Understanding Databases: It’s Super Important

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Manovich offers an artistic definition of a database and a few specific applications of the data structure, but I want to discuss the fundamentals of the technology alongside very popular sources of databases and the ethical, and slightly nerdy, importance of databases — the qualities of which carry physical affects and digital applications that require computational care while sometimes perpetuating moral questions.

What is a database?
In its simplest form a database is a sequence of rows and columns whose rows correspond to elements or packets of information, be it a person, tweet, google search result, etc. and whose column corresponds to a piece of the information: name, author, date posted, etc.

One of the most popular forms of databases is an SQL database. (SQL = “Structured Query Language”) Wherein the data exists as a table with columns the user can sort, alter and make queries or selections/filters to to get information out.

Where do we encounter databases?
In addition to video games, museums, and the generalized “Web” mentioned in Manovich’s work, there are a few increasingly popular examples of databases which have large impacts on the modern digital world.

Google: When we use the word ‘google’ we are simply referring to the interface used to access the database that the company Google has collected. “Spiders” or, as Google sometimes puts it, ‘web crawlers’ visit the entirety of the generally accessible ‘Internet’ and gather information which Google stores in their database. Users then query the data stored for information like articles, images, documents, webpages, etc. Google’s Search Algorithm holds similar structure to SQL databases is in its filtering and sorting of data by its diverse variables.

Facebook uses databases in its collection of human information. Which, of course, raises the digital-age old moral question: is it ethically sound to be collecting ‘personal’ data? That is, data from a vast group of people. The question stems less from the concept of the structure, as data is meant to be stored, and more from the extent and subject of the data that is being collected. See this previous blog post I made about the ethical dilemma of Facebook’s sometimes unsolicited collection of “private” data.*

Why are they important?
Beyond the artistic, cultural value that Manovich mentions, databases occupy physical space and computing power — something we’ve discussed in the past with cloud computing. Databases can easily be neglected as a computational ‘thing’ that collects data and exists purely in our digital ‘cloud’. Take google’s data center for example. There is no magical cloud that information floats across. It, instead, lies in the ones and zeroes of physical hard drives and memory devices that exist in factories sprinkled all across the world leading to real world impacts.

In the modern world this constant spread and collection of information has come to be a big part of our progress being made in the digital world today. The constant moral questions being asked, from Facebook’s collection of personal information to Trump’s proposed “database for muslims“, are all raising an equally important question of how, why, and for what should we use databases?

*Also, see this post for additional thoughts on data collection as a whole.

Posted from DIG101 by Tucker C.

The Future of AI is OpenAI

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As we look into bots in class, the first company that comes to mind in regards to artificial intelligence is OpenAI. Backed by Elon Musk, and many other funders like Amazon, OpenAI is a Machine Learning research company whose goal is to catapult our current intelligent technology far beyond its current level. What’s crazy is that the company actually accomplishes this by letting the computers teach everything to themselves.

Some of OpenAI’s most successful projects come from their self-play learning system: where apart from telling the computers when they are doing a good job, the computers themselves are left to figure out how to accomplish a task.

One example of this is OpenAI’s Dota 2 bot. Dota 2 is a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena game that has a huge competitive following. The bot itself is unlike the usual bots in the game because it isn’t given any sets of moves beforehand. The bot has to test the water for itself. It learns it has inputs, then that each input has an action, then that there are enemies that do harm, and positive things to do to combat attacks, etc. Until, like what happened around August 16th, 2017, the bot is perfectly capable of playing the game on it’s own.

It is still learning, though, and through more trial and error can only get better. You can read more about the specifics of their task here, but motivating the bots to use tactics that professionals use has given them an edge where they can beat even some of the best players in the world. One thing that is unique that is explained in this video is that the bot even learns from what the opponent is doing in real time. And, because in development the opponent is always a copy of the bot, it always has an equal competitor to learn from. Using pattern recognition and pre-developed strategies from previous generations of the bot, it develops ways to climb its own ladder of success.

Machine Learning is an incredible technology which, thanks to OpenAI and other frontrunners in the field, is helping us understand and progress society today. Although scary, this technology can be used for even more practical applications like prediction of spread of diseases, halting the spread of viruses, and more. It’s even starting to be put into our cars to make commuting safer and easier. Applications for Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning are everywhere, and are setting humanity up for using the technology to make slight improvements to our lives in the future.

for those curious, here’s actual gameplay:

Posted from DIG101 by Tucker C.

