Friday, November 30, 2007

The Ticking Clock

I just completed my mandated sexual harassment training for the next two years, in an online tutorial that is not much different from the one I finished two years ago, which I described here. I was glad to see that the answers to questions were a little less laughably obvious than those in the last iteration and that there was more attention to real-life case law and interesting precedents that are informing U.C. policy, but I was sorry to see that the basic mechanic of the program had not changed at all during the past two years and that cartoony PowerPoint-style graphics continue to shape perceptions of the sample narratives. (Click to enlarge and see characters pointing at a skin color chart.)

The user also completes the tutorial from the viewpoint of a very conventional heterosexual administrator that often presents those in positions of authority as white males. Given the flexibility of computational systems, it would be easy for a user to specify gender and sexual orientation, particularly so that gays and lesbians could be shown as social actors in the university rather than those who are always "other" and objects rather than subjects of discourse.

The UC system requires those with supervisory duties to complete an online ethics tutorial as well, which operates similarly around attention to the ticking clock. Although I feel that we all have an obligation as public employees to observe state law and to protect the interests of our government-supported institution, I am troubled by the fact that these programs effectively encourage multitasking while completing tutorials, since these systems constantly remind rapid readers to "slow down," and thus -- from speaking to my colleagues -- it appears that what Richard Lanham calls the "economics of attention" ironically encourages distraction because it dictates that busy employees optimize their time by keeping the tutorial window open while checking e-mail or reviewing websites. (Click to enlarge.)



Ian Bogost has writtten about how "procedural rhetorics" function in computational media like videogames, so that users may deduce how particular rules contribute to particular win states. It quickly became apparent that the system was not tabulating “right” and “wrong” answers or checking me periodically with a question to gauge my attention-level. The only way it kept score was by showing the number of minutes that had passed, and all that seemed to matter to the computer program was that I complete two hours of online time. I didn’t have to demonstrate competence in comprehending any minimum fraction of the total material. As the screen below indicates, I received a score of "100%," even though I actually missed a few questions when I clumsily hit the wrong part of the screen with the mouse. (Click to enlarge.)


Naturally, employees who did the tutorial found themselves wanting to game the system, particularly when the essential "cheat code" was so simple. From conversations with others, I learned that the “cheaters” resisted partly because they felt that the price to limiting potential liability for future litigation was to be exacted from the labor force in the form of further hours of work, even though all that would be produced would be a relatively empty signifier, particularly without a real assessment of the distance learning program. Those who took the tutorial might have intuited another purpose of the exercise for university administrators: to avoid serious, substantive, structural changes in the conditions of academic labor that relate to gender and sexuality. Even my buggy diploma of completion indicated a lack of attention to the human decorum associated with completed training. (Click to enlarge.)


Given the high cost of potential legal liability for corporations and large institutions, it is not surprising that several designers of "serious games" are now turning their attention to the challenge of creating interactive online content that dramatizes decision-making processes to make the learning process more engaging. For example, Saving Sergeant Pabletti was developed in the wake of the Tailhook scandal to provide game-based interactive distance learning to educated military personnel about sexual harassment. Perhaps the next time I complete the harassment tutorial, it will be a little more challenging to "win" my diploma.

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Thursday, November 29, 2007

Bad Movie Meme



I was tagged by Ann Bartow of Feminist Law Professors to give my pick in the worst movie meme that is currently making the rounds in the blogosphere. Anyone who has ever gone to the movies with me knows that my personal pet peeve is historical and/or literary inaccuracy and that I find it hard to see a film that takes stupid factual liberties, particularly of the sort that reinforce presentist biases or patriarchal, Eurocentric, or corporate capitalist ideologies. My friend Jenny Cool, who has been subjected to my running color commentary on these films, has joked that movie makers should issue special DVD versions in which you can watch the movie while listening to my erudite ranting and raving.

Of course, I have several runners-up in this category. As I said here, Beowulf totally rewrote the great epic and misrepresented the role of women in Anglo-Saxon society and the place of Christianity (or lack of same) in the original text. To the extent that it posed as a costume period picture, I was also irritated by the depiction of China in the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Finally, the pseudo-epic Troy hacked me off by not only killing off all the characters who had interesting post-war homecomings in the classical tradition, but also by misrepresenting the past that Homer was representing, a past on the other side of a historical disaster so immense that the Greeks actually lost writing during that catastrophic period. Chief among Troy's sins was the fact that they kept showing coins in the story, particularly in repeated anachronistic scenes of coins being put on the eyes of the dead. And yet THE GREEKS OF ACHILLES' TIME DID NOT HAVE MONEY. Coined money began in Lydia in the seventh century B.C. Knowing this fact makes sense of a lot of characteristics of the world that Homer is depicting and a pre-historical time of legend in which codes of hospitality were even more important for travel, exploration, and diplomatic exchanges in the absence of any currency.

But nothing ticks me off more than a movie that makes a lot of pretenses to historical accuracy, while totally constructing an alternate reality of the director's own making. Thus, the worst movie winner for me has to be Gangs of New York, which I managed not to walk out of. Yes, I stayed through the terrible dialogue to the bitter end, along with the equally vocal African-American couple in the seats behind us who expressed their outrage about this moronic trivializing of New York's Civil War race riots. You can read a much more measured critique of its historical inaccuracies here. Oh, and the fact that all women are really prostitutes in the director's mind also bugs me.

I tag bitch phd, Alexandre Enkerli, Mitsuharu Hadeishi, Eszter Hargittai, Julia Lupton, Alice Robison, and Nedra Weinreich.

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My Gun is Bigger than Your Gun


In honor on the YouTube/CNN debates, the giant video-sharing site turned over editorial duties to Facebook friend and digital rhetoric class guest James Kotecki yesterday, who chose his favorite recent political videos to spotlight. (Click to enlarge this screenshot of the site's home page at the time.) Among Kotecki's featured videos, there was yet another "Mac vs. PC" parody, the Latino Comedy Project produced Mex vs. BC.

Last night's Republican debate ended up attracting all the top candidates, despite their initial reluctance to participate in a public forum in which the user-generated content might undermine the decorum and dignity associated with a national political event and where distributed media might change the rules of traditional broadcast media. Certainly party officials seemed well in control of stage-managing the beginning of the televised coverage by putting forward an explicit pitch for their political brand from the Florida governor's office. The cameras showed conventional celebrities like Chuck Norris, in the audience, although there were a few YouTube celebrities in the chosen videos, such as ConservativeVoiceUSA and frequent Kotecki-foil David McMillan of News in Color. Right now, the video responses posted on the site generally don't actually respond to the televised discussion and instead publicize older videos made by members of a disgruntled electorate. However, this video response from McMillan does engage with the actual talking points of the candidates on stage, including former New York mayor Guiliani's equation of "black" and "welfare."

I would agree with Kotecki's after-debate analysis (see below) that Giuliani's campaign video was the only one that indicated awareness of YouTube conventions and appeals to viral marketing in which the plucky mayor takes on King Kong and record snowfall rather than crime and terrorists. (The script and "campaign facts" are here.) The other candidates presented miniaturized versions of traditional television spots that generally mimicked old-school attack ads. However, Giuliani's most watched video continues to be footage of him in drag with Donald Trump.



