The recent absence of regular posting here has mainly been due to project overload on my part. For the last week I’ve been focusing on my activist wifi project, Occupy.here. On Saturday I participated in FEAST Brooklyn, a kind of science fair exposition for community art projects. The way it works is everyone who attends pays $20 for a banquet dinner and a vote for which project of ten should be funded. I did not receive funding, but I got a lot of great feedback and my first round of user testing with about a dozen people trying the project out.
I was satisfied to see the technology performing flawlessly. As far as I know, everyone who tried to was able to join the wifi network and participate in the online forum. I still consider myself a newbie to wifi hacking and programming in Lua, but I’ve mustered enough stability to start paying more attention to interaction design and social dynamics. Seeing how people used the software in practice was really interesting. It seems obvious in retrospect, but presenting an anonymous message forum to such a festive audience yielded an uncomplicated gregarious kind of conversation.
While the forum’s conversation didn’t cover politics or the Occupy movement, the invisible backchannel aspect of it was compelling. The first, most active, message thread was about the food at the event. Apparently the cheese was a big hit, although sadly I wasn’t able to try it myself. This thread included the forum’s first hash tag, #CheeseRevolution, and a long string of emoji burgers. In another thread an attendee complained they’d come to the event without a date, boldly listing a phone number that presumably belongs to the lonely author. I was amused to see the AOL-era “ASL” (age/sex/location) inquiry and “Anyone got any weed?” It was silly and fun, and felt entirely appropriate to the event.
How the discussion is framed in a broader social context is very important. In the deployment at FEAST, users were offered an open architecture without many cues about which topics of conversation the forum is meant to support. The next iteration will feature a more prominent introduction to the Occupy.here platform and host an archive of essays and media about the Occupy movement from a variety of sources.
I’m interested to see what effect, if any, these changes have on the subject and character of conversations. I wonder if deemphasizing the message forum might preclude conversation altogether, favoring a passive mode of media consumption. I’ll gather some usage data to see how many users browse without participating.
Users identified themselves about 50% of the time, half posting under the default handle “Anonymous” and half adopting first names or two letter initials. For my next round of testing I’m going to adjust the interface where users select their usernames, perhaps not offering a default option. I’m still committed to supporting anonymity, despite the challenges it creates in reaching higher level discussions. I do think it’s possible and perhaps making all users uniquely identifiable might contribute toward discussions with slightly more substance.
Probably the most important factor for user behavior is the physical (and social) context the wifi router appears in. This coming Saturday I’ll be showing Occupy.here at the Activist Technology Demo Day event at Eyebeam. I’m guessing the audience will be more oriented toward technology and activism. The location of the venue, in Chelsea rather than Greenpoint, will also have some bearing on the next round of users. That’s a lot of variables changing at once, but I’ll be sure to post my decidedly non-scientific findings next week.
An in-depth article about stolen bicycles, from Outside magazine:
In America’s rough streets, there are four forms of currency—cash, sex, drugs, and bicycles. Of those, only one is routinely left outside unattended.
On Twitter a lot of people have been linking to the @herpderpedia account, which is retweeting people’s confused reactions to today’s Wikipedia blackout. On a mailing list I subscribe to, somebody wrote of this phenomenon:
It’s really amazing
A. how completely oblivious people are to the issues
B. how completely oblivious people are to the page they’re looking that explains why wikipedia is blacked out
C. how much I don’t want to live on this planet anymore
I share his sense of disappointment, but this kind of ironic distance is exactly what we don’t need right now. Instead, let’s have a little compassion for each other. Send those people links to help them understand why Wikipedia has gone dark today. That sharing capacity is exactly what this issue is all about.
The rights to the “I Have a Dream” speech are owned by EMI. They are only legally available through buying a $20 DVD.
What would King have made of all this, and of SOPA? I think he might have reframed the question, with poetry: how does ownership of ideas effect how we exist together in the world? How does the spread of ideas help push forward better understanding among men. What price are we willing to pay to keep ideas free? How do we decide who deserves access to ideas, who gets to build on them, and who gets to “own” them? Who gets to censor them, and at what cost?
See also: On the Media’s MLK segment
Doug Henwood, who I’ve seen speak a few times recently and host of the excellent radio show Behind the News:
For a while, I’ve been thinking about writing a piece on how NPR is more toxic than Fox News. Fox preaches to the choir. NPR, though, confuses and misinforms people who might otherwise know better. Its “liberal” reputation makes palatable a deeply orthodox message for a demographic that could be open to a more critical message.
Doug’s post is not so much about NPR, but a response to Adam Davidson who is co-host of the show Planet Money. Davidson’s recent piece in the New York Times Magazine argues for the benefits of American-style finance.
