Monday, March 31, 2008

The Legacy of Combat

As I contact digital content-creators about their work to get permission to reproduce it for the Virtualpolitik book, some of these conversations can be difficult. As I note in the subheading of the book's title, stories about political media-making can involve "war, scandal, disaster, miscommunication, and mistakes." However, no conversation is more difficult than speaking with the loved ones of a deceased person about the legacy of their electronic rhetoric.

Yesterday I spoke in depth to Gary Patriquin and gained even more respect for his son, Captain Travis Patriquin, who died as a result of an IED in Iraq. Patriquin is probably best known for the "How to Win in Anbar" PowerPoint presentation, which in the book I argue is a far more effective use of Microsoft's slide show software than the PowerPoints that illustrated talks by Colin Powell or General Petraeus about the Iraq War. Patriquin's presentation has since become a YouTube video. Unlike other PowerPoint presentations featured by military bloggers, Patriquin's PowerPoint puts forward a detailed argument for a policy change that was ultimately implemented during "The Surge."

Mr. Patriquin told me that his son Travis initially designed the slides to explain the issues in the conflict to his own young daughter. Although Mark Bernstein criticized what he saw as the infantalization of the other depicted in Patriquin's rhetorical appeals, the actual story of how this military officer used the medium to clarify a message rather than obfuscate with chartjunk like his superiors merits some examination. See the photograph above, which was sent to me by the senior Patriquin, for another representation of sheiks and soldiers.

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Sunday, March 30, 2008

Why Don't You Ring Me Sometime?

Two stories in yesterday's Washington Post emphasized the role that cellular telephones now play in international politics. In "Cuba Lifts Restrictions on Personal Cellphones," the reporter describes how ordinary Cubans can now use the devices without relying on corrupt deals with foreigners and government officials, although many restrictions on computer access to the Internet remain. Now, as one commentator explained, "It opens the possibility for more contact with foreigners, for more text messaging, for a culture of mass communication. You can almost publish a newspaper with messages sent over cellphones."

In "19 Tense Hours in Sadr City," another correspondent describes how an Iraqi insurgent uses cell phone technology to coordinate attacks and detonate IEDs.

He had just spoken with a fighter by cellphone. "I told him not to use that weapon. It's not effective," he said, referring to a rocket-propelled grenade. "I told him to use the IED, the Iranian one," he added, using the shorthand for an improvised explosive device. "This is more effective."

. . .

He spoke in a slow, measured voice and clutched three cellphones, each using a different network. When the Americans drive by, they usually jam the signals of the main cellphone provider, to neutralize use of the phones as bomb detonators.

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Saturday, March 29, 2008

To Bloom or Not to Bloom

At dawn, I left Washington D.C. after going by the tidal basin of the Potomac where the cherry blossoms were in full bloom around the Jefferson Memorial. In "Now Blooming: Digital Models," The Washington Post describes how chief horticulturalist Rob DeFeo of the National Park Service, which maintains a page on the cherry blossoms, tries to predict when the height of the season will be by examining the blossoms and using his judgment about the annual cycle of the tree in response to its environment. In contrast two graduate students, Vidhya Dass and Elizabeth Brennan have developed a computer program that will forecast the cherry blossom apex based on "artificial neural networks, evolutionary computations, the Arrhenius equation, linear regression and something called fuzzy logic."

Dass and Brennan said they focused on computational intelligence and essentially tried to mimic the working of the human brain. This involved considering such things as "multiple-layered feed forward neural networks," they wrote in their paper, as well as "delta rule," "topology" and "Stochastic gradient method."

A neural network model, by the way, "is like the brain," Dass said. "You know how our human brain absorbs complex relationships? It's something very similar to that. You would train a neural network . . . like the brain, and then after a while, it would be able to . . . predict the actual phenomenon."

Fuzzy logic is another malleable brainlike data processing system that adjusts itself as it gets feedback, Dass said. And the famous equation of Swedish chemist Svante August Arrhenius calculates the speed of a chemical reaction based on temperature.

The trees were a gift from Japan in 1912 from the mayor of Tokyo, a city that the students point out uses these high-tech methods to anticipate its own "sakura" season in the region. Unfortunately, the Post's coverage did little to demystify the work of information scientists working on real-world problems, even as it attempted to define common phrases in the discipline's terminology, because much of the students' work had to do with common sense factors like weather.

