Thursday, November 30, 2006

A Thousand Flowers

Before the month is out, I want to take a moment to acknowledge the visit of my colleague Mike Palmquist of Colorado State to the U.C. Irvine campus to argue for a smart software alternative to proprietary course management tools like Blackboard. Mike claims that traditional course management tools only reinforce the hierarchical pedagogy of the conventional lecture hall -- combined with mindless skill and drill online testing -- and do not take adequate advantage of the learner-oriented possibilities of digital communication. Mike is one of the creators of The Writing Studio, which allows teachers to direct college students to create better writing portfolios, blogs, scholarly annotations, and group projects. With their decentralized model, apparently you can start your own "co-op" at your own institution of higher learning without paying onerous fees to a publishing giant. Of course, I was a bit taken aback by the copyright disclaimer of the Studio, but I can be more choosy than most since I'm fortunate enough to teach at a Blackboard-free campus that in 1999 hosted an idealistic international conference about building university electronic educational environments on the not-for-profit model.

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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Dead Weight and Heavy Lifting

This week I've been reading Nicholas Negroponte's Being Digital, which is about the fundamental differences between atoms and bits when it comes to economic, social, and political policy. For example, without inventories and shipping to consider, digital products can be disseminated at a much lower cost than their analog counterparts. This difference also matters at the community level. UC Police Department officers justified the recent tasering of a student on the grounds that the young man was too heavy, at two hundred pounds, for them to lift out of the building, even though he was a passive resister and posed them no physical threat. The euthanasia of patients in a New Orleans hospital during Hurricane Katrina was apparently also partly motivated by the difficulty of evacuating patients who were obese, paralyzed, or otherwise difficult to physically transport. When it comes to questions about moral choices in a society increasingly oriented to thinking about the world in virtual terms, it is important to build in opportunities for discussion, debate, and pedagogy about our obligations to those of flesh and blood and the need for collective heavy lifting.

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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Small Miseries

As a piece of digital rhetoric, this footage of Iraqi children running for water has been much copied and disseminated on YouTube. I found it difficult to watch the boy in brown pants and a brown shirt who runs and runs in response to the soldiers' taunting, only to see the water bottle finally lobbed at him be appropriated by others.

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Monday, November 27, 2006

Rhetoric Round-Up

The New York Times has run several digital rhetoric stories this week. "'Yours Truly,' the E-Variations" looked at the debate among netiquette experts about the appropriate sign-off for business and personal electronic communication. (I often use "Best," but apparently that is a rhetorical no-no.) "As Many Software Choices As Languages to Learn" presented a remarkably uncritical view of on-screen distance language-learning, given the absence of important paralinguistic and social cues in these programs and their often deficient voice-recognition technology. (I found myself shouting into the microphone to register a correct utterance in one program.) In another representation of the pedagogical scene, "Telling Tales Out of School on YouTube," the NYT reported on two high school pranksters who goaded their teacher into an inappropriate outburst and then posted the embarrassing lapse of instructional decorum on YouTube. (The Chronicle has covered some recent notorious cases of Professors Caught on YouTube.) And finally, in the interest of freedom of access to political speech, "Web Tools Said to Offer Way Past the Government Censor" describes a web proxy program developed by the University of Toronto that can stymie the blocking efforts of authoritarian regimes, which will be available December 1.


Collective Intelligence

I'd like to draw upon the collective intelligence of readers for a moment, particularly other avid movie-goers. I just watched The Da Vinci Code, which is hardly a fine film-watching experience, but does have a scene in which the main character gives a PowerPoint presentation early in the story. Can others think of additional examples of how PowerPoint is represented in recent Hollywood films? The same goes for Keynote or other electronic slideshow programs. I know that An Inconvenient Truth and The Yes Men featured this new rhetorical genre, but there must be other films I am forgetting. Fictional PowerPoints by policy makers or government officials (heroes, villains, or side-kicks) would be of particular interest.

I'm interested in how human-computer interactions are being depicted differently, now that there are other models than the stealthy hacker breaking into the top-secret database. What does it mean if the computer is seen as a vehicle for public rhetoric as well as private information?

Anyway, e-mail me if you have examples of PowerPoint from movies.

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Sunday, November 26, 2006

What Does Technology Have to Do with Religion?

Not much, I would assume, but others are drawing closer connections. The cover story of this month's high-tech bible Wired and much of the magazine's content was about "The New Atheism" and its spokespeople. It featured interviews with provocateurs like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennet. Many in the movement have apparently found each other via the Internet, and like other subcultures, they have built online communities based on their collective absence of faith. There's an interesting analogy to be made between how supposedly incomplete or unfulfilled atheists are coming out of the closet and demanding inclusion with the experiences of gays and lesbians in earlier decades.

Defenders of the faith are using technological theories as well. Today I heard a sermon by James E. Grant, who used arguments from "neurotheology" to defend the biological basis of religious belief. Much of Grant's language came from the biofeedback movement of the sixties and seventies, which in turn borrowed theories from the study of "cybernetics" that applied post-War information theory to the homeostatic mechanisms of the body and of the psyche as well. (See the work of famed atheist and MIT professor Norbert Wiener, the founder of cybernetics, for more.) As someone from a family with a long history of religious mania among its more dysfunctional members, I'm not sure that I buy Grant's argument that religious faith is more adaptive than its absence.

