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In July of 2007, J.K. Rowling published the final book of her Harry Potter series. It was amazing conclusion to a fantastic series, but it was also difficult for fans to come to terms with the fact that the series was now over. Four years later, Rowling brought new hope to her fans with the launch of Pottermore – an online database of her never-before-seen writing about characters, places and plots.

As Lev Manovich points out in The Language of New Media, databases are typically thought of as a radical departure from the narrative form, as they are searchable and arbitrarily organized. However, the original Pottermore site brought narrative form to the database by requiring users to move through a Hogwarts storyline to unlock database objects. For example, if you wanted to know more about where Rowling drew inspiration in creating Professor McGonagall, you had to attend transfiguration class and click on McGonagall rather than simply searching for her. To unlock further levels and progress through the site, you had to get sorted into a house and play flash games. This created a more stimulating user experience than simply clicking through a collection of wiki entries containing Rowling’s thoughts.

Users moved through the site in a progression that mirrored the books.

While many younger people found this organization of the site entertaining, adults often found the simple flash games a nuisance that stood between them and immersion in the real lifeblood of the Harry Potter universe, Rowling’s writing. As such, Pottermore has since been reorganized into a more traditional, wiki-style database, albeit a beautiful and extremely well designed database.

The new, more traditional Pottermore site.

Posted from DIG101 Blog by Noah R.

Smarterchild and Eldercare Bots

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I’ll never forget my first online account. I was in fourth grade when my friends told me about AIM instant messaging. Having grown up in a house with no other kids my age in walking distance, opportunities to talk to my friends outside of school during the week were highly limited if those friends were not on my baseball team. Naturally, I loved AIM and spent hours online chatting with my friends. However, there were times when I would get online to find that none of my friends were on at that time, and that’s when I discovered Smarterchild.

A sample conversation with Smarterchild (courtesy of Whiskey Riff).

Conversations with Smarterchild were interesting (especially to a bored 10-year-old) because of how human it sounded some times, and how clearly artificial it sounded most times. Either way, it usually made me laugh for a bit until I got bored and signed off. It entertained me, but never for longer than 10-15 minutes.

In his book The Industries of the Future, Alec Ross explains how the need for more eldercare in an aging population is driving Asian robotics companies to develop robots that can take care of grandma and grandpa. While such firms have successfully created robots that can perform a multitude of tasks for their dependents, developers are still struggling to create robots that can connect on an emotional level. However, as the AI that powers these robots advances, they will learn more quickly than ever, and will soon be able to mimic human emotions.

Courtesy of Dale Thomas on Quora.

Posted from DIG101 Blog by Noah R.

Power Hungry Trolls

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Everyone is familiar with internet trolls; they are a nuisance most of the time and occasionally a real problem.  Sometimes friends will joke around and troll one another, but this occasional online banter is not enough to properly categorize such people as trolls. Real trolls are relentless, obstructionist and power hungry.

The troll from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, taken from Giphy.

In her Los Angeles Times article, Patt Morrison argues that trolls are typically men from privileged backgrounds as evidenced by their tendency to attack women and minorities. This in unsurprising because most of internet trolling revolves around power. Trolls make themselves feel powerful by deliberately taking power away from their targets. By calling people names, offering unfair critiques, spreading misinformation, arguing inflammatory viewpoints, et cetera, trolls assert their ability to distract, confuse and degrade their targets. While not necessarily a precursor to supremacism, there are undoubtedly similarities shared by those who troll strangers and those who simply proclaim that other people are lesser than they are. As society has progressed, many of those who are privileged and who used to have all of the power – namely white men – have done what they can to retain their former power. Such people have lost enough power that they now choose to hide their attacks on the less fortunate behind the mask of anonymity, making the internet the perfect medium for their attacks.

By allowing people to interact anonymously with people whose identities are known, the internet creates an information asymmetry. In chapter two of Freakonomics, authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner explore how information asymmetries are exploited by two very different groups: real estate agents and the KKK. While these are two groups arbitrarily chosen for analysis, information asymmetries exist everywhere and give groups that control the information a powerful advantage until the asymmetries are corrected. Following this analysis, internet trolls will continue to be a problem until the information asymmetry is corrected, and their ability to post anonymously is stripped away.

