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Fauxtography and computer graphics September 2, 2014

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV100 , add a comment

One thread we pick up in this blog from time to time is that of fauxtography, that is, faked photographs. Fauxtography is an interesting practice in its own right, and it also raises some philosophical issues about the authenticity of photographic images.

A couple of recent news items relate to this issue. First is a project described in The Atlantic of “de-specializing” Star Wars. As you may know, George Lucas has been in the habit of revising and re-releasing the first three movies of this series from time to time. Some fans, however, prefer (or just want the option to see) the original versions. So, they have undertaking a demanding and elaborate process of removing the alterations from later sources (Lucas has not allowed access to any original prints). This project is called “de-specialization”.

You can find out more about this project from this YouTube video by “Harmy”, one of the project’s leaders.

Note that many of of Lucas’s CG amendments have been removed not by restoration of an earlier version but by CG simulations of that version. So, the de-specialized version is really a simulation or facsimile of the original release. Is it authentic, or not?

It turns out that George Lucas is not the only fan of CG in photography. A recent item in FastCompany points out that about 75% of the images in Ikea’s catalog are “faked”. That is, they are CG. And that is up from just 25% two years ago. It turns out that making up images with computer graphics is just cheaper and easier than shipping products to photographers’ studios for physical shoots.

Another reason is that CG images are so good that they are hard to tell apart from the real thing. So, customers are seeing images that simulate real photos and are hardly distinguishable. Are they authentic?

In the Star Wars case, you could point out that the de-specialized versions are not genuine, that is, they are not copies of original prints of the films. However, they are (ideally) intended to be indistinguishable from genuine copies (or, more precisely, performances of genuine copies). Perhaps being indistinguishable from a genuine copy is enough for authenticity? After all, people accept “authentic” Greek yogurt that does not come from Greece. (Although, the EU holds that “champagne” must come from Champagne.)

In the Ikea case, there is no original image to simulate. Thus, the faked catalog photos are not genuine because they are not copies of original photos. Or, you might say that the CG images are “original” and thus the catalog photos derived from them are genuine after all. Perhaps the concept of genuine is not helpful. In that case, you could argue that the catalog photos are inauthentic because they appear to be something that they are not. Or, perhaps they are authentic because they are true-to-life.


Maps of the caliphate August 29, 2014

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , add a comment

One of the major news stories of the year has been the conquests of the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. At first one jihadist cell among several in that region, the Islamic State (IS) has quickly taken control of substantial areas of both countries.

One way of representing their advancement has been through maps. However, representing this process appropriately with a map is not a straightforward problem. Early maps showed large blocks of territory, all coloured in a single hue, as belonging to the IS. This representation put the IS on a par with Belgium or Jordan in terms of its domain.

More recently, maps have tended to show IS in terms of corridors and towns under control. That is, IS has been represented in terms of places where they are able to tell locals what to do and keep outsiders from entering. In these maps, IS looks more like a spider web or a series of cracks spreading throughout the area.

Other maps use shading or hatching to suggest degrees of control.

It seems that there is no obviously correct solution to this problem. However, one might ask why people are so keen on representing the situation with maps in the first place. I think that there are at least two reasons:

  1. Since the IS claims to be a state–the Caliphate–and since we all think of states as existing in defined territories, it is natural to locate IS on a map. However, the claim of IS to be a state, in a conventional sense, at least, is problematic. As such, the standards normally used to represent states on maps may be inappropriate or misleading.
  2. Maps provide a handy shorthand for simplifying certain sorts of complex data. Among other things, maps provide viewers with ready information concerning size, shape, location, and proximity of geographic things. Certainly, the scale and location of IS, and its proximity to locations of importance is significant in understanding what it is. Thus, maps provide a natural way of presenting data about the situation.

Perhaps we need to rethink how to encode information about groups like IS. IS is, among other things, a spatially extended political movement, but it is not a state in the sense that map makers are used to.

Student apps for university August 28, 2014

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , add a comment

With the beginning of a new school year almost upon us, it is appropriate that the New York Times has published an article about how students are “hacking” campus information networks. In this case, hacking refers not to stealing data but to reforming how campus information systems are navigated and used.

