Friday, March 31, 2006

Return to Sender

In the land of the rising sun, the main opposition party, The Democratic Party of Japan, was purged today after mass resignations by party leaders in the face of a scandal involving a fake e-mail that falsely linked the son of a prominent member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to the troubled Internet company Livedoor.

This story shows how the political impact of electronic communication is a global phenomenon that impacts institutions of governance and civic discourse.


Thursday, March 30, 2006

In Search of Digital Rhetoric

I also brought Lev Manovich's excellent book The Language of New Media (MIT Press, 2001) with me for my seaside re-reading. I was struck again by how much better Manovich's analysis of media artifacts was than the similarly titled and more recent The Language of Websites (Routledge, 2005), which I found to be an oversimplified and superficial false start. In particular, Manovich looks at new media through the critical apparatus of print, film, and human-computer interfaces, while Boardman never gets beyond the arrangement of written characters in the codex form as grounds for his comparison.

My only quibble would be Manovich's assertion that rhetoric is in decline as a factor to be considered in new media studies. For example, Manovich writes:

Traditionally, texts encoded human knowledge and memory, instructed, inspired, convinced, and seduced their readers to adopt new ideas, new ways of interpreting the world, new ideologies. In short, the printed word was linked to the art of rhetoric. While it is probably possible to invent a new rhetoric of hypermedia that will use hyperlinking not to distract the reader from the argument (as is often the case today), but rather to further convince her of an argument's validity, the sheer existence and popularity of hyperlinking exemplifies the continuing decline of the field of rhetoric in the modern era. Ancient and medieval scholars classified hundreds of different rhetorical figures. Roman Jakobson, under the influence of the computer's binary logic, information theory, and cybernetics to which he was exposed at MIT where he was teaching, radically reduced rhetoric to just two figures -- metaphor and metonymy . . . Rather than seducing the user through a careful arrangement of arguments and examples, points and counterpoints, changing rhythms of presentation (i.e., the rate of data streaming, to use contemporary language), simulated false paths, and dramatically presented conceptual breakthroughs, cultural interfaces, like RAM itself, bombard the user with all the data at once. (78)

Of course, Erkki Huhtamo has been cataloguing the figures of new media in his work as a digital Curtius. Furthermore, like Ian Bogost who writes about procedural rhetoric in video games, I would assert that rhetorical interpretations should be rightfully seen as central to the field, especially given the political and public nature of these new forms and the structures of power to which they make appeals.

Granted, the Aristotilian category of "ethos" is invariably altered in new forms of virtual discourse that lack face-to-face contact or the authority of the written word, but even in a field of rhetoric that could be seen as somewhat dated in a global, technologically complex society, such as classical oratory, online remixes of presidential speeches show the vitality of rhetorical approaches oriented around the speaker's presentation at a traditional podium, since even parody pays homage to the form, despite the fact that parataxis may triumph over hypotaxis. Presidential speeches are also getting machinima makeovers, such as the Bush and Mush exchanges between the U.S. Chief Executive and Pakistan's head of state.

I would also argue that Aristotle's opposition between the necessary and the contingent in the Rhetoric is also important in the rhetoric of science around probability in contemporary information theory.


Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Distance Learning

One of the pleasures of having the time to read and reread aboard ship is having the opportunity to catch up on the prose of my own colleagues. Michael Heim, my fellow-teacher in the Humanities Core Course at UCI, has written about philosophical issues pertinent to cyberspace and electronic discourse for many years. Heim defines the word "virtual" more narrowly than I might in his book Virtual Realism (Oxford UP, 1998) and directs his attention to immersive CAVE displays and headmounted devices, but he raises interesting questions about the status of physical bodies in virtual worlds.

Virtual world design faces the crossroads: the tunnel and the spiral. The tunnel sucks us further into technology as a forward-thrusting, fovea-centered, obsessive fixation. The spiral moves us into virtual worlds that return us to ourselves, repeatedly deepening the awareness we enjoy as primary bodies. (77)

Many of Heim's examples are concerned with aesthetic experiences that are rarified by the context of artistic experimentation in new gallery spaces. However, in his chapters on "InfoEcology" and "Nature and Cyberspace," Heim addresses publicly-funded government efforts to clean up toxic sites and explore lunar environments through virtual means. Where public access is "limited or denied" (134), VR enables collective action.


Tuesday, March 28, 2006

My Crime Scene

Police in Boulder, CO, grappling with a crime scene in which there was "blood in almost every room in the house," used a victim's MySpace account to locate seven men accused of rape and robbery. International media picked up the story about how perpetrators were ID'd through the "friends list" of the battered teen, and thus it reached me in my remote location.

This dystopian narrative reminded me about how much Internet culture has permeated society in the decade since Julian Dibbell's much reprinted and now classic essay on online community, "A Rape in Cyberspace: How an Evil Clown, a Haitian Trickster Spirit, Two Wizards, and a Cast of Dozens Turned a Database into a Society." In his essay, Dibbell writes about his position of spectatorship on a surreal yet public virtual assault and how social actors intervened and policed the transgression that took place in their midst.

Mainstream media may have an agenda for focusing on such cases, particularly when other technologies (such as the telephone) play a greater role in the commission of crimes. These traditional technologies have also dismantled the human communities that once sustained them (live telephone operators, neighborhood exchanges, party lines, etc.) and have no social mechanism of self-regulation.

Update: Check out the FBI's Internet Crime: A Look at Growing Trends, which covers the Innocent Images National Initiative and the work of IC3 or the Internet Crime Complaint Center.

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Monday, March 27, 2006

Cruising Not Surfing

For nine days I will be traveling with solar eclipse chasers who are part of an "astronomy vacation" to see a four-minute eclipse in the Mediterranean Sea near the coast of Cyprus. I will also be out of Internet contact for perhaps the longest period in an entire decade, although I'm still note-taking for this blog. Aboard the luxurious Costa Fortuna, I'll be catching up on my reading and looking out on the wine-dark sea of the epic bards.

