Video games can be set anywhere, but with surprising frequency, they take place amid ruins—the crumbling remnants of an ancient civilization, or the barren landscape of some post-apocalyptic world order.
Why does the medium have such an affinity for decay? Earlier this month the video game magazine Kill Screen ran a smart essay with an interesting explanation: Video games are a natural fit with “the aesthetic of ruins” because “almost every game begins from a place of disorder.”
And within the video game, you, as the player, are charged with putting things back together.
To make his point, write David Chandler begins with Tetris, a video game that isn’t set anywhere, but which asks you to take randomly falling pieces and lay them straight. Among more recent games that feature the “aesthetics of ruin,” Chandler cites the “blown-out” apartments in Fallout 3, a “toppled skyscraper” in The Last of Us, and the “dilapidated city of Rapture” in BioShock. In each, the broken landscape contains the possibility of reconstruction—if you’re a good enough player to achieve it.
Chandler’s essay is a little long and can be taken to over-intellectualize the design decisions that go into video games. He offers that another reason video games are “obsessed” with ruins it that, as pieces of technology, they’re self-aware of their own inevitable slide into obsolescence.
It’s also possible, of course, that ruins, like big guns and blowing things up, are just cool, in a medium where the aesthetics of cool carry outsized weight. There may also be a practical motive behind the aesthetic of ruins. Just like an oriental rug hides stains, the aesthetic of ruins helps to cover graphical limitations: A computer-rendered new house would look fake, but a decomposing house with cracks, age, and patina has texture!
It’s often said that the best part of a Harvard education is the people—the all-star professors, the world-beating classmates. If that’s the case, then a policy in one class this semester is especially hard to reckon: Students in English professor Elisa New’s “Poetry in America” have been asked not to ask questions during lectures.
Students have been asked to keep quiet for the first 60 minutes of each 90-minute class, The Harvard Crimson reported recently, so that New's lectures can be recorded without interruption for rebroadcast via HarvardX, the university's free online education platform. In the article, New said that the request for student silence came from the videographers filming the class.
“The video team said, ‘No way, man. We’re not going to be able to [record student questions],’” she told The Crimson.
In an email, HarvardX spokesman Michael Rutter said it wasn't a Harvard policy to ask students to be quiet during videos, and it was up to professors to "make the final pedagogical decisions about what happens in their classrooms." (I sent an email to Elisa New asking her to clarify who made the decision to ask students to refrain from asking questions, and I'll post her reply when I receive it.)
New has tried to compensate for the mandated student silence by holding 30 minutes of discussion time following each lecture, and staying around after class to answer additional student questions.
Still, the idea of real live students being told to keep quiet in order to facilitate the creation of a virtual course seems to realize, in parody-worthy fashion, every fear we have about the growth of MOOCs—the massive, open, online lecture courses you can take for free, from anywhere in the world. Will universities’ global ambitions start to overshadow their commitment to the students who actually attend?
Former Harvard College dean Harry Lewis, who teaches computer science, wondered on his blog whether the policy represents the crossing of an "educational Rubicon." In a letter to The Crimson, Harvard history professor Mary Lewis wrote, "surely the world's best and brightest students don't compete mightily to get into Harvard only to become mere backdrops to Harvard's world stage."
Of course, as Harry Lewis also pointed out, students aren’t exactly tripping over themselves to ask questions in most lecture classes, so the actual pedagogical effects of the no-questions request are likely limited. But the idea of paying $50,000 a year to attend Harvard and then being told to keep quiet does start to raise the question of whether, in the realm of online education, the tail has begun to wag the dog.
Putin’s long game? Meet the Eurasian Union: Leon Neyfakh on the ideas behind the Eurasian Union and how they might be driving Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine. The Eurasian Union would unite Russia and other Central Asian countries in an economic alliance. It carries undertones of a philosophy known as Eurasianism, which one political commentator explained, means “that the Slavic world must follow a separate path—that it should not be a second-rate Europe, but another type of civilization altogether.”
How grand hotels shaped modern life (and not just as a Wes Anderson set): Rebecca Onion on the grand hotels of the 19th century, which “foreshadowed our own favorite privatized public spaces, like theme parks, cruise ships, shopping malls, and resorts.”
