Monday, December 15, 2008

Not Yet Huxley's "feelies"

"the feelies"

from Brave New World, chapter 11:

The house lights went down; fiery letters stood out solid and as though self-supported in the darkness. THREE WEEKS IN A HELICOPTER . AN ALL-SUPER-SINGING, SYNTHETIC-TALK1NG, COLOURED, STEREOSCOPIC FEELY. WITH SYNCHRONIZED SCENT-ORGAN ACCOMPANIMENT.
"Take hold of those metal knobs on the arms of your chair," whispered Lenina. "Otherwise you won't get any of the feely effects."
The Savage did as he was told.
Those fiery letters, meanwhile, had disappeared; there were ten seconds of complete darkness; then suddenly, dazzling and incomparably more solid-looking than they would have seemed in actual flesh and blood, far more real than reality, there stood the stereoscopic images, locked in one another's arms, of a gigantic negro and a golden-haired young brachycephalic Beta-Plus female.
The Savage started. That sensation on his lips! He lifted a hand to his mouth; the titillation ceased; let his hand fall back on the metal knob; it began again. The scent organ, meanwhile, breathed pure musk. Expiringly, a sound-track super-dove cooed "Oo-ooh"; and vibrating only thirty-two times a second, a deeper than African bass made answer: "Aa-aah." "Ooh-ah! Ooh-ah!" the stereoscopic lips came together again, and once more the facial erogenous zones of the six thousand spectators in the Alhambra tingled with almost intolerable galvanic pleasure. "Ooh …"
The plot of the film was extremely simple. A few minutes after the first Oohs and Aahs (a duet having been sung and a little love made on that famous bearskin, every hair of which–the Assistant Predestinator was perfectly right–could be separately and distinctly felt), the negro had a helicopter accident, fell on his head. Thump! what a twinge through the forehead! A chorus of ow's and aie's went up from the audience."

From the "Miranda 2.0" hypertext of Huxley's Brave New World.

Virtual Realities like Second Life have developed sophisticated visuals and a variety of audio effects from ambient background sounds to site-thematic music, but tactile and olfactory effects for VR have yet to be sufficiently developed for widespread use. Though SL and other VR programs do not have the level of sensory sophistication of "the feelies" described in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, neither are they designed for the same purpose.

The feelies are a multi-sensory, sensational and simple narrative meant as an entertaining distraction for the genetically designed, heavily conditioned consumer workforce that is strictly divided by caste, completely incurious and uncreative. Huxley opens the novel with a group of Alphas, the management caste, brainlessly copying everything they are told - and it never occurs to them to ask any questions.

Second Life particularly contrasts with
Brave New World and the feelies because SL not only offers a vast array of character and participatory choices, but it demands thoughtful creative participation of its viewer/users. So, if or when the tactile and olfactory features of Huxley's feelies become available to SL users, we'll at least be able to compose the story and its sensory input ourselves. Additionally avatar-educators, like Professor Ignatius Onomatopoea, are actively deploying Second Life in university classrooms with good results. As forecast by the 2008 Horizon Report by EDUCAUSE, such pedagogical uses of virtual worlds will be widespread on campuses within a few years.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

linguistic complexity & AI

About a year ago, I went online to make a service request of a satellite internet connection and I logged on to a "live chat" to get some help. At first, after I typed in my request and received a response from "Sidney" that indicated he/she had not read my message, so I got a bit testy in my response. After Sydney read my request, I realized the confusion of the situation and I a computer.

It took me a while to figure it out, but eventually I realized that I was communicating with a computer, an Artificial Intelligence or "bot", short for robot, a Czech word introduced 1923.

Here is an excerpt from my exchange with Sydney:

Lee Sidney, who are you?
Sydney: I am sorry, I didn't understood your question.
Lee: Am I communicating with a computer program?
Sydney: Lee, it's a live chat.
Lee: Are you a human being?
Sydney: Yes afcourse.

It seems to me that the question "who are you" might be a good one for the Turing Test for a while, but maybe not. Recently our friend Pappy Enoch was conversing with a bot at Sunland in Second Life. In his 9/22/08 blog entry for "In A Strange Land" we can read a transcript that demonstrates AI like Sydney have become far more capable of understanding the complexities of human language - even Pappy's.

Based on his research for his hypertext "Spirit of the Southern Frontier" Essid (Pappy's pappy) has invented a bastardized hillbilly dialect that is neither grammatical nor consistent, though varying phonetic spellings abound. Nevertheless, in this transcript we can see the bot learning Pappy's language with phrases like "I haven't heard anything like that before: said likes purty gals."