Posted from DIG101 Blog by Noah R.

Counter GIFs

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Reaction GIFs

An example of a reaction GIF.
Our group’s counter-reaction GIF.

The above GIF of a Newton’s Cradle counters the typical reaction GIF because it is an action without a reaction. Newton is most famous for his pioneering work in the field of mechanical physics, and Newton’s Cradles exemplify the principle of conservation of energy. However, this GIF shows only the initiating action and stops before the reaction of the furthest ball. People like reaction GIFs because they can relate to those reactions. They do not, however, finding and initiating action relatable, making the GIF unexciting to watch because it does not evoke an emotion in the viewer.

Sports GIFs

An example of a sports GIF.
Our group’s counter-sports GIF.

Sports GIFs highlight exciting, funny, and dramatic moments in sports. The example of the Dolphins’ holder getting hit in the face mask is an example of a hilarious mistake that a viewer may connect with and relate to. For example, when a math class has easy homework but a really hard exam, a student might use this GIF to describe the unexpected difficulty of the test. Our group’s counter-sports GIF shows a routine punt by the Atlanta Falcons; no mistakes are made, but there is also nothing remarkable about the play. With nothing particularly good or bad about the play, it defeats the purpose of a sports GIF because routine plays do not provoke the viewer’s emotions.

Fandom GIF

An example of a fandom GIF.
My example of a counter-fandom GIF.

Fandom GIFs provoke emotions in viewers by clipping just a few seconds of a significant scene from a popular work of film or television. I chose the scene when Gandalf fights the Balrog on the bridge of Khazad-dûm because of Sir Ian McKellan’s iconic declaration “You shall not pass!” – one of the most dramatic scenes in all of fantasy film. To counter this GIF, I created a GIF of Frodo and Sam simply walking across a field in the Shire. One of the major complaints LOTR fans have is the amount of time dedicated to Frodo and Sam simply traveling, and this GIF only evokes feelings of boredom.


The recurring theme throughout my analyses is that a good GIF provokes one’s thoughts and evokes certain emotions in the viewer. Counter GIFs, on the other hand, are uninteresting and leave the viewer wondering why they took the time to watch the GIF at all, thereby defeating the purpose of making a GIF out of the clip in question.

Posted from DIG101 Blog by Noah R.

Lost Imagination

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If a picture is worth a thousand words, why use words at all? This seems to be the thought process behind the increasingly image driven communications of the millennial generation. Instead of writing letters, talking on the phone or even texting, more and more young people are communicating through apps like Snapchat and by sending memes and GIFs. While memes and GIFs often capture thoughts and feelings well, they also remove a certain level of imagination and creativity from our communications. Rather than considering carefully how to encode their feelings into language, young people are choosing to browse libraries of images and short clips in order to match their emotions to a piece of media that someone else created. If these memes and GIFs are worth a thousand words, then sending one to a friend to convey a message about yourself is like taking a three page paper that someone else wrote about what he or she was feeling at a particular moment and using it for yourself.

This change in communication plays into a larger move away from the written word. Jordan Weissmann of The Atlantic outlines this departure in his article The Decline of the American Book Lover. Weissmann cites data from Gallup and Pew that shows a roughly threefold increase from 1978 to 2014 in the percentage of Americans who did not read a single book in the last year.

Courtesy of The Atlantic.

This startlingly trend away from the written word may prove to have adverse effects to a generation that chooses to imagine less and meme more.


Posted from DIG101 Blog by Noah R.

Taking the Nuclear Option

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Our world consumes a lot of energy – 19,710 billion kilowatt-hours in 2012, according to “The Environmental Toll of a Netflix Binge” by Ingrid Burrington of the The Atlantic. To satiate the world’s ravenous appetite for energy, we use a variety of renewable and nonrenewable resources. Obviously there is a limit to what we can produce from our finite supply of nonrenewable resources, but that limit may actually be much higher than we currently believe. This is due to one method of producing energy that is often overlooked because of certain stigmas – nuclear energy.