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Saturday, November 25, 2006

Triage and Teamwork

Time Magazine has chronicled recent troubles at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at "What Ails the CDC?" With funding down for serious health problems like HIV/AIDS and TB, it sounds like the public has good reason to be concerned. Time's coverage talks about how "hallway grumbling" has turned into "an ugly public ruckus" and does some finger-pointing to a blog for whistle blowers called I found CDCChatter to be remarkably dispassionate and fair. For example, there was a description of good customer service delivered at a CDC clinic for a flu shot (which included a "goodie bag"), and a member of CDC brass chimed in with a plug for his own "knowledge management" blog. The emphasis was on constructive criticism for an agency where policy was increasingly dictating science under the current administration. The writing teacher in me was pleased to see editorial instructions to contributors that emphasized factual correctness and grammatical polish.

One posting suggested ways to help a new unit director: "OK, CDC Chatter Bloggers, please submit your advice here in the form of suggestions for Kathleen on how to survive the 'new' CDC, where science accounts for quite a bit less than how it is perceived by our cadre of enterprise communicators and health marketers." It seemed that the writer was pointing to potential abuses of my own discipline, rhetoric, in the references to "enterprise communicators" and "health marketers"

If only the official CDC website was as forthcoming about areas for improvement and as responsive to the concerns of the public. I do like the information design in their weekly flu reports with the national map, but AIDS prevention and reproductive health has been totally dropped from their main menu. I had to use the not very good search engine to find it. Furthermore, I hated the annoying ethereal music in their podcasts, which sounded like religious books on tape not practical advice. The CDC should certainly know better when it comes to digital rhetoric, given that they now have a presence in Second Life and also have a virtual center in Whyville. Their "health marketing" director explains the rationale for these projects in online environments here on his blog.

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Friday, November 24, 2006

Buy Nothing Day

I hope everyone remembered what day it was today.


Holiday Special

Laura Quilter of Derivative Work points out that before policy makers took off for the holiday, the Copyright office allowed some much-needed exemptions from the highly restrictive Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

1. Audiovisual works included in the educational library of a college or universityÂ’s film or media studies department, when circumvention is accomplished for the purpose of making compilations of portions of those works for educational use in the classroom by media studies or film professors.

2. Computer programs and video games distributed in formats that have become obsolete and that require the original media or hardware as a condition of access, when circumvention is accomplished for the purpose of preservation or archival reproduction of published digital works by a library or archive. A format shall be considered obsolete if the machine or system necessary to render perceptible a work stored in that format is no longer manufactured or is no longer reasonably available in the commercial marketplace.

3. Computer programs protected by dongles that prevent access due to malfunction or damage and which are obsolete. A dongle shall be considered obsolete if it is no longer manufactured or if a replacement or repair is no longer reasonably available in the commercial marketplace.

4. Literary works distributed in ebook format when all existing ebook editions of the work (including digital text editions made available by authorized entities) contain access controls that prevent the enabling either of the bookÂ’s read-aloud function or of screen readers that render the text into a specialized format.

5. Computer programs in the form of firmware that enable wireless telephone handsets to connect to a wireless telephone communication network, when circumvention is accomplished for the sole purpose of lawfully connecting to a wireless telephone communication network.

6. Sound recordings, and audiovisual works associated with those sound recordings, distributed in compact disc format and protected by technological protection measures that control access to lawfully purchased works and create or exploit security flaws or vulnerabilities that compromise the security of personal computers, when circumvention is accomplished solely for the purpose of good faith testing, investigating, or correcting such security flaws or vulnerabilities.

There are clearly a lot of copyright-friendly loopholes here, even in the first category of exceptions, which represents a concession to historical definitions of fair use for educational purposes. "Professors" could use these materials in a classroom, but could adjuncts or teaching assistants? Those from "media studies" or "film" are allowed, but those from other departments would still seem to be prohibited, even though, as my friend Bob Blackman likes to say, you can't teach history without a VCR. And -- of course -- why all these onerous requirements about storage specifically in an "educational library"? Not to mention K-12 uses of digital copies!

The second category of exemptions represents a tantalizing possibility for reason, given the rise of videogame studies and the challenge facing librarians who are trying to catalogue digital ephemera before it becomes unplayable.

The exceptions for the disabled have a long history, but it was nice to see some defense of reverse engineering as a legitimate branch of science and some acknowledgement of the fact that DRM could also bring about planned obsolescence.

The official version of the details and backstory on the debate are here.


Thursday, November 23, 2006

Dead, White Males

In honor of the holiday it seems a good time to point to the veneration of dead, white males in the material culture of government, which is also commemorated on government websites. It was bad enough when Unitarian feminist activist Susan B. Anthony was substituted with more safely allegorical baby-toting bartered Sacagawea on the dollar coin. But now they're both being replaced by a presidential line-up on the dollar coin, so that the general public will take the circulation of big change more seriously. See the features of the new coins here. Of course, the ironist in me loves the fact that people will be carrying around presidents Taft and Andrew Johnson in their pockets.