Davidson apparently hasn’t read up on the comparative international mobility stats (e.g., this). He writes: “One of the most striking facts of life in countries without a modern financial system is the near total absence of upward mobility.” In fact, the U.S. has a middling-to-poor standing on mobility in the international league tables. A country like Germany, where consumer finance is relatively underdeveloped, is more mobile than the U.S. The Nordic social democracies show the most mobility of all. Oh, and student debt, now breaking the trillion dollar mark? Nothing to worry about, says Davidson: it’s “largely changed America for the better.” Actually, the rising price of higher ed is making it harder all the time for the working class to go to college. Watching millions graduate with five figures of debt into a miserable job market doesn’t evoke a better America. College should be free.
First, I agree that college should be free, and with most of Doug’s other complaints. But here I would like to write a little about NPR, since I agree that it’s misunderstood as a fundamentally progressive news source. Like the New York Times, there is plenty of good (progressive) journalism coming out of a largely pro-corporate framework. NPR gets far more of its funding from corporate underwriting than from the US government (although its largest source is individual contributions). Having a bias is okay, and corporate partiality might reflect an American public that still has faith in corporate brands, despite the many reasons for concern. NPR, like any news source, will likely reinforce its listeners’ existing beliefs.
There are very good shows on NPR and ones that I can’t stand. For an example of good coverage of globalized labor, take the recent episode of This American Life, Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory. If you haven’t heard it already, stop reading this and give it a listen. It’s compelling and heartbreaking as a story, and also includes a useful follow-up segment with further analysis.
This episode is one of many “explainers” that This American Life is so good at, one of which led to the creation of Planet Money itself. But this is just one story that’s complemented by other sources, such as links from John Gruber and Edward Burtynsky’s photography of Chinese factories. None of these sources can be expected to tell the complete story, like the parable about the blind men and the elephant.
Perhaps the lesson here is that it’s incumbent on the modern citizen to diversify one’s own sources of information. Relying exclusively on NPR will lead to the same kind of stilted worldview you’d expect from someone who only watches Fox News. This is what the Internet is great at! I try to get the most out of a variety of blogs, podcasts, and aggregators, trying to cultivate sources that might lead to further discoveries. Some of these leave me frustrated and disappointed from time to time (e.g., Left Right & Center’s non-coverage of the NDAA). I grab links from Twitter and Facebook, I skim and skip and unsubscribe ruthlessly, and I try not to allow myself to get overwhelmed.
In case you’re curious, here are my blog and podcast subscriptions, in OPML format:
You should be able to import these into Google Reader, iTunes, or whichever other tools you prefer. I’d love to hear what your favorite sources are.
For the last few days I’ve been preoccupied with preparing an installation I made with Future Archaeology, just barely getting it ready in time for the opening. I’ll write about that project in future posts, but I thought I should share this magnificent documentation of a project we did one year ago in the same gallery, Splatterpool artspace.
I recall being fairly inarticulate the night we did our group interview in the gallery, so my part in the video is a non-speaking one, but the other members of the group did a fine job of explaining our project Ohm Ω. I think Tom, in particular, has a knack for describing what it is we’re doing with our collaborations.
The Future Archaeology part starts about 15 minutes in.
See also: a longer video of the Ohm Ω performance
Lakhdar Boumediene was held without charge at Guantánamo Bay for seven years.
I do not like to think of Guantánamo. The memories are filled with pain. But I share my story because 171 men remain there. Among them is Belkacem Bensayah, who was seized in Bosnia and sent to Guantánamo with me.
About 90 prisoners have been cleared for transfer out of Guantánamo. Some of them are from countries like Syria or China — where they would face torture if sent home — or Yemen, which the United States considers unstable. And so they sit as captives, with no end in sight — not because they are dangerous, not because they attacked America, but because the stigma of Guantánamo means they have no place to go, and America will not give a home to even one of them.
Al Franken has been a vocal critic of the bill, calling it inconsistent with American liberties and freedoms:
As we reflect on what this bill will do, I think it is important to pause and remember some of the mistakes this country has made when we have been fearful of enemy attack.
Most notably, we made a grave, indefensible mistake during World War II, when President Roosevelt ordered the incarceration of more than 110,000 people of Japanese origin, as well as approximately 11,000 German-Americans and 3,000 Italian-Americans.
Franken delivered a similar speech to the Senate, prior to the bill’s passing.
Debate about the controversial sections of the NDAA has focused on whether or not American citizens would be subject to indefinite detention. The bill is vague and self-contradictory, left open to the interpretation of President Obama and all future sitting presidents.
