Mathematical Precursor

February 13, 2009 at 2:37 pm (Percy) (, , , , , , , , , , )

I really, really wanted to talk about maths today. I’ve been teaching it for (I kid you not) about 14 hours every weekday for the last few weeks, and it’s been pretty intense.

I feel like I’m starting to get a feeling for what most people find difficult, frustrating and boring about mathematics. I think I’ve also got some pretty awesome insight into the world of maths, how people learn it and how it should be taught.

However, I have 78 (!) new non-spam emails in my inbox and a class to teach very soon. When I’m done, I am going to go home and catch up on my sleep and try not to have a brain haemorrhage. I’ll save my insighty goodness for another day, and instead post some awesome mathematical images that I’ve found for your amusement and delight.

The first is a mathematical diagram representing what is called the projective space PG(3,2), and I think it has a pleasing fiveness to it:

ap5

I got this from a paper called “Pretty pictures of Geometries” by B. Polster. He says:

“Why are good pictures important? Two of the main reasons that come to mind are the following:

-To convey some of the abstract beauty of the objects we study to people outside our field. This seems to be especially important today as it becomes more and more important to “justify” and “sell” the kind of research we are fascinated by.

-Many of us think in terms of pictures of various degrees of abstraction. The kind of pictures we want to concentrate on in this note are immediately accessible and can serve to lure students into studying incidence geometry and as a first step in teaching students pictorial thinking in geometry.”

The kinds of mathematics I’m engaged in deals with abstraction as well. I study Algebra, not Geometry, so the beauty I find there is almost always unable to be drawn, though there are a few interesting diagrams. Here is a picture representing the “root system” of the algebra G_2, the object I studied for my Honours thesis:

g2root

What it ‘really means’ is rather complex, but for the moment, it’s enough to say “oooh, pleasing sixness! Hey, isn’t that the Star of David?” or something like that.

Here are some more pictures, starting with fractals:

godsownpentagram-1024
(A fractal called “God’s Own Pentagram”)

mandel_zoom_00_mandelbrot_set
(The famous “Mandelbrot Set

4d09554c3fd9b0c539a28e96ffc1f42a
(I don’t know what this one is called, but I like how organic it looks)

Each of these fractals have a property called “Self-similarity”, which means that you can find copies of the whole or parts of the image, in miniature, throughout the fractal. If you look closely, you’ll see the self-similarity in each of those fractals above. You can even download and try this absolutely fantastic fractal zoomer called XaoS, which lets you both zoom in on parts of a fractal to see this self-similarity in action, and form Julia sets like this one:

julia_set

Here’s how to represent a 4-dimensional object using a 3D image, utilising time as a replacement for a fourth spacial dimension:

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I find this rather hypnotic! I’ve heard that those who study geometry get a ‘feeling’ for how things look in 4D space by doing things like this in their brain for all kinds of 4D shapes. Wat.

I have to go to class now, so I’d better cut this short. I’d like to leave off with a question, though. Consider this image:

spinning-silhouette-optical-illusion

Do you see her rotating clockwise or anti-clockwise? It’s important to note that nothing is rotating – it’s just a moving 2D silhouette. Our brains interpret the image as rotating, but you can get her to reverse direction if you concentrate hard enough. You have to force your brain to interpret the data it’s getting in a completely different way, and it helps to figure out what parts of the image are making your brain say “this is a rotating woman!”.

Tell me what you see, and if you can reverse her rotation in your brain! Next week, I’ll talk more about maths.

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Internet Culture and the Evolution of Human Interaction

February 6, 2009 at 4:08 pm (Percy) (, , , , , , , , , , )

Ah, the Internet. It is, without any doubt, my most favourite thing ever. It is the source of most of my entertainment and education (in the form of news and sweet, sweet wiki) these days. The people who share this attitude are growing by the day. Facebook is slowly redefining the way people organise and execute their social interactions, following on the heels of MySpace. Wikipedia grows exponentially in both scope and quality of content. More and more companies are concentrating on their ‘online presence’. Businesses without webpages are becoming like businesses without listed telephone numbers.

All of this fascinates me, and I hope to blog more about the way the internet is transforming our lives. But today, I’m going to talk about the absurd, the awesome, the funny and the just plain interesting content that the internet tends to generate, specifically in the form of images. Sites such as 4chan and Space Ghetto are (internet) famous for being a place to celebrate and interact with the anarchy of the internet. I’ve explored my 3GB of images saved on my hard drive (a prized collection of mine), and present to you now some of the most illustrative examples of how people interact online through this medium.

First of all, I will turn to the image that was in my placeholder:

lckdo_jarmuschquote

I found this on Space Ghetto, and it’s stuck with me for some years now. With the incredible amount of information available to us, it is very hard, almost impossible, to do something original. The pictures, art, video and text that make up the internet are more than enough to allow any human being to express whatever they want in almost any context. Using familiar symbols allows you to communicate faster through a series of convenient shorthands. This will, of course, lead to incredibly complex in-jokes, but what is different here from how the six of us interact? We speak of “the Boat times”, a reference to the Mighty Boosh, and replace Boat with whatever we like. It is not cheaper, or somehow less meaningful, that we do not conjure up and explain a new symbol every time we want to express ourselves, when the old will do just fine.

So what kind of symbols crop up? The most common, and most famous outside of internet land, is the good old fashioned macro. My favourite are when the text highlights the absurdity of the situation depicted, for example:

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The image alone sets off a cascade of questions in our mind – who is this guy? Why is he standing like that? Why is there a chair on his head? Who put this on the internet?! The text is ostensibly and answer – it’s a guy who’s looking for his glasses, who has put the chair on by accident due to blindness. This answer plays off all of our unanswered questions and gives ridiculous answers, highlighting that there really isn’t any good explanation for this absurd image.

