There are 2,373 squirrels in Central Park. I know because I helped count them

I volunteered for the first squirrel census in the city. Here’s what I learned, in a nutshell.

From Lauren Klein on Twitter I learned about a great New York Times article on  There are 2,373 squirrels in Central Park. I know because I helped count them. The article is by Denise Lau (Jan. 8, 2020.) As Klein points out, it is about the messiness of data collection. (Note that she has a book coming out on Data Feminism with Catherine D’Ignazio.)

Codecademy vs. The BBC Micro

The Computer Literacy Project, on the other hand, is what a bunch of producers and civil servants at the BBC thought would be the best way to educate the nation about computing. I admit that it is a bit elitist to suggest we should laud this group of people for teaching the masses what they were incapable of seeking out on their own. But I can’t help but think they got it right. Lots of people first learned about computing using a BBC Micro, and many of these people went on to become successful software developers or game designers.

I’ve just discovered Two-Bit History (0b10), a series of long and thorough blog essays on the history of computing by Sinclair Target. One essay is on Codecademy vs. The BBC Micro. The essay gives the background of the BBC Computer Literacy Project that led the BBC to commission as suitable microcomputer, the BBC Micro. He uses this history to then compare the way the BBC literacy project taught a nation (the UK) computing to the way the Codeacademy does now. The BBC project comes out better as it doesn’t drop immediately into drop into programming without explaining, something the Codecademy does.

I should add that the early 1980s was a period when many constituencies developed their own computer systems, not just the BBC. In Ontario the Ministry of Education launched a process that led to the ICON which was used in Ontario schools in the mid to late 1980s.

In 2020, let’s stop AI ethics-washing and actually do something – MIT Technology Review

But talk is just that—it’s not enough. For all the lip service paid to these issues, many organizations’ AI ethics guidelines remain vague and hard to implement.

Thanks to Oliver I came across this call for an end to ethics-washing by artificial intelligence reporter Karen Hao in the MIT Technology Review, In 2020, let’s stop AI ethics-washing and actually do something The call echoes something I’ve been talking about – that we need to move beyond guidelines, lists of principles, and checklists.  She nicely talks about some of the initiatives to hold AI accountable that are taking place and what should happen. Read on if you want to see what I think we need.

Continue reading In 2020, let’s stop AI ethics-washing and actually do something – MIT Technology Review

The 100 Worst Ed-Tech Debacles of the Decade

With the end of the year there are some great articles showing up reflecting on debacles of the decade. One of my favorites is The 100 Worst Ed-Tech Debacles of the DecadeEd-Tech is one of those fields where over and over techies think they know better. Some of the debacles Watters discusses:

  • 3D Printing
  • The “Flipped Classroom” (Full disclosure: I sat on a committee that funded these.)
  • Op-Eds to ban laptops
  • Clickers
  • Stories about the end of the library
  • Interactive whiteboards
  • The K-12 Cyber Incident Map (Check it out here)
  • IBM Watson
  • The Year of the MOOC

This collection of 100 terrible ideas in instructional technology should be mandatory reading for all of us who have been keen on ed-tech. (And I am one who has develop ed-tech and oversold it.) Each item is a mini essay with links worth following.

From Facebook: An Update on Building a Global Oversight Board

We’re sharing the progress we’ve made in building a new organization with independent oversight over how Facebook makes decisions on content.

Brent Harris, Director of Governance and Global Affairs at Facebook has an interesting blog post that provides An Update on Building a Global Oversight Board (Dec. 12, 2019). Facebook is developing an independent Global Oversight Board which will be able to make decisions about content on Facebook.

I can’t help feeling that Facebook is still trying to avoid being a content company. Instead of admitting that parts of what they do matches what media content companies do, they want to stick to a naive, but convenient, view that Facebook is a technological facilitator and content comes from somewhere else. This, like the view that bias in AI is always in the data and not in the algorithms, allows the company to continue with the pretence that they are about clean technology and algorithms. All the old human forms of judgement will be handled by an independent GOB so Facebook doesn’t have to admit they might have a position on something.

What Facebook should do is admit that they are a media company and that they make decisions that influence what users see (or not.) They should do what newspapers do – embrace the editorial function as part of what it means to deal in content. There is still, in newspapers, an affectation to the separation between opinionated editorial and objective reporting functions, but it is one that is open for discussion. What Facebook is doing is a not-taking-responsibility, but sequestering of responsibility. This will allow Facebook to play innocent as wave after wave of fake news stories sweep through their system.

Still, it is an interesting response by a company that obviously wants to deal in news for the economic value, but doesn’t want to corrupted by it.

The weird, wonderful world of Y2K survival guides

The category amounted to a giant feedback loop in which the existence of Y2K alarmism led to more of the same.

Harry McCracken in Fast Company has a great article on The weird, wonderful world of Y2K survival guides: A look back (Dec. 13, 2019).The article samples some of the hype around the disruptive potential of the millenium. Particularly worrisome are the political aspects of the folly. People (again) predicted the fall of the government and the need to prepare for the ensuing chaos. (Why is it that some people look so forward to such collapse?)

Technical savvy didn’t necessarily inoculate an author against millennium-bug panic. Edward Yourdon was a distinguished software architect with plenty of experience relevant to the challenge of assessing the Y2K bug’s impact. His level of Y2K gloominess waxed and waned, but he was prone to declarations such as “my own personal Y2K plans include a very simple assumption: the government of the U.S., as we currently know it, will fall on 1/1/2000. Period.”

Interestingly, few people panicked despite all the predictions. Most people, went out and celebrated.