In the Internet era, it's interesting to contemplate the urge to still see things with one's own eyes rather than experience them virtually. I didn't travel to the site on Google Earth or see the event live via a webcam. Instead I joined other face-to-face sun-worshippers among the Italian, French, and German passengers and Indian and Filipino crew to witness it for myself.


Sunday, March 26, 2006

Junk Science Junk Mail

In the latest Harper's I had to marvel at the following e-mail message from a digital rhetoric standpoint, which was sent on October 17th of 2005 by administration appointee George Deutsch, who -- it was later revealed -- had lied on his résumé about having received a college degree. The recipient was web designer Flint Wild, who was creating presentations for middle school students about Albert Einstein.

Okay, Flint, we've got a slight problem here.
I like these pieces, they're interesting, but they refer to the "big bang" as if it were a law. As you know, the theory that the universe was created by a "big bang" is just that -- a theory. It is not a proven fact; it is opinion. Yes, the scientific community by and large may share this opion, but that doesn't make it correct.
Two things. First of all, this is AP style as written in the latest Associated Press Stylebook. The "big bang theory" is listed beside the oscillating stheory and the steady-state theory. The common denominator here is the word "theory."
Seconday, it is not NASA's place, nor should it be, to make a declaration such as this about the existence of the universe that discounts intelligent design by a creator. I know the particular context of these pieces doesn't lend itself to getting into this particular debate, and that's fine with me. But we, as NASA, must be diligent here, because this is more than just a science issue, it is a religious issue. And I would hate to think that young people would be getting only one half of this debate from NASA. That would mean we had failed to properly educate the very people who rely on us for factual information the most.
Sorry to get on a soapbox here; I don't mean to. Please edit these stories to reflect that the big bang is but one theory on how the universe began.

I'd argue that Deutsch makes many gaffes in the e-mail genre. He uses a fake cinematic talkiness with his "Okay, Flint" opening that eschews the traditional "Dear Flint" or at least "Hi Flint" beginning. The e-mail also makes gestures at the memo format by telling us there are "two things" for this employee to be aware of, but it also chucks the respect for audience that bureaucratic prose at least implies. Deutsch also uses print authority (of the AP Stylebook) in a totally inappropriate way.

NASA's e-mail communication problems may be most famously represented by the missives relevant to the Columbia shuttle crash, but according to a New York Times story from earlier this year, "NASA Chief Backs Openness," regrettable e-mails that enforce electronic political obedience extend beyond the Wild case.

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Saturday, March 25, 2006

Achieving High Altitude in the Blogosphere

As an air traveler on this day, I thought it worth pointing out that a new film in post-production from New Line, Snakes on a Plane, clearly appeals to the current Homeland Security Zeitgeist. Despite the thin premise, which is summed up in the movie's title, the response in the blogosphere has been enthusiastic. "Fans" of the movie's concept have manufactured their own pseudo-rebus t-shirts and made video parodies like Snakes on an Elevator. One featured fansite even includes recorded phone calls to major airlines from a prankster posing as "snake handling apprentice." The film's producers have responded to this do-it-yourself ethos by sponsoring a contest for composing theme music for the upcoming film. Some of the best electronic ephemera has been captured on Snakes on a Blog. (See below.)

The website for Transportation Safety Administration inspires considerably less mirth. Although they offer javascript rateable FAQ's about the No Fly list, remarkably little information is actually contained about the number of people on the list and the criteria for inclusion. Online information about the onerous clearance process also states that jumping over all the bureaucratic hurdles, involving snail-mailing PDF's and proving your paperwork identity, still will not actually remove your name from the list. You will simply be designated differently. See this amazing prose for more:

Please understand that the TSA clearance process will not remove a name from the Watch Lists. Instead this process distinguishes passengers from persons who are in fact on the Watch Lists by placing their names and identifying information in a cleared portion of the Lists. Airline personnel can then more quickly determine when implementing TSA-required identity verification procedures that these passengers are not the person of interest whose name is actually on the Watch Lists.

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Friday, March 24, 2006

Out of Sight

Liz Losh is letting her screen go dark for Spring Break. Please continue to send comments and interesting links for the Virtualpolitik project, but be patient because daily posting may not resume until April 4th.

Hopefully she won't bring home pictures like this tourist video for the award-winning viral campaign for the game Act of War by Atari. (The video is part of a multimedia installation at SMMOA.)

Although she is not taking her computer to sea with her, it isn't because she was deterred by a recent Los Angeles Times article, "As Japanese Bring Work Home, Virus Hitches a Ride." It's worth noting that this news item also contains a surprising number of cultural stereotypes, including the assertion that taking one's work home is a "bad Japanese habit" and that "normally" all one would risk compromising would be personal photographs or private videos on file-sharing networks.


Thursday, March 23, 2006

Word Associations

This week's story in the New York Times, "Amazon Says Technology, Not Ideology, Skewed Results," describes how visitors to the behemoth bookseller's site who typed in "abortion" were asked if they meant "adoption" and given a list of largely virulently anti-abortion books.

The company claims that the search algorithm was to blame, and that people searching for books on "abortion" also often were searching for books on "adoption." The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice applauded Amazon's decision to respond to their complaint about the search results by removing the potentially insensitive automatic suggestions.

From looking at my own "recommendations" list, I know that Amazon searches make for strange bedfellows, but the assertion that this was an unintentional mistake sounds unlikely.

