The Modern Approach To Supporting Artists

Richard has written a lot of really good stories for the Chicago Tribune this summer, and this recent piece is no exception:  it’s a story about how artists, writers, and musicians are using social media sites, like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, that allow them to raise money to complete and publish their works — and also how such sites impose certain burdens on the exercise of the creative spirit that didn’t exist before.

Of course, being parents of an artist, this kind of story is of particular interest to us.

There are many talented artists, authors, and musicians out there, and as a result being noticed, and then appreciated, can be a real challenge.  In the old days, wealthy patrons would “discover” and support artists by funding their creations; many of the masterpieces of days gone by were commissioned by Popes, or nobility, or wealthy guilds.  Alas, there aren’t enough such benefactors to go around these days.  Social media sites allow artists to reach beyond the galleries or record labels to reach popular audiences that may enjoy their pieces and be willing to commit funds to allow artistic projects to be completed.

It may not be as easy as being supported by one of the Medicis, and the websites may take a cut of the proceeds — but if they allow art to be produced that wouldn’t be produced otherwise, they seem like a good thing to me.

Learning, And Remembering

What is a better way to learn from a presentation, and remember its contents:  writing notes by hand on a piece of paper, or taking notes on a laptop?  Taking notes by hand is more cumbersome, whereas adept typists can use laptops to take notes at close to a word-for-word transcription level — but does that make laptops better for comprehension and retention?

Recent research concludes that taking notes by hand enhances learning.  Why?  Researchers think that because writing is much slower than typing, students hoping to capture content must filter, summarize, and focus on the key points as they take notes, and those additional mental steps in the process have the effect of better engraving the content into their memories.  Students taking notes on a laptop, in contrast, try to take down everything the speaker says, as if they are just another cog in a recording device, and therefore the words don’t have as much impact. 

IMG_2446Interestingly, the study showed that the comprehension advantage is reflected not only on tests given immediately after the learning experience, but also on tests taken weeks later.  The theory is that students who review their own handwritten notes are given more effective memory cues than students who simply review the verbatim transcription.

These results don’t surprise me.  Handwritten notetakers must be active listeners who are engaged in the presentation, and active listeners always capture more content.  But there is more to the notetaking advantage than that.  I think the physical act of writing enhances comprehension and recollection because your brain has to be reading and thinking about meaning as it controls the hand that is writing the note.  Multiple senses are involved:  you hear the words being spoken, you move your hand to write them, you see your writing on the page, and you speak the words in your inner voice.  If you take additional steps — like adding stars or underlines to highlight key points — the cognitive impact of the process is that much greater.   

I’ve always been a notetaker; even now, I like to write myself notes to remind myself of tasks rather than typing them into a notes application on my computer.  For me, at least, the physical actions tie directly into the mental process and help me remember.  Plus, I like the tactile sensation of crumpling up notes after I’ve completed a task and throwing them away.

Counting On The Alien Life Discovery Game-Changing Effect

In Gaza, Palestinians and Israelis are lobbing rockets and missiles at each others’ homes.  In Syria and Iraq, Sunnis and Shiites are murdering and beheading each other.  In Africa, Boko Haram continues its campaign of religious-based slaughter and kidnapping.  In central Asia, sectarian and tribal animosities have produced a wave of bombings and violence.  And in central America, conditions apparently are so bad that tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors have traveled hundreds of miles in a bid to cross the border into the U.S.

That’s why the best news of the last week was the announcement by NASA scientists that they believe that, within 20 years, humans will be able to confirm the existence of alien life.  They believe that current telescope technology, and new devices like the Transiting Exoplanet Surveying Satellite that will launch in 2017 and the James Webb Space Telescope that will launch in 2018, will allow us to detect the presence of liquid water and indications of life on other moons and planets in our solar system and elsewhere in the universe.  Could the scientists be wrong?  Certainly . . . but the rapid advancements in planet discoveries and related detection technologies make their prediction plausible.

