Sunday, December 31, 2006

Loser's Circle

So here they are, the winners of the 2006 Foleys, which recognize the incompetence of government agencies and policy makers in the area of digital rhetoric. (Insert drumroll here.)

Worst overall web design of a government website

It started parodically bad, it continues to be appallingly bad, and it seems like it won't cease to be bad any time soon. The prize for the all-around worst government website still goes to, which merits the recognition in a number of categories. The fact that they created a truly abysmal children's page this year that I slammed in July and threatened the Federation of American Scientists with a trademark infringement lawsuit because they made a critical counter site, which I covered in August, makes them worthy of the dishonor.

Worst online information access

Talk about a last-minute entry! According to a December 31st story on "Courts Rake in Fees for Web Access" in The Los Angeles Times, the County of Los Angeles should be the undisputed winner for actually charging usurious fees for searches of county records. Obviously the poor have just as much right as the rich to know if a doctor has a history of malpractice allegations or a contractor has a record of judgments for substandard work, but searches of public records net the county millions of dollars each year, even though neighboring counties don't charge for such searches.

Worst online social marketing

I asked social marketing expert Nedra Weinreich for her opinion:

My favorite remains the FEMA Kidz Rap, though the rest of the FEMA kids site is relatively harmless as federal kids' sites go. But FEMA also gets the award for worst offline social marketing (if you could call it that) for this program that I never got around to blogging, but have kept in mind as an example of what not to do.

Worst visual rhetoric

I'd give the prize for cretinous graphics to the Executive Branch Management Scorecard that comes from the White House, although -- as Ellen Lupton points out -- the White House generates plenty of other bad design from chaotic Photoshop backgrounds and banner ads to chartjunk and idiotic PowerPoint rhetoric.

Worst user interface

The website of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services continues to be quite user-unfriendly, especially given the number of second language speakers who would logically be visitors to the site. I tried a few searches, and it seems to have not improved much from the condition that it was in last year. Imagine that you are an Iraqi citizen seeking political asylum, given the violent civil war taking place in your country, and you'll see how difficult good information is to find on the site.

I'd have to give the honorary second place award to the Transportation Safety Administration's Kafka-esque materials for people on their "no-fly list," which actually made the following statement on their site in March: "Please understand that the TSA clearance process will not remove a name from the Watch Lists."

Worst technical incompatibility

As the Washington Post pointed out in August, years after the September 11th attacks, the public still has yet to have the integrated computer system promised to the FBI by policy makers.

Worst electronic message to the masses

Of course, it has to be the suggestive instant messages sent to underage Congressional pages by Florida representative Mark Foley, who made his reputation as a crusader against online kiddie porn, although the "macaca" message of Virginia Senator George Allen on YouTube certainly merits a held nose as well.

Worst official PowerPoint presentation

I'd say the electronic slideshow about "Terrorist Use of the Internet" that was presented by experts from SAIC before the House Intelligence Committee was the worst this year, because -- in addition to being incredibly wrong-headed -- it was designed to create anxieties about domestic use of communication technology as well.

Worst government-funded videogame

I asked Ludology czar Gonzalo Frasca this question, who said, "I would say that by far the worst government funded game is the War in Iraq. And they're losing!"

I like the Federation of American Scientists otherwise, but I think the NSF-funded Immune Attack is probably the biggest unrecognized taxpayer turkey this year. Not only is this a classic example of "content stuffing" into a genuinely un-fun game, but the representations of microscopic body components are often wildly inaccurate in color, size, and behavior.

Worst abuse of copyright law

It's not technically part of a government organization, but the life of civil rights activist Martin Luther King is commemorated with a national holiday, so his heirs shouldn't be so protective of intellectual property associated with his legacy and so litigious, given that his words are part of our common national heritage.

Worst appeal to children

There were certainly plenty of bad government websites for children this year, but readers unanimously nominated the CIA's Homepage for Kids, when it came to bad government web design.

Worst call to patriotism

All the websites from the defense department are pretty uniformly terrible, since they don't acknowledge the sacrifices being made by over 3,000 soldiers who have already given their lives in Iraq. But this year's Defense Intelligence Agency Calendar is in particularly bad taste, so make sure to print out your PDF copy today.

Worst regulation of technology in response to a craven fear

Banning access to social networking sites in schools and libraries may be the worst regulation of a common technological practice in response to the bogeyman of the child sexual predator who was haunting House Energy and Commerce hearings all this year. The Deleting Online Predators Act may have many unintended consequences for those who depend on Internet service as a cheap alternative to long distance phone calls for the poor or as a way to access social services and other important cultural goods.

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Revisiting Digital Divides

Before I left the MLA to fly home, I did catch my colleague Ellen Strenski's talk about "Electronic Equity or Exclusion? Four Campus Digital Divides." She cited the research of Kenneth Keniston, who locates four digital divides in contemporary India that are similar to those in supposedly high-tech colleges and universities. I liked the fact that she raised the issue of pre-programmed templates for English discourse with limited computer-friendly vocabularies, to which users had little access to the code for purposes of personal customization. (PowerPoint, of course, is the classic example of this.) It's a divide that Manuel Castells and Stuart Moulthrop have also written about. She also argued for observing the more subtle and more insidious aspects of the standard divide in access to the Internet that is emerging even in the developing world, when campus access can be hindered by corporate incursions into Network Neutrality or the edicts of the RIAA. Strenski was on the panel with Jonathan Alexander, author Digital Youth: Emerging Literacies on the World Wide Web, although he didn't talk about digital issues yesterday.

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Saturday, December 30, 2006

Blog People

This morning's MLA session on "Where the Bloggers Are" featured literary academics with some of the more widely read blogs reflecting about the cultural implications of the form for both university environments and the mainstream. It started with Scott Kaufman of Acephalous, which often devotes itself to relatively abstruse literary and philosophical reflections, although the writer did achieved his fifteen minutes of fame for a posting about walking in on two students having sex in his office. Scott is also a blogger from U.C. Irvine, although we had never talked until after the session. As a blogger on the job market, he was particularly concerned with the discouraging news from Ivan Tribble's article in The Chronicle of Higher Education "Bloggers Need Not Apply," and the recent report from the MLA Taskforce on Tenure and Promotion, which indicates that even electronic publication with demonstrable institutional value continues to be undervalued by the academy.