‘Seed libraries’ try to save the world’s plants: I wrote about a small but growing group of “seed libraries” across the country, often housed in public libraries, that lend seeds and aim to promote heirloom gardening and revive a more grass-roots approach to seed breeding.
Plus: Britt Peterson on the quickly shifting language of the transgender community.
And: Kevin Lewis on how the use of high-precision drones may make people more sensitive to civilian casualties; how generosity can backfire on you; how affirmative action may lead to self-imposed segregation in college; and more.
Electric cars are considered an important part of a more eco-friendly future, but they come with at least one big problem: We don’t currently make enough electricity to power them all.
A new study out of Sichuan University in China, and reported last month in the MIT Technology Review, explains that the problem is particularly acute because in an electric car-world, we’re all going to want electricity at the same time—overnight, so our cars are charged in time for our morning commutes.
The paper runs through different systems for allocating scare electricity: first-come-first-served, or a round robin system in which each car gets a certain number of charging minutes per hour.
These systems wouldn’t guarantee, however, that everyone ends up with enough power in their cars to get to work. A better approach, the researchers contend, is a centralized system that takes into account how much juice you currently have in your battery, how long your commute is, and when you need to leave for work in the morning. People who leave earliest would get their cars powered first, and people with longer commutes would get more charging time than people with shorter commutes. It’s a Marxian form of electricity justice: each according to his needs.
It’s a fun idea conceptually, and satisfyingly efficient in some ways. It’s also, of course, completely prone to being gamed (wouldn’t we all cheat a little when reporting how far we needed to drive?), and antithetical to American culture, where the ability to “get in your car and go” is an important part of how we think about personal freedom.
New, acronym-intensive sports statistics come out all the time, each claiming to be more incisive than the last: WHIP, OBPS, xFIP, PER, just to name a few.
A team of Harvard statisticians has recently devised a new way of getting at what they believe is the true on-court value of a professional basketball player. It’s called Expected Possession Value, or, EPV. It evaluates how each small decision a basketball player makes in the course of a possession affects his team’s likelihood of scoring.
Traditional NBA statistics, like points, rebounds, and assists, measure what the research team calls “terminal states”—the end results of a possession. You can learn more, though, they argue, by looking at how each decision players make along the way to, say, a made three-pointer from the corner, contributes to the likelihood of that final outcome occurring.
Enter EPV, which was presented last weekend at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference and reported today in the Harvard Gazette. That statistic is made possible by a data boom in the NBA. During the 2012-2013 season, the NBA installed a system of motion-tracking cameras called SportVU in 13 arenas that recorded the position of the ball and all 10 players on the court 25 times per second.
The result was an incredibly rich dataset that allowed the Harvard statisticians to weight the different options available to a player when he had the ball—and to evaluate which players were best at choosing the option that maximized their teams’ chances of scoring.
You can see how EPV works in this diagram, from the researchers’ paper, based on a game where the San Antonio Spurs played the Oklahoma City Thunder. Spurs guard Kawhi Leonard has the ball at the top of the three-point line. He can shoot, drive to the hoop, or pass to any of his four teammates. The best choice, indicated by the thick red arrow, is a pass to sharpshooter Danny Green in the corner, and if Leonard chooses it, his personal EPV improves (because he made the “right” decision) regardless of whether Green takes or makes the shot.
A major appeal of EPV is that it has the potential to provide real-time analysis of how a possession is proceeding. You could imagine a little graph at the bottom of your television screen showing the expected value of a team’s possession and fluctuating continuously as the action unfolds. It would be like a stock ticker, or those graphs produced during presidential debates, where focus group participants turn a dial to indicate how much they like what they’re hearing from the candidates.
Of course, any statistic has to pass the reality test—and the more it produces results that diverge from what we know from experience to be true, the more skepticism we should apply to it. And here, EPV has some work to do.