The macro can also be used to talk to other internet users, whether by imageboard or by forum, and express their views in a humourous way, such that this image:

gtfointernet

In a very similar way, the absurdity and aggression of the photograph is harnessed to express your anger at some other user. The hope is to achieve respect from your fellow posters, and even your target – cleverness and witticism carry a lot of weight in this medium. This is especially effective, therefore, when someone posts a rant, trollpost or some other poor content. To celebrate a victory, one might post something like this:

band

The recutting of the film, along with the text, points out the weakness and therefore ridicules the recipient of a ban. This helps keep trolls at bay, as they are nothing if not driven by ego.

The objective is again humour and social comment in these two:

obama_puppy

imagessandbox-20bully-thumb

The first references the ‘superstar’ image of Barack and the media coverage of the Obama’s new dog. The second recalls the days at the beach when some kid kicked over your sandcastle, shocking you with his tiny fury. The macro is a complex art, but wonderful when intelligently executed.

Essentially, imageboards are all about associations between pictures and words. They include macros, but conversation outside of the image is also possible. Here’s an example:

essence_of_b

The artful put-down is celebrated on imageboards. The original poster (or OP) has invited criticism by posting on a board renowned for its aggressive and exclusive atmosphere. The reply at once attacks the hat and the wearer, rather than many obvious replies attacking only one. It is doubtful whether the OP is the guy in the photograph. It is even more doubtful that this was not planned, in that the OP replied to his own thread with a pre-prepared answer. Nevertheless, it allows for the aforementioned atmosphere to be preserved, ensuring only the best content gets attention from the membership at large (at least in theory).

The comic is a means of telling a fuller story than a macro. On imageboards, many delve into the tribulations commonly experienced by young boys, which the majority of users can identify with (even the girls, though there are admittedly fewer of them). Here are some examples (the second is a little gory):

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whitewhale2

Loneliness and jealousy, two very common teenage emotions, are used to execute the art of the punchline. These comics will be saved, like any other content, and posted several times to the busy imageboards. A wide circulation is therefore achieved in the celebration of this comic, as success is determined by your audience’s desire to share your content with others.

However, we can dip back into the absurd:

284dj4

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The first is again in the punchline, but the second is a good example of a two step descent into further absurdity. The first and second panels are odd, and the third ensures our utter confusion.

Funny images from the real world are also widely circulated through replication. From inanimate objects seemingly expressing emotions:

1212980895186

… to news, where the subject and writers are mocked:

kickedterrorist

… and through to the reminders that witty people exist in the real world too, and are using the signs and messages designed to reach the masses to make us laugh with the unexpected:

dontdodrugs

1211340289313mt9

The surprising variations on old and tired themes (such as those usually found on posters and signs) is being shared with a much wider audience than those in the local area. The artful humour is recognised and immortalised on the internet and in hard drives everywhere. It is, as far as internet users are concerned, the highest flattery.

Hilarious observations are enhanced with photoshop, such as this comparison:

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Emma Watson is a well loved actress amongst many imageboards, and Richard Dawkins, the father of memetics, is also (but not similarly) admired. Cognitive dissonance and confrontation is therefore achieved in the audience – how could I not have noticed this before? Does this make me gay? And so on. As I mentioned, it is a photoshop, but the figures remain recognisable.

Sometimes, a photoshop is bizarre enough to stand alone, without any connection with famous persons:

1227397318032

The artist is skilled, and has struck on (or borrowed from) a very adaptable idea. Others may perpetuate the meme by switching faces in other photographs, or making all the faces in one photograph the same, forcing you to hunt for the ‘actual owner’. The original serves as an exemplar of a developing meta-meme, a small but well understood means to achieve surprise and humour.

This same idea can be seen in the use of the Bayeux Tapestry generator:

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bayeuxhammertime

bayeuxtapestryspy

ihathherduliekestmudkipz

300, MC Hammer, Team Fortress 2, even other memes anything can be given an old-fashioned twist with this adaptable meta-meme. It is now a sign of achievement to have a meme well circulated in Bayeax form, as with any other well recognised meta-meme.

Here’s an attempt to ridicule US foreign policy, the subject of many heated internet debates:

1208957454291

This image reminds me of graffiti, but instead of it being executed in the real world before being photographed, uploaded and then downloaded, the idea has cut out the middle man and is speaking directly to the audience.

There are a lot of intelligent people on the internet, and even if they only have one fantastic idea, it’s enough to fuel the fires of internet culture simply in celebrating these images. The ideas are appreciated, played with, and eventually immortalised in the participants’ desire to save and repost the images.

This is internet culture and content at its best, and that’s why I post it, perpetuating its circulation and therefore ability to amuse, delight and inspire. In the style of many boards (particularly Space Ghetto), I will submit these final images without comment.

0047f6qa

yum

2ujntqu

20sketch

crying

image_yqi3ot

tdgdp

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The art of confronting users with images like these, possibly combined with text to enhance the intended meaning, is so successful due to its “lightweight” nature – they are quick to appreciate, don’t hurt your download limit and are easy to circulate through email, forums and other boards – even blogs. As humanity becomes more connected, the critical, intelligent and artful ideas communicated through this medium are disseminated in an increasingly irrepressible expression of consensus, and I forecast much more to come.

Also, happy birthday to Tabitha! We had a great night of Japanese food, milkshakes and a trip to the Sydney Observatory.

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Abstinence – just say no

January 31, 2009 at 1:45 am (Percy) (, , , , )

I’ve been thinking about abstinence lately. A few days ago, Alan came home and asked me what my attitudes were, and my first response was something like “Well, it’s pretty retarded”. I thought I’d explain my attitudes in detail with lots of glorious links, and throw in all my relevant anecdotes to keep things interesting.

Why would someone choose to not have sex? The desire to have sex and be intimate with other people (or even yourself) is a serious urge, driving most people to do many stupid things in their lifetime, and probably have some fun as well. People fight, struggle and kill each other for sex. It’s also an incredibly complex urge that manages to find its way into all parts of our lives – let’s just say more TV shows are based around sexual tension than food or shelter tension. To deny yourself something so powerful is insane!

…so says the meth addict. Clearly there is more to it than that. Let’s start with the most obvious reason one might abstain: the AIDS.