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Rabbit Hole

Last night I went to see Andrew "Bunnie" Huang at USC, where he gave a talk about reverse engineering and the use of open source software in proprietary products, as part of Cory Doctorow's series of Fullbright Chair talks. Although hackers are often associated with software programming, Huang is also interested in hardware and tinkering literally at the nuts-and-bolts level. He defends the right of the consumer to take things they've bought apart, and this ethos also informs his choice of projects. For example, you can see the guts of a Microsoft Zune MP3 player on his blog this week. Perhaps Huang's most famous exploit is hacking the Xbox, which he describes in a tell-all book that includes a primer on hardware modding and a diatribe against the DMCA. Huang also gave a pretty standard pitch talk on the Chumby, a beanbag device for portable computing designed to appeal to the DIY crowd.

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Spectator Sports

Fantasy football, fantasy baseball, and other fantasy sports are role-playing games that use statistics and organizational know-how to construct an alternative world in which the best of all possible teams can compete against each other in a utopia of fan participation. As many as 16 million adults may be in the game. For policy wonks, now Fantasy Congress offers constituents the possibility to put together coalitions, play smarter defense and offense, and rack up the legislative stats to please the hometown crowd. They offer tutorials on the legislative process to explain how a bill becomes law and encourage research on real-life elected officials and issues. I also like the fact that the game has a pedagogical history in a Distributed Software Architecture Course.


Monday, November 20, 2006

The Commissar Vanishes

The Museum of Hoaxes has highlighted a number of recent examples of Photoshop for purposes of political expediency and has compared these activities to Stalinist photo-doctoring in which commissars sometimes vanish and scenic workers and proletarian slogans appear. At the local level, a North Carolina town representative was removed from an official photo. On the national stage, the "Mission Accomplished" banner was cropped out of video of a famous presidential speech on the White House website. See the video below for the details.

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Sunday, November 19, 2006

Your Name Here

Today The New York Times describes the free-for-all speculation in Internet domain names going on in anticipation of the next presidential election. "As Candidates Mull '08, Websites Are Already Running" also addresses how political speech and trademark ownership may collide when dissenters buy a sound-alike website for purposes of oppositional protest.

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Saturday, November 18, 2006

Media Literacy Begins at Home

Good to know that government websites full of misspellings, broken links, and incoherent information are finally getting some professional attention. See the work of the National Association of Government Webmasters and the Web Content Managers Workshop for web design knowledge-sharing in the creation of the virtual state.


Friday, November 17, 2006

The Anarchist in the Library

Here in Los Angeles, cameras in mobile phones combined with the video sharing capacities of YouTube have publicized a number of high profile cases of police brutality. (A search on YouTube with the keywords "police brutality" brings up hundreds of videos from all around the world.)

This latest case was actually posted on the Wired Campus blog for the Chronicle of Higher Education. It's hard to watch as twenty-three-year-old Mostafa Tabatabainejad is repeatedly tasered for being in the UCLA library without an ID after 11PM.

Details are here from the LA Times.

Update: Since the footage appeared on YouTube, there have already been a number of remixes and classic YouTube first-person webcam commentary pieces (like this, this, and this).

UCLA's Iranian Student Group and the Muslim Students Association have been organizing large campus and street protests, but these organizations have not yet updated their websites with information or commentary about the incident. The best coverage is probably at The Daily Bruin. This blog posting includes an eyewitness account.

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

Footnotes to History

Yesterday, my copy of the graphic novel version of the The 9/11 Report arrived in the mail. (I had seen a preview in Slate.)

It was interesting to look at this document as an example of innovative information design, and I was surprised to see commission members indicating their approval of the comic book format in the preface.

Of course, as a voracious reader of government documents, I have to point out that they didn't actually present the entire six hundred page report. For example, in the fine print in the footnotes I discovered that one of the terrorist operatives in contact with Mohammed Atta actually used the alias "Losh," which -- outside of some rural counties in Pennsylvania -- is an extremely rare surname. Here's the actual text:

In May 2001, however, Ali asked KSM to participate in a suicide mission and offered to travel to the United States and assist the operatives there. As discussed in a set of Atta-Binalshibh exchanges in August 2001, Ali (referred to by the nickname "Losh") appears to have contacted Atta and expressed the desire to join the operation.

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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Teaching in Handcuffs

As more public educators move to provide distance education via distributed networks, this message brings up an alarming potential issue about those who are unwillingly forced into an inappropriately proprietary culture of corporate ownership by the tendency to legislate DRM. You can see a simple primer on what a "broadcast flag" is, which was made by Public Knowledge, on YouTube. Read this e-mail to see why the University of Maryland is joining up with Public Knowledge.


Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Gated Communities

As though it weren't enough for the Internet to be the primary vehicle of child molesters and terrorists, apparently it is also the superhighway of evil drug traffickers, who are after our kids as well. Or so I learn from the new tutorials on "E-monitoring" from Parents. The Anti-Drug. The fact that parents are being encouraged to buy proprietary software programs and pursue parenting strategies analogous to the surveillance culture of authoritarian regimes, such as China and Iran should be concerning to those who want their children to grow up to be citizens who make the right choices freely. (You can see the research coming out of the OpenNet Initiative for more on why Internet censorship is both self-defeating and a sign of the total failure of a system of governance.)

