Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Connect: Online Avatar Dancing

I've just started Musicophilia, by Dr. Oliver Sacks (author of several great books I have read), and so want to present a first-draft section I have on dancing, specifically why so many people are all about dancing avatars, videos of dancing avatars, and why we like dancing in general.

The footnotes are a bit unclear, but at least Scrivener did the copy (of copy and paste fame) well and automatically included them at the end, in a nice list format. I'll add some title information.

Dancing (draft), from Connect.

Dancing is a big thing on the Internet, especially YouTube, where you can find real dancing (like the music videos MTV used to show), and seemingly pointless but occasionally funny videos of avatars dancing in MMOs like World of Warcraft, EverQuest, and There.com. People like dancing so much that MMO companies have built dance moves into the capabilities for avatars. It certainly doesn’t help your level 7 elf battle orcs, but that’s what people wanted.

Not everyone is into online dancing, as the Reuters in-world employee, Eric Krangel, found out. “As part of walking my ‘beat’, I’d get invited by sources to virtual nightclubs, where I’d right-click the dance floor to send my avatar gyrating as I sat at home at my computer. It was about as fun as watching paint dry.”[1] The problem is Krangel wasn’t there for the dancing and the music and the text-chatting. He wasn’t a part of the community that likes that kind of activity. He was there as a Reuters employee to sell the Reuters brand. He could have gotten into it, but that he didn’t isn’t a big surprise.

Dance is a form of ritual, a concept that receives attention from researchers, and as a form of shared and coordinated play it can lead to community bonds. It is a very old human behavior. As psychology researcher Fitch observed, “music and dance are found in all cultures, and have been for many thousands of years.”[2] Lee, writing about the history of ballet, pointed out that, “Throughout the ages, a wealth of documentation in the form of cave paintings, Egyptian hieroglyphics, description of ancient Olympic games, and Old Testament references have attested to the importance of dancing in society.”[3] Garfinkel, writing about early human dancing, cited evidence for dance in the Middle East and Europe as far back as the 8th millennium BC.[4]

Although we have a lot in common with our fellow mammals and primates, McNeill observed that “community dancing occurs only among humans.”[5] In further contrast to other animals who have behaviors that we refer to as dancing (like bees), humans dance in groups in a synchronized manner to music, which other animals don’t have, and music is “fundamental and central in every culture” writes Dr. Oliver Sacks in his book on music and the human brain.[6] In fact, dancing and music are tightly related in our brains. As Berkeley professor Walter Freeman explained, “music together with dance have co-evolved biologically and culturally to serve as a technology of social bonding.”[7] A shared ritual that fosters community, the two are “the biotechnology of group formation.”[8] The current English word play is related to an older and similar Old English word, but, according to the Oxford American Dictionary, it is also related to the Middle Dutch word pleien, which, perhaps not surprisingly, can mean dance.[9]

Dance is a form of communal play, and is clearly an important part of who we are. Knowing this, we should not be surprised to find it online in some situations where it seems to have no point for the virtual world, as indeed we do.

[1] Neate (2009). ("The biology and evolution of music", in Cognition, v. 100)
[2] Fitch (2006), p. 199. (In The Telegraph.co.uk)
[3] Lee (2002), p. 1. (Ballet in Western culture)
[4] Garfinkel (2003), p. 106. (Dancing at the dawn of agriculture)
[5] McNeill (1995), p. 13. (Keeping together in time)
[6] Sacks (2007), p. xi. (Musicophelia)
[7] Freeman (2000), p. 411. (In The origins of music, by Wallin, Merkur, and Brown)
[8] Freeman (2000), p. 417.
[9] See also Huizinga (1955), p. 31, for more on play and dance. (Homo ludens)

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Recent Review Scores

Speaking of reviews, here are the scores from the ten reviews that Dr. Skoric and I received on a conference paper submission. We love you too, reviewer #1.