Young people are getting STDs everywhere. Some are even born with them, and grow up to unwittingly pass it on to others. About 1 in 25 people have some sort of STD. The absolute best way to not get STDs is to (a) not start life with one and (b) not have sex with anyone. Or perhaps wait until the (foolproof?) test results come back for your partner of choice.

Also: the BABY. Adolescents having children is a matter of great shame (for some reason), and I will admit that most teenagers aren’t ideally suited to child rearing. Teen pregnancies are difficult and traumatic, and many people are uncomfortable with abortion and adoption and this one mistake will destroy their lives in an instant. Avoiding getting pregnant while engaging in sex is trying to cheat nature, and most of the time that’s pretty risky. Better to just not have sex, apparently.

Abstaining from sex to avoid getting infected or pregnant is pretty dumb if that’s all there is to it. This attitude is the equivalent of not leaving the house for fear of being struck by lightning – there are adequate steps you can take to manage the risk (safe sex – really important), so you shouldn’t let your fears take away one of the great things about being a person. Just be safe, and if you’re really worried, get tested along with your partner for STDs and take the pill. Everything should be OK.

Not only that, but having sex often is good for you. It might even be bad for you to stop. And not just the guys and their prostate cancer – the ladies get health benefits too from getting their rocks off on a regular basis. Seriously, it even makes you (transitive) smell better!

Post: over? No. You know it’s not over. Many people will tell you that they are abstinent, wear it as a mark of pride and try and make you stop having sex as well. They’ll even try and stop you from having sex, and the health of your body is their last concern. I’m not talking about ascetism, though it won’t have many legs to stand on by the end of this post. I’m talking about the desire to “save yourself” until you are married for religious reasons. And when I say “many people”, I’m going to include the US government as well:

These kinds of restrictions and results are fairly typical. The abstinence only bid is going strong in most countries, especially Africa and America (click that link and read the ‘criticisms’ section if you want more info as well). I seem to recall my school’s sex education being more about anatomy than about safe sexual practises (I certainly never heard the word ‘condom’), so even religious schools in Australia are sticking with it. I’m sure AO programs are better than no information at all in educating people about diseases and pregnancy, but why not educate about condoms? What is the harm in that? There is actually no evidence to suggest that contraceptive education increases the rate of sexual activity. Just ask these guys.

I think the attitude of the abstinence-only advocates is pretty easy to understand – if we give kids the tools to have sex safely, then they’ll have sex. If we don’t tell them there are safe options available, kids will be scared into sexual repression by their ignorance and everyone will be safe. Fear is used as a weapon, and the ends are meant to justify the means. A very narrow path is set, and only one option is available. If you deviate from it, you have no information about what to do and how to proceed safely. It is a gross misrepresentation of reality in order to fit a moral agenda. Just ask the wartime propaganda machine:

Note that it’s the woman doing the spreading of the disease, and the great tragedy is that you can’t kill for your country anymore. I’m glad someone was telling men about STDs, but they just couldn’t help but slip the patriotism in, could they?

It’s been around for centuries with masturbation too. Attempts to stop children from masturbating have ranged from the cruel:

(This thing has spikes, an alarm bell and electric shocking power. Yeah.)
to the superstitious:

(did you know it also causes you to lose your eyesight, get STDs, acne and impotence?)
to the absurd:

(Seriously, it was used by XxxChurch in 2005 to try and stop kids masturbating (“Ask your buds if they killed any kittens this week,”), even though it was released online as a joke in 2002)

Why are people so invested in preventing sex and sexual expression, to the point where they will inflict pain, lie to and traumatise young people to make them see their moral correctness? This is instead of helping to encourage safer methods and reducing the incidence. There is a moral, religious or philosophical agenda in the background. It tries to hide, but it really is rather blatant in its wilful ignorance of scientific consensus and attempts to manipulate the media, politics and young people everywhere.

As for the ‘virginity pledges’, there has been some back-and-forth in the academic arena, but most studies point towards their ineffectiveness. This one is the latest I could find, and it essentially says that these pledges don’t work, those who take them are more likely to not use condoms, and most people deny ever taking the pledge to begin with (purity – not the coolest concept in the schoolyard these days).

Remember Bristol Palin? She was forced to marry and have a child with her wonderful boyfriend. I feel so incredibly sorry for this poor girl, who would have felt like a major embarrassment to her mother, her church and basically everyone she ever knew. It was probably one afternoon, she and her boyfriend were bored, and they had awkward, uncomfortable teenage sex and then felt guilty and stressed the whole time. I cannot imagine how horrible it would have been for her to realise her period wasn’t coming, and to know that there was no option of getting rid of it to continue with her life, which was only just beginning.

Don’t use people’s ignorance against them, scaring them into helplessness. Give people the facts and let them make up their own minds. And don’t even get me started about homosexual abstinence in these programs. Just like sex before marriage, underage sex is *demonised*. And it’s accomplished by grouping “immoral” things together, as a big gateway to more sin. Here’s a great example:

It makes me so angry that a confused and miserable gay teenager might watch this, or even be shown it at school. No matter how you feel about sex, whether you want it or think you can do it safely or if you love the person you’re with, it is a sin and you must avoid it. If you don’t, then you will (and should be) ostracised and treated like a criminal junkie. Who are these people, to take something that can be fun, beautiful and meaningful, responsible and safe, and try and turn it into this?

When Tabitha and I were growing up, we had no clear idea what was ‘allowed’ and what wasn’t. The extremes were clear, but there really is an expansive grey area in the middle. We weren’t that sure about safe sex, and we really, really didn’t want to have a baby. Our anxiety was incredible – always worried that one wrong move would set everything off. And in some respects it’s good that we were anxious enough to be careful, but we didn’t know how to be careful, and knew that if anything went wrong we would ruin our entire lives. The psychological strain is something we’re still working through today.

Ultimately, I think sexual education should aim to liberate and empower children, not make them conform to the older generation’s expectations of them. Encouraging repression is disgusting, especially when there are better alternatives.

