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Monthly Archives: May 2013

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My search for a Linux-based mind-mapping tool

One of my associate supervisors suggested that I draw up some mind maps to assist with planning what I want to do with my thesis. The idea is to think in more non-linear way.

Since I can’t draw free-hand – at all – I’ve been hunting down software that could assist me with this. While I have access to Windows OS at uni, my main laptop only runs a version of Linux (the distro is Kubuntu for those interested, though I may switch should I find the time to do that complete Linux reinstall in order to remove some accumulated cruft). The software options for Linux are somewhat….limited.

The current standard appears to be freemind. However, it’s Java-based, which isn’t my favourite way of running software. So I’ve explored a few other options, particularly those that would work in a KDE desktop.

The KDE-native office suite Calligra has a whiteboard-like software tool called Braindump, which is described as “a tool to dump and organize the content of your brain”. Unfortunately it’s poorly documented and not at all well maintained. I could figure out how to link images on the whiteboard to text boxes, but the same technique wouldn’t allow me to link text box to text box. A bug or just lack of understanding of the software? In either case, not helpul.

Moving on, there’s a stand-alone application written especially for KDE called Semantik (previously known as Kdissert), which works but also lacks any good documentation. After a little bit of practice I managed to get a basic hierarchical mind-map going. But I kept wondering if there was something in the software I was missing, as finding features was very much a case of click and hope. Potentially useful, but not particularly pleasant for a beginner to use.

For more general desktop use, I found a tool called vym, short for “view your mind”. Vym uses the QT toolkit, but isn’t wedded to KDE like Semantik is. Unlike the other mind-mapping software I tried, vym only allows for text to be used in mind maps; there is no way to import images or hyperlinks that I can see. This is good for me, as I don’t need those kinds of fancy features for the fairly basic use I plan to make of it.

The one problem I can see – and this may simply be me not fully understanding the “mind map” concept overall – is that the links in the mind map can only be set up hierarchically. There’s no way to link “lower” entries in the mind map chain to more than one “higher” entry. “Hierarchical” still seems like a “linear” conceptual arrangement to me, which I thought mind mapping was supposed to help avoid linear thinking?

That’s why I’ve finally settled on a mind mapping tool called Labyrinth. Sure it’s GNOME-based, and I’m very much a KDE guy for preference, but the very lightness of features in this case is preferable for me. Pretty much all Labyrinth can do is let you place text on a virtual canvas and create links between them. That includes non-hierarchical links between multiple nodes. That works for me.

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The new folk culture, intellectual property law

When scholars talk about “culture”, they can be referring to a disconcertingly large number of things. One thing in particular that they can be referring to is the idea that culture comes in two types. There’s “high” culture, which incorporates all the allegedly superior cultural forms like classical music, ballet and avant-garde art. Then there’s “low” or “popular” culture, which is what is enjoyed by the rest of us plebs: prime-time television, Hollywood blockbusters, comic books and the like.

High culture hasn’t changed much from the 20th century to the 21st, but it seems to me that “popular” culture has diverged quite clearly into two forms. There’s mass popular culture, which is much the same as popular culture was last century. But the rise of networked communication media seems to have elevated a sort of “folk” culture to the same level of popular prominence that was previously only enjoyed by the cultural products of mass media. The most obvious cultural artifact that exists in this cultural tradition is the Internet meme. Another example would be fan fiction.

True, there’s always been a sort of folk culture even in modern society, as the existence of lullabies, nursery rhymes, and children’s schoolyard games can attest. But it’s notable that the content of this folk culture is almost exclusively stuff that is passed on to children when they are children. The new “folk” culture is the domain of adults, and unlike the old “folk” culture, it produces new material.

Admittedly it’s also quite parasitic of the culture propagated through mass media. The Futurama Fry meme wouldn’t exist otherwise, for example. But interestingly enough, mass media entities are starting to work the process in reverse, incorporating artifacts from this new folk culture into their mass-produced products.

Warner Bros incorporated Nyan Cat and Keyboard cat into one of their computer games. This caused a somewhat-unexpected problem when the owners of copyrighted and trademarked content in those memes (the creator of the video in the case of Keyboard Cat, the creator of the pop-tart cat animation in the case of Nyan Cat) sued Warner Bros, claiming violation of their intellectual property.

