Pocket Lint #15: fear and loathing

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Ghosts of the tsunami.

“Even in dire situations, optimism can fuel innovation and lead to new tools to eliminate suffering. But if you never really see the people who are suffering, your optimism can’t help them. You will never change their world.

What can “Leaning In” do for us when once we do succeed by its metrics, unending public abuse awaits us? What happens when we finally establish ourselves on platforms, and then are chased from them? When success means needing security? When we are punished mercilessly for the very representation we are told to seek? When “representation” is what we need, but “visibility” destroys us?”

Prey is an astonishing, brutal, beautiful piece of writing about one woman’s experience of rape, her reactions and the subsequent trials where she was a witness.

No one is coming to take away your shitty toys: “The rise of mature games that don’t feature shitty characters and situations does not diminish your supply of immature shit in any way. It caters to a growing market of consumers who have just as much of a right to play a fucking videogame as you do, and doesn’t harm you at all.”

As flies to wanton boys are we to Facebook.

“If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us. No society can sustain this kind of rising inequality. In fact, there is no example in human history where wealth accumulated like this and the pitchforks didn’t eventually come out. You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state. Or an uprising. There are no counterexamples. None. It’s not if, it’s when.

This place is not a place of honour: how to keep people away from nuclear waste in 10,000 years’ time.

Tumblr of the week: Postapocalyptia.

Poem of the week: Emptying Town, Nick Flynn, with thanks to Leigh.

Game of the week: The End, a game about philosophy and death.

Facebook, let’s talk about harm

In news-that-ought-to-be-satire-but-isn’t, the AV Club reports, via New Scientist, that Facebook has been manipulating users’ feeds in order to test whether they can manipulate their emotions. 689,003 users, to be precise.

The full paper is here, and makes for interesting reading. The researchers found that, yes, emotional states are contagious across networks, even if you’re only seeing someone typing something and not interacting with them face-to-face. They also found that people who don’t see emotional words are less expressive – a “withdrawal effect”.

Where things get rather concerning is the part where Facebook didn’t bother telling any of its test subjects that they were being tested. The US has a few regulations governing clinical research that make clear informed consent must be given by human test subjects. Informed consent requires subjects to know that research is occurring, be given a description of the risks involved, and have the option to refuse to participate without being penalised. None of these things were available to the anonymous people involved in the study.

As it happens, I have to use Facebook for work. I also happen to have a chronic depressive disorder.

It would be interesting to know whether Facebook picked me for their experiment. It’d certainly be interesting to know whether they screened for mental health issues, and how they justified the lack of informed consent about the risks involved, given they had no way to screen out those with psychiatric and psychological disorders that might be exacerbated by emotional manipulations, however tangential or small.

The researchers chose to manipulate the news feed in order to remove or amplify emotional content, rather than by observing the effect of that content after the fact. There’s an argument here that Facebook manipulates the news feed all the time anyway, therefore this is justifiable – but unless Facebook is routinely A/B testing on its users’ happiness and emotional wellbeing, the two things are not equivalent. Testing where you click is different to testing what you feel. A 0.02% increase in video watch rates is not the same as a 0.02% increase in emotionally negative statements. One of these things has the potential for harm.

The effect the researchers found, in the end, was very small. That goes some way towards explaining their huge sample size: the actual contagion effect of negativity or positivity on any one individual is so tiny that it’s statistically significant only across a massive pool of people.

But we know that only because they did the research. What if the effect had been larger? What if the effect on the general population was small, but individuals with certain characteristics – perhaps, say, those with chronic depressive disorders – experienced much larger effects? At what point would the researchers have decided it would be a good idea to tell people, after the fact, that they had been deliberately harmed?

Pocket Lint #14: human machines

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Tiny letters are what blogs used to be: “a not-quite public and not-quite private way to share information”.

David Sedaris gets a Fitbit. Contains cows giving birth, kidney stones, litter-picking, and a stream-of-consciousness antidote to the anodyne vision of the quantified self.

If this toaster doesn’t like you, it will leave you for somebody else.

“Every age has a theory of rising and falling, of growth and decay, of bloom and wilt: a theory of nature. Every age also has a theory about the past and the present, of what was and what is, a notion of time: a theory of history… our era has disruption.”

An interview with the creators of ClickHole: “We believe every piece of content that goes up on the Internet deserves to be clicked upon, skimmed, shared, and rashly commented upon by millions of users.”

