This American LearTIM CARMODY  ·  JUL 28

This American Life host and radio superpersonality Ira Glass went to see a play and came away more vexed than Claudius walking out of The Mousetrap in Elsinore.

But it's not a one-off thing! Glass says he's been building to this conclusion for a long time, straining like Caliban under Prospero's yoke:

So what's going to happen? Will bespectacled literary nerds have to choose between Chicago's adopted son Ira and our old friend Stratford Billy? That's like Prince Hal having to choose between getting drunk with Falstaff and cleaning up his act for his dad the king!

Be not afraid, gentles -- reporter Lois Beckett is on it, with a retelling of King Lear specially updated for Ira Glass's post-Renaissance storytelling sensibilities. It's This American Lear.

Why don't OKCupid's experiments bother us like Facebook's did?TIM CARMODY  ·  JUL 28

Hi, everybody! Tim Carmody here, guest-hosting for Jason this week.

OK Cupid's Christian Rudder has responded to the outcry over Facebook's experiments with user emotions by... publishing a list of experiments that the dating site has run on its users, along with their results.

And it's not little stuff either! To test its matching algorithms, OKC has selectively hidden users' profile images, their profile text, and even told pairs of users they were a good match when the algo said they weren't, and vice versa.

In short, Facebook may have hid stuff from you, but OK Cupid might have actually lied to you.

But... nobody's really upset about this. Or if they are, they're mostly just upset (or dryly observing, it's hard to tell) that other people aren't upset.

Why? I have some theories:

  1. It's early yet. It took the Facebook story some time to steep before it really picked up steam.
  2. OKC users are less likely to be troubled by this sort of thing than Facebook users are. And people get more upset when they feel like they personally might have been messed with. Hilary Parker pointed out that non-online daters are less likely to get upset on online daters' behalf: even if you don't actively look down on OKC users (and many do), you might be more likely to think they got what they deserved. OK Cupid has a history of disclosing these kinds of numbers, and there's a laissez-faire attitude towards users gaming accounts for their own purposes.
  3. We trust Facebook in a way we don't trust OKC. Facebook is the safe baby internet, with our real friends and family sending us real messages. OKC is more internet than the internet, with creeps and jerks and catfishers with phony avatars. So Facebook messing with us feels like a bigger betrayal.
  4. OKC's matching algorithm may be at least as opaque as Facebook's news feed, but it's clearer to users that site matches and views are generated using an algorithm. Reportedly, 62 percent of Facebook users weren't aware that Facebook's news feed was filtered by an algorithm at all. (That study has a small sample size, but still, we can infer that lots of Facebook users have no idea.)
  5. The results of OKC's experiments are less troubling. Facebook's study showed that our posting behavior (and maybe our feelings) were pretty susceptible to manipulation without a whole lot of effort. OKC's results seemed more complimentary. Sure, lots of people on dating sites are shallow, and sometimes you may have ended up in longer conversations than you might like with incompatible people, but good matches seem to find a way to connect no matter what OKC tells us! So... the algorithm works and I guess we can trust what they tell us? My head hurts. (Jess Zimmerman adds that part of the Facebook intervention was deliberately designed to cause harm, by making people unhappy, at least as mediated through their posts. The difference here depends on whether you think trying to match you up with someone incompatible might be causing them harm.
  6. The tone of the OKC post is just so darned charming. Rudder is casual, self-deprecating. It's a blog post! Meanwhile, Facebook's "emotional contagion" scholarly paper was chillingly matter-of-fact. In short, the scientism of the thing just creeped us the fuck out.
  7. This is related to the tone issue, but OKC seems to be fairly straightforward about why it performed the experiment: they didn't understand whether or how their matching algorithm was working, and they were trying to figure that out to make it better. Facebook seemed to be testing user's emotional expressions partly to solve a scholarly dispute and partly just to see if they could. And most of the practical justifications folks came up with for the Facebook study were pretty sinister: tricky folks into posting more often, into clicking on ads, into buying stuff. (Really, both experiments are probably a mix of product testing and shooting frogs for kicks, but the perception seems to be different.)
  8. The Facebook study had an added wrinkle in that academics were involved in designing the study and writing it up. This raised all sorts of factual and ethical issues about university institutional review boards and the responsibility of the journal's editors and publishers that don't seem to be relevant here. I mean, maybe SOMEbody should be veryifying that experiments done on human subjects are ethical, whether it's in a university, medical, or government context or not, but it's not like someone may have been asleep at the switch. Here, there is no switch.
  9. Maybe we're all just worn out. Between Facebook, this, Uber ratings, and god knows what, even if you're bothered by this kind of experimentation, it's more difficult to stay angry at any one company. So some people are jaded, some people would rather call attention to broader issues and themes of power, and some people are just tired. There's only so many times you can say "see? THIS! THIS is what I've been telling you about!" or "I can't believe you're surprised by this" before you're just like, ¯\_(?)_/¯.