I Did It For The Lulz

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In class we are discussing internet trolling and the ways in which certain anonymous statements should be judged on the internet. The LATimes article highlighting the use of the word ‘lulz’ reminded me of the phrase it was often used in, coined by trolls in the early online world: ‘doing it for the lulz.’ Of course, as the article states, lulz “is a corruption of ‘laugh out loud'” but lulz is also a measure of trolls success:

“Trolls sense of accomplishment is refereed to as the lulz. Lulz is seeing someone’s frustration boil over from behind the computer or scaring off users of a site that you consider your own.” (Herman, 2014)

One of the most common ways trolls celebrated one’s lulz was to post on the forum website known as 4chan. 4chan consisted of pages where anonymous users could post threads with GIFs, images, text, etc. and flaunt their trolling successes. It was from this anonymous user medium that the world actually got Anonymous — a notorious hacktivist entity whose domain reaches online and offline communities — which sprouted out of a group of members on the website. Their name, ‘Anonymous’, actually comes from the anonymity of the site and the name the website gave its anonymous users. Just as discussed in the article we read, ‘We’re the reason we can’t have nice things on the internet’, Anonymous was born from 4chan board ‘/b/’, and so, too, was the biggest platform for lulz.

This is a clip from the movie “We Are Legion”, giving a brief explanation of Anon:

The idea of doing it for the lulz is actually the idea behind another big hacktivist group whose history parallels that of Anonymous, Lulz Security (or LulzSec). The LulzSec Wikipedia page accredits them with “claiming responsibility for several high profile attacks, including the compromise of user accounts from Sony Pictures in 2011. The group also claimed responsibility for taking the CIA website offline.

Their calling card, a cartoon of a man with a monocle sipping wine (), is now a meme that is often associated with ‘lulz’ today. One thing that is interesting, and common among these hacktivist trolls like Anonymous and LulzSec as 4chan has died down, is the use of Twitter to spread their messages. LulzSec used to post about and take credit for their success through the social media platform under the handle @LulzSec. LulzSec, as a whole, has since died down following arrests of many major members and the leader, Matthew Flannery, in 2013. However, although their main handle hasn’t posted since 2014, Twitter accounts associated with the group still exist and are active in the hacktivist community. The accounts are more decentralized and don’t get nearly as much media attention as they used to. They do, however, still ‘do it for the lulz’.

The problem with doing it for the lulz, as discussed in the articles, is that you are gaining laughs at other peoples’ expense. Which brings up a question of morality and if it is okay for people online to be getting a laugh out of other peoples’ misery. In many cases these hacks, which were often what cued the lulz, exposed very personal parts of peoples’ lives. Also, without attackers facing repercussions they might usually face away from the keyboard, there really isn’t anything stopping them from continuing their bullying of real people. Part of the reason they do it is because their target’s “deserve it”…  but this definitely goes beyond the bounds of peoples’ privacy.


Additional Video: history of anonymous
Also, a brief history of anonymous

Posted from DIG101 by Tucker C.

Lab 3: Countering Examples of Popular GIFs

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“an intervention into the practice of making GIFs”




Fandom GIFs are used to highlight a specific scene from a particular show or movie and generally are either an important scene or have some sort of underlying emotion that conveys importance. An example of this is a scene from Bee Movie where Barry the bee is running into a window. This scene comes as he is first wandering around the world. My counter to this type of GIF is the entire movie. It’s sped up, so you aren’t sitting for 2 hours watching it, but it in turn doesn’t highlight a particular scene. This is, of course, an exaggeration of the idea of clipping your favorite scene from a movie — because in this case nothing is left out.




Cinemagraph GIFs are really cool. They are GIFs in which only one element of the image is moving. It let’s the creator highlight a certain part of the image. In this case, the bubbles being blown across the screen. In my counter example, however, there is no movement. I assure you, it is a GIF — and I did start with the same photo. But it only has one frame so there is no perceived motion. You are almost expecting the bubbles to move along the screen, but they don’t. They complete absence of the motion in the image takes it away from its use as a cinemagraph, but as it still stems from the original you’re almost anticipating the cinemagraphic motion. This is, like my counter-fandom example, an exaggeration: of the restriction of motion in a GIF (because in this case there is no motion).




