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Category Archives: 3-Travelogue

Question the 4th travelogue and Interface!

We’re all well ahead in our third and rich travelogue, one (or two) weeks in, two more to go + Next week’s subject is Interface!

This is the “define your question” phase. I want each of you to publish a post titled with your question and using your medium of choice. I expect one or more post from you this week. For some it would be a weekly audio / video / visual / locative post, and for some just an update on your longer (video/software…) project (ask me if you feel unsure about what’s expected from you). Either way, each of you please comment 4 times this week on your friends posts.

Some important tip for video & audio podcast

  • Video / Audio Formats – iTunes (for both Mac & PC) has an option to ‘save for ipod & iphone’ (for video) & to ‘convert to MP3′ (for audio). Both of these options will make your podcasts compatible with most podcasting devices and more accessible by all of us. By the way, to subscribe to our podcast feed use this link with iTunes (or other podcast aggregation):
    http://cultureandcommunication.org/tdm/s10/feed/podcast
  • Be casual, not too casual – I think the recommendations on this site might be relevant both for screencasts, vodcasts and for podcasts. Either way, building a bullet-pointed scenario cannot be a bad idea, as it would leave you some more freedom from the tight text while keeping you on the right track. Remember, you are not making an audio-book.
  • You are beautiful – But ask yourselves, do we really need to see your faces? Maybe we do, but maybe the frame can be better used to support your content visually, screencasts are a good example for that, when they fit. If you don’t really have anything to show, maybe video is not the medium you need, maybe stick to voice only… think about it.
  • Slideshows – are visual supplementary to presentations. They are great to review after you’ve seen the presentation or if they are accompanied by audio. To use them as a standalone series of textual bullet points is an interesting experiment, but it does hold its own challenges.
  • Support your media – rich media is rich, but it can’t do everything, for example, it usually cannot link to a site. If you want us to get more informed, link to the relevant content in your posts.
  • Share your experiences – Feel free to comment on this post, or even write a whole new one if you think there are other things you’ve learned that others can enjoy from.
  • Add to the Resources page – Some of the titles there are still unpopulated, we want to document the techniques you are using so they can be shared by all. Please edit the page.

Required reading / viewing / assignment:

  • Are We In Control Of Our Own Decisions? TED presentation by Dan Ariely
  • The Death Of The URL by Chris Messina
  • Social networking, new governing By Andrew Rasiej & Micha L. Sifry
  • Read the summary.
  • Use ShiftSpace to post a critique of an interface. This could be anything from Wikipedia’s editing syntax, through Google Chrome’s Universal Search-bar to lobbying as an interface to democracy. (reading the paper or summery will help you better understand this assignment)
  • Post a permalink to your shift on our blog (as a comment here, or a new post) with a paragraph about your intervention.
    Here’s how you can reach the permalink to your shift:
    shift-permalink

Recommended Reading:

Optional:

Juliette:

  • Go through the materials
  • Summarize it for us in a nicely accessible post to be published by Sunday 4pm, ideally running some threads between them.
  • Be prepared to present the article and lead the discussion in class.
  • Post to del.icio.us some links that expand the discussion either about the text or about key themes in it.

Enjoy!

We’ve talked about porn, now let’s talk about periods

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WebcamGate: general state of (dis-)TRUST

The webcam school spying scandal that broke in mid-February was a bombastic scoop. It offered excellent material for sensationalist media coverage, nourished paranoiac fears, and created a heated debate about security and privacy in the Internet.

Harriton High school caught spying!

15-year-old student Blake Robbins accused its school of spying

A high school in Pennsylvania that distributed about 2300 laptops to its students, has got in the spotlight of the news as it was revealed that school officials activated secretly the webcameras, even when students were at home. The scandal unfolded when the assistant principal summoned a student to her office, and accused him of “inproper behavior” consuming drugs. She based her allegations on photos that were taken by the kid’s webcam showing him eating suspicious substances at home, or what later turned out to be Mike and Ikes candy. Shortly after, the student’s parents have filed a class-action lawsuit against the school. As the scandal become public, various other students reported that they had been perplexed by the bizarre on- and off-going green lights of their laptops. The school denied that it invaded the students privacy, and explained that the software installed on the computers that allowed to remotely access the cameras was a monitoring and security device that allowed to locate laptops in case of theft. It admitted that it has activated the students’ webcams 42 times over a 14-month period to recover 28 laptops. However, the family claims that it has never reported the computer missing. The FBI is now leading its own investigation. YouTube Preview Image

However, in the era of Skype, ChatRoulette, and the ubiquitous use of security cameras and webcams, this case raises concerns about general security and privacy issues in the Internet. Similar scenarios have occurred in the past. In 2008, a woman discovered that she was webcamera-stalked by a tech guy who was supposed to repair her computer, but turned out to take about 20,000 photos of her and her friends.

The slippery slope between monitoring and spying

It is not unusual that schools monitor on their students, as a documentary segment called „How Google saved a school“ indicates. However, the Harriton WebcamGate stands out as teachers accessed the webcameras of their students in their private homes. A blogger called Stryde Hax , a part-time hacker and consultant for an Internet security company called Intrepidus Group, has investigated the case and discussed it on his blog. Stryde Hax explains that the school installed a remote monitoring product named LANRev on their laptops. Even when computer were connected outside the school networks, the track-and-monitor feature reported back to the administrator, and allowed to remotely activate the camera. As the remote control was invisible (except the brief moments when the camera lit up), and the victims were unaware about it, this software qualifies as spyware, defined as„a type of malware that is installed on computers and collects little bits information at a time about users without their knowledge.“ Abundant similar products are on the market for private use, as for example Power Spy 2010, and even skype cameras can be converted into covert snoopers. Another troubling factor is that in Harriton High school,  only official computers with monitoring/spyware were allowed, and “jailbreaking a school laptop in order to secure it or monitor it against intrusion was an offense which merited expulsion“ (source: Stryde Hax).