Nuclear Energy is often stigmatized by the fear of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear energy is an excellent source of power because it takes relatively little fissionable material to produce a stupendous amount of energy. Furthermore, it is surprisingly safe. Very few workers have ever died in accidents at nuclear power plants, especially when compared to deaths at coal mines and oil rigs. Additionally, fears of nuclear power plants exploding like a nuclear bomb are completely unfounded because nuclear power plants cannot explode. While the uranium used to produce nuclear power is only about 4-5% enriched, nuclear bombs require uranium that is 90% enriched. This means that the uranium used by nuclear power plants cannot sustain a chain reaction, and will not explode in the manner that nuclear bombs do.

Taken from The World Nuclear Association.

The last major argument for nuclear power is the possibility of nuclear fusion power, which would produce a virtually unlimited source of energy. Nuclear fusion is idea because it uses heavy hydrogen isotopes abundantly found in seawater and does not produce radioactive waste. The only problem is we haven’t been able to produce and contain the extreme conditions necessary to facilitate its production. However, nuclear fusion represents the potential for virtually unlimited, clean (though nonrenewable) energy.

Posted from DIG101 Blog by Noah R.

Social Escape

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Technology is often criticized for its distracting presence, causing its users to be absent even when physically present. Parents may find it difficult to wrest their child’s attention away from an iPad screen, or a professor may be uncertain whether a student is using her computer to take notes or message friends during class. In such cases, the person or people being distracted are often unaware of their own level of distraction.

However, technology can also be used to escape a situation. Millennials are particularly adept at using technology for this purpose, and Bank of America’s Trends in Consumer Mobility Report finds that 40 percent of millennials admit to using their cell phones to avoid conversations. Here at Davidson this is readily apparent. Be it in the Union or at a weekend party in a Martin Court apartment, students are quick to draw their phones if approached by someone they would rather not speak to, or if they are afraid of being seen not speaking to anyone.

Taken from Bank of America report.

Both of these scenarios provide insight into millennials’ social behaviors. Now that people are constantly connected to their friends, they feel less need to put themselves in a position of vulnerability in order to meet new people. At the same time, millennials are intensely focused on creating a narrative of happiness and success that they share through their social media presence, and this narrative must be upheld in the physical world. So if a millennial is in a place where he does not know people and is uncomfortable meeting people, he may choose to simply pretend to use his phone in order to give the appearance that he is not awkwardly waiting for someone else to arrive that he can speak to, because appearances are everything.

Posted from DIG101 Blog by Noah R.

The Real Fear of Artificial Intelligence

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Fear of artificial intelligence (AI) did not always exist, but it has grown to become one of the main themes of science fiction in the last several decades. Famous examples include The Matrix, Terminator, and Neuromancer. At the same time, global technology companies such as Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon are rapidly pushing artificial intelligence into the mainstream through consumer devices like smart phones and home assistants. They have even given these AI assistants names like Alexa, Siri and Cortana.

In 2014, Stephen Hawking made headlines for his prediction that “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race” (see the full BBC article here). Hawking argues that the speed with which computers are capable of evolving their digital thought processes is much faster than the biological evolution that humans undergo, which creates the potential for them to quickly get out of control. On the other hand, Hawking acknowledges the benefits that AI has brought so far, including the system that allows the professor to speak despite his advanced neurodegenerative disease, ALS.

While Western Civilization often takes a dystopian view of AI, Alec Ross, former advisor on innovation to Hillary Clinton, points out in his book Industries of the Future that Eastern countries do not share in this view of AI and robotics. Instead, they take the view that AI systems and robots will continue to serve their human creators and positively impact the world. In order to sustain the rapidly aging population, Asian tech companies are developing elder care robots that can care for and provide affection to senior citizens.

AI may be the end of us all, or it may be the most useful technology ever developed, but regardless of such uncertainty, we are charging toward a future laden with AI technologies. They learn quickly, so will they learn to love us or hate us?

Facebook created AI driven chat bots, then set up a conversation between the two. They quickly evolved their own, more efficient language. Picture from The Atlantic.

Posted from DIG101 Blog by Noah R.