Officer McGruff returns

The last time I saw Officer McGruff, he was trying to convince my fifth grade class to avoid the perils of drug use. It looks like he has been re-appropriated for the 21st century, this time fighting cyber-crime. Hopefully he will be more effective on the war against online predators than the war against drugs 🙂

Social Software meets Institutional Digital Repositories

pocket_iconI have been so busy the last few months I’ve realized that my blog is gathering dust. I haven’t even gotten around to removing the spam. Oh well. Anyways, I thought I would post the completion of big project that I have been working on for the last few months called PocketKnowledge. It is essentially the fusion of software used for institutional digital repositories (DSpace, etc.) with Social Software (Flickr,, etc.). We are currently running it is a beta-test at Teachers College, Columbia University. This will be an interesting case to see how Web 2.0 works within more institutional contexts. It has a lot of neat features, such as RSS readers and RSS outputs, user groups and commenting, and beaucoup user control. Check it out at

Experimenting with Latent Semantic Analysis

I am officially done with paper writing for the summer. I now have a whopping week before Fall begins (sigh).

Below is my final paper for the Psychology course I took this summer:

Abstract: The aim of this paper is to test both the practical use value and the psychological underpinnings of Latent Semantic Analysis (LSA), which is a statistical theory and method for extracting and representing the contextual meaning of words. To test the practical use value, we will use LSA to analyze a large corpus of articles within a particular discourse and ask, can LSA decide which category each article goes in? Is LSA able to categorize as well as a human editor? To test LSA’s ability to simulate psychological processes, we will experiment with Kintsch, Patel and Ericson’s (1999) hypothesis that the semantic space created by LSA is similar to an expert’s Long Term Working Memory (LTWM).

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Limited Capacity Model and the Cognitive Processing of Television Shows

I’ve been feeling like a paper mill lately. The summer classes I took seemed pretty heavy on the written word (the sunshine is no guarantee of reprieve). Here’s the paper I wrote for the Psychology of Media course.

Overview: In Everything Bad is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter, Steven Johnson argues that television is making people smarter. He bases his claim on two factors: 1) present-day viewers prefer complex and fast-paced television, with more characters and narrative threads, and 2) he makes the general observation that IQ scores are increasing. Despite Johnson’s well-intentioned effort, certain questions remain. In particular, how can we be sure that the human cognitive system is able to fully process this more complex popular culture? Although 24 is undoubtedly more complex than Dallas, how can we be sure that consumers are fully “getting-it�? To begin to answer this question, I will perform an analysis of two television shows created approximately 30 years apart, 24 and Starsky and Hutch. To analyze these television shows, I will employ the Limited Capacity Model of Mediated Message Processing. I believe that this model not only provides a fecund framework for understanding television message processing, but it also raises some questions regarding Johnson’s claims. I hope to answer the following question: are we able to process more complex media today than we were 30 years ago (hence concluding that we are smarter), or has our culture and tastes simply changed, leading us to simply misunderstand more of what we are watching.
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Everything Bad is Good for You

I recently completed reading Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad Is Good For You. Having heard Johnson on WNYC promoting his book and discussing the ways in which new media forms, particularly video games and television programming, were affording cognitive benefits to its consumers, I was intrigued enough to pick-up a copy.

Rather than reiterate his argument (you may find any number of recaps throughout the web), I will instead forward some concerns. First, however, I should note that I do believe that he is correct in asserting that some forms of media are providing a “cognitive workout� to its consumers, particularly in the sense that it provides an expanded opportunity to exercise and challenge problem solving skills. If we temporarily set aside some larger issues, many video games immerse its users into a fecund world of problem, solution finding and reward. I think winning in these worlds can provide a sense of efficacy and reward that is often lacking in “the real world�. Thus, I think Johnson is right in seeking the ways one is rewarded when engaging with a digital environment (whether the user is granted something needed to move-up in a game, or the way one finds humor in getting an inside-joke on television).

However, problem-solving is only one aspect of life (and in my opinion, not particularly the most important). Too often, contemporary discourses, backed by psychology and cognitive science, over-emphasize the importance of problem solving skills to the detriment of other aspects. I came to this awareness through my years as a Computer Science undergraduate, where the program demanded constant problem solving and the students were more than willing and particularly apt in fulfilling this demand. Despite their aptitude for solving problems, the students were one sided: they could solve a problem, yet failed to formulate a vision for society where they took into account why such problems were being solved. Questions such as why x technological widget should be produced and what is its value to humanity were rarely asked.

Hence, my question of Johnson’s book is one of production. Can the children of mass-media and video game culture produce their own problems, guided by a vision of themselves, their contemporaries, and the world at large? If such a vision can be articulated, will it consider the dire circumstances plaguing most of the world, or will it only further the proliferation of problem solving environments, leading to a new generation of cognitive geniuses who shy away from the world’s authentic problems? Will the immense problem solving capacity ever be target towards world hunger and poverty, or simply the further accumulation of private capital?

The problem with discussing the “content� of video games or television is that it always falls into the traditional categories of morals and ethics, where sex and violence are the chief concerns. I do not care so much about these things but more so about the ability for one to find purpose and meaning in life. Are we providing such an avenue for today’s youth, or is our best hope the pleasure found in solving complicated problems, irrespective of the actual problem being solved? Although solving complicated problems is surely preferable to the mind-numbingly dull tasks required of work in the industrial age, is this the best that we can offer?

The Newest Postmodern Artifact?

Life Is RandomI re-read this week (for class) Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Jameson argues that postmodernism signals the end of the self as an individual monad. He specifically sites how modernist conceptions of affect, as illustrated in Munch’s The Scream, are replaced in postmodernism by feelings that have significantly waned and are “free-floating and impersonal�. The postmodern self does not view his life as an unfolding drama of unquestionable importance, as one might find in the modernist works of Camus, but rather experiences life as “series of pure and unrelated presents in time�.

I couldn’t help but notice the extent to which the postmodern aesthetic (we will bracket the larger existential issue for the sake of brevity) has come to dominate the cultural sphere. When Jameson wrote Postmodernism, he employed the greatest examples of the day: Warhol’s shoes, the Bonaventure hotel, etc. Such examples, although illustrative, now seem like modernist exemplars when compared to Apple’s advertisements for the iPod shuffle, which I think is the fullest reification of the postmodern aesthetic to-date. While walking home through Herald Square, and looking up and seeing “Life is Random�, I couldn’t help but think Jameson was right.