#1 #2 #3 #4 #5 #6 #7 #8 #9 #10 Av.
Relevance 2 3 2 2 4 4 4 4 4 4 3.3
Theory 1 3 2 4 4 3 3 3 4 2 2.9
Methodology 1 2 3 2 4 2 4 3 4 4 2.9
Presentation 2 4 3 2 3 3 4 4 4 3 3.2
Validity 2 2 3 2 3 3 4 3 4 3 2.9
References 2 4 4 4 4 3 3 4 4 4 3.6
Contribution 1 2 3 3 3 3 4 4 4 4 3.1
Originality 2 4 3 3 3 3 4 4 4 5 3.5
Interest 2 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 3.8
Average 1.67 3.11 3 2.89 3.56 3.11 3.78 3.67 4 3.673.24

5-pt. scale.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Evolved Systems—Academic Peer Review

Too often I see calls for reforming the academic peer review process, or, another favorite, for the eradication of academic tenure, and you read the article and you realize the person has no idea what they are talking about.

There's another such article over at the New York Times, by Patricia Cohen, Wikipedia Age Challenges Scholars’ Sacred Peer Review. There are so many things wrong with the article, it's almost a challenge to know where to start. Let's start at the beginning, then, since I already gave you the summary.

Peer review is not "sacred", as in the title. It's not clear what that means. Peer review is a process that evolved over a period of time to serve a need that scholars have, which is, figuring out which articles are any good in a way which works.

The first sentence continues the misguided commentary. "For professors, publishing in elite journals is an unavoidable part of university life." As a writer, you like your first sentence to be accurate, among other things. Publishing in elite journals is not at all "unavoidable". It is quite avoidable: don't submit papers to elite journals. Trying to get published in elite journals is usually required, but that is very different from publishing in them. In fact, if the journals are elite, they won't publish papers by most people. And if you're at a teaching college, publications are not as important as they are at research universities.

The second sentence continues the comedy of errors: "The grueling process of subjecting work to the up-or-down judgment..." No. Subjecting the work to review is easy, you send it in. The grueling part is doing the research, and then writing it up perfectly. This means you have to have a great research question, great data, great methods, and interesting findings. And it's not an up-or-down judgement at all. For all of the journals I have reviewed for, it has never been up or down. I've done reviews for five different journals, and two conferences (and I have reviewed every year for the conferences, and more than once for some of the five journals). It's always a range of options for journals, and you give comments. Usually, the options are like the following:
  1. Accept as is.
  2. Accept with minor revisions.
  3. Resubmit with minor revisions.
  4. Resubmit with major revisions.
  5. Reject.
As you can see, that's not "up-or-down." Resubmits can be rejected, or sent back a second time as another resubmission, where they can be accepted or rejected (usually at that point they don't let you resubmit it again).

Cohen refers to peer review as a "monopoly". It's a process. She continues,
Instead of relying on a few experts selected by leading publications, they advocate using the Internet to expose scholarly thinking to the swift collective judgment of a much broader interested audience.
Relying on experts for their opinion on the article is the entire point! These experts are not "selected by leading publications," reviewers are selected by the editors at the journal where the paper has been submitted. Use of the word "swift" implies that peer review is slow. Well, not like we get paid for it. And not like it counts towards tenure. We do it to help make journals better, which makes the field better as a whole. Sometimes you might get 10% off books by the publisher which publishes the journal. If you do a good job, the editor might remember it, but that also means more reviewing for you in the future. And relying on "a much broader interested audience" is a terrible idea, papers should not be judged by an interested audience, they should be judged by an expert audience.

As a writer, you don't want too many reviewers, because at some point they will disagree with each other and then there is no way to change the paper to make them all happy (which is the only way to get the paper published). Note that this is not pointless reviewer-pleasing, if they approve of the paper that means the paper makes a positive contribution to the field. I co-authored a paper for a conference recently and there were ten reviewers, which makes our job as authors very difficult because many of the reviewers disagreed with each other (but they have no idea that they are disagreeing with each other, this is not publishing by committee).

Regarding one of the crowd sourced peer review projects, Cohen writes, "In the end 41 people made more than 350 comments." As an author I don't want 350 comments. I want maybe five sets of comments at most, from qualified people.