Certainly there was plenty of gender politics to go around in the evening's entertainment, with the comparison of the relative size and firepower of the candidates' gun collections being the most obviously phallic example. The debate ended with a baseball question, which -- as Siva Vaidhyanathan points out -- could be considered a moral fiber test to Yankees fans.

Of course, the big story of the evening was the unintended selection of a video from a member of Hillary Clinton's campaign, a retired Brigadier General who has come out of the closet to become an activist against the military's don't ask/don't tell policy. YouTube is already full of coverage of planted questions at Clinton's own campaign stops, such as this interview with a female college student put up to the job.

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Talk Loudly and Parry a Big Stick

Before the month is out, I want to come back to the gallery show of e-lit bloggers Grand Text Auto at the Beall Center, particularly now that my students have had a chance to weigh in on the group's ideas about gaming presented at their symposia. I covered the performances some here, but their artists' statements and discussion were also interesting.

Andrew Stern of Procedural Arts talked about a new project tentatively called "The Party," which he described as "Desperate Housewives meets The Sims." Based on the number of AI-driven characters, this project is considerably more ambitious than the earlier Façade with an even more gothic plotline, which Stern summarizes as "wine, cheese, adultery, murder." Even the quotidian dramas have higher stakes since "getting lucky" and "being fired" are both possibilities among the evening's events, as Stern considers the function of the "drama manager" in these projects. When it came to linguistic processing, Stern aspired to create characters with "asshole physics," who could understand obscenity but not necessarily speak it back. Nick Montfort followed up on this point by suggesting an ESRB sticker for "understands language" to indicate the capability of the game's virtual characters.

Noah Wardrip-Fruin argued that ELIZA-creator Joseph Weizenbaum was the first digital media author, and recounted his own experiences trying to "break" Weizenbaum's therapist simulation that resulted in greater understanding about "the shape of the system." In contrast to the "ELIZA-effect," Wardrip-Fruin described the "Tale-Spin-effect" in which vapid story-telling could result from a relatively sophisticated system of inferences. Finally, Wardrip-Fruin raised the case of SimCity as an example of complex narratives expressing the complex computer programming that structures the game's simulation. Wardrip-Fruin's intuitions about what he calls "expressive processing" could also be seen as politically significant, given the rising number of prohibitions against reverse engineering.

Nick Montfort and Michael Mateas talked about the status of the player as user and the issues involved when systems don't work and thus are frustrating rather than challenging. Struggles with technologies from everyday life like cell phones were used for purposes of comparison. In contrast, Mary Flanagan argued that players test materials independent of the computer-mediated experience and gave the cutting of hair on Barbies as an example of this phenomenon in doll play.

Mark Marino took thorough notes on the sessions.

Last week, I spent some time trying out the actual exhibits in the gallery show, which was ironic timing, given that just today the mega-blog Boing Boing is celebrating a giant Atari joystick on its most recent syndicated webisode as a news item. Yet Mary Flanagan's giant joystick installation in the Beall exhibit (see below) indicates that this is hardly a new idea. Based on having used it, Flanagan's joystick seems to be considerably bigger than the work of male D.I.Y. practitioner Jason Torchinsky. Bigger may not necessarily be better, because playing Pong or Asteroids was a considerably more aerobic experience with this giant controller that required the athletic strength of a linebacker to produce adequately rapid responses, although aid from a gallery attendant made scoring points at least possible. The docent suggested that the scale of such a device encouraged social play.

I also used the 3D installation of Façade. Although I was impressed with the way that the physically situated version of the game replicated a heightened sense of claustrophobia that a disembodied interaction with a keyboard could not, I found that I preferred the keyboard input version and liked interacting better with the characters through text than I did through speech. I'm relatively good at getting voice-recognition systems to work, since I use the speech input capabilities of my cell phone every day and often practice my foreign language skills by enunciating into the microphone of my computer, but the truth may be that I'd much rather chat with Trip and Grace online and may be a member of the digital contingent that simply prefers to communicate with low bandwidth text.

There also were a few technical glitches I noticed. For example, at one point, one of my virtual hosts began going round and round in a circle next to the bar like a battery operated toy in a loop, which certainly made the interaction with him less natural. It was hard to engage in relatively obvious small talk suggested by the scenario, such as travel, art, or food.

If I was pining for text in one exhibit, I was fleeing from it in another. While there I also used Noah Wardrip-Fruin's Screen. I had seen a film of the demo, and it had seemed as though the visitor could use the glove to playfully pluck words off the wall and rearrange them in the 3D space, where they floated gently in front of the field of vision created by the 3D glasses. When I actually used the device, the words in Wardrip-Fruin's lyrical descriptions came at me like a hive of angry buzzing bees and I had to use the glove to deflect them.

I am grateful to Associate Director David Familian, who will be opening the gallery for a special tour this coming Monday for my digital rhetoric class.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Scandal Sheet

The magazine 02138 brags that it is not affiliated with Harvard University, although its title comes from the zip code of that Ivy League university and it depends on alumni/alumnae to be subscribers. The current issue includes overviews of "Harvard Hanky Panky" and high profile divorces of younger grads that feature "Drugs! Greed! Kinky Sex!" When my copy arrived in my mailbox, I was drawn to the article on "Poking Facebook" and the accounts of the social network site's history of intellectual property litigation. It's not a very interesting account of who owns either the idea or the computer program, although it has now come down to seeking the "original source code," which the corporate head of Facebook denies having because of "corrupted hard drives" and wiped "outside servers." It also points out that at the time there was actually a third social network site being developed on the campus, "houseSYSTEM," separate from the two currently litigating parties, Facebook and ConnectU.

Like fellow Harvard dropout Bill Gates, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been accused of subjecting those who use his product to excessively restrictive end license user agreements, which in the case of Facebook compromise the privacy of those who use the social network site. The 02138 article describes Zuckerberg's early career on campus as the creator of "Facemash," a web application in which two images from Harvard's house directories appeared side-by-side on the screen, so visitors could vote on which portrait seemed more sterotypically attractive. Because he had violated the privacy of students whose images appeared on "Facematch," Zuckerberg was disciplined by the university Ad Board. Ironically, he credits an editorial in The Harvard Crimson with much of the current privacy structure of Facebook, which depends on people voluntarily sacrificing their own privacy and uploading pictures and data themselves. Now Zuckerberg has been accused of stealing collaboratively developed code rather than photographs of individuals, and the resolution of the case is likely to be slow, given the complexities of the field of computer forensics and the value of the corporate assets involved.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Faculty Bloggers: Part Three

Unfortunately, the camera crew arrived too late to capture Julia Lupton's talk about her work as a faculty blogger with Design Your Life and D.I.Y. Kids. The outline for her presentation is here. As a Shakespeare scholar, Lupton is literally a Renaissance woman.

As if that weren't enough, the slides for my presentation don't appear in the videos of me talking about them. And -- like any vain female -- I utterly hate to see myself on camera, particularly on a teaching day when I'm not gussied up.







The Q & A can be found here and here and here.