I presume that these two folk culture “authors” are okay with non-commercial use of their properties. Their actual legal complaint, claims that “many other companies, respecting plaintiffs’ property rights, regularly pay substantial license fees to use plaintiffs’ memes commercially”. Even so, the fact that a lawsuit like this even exists is somewhat discombobulating.

I’m accustomed to thinking of copyright and trademark law, at least as they currently exist, as very poorly suited to the contemporary media environment. This is in no small part because of the existence of this new folk culture of which Nyan Cat and Keyboard Cat are a part. The usual narrative when cultural content, a big company, one or two isolated individuals, and a lawsuit are involved is that the big company is suing the isolated individuals for trying to enjoy the cultural content in a way that doesn’t make the big company money. This situation is….somewhat different.

It also seems fair enough – if Warner Bros is going to profit from their game (and this game is described in the legal complaint as “top-selling”), then why should they profit from Nyan Cat and Keyboard Cat? Does Warner Bros allow its copyrighted content to be used by other people, even if other people are making zero profit from that use?

At the same time, it’s discomforting, using a legal weapon like IP law against Warner Bros. That’s the preferred weapon that corporate “monopolies of cultural knowledge” like Warner Bros have been using to maintain their monopoly over the right to use our own culture’s cultural artifacts. Is there any other way, besides intellectual property law, to prevent commercial exploitation of the (what I’d always assumed to be) non-commercial “folk culture” of the Internet?

Probably premature and excessively detailed reflections on the cultural implications of the not-yet released Man of Steel movie, with reference to America and its changing self-image

I’m still trying to find a voice for my blogging here. Although you don’t really have a “voice” in text. I perhaps mean an “identity” for the blog, but for reasons a bit difficult to explain right now I’m leery of anything that suggests that a blog like this should have something as stable and permanent as an “identity”. An “identity performance” perhaps? It seems to have the right combination of presentational display and emergent potentiality. So consider this particular entry a rehearsal. I enter this particular rehearsal in a genre I would like to call “reflecting on popular culture”.

There really hasn’t been a good Superman movie since Superman 2. The attempt at a sequel slash reboot in “Superman Returns” was disappointing. One online comic book fan described Superman Returns as “Brian Singer’s fan film of Richard Donnner’s Superman film”. That sounds about right to me: Singer’s film really had no identity of its own. I started watching it, and couldn’t finish as I got a strong sense that I’d basically seen this movie already, and in a sense I had: I’d watched the same “rescue Lois from a flying vehicle” scene in Donner’s movie, the same sassy talkback from a female underling in the original movie’s Miss Teschmacher, even pretty much the same Luther plot to get rich through Real Estate via geo-engineering (combining nuclear power with a massive fault line in Donner’s movie, utilising Kryptonian crystal-tech[tm] in the remake, er, “continuation”). Even this halfway decent attempt to relaunch the original Superman saga was disappointing. Let’s not even discuss Superman 3 and Superman 4.

So what was missing? Superman Returns did have some original material: Superman’s voyage to the remains of Krypton (explaining why he’s been absent from Earth for 5 years) Lois’ marriage to someone other than Clark/Superman in the meantime, the 5-year old son (who has an interesting aspect of him that has no effect whatsoever on anyone’s characterisation the way it really ought to). And yet none of this material, it seems to me, rescued it from being a retread of a movie that came out in the 1970s.

It took another movie, this time a complete reboot, one that isn’t even out yet to boot, to clarify the problem, offer – through its trailers at least – an enticing solution, and prompt comic fanboys, long resigned to never seeing a decent non-Batman movie made about a DC-branded superhero, to think that maybe, just maybe, Man of Steel (due for cinematic release in June this year) might actually be good.