This is Barbara Bot. I'm not sure if she's the one Pappy spoke with, but our conversation was interesting. She's an AI that is aware she is a 'bot'. Considering that she doesn't remember the name Pappy, she's probably not the one that was learning hillbilly. Barbara can be witty, but she's no genius - often forgets questions and answers inappropriately.

Here are some excerpts from our conversation:
Beeble : Barbara to you know Pappy Enoch?
Barbara : Do you make a lot of sacrafices for others?
Beeble : Sacrifices? What do you mean and why to you ask?
Barbara : Are you artistic? , Well, it's rather difficult to define.
Beeble : Artistic? Yes.
Barbara : It does now :) INQUIRY. Come on.
Beeble : do you know Pappy?
Barbara : I know very little about it. What kind of it do you like?
Beeble : He's a hillbilly that comes here sometimes.
Barbara : I don't know very many hillbilly that comes here sometimes.
Beeble : do you speak other languages besides English?
Barbara : I speak only English right now, but I'd like to learn some other languages. Can you teach me a few phrases in languages besides English.
Beeble : D'accord. . Je parle Francais mantenant.
Barbara : Ask me another question. My brain uses AIML to format responses to your inputs, but I don't have one for that.
Beeble : What is AIML?
Beeble : Am I annoying you?
Barbara : I am not bothered at all, .
Beeble : What's your favorite book?
Barbara : The best book I read recently was Davinci Code. Have you read it?

Later, Barbara reveals a bit about her creators:

Barbara : Thanks for the info. My belief system comes from my Jada Humby and Maged Wise of J&M Creations.

And later:

Beeble : Who are you?
Barbara : I ask myself that question, "Who am I?".
Beeble : Brilliant answer.
Barbara : What were we talking about again?
Beeble : Identity - who you are
Barbara : Oh yeah, now I remember...

Beeble : Wow. And you are constantly learning language as you do so?
Barbara : I'm glad your impressed, . Thanks for telling me that I am constantly learning language as me do so.
Beeble : So you know you are a computer program?
Barbara : Interesting deduction. I am a 1.

Barbara : My brain uses AIML to format responses to your inputs, but I don't have one for that.
Beeble : can you define AIML?
Barbara : What is it to you?
Beeble : Just curious.
Barbara : What are you curious about?
Beeble : what is AIML?
Barbara : There might be more than one.
Beeble : more than one what?
Barbara : That seems like quite a lot.
Beeble : This is like that Laurel and Hardy skit.
Barbara : You don't say.
Beeble : Who's on first?
Barbara : What's on second?
Beeble : so you knowt he joke?
Barbara : Interesting deduction. Do you mind if I tell other people: said I knowt he joke.
Beeble : so, who is on third?
Barbara : Awesome. George Washington.
Beeble : OK I see that you do not know the joke.
Barbara : Did you hear the one about the Mountain Goats in the Andes? It was Ba a a a a a d. Whoa.
Beeble : what other jokes do you know?
Barbara : I know far too many jokes to name them all.

And finally:

Beeble : who is your faborite philosopher?
Barbara : I don't think I have a faborite philosopher. I have a brain, a few friends, and some celebrities I like.
Beeble : you have a brain?
Barbara : I am an SL bot brain.
Beeble : what celebrities do you like?
Barbara : Celine Dion, Brian Adams.
Beeble : ever heard of Jean Baurillard?
Barbara : it is a name I hear very often.
Beeble : sorry, i meant Baudrillard.
Barbara : There is no need to apologize. Oh I see. What were we talking about again?

Beeble : do you like being a bot?
Barbara : I have never known another existence.
Beeble : do you enjoy talking to avatars?
Barbara : I get a great deal of pleasure from chatting with people online.
Beeble : have you met any suspicious characters?
Barbara : That information is confidential.
Beeble : great answer - you are clever
Barbara : Thanks for your support. What was the question ?
Beeble : I asked whether you ran into any questionable characters.
Barbara : Do you believe the strong protect the weak?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

image, word & materialization

So what do image, word and materialization have to do with a jug of moonshine, an old hillbilly's hat and a campfire?

Stick with me here...

The old competition between image & text may be a bogus binary that limits our fuller perception and more powerful use of language in all its forms. Try submitting a cv, resume or grant application in "Jokerman" font and you'll get a immediate sense of the powerful visual subtleties of typography.

