Sunday, August 31, 2008

Cover Girl

Now that Sarah Palin's candidacy for Vice President has been formalized in preparation for the Republican National Convention, it is interesting to consider her web presence as the Governor of Alaska, where she now rationalizes potential absence from office:

It is the honor of my life to represent you as your Governor, and over the next two months I will continue to do so. As the mother of five, I know how to multi-task, and I will continue to promote the path of reform that we set out on together in the state of Alaska.

Of course, there are also a number of parody websites involving Palin, including this phoney blog purporting to be written by Palin, which uses hyperlinks and embedded video content to skewer both the governor and her husband.

The Washington Post argues that the Internet has been critical to Palin's political success in "Palin Thanks Her Online Supporters as Interest Grows," which links to several online "draft" efforts.

Many in the vlogosphere are already deconstructing the nomination on YouTube or using video editing software to focus of particular parts of her anatomy.

Update: The appearance of the governor's home page has changed as revelations about Palin's family life upstage the convention. See the site for the "First Gentleman," however, here.

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Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Ones That Got Away

Given the forthcoming Virtualpolitik book about institutional media-making, I'm sorry to have missed a number of the sessions at the annual convention of the Society of American Archivists. Thursday’s session with Helena Zinkham on "Putting Pictures on Your Path" about the Flickr page of the Library of Congress apparently mentioned one of the phenomena that I have also written about: the presence of Internet "spoilers" who doubt the authenticity of particular images, such as this one of a car crash. For more about the project, including their internal debate about using a proprietary commercial site rather than open source software and problems with the available Creative Commons licenses, see this interview and the second part of this podcast.

I was also sorry to miss the creepy "Past Rites: Marketing for the Future" with representatives from the Archdiocese of Chicago, JPMorgan Chase Bank, Proctor and Gamble, which claims that organizations are "learning to capitalize on their heritage to enhance the perception of their integrity and performance," and that "corporations are mining histories to reinforce market presence and increase reputation and respect by forging stronger bonds with customers and employees." Managers of religious archives hosted a reception for the "Sisters of the Presentation Archives."

The most bang for the book probably would have been had at "Three Federal Digital Agencies Confront the Challenges of Digital Preservation” with James G. Cassedy, Kenneth Thibodeau, William LeFurgy, and Michael L. Wash discussing the Electronic Records Archives of the National Archives, the Federal Digital System of the Government Printing Office, and the Library of Congress's National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Project.

Note also that the Library of Congress is following the lead of other federal agencies by hosting its own official blog.

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Conquest of the Planet of the Apes

When Michael Clark and I wrote for the Modern Language Association's volume on Integrating Literature and Writing Instruction about efforts to bring more first-year undergraduates into the library and the initial panic that these initiatives caused, we were asked not to use a metaphor that compared the anxiety of the institutional protectors of the archival collections to the terror associated with a cheesy futuristic disaster movie:

Just the idea of sending over 1,000 first-year students to the library seeking information about the same books and topics in the same week provoked doomsday scenarios among librarians reminiscent of scenes from Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, which had been filmed partly on the steps of the main library building in the early 1970s.

The idea of comparing undergraduates to apes understandably offended the sensibilities of the editors, but viewers of the actual movie know that the simian characters are actually the noble heroes in the plot.

Today, I had the pleasure of recounting my very positive experiences working with my former colleague, archivist Bill Landis, who is now at Yale. Landis designed hands-on exercises for students to explore the university's Political Literature Collection that ultimately produced some excellent examples of undergraduate research. Although my subject expertise involves digital access to library materials, I've always been committed to facilitating contact with physical documents and inhabiting archival spaces. Also on this panel about teaching undergraduates with primary sources were Kerry Scott of the U.C. Santa Cruz library system and Jesse Silva, who created a series of online tutorials about congressional research for U.C. Berkeley students.

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Friday, August 29, 2008

The Impotence of Virtue

The presidential address by Society of American Archivists head Mark Greene called upon archivists to pursue greater political engagement in a number of significant areas. Specifically he urged archivists to define and promote themselves by articulating a set of values like the "Core Values" spelled out by the American Library Association, which also has its own agenda for issues and advocacy. He argued that an archivist was more than "a cross between a librarian and a historian" because he or she could also serve as a "watchdog" or "whistle-blower." Greene claimed that too often archivists were hampered by what he called "the impotence of virtue" and divorced themselves from issues involving "money and power."

For Greene, archivists have a central role in guaranteeing "government accountability." He noted archivists' objections to Executive Order 13233, which limited scope of the post-Watergate Presidential Records Act by fiat. He also mentioned their professional stance against the destruction of e-mail by the Bush administration and the documents related to the detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

Like those at the ALA, he also asserted that copyright holders had used legislation to extend their ownership of intellectual property to the point that it interferes with "use," which Greene argued should "trump preservation" every time.

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The More the Merrier

Often online exhibits from a library’s special collections emphasize discrete “gems” or “treasures” and recreate a display-case culture of spectatorship for those who visit websites that display historical materials rather than the nitty-gritty discovery activities known to those who open actual Hollinger boxes full of files to answer complicated research questions in archival detective work.

A different approach was emphasized in today’s panel on “digitizing entire collections” at the annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists. Presenters emphasized case studies in which entire collections were put online, although doing this cost-effectively often meant making sacrifices by only providing minimal metadata to keep costs at around the dollar-a-page mark to which many institutions aspire. “EAD” or “encoded archival description” was one of the most commonly used acronyms at the panel and at the conference in general. The other big acronym bandied about at the table was for the funding agency NHPRC or National Historical Publication and Records Commission.

Unfortunately, with Google searches that may land Internet users into the center of an archive with no context or navigation back to content descriptions or finding aids, such minimal metadata strategies also risk reinforcing the fragmentation already experienced by those haphazardly searching for documents in a web search. Furthermore, all three collections that were showcased on the panel consisted largely of hand-written materials that had not been transcribed and were therefore not extensively searchable.

Civil War documents from the Archives of Michigan posed a number of challenges to digitizers, particularly since they vary in size. Although the process of digitization is often depicted as an “automagical” transubstantiation, Mark E. Harvey’s in absentia presentation, “Thank God for Michigan” acknowledged a number of complications in the process from worker equipment to protect against possible environmental hazards to vendors complaining about set contracts when projects become over budget. Luckily, the Civil War project has benefited from an active user community, which included the Ann Arbor Civil War Roundtable, and expressed a willingness to solicit constructive criticism from the archivists present, who pointed out that “civil war” didn’t specific the country and that other metadata samples didn’t specify the state. As part of the “Seeking Michigan” website redesign, which Harvey had jocularly renamed “Desperately Seeking Michigan,” the project is hoping to eventually expand to include private records, such as diaries and letters from individuals who were engaged in combat. The Archives of Michigan also maintains a Flickr page, although it has less than a thousand documents.

