Desert of My Real Life

I went to see Prometheus last week with some good friends. I had been eagerly anticipating the film, both because it has a great cast and because I LOVED the original Alien film. I had seen the original in the theater in 1979 when I was 16 and very impressionable. Because the film had been written with no particular gender in mind for Ripley, the main character, she was a strong lead, with none of the usual frailties associated with female lead characters. I loved Sigourney Weaver in this role, a great role model for a 16-year-old girl. Despite the few hints of misogyny in this first of the franchise movies (for example, the ship is called Mother and when she “betrays” the crew, Ripley calls her a bitch), the portrayal of women is surprisingly positive, especially for its time. I couldn’t have articulated these thoughts when I was 16 but I knew I loved it and Sigourney/Ripley and the movie stuck with me, prompting me to see the many sequels as they were released.

Prometheus, like that first Alien movie, was directed by Ridley Scott, a director whose work I have enjoyed at times and hated at other times. But I have almost always found his films interesting, with lots to talk about. I remember seeing Thelma and Louise with friends and having a long debate about whether the film presents a feminist perspective. That was an engaging question, one for which the film provides no easy answers. Ridley Scott’s perspective on women has so often been thought-provoking.

So imagine my disappointment when Prometheus turned out to be not only a horrible, boring movie but one full of simplistic, misogynistic moments. To see why the movie is horrible and boring, read these comments. To see why the movie is misogynistic, keep reading here.

I was a bit concerned early on in the movie when we discover that out of the ship’s crew of 14, only 3 are women. Very small percentage, especially when you consider that the crew of the Nostromos (the ship from Alien) had 2 women out of 7. Still not a great percentage but better than Prometheus. I guess job discrimination based on gender isn’t one of the things we will have eradicated by 2093 (the year the movie takes place). Some people are probably rolling their eyes at me right now, thinking I’m focused on bean-counting. So I’ll move on to some more blatant examples.

Two fairly early scenes of casual misogyny were of no consequence to the plot and so it’s difficult for me to understand why they were included. In the first, the two pilots are discussing a bet that they’ve made. One of the pilots says that perhaps if the other wins, he could use the money to pay for a lap dance from Vickers. Meredith Vickers is the character played by Charlize Theron. She is a strong woman who is in charge of the mission that they are on. And yet, to these pilots, she is another woman whose main purpose in life should be to give them sexual pleasure. In another scene, when there is a horrible storm raging outside the ship and two of the crew members are stranded in it, Janek, the captain of the ship, asks Vickers to have sex with him. She says no. He makes another comment (I can’t remember what it is but it was something like “Come on. You’ve got nothing better to do.”) and she changes her mind. Neither of these two scenes has anything to do with subsequent events and seem only to serve the purpose of marking Vickers as a sex object.

But the plot line that annoyed me most and made me actively hate the movie involves Elizabeth Shaw, the character played by Noomi Rapace of Girl With a Dragon Tattoo fame. Shaw is the hero of this movie and it’s clear at the end that the filmmakers hope she will become the Ellen Ripley of a new movie franchise with many sequels. Shaw is the embodiment of the movie’s conservative agenda. She is an archaeologist whose motivations are almost comically driven by her faith in God. There are numerous scenes that I could point to but I’ll focus on just two. At some point in the plot, Shaw is unconscious and one of the other characters begins to remove her cross from around her neck. Sensing this, she immediately wakes up and protests. The other character insists and so she allows the cross to be removed. A bit later in the movie, with danger all around her, she takes time to search for her cross and when finding it, puts it back on, saying “That’s better.” At another moment, after she and her fiance have had sex, she finds (despite an earlier, ham-fisted scene in which expresses her sadness at her inability to “create life”) that she is pregnant and not just with any fetus. This is some sort of alien fetus that anyone would want removed from her body immediately. Despite having been impregnated less than 24 hours earlier, she declares her desire for a caesarean. That’s right. A caesarean. No abortion for this hero. She spends the rest of the movie being ridiculously active despite the 12-inch incision closed with staples in her lower abdomen. What kind of movie would equate a caesarean with an abortion? And what kind of movie can’t use the word abortion even when removing scary, killer, alien life form from a woman’s body? One with an extreme, right-wing, conservative agenda that sees women as nothing more than their sexual and reproductive abilities. No need to debate whether this movie has a feminist perspective. It takes more than putting a woman in a leading role to create a feminist perspective.

I hope the next movie that I’m looking forward to doesn’t turn out to be such a disappointment. I’ll let you know after I see Brave this weekend.

{June 11, 2012}   Interaction Design

I’m reading an interesting book by Janet Murray called Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice. She is articulating things that I’ve thought for a long time but is also surprising me a lot, making me think about things in new ways. The book is about the digital medium and how objects that we use in this medium influence the way we think about the world. She argues that technological change is happening so quickly that our design for the medium hasn’t kept up. Designers use the conventions that work well in one environment in a different environment without really thinking about whether those conventions make sense in that second environment. As a result we get user interfaces (which is a term she doesn’t like but which I’ll use because most people interested in these things have a pretty good idea of what we mean by the term) that are far too complex and difficult to understand.