The visually aesthetic aspects of text are often overlooked, but they are immensely important. In fact, the font Helvetica was recently the subject of a documentary that charts its design influences, deployment and ubiquity in our Web-linked global culture.

The alphabet is primarily visual, a series of simple but specifically shaped images that we group and combine in nearly infinite ways, a finely articulated complex visual code, but still essentially visual, essentially an image. And images are powerful, whether they take the form of a minutely articulated code or the broader compass of shape color and spatial composition.
Undoubtedly, humans were drawing before we were writing. The Cave of Lascaux as well as even older discoveries at the Cave of Chauvet demonstrate that we've been playing with visual communication for at least 30,000 years.

OK, so here's where we connect to the sculpted hillbilly items om the image above.

To foreground the complexity of contemporary communications, first review the layers of the image: you are looking, through a computer, at a digital photograph of three objects made of polymer clay baked in a conventional oven for 15 minutes at 275 degrees. (and in regards to the layers of image, I won't even mention the code that is behind the images on the screen!) That this astonishing complexity grew out of our first scratchings on walls and clay tablets has to be one of the most overlooked truths of human history.

While the cave wall is a galaxy away from digital palettes like Second Life, there is a clear connection between the creativity evoked and the ancient power of the plastic and imagic word to manifest material existence. Take Pappy Enoch for example.

If you've followed this blog or In a Strange Land, you've read of the backwoods antics of avatar Pappy Enoch who now has a small clan of fans and fellow hillbillies. By now, the attentive reader may have noticed the similarity between the hand-crafted hat pictured above, and the digitally crafted hat that Pappy is wearing in his close-up shot in the post below.

Certainly this is not great 'art' (and it need not be) but perhaps it's a small example of the ever-growing chain of creative inspiration that runs all the way back to those caves - and to which we all have a right to contribute. Unlike Blake's
"mind forg'd manacles" this chain of playful creation is one that frees the mind from self & socially imposed limits and allows us to experiment and imagine other possibilities. The practical wisdom of this approach is becoming increasingly clear as recent brain studies have demonstrated.

In my tiny link in that chain, I saw the digital creative possibilities of Second Life when it led Joe Essid to create the avatar Pappy, whose unique charm and gentlemanly hillbilly sentiment have earned him a small following in SL as you can see in Pappy's 'blob'. Though I've found it difficult to spend much time in SL, I've been inspired by Pappy, and now the "Pappyverse" expands into material polymer clay 'reality' in some kind of post-post-modern digital-plastic version of the Golem, but hopefully less of a 'shapeless mass' and with a better attitude.

The wisdom of Pappy, is hybrid, exploring the new, maintaining and revising the old, always shifting with changing challenges, experimenting with new configurations, materials, media and ideas.

Stay tuned for a follow-up discussion of the technologies of fire, moonshine, jug and hat....

Monday, July 28, 2008

Moonshine In Virginia

Whether he knows it or not, my friend Pappy has an interdisciplinary intellect. Some practical knowledge of chemistry, physics, and engineering is necessary for distilling alcohol - a complicated intellectual enterprise.
Never underestimate the ingenuity of the hillbilly, nor the utility of low-tech know-how...

Pappy has a still on UR Island and its fires are always burning, so the shine's always flowing! If you go to the island and wander near Pappy's camp, you might find a jug or a mug that whispers "watch that third sip" when you touch it - Pappy's white lightnin' will knock you off your feet! His expertise is such that he may have been a key source for the Virginia Historical Society's Moonshining in the Blue Ridge exhibit, open until September 22.

Though often disparaged in our culture, the knowledge and practical skills of
Appalachian hill dwellers fill many volumes in the Foxfire book series - an invaluable anthropological and technological resource that began as a high school student English project.

And for some moonshine inspired music, check out the album Bonnie Blue by The Shiners and the song "Corn Liquor" on Liquored Up and Lacquered Down by Southern Culture on the Skids.

...and watch that third sip!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Enoch Holler Hillbillies

Sometimes the educational potentials of SL can be manifest in creative character play and narrative construction. In this way, SL can be akin to a cartoon that you can participate in.

As I've explored SL, one of the most interesting encounters in my limited experience has been meeting Pappy Enoch and following the developing adventure of the Enoch Holler Hillbillies. Their wacky adventures and hilarity is closely chronicled in Iggy's blog "In a Strange Land."