Certainly abortion foes are now adequately web-savvy to tinker with search results, just as those on the left have done for years. Abortion cyber-activists offer abortion counters, downloadable graphic images that are generally edited out of mainstream coverage of pro-life events, and blogs like the one from the Family Research Council, which includes a "This Day in History / Quote of the Day" feature that connect anti-abortion activism to abolitionist and civil rights struggles in history.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

To the Victor Go the Spoils

It is interesting to observe how the President of Belarus uses his official website to commemorate having "won" a highly irregular election this week that was condemned by international observers The site is in both Russian and English, and in his "receiving room," you are invited to write a letter to the president. I've blogged before about the rhetorical conventions of websites of former Soviet republics that have failed to develop democratic institutions, but Belarus presents a special case because of the "I don't have to be liked" ethos of the head of state that is recorded throughout the links. Unlike other allegedly charismatic leaders, Alexander Lukashenko doesn't claim to be lionized by his people, and his bio emphasizes his hard working persona and the disadvantages of having grown up without a father.


Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Is There Any Other Kind of Culture than Information Culture?

The news about pending legislation in France to require Apple iTunes proprietary technology to be uncoupled from the company's iPod player may remind some of last year's story about French resistance to the Google Print electronic archive initiative. In both cases, accusations were made that American cultural hegemony was being furthered at the same time that corporate technological monopolies were being strengthened.

Indeed, information culture now seems to dominate the French cultural agenda, probably rightly. For example, on today's homepage of the French Ministry of Culture and Communication, a francophile can learn about video game designers being honored, watch a Flash film about copyright, or read policy statements about plans for the European digital library. How quaint the websites for the National Endowment for the Humanities or the National Endowment for the Arts look in comparison! The U.S. may be a powerhouse in the digital "culture industry," but our federal institutions still privilege print and live performance.

If even the French admit that what they largely mean by "culture" is "information culture," then Siva Vaidhyanathan's recent manifesto about the rising profile of Critical Information Studies in relation to Cultural Studies is a timely call to action to what essentially remains a fundamentally provincial academic community.

Then again, perhaps this French resistance can be dismissed as mere pique in response to the famed "French military victories" Google prank.

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Monday, March 20, 2006

Correspondence Course

The genre of military blogs is a timely subject, given this week's attention to the continuing presence of troops in Iraq. This history of military blogs may provide context for those unfamiliar with the genre. Some of the more prominent blogs have crossed over to become books in mainstream publishing, such as Just Another Soldier or My War: Killing Time in Iraq. Military bloggers are even organizing their own conferences. This week the New York Times is publishing some of these blog postings in their opinion section, in a special "Frontlines" series.

As a university writing program administrator, one thing that I find particularly interesting about such blogs is that they periodically offer tips to other aspiring writers about inspiration, organization, composition, and addressing an audience. It's a form of distance learning not envisioned in traditional military correspondence school. Many military bloggers also perceive themselves as part of distinct writing communities via webrings and blog rolls. Of course, some military bloggers see their newfound status as prose stylists in ironic terms. For example, this writing advice about the value of brevity from The Donovan looks back at the writer's classroom experiences in college:

Back when I was a stoont, one of my electives was Creative Writing. One day, we were given an assignment--write a short story using as few words as possible. The only other stipulation the prof made was that it had to address three elements: religion, sexuality and mystery. The only A+ in the class was
"Good God, I'm pregnant! I wonder who did it?"

Some of these soldiers have also followed the "Be Your Own Media" message into merchandizing. Yet, as the Washington Post reports, many blogs have come under scrutiny by military commanders who would like to control information released from the battlefield. This article from Military Information Technology details how memos from top commanders have pursued this policy of containment.

(In keeping with today's theme, I have reproduced my favorite illustration from the Famous Writer's Course.)

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Sunday, March 19, 2006

Database Diplomacy

As we reach the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq today, it is worth noting how certain kinds of information have accrued over the course of the war in online databases.

On the pacifist side there is the Iraq Body Count, which has been tallying civilian fatalities in Iraq, based on news accounts, with both minimum and maximum figures that are regularly updated.

On the other side of the political spectrum, there is the Iraq Memory Foundation, which is cataloguing oral histories of life under the Hussein regime.

Then there is the Coalition Casualty Count, which offers an interesting explanation of its methodology for aggregating data. Recently, the site was redesigned with a blog format. Note that CCC makes appeals to both humanitarian and patriotic impulses.

The developing field of "database aesthetics" may offer some insights.

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Saturday, March 18, 2006

Echo Chamber

The conspiracy theory September 11th documentary, Loose Change, is being noticed in the blogosphere and on Google Video, where it is now frequently downloaded. Using a surprisingly engrossing format that employs Google Earth, Wikipedia, and CGI animation, along with more conventional news footage, the filmmakers build a compelling case for an intentional demolition of the buildings and planes and a series of switcheroos involving equipment, hijackers, and victims. Of course, Wikipedia is now frequently challenged as a reputable information source. Furthermore, careful viewers will notice that the film liberally mixes official government reports and mainstream news sources with blogs and books that require a lower threshhold of proof from sources, often without signalling shifts in trustworthiness and authority.

During most of the film, the logic goes that, as the burning of the Reichstag was exploited by the Nazis and perhaps even engineered by the German racial state as part of a staged event, the Bush administration has manipulated the September 11th terrorist attacks to consolidate power and further secret government agendas. (As a digression, I should point out that, according to the New York Times, you can still burn a Virtual Reichstag in the online world Second Life.)

Perhaps I shouldn't give away the big plot twist, but after watching over an hour of the film on my desktop system, the young documentary makers -- who range in age from 22 to 26 -- reveal another plot, which involves gold stored in the World Trade Center. Reputable news sources disappear and speculation takes on the format of an action movie script. Why do all conspiracies have to boil down to an elaborate treasure hunt? I'll give you the pitch: it's Farenheit 911 meets National Treasure.

For all we know, this may be another form of viral marketing for a would-be traditional blockbuster, albeit with a political indie twist. A recent article about "Online Auteurs" shows how many consumers are striving to be producers. After all, the young director of "My Space, the Movie" used a similar route via YouTube to a Hollywood contract.

