Saturday, March 31, 2007

Hard to Grasp

This nonprofit advertising campaign from the International Rescue Committee is designed to remind the viewer of the difficulty of effective action from a position of remove. Like the online game Darfur is Dying, it manifests what Ian Bogost has called an "aesthetics of failure" in which a game by definition is impossible to win. Of course, many rigged carnival games also have this feature without any rhetorical payoff. (Via Houtlust.)

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Friday, March 30, 2007

Kindred Spirits

Before leaving Georgia Tech, I had breakfast with an old friend, Amy Bruckman, who is doing important research on media literacy and online communities. Our work actually intersects in a number of areas. I was certainly familiar with her scholarship on social media and human subjects protocols for online discourse, but I didn't know that she had also done work on second-language online literacy practices (an area on which I've done IRB-approved studies as well, although I'm still in the raw data stage) and on the ways that Wikipedia and other online sources challenge traditional epistemological models. Given my work with students who are doing , I undergraduate research projects, I was particularly sympathetic to her concerns about how we teach students about epistemology.

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Tasting Menu

Living Game Worlds III presented a number of game-based or VR projects that involved public policy issues, sometimes in rapid-fire succession.

Keynote speaker Katie Salen of Parsons discussed how competing stakeholders shape the design process of games and how authenticity may often be more important than accuracy when it comes to correspondences with the real world. Given the subject matter of this paper that I will be presented in Delft in two months, I particularly enjoyed hearing about the user testing of Hazmat Hotzone in which players wanted to try out all the mayhem possible in the simulation. Although war games, such as those developed by the Rand Corporation and explicated in classic papers like "War Gaming as a Technique of Analysis," her discussion of the relationship of simulations to lived experience also included dynamic models to understand economic systems, such as the representationally primitive but emergently rich Sugarscape. (For more on how economic distribution can be explained in digital new media, see these non-interactive YouTube videos on the Information Aesthetics blog.)

The other keynote speaker, Tracy Fullerton, gave a talk about "core mechanics" that govern in-game movement, buying and selling, combat, and the scoring of points. Fullerton argued that games like checkers and chess express ideologies about fairness, rationality, the value of strategy, and the importance of strength in numbers, while modern strategy games assume that chance plays a greater role, particularly when information is hidden, multiple players are in the mix, and the etiquette of turn-taking is jettisoned. She argued that "serious games" are not a real game genre because they have no common core mechanic. She drove home this point with the following similarly designed pairs: September 12/Missile Command, Ayiti/The Sims, and Darfur is Dying/Sim City. By way of contrast, Fullerton discussed her work with renowned video artist Bill Viola on the spiritual game The Night Journey, which she nonetheless admits has certain distinctive features of a first-person shooter. As an admirer of Viola's work, I am looking forward to exploring the archetypal landscapes, which include places of infinity (desert and sea) and sites of mystery (mountains and forest). Of course, because of her intergenerational appeal, I've recommended Fullerton's work before, in my 10 Principles for the Digital Family, which is being disseminated now at some PTA chapters as an alternative to the fear and loathing being promulgated by policy makers and anti-media social conservatives.

Rhetoricians were well-represented in the audience. Risk communication expert Rebecca Burnett was there, as was early adopter and YouTube video star, "re-mediation" scholar Jay David Bolter.

The whole conference was streamed both in conventional video format and into the online virtual world, Second Life, but I'll include some highlights from the panels here.

"Playing with Reality: Defining Documentary and Nonfiction Games" featured Ellen Scott explaining the mission of Games for Change and Cindy Poremba unveiling a wiki for researchers who are interested in how documentary games, such as Eyewitness or Brothers in Arms exemplify a post-photography or post-documentary aesthetic of witnessing.

I presented a portion of my paper about debate within the game development community about working for war-funded projects such as Tactical Iraqi on the "Playing with Perspectives: War, Peace & News Panel." After introducing her presentation with the new JibJab video "What We Call the News," fellow panelist Janet Murray discussed the work of her experimental television group in creating new prototypes for how the news could be watched by critical information consumers. This panel included a trailer for Global Conflicts Palestine, which similarly presented news as a compositional assemblage, although creator Nick Price was unable to attend the conference. I was particularly interested to hear Jackie Morie's account of the recreation of Iraqi villages by Fort Irwin, where Iraqi Americans live in boxcars in the desert and stage emergent behaviors such as riots, and how her research group -- as a more cost effective alternative -- has created a virtual Iraqi village in Second Life.

Another panel, which included an abashed Slamdance alternative videogame festival organizer Sam Roberts, performed a postmortem on the controversy over the exclusion of onetime finalist Super Columbine Massacre RPG from the competition.

In the "Playing with History Panel" Matthew Weise talked about the "genre wrangling" that occurred when the MIT Education Arcade created the historical learning game Revolution from the commercial game engine for Neverwinter Nights. Weise also discussed how the viral spread of news was modeled by nonplaying characters in the game, how authenticity had to be sacrificed because characters couldn't remove hats indoors, and how the scantily clad original virtual women needed to be CGI clothed in keeping with the decorum of colonial Williamsburg. Another revolution, albeit a failed one, is dramatized in the game FF 56: Fight for Your Freedom, which commemorates the Hungarian uprising against the Stalinist Soviet regime that had occupied the country. Andrea Lauer Rice, a descendant of actual freedom fighters, explains how the bilingual game negotiates movement through a tumultuous city in which players choose between going to the radio station where the first shots were fired or heading to where a statue of Stalin was toppled. Of course, certain problems of representation invariably are manifested by such games, such as how to depict the historical lynching of secret police.