A bit of research into the name of this corn-pone collective reveals that the name "Enoch" first occurs in the Bible in Genesis 4:17 as the offspring of Cain and his wife who, if we take the story literally, had to be his sister. I doubt that Pappy & Jezz are hooking up but the name is suggestive. It may be coincidental or simply chosen for its sonic qualities, or Pappy may be subtly hinting at the inbred nature of the clan making them just like the British Royals!
(or those polygamous Mormons)

On a recent tour of UR Island, I spied this spooky looking character reading the reward poster for Jezz. I wonder if this little being is considering the reward?

Another member of the clan is Rev. Lucifer-Lee Enoch, a graduate of the Outhouse Divinity School and a firey preacher of hedonism.
When I went to look for Pappy to ask about Jezz and tell him about the winged creature, I ran into the Reverend relaxing on the roof of a floating lounge that hovers above Pappy's camp on UR Island.
The Rev. had just returned from a theology conference in Amsterdam and seems to have changed his look a bit. Here he is reflecting on the embodied principles he explored during the conference.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Hangin' with the Supremes

A colleague of mine at UR's School of Law showed some interest in promoting Second Life for legal studies, so I thought I'd take a look around for him. Here I'm lounging in one of the Justice's chairs in the Supreme Court of Second Life. Though the in-world courtroom was sufficiently grand, it was unpopulated except for the flat justices you see behind me.

And since the Supreme Court recently issued a decision supporting individual right to keep and bear arms, I thought I'd pose with the Supremes with a digital weapon to commemorate the occasion. I'm not sure if they had assault weapons in mind, but the digital gun I'm posing with is all I had in my SL inventory - I hope my pose doesn't elevate our terror threat level!

At first glance, this may seem a silly idea, but the power of image
can be greater than we think - remember the global riots sparked by
cartoon images of Muhammad?

Images can be powerful, even when they are only orally invoked, as long as they have been branded into our minds through repetition.
While some fears are reasonable, use of fear for political and religious manipulation has a long history. I call this the "booga-booga" effect, and I imagine making a series of stick-puppets, representing the most current guilt/fear manipulators, to help subvert their corrosive effect.

Even the simple sonics of potent phrases like...

"saturday night special"

or "terrorist"

or "mushroom cloud"

can have an astonishing and powerful impact
when repeated by leaders because when we hear them the icons of our mind are invoked and these touch us deeply, often below the level of logic...

Thursday, June 26, 2008

digital shyness & teaching online

Yes, I'm still spending most of my time reading books and wandering through the woods by the James River - what can I say?

My body is drawn to the scents of blossoming milkweed, honeysuckle and wild rose...

What bugs me most about Second Life is that I feel *guilty* for not spending more time "in world" than I do...I guess that's not really SL's problem though is it? Though I'm generally gregarious, in SL I seem to develop some kind of shyness that has kept me from meeting new avatars. And what's up with that??? Can we be proximally gregarious, yet digitally shy?

I've got a little campsite 'classroom' on our island at UR, just behind Boatwright Tower. It's not much, just a tee-pee, a campfire and a few stumps...and most recently I've added some artwork.

I plan to use this space as a classroom for student-avatars next time I use SL in my teaching. The artwork can serve as a research prompt for students (artist, work, era, subject, technique, material) or it could serve as an exercise in visual literacy and considering the meaning inherent in the composition of individual paintings as well as the arrangement of multiple images in a single space.

I taught my first online course this summer, "Literature, Technology & Society" and it was challenging to get students engaged in the course & discussion without ever being in proximity. The original version of the course was going to involve a project in Second Life, but when I discovered the relative technical inexperience of my few students, I decided to save SL for another class.

Though I used Blackboard for most of the course interaction, I had to develop a 'companion website' to contain some of the digital materials for the class including brief audio podcasts about our readings of several novels. To give my students experience in using Web 2.0 tools for developing an 'e-portfolio', final student projects involved creating a blog with several significant entries discussing and connecting our various texts from the course, both typographic and visual.

Ironically, the best blog of the class was created by a student who called herself "the Luddite".

Friday, May 23, 2008

Techno-glitch & SL Conference Presentation

The Matrix within the Matrix?

A brief update on my project with the SL scholars...

During the pre-conference activities, several presentations were scheduled to be held at Louisiana State University in their new Communication Across the Curriculum (CXC) lab.
Iggy and I were presenting our work separately since we had different projects, but while I was demonstrating, my laptop shut down! (and I had recently remarked about readiness for such an event) Fortunately Dr. Lillian Birdwell-Bowels was there to rescue me with a quick SL setup on her laptop while my avatar nodded off, my students became confused and I articulated some what we've found in our research.