There are a lot of other errors in the article, too many to detail at length. Here's one:
The traditional method, in which independent experts evaluate a submission, often under a veil of anonymity, can take months, even years.
This is not true. For the two most recent reviews I have done, I had a one-month deadline. It is true that for one of my co-authored papers it took over a year to finally get it published, but that's because the journal changed editors and they lost the paper in the switchover, and because all three of the authors moved. The editors were also slow, but if you're going to be slow about "traditional" reviews (which are all done by email these days), you're going to be slow about web-sourced reviews. All of the things by which you are judged and upon which your job depends (teaching, research, conferences, publishing, academic service) don't just vanish because you switched to web-based reviews.

And the "veil of anonymity" that Cohen claims "often" exists is not real. Reviewers are anonymous to the authors, but the editor knows who you are, and the editor or editors will read your comments. If you're rude or out-of-line, they may send your comments back, and you will have tarnished your reputation. But the reviewers doesn't know who wrote the paper (although at times you may have suspicions, or if you think you know you tell the editor and recuse yourself), and that's important. The reviewer judges the paper on its own merits. The reviewer and the author are anonymous to each other, but the editor knows who both are, and as such fills an important gatekeeping function. By lacking anonymity with the editor, both reviewers and authors want to do a good and accurate job (which may mean rejecting the paper as a reviewer, as I have done several times). But by simultaneously having anonymity with each other, the authors and reviewers can focus on the words of the paper and the reviews. As a reviewer, I can crush some poor sod for writing a terrible paper and know they won't hate me, as a writer I know the comments are solely about the paper and not about me (and I won't hold a grudge against the reviewer for not seeing the genius in the paper). This is a very important part of the process.

Clubby exclusiveness, sloppy editing and fraud have all marred peer review on occasion. Anonymity can help prevent personal bias, but it can also make reviewers less accountable; exclusiveness can help ensure quality control but can also narrow the range of feedback and participants. Open review more closely resembles Wikipedia behind the scenes, where anyone with an interest can post a comment. This open-door policy has made Wikipedia, on balance, a crucial reference resource.
What a horribly wrong paragraph. "Clubby"? Reviewers don't edit. Fraud? Perhaps Ms. Cohen has never heard of the Internet, speaking of fraud? As I just mentioned, reviewers are not anonymous to the editors, and are fully accountable to them. Exclusiveness does indeed help comment quality, which is the point. Limiting the participants is the whole idea. Otherwise, I'll just go get all my friends to say how awesome my paper is and I'll do the same for them. It is not clear what she means when she says Wikipedia is a "crucial reference resource," Wikipedia is, generally speaking, a giant mess of articles that seem correct enough to those who speak the loudest. Academic databases are crucial references resources, Google Scholar isn't bad, but Wikipedia is a disaster.

The beginning of the second page is a little better, and is actually accurate, which is a surprise based on the first page, however it degenerates into an error-filled comedy once again. For example,
Advocates of more open reviewing like Mr. Cohen at George Mason, argue that other important scholarly values besides quality control — for example, generating discussion, improving works in progress and sharing information rapidly — are given short shrift under the current system.
Well, no. Discussion is what happens with your colleagues, on mailing lists, discussion boards, blogs, in the hallways, at the coffeeshops, and at conferences. Improving and sharing work is what conferences, email, and posting items online do. They have nothing to do with peer review.

Oh and we see the New York Times following its annoying idea about how people with PhDs aren't called Dr., as we deserve to be called. I could write, "Mr. [sic] Cohen...." but I think I've pointed out more than enough errors.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Play and Buttons and Fingers

I was reading a New Yorker article, "Painkiller Deathstreak: Adventures in Video Games", by Nicholson Baker in the August 9th, 2010, issue, and, concerning the "seventeen possible points of contact" for his fingers and the Xbox 360 controller that he may need to consider to play a game and do one of the many actions he lists (like run, crouch, aim, fire, pause, leap, speak, stab, grab, kick--actually I think he lists 17), he writes...

It's a little like playing 'Blue Rondo a la Turk' on the clarinet, then switching to the tenor sax, then the oboe, then back to the clarinet.
So, yes, crazy mad finger positioning that you had better know ahead of time, like I was talking about previously.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Ukulele: Play, Create, Share

(To be clear, "Play, Create, Share" is the tagline from Sony and Media Molecule's game, LittleBigPlant.)

