*we put the "mmm" in communism


This is the personal blog of Tim. Here, Tim writes on anything he has enough inspiration to finish a post on. That usually ends up being matters of science, pop culture, technology, religion, and philosophy.

This blog is around nine years old, which is over a third of Tim's current age. Back in 2003, it was called "Of Tim: Tim's life - or lack thereof", and it was as bad as you might expect the blog of a freshman in high school to be. Tim hopes that his writing is a little better, these days.

Tim welcomes any input that you, the dear reader, might have. Comments are very much appreciated, especially if you have a dissenting opinion. If you'd like to learn more about Tim, you might want to see his facebook or google+.

Also: Tim is a very avid consumer of various sorts of music. You may be interested in his playlists!

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In economics, an object's liquidity is described as how easily it can be converted into currency without loss of value. I'd like to propose that the internet makes use of a similar concept in how information is distributed and exchanged. Information liquidity.

Here's a pre-internet example before we dive in. Say you've written a book, and now you want people to read it. To do that, you need a publisher that will first print a large quantity of copies of your book, and then distribute those copies to locations that place your book in close proximity to the largest quantity of people (book stores and libraries). Next, potential readers have to be made aware of the existence of your book, as it's not enough for it to just be available. There are thousands of books in even the smallest book store, and people aren't just going to magically know that your book has been added to the collection. Publicity or advertising in one form or another will be necessary.

If the currency of the internet is viewership (and certainly other possibilities exist, but that's outside the scope here), I would describe the liquidity of a site in terms of how easily it can generate viewership. A site's liquidity is determined by how accessible it is from the user's current location. One factor is by the quantity of links that are directed to that location across the internet - the probability of any user ending up at a given site increases as more links to it are made. Another factor of liquidity is through the minimum number of links that must be traversed before reaching a given site.

Described numerically, a site's liquidity is the inverse of the number of links required to reach it. For users already familiar with a site, its liquidity is naturally 1 because they are likely to have its address memorized. As such, the analysis here is not concerned with content already familiar to users, but that content which is unknown to users. For sites which have no links or have not been indexed, their liquidity would be 0. Everything else falls somewhere in between.

Without search engines indexing much of the internet, a great deal of content would be mostly inaccessible except through very specific avenues. With search engines, however, the minimum distance can be as short as just one or two links, depending on the search criteria and accuracy. Considered like this, Google is the world's largest information liquidator. Google also provides temporary information liquidity through advertisements, which serve both to increase the number of links to a site while also reducing the average distance from a user's location to a site. The flip side to this is that search engines aren't a destination. Ignoring Google's other services, the probability that a user will traverse from to is nearly 100%.

What about social networks, then? They provide information liquidity, but certainly not to the same extent that a search engine does. Social networks aren't crawling the web for content to index; they're limited only to what its users are sharing through their service. The liquidity they offer also has a very short expiration date. Content has at most half a day of direct exposure, and long-term accessibility is mostly out of the question (especially given that Facebook and Twitter prevent Google from indexing their content). Still, social networks consistently generate large quantities of content with minimal user input, while also providing a lot of temporary liquidity for off-site content. They manage to be destinations as well as gateways.

The last example I'd like to touch on is video games. It may seem a case of apples and oranges next to social networks and search engines, but they represent one of the purest forms of destination on the internet. Video games decrease the liquidity of nearly all information that exists outside their networks. It's difficult for two players in different video games to communicate with one another; video games are effectively islands of interaction. Problems exist for intracommunity engagement, as well; few video games support robust linking mechanisms such as might be found in traditional instant messaging - they just aren't the ideal place to be sharing articles or videos. That said, services like Steam restore some of this liquidity by providing a cross-game mechanism for communication. This may also help to explain the wide appeal of MMOs, as they provide the satisfaction of playing a video game while limiting the information (and social) isolation that is commonly associated with video games.