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Friday, March 28, 2008

Regarding Henry

Today, thanks to the office of our local congressman, Henry Waxman, we toured the Capitol, visited the congressional chamber, and rode the special subway for legislators in a small group of a half-dozen average people. Although I write about the virtual state, I'm also interested in the built environments and face-to-face interactions that characterize the institutions of governance and tend to take advantages of the generous privileges accorded to me as a constituent.

One of our hosts in the course of the day was Michael Hermann, who currently serves as the webmaster for Waxman's official Internet site. Herman admitted that the congressman's home page was in need of a major overhaul, since it currently lacks many of the features of more web-savvy sites, such as RSS feeds and digital video. Hermann also described the hassles of updating the site in its current non-dynamic state, since each web page still has to be edited individually, given its outmoded file structure. When I asked him about responding to e-mail, he emphasized the common sense principles of identifying yourself as a constituent and avoiding "blast" e-mails with form letters such as those engineered by

Next week, Congress will be back in session and Waxman will be chairing important hearings for the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on the White House's intervention in the EPA's new ozone standards. The AP reported in "White House Played Role in Smog Rule" that the EPA's own website showed evidence of 11th hour meddling by the Executive Branch, because parts of a memo to the EPA chief "were included in the rule's preamble posted on the EPA web site," and NPR described in "White House Overrules EPA on Air Quality Standards" how "documents detailing the interference" were posted on "the official government website for new regulations." Unfortunately, journalists for neither news agency provided a link to the actual website in question, unlike the standard practice of current events bloggers so it's difficult to read the digital rhetoric from this vantage point.

Unfortunately, the EPA website is difficult to navigate, and its search functionalities for "ozone" brought up largely documents that were irrelevant to the controversy and years old. was even worse and brought up unreadable e-mail chains such as this among its top results.

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

A Difficult Suspension of Disbelief

Last night I watched the re-run of the cliff-hanger episode of CSI New York about a murderous maniac simultaneously running amok on the streets of New York and in the virtual world Second Life in which the tech-speak was almost as unconvincing as the cop-speak. There were lots of annoying representations of improbable or impossible stock conventions about computational media, which included the classic silly After Effects law enforcement suspect screen, which one of my colleagues parodied when we were shooting a send-up of TV's 24 here.

The scene of a ballistics test showed a particularly ridiculous "negative" match screen and many of the desktops and handheld devices had that annoying "deet-deet-deet" sound effect that is supposed to indicate that their fictional computer was processing data. Particularly ludicrous was the worry that a griefer from a web-based application like Second Life could somehow magically bring down the entire computer network of a law enforcement agency with a virus. The depiction of the software of the Second Life environment itself was obviously cleaned up for television with computer animation, since the screens nver

The obvious contempt that broadcast media content-creators have for the practices of distributed media could be seen in the denigration of the web of social connections that characters modeled on the show manifest in a virtual world that was only used for PvP combat, cybersex, and speculation in virtual currencies or goods. Of course, I'm not necessarily opposed to dissimulation, but it seemed like computer users on the show were largely depicted as totally deceptive shut-ins or opportunists for whom real-world identities were utterly disconnected from online ones. Furthermore, it's interesting to also see how a rhetoric of criminality gets associated with the activities of digital culture, including the philandering of a congressman soliciting sexual partners as his avatar.

There's also a "Virtual CSI" experience to be had in Second Life, which is supposed to offer a transmedia experience to viewers. At the recent PCA conference, Jason Hitzert discussed the episode in detail and the marketing schemes related to the promotion of the Cisco corporation in the "virtual" version, which capitalizes on the splatter and gore that can be depicted hygienically in a computer 3D model -- even one that takes place behind the butcher's counter of a deli -- and the cultural specifics of showing a "furry" who had been mutilated in death. Hitzert argued that certain forms of code can be propagated through exchanges that have a political dimension, whether it is marketing copies of his own shaved and tatooed head in cyberspace, replicating dance moves as iterable animations in the case of an American soldier teaching an Iraqi citizen the macarena, or creating institutional strife when a griefer causes an unwitting student in Second Life to utter hate speech in front of an offended faculty member.

Ironically, as Harper's magazine pointed out this month, the relatively modest number of actual homicides in the city of New York is approaching the number presented on CSI.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008


As someone interested in how government agencies use information design, I find that even when I'm traveling, I'm conscious of how data is represented. At the Waggoner's Gap Hawk Watch a spray-painted hawk stencil showed where the trail to the observation peak was located.
Later in the day I visited the Gettysburg National Park site to view parts of the battlefield and the approximate area where Lincoln gave his famous rhetorical performance. Sadly, the fabulous "electric map" shown below, which gives the visitor a low-tech but very engaging strategy view of the three-day engagement of troops, is soon to be phased out. The whole museum is slated to be replaced, probably with terrible new "interactive" touch screen galleries.