Blogs have become a tool for recording progress and publicizing lessons learned in many of these cases. Michigan has its blog at "Thank God for Michigan." However, the subsequent presenter, Kaye L. Minchew, who was also author of specialized state electronic encyclopedia pages, such as "Franklin D. Roosevelt in Georgia," complained that her own contributions to "Troup County Court Record Scanning Project" too often felt like a failed diary entry.

Final presenter David Null explained how ownership of the physical papers of an early environmentalist at the Aldo Leopold Archives and ownership of the intellectual property rights by the separate Aldo Leopold Foundation could create possible conflicts of interest. In addition, since visitors could enter the archive from either portal, those who land in the middle of it after a Google search might not have a clear way out to a definitive home page.

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Cutaway View



The strata-cut style of animation by David Daniels would seem to be very different from digital animation techniques that are driven by software rather than physical materials, but Daniels' animation is achieving attention again long after his heyday doing rock videos in the nineties. (I have owned a slice of Daniels work for many years, which has hung on our walls.) Now Amnesty International leads off its animated version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from the United Nations with Daniels' footage.

Hoping to capitalize on post-Olympics interest, they've also made a Chinese-language version of the film for online dissemination. It's worth noting that Amnesty's once bare bones Chinese language page has now been replaced by the China Debate. Users are also encouraged to download lesson plans and PowerPoint slides about human rights in China for use in their own rhetorical presentations.

At the same time, Amnesty is promoting a much less obviously didactic online human rights initiative at feelthedream.org, which commemorates this week's anniversary of the "I Have a Dream" speech of Martin Luther King, Jr. but uses music fandom to establish common ground. Unlike Amnesty's traditional letter-writing campaigns, participants are told that "all you are being asked to do is put your hands up, and join others doing the same across the world to celebrate freedom & great music."

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Paper Trail

The American Public Media radio show Marketplace ran a story today, "MBA schools take new tack in studies," that argues that through digitization and networked communication business students are being encouraged to examine larger data sets than the traditional case study approach allows.

By using databases of documents and online news stories about companies in fiscal trouble, such as Enron or Bear Stearns, faculty are using the web to simulate encountering financial records, public relations materials, and press coverage without a pre-set narrative. Yale's Dean of the School of Management Joel Podolny discusses this "raw case method" in which materials are delivered online to facilitate criticism and collaboration and draws analogies with Wikipedia to explain the project. Podolny also claims that rights issues involving the electronic reproduction of these documents should be seen as relatively clear-cut, because the principles of fair use would apply, given the explicitly educational context, although the school is involved in a collaboration with the Wall Street Journal for the project.

Podolny explains more about this initiative here. As an example, this sample case about the FCC spectrum auction should be of interest to digital rights advocates.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Twilight of the Idols

Ava Arndt points out how the New York Times is reporting on the role of Internet news dissemination at the Democratic Convention in "New Media Stream into an Old Tradition." While news organizations often want to keep control over their copyright by restricting the dissemination of the often highly excerpted video clips of speeches, the DNC website offers full coverage of the convention, which includes supposedly "minor" speakers and events in the program. Yet digital rights advocates will immediately notice that the DNC is hardly an exemplary site for free culture practices. Users must install plug-ins from proprietary software to view the footage, and the clips themselves appear in a format that can not be easily copied, remixed, or embedded in blogs or other social media channels of communication.

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Faster Than a Speeding Rapper



The CERN Large Hadron Collider may seem like an unlikely candidate for memorialization in a rap song, but the genre of "nerd rap" or "nerdcore" (see this sample and this definition for more) has grown in popularity, thanks to YouTube and other video-sharing sites. Of course, this form of celebratory geek discourse also has precedents in the football cheers and fight songs of the nation's technical colleges, such as this famed cheer from MIT.

Note that the LHC rap features an imitation of the electronically modulated voice of Stephen Hawking, which has become distinctive -- although ostensibly generated by a generic product for the disabled -- in our auditory culture.

(Thanks to Dan McGrath for the link.)

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Sans Serif

Julie Platt points out the existence of the fabulous online font combat game Helvetica vs. Ariel. Previously, Helvetica fan and Ariel foe Ellen Lupton posted "Type Crime: Rated R" that shows a short Flash film of battling typefaces. Lupton has also showcased a number of font-based games as supplements to her book Thinking with Type.

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The Reel Has Left the Building

In my continuing education in the affordances and constraints of particular software packages, I am now taking a course in After Effects. At our first class meeting, instructor Devin Uzan typically told a number of industry anecdotes. What I thought was interesting was how he described ways that the seemingly closed world of digital animation could reach the more general marketplace or the public sphere.

Apparently digital artists often have difficulty getting footage for their demo reel and generally must wait to rip the DVD version after it enters the consumer market. This can pose challenges to them as members of the labor force, because "before" and "after" shots that illustrate their expertise as individuals in this highly collaborative process can be helpful to them as jobseekers. Like other forms of film-making, these reels often reflect the conventions of a specific genre.

Copyright is also one of the big barriers to replication, particularly since studios are anxious that those who have access to large files of high quality footage might leak the material to allow pirated copies of the film to circulate, perhaps even before the movie premieres. Uzan retold a story from Rhythm & Hues about an artist who had been deported after an FBI investigation showed that he had shared stills with a family member, and that these images then migrated to URLs all over the World Wide Web.

There may be concerns about privacy as well as publicity in the world of computer animation. For example, when working on The Hulk, animators created test footage that showed themselves doing Hulk-like activities and making Hulk-like expressions. Although there was some facetious contemplation about releasing these potentially embarrassing images on YouTube as a prank, the footage never left the building either physically or virtually.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Hit Me with Your Best Shot

Rose and Camellia has been described as the "best Japanese Victorian slapping Flash game ever made" by fans of this virtual catfight that follows the potential humiliations of humble widow Reiko by the proud aristocratic women of her deceased husband's family in which Reiko literally must hit back to advance in the game. Kotaku reviews the sequel here.

The collision detection in the game may be more theoretically interesting than mechanically responsive as the women in Reiko's life violate norms of politeness and therefore egg on player vs. player style combat action.

Parents may be horrified by a game that could easily translate into playground fighting from its stylized form, but Rose and Camellia is also relatively light on violence compared to the homicidal fury of other Flash games that children commonly play. Furthermore, unlike "happy slapping" in the real world, there is a narrative rationale justifying participating in these violent interactions, since the player will merely be slapped into defeat if she refuses to slap back.

For context here is another slapping Flash game. This one actually isn't much of a game.

Thanks to Dan McGrath for the reference.