The next concept in this scheme I'm looking to develop is traversal probability. I recognize that measuring user-link distance is insufficient to describe liquidity, and this is for two reasons. First, not all links are equal. The top result from a search is vastly more accessible than those that appear on the following pages, to provide just one example. Factors such as reputability, clarity, and visual prominence come into play. Second, the identity of the user greatly influences which type of links end up having the greatest appeal. Male users are going to have different behavior than female users. Danish users are going to have different behavior than Brazilian users.

If I'm on the right track, I think this is what I was attempting to measure in my previous graph.
posted by MC Froehlich at with 0 Comments
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I wrote another thingadoodle for my abnormal psych class. The prompt was "How is the DSM IV a vital tool in the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders? How is it an obstacle to the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders?".

In the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel, the Judeo-Christian god interferes with the attempts of mankind to build a temple that reached to the sky (now believed to be a Babylonian ziggurat) by inflicting a curse upon the men building the temple. The curse was that of individual language; by causing each man to speak and understand only his own language, they were no longer able to collaborate and finish the complex task of constructing the temple, and it was abandoned. This story speaks to a basic truth of mankind: collaboration requires that we have a shared understanding of one another. The DSM-IV is our current best attempt at achieving this shared understanding in the field of mental health.

By standardizing the definition of known mental illnesses, the DSM IV allows doctors and mental health professionals to speak the same language. When a clinical psychologist says depression, a psychiatrist knows something meaningful and tangible about the mental state of that patient, allowing her to adjust her treatment strategy in a manner that will, more often than not, better address the issues at hand. The psychiatrist is not strictly bound to this diagnosis - a wise psychiatrist will understand that a patient's entire past, present, and future cannot be summed up in a single diagnosis, that the diagnosis may change, or that the original diagnosis may not have been accurate. This is the challenge that all doctors face - how trustworthy was the analysis of this patient's previous doctor? Were all of the appropriate tests performed? Did the nurse perform the tests accurately? Human error exists at every step of the way, and it is part of the job of men and women in the field of medicine to use good judgment, taking into account all of the available evidence.

Still, today there is no controversy in pointing out that the DSM IV is imperfect, and that its flaws have created, for some individuals, more problems than solutions. Temerlin (1968) illustrates this all too well: if told that an individual is psychotic, the majority of psychiatrists will then see that individual as psychotic, regardless of the individual's actual behaviors. Similarly, Rosenhan (1973) demonstrated that individuals placed into institutions have vanishingly slim chances of being correctly identified as healthy, once inside. Clearly, we run a serious risk when we cease to consider patients as individuals, but seek only to compare their behaviors to symptoms. With one hand, the DSM resolves many problems, but with the other, it creates dangerous traps for doctors and mental health professionals to fall into.

Such is the way of progress. The DSM is necessary to ensure consistency and accuracy between diagnoses, and it also serves to bring legitimacy and recognition to disorders the surrounding culture may not be willing to accept as true disorders. Autism, for example, has historically often been lumped together with other disorders such as mental retardation and schizophrenia (even including in the DSM-I and DSM-II). Although it wasn't until 1980 that autism was granted its own classification in the DSM-III, this marked a change in how the mental health fields would treat autism. No longer could it be placed incorrectly alongside fundamentally different conditions - it would now demand diagnosis on its own terms, and treatment could now be more accurately directed.

The DSM is a powerful tool. Like all tools, it can be misused, abused, and completely misunderstood. Despite this, it manages to create the potential for mental health professionals to communicate with a common vocabulary, to justify diagnoses using accepted criteria, and to identify unknown illnesses through the recognition of defined symptoms. Without this, psychology could never be a legitimate entry into the field of medicine, but would be relegated to postulation and pseudoscience.

Literature Cited

Rosenhan DL (January 1973). On being sane in insane places. Science, 179(4070), 250–8.