Two IT employees involved in the spying were placed on temporary leave while the investigations into the case continue. However, their lawyers claim that the technicians only turned on the tracking software when they believed that the computers were stolen.  They argue that the student who filed the lawsuit hadn’t paid a $55 insurance fee to take the laptop home, so technically there were authorized to track down the computer. Computer recovery softwares, like for example Prey, an open source project, seem to have become very common. Even NYU offers such a service.

In the Harriton High case, a federal court judge banned the webcam activation of the school distributed laptops, and the company that sold the tracking feature has changed the name of its program and its user policy; from now on, the end users can’t activate the remote webcam anymore.

Is it legal or not?

Does this sort of spying violate wiretapping laws? In the case of Harriton High, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) believe that it constitutes an infringement, and filed an amicus brief in support of the victim. However, the matter is not that obvious. Kevin Bankston, an attorney for EFF, explains why:

“There is no federal statute that criminalizes or creates civil liability for such secret videotaping unless it involves sound, because then it is an intercept of a verbal communication. So no one can plant a bug in your house without violating wiretapping law, but they can still plant a camera without violating federal wiretapping laws.“

A Skype-camera spy-attack would therefore be illegal. But how about monitoring  software use in a school or a company with prior consent? According to the EFF, „private schools or employers can ask you to sign away your right to privacy, but not a government entity like a public school.“ However, there is no juridical precedent, and is up to the court to give further indications. Even for the business world, the case holds important lessons learned for legal monitoring programs. Itn the past, he U.S. Supreme Court has underlined the importance of home privacy, as in 2001-ruling that reaffirmed that “police could not, without a warrant, use thermal imaging equipment outside a home to see if heat lamps were being used inside to grow marijuana.

Similar dilemmas arise also in the context of computer theft tracking software. In the beginning of March, a techie made it into the headlines in Boston when he helped the police to recover his stolen computers. Is is debatable if evidence collected in this way would be admissible in court, as it doesn’t prove who has actually stolen the computers. In addition, justice initiaves by individual citizens shouldn’t be promoted.

Who´s to blame?

The schools behavior provoked a public outcry. How could school officials abuse the trust that students and parents give them? The plaintiff argued that students were unaware of the school’s authority to track their computers. On the other hand, it becomes obvious that the responsibilty for the failure is shared. The statements issued by parents who sends his children to the Harriton High school contacted on Facebook draw a very different picture:

This means that parents knew about the feature, but haven’t discussed the full implications and privacy risks with their children or the school’s officials. Did therefore naiv trust in the school led to the spying scandal? The SANS Computer Security Institute points out that trust is the Internet’s biggest week points, as phishing and pharming- two forms of social engeneering that are based on eliciting crucial information from victims, represent one of the biggest security problems on the Internet. From this perspective, it is crucial to re-establish trust between the school and the students, indispensable for the success of the whole education system. However, the contrary point can be argued too. By installing the surveillance feature, the school proved to generally distrust its students. If the relationship would have been based on trust, the spy-problem wouldn’t have been occurred in the first place.

One for all, but not all for one?

As a commentator called willy25 points out on the comment section of ABC’s local Philadelphia television statement: “[o]nce one child’s rights have been violated, all children are at risk.” However, not all parents back the allagations against the school. In fact, the scandal has divided the school’s community. Students show their opposition to the schools policy with “LMSD [Lower Merion School District] is watching you” T-shirts. On the correspondent Facebook group, they refer to the school as a “prison.”  On the other side, many parents and kids defend the school, and have formed different anti-lawsuit groups, like LMSDParents.org / “Reasonable LMSD parents refusing to rush to judgement” (to whom belongs Jan Klinkewicz), or Parents in Support of the Lowe Merrion School District, which collects signatures for a petition to fight the lawsuit. Concerned about the financial impact of a large class-action settlement, the group held several meetings in opposition to the class-action lawsuit. At its current pace, the Lower Merion could end up spending estimating more than $1 million a year in legal fees to continue until June- at the expense of the taxpayers, the parents!

It seems that this week, a compromise has been found as lawyers for the school and the family yesterday agreed to “freeze the case for 30 days while computer experts from both sides determine how often the school used the remote tracking software, and how many students were photographed.” However, the question arises if parents would have gone trough with the lawsuit if they wouldn´t have to pay the costs out of their own pockets. Do we assist to a partial interpretation of privacy? Is the defense of civil rights a matter of financial resources? Besides these important questions, the Harriton Hight spy-case should open a wider and long-lasting debate about the education system in general, the implications of new technologies for society, and the role of both private and public actors in addressing its risks and opportunities.

Cyborgasms – Concluding Travelogue 3

“The fashionable ideology that ‘artificial’ lacks the inherent goodness of ‘natural’ is an appealing, but hopelessly simplistic notion of the intellectually chic. Artifice is the result of a deliberate intent to make. Nature also ‘makes’ things…” – Syd Mead

Language, gender, ethics and social rituals of ‘real life’ – all appear to be ‘natural’, but are in fact ‘artificial’ – constructed by a society’s ideology and discourse, in a specific historical situation. These self-referencing systems of symbols are at once liberating (for some) and constraining (for others). Fundamental changes in artifice/technology are capable of transforming this landscape, liberating those who were once constrained. Those who were once marginalized now find themselves privileged. The ‘margins’ are thus ‘folded back to the center’. But this practice creates new margins.  In turn, some other people are marginalized.

That is my conclusion after three weeks of exploring the phenomenon of the use of the internet for sexual interaction.

In the modern society, norms in courtship rituals are defined by the commercial media. For those who are not ideal consumers – such as obese teens who do not fit mass-produced clothing, isolated individuals who do not belong to predefined subcultures, desperate  adults who have lost the ability to communicate – these rituals sometimes become impossible to negotiate. “How does Web 2.0 change these norms?” I asked.