From my work on the rhetoric of social marketing, I was familiar with several of the products on the "Playing with Health & the Environment" panel, but there were still some interesting revelations about government-funded games and simulations. I enjoyed hearing about the work of my colleague Bill Tomlinson with the Eco-Raft project for teaching children about ecological interdependence. Tomlinson is also developing "green scanners" for mobile phones, which can be used to get more data about supermarket goods, or tracking devices on e-waste. The crowd favorite, however, may have been the discussion of the virtual reality cannabis party (complete with brownies and pizza) by Ken Graap of Virtual Better, which included a USB scent device to make the audio and projection through a head-mounted display even more compelling. On this panel Erin Edgerton of the Centers for Disease control discussed their Why-Flu program with the kid-centric virtual world Edgerton also alluded to other new media projects in their health marketing portfolio. Dorothy Strickland also gave a demo of her boundary-teaching game for children with developmental disabilities. For more on the ideology of health games from this blog go here, here, here, and here.

After a good presentation by Michael Nitsche on "Machinima Documentaries" such as the Paul Smith Battle, built with America's Army, or the much lauded "The French Democracy," the last content-oriented session before the final reflections was on "Playing with Power: Games of the Repressed," which presented Ayiti: The Cost of Life from Global Kids (which online comes complete with MySpace page) and Darfur is Dying.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Curiosity Cabinets

At Georgia Tech, visiting speakers at the Living Game Worlds III conference were invited to tour the media lab facilities. This included the work of several graduate students. Janet Murray's student Annie Lausier is working on an interactive television project called "Tagging for TV," which was prototyped with the episodic clue-embedded TV show Lost. Conference organizer Celia Pearce showed off her students' work with with Mermaids, a massively multiplayer game in which emergent group behavior takes place in an underwater fantasy world, and Michael Nitsche's and his students demo-ed a space-generating videogame Charbitat. (Grad student Calvin Ashmore worked on both the Nitsche and Pearce projects.) As an example of innovative government rhetoric, I particularly liked the NASA-funded Selene: A Lunar Creation Game, which applies god-like Will Wright-style procedural play to learning about planetary science and is being designed by the students of Ian Bogost.

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No Atheists in Foxholes

This post covers two areas of digital rhetoric that have seen dramatic growth of late: military-sponsored websites and those related to mega churches in evangelical Christianity.

On the military front, Women in the Combat Zone provides the nascent public face of women in the military for purposes of online outreach, especially now that recruitment for soldiers is facing problems reaching its targets while retention is on the wane. From an information design standpoint, it's an odd web page, because flash elements that would invite interactivity -- because they look like one word navigation topics -- are not actually clickable.

On the same subject, note how this Bag News Notes analysis of images of women in the military presents a somewhat different picture, one in which questions of gender and sexuality can't be avoided. The New York Times has published a multimedia piece, "The Women's War," about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that argues that sexual assault and harassment from within the military was actually the key catalyst.

The stands of Baptist bloggers on homosexuality have certainly stirred debate, particularly this inflammatory post by Albert Mohler, which suggests hormone treatments for fetuses who are identified as genetically predisposed to homosexuality. Meanwhile, the official website of the New Life Church seems to be suppressing the obvious scandal surrounding former pastor Ted Haggard's secret gay double life. A formal letter to the congregation appears to be intentionally very vague about the precise accusations involved, although the words "improper" are repeated several times. To get a sense of Haggard's own rhetorical presentation, the Internet Archive has Ted Haggard's one-time official site partially preserved here.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Time Travel

Today, in the one day when I'm between trips, I wanted to post an update on two teaching workshops that I gave on my home campus on the general principles of podcasting and teaching with social media. I prefer synergy to substitution, so my opposition to distance learning on principle probably is relatively obvious. Thanks to Humanitech and the Electronic Educational Environment for inviting me to come speak.

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Monday, March 26, 2007

Homework Assignment

The Special Interest Group on Social Media of the Conference on College Composition and Communication has asked its members to begin to compile bibliographies. Here is a start on compiling some useful Internet citations, which I will add to in the weeks and months ahead.