John Holbo of The Valve has posted the draft of his paper, "Form Follows the Function of the Little Magazine," which argues that the real "vanity presses" are academic publications designed only to fill curriculum vitae for tenure and promotion, because they lack broader circulation among the general public. He proposed a different publishing model with Looking for a Fight: Is There a Republican War on Science? as an exemplar. (Holbo also writes for the political blog Crooked Timber.)

Tedra Osell of Bitch Ph.D. compared her own offerings to the blog genre to noncanonical pseudonomynous eighteenth century periodicals like The Female Tatler. It was interesting to hear how her "bitch" persona had a genealogy that went back to being pregnant and her earlier participation in informal Internet advice-sharing culture among moms. I also thought her case that blogs that use pen names and fictionalized personae to develop identity positions that were genuinely reflective of the real writers' marginalized status was provocative, and certainly true in the case of an online personality like Twisty Faster, although it's trickier to make that claim if you are talking about something like Libertarian Girl, which was actually written by a guy. I would have liked to have heard more about her survey in which 95% of female bloggers were conscious of how their writing was gendered, but only 60% of male bloggers were.

Michael Bérubé finished up the session by discussing "blogspats" and how learning the norms of taking sides could be important in academia as well, particularly when some particularly contentious long-running online battles can involve, as he said, "thirty years of feminist theory." Given my interest in how images can be arguments, I thought that there was probably more to be said about the second blogspat he mentioned, "Burqa-gate" on Pandagon. (The first concerned academic power relations and a comment he posted on Scott's blog.) If you look at the debate about the Lieberman blackface image from Firedoglake blogger Jane Hamsher that was posted on the Huffington post, I think that images seem to function as particularly powerful arguments in online communities. (As I've said before, I also think that part of the reason that so much of the user-generated content on the web is composed of parody material may be due to the widely-shared intuition that there is less risk of prosecutable violation of copyright law involved. ) I periodically have quibbles with Bérubé's arguments, but I was sorry to hear that he's talking about cutting back on blogging because I count on his sports prognostications to amaze my friends and family with my abilities to predict the outcomes of games.

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Friday, December 29, 2006

The Postmodern As Prologue

Today's MLA session on postmodernism featured some heavy hitters about the cultural impact of digital technology in conjunction with some historical perspective on the postmodern, postmodernity, and postmodernism. First up to bat was Amy J. Elias, who provided a concise overview of "Postmodernity, Antifoundationalism, and Dialogical Value." Second at the plate, was Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth, who promised a "manifesto" that argued that the transition "from objectivication to linguistification" has implications for government institutions and that the idea that systems were plural and contingent allowed for a recognition of the function of differentiation, whether you were talking about office politics, tea ceremony, or the Pentagon.

The next slugger was N. Katherine Hayles, author of the excellent How We Became Posthuman and My Mother Was a Computer. Hayles is an important digital theorist, so I was a bit disappointed to see that so much of the argument of her otherwise very cogent paper concerned a comparison of two technological elites, international currency traders dealing with "virtual capital" and composers of digital literature artworks, who may have more of a sense of the protocols at work in complex algorithms than many Americans who have little knowledge of the black box operations running undecipherably on their computers. Given that the rest of the talks were concerned with dialogue, the public sphere, and the creative commons, I would have liked to have seen more reflection about the civic implications of Hayles' reading of "experiences of virtuality in everyday life" when human and computer cognition are intertwined.

Last out of the dugout was Mark Poster, writer of Information Please, which I had actually read on the plane out to Philadelphia. I didn't agree with all of his arguments about the "media unconscious" and the withering away of the virtual state, but it was an ambitious book with a lot of philosophical context about informationalism, albeit one that opened with the same Bert/Bin Laden example that Henry Jenkins recently ran with at the front of Convergence Culture. I thought that the fifth chapter about the rhetoric surrounding identity theft and the fourth chapter about the political philosophy involved in the construction of the "netizen" were particularly useful for media theory, and I plan to use some of his work about the desire to control the media experiences of the young in Virtualpolitik.

Today, Poster argued that the modern period was an historical anomaly when it came to the proprietary ownership of intellectual property and that the postmodern has, as Frederic Jameson has argued, a special relationship with technology. I liked that Poster picked two very politically engaged examples as his exemplars: 1) the fact that audiobooks from public libraries are restricted to a single user at a time, despite technology that easily enables simultaneous use of the same digital artifact and 2) the story of the speech of UCLA Marxist Robert Brenner being broadcast to an Iranian audience via a webcast of his telephonic reading of the text, although Poster didn't have much time to address its implications.

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Thursday, December 28, 2006

Circled Wagons

Today, I am at the annual convention of the Modern Language Association, perhaps the greatest final bastion of print culture in the United States, now that even publishers are looking to transmedia narratives and cross-platform texts. Unfortunately, I missed this morning's panel on "Everquesting: Digital Learning in the Humanities" with Anne Balsamo of USC's Institute for Multimedia Literacy and Doug Thomas, the editor of Games and Culture. Based on titles, there were other offerings in the area: "Wikis, Authority, and the Public Sphere: Examining the Impact of Dynamic, Multiauthored Digital Texts," "Terrorism, Technology, and Visual Media," "Digital Shakespeares," and the perhaps unfortunately named "Digital Medievalisms and the Single Scholar." The full guide from the Association for Computers and the Humanities on "digital humanities" talks is here.

Since I'm interested in the rhetoric of the federal government (and I do write grants at my institution of higher learning) I did wangle attendance at the session on "Getting Funded in the Humanities: An NEH Workshop," which was led by Sonia Feigenbaum, Senior Program Officer.

The NEH presentation, as many government speeches now do, relied extensively on the relatively recent electronic genre of PowerPoint, which I write about in my academic work and sometimes here on this blog, as readers may know. I'll admit to being somewhat disconcerted by the many stock images (an alarm clock, a man with his head in a cannon, trademarked cartoon characters associated with Microsoft products, etc.) in her slides. Although she often emphasized the importance of the appropriate government website, which was credited to the President's Management Agenda, she also strangely did not actually show the website live during her talk. In fact, instead of providing digital materials with HTML links, much of the workshop depended on that traditional MLA standby, the thick, paper handout. Despite these criticisms, I enjoyed this informative presentation about the norms of the NEH review process and thought that the presence of mixed print and electronic genres indicated that even at the MLA this manifestation of the hybridized Virtual State was worth noting.