Reaction GIFs are images in which the action triggers some sort of reaction from the viewer — or, really, a GIF in which the subject of the image is offering an emotion or reaction. Typically reaction GIFs are used in quick conversations when words would take to long to explain your emotions. I chose a sloth from the movie Zootopia showing happiness or surprise for something that is happening. For my counter example of the GIF I added a few effects to it. First, I started by reversing the action in the image, to hopefully give the opposite reaction of the GIF. Which worked, the sloth now looks like it is going from happy to content… but I wanted to frustrate the viewer even more so I slowed the speed of the GIF down considerably. I mean, you sit there so long waiting for the reaction and it never really comes. This takes the GIF away from it’s usage as a quick reaction — and I don’t see this fitting much in conversations where GIFs replace words, because explaining the reaction in text would go much faster than this GIF.

Posted from DIG101 by Tucker C.

Spreading Cultural Awareness Through GIF

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GIFs are short, animated images which offer the meaning a video would but without the audio or size of a video file. We learned in this article that although most can be funny, others can also be used or categorized to spread racist, hateful, or hurtful imagery.

I found a neat article by Mashable, however, showing a positive example of GIF’s influence in which GIFs are used to celebrate and honor black culture and history.

GIPHY, a leading database company which holds the majority of the internet’s GIFs, ran a program for the month of February honoring Black History Month. GIPHY dedicated its efforts to providing “users with GIFs showing the black American experience”, which it hoped would fill the void in black-cultural representation online.

The works published in the first wave highlighted black leaders and offered descriptions of their influence like “Toni Morrison is one of the most prominent literary icons of the 20th century, and rightfully so, as she is the first Black woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature.” And while some were reuploads, they also took the time to illustrate some new GIFs to add to the database.

Here’s an example of one of their curated GIFs which highlight personal, cartoon illustrations of women doing their hair. “The company specifically hired black artists to illustrate portrayals of black culture and hair beyond just aesthetics.”

Another addition to the GIPHY database were re-categorization of GIFs of black celebrities in the present world with supportive or inspiring text underneath the person or a loop effect of them smiling, laughing, or making a peace sign.

As the article notes “The work to diversify the GIF archive may be underway, but it’s far from over — and definitely won’t end on Feb. 28.” And they’re right. I use this article not to diminish the problem at hand but show a small example of the positive effect GIFs can cause. The article on GIPHY’s racist categorization problem was written in August, 6 months after GIPHY’s Black History Month project, but GIPHY hasn’t commented on or fixed the problem yet.

Posted from DIG101 by Tucker C.

Apple Makes Plans for Clean Energy Data Center

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After learning about the impact of a data center on the environment through its power usage I considered what may develop from data centers as a resource in the future. It turns out that not only are data centers cornerstones for cleaner energy for big corporations, but Apple is pushing to be one of the forerunners in the initiative for a clean energy standard among competing tech companies.

Since its initial push in 2012 for a 100% clean energy powered facilities, Apple has reduced it’s carbon footprint and added more clean-energy-powered-facilities. Last month it was announced that Apple is “making an initial investment of 1.3 billion dollars” in an Iowa data facility set to undergo construction in as early as next year.

Apple also states that the center will be operational by 2020 and will become an appstore-centered facility. The appstore, of course, needing storage for it’s different apps and games alongside, perhaps, potentially large files with it’s new iOS 11 ARkit. A form of app which will make use of the iPhone’s camera and processor to overlay information in the real world. They want to take this process and make it mainstream, “bringing it to hundreds of millions of users”, so we may see a push for this new type of app in the coming months. The new iPhone application certainly gives Apple room to grow — and Cook states that as the popularity and demand for a bigger appstore grows, so, too, will their Iowa data center.

Apple Transparency

“It will be powered completely 100% by renewable energy just like all of our U.S. facilities and 96% of our facilities throughout the world.” This statistic is revolutionary for corporations today. Apple, especially when compared to other tech companies, goes above and beyond in running clean facilities. But I’d be curious to know if that is scalable, that as the data center grows would they need to install more wind turbines? — and with what space does Apple plan to expand? But I’m sure they have something in place if they’re already thinking about expansion. One thing Apple excels beyond their competition in is transparency. They have released fiscal reports for the past 4 years of being clean-focused, documenting their attempts to be environmentally friendly and providing official documentation and scoring for how well they are doing. So far, Apple is doing well.



Posted from DIG101 by Tucker C.

