Author Archives: njs12008

Hooray

Feast your eyes, it’s our final project (we being Nate and Thomas).

Just download this zip file, then you can open it up in Sophie and explore the world of reality/identity crises. Just be sure to click on all of the green text (it’s linked to other stuff), because otherwise you will become very bored. Enjoy.

Interesting Article…

From the Sunday New York Times about the struggles of Web 2.0 companies in foreign countries. (Here it is) Apparently, a lot of sites are struggling to turn a profit–or even break even–in many markets. The ad rates for countries in Africa, the Middle East and much of Asia are much lower, reflecting the economic realities of the countries themselves. But because of technological limitations, servers and bandwidth are much more expensive. Unfortunately, the grand vision of a free web for all may be in jeopardy thanks to the fact that the web is still based in the real world.

The consequences of this for a local audience are fairly minimal–the business structure of companies like YouTube and Facebook has proven to be extremely successful in America. But abroad things are more questionable, and while major sites will probably still be safe, certain companies don’t have the resources to maintain a fully international audience (the article mentioned Veoh, which is a video-sharing site). In fact, YouTube may lose over $400 million in the international market this year, and if that does happen there may indeed be severe repercussions.

We’ll have to wait and see what this will amount to. But dreams of a global, utopian internet, may be in jeopardy. We may be entering into a new kind of European priviledge, one that revolves around superior access to the web. And if these trends continue, many countries on the technological forefront may start running into some unforeseen obstacles–unless bandwidth rates decrease, the United States may have a monopoly on the creation and proliferation of user-generated sites, meaning innovation could be stifled throughout a large portion of the world.

Maybe the article paints a bleaker picture than is warranted. It’s hard to imagine Facebook making their site unavailable in markets as large as India. But even if the fears presented here are unfounded, it’s important to take this opportunity to really evaluate the realities of the situation. Internet for all may not be such an easily realized ambition after all. Disparities of wealth between nations cannot be avoided, even in the virtual realm. This should be a wake up call to let people know that the internet cannot exist independently. The Real World must be taken into account.

Kindle 2

One of the most interesting products that’s come out recently is Amazon’s Kindle, which is attempting to do for books what the iPod did for music (even offering titles for $9.99 apiece on their website). The design is impressively sleek, and the new version boasts a whole host of interesting digital features–from internet access for immediate downloading and wikipedia lookups to text-to-speech for an instant (if mechanical-sounding) audiobook.

But the Kindle 2’s biggest “features” all seem to revolve around its ability to emulate paper–glare-free screen for reading in the sun, 16 shades of gray for that real bookish look and 20% faster page-turning. Interestingly enough, despite the supposed power of the digital book, one of the primary focuses of purveyors of these fine goods has been to de-digitalize the reading experience as much as possible. Kindle boasts the increased power of portable internet access, but still attempts to make its product as book-like as possible.

I wonder if this is a problem that Gutenberg encountered when he first invented the press–was there an adjustment period for literate Europeans (and there were way fewer of them at the time) to get used to movable type? I have always heard complaints about the eye strain caused by reading type on a screen, and I wonder if it may be something humans are capable of genetically adapting to.

In any case, my other interesting point about Kindle is its marketing strategy. In March, Amazon added a free Kindle App to the Apple store in order to allow iPhone users to read books without a Kindle. This strategy actually mirrors Apple’s own approach with the original iPod–offering Kindle as the go-to digital book reader, regardless of who was offering the access. I’m assuming that Amazon hopes that offering the Kindle on multiple platforms will give them a near-monopoly on the digital book market, much as the iPod has become synonymous with mp3 players.

Unfortunately, the iPhone App doesn’t offer what I find to be the Kindle’s most intriguing feature, which is their newspaper reader. With the industry slowly fading out across the world, it’s interesting to see Kindle offering a clearly modern solution to keep newspaper subscriptions alive. Should the technology become widespread, the effect on newspapers would be tremendous–distribution would be revolutionized, although the paper industry would take one hell of a hit. All in all, I would say that Amazon has something here, although it’s hard to tell if Kindle has the staying power to truly replace paper (especially at the similarly iPod-esque price of $350). But it certainly has the potential, and that fact leaves me fascinated. We’ll just have to keep watching to see what happens.