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Faculty Bloggers: Part Two

In "I Have Production Values," Scott Kaufman of Acephalous looks back on the faculty blogging panel with some of the discomfort that many academics now feel as distributed digital media technologies make their talks and comments part of larger electronic archives rather than the ephemeral experiences that merely take place between printed publications. Of course, Kaufman recently wrote a defense of blogging for Inside Higher Ed called "An Enthusiast's View of Academic Blogs." Unfortunately, it appears that he is not yet as enthusiastic about YouTube.



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Faculty Bloggers: Part One

These two videos show Peter Krapp explaining some of his "Top Ten Reasons I Don't Blog Anymore." Although Krapp was at first reluctant to discuss his role in breaking the story about the Derrida-UCI archive scandal, he was ultimately remarkably forthcoming about the hazards of faculty blogging.



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Monday, November 26, 2007

Bearded Ladies

I've always been a big fan of bearded ladies. As a kid, along with feminist heroines like Elizabeth Blackwell, Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Queen Elizabeth I, I was fascinated with the bearded lady Julia Pastrana, who was horribly abused by her promoter-husband but was admired for her singing voice and literacy in three languages. Last weekend I went to see Igor Stravinsky and W.H. Auden's The Rake's Progress, in which a bearded lady plays a significant role.

The Virtualpolitik connection? The stock photography house now owned by Getty Images, The Image Bank, has acquired the collection of pictures from the estate of Believe It or Not kingpin Robert L. Ripley, which includes shots from a number of old-time freak shows. Thus, even more nineteenth century photography appears to be out of the public domain and into the realm of perpetual copyright.

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Sunday, November 25, 2007

Drive-Thru

The New York Times reports in "YouTube, MySpace, and California's DMV" that the state agency that handles driver's licenses and vehicle registration is now embracing Web 2.0. Although the DMV YouTube channel has little of the traditional YouTube rhetoric of the self-documenting blogger or the camera turned on oddities, virtuoso performances, or DIY demonstrations, there are some interesting examples of what could be called meta-videos, such as Kyle's Driving Test, in which a high school student supposedly makes a video about how to fail the state's driving test. Because I have a student currently blogging about vehicle safety issues, I've been thinking about videos about on-the-road practices frequently of late. The Times also notes that the DMV has a MySpace page as well with a blog called "Ask George." Like many other MySpace pages, it also has a blaring soundtrack. Of course, this is ironic, should DOPA be approved, since schools and libraries would be barred from this useful information, given that it comes from a social network site and a website for video file-sharing.

Thanks to Suzanne Bolding of the Humanities Core Course for the link to this story.

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Saturday, November 24, 2007

Taking Two Pages from Facebook





This parody infomercial and this seriously cast video essay both treat Facebook as their main subject. With its e-Harmony send-up, the humorous video makes reference to another site for digital practices: online dating. It also points out how Facebook's relationship categories are shaping social networks in highly idiosyncratic ways that often emphasize casual sex over other forms of sociality, a point also made by Ian Bogost in "A Professor's Impressions of Facebook." The serious video by Vishal Agarwala uses information graphics in a way similar to conspiratorial videos about Google and other seemingly hegemonic forces that dominate market share in otherwise distributed media environments.

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Friday, November 23, 2007

Buy Nothing Day


In honor of Buy Nothing Day, it seems a good time to take issue with the ways that charitable giving is often recast as mass-market consumption. As the author of Pink Ribbons, Inc. points out, appeals breast cancer have set the stage for other efforts at "cause marketing."

Now, cause marketers are taking advantage of the economy of attention that the Internet provides by trying to deliver "eyeballs" to online advertisers. Recently I was urged to visit The Breast Cancer Site, which promises a something-for-nothing way to "donate" by button-clicking past website sponsors. I tend to be wary of this kind of re-branding of feminist activism to fit familiar tropes of consumer capitalism. The site hawks breast cancer themed clothing, jewelry, and Christmas ornaments, and I was creeped out by the gender targeting of the external advertisers, who were pitching bras and pharmaceutical drugs.

Furthermore, I may be a cancer survivor myself, but I also don't like the way that complicated life stories that don't always have happy endings get reduced to a stock genre. Like many other former patients, I also don't know if it is appropriate even to use the language of "survivorship" at all.

The web page is organized with "tabs" with "survivors' stories," "supporters' stories," and a request page for more user-generated content running up and down the right margin and virtual file folders with other cause marketing efforts, such as "hunger," "child health," "literacy," "rainforest," and "animal rescue" oriented along the top of the page.

For those who want to give generously, instead I would recommend giving -- and really giving rather than simply donating your spectatorship -- to ArtSeed. The Executive Director of this program, Josefa Vaughan, was the one who plugged the breast cancer site to me, although her own cause of supporting community based art by low-income young artists much more genuinely merits support.

Update: For more on getting "eyeballs" in cause marketing efforts, see my review of the online serious game Free Rice in the new international social marketing blog Osocio.

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Thursday, November 22, 2007

Extra Servings

During the holiday break I will be out of town in San Francisco, and I may have delayed postings of blog entries as a result.

For those who want to experience a Virtualpolitik kind of Thanksgiving, Republicans can play Whack a Turkey with Hillary Clinton, and Democrats can watch this mashup video of Bush Singing a Love Song for a Turkey. The photographs of the annual turkey-pardoning by the president always spur a lot of invention with Photoshop as well.

For nonpolitical Pilgrim fun of the postmodern and yet Emmy-nominated kind you can check out the "It's Jerry Time" Thanksgiving Special: The Gobbler and The Turkey Song.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Virtual Worlds and Real Classes

Today Joshua Fouts and Nedra Weinreich came to my class to talk about public rhetoric in Second Life. Fouts directs the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, and Weinreich runs Social Marketing University and is known in the non-profit/public health for her blogging at Spare Change. Along with Nedra's avatar, we even managed to spend some time in-world, where students experienced a virtual Darfur refugee camp and a catastrophic tsunami. Fouts showed slides of a fundraiser for Hurricane Katrina and a flag festooned memorial for the victims of the London bombings in Second Life.

I've written that Second Life in higher education ironically represents a step back to the pageantry and memory palaces of the medieval university, which -- although I'm a traditionalist in many things -- isn't always a good thing. I've also taken issue with the rhetoric of social marketing and public diplomacy in the past, particularly as it has been promulgated through computational media. But I thought that Fouts and Weinreich were great guests who facilitated discussion in the classroom about the messages of virtual environments and computer-mediated communication in situations of co-presence. Given that students had read Lev Manovich on "navigable space" last week and were reading Ian Bogost on "advertising logic" this week, their participation also made curricular sense.

As Fouts and Weinreich spoke about their own experiments, vulnerabilities, and even shopping sprees, I found out that students strongly identified with them, since they had also been dressing up their avatars and wandering around as flaneurs. The undergrads were even comfortable enough with the visitors to share their awkward Second Life experiences, which included suddenly being teleported to the middle of a busy dance floor. Later, one student described the mortification of unexpected avatar baldness. Of course, being English majors, some were dutifully reading all the tutorials first rather than flying around, but it sounded like a good proportion were already getting started on their field studies.