At least, to its credit, it does have one of the more interesting copyright warning pages that I've seen in recent years, which is in keeping with its conspiracy theory scheme. It claims, according to a section of the USA Patriot Act, "any person or persons in possession of this information can be held under 'domestic terrorism' and detained without trial at Guantanamo Bay. You are encouraged to distribute this digital video disc to friends, family, and complete strangers before it is too late to do so."

It's also true that there are still many unanswered questions about the September 11th attacks that aren't being addressed by policy makers and mainstream media figures in the public sphere, so it is particularly important that this switcheroo movie not be given the last word. More worth the time online may be the BBC documentary The Power of Nightmares, which is now available for streaming and free downloads.

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Friday, March 17, 2006

PowerPoint Politics

A few months ago, I complained that policy documents from the White House too often resembled PowerPoint documents. Specifically, I said that the National Strategy for Victory in Iraq was composed in the worst possible form of didactic, staccatto, corporate prose with bullet points, arrows, and check marks punctuating its stunted phrases.

The new National Security Strategy that has been published by the Whitehouse offers yet more PowerPoint Politics with pages of decapitated sentences like "Champion Aspirations for Human Dignity" and "Engage the Opportunities and Confront the Challenges of Globalization."

Edward Tufte may go too far by comparing the popular software application to Stalinist information warfare. But Peter Norvig's essay about how PowerPoint "lifts the floor" but also "lowers the ceiling" of rhetorical discourse may more charitably explain the problem with bullet points. Norvig is probably best known for his truly funny Gettysburg Powerpoint Presentation.

Oddly enough, this week I have been watching the PowerPoint presentations of my own students about how Charles Beitz's International Theory and Political Relations could be related to various border and state autonomy conflicts around the world. I suggested other visual means of communication -- handouts, posters, and webpages -- but almost all my students chose PowerPoint, perhaps because it was the presentation means of choice in high school.

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Thursday, March 16, 2006

Dual Netizenship

Online voting is still far from practical as a secure technology, yet simulations of this practice are widely propagated in Internet political culture.

At Israel Votes 2006, American (and Canadian) college students are being encouraged to vote in the upcoming Israeli election.

During the same week, Democrats are being urged to weigh in at another virtual polling booth in which they would ritually vote out George W. Bush, at least by petitioning for his censure. Almost 400,000 people have signed the online petition, which originated with New York's ImpeachPAC.

Ironically, according the New York Times, this "Call for Censure is a Rallying Cry to Bush's Base" and is generating its own e-mail petitions and calls to action.

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Wednesday, March 15, 2006


The existence of a series of web-based cooking shows on the White House website may seem like an odd use of your tax dollars, but an audience may build for the "Commander in Chef," who is providing his own Food Network-type offerings to the American public. Check out Chef Roland Mesnier's description of a mint-flavored fiasco involving the White House gardeners.

It's not the only example of a federal government site providing network-like content. The Pentagon Channel mimics a commercial TV news program.

Now the Abu Ghraib files posted on include video in a regrettable form of broadcast content from the Federal government. What was initially presented as a Jackass or America's Funniest Home Videos taken too far by jail guards is in retrospect clearly official policy about extreme interrogation procedures. Certainly the unwieldy Taguba Report failed to convey that message. Furthermore, this report was not available in a timely manner in anything other than abstracted form on government websites.

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Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Peace Games

With so much mainstream press about asocial video games, it's refreshing to see that this month Water Cooler Games covers two games aimed at enacting nonviolent resolutions to incendiary political conflicts.

Although still in development at Carnegie Mellon University, you can watch a demo of Peace Maker, which is currently being tested for classroom use. Peace Maker focuses on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and the player can adopt the role of leader of either state forced to make real-time decisions in response to escalating crises. Video clips are designed to enhance the realism of the user's experience.

Documentary filmmakers at York Zimmerman have sponsored a videogame version of one of their films, A Force More Powerful, which is now available for downloading/purchase. The game deals with strategies for nonviolent resistance (protests, strikes, nonviolent resistance, etc.) and the more mundane infrastructure of activism (fundraising, organizing, etc.) that supports these tactics.

For a game about nonviolent transnational competition, there is also the official videogame of the Torino Olympics.

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Monday, March 13, 2006

Urban Playgrounds and Battlegrounds

Today, readers of Column One in the Los Angeles Times can discover how an "Assassin Game is a Hit, Man," which already has been played within the city limits of San Francisco, New York, Vancouver, and Vienna. This very morning the officially enrolled "assassins," who have been matched up via the Internet site Street Wars, will hit the streets of Los Angeles for three weeks of kill-or-be-killed watergun combat. Would-be hitpersons receive their "target's" e-mail, address, and location of employment. Kill your target and you get your target's envelope, and thus your next victim is selected. Luckily, you can't kill anyone at work or within a block of work, so I should be safe from the line of fire in my UCI office, where I plan to cower for the next three weeks.

Like the classic, if cheesy, film The Tenth Victim, this game sponsored by a self-proclaimed "Shadow Government" exploits the power dynamics of everyday work and leisure environments. The question of whether or not this game encourages a counterproductive ethos of stalking and assault is complicated by the fact that many participants already spend time in the passive-aggressive environment of online role-playing games engaged in similar activities. During the heyday of Counterstrike at UCI, many of my students came to class having recently killed their classmates a few seats over.

Participants in Street Wars claim that it is more like an adult version of "tag" that combines an action movie narrative with their everyday social exchanges. An alternative might be the games sponsored by feminist, pacifist gamesters at Ludica who bring real-world, tactile, non-competitive play experiences to videogame conferences.