I hope to make it to some digital rhetoric presentations tomorrow.

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

2006: The Year of Digital Rhetoric

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Bunker Mentality

Speaking of the holiday spirit, the blog on international social marketing, Houtlust, recently looked at emergency preparedness campaigns in Canada and the United States. I was surprised to see how the American campaign showed such a conventional view of the two-parent family with a wife who either doesn't work or is clearly subservient to her husband. Because these campaigns require families to assemble disaster kits, they depend on citizens visiting websites, where online documents give them more specific instructions.

I also think that another question to be asked about any prospective disaster is: what is your plan for caring for neighbors, who may be more vulnerable than your immediate nuclear family? In actual emergencies, like earthquakes, I've noticed that people run out of their houses in the middle of the night, sometimes with no clothing on. People who aren't home owners may not have tools like gas shut-off wrenches. Elderly people may have problems locating medications in post disaster wreckage. We should all have a plan for our immediate communities as well.

(I have a nerdy tendency to give people gifts like first-aid kits or fire extinguishers, so I'm probably a biased source.)

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Ever wonder, "What happens to the trees after Christmas?" This YouTube video shows you.

(We always have a Charlie Brown's Christmas-looking live tree. This year we've switched over from our bedraggled have-pity-on-it Norfolk Island pine to a slightly less scrawny model with blue-green foliage. Our hope is that -- with a little careless gardening -- it will eventually grow into the Dr. Seuss shape of the old one.)

You can also check out this tree-smackdown, if you're still in the holiday spirit. (But don't try it at home.)

Of course, the Internet is a great way to share seasonal decorating ideas and festive participatory culture, before it all gets loaded in the dumpster in the days and weeks ahead. My favorite X-mas tree this year was Ellen Lupton's tree, which was covered with price tags, but I'd also give a shout out for these other DIY trees. Pass the turducken, as seen on this webcam, please.


Monday, December 25, 2006

Intelligent Design It Yourself

2006 was really the year of digital rhetoric, in which highly portable text, image, audio, or video files were rapidly disseminated to the public at large through distributed computer networks, so that that computer-generated artifacts often reached unintended audiences and were used for unintended rhetorical purposes.

Apparently what is true of politics is also true of the sciences. At a Christmas party tonight, I had an interesting conversation with Professor Mark Morris of UCLA, who expressed dismay that a digital photograph he took of a nebula at the center of our galaxy ended up used as evidence of the intentionality of the creator on an intelligent design blog.

It's interesting to see how this intelligent design blog uses YouTube, Flash animation contests, and other common gimmicks of participatory online culture.

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Have Youtube a Merry Little Christmas

Time magazine recently named "You" on its annual Person of the Year cover, officially dated today. In "Yes, You are the Person of the Year," Frank Rich of The New York Times ridiculed the political import of this decision and pointed out that more YouTube viewers checked out reports of Britney Spears nude on a beach than video dispatches coming out of Iraq.

Rich compares contemporary practices of cultural narcissism to the self-absorbed "me" consciousness during which Life magazine similarly ceased to be relevant. This autoerotic narcissism, perhaps best expressed by male and female YouTube viewers, like photographer Noah Kalina or graphic designer Ahree Lee, who document each day of their lives through webcam-style photographs in a fast-forward spectacle of aging, was parodied in the recent Ben takes a photo of himself every day.

At least in Canada, however, YouTube looks outward as well as inward. The video sharing site was thought to impact civic life enough to lead law enforcement authorities to undertake "Fighting Crime Using Videos on YouTube" and deploy a distributed model of collective surveillance to catch wrongdoers.

While The Los Angeles Times would seem to agree with Time by ending the year with "Ten Moments the Web Shook the World," new digital divides and forms of inequality also appear to be emerging in the culture of social media and user-generated content.

The results of a recent Zogby International poll indicate that the future may be unclear now that the powers of traditionally privileged U.S. stakeholders were being undermined by new technology. Unfortunately, during this transitional period, neither "citizen reports" nor the ideas of elected representatives were trusted sources to guide Internet policy. The 463 Blog on Tech Policy summarizes the results in their lead line: "The next Bill Gates is not going to be American and 12-year-olds should start tutoring congressmen."

Update: Siva Vaidhyanathan has a great skeptical response to the TIME designation on MSNBC.


Sunday, December 24, 2006

Keep Out

Is the holiday spirit in conflict with new anti-immigration legislation being passed in small towns and larger municipalities all across the nation? As an example of mock Virtualpolitik, the No Santa for Hazelton website draws attention to a recent local ordinance in Pennsylvania intended to exclude illegal immigrants from the community. Its web-based rhetoric suggests that consistent citizens will bar Santa, a blatantly undocumented worker from the foreign North, from their homes and businesses this Christmas. (Thanks to the Museum of Hoaxes for the link.)

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My Funny Valentin

This being the Christmas season, many are probably finding Valentin's appeal in their in-boxes. I received my annual plea for donations for his aging mother in Russia a few weeks ago. Apparently Valentin really gets around, based on these French and German anti-hoax sites.


Saturday, December 23, 2006

No President Left Behind

Ever seen one of these? It's an Executive Branch Management Scorecard.

That's right, it's how the president keeps track of the complexities of the workings of government. As you can see, it combines the information design features of a simple traffic light with the layout of a multiple-choice scantron examination.

To see a government document with this level of granularity is really disappointing. What about at least ranking things from one to ten? I never thought I'd be nostalgic about seeing "grade" report cards that rank performance from "A" to "F"! It certainly wouldn't ever be featured on the information aesthetics blog or made an info-aesthetics exemplar by digital design guru Lev Manovich.

I discovered another example this apparently long-standing genre when I read the Expanding E-Government Report, which I had been encouraged to peruse in one of the "interactive" (read "canned Q&A") sessions with IT policy-makers at Ask the White House on e-Gov. I have to say, I've read a lot of cretinous government reports in my time, but this one was truly terrible: twelve pages with moronic headings like "Being the Best" and PowerPoint-style graphics like the one below.
And did I mention that has a maddenly awful search engine that doesn't even primarily search its own site?