Facebook Would Like Access to You

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For class we read a selection of text “The Challenge of Absent Presence” from Perpetual Contact: Mobile Communication, Private Talk, Public Performance which discusses the public use of private artifacts in an open, public atmosphere. Thinking about the space in which people access and communicate information got me thinking about Facebook. Particularly the access users give to their private and public profile.

How much does Facebook have access to?

I dove into the Facebook documentation to find an answer to this question, discovering directly from Facebook what intelligence they’re gathering.

Unlike information from last week’s post, personal information received by Facebook is consented. Facebook specifically asks you to describe yourself and your interests and provides an explicit medium for you to vent about your day in status updates or message your friend about private information.

Apart from the obvious bits of information that people literally post or answer in the “about me” section of a profile, Facebook also gathers information from your previous “sessions” online – gathering information like which browser, operating system, and IP Address you accessed Facebook from. Information which can pinpoint your location with incredible accuracy. It can also be used to steal your identity and grant the holder access to your computer’s files.

The documentation also mentions that “If you make purchases on Facebook (ex: in apps) [you] have given Facebook your credit card number.” Which is interesting purely for the fact that it is there to be accessed. Facebook, or even Hackers, has a database of sensitive information that just exists online. Granted, it’s very well protected – but it still exists for someone to crack into it.

How much do apps get access to?

Image result for facebook account access prompt

It’s curious, the most powerful point to be made is the fact that we consent to this data being collected and stored. When we install a new app which requires a Facebook login we are prompted with a dialogue, a form of consent for Facebook to release whatever information the app is requesting to pull. Apps use the Facebook API to simplify user account creation because they can get access to your full name, birthday, and email and let you only have to click a button. But, something to be careful about, they can also be given access to send and receive messages, manage your friends list, post statuses, and more.

Image result for facebook information about me

As Facebook has gotten more mainstream, employers, partners, and friends have started to use Facebook as a preliminary source of information. Pages like the above are useful in selecting who of your peers gets to see what information. You can even remove yourself from being displayed in the Facebook search results and restrict people from sending you friend requests and viewing your photos/statuses.

Posted from DIG101 by Tucker C.

Big Brother and Internet Security

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I just finished watching the movie “Snowden” – a dramatic retelling of the years of Edward Snowden‘s life leading up to his 2013 dump of government files verifying that the NSA and federal agencies around the world have been gathering data without consent for years. The movie itself over-dramatizes the situation, because it’s a Hollywood Blockbuster starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, and Nicolas Cage among other celebrities, but it also sheds light on a very important question going on in society regarding unregulated data collection.

That is, should we do it?

Should the NSA, CIA, etc. have free rein to access data from networks like YouTube, Google, Apple, Facebook, and Twitter? Should they be able to collect the data in relation to literally anyone?

I spent the better half of my afternoon following the movie pondering these questions. There is no real answer that jumps out at me – as on the one hand, data collection is good. Much, if not all of our world revolves around the internet and a lot of information can be gathered from basic queries of things like Facebook pages and Twitter posts.

The government takes the sifting and collecting of data one step further, though, wherein lies the moral question. For the NSA and CIA collected data from anything and anyone they had access to. Literally every byte of data that floated through the internet was capable of being seized by the NSA using something called the FISA. The government was using this rather questionably, however, as the Act allowed for agents to use blanket excuses to research topics.

For cyber-investigation the government uses something which, if better regulated, is justifiable in researching suspects in the digital age. Using a program called XKeyscore they enter a search, which basically works similarly to a Google Search, indexing through every heap of data that they have ever had pass through their system matching the query. Cell phone calls from Verizon, congratulatory Facebook posts from your grandmother, texts from your significant other with the pictures of your newborn baby.

Questions of morality continue in the use of the program. Government agents were using it to spy on colleagues, partners, and friends – along with innocent civilians. The movie makes it a point to highlight that it doesn’t just track the target. The program sifts through personal connections starting with the target, but after looking at just one or two connections combing through users’ contact books the program could have already scraped the data from 2.5 million citizens around the globe.

“Every day you’re just sitting in a database, waiting to be looked at. Not just terrorists or countries or corporations, but you.”

I believe in the use of anonymity on the Internet. I think that the collection of the data of literally every citizen around the globe is wrong in its current standards. I think much change needs to be made to the collection system in place today – but I don’t think the resource of data collection needs to be abandoned.

Posted from DIG101 by Tucker C.