"Form Follows the Function of the Little Magazine," John Holbo
"Amateur Hour," Nicholas Lemann
"Why We Blog," Bonnie Nardi
"Blogging As Social Action: A Genre Analysis of the Weblog," Carolyn R. Miller and Dawn Shepherd
"Why I Blog," Reconstruction
"Parody Blogging and the Call of the Real," Patricia Roberts-Miller
"Bloggers Need Not Apply," Ivan Tribble


"The Turing Game: Exploring Identity in an Online Environment," Joshua Berman and Amy Bruckman
"A Rape in Cyberspace," Julian Dibbell
"Race In/For Cyberspace," Lisa Nakamura
"The Egalitarianism Narrative: Whose Story? Which Yardstick?" Susan Romano


"Where Everybody Knows Your (Screen) Name: Online Games as Third Places," Constance Steinkuehler and Dmitri Williams
"101 Uses for Second Life in the College Classroom," Megan S. Conklin


"Why Youth (Heart) Social Networking Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life," Danah Boyd
"Thoughts on Facebook," Tracy Mitrano
"Social Networking and DOPA," Young Adult Library Services Association

WEB 2.0

"From YouTube to YouNiversity," Henry Jenkins
"Social Media and the Networked Public Sphere," Ulises Ali Mejias
"Me, 'Person of the Year?' No Thanks," Siva Vaidhyanathan
"Web 2.0 The Machine is Us/ing Us," Michael Wesch


"A Wikipedia for Scholars (Take 2)" Wired Campus of the Chronicle for Higher Education
"Digital Maoism: the Hazards of the New Online Collectivism," Jaron Lanier
"Can History Be Open Source? History and the Future of the Past," Roy Rozenweig


"YouTube and the Vaudeville Aesthetic," Henry Jenkins
"Taking the You Out of YouTube," Henry Jenkins

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Candidly on Camera

Twenty-four hour news channels now seem to rely heavily on YouTube to help fill their programming hours. Just today, Fox News did a long segment alleging that Islamic toddlers were being encouraged to become suicide bombers, based on this widely disseminated Palestinian video, and CNN's piece on on-camera "flinching" was supplemented with search results that showed amateur flinchers in action on YouTube.

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Saturday, March 24, 2007

Dispatches from the Front Lines

I've just returned from the annual national Conference on College Composition and Communication, which was held in New York City this year. During the past century, university writing program administrators have worked hard to garner respect within the academy as fellow teachers, intellectuals, and professionals. Unfortunately, as one of my colleagues warned me years ago, researchers in the field are sometimes treated as "untouchables," perhaps because they have contact with the most marginalized discourse from the most marginalized members of the campus community, which makes them impure if not outright polluted by their admittedly necessary work . . . which like the labor of garbage collectors or morticians must still be done by someone, of course. Even within the low-caste family of her academic discipline, Composition Studies can seem the tattered stepsister to her two more glamorous siblings who benefit from the riches of their own departments and PhD programs: Communication and Rhetoric.

This is unfortunate, because the central conflict in the academy between the Culture of Information and the Culture of Knowledge -- which makes C.P. Snow's old divide between the humanities and the sciences look relatively minor by comparison -- is being played out most publicly and most violently in the classrooms of first-year writing. Here are some statistics that old fashioned bibliophiles who are firmly attached to the institutional status quo might find terrifying:
  • 83% of adult respondents thought that a twelve-year-old knew more about the Internet than their elected representative in Congress (Zogby 2006)
  • 48% of all children six and under have used a computer, and 30% have played video games (Rideout, Vandewater, and Wartella 2003)
  • 55% of youth 12-17 use social networking sites (Pew 2007)
  • 57% of teens who use the Internet could be considered media creators (Pew 2005), a statistic that may be an undercount, because it does not factor in newer digital forms of expression or those that produce artifacts other than written texts (Jenkins/MacArthur 2006)
  • While engaged in an average of 2.7 simultaneous Internet Message conversations, 39% of surveyed college students were also writing academic essays while multitasking online (Baron 2006)
  • 71% of students at the University of Minnesota use Wikipedia; 28% cite it (Adams 2006)
  • 36% of students in a U.S./Canada study admit to "cut and paste" plagiarism of sources from the Internet (McCabe 2004)
  • 81% of faculty in the Humanities and Social Sciences get digital resources from Google-type searches (Harley 2006)
Two years ago, the "4Cs" in San Francisco showed how seriously composition studies was taking the impact of digital culture on the academy. Lawrence Lessig's talk there was well-attended, and Andrea Lunsford's influential Intellectual Property Caucus was taking the discussion far beyond the mere policing of online plagiarism. This year the caucus passed an important resolution about open source, but in panels there was more concern about writing and new social media platforms like Facebook and MMOs rather than writing and copyright.

Furthermore, it looks like there is still little consensus on practice when it comes to using social media to teach. The two most noteworthy panels on teaching writing through blogging put forward two very different models of success. Dennis Jerz of Seton Hill has students blog under their own names -- where they "take responsibility" for their public statements, explore group blogging, and build discursive networks based on informal sociality using a university server. In contrast, Jeffrey Middlebrook of USC showed some amazingly sophisticated student blogs that epitomized good metadata and linking practices which emphasized individual presentations on commercial servers with pre-professional subject matter, although strangely students published their public sphere work under pseudonyms to protect their privacy.

I presented at the panel about videogames and rhetorical identities, which included the work of Mathew S. S. Johnson, who is a guest co-editor of the upcoming issue of Computers and Composition on the subject.

