished posting final grades.

Something Funny about School (Part 1)

In the last “adult” class of the semester the reading du jour was Scott McCloud’s “Time Frames”, a comic about comics. Specifically, how the passage of time, including motion, are depicted in the medium. The discussion that started as we talked about the gap in between frames of a comic got me thinking…

...a dangerous past-time, yes I know

panel2

panel3


Sometime in the not-so-distant past…
heraclitus1

heraclitus2

heraclitus3


sea1

jack_and_rose

titanic1

iceburg1

iceburg2

brachristochrone1


brachristochrone2

chart1

chart2

Not making this up: The Medium is the Message

I’ve been meaning to post something about the interesting interactions between the unix commands fortune and cowsay. This is not that post. Long story short, fortune prints a random tidbit to the terminal and cowsay takes an input string and draws an ASCII art cow with a speech bubble containing the text you sent to the command. In addition, there are a number of different “cows” that can be drawn and so when pairing up random fortunes and random cows can be a parataxis gold mine. Here’s the command I have in my bash login script that does just that:

fortune -s | cowsay -f $( find /usr/share/cows -name '*.cow' | shuf | head -n 1 )

More on that in the “real” post, but for now, I couldn’t pass this up which popped up when I opened a new terminal window just now:

s _________________________________ 
/ "The medium is the message." -- \
\ Marshall McLuhan                /
 --------------------------------- 
       \   \_______
 v__v   \  \   O   )
 (oo)      ||----w |
 (__)      ||     ||  \/\

ponder that for a bit.

As Scholars are Wont to do: Poetry of the brachristochrone problem

Time is an important dimension to consider when tracing the path of a media-represented concept. This is a theme that has stuck with me since reading Brenda Laurel’s “The Six Elements and Causal Relations Among Them” and coming across this brilliant bit of prose:

As scholars are wont to do, I will blame the vagaries of translation, figurative language, and mutations introduced by centuries of interpretation for this apparent lapse and proceed to advocate my own view. – Brenda Laurel, “The Six Elements and Causal Relations Among Them”

Which, should be noted, already inspired a previous post.

The particular idea that Laurel was referring to was one first explored by Aristotle over 2000 years prior, and I was struck with the eerie feeling of being transported into a conversation spanning millennia as well as minds. Like Michelangelo chipping away at a block of marble to reveal the sculpture hidden within, poets and philosophers carve away at the layers of representation in an attempt to reveal the essence of a concept encased within.

It occurred to me that the same process is occurring in the sciences as well, although usually the bricks of representation1 are mathematical symbols rather than linguistic. In a moment of serendipity, while I was musing over the conversation of this morning’s class, I opened a book on Nonlinear Geometric Control Theory that, a few weeks back, I had checked out of the library on a whim. If the title means little to you, rest assure, it does me as well. This is not a topic I am too familiar with, but for a reason I can not fully explain, ever since I was introduced very briefly to differential forms in a real analysis class I suspected that the language of differential geometry had the potential for elegant representations of optimal control problems. Low and behold, I opened this book and immediately saw a paper in which the authors, Sussmann and Willems, explored several representations of the brachistochrone problem, concluding with a differential-geometric approach that they claimed as the most elegant thus far.

The brachristochrone problem

In 1696, Johann Bernoulli asked a question that has become a classical problem used as motivating example for calculus of variations and rears its head again in optimal control2:

Given two points A and B in a vertical plane, what is the curve traced out by a point acted on only by gravity, which starts at A and reaches B in the shortest time. – The bracristochrone problem

The brachistochrone (shortest time) problem

The problem itself is older than Bernoulli: Galileo had conducted his own exploration in 1638 and incorrectly deduce the solution to be the arc of a circle.3 Bernoulli’s revitalization of the question is what led to the first correct answer, that the solution is a cycloid.