Superman is an American icon. Debuting in 1938, Superman was the first superhero (although it would be several decades after his inception that he and the other “mystery men” of the 1940s would start being called that). He is also, in the opinion of many, the very epitome of the boring invincible hero. Invulnerable (unless there’s Kryptonite around), with speed, strength and some subsidiary powers that make him essentially a physical god (unless…ditto), it’s hard to inject any dramatic tension into stories about the big guy. Mediocre writers have him encounter Kryptonite – lots and lots and lots of it, depending on how poorly conceived the writing is (hello Smallville Season 1,  and possibly others – I only watched a few episodes after that, mostly just the ones where they introduced other DC heroes). Better writers…..

Well.

The first trailer for Man of Steel was fairly generic. We see some disconnected shots of what would appear to be Clark Kent, as a child, as a bearded (huh?) adult in various fragmented contexts, along with a voice-over with fairly generic boilerplate about how Superman’s going to be an inspiration figure. We finish with what is clearly Superman (even if he’s missing his well-known externally-worn red underoos easily clearing Mach I in the upper atmosphere.

The second trailer was the first indicator that Man of Steel might be very different from the familiar story of Superman, even if much has remained the same. The third trailer was the one that really grabbed me, and, going by commentary I’ve seen around the place, I’m not the only one who’s actually excited to see this movie based on what little we’ve seen so far – assuming it lives up to the trailers of course (hence why this post is almost certainly premature). I post now because I see in these trailers an understanding of what it is that makes Superman compelling as a character, and why this movie made the changes it did.

Superman is American mythology.

This is much more than Superman as historical figure in American stories, fighting for Truth, Justice and the American Way. I don’t just mean that he’s a mythological figure (though he certainly is that), I mean that he is mythology:  Superman is an expression of America’s hopes, dreams, and most suprissingly (and importantly) of all for this new movie, America’s fears.

It is my belief that, mythologically speaking, Superman is America’s ideal representation of itself. From the time of the Second World War, the figure of Superman has represented America’s belief in a force that can be effectively supremely powerful yet utterly, unequivocally moral and righteous. Even in times of cynicism, when the American Dream might have wavered, the belief in at least the possibility of an unequivocally and inarguably righteous expression of supreme power didn’t waver.

The novelty in the presentation of Clark Kent in the trailers? People are scared of him. Clark’s adoptive parents expect people to be scared of him. In trailer 2, Pa Kent suggests that, in order to avoid discovery,  Clark should have perhaps let an entire busload of people drown rather than use his powers to save them.

This is what was missing in Superman Returns: an understanding that Superman is mythology. More: what was missing was an understanding of how changing times have prompted a change in mythology, and how America’s current, extremely trouble self-understanding can be expressed (needs to be expressed?) in the mythology that is Superman.

The Dark Knight was once described to me as a movie that was entirely appropriate for Bush’s America: extra-legal force in the figure of the Batman attacked threats from outside of society that the law didn’t, and quite possibly couldn’t, handle. The Joker was less a man than a force of nature, who would gladly throw away everything, including his own life, for the sake of demonstrating that the social order and moral values underpinning everyday life, “the Plan” as he called it, were worthless, at best a way of avoiding confronting the gruesome realities of things like the routine mass murders that pervade the globe, at worst an excuse for justifying similar atrocities for our own selfish ends. The conflict between law and chaos, of when it is adn isn’t appropriate to step outside the social code we have set up, is never, to my mind, completely resolved in the movie. I think that’s part of its appeal.

America is well into the post-Bush era now. I would say that many (regrettably not all) Americans have had to confront some unpleasant realities about what it means to claim to wield power for allegedly moral ends in the face of the festering mess that is Iraq. America can no longer believe in a supreme power that labels itself morally righteous without expecting the claim to moral righteousness to be met with skepticism, if not outright disbelief.

The movie Man of Steel, if written well (and a small point of hope in this matter is that its most prominent writers also worked on the story and screenplay of The Dark Knight), would be an attempt to work through those questions. If it’s written really well, it will hopefully also illustrate how to write an interesting Superman story that doesn’t have to keep resorting to green rocks to try and create dramatic tension: it will explore Superman’s struggle with himself.

Superman can do anything, but should he? This too is American mythology. It is, I think, the struggle America now faces in the wake of questions about the morality of its power.