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Little Brother is Watching You

Mark Drapeau has been writing a series about Government 2.0 at mashable.com that addresses how institutions of the state are using social media software such as Twitter or blogging engines to reach large numbers of citizens. Since Jane Fountain's early work on the "virtual state," analysts of e-government have also been trying to grapple with ideological issues that get beyond the mechanistic viewpoint of many of the initial HCI attitudes, which much of my work on the Virtualpolitik project addresses.

In "Government 2.0: Being Individually Empowerful," Drapeau links to a long list of government agencies now using Twitter.

Although his view of the Transportation Security Administration's blog Evolution of Security is less jaded than my own, which is developed at length in a forthcoming article in the Video Vortex Reader about government-funded YouTube channels, Drapeau does acknowledge that government media-makers rarely use social media genres appropriately or recognize the critical distinctions between "push" and "pull" media.

The Web 2.0 mentality is that of a conversation. But these blogs, while great, are really just press releases. The occasional post racks up lots of comments, but considering the potential audience of 300 million people domestically, there is little conversing going on.

Drapeau also notes that some government employees experiment with institutional identities other than the officially approved and branded ones that are associated with a government seal.

Interestingly, there are two categories of government Twitter usage. The first is a faceless entity complete with the office’s seal (“JFCOM” or “FEMA”) that I term the “Enterprise.” The second is an individual advocate representing an agency, most often using their real name and photo; I call this the “Empowered individual.”

. . .

What I found was very revealing. The Enterprises rarely follow anyone, and when they do, those tend to be other Enterprises. In contrast, the Empowered follow many people, often those with no obvious relationship with the government. Empowered entities also tend to deliver messages related not only to work but about other aspects of their lives.

Enterprises also rarely converse with other Twitter users. Many just use TwitterFeed to re-post blog posts that already read like press releases – a 1.0 messaging system masquerading in 2.0 technology. Conversing is so rare that I was hard-pressed to find any good examples. NASA should really be singled out, because although entities like “MarsPhoenix” don’t follow anyone, they do converse quite a lot (MarsPhoenix has about 44% @ replies and 56% “push”).

I might argue that the singularity of NASA may have more to do with a longer tradition of pro-am affiliations -- that include many astronomy enthusiasts in the general public -- than a smarter collective culture about the adoption of social media technologies at the level of policy.

Drapeau's earlier second essay, "Government 2.0: A Theory of Social Government," doesn't actually do much to advance a coherent theory, but it does include an insider's perspective on our current climate of political reaction that strives not only to regulate the use of seemingly subversive social media technologies by constituents but also the computer-mediated communication practices of agents of the government themselves.

Ironically, however, many government agencies block such sites for use at work. For example, I cannot access MySpace or YouTube from the computer in my office at the Department of Defense, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) blocks most social networking sites besides LinkedIn. At least one part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) blocks Google Chat. Not only do these policies make little sense (there are legitimate research uses for all of these sites, while email, iTunes, and non-blocked websites are ‘abused’ daily), the policies are inconsistent.

Drapeau argues that conferences like Defense 2.0 indicate that policy makers are finally getting over their instrumentalist ideology that hobbles effective action on the Internet to acknowledge that "the Internet has ceased to be a tool, and has evolved into a place."

After reading the first essay in the series, "Government 2.0: An Insider's Perspective" I didn't hold out much hope for the series, given his online persona as a facile DoD "expert" who actually was a late-comer to these technologies, who was trained as "a biologist who collects wild parasitic wasps from birds’ nests, videotapes tiny fruit flies copulating and was part of the international honey bee genome project." His smarmy introduction of himself as a person for whom this "all changed on March 3rd, when I attended the auspiciously named event, 'Blogs Meet Booze' in Washington DC, on a lark" seemed particularly rhetorically unfortunate.

When I opened the link I shuddered to think of reading yet another reductionistic sociobiological take on the World Wide Web that seemed to be previewed by Drapeau's assertion that "studying complex behavioral and genetic networks in animals is not so different from understanding human social networks." (This approach obviously ignores things like ideology or cultural imaginaries or linguistic connotation in computer-mediated communication.)

However, Drapeau's frank criticism of his bosses won me over. I was sorry not to be able to cite it in the footnotes of the forthcoming Virtualpolitik book, but it's out of my hands until final proofs come back in October.

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Monday, August 25, 2008

Learning to Spin or Building a Web?

Elayne Zalis points out an article in the Washington Post about the web development history and design philosophy of members of Obama's Internet communications team. "Obama's Wide Web" argues that the World Wide Web has been central to how the candidate "raises money, communicates his message and, most important, recruits, energizes and turns out his supporters." As political strategist Joe Trippi says in the article about his earlier online efforts for the 2004 election: "I like to say that we at the Dean campaign were the Wright brothers. We put this rickety thing together and got it off the ground. But the folks in Obama's online team are the Apollo project. The question is, are they Apollo 8 or Apollo 11?" What the article misses is the fact that the Obama campaign is avoiding games or other attention-getting interactive initiatives that the Dean campaign was willing to experiment with. It's also interesting to note that the article claims that the Obama campaign is also using the web to showcase longer media, such as a thirteen-minute video with Bronx high school students. Although online content is often described as "snackable" fare for short attention spans, the campaign seems to be counting on the participation of those who fish the web patiently rather than merely surf it.

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A Word to the Wise

Dennis Jerz points out that two men from the Typo Eradication Advancement League have been banned from national parks for making corrections in permanent marker to a hand-painted historical sign. In the era of Microsoft Word the notion of line-editing by making physical corrections to material text may seem anachronistic, but on a cached copy of their website they explain their rationale as follows:

This March through May, we, sworn members of TEAL, will be taking a road trip around the country to stamp out as many typos as we can find, in public signage and other venues where innocent eyes may be befouled by vile stains on the delicate fabric of our language. We do not blame, nor chastise, the authors of these typos. It is natural for mistakes to occur; everybody will slip now and again. But slowly the once-unassailable foundations of spelling are crumbling, and the time has come for the crisis to be addressed. We believe that only through working together with vigilance and a love of correctness can we achieve the beauty of a typo-free society.

According to "Typo 'vigilantes' get probation for vandalism" in the Chicago Sun-Times, the two miscreants received light sentences.

(However, Jerz also points out Jonathan Beecher Field's argument in "Why Doesn't Plagiarism Matter?" that scrupulousness about the integrity of the written word seems to be waning, if the support of recent vice presidential candidate Joe Biden is any measure of the Zeitgeist.)

Virtualpolitik pal Eames Demetrios will need to remember to be careful about his mechanics, grammar, spelling, and usage in the markers that he is leaving to commemorate events in the alternate reality he has created through his Kymaerica project. According to this review, Demetrios is also using PowerPoint to expound about this evolving site-specific narrative.