Sunday, March 12, 2006

Neighborhood Watch and Traffic Planning

A recent New York Times story about piggybacking shows how the social fabric of densely populated areas may become frayed by the casual theft of wireless signals from nearby neighbors. I live on a heavily wired block and recognize many of the wireless signals from my fellow householders. "Tomatoe" died recently; his signal went out a few days after the coroner came. "Casa Bonita" is new in the neighborhood; I feel like I should send over a plate of Internet cookies. Like most on the block, I've piggybacked and have been piggybacked upon. None of us seems to be building cyber fences, although there are strangers in the neighborhood, occasionally ones with laptops, so I suppose we could end up needing a version of neighborhood cyber watch.

In the innovative online journal Vectors, I learned about how Wi-Fi Bedouin Julian Bleecker uses a wireless transmitter in a backpack device to subvert the connectivity of those who piggyback on his signal.

In cyberspace, our online visitors are often more remote and must travel long distances to our URL's. When it comes to graphic or three-dimensional images of this Silk Road of Internet traffic, the blog Collision Detection covers some of the most interesting examples of envisioning of information in the growing field of cyber-mapping. Science writer Clive Thompson introduced me to both the commentosphere, where comments from a single writer on multiple blogs can be tracked, and the singular 3-D View of Website traffic, which presents web traffic reports in the form of a CGI fly-through of a virtual city in which you can zoom in on individual netizens.

For a darker view of how Internet traffic can be geographically surveiled, see the truly amazing website on Data Mining for Subversives. Check out the map in which you can zoom in on the houses of individual readers of 1984.


Saturday, March 11, 2006

Teaching to the Test

What could be a more fascinating blog entry than a long screed against multiple-choice tests? Sex manuals? An interactive drum machine? A masonic conspiracy involving the Mona Lisa? If you don't care about librarians, multiple-choice testing, or assessment, you should probably skip this posting and look down the page to some other recent entries on juicier, less-arcane topics.

Well, you had your chance.

This week's New York Times story about widespread SAT misreporting is yet another reminder of the hazards of basing either college admission or first-year placement on fallable standardized tests. Yet, on February 14th, I received a surprising valentine from the about their new Information Literacy examination. In the past, I've expressed concerns about how ETS may be introducing another distorting multiple-choice test that emphasizes tool literacy over rhetorical awareness and sensitivity to social and disciplinary context. There's been no love lost between us, but ETS made its appeal in good faith, so I figured it was only right to evaluate the actual demo with an open mind.

This was the ETS e-mail pitch:

Measure your student's ability to find and communicate information effectively.


The ability to obtain information, analyze it and communicate it quickly and effectively can mean the difference between success and failure in college and in the workplace.

That's why ETS developed the ICT Literacy Assessment.

The assessment's real-time, scenario-based tasks assess the critical information and communications technology (ICT) skills that are required of today's college and technical school students.

Score results may be used to assess individual student proficiency, plan curricula to address ICT literacy gaps, inform resource-allocation decisions and provide evidence for accreditation. This secure test measures student information and communication technology literacy proficiency at two levels of difficulty: Core and Advanced.

The Core Level Assessment, appropriate for all community college students, students in their first and second years of college, and high school seniors, helps administrators and faculty measure the cognitive proficiencies of students doing entry-level course work. It also enables academic advisors to make informed decisions on students' readiness for college.

Unfortunately, their online demo requires revealing an onerous amount of personal information to gain access. So imagine my further irritation when I discovered that the implied information design curricula still seems only to emphasize what the American Library Association has called "Tool Literacy." Although the interfaces shown represent unbranded graphics in order to display generic document illustrations, it stresses negotiating menus rather than the acquisition of more complex and critical visual literacy skills.

For example, the sample graph problem about consumer spending on different categories of books since 1930 would surely get a low grade from information design expert Edward Tufte. On the "successful" graphic, lines are only differentiated by color, and many of the gradations between individual hues don't read at a distance. Furthermore, the "key" to the "good" graph is arbitrarily organized and hard to read.

In the second part of the demo, the test subject is clearly situated in the context of higher education. Yet as a hypothetical college student, he or she is implicitly discouraged from drawing on the campus's disciplinary knowledge bases or its human assets. This "advanced search" scenario involves going to a university library to get information from government publications about earthquake safety procedures in California. Although it does introduce students to the concept of Boolean operators, it doesn't offer more important library tips about using subject guides or approaching reference librarians with appropriate questions.

Finally, in the "real world" post-graduation part three, the test-taker assumes the identity of a drone in a large architectural firm faced with analyzing three separate project e-mails and also evaluating three recommended webpages from the senders. But it is difficult to analyze e-mail with nothing about information sharing, coping with hierarchies, or the Realpolitik of organizational dynamics to go on. Furthermore, the examples may overestimate the information literacy skills of students who often fall for hoax web pages or sites with stealth marketing agendas. As I am arguing in Virtualpolitik, e-mail miscommunication has contributed to many public policy disasters and scandals, and even "authoritative" government websites often demonstrate how conflicting stakeholders can generate mixed messages, or ones that are compromised by corporate interests.

From my information literacy perspective, I would say that Project SAILS is developing a much better multiple-choice tool, which is actually being facilitated by university librarians. Yet I don't think any such limited format could ever adequately model the complexities of real searches and forays into electronic communication. There are too many correct paths to an information literacy goal and too many wrong paths as well.

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Friday, March 10, 2006

A Public Record in a Common Language

A recent New York Times story about government document standards could have important ramifications, because it represents collaborative planning about information design and awareness that relying on proprietary corporate software for document production and preservation may endanger an increasingly electronic public record. Corporate strategies that emphasize planned obsolescence and competing platforms in cutthroat competition may be good for share-holders, but they are very bad for archivists. For example, the National Archives is supporting the Open Document format as an alternative to Microsoft Word.