Fouts described how he first discovered Second Life through the Public Diplomacy through Games competition, when a sizable percentage of the entrants submitted games built in SL. As somone wanting to foster cultural exchanges, he thought the fact that 25% of residents were from outside the U.S., a number which has since grown to 83%. He claimed to have first experienced virtual worlds when USC's Doug Thomas recommended the cross-cultural play of Star Wars Galaxies as a place where violence wasn't required, and one could even choose to role-play as a chef, although Fouts ended up a colonel in the Imperial Army and a bounty hunter. Although he described arranging for assemblies of foreign service workers or activists on disability policy in SL, his emphasis was on using the environment cultural exchange. Fouts argued that virtual worlds could have a "soft power" impact that was comparable to that of jazz during the Cold War. Although Fouts described working as a journalist for the now defunct USIA, he claimed that being the son of a primatologist also informed his interest in virtual worlds.

Weinreich opened by acknowledging that many came to Second Life for virtual sex, online play, and the equivalent of online chat rather than for reception of serious messages. However, she argued that the next generation would be much more fully socialized in the practices of virtual worlds. She talked about how her own daughter had a complex Webkinz existence that included being able to provide for material comforts, down to the working toilet for the online counterpart of the stuffed animal from the company, and even a job making pizzas online.

Weinreich argued that many nonprofits and public heath agencies didn't understand what to do in a virtual world other than construct a building and fill it with standard posters and brochures. So she presented her own list of the possibilities, which included "skill building," "simulation," and "support groups." Weinreich even described meeting CDC spokesperson John Anderton at the agency's virtual health fair, where he was explaining E. coli risks from spinach . . . although she didn't mention to my students that he was in drag at the time. Weinreich also plugged mixed-reality events, such as the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life, and pointed out that the Non-profit Commons, which has its own blog, holds regular get-togethers in Second Life.

Fouts had to answer at least one tough question from the crowd when a student brought up the much-discussed issue of "Is Second Life empty?" Fouts responded by saying that only 50,000 people were online at any one time in an area ten times the size of Washington D.C. He also argued that Americans were still overcoming forms of cultural resistance that citizens in Japan and other Asian countries no longer felt.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Policing the Police

Yesterday, Alan Liu came to the U.C. Irvine campus to talk about "Knowledge 2.0" and explain how the Transliteracies project he founded has been integrating new research about social computing, along with practices and technologies associated with Web 2.0.

I have seen Liu speak several times and have always found it worthwhile. In fact, he was on my campus three years ago, when a coda to his talk, in which he argued that critics should be producers as well as theorists, became one of the factors that made me totally re-think the publics I was trying to reach.

Given that Liu was presenting an entire theory of the twenty-first-century Humanities, it was refreshing to see his approach so grounded in practical pedagogy. Among those who consider themselves part of the Institute for Distributed Creativity, there has been a lot of curiosity about his upcoming graduate seminar, "Literature Plus." During "Knowledge 2.0," Liu showed sample work from very different audience in the form of a wiki from a recent undergraduate course. He admitted that this experiment in college teaching had posed several challenges to the conventions of traditional authorship and authority within the academy. Students worked on two teams: one based on "Creativity" and one based on "Collaboration." This sometimes subverted the most basic hierarchical relationships in the classroom, although Liu was able to adapt with good humor to a description that listed him as "bright, intelligent, and physically breathtaking," with the final descriptor going to a crudely humorous graphic.

Since I'm currently teaching a course in which students use blogging and are engaged with other social computing practices, I was particularly interested in Liu's list of lessons learned.

First, he noted that students became much more engaged in the course material, after they created their own bio pages, which Liu described as a hybrid between the genres of the professional bio/vita and that of the profile on a social network site.

Second, he said that having students edit each others' work wasn't always practicable, because of what he called a "disparity in their writing levels," to which -- as a longtime writing program administrator in the U.C. system -- I can certainly attest.

Third, he argued that the nature of research assignments had to account for the sudden advent of Wikipedia and other low-investment resources for citation. Given that this course was offered in 2006, which was a key year for the massive super-saturation of undergraduate discourse by the online encyclopedia, it is not surprising that Liu was spurred to write a Student Wikipedia Use Policy, which was also announced here in June of 2006.

Liu compared the Wikipedia incursion into student prose to an "algal bloom" that "sucks all the oxygen out of the water." However, he noted that his statement also acknowledged the value of Wikipedia for very recent stories for which synthetic accounts had not yet made it into print or for quick definitions and details for minor facts. He also implicitly conveyed respect to Wikipedia by comparing it to a cross between an encyclopedia and a blog, which for Liu are both legitimate genres, and by using positive modifiers like "powerful," "dynamic," and "communal." I might argue that a similar ambivalence about Wikipedia characterized the talk of recent UCI guest and WikiScanner creator Virgil Griffith, who was on our campus only a few days earlier. (They both also showed the same wiki-related project at UC Santa Cruz.)

Liu began by examining the law and order metaphors that have proliferated to describe policing practices among user-generated content creators, such as the Wikipedians who manage the enormous online encyclopedia. This includes the "hall monitor" role of academics charged with enforcing policies against plagiarism. He cited a cautionary Educause article by Liz Johnson, "Plagiarism Detection: Is Technology the Answer?" in expressing reservations about software projects like PAIRwise, which is capable of mapping the "cycles and rhythms" of unattributed borrowings and "rings and conspiracies" among students. Of course, a few years ago, I wrote an article about the metaphors associated with plagiarism-detection, so I think Liu is right that these punitive figures certainly loom large in the cultural imagination of institutions of knowledge, although I think Turnitin.com has a lock on the plagiarism paranoia market and that not-for-profit, open source alternatives like PAIRwise have little chance for widespread adoption.

Liu is a good close reader for the terms that those associated with Wikipedia, Citizendium, and Conservapedia were using in statements designed to explain their policing functions. Liu drew attention to phrases such as "judges in court" and "volunteer police force" and terms like "constables," "infractions," and "commandments." As he pointed out such declarations smacked of the monopolies on violence generally associated with the state.

He explained how his own projects were influenced by evolving technologies, and how his ground-breaking index of humanities resources on the web Voice of the Shuttle progressed from Web 1.0 to what he called Web 1.5, as flat HTML coding gave way to webforms and dynamic content made possible by databases, middleware, and templates and stylesheets. However, he argued that with the multiple users and read-write functions of Web 2.0, system administrators and programmers came to occupy a place of "unwarranted authority." As shorthand for the debate about Web 2.0, he opposed the positions of Tim O'Reilly and those of Jaron Lanier in "Digital Maoism." Given all the notable critics of Web 2.0 (Siva Vaidhyanathan, Trebor Scholz, Lawrence Lessig, Ian Bogost, Lisa Nakamura, Mia Consalvo, and Geert Lovink, just to name a few) and all of the prolific high-profile boosters (starting with Henry Jenkins), this seems to be a regrettable oversimplification. But Liu was obviously pressed for time and even cut what looked like some of the most interesting slides in his talk as "too technical" to allow time for questions.