The researchers created a statistic they call EPV-Added (EPVA), that compares players based on the sum of all the decisions they make in the course of a season. The researchers ranked the ten best and worst NBA players by EPVA for the 2012-2013 season. There are no Celtics on the list because Boston is one of a small number of teams that doesn’t release its SportsVU data to researchers. The number one player by EPVA was Los Angeles Clippers All-Star guard Chris Paul, a choice which definitely passes the sniff test. The player with the second worst EPV, however, was more questionable: center Kevin Love of the Minnesota Timberwolves, who’s a leading contender to win the MVP award this year.
I mentioned to the researchers that the Kevin Love ranking seemed off. They replied by email that this was largely because he had a wrist injury last year that limited his shooting ability, and that this year his EPVA is up. They also said that the statistic tends to be biased against “high-usage” players, generally stars, who log a lot of minutes and find themselves in a wide range of situations throughout the game, not all of which are optimally suited to their abilities. Role players who come into games in specific situations that fit their skills tend to have higher EPVA numbers. “It’s difficult to separate the quality of a player's decision-making from the actual set of situations in which a player has to make a decision,” researcher Alex D’Amour wrote to me. “That's the real weakness of constructing an all-in-one metric for ranking all players.”
In the sky airplanes are otherworldly, but down on the ground they’re just machines, with scrapes and dents, and warnings to wear protective ear coverings when working nearby.
Jessica Ambats takes photographs of airplanes where they look best, aloft, winging over cities and canyons. Ambats, whose work is featured in the current issue of Harvard Magazine, orchestrates “air-to-air” photography shoots: She sits in the open-door of one airplane and takes pictures of other airplanes, often at startlingly close range. Earlier this year in an interview with the photography website The SmugMug, Ambats explained her method. She looks for striking backdrops (like the Las Vegas strip or the Bay Area), prefers to begin shoots just before sunset, and gets all her camera equipment set before take-off (to avoid changing lenses mid-flight). Once airborne, she radios precise instructions to the subject planes, asking them to a move a few feet this way or that so she can get just the shot she wants—a perfectly composed photograph of the Blue Angels in formation, or a close-up of a whirring propeller that’s so tight you can nearly feel the gusting air.
The final images are dramatic and capture layers of human ingenuity: We can build a city, and an airplane that flies above it, and then we can assume a further position, and take a photograph of it all.
How the elevator transformed America: Leon Neyfakh on one of the most underappreciated inventions in American history: the elevator. Elevators, which came into use in the late 1800s, allowed for the construction of tall buildings—which made it possible to create the dense urban cores that today occupy an outsized place in American life.
Climate change may mean more crime: Courtney Humphries on new study that finds rising temperatures will lead to more crime. Many types of crime spike in the summer. If climate change leads to longer, hotter summers, environmental economist Matthew Ranson at Cambridge-based Abt Associates projects it will also lead to an increase in rapes, murders, and burglaries.
How do you upset the French? Gender theory: Robert Zaretsky on how gender theory—a relatively obscure corner of American academia—is roiling French society. Gender theory, whose most prominent intellectual figure is Judith Butler at UC Berkeley, argues that gender is less a biological fact than a social construction. It’s influential in liberal arts colleges, but hasn’t made waves in broader American culture. In France, however, whose national life is faltering in the eyes of many of its citizens, gender theory has inspired large protests and been charged with undermining traditional values.
When technology became a musical instrument: James Reed interviews Susan Schmidt Horning, author of the new book, “Chasing Sound: Technology, Culture & the Art of Studio Recording From Edison to the LP.” Horning talks about how sound production became a big part of what we hear on records—and also names a few particular albums that are marvels of sound engineering.
Plus: Kevin Lewis on how people with more power are more likely to use the “royal we;" how dishonesty and creativity go hand in hand; how corporations with more political disagreement among their executives and board members perform better; and more.
Image by Doug Chayka for the Boston Globe.
Earlier this month came news that a nightclub in Austin, Texas, had deployed a robot DJ in place of a human one. The robot DJ, its inventor explained in an interview, is especially adept at reading the crowd (thanks to infrared and nightvision cameras placed around the club) and playing tracks that subtly manipulate party-goers' behavior- like keeping them on the dance floor when the line for the bathroom is long, or steering them toward the bar, where they'll spend more money.