Thursday, March 09, 2006

The Birds and the Bees

I often think about poor Jocelyn Elders, who was forced to step down as Surgeon General, after suggesting that masturbation is a "part of human sexuality" and "perhaps something that should be taught." Thanks to the National Archives, where the Clinton incarnation of is preserved, we can still read the transcript of the press conference with Leon Panetta in which he defends her public shaming.

Since then, I have found it entertaining to search through .gov sites with the keyword "masturbation" to see just how bi-polar e-government continues to be about issues of human sexuality. While the National Institutes of Health indexes many abstracts on the subject (including one with the sleazy-sounding title "Development of masturbation in college-age women") and current official guidelines for pediatricians aren't so far from Elders' scandalous recommendations, many other .gov sites rigidly stress abstaining from all forms of sexuality, including exclusively private, unsurveilable acts.

For example, the pro-abstinence government site is a model case in point, in which "nocturnal emissions" are normal but masturbation certainly isn't. One sexuality "conversation starter" on the site actually reads as follows: "I was at the store yesterday and ran into Kendrick, Mrs. Jakes' son. He is joining the military after high school. What do you think you want to do when you graduate from high school?"

4Parents is backed by the official-sounding National Physicians Center, which despite its nonprofit status is clearly a political group aimed at protecting "religious speech" and blocking FDA approval of RU486, and not a credible national professional association like the AMA.

On the other hand, there is the index of sex manuals in the Library of Congress that has managed to survive this insistence on a family-friendly e-government, and of course "masturbation" will always have its own Library of Congress call number: HQ447.

Certainly this list of definitions from U.S. code contains some x-rated terminology.

Yet this official Puritanism has strange consequences for government websites. This search term brings up several FCC orders against Clear Channel Communications from 2004 regarding the use of the word on the air. And there is an especially odd document from the Patent and Trademark office about attempts to trademark "Jack-Off," which are far stranger than those surrounding Daman Wayans recent efforts to trademark the word "Nigga."

These results were generated from "advanced" searching. It is also interesting to note that a simple Google search produces far more "masturbation" listings from the national governments of other countries or from local state, county, and city governments than generally appear in association with the Feds.

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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Blog Against Sexism Day

Today is Day, in honor of International Women's Day, which initially commemorated the labor, hardships, and unionization efforts of female textile workers who earned subsistence livings under terrible conditions. You can also honor the day with an e-card to send socialist, feminist greetings to that special woman in your life. The official International Women's Day website now has a corporate sponsor, HSBC. You don't suppose they fund any sweatshops, do you?

In honor of the day's theme, I thought it was worth pointing out this picture of President George W. Bush "surrounded by fans" from the White House website and the fantasy of postcolonial masculinity that it represents. It's the kind of gendered imagery that the collective at BAGNews often deconstructs in a daily exercise that is sort of like an acrostic for the media literate.

As a digression, I also have to point out the poetry page of the President of India. If only all heads of state were willing to post their verse online! (For those who want some geographical mood music to remember our President's trip to the subcontinent by, check out this Indian Shankar Drum Ganesh Machine.)

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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Persona Non Grata

Today's story in the New York Times, "Wal-Mart Enlists Bloggers in P.R. Campaign," demonstrates how "alternative" media can be easily co-opted by corporate interests. In this case, what is surprising is that materials were inserted word-for-word without attribution . . . which it seems is something that only the British Government (in concert with the U.S. State Department) can do.

Another innovative Internet marketing approach is to neutralize potential critics by hosting a website in which they can contest a particular product or manufacturer. For example, the makers of the movie The Da Vinci Code are now hosting The Da Vinci Challenge, where the faithful can "debate" about the story's non-Biblical elements and potential heresy. It is both a clever containment strategy and and an opportunity for no-publicity-is-bad-publicity box office gains. It seems as though the movie's makers would like to draw in some of the Passion of the Christ audience demographic. Being an avid online test-taker, I was pleased to see that I got such a surprisingly good score on the Biblical knowledge quiz.

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Monday, March 06, 2006

Cyber Catholicism

Now that it is Lent, I decided to visit the website of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to read Cardinal Roger Mahoney's controversial Lenten message on "Making Room" that encourages parishioners to defy the government's current unwelcoming policies on immigration.

I discovered that the archdiocese's multilingual website has a number of digital features, including an audio version of Saint of the Day. They don't have an online report form, but the diocese does give a toll-free number to report abuse, and there's also a weekly sexual abuse blog. Last week's topic was cyber-predators! The architecturally impressive new Los Angeles Cathedral has its own separate webpage, which has considerably less ambitious design than the corresponding physical space that it represents.

Out of curiosity, I also stopped by the much more humble website of the Archdiocese of Orange County, which offers links to many non-ecclesiastical practicalities. For example, it puts advance directive forms on its home page and will also assist with fingerprinting your child.

The church has yet to develop an online confession interface. For now the guilty will have to content themselves with the artful PostSecret.


Sunday, March 05, 2006

Double Vision

I continue to learn about how virtual reality devices are being used in cognitive therapy, physical therapy, and even pain management. As previously noted in this blog, virtual reality devices have a communitarian dimension, because they can be used to treat social phobias, such as the fear of speaking in public or interacting with others in informal social situations like parties. But VR also is used in many other clinical situations, some of which have import for creating a more inclusive basis for accommodating a greater range of citizens.

Because computer generated imagery offers a richer testing model than traditional paper and pencil exercises, it offers an invaluable aid to brain researchers. Certianly, exposure to specific and consistent forms of multi-sensory or three-dimensional stimuli improves neurological mapping. Although spatial puzzle problems have been used to problematic ends by researchers studying gender difference, such as in the case of the famous toy-stacking experiment, such puzzles have great potential to improve scientists' understanding of brain injury and recovery.

VR technology has been used for physical therapy as well. For example, wheelchair users with "visual neglect" can learn to drive more safely after negotiating virtual courses. But VR also offers the possibility of creating transformative environments for the physically handicapped. The Laboratory for Innovation in Rehabilitation Technology (LIRT) can place disabled people in virtual mountain vistas or at the center of virtual soccer fields during their physical therapy, where they can interact with virtual birds or virtual balls during the therapy session.