Enough about abstinence education, though. What if you get taught about abstinence, condoms and every preventative measure. Why would people still choose to be abstinent? Are there any virtues in that? Why do people want others to be abstinent in the first place?

Catholic priests remain abstinent (well, some) to show others their devotion to their religion and to be an example to others who might be struggling with urges of their own. I can see why this might serve as a good example, but I personally feel that the tradeoff really isn’t worth it. Show that you can manage your own desires responsibly, rather than going to the extreme and saying “no” to everything, and you’ll be a much more approachable and effective role model – people who drink responsibly are better at telling other people how to drink responsibly than teetotallers, and the same principle applies here.

Teenagers sometimes stick to their virginity pledge and save themselves for marriage, and believe that they’re doing the right thing. Here are some moral reasons that are often voiced:

Lineage

This one goes out to the boys. Men are very concerned about who women have sex with, and want to ensure that the baby the girl says is theirs is actually theirs. If women remain abstinent until they marry you, and they have sex with no-one else, then the baby they have is definitely yours. My personal opinion is that most of the biblical prohibitions against sex are more to do with making sure your kid is your own than about some metaphysical morality. Needless to say, this is a pretty stupid reason not to have sex, especially if you take precautions against having children. Furthermore, whilst I do acknowledge the importance some people place in having your genetic material passed on (myself included), this problem is adequately solved by open and honest communication with your partner. Trapping them with archaic social norms is not cool.

-“Before you there was no other” and the symbol of the wedding night

Jealousy is a powerful force. No-one wants to feel like a second rate lover, or that they compare unfavourably to some other person. I was told at church that being able to say this on your wedding night was both awesome and essential for a happy marriage. The wedding night was the consumation of God’s love, where the man enacts the part of God, and the woman the part of Israel (or God’s people, or whatever). Just read Song of Songs, that’s the message there.
The reality is far from the truth. Most people’s first times are embarrassing and stressful and short. Christian or abstaining couples have gone through years and years of believing that sex was evil. Sexual impulses are dangerous, to be controlled and supressed. Suddenly, you have to turn this conditioning off and have a great time with someone you don’t know at all in a sexual way. Instead of a wedding night being a celebration of your relationship, it’s an exercise in disappointment and managing expectations.
The bottom line is that you are committing your life to someone else without any experience or any point of comparison. Some people think this is a virtue, but again this comes from a place of insecurity – if they don’t know any better, then there is no chance they’ll think you’re garbage. This does not guarantee happiness for either party, and is probably a recipe for disaster.
Many polyamorous couples report that their experiences with others gives them more ideas for the bedroom with their chosen partner, and it’s a mark of respect that you want to continue to improve by exposure to new ideas. Even if you’re uncomfortable with polyamory, being with other people beforehand, learning how your body works and what you want, and finding someone you can share those things with is so important. Trying to figure all of this out with someone else all at once will likely create more bad experiences than good, which will lead into a vicious cycle of unhappiness.

Respect

The argument that abstaining from sex is respecting the person you’re with, in that you don’t want to try and take the ‘goods’ before you’ve committed your life to them, is rather prevalent. If you don’t end up with person X, then future person Y will be mad at you because you haven’t saved yourself.
This is quite ridiculous. Firstly, sex is not a disrespectful act, to your partner or anyone who knows them or is related to them. The emphasis should be on informed, good choices rather than assuming we can’t make our own and providing us with a prepackaged answer. Religious attitudes towards sex and respect reach their most extreme in the form of honour killings (like this one – and they were trying to do it by the book, too). Whilst governments are starting to crack down, the attitude comes from the same emotional place.

Secondly, if you’ve had sex before and know some tricks and have some skill, then the other person will end up enjoying things more. You want to be with them now, and that’s what is important. Why carry on about the past unless you’re horribly insecure? Doing things because you’re insecure is kinda dumb.

Because God said so

Much of the Christianity I’ve been exposed to is very cult like in its insistence that the bible is true. I remember being presented a proof that witchcraft existed that went along these lines:

“God warns us about witchcraft. He wouldn’t have warned us if it wasn’t real and dangerous. Therefore it is real and dangerous.”

It’s a position where the bible is correct, and you cannot try and rationalise why God wants us to do things. Even if you tear down the ‘logical’ reasoning, God still told us to be abstinent, so we should.
The attitude of shutting up and not questioning anyone in authority and assuming they’re right is one that should never be encouraged. If you can’t think of a good reason why you should be abstinent, then don’t bother. Go and have some fun, I’m sure God will forgive you. Especially if it’s with someone you love and respect with the aim of becoming closer. Who could hate that? Who would punish you for that?

Finally, let me emphasise the worst part of abstinence again – it leaves no room for those who are not abstinent. If you’ve had a previous marriage, how does respect, lineage and the symbol of the wedding night all fit in? The short answer is that they don’t. You have failed as a human being and will now miss out on the best thing ever, possibly through no fault of your own. If you get an STD, get pregnant earlier than you want, or go through a divorce, there is suddenly no answers. It seems that providing them will make others more licentious because they might follow your horrid example. One size does not fit all, and trying to make it so is doomed to failure. Celebration of homogeneity is something I’ve never liked, or trusted, or engaged in.

Abstinence is a dangerous social construct. It makes people unsafe, unhappy and ultimately unfulfilled. I’m sure there are many success stories out there, but at the very least give everyone all the information before you ask them to choose. Stop fucking with kids’ brains and telling them that they’ll have it all, when in reality they’ll probably fuck up and have no guidelines, or follow your insrtuctions and become very unhappy.

Seriously, just listen to “Dr Paul”, who seems to lecture on all sorts of matters while ensconsed on a couch in his smoking jacket with a dry martini (man the internet is weird):

Well, maybe that wasn’t the clearest advice, but you get the idea. Go have safe sex, kids. It’s awesome, and it’ll make you happier now and in the future.

If you have some argument that I haven’t appropriately strawmanned in defence of this unfortunate lifestyle choice, please comment. I’ll also add that those who are asexual, antisexual or whatever are of course exempt – if you don’t want to, then don’t. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking some imaginary control freak will love you more if you deny yourself things you do want.

