Monthly Archives: October 2005

My legs hurt…

Today, I participated in a scientific experiment. At the promise of a solid gold payment (well almost, anyway), I went to the Faculty of Medicine to play my part as the guinea pig in a test examining the levels of BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrofic Factor) before, during and after physical activity. Now, I don’t know anything about this stuff – but I was told it wouldn’t be dangerous.

As it so happened, all I had to do was to meet up this morning and ride an exercise bike at 60 % of my maximum capacity for 2 hours, and then rest for 5 hours. Meanwhile, the very kind doctors would take blood samples – using a funny little tap inserted into my arm. I believe it’s called a venflon:

That wasn’t too bad – and it certainly wasn’t what was making my legs hurt. That were the muscle biopsies. They did 5 on me during the experiment, and they really aren’t as painful as I’ve heard them described, but afterwards your legs feel kind of wooden. I’m walking around like an old man right now – and it probably won’t be getting better for the next few days, as I’ll be returning for follow-up biosies and blood samples the next three days.

But apart from the actual business of the medical trade, I got an idea of how scientific study is done in a completely different field – though also centered on human beings. But in retrospect, apart from their obvious interest in me, not as a person but as a meat machine to be measured and tested – the same basic scientific and epistemological values apply.

I know that psychologists also hire people as test subjects for experiments, and it made me wonder whether it would actually be possible to make some relevant excuse or setup for doing something similar in an anthropological or sociological frame.

I find it fascinating that in those, more “hard-core” scientific studies focusing only on the test subject’s basic human features like blood, muscle and memory, it is considered ethical valid – necessary, even – to offer a monetary reward. But not so in the social sciences (though it is generally accepted that anthropologists pay informants who wouldn’t be able to sustain themselves for spending their time talking instead of working).

I know that you cannot be friends with people that you pay to talk to you. Or that you can’t expect straight answers from people who are trying to please you in order to get the money. And that you’d only get a certain kind of informants willing to cash in on their cultural and social relations.

But even if it isn’t viable in the slightest, I still think that quite a few social scientists have a hidden urge to just keep their informants in a lab for further testing and questioning. Not only would it guarantee the social sciences’ status as proper science (i.e. any discipline where you get to wear a lab coat) – but it would be pretty darn easy as well.

It is because of this that I find that anthropology to be one of the most interesting disciplines around: because we take a pride in not making things to easy for ourselves – that even in the everyday gathering of data, we have to challenge ourselves, give up our own authority and qualify our research decisions. It may lead to a schizophrenic attitude towards “proper science” – but we’ll have to learn that we as anthropologists have to qualify our research through other means than mere method.

Actual relevance and pragmatic usefulness would do nicely, I think.

The Ideal University?

Over at the Apophenia Blog the local resident, Danah, is pondering how she would spend a billion dollars to design a university. If you had the money and the opportunity, how would you design your dream institution of higher education?

I think this is a fascinating question, and one that more people should consider. It is not enough to simply complain about how education works today, but also offer constructive (though maybe rather idealistic) ideas and input.

I wrote an article about the problems of the Danish university system, though it was turned down by the one newspaper I ended up sending it to. To me, the central problem of education is that we have divided up into three seperate sections that hardly seem to be coordinated or even share the goals.

In Denmark, we have the basic school from age 6 to 15 or 16 (ten years). Then we have the Gymnasium (or some other “youth education”) – age ~15-16 to 19-20 (3 years), and on top of that the university or some other “professional training” which can take anywhere from 3 to 10 years, depending on how you prioritize your time.

My article was inspired by another couple of articles which had discussed both the basic shool and the gymnasium, and I meant to follow up on that and discuss the problems of Danish education and the Danish university system in particular.

I was quite inspired by the American writer and anarchist, Paul Goodman whose book Compulsory Miseducation I had just read. The book was originally published in 1964, even before the student rebellion of the late 60’s, but even so, Goodman’s arguments seem fresh and inspired even today. His main point is exactly that you can’t divide education into different institutions and sectors, because the way these institutions educate, form and even raise children will affect their further path through the system.

His solutions generally work toward making school less like school and more like real life. If you are sheltered away from everything until you’re 20 or 30 – how much would you know about anything apart from studying?

This situation may be very special in Denmark with our generous SU-system (free, tax-paid grants for all students for up to 6 years of study), but the general basis remains.

Here‘s my article, and here‘s one of the articles which inspired it – both are in Danish.

On youthful cynicism

Googling leisurely for some of the links for the piece below (which I wrote on the train with no internet access), I came across this short essay by Bertrand Russell. It is from around 1930 but seems remarkably relevant still.

