Category Archives: New Media

New Media

Witty gamers

The new trend among video gamers appear to be making video game reviews in the form of bile-overflowing, yet extremely witty films.

One of these reviewers goes by the supremely unfortunate moniker “Yahtzee”, who presents a new review each week under the title Zero Punctuation, which subtly hints that the main trademark of the reviews is a non-stop hilarious gabbing at whatever game he happens to review. A good example of his style can be found in his review of the latest installment in the Tomb Raider saga:

Another witty gamer is the Angry Video Game Nerd – formerly known as the Angry Nintendo Nerd (though he had to change his nom-de-plume in order to avoid unhappy interest from certain Italian plumbers). The nerd makes humorous, though at times rather long-winded, reviews of old Nintendo and Atari video games, showcasing just how primitive they were. But it is not so much the games themselves, as it is the Angry Nerd’s ability to look back upon the pop culture which fostered these games in the first place. The best example of that is probably his excellent review of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game for the Nintendo:

It gets even better when he goes on to describe his old indulgence with the pubescent amphibians even further by reminiscing the Turtles movie trilogy.

How to do a good powerpoint presentation

For the past month, I’ve been taking a course in project management. Mostly to “sharpen my business profile” and get a better understanding of the requirements and expectations that might be put to me in the corporate world. Apart from a lot of weirdly fascinating business jargon such as “Lean”, “Synergy”, and “SWOT-analysis”, I found how central powerpoint presentations have become – not only in the teaching of the course, but also in the work of presenting new ideas in a corporate context. As part of the course, we all had to do presentations on specific topics, and my group did one which was much applauded.

Why? Because we sought to use imagery to support what we said, rather than depending on the slides to remember what we were to say.

And it seems that though Powerpoint is considered an essential tool by so many people working with presentations on a daily basis, only very few of them actually have considered the effects which you can achieve through good powerpoint. Most people seem to use it in a complete mechanical and uninspired way, which has been parodied so effectively in Peter Norvig’s Powerpointization of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

Powerpoint is good for presentations, but as several people have noted, it is rarely useful for teaching, as it is linear and doesn’t allow for questions “out of sequence” and jumping back and forth in the presentation. Alternatives have been suggested for use in a teaching context. So first of all, you have to make it clear to yourself what you want to present, and whether powerpoint is the right medium to use.

Making that kind of judgement can be difficult at first, so I have compiled a few central texts on good powerpoint, which I hope can help others to make good digital presentations, as well as some specific examples of how good presentations.

One of the main theorists of Powerpoint is marketing guru Seth Godin. He has written a small 10-page booklet on the central elements of powerpoint. He points out one of the central problems with powerpoint as:

Most people treat their slides as a sort of scratch pad. They don’t figure out what information they’re going to present, then figure out what they have to say and what should go on the slides. They figure out what they’re going to say by writing it on the slides. Then they go in and read the slides.

Doing really first-rate presentations is hard. The vast majority of business types who are expected to give presentations don’t remotely have the graphics design or (more importantly) information design skills to do it well. Even when you have first-rate people doing it, it takes quite a lot of time. Supposedly a Steve Job keynote takes weeks to prepare, and there’s probably an entire team involved.

Godin sets up five rules for the design of powerpoint slides:

1. No more than six words on a slide. EVER.
2. No cheesy images. Use professional images from corbis.com instead.
They cost $3 each, or a little more if they??re for ??professional use??.
3. No dissolves, spins or other transitions. None.
4. Sound effects can be used a few times per presentation, but never (ever)
use the sound effects that are built in to the program. Instead, rip sounds
and music from CDs and leverage the Proustian effect this can have.
5. Don??t hand out print-outs of your slides. They??re emotional, and they
won??t work without you there. If someone wants your slides to show
??the boss,? tell them that the slides go if you go.