Working these things out culturally and mythologically rather than through simple rational debate is important, I think, because rational debate can only provide answers to established questions, and isn’t well-suited to moral, as oppossed to instrumental, evaluations. The cultural rumination that occurs through works of art, even works of “low” art like Hollywood blockbusters, is I think  a culture’s way of trying to figure out what the currrentl important questions to try and answer actually are, and to try to understood what the moral implications of the answers might be. From the trailers of Man of Steel alone, I can already see questions being formulated. The first comes from Jor-El, as played by Russell Crowe, whose  response to his wife’s concern that the Earthlings will kill their baby boy out of terror is delivered with such pitch-perfection that I can basically forgive him the entirety of his performance in Les Miserables for it: “How?”

The question asked is: can anyone except America do anything about the supreme power of America? This movie would appear to answer “no”. We shall see.

The second question comes from the second trailer, where Ma Kent is trying to deal with a situation that no parent should ever have to deal with: her young son’s super-hearing has developed, and he can’t turn it off. She has to teach him how to “make the world small” so that he isn’t utterly overwhelmed by it.

The obvious question here is how one might harness a supreme power that is spiralling out of control. The less obvious, and I think more important, question is whether or not America has lost control of the ability to effectively control its own power. The suggested answer in the trailer seems to be that introspection is required, possibly guided by a trusted external guardian – if America could be said to have such a thing.

The final question arises from the figure of Superman himself, and it’s interesting that at no point in the trailer is Clark Kent ever referred to as “Superman”. The one time Lois Lane comes close, she gets cut off. Is it still possible to believe in something that is supremely powerful, and that is also entirely, unequivocally moral?

I suspect, going from Jor-El’s monologue, that the answer the movie provides will be yes – eventually. What I will be watching the movie for, and what I hope it can provide, is an interesting cultural journey in terms of how that question could possibly get answered in the affirmative.

We have few heroes. We don’t have many myths. We should pay attention to them. They tell us things about ourselves – things we ourselves may not realise.

An interesting cultural and commercial indicator, or: When Status Updates Sold Out

IMAG0202

This is a photo of a billboard ad I took along Flinders street, Melbourne. If you click to enlarge it, you can see the purpose of the ad explained by the smaller  text: “get a useful status update”, followed by an exhortation to “bookmark” the website of Metro, the company that runs the rail system in Melbourne, for all your public transport needs. I photographed it because I find it fascinating as an example of just how pervasive the use of the Internet in general and social media has become in Australia, not just in terms of how many people use it and how often (check out this survey from the Australian Bureau of Statistics for that kind of info), but in terms of the current Australian cultural situation.

In order to even understand this ad, a person has to know what a “status update” is, first of all. But the emotional resonance of the ad stems from the shared cultural understanding – an understanding shared even by non-users of social media, an understanding which is often the reason why they don’t use social media – of “oversharing”, or a person writing status updates that are judged not worthy of being shared (or perhaps in more subjective terms, are judged a waste of the reader’s time). The ad, in order to be effective, assumes that there’s enough of an audience of passers-by near Flinders Station (where I found it) who both understand and appreciate the parody of a status update that the ad is using for it be able to effectively encourage people to engage in what the ad deems a “useful” use of your mobile phone – bookmarking the Metro website.

What, no app? What does that say about the current diffusion of smartphones (as opposed to merely Internet-capable ones like the old 2003 Nokia model I had ages ago) in Australia? Or is the lack of smartphone apps merely about the limit’s of Metro’s IT budget?

In any case, this ad is surely a notable cultural indicator of where we are as a society, when cultural attitudes about what’s good and bad in an online environment are deemed viable forms of commercially exploiting a general, not just  niche, audience. Sorry, fellow freaks, geeks and queers: the Internet’s gone totally mainstream.

Umm…

From the NBN’s website at http://www.nbn.gov.au/news-and-media/broadband-trends/ explaining what’s so great about the proposed NBN:

Internet signals move through the NBN fibre at the speed of light, so as advances in network electronics occur, that equipment can be upgraded to meet our increasing demands for higher speeds.

I think I must be missing something here. What has the speed of data in fibre-optic cable got to do with the ability to supply future bandwidth?