I don't agree with all of these explanations, and all of them feel a little thin. But maybe for most of us, those little scraps of difference are enough.

Update: Here's a tenth reason that I thought of and then forgot until people brought up variations of it on Twitter: Facebook feels "mandatory" in a way that OKCupid doesn't. It's a bigger company with a bigger reach that plays a bigger part in more people's lives. As Sam Biddle wrote on Twitter, "Facebook is almost a utility at this point. It's like ConEd fucking with us."

The secret rites of MinecraftTIM CARMODY  ·  JUL 28

"Minecraft is a game about creation," writes Robin Sloan. "But it is just as much a game about secret knowledge."

There's no official manual, so the game's teeming network of devotees, young and old, proper publishers and web-based wildcats, have worked to create them by the score. Not just guides, but wikis, videos, hints, tricks. The rules can only be discovered by observation, reasoning, and experiment. Like science -- or magic:

Imagine yourself a child. Imagine yourself given one of these books: not merely a story of exploration and adventure, but a manual to such.

Imagine yourself acquiring the keys to a mutable world in which you can explore caves, fight spiders, build castles, ride pigs, blow up mountains, construct aqueducts to carry water to your summer palace... anything.

Imagine yourself a child, in possession of the secret knowledge.

Maybe the most interesting thing about this, Robin writes, is how the game "calls forth" the books -- another kind of magic. Is this a function of how much Minecraft players love the game? Or is that arcane, indirect, networked, bottomless well of knowledge, asking to be impossibly filled, what they love about it?

The future of birthdaysTIM CARMODY  ·  JUL 28

Joanne McNeil charts where the internet of things is headed:

You wake up to a jazzy MIDI version of the "Happy Birthday" song. Your smart thermostat and smoke detector are singing in harmony because today is your day. Your fitness tracker is vibrating in an unfamiliar Morse Code. Searching the internet, you come across a question in the support forums about it, explaining it is the preprogrammed birthday greeting silent alarm that you can disable after pairing the device again and updating your settings. Your bathroom scale, toilet, and garage door also welcome you with birthday wishes. Open up the refrigerator to another friendly jingle. Tropicana, Fage, and Sabra Hummus all wish you happy birthday. Now there's an incoming message. It is the "birthday selfie" it snapped when you reached for the orange juice.

Sometimes, our identity-obsessed web services are creepy because they know so much about us, and sometimes they're creepy because they're just so damned shallow.

The new Haruki Murakami novelTIM CARMODY  ·  JUL 28

Hi, everybody! Tim Carmody here, guest-hosting for Jason this week.

Slate has an excerpt of Haruki Murakami's new novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. It's more or less self-contained, a story within a story. But of course, even within the excerpt, those nesting frames start collapsing:

Haida stopped and glanced at the clock on the wall. Then he looked at Tsukuru. He was, of course, Haida the son, but Haida the father had been his same age in this story, and so the two of them began to overlap in Tsukuru's mind. It was an odd sensation, as if the two distinct temporalities had blended into one. Maybe it wasn't the father who had experienced this, but the son. Maybe Haida was just relating it as if his father had experienced it, when in reality he was the one who had. Tsukuru couldn't shake this illusion.

"I just silently accept everything as it is," says another character, Midorikawa. "That's my basic problem, really. I can't erect a decent barrier between subject and object."

There's also magic, death, and jazz, plus a fair bit of discussion about the value of life and imagination. Just a treat.

Old Town Music HallJUL 25

From This Must Be the Place, a lovely short profile of Old Town Music Hall in El Segundo, California. Old Town shows silent films with live musical accompaniment. Includes a brief tour of the inner workings of the theater's wind-powered pipe organ from 1925.

Clickbaiting the 10 CommandmentsJUL 25

Over at McSweeney's, David Tate imagines more engaging copy for the Ten Commandments, aka you won't believe what God said to this man...

At the Beginning He Had Me Confused, But by Minute Two I Knew That I Shouldn't Have Other Gods.

37 Things in Your Bedroom That You Need to Get Rid of Right Now, Like Adulteresses.

Werner the HerzogJUL 25

Werner The Herzog

Magisterial. (via @moleitau)

Explaining HitlerJUL 25

Explaining Hitler is a 1998 book by Ron Rosenbaum that compiled a number of different theories about why Adolf Hitler was the way he was, updated recently with new information.

