Archive for the 'Computers' Category

Making Social Media Roles Model Real Life

Facebook released new content sharing/filtering rules today and it got me to wondering why these social network sites make such a fundamental thing as modeling roles and relationships so difficult.

It seems in real life you have a version of (or role for) yourself that you expose to these general groups:

  • You
  • Family
  • Close friends (usually less than 10)
  • Coworkers
  • Schoolmates
  • Acquaintances (usually less than 100)
  • Special Interest/Group/Club/Hobby Members
  • General Public

So I have always been baffled why social content sites don’t use a similar model and let you simply check off which of these groups/roles you wish to publish/expose your content to. 

The Ben Franklin adage that you should “not do anything you don’t want to read about in tomorrow’s paper” is particularly apt in the social media world.  Especially given the number of stories about folks who were fired because coworkers or others saw inappropriate content intended only for close friends (advice on avoiding this here).  So for me personally, I have little interest in most social media until they can get the roles and relationships aspect right. 

To me, Flickr always seemed like the best/easiest site for doing this, but is nonetheless still somewhat restrictive because it only provides 4 role categories: private (you), friend, family, public (I think if they added a coworker category it would be a fairly complete and simple to use model).

Can I be Your Friend?

Can I be Your Friend?

One of the problems with translating this simple model into the social-media world is that 2 people don’t always have the same view of a relationship.  Unlike your own private consciousness where you can define someone’s role and meaning to you without them knowing, in the social media world, people often know the role that you have assigned them.  You might be afraid that calling someone an “Acquaintance” rather than a “Friend” might hurt their feelings.  Or over time as relationships change, a “Friend” might become an “Acquaintance” and then eventually someone you hardly know at all.  “Demoting” these people from “Friend” to “Acquaintance” might also cause hurt feelings. 

The simple solution to this problem is to simply not let people know what you think their role is; this setting should be kept private and known only to you.  One again, the real world provides a compelling solution to even this dilemma.  The real world – now there is a concept for the Facebook generation.

10 Years of WWILF’ing, Information Smog, and Distractions

First Computer ReceiptAlmost as if it was longing to be found and remembered on its tenth anniversary, I came across this receipt today for the first computer I ever purchased – 10 years ago today*. 

As I ponder this anniversary of sorts, it might be useful to reflect on what has changed in the 10 years since I first brought such an object (and many subsequent ones) into my house.

Firstly, computers have proliferated in my house like Tribbles, I have a basement full of relics (including this first one) and 3 of them within 10 feet of where I now sit (not even counting things like MP3 Players, GPS’s, etc.).

The wife’s irritation at their presence and the time I spend in front of them has oscillated back and forth between mild and serious annoyance.

I gained the freedom to do some work from home as well as the expectation from employers that I do work from home.  Home and work life have morphed into a single entity – but at least I now leave work on time and always make it home for supper.  Even if right after supper I am back to checking email.  

I have only read a handful of books and never again subscribed to a newspaper.  I haven’t been to a library or opened an encyclopedia in years.

I have spent probably no more than a single hour of continuous concentration on any one single thing.  A constant stream of emails, IMs, and many other digital distractions have all contributed to this attention deficit. 

More positively, as my treasured family photos have migrated to sites like Flickr, I no longer live in fear that a house fire would permanently destroy these precious items. 

Reflecting on all of this, it is useful to remember a time not so long ago when computers and the Internet were not an integral part of our daily lives.  And also perhaps worry just a bit, that the negative trends listed (the constant communications, interruptions, intrusions) will only multiply at an ever-increasing rate until we become little more than computer processors ourselves. 

Overall, looking at the past ten years, one can see that this new media age, like the TV-age that preceded it, holds the promise of even greater convenience and access to information, while taking away things like solitude and concentration.  How you feel about that I guess depends on which of those things you value more.  But enough concentration for one hour (and one decade) – time to get back to WWILF’ing** and another 10 years of digital distraction.

                                                                                                                  

* It is also interesting to recall the fact that by 1998 I had worked as a computer programmer for over 2 years before I could even get enough money together to afford one.  The first year of work, I didn’t even have a computer on my desk.

** WWILF = What Was I Looking For?

Fighting with Windows Vista to Register COM Components

With great trepidation, I starting developing on my Windows Vista machine this month.  Although I had gotten the Vista computer last August, it was just too unreliable for me to risk my daily productivity with.  This unreliability included things like being unable to perform the very basic functions of an Operating System, such as file management.  Just a few examples of things I’ve encountered: 

  1. Couldn’t copy files because of an “Out of Memory” error (description and Vista Hotfix)
  2. Frequent File Explorer and Windows Photo Gallery crashes and lock ups when you rename a file (no workaround)
  3. Copying and extracting zip files is excruciatingly slow (description and workaround)

I generally like new technologies and I definitely like to see when User Interfaces are redesigned to make them easier to use.  Some of that happened with Vista but in general it is unreliable bloatware that will only serve to further diminish Microsoft’s reputation and market share.