One idea that strikes me as particularly important and useful is Murray’s argument that designers create problems when they separate “content” from the technology on which the “content” is viewed. Like McLuhan, Murray believes that “the medium is the message,”  by which she means “there is no such thing as content without form.” She goes on to explain, “When the technical layer changes, the possibilities for meaning making change as well.” In other words, if you change the device through which you deliver the content, the tools needed to help consumers understand that content should probably also change. My favorite personal example of the failure of this idea is the Kindle, Amazon‘s e-reader. I’ve owned my Kindle for about three years and I mostly love it. One thing that feels problematic to me, however, is the reporting of where you are in the book that you’re reading. Printed books are divided into chapters and pages and it is easy to see how much further the reader has to go to the end of the book. Readers trying to read the same book might have difficulty if they are using different editions because page numbers won’t match up but the divisions into chapters should still be the same. If a page of text in a physical book corresponds to a screenful of text on an e-reader, page numbers don’t really make sense in e-books, mainly because the reader can change the size of the font so that less or more text is able to be shown on the screen at a given time. This means that the Kindle doesn’t have page numbers. But readers probably want to be able to jump around e-books just as they do in physical books. And they want to know how much progress they’ve made in an e-book just as they do in a physical book. So Amazon introduced the idea of a “location” in their e-books. The problem with a “location,” however, is that I have no idea what it corresponds to in terms of the length of the book so using locations doesn’t give me a sense of where I am in the book. For that purpose, the Kindle will tell me the percentage of the book that I’ve currently read. I think the problem with these solutions is that the designers of the Kindle have pretty much used the idea of pages, changed it only slightly and unimaginatively, and it isn’t as informative in the digital medium as it is with a physical book. I don’t know what the solution is but Murray suggests that the e-reader designers should think about the difference between “content” and “information” in their design.

Murray distinguishes between “content” and “information” and thinks that device designers have problematically tried to separate content from the technology on which this content will be viewed. So the designers of the Kindle see the text of the book as the content, something they don’t have to really think about in designing their device. Instead, Murray suggests that they focus on information design, where the content, which in this case is the text, and the device, in this case the Kindle, cannot be separated. The designers should think about the affordances provided by the device in helping to design the information, which is meaningful content, with which the reader will interact.

Another example appeared in my Facebook timeline last week, posted there by one of my friends pointing out the fact that the Mitt Romney campaign is insensitive at best and hostile at worst to women. The post is a video of Romney’s senior campaign advisor Eric Fehrnstrom, appearing on This Week with George Stephanopolous a week ago, calling women’s concerns “shiny objects of distraction.” Watching it, I was annoyed and horrified by what I was supposed to annoyed and horrified by. But I also noticed the ticker tape Twitter feed at the bottom of the video. The headline-type feeds at the bottom of the screen on television news have become commonplace, despite the fact that they don’t work particularly well (in my opinion). I’ve always felt that the news producers must know that the news they are presenting is boring if they feel they have to give us headlines in addition to the discussion of the news anchors. But in the video of Romney’s aide, the rolling text at the bottom of the screen is not news headlines but a Twitter feed. So the producers of This Week have decided that while the “conversation” of the show is going on, they want to present the “conversation” that is simultaneously happening on Twitter about the show. There are several problems with this idea, not least of which is that most of the tweets that are shown in the video are not very interesting. In addition, the tweets refer to parts of the program that have already gone by. And finally, the biggest problem is that the Twitter feed recycles. In other words, it’s not a live feed. They show the same few comments several times. Someone must have thought that it would be cool to show the Twitter conversation at the same time as the show’s conversation but they didn’t bother to think carefully about the design of that information or even which information might be useful to viewers. Instead, they simply used the conventions from other environments and contexts in a not very useful or interesting way.

Another of Murray’s ideas that strikes me as useful is the idea of focusing on designing transparent interfaces rather than intuitive interfaces. Intuition requires the user to already understand the metaphor being used. In other words, the user has to understand how an object in the real world relates whatever is happening on the computer screen. This is not particularly “intuitive,” especially for people who don’t use computers. I’ve been thinking about the idea of intuitive interfaces since I started teaching computing skills to senior citizens. For them, it is not “intuitive” that the first screen you see on a Windows computer is your desktop. And once they know that, it isn’t “intuitive” to them what they should do next because it’s all new to them and so they don’t have a sense of what they CAN do. For example, they can put a piece of paper down on a real desktop. Metaphorically, you can put a piece of paper (a file) down on the Windows desktop but the manner in which you do that is not “intuitive.” The first question I always get when I talk about this is: How do I create a piece of paper to be put on the desktop? Of course, that’s not the way they ask the question. They say, “How do I create a letter?” That’s a reasonable question, right? But the answer depends on lots of things, including the software that’s installed on the computer you’re using. So the metaphor only goes so far. And the limitations of the metaphor make the use of the device not particularly intuitive.