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Dance Card

The official website of Democratic vice presidential candidate Senator Joe Biden has some oddities in its interface design. The video that displays his life plays without an audio track and the explanatory captions for the still images only shows if the user leaves the cursor hovering over the video player's navigation bar. And the alphabetized list of "issues" on the drop-down menu is likely longer than most visitors' computer screens, so that headings like "War in Afghanistan" or "War in Iraq" could be easily missed. The "multimedia" section includes a list of audio and video clips of the senator involved in his legislative duties, where they could be re-mixed for editorial purposes by critics and commentators. He also has a Google maps locater for his office.

A search of the site does not show references to the controversial C-SPAN clip in which Biden said "you cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin' Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent" or to his later public rationalization that the excerpt did not reflect his full comments, which included praise of Indian professionals. After the incident, some bloggers and commentators drew parallels with the famed "macaca moment" that sunk Republican hopes for a Virginia senate seat and noted that candidates seem to have trouble dealing with South Asian Americans on the campaign trail.

(A search of YouTube with the term "Indian accent" delivers a depressing number of examples of racist online video, particularly in the genre of prank phone call videos.)

Thanks to Siva Vaidhyanathan for reminding online political observers about the incident.

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The iPod Olympics

The camera recording sports events at the 2008 Beijing Olympics often also captures another sight: athletes waiting to compete who are listening to their iPods. Considerable discussion about possible playlists has become a frequent feature of commentary in the blogosphere. A Google search leads spectators to speculation about what's inside the white box of Heather Mitts, Michael Phelps, and other gold-medal winners. In Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life, Mimi Ito points out that there is a social dimension to seemingly isolated activities that use ubiquitous technologies. Perhaps this is another case in which personal, portable, and pedestrian devices relate closely to public cultural imaginaries.

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Saturday, August 23, 2008

Straight Talk



The website for the marriage equality movement in California LetCaliforniaRing.org makes a number of traditional values appeals with its print and television ads. This week between coverage of the Olympics, the video above has been playing in major markets, which is obviously intended to appeal to Latino/a viewers known for their social conservatism. Note the contrast in aesthetic with this video from the Croatian lesbian group LORI, which was banned from the national airwaves in that country.

Rhetoricians often talk about the "cultural conversation" that surrounds a given oratorical performance or persuasive text. Often viral advertising is designed to generate this kind of "buzz," so it is interesting to see that LetCaliforniaRing does not seem to be capitalizing on Internet many-to-many modes of communication. Although there is an area for visitors to post their personal stories, the website does little to propagate its message through blogs and social network sites.

This video from the California campaign explicitly discusses the value of starting the "conversation." It shows text that announces "let the conversation begin," emphasizes the value of "that one humanizing conversation," and reveals plans to orchestrate "millions of conversations" on the subject. Much like a chain letter, the first thing organizers ask for is for participants to talk to "15, 25, 100" people about the issue. Rather than have these be online conversations, this toolbox emphasizes face-t0-face interactions.

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That Teacher Has Widget Rules

Virtualpolitik pal Mark Marino has confessed to having "widget fever" of late. As Marino argues, although widgets are "directed toward diversion and novelty," they can have pedagogical value to facilitate user-friendly "ripping, sharing, and re-purposing" and to create "page aggregators" with "multimodal learning pages centered on a given lesson."

You can check out his Pageflakes page on that rhetorical classic, "The Topoi," which dates back to the ancient Greeks, here. Marino has updated these tried-and-true composition methods with online video and various note-taking and brainstorming tools.

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Graceful Departures

Facebook has become a site for news about rites of passage, particularly entries and exits from specific workplaces. Just today, three separate people passed on news about their de-facto resignations via their status lines.

At one time, quitting was a performative in one's life of labor that was exclusively a one-to-one transaction between worker and boss. But now it is entirely possible to publicize job separations in ways that were difficult to aspire to in the age of print, unless you were Jean-Noël Jeanneney and able to have published a farewell letter to the staff of the BNF, entitled Lettre aux personnels de la Bibliothèque nationale de France au moment de leur dire adieu, a seventy-eight page printed document.

Trickier to interpret is when a Facebook friend updates information to remove matrimonial data. If someone is "no longer listed as married," what does that mean? Divorce? Or simply a choice to put less personal information online? Without a definitive status update, the narrative can be difficult to reconstruct.

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Slipping Them a Mickey

Virtualpolitik pal Joseph Menn has a good piece about copyright in this week's Los Angeles Times. "Disney's rights to young Mickey Mouse may be wrong" argues that the early incarnations of this highly recognizable brand in films like "Steamboat Willie" have been around long enough to have entered the public domain. It's Menn's swan song from the city's "gray whale," which has become more like a sinking ship of late, as he swims off into the sunset for a book-writing leave.

Update: Menn pointed out my sloppy paraphrase that equated his argument with Lawrence Lessig's and the fact that I focused exclusively on the clock running out on the rights. To correct the record, Menn is actually making a more subtle legal argument in his piece. He notes that Disney "apparently blew the extremely strict requirements for copyright notice that were in place at the time -- so that in theory, they've never had the rights to the original Mickey at all."

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Star Power

As the Los Angeles Times notes in "John McCain tops YouTube charts," the gray-haired Republican candidate often "stars" in ads that ridicule statements made in public appearances. Now that McCain has failed to answer a question about how many houses he owns from Politico.com, ribbing on online video in footage like this and this is likely to continue.

McCain has also had to combat the fact that he often appears insufficiently tech-savvy in comparison to the Democratic challenger, although some have noted that Barack Obama often doesn't know the brand names to invoke when it comes to gaming culture.

Now his campaign has released the McCain Technology Policy, which can be read as more pro-Silicon Valley than the position statements of many social conservatives, but doesn't express any support for the critical network neutrality provisions that many digital rights advocates argue will be essential for a continued free exchange of ideas on the Internet, even though the FCC has finally stopped serving as a stumbling block to action on the issue.

McCain's emphasis on "piracy" rather than fair use or a creative commons may also be of concern to technology activists.

Finally, in his anti-taxation rhetoric, McCain says nothing about the need for government support for public infrastructure for technological innovation. At a time when the Chronicle of Higher Education is reporting on the problems of the National Center for Research in Advanced Information and Digital Technologies in stories like "New High-Tech Teaching Center, Pushed by Congress, Lacks Funds," support from the Executive Branch might be particularly important.

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Free . . . As in Labor

Call for Papers

Free…as in Labor
Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association
National Conference
New Orleans, LA
April 8-11, 2009

The Communication and Digital Culture Area of the Popular Culture Association is soliciting proposals for panels and individual papers that explore online participatory culture and the problematic concept of “free labor” in a network society.

Corporations are increasingly counting upon the activity of a “participatory consumer” to provide the content for sites that directly or indirectly generate revenue. Twenty five years ago, GNU operating system activist Richard Stallman famously distinguished the “free” in free software as “free as in free speech, not as in free beer.” What kind of “free” is the labor of a participatory culture? How does the appropriation of this work by major corporations complicate our understanding of “free labor?”