Despite these exciting developments, I was sorry to see little work being done about the metadata issues that may be more fundamental to research on the development and production of academic writing than chit chat about fun with wikis and blogs and MMOs. This is particularly true, given the high profile of large corporate players from the search engine business in reconfiguring the information literacy practices of our students and perhaps ultimately their access to the digital archives that are essential for well-informed authorship. In arguing on behalf of forming a new discipline around "Critical Information Studies," Siva Vaidhyanathan has identified several scholarly communities of association that may be threatening the ostrich-headed status quo: "Economists, sociologists, linguists, anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, communication scholars, lawyers, computer scientists, philosophers, and librarians." Librarians are an important cohort in the teaching of writing, and they still weren't adequately represented at 4Cs.

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Shameless Self-Promotion

I made this YouTube video to plug my Fall class in Social Media and Persuasive Games. I figured, given the subject matter, it was only appropriate to do.

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Thursday, March 22, 2007

Fly Me to the Moon

The no-fly terrorism watch lists have been notoriously inaccurate and -- according to the official websites of the Transportation Safety Administration -- also involve Kafka-esque measures in order to not get your name removed. Now the ridiculous sound-approximation procedure for exotic foreign names is getting its comeuppance as the government contracted Soundex system gets shown to be hilariously lacking in granularity. You can try out your own name here.

(The link comes from Bruce Schneier's always excellent blog on what he calls "security theater.")

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No Parking

In this morning's print edition of The New York Times , "Heated Debate over a Web Site about Parking and Permits" details the activities of Uncivil Servants, where fed-up citizens can post pictures of city workers seeming to take undue advantage of special permits by assuming privileges even in traditionally forbidden parking real estate like bus stops and fire hydrants. City police officers have complained that it is a violation of their privacy, since license plates and addresses are often displayed. Of course, the site says that it can't be responsible for monitoring all the traffic and that it lacks the photo cropping and retouching resources that would be required to purge all identifying data.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007


Hoax political websites have created some controversy, particularly if they imitate recognizable government home pages. Nonetheless, the free speech prerogative for these subversive webmasters generally entitles them to continue operations. Of course, the more subtle the satire, arguably the less Constitutionally protected it could potentially be. I'm particularly fond of the work done by the Washington Defense of Marriage Alliance, which imitates the rhetoric of Bibliocentric doctrine against gay marriage -- on the grounds of its reproductive futility -- to skewer the pretensions of sanctimonious wedded heterosexuals who fail to bear children and suggest legislation requiring that their unions be annulled.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Pay to Play

The Copyright Royalty Board has dramatically increased fees to websites that provide recorded music via streaming audio. Based on the argument that the potential for ad revenues could make these profitable ventures, the CRB has thus far ignored the pleas of public radio stations with large web presences, such as KCRW here in Los Angeles. See Ruth Seymour's argument for public and indie venues here and listen to a broadcast from neighboring public radio station KPCC here.

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Monday, March 19, 2007

It's As Easy As Cut and Paste

This is the slogan that my teenager is planning to put on environmentally-friendly t-shirts with the other side reading "Plant More Trees." Unfortunately, a cut-and-paste attitude doesn't always work with the natural environment, even though EPA bureaus associated with conservative presidential administrations have tried to suggest that building artificial wetlands can compensate for development over natural ones. Of course, Lev Manovich has argued that cut-and-paste functionalism is one of the key features of the language of new media.

Actually, there are a number of online environments that encourage the planting of virtual trees and flowers. Unlike the popular casual game GrowCube, these exercises in plug and play environmentalism generally don't have "win" and "lose" non-negotiable outcomes. Next month's issue of Dwell magazine vaunts the ability of users to plant virtual flowers in the Orange Country Great Park, which is being designed by Ten Acquitectos. You can also virtually plant a tree in Niger through tree-nation.

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Sunday, March 18, 2007


There is an extraordinarily revealing document on the CIA website, a book length report on Analytic Culture on the U.S. Intelligence Community by cultural anthropologist Rob Johnston. In many ways it is more revealing than WikiLeaks, a multilingual project to present aggregated data about government misconduct gathered from a distributed network of anonymous whistleblowers. Some supposedly neutral assessment of the project is presented at wikileak, which is a blog to discuss the ethical problems and technological challenges of the project.

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

There Must Be Some Other Reason to Pinch Him

Today we celebrated St. Patrick's Day with our annual party, which eventually degenerated into this. According to the White House website, there was also celebrating on Pennsylvania Avenue where the "Shamrock Ceremony" was apparently performed.

Another president who was well-known for for his appeals to those of Irish-American ancestry and for his rhetoric of nostalgia, Ronald Wilson Reagan, is back in the news this week. This week's cover of Time magazine shows a large Photoshop tear on the deceased former president. You can learn about the making of the tear by artist Tim O'Brien here, among other tricks of the digital trade.

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Friday, March 16, 2007

Boy Next Door

The social networking site MySpace has yet another role in the public imagination. It has already been associated with practices of criminality and deviancy, which is capitalized upon by anti-MySpace sites, such as My Crime Space. Now news organizations also point to the MySpace pages of criminal defendants as well. Yet sometimes broadcasters or print reporters add explicit references to the ironies of a given page's sentimental or mundane contents. Commentary on such pages seems to serve the rhetorical purpose of asking a neighbor to testify about the previous banality of behavior of the accused. Of course, no one says that a person who advertises his identity formation on in the public sphere of MySpace "keeps to himself mostly."