Organized Atheism?

Another New York Times article, this time about a new phenomenon sweeping the nation. Apparently, atheist and humanist societies have begun sprouting up and, what’s so bizarre to me, organizing a movement of their own. Not that this has much to do with this course per sé, but I always thought of atheism as a rebellion against organized religion. It’s understandable that these people want to get together, but I think the existence and success of these groups shows a misunderstanding with humanism in general. Organizing atheism makes it a religion, and a religion that closely mirrors many sects of Protestant Christianity. Say what you want about the G-d aspect of it, but at the end of the day Christianity is a humanist religion–the problem is that it is an indoctrinated humanism, a proscriptive view of ultimate Good and Evil. By codifying and organizing atheism, you create yet another humanist religion, probably with some new traditions of its own. But what is the difference, really, between celebrating a pagan spring fertility festival and celebrating Easter? I guess this is my problem with a lot of liberal Western thought. If you identify a certain organized group as a problem in society, how is the solution going out and creating another organized group to counter it? But that’s what atheists seem to be doing now. Perhaps there is just something in human nature that makes them want to have a structured system of beliefs. Reason, after all, is the primary atheist deity. Maybe it should be expected that they would begin to truly worship it.

Ownership Issues…of Food

I’ll take pretty much any opportunity I can get to plug Hulu, since it’s one site that understands the importance of online streaming. But in addition to the tv shows that everyone watches on there, they also have a pretty solid collection of films. I happened to start watching this one today, and I figured I’d share it with you all. It’s a documentary about the workings of the modern food industry, and it has a lot of fascinating and disturbing material–especially if you’re of the opinion that corporations are pretty much destroying the planet.

But, what I found most interesting about this film is the oddly familiar ownership issues that have come into play in the food industry. As soon as a court ruling was made allowing engineered plants to be patented, there was a mad rush by the major agro-industrial companies to snap up all of the existing non-patented seeds. And since ownership is, and will probably continue to be, the primary issue in terms of internet policy, I thought the connection was worth looking into, although I don’t blame you if you don’t feel like spending the full hour and a half to watch the damn thing.

Swine Flu!

So, my radio alarm is set to the local news station, and this morning I woke up to the exciting news that many people think the recent outbreak of swine flu in Mexico may be the work of eco-terrorists. And, hot on the heels of that terrifying thought is the fact that Twitter seems to be at least partially responsible for the growing fears over this “epidemic” (judge for yourself whether those quotation marks are deserved). Here’s the article I’m referring to. Apparently there’s been an influx of false rumors, hearsay, and all the other good stuff that a program like Twitter allows to become widespread. But, in Twitter’s defense, I have to question whether people wouldn’t be freaked out if it didn’t exist–a program like this is more of a reflection of public opinion than a creator of it (although it does have the ability to spread rumors much farther than their usual circulation). Just think of the uproar over SARS

Boyle-mania

Well, it’s been a couple weeks since Susan Boyle’s now-infamous Britain’s Got Talent performance, and we’re still seeing the effects of her newfound celebrity. Check out the New York Times Online’s front page, and you’ll see not one, but two articles in the top-ten most e-mailed today that center around you-know-who (here’s one and here’s the other).

The general analysis coming from this particular event seems to be along the “don’t judge a book by it’s cover” line of discourse, one that has actually been pretty popular recently in general (think Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink”). But what’s interesting about this to me is the sheer size of Boyle’s internet celebrity. I honestly don’t think we’ve ever seen this before. What Harry Potter is for children’s literature, Susan Boyle has become for youtube meme–she may have just redefined the term. In a sense, we seem to be watching history in the making right now. Say what you want about the “Numa Numa” or “Chocolate Rain” guys, but Boyle has surpassed them all. It’s hard to imagine that one performance could actually alter one person’s life so drastically.

So say what you want about Boyle herself (I myself think this is all a bit overblown), but you can’t deny that observing the phenomenon in action is pretty damn fascinating. We’re witnessing a whole new kind of celebrity sensation, and it’s hard to reject the internet’s central role in making this whole craze a reality.