Finally, VR offers distracting sensory information that can assist with pain management. For young test subjects, a virtual reality scuba game provided by the Believe in Tomorrow National Children's Foundation is apparently a great improvement over merely squeezing a rubber ball during painful hospital procedures. Hunter Hoffman was an important pioneer in this field of research, and according to a recent NPR story on such clinical use of video games, Ben Sawyer of Games for Health has been a significant popularizer of these technologies. Even the media artist Rebecca Allen of UCLA has contributed to this effort to reduce pain by immersing the patient in vivid and interactive technologies.

Because I was born with a rare ocular condition known as Brown's syndrome, I actually had 3-D therapy as a child during the nineteen seventies. I still remember the experience well. After each one of several eye surgeries, I went for weekly "eye exercises" to an office full of machines equipped with viewers. I would spend the time tracing images or doing other hand-eye coordination tasks that were designed to improve my spatial abilities and discourage the double-vision or mono-vision from which I periodically suffered. Being good behaviorists, the assistants gave us Starburst candies if we performed well on the day's tasks. Such vision therapy is apparently still practiced today. I wonder if both my persistent interest and my persistent skepticism about virtual reality technology can be traced to those early experiences with incipient 3-D.

Although I've abandoned eye exercises and now wear a prism in my glasses, my eyes still don't quite track together. Thus I was unable to fully appreciate the Magic Eye craze of the nineties, and the old-time stereoscopes that nostalgia buffs treasure don't work on me. However, those who have good binocular vision might enjoy this 3-D stereoscopic cell phone apparatus from Japan!

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Saturday, March 04, 2006

On the Other Side of the Talking Heads

User-Directed News is currently being tested in conjunction with USC's Institute for Creative Technologies as an immersive media alternative to low-interaction traditional television reporting. The UDN technology allows a user wearing a 3-D viewing device to see a panoramic 360 degree view of a remote news scene. In the demo I saw with a reporter standing in Skid Row, from the SIGGRAPH talk of ICT's Skip Rizzo, the viewer can explore the blighted urban geography and even see what the reporter is seeing. In another story on mass yoga practice, the reporter was actually added into the panorama during post-production.

For a scholarly view on the interactivity/vividness rationale for this kind of program, see Jonathan Steuer's still classic 1992 work on "Telepresence." The User-Directed News program is further explained in the Online Journalism Review from the Annenberg Center, which also covers news technologies that have already been successfully implemented by mainstream media, such as blogs and, to a lesser extent, wikis. The Integrated Media Systems Center, which has been developing User-Directed News, has many corporate sponsors, so I might be wary of possible applications of this virtual reality program in an increasingly pre-fabricated news environment in which advertising and journalism (and sometimes also politics) blend. In the past I've been critical of 360 degree forms of info-tainment on government websites in a posting called "The Back Side of Water." But perhaps the developers of User-Directed News can persuade me to change my mind.

Of course, I can't resist pointing out that the Pentagon Channel could use this new technology to supplement their current Internet offerings, which already include Department of Defense podcasting. Civil libertarians who were vindicated by the recent release of the names of Guantanamo detainees yesterday might be even more pleased to see the Guantanamo features page offering a 360 degree interactive view so visitors could search for possible human rights abuses.

Despite my skepticism about User Directed News, I don't mean to entirely disparage the idea of greater interactivity in news coverage to engage an increasingly non-newspaper reading public. I enjoy the "audio slideshows" on the New York Times website. Those accustomed to television may find them lacking in vividness, but I think they improve my experience of a traditional print story. I like that they allow me to study well-composed news photos and sometimes also hear the voices of the people in the stories testifying to their own experiences in their own voices. For example, yesterday's audio slideshow on Parisian libraries was right up my information access alley. Unfortunately, the audio slide show stories are often more New-York centered than where my news interests are, but they do run an excellent series called "Photographer's Journal" in which Times photographers explain individual images, the challenges behind particular assignments, and their aesthetic and ideological philosophies about composing news photos. They are truly "photo essays," unlike co-opted new Internet versions of the genre.

The New York Times also presents Interactive Features, which may integrate video or interactive graphics. These Interactive Features often cover complex issues like class in America or globalization or the causal factors involved in conflicts in war zones, although they also ran a regrettably trivial series on wine with various critics talking about their degustation experiences. The columnist Nicholas Kristof has used this interactive format for covering many issues that seem disconnected from the daily lives on non-passport bearing Americans, such as the sex trade in India and Cambodia, global warming in the Maldives, and the genocide in Darfur.

This week there has been some debate about the appropriate role of sound and Flash interactivity on websites at Design Your Life, because many designers still see predominantly see web pages as a single-sense visual media. I would argue that "interactive news" would be best used to pursue important stories in remote locations rather than highlight more facile opportunities to showcase bells-and-whistles technologies.

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Friday, March 03, 2006

Immediate Attention Needed: Highly Confidential

Dear Sir / Madam,

I should probably say something about the unfortunate Internet duping of my Irvine colleague, Professor Emeritus Louis Gottschalk, which has come to light this week. According to an article in yesterday's Los Angeles Times, "UCI Psychiatrist Bilked by Nigerian E-mails, Suit Says," Professor Gottschalk may be out over a million dollars because of this common Internet scam. In fact, because so many seniors have been exploited and fooled in their online lives, the Centers for Disease Control now maintains a page on health-related Internet hoaxes.

I'm not sure that it's just a generational problem. I've discussed faculty digital illiteracy in this blog before, and this seems like a particularly sad example involving significant victimization that exarcerbated existing family financial strife. Yet it seems as though Gottschalk should have been more computer-savvy, given that he developed a computer program to detect hostility or anxiety, which works after about five minutes of having a person talk into Gottschalk's device. I wonder if Professor Gottshalk would be taken in by this George W. Bush Nigerian Spam Letter as well?