The lead item certainly got my attention. It concerns Rutgers student Vaibhav Verma who wrote an app to help him get into full courses. The app worked by repeatedly querying the University’s registration system and sending him a message in the event that a place opened up. Then, he could sign up for the open spot if he so choose.

Some possible downsides to this approach spring to mind. As the article notes, a similar approach employed at Baruch College in Manhattan resulted in so many queries that the registration system crashed. It seems as though it would be better if the registration system itself implemented a waiting list on its own terms.

I would certainly favour such an option. As the beginning of each term approaches, I receive many requests from students who want to register for sections of my courses that are already full. We do not have the capacity in either space or manpower to honour all these requests, so I advise students to sign up using the registration system when or if a space becomes available. It would be less frustrating all around if the system facilitated these virtual waiting lists.

As the article goes on to explain, university information systems are designed with several priorities in mind, of which ease of access is not always first. For example, some information is confidential and requires protection:

At Brown, where Mr. Kagan had trouble getting enrollment figures, Ravi Pendse, the university’s new chief information officer, said that when it came to sharing data, schools “tend to be risk averse, and with good reason” — starting with laws that require them to protect students’ privacy. “The easiest answer is to say no.”

So, students who want to know what courses their friends are taking will not get that information from the registration system.

Perhaps the situation here will change soon. The University of Waterloo is setting up a student portal, a facility that aggregates campus information that each student has access to. The portal will include widgets developed by students. Perhaps one of them will provide a waiting list feature. Better that than having a app launch a DDOS attack on the registration system.

Unacceptable selfies August 27, 2014

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , add a comment

As you know, selfies are self-portraits taken with the inward-facing camera of a smart phone. As recent posts in this blog have discussed, selfies sometimes say more about people than just what they look like up close.

With the ever-increasing occurrence of selfies, the rules regarding them are still being negotiated. Taking a selfie with an art work is acceptable since it does not constitute an abuse of the art. The same cannot be said for a circus animal.

Taking a revealing selfie uncovers not just skin but a double standard: The female secretary was fired from her job while the male politician was not. Should he be dismissed, or should she be given her job back?

Here is a selfie I took a little while ago with a mollusk. This one is safer than the tiger selfie, less controversial than the art selfie, and less revealing than the parliamentary selfie. I predict that the “snail selfie” will sweep the nation.

snail selfie

(Cam Shelley/

Those drones August 26, 2014

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed

Drones continue to hover prominently in the news:

Perhaps we need a standard way to mark certain areas as off-limits to drones, one that drones will recognize without the need for action from their controllers. Something like Usman Khan’s navigation system might be a place to start.

Robo-grading is great! August 15, 2014

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

Automatic or robo-grading software assigns marks to written material submitted by students. These software packages have some advantages, including quickness of response and the ability to handle large numbers of assignments at once. Also, they seem to perform about as well as human graders, on standardized assignments, at least. As such, the use of robo-graders for large classes is clearly an attractive prospect for administrators of such courses.

At the same time, robo-graders are controversial. Les Perelman of MIT argues that, since robo-graders do not really understand what they are doing, their use will encourage the wrong sort of writing:

Robo-graders do not score by understanding meaning but almost solely by use of gross measures, especially length and the presence of pretentious language.

Recently, three computer science students, Damien Jiang and Louis Sobel from MIT and Milo Beckman from Harvard, demonstrated that these machines are not measuring human communication. They have been able to develop a computer application that generates gibberish that one of the major robo-graders, IntelliMetric, has consistently scored above the 90th percentile overall. In fact, IntelliMetric scored most of the incoherent essays they generated as “advanced” in focus and meaning as well as in language use and style.

Having students turn in gibberish to game robo-graders would clearly undermine the purpose of the assignments.

So, are robo-graders good or bad?