Reality

The answers were surprising, as I became a regular reader and contributor to the ‘Casual Encounters‘ section of the free classified ads website Criagslist. From Jane Austin’s protagonists to veiled women of my third-world country, gender-role constraints make women focus whatever little power they have in courtship rituals for social mobility. On Craigslist this power becomes subversive.

“My body looks like a 51 year old fat womans body, like it should,” says one woman. She has no qualms about her looks and age and is incredibly honest about it. In fact she uses them as a source of power that she can exercise on a young boy, “and if he can hold my interest out of bed, I will keep him”. Earlier in the ad, she says: “I am… looking to have a sex partner that is a White or Latino male ONLY, either 18 or 19 years of age ONLY, and must have NYS ID to prove it.” Seeking an ID is an act associated with authority, especially the police, and is the ultimate expression of who is in control here. While she might feel marginalized  because of her age, skin color and body type in the meatspace, she is certainly in control on the web. Such women, my experiments show, have a sizeable fan following.

  • Ads by mature women looking for younger guys were the most successful of all the types I posted. On the average, they received 30 responses in the first hour after posting.

    "I am a classic BBW and I love my body..."

  • BBWs were surprisingly the second most popular, with 26 responses in the first hour. These ads did not include pictures and were firm, controlling and non-descriptive. Almost all men complied with the demand for a picture in the first email. This is significant because women with higher than average weight are portrayed as unattractive, and weight is a major concern with most women.
  • Straight white female under 30, without specifying a body type, followed closely behind with an average 25 responses in the first hour.
  • Ads for straight African American women without no specific body type only received 14 responses. While this is substantially lower than other women and implies racial biases, it is significant in terms of gender, as no ad by any straight black male got any response at all.
  • Young white girls looking for mature men, although conforming the gender-role norms, received a strikingly low response of only 7 in the first hour after posting.

Men, it appears, need major PR boost. Responding to female ads, a large number of men would send pictures of only their genitals either out of privacy concerns or because of a desperate attempt at re-gaining the lost authority that they have in ‘real life’ only because of their genitals. “So what’s the secret to getting some tail on CL?” asks a user posting in the ‘w4m’ category. “All I get is spam, dudes and working girls. what am I doing wrong?” the user asks. “If you can’t tell by now I am a MALE.” Maybe that is all you’re doing wrong, I said. Being a male. While it may be useful to be a male in the meatspace, in the virtual public space of Craigslist personals, it is apparently a major disadvantage. Women make the choice and they are in control.

  • Ads by straight white males received only 6 responses on the average in the first hour. But most of them were concealed ads for dating sites and even some prostitutes (who understand that men are ready to go the ‘real-life’ way and spend money for sex). Occasionally, gay men responded too. The average number of actual responses in the first hour was: 0.33!
  • Young males looking for older women received one response in the first hour, excluding spam
  • Large males, African American males, and older males looking for younger girls received no responses other than spam.

Queers received fewer replies than women, but more than men.

  • Men looking for men and women looking for women received an average of three responses each in the first hour. Lesbian ads received the most superior responses, they were respectful, description was precise, and included face shots.
  • Transsexuals and cross-dresses looking for other people like them received two responses in the first hour, with pictures and contact details.
  • Transsexuals and cross-dressers looking for men received four responses on the average, in the first hour after posting.

The number of responses received by queers is very manageable, compared with those received by women, and significantly higher than those received by men. I look at these results not in terms of how many people write back to queers, but in terms of their ability in the first place to reach out to an audience that might not be possible without Craigslist. Overall, I think Craigslist is the most workable for queers. “I know exactly what I want tonight,” said one woman responding to a lesbian ad. “And I could use the company as well.”

Reality 2.0

Like gender, the cyberspace is a social construct. It is at once a fiction and a lived social reality. Part of my research was to go out in the 3D virtual world of IMVU and live this reality in order to observe, talk about and participate in its sexual rituals. I played as many roles as I could, limited only by my imagination and time. I also attended a virtual wedding, bought and traded slaves, helped a woman with childbirth, flew naked with a fairy like me, and got abducted and sexually tortured by a dominatrix.

As a site of escape and fantasy, the audience that IMVU attracts the most is girls aged 18 to 25. For a large number of these girls, especially from countries where their social life is more constrained, IMVU is the exclusive space for intimacy and sexual activity. For others, it is a matter of choice.

  • Cyber sex risk-free. There is no risk of disease, no liability and no social consequences.
  • It takes much less effort and resources to connect to a person like yourself in a virtual world than in real life.
  • It is anonymous and thus liberating in terms of what you can say and how you can say it.

“Where else can a girl from India fulfill her bondage fantasies?” one user remarked. “It is like reading a comic book,” said a male user. “Only better because you can participate and be someone.”

Contemplating over an appletini at a strip club for cats

The meaningfulness of their sexuality and multiple identities that form their whole selves are tied exclusively to the web – where they play not only human roles, but become cats, foxes, fairies, or monsters, blurring the boundaries between humans, machines and animals. They are cyborgs.

But as the IMVU society is getting more established, these users taking their fantasies more seriously. They take their multiple identities as parts of themselves and owning up to virtuo-social responsibilities. People now have relationships online. Although they have never met or seen their partner outside of IMVU, men do not cheat on their virtual girlfriends. If they do, “that is SO real life”. Girls, like real life, go on to get married with loyal and caring men, and have children. Others make single men spend virtual currency on them by being strippers and prostitutes.

The virtual currency can be bought with real money, and thus like many of the ‘real life’ public spaces of the modern society, commerce seems to be eroding into IMVU as well, and certain fetishised goods become symbols of authority that mean nothing in themselves but are possessed because they invest power in whoever owns them.

But despite these tendencies, women seem to generally control these courtship  and sex rituals. Both the power that women can exercise in choosing a partner and the money as the last resort for men to gain some authority are remarkably similar themes in my experiments with both Craigslist and IMVU.