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Lonelygirl and… the future of entertainment?

January 23, 2009 at 4:12 pm (Percy) (, , , , , , , , , )

In June 2006, the series known as lonelygirl15 began. It was an extremely experimental and original series, a testimony to the growth of the power of the internet. However, its legacy is proving less intarwebz-shattering than many expected, myself included.

The medium – YouTube. The Genre – Blogging. Original, I know. Wait, it gets better. It followed the daily troubles of a teenage girl. Bree was pretty and blogged about (almost) nothing at all – her parents are religious, she is homeschooled, she had a lazy eye, she makes a fool of herself sometimes and so forth. She talked about what was going on in YouTube, replied personally to fans’ comments on her channel and videos and owned and operated a myspace page. It is important to emphasise that her fictional status was not disclosed. The majority of YouTube users believed her to be an actual person.

Her first video is a perfect snapshot of an average girl’s blog on YouTube, even down to the music (I did research to reach this conclusion, I’m pretty much never that bored):

She was cute, smart and hidden away from society – every teenage YouTubing boy’s perfect girl. The show gained almost instant popularity; as YouTube’s share of our bandwidth grew, so did lonelygirl15’s subscriber list. And many were carried in its wake – the clash between lonelygirl and Lazydork (omg internet drama) not only increased the popularity of (actual person blogger) Lazydork, but also launched the career of Australia’s most famous blogger, TheHill88 with this video where she ostensibly takes a side in the conflict:

TheHill88 is now one of the most popular YouTube celebrities and, along with loneylgirl, is now a YouTube partner – meaning they get paid for their videos.

A boy who knew Bree (who was head over heels in unrequited love for her) named Daniel started his own channel, began blogging and soared in the subscriber lists as well. His channel was mostly about how strange Bree’s parents were, but also being friends and having fun with her. Clearly a story was developing, and fans were hooked.

The website lonelygirl15.com (supposedly started by a BIG FAN) was inundated with hits, and the forums became a popular destination for many young people. YouTubers began commenting, even contributing to the series with videos that seemed to fit right in (but never acknowledged as canon). A wiki was started, and the analysis began.

The story started to seem a little too coherent, hinting at design, but just barely. The stars’ responses to the YouTube community became less specific, as though all their blogs were filmed on the same day (i.e. beginning many videos with “someone was asking” – you’ll have to do better than that!). Her videos were a little too well edited and well lit, and although Daniel initially claimed the title of ‘editor’, this excuse fell apart when Bree and Daniel fought for a few videos – why would he edit and post such content during a fight?

Her channel reached #2 on both the most subscribed and most viewed, and the serious scrutiny began. YouTube users noticed that the website lonelygirl15.com (set up by a fan, remember?) was bought a month before she posted her first video. And then – was that Aleister Crowley? Yes, her religion appeared to be Satanic, and her parents’ devotion to this religion was keeping Bree and Daniel apart, as revealed in a video in which this photo of Mr. Crowley features prominently upon an altar in Bree’s bedroom:

After her myspace was hacked and the edits appeared to be originating from computers inside the Creative Artists Agency, the jig was up.

The series continued for several hundred more videos, maintaining incredible popularity throughout. There was some product placement after this (with notable brands including Neutrogena), but not before. Most of the revenue was from advertising. When the main character left at the end of the ‘first season’ (whose finale was 12 videos released once an hour, on the hour, following an attempt to save Bree in real time), the show dropped in popularity, but continued on for two more seasons and is currently planning a fourth season.

Heavily embedded in the plot of season one was an Alternate Reality Game, where users were actively involved in finding more about the series, assisting it directly and giving it a concrete “so close to being true” feel. Participants were directed to find containers in locations given as GPS numbers. These numbers would be hidden in the tags, audio and visual of the video as well as on external sites – these were the members of the Resistance who fight the Order (Bree’s religion) communicating in secret to fans. The packages would contain more clues and information which, if delivered on time, could change the course of the story. The players in the game would solve the puzzles in chatrooms, cracking codes, deciphering urls and finding passwords to unlock .rars.

It was not without scandal, however – the creator of the ARG gave clues to female participants in exchange for their naughty photos, and the heavily user-interactive section was thus removed from the series.

The interactivity didn’t stop, however. The characters even asked their audience for advice, at times calling for a vote-via-comment to decide their next course of action or even whether to include other YouTuber’s contribution as canon. The latter is particularly innovative – a girl who participated in the series by playing an investigative reporter by the name of Nikki Bower was eventually fed information from the creators, and helped ‘expose’ one of the canon characters as a spy for the Order, at the urging of fans.

An interesting video to note is Girl Tied Up, an episode in the second season of lonelygirl which has attracted almost thirteen million views. Again, the formula is simple – provocative title, girl tied up on a gurney, boobs and a man who is threatening to inject her with something. The misleading title may explain why this video has such a low rating, but in the land of YouTube, views are all that really matters.

The series wasn’t brilliant in terms of either plot or writing, even after it was revealed to be fiction. That was when I started watching, actually. It was very much a soap opera aimed at teenagers, and the subsequent series have followed the same pattern – relationship drama, action and conspiracy. Its success has always stuck in my mind, as it was the first attempt to truly embrace the interactivity of the internet in all conceivable ways to make the series something truly unique.

I was curious where Jessica Rose, who portrays Bree, had gone. And this is where. Welcome to Sorority Forever:

This is the first attempt by any major studio to launch a series entirely on the internet. Sure, the Sci-Fi channel had 10-minute “webisodes” of Battlestar Galactica, but this is different. It’s syrupy, clearly fiction and produced by McG, father of the O.C.

That wouldn’t necessarily affect its popularity, of course. Gossip Girl continues along those (very general) lines to this date, and continues to top charts in the tween-to-early-twenties girl market and dominate many others. I explored how Sorority Forever performed (it recently finished), and I ended up rather disappointed with the results.