Possible topics include:

Wikipedia and the Academy
Gift Economies Online
Free/Libre Open Source Software
Intellectual Property
Warez Subcultures
“Immaterial” Labor
Convergence & Consumer/Producers
DIY Media
Marx & the Digital Economy
Fan Culture Appropriation

Submit a 250 word maximum proposal to:

Mark Nunes, Chair
Department of English, Technical Communication, and Media Arts
Southern Polytechnic State University
Marietta, GA 30060-2896
mnunes@spsu.edu

Deadline for Submissions: November 30, 2008
Note: Communication and Digital Culture is a themed area. Submissions off-theme should be submitted to:
Internet Culture Area Chair, Montana Miller, montanm@bgnet.bgsu.edu
Games Studies Area Chair, Gerald Voorhees, gerald-voorhees@uiowa.edu

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Ring-A-Ding

As a social marketing ploy to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS prevention, the BBC's condom ringtone that has become popular on Indian portable phones is certainly a novel solution. Direct link to the ringtone is here.

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Now You See It . . . Now You Don't . . . Now You Do Again

A recent Public Radio International story about the destruction and rebuilding of Ferhadija mosque in Banja Luka, a Serbian stronghold in Bosnia that was known for its de facto ethnic cleansing when civil rights protections for Muslim inhabitants were withheld, featured the importance of certain kinds of software applications.

In "Rebuilding a Bosnian mosque" reporters describe how after the mosque was obliterated from the urban landscape of the city by Serbian wrecking crews with orders to disperse and hide the pieces, images of the old mosque in historical photographs were also "airbrushed out." Although it is not clear that Photoshop was used to alter the photographs in this official exhibition, one political critic has created a Photoshopped composition that shows the mosque rebuilt where the twin towers in New York were destroyed.

Digital technologies have also played a role in rebuilding the mosque as recovered fragments of the stone are cataloged in a database and then virtually positioned in a software program, much like a 3-D jigsaw puzzle. See the website for the project here.

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Camera Not Obscura



In the Virtualpolitik book I write about the Internet and whistle-blowing and describe how some YouTube videos feature government employees and contractors revealing backroom deals or corporate corruption. The video above by Gwen Olsen is intended to serve a whistle-blowing (and self-promotion) function in Olsen's insider's exposé of the pharmaceutical industry.

Minhaaj Rehman also notes the presence of first-person witness videos on YouTube in the form of Jimmy Justice videos on the site, which often show law enforcement officers making illegal traffic maneuvers like this one.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Selling the Sizzle Not the Steak

There's been a lot of news about new music distribution models this month. Google announced a fully developed mp3 search functionality for Chinese customers. (Screenshots are here, since the site itself seems to be down.) As the Wall Street Journal explains in "Google Aims to Crack China with Music Push," the corporation is trying to gain market share from the more popular Baidu search engine in a venture that would be capitalized by ad revenue and would promise to promote "legal" downloading with the cooperative Top100.cn music vendor.
At the same time Microsoft and Federated Media are touting the launch of CrowdFire in the United States to figure out an economic model for skimming profit from fan culture in a post-song-sale music marketing era. CrowdFire describes itself as a "celebration of live music" that is "built by you." It claims that its platform is designed for "uploading, sharing, and producing" music, as well as for "mixing, mashing, and melding." All around San Francisco, billboards trumpet the first event, OutsideLands in Golden Gate Park.
See John Battelle for more.

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A Need for Screed

The print edition of today's Los Angeles Times ran a remarkably one-sided piece about copyright and digital video titled "Waltzing around the piracy issue," which appeared under the more search-engine friendly headline "YouTube and the irrepressible dream of Video ID" in the online version of the paper.

Variations of the word "pirate" appear no fewer than five times to describe what seems to be largely innocuous fan behavior and no mention is made of fair use for educational or critical purposes of film clips or the fact that these clips from network news often constitute an important part of contemporary political speech or parody, which is Constitutionally protected. Nor is any mention made of the problems that always happen when automated bots do the work that human beings normally handle in recognizing context, interpreting intent, etc.

About the only interesting bit of actual news in the story involved how owners to the rights to the film Dirty Dancing were allowing clips like this one on YouTube to test the waters. Of course, the reporter totally missed the role that fan homages play in the YouTube universe and the fact that it is this version of Dirty Dancing shot at a British wedding that has received far more views. Should this be called "piracy" because it uses copyrighted music or "homage," since it had a transmedia life of its own that included the appearance of the couple on Oprah dancing with the film's original star Patrick Swayze?

Much of this tiresomely sarcastic article is strangely taken up with complaining about the reporter's travails in attempting to present multiple points of view about the issue.

I called around to major media companies, thinking everyone would be excited to talk about this equitable and innovative solution. But no one seemed to want to discuss it. CBS declined to comment, as did Viacom (perhaps understandably, given its $1-billion lawsuit against YouTube).

Although content from Fremantle Media (“American Idol”) and World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. often pops up on YouTube, neither company said they had anything to contribute. Even EA, an early adopter of the technology, did not return a string of e-mails and phone calls — all the more strange considering that YouTube offered a direct contact there.

YouTube also recommended I contact NBC Universal for its thoughts. But when I reached the conglomerate’s general counsel, Rick Cotton, he didn’t seem to have heard about any revolution.

The reporter also seems to be in serious denial about the future of online news:

Sites such as latimes.com are not complaining about the growing waves of monetizable traffic Digg is sending their way free. Who wouldn’t buy into a model like that?

I've been debating about whether to cancel my subscription to the Los Angeles Times after many decades of loyal readership in the face of their tabloid tactics, Facebook journalism, lousy technology coverage, firing of reporters and closing of foreign bureaus, terrible online edition, invasive e-mail spam from advertisers, and contemptuous treatment of subscribers (thanks guys for trying to charge my credit card without my permission and for leaving papers on my lawn during a week-long vacation hold). Maybe this will be the final straw.

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Talking Trash

Salon magazine has a detailed close reading of two right-wing mass e-mails in "Debunking anti-Obama e-mails."

Two such messages, circulating by e-mail and popping up in comments on blogs for months, are reproduced below -- and annotated and debunked, point by point -- to illustrate the tactics Obama's been up against for most of the campaign. The first e-mail attacks the candidate's wife, attempting to paint Michelle Obama –- and by extension, Barack Obama -- as an America-hating black separatist radical. Democratic pollsters say many voters don't know much about Michelle Obama. This e-mail, which began circulating during the Democratic primaries, seems to be a deliberate attempt to fill in a mostly blank mental canvas with negative associations before the Obama campaign can tell her story itself.

A second, more recent e-mail, received just a few days ago, shows that the spurious but very durable belief that Obama is a Muslim continues to ricochet around the Internet.