You can see more bad e-Gov related information design in the PowerPoint slide below, which I found on the White House website. It has all the best PowerPoint cliches of the "advanced" user: 3-D arrows, check boxes, color shading, etc. in the fossil record that is depicted.

Anyone who follows the field and the work of academic experts like Jane Fountain who study the "virtual state" knows that the federal government has not come very far since the Clinton administration, when the focus was access to online forms.

Then again, if I thought that was bad, the recent report to the president about "intellectual property" from the Council of Economic Advisors was even more discouraging, when it came to lowering the bar for public discourse about technology. The primer on Open Source in the chapter on "The Role of Intellectual Property in the Economy" indicated just how much the big publishers in the commercial software industry are calling the shots.

The German "Information cocktail" approach seems to be a much more sophisticated method for bringing numerical information to the senses, particularly during this, the holiday season. Cheers!

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Friday, December 22, 2006

I'll Be Home for Christmas (if only in my dreams)

Today there is a virtual Christmas party for the troops in the military recruiting videogame America's Army. This holiday season, of course, many real-life soldiers stationed in Iraq will be at Internet cafes looking at photos, video, and e-mail from loved ones. In fact, it was precisely this kind of communication via computer with the folks back home that exposed the Abu Ghraib scandal when Joe Darby asked a fellow soldier for digital images to send back to the states.

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Thursday, December 21, 2006


A few hours ago, The New York Times reported that Saparmurat Niyazov, otherwise known as "Turkmenbashi," has suddenly died. What this means for the former Soviet state with the bizarre leader, who had barred beards, false teeth, and calling the month of January by anything other than his own name is not entirely clear right now. He may be a figure unfamiliar to most Americans, but to professional political cult-of-personality watchers, the "president" of this nation rich in natural gas has been chronicled over the years in articles like "When a Kleptocratic, Megalomaniacal Dictator Goes Bad."

His passing will be marked here on Virtualpolitik, because his tendency toward state-sanctioned psychosis indirectly resulted in one of the most crazy official government web pages in the world, if not the all-time global winner. See "Make a New Plan Stan" on this blog for more.

Here is a recent item from the site:

The first thing that strikes when visiting the Ice Palace in Ashgabat is an amazing combination of monumentalism, tangible and already customary in the variety of architectural forms of modern times and a feeling of the unreality of the present… The ice fantasy in the heart of the desert appearing in all its magnificence contrary to the tiresome logic and scepsis opened a new page in the history of the Turkmen sports with a graceful stroke of the skates on the ice canvas . . .

My favorite claim on their website: the fact that the country's vast improvement in quality of life can be seen by "even the blind."


Like a Hole in the Head

I know that informative titles for blog entries can be important, but after a one-week experiment with following Clive Thompson's advice, I ditched them permanently in favor of less descriptive but hopefully more evocative headlines that clearly signal to readers that they will be reading an opinion piece. (I say this with apologies to all my friends and colleagues who are librarians.)

Now I'm particularly glad that I made this decision a year ago. Advertisers have been aiming for bloggers for a while, often to the point of suggesting copy to run, but niche blogs like mine tend to be ignored by marketing people. In fact, this advertising-free, albeit ugly, template was one of the chief attractions of the Blogger software, along with its resistance to commercial spam.

Yesterday, however, I received the following e-mail in my university mailbox.

Hi there!

I noticed your blog about Chinese Checkers at, and think you may be of some help to me. I’m reaching out to you on behalf of Sears and M80 regarding the Sears, Kmart, and holiday games. Because of your interest in Chinese Checkers, I thought that you might enjoy playing these games, such as Puzzler and Candy Cane Race. If you like the games, perhaps you would be interested in posting a banner, blurb or review on your blog? Anyone who spreads the word will get a special holiday present from Sears & Kmart.

Much to my amusement, I have to point out that "Chinese Checkers" is about Internet surveillance of web traffic in China and the government's attempt to censor political dissidents through electronic means.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Send in the Clowns

Recently The Los Angeles Times covered the intellectual property infringement lawsuit against celebrity gossip blogger Perez Hilton filed by the paparazzi photo agency X17 in "Perez Hilton Takes Their Best Shots." Apparently X17 is complaining that Hilton wasn't properly accrediting their snaps, and they are now publishing their own rival gossip blog X17online, which is full of dreary shots of celebrities Christmas shopping. The lawsuit alleges that the dollar value of some of their most scandalous pics of star misbehavior, which were slated to be sold to print tabloids, actually dropped as a direct result of Perez's scoops that previewed the material. Access to the X17 site involves elaborate approval procedures, which yours truly was not able to charm on scholarly research grounds. The agency is also loudly declaring their use of a new interface that prevents easy right-click acquisition of digital files, as if we all don't know what that "print screen" button is for on the keyboard.

Hilton often Photoshops the images that he gets illicitly from the photo agencies and then adds rude comments or obscene graffiti (along with his own proprietary URL) . He also periodically looks at intersections between real and virtual worlds as he did in a piece on how fans created sims of their favorite celebrity Paris Hilton for online role playing games, as can be seen in the photo above. I don't like the catty misogyny of his gossip coverage, even if I might appreciate the way he thumbs his nose at this kind of IP litigation, as even his choice of sound-alike name indicates. The curious can see this recent Saturday Night Live monologue to get a sense of the main kind of story Perez Hilton runs.

Of course, even though I'm an IP activist, my general feeling is: a pox on both your houses. Digital culture is about being a media star yourself and making your own brand; it's not about marketing the pre-fabricated corporatized images of others. Even if you do it in an out-of-the-closet "queen of all media" allegedly subversive way, I don't dig the patriarchal voyeurism that this kind of "journalism" supports.

When it comes to entertainment based on copying, I say send in the real clowns. Last night I went to see Slava's Snowshow, which was gloriously full of imitation of the work of others: music, gags, costumes, and all. In our trademark-happy era, Slava is lucky not to be facing lawsuit claims about his nose or bald head or about the way he delivered the conventional clown-full-of-arrows schtick with an unauthorized pathos. And those who want to extend the rights of content producers beyond first sale might say: that umbrella has been modified to spray water on people rather than protect them from the elements. According to the blog about unintentional legal humor perpetuated by lawyers, Lowering the Bar, there certainly have been clown-related IP lawsuits in the past.