“Empathy, not sympathy”: DIY, custom-made assistive technology.

Early 2009, NY based artist and programmer Zach Lieberman and a group formed by members of Free Art and Technology (FAT), OpenFrameworks and the Graffiti Research Lab were contacted to help develop drawing software. The hard part? The goal was helping Tony Quan (aka Tempt1), L.A. based graffiti artist, to draw again after 5 years of paralysis caused by ALS.

The team worked on a project based on an eye-tracking system, an adaptive technology device for measuring eye positions and eye movement; which allows people with limited or no bodily movement to use their eyes as controllers instead of the hands. They then developed a drawing program to be used with the eye-tracking system just for Tony’s needs, and the EyeWriter was born.

TemptOne wearingh the EyeWriter --- a tag from the 90s --- his first EyeTag

How it works

What Lieberman’s software does is interpret the movement of the eye’s pupil as the cursor on the screen of a program for drawing. The cursor moves as the pupil gazes over the screen, guiding it over the buttons and commands to select tools and draw. The movements are recorded by a single camera mounted on a pair of glasses, with infrared LEDs that illuminate the eye and create a dark pupil effect. The software reads the image from the camera and interprets the pupil as a black dot positioned on a grid, which can move as a mouse cursor that’s been guided with the eye instead of with the hand.

This program allows you to draw, manipulate and style a tag designed on the screen. Instead of point and click, it uses a time-based interface so that the “click” effect is triggered by focusing the eye on a position for a few seconds. This way the user selects/deselects commands and tools, and initiates/finishes the traces on the grid.

The program guides the user through the process of creating a tag, taking Tag projected on Kyoto's City Hallhim step by step through tracing the letters, their size, stroke, shadowing, coloring, and special effects. The final tags are saved into an FTP to be projected on a surface; only the tag isn’t just a static, finalized image being cast on the wall. Instead, the software repeats the process of how the tag was drawn, giving the effect of it being “live painted” on the wall.


Getting a lot of attention

TemptOne's electronic tag

Tony has been able to do some amazing tag work on the EyeWriter. The designs are very complex and beautiful, and it is getting a lot of attention within the graffiti community beyond LA and the US. Since his first EyeTag on August 2009, his work is being uploaded directly from his Eyewriter to here. The project has been presented at the BLK River Festival in Vienna, CREAM International Festival for Arts and Media in Yokohama, Japan; the Nuart festival in Norway, was completely re-fabricated at the Bombay TechFest 2009, and it just won the interactive category at Design Museum “designs of the year” awards.

DIY assistive technology.

The Eyewriter links two very different types of new media: art, and assistive technology (AT)– technology used by individuals with disabilities in order to perform functions that might otherwise be difficult or impossible, i.e. a wheelchair, a hearing aid, a screen reader or an artificial lung. In general, AT is very expensive and is linked to a costly process that includes highly specialized physicians, hospitalization and health insurance.

The Eyewriter offers an affordable alternative of DIY hardware and software that is open source. The price difference is huge: regular eyetracking systems go for no less than $7,000, like the Arrington Research Monocular Nystamus Laptop System, a device that consists of almost the same elements as the EW and that costs $7,998 . The Eyewriter can be built for less than $50, depending on the quality of the material for the headset and the place where you buy the stuff.

Commercial tracker: $7,988 vs. EyeWriter: less than $50

Who is working at it right now?

Zach's class at Parsons working on their EW

The Ewewriter is an ongoing project under development. Zach’s students at Parson’s Collaboration Studios (collab.eyewriter.org) are working on it for the whole term, bringing different ideas and upgrades.

Just recently, one of the class members managed to control the computer’s cursor on the screen with the EW. This means a lot since it brings the EW a step forward to being useful for existing apps beyond the drawing program.

The main question: can it influence the field of assistive technology?

The answer is an absolute yes. The Eyewriter is gaining attention of AT developers, sellers and users alike. A lot of networking is going on around the project:

  • The developing team at eyewriter.org has been contacted by several hundreds of interested people.
  • Most of them are people that would like to use it for a loved one who is suffering from ASL or other kind of paralysis.
  • They have also been contacted by several ASL foundations.
  • There are a lot of people who would like to cooperate with the project, either by jumping in the design and programming, or with economic support.
  • The Veteran’s Authority also contacted Zach interested in the project, and he’ll be meeting with them next April in DC.
  • Mark Surabian, AT expert who has the only internet café for disabled people in NYC also contacted them and visited the class at Parsons.They’re also meeting with the people at the “Open Prosthetics Project” at Duke

    Robotagger uses the same language

    University.

  • The “Graffiti Markup Language” that was created for the Eyewriter has now been used to develop the Robotagger, a robotic arm that can reproduce tags with marker directly on a surface.

What are the EyeWriter’s limitations?

“I want an eyetracker that works just like a mouse, or at least like my headmouse – able to move freely between any programs, navigating buttons, text, sliders, keyframe rubberbanding, continuous controller data, all WITHOUT modifying the applications. I love my tools and I’m going to miss them, no matter what…”

-NuJack, comic and multimedia artist.

The project is receiving a lot of feedback: through TemptOne’s use, the student’s work, and the suggestions from outside people that have contacted Zach after trying to develop their own.

-The main challenge for the EyeWriter is that, until now, you can’t get it to control other software; it can only be used with the drawing program that was designed for. This means that it can’t substitute a headmouse, –which is what NuJack uses for now, since he has full movement of his head– and that can navigate you through any kind of application. Using the eyes for complex programs (such as Photoshop) is almost impossible—the EW needs larger buttons in order to adapt to the eye’s jittery movements, never as precise as the hand’s.

-There are a lot of people interested in the project, but as Zack Lieberman explained, it is very hard to manage a community that is very diverse in what it has to offer, the level of expertise and is also geographically disperse.

-Even though the software can be understood by a tech expert, it needs to be made even easier and more user friendly, not as intimidating.

What comes next?