His own Web 2.0 criticisms involved some interesting uses of visual evidence. He pointed to the BBC's mash-ups of the locations of news stories with Google mapping data as an example of the larger elevation of a moronic aesthetic around user tagging. And he showed a sketch of this Rube Goldberg pencil-sharpener to represent both the crude undesigned instrumentalism of the argument of a typical "freshman or sophomore paper" and the general scheme for a Wikipedia entry in which users insert their heterogeneous contributions like the beehive, boots, and woodpecker in the drawing.

One of the central issues he raised had to do with the U.S. obsession with "policing" rather than "policy," to which Commonwealth countries presented a marked contrast as they confronted the categories of "best" and "good" with much more deliberation and strategic planning. Given the subject matter of the book I'm working on, I would tend to concur.

Although, as a writing specialist, wary of automated assessment, I'm always skeptical to hear about things like cognitive scientists designing computer programs that can use "sixty factors" to re-write textbooks for twelve-year-olds, most of what Liu said about collaborative social computing projects sounded possible, desirable, and worth supporting, particularly when he reviewed the output of three working groups of the Transliteracies project. The History of Reading Working Group is apparently going to soon debut a Flash movie about the history of the book, which shows how the book has evolved over time by using the first page of the Book of John. The New Reading Interfaces Working Group has apparently been at work on a new edition of Alice and Wonderland that represents the written information in the text in a number of ways.

Finally, he explained how the Social Computing Working Group might end up shaping more of the organization's mission, as members explored the idea of the "thick margin" of a text's social use. He talked about how little could be learned about social dynamics through a program like Microsoft Word and its "track changes" function in comparison to the margin of a blog that gives much more information about the "social graph" accompanying written discourse. I sympathized with Liu when he talked about how track changes served as a "fumbling way" for "talking to a copy editor" while working with the manuscript of his book. For example, when a UCI colleague was recently giving me constructive criticism about a grant proposal, I noticed that she ended up using Facebook as a more effective channel for mutual communication than track changes. However, like Ian Bogost, Liu pointed out the inadequacies of Facebook for "fine grain" distinctions, and said that using programs like Flickr was "like working with all thumbs." Liu suggested that Brad Fitzpatrick's work on the problems of the "social graph," which incorporates different kinds of friends and "missing friends" and friends from different social network sites.

In addition to thinking about "data mining at a corporate scale," Liu also grapples with the "description problem" of social markup, which he said might be considered to be analogous to the history of markup in writing, which once lacked capitalization, spaces between words, and punctuation. As someone who has spent a lot of time this week learning about parsing functions and how to make ActionScript work with XML, I laughed when he showed the classic Far Side cartoon about "What We Say to Dogs" and "What They Hear," as being like talking to a computer, which hears BLA BLA BLA URL BLA BLA BLA URL.

Finally, he showed some wonderful data visualizations that used the Wikipedia entries on "abortion" and "chocolate" as examples. (I must say the strong emotions that he described as typical of those who contemplate chocolate made sense of some of the powerful responses I've gotten to a chocolate mention in a talk that eventually became this paper.) He used the lexicon of computer animation when he showed how the data could be "tweened" and how Wikipedia vandalism and "revert wars" appeared in these tools.

In closing, Liu put forward his thesis that the production and the policing functions should be separated in the reception of works with multiple and possibly unreliable authors. He suggested that social computing could facilitate both functions and that a variety of stake-holders from governments, churches, and families should be able to apply mark-up functions themselves to appropriately filter data. The problem, of course, is that as WikiScanner shows, these organizations are already taking an active role in editing online sources. Furthermore, when I think about how the current administration is sifting and selecting convenient truths, such as how the White House edited out information in a narrative about global warming, I'm not certain of how judiciously they would perform their policing function on the reception end. Even local governments could move to quash information, like the wonderful City of Vernon.

But I would guess that Liu thinks that everyone should be able to hit the "history" tab to judge for themselves, based on his comment that "access" as well as "privacy" are "creatures" to be protected in an "ecology" of information ethics. But do these multiple policemen at the reception end promulgate similar problems to those of multiple authorship at the production end? I suppose we all read texts in the context of multiple communities, and Liu thinks that contemporary readers will be able to decipher through multiple systems of mark-up, just as they always have.

Liu came to UCI as part of the UCI Software Culture series, which was organized by Facebook friend and colleague Peter Krapp. Other speakers for the academic year 2007-2008 will include Wendy Chun, Arnold Dreyblatt, Alex Galloway, Lev Manovich, and McKenzie Wark.

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Rebranding Democrats and Republicans

In the era of meta-advertising techniques, we see fewer traditional "Brand A vs. Brand B" campaigns. One exception is the advertising of political candidates or ballot initiatives, although as this advertising may begin to migrate from television screens, this may be changing. That's why it is particularly interesting to see the online political action group MoveOn.org soliciting user-generated feedback from its membership about four possible spots for broadcast or webcast, all of which use the "Brand A vs. Brand B" technique. These ads jettison the traditional "Republican" and "Democrat" labels in favor of the seemingly nonpartisan "Progressive" and "Conservative" political brands, which may also be a smart strategy for reaching the independent voters who have rejected party affiliation.

I was interested to also note that two of the ads were parodies of the much imitated Mac vs. PC spots in which a younger, hipper character talks to an older, stodgier character against a neutral white background, which has been updated recently to mock the new Microsoft operating system Vista. To get a sense of how the original ad is being adapted elsewhere, you can see these U.K. versions of the Mac vs. PC scenario. And, of course, this isn't the only parody. Check out the religious critique in "I'm a Christ Follower," the joking about the implied homoeroticism of the spot about two men checking each other out in "The Unspoken Message," and the pro-Democratic party politics in this ad and that one.

When it comes to political activism among the well-rated YouTube videos, I might say this Register to Vote video aimed at single women displays much higher production values.

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Monday, November 19, 2007

Requiem for a Website

Last year I had some harsh words for Jim Zwick, because it appeared that he had served a DMCA notice on one of my colleagues after she posted images of mutilated natives from the Congo that were shot by activists in Africa over a century ago in conjunction with the obviously educational purpose of teaching the novel Heart of Darkness. I thought that it was an incredibly abusive use of intellectual property law, given the human rights discourses that should be part of our culture's collective memory.

The whole story has turned out to be considerably more complicated and even sadder than I initially thought. My colleague chose to move her faculty website off the university server, but the consequences for Zwick from his series of IP battles have proved to be even more disastrous. I don't like websites with advertising, but there was no question that Zwick's boondocksnet was the best site about U.S. and European imperialism around, with incredible pedagogical riches in the form of a huge catalogue of images and primary source documents. Zwick, a veteran of trail-blazing projects at Georgetown and George Mason University, seemed to have a real sense for what would be most useful to make history come alive to media-saturated students who were sometimes too apathetic to grapple with multiple counternarratives otherwise. I first heard about this website from historian Robert Moeller, Director of the UCI California Social Science/History Teachers Project, when he directed students to it in lectures for the Humanities Core Course.

Unfortunately, boondocksnet, which once hosted over 20,000 pages, has since gone dark. This happened largely because of duplicate-content rules for search engines. So many state curricula thought Zwick's site was so great that they copied pages and pages of it and hosted the content on their own often government-sponsored servers. Because giant companies like Google want to simplify search results, they won't carry duplicate content if the same pages appear on more than one server. And to make sure that users reach the most authoritative sites, the algorithm of these search engines seems to default to institutional URLs with .edu or .gov extentions rather than independent producers of online information.