But while I could carp about the technology failure that is Vista all day, the primary point of this post is to offer a few hints and “Gotchas” for those unfortunate souls who still need to do ATL/COM development.  Vista adds User Account Control security which adds some requirements for registering COM components.   So here is the advice:

  1. Create a shortcut to Visual Studio.NET that is set to “Run as Administrator” (Properties | Shortcut Tab | Advanced | Run As Administrator Checkbox)
    • Even though your account is an “Administrator” account in Vista, unless you select the “Run as Administrator” option your regsvr32 calls made during the build will fail.
    • Creating a shortcut and setting this option is the easiest way to do this so you won’t forget
  2. If like me, you create batch files to regsvr32 a bunch of COM dlls/components, you may suddenly notice that these batch scripts don’t work in Vista (even when you Run as Administrator).  To make these work in Vista:
    • Follow the same steps as above for creating a shortcut to the batch file and setting to Run as Administrator
    • When you Run as Administrator a batch file, Vista sets the current directory to C:\Windows\system32 (versus running from the current directory like it used to in the good ‘ol days), so you need to change the current directory back in your batch file
    • So here is a sample modified regsvr32 batch:

REM Stuff Added to get regsvr32 batch to run in Vista

REM Change the directory back to where this ran from (instead of System32)
set INSTALL_PATH=C:\MyFiles\PATH-TO-COM-Dlls\bin
cd %INSTALL_PATH%

REM Original Stuff that ran pre-Vista

regsvr32 MyCOMComponent.dll
pause

Of Mindpixels and Madness

Following a somewhat ignominious tradition started by Alan Turing*, the modern-day father of computer science and artificial intelligence (AI), 2 more prominent AI researchers committed suicide within a few months of each other as reported in this excellent article in Wired Magazine

One of the now-deceased researchers was Chris McKinstry who formed the MindPixel project, which I became interested in when I read this I, Cringely article several years ago on the subject.  The MindPixel project was a database of atomic, discrete expressions/thoughts (those would be the MindPixels**) entered by volunteers.  The thinking was that this database could then be used to build higher-order thinking in machines.  As a notable exception to the dot-com bust companies of the time, this project actually had (a) a well-defined goal and (b) an attainable business plan for reaching this goal.  Nonetheless, MindPixel failed to spark any mainstream business or technical interest or achieve appreciable success, and this may have been caused, at least in part, by McKinstry’s own sometimes eccentric and abrasive personality.

As also detailed in the Wired Article, following an eerily similar path, Push Singh was working on a similar subject matter, the Open Mind Common Sense project with many of the same goals as MindPixel.  In contrast to McKinstry, who most would agree had a somewhat unstable personality, Singh seemed to be the very picture of professional success and stability.  Yet such appearances are rarely good predictors for suicide.  And sadly, it seems that Singh’s initial depression was the result of poorly managed pain that resulted from a back injury.   

So what are we to learn from these 2 unfortunate souls driven to despair and suicide?  Are scientists who work on difficult problems more likely to commit suicide?  BBC had a documentary “Dangerous Knowledge (video here)” which looked at the lives, accomplishments, descent into insanity, and sometimes suicides of 4 prominent scientists (including Cantor who drove me a bit mad with set theory and orders of infinity).  But I don’t think highly driven people and geniuses are any more or less prone to depression or suicide than the rest of us. 

If anything is to be learned from any suicide it is to try to seek out help and treatment before attempting this “permanent solution to a temporary problem.”  Even if you are not a Turing, McKinstry, and Singh, you no doubt still have much to contribute to the world.      


* Alan Turing himself followed a tradition started by Oscar Wilde of being criminally prosecuted by the British for homosexuality and then dieing in his mid-40s.

** Google is also trying to define something similar to a MindPixel with its concept of the “knol (knowledge unit)” though these knols seem to be much higher ordered concepts (articles in fact) 

A Blog Entry on the Sinister Nature of Blog Entries

Or “Why the Future (of Mass-Media) Doesn’t Need Us”

Rage Against The MachineI simply love it when someone presents a really good (meaning reasonably well thought-out) contrarian view to widely held and agreed-upon notions.  Such as Bill Joy did with his anti-technology argument in “Why the Future doesn’t Need Us.”  Another grumpy technology-kill-joy by the name of Andrew Keenhas been making the rounds lately, griping about “these kids today,” what with their modern-day Frisbees (MySpace), Rock-n-Roll (YouTube), and Hula-Hoops (Blogs).  He is pimping his new book “The Cult of the Amateur” and appeared on the PBS Newshour a while back.  