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Digital Mourning

Another holiday is approaching, and so it seems fitting not to forget the recent loss to the media community that covers technology just after Thanksgiving. As an inveterate gadget-loving geek and media wonk, I followed the mountain ordeal of CNET senior editor James Kim and his family closely. Some GoogleEarth users morbidly focused on the geography of the tragic events, in which the Kim family struggled to survive after accidentally going down a snowed in road that had been closed for the season.

The video tribute to Kim from his colleagues at CNET marks a new kind of mourning in the era of user-generated content. Indeed, the search terms "memoriam" and "memorium" on YouTube now bring up hundreds of videos: some shot in mockery, some montages in tribute to famous people, but also many intimate portraits of deceased relatives and friends like this one for Officer Larry Cantrell or this one for Virginia R. Houghton. (I, of course, thought that the fact that Houghton had no recorded life before her wedding day was interesting.) I couldn't help but notice that many of these videos use hit music from mainstream stars, like The Beatles, presumably without paying for the license to include the tracks. I guess the attorney who goes after mourning videographers really would be the lowest of the low.


Monday, December 18, 2006

Outside the Box

For parents who don't want to spend the holiday elbowing their way to the latest mass-market game schlock title, you might consider going "indie" this year. Years ago, filmgoers discovered that independent studios often produce a more engaging, creative product than the major monoliths, so why shouldn't gamers have more choices? Check out the 2007 Finalists for the Independent Games Festival. Above, you can see a screen-shot from Samorost2, a whimsical point and click puzzle-solving game that involves a certain amount of noodling around with the mouse and trial-and-error. See the "10 Principles for the Digital Family" for more tips on the alternatives to standard fare. (News via Grand Text Auto)


Only Seven Shopping Days Left

Okay, I admit it. I loathe shopping. Going by a shop window is like nails on a chalkboard to me.

Apparently, however, even the Federal government wants me to get into the holiday spirit by celebrating consumer culture. Imagine my surprise when their holiday gifts for sale was featured on the supposedly serious government web portal for citizens needing access to public services,

Just think! I could purchase a Commander in Chef apron or an eyeglass retainer from the White House. I could buy Supreme Court potpourri for my loved ones. I could get a holiday ornament commemorating prohibition from the DEA! I loved the fact that the offerings from the legislative branch were much more "classy" than for the gimcrack-happy executive.

While you are at it, you can enjoy the new videogame that parodies the frenzies of trend consumerism, Xtreme Xmas Shopping, from my pal Ian Bogost's studio.

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Sunday, December 17, 2006

She Aint Lara Croft

The New York Times recently covered the travails of a Muslim female recruit in training to be a military translator in "From Head Scarf to Army Cap, Making a New Life." I was reminded of how different things were for "Samia Faris" the fictional female Arabic-speaking sidekick in the military-funded videogame Tactical Iraqi. Samia's cultural hybridity, as a "Chaldean Christian," and the college-educated social mobility in her back-story present a shart contrast to the struggles of real-life Middle Eastern women preparing to be bilingual translators in the field.


Bonehead Security

According to a recent article in The Los Angeles Times, "Investigation of Angelides Campaign Continues," California's governor continues to assume that his political opponent, who was defeated in November at the polls, somehow "hacked" into what were apparently open audio files with embarrassing conversations with aides. As someone who has often backtracked in a URL to find the parent directory on a section of a government website, I would hardly call this "hacking," even if there is often plenty of idiotic content to be found.

Speaking of security and open access, today The New York Times ran a piece about the "Theater of the Absurd at the TSA," which editorialized against the government's attempts to prosecute the Indiana graduate student who created a website that could generate realistic-looking boarding passes for Northwest Airlines. It has lots of juicy quotations from security guru Bruce Schneier, who has been an advocate of procedural realism and good police work for years. Of course, if you don't want to go to an airport terminal, you can have the experience at home in front of your computer playing Airport Security from Persuasive Games.


Saturday, December 16, 2006

And the Loser Is . . .

Each year there are awards for best official website and other lauds from those who study digital government, like the ones from the Center for Digital Government or the National Policy Review Council, for example. But I prefer to recognize the very worst in digital politics, over on Virtualpolitik, where the embarrassing and ineffective use of technology by policy makers usually gets the spotlight.

As 2006 draws to a close, it seems like an appropriate time to hand out the prizes to those on the very bottom of the barrel when it comes to state-sanctioned cyber-rhetoric. From now on in, I'd like to call these awards the "Foleys," in honor of the disgraced former Florida congressman who was caught sending x-rated instant messages to underage pages after building a reputation as a crusader against online porn.

So please, use the comments section attached to this post to send in your nominations for the worst use of communication technology or digital media by a government agency or official. You can choose the work of local, county, state, or federal government for your rasberry preferences, although the presence of a .gov extension in an associated URL or e-mail address is desirable. The categories for the 2006 Foleys are as follows:
  • Worst overall web design
  • Worst online information access
  • Worst online social marketing
  • Worst visual rhetoric
  • Worst user interface
  • Worst technical incompatibility
  • Worst electronic message to the masses
  • Worst official PowerPoint presentation
  • Worst government-funded videogame
  • Worst abuse of copyright law
  • Worst appeal to children
  • Worst call to patriotism
  • Worst regulation of technology in response to a craven fear
You can check back on the 31st to see who will be wearing the tiara and blowing kisses to the assembled crowd.

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Friday, December 15, 2006

Late Breaking News

The State of Florida has halted lethal injections, according to The New York Times, because of a recent botched execution. Readers of this blog know that I've written about how capital punishment is represented on government websites before. The Florida Department of Corrections has several ghoulish web pages on the subject, including a Death Row Factsheet and a virtual tour of a death row cell.


Bedside Manners

The big drama this week has to do with ailing South Dakota Sentator Tim Johnson, who may be 85th in the power rankings but is critical at this moment to preserving the Democrats' majority. (He also doesn't score that high on CNET's Technology Voter Guide.)

I looked up Senator Johnson's official web page, which is a remarkably simple affair that looks dated now, perhaps like one of the old Microsoft FrontPage templates. When
I hit "View Source," I also discovered that a lot of the JavaScript had been lifted, which may be kind of ironic, given his intellectual property positions and his support of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act.