Some recent work suggests that robo-graders might have a positive role as assistants to students during the writing process. Students who are able to use robo-graders to obtain feedback on drafts of their work show more willingness to revise and improve it. For example, a recent study by Khaled El Ebyary of Alexandria University and Scott Windeatt of Newcastle University showed that students responded much more positively to robo-feedback than they did to human feedback:

Comments and criticism from a human instructor actually had a negative effect on students’ attitudes about revision and on their willingness to write, the researchers note. By contrast, interactions with the computer produced overwhelmingly positive feelings, as well as an actual change in behavior—from “virtually never” revising, to revising and resubmitting at a rate of 100 percent.

Crucially, the students’ writing seemed to improve as a result of their revisions.

The key to this improvement seems to be that students did not feel judged by the robo-grading system. Receiving criticism from a human may induce feelings of shame but the same does not appear to be the cases with criticism from a software package. In other words, receiving robo-grading is socially technotonic, at least when contrasted with the alternative.

This observation suggests that robo-graders may have a positive role to play in assignment marking, as long as they are not given the final say.

Theodore Van Kirk, died at 93 August 14, 2014

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : Uncategorized , comments closed

Theodore Van Kirk died recently at the age of 93. Van Kirk was a US airman who was the last surviving crewman of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

Van Kirk had some interesting thoughts about war in general and atomic weapons in particular. For example, he believed that the use of the bomb shortened the war and, thus, prevented continuing loss of life:

“I honestly believe the use of the atomic bomb saved lives in the long run. There were a lot of lives saved. Most of the lives saved were Japanese,” Van Kirk said.

On this view, the alternative to the bomb was an invasion of Japan itself, an undertaking that promised to be destructive and bloody. Not an inviting prospect. It was that alternative that justified the use of the bomb, Van Kirk argued:

“We were fighting an enemy that had a reputation for never surrendering, never accepting defeat,” he said. “It’s really hard to talk about morality and war in the same sentence.”

He continued: “Where was the morality in the bombing of Coventry, or the bombing of Dresden, or the Bataan Death March, or the Rape of Nanking, or the bombing of Pearl Harbor? I believe that when you’re in a war, a nation must have the courage to do what it must to win the war with a minimum loss of lives.”

Even if this argument is accepted, it still leaves open the matter of dropping the bomb on civilians.

At the same time, Kirk became skeptical about the usefulness of warfare:

“The whole World War II experience shows that wars don’t settle anything. And atomic weapons don’t settle anything,” he said. “I personally think there shouldn’t be any atomic bombs in the world — I’d like to see them all abolished.

This point reminds us that there are still atomic weapons in the arsenals of at least eight countries, making about 17,300 weapons in all.

The selfie files August 12, 2014

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed

If the drone has any competition as the technology darling of the year, it is the selfie. So, here are some recent items of interest where the backward-facing camera on that smart phone is concerned:

The technology scholar Neil Postman argued that technologies have a “philosophy”:

… which is given expression in how the technology makes people use their minds, in what it makes us do with our bodies, in how it codifies the world, in which of our senses it amplifies, in which of our emotional and intellectual tendencies it disregards.

Do these examples suggest anything about the “philosophy” of that backward-facing camera on the smart phone?

And now, the drone news August 11, 2014

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

I hate to drone on, but those neat little aerial vehicles keep making the news:

What would Johnny Dronehunter say to that?

Ideology of the TV remote August 1, 2014

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

Caetlin Benson-Allott has posted an article in The Atlantic giving a précis of her upcoming book on the history of the TV remote control. It is an interesting post and bodes well for the longer treatment.


(Dave Croker/Wikimedia commons)

In an earlier posting, I have talked about some effects that the TV remote had on the nature of TV programming. Benson-Allott’s piece, however, has more to do with how the introduction of the remote changed the way that people organized their houses and their lives around their entertainment systems:

Yes, in fact—this seemingly innocuous media accessory has also changed the way we inhabit our houses and experience our families. The effects of remote controls have cascaded through the home, affecting how we arrange our domestic spaces, whom we share them with, and what we do there.

Here, I will just summarize the author’s claims about the ideology of the remote, that is, about the “ideal” lifestyle that remote controls were designed to bring about.