There is a Point Here Somewhere

Now, it would be easy to dismiss as a hack and a Luddite someone whose only experience with the Internet was running a dot.com-bubble-era company into the ground (audiocafe.com).  But amid the clutter and shrillness of his argument, there is some useful meaning to be extracted somewhere in the mire of Keen’s digital diatribe.  While Keen’s gripes are so many it is often hard to see his overarching premise or exactly what he is saying the real problems are, the theme seems to be this:

We are losing high quality media content in favor of the lower quality, user-generated content of Web 2.0.  “The so-called ‘democratization’ of the Internet is actually undermining reliable information and high-quality entertainment”

Just in the first chapter of his book (which you can read here), he bounces freely between topics ranging from

  • “Digital Darwinianism, Survival of the Loudest and Most Opinonated” i.e. problems with
    • The pure chaos and noise of the flattened internet information model
    • The inability to find reliable, high quality information
  • Dismay that Search Engines are the new Big Bother (“1984 2.0“)
    • True enough, people enter their most private thoughts/questions into these commercial tools
    • These commercial tools then turn this very personal information into a means of selling advertising and products
  • (A possibly misguided belief) that free content sites, such as YouTube (in the case of TV) and craigslist (in the case of newspapers), are cannibalizing and destroying legitimate paid content venues
  • Justifiable authorship concerns
    • Source, bias, and reliability of information
    • Skill, quality, and experience
    • Copyright, loss of income
  • A general lamentation on the pure inanity of it all and ultimate further dumbing down of the culture.

Cult of the Amateur Cover

O Tempora! O Mores! – Oh the times! Oh the morals!

Since some of Keen’s primary targets (along with YouTube and Wikipedia) are blogs, I find it a little ironic that when I wanted to find out more about this intriguing character that I was directed where?  You guessed it – to his blog at http://andrewkeen.typepad.com/.  Also, there was a Wikipedia article and some YouTube videos, but I won’t rub that in – I guess blogs and YouTube are OK for him and his “high quality content” but not for the ordinary rabble.

As far as Keen’s observations go, they are much like Joy’s – big on problems, not so good on proposed solutions.  The book is half polemic and half hyperbole.  He cherry picks the best of traditional media, the Bob Dylans and the New York Times-es, while completely ignoring the very same “corrupt, trivial, and inane” aspects that he is criticizing in Web 2.0. 

For argument effect, Keen sometimes makes statements that surely he can not truly believe.  For instance, he repeats the myth that craigslist ads cannibalize local newspaper revenue.  Does anyone who has ever been to craigslist believe 1) someone would actually pay for most of these ads or 2) these ads would ever appear in a newspaper?  Is there anyone who has ever paid $50 for a 15 word, 1-day newspaper classified ad that didn’t feel a little bit exploited themselves?

The Problems According to Keen

Internet as a “Chaos of Useless Information” and “Libertarian Anarchy”

The Internet has resulted in less culture, less reliability, less organization, and less ability to find high quality information.  Bloggers and other amateurs simply lack the resources to produce quality content in terms of being able to travel, assemble teams, gain internal access to facilities, and hire editors/quality control personnel. 

At some point we need trained experts to filter information for us and tell the masses what are the most important issues of the day.  To extract any value from information, we need hierarchy, organization, and expertise.

“Digital Narcissism”

He remarks that there are “a hundred million bloggers all simultaneously talking about themselves.”  True enough, people are showing off, bragging, revealing inane details about themselves, and putting virtually their whole lives on the Internet. 

Internet as an “Echo Chamber” and as a Great Divider

We are staying in places on Internet that just echo/reflect our own ideas.  We aren’t being exposed to different and diverse ideas and cultures but are becoming further isolated and stratified.  We go to the Internet just “to confirm what we already believe.”

We don’t know our own neighbors but we intimately know the videos of YouTubers and the ideas of bloggers (many who just share our own ideas).  “Internet democratization … is not improving community. It’s not increasingly developing rich conversation.  It’s not building collaboration.”  There is a “fragmentation of taste” and a “channel for every one of us in which we are the solitary broadcaster and sole audience.”  