His diagnosis of this continuing trend of youthful cynicism is:

The work of intellectuals is ordered and paid for by Governments or rich men, whose aims probably seem absurd, if not pernicious, to the intellectuals concerned. But a dash of cynicism enables them to adjust their consciences to the situation. There are, it is true, some activities in which wholly admirable work is desired by the powers that be; the chief of these is science, and the next is public architecture in America. But if a man’s education has been literary, as is still too often the case, he finds himself at the age of twenty-two with a considerable skill that he cannot exercise in any manner that appear important to himself. Men of science are not cynical even in the West, because they can exercise their best brains with the full approval of the community; but in this they are exceptionally fortunate among modern intellectuals.

And his suggestion as to a possible cure to this malady:

The cure will only come when intellectuals can find a career that embodies their creative impulses. I do not see any prescription except the old one advocated by Disraeli: `Educate our masters.’ […] A man is not allowed to practise medicine unless he knows something of the human body, but a financier is allowed to operate freely without any knowledge at all of the multifarious effects of his activities, with the sole exception of the effect upon his bank account. How pleasant a world would be in which no man was allowed to operate on the Stock Exchange unless he could pass an examination in economics and Greek poetry, and in which politicians were obliged to have a competent knowledge of history and modern novels! Imagine a magnate confronted with the question: `If you were to make a corner in wheat, what effect would this have upon German poetry?’

What a Stock Exchange that would be…

Cynicism

Autumn break is almost over, and I’m on my way back home to Copenhagen. I’ve spent a few days relaxing and fixing computers for my little sister, my mother and my friend Jeppe. Some of these problems have different causes, Jeppes were caused by the new version of Ubuntu, codenamed Breezy Badger which is kind of buggy when it comes to ATI graphics drivers which makes the computer crash. Wittily annoyed people on the Ubuntu Forums have thus renamed the version to Freezy Badger.

My mother, on the other hand, has bought a brand new Dell laptop with the spoils from her book, of which the first printing has already sold out. With it, she has also bought an iPod, as she has heard much of the wonderful world of podcasts, and I guided her through setting up iTunes, downloading her first podcasts off the Danish National Radio website.
Just to test it, I also downloaded a podcast from the BBC Radio Four show, In our Time, which happened to be on cynicism [17 mb mp3 file].

Intrigued, I listened to three British academics discussing the Greek cynics such as Antisthenes, Diogenes and others. The Greek cynics preached self-suffiency and freedom as much through action as through words. Diogenes, the most famed of the cynics, is said to have lived in barrel order to avoid the unnatural and irrational ways of human society which limits the individual freedom. As one of the academics puts it: ‚??He turns philosophy into a sort of performance art.‚?Ě

Diogenes likened himself to a dog, a term traditionally connected to shamelessness in the Greek tradition. As if to say: I’m not limited by social conventions such as wealth, status or even common decency (cynics advocated that anything you can do, you should do in public ‚?? including urinating, defecating and copulating ‚?? as these academics drily note).
The story goes that one day, Alexander the Great came to visit Diogenes in his barrel, and the king asked the philosopher: ‚??What do you want from me?‚?Ě
And the philosopher answered: ‚??Stand aside so that I can see the sun.‚?Ě

Following up on that, another story goes that Alexander once said that if he wasn’t Alexander, he wanted to be Diogenes. Exactly because Diogenes had power in exactly the opposite way of Alexander. Diogenes was so strongly independent that no man could do anything to him. You cannot coerce him in any way, because he refuses to be bound by any norm or law. I imagine this meeting as a physical manifestation of the dichotomy of the Foucaultian terms of Power and Counter Power: The mighty king and the lowly dog.

Cynicism itself takes its name from the Greek word for dog, kynos.

From there the discussion opens up, and they even discuss whether Jesus was influenced by the cynics (John Mills?) in the way that he preached and broke away from Judaism, and I did find that a quite compelling argument, though there is quite a lot of guesswork and conjectures involved.

The final question of the discussion is also the one I had throughout the discussion: How did cynicism turn from this rebellious, idealistic philosophy of action into the term used today, focusing on the negative side ‚?? a sort of rationalistic anti-utopianism (Thomas More is also mentioned as one of the inheritors to the legacy of classic cynicism) arguing that all moral stances is pretense and everybody are children of nature ‚?? in a dark and pessimistic sense.

The old cynics, for all their anarchistic eccentricities and their uncomplementary conception of the way people behaved, they did care, and they did want to improve on this. Whereas these new cynics (maybe most famously the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer) basically despise people and think that they have the lowest motives possible. Thus sneering at all their so-called values.