Strangely, Lincoln's famous speech isn't yet among those at Remix America, which is now "live" online, although the electronically savvy can always remix the Gettysburg PowerPoint for fun.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A Hot Time in a Small Town

Not many people check out the Cornwall Iron Furnace this time of year, but since my great-grandfather John Johnston was an iron mine supervisor in Cornwall I found myself on a private family tour of the Gothic revival structure.

Of course, the casting of iron was a skilled trade for many centuries, as was the making of charcoal in the woods surrounding the foundry. I also discovered that the pieces of popular iron stoves, often inscribed in words written in the German of the region's residents and decorated with appropriate ethnic style, were made in Corwall, although they often were marked with the elaborate designs that characterized the intellectual property of other manufacturers, in an early version of what is now known as OEM.

I found out that YouTube carries an impressive number of DIY videos about iron smelting and forging as well, and that people have posted footage even about making steel in your backyard.

Update: As though the intellectual property history of these stove plates wasn't complicated enough, I learned that they also served as inspiration for famed artisanal tile-maker Henry Mercer of the Moravian Tile Works during a tour of his eclectic mansion at Fonthill. Mercer often appropriated images of figures and architectural elements from the 18th century iron pieces for his anti-industrial products.

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Mayday Mayday

In the forthcoming book that grew out of this blog, I tend to argue that the actual speed of electronic communication is rarely the main factor in averting disaster or preventing scandal in digital government media-making.

But during my university's Spring Break I've been spending time with my father, a retired Xerox engineer, who has been regaling me with stories about the company's government contracts, who offers at least one possible counternarrative to my thesis about electronic interactions. He told me about the role that the alacrity of a specific technology played in the politics of the Mayagüez Incident, because the State Department had machines for processing telegrams that had very slow printers at the time, near the end of the Vietnam War.

When the Cambodians seized this U.S. ship and were warned that they risked invasion if they didn't relent, the apologetic telegram that this Southeast Asian nation sent to the State Department in French was not processed until fifteen hours after it arrived, by which time the Marines had already landed within their borders. My father pointed out that Xerox was able to use the failures associated with this fiasco to persuade the State Department to adopt electronic printing technologies that could process far more telegrams per hour.

For more, check out the finding aid for the historical accounts from the crew here.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

Cough Syrup, Pajamas, and Hillary Clinton

I'm fascinated with political uses of stock footage and stock photography, so this young Obama supporter's reply to Hillary Clinton's recent fear-based television ad is a really interesting type of YouTube rhetoric from a former model who reappropriated her image after it had been used by a third party.

(Via Siva Vaidhyanathan at Sivacracy, where I will be blogging again more regularly now that the final book manuscript has been sent off.)

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Wired for Sound

Today I visited the Atlantic City Convention Hall Organ, which is in the Guiness Book of World's Records as the largest musical instrument in the world, with several members of my extended family and an organ builder from Turin, Italy, who had arranged to join us.

As I've suggested before, I think that my skepticism about how successfully political institutions promote new technologies may have a lot to do with with the tragic history of this pipe organ that drove my inventor-grandfather into bankruptcy.

I was impressed with the general hospitality of the organ society, who wants to get the sampling, remixing generation interested in preserving these endangered instruments. They've posted some MP3 files on their website, but I suggested that they post a range of samples in different genres and encourage musicians at Creative Commons to reuse this musical palette.

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Sunday, March 23, 2008

None of Their Virtual Beeswax

First, UCLA employees were disciplined for looking at the electronic medical records of Britney Spears, and now corporate contractors and potential employees of the State Department are in trouble for improperly accessing the passport files of presidential candidates through digital networks. The relationship between search technologies tied to digital networks and old-fashioned curiosity about the vulnerabilities of the rich and/or famous has received little consideration in the scholarly community, but clearly labor law will have to account for these violations of privacy.

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Voices in Our Ears

While I was visiting museums in the Philadelphia area today, it was obvious to see how mobile devices are offering possibilities for augmented reality experiences in which visitors provide the media players rather than rely on electronic guided tours that emanate from rented units. The National Constitution Center now offers iPod tours of many of its exhibits, and the super-creepy Mütter Museum, which is full of medical curiosities, allows visits to get information about particular numbered displays via a cell phone call to 215-525-1671. (The morbidly curious can also take a virtual tour of the Mütter as well.) What does it mean for museums to out-source instructional technologies to the equipment of visitors?