Science fiction writers have long posited that the discovery of alien life would have a unifying effect on the fractured world of humanity.  Such a discovery, they theorize, would cause humans to realize that the tribal, ethnic, religious, and political differences between them are trivial in comparison to the differences between humans and other intelligent life forms.  The ancient animosities would end and all of humanity would band together and venture out into the galaxy on vehicles like the starship Enterprise.

Is it really possible that a discovery that humans are not alone might have such a game-changing effect?  It seems far-fetched that anything could alter the benighted mindsets of religious fanatics who want to enslave women or restore medieval caliphates, or penetrate the rigid ideologies of people who cling to tribal or sectarian hatreds that are centuries old.  But, after decades of experience, we know that other approaches — like countless peace talks, the toppling of governments, the expenditure of billions of dollars in aid and training and infrastructure improvement, and the issuance of toothless UN Security Council resolutions — don’t get at the core problems.

Sure, counting on the alien discovery game-changing effect may be pinning our hopes on an improbable scenario.  As we read about an angry and bitterly divided world, however, it may be all we’ve got.

The Relentless March Of Cell Phone Progress

If you want to have a good idea of the relentless march of technology — actually, a sprint is probably more accurate than a march — consider the cell phone.

When first introduced in the ’80s, they were heavy and clunky.  Then the miniaturizing wizards got to work, and phones got smaller and smaller as coverage got better and better.  Then the coolness barons entered the game, and the boring cellphones of the past morphed into cool, Star Trek-like communicators that flipped open and made you feel like you were on the cutting edge of a sci-fi life.  Then the app designers brought their skills to bear, and cell phones went from simple communications devices to cameras, games consoles, and repositories of such vast amounts of personal information that the Supreme Court recently deemed a warrantless search of a cell phone legally analogous to a general search of a home.

We tend to move unconsciously with all of these changes, without pausing to think what it used to be like before the apps and the miniaturization and the styling.  That’s why a hilarious piece like this one, about a 2014 cell phone user trying to use 2004’s coolest phone for an entire month, is not only funny but a useful reminder.  Humans are an adaptable species, and nowhere is that more evident than in our immediate willingness to use and learn the latest technology — and then assume it has always been around.

A Response To Those Angry, Ignorant, Anonymous Comments

Our college friend and fellow Lantern alum Jim McKeever writes for an interesting and lively blog called Irish Investigations.  Yesterday he wrote a post about anonymous internet comments that is worth considering.

The context of Jim’s piece is straightforward.  Among his other positive qualities, Jim is a runner and an active participant in charitable causes.  In his community there is an Independence Day 10-mile run.  Two 12-year-old twin boys with muscular dystrophy wanted to participate in the race by being pushed in adapted “running strollers” by willing runners.  Amazingly, the race organizers initially denied the boys permission to participate, but news coverage and a social media firestorm caused them to reconsider.  The event occurred, the boys participated, and they were cheered along the race route.

But the on-line news stories about the incident elicited some of the angry, ignorant comments that any regular reader of on-line content has seen all too often, all made by people using pseudonyms.  It’s hard to imagine that anyone wouldn’t feel good about letting disabled boys participate in a community event, but the anonymous comments showed that, pathetically, some sad, mean-spirited people did.  Jim’s piece reacts to their comments, but also raises the larger issue of whether websites should permit anonymous postings in the first place.  He thinks that people who post anonymous comments are cowards and websites shouldn’t allow them to spew their venom, secure behind the protective veil of their fake on-line names.

I get Jim’s point, but I have a different take on the issue.  I think there is value in allowing pseudonymous comments precisely because it allows people to expose their innermost thoughts.  Usually those thoughts aren’t offensive, and the posters just want to avoid any concern that they might get blowback or provoke a nut to begin stalking them — after all, the internet can be a scary place.  But even if the thoughts are angry or stupid, like the comments Jim describes, I think it’s worth seeing them precisely because it allows them to be exposed as ignorant and idiotic.  Although Jim didn’t mention this in his piece, I hope that good people like Jim responded to every one of those ignorant posts and, maybe, helped to convince the anonymous posters that their views are terribly out of line.