A case in point is the MySpace page of Sgt. Raymond Girouard, to which mainstream media coverage has provided multiple pointers. Girouard is accused of ordering the shooting unarmed prisoners of war. The log of Girouard's largely unsourced Wikipedia page indicates indicates that attempts to defend him in the court of public opinion are ongoing during his trial, despite what appears to be his reprehensible conduct. Rather than explain the charges against Girouard, this group of Wikipedians focuses on allegations against his accusers, including incendiary charges that the accusations against Girouard were largely motivated by attempts by witnesses for the prosecution to avoid prosecution for unrelated computer file-sharing of images of child pornography.

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Educational Films

Yesterday, the Department of Defense announced a new initiative in a press release on how "Coalition Service Members Reach Out to America Via YouTube." The Multi-National Force - Iraq YouTube Channel promises subscribers delivery of content of the following kinds:

What you will see on this channel in the coming months:
- Combat action
- Interesting, eye-catching footage
- Interaction between Coalition troops and the Iraqi populace.
- Teamwork between Coalition and Iraqi troops in the fight against terror.

They also specify what will be prohibited to viewers.

What we will NOT post on this channel:
- Profanity
- Sexual content
- Overly graphic, disturbing or offensive material
- Footage that mocks Coalition Forces, Iraqi Security Forces or the citizens of Iraq.

So you can forget about seeing footage from award-winning documentaries with soldiers' hand-held footage, such as The War Tapes, in which soldiers curse Halliburton for assigning them to guard a truck full of cheesecakes. You also apparently won't see YouTube clips of military personnel watching people having sex or taunting children with bottles of water.

My favorite online video from the troops has to be this one, which really humanizes soldiers (and shows that they know how to dance). Like many soldier-directed videos, of course, it takes certain liberties with the intellectual property of the recording industry.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Mea Culpa

The genre of the apology has a long rhetorical history of one-to-many communications from classical oratory to digital epistolarity. A piece in today's New York Times, "Mistakes Were Made," examines the "past exonerative" as it has been used by recent presidential administrations. The title refers to the Attorney General's admission in the passive voice that "mistakes were made" in the termination of federal prosecutors who didn't toe the party line. No official apology yet on the DOJ website beyond acknowledging the fact that one of the policy's architects, D. Kyle Sampson, was stepping down. According to "E-mails detail White House Firings," there is a digital rhetoric dimension to this story, in that there are electronic ephemera that record the evidence of the scandal.

Another prominent left-handed apology is coming from Khalid Shayk Muhammad, according to transcripts released by the Department of Defense. This excerpt shows how this "high-value detainee" is expressing his regrets to U.S. authorities and by extension to the American people.

Because war, for sure, there will be victims. When I said I’m not happy that 3,000 been killed in America. I feel sorry even. I don’t like to kill children and the kids. Never Islam are, give me green light to kill peoples. Killing, as in the Christianity, Jews, and Islam, are prohibited. But there are exception of rule when you are killing people in Iraq. You said we have to do it. We don’t like Saddam. But this the way to deal with Saddam. Same thing you are saying. Same language you use, I use. When you are invading two-thirds of Mexican, you call your war manifest destiny. It up to you to call it what you want. But other side are calling you oppressors. If now George Washington. If now we were living in the Revolutionary War and George Washington he being arrested through Britain. For sure he, they would consider him enemy combatant. But American they consider him as hero.

Of course, "Dear Internet, I'm Sorry" may be a better example of personal responsibility -- with only a light dose of legalism -- as the apology-of-the-week. It took the form of an Internet video from Michael Crook, who had to accept defeat as a result of over-reaching on his intellectual property claims to his own likeness after free speech claims won out over his DMCA litigiousness.

Update: The Associated Press is now reporting that the e-mail trail on the Justice Department scandal reaches to Karl Rove. As a rhetorician, I personally am fascinated with how these political players use "etc." in their e-mails.

Thanks to Dean Sharon Salinger for pointing out the article in The New York Times. Perhaps one day we will be teaching how to write appropriate apologies in our writing classes.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007


Media literacy is gaining new value, as it gets tied explicitly to forms of social capital through the compulsion to participate in social networking sites. Sometimes media illiteracy can be as simple as posting a photo that projects qualities of undesirability on a personal profile page. So it goes that entrepreneurial advisors are exploiting these new niche markets by offering make-over assistance to users' digital identities. "In the Computer Dating Game, Room for a Coach" documents the role of these businesses in online dating. Although the article seemed to foreground visual media, much of the actual text was devoted to how these online dating coaches offer writing instruction. At the last Computers and Writing Online Conference, Christyne Berzsenyi of Penn State presented a paper about the highly purpose-driven discourses surrounding on-line dating as a model for inspiring better student work.

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Monday, March 12, 2007

The Halls of Power

The hallway discussion of Wisconsin Congressman David Obey with a marine mom and an anti-war protester has made it on to YouTube. In the video he criticizes "idiot liberals" and suggests that those who are dissatisfied with his legislative efforts must be "smoking something illegal." Obey also opens his coat at one moment and asks his petitioners if they see "a magic wand" in his possession. What began as a civil exchange ends with Obey shouting and cursing at the activists who maintain their composure.