Mike Madden then proceeds to "deconstruct" the e-mails with point-by-point rebuttals and fact-checking. However, based on its longer legacy in the popular culture about Obama, I might argue that the "second" e-mail may well have evolved earlier. Politico.com published the Princeton undergraduate thesis at issue in the "first" e-mail here.

Although Republican sources often send me copies of such mass e-mails, these are two that I haven't seen. (Examples of my own readings of such e-mails are here, here, and here.)

The Washington Post has also been covering this story in "An Attack That Came Out of the Ether," which featured an interview with democracy researcher Danielle Allen about the Obama-as-Muslim e-mail and her attempts to trace the missive back to the source. Allen argues that the producers of the e-mail must defend their case publicly, although she failed to locate the original sender. She also argues that the Internet is facilitating the spread of "nativist discourse" and "whisper campaigns" of the kinds with long negative histories in American politics.

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Personally, I'm More Afraid That They'll Pick Up Bad Spelling

When it comes to the dangers that young people face outside the home, apparently parents rank videogames as a greater threat to their children's well being than traditional sources of sin, such as smut and liquor. According to "Parents Fear Video Games More than Porn, Alcohol," a new study from What They Play indicates "drinking beer and watching pornography were less objectionable activities for children than playing certain video games."

Three things to note about this study:

A trip to the What They Play website indicates that the site heavily promotes Disney products and has a "games from our sponsors" section, unlike many such parent advisory sites that assume the pose of a public safety nonprofit (which I have argued is often disingenuous anyway).

This is apparently the same group whose polling made the pages of USA Today with a graphic that showed that "two men kissing" in a videogame was more objectionable than the sight of a "graphically severed head."

The desire to shield children from certain kinds of videogames is patently unrealistic according to the authors of Grand Theft Childhood, since not being invited to play such games with friends is actually often an indicator of poor social integration and cultural isolation that can be tied to poor performance.

I might argue instead that digital parents are ignoring more subtle yet important aspects of their children's online lives. For example, are they good spellers? Or do they come off as ignorant to their text-messaging peers? You would be surprised at the amount of mockery I overhear among teens about bad spelling, even in an era in which it is considered inappropriate to poke fun at other kinds of learning anomalies. Of course, this ridicule of bad spelling in the electronic era takes place in grown-up culture as well.



In short, when it comes to worrying about software with harmful long-term effects, parents might want to think about spell-check rather than GTA. Thanks to Robert Moeller for the YouTube video.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Passing Notes

In "Text the Vote," New York Times Op-Ed contributor Garrett M. Graff initially suggests that when Barack Obama uses text messages to inform his supporters about the name of his vice presidential pick, he will be superficially "just like the cool kid in study hall."

Yet Graff also argues that Obama has been using text messaging strategically as part of his overall get-out-the-vote effort and as a way to shape the schedules of those who might attend rallies or other events of mass culture politics. Although he mentions the use of portable telephones for subversive protests organized by what Howard Rheingold has called "smart mobs," Graff sees this technology as being important in the United States primarily for top-down party organizations.

Of course, using ubiquitous communication technologies will have other effects. People can get political messages at their TV-free workplaces and even in meetings. Thus, it facilitates different types of cultural conversations. It also makes the news arrive earlier and without the context of television or newspaper coverage of the event.

Thanks to Ava Arndt for the link.

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A Caption is Worth a Thousand Words

The New York Times has published a number of interesting items about Photoshop this month

In "Photography as a Weapon," documentary filmmaker Errol Morris speaks with image manipulation researchers and bloggers who public editorial images and includes interviews with Hany Farid and Charles Johnson. He follows the lineage of current "fauxtography" back to Germany's John Heartfield and the photomontage work that he produced during the Weimar and Nazi years. Morris actually argues that the problem has more to do with public perception than it does with digital manipulation.

But doctored photographs are the least of our worries. If you want to trick someone with a photograph, there are lots of easy ways to do it. You don’t need Photoshop. You don’t need sophisticated digital photo-manipulation. You don’t need a computer. All you need to do is change the caption.

The Times also ran a piece called "I Was There. Just Ask Photoshop" that examines how the software program is altering the record of family history for many individuals who are excising divorced spouses or including absent relatives in snapshots in the family album or on the mantelpiece.

Although the initial tone of the piece seems to chide this behavior, the reporter also includes the opinion of at least one cultural historian who suggests that this is less of an aberration than it might seem.

The impulse to record family history that is more wishful than accurate is as old as photography itself. In the 19th century, people routinely posed with personal items, like purses or scarves, that belonged to absent or dead relatives to include them, emotionally, in the frame, said Mary Warner Marien, an art history professor at Syracuse University and the author of “Photography: A Cultural History.”

In India, she said, it is a tradition to cut-and-paste head shots of absent family members into wedding photographs as a gesture of respect and inclusion. “Everyone understands that it’s not a trick,” she said. “That’s the nature of the photograph. It’s a Western sense of reality that what is in front of the lens has to be true.”


Thanks to my HCC colleague Peter Moore for the Morris story.

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The Analog Generation


The Los Angeles Times reports in "Vinyl records make a return" that a new vinyl-only label thinks it has a viable business plan in the age of digital music. As the article points out, many in the supposed "digital generation" still choose to collect and exchange physical artifacts. Certainly my own children often have analog preferences, and the role of various trading card games in many young people's lives and the resurgence of board games indicates that non-computational media still play an important part in multiple entertainment ecologies. Both Henry Jenkins and Siva Vaidhyanathan have talked about the "myth of the digital generation." Perhaps this is yet another example of how they may be right, particularly if some kids are more interested in spraypaint than Photoshop. Of course, as this poster from Cristen Torrey on a message board at The Crucible shows, researchers are looking at the osmosis between the analog and the digital as well, as DIY culture crosses from the real to the virtual and back again. (Click to enlarge.)

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Spare Parts Store

My other tourist stop in Northern California required a visit to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. (I, of course, also had to stop by the corporate headquarters of Google while I was there.) My primary destination was the model of the Babbage Difference Engine, which I had seen on video here.

The heart of the collection centered on the collection of old computers in its Visible Storage exhibit. As a feminist who has written about gender and computing, I appreciated seeing the prototype of what Julia and Ellen Lupton have characterized as an early "computer in the kitchen." The museum explains in its caption, however, that not a single one of the $10,000 kitchen computers advertised in the 1969 Neiman Marcus catalog was ever sold, partly because the interface was apparently so user-unfriendly.

If I had a criticism to make of their museum curation, it would be the tendency to emphasize a history of male accomplishment while ignoring the role that large staffs of exclusively female operators and often programmers played, particularly during the war era for targeting computers, such as the one depicted below.