My personal favorite fraud is the face-t0-face, theatrical "Black Money Scam." A vendor who sold merchandise at UCI's ring road was charged in one particularly strange "black money" case.


Spinning the Record

Those who don't visit the Whitehouse website on a regular basis may not be aware of a new area in its main navigation: Setting the Record Straight. Since November, the Executive Branch has reserved this page for rebuttals to particularly noteworthy administration failures: the Federal response to Hurricane Katrina, the analysis of pre-war intelligence about Iraq, and the illegal surveillance of citizens in the U.S. without Congressional oversight. I, personally, won't be satisfied with the administration's explanations until I see "The dog ate my homework!" or "My computer crashed!" on a White House webpage.

I have to also point out the existence of an appendix to the White House Hurricane Katrina "Lessons Learned" report, which is ludicrously entitled "What Went Right."

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Thursday, March 02, 2006

News Bulletin

Bravo to the National Archives for today's announcement that they would no longer allow intelligence agencies to remove previously unclassified documents. They also used their opportunity for civic shaming to urge those agencies to return materials that had already been taken out of the public record. The administration's policy of reclassification often covered up embarrassing events in unnecessary secrecy and had been roundly criticized by historians, as well as investigated by the nongovernmental National Security Archive. I suppose there are some victories in the current information wars.


Solitary, Poor, Nasty, Brutish, and Short . . . But At Least It's Virtual

Last month, the Washington Post reported on how the Office of Naval Research and USC's Institute for Creative Technologies have developed Virtual Iraq. The program to treat combat veterans who are having difficulty reintegrating into civilian life has also been featured on National Public Radio. Although reliving traumatic experiences seems counterintuitive to psychic healing, such programs are statistically shown to be highly effective as treatments and get some of the most successful behavioral and cognitive results. Albert "Skip" Rizzo, who recently spoke at the Los Angeles ACM SIGGRAPH meeting, Snow Crash: Virtual Reality Goes Real, is also one of the principal investigators on the project.

Actually, such virtual reality therapy has been used for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in many political contexts that replicate a variety of geographic locales. Those in New York who suffer from PTSD from the September 11th terrorist attacks can be treated by reliving the experience with a Virtual World Trade Center that was developed by the Program for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Studies at Cornell. A Virtual Bus Bombing, which was developed by lead researcher Naomi Josman from the University of Haifa, allows Israeli citizens to recover from suicide bombing attacks. Virtual reality environments for Angola, Mozambique, and other African areas of conflict have been developed by Pedro Gamito of the University of Lusafona. Those still fighting demons from three decades earlier can also benefit from Virtual Vietnam.

The Virtual Office presents a more quotidian war zone for patients who suffer from anger management issues. Although this 360 degree computer-generated recreation of an office environment was originally developed as a testing environment for brain injured patients, it has been repurposed for the virtual cubicle dweller who must deal with aggravated superiors and coworkers, including a white female who threatens to tow the subject's car from the company parking lot and an Asian male who complains about the subject's work habits.

It's worth noting that another kind of Virtual Iraq has been envisioned at the Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative Iraq, where Ruzena Bajcsy of U.C. Berkeley has been developing a "virtual heritage" archive, according to the BBC, which will recreate the contents of museums and archeological sites that were looted after the U.S. Invasion.

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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Virtual Classroom

"Online Colleges Receive a Boost from Congress" in today's New York Times announces the decision of legislators to allow distance learning campuses that provide the majority of their instruction virtually rather than via traditional classrooms or lecture halls to be eligible to receive federal student aid. The Times interprets this decision as a setback for "nonprofit" institutions of higher learning, such as those in the University of California system where I work. The Bush administration has long been lobbying for this legislation of behalf of "nontraditional students." Of course, the influence of for-profit colleges in this policy decision isn't hard to surmise. It also may be yet another manifestation of outright hostility toward traditionally "liberal" colleges that have challenged the White House on both scientific and ethical grounds.

(Given today's other revelation in the news that a White House teleconference acquired by the Associated Press shows that the President was thoroughly briefed in advance about Hurricane Katrina by scientists and emergency planners, but he still failed to comprehend the enormity of the risk to the Gulf Coast, the potential fallibility of distance learning is demonstrable, particularly when our Chief Executive is the student.)

Less obviously, the decision about online colleges is also a disaster for "hybrid learning" initiatives that combine the best of both instructional worlds. By tipping the balance toward lower cost online-only solutions, the complementary use of technology to enrich classroom learning won't get the funding it continues to need. Smart uses of technology can improve our students' information literacy, model digital communication and interpretation skills, and streamline feedback and assessment mechanisms. Many busy faculty members are already reluctant to experiment and may even resent digital communication with their students, as a recent New York Times article on professors and e-mail, "To Why It's All about Me," indicates. University extension courses, which provide a valuable service to our surrounding community, are already providing more content via remote control to compete with private for-profit degree and certificate granting programs.

Luckily, some "virtual classroom" research is designed to improve the quality of "live" face-to-face interactions, particularly with elementary and secondary school students. The Virtual Classroom is a virtual reality environment that simulates the 3-D environment of a traditional blackboard classroom with pupils in desks. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder children can be tested for their responses to various distracting stimuli in the periphery: a red car driving by that is visible through the window, a man entering the classroom via a door, or a paper airplane floating through the class.

I learned about this research from the SIGGRAPH talk of Albert "Skip" Rizzo of USC's Institute for Creative Technologies. Dr. Rizzo's talk began with a photograph of Sigmund Freud wearing a virtual reality headmount and contained information about several research initiatives and test programs relevant to the Virtualpolitik Project, which I will integrate into future items in this blog.

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