Representative Obey has already posted an official apology on his website. It may not be a "macaca moment" that ends his political career, but it is certainly a potential embarrassment that could affect his future aspirations.

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Sunday, March 11, 2007

Well, At Least It's Not PowerPoint

As the Federal Bureau of Investigation admits to abusing the provisions of the PATRIOT act and then failing to keep proper records to gauge the real situation, it is interesting to look at how the scandal plays out on the official FBI website. A press release from the abashed G-men points to a "Chart: Corrective Actions," which I have reproduced above. In President Bush's comments about the public relations mess, he has emphasized his desire for clear progress reports on how the "problem" is being fixed. The administration's use of information graphics and report cards is obviously shaping the FBI's visual presentation style as well. Boing Boing has published the Department of Justice's critical review, which has considerably more useful data about 215 orders.

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Saturday, March 10, 2007

Jumping Jack Flash

Piracy Kills Music, brought to us by the Norwegian branch of social marketing giant McCann Ericson, known for their public service campaigns against obesity and in favor of parental screening software, delivers a literally black-and-white view of intellectual property issues.

Although the spot was chosen as a featured pick on the FWA: Favorite Website Awards, where Flash developers compete for attention, I didn't find it very user-friendly. In particular, I found the sluggish, stalling loading time extremely irritating, and I found the movement of virtual objects devoid of the charm that I often associate with more dynamic Flash sites. Certainly, the gloomy monochromatic palette didn't help any. Citing a pseudo-Frankenstein-movie -- ironically as a borrowing from Mel Brooks -- may have been kind of cool for a few seconds, but the black and white scenes didn't serve any narrative purpose in the rest of the site.

The "interactive" quizzes or activities at the end of every chapter seemed particularly unimaginative. They were generally formulated as bland information graphics that could respond to input from the user's mouse. A few of these chapter reviews contain factually incorrect statements such as the claim that it is illegal to "download music from a file-sharing network" or "share music from a file-sharing network," because the keyword "copyrighted" is missing in the assertion. Furthermore, if Neil Young makes an anti-war anthem freely available on his MySpace page, or David Byrne invites users to create mash-ups on a Creative Commons site, neither the conduct of artists nor of the music fans is illegal.

I've been thinking about the ideas in Ian Bogost's upcoming book, Persuasive Games, in which he argues that "procedural rhetoric," dictated at the level of code, has the aim of persuading the player or expressing underlying ideologies. In terms of programming, I find a simple interactive program like "Dots" much more engaging than the short interactive sections in Piracy Kills. Even more fun to play with is the new Visuwords: online graphical dictionary, which may remind digital rhetoric old-timers of the Visual Thesaurus of old.

For those who want some real interactivity that conveys a lasting message about conventions of user behavior with digital copies, one that emphasizes the importance of showing respect for the work of other people, I would recommend ccMixter's latest remix contest as a way to understand how to build symbiotic models for media production without the recording industry's heavy handed emphasis on parasitic ones.

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Friday, March 09, 2007

And Now, a Short Word, from Digital Rhetoric

I came across Mark Marino's work in connection with my own research on military-funded videogames and virtual reality simulations. He's also doing interesting work on digital rhetoric, including my current favorite, 22 Short Films about Grammar, which includes machinima work about figures like "Fragmented Frances" and "Dangling Zombifiers," so that you will know "To Go Boldly." His online venture Bunk Magazine also features "PowerPoint Valentines" for the month of February. Perhaps he could send one to PowerPoint foe Edward Tufte.

Since I'm not "Blogging for Dollars," on which The Los Angeles Times reported today, consider it a public service announcement.

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Thursday, March 08, 2007

Side Effects

The software package for post-production video effects, After Effects, is an interesting example of what Lev Manovich calls transcoding or the way that the technical constraints of new media shape cultural practices around creative production. The After Effects look is appearing everywhere, from big budget movies to online video essays. It appeared several times in the film Stranger than Fiction to express the informatics-oriented cognition of the main character. Online video editorials about the Iraq War and Google also appear to use the After Effects aesthetic to make their arguments to the public.

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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Growth Industry

It looks like there may be some competition in the Virtualpolitik business. Luckily, when it comes to pointing out media illiteracy among policymakers and short-sided planning in electronic communication, there is plenty of work to go around. Now, in addition to this blog, which features annual awards for the worst government websites, databases, and games, along with its regular coverage, there are some newcomers in the field. "Study finds Congressional websites 'disappointing'" slams elected representatives for poor information design and chides supposedly technology-friendly Democrats in particular. "The 404s Testers Flunk Online" showcases truly terrible military websites including a glitch-filled and frequently down site for the loved ones of soldiers missing in action.

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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Read My Lips

Video file-sharing services now offer options to those who want to make informed decisions about candidates or follow public policy issues. YouTube You Choose links voters directly to the official YouTube channels of all the current Presidential hopefuls. On Google, Carl Malamud on behalf of Congress transforms the meandering live feed of Congressional hearings into video files that can actually be archived, replayed, and fast-forwarded through. Providing useful metadata for that video is the tricky part, unfortunately. Now, if only we had voice recognition technology that could produce transcripts from the Malamud files, so we could avoid relying on the Grace News Network.