His central argument is that the slides is an aid to your presentation. It is not the presentation itself. You should leverage the images to best effect to let your personal style of presentation sweep the audience off their feet. Don’t bore them with text or break the illusion in any way. Keep them focused on your words. And, if you dare: On you. You can see an example of Godin’s style of presentation here.

One of Godin’s examples of good powerpoint is Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple. His presentations are immaculately designed and presented, but most of all, they are a perfect match for his personality. He dares to blank the screen at certain points, turning all of the audience focus on him, allowing him to connect directly with them and build up to his next point. This aesthetic is in part inspired by Zen art, where the empty space is as significant as the parts that are illustrated. There is a very telling comparison between a Bill Gates and a Steve Jobs keynote presentation, underlining both differences in personality, style and product.

Finally, I’m a big fan of Lawrence Lessig’s presentations, which I have linked several times here already. Apparently, Lessig doesn’t use the typical method of pressing a button to change slides, but rather use timers in some intricate sequences where the slides change almost with every sentence. It is horribly difficult to do, but it looks amazing when it works.

Now, I’ll be preparing a few slides for my exam presentation on Thursday, and as I’m still learning this fine art, I hope to be able to heed all of this advice.

.. oh and by the way, my Open Source friends will be sure to admonish me for calling this post “How to do good powerpoint presentation”, noting that it is only the Microsoft product that is called Powerpoint, and that the Open Source equivalent is called Impress while the Apple version (as used so seductively by Al Gore) is called Keynote. And while I do use Open Office Impress, Powerpoint has become the term describing digital presentations much like Google has become synonymous with Internet searching.

Digital (ethnographic) montage

Among some of the old unfinished projects that I’ve had time to finish recently, is the HTML version of my essay on the use of montage as a means of ethnographic presentation. It’s definitely experimental, since I have little experience with how clicks flow through websites like this, and it is not very pretty by today’s standards either. But at least it’s small, and it won’t ruin the Internet for anyone.

Feel free to try it out and write your comments here. You can also read the more conventional .PDF version to see if you missed something.

My montage is inspired by similar experiments by anthropologist Michael Wesch and archaeologist Cornelius Holtorf.

Wesch has since expanded into proper montage with a series of short films exploring the possibilities of digital montage both in communication and as a new means of teaching. They are fascinating and well worth the watch.

Human Computation

A long time ago, I came across an interesting talk by Luis von Ahn, a young assistent professor in computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, on what he calls Human Computation. This concept basically revolves around a computational process which performs its function by outsourcing certain steps of its process to humans.

How does this work? Von Ahn uses the example of Captchas. A captcha is one of those “prove you’re human” tests which you have to take in order to register for various on-line services. They typically look like this:

captchas

Since various robots crawling the web can’t read the distorted text, they can’t register again and again for various on-line sites, while humans can. Basically, by using a test, which people can solve but which programs can’t, you can limit spam and various other nasty by-products of the Internet.

Luis von Ahn has been expanding on the concept of Captchas to explore how this idea of human computation can be used. He has started a project called re-captcha, which directs the human computation used in solving captchas (for instance to post comments on websites such as this) to read words in scanned books which the OCR programs scanning the text weren’t sure of. Thus, not only does the project prevent spam, it also directs the human computation towards a task which computers wouldn’t be able to solve on their own.

Von Ahn’s talk is fascinating, as it builds on the notion that all of the time and energy people spend on various trivial tasks such as recognizing words in captchas or playing solitaire actually can also produce relevant results as well. His main example is how he has developed small games around adding tags to images, getting people involved to play the games. In this way, the structure of these small games become a sort of algorithm for human computation.

I find this perspective on computer games absolutely intriguing. How can you utilize all of the energy which people pour into computer games not only to give them a fun, learning experience but also make the Internet a safer, better place? That seems like a worthy challenge for game developers.

The future of copyright

This weekend, I went to the Danish Social Forum, which is a Danish version of the World Social Forum – a gathering of various grassroots organizations seeking to bring focus to the many alternative ways that the world can develop, all under the heading “another world is possible.”