-Improve both the hardware and software. The headset is designed for Tony, who can’t move his head. The next step is to adapt it so that people who can move their heads can also use it. This means finding a way to calibrate both the pupil and the head movement.

-Actively work with a ALS patient in NYC. That will help the development since Tony is in LA and it makes it so much harder to get immediate feedback.

-DIY Eyewriter kits—once the device is substantially improved, the developers would like to put together kits that contain all the necessary materials to build the EW. That would allow for a much lower unit price since the materials would be bought in bulk and they would be of proven quality.

Conclusions

“When Mark Surabian visited the class, he said something I personally found very touching, that the key to assistive tech is “empathy not sympathy”

–Zach Lieberman

That is the main challenge with the EyeWriter: to truly understand what the patient needs in order to develop assistive technology that effectively covers the necessity. It has been very successful for TemptOne’s tagging needs because it was designed exactly for him. As NuJack puts it, “when they went to make TEMPT1′s graffiti rig, they were building it from the ground up…that’s why it works!” Zach agrees with that: every case of paralysis is different and every patient has different communication needs.

The long-term goal is to create a professional/social network of software developers, hardware hackers and ALS patients from around the world who are using local materials and open source research to creatively connect and develop eyetracking systems. The idea is to make the EW code so accessible and the hardware so easy to build that each person can adapt it to their patient’s needs.

“Without the proper team in place i fear endless frustration. it may well be that in a year’s time i will be corresponding with you using a (limited) eyetracker, reduced to relating solely through text, my multimedia empire nothing but a fond memory.”

-NuJack

Zach demonstrates the EW in his Brooklyn office

Creative Commons License
“Empathy, not sympathy”: DIY, custom-made assistive technology. by Jimena Lara is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at cultureandcommunication.org.

Travelogue 3 Conclusion: It’s up to YOU to develop Living Stories

LIVING STORIES: What is it?

These past several weeks I decided to investigate Google’s experimental interface for experiencing news online called – Living Stories.  From December of 2009 – February 2010, it experimented by utilizing the help of The NYTimes and The Washington Post to find out if people preferred and enjoyed this new way of experiencing online news.  Since the experiment, there has been a growing optimism with the future of possibilities of how it could change the nature and interface of online news.

Watch the video to understand what exactly is Living Stories:

YouTube Preview Image

Open Sourcing Living Stories:  What happened to it?

Around the time that I started to research it, Google went ahead and announced that they were open sourcing it to the public in hopes that people would find their own unique ways to develop and implement it.  So, my focus revolved around the question of, Who and what were developing the newly open sourced Living Stories???” This question lead me to dig around the website, Google Blog, online articles, and the discussion forum in hopes to find out who were some people besides Google’s guinea pigs (The NYTimes and The Washington Post: two of the most heralded newspapers in the US) that were trying to cultivate the program on their own…

According to Google, Living Stories was preferred over reading traditional news formats by 75 % of the people surveyed.  It was considered a success and so with that, Google released it to the public on February 17th, as an open source code.  Therefore, I set out to find out more about the silent success of this amazing new concept for online news.  Here is a recapitulation of my focal points for investigation:

“There are times when silence has the loudest voice” – Leroy Brownlow

  • My research and journey will be to figure out what I’m able to on where the project is going since its release to the public.  I have already contacted some owners of the experiment from Google that were in charge of Living Stories and even some people at the New York Times and the Washington Post to see what they are continuing to do with the format.
  • In addition, I will try to seek out some developers who are working with it to see what they have been able to do with it.
  • Lastly, I will also attempt to contact various news agencies and inquire about whether or not they would implement such a format to their online site.

What was I able to find out it… It’s hibernating for now

After sending out several emails to some leads that I garnered perusing around the discussion forum for Living Stories, I was able to get a hold and interview Neha Singh, software engineer for Google and another person, using a pseudonym  Eugene, at Nature Publishing Group who is attempting to develop it further for an online scientific articles like those of Naturenews.

Eugene told me that, “We’re looking at experimenting with it to show both science news and the human stories behind important scientific discoveries published in the journal”.  He was enthusiastic about working to develop the code despite running into a couple minor problems with content manager timing out, but for the most part, was hoping to develop a time line interface of historical articles with the same topic.

Mr. Singh was pretty helpful in taking the time to answer my questions, but could not divulge any information that would lead me to developers or other people who might be working on the code.  He also couldn’t provide me any contacts from the NYTimes or the Washington Post without their permission.  All he could tell me was mostly the same information that he had written on the official Google Blog nor could he answer (which I assumed) some harder questions like – Was this a political move to develop better relations with news companies and the general public by open sourcing it? He could not comment.

Another lingering question was whether or not Google’s decision to open source the code for Living Stories was planned from the beginning or was it something that was considered after the experiment was over.  After verifying the Living Stories blog post from December when it originally started and the answer that I received from Neha, I learned that Google’s intentions from the start were to open source it after the experiment finished.

Paul Bradshaw, of the online journalism blog, on his report of Google’s Living stories.  Bradshaw asks two very important questions that I thought were worthy of including>>
  • How much of the construction of the page is done automatically, and how much requires someone to input and connect data?

This question addresses the extent and ingenuity behind the code itself.  The code creates an interface that allows for an updated version of the stories to continue to funnel down the page with several key features to choose from along the sides e.g “most popular”.  However, from talking to Eugene, he did mention that the content manager kept timing out.  So I would presume that the construction of the page is formatted somewhat automatically, but also needing someone to input and connect further stories of course.  From what I did find out about some of its features, it is capable of filtering out information that you (as a reader) have previously read and highlighting what information is new.

  • How does this address the advertising problem?

Of course, advertising is very important for publishers.  There were no advertisements on Living Stories as of yet, but publishers who adopt it could potentially post advertisements alongside the articles.  While Google announced its revenue sharing project with publishers with Fast Flip, it should be able to equally implement advertisements for revenue purposes with Living Stories “if” publishers decide to appropriate it. 