Early remote controls in the 1920s were boxes hooked up to radio sets by cables. They allowed owners to adjust volume, change stations, and turn the set on or off without getting up. The space in the living room around the radio set had already become somewhat specialized for that purpose, that is, as the place where the family gathered to consume entertainment. The remote control had the effect of reinforcing that assignment by making consumers of entertainment even more immobile. No need to get up with the remote handy!

This specialization and the immobility associated with it were conveyed as part of a luxury lifestyle. However, this luxury also locked householders in as merely consumers (and not producers) of in-house entertainment:

Many households still embraced the “luxury” of sedentary media consumption that these early remotes provided, but the devices offered only a negative form of liberty (rather like the leash that allows the dog to go outside).

Of course, most homeowners could not afford sets with remote controls. So, they really did remain luxury items.

With the advent of TV remotes in the 1950s, the promise they made expanded to the provision of greater control over the boob tube. One TV remote introduced in 1953 was called the “Blab-Off” because it was designed to give users the ability to tune out advertising chatter or other unwelcome noises without having to get up or turn the set off. Still, TV remotes remained a luxury:

Television sets occupied over 70 percent of U.S. households by 1956 and over 95 percent by 1969, but as of 1979, only 17 percent of U.S. television households were using a remote control.

The situation changed with the adoption of cable TV and VCRs. With these new sources of programming, people had much more selection in what to watch, necessitating some aids in navigating from source to source. The remote control was just the solution for this problem. People become much more willing to shell out the extra expense for a remote control when faced with managing a multi-component entertainment system.

Thus, the “entertainment center” was born as both a new piece of furniture and a new lifestyle:

As furniture and ideology, the entertainment center draws on the media-as-furniture design of radio and television consoles to create a television stand with extra shelving that accommodates but also demands ancillary components like cable boxes and VCRs. Remote control became the interface through which to command the family’s new centralized multi-media environment.

The entertainment center became the dominant piece of furniture in the living room and the focus of activity there. Chairs in living rooms are typically oriented for optimum viewing of the center and not so much for conversation or other non-TV-related activities.

The remote control became the indispensable interface to the center. To this day, most living rooms (like my own) have several of them displayed conspicuously. (If they are hidden away, Benson-Allott notes, there is the fearful possibility they will get lost or, at least, not be around when you want to watch something.)

For a while, the TV remote could still be a sign of the luxury lifestyle, showing that the owner possessed a high-end media system. However, remote controls increasingly came to suggest the tech-savvy and modern lifestyle led by the owner:

Remotes suggested that their owner was himself high-tech and in demand, so busy and important he could not possibly cross the room to change the CD himself.

As with other high-tech stuff, the author notes, the remote is also perceived as falling in the masculine social sphere. Ads for remote controls typically portray male users. Blocky and button-laden design and stubbornly phallic shape tend to reinforce this association. The level of control that remotes grant to the individual who wields them seems to go along with the assertiveness that is often seen as a masculine trait.

Given this association, it is interesting to note that most functions provided by modern remote controls go unused by the majority of people. Also, most people do not use universal remotes that attempt to do the work of the many remotes that come with each component of an entertainment system. Perhaps the design of remote controls is geared more to providing the illusion of god-like omnipotence than the reality of it.

One exception to the trend of increasing visual complexity is the Apple remote, which harkens back to the design of the first TV remote controls equipped with only a dial and two or three buttons. The Apple remote seems to represent a different ideology, that of integration into an Apple-ly lifestyle with its promise of simplicity and discernment:

Today, the Apple Remote offers to restore order to the household—as long as the home remains an iHome. After all, the Apple Remote can only deliver on the simplicity of its design if you use it to the exclusion of all other remotes, and by extension all other brands.

In other words, the Apple remote is like the original iPod, which achieved its simplicity through integration into a complex music service provided through iTunes.

Whether or not the ideology of the Apple remote overhauls that of the competition remains to be seen. In any event, I look forward to the appearance of Benson-Allott’s book “Remote control” later this year.

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