The internet comment apocalypse inspired by a recipe for rainbow cake.

Shaka, when the walls fell: how one episode of Star Trek traced the limits of human communication and suggested an alternative. “If we pretend that ‘Shaka, when the walls fell’ is a signifier, then its signified is not the fictional mythological character Shaka, nor the myth that contains whatever calamity caused the walls to fall, but the logic by which the situation itself came about. Tamarian language isn’t really language at all, but machinery.”

Tumblr of the week: White men wearing Google Glass, and its counterpart.

Poem of the week: Having a Coke with you, Frank O’Hara.
“and what good does all the research of the Impressionists do them
when they never got the right person to stand near the tree when the sun sank”

Game of the week: Arpeggio. Play it with your eyes closed.

Pocket Lint #13: Bloody Mary

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Periods don’t have glitter in them.

Occasionally, about once a year, I reread Myths over Miami. It’s a fascinating story very well told, and I am immensely grateful that the internet lets me keep coming back to it, long after the print paper it originally existed within has been forgotten.

“I’ve always wondered what it’s like to be clinically insane. I wonder how aware you might be of your own insanity. I wonder if it happens so gradually you don’t notice, or if it’s sudden, like a light switch being flicked from off to on. Can it be flicked back, or is it irrevocable?” Possibly the best depiction I have ever read of what it’s like to live with chronic mental illness of the type I experience.

When my son was born, all of my questions suddenly had a very basic answer. I would love for him to grow up as I did, enjoying shooting but understanding that every gun is loaded and you never touch one without an adult and you don’t point it at anything you don’t intend to shoot. But more than that, I’d love to believe that he’ll have no mischievous accidents, no suicidal depressions or homicidal rages, no moments of weakness or fits of pique or questions that can be answered by the pull of a trigger. As with all the other scenarios in which I’m the good guy with the gun, I can never be sure. I carry my permit, as I always have. But now all my guns live with my father.”

“Martin Amis’s book is also the reason I keep saying I am sexist and not that I was sexist. I will have to keep fighting this thing about myself. I will make mistakes along the way – my id will take over and I’ll say the wrong thing from time to time. This is an article about acceptance, not a self-awarded pardon.”

Tumblr of the week: Olivia When, which is full of beautiful animations of people stealing dogs. Olivia is the person who made this gif about accepting compliments in the style of a superb bird-of-paradise.

Poem of the week: The Practice of Magical Evocation, Diane DiPrima

Game of the week: A Dark Room, also on iOS - strange, saddening, compulsive, unfolding like a very creepy flower.

Pocket Lint #12: service industry

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This title doesn’t work, but you’ll click on it anyway.

“Really, freedom of speech is beside the point. Facebook and Twitter want to be the locus of communities, but they seem to blanch at the notion that such communities would want to enforce norms—which, of course, are defined by shared values rather than by the outer limits of the law.”

The only way to keep user information safe is not to store it.

Relevant to the Assassin’s Creed: Unity controversy this week over the lack of women: “what happens when our perception of historical accuracy is entirely at odds with real historical accuracy? What happens when we mistake our own limited understanding of culture – or even our personal biases – for universal truths? What happens, in other words, when we’re jerked out of a story, not because the fantastic elements don’t make sense, but because the social/political elements strike us as being implausible on the grounds of unfamiliarity?”

This is the Blue Shell of collapse, the Blue Shell of financial crisis, the Blue Shell of the New Gilded Age. This is the Blue Shell in Facebook blue, where anything you’d do with it already will have been done anyway on your behalf without you knowing it.”

On Matter, here’s an incredibly long interview with Buzzfeed’s Jonah Peretti, which you won’t read. On sites that aren’t Matter, here are a couple of good summaries, which you probably will. Serve your readers, or they’ll go elsewhere.

Tumblr of the week: When Women Refuse

Poem of the week: And Still I Rise, Maya Angelou

Free game of the week: The Last Tango

 

Assassin’s Creed: women in games are not a technology problem

Assassin’s Creed: Unity is not going to have playable female characters in multiplayer, because it’s too much work. As per Polygon:

“It’s double the animations, it’s double the voices, all that stuff and double the visual assets,” Amancio said. “Especially because we have customizable assassins. It was really a lot of extra production work.”