My vote for the scariest sentence in this website was this one: "While technology offers many positive things, like connectedness and information, those same attributes, if misused, can also be quite harmful." What about those of us who don't accept the idea that informing the young is harmful? Apparently, we are sadly deluded about how "hooked" our kids are on these new technologies. Most bizarre, perhaps, on the E-monitoring site was the link to current "street lingo" from the White House Office of National Drug Policy.

Then again, perhaps communication technology needs to be demonized now that public service announcements like "Pete's Couch" have abandoned scare tactics with regard to actual recreational drug use. Of course, there are already several video send-ups of the "Pete's Couch" spot on YouTube.

When it comes to technology tutorials for parents like this one, it is worth keeping in mind that research by danah boyd on teen computing seems to suggest that something more is at work in the use of instant messaging, mobile communications, and social networking sites by the young than the fastest way to the creepy dealer down the street. She suggests that this behavior is also a logical reaction to parental authority from over-scheduled kids whose sociality has been radically constrained by a society based fundamentally on stranger danger. With playdates and even home schooling, young people searching for social contact that isn't an extension of family relationships go to the Internet to seek out less homogeneous and more diverse forms of community.

One of the statistics that is supposed to be most alarming to parents is this one: 14% of teens have a live face-t0-face meeting with someone they've met online. "Gulp. Scary," we are supposed to say. But I have a teen. He's used the global reach of the Internet to learn about interests that might otherwise be too esoteric for kids in his immediate social circle. For example, he found a teen rugby club with an international group of adults -- including some articulate feminists -- promoting participation in the sport. He also located a DJ academy where he could learn about scratch and mix techniques in a multicultural and multigenerational environment of collaboration around the craft. So -- yes -- he's even met adults through the Internet . . . people otherwise known as coaches and teachers. You can see some of the suspect characters my kid has met in the photo above, where he's spinning vinyl for winning one of the three top mix prizes.

Here's what I hear about the surveillance alternative. A neighbor dad tells me about another dad who is carefully monitoring and cataloguing all the porn that his son watches. Does he use it as an opportunity for dialogue? No. Does he use the technology to further parent-child communication? No. Poor pathetic guy. I learned more about my kid's attitudes about video sex and violence from watching nine minutes of the hilarious "My Trip to Liberty City" and talking about it afterwards.

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Monday, November 13, 2006

Popularity Contest

Yesterday's Los Angeles Times covered the YouTube ratings/views cheating allegations being bandied around among the jealous video sharing site's "stars." "Got hits? Or maybe they've just got game" describes how fame-hungry film-makers can bump their standings on the site with fake accounts and excessive page refreshing. My favorite was this conspiracy-style video on YouTube CHEATERS!


Sunday, November 12, 2006

Rescue Me!

The other big media story here in Southern California has to do with how The Los Angeles Times is playing the role of damsel in distress while a covert bidding war between dueling billionaires may be going on to rescue the paper from the clutches of Chicago's Tribune organization.

I'm hardly an unbiased person, as a long-time LA Times loyalist and Southern California native who grew up with the kids of those who owned, published, edited, and wrote for the Times during its heyday. I loved the extravagant length of the articles and the baroque prose styles of some of its better known columnists (like sports legend Jim Murray). Unfortunately, those days are long gone. First came the faster-format Times in 1989. Circulation dropped still further as the price of a newsstand copy doubled, and advertisers were given more influence over the journalistic copy. In 2000 the Tribune bought the Times, and the situation deteriorated rapidly as the LA staff was butchered. In 2005 the paper tried to exploit the digital possibilities for user-generated content in its disastrous "wikitorials" experiment; then last month they redesigned their front page and jettisoned their traditional fonts. The number of editors who have quit or have been fired for crossing Chicago continues to climb.

Now both David Geffen and Eli Broad are vying to purchase the paper to save it from its out-of-town management. Geffen is a familiar name, but East Coasters may not know Broad. He's reviled on our block for covering the local landscape with ugly cookie-cutter housing developments. (This tendency toward ex-urban sprawl that encourages extreme commuting and subverts genuine community building is well recorded in Jenny Cool's documentary "Home Economics.") We also don't like the way he's dominated the arts and culture scene here and funded only the most kitschy art and opera so that the stereotype of how shallow LA wants TV directors like Garry Marshall to stage operas and Jeff Koons to fill art museums just gets more reinforcement. But if it means that the Times will be a-changing back to local hands, I guess even we'll be grateful, although I still think the culture around print has changed so fundamentally that it is unlikely that our children will be subscribers.

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Saturday, November 11, 2006


Of course, the big news here in LA is the videotaped beating of twenty-four-year-old William Cardenas, which was posted on the video sharing site YouTube. Viewers can watch here and see Cardenas struggling as he is restrained by officers; he says "I can't breathe" four times. As The Los Angeles Times reports in "Video, arrest report at odds," officers only report punching Cardenas twice despite digital evidence to the contrary.

Los Angeles has a bad history when it comes to police brutality and subsequent LAPD attempts at spin control. Some worry that YouTube's ability to disseminate images of police brutality rapidly will stimulate more Rodney King-style urban unrest. I tend to think that the Internet's ability to publicize messages that authorities may otherwise ignore will actually offer an outlet and opportunity for redress that could forestall frustrated expressions of retaliatory violence in the form of rioting and looting. I say that as someone who has had rocks thrown at my car, guns pointed at me by national guardsmen at my grocery store, and marching feet down my street at night during the Los Angeles riots. Certainly the pre-Internet era didn't handle these cases any better.