According to Zwick, his site on U.S. imperialism had a similar page-ranking to comparable materials at the Library of Congress back in 2003. But after technologies became available to duplicate the content of Internet behemoths like Amazon.com and Wikipedia, mechanisms had to be created to preserve their page ranking and protect their status, while removing thousands of pages of duplicate content that were appearing in search results at Google and other search engines.

Thus, because of the procedural logic dictating search protocols, what Claus Schmidt calls "page hijacking" was punished when its victims were sites that were already authoritative hubs. But if the web domain came from an independent extra-mural source, bigger "textual poachers," to use Henry Jenkins' term, such as the Internet Archive, could end up hurting the actual content-creator, who might be blocked from a given set of search results. Regardless of size, even the most obviously educational sites with a lot of author-generated content could get caught up in the no-duplication net. As Zwick says, "I think my site, the Smithsonian, and a bunch of others were banned from Google in early 2005 after a commercial script for use by high schools was released that uses 302 redirects to link to all kinds of academic sites. Google seems to have made manual corrections for well-known institutional sites but did not address the problem more generally so many independent sites continue to be penalized because of 302 links and copying by others." By early 2007, use of Zwick's site declined to less than 23% of what it had been in early 2003, and newer materials added to the site were not getting any use at all.

Ironically, this problem of "domain poisoning" was made worse the more popular Zwick's site became among authoritative content-providers. As he writes, "The first using 302 redirects did it as a bait-and-switch but by 2005 or so, many legitimate sites were using the same technology to count usage of links going to the legitimate sites." Says Zwick, "Google was the most influential problem with the 'duplicate content' issue but my site was also banned from Microsoft Live and Ask.com because of it. Yahoo was the only major search engine that listed the site, probably because it was also the only search engine not affected by the page hijacking problem."

For Zwick it was particularly disastrous, because -- like many independent scholars -- he also used his website to showcase his publications. So, an entire corpus of work on American political discourse and authors such as Mark Twain wasn't linked to his individual domain, although that was his intention in putting his publications there in the first place.

I can sympathize, because I know that my faculty page is the way that people contact me to commission articles or invite me to speak . . . or reach me with complaints about this blog. Having a more impervious domain name extension associated with a large educational institution protects me from the duplicate content problem. As more and more faculty members become content-creators and eschew using university hosting, for a variety of reasons including the inherently nomadic character of academic life and the desire to establish what Julia Lupton has called a "personal brand" independent of their more constraining institutional identities, these faculty members may be more likely to find themselves in Zwick's position. In other words, right now I may be amused by those using the relatively modest ranking associated with the "virtualpolitik" name to sell political consulting services in Mexico or web design products in Germany, but if my scholarship were more accessible to the general public, particularly to those in required high school courses, I might feel very differently about this issue.

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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Going Down, Please



Even after Barack Obama's cameo on Saturday Night Live, what seems to be candidate Mike Gravel's appearance in this humorous viral video in connection with Halo 3 still seems a little disquieting to me.

Odder yet are these pro-Gravel videos that liberally borrow content from the History Channel.

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Apparently I Am to Blame

That's right. We need more media consolidation, because people hate media consolidation, and now choose to get their news off blogs, podcasts, online video sharing sites, and other sources from distributed networks. Regular audience members are rejecting the offerings of the infotainment monopolies, so we should make sure that they have even less choice in their local media markets.

That's essentially the argument of boyish Bush-appointed FCC chairman Kevin Martin who has proposed a major Revision of Cross-Ownership Rules. He wants to see local newspapers able to own local television stations, although in practice the reverse will likely be the most common case, in order to save the newspaper industry from evil-doers like me.

If we don’t act to improve the health of the newspaper industry, we will see newspapers wither and die. Without newspapers, we would be less informed about our communities and have fewer outlets for the expression of independent thinking and a diversity of viewpoints. The challenge is to restore the viability of newspapers while preserving the core values of a diversity of voices and a commitment to localism in the media marketplace.

It's an utterly illogical argument, of course. When done well, online news sites from papers like The New York Times and The Washington Post have seen their circulations rise and their costs drop when bloggers cite their stories on the web. Of course, my once-beloved Los Angeles Times is a basket case, but they aren't taking my good advice, so it is really their own fault.

And it certainly won't make newspapers any better when their content is driven even more by the pitbull-bites-man-during-high-speed-chase news determined by the B-roll that currently dominates local television news. If the rules are revised, I think you'll see less investigative journalism, fewer muti-installment in-depth stories, and a general discouragement of some of the thoughtful blogging and vlogging that newspaper reporters are experimenting with in favor of jokey round-the-anchor-desk fatuousness.

What is interesting about Martin's push for a rules change is that he acknowledges that this will be an unpopular proposal, which is something that policy makers rarely do.

I confess that in my public role, I feel that the press is not on my side. But it is for this very reason that I believe this controversial step is worth taking. In their role as watchdog and informer of the citizenry, newspapers are crucial to our democracy.

Unfortunately, the lessons about the hard-won legal victories associated with The Prometheus Radio Project may soon be forgotten. Luckily, the formal Reply by Commissioners to Chairman on the FCC website indicates that Martin may not get his way too easily.

(Thanks to striking show-runner and former law student Chip Johannessen for his contributions to my thinking about this issue.)

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Student Bloggers

I'm lucky to have a terrific group of students in my upper-division digital rhetoric course this year. It isn't really a Virtualpolitik topic, per se, so I have praised them over here on Design Your Life.

(As though I weren't doing enough blogging elsewhere, between here, Sivacracy, and various other gigs, stay tuned for more about Osocio, an international social marketing blog, where I will soon be blogging as well.)

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Saturday, November 17, 2007

They Hate to See Hugo

The dressing down of the anti-Western Guatemalan president Hugo Chávez by Spain's King Juan Carlos has been extremely popular on YouTube. This version of the Juan Carlos vs. Hugo Chávez bout has English subtitles, so non-Spanish speakers can follow their heated exchange. Chávez has been a YouTube celebrity in his own right, as I've shown here before. According to the LA Times, there has already been this trance remix and that one.

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After Blackberry Picketing

In the era of ubiquitous communication, news came via Blackberry to a crowd at a dinner party last night that the parties involved in the ongoing strike of movie and television writers would be going to be going back to the negotiating table. Those present cheered at the announcement.

Cocktail party conversation included considerable discussion about the digital rhetoric of the guild. I've talked about the role of blogging in the discourses of this labor action before, but it's worth looking at the comments sections of The Artful Writer to see the bitchy banter about credits, IMDB pages, and people's associated rights to speak. Variety has produced Scribe Vibe, and Nikki Finke's Deadline Hollywood has also been attracting more of a readership as a result of the work stoppage. Strike chatter has dominated John August's Blog, and a prostitution analogy in Josh Friedman's I find your lack of faith disturbing circulated in the industry blogosphere. My gripe with some of their blogging has to do with the rhetorical conventions of the Internet, since I think that writers for the big and small screen sometimes have trouble writing for the computer screen, in that they don't "chunk" information and often neglect to use hyperlinks.