Mainly, I went to see the the panel debate on the future of copyright, since Lawrence Lessig was to attend and give a presentation on copyright. Lessig is the founder of the Creative Commons movement which is an attempt to make a voluntary reform of the copyright system, which has been distorted and corrupted by what he calls a “an economy of influence” within the US political system, where politicians spend 70 to 80% of their time raising campaign money from various lobbyists and interest organizations.

Lessig is a brilliant and lucid speaker, and it is always a joy to hear him give a presentation. He was joined in the panel debate by Rasmus Fleischer of the Swedish Piratbyrån (Bureau of Piracy) – one of the leading proponents of copyright piracy and the ideologists behind the Pirate Bay filesharing site. As Fleischer put it, “it’s not that we’re anti-copyright, it’s just that we don’t believe in it. I don’t mind copyright as long as it doesn’t get in the way of any creativity I like.”

The third panel participant was Johan Söderberg, a Swedish film editor, who has edited several documentaries as well as the famed “Read my lips” duet between Tony Blair and George W. Bush, which is a integral part of Lessig’s Creative Commons presentations on remix culture.

The discussion as such wasn’t very fluid, but there were some interesting points along the way – mostly in the individual presentations. Söderberg noted that he made a clear distinction between films that he wants to make money making, and films that he’s just making to put on the Internet. With the first category, he makes sure to pay for all the clips he uses, to support the photographers producing all the film which made his film possible. With the second category, he doesn’t pay for anything, he simply uploads it to the Internet for all to see, and he rarely gets in trouble for it.

Söderberg noted that many people seem to be unable to connect the notions of “sharing the work you like” with “supporting the artists you like”, and while he liked the idea of the Creative Commons, he thought it difficult to accomplish, since how would you guarantee any sort of income for the artists?

This in fact, proved to be the crux of the problem: Generally, artists are quite supportive of free sharing and spreading of good ideas, as allowed by the Creative Commons, but how are they going to make any money from it?

Lessig noted that sure, piracy of copyrighted materials was a sort of civil disobedience – a way to show that you don’t approve the grotesquely long copyright terms instituted, last through the Sonny Bono copyright term extension act, but it is unhelpful disobedience: Traditionally, civil disobedience involved undergoing various hardships to show your lack of respect for the law: Going to jail for resisting the draft or refusing to pay your taxes. With piracy, you’re basically just getting stuff for free. It produces a misleading message.

Both Lessig and Fleischer argued that a good solution would be to shorten the copyright term to around 3 to 5 years, allowing freer use of the material much sooner. Fleischer also argued that it would be necessary to change the focus from solely on the end product to view creativity as a continuing conversation, where the individual performance or physical manifestation of the digital creativity would be ways to earn money. For example band’s live performances or the T-shirts and books sold by webcomic artists.

At the moment, though, the main problem is not so much finding ways for the individual artists to make money off their creativity. There are plenty of people exploring new ways to make a living through their digital creativity, whether through ads, merchandise, live performances, or other such.

The main problem is the enormous cowardice which rules the education, media, and art institutions currently owning the vast majority of copyrighted material in existence today. Lawrence Lessig argued convincingly that it is these institutions that will need to lead the way towards copyright reform.

Dropping knowledge

One of the entries for the Index design award was the Dropping Knowledge website. It’s a fun, if somewhat difficult concept which lets anybody ask a question, and gives anybody else the opportunity to offer their answers.

It is an attempt to use the new sort of participatory culture to find or reach contemplative answers to difficult questions, and thereby highlight some of the many political, social and cultural issues of the day. Just how well it achieves this is open for discussion, since most of the questions asked are so open-ended that it is difficult to answer them without much exposition.