Temerlin, M. (1968). Suggestion effects in psychiatric diagnosis. Journal of Nervous & Mental Disease, 147(4), 349-353.
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echo (echo)
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I actually got sidetracked a bit at the end of my previous post, which is perhaps why I've had such trouble writing the continuation. What I mean to examine isn't the community that develops around a given website, but the level of individual engagement (feedback) that the medium offers. But let me explain why I have an interest in this, before I go further.

Each day over the last few months, I find I have more and more mental acuity at my disposal. I keep having ideas, everywhere, all the time. I used to struggle for material to occupy my mind with, but I now find that half as many hours exist in my day as would be necessary to properly investigate all the concepts my mind is chasing after. Maybe I was always having lots of ideas and I just never took them seriously - I really haven't a clue. Point is, I've been on a roll and it doesn't appear to be slowing down. That's great - so long as I'm headed in the right direction. Which is where it would be nice to have feedback. Facebook, G+, Twitter - these things may generate plenty of viewership for me, but none of that comes with feedback.

I've been pondering why, exactly, that is. Part of it, I believe, is that they're dense sources of information. You can scroll down a handful of pages and encounter a hundred links to different places all across the internet. The more I thought about this, the more certain I felt that it was time to make a graph. Tremble and despair.

There's a lot of things worth disagreeing with in this graph. I'm aware of its imperfections, but it's an idea I'm driven to explore. I've been trying to write this damn post for over five hours now, because this has been driving me nuts all week. There's something here, but finding how to express it has been a major challenge. I don't even like either of the terms I'm using here. It's all I've got.

There are places that efficiently distribute content. There are places that enable effective user-to-user or group-to-group communication. There aren't many that do both.

In my search for feedback, I realized that I would never receive the kind of analysis and criticism I want through any of the mediums I'm currently engaging in. I would need to find a community of individuals that were capable of providing the feedback I want. It's hard to search for something when you aren't sure what it looks like or where it might be. That search goes on - but in the meantime, I remain interested in this relationship between content and feedback. Specifically, I want to know what something in the top-right corner of that graph would look like. I hope to return to this topic a number of times, especially once I've reached some more solid conclusions.
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The digital forest is exceedingly information-rich. Its incredible density and volume are far more than what is possible to usefully organize, which is why we must search. Search is merely a mode of transportation to the specific content we want to consume. Searching isn't an efficient way of discovering content, however, and it also requires the user to already know what she wants to find, or at the very least to have a question that a search can provide an answer to. This is why we have feeds.

We subscribe to feeds because they consistently provide novel content without going on a hunt. Feeds are all functionally equivalent - they differ only in context and constraints. They all distribute information and entertainment in discrete bursts of varying size and format. This isn't so different from the world a few decades ago, but back then, feeds were called television channels. Before that, it was the radio. Before that, it was newspapers. Other examples exist, I'm sure - the point is, at the end of the day they're all regular sources of content. It doesn't matter whether that content comes from a printing press or an ethernet cable.

The only power a subscriber has over a feed's content is feedback. It seems that regardless of the type of content we consume, we create mechanisms to provide feedback to the distributors and creators. Newspapers feature letters to the editor. Some radio and television shows once used air time to share audience responses. No video game is complete without an accompanying forum, and to have a blog without comments is unheard of. It's not just because readers are so desperate to broadcast their opinions, but is rather the primary way that creators can acquire alternative perspectives on the quality and success of their work.

This process is so important to long-term improvement and constructing priorities that some of our institutions are structured so as to provide feedback whenever possible. School is a constant cycle of instruction and correction. Projects, quizzes, and essays come back littered with red ink that tell students where they went wrong. Grades provide students with an idea of how much more improvement is possible to be made within the current context. In the workplace, individuals can expect to receive detailed criticism on anything of consequence - this is the mechanism by which minimum standards are met and specific objectives are reached. Evaluations are performed regularly at all levels of organization - not just as a way to inform employees of potential areas of improvement, but to provide employers granular data on how successful their internal management has been. Without feedback, we don't get better at the things we do.