Sussmann and Willems summarize the various solutions to the problem as follows:

  1. Johann Bernoulli’s own solution based on an analogy with geometrical optics,
  2. the solution based on the classical calculus of variations,
  3. the optimal control method,
  4. and, finally,

  5. the differential-geometric approach

- Sussmann & Willems

[place holder for a more in-depth summary...ran out of time tonight]

They demonstrate how each successive method refines the solution space and eliminates unnecessary assumptions to approach what could be considered the essence of the problem itself. They end with the differential-geometric approach with the claim that it is thus far the best at elegantly capturing the problem, but it hardly seems like this will be the final word on such a well traveled challenge.

So it seems the path the poet takes in exploring the nature of life is not all that dissimilar from the path the mathematician, scientist or engineer takes, only the tools differ, and even then, the difference is often over stated. They are all just different colors of bricks1.

Footnotes and References

1 David, write about your brick analogy so I have something to link to!

2 worthy of an entirely separate post: through my digging around for more details about the brachistochrone problem I discovered a paper discussing it as a Large Context Problem, an approach to education that is of extreme interest to me that I now have a name for!

3 The brachristochrone problem

Sussmann, Hector J. and Willems, Jan C. The brachistochrone problem and modern control theory

Nyquist frequency of a concept?

We get stories much faster than we can make sense of them, informed by cellphone pictures and eyewitnesses found on social networks and dubious official sources like police scanner streams. Real life moves much slower than these technologies. There’s a gap between facts and comprehension, between finding some pictures online and making sense of how they fit into a story. What ends up filling that gap is speculation. -Farhad Manjoo, Breaking News Is Broken

This past week in ECE3704 (Continuous and Discrete Systems) we have been exploring what happens to the information in a continuous-time signal when it is sampled and again what happens when discrete samples are reconstructed into a continuous time signal. Here is an example:

https://blogs.lt.vt.edu/shebang/files/2013/04/thumb.signal.png

The solid blue line is the continuous time signal \(x(t)=e^-t\) and the black dots are samples of the signal taken at intervals of 0.5 seconds (the sampling period). This process of sampling a signal is a necessity of living in a (mostly) continuous-time world when processing data using a (theoretically) discrete-time device such as a digital computer. Once we have our information nicely digitized we can poke, prod and manipulate it using the wealth of digital tools at our disposal before converting it back to a continuous-time representation that we then observe, commonly in the form of visual or audible signals. The question arises: what does the act of sampling and reconstruction have on the final output that we see and hear? How faithful is the input/output relationship of our original and constructed signal using our digital technology to the ideal relationship. An illustrative example would be the combination of wireless and wired networks that make up the communication channel used to transmit the data associated with a cell phone call. Ideally, the receiver would hear an exact transcript of the audible information as produced by the caller, or at least as exact as it would have been if the two were face to face. In reality the best we can usually hope for is an approximate reconstruction that is “good enough”. Here is the reconstruction of our previously sampled signal, overlaid on the original for comparison.

thumb.signal_con.png

Clearly the reconstructed signal is not a faithful duplicate of the original, but why is this the case, and what could we do to make it better? We gain some insight by taking a Fourier transform of the sampled signal to generate a frequency spectrum which we can then compare with the frequency spectrum of the original.

thumb.magX.png

The ability to view the signal from this vantage point makes some features of the sampling process easy to see that otherwise would not be obvious looking at the time-domain representation, namely, we note that the frequency spectrum of the continuous time signal can potentially live on the entire infinite frequency axis,

thumb.magXstar.png

while the sampled signal is restricted to a finite frequency interval, the interval between plus and minus and half the sampling frequency, between the dashed red lines (it turns out that the frequency spectrum of all real-valued signals has a negative component that mirrors the positive spectrum. Who knew?).