The robot DJ raises all the same concerns we have when any formerly human task is automated. It also reminds me of an epic rant by John Philip Sousa called "The Menace of Mechanical Music." The piece was published in 1906, and Sousa's concerns were with distant precursors to the robot DJ: the phonograph and the player piano.
The two inventions, he said, were "[s]weeping across the country with the speed of a transient fashion in slang or Panama hats." Sousa worried that when it takes just a second to spin a record, people will be less motivated to learn to sing or play instruments, and that mechanical music would lead to "a marked deterioration in American music and musical taste." He buttressed his concern with a number of delightful rhetorical flourishes:
When a mother can turn on the phonograph with the same ease that she applies to the electric light, will she croon her baby to slumber with sweet lullabys, or will the infant be put to sleep by machinery?
The nightingale's song is delightful because the nightingale herself gives it forth. The boy with a penny whistle and glass of water may give an excellent imitation, but let him persist, he is sent to bed as a nuisance.
Sousa allowed that he might be biased by his "self-interest" as a composer of live music. More than 100 years on, though, his concerns do seem misplaced. Perhaps our drawing room music skills have atrophied as he feared, but surely the phonograph and its descendants have done more to encourage than diminish an interest in music. We can also forgive Sousa for overlooking, in those early days of mechanical music, another virtue of LPs and the like: all the royalties that he and his fellow music makers stood to gain by their sale.
A marine biologist named Henry Compton died in 2005 in Corpus Christi, Texas. After his death, a series of his paintings was discovered in a pair of boxes. It was called "Fire in the Sea" and it depicted creatures from the extreme depths of the ocean, thousands of feet down where life moves in complete darkness. The paintings were a mix of science and imagination. Compton had seen specimens of some of the animals, dredged from the bottom with nets during deep sea explorations in the Gulf of Mexico in the 1960s. And what he wasn't able to see first-hand, he imagined: a frilled shark in battle with a lighted squid; a pair of skylight fish swimming along in tandem. Compton, whose work has been collected in a new book, "Fire in the Sea: Bioluminesence and Henry Compton's Art of the Deep," added whimsical captions and strange vignettes to accompany his paintings. The painting of the frilled tiger shark (top, below), comes with an allegorical story about a barren woman named Liu, and a caption that reads: "The Frilled Shark and the Lighted Squid were old in the deep seas before ever Formosa surfaced the waves to sail solid." Each painting in the collection, all of which is done in gouache (opaque watercolors), has that same degree of fancy and oddness about it- qualities that reflect the alien place their subjects come from.
Frilled shark Chlamydoselachus anguineus (Garman, 1884)
"The Frilled Shark and the Lighted Squid were old in the deep seas before ever Formosa surfaced the waves to sail solid."
Splitfin flashlightfish (flashlight per Compton) Anomalops katoptran (Bleeker, 1856) "Fish feeds at night under lights. His own lights. . . . He works under flashes. Like a concentric-cammed Strobe. . . . Freezes motion for him like dragonfly's many eyes does and he can throw his 12 inches around the reef and raise general hell."
Eyelight fish Photoblepharon palpebratum (Boddaert, 1781) "Photo lights his water steady and jus' blinks when he's found a morsel to proffer his sweet girlfriend and she blinks, 'Studs bringing gift are preferred to studs without.'"
Whalefish Cetomimus craneae (Harry, 1952) "A fish the red clay color of old sewer tile and the floors of Santa Fe, the sunset buttes of Montana and the brooding portal tombs of Petra where time is frozen in the cliffs. A strange tint for a deepsea Atlantic fish to wear. A unique one among all the fishes of the world, salt or fresh."
Images courtesy of Texas A&M University Press.
New Orleans has well-chronicled trouble with water: It sits partially below sea level, between a lake and a river, and it stands to flood whenever it rains abnormally hard. The city, which is also sinking, is trying make do by turning its water liabilities into assets. As a short piece in Yale Environment 360 explains, officials recently chose the architecture firm Waggonner & Ball to develop a Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan. The firm's ideas, which have been rendered in striking, forward-looking illustrations of a redesigned cityscape, are based around the principle of retaining rainwater where it falls, rather than trying to pump it out of the city, as New Orleans does now. The retained water would be used to fill refurbished Venice-like canals, and to irrigate expansive "greenways"- stretches of lush vegetation in the middle of the city that would absorb the rainwater before it flows into roads and living rooms. If you live in New Orleans, the vision is almost enticing enough to make you say: Let it rain.