I had finished most of the book--all the research, and all the body chapters were roughly at first draft stage. It was off at some publishers, so I decided.... needed, to take a break from it before the final push to make the intro better, tie together the loose sections at the end, and write up the conclusion. So, I decided to take up the ukulele and learn how to play it. (Ukes are cool, check out the vids in this post.)

The ukulele is a decidedly non-electronic, non-Internet beast. It is real, and tangible, in your hands, as are the calluses you might get. It has no built-in spellchecker, but you can hear when you hit a wrong note, which is curious and encouraging.

My cousin, who plays in a Uke band, made me a song book with chording tabs--these show you where your fingers go on the strings in order to play a certain chord (a combination of notes). The tabs are from the Internet. I email her, a friend, and my uncle, who was in a real band for many years, about playing stringed instruments. (I also have a few other relatives I can email about these things, but focus on the Internettedness of it all.)

There are tons of YouTube videos with people playing ukulele. They just do it. (My point is that we are driven, psychologically, to play with things like musical instruments, to create things like videos, and to share them -- all of the activities create and reinforce community, because we are driven to connect.)

Note this one of this kid, which has almost 24 million views in under a year. (1:18 ftw!)

There are also thousands of tablatures online, for a variety of instruments (although I mostly pay attention to uke and guitar tabs). People have made these, put them together, and put them up to share with others so that others can play too. (One frequent note on them is a rather weak write up defending the tab in terms of US fair use, which could be written a lot better.) Here's one with all of the songs by The Smiths (and it uses the same layout as this blog). (Hmm I had one for the Beatles which was kinda cheesy but did the job, but I don't see it now. Oh here it is, click through to a song hosted on the site and you'll see what I mean.) You can tune your uke online.

There are also groups, of course, a.k.a. online communities, like the Ukulele Underground, who host discussion boards and have instructional (and awesome) videos: ukulele lessons, ukulele minutes, and member videos. Yes, member videos, made by people and posted to the site.


It doesn't matter if it's video games and mods, it doesn't matter if it's a more physical and just as visceral object like a ukulele, it's what we do, and the Internet allows us to express this playfulness, this creativity, and allows us to share these things we love to do, since everyone loves to do them. (I'll point you to Stuart Brown's Play if you don't believe me, and you can check out the NPR/SOF show where he was interviewed.)

And, as I said before, and as Brown points out (in the book at least), these are all community creating and reinforcing behaviors. I could also talk a bit about the visceral, long-time importance of dance and how our mental structures which relate to dance are connected to the ones that relate to music, but it's been a while since I wrote that part of the book so it's a bit rusty. Perhaps later.

The thing is, we do this (connect) with possibly everything.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

''They'll read everything.''

So says Bruce Schneier, an author and chief security technology officer at British telecommunications operator BT in an article about the ongoing BlackBerry negotiations (I copied his job description from the article, to be clear, but if I put it in quotes it makes it look like the description is misleading). Specifically, he's referring to the Saudi government and the recent BlackBerry data dust-up. "They'll read everything."

And, as I noted, they probably already do read everything else. This still implies that the countries that aren't making a fuss are already reading all the RIM/BlackBerry data they want (and everything else), especially Western nations. The nations mentioned in the NYT article are:

  • Saudi Arabia
  • India
  • The UAE
  • Indonesia
So, one must assume that the US...
  1. Gets all the data they want from RIM's BlackBerry service.
  2. Doesn't share it with any of those above countries in a way they like.
Apparently there are already local servers, or deals for them, in Russia and China. The article says, "Schneier said the Saudi arrangement is similar to deals RIM has struck in Russia and China," which is not exactly clear if those have happened or will happen.

However, RIM "issued a statement last week denying it has given some governments access to BlackBerry data." So, it's not really clear. And, one can safely assume that some governments, like the US, don't actually ask in a way that RIM would have to refer to as "giving", perhaps it's more like "taking."

One also assumes that the US government would share anything important it discovers with the Saudi government if it were relevant (and vice-versa), so I don't see that terrorism is really an issue, and maybe various agencies aren't actually getting along as well as they should. Or, as mentioned in the article:
Critics maintain that Saudi Arabia and other countries are motivated at least partly by a desire to curb freedom of expression and strengthen already tight controls over the media.
Sadly the article does not actually name or interview any of these critics.

