Archive for April, 2009

Hajra Meeks’ Art Exhibit during Michelle Obama’s Visit

Posted in Art, Events on April 21st, 2009 by Elijah Meeks – Comments Off
This Mughal-inspired, mixed media piece is one of the works to be displayed during Michelles visit.

This Mughal-inspired, mixed media piece is one of the works to be displayed during Michelle's visit.

The university library has confirmed that Hajra will get a wall to exhibit her art during the First Lady’s visit to UC Merced.  It’ll be located on the third floor of Kolligian library and the exhibit will remain up throughout the summer.  While Hajra’s work includes many secular pieces, notably those used in the posters for Son of the Great River, she also produces beautiful calligraphy and art inspired by the techniques of the Islamic Golden Age.  If you feel a limited edition, signed giclee print is a little too pricey, you can pick up a less expensive print at RedBubble.  There’s really no way to make a print of the mixed media pieces, but if you have $5000 burning a hole in your pocket or you recognize that it’s a paltry sum given the rising popularity of Islamic art, you can own an original.

World Book, the Jaguar E-Type and the Myth of the Expert

Posted in Digital Innovation, Eschatology on April 19th, 2009 by Elijah Meeks – 2 Comments

As more and more amateurs continue to produce knowledge, software and books with little or no help from experts, I think it’s time to clear the mist a little and remember what the world was producing when only experts were in charge.  Too often critiques, like those of Andrew Keen, seem to imply that everything being produced by the infinite number of monkeys and their infinite copies of WordPress is far inferior to that of some mythical, Golden Age of Software, Books and All Products in General That Were Created by Experts.  It’s too easy to focus on software (Does anyone remember what you had to do to get Falcon 3.0 to run on your computer?), so let’s look at some more and less concrete examples.

It’s Pronounced Jag-You-Are

Series 2 FHC...  {Wistful John Crichton Voice} I used to have one of those...

Series 2 FHC... {Wistful John Crichton Voice} I used to have one of those...

It’d be easy to point to the Ford Pinto–poor, derided, explosive thing–but I’d rather latch on to a vehicle more dear to my heart: the Jaguar E-Type.  The E-Type is lauded as a classic, and it is, and a beautiful car, which is also true, but anyone who’s owned one or had any experience with Lucas electrical systems or poorly fitting body work will know that, despite its being the product of an amazing designer and some well-paid professionals, the car had bugs.  Every iteration had bugs, and nobody who bought one (Either at the time they were being produced or later as a classic car) thought otherwise–okay, lots of people thought otherwise, but right-thinking people ignore them.  We used to be more accepting of bugs, and no one ever thought that the crumby cooling system on an old Jag somehow subverted its beautiful lines or its amazing performance.

The Entire World, in One Book?

You know what they say about a World Book encyclopedia, its too small to get smart in, but you get smart as soon as you get out...

You know what they say about a World Book encyclopedia, it's too small to get smart in, but you get smart as soon as you get out...

Now, maybe you’ll say a motor vehicle made in the 60s isn’t equivalent to modern peer-produced knowledge banks like Wikipedia, so let’s look at something a little more modern and encyclopedic.  The World Book Encyclopedia includes, along with too-short clips of Verde, an article on the history of India which barely touches on the Muslim role in the independence movement.  I’m an environmental historian who focuses on China, so what do I know, but my wife is an expert on South Asia, and has a graduate degree from one of the top institutions in the world, and she pointed out to me that the neglect on the part of World Book to include the role of the Muslim League or Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was a travesty.  Built by experts, and buggy, the World Book Encyclopedia isn’t a failure any more than an overheating Jaguar.

Bugs scale with a product.  And if some of that product is putatively a beta, those bugs will be more prominent in the beta (and alpha) sections.  Maybe it’s time we acknowledge that Wikipedia is eight years old, and Linux is only 18, and start to compare the products of this new method of production with actual things that exist in the world, like Jaguar E-Types, and not hypothetical, mythical, magical encyclopedias, operating systems, databases and vector graphics packages that never crash, never have errors, are created and run by geniuses, and never have any problems at all, because they’re perfect.