Graphics software pioneer Peter Samson (shown above, next to a tray taken from the original Google server system) was our host for the afternoon. He argued that -- like radio for a previous generation of consumers -- kit technology that appealed to DIY enthusiasts was critical for eventual large-scale adoption of digital computers, as this early Apple computer indicates.

Samson also emphasized the ironies of the way that innovations in human-computer interaction that were developed at Xerox PARC were traded away in characteristic "fumbling the future" style for the corporation, even though they produced models with document-friendly screens and mouse technologies, such as on the system below. (As regular readers know, my father was a Senior Systems Analyst at Xerox for decades and a witness to these debacles. Sadly my early Xerox 820 personal computer wasn't on display in the museum.)

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Where There's Smoke (and Mirrors) There's Fireworks

Virtualpolitik pal David Folkenflik reported for NPR about the computer graphics used in seemingly "live" Olympics coverage of the spectacles in the opening ceremony in Live From Beijing: Computer-Enhanced Fireworks. Although the digital effects artists who had worked on the footage for almost a year included elements of cinéma vérité such as camera shake in a faux helicopter shot, my husband Mel Horan, a twenty-year veteran of the themed entertainment business, wasn't fooled for a second. He instantly noticed the tell-tale lack of smoke that is the usual calling card of pyrotechnic displays.

The parent company of Olympics broadcaster NBC, General Electric boasts of its sponsorship of the games and its role providing everything from engineering help with transportation and lighting for the facilities to high-tech medical equipment for the athletes. During the swimming events at the Water Cube the corporation also touts its digital effects technologies that show the country represented by swimmers in each lane and the world record mark to beat with more obvious forms of augmented reality.

Thanks to Vivian Folkenflik for the link.

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My Analog Children

Although I take pride in my expertise on digital parenting issues, where I emphasize a pragmatic, developmental approach to helping young people create appropriate online personae and observe the conventions of computer-mediated communication, my own children often define themselves through analog media experiences, although they were the inspiration of my "10 Principles for the Digital Family."

My older son collects vinyl LPs, and -- despite the fact that much of his music-making process emphasizes computer controls and digital sampling and sequencing equipment -- he still loves the rock-on-rock primitivism of the physical media of the record on the turntable. In the era of Photoshop, he's also an enthusiast for printmaking and has completed college coursework in the subject where he has studied with mentor-masters in the field to make painstakingly complex woodcarvings, metal etchings, and other traditional print plates.

Now my younger son has embraced the "fire arts" or "industrial art" that is offered at The Crucible in the Bay Area. He completed a week of instruction in glasswork and is looking forward to coming back for blacksmithing or welding.

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Sunday, August 17, 2008

Copy-Catty

Although the Turnitin.com company dominates the plagiarism detection industry with its large database of student papers and its algorithm for matching word strings, it seems to be striving to make inroads into the potentially lucrative courseware industry where industry giants such as Google@School and Blackboard are vying for access to college-age academic consumers. First the company made an appeal to writing faculty in which they offered grant money for attending conferences to present academic papers that tout their products. In response to the offer, Inside Higher Ed has asked if this approach constitutes "Buying Its Way Onto the Program?" Then it went after scholarly publishers and admissions committees and courted these university stakeholders by offering to vet even more of the bulk of prose created for the academic enterprise to encompass the entire life-cycle of student writing from the admissions essay of a potential freshman to the publications of graduate students and faculty. Finally, as Reuters reports, the group will be holding a number of faculty workshops around the country to foster user communities that have been important for other software developers.

Colleagues received the following e-mail:

We would like to invite you -- and your faculty -- to start the new academic year with a small group of instructors at a stimulating half- day, hands-on writing instruction workshop and lunch, sponsored by Turnitin! There's no cost to participate in this valuable professional development event for both high school and college writing instructors. Meals, snacks and parking will be provided.

At the Turnitin Summer Institute, we'll take you beyond just plagiarism prevention and toward a writing pedagogy! You’ll explore practical elements of using the entire Turnitin solution in the instructional process to: encourage original writing; make grading papers more meaningful and efficient; and facilitate peer review. This informative workshop will also help you strengthen your network of professional contacts, including college and high school faculty from your surrounding area.


In the spirit of ethnographic investigation, I am actually sorry that I could not attend these events because I was out of town last week on a family vacation, although I'm much sorrier to have been unable to provide my annual SIGGRAPH report to Virtualpolitik readers.

It's interesting to see how the language choice of the e-mail indicates sensitivity to the buzzwords of composition ("process," "pedagogy," etc.) and to those of the culture of faculty underclasses ("professional development," "network of professional contacts," etc.).

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The Last Switchboard in California

On Tuesday, I went to the Crockett Historical Museum, where local archivists boast that the town was the site of the "last switchboard in California," which had fourteen operators manning a 1923 switchboard. Throughout the museum, which also documented the life of a company town that existed in the shadow of a C&H Sugar refinery, there were many reminders of the human costs of automation and computerization and of women's role in the labor force of communications technologies.

Next to the now mothballed switchboard, a local news clipping shows the women blowing a final kiss to the camera on their last day at work as telephone operators.

Not far away was the factory's first computer complete with its punch-card rack and line-up of Texas Instruments switches. A label taped to the device ruefully read: "THIS IS C&H FIRST COMPUTER, IT REPLACED 9 NINE EMPLOYEES, NOV. 18, 1976."
The museum was also filled with adding machines and other office equipment that would normally be relegated to a storeroom or the trash. Some carried signs in handwritten script with messages such as "C&H Adding Machine. Who knows when?" The typewriter below seems to be intended for spreadsheets or other large-format documents.

The museum also contained a number of photo collages from bars that had long since closed. It made me think about the genre of bar photography in general and about similar assemblages that I had seen over the years and how different these visual artifacts may be from a Flickr stream, because there is a sense of permanence and a continuous record of "regulars" and feats of prowess that are memorialized on a physical wall.

As I discovered from strolling around the streets near the museum, there is also a lot of vernacular art in Crockett, although -- as these photographs show -- much of the public art in the town takes the form of tributes to the dead.


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Saturday, August 16, 2008

Don't Smoke Signals

Compared to the elaborate ideologies expressed by other websites produced by the federal government, smokefree.gov is a relatively barebones affair that is supposed to serve as a clearinghouse for resources intended to encourage citizens to quit smoking and enable them to continue to abstain over time.

However, its main pitch actually urges visitors who are still smoking to use toll-free telephone numbers rather than rely on web-based resources. The question of how persuasive it is to have access to interactive multimedia that make the case for healthy lifestyle choices goes unanswered on smokefree.gov. Of course, most computer games for quitting smoking are quite primitive right now, but Ubisoft is slated to make a game for Nintendo DS that will be available in the fall.

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Friday, August 15, 2008

What Me Worry?