It appears as though either Warner Brothers was getting bad advice, or wasn’t listening to good advice.

Firstly, the episodes could (initially) only be viewed from the Warner Brothers’ website, and only if you resided in the USA. This continued insistence on geographical location being important is very bizarre, and hinders growth of a series on an internet-wide scale. Secondly, it appears as though it was shot over several days in blocks, like a regular TV show, removing the spontaneity in creation that made the first series so popular.

Most crucially was that there was no way for fans to talk – and it appears that none ever really developed. There is no centralized fan forum (I say this with some conviction, as my google fu is pretty strong, but I am willing to be defeated by an eager contender). The show made it to myspace, but never really picked up there either. I found a couple of soppy reviews, but not even a fanlisting – just their bebo page, with only 770 Australian fans (and becoming a fan is mandatory if you want to watch past episode 15). I couldn’t even find something that was critical of the series, and usually there are over 9000 internet bloggers willing to make a name for themselves by attacking something new (c wut I did thar lol?).

I started watching the series, but found it much too unappealing – with no interactivity, I might as well be watching Passions. I mean, come on, it’s about a super-elite Sorority – lonelygirl was enough! The mechanism of embedding yourself in a community with video responses, comments, ratings and tags has been completely erased. With no ARG and no fanfiction, the show had very little in common with any internet series they should have been looking to for inspiration. Instead, it looks and plays like an unpopular, poorly written TV show that just happens to be on the internet. Way to miss the point, guys. It seems as though this studio effort to make money from the internet has failed.

I haven’t seen any other series emerge like lonelygirl. I remember thinking how cool it would be when this genre matures and more intelligent plotting and writing emerges in competing series. Interactivity is certainly all over the place; this video series by chad, matt and rob was a lot of fun and I highly recommend giving this a watch (even if you’ve skipped the other videos in this post):

I don’t know how long I’m going to have to wait until those with money acknowledge the power of the internet and try to make money from it in a sensible way. Some ARGs from studios have been successful (such as the Lost ARG), but some less so (such as the Heroes ARG which always seemed like a publicity stunt). It must be confronting and different for studios to operate on the internet (as it’s been their sworn enemy for so long), but surely they could run their ideas past a few bored 15 year old kids with myspaces before deciding on the best way to attain internet popularity? (Or, you know, me).

It will continue to prove difficult for people to make money on the internet by generating content, and commenting on issues and giving opinions is infinitely easier than organising an ARG. It seems to me that the internet is just dying for another serious attempt to base a series around ‘reality hacking’, and yet none emerges. I guess I’ll go back to waiting.

Postscripts

I found this picture, and I thought of Dan:
pizzarolls

I’ve also been reading Hey Guys, It’s The Bible!, a blog where an atheist reads the bible for the first time and talks about what he discovers, one book at a time. I’ve been finding it funny, insightful and extremely well written. The first post, about Genesis, is here in case you’re interested.

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The Politics of Percy II – In the End, there was some conclusion.

January 16, 2009 at 10:31 pm (Percy) (, )

For part one, please click here.

I have a vivid memory of sitting in assembly, shuffling my feet and trying not to die of boredom, when the Head’s rambling roamed towards the topic of Magic: the Gathering. This meant one of two things – either he had some Christian message to impart to us, and thought that Magic provided a metaphorical richness to speak “on our level”, or far more likely, it was about to be banned. Sure enough, he had heard of one too many cases of kids losing their cards or having them stolen, so they were now banned from campus. “If you can’t use them responsibly”, he intoned gravely, “then you can’t use them at all”.

Having just lost one of the (very few) lunchtime activities I enjoyed through no fault of my own, I had a minor political epiphany. Why should I be denied the right to play Magic because others had done wrong to people like me? Why should sport, with its injuries and fights and exclusivity continue unmolested, but my chosen pastime be removed? The conservative movement was encapsulated in that decision to ban – new things are to be feared, for we do not know what may come of them, whilst old, well-established modes of fun (such as sport) had a place in society. And more importantly, it was the duty of the many to punish new modes of interaction that attract a criminal element through no fault of their own; as a means of fighting crime, of course.

This idea is best illustrated by another example. Around this time, the Tampa ‘children overboard’ scandal was just breaking (check out some great footage here), and the hot topic of the day was illegal immigration. I recall the crux of the conservative’s argument was that these immigrants were jumping the queue, so to speak – they were not following the proper channels, abusing the system, and so should be refused on those grounds. When sympathy for their plight began to stir, the government rolled out their deception and attempted to make these immigrants into an evil, unpredictable, unAustralian menace, an immediate threat to you and me. I remember instead that my attitude was more curious and sympathetic – if someone was so desperate to escape wherever they came from that they would endanger the life of their child, trusting our goodwill, then we should listen to them and help them. Thus was my alienation from the Liberal party complete.

(The immigration debate continues today, with doubt and uncertainty constantly circulating about who we’re letting in, but it never seems to be phrased in a way that acknowledges the humanitarian aspect of allowing refugees or even those unhappy with their current country to live here instead. It seems to revolve around whether we should stop allowing anyone in to prevent allowing an undesirable in, where undesirable is defined by whatever buzzwords the politicians and shock jocks are throwing around.)

This attitude only intensified when the 9/11 attacks happened later that year. I knew by that point that, just like my headmaster, the government would take away our nice things (read: civil liberties) in exchange for some form of supposed safety. I also knew that just as banning Magic and keeping rugby would help the school to control the way its students spent their leisure time, fostering a premeditated ‘school atmosphere’ that us Magic players had been unhappy with to begin with. Thus it was an attack on everyone, but most severely on those who questioned the government or wanted change. I saw how quickly critics of the government became dangerous citizens, willing to gamble with people’s lives for the sake of those who want to harm us. The fundamental right to privacy, something I believe in very strongly, was twisted into “well, what have you got to hide?”.
I must confess at that point I became very interested in the conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11 (I particularly liked Zeitgeist, though now only pay attention to the first third). I saw how perfectly the attacks fit into the United States’ foreign and domestic policy agenda, and thought there might be a hidden hand, just as the terrorist attacks in V for Vendetta. Later, I read Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine (a book I highly recommend – READ IT DAN), and I realised that a conspiracy wasn’t necessary – they were simply exploiting the panicked atmosphere that was present at the time for their own ends, and that was how capitalism functioned best. The more you were able to make decisions for other people, the more control and money you got.