This is perhaps best illustrated by “The Table of Free Voices” event, which brought together 100 thinkers from around the globe to sit around a table in Berlin and answer 100 questions asked on the website. Among the participants were people like Bill Joy, founder of Sun Microsystems, Mongolian author Galsan Tschinag, and German physicist Hans-Peter Dürr. This has resulted in a huge databank of the recordings of each participant’s 100 answers, which each viewer then can watch and contemplate as they see fit.

It’s an interesting experiment, but I cannot help but wonder whether these questions and answers actually help much, or if they just create more confusion and indecision.

Hackers and censorship

Yesterday there was something like a tumult going on around a couple of the most popular tech news sites, as Digg, a site well-known for its populistic-democratic moderation system which allows users to vote stories up or down, almost collapsed under the pressure of hundreds of news stories all featuring the same item: The recently discovered processing key used to decrypt the next generation of DVD discs called HD-DVD and Blue Ray.

The key is a simple 16 digit hex number which can be used to remove regional and copy restrictions from the encrypted discs, and is thus easy to reproduce and almost impossible for the DVD-manufacturers to suppress. They had threatened Digg with a cease-and-desist letter to which the Digg moderators duly obliged, removing links and stories that featured the relevant hex number.

This caused the flood of news stories and posts containing the number, not only on Digg, but also on rival news site Slashdot where no such censorship took place. The number soon got its own song, was represented decimally as well as in hex, as a program, as a web site, even as a flag and in any other way that hackers could think of to represent the number in such a way to avoid censorship.

Soon enough, Digg caved in to its users, as founder Kevin Rose explained it:

But now, after seeing hundreds of stories and reading thousands of comments, you??ve made it clear. You??d rather see Digg go down fighting than bow down to a bigger company. We hear you, and effective immediately we won??t delete stories or comments containing the code and will deal with whatever the consequences might be.

If we lose, then what the hell, at least we died trying.

Again, this shows how quickly hackers can mobilize to reroute around any kind of censorship. But for me, the most interesting part of this whole affair was that I came across the original forums thread where the processing key was first exposed. If you’re technically inclined, I can only recommend reading a few pages of this to get an idea of the fervour and excitement with which the key was discovered in the first place (and how the key fits in the bigger system of decrypting the next-generation DVDs.

Spending time on computer games

World of Warcraft has proven to be the most popular of the many different Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMORPG) played by millions of people all over the world. These players play together or against one another in huge multiplayer worlds – each being able to contain several thousand players at a time.

These games differ from other computer games in that they are designed to contain a social element which ensures that people not only invest time in playing but also in building a network of other people whom they can share the playing with. Its praises have been sung by many, noting how the game is redefining how people play games and interact online.

To accomodate this social level in the game, the game mechanics are designed in such a way that the game never ends. You can’t win. Sure, you can reach level 60 – the highest level attainable, but then there will be new “epic” equipment and the challenges that yield this equipment are so insidiously difficult that you will need to work together with other players in groups of up to 40 people in order to succeed. And then you will only have a slight chance of actually getting the item that you hoped to acquire.

I haven’t played World of Warcraft for more than a few hours to get an idea of the basic game mechanics, so I haven’t experienced the extended social interaction to any degree, but Jakob, a friend from the hall of residence where I live has showed me how he plays World of Warcraft at level 60, and his interaction with the other players – both through on-line chat and live voice TeamSpeak. And it really is developed from a simple game into something that is a distinct social commitment like meeting your friends to play golf or football. For instance, my friend’s guild meets every Wednesday and Sunday to go raiding for raiding for treasures.

Coordinating these Raids can be very time consuming indeed:

Let’s say you want the “epic” items from the Alterac Valley battleground. This is a PVP arena that up to 40 people can participate in. On my server, the wait to get in is usually about an hour and a half, assuming there are enough people to start the battle. In order to buy these items, your reputation with the denizens of Alterac Valley must be Exalted. To get from Neutral reputation to Exalted requires 42,000 reputation. You earn maybe an average of 1000 reputation if you play a full battle, less if your side loses. That means you have to play at least 42 battles, which run from one to four hours each. Let’s say the average is two hours, which is optimistic. In essence, getting the reputation you need requires at least 146 hours spent in Alterac Valley, much of it just waiting to get in.