// (C) 2000
// Free for all users, but leave in this header
// NS4-6,IE4-6
// Fade effect only in IE; degrades gracefully

During my visit to his site I also found out that Johnson has a son in the military who has served in Iraq, like the newly elected Senator from Virginia. I also learned that he and his wife are cancer survivors (prostate and breast respectively).

In general, I give the site a "B" grade. It's not very interactive or visually well-designed, and it was hard to find the promised "video welcome," but it does give the visitor a clear sense of Johnson's positions and his advocacy for senior citizens, veterans, and Native Americans. I wish him a speedy recovery. Right now the site has a lot of audio files to update constituents on his condition.

This preference for a lowest common denominator business look may be regional. South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds, who may have the power to replace Johnson, just has an off-the-shelf FrontPage site, according to his "View Source."


Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Enemy of My Enemy Redux

Yesterday I interviewed Michael Zyda, one of the fathers of the military recruitment videogame America's Army, who currently directs the Gamepipe Lab at USC.

America's Army
has been called a "propaganda game" by Gonzalo Frasca, creator of the pacifist non-shooter game September 12. In the name of free speech, Zyda himself, who has left the America's Army project, says that he has no problem with in-game protestors, like the activist who messaged the names of soldiers killed in the current conflict under the nom-de-guerre "Dead-in-Iraq."

In addition to its over-the-top patriotic kitsch, America's Army serves up a mix of encounters with an encyclopedic variety of lovingly rendered military weaponry and a testosterone-oriented environment of male-only avatars shooting it out in a kilometer by kilometer field of battle with an elaborate system of in-game physics.

America's Army
is certainly a strangely psychotic game, given that you can play collaboratively as either attackers or defenders in the same game space, but you can only see yourself as a uniformed U.S. soldier holding a weapon produced in the Good Old U.S. of A. In other words, if you drop your M-16 and the enemy picks it up, it magically turns into an AK-47. If you seize his Soviet-era assault rifle in some nifty hand-to-hand action, it turns into a standard issue American weapon right before your eyes. I guess the only advantage would be that it would prevent Battlefield2 type misunderstandings when fan films are posted on the Internet.

In another weird switcheroo in AA, apparently security flaws allow online Gold Farmers to move into the game who can earn points for military training, service, and promotion for others in exchange for eBay dollars . It's sort of like the 19th century practice of paying a substitute to stand in for you during the Civil War, but apparently it's used just to bypass the boring parts of basic training.

Of course, being an electronic communication geek, I liked learning about some of the meta-rhetoric embedded in the game. For digital rhetoric fans, you can actually watch a PowerPoint lecture to further your training as a medic and then take a version of the real certification test. If you look closely at the game environment, you can also spot a framed copy of the letter to the game designers authorizing the game's development.

Yes, but what does all of this have to do with intellectual property and the duplication of digital media?

A lot, actually. Like some other military videogames, America's Army is based on the proprietary and prohibitively expensive Unreal game engine. As advocates for game-based learning, like James Paul Gee and Henry Jenkins, get heard by more policy makers, this stranglehold on the market by a few companies also makes public game development work for education and training more costly and inconvenient, because the entire enterprise is wrapped up in corporate red tape and secrecy. Now Zyda is working with the open source game engine Ogre and has plans to share his lab's customizing of the program at Gamepipe with others who are similarly pursuing peaceful and constructive ends. You can read more about it in Zyda's "From Visual Simulation to Virtual Reality to Games."

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

UCLA Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry

Yesterday, The Los Angeles Times covered the massive security breach involving the confidential computer data of UCLA students, faculty, and staff in "UCLA data breach among worst of its kind." According to the form letter being used for notification purposes, hackers also had information about parents whose progeny applied for financial aid.

For years, I've been interested in the mea culpa genre as it appears in pages on university websites, but the official UCLA website about possible identity theft offers no specific apologies anywhere in its text intended for potential victims. At best, there is a lukewarm expression that "UCLA greatly regrets the concern and inconvenience caused by this illegal activity." We are told that they take their "responsibility to safeguard personal data very seriously" and that "data security is one of the most important responsibilities" they have to the campus community, but they never actually address neglecting that stated responsibility for over a year in which intruders had access to the data.

(I was cross-registered at UCLA during graduate school, but hopefully my data isn't included among the 800,000 people affected.)

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The "J" Word

National Public Radio did a story about The Christian Embassy, an influential religious group with offices in the Pentagon, yesterday. In a controversial video, uniformed military personnel are shown seemingly undermining the traditional separation of church and state by talking about the importance of Jesus Christ in their government work. The Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which has a blog, has objected to the Embassy's video, which now has a new disclaimer posted below it. It is interesting to see how the Embassy group uses some of the visual rhetorical appeals of a government website in its page design. This includes using photographs of Washington D.C. landmarks and the familiar crimson, white, and blue color scheme of many government sites. Groups like the Jewish War Veterans have also joined the ACLU in objecting to other Christian-specific religious displays on federal property.


Monday, December 11, 2006

Who Ever Thought That Statistics Would Be So Exciting?

Berkeley statistics professor Philip Stark recently submitted a report about online filters that challenges the assumptions of many who believe that passive parenting solutions can work. As Stark points out, not only do these "child-safe" filters block a lot of "clean" content, they also let slip a certain percentage of porn. He also said that most porn sites were of domestic rather than foreign origin, and thus within the reach of the COPA law. Although much of the report is redacted, there is some interesting information about government surveillance techniques and the participation of private consulting firms like CRA International. (Thanks to Sivacracy's Ann Bartow for the link to the text!)

The ACLU's anti-COPA site contains some interesting commentary from the litigants in the case, who range from safe sex activists to the editor of Salon magazine, which published the very newsworthy Abu Ghraib Files, which are certainly of socially redeeming value, even if they are not particularly "child-friendly." The rhetoric in their statements and the use of photographs is interesting in that they seem to not be making a pitch to middle America, and yet many of them draw upon the personal ethos of being a parent. For more raunchy and irreverent commentary, check out the blog on the trial from The Nerve.

(COPA, for those not in the know, is the never-enforced Child Online Protection Act. You can read about the government's advocacy for this legislation at the COPA Commission website.)

