Category Archives: Quotes

“Some day music will only be air”

It’s a story full of lists. Some day music will only be air. There will be no objects to hold or fetishize and people will simply collect lists. No disc, nothing spooled or grooved, no heads to clean, no dust to wipe, no compulsive alphabetising. Nothing to put away in shoeboxes or spare cupboards and be embarrassed about. A chip inside us and inside the chip a route to all the music there ever was, which we can compile and organise and reorganise and merge with and feel into and in whatever way possible find the time to listen to, and we’ll need the time, all the time there is, all the time that music finds to press itself into.

Words and Music: A History of Pop in the Shape of a City (Paul Morley, 2003)

In 2005, Youtube was founded by Steve Chen, Chad Hurley, and Jawed Karim as a video-sharing site. In 2012, Youtube surpassed radio and physical media as the “most popular way American adolescents listen to music.

Also in 2012, Psy made an estimated $7.9 million dollars from Gangnam Style, including $870,000 from ads attached to his more than 1 billion Youtube views, $2.4 million in income from iTubes downloads, and $4.6 million from commercial endorsements.

Here in 2013, this article traces the artistic, social, and corporate forces that combined to create the Harlem Shake phenomenon.

Music is not quite “only air” yet, but it is close. Books are next, then video. There are all sorts of complex and sticky legal, business, technical, and design questions to answer as we make this shift. But it is worth stepping back and realizing just how big a shift it is. Since 1877, we have taken in the notion that music can be (and eventually should be, and eventually always will be) made available in the form of physical media.

In honor of the shift, I bought a Sisters of Mercy EP this weekend. On vinyl. I could hear Roy from the I.T. crowd saying in my head …

Drones and Automated Trading Systems

This week I reread William Gibson’s Mona Lisa Overdrive for the umpteenth time. It’s the final book of the Sprawl trilogy which started with the more famous Neuromancer. This time, there were some lovely resonances between the books and the world of today, almost 25 years after it was published.

One detail that jumped out at me was the emotional resonance of drone surveillance:

She was accompanied, on these walks, by an armed remote, a tiny Dornier helicopter that rose from its unseen rooftop next when she stepped down from the deck. It could hover almost silently, and was programmed to avoid her line of sight. There was something wistful about the way it followed her, as though it we5re an expensive but unappreciated Christmas gift.

Mona Lisa Overdrive, William Gibson (1988), pps 14-15

 A drone pilot and his partner, a sensor operator who manipulates the aircraft’s camera, observe the habits of a militant as he plays with his children, talks to his wife and visits his neighbors. They then try to time their strike when, for example, his family is out at the market.

“They watch this guy do bad things and then his regular old life things,” said Col. Hernando Ortega, the chief of aerospace medicine for the Air Education Training Command, who helped conduct a study last year on the stresses on drone pilots. “At some point, some of the stuff might remind you of stuff you did yourself. You might gain a level of familiarity that makes it a little difficult to pull the trigger.”

— A Day Job Waiting for a Kill Shot a World Away, The New York Times, July 29th, 2012

And while we don’t yet live in a world where Artificial Intelligences control major corporations, we have started talking about things as if we do:

She remembered Porphyre once maintaining that major corporations were entirely independent of the human beings who composed the body corporate. This had seemed patently obvious to Angie, but the hairdresser had insisted that she’d failed to grasp his basic premise. Swift was Sense/Net’s most important human decision-maker.- Mona Lisa Overdrive, William Gibson (1988), page 123

An automated stock trading program suddenly flooded the market with millions of trades Wednesday morning, spreading turmoil across Wall Street and drawing renewed attention to the fragility and instability of the nation’s stock market.

Traders on Wednesday said that a rogue algorithm repeatedly bought and sold millions of shares of companies like RadioShack, Best Buy, Bank of America and American Airlines, sending trading volume surging. While the trading firm involved blamed a “technology issue,” the company and regulators were still trying to understand what went wrong.