The dashed red lines are drawn at plus and minus 2*pi radians/sec, the information starts repeating after this, shown by the green curve. Note that 2*pi rad/sec is one half the sampling frequency of 4*pi rad/sec. Viewing the information in this form allows us to intuit why we might not be able to uniquely reconstruct all sampled signals perfectly: The act of sampling is restricting the domain on which we can encode information to a finite interval, so we can conclude that sampled versions of continuous-time signals that make use of the entire infinite frequency axis will never contain all the information of the original signal, and for those signals that are naturally bandlimited we will need to choose our sampling frequency in such a way that finite frequency interval of the discrete-time signal is large enough to contain all the information in the original. This leads to the Nyquist sampling theorem which states that if the sampling frequency is greater than twice the bandlimit of the original signal then the signal can be uniquely reconstructed from its samples.

In a recent post, Adam commented that we (humans, though this most likely applies to any non-humans able to read and comprehend this just as well) engage in a sampling and reconstruction process every time we communicate a thought. Concepts and ideas live in the continuous domain (at least, so it seams, not being an expert in neuroscience perhaps one could make a sound argument that thoughts are in fact discrete, but for today’s purposes I think it would not be egregiously inaccurate to compare them to continuous-time signals), and yet there are only so many words we have available to us when communicating those thoughts. What’s more, we can’t be sure that another sentient being will hear the words we are using and reconstruct our original thought perfectly. In fact, it’s likely that this imperfect reconstruction of communicated thought results in a great deal of innovation and creativity and “thinking outside the box”, so it’s certainly not always a bad thing, just a thing. But it’s a thing we don’t really have any tools to quantitatively analyze. How much off the original information was lost or distorted by the conversion into language or another medium? How far from the original thought is the reconstructed thought (assuming we can even define a metric space for concepts).

It would seem that some thoughts, like signals, have bandlimited information content, while others may not. The feeling expressed by the phrase “I am thirsty” is fairly well understood (even if we don’t really understand what the essence of “I” is). There are some variations: “I am very thirsty”, “I am parched”, etc. but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that that particular thought can be accurately communicated in a finite number of words (generally about 3). I’m not sure I could make that claim about some others, like the concept of “I”. Are there more parallels between sampling theory and communication through a medium? It would seem that like signals, some ideas can be sampled and reconstructed accurately, while others can not. Are there any tools available that parallel Fourier analysis for signals that could yield a different view of the information contained in a raw idea or concept? Does it even make sense to talk about such a tool?

Cheating by the Rules

Is it still cheating if the rules are made up?

Successful and fortunate crime is called virtue.

  • Seneca

During our discussion about Lucasfilm’s Habitat earlier in the week we talked a lot about how the lessons learned by the designers for effectively building a virtual world mirrored a lot of what we knew about building a virtual world in the real world.

Woah, what? Don’t I mean mirrored by our real actions in the real world? Or the real things we have built in the real world?

Not really, the more I thought about it, the more I notice similarities between the virtual environment that Morningstar and Farmer built and our own world, commonly called “the real world”.

Keeping “Reality” Consistent

As we have discussed before in class, it seems that most people understand on some level that their own core values differ, sometimes significantly, from what our society visibly places value on. We talked about what it means to truly experience life and many of us painted images of being in nature and absorbing all the sights, sounds, and sensations that were available. We know what we need to sustain life (sufficient food and shelter) and we know what we need to be happy (close, meaningful relationships with those around us). And yet look at the world we have created for ourselves. Today, we essentially live in what Morningstar and Farmer called an “experiential level”, this is the level in which the rules that we follow are the rules that were constructed to facilitate the illusion. It is somewhat removed from the “infrastructure level”, and it seems as time goes on, there is less and less “leakage” between the two levels. Morningstar and Farmer would be proud.

To be fair, they were writing in the context of a game designed for the purposes of allowing a player to (temporarily) allow themselves to be overcome by the illusion for entertainment. If that’s the goal, then yes, a leak-free relationship between the “infrastructure level” and the “experiential level” would seem necessary. But have we inadvertently set up the same type of structure in our “real” world?