West Esplanade Canal (existing)
West Esplanade Canal (proposed)
Images courtesy of Waggonner & Ball Architects.
Medical care is now a tool of war: Thanassis Cambanis on how doctors have become targets in war zones. Doctors were treated as neutral figures in war zones for more than a century, but their special status began to erode in the 1990s. This change has been particularly on display in the Syrian civil war, where combatants on both sides of the fight have targeted medical personnel providing aid to the opposition. As a result, the international community needs to find new ways to safeguard medical care in times of war.
Why scholars can’t resist the uncrackable Voynich manuscript: Ruth Graham on what one scholar calls the “Mount Everest” of code breaking. The Voynich manuscript was discovered in 1912 and it features elaborate illustrations and an undecipherable script. Is it written in an undiscovered language? Is it coded Chinese? Is it an ingenious hoax? No one knows, but that hasn’t stopped researchers from many different disciplines from trying to find a way in.
Extinct animals, captured in photographs: Chris Wright interviews Errol Fuller, author of the new book, “Lost Animals,” a collection of photographs of extinct animals.
The biggest cheese? Cheddar: Michael Tunick digs into facts about cheddar, the most popular variety of cheese in the world.
Plus: Kevin Lewis on how playing Tetris reduces food cravings; how good-looking cyclists tend to do better in the Tour de France; how Walmart might hurt crime rates; and more.
The situation calls out for fixing as soon as you think about it: Millions of people around the world have lost their voices, yet currently there's only a small number of different synthetic voices they can choose as replacements. As a result, people with synthetic voices all end up sounding about the same, and they lose the strongly individuating traits we associate with the way people sound when they talk.
Northeastern University speech language pathologist Rupal Patel wants to change this. As a Northeastern news story explained last week, Patel has launched The Human Voicebank Initiative that lets people "donate" their voices to others with severe speech impairments. The process is straightforward: voice donors go to Patel's laboratory where they talk into recording equipment for two to three hours, which is enough time to generate about 3,200 sentences. Donors are then matched with recipients based on characteristics like sex, age, and weight (all of which affect the way your voice sounds). The donor's recording is then grafted with recordings of whatever remains of the recipient's voice to create a unique synthetic voice that moves closer to approximating the one that was lost.
Patel hopes to archive one million voice samples by 2020, and to reach that goal she's developing software that would allow people to donate their voices over the Internet. Her website, vocalid.org, also addresses the concern potential donors may have, that by donating their voices, they're also giving up some of their individuality. "The new voice will have elements of your voice blended with the recipient's voice," the website says, "so it is possible, but very unlikely that others will recognize you."
Just about everyone loves "The Lego Movie," which has won over fans with its playful, low-tech story of Emmett, a cheery, super-ordinary Lego minifigure who is mistakenly identified as the one person who can save the world. The movie reinforces the overall way we think about Legos as a toy made for creating sunny, flat fascimilies of real life.
There is another side to Lego culture, though, in which dedicated adult hobbyists build intricate, moody fantasy worlds that couldn't be further from the gas stations and heliports of mass-market Lego kits. Ideas recently came across "The Mystical World of Odan," a veritable Lego rabbit hole into a universe of enlightened clans, grand temples, and "lower vibrational civilizations" in need of salvation. The exact contours of the Odan universe are hard to get your hands around, but its scope is impressive. Odan was invented by a man named Mike Doyle, and its centerpiece is the inscrutably named "Millenial celebration of the eternal choir at K’Al Yne, Odan." It is a vast, fortress-like construction five feet tall, six feet wide and made from 200,000 Lego pieces, almost all of which are gray. To create such a monumental (and monochrome) work, Brown used Lego retailer Queen Creek Bricks, which lets you special order pieces by color and shape. The idea of breaking with the strict brick-by-brick instructions that come with standard Lego kits is exhilarating in its own right, and the world of Odan shows the fantastical Lego possibilities that open up when you go off-script.