All of this should be a warning for those of us who are tempted to predict that artificial intelligence or social media will lead to some sort of disaster. There is an ethics to predicting ethical disruption. Disruption, almost by definition, never happens as you thought it would.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2019

Modern Warfare 2019 (MW19) illustrates the difficulties of trying to create a first-person-shooter (FPS) that meets player expectations of the genre while also making it politically sensitive. On the one hand players expect a campaign of set pieces with different weapons (from silenced pistols to drones), different types of action (stealth to blowing things up), and different settings around the world (or off it.) On the other hand, it is hard to imagine a story which would justify the killing of so many people – so many that you can have “fun.” Without zombies or nazis it is hard to find clearly bad guys.

MW19 tackles this by trying a post-modern “forever war” setting. Most of the scenes take place in a fictional Urzikstani which feels like some mix of Kurdish Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. A central character is the leader of the Urzikstani resistance, Farah Kadim, who seems modelled on the Kurdish women fighters fighting in Syria. She leads the Urzikstan Liberation Force (ULF) and you actually get to play her in a couple of the scenes.

A forever war setting like Urzikstani makes sense if you are trying to reboot a franchise by creating a setting that can sustain lots of subsequent games. It creates a context for special operations forces of the sort that people like to play. You can have all sorts of different missions with interesting playable spec-op/SAS type characters drawn from earlier instalments and remixed. Above all you can have a combination of lots of Russians and terrorists to fight.

The depressing thing is how the game draws attention to what seems to be a never ending series of conflicts set in motion by the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The game, deliberately or not, serves as an essay of how forever wars keep going and metastasizing – how they are maintained by superpowers and others who can’t avoid meddling, even as objectives change. In the Piccadilly scene of MW19 you see how these distant wars on terrorism don’t end anything, but can engender more terrorism brought back home to haunt us. Forever wars are not just convenient fodder for FPS games, they are hell for those living in the war zones and one thing the game does a good job of showing is that hell. What it doesn’t do is show the longer term effects from mass migration to trauma/PTSD.

There are some deliberately disturbing scenes like where you are waterboarded and a scene where you can choose to participate in the using of family hostages to extract information. There are times where it is hard to tell the difference between civilians and combatants and part of the game is not killing the innocent. There is a scene called the highway of death which is visually modelled on the original in Iraq, though the game scene takes place after the massacre; but here it is the Russians who were the perpetrators which conveniently rewrites history. Reviewers have questioned what could be called this gamification of torture and history (see this interview with the narrative director).

To me this game nicely raises the question of whether a game in general, or an FPS in particular can deal ethically, accurately and sensitively with war. MW19 doesn’t look away from the horrors of modern war, but risks minimizing them as entertainment. MW19 tries to deal with this new state of never ending war, but doesn’t really say anything about it. It doesn’t want to glorify war, but it does want to make the simulation fun so it has to be careful not to condemn shooting. Like any expensive game/movie it seems to carefully step back from any conclusions that would alienate customers other than the game legitimizing rhetoric of exceptionalism. This is where the heroes that you get to play somehow are justified in “taking the gloves off” and doing things that would be war crimes, or at least against orders. This rhetoric of exceptionalism, where you the player are always excused from the rules that others live by, can desensitize us to the importance of rules, processes and orders. It encourages us to think everything can be solved by a Rambo figure who does what no one else can. What would the world be like if everyone did so? Why don’t we look for reliable solutions to things like wars rather than exceptional heroes that will solve it for us? Can games deal with the complexity of systems and wars?

See reviews like:

Digital Synergies Launch Event

Today I gave a short talk at the Digital Synergies Launch Event. The launch included neat talks by colleagues including:

I showed and talked about – The Dictionary of Worlds in the Wild. This is a social site where people can upload pictures of text outside of books and documents and tag the words – text like tatoos, graffiti, store signs and other forms of public textuality.

Engaged Humanities Partnerships Between Academia And Tribal Communities

Last week the Oregon Humanities Center put on a great two-day conference on Engaged Humanities Partnerships Between Academia And Tribal Communities that I attended. (See my conference notes here.) The conference looked at ways that the humanities can partner with indigenous communities.

One of the highlights was Jennifer O’Neal’s talk about the importance of decolonizing the archives and work she is doing towards that. You can see a paper by her on the subject titled “The Right to Know”: Decolonizing Native American Archives.

I talked about the situation in Canada in general, and the University of Alberta in particular, after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

TOKYO IDOLS: A Look at an Intriguing, Disturbing Culture | Film Inquiry

Tokyo Idols (2017) is a fascinating look at the idol culture in Japan. Directed by Kyoko Miyake it mostly follows an older (19) idol called Rio and her fans. The documentary confronts the creepiness of older men who find it too much work to have real relationships with women, but also shows their vulnerable side. These men spend all their savings on following idols and it gives them a sense of belonging. Miyake shows how the men (and some women) form fan clubs and follow their idol. It shows the constrained hand-shake meetings and photo opportunities that they pay for. It makes the connection to otaku culture and Akihabara.

The documentary nicely shows what it is like for the hard-working idols. For Rio it is a full time job, she has to practice, she has daily live sessions on the internet and she even packages up the schwag she sells. She even goes cycling around Japan (with live internet connection?) in order to connect to fans outside of Tokyo and to try to boost her popularity. As this TOKYO IDOLS review points out, you can’t help rooting for her.

What the documentary doesn’t cover much is the big idol stables like AKB48. Rio manages herself, but most idols are managed by professionals. I would have liked to learn more about that side of the business.