In connection with this story, it's also worth noting that the LAPD has a very snazzy website with video messages from Chief Bratton and a new LAPD blog.

Ironically, the existence of YouTube has sometimes encouraged the enforcement of intellectual property rules that contain and control the dissemination of such visual messages. For example, in the case of another well-publicized beating, that of truck driver Reginald Denny, copyright holders asserted their rights to take critical footage from the history of Los Angeles out of the public domain.

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Friday, November 10, 2006

Falling for Tetris

The BBC documentary "Tetris -- From Russia With Love," now available on Google video, is well worth its hour running time, especially for anyone who has ever let phones ring or dinners burn while playing the seemingly simple game of stacking up the falling geometric shapes. This tale of Tetris also is a story about intellectual property and digital culture that involves several countries and corporate players that took place on the geopolitical stage of the end of the Cold War. In other words, who owns the product of the work of programmers at the state-run Soviet-era Moscow computer center, which was subsequently installed on computers throughout the Eastern Bloc? Atari, Nintendo, and Great Britain's Mirrorsoft all fought for the rights.

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Thursday, November 09, 2006

Didn't He Get the Memo?

Of course, as Donald Rumsfeld stepped down yesterday, many news organizations reminded their audiences that he also was the author of the basic Beltway guide for newbies, "Rumsfeld's Rules," which includes this piece of ironic advice: "Be able to resign. It will improve your value to the President and do wonders for your performance."

It was interesting to see that Rumsfeld's Rules were once posted on a number of .gov sites, but have since been apparently pulled down. I particularly like this very cold take-down notice from the Department of Defense, where the rules were once so much a part of the department's cultural lore that the Pentagon joyfully announced "Rumsfeld's Rules Now Available on the Web." They aren't on the NASA site anymore, although you can see them cached here.


Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Diary of a Mad Poll-Worker, Part Four

Yesterday was the big day, where I clocked in as a traditional poll worker, as part of my behind-the-scenes hard-hitting four-part investigative series on electronic voting. (See Part One, Part Two, and Part Three for context.) This was the actual t-shirt that I wore during my 6AM to 9PM shift.

I'll put the big idea up front. I'm not an expert on e-voting, but I do know something about how technology works (or doesn't work) when it is introduced in other institutional contexts. Here's my basic thesis: introducing technology into the political process is like introducing it into education. There needs to be a reason to do it; it shouldn't just be about adding bells and whistles only because changes can be made. Two principles need always to be kept in mind: 1) the technology should be added to solve the actual problems of users and 2) planners need to be prepared for when users put the technology to different ends. I'm usually an advocate for technology but not always, and for years I have seen college administrators who don't keep these two rules in mind and have thus undervalued time-tested traditional teaching methods and low-tech solutions. I think that a similar thing may have happened to election officials who have been pursuing a crazy patchwork of whizz-bang approaches to e-voting without any unified vision.

That's why I'd say that the approach of Los Angeles County makes sense when it comes to computerized voting; local election officials decided to focus on using computers either to help disabled people cast ballots without assistance or to alert harried voters that they had accidentally overvoted, thus nullifying whatever they had intended to indicate, and provide an opportunity to the voter for self-intervention.

Overall, it was a relatively disaster-free day. The lines never got that long, the limited technology that was used never failed, and it seemed like the optical readers processed inked ballots at a pretty rapid clip at the end of the day. The scene in the Santa Monica church that I presided over was nothing like the YouTube drama depicting Voter Intimidation in Philadelphia and other COPS-style hijinks.

My first task was assembling the actual polling booths, which were pretty abbreviated, because they came without curtains or elaborate mechanisms. They had to be unpacked from cardboard boxes as an assortment of parts. I never thought that I would feel nostalgic for the directions for assembling Ikea furniture, but the guidance on putting together a polling booth was even more minimal. It turned out that the one piece of actual advice, "LIGHT GOES HERE," would have put the device for illumination under the improvised table of the whole thing. In retrospect, I figured out that it was a directive for where to put the light away when all the parts were back in the box at the very end of the day.

My main duty, serving as the address clerk, involved lining out names in pencil and updating rosters on an hourly basis. I also handed out ballots and demonstrated the Inkavote system. The most heart-warming scene in the entire day was probably the sight of me explaining the election process to a kindergarten class from next door; I let each of them take turns joyfully poking at a demonstration ballot with the voting stylus. Many of the tykes were irritated that Thomas Jefferson was on the demonstrator ballot but not George Washington, but they were nonetheless respectful and enthusiastic about the prospect of voting in thirteen years.

I have to say that my experiences provided some anecdotal evidence that supports many of the generalizations being made in recent years about the two parties. Republicans did seem to vote earlier than Democrats, Republican precinct captains appeared to be checking the rosters more regularly in their get-out-the-vote efforts, and a gender divide was evident even at the level of couples at the same address. In other words, I saw marriages of male Republicans and female Democrats but never the reverse. One pair got into an actual fight in line.