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Open Source Spying

Tonight I watched Casino Royale, which has an online game on its official site that prominently advertises both its cheat codes and the PDF of its instruction booklet. (Advertising this degree of user-unfriendliness and non-intuitive play seems an odd gambit for attention in a saturated transmedia market.) When it came to game play in the film's story, of course, we were disappointed to see the great 007 spy playing poker in Casino Royale rather than the traditional, more glamorous baccarat, which is also a fun game to watch because the house has a statistically lower advantage than in most card games. Of course, the subject matter of this posting is much more in the purview of my fellow CGIE panelist and professional James Bond film expert Ulf Wilhemsson.

When it comes to the use of computers by the movie's sleuths, the movie shows many of the same bonehead cinematic cliches about high-tech human-computer interaction, which are being catalogued of late by the writers for Drivl. For example, when James Bond logs in, there seem s to be a lot of sickly green 3-D vector graphics of building geometry that whirl around his screen in memory-sapping spiderwebs. In contrast, it seems that M and the rest of the group in the main British Intelligence office have color screens and are wisely eschewing fancy graphics in favor of Google and online news sources, which appears to give them a quicker view of the impending intelligence threat on an airport runway.

Clive Thompson recently wrote about the seemingly oxymoronic trend toward "Open-Source Spying." Apparently, intelligence agencies used to covert practices that are tied to hierarchical need-to-know undistributed management strategies are discovering the advantages of a "need to share" distributed organizational model that takes advantage of freely available data that simply is not being aggregated intelligently. (Thanks to Suzanne Bolding of the Humanities Core Course for the link!) Regular readers of Thompson's blog Collision Detection will be happy to know that it is back online after a long hiatus caused by a technical glitch.


Saturday, December 09, 2006

A Spreadsheet for Your Life / A Spreadsheet for God

This Colbert Report interview with The Sims and Spore creator Will Wright shows the game designer making several cross-generic comparisons of his simulation software to unglamorous spreadsheet programs. It's also interesting from a digital rhetoric standpoint to observe the show's tendency to emphasize the "meta" character of particular possible scenarios in The Sims in which you can conceivably watch your characters reading books or even -- yes -- playing videogames. Although this kind of redundancy is often celebrated in digital media, it's a signifier for pointlessness in the world of half-hour and hour-long narratives. In turn, Wright makes justifiably fun of the privileged position of producers of one-way broadcast media like The Colbert Report in which only a select few are allowed to manipulate the content.


Friday, December 08, 2006

Required Reading

The recently released Iraq Study Report has a number of interesting rhetorical features. At a time when government reports about terrorist attacks or space shuttles crashing open up with dramatic purple prose, this report is relatively matter-of-fact. In fact, it favors short, simple sentences of the kind a bored fifth grader might produce. I like the way that they encourage free dissemination and downloading and uses a creative commons model to foster the translation process.

The report's electronic context is almost as interesting as its contents, since the website on which it appears is hosted by the United States Institute for Peace. I had also never heard of the Center for the Study of the Presidency until the posting of this report. Both websites are big on white backgrounds and blue type with almost no ornamentation. A third sponsor, The Center for Strategic & International Studies, which appears to be a conventional think tank emphasizes its bipartisan, nonprofit status.


Thursday, December 07, 2006

One-Room Schoolhouse

Yesterday's post-conference workshop on "Designing Learning Games that Matter" led by Scot Osterweil of MIT's Education Arcade produced a great brain-storming session about a possible game for a higher education environment. (Osterweil thought that Huckleberry Finn was like a good game, but I thought that another text that I have taught -- the Aeneid -- is a better fit for game culture.)

Osterweil is known for creating the ground-breaking Zoombinis computer game, which teaches single-variable reasoning. He also did a lot of work for Broderbund, a company about which I have a lot of nostalgia and from which I bought many products when I was running a computer lab at a delinquency prevention center in the late eighties and early nineties.

I liked the fact that Osterweil encouraged us to ponder the games that we enjoyed in our own life histories and why. I hadn't really contemplated my own perverse appetites in the area of alphabetical games (for a person who always hated real-life alphabetical filing) and money-making Monopoly-style games (for a person who has always gravitated toward the genteel poverty of academia) before.

The fact that he espressed respect for the challenges faced by traditional teachers, wasn't awed by graphics or bells and whistles technology, cautioned parents to steer away from their current obsession with child performance, and expressed concerns about "content-stuffing" that could lead to titles like Grand Theft Calculus suggested that he was justifiably suspicious of the current distance learning model for K-12. I also thought his understanding of the appeal of Grand Theft Auto and his ideas for a related game about getting lost in a city for overprotected kids made some sense.

Osterweil thought that a good game for teaching history should emphasize detective work with primary sources, alternative explanations from many disciplines, and should allow people to explore situated identities. Too bad a great project for those purposes, the Salem Witch Trials, would never get past religious fundamentalists into the curriculum.

Finally, I appreciated his mockery of the "team of cool kids" paradigm, which is pervasive on many government websites for children. Perhaps the worst example is on the National Security Agency's kids' site.

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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Game-Art Interface

One of the big surprises of the conference was to see all the energetic discussion about public space and political ideology in the sessions on “Game-Art Interface.” Instead of focusing on aesthetic or technical issues, panelists and audience members were consumed with questions about the divide between public and private culture in game play and the moral universe that these interfaces create. Brogan Bunt discussed how “oblique reflections” constitute a genre in computer generated architecture that is given political meaning and foregrounded the work of Mark Napier, who addressed political iconology in "Net Flag" and other works.

Gaye Swinn talked about how the Creative Commons allowed for certain forms of database art from publicly shared photographic assets, particularly in the work of Gilles Tran.

Mark Cypher was using the work of Bruno Latour with actor-network theory to argue that machines were capable of behaving like social actors, and that information is literal and part of our lived experience (and using collective intelligence as a reinterpretation of distributed intelligence).

By distinguishing between "game art" and "art games," Laetitia Wilson tried to work with both serious games and traditional games that were disrupted by activists to give an overview of expressions of peace activism around September 11th and the Iraq war. For example, in Velvet Strike participants can leave anti-war graffiti in the space of Counter-Strike. Wilson's use of the example of the “Dead in Iraq” player in America's Army stimulated much discussion of the online funeral for a deceased player that was disrupted by raiders in World of Warcraft . Those who follow politics in the Middle East, of course, are aware of how often funerals are disrupted by sectarian political violence.