As an example of risk communication, this University of California website about the Governor's Executive Order does not necessarily do the work of allaying the fears of its potential audience of state employees, who may be worrying about the fact that "Governor Schwarzenegger signed an executive order implementing a number of measures to reduce the state’s cash obligations until a state budget is approved," which include "the reduction of state employees’ salaries to the federal minimum wage and the suspension of state contracts." Those who work for the state with mortgage payments, insurance premiums, and utility bills due at the beginning of the month, may not take much comfort in the mass e-mails from university administrators that are posted to the site. The vagaries of official prose generally are inappropriate for stakeholders who want definite information and step-by-step advice. Moreover, uncertainties included in messages that say things like "they do not expect the majority of current salaries to be affected by the governor’s order" probably make rhetorical matters worse.

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Grand Theft Naughty

Onetime legislative pariah in the videogame industry Grand Theft Auto no longer seems to merit speeches on the floor of Congress or proclamations that rail against its existence. According to the New York Times, few have joined the class action suit from those who claim to have been offended by hidden sex scenes in the game. There has been some moral hand-wringing in other countries in response to the latest game in the series. For example, Thailand halted sales of the game after a murder was attributed to a player who had been influenced by its homicidal message.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Radio Federale

The Bonneville-owned Federal News Radio represents an interesting case for niche marketing of Internet radio. By designing a station intended specifically for federal employees that are full of acronym-based shows, such as "Dishing with DISA" and "No FISMA Fairy." There are a number of programs about digital protocols, such as "Going Digital" and "The Hacking 101" from Federal Tech Talk, which features a guest speaker from the Hacker Academy, which boasts of having clients that include NASA, the Centers for Disease Control, the Department of Justice, the Social Security Administration, and the U.S. Army. Now the station boasts coverage of traditional airwaves at WFED AM 1050 for Washington D.C. commuters.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Notes from the Secret Girl Culture

If you are a dude and are reading this, well, I am sorry for you.

You may make more money than I do. You may have a better job than I do. You may be bigger and stronger and faster than I am.

And all of those things are wrong. Profoundly wrong. And unfair.

But the world of the secret culture that observes you and imitates you and mocks you is unknown to you.

Now, I'll admit that sometimes I feel like a bit of an outsider to this secret girl culture myself. Shopping, for example, is not one of the things that I enjoy doing. As I often say, perhaps one of my X-chromosomes was somehow damaged early in life. But even after reading a lot of Michel de Certeau on how shopping can actually be a subversive activity, I just don't see it.

And I'm not very good at the self-beautification thing either, since the whole matter of manicures and massages and facials seems to be way more trouble than its worth.

As for make-up and other cosmetic procedures, I often think that the "before" woman looks better than the "after" one.

But at least I can partake in the culture of feminine working out. And I know that when it comes to a woman-to-woman compliment that is meaningful, a sincere comment about "nice biceps" should do the trick.

Yet somehow this culture of genuine homosociality among women, which I recognize from trips to the gym, yoga studio, and Santa Monica steps, gets translated into something else on YouTube, where it becomes about a totally different system of values, one that emphasizes certain tropes of bodily display that would otherwise be forbidden by the site's media censorship system that bars adult content, unless it can be justified for reasons of physical improvement or medical care, as this popular live breast exam video demonstrates.

For example, some bedroom-backdrop female vloggers dramatize the question of muscular self-development over time, as this video indicates. Another video shows two women comparing their "guns" and using a hand-held apparatus to zoom in and zoom out of parts of the shot. Many other videos are simply thinly veiled softcore porn, often under the guise of women challenging men in physical competitions. The YouTube videos produced by blondechic.net may be the classic example of membership tie-ins from biceps videos to more voyeuristic content.

As to abs, there may be even more videos devoted to that muscle group, but it's hard to arrange for a moment of consummation to compare to bicep-flexing. Besides, videos like the much-watched "How to fake a six pack" may show that more women lampoon the ideal represented by Robert Maxwell's widely-publicized image of Dara Torres than actually aspire to emulate it.

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Monday, August 11, 2008

Why Is the Government Website Always the Last to Know?

USAMRIID is facing a major scandal after the FBI finally seems to have located a likely culprit in the anthrax attacks of 2001 that killed five people. Court documents from the Department of Justice focus on suspect Bruce Ivins with little mention of the previous misidentification of Steven Hatfill as a likely perpetrator.

Yet the newsroom still says nothing about its own employees' involvement in the case. Instead, the site highlights a promotional film with bad digital effects that emphasize projections of the imagery on floating screens and hovering rectangular solids.

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Sunday, August 10, 2008

Able to Leap Tall Buildings in a Single Bound



In honor of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Google Earth now includes 3-D models of the important athletic sites for the events. See more of Google's homage, complete with medal count, here.

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Remember You Are Always a Princess



The title of this posting comes from the last line that expresses the weird pathos of this distraught mother's video. Now this particular child abduction case has become even more complex, since the father in the story has been implicated in a San Marino murder case from the 1980s that took place among the social set that I knew well from my nearby prep school. (My hometown newspaper carries more of the story here.)

But what is remarkable about this YouTube video is how a direct appeal to the public -- totally without the news media being involved -- is used for a situation that was once merely relegated to the paperwork of family court. However, women aren't the only ones making appeals in child custody cases. See this montage of images from an estranged father for an oddly visually ambitious example.

Bitter divorce videos have also become a YouTube staple, such as this extra-judicial one from Tricia Walsh Smith.

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Saturday, August 09, 2008

Russian Cakes

I can't get through to the official website of the Georgian Parliament or the portal for the government of Georgia, as the conflict between the NATO-leaning Georgia and the nuclear-armed Russia heats up.

The website of the Russian President describes the country's military offensive as "Humanitarian Assistance to the Population of South Ossetia," which given these images seems an improbable claim. As this apologetic message explains, it is difficult for English speakers to see much from their materials about the other branches of the government.

So, in the absence of information from official government websites about this escalating border conflict, may I recommend these popular, much-e-mailed photos of Russian cakes?

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Plane Truths and Plastic Ken Dolls

"Plane Truths" is the first of the webisodes about Senator John Edwards shot by Rielle Hunter, who has now been linked to the former Democratic presidential candidate in an extramarital affair that seems to have derailed his political future, given the public popularity of his wife.

The intimacy of the pseudo-confessional style of these online videos in which Edwards talks about how Hunter's team is "filming all the time" is certainly not without irony. The website of Midline Groove, which once produced the videos, is currently dead, but their credit screen shows a crudely Photoshopped face of Edwards grafted onto a Ken doll.

Other webisodes in the rhetorically fascinated series that is often set to loud country music include "The Golden Rule," "Plight of Uganda," and "Plugs." The last of these indicates the candidate's concern with the blogosphere, traffic to his website, and the viewership of the Daily Show.

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