Conclusions and a lingering curiosity:

I was holding out a little longer because I was hoping to get a response from a contact at the NYTimes.  Unfortunately, he didn’t respond to my email, but if he replies in the next couple of days I’ll post an update on Living Stories. I believe that this experimental new format for online news raises some interesting questions about the simple but profound reality that it is open source.  Moreover, the silence does speak volumes based off of the fact that it was a success according to Google and their pervading optimism.  Although I wasn’t able to find out much with how people are developing the code, I would be remiss if I did not believe that we have seen the last of Living Stories. I really want to know what the NYTimes and The Washington Post are doing with it.

For one thing, profit is the driving force behind businesses and so I wonder how using the free open source Living Stories format would compare with something like the Times Reader 2.0 where the reader pays a weekly subscription of $3.45?

HAVE YOU MET AARDVARK?

What is Aardvark?

Aarkvard is a new social network that enables user to mobilize the skills of their social network to answer any of their questions from the most random (where to go to grab a good coffee in NYC?) to the most specific (What is Y. Benkler’s view on Open Source?).

The concept is based on the idea that asking someone will allow you to make the most of the Internet by obtaining the most trust worthy answer to your question.

Aardvark’s Ambition: being an alternative to Wikipedia, and the search engines based on algorithms.

Why did I have decided to look at it?

While many of us are already using a lot of social networks (Facebook etc…) I was curious to discover what could be the real input of this new tool? What would convince people to actually spend time using it…

As much as I was skeptical about this new tool, the very recent purchase of Aardvark by Google (for around $50 millions) convinced me that it should be worth it to inquire further…

And here we go! I signed in (almost 3 weeks ago) on their website vark.com.

Results of my first approach: MOSTLY DISAPPOINTING!

  • To be asked, your questions have to fit in certain requirements. Your question has to
    • be short
    • contain meaningful key words
  • I obtained relevant answers but the most interesting one contained a link to Wikipedia!
  • After a few days a lost interest in Aardvark and almost forgot that it was an option to find my way through the net.
  • Even if the answers I got were accurate and very useful, I had the feeling that Aardvark seemed to be far to be replacing Wikipedia or Google!

However I had to give it another try (for the sake of my travelogue at least)!

Looking for information I learnt that at first, Aardvark was not a website but something design to be added on IM. What if I had been turned of by their new website?

On my Gmail account I decided to install Aardvark on my Gchat contacts to make the full experience.

Results of my second approach: I discovered a new aspect of this social network that made me reconsider it. Here are some inputs of having aardvark embedded on your e-mail account:

  • No need to go on another website to ask a question.
  • Aardvark appears as a random contact, it is not pushy.
  • You can ask any question that goes through your head faster.
  • You do not have to worry about the format of your questions which you have to do to obtain a satisfying answer from any search engine.

Meanwhile, by connecting to Aardvark I discovered that my friend Harlo was actually an active user of this network. She uses it on a regular basis for about a month now and seems to be pretty happy about it. Talking to her made me realized that the Aardvark might actually have a real input: achieving to mobilize the appropriate person to answer to your specific question.

Indeed the real input of Aardvark relies on the information that their users feed about them. Each user feeds at least its gender, date of birth and location. And of course the more information you give about you and your “topics” of interest the more interesting this new tool turns out to be.

Using those data, Aardvark can determine who are the experts that are the most likely to provide a good answer.

Those 2 features regarding users’ profiles settings give a real advantage to Aardvark to compete with Google or Wikipedia… At least it is the reason why now I am almost converted to my new buddy!

Do you wanna date my avatar?

In 1995, Annabelle Chong was promised $12,500 for having sex with 80 men for a film. She was never paid.

“The act itself took place between me and these guys, who were doing it for free. Why should I get paid for it then?” she said on being asked why she didn’t pursue it.

“The reason why everybody was pressuring me to… get the lawyer, get the money, fight for it, was because in this society, people tend to see things in terms of money,” she said. “It’s not really my money, because I don’t want it. I’d rather starve.”

I will not comment on if I beat Annabelle Chong’s 80 in the virtual world of IMVU, at least not until my conclusion post later tonight, but I sure did beat her in the diversity of my experience.

I have been a fairy in a magic land:

A prehistoric man fighting animals with fire:

A stray cat:

A nurse in a kinky hospital:

A female stripper who was paid in virtual money:

An African American ‘BBW’:

And even a Na’vi – one of those blue natives of Pandora in the movie Avatar:

And many many other things.

For now, I am still awaiting responses for some Criagslist posts and will write conclusion post later tonight.

I leave you with this very imaginative music video about virtual romance:

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Lyrics:

Do you wanna date my Avatar

Hang with me in my MMO
So many places we can go
You’ll never see my actual face
I’m craving to emote with you
So many animations I can do
Be anything you want me to be
Come on, come on, share a potion with me

Do you wanna date my Avatar
She’s a star
And she’s hotter than reality by far
Wanna date my Avatar?

You can type commands
I’ve got slots for what I hold in my hands
Don’t care what’s in your character bank
How ’bout, How ’bout a little tank and spank

Grab your mouse and stroke the keys
Here in cyberspace there’s no disease
Pick a time, send a tell to me
Just pay, just pay a small subscription fee

Hang with me in my MMO
So many places we can go
I’m better than a real world quest
You’ll touch, my plus 5 to dexterity vest

What role do you wanna play
I’m just a click away night or day
And if you think I’m not the one
Log off, Log off and we’ll be done

A, B, Up, B, Select: Are Gamers Poised to Press Reset on the Gaming Paradigm?

Yes, PLEASE Capcom! Please make a iPhone version! Because that’s what everyone demanded! NO ONE asked for a PSP, DS, or godforbid, a WII version of the game! Thanks a lot! I don’t care if you worked on the control scheme alot, I’ve tested iPhone games for months, and they all control horrendously. I especially love how your thumbs would cover half the screen! Awesome!”