Of course, there were some abusive would-be voters, but even impatient jerks have a constitutionally protected right to vote, and we were careful not to put any barriers in their way. Some tips to those voters for next year: please omit questions like "Can you go any slower?" or "What are you, stupid?" with poll workers in future. We might seem a bit distracted because we are trying to figure out if you are in the right precinct or getting ready to intervene before an elderly voter is dragged out of the polling place by an impatient adult child. These seemed also to be the same people who signed with illegible signatures on the line that says PRINT CLEARLY HERE.

Perhaps the most extreme case of voter belligerance was the mentally ill woman who appeared in the afternoon clutching her silver purse like we were trying to take it away from her. Her blonde hair was teased up as though there were a sea anemone on her head, and she had carefully applied eye makeup a half-inch below her actual eyes. She said she wanted to know "where to go to vote to kick out all the Mexicans." The printed list of real-life candidates and propositions had no interest for her, although she expressed some willingness to vote for Arnold Schwarzenegger if she had to cast a ballot for anyone real. Of course, when presented with this year's ballot, on which there was no legislation to eject the largest ethnic group in the state, she became truly agitated and then enraged. Our long-suffering provisional ballot clerk had been patiently enduring her antics, even when she told him that he was probably on the Mexicans' side, because he was "Oriental" and spoke "with an accent." The ironic part was that she herself had an accent and was from Scotland originally.

It was quite affecting to see someone actually vote with the audio ballot system. A well-dressed man in his fifties came in to vote. He was polite and lucid and seemed principally concerned that his son probably wouldn't make it into the polls that day. We didn't realize that he was almost blind until he tried to sign the register, which he finally did successfully with a ruler on either side. With the audio ballot he listened attentively, pushed buttons, and then expressed satisfaction when his printed card appeared. He didn't want help walking down the steps to the street; we watched him slowly negotiate the way, and I think we all thought about how many people take the act of voting for granted.

One drawback of being a "girl" for the day, which I almost hesitate to mention since I think more people under fifty should do this job at least once in their lives, was the fact that two male poll workers gave me very unsolicited "back rubs" while I was working. Yuck. These incidents were unfortunate because otherwise I really liked the people working the precinct. Even the county clerk who told me to put the booths really close together and then told me to put them really far apart earned my respect by the time we yelled "The polls are now closed!" out the front door. The woman sitting next to me most of the time I was working, who was having voters sign the register, said that she had also worked the primary on June 6th or 6/6/06. She said that after they counted all the ballots the total came to exactly 666. Spooky.

I was saddened to see the number of Democratic voters bringing in the deceptive official-looking voter guides printed by the oil companies into the booths with them. But I couldn't say anything, because that -- of course -- would be electioneering.

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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Stars and Stripes Map

Regardless of your political orientation, make sure to make it to the polls today before they close. If you've been following my hard-hitting, behind-the-scenes investigation of labor practices in polling places, you know that I'm a poll worker today. Be nice to the people on the other side of the table, because they are understaffed and facing new ID requirements and technological enhancements.

Luckily, there is some good information design in the election among so much badly designed voter information. Check out the Power Index, the Technology Voter Guide and map, and the polling data at Election 2006.

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Monday, November 06, 2006

Bombs Away

Today, there was an interesting story in The New York Times about "Google bombs" or the practice of deliberately skewing search engine results by linking with particular collectively agreed-upon catch phrases. Thus "miserable failure" brings up the biography of the current president, and "waffles" brings up the official website of John Kerry on the first results page. "Gaming the Search Engine, in a Political Season" describes the collective intelligence that must be deployed to bring off a successful bombing effort. The story includes grim assessments of the media literacy habits of average Americans who rarely go beyond the first screen of results or use advanced features on a search engine. Apparently, citizens also have difficulty distinguishing between paid and unpaid appearances on their screens.

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Sunday, November 05, 2006

False Advertising

I received these two voter guides in the mail, which purport to be from the Democratic Party. They recommend against voting for Proposition 87 in the relatively small print, alongside a list of official-sounding and otherwise plausible endorsements. Of course, the California Democratic Party has encouraged a "yes" vote on Proposition 87, the alternative energy research initiative to be funded by a tax on oil, not the "no" these mailers advise.

The mailers are very vague about their sponsors; they were mailed by "Democratic Voters Choice" in Burbank and "Voter Information Guide" in Sherman Oaks. However, it is being widely reported in the blogosphere that they could only be the handiwork of the oil interests in the state.

As a rhetorician, it is interesting to see all the appeals to patriotism, pride in history, and human identification with the smiling faces of familiar state and local candidates. Had it not been for a e-mail this morning, I would have assumed that they were legitimate.


Saturday, November 04, 2006

How to Shrink the Deficit

Check out the U.S. Presidential Speeches Tag Cloud. It takes a moment to figure out how to use the slider (numbers on the timeline would have been helpful), but -- once you do -- you can see which topics are important to which presidents, based on the frequency of a given word in their speeches. Clearly, "Constitution" was a big one for for Lincoln, "unemployment," "dictator," and "democratic" loomed large for F.D.R., and for the early presidents "treaty" was a major buzzword of choice.

Notice how the word "deficit," so large in the speeches of Reagan and Clinton, shrinks and disappears in the speeches of George W. Bush, as we approach the present day. From the image above, you can see the word that dominates his rhetoric.