It is both interesting and suggestive that we often use the same word to describe the rules we use to govern ourselves as the rules we have deduced govern the universe. The laws of physics are not ones that often are showcased in our courts of law, and yet the concept of a “law” seems to be somehow applicable to both. Is it surprising then that we often think a particular action is impossible because “it’s against the law”

There was a time when many protested that humans were not meant to fly, for it went against the laws of nature. Gravity, and a dense body structure, kept us firmly rooted on the ground, who were we to argue with the laws of nature? And yet, we figured out a way to cheat.

But it’s not really cheating if we’re playing by the rules. We just learned the rules well enough to discover a loophole. Of course, I am somewhat intentionally misconstruing the situation. The “law” of gravity never said “humans may not fly” (and for now let’s ignore the pesky question of whether or not we are flying, or our machines are and we’re just along for the ride). The point is, we are continuously refining our understanding of the “laws” of nature, but the laws themselves, the underlying equations that govern the universe, are not themselves being modified with our increased understanding.

Our own laws and abstractions are of course much more mutable, but it makes sense that we wouldn’t treat them as such. After all, laws would quickly loose their meaning if we were re-writing them willy-nilly. But I wonder if sometimes we are so immersed in our own virtual reality that we forget that it is virtual.

The resent series of financial “crisis” comes to mind. During the whole debacle, every time someone talked about the impending doom that would be upon us if we didn’t act (or if we did, or if we acted incorrectly…) I wanted to shake them and say, “you do know we’re making this all up, don’t you?”

It’s interesting that people will express surprise, skepticism, or disbelief when they encounter a gamer who has exchanged virtual goods for real world money to purchase and consume actual physical food. “People actually will pay you for something that’s not even real?”

Why are they so shocked? People on Wall Street have known this for decades.

steroids.png

Digital amplifier: the tweet heard ’round the world

Sometimes, in the face based modern world we live in, it feels like we’re living in the future. But all it takes is the watchful eye of the Internet, and specifically, its uncanny, sometimes disruptive tendency to amplify lurking social ills to remind us we are still very much in the past.

Last week, PyCon nearly ended quietly, without causing much of ruckus, as all good annual gatherings of open source software developers strive for. The organizers of PyCon understand the importance of diversity in the technology field, a currently white male dominated field, have worked hard to create an environment that is open and welcome to everyone, and in case there’s any confusion, they have a published code of conduct.

So when Adria Richards grew frustrated with two men making lewd jokes behind her at a closing talk she snapped their picture and tweeted

Moments later, PyCon staff saw her tweet, responded and escorted the two men into the hallway. The situation was resolved with minimal disruption. It would have all been finished, and we wouldn’t be still talking about it now if it hadn’t been for the first inappropriate response to the, up until this point, fairly minor ordeal.

The company for which the two men were working for, and representing at PyCon, made the decision to fire one of them. The company sited multiple contributing factors, not just the joke, but the timing was extreamly poor on their part if they really didn’t want to connect the termination to the joke incident.

And then the Internet exploded.

Adria Richards got a man fired. A man who had three children to feed. The Internet was not pleased. And to show its displeasure it sent Adria death threats, rape threats, racial epithets and suggested that she consider suicide. A group of hackers, some claiming to be Anonymous, initiated a series of DDOS attacks on her employer’s servers demanding that they fire her for retribution.

And because SendGrid, the company employing Adria, had no spine, they gave into the mob and publicly fired her. It was the easy thing to do, after all.

Justice served?

Bloggers the tech world over chimed in with their support or critique. Many asking whether she should have posted the photo of the two men and how she should have handled the incident differently, in a more lady-like fashion. Many jumped on a post by Amanda Blum that proved Richards “acted out” like this on more than one occasion, though Blum mentioned that she does not like Adria personally, and criticized her actions at PyCon, she did bring up the point that

Within 24 hours, Adria was being attacked with the vile words people use only when attacking women.

And this is the real issue, I think. And the bashful excuses from members of the tech community (both men and women) that “this is just how tech conferences are”, and “she should have a thicker skin”. The voices that suggest she shouldn’t have responded because the lewd comments were likely not directed at her seem to miss the point completely.