“The machines have taken over, right?” said Patrick Healy, the chief executive of the Issuer Advisory Group, a capital markets consulting firm.

Flood of Errant Trades Is a Black Eye for Wall Street, The New York Times, August 1, 2012

Science fiction isn’t terribly reliable at predicting the future, exactly. But sometimes it does a nice job of predictng what the future will feel like.

“Any sufficiently advanced civilization is … “

Clarke's Three Laws are three "laws" of prediction formulated by the British writer and scientist Arthur C. Clarke. They are:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong. 
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible. 
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

— Wikipedia, Clarke's Three Laws

So are we alone? Well, there is one other possibility, at this point. I've lately been trumpeting my revision of Clarke's Law (which originally said 'any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic'). My revision says that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from Nature. (Astute readers will recognize this as a refinement and further advancement of my argument in Permanence.) Basically, either advanced alien civilizations don't exist, or we can't see them because they are indistinguishable from natural systems. I vote for the latter.

— Karl Schroeder, The Deepening Paradox

Bits and pieces from Reality is Broken

Another book finished: Reality is Broken: Why Games Make us Better and How they can Change the World by Jane McGonigal. I've seen Jane speak at SXSW — she's phenomenal. The core ideas are not new to me (because I've seen her speak), but she fleshes them out in more detail & adds some nuance and research. Which is nice, and increasingly rare for a Current Thinky Book — I'm getting frustrated by books that don't have anything more to say than what the author's 20 minute TED talk said.

Anyway, these are the bits that caught my eye. More definitional & pragmatic, so more from the front of the book–the back of the book is more the world-changing ARG stuff, which is fine but not what I'm looking for right now.

First, an examination of two related concepts: hard fun and fun failure. (Funnily enough a Berenstein Bears book I was reading with my daughter also covered hard fun.)

Hard fun is what happens when we experience positive stress, or eustress (a combination of the Greek eu, for "well-being," and stress.) From a physiological and neurological standpoint, eustress is virtually identical to negative stress: we produce adrenaline, our reward circuitry is activated, and blood flow increases to the attention control centers of the brain.  (p 32)

But without positive failure feedback, this belief is easily undermined. If failure feels random or passive, we lose our sense of agency—and optimism goes down the drain. As technology journalist Clive Thompson reminds us, “It’s only fun to fail if the game is fair—and you had every chance of success.”
That’s why Nicole Lazzaro spends so much time consulting with game developers about how, exactly, to design failure sequences that are spectacular and engaging. The trick is simple, but the effect is powerful: you have to show players their own power in the game world, and if possible elicit a smile or a laugh. As long as our failure is interesting, we will keep trying—and remain hopeful that we will succeed eventually. (p. 67)

Next, some detail around Your MP's Expenses, a crowdsourced investigation by the Guardian after the UK expenses scandal (you may remember the floating duck island incident):

The game interface made it easy to take action and see your impact right away. When you examined a document, you had a panel of bright, shiny buttons to press depending on what you’d found. First, you’d decide what kind of document you were looking at: a claim form, proof (a receipt, invoice, or purchase order), a blank page, or “something we haven’t thought of.” Then you’d determine the level of interest of the document: “Interesting,” “Not interesting,” or “Investigate this! I want to know more.” When you’d made your selection, the button lit up, giving you a satisfying feeling of productivity, even if all you’d found was a blank page that wasn’t very interesting. And there was always a real hope of success: the promise of finding the next “duck pond” to keep you working quickly through the flow of documents.
A real-time activity feed showed the names of players logged in recently and the actions they’d taken in the game. This feed made the site feel social. Even though you were not directly interacting with other players, you were copresent with them on the site and sharing the same experience. There was also a series of top contributor lists, for the previous forty-eight hours as well as for all time, to motivate both short-term and long-term participation. And to celebrate successful participation, as well as sheer volume of participation, there was also a “best individual discoveries” page that identified key findings from individual players. Some of these discoveries were over-the-top luxuries offensive to one’s sense of propriety: a £240 giraffe print or a £225 fountain pen, for example. Others were mathematical errors or inconsistencies suggesting individuals were reimbursed more than they were owed. As one player noted, “Bad math on page 29 of an invoice from MP Denis MacShane, who claimed £1,730 worth of reimbursement, when the sum of those items listed was only £1,480.”
But perhaps most importantly, the website also featured a section labeled “Data: What we’ve learned from your work so far.” This page put the individual players’ efforts into a much bigger context—and guaranteed that contributors would see the real results of their efforts. (p. 222-223)
What I like about that is how easily you can imagine applying some of these things to non-investigative crowd-sourcing situations.
Also on crowdsourcing, a warning against building in compensation schemes:

The logic behind these practices is that if people are willing to contribute for free, they'll be even happier to contribute when they're compensated. But compensating people for their contributions is not a good way to increase global participation bandwidth, for two key reasons.

First, as numerous scientific studies have shown, compensation typically decreases motivation to engage in activities we would otherwise freely enjoy. If we are paid to do something we would otherwise have done out of interest–such as reading, drawing, participating in a survey, or solving puzzles–we are less likely to do so in the future without getting paid. Compensation increases participation only among groups who would never engage otherwise–and as soon as you stop paying them, they stop participating.

Second, there are natural limits on the monetary resources we can provide in a community of participants. Any given project will have only so much financial capital to give away; even a successful business will eventually hit an upper limit of what it can afford to pay for contributions. Scarce rewards like money and prizes artificially limit the amount of participation a network can inspire and support. (p. 242-3)

Finally, an explicit crowd-sourcing=MMORPG analogy with Wikipedia:

Second, Wikipedia has good game mechanics. Player action has a direct and clear result: edits appear instantly on the site, giving users a powerful sense of control over the environment. This instant impact creates optimism and a strong sense of self-efficacy. It features unlimited work opportunities, of escalating difficulty. As the Wikipedians describe it, "Players can take on quests (WikiProjects, efforts to organize many articles into a single larger article), fight boss-level battles (featured articles that are held to higher standards than ordinary articles), and enter battle arenas (interventions against article vandalism)." It also has a personal feedback system that helps Wikipedians feel like they are improving and making personal progress as they contribute. "Players can accumulate experience points (edit count), allowing them to advance to higher levels (lists of Wikipedians by number of edits)." (p. 230 -1)

Bits and pieces from Empire of Liberty

I just finished Charles S. Wood's Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815. It's an awesome book, and since I don't think any American history from this period stuck in my head from school more than "blah blah XYZ affair blah blah Hamilton Burr duel blah War of 1812" I really needed to read it.

Three unrelated quotes struck me enough to preserve. The first is Madison's description of Jefferson, which I think could apply to half the genius geeks I know. (Or me, excepting the genius part.)

Madison knew his friend and knew that Jefferson's fanciful and exaggerated opinions were usually offset by his own very practical and cautious behavior. As Madison later remarked, Jefferson had a habit like "others of great genius of expressing in strong and round terms, impressions of the moment." Indeed, it was often the difference between Jefferson's impulsive opinions and his calculated behavior that led many critics to charge him with hypocrisy and inconsistency. (p. 150)

Expressing in strong and round terms, impressions of the moment. Awesome. I love that.

The next bit starts by relating the fad of calling things "mammoth" and ties it in to a subject that will be slightly familiar to West Wing fans, the Big Block of Cheese. (I say slightly familiar because this story relates to the Jefferson cheese, and the West Wing episode to the follow-up Andrew Jackson cheese.)