There's something magical about a globe: the way it takes the whole vast world and situates it neatly on your desk; the transporting feeling you get when you trace your finger from one ocean into the next. A new book, "Globes: 400 years of exploration, navigation, and power" by Sylvia Sumira, offers a beautifully photographed tour of the British Library's collection of globes, most of which date from the early 16th century to the 19th century. There are terrestrial globes, celestial globes, pocket globes, globes of the moon, and a decadent blue globe made in China in the early 1600s. Most of the globes were made with a scientific purpose, to aid navigation, or to demonstrate the parallax of the moon. But together, they suggest something beyond precision: a reverent effort to make sense of the mysterious place we plant our feet.
A pocket globe from 1793
A celestial globe from the early 1600s
Selenographia, a lunar globe from 1797 by John Russell, painter to George III. It is affixed with a small globe of the earth which could be positioned to show the moon's parallax.
The earliest extant terrestrial globe made in China
Images courtesy of the University of Chicago Press.
More on the looming robot apocalypse. A team of engineers at Harvard has programmed a small fleet of robots to behave like termites. If it sounds terrifying, it's because it is. The robots are capable of building elaborate structures without any centralized planning or without communicating each other. Instead, these robots use their insect intelligence to react to the evolving environment around them: If one robot places a block here, the next robot sees that and knows he needs to place his block over there. An article in the Harvard Gazette reports these kinds of robots could one day be deployed to lay sandbags in flood zones. When you watch this video of the robots at work, though, a very different kind of construction project comes to mind: a prison for us all.
For more Brainiac coverage of the rapid advancement of robot skills, see "Peer learning comes to robot land," and "Self-assembling robots spell doom for all of humanity."
In recent years management theory has latched onto a concept known as "gamificaiton"—basically the idea that if you turn routine corporate tasks into games, employees will be more motivated to perform them.
But not so fast! A new paper from a pair of professors at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania finds that most efforts at "gamification" don’t actually boost productivity. And, in fact, when gamification is done badly, it can actually have a dispiriting effect on a work force.
To test the value of game playing in a corporate setting, the researchers divided a sales force at a tech start-up into three groups: One that was directed to play a basketball-themed game in which warm sales-leads were called "layups"; one that had a sales leaderboard but no other game elements; and a third that went about sales work in normal, routine fashion.
The Wharton professors found that the presence of the game had no effect on individual sales performance. A more interesting finding was how the game affected the way people felt about their jobs: people who bought into the game reported feeling more positively about their jobs, while people who thought the game was lame, or otherwise weren't that into it, began to feel more negatively about where they worked.
"Gamification"—as a term and a concept—is of course ripe for skewering. Even three-year-olds know that cleaning the playroom doesn’t become fun just because their parents call it a game. There’s also something especially depressing about being told by your higher-ups to regard something as fun when obviously it’s not fun at all. If we’ve got to trudge through the sludge, we might as well be real about it.
For pregnant women, two sets of rights in one body: Ruth Graham on changes in the law that have given rights to fetuses, apart from the rights granted to the women carrying them. Having two sets of rights in one body creates thorny ethical situations. Since 1973 one scholar has found more than 700 instances “of women arrested, detained, or subjected to forced medical interventions because of issues related to their pregnancies.” This shift in the law has taken place in largely ad hoc fashion—and the larger question of how we balance the rights of pregnant women with fetal health has not yet been fully debated.
Happy Salem gunpowder day!: Peter Charles Hoffer on the real day the American Revolution began. We think of the war for American independence as beginning with the battles of Lexington and Concord (now commemorated each April as Patriot’s Day). Really, though, the first confrontation took place on February 26, 1775 (239 years ago this Wednesday), when a regiment of British regulars decided to retreat, rather than confront a band of Colonialists guarding gunpowder in Salem.
Catholic confession’s steep price: Toby Lester interviews John Cornwell, author of the new book, “The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession.” Only about 2 percent of American Catholics regularly go to confession today. The decline is dramatic compared to 50 years ago, but Cornwell explains that over the last two thousands years confession has undergone several dramatic shifts—often, like today, in response to sexual abuse scandals in the church.