And yes, I’m still throwing Wikipedia in the Open Source bucket, until Linus himself emails me a photo of his Jimbo Wales dartboard.

Just How Important was that Bill Gates Guy, Anyway?

Posted in Digital Innovation on April 16th, 2009 by Elijah Meeks – 1 Comment

Following up on Anthony DiPierro’s comments on my previous post, I realized that our disagreement in whether or not criticisms of crowdsourcing could be considered criticisms of open source was based on a definition.  Given my own statements equating Wikipedia with open source, it seems we have a difference in distinguishing the definition of these diverse projects (Wow, that was extremely alliterative, though unintentionally so).  I tend to lump them together, following Benkler’s definition of commons-based peer production, and therefore tend to believe that attributes of these varied production methods are more commonly shared.  I think that anyone can quite readily criticize der Wiki (or open source) with educated and accurate points.  I think the appeal of the sucker map and also the attempts at various people to throw Wiki on something and therefore expect it to blossom into a top-ten website illustrates just that point.  But I also think most project originators on SourceForge have a sucker map in mind when they get started, and suffer similar results.

The real disagreement in these differing definitions comes to how individuals assume some kind of helm role, and whether or not self-selection proves to be an effective and valuable process.  I’m of the opinion that all those fellows who think they can replicate Wikipedia need to reevaluate the project’s success.  I think that Wikipedia emerged as a result of certain socio-cultural conditions (Literacy, familiarity with computers and the Internet, familiarity with the encyclopedic style of knowledge presentation) coupled with ease-of-access made possible by MediaWiki.  Jimbo and Larry Sanger, following this argument, were just lucky.  I think we try a little too hard to make rock stars out of everyone (I’d offer Richard Stallman as an example, who was by all accounts a coding whiz, but is a miserable epistemologist, despite his bombast and energy) when oftentimes the reason why a project, a company or a state succeeds are the result of external factors which made a particular product or ideology well-suited for success.  The current efforts of Berners-Lee at trying to will the Semantic Web into existence is another example that comes to mind.  It’s not determinist to acknowledge that many things emerge into existence, and are not created by strong-willed individuals, and woe to the individual who doesn’t realize when they’re dealing with the former and not the latter.  I like to think of it as Gettysburg Syndrome, wherein Lee thought he could defeat the Union center through sheer force of will, rather than acknowledging that the time and place of the battle was against him.

But we all need to be careful not to turn this into a false binary.  Sometimes a great leader does push a project into existence and sometimes a project is simply the expression of a particular zeitgeist, wherein the individuals are little more than determinist placeholders.  The real question comes when we speak of specific projects and when we try to figure out which way particular mediums of production tend to lean.

Are We Really Slouching into a Mediocre Babylon?

Posted in Academia, Digital Innovation, Eschatology on April 15th, 2009 by Elijah Meeks – 7 Comments

Isn’t the Web wonderful?  Students aren’t writing their own essays anymore (In fact, they’re looking for contract essay writers for the entire course of their college career).  Anthony DiPierro over at akahele makes the case that the optimism of participants in commons-based models (Open Source and Wikipedia) ignores the fact that “Almost all if not all of the great software projects, even in the open source world, were created by very small numbers of individuals.” Students would rather tweet or update Facebook than pay attention in class, with the result being a crisis of mixed input the likes of which would make Marcuse blanch.  The rise of mediocrity and the cult of the amateur seems to be the order of the day.

I, however, feel somehow unconvinced that all these easily accessible tools are causing the decline of civilization.  As I post my comments on an easily-accessible open-source blogging package, write my papers on a stable word processing/spreadheet/presentation package, check Wikipedia to see a list of Irish Famines, create little marines in Inkscape with some post-processing in GIMP, to be represented using PHP accessing an open-source database, I tend to agree that,  “Anyone who suggests that there is nothing to be learnt from making superior Free versions of proprietary systems, yet uses GNU/Linux, is simply thick.” But that doesn’t solve the niggling Wikipedia issue, where we all acknowledge that the vandalism, pernicious agendas and amateurish errors mean that Wikipedia really isn’t a perfect repository of knowledge.