You can only participate in these battles with any chance of surviving if you’ve reached level 50 or more, which means another big chunk of time invested in the game in order to participate. Another blogger illustrates just how much time it takes to reach such a level:

There’s a command in World of Warcraft that tells you exactly how long you’ve played with your active character and how long you’ve been playing at your current level. […] I’ve had World of Warcraft for almost exactly six months now […]

So I typed in /played over the weekend and I got back the figure of fifteen days and four hours for my main character – another nine hours for my second. Fifteen days solidly. That’s three hundred and seventy three hours of immersion in Nordrassil when I could have been doing something else, something more useful.

Let me give you some context there. Imagine playing WoW was my second job, which is how it has felt at times. Thinking in terms of eight hour days and five day work weeks, I’ve played the game for roughly two and a half months. And that’s on top of the day job. […] More alarming still is that even though I’ve played it for that length of time, I’m still only level 51.

Investing such an amount of time in the game will give you even more time to interact and talk with the other players, creating further social obligation to the other players and to the character that you have created for yourself in the game. Yet as at least one observer has noted, most players do not actually spend this time socializing directly with other players, but it is more the comforting feeling of not being the only playing the game, a sense of “being alone together.”

Instead, most of the social interaction takes place among the highest-level players where social interaction is necessary in order to play the game successfully, and among those players who know each other already, some of whom even begin to substitute actual physical time together for time together in the World of Warcraft , as one self-proclaimed gaming geek humourously describes how he and his wife spent their anniversary weekend at a fancy five star hotel in downtown Seattle:

“We made sure to find a place with wireless internet and we both took our laptops so we could play WOW all weekend.
[…]

… Kara turned to me and said ??We??ll have this hotel room all to ourselves with no baby, you know what we should do??

My mind exploded into possibilities. We only had a day before we left for the hotel, where was I going to get an ostrich?

??We should do our first Molten Core run.? She says.

The words were like music in my ears.

??That??s hot.? I told her. Then I leaned in and whispered, ??We should get fire resist enchants.?

So Saturday night we ordered a pizza to the hotel room and spent five hours in Molten Core. Each of us came away with an epic which was super cool. I know the first year anniversary is paper and I think the fourth is linen, I guess the sixth is Arcanist.”

So it seems that it is the fascination and challenge of the game that is the initial draw for new players. That is how most computer games engage their players. But unlike other games, this one has the community around playing the game built directly into the game itself, and as the game progresses the community becomes the goal of the game in lack of any other lasting goal. But even with the social aspect at the centre of the game, it is still limited means of expression that requires huge amounts of time from the player. One one-time long-time player commenting on Slashdot critically put it this way:

Yes, WoW does foster a huge sense of community, Yes, it does form relationships. Indeed, I know of THREE couples who met, engaged, and married during the course of playing together. (this taken from my ingame relations with… say 200 people on a semi-regular basis) However… Every person I know of who quit seems grateful that they did so, Acting as if they finally kicked some long drug habit, or Finally escaped from some prison. Mind you, I come from the raid game, but there are those who would say that is the entirety of WoW. Take a second and ask yourself why would they be grateful they have quit? geh. the Game is addictive, in the same sense that having a weekly game of pool is addictive.

And addiction is a recurring theme in a number of the blog entries I found when examining how people use World of Warcraft, but I mostly I was struck at the number of comments each of these posts had attracted, agreeing and supporting them in “kicking the habit”.

“So, sure” the helpful mediator would interject, “the game is a tremendous timesink, but so are all computer games, aren’t they? But the game is also a social enabler, surely it’s not all bad?”