Tim Boykett continued with the theme of the “public individual” in his work on the Hyperfitness Studio and the Sensory Circus. (I liked the beer bot who replicates the sociality of a bar and drink-caging behavior.) His Timesup gives details about past and upcoming public events and how he sees himself as presenting alternatives to "art jails," spectaculars, or didactic or vacuous theme parks.

Session organizer Andrew Hutchison argues that perhaps one day we will stop calling these phenomena “games.”

Athough I missed his paper yesterday, I also learned that Eric Fassbender has designed a memory palace for corporate speakers at and saw his demo, so apparently classical rhetoric is alive and well in virtual environments. The Memory Palace also gets time in Negroponte's Being Digital, which I just finished, so it is interesting to see the persistance of the trope.

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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Knowing Your Place

The second day of CGIE was taken up with a series of lively sessions about "Knowing Your Place: Experiential Spatiality of Games," which was organized by Nicola Bidwell, who works on projects about topography and topology that aren't as far from the topoi of classical rhetoric as one might imagine. Given my talk about how the classical, medieval, and Early Modern "Palace of Memory" was still relevant for understanding spatiality in the digital age, I enjoyed seeing a demo of the Digital Songlines project that looks at how the indigenous people of Australia superimpose knowledge on an ordered landscape in which memory functions with particular associations with particular loci.

There was a lot of controversy about defining "immersion." Furthermore, panelist Ulf Wilhelmsson refused to accept the distinction between third-person and first-person games, given his theory of the function of a "Game Ego" in play. Fellow curmudgeon Andrew Hutchinson questioned whether or not the Wii was really anything more than a mouse with a zed axis and thus offers relatively little spatial experience. I enjoyed his talk about "embodiment gaps," typified by the "where are my legs?" problem in game experience. Georgia Leigh McGregor was probably the best rhetorician of the bunch, with her work on how medieval style architecture can be constructed, interpreted, and experienced very differently in different games.

The day's tropes and oppositions: motion vs. locomotion, nature vs. artifice, perspective vs. mapping, identity vs. subjectivity, and spatiality vs. semiotics.


Monday, December 04, 2006

Brave New World

Mixed reality households and public spheres were the focus of the opening day of the Computer Games and Interactive Entertainment Conference in Fremantle, Australia. Elina M. I. Koivisto of Nokia discussed mobile gaming and how Finnish children were using their cell phones to play hide and seek, and those in Sweden were using them to swap images in a variation on popular card-trading games from Asia. As one audience member pointed out, there can be negative social interactions as well, such as “Happy Slapping” in Great Britain, where players hit someone with a mobile phone and then take a picture of their injured victim. Koivisto preferred to keep the focus on more benign mixed-reality games, such as Manhattan Story Mash-Up, and suggested that phones may soon become required equipment for the singles scene as users could be made aware of those with similar profiles in the same room.

Adrian David Cheok of the Mixed Reality Lab in Singapore argued that he was just developing forms of interaction intended to supplement social behavior not to replace it, but some of his projects were more kowai (frightening) than kawai (cute). They included systems in which one could stroke one’s pet from the office (a jacket-wearing chicken in the prototype, but a doggie device is in the works), hug a child virtually from work with the Internet Pajama that also changes color to indicate how far away a parent was from home, and the program Metazoa Ludens that allows users to play computer games remotely with their pets at home. The virtual giant hamster chasing its owner suggested a cheesy fifties horror movie. What is interesting is that some of Cheok’s ideas were designed specifically for three generation Asian households in which grandparents assist with child care. I certainly believe that it is important to play with your child, and I suppose the game Age Invaders is one way to do that.

Finally, in the morning line-up, Ryohei Nakatsu of Nirvana Technology in Japan talked about robotic pets that would do the now defunct AIBO one better. These “dogs” could be trained to check the security of the home or allow a mother to talk to her baby via mobile video phone.


Sunday, December 03, 2006

Girls Just Want to Be Threatening and/or Litigious

At the risk of posting material that might have a certain latent misogyny, I have to point out the existence of the PMS educational film that takes the genre of risk communication in public rhetoric to nineteen-fifties kitsch extremes. The highly litigious Sexual Consent video is also worth seeing as a reductio ad absurdem case, although those who teach in college environments and worry about date rape might not find it so funny.

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Life Hacking

Being in another country makes me particularly conscious of the importance of practices of "life hacking," which is also studied by my UCI colleague Gloria Mark. Since I've been checked into my hotel in Freemantle, Australia, I've already rearranged the contents of the minibar to make room for some local cheese, a mango, a carton of strawberries, and a bottle of local champagne. I've also moved all the balcony furniture so I can actually see the Indian Ocean from my room. As Michel de Certeau points out, these efforts are necessarily subversive, so I hope I don't see a large "life hacker" charge on my hotel bill.

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Saturday, December 02, 2006

Before Their Was PowerPoint

As people may remember, I've been looking for examples of PowerPoint in movies. One reader pointed out one scene in The Princess Diaries 2 in which the heroine is shown a presentation about European eligible bachelors and another scene in which the Pope sees a PowerPoint talk about the Apocalypse in the new version of The Omen. Wow! What if those two cinematic PowerPoints were reversed? I mention this because I watched Little Miss Sunshine on the plane to Australia, in which the character -- a would-be motivational speaker -- is so debased that that he doesn't even have real PowerPoint, and he is reduced to showing his "9 Points" on an overhead projector.

Plane travel also reminds me that some coverage on Virtualpolitik of the graduate student who created a fake boarding pass generator to point out a gaping hole in airport security and consequently got in trouble with the FBI is very much in order. Now that there are so many websites that offer pre-packaged generator programs, many of which are catalogued at the Generator Blog, it is interesting to see a hacker employ the generator genre. According to The
Washington Post, he has now broken his silence with the media.

This Sky Maul catalogue is also worth checking out.

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Friday, December 01, 2006

At Lunch

I'll be gone for a week and probably posting less frequently, because I will be attending the Joint International Conference on CyberGames and Interactive Entertainment in Australia. I'll be talking about videogames and virtual reality simulations that recreate the landscape, built environment, and civilian population of Iraq for training and rehabilitating U.S. soldiers, such as Tactical Iraqi and Virtual Iraq. I will be connecting these contemporary software projects to a longer rhetorical history of the Ars Memoria or Art of Memory, which uses specific spatial techniques to recall material to memory such as the method of loci or the Palace of Memory.