Second Life Existentialism

Second Life is, for me, another one of those intriguingly ambiguous online communities–a cool concept without a clearly defined purpose. Without any first-hand experience, I can assume based on what I’ve heard that Second Life is basically a MMORPG without the gameplay–infinitely customizable players, a lot of items, and nothing to do. This concept, though maddening for people like myself who have trouble getting into a game for any purpose other than beating it, has proven to be phenomenally successful, and has managed to show some crossover potential when it comes to other unfocused networking programs like Twitter.

Of course, the appeal for Second Life is eerily close to the appeal for, well, Life in general–a ton of space to explore, no clearly delineated goals (and especially no one telling you what you need to do), and an incredible potential to spend a lifetime participating in anything from meaningless distractions to focused entrepeneurship. Perhaps most frightening, however, is the incredible customization power afforded in Second Life–you don’t have to play with the cards you were dealt; you can always change your hand. In some respects, Second Life is (gulp) superior to the real world.

This fact, for me at least, makes Second Life, more than just a curious phenomenon, a legitimately questionable pursuit from the start. Looking at the case of the Arizona man in the article, the existential pitfalls of Second Life addiction seem more than just a theoretical danger. Post-modernism in general has brought with it an underlying philosophy of questioning–and often questioning simply for its own sake. Truth, purpose and meaning are, in our own world, if potentially closer thanks to advances in information, certainly less “known”, at least in the fact that we have placed a premium on uncertainty. And while this approach has merits, it still has the startling ability to dissuade many from seeing a point to anything in life. The worst part is that, thanks to programs like Second Life, there seem to be alternatives.

For a person who has struggled in the Real World, a completely human-controlled universe devoid of cosmic chance and natural uncertainty seems vastly appealing. In fact, you could make the argument that the majority of human history has been spent attempting to create a Second Life–a world completely understandable and governable by logical human means. If Life itself is difficult and has no clear purpose, why not spend it in a better, albeit manufactured Second Life? Of course, this logic is flawed–our world has so much more to offer right now.

But the “What If?” leaves me a little nervous. What if we do reach that point, where we can fully, convincingly recreate the entirety of our known universe (and perhaps more) within this virtual realm? Will we have beaten nature, bested G-d? And what will the repercussions be, should this world eventually exist? Might we actually be headed for a science fiction meta-verse, and a Matrix-like fate? Of course, I’m probably overthinking this whole mess anyways. For now, all we know is that Second Life is popular, and that allows us to understand a good amount about our present society. Perhaps I should just stop there.

Machinima?

Well, it certainly is an interesting concept, I’ll give it that. But if we’re attempting to look at machinima (horrible choice in naming, by the way) as a potential art form, the argument falls apart extremely quickly. With all of these new rising forms of expression, there seems to be some semblance of a “what’s next,” a potential for some sort of marked improvement in artistic ability, a clean slate for a real auteur to come in and whip this entertainment form into real artistic shape.

And machinima? Eh, not so much. While web videos such as “Red vs. Blue” may be able to carve out a niche audience, and even to throw in some real witty dialogue, the “art” form itself is hopelessly limited. Creators of these videos aren’t really making much of anything. They are exploring the limits of someone else’s program, although they may be using it for purposes completely contradictory to the designer’s goals. The problem is that there is very little room for real creativity, and especially creativity that is somehow unique to this particular form. No matter how perfect a script may be, the reality seems to be that anything machinima can do, cinema can really do better.

Of course, I don’t want to harp too much on the negatives, because after all there should be some merit to this phenomena beyond the fact that nerds like watching Halo characters talking to each other. And I think that, if there is potential for machinima to be a good thing, it lies in its close relationship to the video game world. As these artificial universes expand more and more, it’s nice to see a new force pushing games out of their comfort zone. Even if the only “improvement” we’ve seen machinima bring so far is the lower gun option in Halo, at least we can see potential for an increasingly complex world to explore–one that’s not necessarily driven by plot alone. This hope, I think, is more exciting, because, as I’ve said before, video games have the potential to become a legitimate art form, if they are pushed in the right direction enough. Machinima is lending a helpful shove.

The Hive, in Sophie

Here is my Sophie project:

pages.pomona.edu/~njs12008/The Hive.spbf.zip

(It opens a zip file)