Plus: Britt Peterson on how more than 130 Russian languages are at risk of dying out (largely because the Putin regime has not made it a priority to preserve them).
And: Kevin Lewis on how civic engagement declines when cities lose their newspapers; how singing helps you learn a foreign language; how too much optimism from politicians means lean times are around the corner; and more.
Much of the digital economy is based on a simple trade: We fork over information about our private lives, and companies give us free services like search or a social network. It's a so-so deal, and when you consider Mark Zuckerberg's billions, it's hard not to feel like Silicon Valley is getting the better end of things.
But now, a new startup promises to level the playing field! Kind of. An article today in the MIT Technology Review reports on Datacoup, which is offering individuals $8 a month for a combination of their social media data and a feed of transactions from their debit and credit cards. Datacoup strips that information of identifying characteristics, bundles it with other people's information, and sells it to companies who'll mine it for marketing insights. The MIT article mentions that in the future, Datacoup may let you monetize even more of your personal life, by paying for a closer look at your web browsing habits, and for data from personal tracking devices like Fitbit.
The thought of selling access to your private life is complicated. On the one hand, we've already given away a lot of our privacy, so we might as well get paid for it. On the other hand, a straight-up cash-for-data swap feels vulgar, and somehow related to more obvious no-no's like prostitution and organ trafficking. At the very least, Datacoup's offer highlights an unresolved question: We haven't yet decided the moral implications of privacy.
The visual illusions in Susan Metrican's paintings don't hit you over the head, but once registered, they do call you back for a longer look. Metrican, who lives in Boston, currently has a show called "Susan Metrican: Wavy Panes" at the Sherman Gallery at Boston University. Her work quietly plays with ideas of depth and perception. The painting "Chorus" (the top image below) looks for all the world like a series of shapes cut finely into a thin sheet of paper. In fact, though, the surface of the work is flat, and the appearance of cutouts owes to the careful use of shadow and brushstrokes. Similarly, the one sphere and two hemispheres in "Cult of Horus" (the second image below) appear to be pockmarked with smooth, shallow holes, like hardened magma, maybe, or rocks nibbled at for eons by the briny sea. Really, though, the whole presentation is just acrylic paint, save the two tufts of horse hair hanging below, like a punch line.
"Susan Metrican: Wavy Panes" runs at the Sherman Gallery, George Sherman Union, 775 Commonwealth Ave., second floor, through March 7.
Images courtesy of the Sherman Gallery at Boston University.
Last week revelations emerged that for the last seventeen years, famed Japanese composer Mamoru Samuragochi has in fact been using the services of a ghostwriter. It was a sensational story, especially since some measure of Samuragochi's fame owes to the fact that he claimed to have written his music while deaf (though doubts have now been raised about his deafness, too).
Of course, hoaxes and authorial misdirection aren't rare in the art world- think of fake Vermeer's, or the hullabaloo around J.K. Rowling's exposed pseuodonym. A few years back Boston-area music writer (and occasional Ideas contributor) Matthew Guerrieri put together a fun blog post that collected some of the best musical hoaxes from the past. A common deceit is for musicians to claim they've rediscovered forgotten pieces from the past when in fact the music is really something they've written themselves. (It's a counterintuitive tactic- most of the time fraudsters pass off other people's work as their own, rather than their own work as other people's.) Examples include violinist Fritz Kreisler, who presented his own compositions as lost works from "minor masters" of the 17th and 18th centuries. Similarly, in Paris in 1951, a performance was billed as a "lost" coronation mass by the Baroque composer Etienne Moulinie. As it turned out, the piece had humbler origins: It was really written by Father Emile Martin, director of the choir that performed the "rediscovered" mass.
All told, however, Guerrieri thinks that hoaxes are less common in music than in visual art or literature. Why? He offers this amusing explanation: "because music is already pretty close to a hoax itself." While the meaning of other kinds of art is as clear (or as close to as clear) as the words on the page or the image on a canvas, all meaning in music requires a big leap from the sound of the notes to the significance we assign to them. So, in that sense, all music is like a con, though the kind of con we're more than happy to participate in.
Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.