Friday, November 03, 2006

Diary of a Mad Poll-Worker, Part Three

Today I voted well in advance of election day, thanks to a touch-screen voting site. I even have my "I Voted Touchscreen" sticker to prove it. Based on my experiences, I would add a few things to this excellent list written by Siva Vaidhyanathan:

1) The machines offer less privacy to voters not more.
2) The machines slow down the voting process and tax the attention of poll workers rather than improve efficiency.
3) The touch screen interface is surprisingly poorly designed for the visual presentation of information. This is an obvious missed opportunity, given how easily color, dynamic text, and the intuitive movement of icons could have been cheaply used.
4) The machines break down and thus compromise the entire process.
5) The machine's instructions are designed to be literal-minded and serve to match the computer's standardized algorithm not the intention of the ballot makers. For example, the text on the touch screen was significantly different from the text on a printed ballot when it came to more complicated "no more than X" elections.

In California, there has been considerable publicity about Sequoia Voting Systems, which makes the machines used in sixteen counties in the state, including nearby Riverside and San Bernadino districts. At issue are possible corporate ties to Venezuela and the government of anti-US firebrand Hugo Chavez. However, the Sequoia company says it welcomes an investigation, according to a story in The Los Angeles Times, "Vote Machine Maker Asks U.S. to Probe Alleged Ties."

Like the rest of the early voters in Los Angeles county, I had to trust my vote to a shiny Diebold voting machine, which has perhaps an even more suspect history of political interest. In today's LA Times, an editorial on how "E-voting may be scarier than hanging chads" points out how vulnerable the machine's security systems are to tampering. Luckily, the ones in LA County have a paper receipt that the voter can review under a plastic shield.

At my e-voting place, people who had their sample ballots with pre-printed addresses didn't have to prove their identities. I didn't have mine, so I filled out and signed a blue form, so poll workers could pull up my voter registration information on their laptops. (I don't know what they do with provisional voters, whose ballots are usually kept apart until they have been verified.) I was issued a white "voter access card," which had a gold computer chip implanted in its surface. While we waited, prospective voters sat in rows of folding seats and periodically played what the poll workers called "musical chairs" each time a booth was free.

The privacy of the machines was terrible, particularly for senior citizens who used the "high contrast" or "large text" options. It was easy to see exactly for whom particular people were voting; no craning of necks or theatrical snooping was necessary. I had to control the urge to say things like "I liked him better in the first Terminator" or "Good to see that the oil companies weren't wasting their money with those TV ads."

When I got up to my own machine, which had a large sticker warning about the penalties for tampering with it ($50,000 and four years in state prison), I was certainly underwhelmed by the quality of its information design. Even though the device offered ballots in eight languages, there were many obvious ways to improve the user-interface design that had been overlooked.

For starters, the instructions weren't well written or logically sequenced. Of course, I am someone who refused to re-elect a judge on the grounds of the multiple split infinitives in her opening election statement, so perhaps I am excessively picky about language. But the instructions also didn't take advantage of the visual nature of the display to show sample screenshots or even the most relevant buttons to push, which anyone new to the system would have appreciated.

When I started going through the actual twenty-one page ballot, I was even more surprised to see that color wasn't used to provide additional differentiation, at the very least for candidates from different political parties. A relatively monochromatic solid yellow and solid white ballot may look more dignified, but it doesn't do much to make sure that people are touching the box on the same line as their candidates. Furthermore, the procedure for write-in candidates, which involved bringing up a virtual keyboard, was unwieldy. Then, when the time came to review the ballot, there was an awkward scroller and results in clumsily staggered columns so it was hard to keep track of contests already reviewed without skipping.

The architects of this electronic ballot would surely get a low grade in any college web design course for their work.

Certainly, the new machines weren't speeding up the voting process any either. Impatient voters were stacking up behind each other, as people puzzled over their cryptic screens. When an additional relief worker appeared mid-day, the other poll workers greeted her with joy. As I was voting, I heard poll workers discussing the machine that was no longer operational, as one that had "expired" or "passed away." Just as they said this, a repairman came to revive the machine that had met its demise. But I noticed that they didn't check the ID around his neck before unlocking the vault to the mechanism. I hate to sound paranoid, but it's important to remember that a lot of what we think of as "computer fraud" or "data theft" is actually perpetrated by traditional analog imposters or low-tech dumpster divers. Yet, to give the overworked inspector his due, he did ask the fellow's name before he left the polling place.

Strangely, when the repairman started up the machine, he didn't see any problems at all, although the poll workers had been complaining of "bad memory" error messages. A defective sensor was blamed for the problem, and the machine was put back into service. During the repairman's visit, the poll inspector complained that when he booted up all the machines that morning, the screens all said that the devices were out of paper, even though they weren't.

Finally, this may sound like a relatively minor point, but I was bothered by what was lost in translation from the printed ballot to shorter text on the screen. My printed ballot had several municipal contests in which the voter was instructed to "vote for no more than four" or "vote for no more than three" candidates. On the screen, however, it simply said "vote for four" or "vote for three." Then, when I was reviewing my vote, these sections turned pink, as though I had undervoted in error. Of course, I meant to to vote this way; it's a legitimate and commonly pursued voting strategy in local elections with small vote totals that can be easily swayed. Official voter guides often advise particular constituencies to vote for fewer candidates than the total number of slots. But a less knowledgeable voter might assume that such a vote didn't count and would be considered a mistake.