Hitler did not escape the bunker in Berlin but, seven decades later, he has managed to escape explanation in ways both frightening and profound. Explaining Hitler is an extraordinary quest, an expedition into the war zone of Hitler theories. This is a passionate, enthralling book that illuminates what Hitler explainers tell us about Hitler, about the explainers, and about ourselves.

Vice recently interviewed Rosenbaum about the book.

Oh my God, there are so many terrible psychological attempts to explain Hitler. I think the subject brings out the worst in talk show psychologists. There's a lot of 'psychopathic narcissism' among those psychologizing Hitler. The examples in my book were two psychoanalysts-one wanted to claim that Hitler became Hitler because he was beaten by his father, and the other psychoanalyst was equally determined to believe that Hitler had a malignant mother who was over-protective. As if everyone who has an over-protective mother or abusive father turns into Hitler. If everyone who has been struck by their father turned into Hitler we would be in a lot more trouble than we are.

Related by not related: Rosenbaum wrote a story in 1971 for Esquire about phone phreaking, Secrets of the Little Blue Box, which inspired the very first partnership between a pair of young future tech titans, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs. (via @errolmorris)

A short history of the high fiveJUL 24

For the latest installment of Grantland's 30 for 30 short documentary series, a story on the genesis of the high five and what happened to one of its inventors. This video is chock full of amazing vintage footage of awkward high fives. [Weird aside: The sound on this video is only coming out of the left channel. Is that a subtle homage to the one-handed gesture or a sound mixing boner?]

Do you have a reservation?JUL 24

Alexis Madrigal wonders: when did the idea of the dinner reservation come about?

Reserving a table is not so much an "industrial age bolt-on" as it's a slippage from the older custom of reserving a ROOM in a restaurant. As my book explains, 18th-cy "caterers" [traiteurs] either served clients in their homes or in rooms at the traiteur's, the first self-styled restaurateurs borrowed from cafes in having lots of small tables in one big room. Throughout the nineteenth century, many big city restaurants continued to have both a (very) large public eating room with numerous, small (private) tables AND a number of smaller rooms that could be reserved for more private meals. (Much as some restaurants have special "banquet facilities" or "special occasion" rooms today.)

See also: the first NY Times restaurant review circa 1859.

For sale. Knockoff Jeff Koons. $500.JUL 24

A seller on Chinese b2b site Alibaba is offering stainless steel sculptures of balloon animal dogs in the style of Jeff Koons. For as little as $500, you can get your own knock-off copy of Balloon Dog, which sold for $58 million last year.

Koons dog knockoff

Koons' dog was about 10 feet tall but the seller notes they can make them anywhere from 3 feet tall to almost 100 feet tall. Jiminy. I wonder what these things look like? I bet they aren't nearly as precise as the originals, but you never know. See also: Rex Sorgatz's Uber for Art Forgeries. (via prosthetic knowledge)

The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the FutureJUL 24

From a pair of science historians, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, comes The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future, a book of science fiction about the consequences of climate change.

The year is 2393, and a senior scholar of the Second People's Republic of China presents a gripping and deeply disturbing account of how the children of the Enlightenment, the political and economic elites of the so-called advanced industrial societies, entered into a Penumbral period in the early decades of the twenty-first century, a time when sound science and rational discourse about global change were prohibited and clear warnings of climate catastrophe were ignored. What ensues when soaring temperatures, rising sea levels, drought, and mass migrations disrupt the global governmental and economic regimes? The Great Collapse of 2093.

A menagerie of birds from the futureJUL 24

The Silva Field Guide to Birds of a Parallel Future, featuring several videos of how futuristic birds might move. For instance, here's a deconstructed bird in the shape of a Borg cube:

Botanical space flightJUL 24

Bonsai! In! Spaaaaaaaace!!

Bonsai in space

This image is from Exobiotanica, a project that sent various plants about 100,000 feet into the sky.

Don't Fly Drones HereJUL 24

Drones Nofly Map

From Mapbox, a map of places in the US where it is unsafe or illegal to fly drones. Forbidden areas include near airports and in National Parks. (via @tcarmody)

LeBron James has a photographic memoryJUL 23

The evidence has mounted to such an extent that Brian Windhorst of ESPN has written an article about LeBron James' fantastic memory.

So what does it mean? What it seems to suggest -- at least the part of it that James will discuss -- is that if you give up the baseline to James on a drive in November 2011 and he's playing against you in March 2013, the Heat small forward will remember it. It means that if you tried to change your pick-and-roll coverage in the middle of the fourth quarter of the 2008 playoffs, he'll be ready for you to try it again in 2014, even if you're coaching a different team. It also means that if you had a good game the last time you played against Milwaukee because James got you a few good looks in the first quarter, the next time you play the Bucks you can count on James looking for you early in the game. Because, you know, the memory never forgets.