As I'm said before, the YouTube rhetoric of the striking rhetoric has been very successful, as they have capitalized on the presence and participation of actors, show runners, and presidential candidates in the picket lines. Not all the WGA leadership necessarily comes off well on camera, and I'm sorry they don't seem to have the equivalent of a James Kotecki to advise them. But they do seem to understand how to re-purpose news footage YouTube style, as they do here in Voices of Uncertainty, and now even the first pro-WGA video mash-ups are starting to appear.

Of course, many on the web are calling for a radically new paradigm not envisioned by either side. See Rebuilding Hollywood in Silicon Valley's Image by Marc Andreessen for perhaps the most prominent example of this argument for having both those above the line and those below the line look to the organizational model of 21st century technology firms.

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Two Databases Walk into a Bar . . .

Yesterday I introduced Virgil Griffith, self-described "disruptive technologist," at a CalIT2-sponsored talk, "Wikiscanner: My Summer of Dilettante Data-Mining or Making a Corporation-Sized Cannon and Letting the Internet Decide Where to Point It."

Griffith opened his talk by explaining how his WikiScanner worked, which provides a simple online form to uncover the identities of anonymous Wikipedia editors. As Virtualpolitik readers may recall, this issue about the fallibility of the giant online encyclopedia first came to light when the IP addresses of congressional staffers were banned from Wikipedia in early 2006 for manipulating their public record.

Griffith described a relatively simple three-step method to creating WikiScanner: 1) Download all of Wikipedia, 2) Purchase a database with the information about which organizations own which IP addresses, and 3) Merge them together.

In Griffith's retelling, the costs associated with this project turned out to be minimal. The first step was free and involved about 21% of Wikipedia. The second step would have normally cost about $1000 in order to purchase a database from a private corporation, but Griffith was able to get the database from a sales rep gratis in about two hours when he promised to put the company's logo on his WikiScanner website. However, the company that provided the information about the IP addresses of the 2,668,905 different organizations soon asked for the company logo to be removed when their bid at free advertising ended up alienating many of their own clients who considered themselves WikiScanner victims. When the two databases were merged, Griffith found 187,529 different organizations that could be traced to at least one Wikipedia edit, including those at the CIA and the Vatican.

At first, Griffith said that he thought of the WikiScanner results as his personal "basket of evil," which he could delve into at will to fling damning evidence at those he resented for injustices or willful public stupidity like the Iraq War. But Griffith decided to crowd source the results for a number of different reasons. For example, he pointed out that the resulting database of anonymous edits was huge, and much of the information was outside the areas of his technical expertise. How would he be able to evaluate details about Pfizer or Amgen? He also wanted to avoid any possible legal liability if an offended party would claim that it had been intentionally targeted for malicious defamation. Griffith has been understandably litigation-averse, since he reached a settlement with the Blackboard company, after submission of his first freshman year paper "caused him to get sued under the Sedition and Espionage Act,” as he puts it. Furthermore, Griffith described media people as "lazy" and averse to "original research," and so he was pleased when Wired magazine helped him set up a Reddit-style ranking system that would produce easy-to-digest top ten lists. He showed how the current list included popular corporate villains like Diebold, Dow, ExxonMobil, and ChevronTexaco in what Griffith describes as an index that lets you see "who the Internet doesn't like."

Griffith shared his own personal favorites among the unearthed edits, which included CIA additions and subtractions that ranged from minutiae about matters nerdy and obscure (on "Light Saber Combat" styles) to entire memoirs about black ops (on "Black September" in Jordan). He pointed out that WikiScanner has even been involved in a FOIA suit over the entries made apparently by Arkansas state employees on behalf of presidential candidate Mike Huckabee in violation of election rules. According to Griffith, among the salacious cases uncovered when WikiScanner was used by the media, the editing out of a personal connections to a drug baron by a Dutch princess was probably the most easily solved, since the royal house of the Netherlands confessed to the sham immediately. Finally, as a rhetorician, I loved the fact that "A Controversial Speaker" was changed to "A Voice for the Farmer" in the case of elected representative Conrad Burns.

Griffith said that the experience of reviewing results had helped him realize that even seemingly monolithic organizations like the Republican headquarters were really characterized by the random and idiosyncratic sentiments of different individuals, an argument that I have also made about the heterogeneity of rhetorical approaches of message makers even on official government websites.

WikiScanner also allowed Griffith to explore some cross-cultural comparisons, since 19% of German Wikipedia edits are anonymous, and 17% of French alterations, but a whopping 40% of the edits to the Japanese Wikipedia were anonymous.

He is currently planning for the launch of WikiScanner 2.0 with input and support from the Wikimedia Foundation. Features would include new forms of surveillance for vote stacking, time overlaps, geographical location, vanity checking, and linkspam by screening for pages tagged with Google ads. (Of course, with so many blogs carrying advertising, this AdSense detector may discredit some legitimate sources of information.)

Griffith credited Wikipedia's own editing procedures with remedying many of the worst PR edits. For example, when Wal-Mart changed an entry that pointed out that wages at Wal-Mart were 20% lower than most retail stores to an assertion that the company paid double the minimum wage, Wikipedia editors were able to recognize both statements as true and construct an appropriate "although" clause to accommodate the edits of both parties.

From his case study of WikiScanner, Griffith moved into the evangelism portion of his talk, which could be reduced to a slide that read: "Amateur Data mining is fun." His list of "Tools to get you started" included standard favorites among programmers such as Python, Ruby, and MySQL. He also plugged GATE or a General Architecture for Text Engineering to provide toolkits for text mining, other text similarity tools to grapple with strings of text for which there are only approximate rather than exact matches, and a suite of Dutch data-mining tools that could be of use to hacktivists elsewhere. As Griffith said, "every hard programming thing is already done" by someone else.

He also argued that there were many interesting data sources that were currently being underutilized for interesting mash-up purposes. For example, he showed his own entry from the Notable Names Database along with Adolph Hitler's to illustrate the range of personalities and historical actors represented. He pointed out how this "IMDB for famous people" even revealed him to be a stutterer, which Griffith managed to suppress during his presentation, although he was obviously flustered by being almost a half-hour late.

He closed with some samples of cool mash-ups done by others. Given my line of work in public communication, I thought the dynamic text of this diagram of a speech by Alberto Gonzales was particularly good (best viewed in Safari), but there were also visualizations of other speeches on the same site by dissimulating orators such as Barry Bonds. He also suggested that closed captioning would provide a rich source of text for data mining, although only coverage of political speeches, proceedings, and events on CSPAN would be free of copyright restrictions.

Griffith showed topographical mash-ups as well. In the case of Planet Sony, Dan Kaminsky provides a geographical representation of where infestations of Sony's BMG rootkit have occurred, a project which eventually raised the consciousness of the Department of Defense, once it realized that it too had been hobbled by digital rights management technology to spur what Griffith called a "Clash of the Titans" between the forces of militarism and those of intellectual property ownership. As an example of risk communication, Nation under Siege combines Google mapping information with elevation data from the USGS to show what a mere five meters of added sea level would mean for urban communities, including my own coastal city of Santa Monica.