But who’s being more foolish, the person who relies on an imperfect source of knowledge such as Wikipedia, or the person who clings to the belief that there were perfect sources of knowledge in some halcyon past?  Was there really a point when all newspapers were reliable sources of information or all historical texts accurately represented the root causes of progress and decline?  And more than that, even if we accept that for one day in 1977 all sources of knowledge were perfect in their unified, magisterial controls, does that make them better than the current imperfect sources of news, literature and knowledge that are actually accessible to, gasp, the unwashed masses both here and abroad?  Is it that everyone is growing mediocre or is it that we’re finally able to witness the actual level of understanding and engagement present among society (Both local and global) in a way that was kept under wraps during a less connected time?  Do you really think the Arabic Wikipedia caused the misunderstanding of socio-political processes in the Middle-East, or that it represents it?  Did the Chinese Wikipedia install the GMD in Taiwan or does it just reflect the current political divide?  On a more grounded level, have you noticed that the folks who claim that Wikipedia is junk because it’s not written by experts have a remarkable proclivity for ignoring experts (or deriding them) when they enter into the discussion in defense of the monolith?

What if you throw a Web 2.0 party and nobody comes?

Posted in Digital Innovation, Eschatology on April 7th, 2009 by Elijah Meeks – 2 Comments

The Giving Tree is an artifact of an era that later generations will contemplate with pity and horror. An era when many parents turned their children over to subminimum-wage workers by day, and told them stories like The Giving Tree during “quality time” at night. An era when hordes of American Boys and Girls pursued infantile fantasies and desires until they could eat, drink, and make merry no more. An era when many of us behaved like Tree-tolerant, indulgent, but not loving enough to call good and evil by name

- Mary Ann Glendon is the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University.

No, this isn’t self-reflection, that won’t be in vogue until Pearl Jam and Primitive Radio Gods come back in style (Trust me, 90s nostalgia is already beginning to appear, I expect flannels at any moment).  Rather, my own growing interest in ontologies has lead me to several examples of nearly dead and dying Web 2.0 ghost towns.  I don’t mean everyone’s random blog about nonsense, I mean the big projects, where thoughtful people sat down at a Burlingame Starbucks and convinced some very wealthy people with poor fashion sense to give them some money.

Social networking requires, not surprisingly, community buy-in.  These projects need to be popular for them to function.  Otherwise it’s just another great or semi-decent (or, to be fair, just plain bad) idea like the thousands that litter Sourceforge.  I’m sure there are several ones of you all sitting on the edge of your seats wondering, “What happened to the awesome artwork”, but for the one CTO in the back, who’s sweating through his pamona shirt, screaming “What do I do now that it’s clear my glorious social networking site no longer has any audience, and hence no relavence?!?!” I have answers.  Let’s take a quick survey of the best ways to respond to your growing irrelevance.

1. You could just quit

Suck.com did.

I don’t really know if it constitutes as Web 2.0.  Okay, I really do know that it doesn’t, but the best (And by best I mean most acerbic and park animal rehab-inducing) writing on the Internet closed up shop eight years ago, and all the monkeys editing all the MediaWiki pages on all the InterWebs will never match the wit of one Polly Esther.

2. The Lucky Penny Approach

You don’t need to quit, that would require leaving a message, a forwarding number, or at least an explanation.  Instead, just leave your site, project or plans for world domination up and running, like you always have (Besides, it’s not like you’re paying so much for servers anymore–I’m pretty sure Friendster is running off a shared hosting account in Paraguay…) and maybe some day, someone will find your lost site, recognize its value, wipe it off, shine it up and carry through your initial vision.  That last part is purely theoretical, of course, but if we assume that we really are just one of an infinite number of simulated realities, there’s a very good chance it will happen once in the entire history of the universe.

3. Redefine Community to Mean “You and Four Other Loonies”

Sure, Wikipedia operates with tens of thousands of registered users, but surely you could achieve the same thing with a handful of users who all have the energy, wit and wisdom of ten thousand people apiece.  Or maybe that proves you’re just nuts.