"I can usually remember plays in situations a couple of years back -- quite a few years back sometimes," James says. "I'm able to calibrate them throughout a game to the situation I'm in, to know who has it going on our team, what position to put him in.

"I'm lucky to have a photographic memory," he will add, "and to have learned how to work with it."

Which sounds great, right? Except that thinking's best friend is often overthinking.

Consider what you know of the 2011 NBA Finals. And now consider it, instead, like this: In what will likely be remembered as the low point of his career, James is miserable for several games against the Dallas Mavericks -- including a vitally important Game 4 collapse when he somehow scores just eight points in 46 minutes. At times during that game it appears as if James is in a trance.

"What is he thinking?" the basketball world wonders.

James -- with two titles and counting, and four straight trips to the Finals -- can admit today what he's thinking in 2011: He's thinking of everything. Everything good, and everything bad. In 2011, he isn't just playing against the Mavs; he's also battling the demons of a year earlier, when he failed in a series against the Boston Celtics as the pressure of the moment beat him down. It's Game 5 of the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals, and it is, to this point, perhaps the most incomprehensible game of James' career. His performance is so lockjawed, so devoid of rhythm, the world crafts its own narrative, buying into unfounded and ridiculous rumors because they seem more plausible than his performance.

I've probably said this a million times, but my favorite aspect of sports is the mental game, each athlete's battle with her/himself: from Shaq's dreamful attraction to Allen Iverson's visualization in lieu of practice to better living through self deception to Roger Federer's conservation of concentration to free diver Natalia Molchanova's attention deconcentration to deliberate practice to relaxed concentration. James taming his tide of memories fits right in.

The National Wildlife Property RepositoryJUL 23

The crew at The Atlantic Video takes a trip to The National Wildlife Property Repository, which stores confiscated illegal wildlife items.

The National Wildlife Property Repository, a government facility outside of Denver, stores more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to elephant ivory. These items are confiscated at points of entry around the United States, and sent to the Repository to be destroyed or used for educational purposes.

The bit about the National Eagle Repository is especially interesting. Under federal law, every dead eagle (and eagle parts, including feathers) must be sent to the repository, where they are made available for distribution to native tribes.

The primary objective of The National Eagle Repository (Repository) is to receive, evaluate, store and distribute bald and golden eagle carcasses, parts, and feathers to tribally enrolled Native Americans of Federally recognized tribes throughout the United States for religious purposes. The Repository serves as the collection and distribution point for bald and golden eagle salvages each year by State and Federal wildlife officials.

Goodnight MoonJUL 23

Goodnight Moon

From Aimee Bender, an appreciation of Margaret Wise Brown's Goodnight Moon, a favorite of mine to read to my kids when they were younger.

"Goodnight Moon" does two things right away: It sets up a world and then it subverts its own rules even as it follows them. It works like a sonata of sorts, but, like a good version of the form, it does not follow a wholly predictable structure. Many children's books do, particularly for this age, as kids love repetition and the books supply it. They often end as we expect, with a circling back to the start, and a fun twist. This is satisfying but it can be forgettable. Kids - people - also love depth and surprise, and "Goodnight Moon" offers both.

Haven't read Goodnight Moon in ages...at 4 and 7, my kids protest whenever I suggest it. We're currently powering our way through the third Harry Potter book, which, though I enjoy Potter, is no Goodnight Moon.

Update: How Goodnight Moon overcame bad initial reviews and became a word-of-mouth bestseller.

The molecular structure of citiesJUL 23

MIT's Franz-Josef Ulm has taken to analyzing the structure of cities as if they were molecular materials like glass or crystal.

With colleagues, Ulm began analyzing cities the way you'd analyze a material, looking at factors such as the arrangement of buildings, each building's center of mass, and how they're ordered around each other. They concluded that cities could be grouped into categories: Boston's structure, for example, looks a lot like an "amorphous liquid." Seattle is another liquid, and so is Los Angeles. Chicago, which was designed on a grid, looks like glass, he says; New York resembles a highly ordered crystal.

I love this. It's like Jane Jacobs + the materials science research I did in college.

So far, Ulm says, the work has two potential applications. First, it could help predict and mitigate urban heat island effects, the fact that cities tend to be several degrees warmer than their surrounding areas-a phenomenon that has a major impact on energy use. (His research on how this relates to structure is currently undergoing peer review.) Second, he says that cities' molecular order (or disorder) may also affect their vulnerability to the kinds of catastrophic weather events that are becoming more frequent thanks to climate change.

(via 5 intriguing things)

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