But at least we’re talking about it. Soon after the event the organizers of PyCon put the Code of Conduct up on GitHub, a popular open source hosting service, and invited members of the community to collaborate on changes in light of recent events. The community responded by adding language to the policy that prohibits public shaming. This is not unreasonable, and probably desirable and consistent with a “innocent until proven guilty” mentality. But unless a clear, easy communication path is given to report incidents as quickly and efficiently as twitter, in a private manner is provided, this could also be seen as a measure to silence others who may feel the need to speak out about poor conduct, but for whatever reason (and there are many) do not feel comfortable addressing the individuals directly.

The issue is not limited to sex or race, it is a larger one. Folks who are empowered by the status quo, whether they’re conscious of their priveledge or not, do not like the status quo challenged. Christie Koehler blogged about the incident from that perspective

It’s not easy because the tactics available to those who oppose institutional oppression are limited and judged by the very institution that is oppressive.

Those who benefit from the status quo, whether they realize it or not, have a vested interested in maintaining that status quo. That means working to ensure that any threat to it is rendered ineffectual. The best way to do that is to discredit the person who generated the threat. If the threat is the reporting of a transgressive act that the dominant social class enjoys with impunity, then the reaction is to attack the person who reported it.

And when it comes down to it, the vast majority of the negative backlash against Richards and her company (and none that I’ve heard of towards PlayHaven, the company that actually fired the male developer and started the whole fiasco) comes down to defending the status quo with a passion. People will fight for their place of privilege. They will fight hard and they will fight dirty.

And the very sordid nature of their fight will continue to prove unequivocally why we need to keep challenging the status quo until we create a world that is welcoming to all.

More reading:
Why Asking What Adria Richards Could have done different is the wronge question
Adria Richards did Everything Exactly Right

We are the medium? (director’s cut)

A couple weeks ago while reading Laurel’s, “The Six Elements and the Causal Relations Among Them” I had a bit of a moment at

…the orthodox view of Aristotle’s definitions of spectacle and melody leaves out too much material. As scholars are wont to do, I will blame the vagaries of translation, figurative language, and mutations introduced by centuries of interpretation for this apparent lapse and proceed to advocate my own view.

As I went through that passage I thought about Aristotle starting the discussion over 2000 years prior, but rather than focusing on Aristotle as a conscious, active agent, my brain took an interesting twist. For a brief moment the message itself, in this case, a conversation regarding the nature of drama, was a full fledged organism. Living, moving, evolving. It depended on Aristotle for survival, without a medium, a message is… I will leave that as an exercise for the reader, but regardless, to the message, Aristotle was no different than the cells that make up our body are to us. Sure, I know without the cells that make up my body I (whatever “I” is) wouldn’t exist, but I don’t particularly care WHICH cells are part of the structure that my “I” sits on and likewise, this message about drama was indifferent to the fact that Aristotle was Aristotle. In fact it probably didn’t even bat an ‘i’ when it hopped off of Aristotle onto its next host, morphing a bit in the process, and onward until at some point in its ongoing life, Laurel happened to pick it up and it experienced yet another one of countless moments of evolution.

To the lifespan of an idea, at least the potential lifespan, a human life lasts a mere instant. Whether or not a message experiences a lifespan that long depends entirely on its survivable in the environment at the time. Yes, this sounds a lot like Richard Dawkins’ concept of a meme and no doubt the thoughts about memes that I had bouncing around in my head played some part in triggering this shift in perception from the human carrier as the source/center/agent to the message itself as the agent.

And it was a humbling experience. To an immortal message human lives are blinking in and out of existences continually. And just as we shed cells that are replaced by new ones, so too do new brains fill in the gaps to hold the message aloft as old ones die off. If we view the message as a collection of juggling balls it is alive and well while the balls are in the air. Someone has to be there doing the juggling, but it doesn’t particularly matter to the message who that is, just as long as when the current entertainer reaches the end of his/her short time someone else is around to catch the balls before they fall. Viewed from above then, the planet appears to be covered in morphing, swelling sea of color, that upon closer inspection is made up of countless individual juggling balls seeming to float around and interact with each other on their own accord.