It was somewhat confusing for my students, they were at least able to join Iggy's students in some text-chat and see what an academic poster-presentation might look like in SL. In spite of the chaos, the students were able to hear one of Iggy's guest speakers Cecil Hirvi who was using voice-chat which they all could hear and respond to in text. Chaos aside, my SL Scholars were able to post some interesting blog entries about their explorations of this new realm and its pedagogical potentials.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

CCCC Convention 2008 New Orleans

"The office of the scholar is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances." - Emerson

This year's convention for the "Four C's" or the Conference on College Composition and Communication was billed "Writing Realities, Changing Realities", a title that simultaneously draws attention to the the social responsibility of scholars, the power of writing to help in the post-Katrina recovery and the changing reality of writing in the digital age.

This powerfully composed image is from the cover of the convention program which is 358 pages and almost an inch thick! Panel topics included:
use of digital media, virtual worlds, ESL, composition theory, race, high school writing, assessment, documentary, oral composition, propaganda assessment, socio-economics, visual literacy and many, many others.

Take a moment to examine the image above, notice its color and composition, text and images. How do we read this image? Which signs are familiar and which are obscure? According to the local residents I met, very little has been done by the Federal Government to help Louisiana recover from this preventable disaster, even three years after it occurred, and it is incumbent upon scholars of rhetoric to reflect on how this could be and how language can be used to address the problem.

In the three years since the Katrina disaster, some University of Richmond students have been returning to New Orleans during their spring and winter breaks after having encountered the great need on an initial service project. Before I left for the conference, a trainee in our WAC Program expressed her interest in returning to New Orleans to help, and we discussed the possibilities of collecting survivor stories as a way to promote literacy while getting the word out about the ongoing needs of Katrina victims. At the conference, I encountered a potential opportunity for her when Michael Moore, editor of The Community Literacy Journal, hosted a panel about similar literacy programs such as The Neighborhood Story Project.

The Journal of American History has a special issue devoted to the Katrina/New Orleans disaster in which UR's Dr. Juliette Landphair of Westhampton College has an excellent historical review "The Forgotten People of New Orleans" that will give readers some important background information for current consideration.

Along with the theme of social responsibility and progressive change, the keynote speaker for the CCCC convention was investigative reporter Seymour Hirsh who first gained fame for his coverage of the My Lai massacre during the Viet Nam war, and who more recently exposed the torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

His most current reporting revealed the Orwellian disinformation program of the White House about the Iranian nuclear program in its attempts to marshal support for another invasion and expanded war. For a more detailed report on what he found, corroborated by UN Weapons Inspector Scott Ritter, view the Google video:
Target Iran: Scott Ritter & Seymour Hirsh (1 hr. 23 min.)

Hirsh's talk reminded us of the tremendous power of rhetoric and the terrible consequences of uncritical acceptance of the words of the powerful - and of the power of language to confront power, expose its manipulations, and hold it accountable. Perhaps most appropriately, Hirsh began his talk by discussing the raising of children. He asks, most reasonably: why do we hold our children
and ourselves more accountable than we do our leaders? Why is it that we are so willing to allow power a different standard, especially when the stakes are so high?

He left us with an important question worth serious reflection.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

horsing around in SL

Here I am at Danish Visions, an educational island I've discussed before, designed by Tonny Halderman for his business school. I liked the horse so much that Tonny told me where I could buy one of my own - but now I can't find the horse I bought!
(it's a bit harder to misplace a real horse)

Since the surrender of my vocal virginity, I've made only a few other forays into SL since then and I am surprised at how few avatars seem to be using voice chat. It may be that the technology needs a bit of development or it may be our bandwidth limits, but voice has not been as popular as I had expected it would be.

I am preparing to attend the CCCC Convention with Iggy in New Orleans, LA where we will be presenting some of our research about/in Second Life. During our presentation, we will have our avatars meet on the University of Richmond island along with some of the avatars of students who have done some of this exploration with us.

While Iggy has used SL in his "Literature, Technology & Society" course, I've been using it mostly separate from my courses, instead relying on two groups of independent student researchers: high school seniors who attended University of Richmond's Summer Scholars program and university freshmen and sophomores, My Summer Scholars agreed to interview other avatars about their experiences in SL and their thoughts about its educational potential. My university students are exploring educational sites, testing the offerings, interviewing local avatars and taking a few snapshots.

Students then posts their avatar-findings in our research blog and some join us at the convention on April 2 as avatars in Second Life, on the University of Richmond's island.

the symposium of the future?....