Addition: A better article, finally, from the NYT.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

More Crowdsourcing Confusion

There's an article today at the NYT about the Stardust@Home project which shows some of the clouded thinking and definitions around "the crowd."

So far, they've found three of the ones they are looking for in their aerogel, and each is apparently about 1/25,000 of an inch big. Wow. Go, science!

But, there's either a lot of empty aerogel or a lot of space dust of types they aren't looking for in their aerogel (the article isn't quite clear), so they needed help finding what they were looking for. The scientists threw it out to people on the Internet, which is where the article goes a bit off the rails.

So, the scientists have...
Help from an army of amateur researchers.
Are these people the crowdsourced people, or interns? It's not clear. I think it's the crowd, but the crowd isn't "amateur researchers," although one hopes to find such people in the crowd.

The scientists turned to non-experts around the world to sift through thousands of images.
That's fine, but if all the "non-experts" are doing is looking at pictures, well, pretty much every sighted human being is an expert at that. That's one of the things we are built to do, our survival depends on it (although these days, historically speaking, blindness is not as big a drawback as it was when we were in pre-history), we are in fact experts at it. They may not have PhDs in astronomy, but to look at a picture and determine some factors about it (angle of dust particle, I believe), you don't need to have a PhD in astronomy.

Interspersed test images allow the researchers to check how well the dusters [the people on the Internet who are looking for space dust] are doing.
So we have them, but we can't quite trust them, although to be clear this is probably more of a visual quality check than a moral one, and it is one that scientists often take anyway with data (speaking as a scientist, we like data checks, it makes our data and results better).

The first presumed interstellar particle — actually two distinct pieces — was found by a Canadian duster, Bruce Hudson, who retired as a carpenter and groundskeeper after a stroke. Mr. Hudson said he had looked through 25,000 images, spending as much as 5 to 10 hours a day at it.
That isn't just a guy from the crowd, that's a pretty dedicated person! Most of the crowd isn't like this. But that's the often-overlooked point about the crowd, you don't want the crowd, you want the people in the crowd who might want to help, and distinguishing them ahead of time is difficult. It's easier to let them self-identify by giving them the opportunity to do so.

The person who found the second particle said,
“Although I spend my working days in front of a computer solving problems and verifying designs, I found it was quite relaxing to look through the photos and concentrate on the visual images.”
They're looking at images. If you have a working visual system, you're an expert.

Sunday, August 1, 2010


In today's NYTimes, via the AP, Saudi Arabia to Block BlackBerry Messaging. The UAE, however, decided first and Saudi Arabia decided to do so as well, which makes for a rather odd headline. The UAE isn't instituting the ban until October 11, and why they are taking so long isn't addressed in the article at all. (Saudi Arabia will, maybe, block messages "later this month.") I assume they could do it tomorrow if they wanted. Is it more a case of posturing, to get some local control over BlackBerry messaging?

From the article:
Regulators say the devices operate outside of laws put in place after their introduction in the country, and that the lack of compliance with local laws raises ''judicial, social and national security concerns for the UAE.''
Regulators said they have sought compromises with BlackBerry maker Research in Motion on their concerns, but failed to reach an agreement on the issue.
Sounds like strong-arming. Why is this needed, and why only with BlackBerry?
Unlike many other smart phones, BlackBerry devices use a system that updates a user's inbox by sending encrypted messages through company servers abroad, including RIM's home nation of Canada.

Users like the system because it is seen as more secure, but it also makes BlackBerry messages far harder to monitor than ones sent through domestic servers that authorities could tap into, analysts say.
Ah, the surveillance society! I would assume the US already intercepts and decrypts all the BlackBerry info. Apparently we aren't sharing enough with the UAE or Saudi Arabia.

Addition: What this strongly implies, if not outright makes clear (ok it's clear, they just don't say it) is that the UAE and Saudi Arabia are already scanning/reading/monitoring/intercepting all the traffic they want on other phone devices.

The NYT decided their own writeup would be better than the thin AP wire feed, so they have an article up.