Here started my journey to become a well versed, knowledgeable “gamer girl.” The purpose? To determine the hype around Street Fighter IV hitting the iPhone, as well as determining whether or not the iPhone was attempting to position itself to be the next big portable gaming system, and finally to assess what gaming consumers thought of all this hoopla. And, of course, to also play some badass games along the way!

Can play against others in SF via Bluetooth

Can play against others in Street Fighter via Bluetooth on iPhone

My adventure started after hearing that Capcom was to be releasing their highly acclaimed Street Fighter IV to the iPhone. Being a newbie to the gaming world, my initial thoughts were, “well that’s interesting- is this the first time a more traditional game is making its way to the iPhone?” After some research, I discovered that while Street Fighter is not to be the first full-fledged iPhone game, it is the first one to be built from the ground, up specifically for Apple’s device; the game was not ported over from another gaming system (Gaming Dictionary 101: “Port” (n.; pôrt) 1.When a game is rewritten to be compatible with another operating system/console).

While I’ve played Street Fighter in my younger years, I did not know enough about it to fully assess what this game coming to the iPhone meant without doing some thorough investigating. After talking to gamers and visiting forums, I quickly learned that the game using virtual controls (as opposed to the traditional physical control pad) was a big deal, as for the more advanced players, the game is heavily dependent on controls. This nonetheless left many questions for gamers: Would the virtual controls be “good” enough? Would the player be able to operate the character to the extent that physical controls allow? To my surprise (and probably also to the surprise of many hardcore gamers), Charles Onyett, a writer for IGN,  mentioned that he was impressed with the game, noting that it is, “pretty, functional, and coming out in March.” As of now, the game has yet to be released.

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This wasn’t the only big portable gaming news to be released during my past two weeks as a gamer girl, though. Some important highlights included: Sony to release a PSP phone and tablet, a representative from Nintendo comments that the company isn’t worried about Apple, and  Resident Evil 4: for Beginners & Final Fantasy I & II were released on the iPhone.

So, the corporate gaming companies seem to be accepting the iPhone as a viable gaming device, and Apple is making a demonstrable effort to penetrate this gaming community. That’s nice. But, what about the actual gamers? Will they buy into this? The gaming community tends to be very brand loyal. Will Apple be accepted in this Sony and Nintendo dominated community? My adventure continued to Level 2: Realm of the Forums, with my “stages” of choice including: IGN, NewGrounds, G4TV, and Capcom-Unity.

The battles were rough, and unexpected to my initial thoughts, no clear winner emerged. What the results essentially came down to were 3 categories: the believers, non-believers, and agnostics.

the iphone is the stupidest system there is, its more of a little novelty system than a gaming system so how can you want a portable sf4 iphone game as compared to psp, or wii which’s motion controls would make for a good game if done correctly…iphone is not a console…”

While the above quote is a little more straight forward than the one mentioned in the beginning of this article, they both say the same thing: the iPhone is no more than a phone; it is not meant to be a portable gaming system. This was the standard stance of the non-believer. This thought process usually wasn’t based on concrete evidence of any sort, though. It simply seemed that the non-believer was steadfast to their loyalty to the “traditional” gaming companies of Nintendo and Sony. To them, the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP were the equivalent of portable gaming; Apple was the equivalent of phones and computers; there could be no overlap.

I think it is great news that it’s [Street Fighter] going to be the iPhone, think about it. How long do you think it will be before your portable gaming device is your phone, mp3 player, web browser, etc. I know this is true for some people already, but I’m talking about HD graphics, smooth online play, and AAA titles, all on your phone. Imagine if SSFIV was coming to iPhone, fully functional, with new bluetooth Fight Sticks with 0 Latency, and your new iPhone6G has the standard HD projector on it. We’re talking about SSFIV, big scree, with fight stick, anywhere you want to go. You could throw a tournament at the beach with a bonfire, get a bunch of white screens, set up your phones and play. This is why I’m glad it’s on iPhone, it’s a great big step in the right direction.”

On the other hand, those who were excited about playing more traditional games on the iPhone seemed to better understand the phone’s potential; they knew the raw power (in the sense of RAM) that the phone had, even stating that it was more powerful than the Wii home console system.  Because of this, they knew that the device could support detailed graphics, and with the right programming and design, could successfully mimic the traditional physical control in virtual form. Hence, those of the “believer” seemed to be more educated on the actual device of the iPhone.

I love my iPhone. I think it CAN do games, but the on-screen control thing is annoying. Get me a game dock and it’s on.”

The agnostics were skeptical, but within reason. They thought the iPhone had potential, but just didn’t feel like the device was quite there yet. As stated in the quote above, the idea of a physical control pad add-on was a significant selling point for many agnostics. It seemed like they were just waiting for a more direct, observable push to make Apple a viable gaming system.

PSP Phone?

After interacting with gamers about the iPhone as a gaming system, I was particularly interested in seeing what gamers thought of Sony coming out with a phone version of their PSP. I thought this could very well be the answer gamers were looking for. For the most part, this seemed true! After looking through comments on articles from a variety of sites, there was an general overall consensus of excitement.

Finally a true all in one gaming phone with PSP graphics. Now thats worth my dollars, why have multiple devices in your pocket. CANT WAITE…. happy

It will be interesting to see how quickly Sony tries to release their PSP Phone and PSPad. Will the phone be released before Apple’s next iPhone update? Will the PSPad come out soon after Apple’s release of their iPad (which is to be released on April 3rd)?

When it comes to an all-in-one device, it seems to be that the gaming portion of the device is the most important aspect for the avid gamer (and that “gaming” = a specific device made for the activity, vs. a phone that can also play games). Hence, since the average gamer tends to be very brand loyal, I am sure they will be waiting for the PSP Phone with open arms (granted that it matches, or surpasses, the standards the iPhone set). But, for the average consumer that likes to play games every once in a while, Apple’s iPhone looks like it will be providing some entertaining opportunities in the future.