Currently, the internet has piss-poor mechanisms of feedback - and it's not a technological limitation. I don't mean the oft-mentioned issue of body language and its lack of satisfactory counterparts in digital interactions. Although that's relevant here, I don't refer to issues of miscommunication, but more of ineffective communication.

How many quality discussions have you seen on Facebook - ever? Do you even need two hands to count them all? I certainly don't. Yet, what surprise is it, given the tools that Facebook offers for interaction? A near-meaningless, publicly visible like button is the bare minimum for expressing approval, but it falls short in so many contexts. If someone posts an article about a surge in AIDS diagnoses, it is entirely awkward to like this, but one may still wish to express approval of the article being posted. Updates are truncated in the feed after 3 lines, encouraging Twitter-length messages for optimum viewership. By default, pressing enter causes comments to be posted, encouraging even shorter responses. Excessive quantities of space are taken up by visual clutter, and yet fails to provide information efficiently, leaving your average page of viewing space to represent relatively little novel content. No wonder people aren't carrying out intelligent conversations - the medium doesn't even support it.

It's clear, however, that even these rudimentary systems are enough to propel our overwhelming desire to share the things we find and create. Stupid as the like button may be, it expresses a classic kind of satisfaction when you see that someone has shown appreciation for what you shared. It makes you want to find more stuff to post. This also explains why Reddit has grown to the extent that it has. While I have my share of beefs with the website and its community, it consistently succeeds at finding informative and entertaining material, while also generating discussion that is, once in a while, quite good. I don't buy that the community there is fundamentally different than anywhere else on the internet. A simple anonymous karma system (anonymity is important for these things to work!) combined with better composition tools, an upvote button in addition to a downvote button, and structuring comments based on rating leads to higher quality posts attaining greater visibility. When people see that performance is rewarded with visibility (which also begets feedback, since people respond to top-rated comments), suddenly there is now a predictable cause and effect. Make worthwhile contributions, get karma and visibility.

It doesn't always work this way, but the average discussion on Reddit still runs circles around anything you might see on Facebook in a month. But still, it's really lacking. Subreddits don't come as close to simulating a real community as does, say, a traditional forum. In the end, Reddit is just a halfway point between Twitter and forums. Forums are terrible at distributing content, but excellent at generating discussion, and as a result tend to develop very dedicated communities. Twitter is excellent at distributing content, but worthless for discussion. I'm sure exceptions exist, but that doesn't really mean much. Blogs create content and discussion, but are tempestuous by nature. Unless the author expands into other media, blogs generally don't have the staying power to develop a dedicated community.

Gonna have to stop here. I'll wrap this up later.
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The design is still a work in progress. If you've visited multiple times over the weekend, you've seen quite an evolution in quality. I've greatly enjoyed this process, and it feels refreshing to have something new here. I was once very attached to the old background - and certainly, it excelled in a number of categories. It was unique, it made the setting, and it was personal. I probably squeezed as much out of that formula as possible. If anyone's curious, the process wasn't all that complicated. I made a gradient from orange to black, ran a cubism filter, ran an edge filter to add some perspective, and then added a light and bumpmap. The only difficulty was in getting the color and lighting done properly. As much as I dislike GIMP's interface and design, I can't begrudge its unique capabilities.

Over the years I made many attempts to move on from that scheme, but I possess very little in the way of free-hand skills. I can't sketch or draft to save my life, but the doodles I made as a kid on church bulletins during sermons became the one thing I actually found aesthetically pleasing and satisfying to create. I would use the logos or text as a kind of seed, and draw as many concentric circles and parallel lines surrounding the original features on the page as I could. I still do the same kind of doodling at every possible opportunity, so my notebooks for any lecture class are packed with doodled patterns. Similarly, many of the things I made in Minecraft were the product of pseudo-algorithmic reduction.