Griffith faced some tough questions from the crowd, particularly about China, where the authorities could use the same data-mining techniques to root out political dissidents. Griffith argued that there was a kind of cost-benefit analysis that goes with making things public. To justify his utilitarian calculations he compared Yahoo's China policy to Google's. During this part of the discussion, someone pointed out that Tor had not been disabled in China as a way to conduct subversive Wikipedia edits although it had been barred in the U.S. after extended periods of abuse by American editors.

(Slides from the talk are here.)

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Friday, November 16, 2007

Rose-Colored Glasses

In a review of Beowulf today in The Los Angeles Times, "'Beowulf' isn't poetry in motion capture," a critic slams the would-be blockbuster for pandering to teenage fanboy sensibilities by offering a 3D screening for critics.

If you are old enough to vote, however, seeing all this in 3-D may not be the thrill of a lifetime. Seeing the naked rear-end of an old and overweight man in that extra dimension is probably not a treat for anyone of any age. Though it is amusing to see a return to the staples of 1950s 3-D like spears thrown directly at the audience, the film's dimensionality feels more like a gimmick than an added value.

It's true that the epic saga is a tale that should appeal to middle-aged moms, as much as the pubescent public, if it weren't for the casting of Angelina Jolie, so I'm confused about why this critic is inserted ageism into an argument about the need for more universal appeal and less videogamer niche marketing.

I've actually translated the Anglo-Saxon poem line-by-line in a seminar with William Alfred. In the text, the maternal sentiments of Grendel's mother are genuinely humanizing, so this bad adaptation that turns her into a steamy sexpot who is just an object for the male gaze seems particularly unfortunate. I also studied with Beowulf translator Seamus Heaney in college, who was similarly concerned with how great stories make the monstrous meaningful and the Other relevant to the self.

Since I don't actually have binocular vision, the attempts at vividness in the entertainment experience would also probably lose me, but -- having seen the promos for the film at the SIGGRAPH Electronic Theater -- I was already skeptical before this review.

Update: Okay, I couldn't resist. I spent my Saturday night at Beowulf in 3D. I wasn't quite prepared for how many liberties that the creators of the film took with the story, which from my perspective seemed far more egregious than even the ridiculous Troy. For those who've never read the original, you should know that the great Scandinavian hero didn't sleep with Grendel's mother; he killed her. The narrative inaccuracies didn't bother me, however, as much as the general interpretation of the story did, which was a heavy-handed celebration of imagined historical patriarchy and a not-so-subtle tale about the dangers of miscegenation. The 3D effects were quite impressive, and they even worked on frequently non-binocular me. The modeling rendered figures that should have stayed in the uncanny valley, if you asked me, since there really was no reason not to shoot in in live action.

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Choosing Sides

Several months ago I said, "I want a digital rights candidate," but I still don't know which candidate I would support in the upcoming primary. I've certainly been watching the debates and listening closely for mentions of the Internet, technology, or computer-mediated practices and communities, but even when I do decide, as a public employee, I probably won't post it here.

I may still be on the fence, but Lawrence Lessig has endorsed Barack Obama. Although he acknowledges favorable opinions of Edwards' stands on technology and privacy, much of Lessig's posting is a critique of Hillary Clinton, specifically on the issue of making the debates available electronically without any copyright restrictions, so that citizens can access them for purposes of criticism, commentary, education, and political satire without any anxieties (even those these are all already protected categories with varying amounts of case law behind them). Lessig also slams Clinton in connection with his new venture, battling corruption around the world, since he argues that her positions on lobbyists are "spineless." In visiting Senator Clinton's website, I was struck by the prominent display of both branded products and links to social networking and photo-sharing sites.

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What Happens When the Strike Videos Are Funnier Than What's on TV?



This is written by the striking writers of The Colbert Report. There are more humorous webisodes at the blog Strike Points, which also has this offering from scribblers at The Daily Show.

In light of what Henry Jenkins has said about "participatory culture" and the importance of fandom, it is also interesting to note that today an "Impromptu Fan Day" will be held, where fans of shows like Desperate Housewives and Law & Order can gather. Because some of these "impromptu" events connected with the strikes have had organizational problems that include parking and traffic snafus and media outreach missteps, it will be interesting to see if this event can really use what Howard Rheingold has called "smart mobs" intelligently. Details about the event are at the retro-themed fans4writers.com.

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Better Than a Shoebox

There are two big stories about the public archiving of digital materials this month.

The first comes from my SCIWRITER partner, Mark Marino, who explains how literary hypertext and other forms of electronic literature that can be stored in a web-accessible format will be included in the nation's repository of documents to be preserved for posterity.

The Library of Congress has asked the Electronic Literature Organization to collect a sample of 300 web sites related to the field and to contribute that sample to the Internet Archive's Archive-It project. The sites selected will be crawled and archived to the extent that the Archive-It technology allows. The result will be full-text searchable collections of the spidered HTML files in the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine. The ELO will enter metadata including a short description and keywords for each URL entered into the database. The ELO Board of Directors, Literary Advisory Board, membership, and community are encouraged to suggest sites here for three sets of links.

You can go to their wiki to learn more and find out how to contribute materials if you are a digital author or artist.

The other big story has to do with how "Public.Resource.Org and Fastcase have reached an agreement for the release of a totally unencumbered repository of 1.8 million pages of federal case law, including Courts of Appeals decisions back to 1950." According to this announcement, "The agreement calls for definitive paperwork approved by both parties within 30 days with Public.Resource.Org making developer snapshots of the archive available in early 2008. Public.Resource.Org is represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation in this transaction. The cases will be marked with a new Creative Commons mark—CC-Ø—that signals that there are no copyrights or other related rights attached to the content." Public Resource previously brokered a deal that made more public domain video available to the general public in digital form.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

There Seems to Be a Theme Here

I just noticed that all of the people that I have invited to campus this Fall who have come thus far have been featured on the Colbert Report. Is this bad for academic gravitas?



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Database Politics

Recently, I interviewed the "fake boarding pass guy," Chris Soghoian, and we discussed the design and security problems that take place with "feature creep," when institutions that both maintain large databases and issue documents have those documents or databases used for purposes that were never intended. Soghoian argued that social security cards were a classic case of something used for authentification purposes despite being meant for something else. Another obvious case, which has been much in the news this month, is driver's licenses. Obviously, such licenses are intended only to certify that a person is able to drive a car safely, although they are used to board planes, write checks, borrow gas cans from filling stations, and check-out head-mounted displays at digital art installations.

Facing an outcry from anti-immigration forces, the state of New York just abandoned a proposal that would have allowed undocumented workers who are behind the wheel anyway to be certified as safe and insured, although pro-license politicians chiefly advertised the benefit of adding this portion of the population to a database that could be accessed by law enforcement. California also continues to circulate legislation on the issue, although it has been difficult to get a bill past the governor's veto. To learn more, the National Immigration Law Center maintains a web page on called the Driver's License Index that tracks this issue and even provides talking points for advocates. La Raza provides a similar "toolkit." On the federal side, Congress has introduced the problematic and slow-moving H.R. 4043 to actually take licenses away.

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