Technology allows so many people to live their lives in a cocoon, without much meaningful interaction with the world.  The haters at their computer keyboards may believe that their hateful views are widely shared.  When they surface from their dens to make ignorant anonymous posts, we all have the opportunity to disabuse them of that notion.

Our Tiny TV

We own a 40-inch flat-screen TV.  We didn’t buy it; we inherited it.  It seems plenty big to me, lets us watch our favorite HBO shows, and neatly fills one corner of our family room.

IMG_6233By comparison to what’s being sold these days, though, our set is shrimpy and passe.  Samsung now offers a 78-inch curved screen TV — that’s almost twice as large as ours — and other manufacturers are churning out TVs with more than 50- and 60-inch screens.  Big-screen TVs are the growth area in otherwise flat TV sales. Believe it or not, some people are willing to spend more than $1,000 for large-screen units that include internet connection capabilities and that will serve as the focal points of family rooms and, apparently, family life.

I recognize that fast-moving sports like pro football look great on a large, high-definition, flat screen TV, but aren’t we getting a bit carried away here?  Laying out more than a grand on a huge set that takes up an entire wall of a room seems excessive.

In The Cage With Facebook Lab Rats

Some people are very upset that Facebook has admitted conducting a psychological experiment on hundreds of thousands of randomly selected users.

In the 2012 study, Facebook data scientists decided to test the hypothesis that reading about the great things “Facebook friends” are writing about their lives depresses readers, who feel that their lives kind of suck by comparison.  So, for one week, the data scientists used an algorithm on the Facebook news feeds of almost 700,000 people to delete posts with words associated with positive, or negative, emotions to see whether it affected the kinds of posts those readers made.  The study ultimately refuted that hypothesis.

A number of people feel that the experiment treated Facebook users as guinea pigs, improperly tried to manipulate their emotions, and was unethical.  I can understand the sentiment, but I think we all need to accept that we are lab rats in a vast media stew in which the overriding goal is to manipulate our emotions and perceptions — whether the active agent is a Facebook post, an email designed to provoke us to make a contribution to a political candidate, or a banner ad that touts the miracle weight-loss qualities of a previously unknown plant.  Face it, folks — it’s all just part of navigating through our media-saturated modern culture.

Knowing about Facebook’s willingness to conduct broad-scale psychological and social experiments has its positive aspects, too — it helps to explain certain otherwise inexplicable realities of Facebook.  From my occasional review of my “news feed,” I’m guessing that Facebook is currently conducting tests on these other hypotheses:

*  What is more likely to cause “de-friending”:  incessant requests to play Facebook games or posting memes that express rote sentiments and demand “click like if you agree!”?

*  Are conservatives or liberals more likely to post ludicrously overheated, end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it reactions to current events?

*  Is there any location on a Facebook page where ads can be placed that readers will not be able to successfully ignore them?

*  Does the frequency of posts with pictures of food increase as Facebook users age?

Protecting Cell Phone Privacy

The Supreme Court issued an important ruling yesterday.  In a 9-0 decision, the Court ruled that police must obtain a warrant before they search the cellphones of people they have arrested.  The ruling won’t directly affect most of us — unless you’re planning on being arrested in the near future, that is — but it represents a significant recognition of the central role of cellphones in our lives and an important bit of line-drawing in the ongoing battle between personal privacy and law enforcement.

IMG_6186In the ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts addressed both the pervasiveness of cellphones in modern America and the sweeping extent of information that people store on them.  From photos and video to address books, emails to calendars, financial information to maps, and other records of where we have been and who we have communicated with, cellphones are a handheld repository of huge amounts of very personal information about our private lives.  The Chief Justice thus reasoned that allowing warrantless searches of cellphones would be akin to the hated “general warrants” executed by the British authorities during colonial times that allowed them to rummage freely through homes in an effort to find some evidence of some kind of otherwise uncharged criminal activity — which is what drove the creation of the warrant clause of the Bill of Rights in the first place.