Update: The news from C-Span that they will make more video easily available to the public online is encouraging to advocates for public disclosure who worry about proprietary attitudes toward the public record that digital video archives may often foster.

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Monday, March 05, 2007

Why Does a Twenty-Four-Year-Old Pretend to Be This Man?

This man is Ivan Strenski. He is a tenured professor of Religious Studies. He writes books; he gives talks; he reviews the scholarship of others.

He is not a twenty-four-year-old Wikipedia editor and former paralegal without any advanced degrees. And yet, for many years, under the pseudonym Essjay, Kentucky resident and would-be polymath Ryan Jordan pretended to be an academic very much like Ivan Strenski, pretended to be him with a degree in Canon Law no less. With his bogus c.v., Essjay rose through the ranks of Wikipedia's administrative hierarchy -- through admin, bureaucrat, and IP-monitoring checkuser -- and ultimately had a hand in shaping over 20,000 articles. His ruse would eventually be revealed, although not until after coming to national prominence when he was profiled in a story in The New Yorker, "Know It All." He even had the chutzpah to write a letter to a real faculty member expressing his outrage about his beloved reference work being slighted.

Certainly the "edit wars" at Wikipedia can be quite contentious, so that an ersatz academic title might seem a handy weapon for vanquishing a virtual foe. (Oddly, the "Religious Studies" entry in Wikipedia has been remarkably quiescent during its editorial history, despite the fact that it's often a flash-point for shout-fests at real bricks-and-mortar institutions in the academy.) Flaming an adversary on an e-mail style mailing list -- complete with first person and second person pronouns -- entails observing some conventions of educated civility and rituals of consensus, which one critic lists as follows: "changing the past," "procedure vs. content," and "organize, organize, organize." As Jenny Cool quipped before the scandal broke, the problem with Wikipedia isn't one "of software but of socialization."

The New York Times has reported in "A Contributor to Wikipedia Has His Fictional Side" that lying about his academic credentials, often as a way to bully others into accepting his authority on matters of fact, didn't cost Essjay his job when the scandal first broke. However, Slashdot now claims that founder Jimmy Wales has changed his mind and supports Essjay's decision to resign along with his right to vanish on Wikipedia. (See below.)

For more on the trope of identity theft and the Internet, see Mark Poster's book Information Please.

Although it's not the big story this week, Conservapedia has been generating controversy of its own, as a curative to Wikipedia's supposed liberal bias. Although Conservapedia lists a number of supposed "biases" in the popular user-generated online encyclopedia, I found many of the objectionable practices (such as their primary gripe about using C.E. rather than A.D.) to be norms in academia as a whole. I also did find their entry on evolution to be remarkably thin on its scientific rationale.

I learned about Conservapedia from The Disgruntled Chemist blog, which was listed on the Academic Blog Portal as another U.C. Irvine blog.

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Sunday, March 04, 2007

Virtual Watergate or What Does G. Gordon Liddy's Avatar Look Like?

Game journalists have been reporting on the fact that even the campaign office of a presidential candidate has been targeted by those bent on committing property damage in virtual worlds. According to "John Edwards Second Life HQ Vandalized," the headquarters of the White House hopeful in the popular MMO was trashed recently, adding to Edwards' woes created by his attempts to reach out electronically to a younger, media-savvy pool of voters. One assumes that like the a branch of National Front and several retail outlets, including American Apparel and Reebok, some SL residents had political objections to his election storefront in cyberspace.

My favorite piece of recent reporting on the virtual world has to be attention being paid to an essay on "MetaTerror: The Potential Use of MMORPGs by Terrorists," in which an intelligence analyst warns of terrorist organizations financing and recruiting jihadists via virtual worlds. Certainly vigilantees attempting to kill low wage Chinese gold farmers in games like World of Warcraft might have more fun if they thought that they were killing evil terrorists rather than mere economic competitors. I have to grant that the piece did have an interesting hypothesis, however, about how terrorists could practice their scenarios for destruction in 3-D worlds, just as companies like Toyota experiment with prototypes, protocols, and new business practices. Of course, I think this is yet another example of how groupthink affiliated with the government's mindset demonizes videogame play, file-sharing, and other common practices in electronic culture by associating them with terrorism, child molesting, or other reprehensible forms of association.

Via Game Politics.

Update: Interesting discussion of Jones' terrorism hypothesis going on now at Terra Nova.

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Saturday, March 03, 2007

Throughout the Universe

Gref Victoroff of the law firm Rohde & Victoroff gave a workshop on "Intellectual Property Law for Digital Freelancers" today, which I heard about through LA Flash, a group for professionals and students that offers free and low-cost services to developers. The firm represents a range of properties, from the speeches of Jesse Jackson to the art from the estate of Alberto Vargus, and it also represents the collective bargaining interests of the Los Angeles chapter of the Graphic Artists Guild. Victoroff's practice has also defended clients against copyright infringement suits on free speech or artistic merit grounds. For example, the firm was involved in lining up expert witnesses to attest that brands have been incorporated into pop art for over a half decade, after Hiro Yamagata, with whom my husband has worked, was sued because he incorporated the logo of the Hard Rock Café into one of his works of art. Victoroff is also a prolific writer for media industry how-to manuals and wrote the chapter on sampling for the business handbook for musicians from Prentice-Hall.