Only time will tell who and what the consumer will choose; the decision is ultimately in their hands. In the meantime, I’ll personally be waiting to see when/if Nintendo will be more distinctly joining the fight!

Concluding Research: NBC New York’s Feast Rank

What is Feast?

The site was founded by Ben Leventhal, the same guy who started Eater and Grub Street, popular and renowned food blogs.  Feast includes a blog, maps, videos, photos, and a searchable database of restaurants.  Social media is also incorporated, allowing you to make your own list of preferred restaurants and see others’ lists as well.

What is Feast Rank?

Broadcasting and Cable explains, “Feast features a scoring system that brings together a wide range of reviews, ratings and opinions and produces what it calls a definitive score known as the Feast Rank.”  However, Feast has not disclosed either the sources it aggregates from OR how the sources are weighted.  Supposedly heavy-hitter critics like the NY Times’ Sam Sifton and New York Magazine’s Adam Platt have the ability to “move the needle” more than a Yelp review, but it is not clear by how much.

According to Eater, Feast Rank is “kind of like a Rotten Tomatoes for the food world, the site’s algorithm takes in reviews from all over the web—from the Times reviews to blogger buzz—and spits out a number, ranking every restaurant in the city anywhere from Dicey to Epic.  Rankings change daily based on new reviews or buzz.”

BlackBookMag.com delves further into the scoring system: “Feast Rank [is] a 1-100 score generated by a wholly automated algorithm and in New York comprising 75 sources — everything from the New York Times restaurant stars to Grub Street stories to Zagat listings to Yelp and Citysearch reviews to local blog and social media chatter, all apparently updating in real-time (a handy “+” or “-” indicating recent point shifts in opinion runs across the top of the page like numbers on a stock ticker, so it seems real official-like).”

What is the relationship between NBC and Feast?

Several people asked about the relationship between NBC and Feast and why NBC would be interested in restaurant reviews at all.  I couldn’t find much in the way of explanation except for this sort of opaque quote from MediaWeek, “The new segment is part of NBC Local Media’s strategy to offer more lifestyle content across its local market media platforms… Feast is edited by Ben Leventhal, managing editor of lifestyle for NBC Local Media and founder of the popular food blog Eater. “

I tried to learn more about the root site, nbcnewyork.com.  The description on their site says “With the help of the community, NBC Local Media uncovers and connects our users to all that the city has to offer so they can be true city insiders.”  The site is about New York life, and eating out is a big part of living here.  Feast is one of several blogs that are part of the site, including The Thread (fashion), Niteside (nightlife), PopcornBiz (TV and movies) Want This (shopping), and What You’re Doing Tonight (daily events calendar).  In that context, I think a restaurant blog makes sense.

How are people reacting to the ranking system?

As far as I can tell from the comments on FeastEater and Twitter, Feast’s bravado about being “The first word and final score on New York’s restaurant scene” (from FeastNY’s Twitter bio) has not gone over well within the foodie community.  Some of the most common reactions were exasperation with the format of the blog, the secrecy and accuracy of the ranking system, and general overexposure to the endless conjecture and speculation about NYC restaurants.

Eater has linked to Feast twice so far.  Interesting considering Ben Leventhal, Eater’s founder, is also the top dog over at Feast.  You’d think they would be more integrated, but since technically they are competing I think they will end up keeping the cross-pollination to a minimum.

My sense is that the community is fairly skeptical about the whole thing, and there are still acknowledged bugs in the ranking system.

Feast doesn’t actually allow you to influence rankings directly on their site so it’s kind of a one-way street.

Can you game the system?

I asked the class for help with a little experiment.  I suggested trying to influence The Hungarian Pastry Shop’s ranking since it had no score on Feast.  It is a little neighborhood hole in the wall type place that is across from the cathedral of St. John the Divine.  It’s filled with Columbia students studying or writing papers, mostly.  The pastry is delicious and they let you stay all day if you want.  I wanted to positively influence their ranking.  The updated stats on the most common sites:

NY Mag: 8.3/10 “recommended”

Yelp: 3.5/5 stars, 111 reviews

CitySearch: 5/5 stars, 17 reviews

Zagat: “When this restaurant receives enough member reviews, our editors will consider it for a Zagat Rating & Review” (8 reviews)

Several of you wrote positive reviews and ranked the shop either 4 or 5 stars. I also chatted with the owner, Wendy, and several members of wait staff to get their opinion on whether they want to be rated or if they think it will influence their customer-base.

I asked Wendy if she has heard of Feast (no) and if she reads reviews online.  She said she checks Yelp and CitySearch from time to time just to see what people say, but that she doesn’t actively try to influence her ratings and mostly just checks for curiosity.  The wait staff had similar comments.  I think since it’s a small shop with a steady clientele, they are too busy running the place to bother with reviews online.  A bigger, more renowned place would probably care more than such a small shop.

So far, the Hungarian Pastry Shop remains unranked on Feast.  I contacted Feast to ask what the threshold is to get a score but I haven’t heard back yet.  I will update you if/when I do!

Conclusions

Based on the fairly negative tone of the user comments I have read online, the foodie community is not jumping for joy at embracing this new ranking system.  The main reasons are:

  1. People don’t like the format of the site and find it confusing
  2. People are put off by the top secret algorithm and list of sources
  3. We may have reached the backlash to online restaurant speculation due to overexposure
  4. It’s a one-way street.  There is no way to influence ratings directly on Feast

Algorithms aren’t a stand in for real people.  Although Feast Rank aggregates from sources that are ultimately real people, we come again to whether the wisdom of the crowds is useful or not.  Do I care that a restaurant in my neighborhood is ranked poorly when I’ve been there many times and enjoyed it, or I’ve received a recommendation from a friend who says it’s great?  I think ultimately this is one of many food-related sites that will get lost in the shuffle.