Murray argues that focusing on “intuition” is not what designers should do. Instead, designers should focus on “transparency,” which is the idea that when the user does something to the interface, the change should be immediately apparent and clear to the user. This allows the user to develop what we have typically called “intuition” as she uses the interface. In fact, lack of transparency is what makes many software programs feel complex and difficult to use. Moodle, the class management system that my University uses, is a perfect example of non-transparent software. When I create the gradebook, for example, there are many, many options available for how to aggregate and calculate grades. Moodle’s help modules are not actually very helpful but if the software was transparent, that wouldn’t matter. I would be able to make a choice and immediately see how it changed what I was trying to do. That makes perfect sense to me as a way to design software.

This book is full of illuminating observations and has already helped me to think more clearly about the technology that I encounter.

{June 5, 2012}   Magical Thinking

You probably haven’t noticed that I’ve been away for awhile. But I have. In fact, this is my first post of 2012. I have no excuse other than to say that being the chair of an academic department is a time sink. Despite my absence, there have been a number of things over the last five months that have caught my attention and that I thought, “I should write a blog entry about that.” I’m sure I’ll get to many of those topics as I renew my resolve to write this blog regularly. But today, I encountered a topic so important, so unbelievable, so ludicrous, that I have to write about it.

One of my friends posted a link to Stephen Colbert’s The Word segment from last night. Go watch it. It’s smart and funny but incredibly scary for its implications. For those of you who don’t watch it, I’ll summarize for you. The word is “Sink or Swim” (and yes, I’m sure Colbert knows that isn’t a word–he’s ironic). Colbert is commenting in this segment on the fact that North Carolina legislators want to write a law that scientists can only compute predicted sea level rises based on historical data and historical rates of change rather than using all data available. In other words, scientists are not allowed to predict future rates of change in sea levels, only future sea levels. They cannot use the data that they have available that show that the rate of change itself is increasing dramatically. Instead, they can only predict the sea level based on how fast it has risen in the past. Colbert has a great analogy for this. He suggests that his life insurance company should only be able to use historical data in predicting when he will die. Historical evidence shows that he has never died. Therefore, his life insurance company can only use that evidence in setting his life insurance rates. Never mind the fact that there is strong evidence from elsewhere that suggest it is highly likely that he will die at some point in the future. The analogy is not perfect but I think it illustrates the idea.

Using all evidence, scientists are predicting sea levels will rise by about a meter (Colbert makes a funny comment that no one understands what this means because it’s in metric–that’s the subject of another post) before the end of the 21st century. If this is true, anyone who develops property along the coast will see their property underwater in a relatively short amount of time. Insurance rates for such properties will probably be astronomical and it might even be impossible for such development to occur because without insurance, loans may not be able to be secured. That’s not good for business. In what can only be called “magical thinking,” the North Carolina legislature is putting it into law that climate change models can only use historical sea level rising rates to make predictions about future sea levels. Such models ignore the data that suggests that the rate of rise in sea levels is increasing. This will make the historical rates of increase look incredibly slow. In fact, the bill actually says, “These rates shall only be determined using historical data, and these data shall be limited to the time period following the year 1900. Rates of seas-level rise may be extrapolated linearly … .” So despite evidence that sea levels are rising in a non-linear manner (because the rates of increase are actually increasing), predictions cannot use this fact. When scientists use a linear rate of increase, the models predict that sea levels will rise by “only” 8 inches by the end of the century. I think even these rates are scary, especially for coastal development projects, but scientists are pretty sure they vastly underestimate the extent of the danger. It’s as though these legislators think they can simply wish away climate change.

We live in a society where saying something is so is often as good as it being so. Is Barack Obama a citizen of the US? Evidence indicates that he actually is but critics persist in saying that he isn’t. As recently as 2010, 25% of survey respondents believed that he was born in another country and so isn’t eligible to be president. Were the 9/11 attackers from Iraq? Despite the objective evidence, 44% of the American public believe that several of them were Iraqis, which would then presumably be justification for the war in Iraq. Is global warming caused by humans? Despite overwhelming scientific opinion that it is, only 47% of the American public believe it is. Why do people believe these erroneous claims? Because the media (or at least parts of the media) advocate such positions. And because we are guilty of magical thinking. Say something is true and it will be true.

Scott Huler of Scientific American says it better than I can: “North Carolina legislators are now tossing around bills that not only protect themselves from concepts that make them uncomfortable, they’re DETERMINING HOW WE MEASURE REALITY.” Meanwhile, sea levels rise non-linearly, no matter what the North Carolina legislature legislates. And because we refuse to accept reality, we lose valuable time for an effort to reverse or at least to slow down this scary trend. So I have a tip for you: don’t buy any coastal property.

et cetera