And what if that’s all any one of us, as an individual is, just a medium for the message?

I suppose depending on your frame of mind that could feel like a depressing thought. To me it wasn’t and isn’t. In fact, I would go far as to say I draw upon that metaphor to stay motivated and find meaning in my own life. Because if it is true that I am a medium, and the message is what matters, then I’m part of something bigger than I could ever grasp on my own. I have the potential to contribute to something that will have lasting effect on the world and while my individual life may be relatively short, it will not be without purpose.

P.S. This turned out to be way more meaning-of-lifey than I had intended.

P.P.S. 42

About Time: Idioms About Time

TL;DR:

In the comments below please post, in your native language, or a non-English language in which you are fluent:

  1. how you would ask someone what time it is, and the literal word-for-word translation into English
  2. how you would ask someone where you are and the literal word-for-word translation into English

I wonder if I should stop being surprised when topics I’ve discussed separately with separate people all start to relate. On Monday I talked about idioms in ECE2524 and made some comparisons between idioms in programming languages to idioms in spoken languages. As I thought about examples of idioms I noticed there were quite a lot about time:

  • on time
  • about time
  • in time
  • next time

just to name a few (I’ve somewhat intentionally left out more complex examples like “a watched pot never boils”, “better late than never”, etc.). Today in vtclis13 we discussed McCloud’s “Time Frames”, a comic that explores the various ways time and motion are represented in comics. Inevitably we talked about the different ways of talking about and perceiving time, from the relativistic physical properties of the dimension, to our own personal perception of the passage of time, and how in both cases the rate of time can change based on the environment. Time is such a funny thing. We often talk about it as if we know what we’re talking about and we take various metrics for granted: In the U.S. what is it about taking 16 trips around the sun that makes someone ready to drive a car? 2 more orbits and we’re deemed ready to vote, and after a total of 21 orbits, after we have been on the Earth as it has traveled through about 19,740,000,000 kilometers relative to the sun, we are legally able to purchase alcohol.

But if Einstein’s forays into relativity have taught us anything it is that nothing about time is absolute as we generally have an intuition for. And so I became curious about the idioms we use to talk about time and how they differ from culture to culture, language to language. Dr. C put my thought into a question: “Are idioms about time especially diverse?”. And so, through this little survey, I would like to explore that question by gathering some time idioms in the comments section, please refer back to the first paragraph for specific instructions!

About Time

Reading the “Time Frames” comic about depicting time in comics made me think about Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos in which he uses several metaphors and visualizations to help explain the nature of this thing we call time. We tend to think we know what “now” is, and think of it as a snapshot of the current state of the world. That model suffices in our day-to-day lives quite nicely, but it isn’t a very good model of the concept of time on a universe-sized scale. Einstein’s famous Theory of relativity states that time and space are closely related, and that perception of both time and space is relative to the observer. The concept of “now” is also relative. Greene uses the metaphor of a loaf of bread, the long axis representing time, and a “slice” of the loaf representing an instant in time across a 2D universe. The angle at which the bread is sliced depends on an observer’s relative motion, with a maximum angle of 45 degrees corresponding to a maximum velocity of the speed of light. Two observers, Bob and Alice at different relative velocities would have slices at different angles, and so their “now” slices would intersect at some line in space. In Bob’s “now” some events in Alice’s “now” haven’t happened yet, they are in Bob’s “future”, while others are in Bob’s “past”. Time is an elusive concept, just when we think we know what we’re talking about we get hit with something like “my ‘now’ isn’t the same as your ‘now’”. It’s no wonder there are so many ways to depict its passage in the comic medium!

On a slightly related tangent, the medium used can have some interesting affects on our perception of time and motion. In this video, recorded at 25 frames per second, a stream of falling water appears to freeze in time, or even flow backwards, when it interacts with sound waves at or near 25Hz. It’s not really an optical illusion, more of a media illusion.