The irony of algorithmic approaches to art is that it ends up being a lot of brute force effort to determine what works and what doesn't. If a pattern results in inconsistencies or asymmetry, then the next iteration need only produce fewer errors. However, that usually means a lot of iterations will be required before a quality result is attained. The advantage is that improving is more a function of time than of dexterity or inspiration. Some people have the imagination and skill to take a blank canvas and create something where previously there was nothing. My talents seem to lie more with altering existing material, and there seems to be an inverse relationship between my creative productivity and the number of tools that are available to me. This might be why I still do all of my code in N++.

My goal with this design is to test the limits of what can be done with nothing but CSS and HTML (and perhaps later, javascript). Every time I visit an artist's website and I encounter yet another series of bloated Flash galleries with an unresponsive interface, a part of my soul dies. It's quite possible that I just don't spend time in the right circles, but I have encountered few to zero websites that engage the browser itself as a medium for artistic expression. CSS3 opens a lot of creative doors; opacity and border-radius - combined with z-layers and borders - make many complex constructs possible. I can't wait to see what this looks like in an old version of IE, but I've decided not to concern myself with that as far as the design process. My code passes validation - my responsibility is fulfilled.
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I wrote this for my abnormal psychology class, in response to the prompt "Identify a behavior that you engage in that others might classify as 'abnormal'. Why is this behavior seen as different or unusual? How have you responded to the reactions of others?". My choice of topic may at first seem glib, but I enjoyed writing it, and I like where I ended with it. I love being in school again. Nowhere else might I be asked to conjure up something of this nature.

I work in an office where the median age is in the late 50's to early 60's. Being 22 years-old, a number of my habits and behaviors naturally come across as abnormal to my co-workers. Some of these are merely a feature of different tastes and interests, but those that seem to have the most significant impact upon my interaction with my co-workers seem closely related to the different kind of relationship I have with technology. I have been using computers in various shapes and sizes since I was three years-old, and I generally find it extremely easy to engage in multiple activities (of a specific nature) simultaneously or in rapid succession.

One of these activities is listening to music via headphones - which I do almost ceaselessly, every day. I am the only individual in the office that does this with such frequency, and it seems to create a point of confusion in social interaction for my co-workers due to its relative abnormality. As best as I can tell, many of them seem to perceive music listening as a unique activity, engaged only in specific contexts. By contrast, I spend an average of ten hours every day listening to music - it is an integral aspect of my work, recreation, and travel. To account for this divide in perception, I have had to develop a series of indicators to assist my co-workers in understanding that they have my attention.

I keep the ear on the side of the entrance to my cubicle free, and an ear phone in the other, so as to ensure I hear when my attention is being requested and to visually indicate my availability. However, on nearly every occasion where a co-worker comes to ask a question or bring something to my attention, their facial expression and physical demeanor express great uncertainty until I go through a specific ritual to indicate my awareness of their presence. I must take my hands from the keyboard, turn my entire body to face them directly, remove the ear phone from my ear, and finally, verbally acknowledge their presence. If I leave any of these actions out - keeping my hands on the keyboard, or not removing the ear phone - they will stand next to me, silent and unmoving. Yet, if I was not listening to music in the first place (that is, if I did not have an ear phone in), they will have no trouble engaging me as fluently as they do any others in the office.

This might at first seem like an obvious and necessary ritual for a work environment, given that it is of high priority that individuals know that their communications have been heard and understood. However, most of these interactions last less than thirty seconds and tend to involve relatively trivial matters. Among my peers, it is almost universally understood that music is not an activity that need be eliminated for anything but the most important of engagements.

Although it can be a tiresome ritual to have to perform multiple times a day, the benefits I gain from listening to music far outweigh the inconveniences of adapting to my co-worker's expectations. I accept that it is a fundamental consequence of the generational divide between individuals whose lives are inseparable from modern technology and the habits it enables, and those for whom technology has altered or erased the norms of the past.
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