Here is an incomplete list of things that Ubisoft decided, as a company, were less work than playable female avatars in multiplayer:

  • Two special missions, only available as pre-order bonuses.
  • The ability to render AI crowds of 5,000 people.
  • Customisable assassins, but only male ones.
  • A 1:1 replica of Notre Dame cathedral.
  • A crouch button.

This is a tongue-in-cheek list, of course, because the allocation of resources doesn’t work like this, and if it was the multiplayer team’s job to make multiplayer on a budget then it’s their budget from which multiplayer assets must come. The idea behind the four-player co-op mode seems to be that everyone sees themselves as the main character from the single-player game – Arno, who is male, obviously, because it’s not like playing a female assassin in the French Revolution would be an excellent and historically-relevant choice - and their three friends are his male buddies.

Which leaves open the question of why, exactly, two of those friends couldn’t be female, if the team had decided that was a priority? Or why all of them couldn’t be female? Why not cut Arno from multiplayer, or design a multiplayer system that works without him? Why not, if you have to, take the FemShep approach and make masculine women, acknowledge the problems with their animations, and say that you thought it was more important that the game had playable women than that the jiggle physics was perfect? And, most importantly, why wasn’t making it possible to play as a woman in the game a core goal for the multiplayer team, instead of a nice-to-have extra that got dropped?

To be fair, we don’t know yet whether any modern-day assassin elements are going to star a woman. But the fact that Ubisoft has cheerfully announce beard-filled multiplayer without mentioning the possibility suggests either the modern-day office-wandering secretarial bit isn’t finished yet – in which case there might be a sudden reverse ferret and a female avatar might suddenly appear, rendering all excuses about the difficulties of rendering women completely null and void – or that it’s not going to hold many surprises on that score. Or that they’re dripfeeding PR to provoke, of course, which I guess we can’t rule out, because that’s one of the more unpleasant ways the games PR machine works.

Meanwhile, apparently Far Cry 4 came “within inches” of a playable female character. Which is not good enough; the dev says they “did their best” but that older assets, studio culture, planning and technology got in the way. Goddamn technological women, with our complicated hips and our weird walks and the way we’re just so difficult to model that a 1987 NES game has better gender representation than this next-gen console one can apparently manage.

Look, technology is not the problem here. Thinking of male characters as “default” and female characters as “extra” is the problem, as is a history of poor representation in games meaning there are fewer existing assets that can be reused. You fix that by recognising that it’s not a tech issue. You fix it with planning, with remedial work so that you have as many stock female assets as stock male ones, with processes that don’t place the ability to fiddle with a character’s weapon loadout ahead of their gender. You can’t fix that with polygons. You fix that with people.

The nature of madness

A lot’s been said about the killing of six people by a man, possibly mentally ill, certainly with a gun, certainly with a deep hatred of women and a deep anger over what he sees as their rejection. I don’t want to go over old ground; here are a few excellent pieces that are worth reading on this whole sorry mess.

What is worth saying, though, and what I’ve not seen said elsewhere, is a little about the nature of madness, and how it might apply here. It is pointless to go over whether the killer had a diagnosis, as that diagnosis cannot hope to explain his actions, any more than a diagnosis of OCD can hope to explain why a particular person might scrub their hands raw rather than compulsively locking doors, or a diagnosis of schizophrenia can explain why a person believes they have magical powers that control the weather rather than believing the NSA is stalking their every move. The differences have their genesis outside a person’s brain chemistry, in their society, their upbringing, their present situations, the elements of their obsessions that are permitted space to grow unchecked.

The specifics of madness are not so closely linked to diagnoses as most people would like to believe. One cannot simply write off all delusions as madness, nor all violence, nor even all shooting sprees, because madness is not a sufficient explanation. Even if we know for certain that a shooter is diagnosed as mentally ill, what we do not necessarily know – and what we must ask – is why their illness has taken that particular form. Why women? Why people of colour? Why sex? Why entitlement?

Madness is born in sanity. It is born from society. It does not spring, fully formed, from the brain in isolation: it is defined socially, it is constructed socially, it is through the establishment of social norms that abnormality is recognised and regulated. Mental illnesses grow like weeds; the nature of the weed is dependent on the soil, the light, the water. Sometimes the only thing that makes a weed a weed is the fact it is appearing in a neatly manicured bed of some other flower.