Personally, ever being (voluntarily?) na√Įve and hopeful, I find the classic cynics’ idealism and philosophy of action quite bold and interesting, and the new cynics’ hopelessness and dystopianism very unhelpful. The podcast intrigued me further on the term cynicism, because I hear it used so often. So many young people of my generation, maybe students, especially, term themselves cynics. Whenever yet another disaster hits, yet another war starts, yet another political corruption scandal emerges ‚?? they simply shrug and say that that is what is to be expected.

I find myself doing that as well, from time to time, because by now, it seems to be such a pervasive and accepted attitude that few people are bothered by this. And I hate this.

Fiercely.

Depth Probe Two

My Digital Rhetorics course is progressing. And the deadlines for the assignments attached are moving closer. We are expected to create (rather than merely write) a mystory – a rather esoteric genre of digital rhetoric invented by the postmodernist academic Greg Ulmer.

A mystory is, well, a good question. But answered. At first it seemed seriously spacy and postmodernistic, but after a while I realised that just because of that – I can make it into whatever I want. The best way to describe it is by looking at examples of how other people have thought it.

Greg Ulmer wrote one in “The Internet and its Double
My lecturer Cynthia Haynes wrote one in “Arctic Virgins: √?lekcriture and the Semiotics of Circumpolar Icon(o)graph√©”

Both of these are a weird mixture of theory, personal remembrance and puns. Sorta like you’d expect an academic jamming or improvising on her keyboard like a jazz musician would his trumpet. Indeed, Ulmer argues that the mystory concept is to encourage invention rather than interpretation. Both Haynes and Ulmer introduce bunches of new terms and abstractions, one of which I thought interesting: Haynes’ concept of El√©kcriture.

El√©kcriture is the realtime writing and communication allowed by digital media. It is the electrical oral “texts” that resist traditional ways of organizing and controlling the flow of conversation. It is the casually written, conversational text of the Instant Message, the IRC chat or the MMORPG – immaterial and immediate yet always logged and thus published.

It is an interesting term, for an increasing amount of our communication seem to take the form of elékcriture Рnonlinear, delayed and quickly absorbed. Some have even experimented with this malleability to limit and direct the way that we read poems. Using Flash graphics to give us just one line at a time.

Others have tried other of the stylistic possibilities offered by the new digital media. For instance email. It makes you wonder whether you couldn’t send people emails not unlike chain emails, spam or newsletters but with the seed to a new poetic endeavour – where their replies would be integrated into a new linked whole?

But why merely text? It is obvious that you can combine pictures, text and sound in digital media to achieve startling effects. For instance, the game Façade Рa new kind of story-intense interaction that takes the form of an improvised one act drama. With the player playing the role of a friend of Trip and Grace Рa couple whose relationship is the centre of the drama.

Or maybe playing on stereotypes and brands like the Adbusters:

Or mixing text and images in digital comics as suggested by Scott McCloud (and many others). For instance, the fantastic forthrunning cartoonish feel of Demian 5, the dream comics of Slow Wave – inspired by dreams sent in by the readers, or the integration of blogs and picture alt-texts into the full appreciation of the Achewood comic.

But I’ve digressed a fair bit. This is just an exploration of what a Mystory might contain or offer. I’ve already decided on a theme and basic narrative structure of my mystory, but the finer points of how to construct and angle it is still undecided. Hopefully, all of these ideas will send me on my way.

The soul of a new machine

Today, I read the book “The Soul of a New Machine“. Written by journalist Tracy Kidder, it describes a group of engineers’ and computer scientists’ intense race to design and produce a 32-bit minicomputer in just one year from 1978 to 1979.

The book is a good diachronic description of this year and a half in the lives of a group of these 30 or so engineers, their individual ambitions, negotiations over the design (especially how to avoid or accept designs as a kludge) and their manically intense work. Kidder likens the way that the work is divided among the members of the design team with the British historian John Ruskin’s description of the building of a cathedral:

In the gothic cathedrals of Europe, Ruskin argued that one could see the radiant results of work done freely and voluntarily.[…] The masons and stone carvers who constructed and ornamented the cathedrals worked presumably only partly for the money. They were building temples of worship. It is one of those works that gave life meaning. I think that was what West and his team sought.

(This is my translation from the Danish translation of the English original, which was all they could offer me at my local library. Reading a book about computers from the early 80s in Danish is quite interesting, as that was back when the Danish translations of the English computer jargon were still prevalent. A computer is a “datamat”, a harddisk is a “fast pladelager” and password is a “l√łsen” – I hear that some of the older lecturers at the department of Computer Science at the University of Copenhagen continue to use these expressions, much to the students’ amusement.)

The image of the cathedral that Kidder evokes may well have been the inspiration for Eric S. Raymond‘s use of the same in his essay “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” – on the differences of the way that software is developed in a commercial, proprietary project and an Open Source community project, respectively.