The Court also rejected arguments that a search of cellphones is needed to protect police officers or prevent the destruction of evidence.  When an arrest is made police can examine the cellphone to ensure that it can’t be used as a weapon and secure it, and if there is concern that evidence on the phone might be destroyed the officer can turn off the phone, or remove the battery, or place it in a foil bag to prevent any exchange of signals.  But before the police can access the cellphone and begin reviewing recent emails, the logs of recent calls, and other information, they must make the probable cause showing required by the Fourth Amendment and convince a judge to issue a warrant.

Two other points about the opinion seem worth emphasizing.  First, it was a unanimous decision.  For all of the fretting about political fracturing and the liberal and conservative wings of the Court, all of the Justices were able to agree on how to resolve a very central issue of how the Constitution works in modern life.  There’s nothing wrong with members of the Supreme Court disagreeing about legal issues — that’s why there are nine of them and the majority wins — but it’s nice to see the different perspectives coalesce around a simple, common approach to protecting individual liberty and privacy rights.

Second, many people have criticized jurists who return to the intent of the Framers of the Constitution and seek the meaning of its provisions in the historical context in which they were adopted, arguing that the Constitution should be a living document with meaning that changes in response to the realities of modern life.  Others contend that such an approach strips America’s core founding document of any objective significance and leaves it to mean whatever five Justices of the Supreme Court say it means.

The Court’s cellphone opinion, with its reference to the history of general warrants, shows how it is possible to draw upon historical context to identify the basic motivating principles underlying the Constitution and then apply those principles to the modern world.  Those observers who poke fun at purportedly hidebound efforts to discern “original intent” likely are happy with the opinion yesterday, but not about how the Court got to that result.

Death To Door-To-Door Salesmen!

OK, that’s a bit of an overstatement — but only a bit.  Few things are more irritating than arriving home from a hard day’s work and seeing salesmen prowling the neighborhood, ready to disturb your solitude and send your dogs into a barking frenzy.

IMG_6181Tonight the salesmen were from AT&T U-verse.  Before I could shut the garage door one of them had scampered up to my driveway and was shouting, “Hello!  Is this where I can get my dinner?”  Huh?  What the heck does that mean?  But rather than have the guy ring the doorbell and catapult Penny and Kasey into a nerve-jangling barkathon, I said hello and asked what he wanted.  When he said he was from AT&T, I said we were on Verizon and didn’t want to change.  When he said he wasn’t trying to sell cellphone service, I said we had no land-line phone.  When he said he just wanted to tell me about AT&T U-verse’s upgraded, bundled cable/internet/phone service, I said I wasn’t interested.

Of course, no salesman ever takes no for an answer.  The guy kept asking me questions about our current provider and acting like all of our neighbors had switched over to AT&T U-verse and we were idiots for not letting him waste 15 minutes of our time with his sales pitch.  Much as I respect and admire our neighbors — thanks again for the beer last night, Dave and Amy! — we’re not going to make cable and internet decisions based on what they have done.  I kept saying no, not interested, and he kept pitching — so finally I had to be conclusive, say “no” with more vehemence, and shut the garage door in his face.  I was trying to be polite, but he wouldn’t let me.

Guess what?  AT&T U-verse has come through our neighborhood before.  And, they had already stopped at our house today, when Kish told them we aren’t interested.  The fact that they troubled us, twice, after we told them we were not interested is unforgivable.  Hey, AT&T — stick it!  I will NEVER buy your service now.  Stop bothering us!

A Fully Automated And Self-Serve World

We’re leaving Montreal today, and as we passed through each stage of the travel process at the United terminal of the Pierre Trudeau International Airport I was struck at how much of our lives has become automated and self-directed.

20140621-082951-30591598.jpgWe used the standard ticket terminals to check in, entering our confirmation numbers and scanning our passports and credit cards and retrieving our boarding passes from the printer slot at the bottom.  The agent directed us to an automated baggage loading machine, where we scanned our tickets and input information into a terminal, hoisted our bags on a conveyor belt, then watched while a laser scanned our bags and a machine lowered them into the vowels of the airport.  It’s the first time I’ve used one of these machines, but the instructions are easy enough to follow and they are bound to discourage travelers from overpacking super-heavy bags.  We went through all of the security scanning devices, then moved to Customs. There we found another machine on which we scanned our passports and had our pictures taken — they were unflattering, of course — before talking to the Customs agent and passing through to our departure gate.  It’s the first time I’ve encountered one of those machines, too.  I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before we see all of these devices in the U.S.