I wanted to let all the immigrants in. I wanted to ban no movie, book or show. As my fascination with the internet grew, I realised the power of allowing humans to interact without imposing a social structure, instead letting one develop organically – but more on that in another post. The point is, I thought that constantly governing for the small percentage of lawbreakers, criminals and undesirables, increasing our responsibilities while taking away our rights, was perpetuating the problem rather than solving it. If you treat someone like a child, then they will act like a child. If you expect someone to shoulder the responsibilities of an adult and enforce social norms without giving them the means to enjoy free expression, you’re trying to homogenise people, trying to make them more predictable, at the same time as making unpredictability and inhomogeneity more of a problem.

People do not have a right to not be offended. I cannot stand it when someone attempts to defend their opinions by saying “well, it’s just my opinion, OK?”. Opinions and statements do not deserve respect unless they have earned it through reasoned argument. Any other system of idea exchange is corrupt in the extreme. The conservative movement, however, could not function without the moral outrages and panics, the arbitrary values that accompany being “Australian” and what boxes they prefer people to fit in.

It was with eager anticipation that I awaited the results of the 2007 election. I honestly believed that Kevin Rudd would bring anything-but-conservatism, and that was enough for me. Today, we stand more than a year in, and what have we seen? More “fiscally responsible” approaches to climate change and dogmatic, knee-jerk reactions to moral panics conjured up by small minded people. Specifically, I’m referring to Kevin Rudd’s reaction to Bill Henson’s photography, the Rudd government’s refusal to review Marijuana legislation, and my number one favourite, the internet filter. My thoughts on these topics will wait for another post, but what I thought I would be liberated from – attempts to control my social and intellectual interactions with concepts, people and objects – remains a cornerstone of policy under Labor.

Perhaps it was not the fault of poor policy or poor systems of governance, but of the concept of ‘government’ itself, I thought while I drifted in this sea of uncertainty and broken promises. I explored anarchism, even cyber anarchism and cyber democracy (again, I think cyber modes of governance is something I’ll address in another post). I thought for a time that the sheer scale of the problem government deals with will result in failures all the time (such as social workers being unable to prevent THIS, which would never happen in a small community). Modern day economic theory seems to state that the best way to conduct business is to take money from many and puts it in the hands of the few. We hope that these people will use it responsibly and for the good of all of us, because after all, that’s where their power comes from. In reality, people on the stock market overinflate commodities, buy things just because they’re complicated and have concern only for themselves. We hope that the trickle down effect will work, but the only thing that ever really trickles down is the responsibility to clean up the mess and shoulder the burden of these self-interested failures. The bigger the market, the more this occurs, and that’s what truly frightens me about globalism.

So perhaps smaller communes were better – an idea quickly dismissed by the horrible practises that can go on in an insulated environment, from the family and up in size (Scientology, anyone?). The problem was more fundamental than that – the problem with government was a problem with human nature itself.

I think things tend to go wrong when people interact with ideas in a manner that is Stupid, Lazy, Hostile, Stubborn or Scared. I’ve found that most ideas (political or otherwise) that I find repulsive are either motivated by or cater towards one of these five human emotions. But there’s more to it than that – each of those things are very tempting to a lot of people. The “Institution of Marriage” is a great example where the majority of people don’t really know what they mean, don’t really care to quantify it, would find it wanting on anything but a cursory examination as a motivation for homophobia, and yet assume that it’s a well established social principle that must be defended – just look at the recent campaign for Yes on Proposition 8 in California.

The tendency to abdicate the responsibility of reviewing the current system of government, social interaction or whatever and beg to be told what to do, what to like, what to think is incredible to behold. Most children begin with thoughts that the government, police, businesses, church authorities and so forth all have our best interests at heart. Robbers go to jail, priests are nice, businesses make nummy food (even better than nature, of course – carrots taste better in MacDonalds wrappers), and any counterexamples are either hidden by the parents or naively rejected. Many adults, unfortunately, continue to hold this attitude and have faith when it is no longer warranted, never developing a sophisticated moral or political compass.

This justification-by-the-system idea has recently cropped up in the media with the HSC special exemptions rorting that’s been going on in private schools. I’m amazed at how many people seem to think that it’s a virtue to exploit a system put in place to help those genuinely in need, or even those who don’t care about virtue at all. Even if it’s simply the case that 30% of all students need it and you can only get it with private school levels of administrative support, you still have a failed system on your hands. Something is rotten here, and yet there are many who somehow conclude differently.

I’m watching Mad Men, a truly excellent show about advertising executives in New York in 1960, and it’s amazing how they don’t just cater to want, but create it. So many cultural icons we so often take for granted were crafted by very intelligent people who wanted money and control for their clients, and were willing to take the thinking off your hands. They are master manipulators, fantastic at getting you to celebrate your free will by doing exactly what they want. The power that these people wield is incredible, and it’s at least in part due to the human tendency to exploit the stupid, lazy, stubborn, hostile and scared, and for those people to want to be exploited.

I’m still not sure, at all, about what kind of governmental style will best do what I want, but at least I’ve sorted out my principles. People should be given personal, not collective, responsibility towards their community. They should see the results of their own personal work, and be rewarded or punished accordingly. People should be inspired to become Smarter, more Curious, more Open, more Accepting and more Understanding. Legislation should both be motivated by and foster these things in the community. Censorship’s aims should be to inform, not to restrict freedom; to enable personal decisions rather than prevent ‘bad’ ones.

I want government to acknowledge that people associate Different with Dangerous, Unpredictable with Horrifying, and to never act based on such gut instincts. If something is unknown, then a well defined moratorium is an appropriate response – banning it, and feeding misinformation to the public to justify your reaction, is not.