What strikes me, though – is that according to Kidder’s description, the hackers working on the 32-bit computer in the basement of Data General’s Westborough centre are driven partly by their fascination with machine itself, partly by their intense desire to “win” – show what they can do, beat the deadlines, beat the management’s expectations, and the rivalling project. Indeed, once they’ve finished debugging the machine and sent it off for mass production, they (for the most part) seem almost completely disinterested in what their machine might be used for.

It reminds me of something that Gonzalo Frasca lamented at the “Gaming for the People” symposium I went to recently. He argued that the lack of innovation and the recurring themes of fantasy and violence in computer games were intimately connected to the dominant culture within Computer Science as a field. Computer Science has traditionally been closely linked to and sponsored by the military, and the male dominated culture of winners and losers, of new and ever more demanding technological promise that need immediate, undivided and unquestioned attention – of computers being a goal in itself.

Frasca, who have studied Computer Science himself, thinks that this attitude is continually breaking down and changing slowly – probably beginning with the Whole Earth Catalogue and the PC homebrew people and continuing with the Free Software movement – but that it has hardly breached the cultural boundaries surrounding computer games. Just take the instance that the EA managment thought that Will Wright’s the Sims was a crazy idea that couldn’t sell more than 100.000 copies, as it was basically just a doll’s house -and who’d bother to play that?

Well, it turns out, more than the 100.000, that’s for sure.

Gaming for the People

Last Friday, I participated in a symposium on computer games as Public Service. Given the luring title Gaming for the People, the symposium was a jointly arranged by Danish National TV (the Danish equivalent of the BBC) and the IT-university of Copenhagen – specifically their Games department.

It was a great day with lots of great ideas. First there were two presentations of actual Public Service games – one is the Danish/Swedish/Norwegian joint effort “Hundeparken – a free chat-forum/online playground for the 11 to 16 year olds. It’s seperated into three different areas – one for each countries. And only when you’ve gathered sufficient karma points will you be able to swim between the different countries.

Hundeparken has developed into a magic world with lots of users, where the kids can experiment and negotiate with other kids. Make friends, enemies or just have fun. It’s a brilliant social project, and all the avatars (who are all dogs) can gain new abilities, which apart from the swimming include mating. Which has created the need for churches for marriage, and offices for divorce. The game is incredibly malleable and the designers are constantly updating and changing to fit the users’ requests. The kids run their own newspaper, and even their own version of Survivor, called Dogginson. There’s so much room for social experimentation, and much of the designer’s concerns were focused on the inherent rules of the game and what political standpoint they conveyed. For instance, there’s equal access to money in the game. All that you have to do is play a minigame to dig a whole in the ground to gather bones (an obvious currency in a dog- centered game).

The other example was from the BBC, called BamZOOKi, the brainchild of one Paul Tyler who presented the game which is a combined tv-show and PC-playtool. From the BBC website, you can download the Zook-kit, a design program that’ll let you design your own zook. A zook is a virtual beast that exists in a true physical environment simulated by the computer. Thus, to make it move, you have to experiment with aerodynamics, leg movement and so on. Examples can be found in the wondrous Zook gallery.

Your best zooks can then be submitted to the BBC webpage where the crew will pick the best zooks to compete in the BamZOOKi tv show. It’s just really cool. During the presentation, my fingers were itching to try out the design myself. Here, the design questions were not so much focused on the social aspect as the playful, experimentative aspect. As you can see from the gallery, some kids have managed to create zooks that look like trucks or locomotives – still based on the same valid physical principles.

After the game presentations, the more academic part followed, including two great presentations by people at the games centre. Gonzalo Frasca gave a fun lecture on Political Gaming, including references to the semi-secret origins of the Monopoly boardgame, and his own political gaming comment called September 12th (requires Shockwave).

Also, Miguel Sicart gave a brilliant presentation on Computer games and ethics, arguing that computer games are indeed moral objects, and that rules aren’t innocent. The fact that the rules of computer games cannot be argued, or changed (except through hacking), makes it so much easier for the players to simply accept them as they are. Therefore it is important to focus on how players rationalize and reflect upon their in-game choices.

So much stuff to digest. The people behind the symposium promised to make available the slides from the presentations, but that hasn’t happened yet.

Lucky me

So, birthday party went well. It was fun to see how well my family managed to mingle with my friends. My mom sent me some pictures from the night afterwards. Here’s mt little sister, Anne, with my friend Martha.

And here’s (the other half of the same photo, actually). My wonderful grandparents, who came all the way for the party. A very pleasant surprise.

I certainly had a good time. And I’d like to thank everybody for coming. It’s occasions like this that make you feel very lucky.