Science fiction has long forecast that we would enter the age of robots and machines. I think it’s here, now.

Considering The Self-Driving Car

Google has announced that it will be building and producing its own self-driving vehicles, rather than retrofitting cars produced by other manufacturers.  The announcement means that we’re one step closer to the future envisioned in sci-fi books of days gone by — but I’m not sure it’s a future that I like.

According to the BBC story linked above, the Google car will look like a cute little cartoon bug, with two lights like eyes.  (That’s a specific design feature to make a self-driving car seem more harmless and fun and to encourage people to give it a try.)  It will seat two, be electrically powered, have a top speed of 25 mph, and have only a stop-go button — no steering wheel or pedals.  The car will follow Google maps built for the vehicle and operate using radar and laser sensors.  Google says its self-driving cars have already covered 700,000 miles of roadway, and it will produce a fleet of 200 cars and test them in Detroit within a year to make further advances in self-driving technology.

Advocates of self-driving cars say they will be safer for the car’s drivers, for other drivers, and for pedestrians.  If the cars are limited to 25 mph, of course, there is bound to be a safety enhancement, because there is a direct correlation between vehicle speed at the time of a crash and severity of injury.  Pedestrians also will benefit by a design that features a foam front end rather than a bumper.  But the safety arguments go deeper than that.  They assert that computer programs, lasers, and machines are bound to be more precise and careful on the road than humans, with no risk of distracted, texting drivers, drunken, impaired drivers, or macho, road raging drivers.

I’m somewhat skeptical about relying wholly on a machine guidance system — anyone who has GPS knows that it isn’t infallible — but more than that I’m leery of a future where machines do more and more for human beings.  We’ve already got problems with people becoming less active, less creative, and less self-reliant; self-driving cars is just another step toward a future of flabby, passive people waiting for a machine to move them around in slow-moving cars designed to maximize safety and security.  Sorry, but I don’t like it.

Debating The Right To Be Forgotten

Should people have the right to require internet search engines, like Google, to remove links to personal information about them?  Should there be, in the words of privacy advocates, a “right to be forgotten”?  Or, should newspaper articles about individuals be available permanently, as part of the mass of information to be found on the internet?

The European Court of Justice addressed that issue yesterday and ruled that people can ask Google to remove such information. If Google doesn’t do so, individuals can go to the authorities to require removal of the link in question if the linked information is found to be “inadequate, irrelevant, or no longer relevant.”  It’s not entirely clear what those standards mean, and their contours will no doubt be framed by future decisions.

The facts of the case that gave rise to the European ruling help to illustrate the issue.  A man was dismayed to find that a search of his name on Google produced a link to a 1998 newspaper article about his financial problems.  He contended that the information was outdated and irrelevant because he had paid off his debts, and thus that the link should be removed.  The Court agreed that he could pursue that request and that search engines have a duty to ensure that data that is “inadequate” or “irrelevant” does not appear.

It’s a European ruling, of course, so it doesn’t having binding force in America — but if Google is forced to change its practices in response to personal requests from individual Europeans, it presumably would change its practices for individual Americans, too.  Fielding and responding to requests for removal of links to outdated information could have a significant impact on the operation of search engines and, by extension, on the kinds of information available to everyone through the internet.

It’s not hard to see both sides of the issue.  If you are a 60-year-old who’s had a successful career, should a newspaper article about an embarrassing youthful indiscretion appear on the first page of Google search results about you?  If you’re trying to decide whether to hire a person for a job that involves handling money for your business, would you want to know about his prior financiaI problems, even if those problems occurred 20 years ago?  And should different expungement rules apply to people who want to be elected to public office? Could a savvy candidate cleanse his record before starting his first campaign?  And are there any instances in which a person’s decision to approach Google and ask for removal of a link could itself become a matter of public record?