Of course not. I have played a lot of computer games in my time, and learned a lot through them. I will readily agree that a good part of my English skills and understanding of American popular culture can be attributed to playing adventure games such as Day of the Tentacle, while my interest in world history to some degree was established by playing Civilization, and my interest in fantasy literature and multi-ended stories were fed by playing role-playing games such as Baldur’s Gate. Indeed, you might conceivably argue that if it hadn’t been for computer games, I might never have found any interest in computers to begin with.

I might even dare agree that the central aspect of computer games is fun as Raph Koster defined it: “learning in a safe-environment.” And I believe that there is a huge pedagogical potential in computer games from that perspective, building fun and accessible learning curves to many different subjects.

But to me it seems that World of Warcraft requires way too much time compared to how much you’ll learn from it. I suppose that at its highest level of playing the game, you’ll be able to command and direct 39 people in a real-time battle, but most players will only learn that the way to get ahead is to put in much more time that you can afford to develop your character.

There is a word for this kind of character development. It’s called grinding. The point is that it is not fun, it is not a learning experience at all, but just work to get to the next level and the in-game abilities and possibilities this will allow for. It is no longer the process itself but its goal that will yield the fun.

And that is the most common complaint I’ve found from those quitting the game: “Think what I could have done with all of that time I spent playing World of Warcraft” – not all of it is productive time, of course. Sometimes people will play games as relaxation or a bit of escapism from a dreary work day, and that’s fine.

But when these players stop after months and months of intense playing, many of them find that they have nothing at all to show for it and wondering at what they could have spent their time on instead.

An interesting aside is that some Free Software hackers actually call F/OSS hacking their own kind of MMORPG, and many of the same traits are present: Online sociality, common goals, fun and learning. One hacker even wrote an applet for GNOME so that he could see his GNOME Bugzilla level directly from the desktop panel:

Level applet

In this way F/OSS hacking can even replicate the “level-grinding” through triaging bugs. But this sort of grinding seems much more acceptable, as it does lead to a applicable real life skill and makes Free Software better for all of mankind. If only MMORPGs did the same…

“Denmark has joined the free world”

This afternoon, I went to the launch of the Danish version of the Creative Commons. I’ve discussed the Creative Commons before, but to sum up: It’s a set of new copyright licenses for creative work intended to make it easy for the creator to give other people some rights not currently allowed by standard copyright.

It is inspired by the copyleft licenses introduced by hacker Richard Stallman in the early 80s, and share the idea that new digital technology makes copying and redistribution so easy that new legal thinking is needed to deal with the torrent of creativity that has been unleashed with it.

The brainchild of Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig, the Creative Commons seeks to take these ideals from the software world and apply them to culture in general. The catchphrase of the CC is “Some Rights Reserved” and with the licenses you can allow several different kinds of uses for your cultural content, for instance Attribution (when others distribute your content they must put your name on it) or NonCommercial (you do not allow others to use your content for commercial purposes).

There are six different licenses to choose from, depending on your content. I have had a CC license on this blog for quite a while now, but it isn’t until now that that license is actually valid in Denmark.

At first the Creative Commons were launched in the US, and as it has gained popularity it has been possible to adapt the Creative Commons licenses to other jurisdictions. Denmark is the 34th country to ‘join the world of Free Culture’ as Lawrence Lessig puts it.

Lessig was there at the launch and he did a brilliant keynote presentation. I can only recommend going to one if you get the chance. Rarely have I heard such a lucid performance. It was a different keynote than the one that I have referred to earlier, and I liked this one better. It was more visionary, more constructive. He’s come a long way in the past 4 years.

I couldn’t find an online version of the new keynote (though I didn’t look very hard), but I expect it’ll be available soon enough.

I didn’t stay long after Lessig’s keynote though, as the next speaker was Danish politician Morten Helveg Petersen who has just pushed a motion on Open Standards in the public sector through the Danish Parliament. Though there are some interesting issues concerning the legal status of the incredible amounts of data that the Danish national radio and TV has produced over the years, Helveg managed to make it incredibly boring, and since the sun was shining so invitingly outside, I just had to leave.