Internet Anonymity

Because of anonymity, we will never truly know the motivation behind those who produce the content and therefore can’t judge the reliability.  And as Keen calls it, “an anonymous culture where people seem to be perpetually insulting one another.”  The Internet manifestation of the anonymous driver “sticking up his middle finger.”

The Internet as a Reflection of Ourselves

The Internet shows the lighter and darker aspects of humanity.  It is “youthfulness, playfulness, energy, and excitement.”  But it is also “addiction to pornography and  gambling,” as well as all of the other unhealthy aspects of the Internet: compulsive and impulsive shopping (eBay), incessant chattering, and virtually any other unhealthy human habit in digital form.  Keen makes an excellent point here and we very seldom hear about the addictive and unhealthy nature of Internet activities.    

The Solutions

In Keen’s own words (on the NewsHour), he says

“[Internet self-expressers should] should ask themselves, “Is this really valuable?  Do I need to tell the world what I’m eating for breakfast?  Do I need to tell the world what I think of the latest TV show?”  Much of the self-expression on the Internet is wasteful. …” 

He also suggests that, in free societies (one can argue whether this ever truly exists), there is no need for anonymity on the Internet.  He believes removing anonymity would quickly self-correct problems with unreliable and uncouth information. 

An Inane Blogger’s Take on Keen

Who knew icanhascheezburger, Chris Crocker, the Numa-Numa kid, or the Chocolate Rain guy could wreak such havoc?  Is time spent watching inanity on the Internet any less wasteful than time spent watching inanity on TV?  If this original “high quality media” was so great, why would people even be seeking out other alternatives?  And isn’t actively producing content such as blogs or other media, no matter how inane, more beneficial than merely passively absorbing content. 

Exactly which of these Web 2.o sites is the villain? 

  • Blogs and Social Networking sites: MySpace, FaceBook, LinkedIn, etc.
  • Photos and Videos: Flickr and YouTube
  • Encyclopedias: Wikipedia, Math World
  • Media Discussion and Aggregation: Forums, Digg, Slashdot

And do any of these sites not have an analogue in the non-Internet world (even if the barrier of entry is now considerably less)?

I find that I read much more news than I ever did before when I received newspapers.  And I find the quality of the content, even the novice-generated content, much higher.

It just seems like the old Cathedral versus Bazaar argument.  That there is only one traditional way to produce content and it must be handed out by those content elites.  More recently this argument was made with Proprietary versus Open Source Software

But Keen’s elitist argument has been repeated again and again down through the ages.  That is that there should be centralized gatekeepers who tell the population what they should think, how they should behave, or what they should consume.  Be these gatekeepers high priests, politicians, or modern-day media moguls.

In the final analysis, as Keen points out, the Internet, and now Web 2.0, for good or ill, is like all media, be it cuneiform or stone slabs: a Mirror of Ourselves.  Hopefully this time not just a lazier, darker, and more inane reflection and manifestation of ourselves.

Jesus and the Parable of the Wii Sports Boxing Game

“Two men went up to the video console to play;
one was a gamer, and the other was a ….”

…pretty good likeness of Jesus Christ. That’s right, while watching my son play the Wii the other day, I could swear that his boxing opponent was the splitting image of Jesus. Not the look and build of your typical boxer.

 Wii Jesus “Mii” in a Boxing Match

I might otherwise believe it was pure coincidence except when the virtual boxing opponent knocked him down I thought I heard him mutter “I smite thee Pharisee and tax-collector!”

Now, before Nintendo sends a team of lawyers over to my house, I should acknowledge that I am only kidding about this last paragraph (the boxer could be any Renaissance-era Italian and I believe he merely speaks in grunts).

But seeing such potential controversy in a simple video game reminded me of how easy it is to see religious symbolismand metaphysical machinations in the most banal of objects and images – from a grilled cheese sandwich (on sale at my ebay store) to a plague of locusts (OK, maybe that’s not a good example).

It also harkened me back to the nascent, innocent days of the web when viral urban legends would propagate in my email’s inbox like so much pathogenic paramecia.  For instance, remember the Wingdings “NYC” fonts controversy.

NYC “Symbolism”

At the time of the controversy, as usual, professional debunkers Penn Jillette and Barbara Mikkelson(Snopes.com) assured us that there was no animosity or sinister plot lurking in the arrangement of symbols in the Wingdings font (although Microsoft acknowledged there was forethought into the earlier Webdings arrangement).  

Now if I could only be similarly assured that this Wii boxing opponent wasn’t Jesus, I might be able to fight back without fear of eternal damnation.

Please forgive him, for he knows not what he does...