The “right to be forgotten” and “the right to know” are in tension, and we’re going to see that tension worked out in the years ahead.

In Control Of Your Dreams

Every human is deeply interested in their dreams.  Whether they are abhorrent or enticing, embarrassing or terrifying, dreams have their own unique fascination.  We fall asleep and suddenly images start playing in our brains, and we can’t help but wonder whether the dreams are sending us some kind of important message.

But there are two problems with dreams:  we can’t remember most of them, and we can’t control what we are dreaming.  When we have bad dreams we remain trapped in their frightening context until we wake up with a jolt, pulses pounding.  And good dreams inevitably end far too soon.

But what if we could control our dreams?  A recent study indicates that applying a low-frequency electrical current during sleep can generate “lucid dreams” — that typically all-too-rare state where the dreamer is aware she is dreaming and has control over the dream.  Study participants who received currents in the correct frequency range reported being able to change the plot of their dreams to avoid, for example, ugly encounters with a group of angry people.  The researchers hope to be able to use the process to treat mental illness or help people with post-traumatic stress disorder recover, by placing them in control of dream story lines that have happier endings than their actual experiences did.

It’s also easy to see how such a device could be used in other ways.  People who are afraid of public speaking, for example, could experience dreams where they confidently give a presentation that is well-received.  People who are struggling with the devastating loss of a loved one could consciously revisit that person as they sleep and realize that they are at peace.  And, because crass commercialization is the order of the day, no doubt people would gladly purchase dream-current products that allow them to experience close encounters with Sports Illustrated swimsuit models, be the quarterback that wins the Super Bowl, or enter the world of Wuthering Heights.

There’s something intriguing about the concept of controlling your dreams, but also something dangerous. What if the human brain needs to have uncontrolled, often unpleasant dreams to work correctly?  After all, our current brains and their dreaming qualities are the product of millions of years of evolution.  And how many people might conclude that they prefer living in a rich, completely manipulable dream world to the harsh and uncontrollable world of actual reality, and spend their time dreaming their lives away?

Twitter Turnabout

Twitter is a good example of a double-edged sword.  When companies or entities try to use it for positive PR purposes, as often as not it backfires, and what is generated instead is embarrassing and often humorous.

As a very recent example, consider the New York City Police Department.  Some genius decided it would be helpful to ask people to tweet their pictures with members of the police force with the hashtag #myNYPD.  Clearly, the Department envisioned smiling photos of citizens and friendly, blue-coated officers.

But what actually happened didn’t go according to that plan.  Instead, people started tweeting photos of police officers handcuffing suspects, lashing out with batons, and otherwise engaging in less positive interactions with members of the public.  Other tweets identified people who had been shot to death by police and complaining about police brutality — as well as ripping the NYPD for a self-inflicted PR disaster.

The NYPD example probably should be taught in PR classes about use of social media.  What are the key elements of this colossal blunder?  One is a person or entity who lacks significant awareness of how they are actually perceived by the public and therefore can’t envision the negative tweets that their campaign might generate.  It’s hard to imagine that any police department would be blind to the fact that they aren’t adored by a significant percentage of the public — after all, the police regularly issue tickets, order people around, and arrest and apprehend suspects who proclaim their innocence, and those people have families and friends — but the NYPD apparently falls into that category. That’s amazing, and suggests that the PR decisionmakers aren’t adequately acquainted with reality.

A second element is a lack of understanding of human nature.  People who are angry and negative are far more motivated to post something than people who are happy and positive.  Tourists who were helped by members of the NYPD aren’t likely to take a photo or be aware of a Twitter campaign about the NYPD — but somebody who is convinced that the cops routinely engage in racial profiling will be monitoring and ready to spring when an ill-advised campaign gets underway.

If I were a company or a public entity, I’d be very cautious about inviting Twitter chatter.  Our grandmothers told us, “be careful what you ask for” — and that was wise advice,