Sadly, Victoroff was advising freelancers who wanted to protect their copyright claims against using any open source software or material from the creative commons in creating digital works, two causes dear to my free culture media philosophy. Victoroff's rationale for relying on existing intellectual property practices rested on the grounds that 1) the standard "derivative work and compilation" disclosure on the copyright form might become clouded without unambiguously licensed software and 2) creative commons licenses represented a "parallel universe" or "alternative universe" without a history of copyright and trademark decisions behind them in established case law and thus represent an unacceptable risk.

(The title of this posting reflects the fact that the Disney corporation not only claims rights "throughout the world" but also "throughout the universe" on its contracts.)

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Letters to Uncle Sam

Blog to America presents an opportunity for foreign nationals to write open letters for Americans to read that explain how our country and its people might be perceived abroad, sometimes in very stark terms. As a counter to U.S. public diplomacy efforts, it's an effort to foster authentic citizen-to-citizen exchanges that get beyond generalizations about how they "hate us for our freedom." One of the most interesting features of the blog is the way that context is provided: participants are asked if they have ever been to the United States and about their class and educational backgrounds. It is a reminder that there can be articulate and thoughtful opinions that express profoundly individualistic points of view and that Americans certainly don't have the monopoly on self-expression. Unless I am going through a passport checkpoint or sending e-mail to another country, I tend not to think about my American identity very much. In the interest of fairness, among their user-generated content, they do include Americans and those living semi-permanently in the States. Nonetheless, this blog is a sometimes uncomfortable reminder of the unflatteringly self-interested principles that my country has come to represent abroad. (Via Houtlust, with thanks to Mark van Gurp for his note.)

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Friday, March 02, 2007

Play is the Disruption of Presence

Of course, like everyone else this week, I was working on my DIGRA paper. Luckily it gave me an excuse to re-read recent classics in game studies by Alexander Galloway and Jesper Juul. (It is interesting that both cite Roger Caillois on the nature of games and playing, given the appearance of a new translation of his Pontius Pilate, which shows another side of his insights as a cultural critic and can be read as a current story about the perils of colonial exploits in the Middle East.)

Through grappling with these questions of definition, it also gave me the opportunity to think about my own history with playing games. I grew up in a puzzle-mad household. A giant jigsaw puzzle, often of a foreign locale, was always set up on a card table for assembly after dinner. There were also endless card games and board games, particularly Mille Bournes, which was supposed to have the added benefit of teaching us French. As an avid crossword puzzler, my mother liked word games like Scrabble. My father was also a poker-player, whose buddies included our minister and some of my teachers in school. There were always poker strategy books around the house, and as a tyke, I was obsessed with Monopoly and pored over a strategy book that I got from the library.

I hate to admit it, but somehow those games weren't really all that fun. We were a competitive family, and the rules were always to be followed, never subverted. The greatest pleasures of childhood came far away from home. There was a sandwich restaurant on Arroyo Boulevard called "The Bandstand," with an automated orchestra in front and a warren of rooms in the back filled with pinball machines, horoscope readers, naughty nickelodeon peep-shows, and other old-timey wonders. On weekends, I loved to squander hours playing skee-ball at the beach at dens of iniquity in Newport or Santa Monica, despite my terrible hand-eye coordination.

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Thursday, March 01, 2007

State of Emergency

The terrible deaths of eight students in a high school in Alabama from a tornado makes the rhetorical issues surrounding risk communication an urgent issue for the general public, especially because according to the Associated Press warning systems actually were deployed according to procedures: sirens were going off, and students were being held on the premises. Ironically, as the news was coming out of Alabama, I was attending "One Step ahead of the Crisis," a panel discussion about the uses of technology in disaster response and preparation that mentioned mass notifications to parents of school children as an exemplary case.

This oddly named "Igniting Technology" evening included presentations by computer scientists and officials representing municipalities and school districts who discussed scenarios that included assembling city workers in the event of a gas leak near Disneyland (Anaheim) and reuniting missing people in shelters after an earthquake (Ontario). Given that clear communication plays such a central role in these situations, I was a little bit taken aback by the visually chaotic information on the PowerPoint slides and the sloppy use of "utilize" by presenters.

However, other aspects of the presentations were compelling, particularly those affiliated with the NSF-funded ResCUE project. For example, I found demonstrations of the Evac-Pack interesting, although I recognized the rhetoric of the human-as-sensor as being borrowed from commonly disseminated PR about the new technologically-savvy Army as well. Like Wi-Fi Bedouin it is also a project that merges tropes of wearability with those of human contact.

UCI professor Nalini Venkatasubramanian emphasized the importance of capitalizing on peer-to-peer systems and social networks as robust solutions to communication breakdowns. As the government seeks to regulate these systems and justifies constraints by citing threats from terrorists, child molesters, and pirates, it is important to keep in mind that maintaining a non-centralized network that tolerates multiple pathways and patterns of use may be key to saving lives in a crisis.

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