The California killer’s mental illness was not madness, when it was limited to posting on forums about how much he hated women. It was not madness when he spoke online about his fantasies. It was not madness when he suggested women deserved to die for rejecting him. If he had only killed one woman, an ex-girlfriend or a prospective partner who said no, a great deal of evidence suggests it would still not be judged as madness; this happens every day, and society rarely says it is insane.

Sanity and insanity are two ends of a spectrum, not distinct states, and there is a great deal in the middle that is murky. It is frightening that such hatred, such aggression towards women, such entitlement and anger, is only murky.

Why does society call angry, threatening young misogynists mad only after they have pulled the trigger?

The New York Times package mapper

From Nieman Lab, an interesting look at how the NYT maps traffic between stories, and analyses why and how things are providing onward traffic or causing people to click away from the site.

000000;">One example has been in our coverage of big news events, which we tend to blanket with all of the tools at our disposal: articles (both newsy and analytical) as well as a flurry of liveblogs, slideshows, interactive features, and video. But we can’t assume that readers will actually consume everything we produce. In fact, when we looked at how many readers actually visited more than a single page of related content during breaking news the numbers were much lower than we’d anticipated. Most visitors read only one thing.

This tool’s been used to make some decisions and change stories, individually, to improve performance in real time. That’s the acid test of tools like this – do they actually get used?

But the team that uses it is the data team, not the editorial team – yet. Getting editors to use it regularly is, it seems, about changing these data-heavy visualisations into something editors are already used to seeing as part of their workflow:

we’re thinking about better ways to automatically communicate these insights and recommendations in contexts that editors are already familiar with, such as email alerts, instant messenger chat bots, or perhaps something built directly into our CMS.

It’s not just about finding the data. It’s also about finding ways to use it and getting it to the people best placed to do so in forms that they actually find useful.

Happy birthday, Guardian Australia

Tea, cake and champagne for the Guardian Australia launch.

About this time last year, I think someone had broken out the champagne. Not that that meant we stopped working, of course – it just joined the cups of tea and chocolate echidnas (echidnae?) that Penny bought to celebrate launch. We started very, very early and finished very, very late, and it was worth every minute.

Today is a year since Guardian Australia launched, and it has been an incredible year professionally (as well as all that boring personal stuff about finding a new home 10,000 miles away from home). My instinct when it comes to explaining why is to go to the stats – to turn to what we know about our new audiences, the people who found us on launch day and the people who’ve discovered us since. We can bring out commercial and editorial numbers that prove the impact we’ve had and the appetite for our work in Australia, which has completely eclipsed what I thought it might a year ago today. But those numbers don’t tell the whole story – they don’t cover the stories we’ve broken, the speed at which the office has grown, or the way our audience has formed a community around our journalism.

With tons of help from colleagues, I compiled a huge awards list for the anniversary, and it acts as a look back at some of the highs and lows of the year. It’s long, but there are probably at least twice as many things I could have included, if I had enough time to put it together (and thought people would still be interested at the end of it). As it is, it stands as a little marker of what we’ve managed to do in the last year – and my favourite part is, by far, the comment thread underneath. There’s our biggest achievement - that after a year, we have readers who’ll reply to our birthday celebrations to say: “Thank you for being here. Please stay.”

“Content” is contentious

Via Adam Tinworth (who seems to agree that I should be shorter), a note on content:

2b2b2b;">Content is crap. Nobody walks out of a great movie and says, “Wow! What great content.” Nobody who produces meaningful artistic expression thinks of themselves as content producers either. So the first step to becoming a successful publisher is to start treating creative work with the respect it deserves.

Generally, people don’t react well to the word content, especially people who are doing the work that makes that “content” valuable. Editors, journalists, reporters, writers, video producers and interactive developers don’t want to hear their work levelled in the way that “content” somehow manages to do. No one asks if it’s good content; they care if it’s a good story, a good video, good journalism. Content puts people’s backs up, because it devalues their creative efforts and reduces an article, a photo, a piece of hard work, to merely the fact of its existence. It’s about as insulting as calling it “URLs”.

Every day, at work, I write emails that require a collective term for text articles, image galleries, videos, interactives and perhaps a few other things too. I call them journalism, or pieces, or work, or news, or in extreme cases when I’ve exhausted every other synonym I list them as articles, images, videos and interactives. Every day, I deliberately avoid using the word “content”, because, as Greg Satell points out, it’s crap.