I hope this blog and my interactions with my wonderful audience will help me clarify the best way to bring these principles to life in a system of governance. People suck, but people can be awesome – the more we emphasise the latter rather than fear and prepare for the former, the better.

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The Politics of Percy I – In The Beginning, There Was The Jerk

January 9, 2009 at 11:58 pm (Percy) (, , , )

Just like Tom, I find that the holidays are perfectly suited to broadening my horizons. I’ve found myself in a bit of a political funk – I feel horribly underrepresented by both sides of politics, and I’m finding it very difficult to achieve any sort of clarity about how government should function. I’ve left my teenage years behind, and I feel like it’s time for me to “grow up”, “mature” and get such issues sorted out in my brain rather than leave them as a formless mess.

I first remember engaging in political debates back in high school. I was highly conservative. I gave a speech in year 8 about how we should have a Zero Tolerance policy for drugs – taking them, selling them, possessing them, all of it should result in jail time. I also remember expressing disgust at boat people, referring to them as ‘queue jumpers’. The system Australia had established was under threat, so we had to defend it. Those who were not interested in playing by the rules were not worthy of the privileges that society bestowed upon people like me.

I remember remarking casually to a friend in year 9 that Greek and Italian people were not as successful in society, and arguing that their racial/social background was to blame. If only they could learn to do things right, I thought, they could be as good as us. I had similar attitudes towards Aborigines and other racial groups. The culture and atmosphere that I was a part of was inherently virtuous because it was more successful, and those who wanted to do something different were obviously choosing to fail.

Interestingly, and perhaps crucially, I thought that these attitudes were entirely acceptable. There was no-one around to tell me differently, so I was not even aware that some might find my attitudes a little frightening. I feel like I was surrounded by those who attained (and therefore defined) success. I had no perspective, and trusted that the government would do the best for me Australia with all my heart. I believed that I was privileged, and should take advantage of it.

This attitude affected my (then) Christianity as well. I remember remarking that homosexuals were just like shoplifters – they’re tempted to do a wrong thing, so they should stop. I also thought that I didn’t “judge” them (because that would be deeply unChristian of me). I sympathized with their plight, but thought that it was a worthy thing for them to struggle to overcome their dark desires.

Looking back now, I am deeply ashamed of how I behaved and spoke. I hope to spend the rest of my life making up for the hateful, disgusting and divisive things I said to people. And divisive is the key word here. I feel that my parents, my school and my church were all looking down the pyramid, imposing artificial differences between those who were “like them” and those that weren’t. The groups that I belonged to all claimed to know answers that others did not – secrets to succeed at business, achieve good marks and obtain eternal life and happiness. I was all too happy to imagine myself at the top, pleased with the knowledge that I knew how to win at life much better than other people.

When I’m in a particularly vindictive mood I now view this behaviour as an attempt to rationalise exploitation and justify unwarranted privilege and success. When I’ve had my tea and relaxed a bit, I see it as a thing most communities do – defining the people in it by defining those outside. It’s a way to achieve cohesiveness and belonging, and everyone wants to feel like they’re special, remarkable. Whilst I never actually thought that I was better than other people, it was implicit in my views at the time.

I honestly thought that people who didn’t send their kids to private schools (if they didn’t get into a selective school) didn’t really care about their kids’ education. It was always emphasised to me and to others that private school was “not just for rich people, but for people whose parents work hard to give their kids the best opportunities”. In acknowledging how hard it was to send kids to private school and believing in its power as an institution to educate, it was an easy skip to elitism.

In year 10, I had a nervous breakdown. I’m sure I’ll go into that some other post, but the important element for the purposes of this post is that I was forced to re-evaluate most of what I thought. It was abundantly clear to me how arbitrary these definitions were, and how much it must suck to be looking up rather than down.

Firstly, it didn’t really matter all that much to me that I was Australian. Most of Australian culture seemed boorish and boring, and I came to see nationalism as an extremely dangerous form of division. Why should I believe this vast governmental bureaucracy is worth defending? No-one seemed to have any answers worth listening to. I wanted to know how the system we have arose, who maintains it and why. Then, I would know if I should be supporting it.

I also realised how lucky I was. I remember walking home in my school uniform, bag full of textbooks, and realising that there was no good explanation as to why I was there. I had clean clothes, a bag full of knowledge and a full belly, and no amount of “because I’m white” or “because my parents are better than others’” could justify why other people couldn’t have them too. Why should I eat my fill when others were starving? Why was I, by omission, starving these people?

I could see the tacit assumption that the richest and most successful people were somehow virtuous and worthy of mimicry screaming from every newsstand. But how much of this was deception and empty promises from those above to keep me distracted?

I was (and still am) one tiny, tiny step away from being homeless, a “dole bludger”, poor and downtrodden – the labels I used to attach to people to justify my hatred and fear are cosmetic, almost transparent. There is very little difference between me and everyone else on the planet, except for a couple of letters somewhere in my DNA – just as one cow is much the same as another. I wanted to know what made me different, and why I should consider myself different.

I no longer had any desire to define myself by the ideas of others, assuming that they knew best. But how far down did this rabbit hole go? What made an idea worth holding on to?

These were tough questions, and I realised how much work it was going to be. I knew most of them wouldn’t have good answers. But I knew two things, and still believe them to this day.

The first is that most people thrive on being given responsibility. The more decisions you make for people, the more likely they are to do less and blame you for their failings. The second is that collective responsibility is almost non-existent – if a group of people you’re a part of adopts a particularly disastrous course of action, it’s easy to blame everyone else in the group for not pulling their weight, stringing you along, even tricking you!

I wanted to know how to relate to people, how to judge their decisions and inspire them to greater things, whatever that meant. I haven’t quite figured it out yet, but I’m getting there. I hope I have established my origins and the attitudes I now despise, and I’ll continue the account of my political odyssey next week.

PS. Apologies for the lateness of my post. I’ll have the next one done by a civilised hour next Friday.

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