It’s not hard to see the inherent problem of indefinitely detaining citizens protected by the Bill of Rights. Being held without charge defies due process and habeas corpus. But those legal traditions are not American in origin, from a moral standpoint I don’t see why non-citizens ought to be treated any differently.
Holding 171 men at Guantánamo Bay without charge is just as inconsistent with those same American liberties and freedoms Al Franken speaks of. I was frustrated with how little the NDAA was discussed in the weeks before it became law. But perhaps it’s for the best. That debate should be framed more broadly; it’s about human rights, not just the rights of Americans.
This morning, after turning off the interminable NPR coverage of the Republican primaries, I saw that The Morning News recently linked to this ABC News story about the case of Tariq Khan, a 16 year old Pakistani killed in a US drone attack.
In late October, he accompanied a group of tribal elders when they traveled down to the Pakistani capital of Islamabad for the anti-drone conference. There, he sat with dozens of foreign lawyers and journalists and displayed no signs of hatred or animosity at them or the government, according to the people who spoke with him. According to family and associates, he said he wanted to refute Washington’s claim that the drone program had killed zero civilians in the last few years.
I was struck by the wide range of civilian deaths in various reports compared to the CIA’s claim of zero civilian deaths. From Wikipedia:
Daniel L. Byman from the Brookings Institution suggests that drone strikes may kill “10 or so civilians” for every militant killed. In contrast, the New America Foundation has estimated that 80 percent of those killed in the attacks were militants. The Pakistani military has stated that most of those killed were hardcore Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants. The CIA believes that the strikes conducted since May 2010 have killed over 600 militants and have not caused any civilian fatalities, a claim that experts disputed and have called absurd. Based on extensive research, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that between 391 – 780 civilians were killed out of a total of between 1,658 and 2,597 and that 160 children are reported among the deaths.
Zero civilians is a pretty bold claim that I can only come up with two explanations of. Either each attack is backed up by thoroughly documented research or the CIA simply designates anyone they kill as a de facto terrorist. Perhaps it’s a mix of both, but without any public accountability we’ll probably never see evidence that it’s the former case.
If accurate, this description of drone tactics contradicts the “heavy research” explanation, and is eerily reminiscent of the follow-up bombing tactic used by Iraqi insurgents:
Asked for documentation of Tariq and Waheed’s deaths, [the attorney for Tariq’s family] did not provide pictures of the missile strike scene. Virtually none exist, since drones often target people who show up at the scene of an attack.
It’s maybe no surprise then that two thirds of Pakistani journalists regard US drones attacks as acts of terrorism.
At least for now these attacks have been suspended.
Drone strikes were halted in November 2011 after NATO forces killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in the Salala incident.
Update: this NY Times article offers a more nuanced discussion of the “zero civilian deaths” claim. It sounds like John Brennan simply overstated drone effectiveness and offered a more evasive explanation that “the U.S. government has not found credible evidence of collateral deaths.”
Update #2: I’m coming back to this post after several months, and thinking I might have underplayed this a little. Just to spell it out more clearly: an anti-drone activist, who was trying to draw attention to Pakistani civilian deaths, was himself killed by a drone. This would be kind of funny and ironic, if it wasn’t so not funny.
Strangely, the coverage of this incident on Democracy Now has his name as Tariq Aziz.
When I’d posted that Henry Wessel interview on Friday I hadn’t realized the Getty had so much content online from the exhibition. 24 out of the 30 photos are available, including these two photos by Garry Winogrand and Henry Wessel Jr., both titled Los Angeles.
This third photo seems struck me as a spiritual ancestor to Doug Rickard’s Google Street View photos. It’s hard to see in this low resolution image, but the man’s face is blurry, much like Google’s face blurring policy.
There are also short audio pieces that accompany many of the works:
- Judy Fiskin on Henry Wessel’s Los Angeles
- Anthony Hernandez on Garry Winogrand
- Judy Fiskin on Joe Deal
The show is up until May 6th. But if you’re not in LA, be sure to explore the online gallery!
In a pair of recent posts, Andre Torrez outlined an idea for solving the “how do I get photos from my iPhone onto a website” problem. I like this idea, and I’d happily install this hypothetical Community Camera app if anyone ends up developing it.
The central mechanism for Andre’s idea is a new URL protocol
camera: (similar to
ftp:) that a simple camera application could claim control over. One such built-in protocol on the iPhone is
sms:, which lets you easily direct users to send an SMS message. For example, clicking on this link (with URL
sms:+12125551212) would switch you over to the SMS application with the phone number already filled in. Here is a handy list of other iPhone-supported protocols. But if you’re not reading this on an iPhone, pressing that link will probably give you an error message.
sms: links are supported, and make the process much more seamless for users. As far as I know (
correct me if I’m wrong), such a mechanism doesn’t exist yet. It exists! See update below.