The most exciting scientific find of the period was Charles Wilson Peale's exhumation in 1801 near Newburgh, New York, of the bones of a mastadon, or mammoth. Peale displayed his mammoth inhis celebrated museum and in 1806 painted a marvelous picture of what was perhaps the first organized scientific exhumation in American history. Peale's discovery electrified the country and put the word "mammoth" on everybody's lips. A Philadelphia baker advertised the sale of "mammoth bread." In Washington a "mammoth eater" ate forty-two eggs in ten minutes.  And under the leadership of the Baptist preacher John Leland, the ladies of Cheshire, Massachusetts, late in 1801 sent to President Jefferson a "mammoth cheese," six foot in diameter and nearly two feet thick and weighing 1,230 pounds. The cheese was produced from the milk of nine hundred cows at a single milking, with no Federalist cows being allowed to participate. The president welcomed this gift from the heart of Federalism as "an ebullition of the passion of republicanism in a state where it has been under heavy persecution" (p. 393)

I do not know how the cows were checked for Federalism. Perhaps their stalls were checked for copies of the New York Post. (Did you know the New York Post was founded by Alexander Hamilton?)

I can also recommend A Big Cheese for the White House: The True Tale of a Tremendous Cheddar to folks with kids who'd like to learn more about this important cheese incident in our nation's history. It's a great book with awesome illustrations, and totally answers any practical questions you might have re: how you make a cheese that size and transport it.

Finally, a bit that tells us American politicians weren't always enemies of science:

When am American captain seized a British ship with some thirty volumes of medical lecture notes, Washington sent them back to England, saying the United States did not make war on science. (p. 544)

“Don’t blame me! I voted for blood.”

Bruce Sterling just posted this transcript of a talk he gave in 2009. I read in on my phone on the BART this afternoon, cackling to myself like a crazy person. There's a lot of good in here, but this bit:

Why are Gen-X goths? Why are they goths rather than hippies, beatniks? Why do they like to dress up like dead people? That’s their temperament.

When you’re a young goth, you dress up like a dead person because that’s something grownups do. Dying.

But if you’re an adult Gen-Xer and you’re dressed up as a goth, it’s like “Don’t blame me — because I’m already dead! I’m not morally responsible, I’m not a political actor, it’s not my fault, look, I’m a vampire. Don’t blame me! I voted for blood.” Or, whatever. It’s gothic.

Ow. That hits home. Followed by:

Okay, I want to offer you a general principle here. For a Gothic generation like yours, this is going to be painful for you. I mean, really a cognitive upset.

“Stop acting dead.”

Now, you think that acting dead is a virtue. Because you’ve been trained to behave as is if you were dead for a long time, and it actually appeals to your temperament as a generation. It’s your default position.

But you have to stop it. Because Hair shirt Green, which is most of the things that you had on your action list there, Hairshirt Green just changes the polarity of the twentieth century.

It’s just the opposite of consumer culture. It’s like Satanism for a consumer culture. And all Satanists are actually Christians. It’s not really a different way to live. And it’s not something that’s going to fulfil you.

Now, how do you know if you’re acting dead? Well, there’s a test for this. It’s the Great-Grandfather Principle.

You’re saying: I’m going to do something morally worthwhile that’ll make me feel proud of myself. But does your dead great-grandfather do a better job of it than you?

For instance, saving water. Okay, water is indestructible, first of all. You cannot possible damage water unless you turn it into hydrogen and oxygen. Then it just spontaneously recombines.

But you’re trying to save water, because you’re told to save water. All right, your dead great-grandfather is saving more water than you. You cannot possibly save any more water than a dead guy. He’s greener than you in that regard.

Saving electrical power. Okay, you should be using less power, power’s bad, you need a lower footprint. Okay, your grandfather is not using any electrical power.

He’s much greener than you, you cannot compete with that. If you move into a smaller apartment, your grandfather is in a very, very small apartment. It’s underground, there’s no lighting, there’s no heating, he doesn’t have any broadband.

Recycling, okay, recycling is useful in some ways. Your grandfather is literally being recycled. You can’t actually out-recycle your dead grandfather.

And furthermore, in a pretty short amount of time compared to the length of the problems you’re tackling, you’re going to be dead, like your grandfather.

You’ll be saving everything at that point. You might be alive 70, 80, 90 years. You’re going to be dead for hundreds of millions of years. Billions of years of saving water, billions of years of having a light carbon footprint. It was carbon sequestration. You’re full of carbon, they buried you.