4.  Redefine Success as “Failure”

As a disclaimer, I said Citizendium was going to fail years ago, when it was but a twinkle in Larry Sanger’s eye.  And it has failed.  Think about all the times you’ve been on Citizendium and noticed the shoddiness of most of the articles, or the times you’ve entered into editorial disputes because you think your PhD came from a more rigorous insitution following a more quantitative vision of socio-historical study.  What’s that, you mean you’ve never been on Citizendium?  And you mean you aren’t one of the seven and a half contributors?  Shocking!  What are the chances?  And yet, Dr. Sanger still thinks he’s really making something over there.  Seriously, if you’ve had the kind of free press that Citizendium gets, despite its shockingly low popularity (Popularity has a deservedly bad rap, these days, but if you’re building an unpopular commons-based peer production project, that’s like building the next engine-less automobile) and you still haven’t accepted that you’re really just a vanity project, well, then you become case #4 in our, “How to assuage your unhappiness at the failure of your Web 2.0 project blog extravaganza!”  Yes, I used ‘our’, it seemed to fit…  And I’ve apparently changed the title of this blog post…  How’s that for Web 2.0 functionality!

5.  Tread Water Until Web 3.0

Constantly redesign yourself.  Produce more mockups, more semantic web links, more theoretical immersion capability, you can fight, you can win! And, surely, your born-in-Web-2.0 project will not be quickly supplanted by newly synthesized Web 3.0 native projects.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go check altavista for the release date of Encarta 2010.

Remember, only if we remember the failures of the past can we teach coping strategies to the failures of the future.

Introducing the Art of Hajra Meeks

Posted in Art on April 3rd, 2009 by Elijah Meeks – Comments Off

A while back I put together a site to display some beautiful artwork, hand-built in php with css and all the bells and whistles.  Then I found out that even though my work was standards-compliant, Internet Explorer sadly isn’t.  Now, through the joys of WordPress and its limitless plugins, I’ve begun the process of folding Hajra’s work into Seven Lions.  Hajra created the cover and interior illustrations for Son of the Great River–the cover is inspired by the cave paintings at Lascaux and her pen-and-ink illustrations, though reduced in quality due to the black-and-white printing and small size necessary for interior illustrations, are equally stunning.  Her classical and modern-style calligraphy is just another example of the growing vibrancy of modern Islamic art.  But the most beautiful work is reserved for Hajra’s own literary product, a picture book set in the Golden Age of Islam, to which I’m not allowed to even mention that much.  If I’m lucky I’ll even cajole her into explaining some of her techniques and inspirations.

The Princess Qamarunisa Fatima

Michelle Obama at UC Merced

Posted in Academia on April 2nd, 2009 by Elijah Meeks – Comments Off

Well, apparently Cadie didn’t take over the world, and all my INTERCAL studying went to waste.  To top it off, I just found out that the First Lady will give the commencement address at the first full graduating class at the first University of California campus located in the Central Valley (No, Davis doesn’t count, it’s right next to Sacramento, for those of you who are UC Davis graduates and never realized it).  As a member of the founding graduate class at UC Merced, I’m extremely heartened by the decision of Michelle Obama to come here, and hopefully it will bring with it some much-needed attention for our small, cow-tipping institution of higher-learning.  The real question on everyone’s lips, though, is whether Malia will like Son of the Great River…  I think so.  I mean, that’s why they’re coming, isn’t it?

Googlewatch Was Right All Along

Posted in Digital Innovation, Eschatology on April 1st, 2009 by Elijah Meeks – Comments Off

Google, always unwilling to take second fiddle to any high-level existentialist act on the part of Wikipedia, has gone and unleashed an AI Singularity with a love for pandas.   I choose not to believe that this is the latest in a long string of April Fool’s jokes from the monolothic search engine with a taste for whimsy.  You shouldn’t either.  I’ll be too busy learning INTERCAL to write anything further.  I for one welcome our new autoheuristic overlords.