The email workaround
One workaround solution, used by many web applications including Flickr, is to provide a special email address that allows you to upload photos as an attachment. The benefit is that every computer with a browser supports email links, smartphones and otherwise. The downside is the unwieldy sequence of steps you have to follow. In the best case scenario, a user has already saved the web app’s special email address to her contacts:
- Switch to the Camera app, take a photo or find the one you want from your library
- Press the “utility button” and choose “Email Photo”
- Fill in the email address from contacts and press send
- Switch back to the browser and wait for the attachment to be received by the web app
A number of factors complicate this process, starting with the initial messaging. The natural thing to say is “Email a photo to upload,” linked with a
mailto: URL protocol. But on the iPhone you can’t attach photos from the Mail app, it only works from the Camera side of things. So that “Email a photo” link should probably go to a page that explains the process outlined above, including the important step zero “add our special email address to your contacts.”
Email uploading requires that you’re willing to read a bunch of steps, understand them, and follow them. Additionally, the web application is left with no button that initiates the process and no way of giving feedback about whether it worked or not. If you reload the web app and you see your photo, then it worked. If not, maybe you’ll get a email bounce message. It’s a process that works okay for experienced users, poorly for novices, and that fails ungracefully.
Plus there is the implementation challenge of receiving and parsing email, which is kind of a pain in the ass. As an alternative to Andre’s plan, if somebody wants to write a general purpose email-to-upload service, I would find that pretty useful. Or does this exist already? I haven’t looked very hard.
Compare those steps above to the
camera: method (including step zero, “install the Community Camera application”):
- Press the “upload photo” link, with its “camera:” URL protocol
- Using the native app that appears, take a photo or choose one from your library
- When finished, the app switches you back to a page that has useful feedback
This is a better user experience, but it does require that someone go and write that native camera app (and that I install it). And unless there’s some way of checking for
camera: support, even this will require some additional explanation.
Multimedia Messaging Service
Yet another solution can be found in SMS, or its more advanced permutation MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service). Using the
sms: protocol mentioned above, I could create a link to
sms:email@example.com that behaves almost exactly like the email upload method, while avoiding some of its complexity. On the iPhone, you can attach photos from the Messages app, and you can send MMS messages to an email address. And since there’s a link that initiates the process, it allows web apps to give some feedback on the page in response to a
The downside to this method is that it requires the user to have a mobile plan with reasonable rates for sending MMS messages, and could fail ungracefully for users who aren’t fully informed about their mobile plan.
In any case, writing all this up has made me realize web browsers should let you detect whether a given URL protocol is supported. Browser makers, please build that into your next release!
Update: Andre tweeted a clever trick for detecting URL protocol support! Here’s how it might work in PHP:
<?php // This will only work if the sms: protocol is supported header('Location: sms:firstname.lastname@example.org'); // If not, fall back on this other page echo '<html><head><meta http-equiv="refresh" content="0; url=sms-not-supported.html" /></head></html>'; ?>
Seeing the tiny exhibition on LA photography at the Getty reminded me how much I like Henry Wessel Jr. (who had one print in the show). “It can happen any time anywhere. You don’t have to be in front of stuff that’s going to make a good photograph. It’s possible anywhere.”
See also: New Topographics (Redux)
Legislation that would break the Internet is absent from television news:
As the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) makes its way through Congress, most major television news outlets — MSNBC, Fox News, ABC, CBS, and NBC — have ignored the bill during their evening broadcasts. One network, CNN, devoted a single evening segment to it.
To their credit, the online arms of most of these news outlets have posted regular articles about the fight over the legislation, but their primetime TV broadcasts remain mostly silent.
From Frank Chimero’s post on Louis CK’s “Shameful Dirty Comedy”:
Anthropologist Mary Douglas has a nice definition for dirt, saying it is “matter out of place.” A fried egg on the plate is fine, but a fried egg all over my hands is dirty. Hyde continues to say that dirt is always a byproduct of creating order: to create a place for things means that there will be situations where things will be out of place. And this is why Louis CK’s comedy is dirty: the thoughts, as dark and natural as they may be, are put out of place.
I couldn’t help but connect this to the Occupy Wall Street evictions, which were justified on the grounds that the encampments are unsanitary. Having spent some time in Zuccotti Park, I can see why the messiness might be seen as “dirty.” Conditions were certainly not posing any serious danger, but it makes sense that the city would regard occupiers as out of place.