So you need to do things that you can do while alive. Do things you can do while alive. If your grandfather’s doing a better job at it, you can put that aside for later, when you’re dead, like him.

I'm so happy that I'm going to see him speak at SXSW this year — the last time I went was one of the few years he didn't speak, and that seriously bummed me out.


Thief, thief, thief! Baggins!

I'm slowly reading "The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion" by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull. It's a dense exegesis of LOTR and clearly for pretty obsessive Tolkien fans only.

It's a lot of fun, though. My favorite so far is finding out that baggins is, among other things, English country speak for afternoon tea.There's also layers of bag related language play: Bag-end is Anglicized cul-de-sac (which is in turn faux French), Baggins vs. Sackville Baggins, etc.

I like dense naming. See also Warren Ellis's explanation of how he names characters, in part:

For instance: I’m working on something right now where I think I’ve nailed the character name finally. Birch. Birch = wood = connotes a degree of strength and basic groundedness. But also birching = flagellation. Also, “John Birch Society,” skeevy and untrustworthy. And it’s a hard, sharp word. There’s a lot about the character that unpacks out of the name.

I'm working with some folks on a product name right now. It's hard. And I think the good ones have dense (and sometimes non-obvious) layers of meaning, just like in fiction.

On borrowing ideas

If you think you operate in isolation from other designers, gamers, and the culture at large, you're mistaken. And worse, if you don't look at similar problems and systems, you're undercutting your chances of a successful design. You can get creative raw materials this way because, for all creative work, your materials are ideas. This isn't to say you swipe text and settings and so forth. Build up a library of resources that are both close and distant, and learn the options you have.

When you look to use ideas you find useful, it's best to borrow from distant sources; generally speaking, if you are writing a Dungeons & Dragons adventure, then swiping from other D&D adventures makes you a thief, whereas borrowing an element from board games or MMOs makes you smart. Borrowing from much more distant sources like theatre or history makes you a creative genius. Research the field, and then go far beyond that.

— 'The Process of Creative Thought' from The Kobold Guide to Game Design by Wolfgang Bauer

This is not a new thought, but I thought it particularly well stated. I'm reading a lot on game design (both computer and tabletop) right now, and I'm tickled at how applicable most of the ideas are to non-game user experience work.

Of course, that shouldn't be a surprise — the use (and mis-use) of "levels 'n grind" style game mechanics (among many other things) is pretty much a straight descent from Gygax and Arneson in 1974 to fantasy computer games to modern MMOs to the gameofication of software.Not sure what Gary would think of Foursquare, though …

Changing the audience

Still curious what the band was doing exactly during "Realize," and where all that melody came from, I press him about it. "There was no melody!," he exclaims. "Every melody everyone had  was in their head." The group played "all the strings on the bass at the same time and then me with this whammy pedal able to go two octaves lower and then bring it up and down like that. And then with various distortion pedals I could change the texture of the noise whenever I wanted so it wasn't just like one sound, it was just sort of moving along somehow. It was the best part of the night always and each night it was an experiment to see how long it would take for the audience to turn from like one state to another. A certain percentage of the audience would start sticking their fingers up at us or they would put their hands up in the air with their eyes closed, or do somethig physical. I pretty much would always go on as long as it took to change the audience."

"When it was clear that the audience was changed, totally–even if it was one person left with their fingers in the air or in their ears, we would wait for them to give into it, " Kevin explains. "Sometimes it would take forty minutes for that one individual to give up. When the audience was fully and utterly done, we had the signal process where I would look at Debbie and we'd go back to the final parts of the song."

— from "33 1/2: Loveless", by Mike McGonigal, a book-long essay on the album Loveless by My Bloody Valentine

Kevin Shields (of My Bloody Valentine) goes on to explain that they had to stop "experiments" like this because of accumulated hearing damage. Although I'm pretty sure they did it when I saw them just a few years ago …