It shouldn't count as electioneering that one of the poll workers told me that if I didn't like Diebold machines I could vote the people who liked them out of office.


Intelligence Test

Well, the documents at the U.S. Foreign Military Studies Office Joint Reserve Intelligence Center
are down now, but it doesn't stop them from being a front page embarrassment to the administration on the cover of today's New York Times. In "U.S. Web Archive is Said to Reveal a Nuclear Primer" we learn that a database filled with an incoherent justification for invading Iraq, also contains some how-to material from which an enterprising terrorist could learn to make an atomic bomb. What I love is that the person behind all this is Pete Hoekstra, Chairman of the Intelligence Committee, and the man who presided over the botched Sonic Jihad hearing as well. The NY Times also quotes Jamal Ware, Hoekstra's spokesman, who never returns phone calls about requests for transcripts, although ostensibly that is his job, according to the website.

Next time, those guys should call some librarians first, if they aren't too busy harassing them with the PATRIOT act.

I like that Ann Bartow of Sivacracy pointed out that it sounded like something from The Onion.

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

Mirror Site

My Core Course colleague, philosopher Mike Heim, pointed out a BBC news story, "Pentagon Boosts 'Media War' Unit." Justifying the existence of these information warriors, Pentagon planners point to the existence of competing Al Qaeda Internet outlets. It is interesting that defense officials also assert that they are only "setting the record straight," which is language a reader of the White House website might recognize as well.

How hollow these assertions from top brass about information dissemination sound this week, given the fact that according to Xeni Jardin's report on NPR, the military is also cracking down on bloggers within its ranks.

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Diary of a Mad Poll-Worker, Part Two

Tonight I attended my poll-worker training at a church school auditorium, with a basketball hoop on one side and giant cross on the other. Our very competent teachers were county employees, who came prepared with a PowerPoint presentation, a number of videos, and the necessary scenery for play acting in the form of ballot boxes and polling booths.

I have to admit that the thought of working for the county again, a decade and a half after turning in my keys, amused me.

"You can party all night and do this job," one of our instructors assured us, although willingness to get up early seemed to be the key job requirement.

The house was packed with a relatively diverse crowd, although elderly white women were certainly overrepresented. Several of them had apparently manned a polling place together in the past.

"Try taking care of everything the afternoon before," one of these sweet senior citizens suggested to the group. "We set up everything in advance, so we can sleep in a little." (Apparently all the poll inspectors had already picked up the voting supplies earlier in the week.)

The teacher was aghast. "No," she said firmly. "The voting materials can't stay in the polling place unattended overnight."

We watched the first video, which was called "The Perfect Polling Place." It was full of reassuring messages about how easy it would all be with so many experienced people around.

"How many of you are new?" one of our teachers asked. Almost all of the hands in the room shot up.

One of the women who didn't raise her hand said, "Last year, we couldn't reach the coordinator."

We were told that that would be impossible this year, as now every polling team would be issued a cell phone to improve communication.

We were made to repeat the phrase "We throw nothing away!" several times in unison. This included small items like tie snaps and stubs.

At one point, my attention drifted during the presentation, as I became absorbed with the question as to why ballots were white (regular), pink (provisional), or lavender (absentee). What does this say about the feminization of voting, I thought.

We watched another video called "Ballot Inspection," which starred a character named "Perky Cul de Sac."

We were given some "life hacking" tips. The registrar would provide red pencils, but colored pencils would make our lives easier.

Perhaps my favorite moment was the display of sample write-in ballots, which showed Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck being suggested for duty in higher office. I couldn't help but wonder if there were any intellectual property lawyers in the room, who were contemplating slapping the county with a trademark violation.

Then, at last it was time for some hands-on experience with the equipment. Although there was a ballot reader and an audio voting system with a directional keypad, the computerized component of voting was de-emphasized.

"It's not a computer," one of the instructors insisted. "You do more with your microwave."

Strangely, we were told never ever to use the "Help" or "Admin" functions on the device.

A big guy with long greasy hair sidled up to me confidentially. "It's going to be a madhouse," he hissed in my ear. "We'll have lines stretching to the next city with these things."

I thought he was probably overstating the case, given that a voter could choose to bypass the reader entirely and have his or her ballot inserted directly into the ballot box. Besides, the ballot reader only spit the ballot back if there was an overvote or a blank ballot inserted.

"To the next state," the hulking presence next to me predicted.

I was more worried about the audio reader, which seemed like it would take a long time, since it read all the choices to the voter, and we were to have a long, unwieldy ballot this year. I asked to try out one of the systems for the disabled, dyslexic, or non-native speaker of English. I began to complete a ballot in Japanese, which was difficult because I was pretty rusty. My choices in the demo were for candidates like "best ice cream flavor."

"A circus," my unlikely Doppelganger said as I was concentrating on the instructions in a foreign language and pushing buttons. I felt like I must have glared at the guy, but perhaps not, because he stayed glued to my side.

The system lapsed into English. I pointed this out to my instructor. "A glitch," she said. "Don't worry. It will be fixed by election time."

"A zoo," my unwanted companion pronounced, as I headed for the door.

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