Update: Note this sign at Valley Forge for another example of this phenomenon.

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Saturday, March 22, 2008

Postcards from the Past

My blogging might be even slower to be updated this coming week, as I'll be out of town visiting the East Coast with Mr. Liz and the two young Liz boys on a jaunt through the family past. From the geek standpoint, the high point of the trip promises to be visiting the world's largest pipe organ in Atlantic City, which was built by my grandfather, and surveying this huge instrument with its current caretakers, who are agitating a return to its former glory.

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Friday, March 21, 2008

The Devil You Don't See

One of the most remarkable things about the undercover investigation described in "An Agent, a Green Card, and a Demand for Sex" is the role that digital audio and ubiquitous recording devices played in this story of a corrupt U.S. federal immigration agent who bullied a terrified female Columbian immigrant into providing oral sex in his car under the duress of threats of deportation of herself and her family members. From the New York Times story, readers can click on a link to excerpts from the actual audio file that the woman recorded using her cell phone of his wheedling, bargaining, and pleas for affection. The story is another interesting example of the multimedia journalism of Nina Bernstein, who has lately embraced working in the genre.

The website for the Immigration and Naturalization Service does not yet appear to acknowledge that this abuse of federal power took place, which apparently involved another victim as well, who was taped by prosecutors after this first woman came forward. The INS does, however, feature an enraged response to a New York Times editorial, "Fit to Print," from current director Emilio T. Gonzalez.

(In the interest of full disclosure I should also probably admit that I looked up to Nina in college and gratefully took rides from her in what I remembered to be a very posh car.)

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

PCA Wrap-Up

Sarah “Intellagirl” Robbins opened the “Internet Cultures” track at the annual conference of the Popular Culture Association today in San Francisco. Robbins’ paper about gender dynamics in Second Life considered the role of self-reported females in this virtual world in which women seem to be well represented, unlike game-based worlds, such as World of Warcraft. Robbins cited statistics that showed that the 68% of Second Life females created content and that of total transactions in Linden dollars, in which over 100 Linden dollars were exchanged, 65% of the recipients were female. Of course, Robbins also pointed out how many women would seem to be participating in gender stereotypes, whether making skins in Photoshop with sculpted abs and manicured public hair or designing furniture such as the “Comfy Chair” that come complete with animations of sexual positions and performance. She also discussed the role of “Gorian” culture, based on a series of erotic science fiction novels that had propagated its own subculture for the past three decades, and the use of L-word islands by those publicly trolling for same-sex virtual female partners.

Mark Nunes, author of Cyberspaces of Everyday Life, examined the relationship between hoaxes perpetuated in online environments and alternate reality games. He argued that the Lonely Girl 15 videos could be seen as particularly, in fact “doubly” disappointing, to those who initially encountered them and took them to be authentic because they proved to be neither real videoblog nor real ARG, despite the intervention in the series with the “Cassie” films that seemed to offer ARG-like clues. To those who play well-designed ARGs, such as those created by Jane McGonigal, the central question is not “is it real or not” but is it “in game or out of game.” Nunes also discussed viral marketing efforts associated with the film Cloverfield and “game jacks” in which the narrative of an ARG is appropriated by meddling parties who want to create their own ARGs with their own rules and puzzles. From one abashed Cloverfield would-be jacker came an apologetic note to the film companies and multimedia conglomerates involved, so it would appear that there can be the intellectual property consequences if a given ARG is part of a corporate viral marketing effort.

The last panel of the day that I saw featured Montana Miller, an academic who had at one time actually run away to the circus, who discussed the role of the “feed” in the cultural practices associated with Facebook. She described surveying 150 of her own students, who kept often blasé journals that described their interactions and observations about the social networking site. In September 2006, however, while Miller was still conducting this research, the company introduced the “feed” feature that could be described as “voyeurism made easy,” because the technology “broadcast” details of online behavior without an intentionally directed set of messages. Miller was eager to debunk some stereotypes about the media attitudes of young people, such as those propagated by mainstream media pieces such as Emily Nussbaum’s “My So Called Blog.” Miller noticed that the 100 students who replied to her specific query about the feed feature answered with much more emotion and engagement and confusion than they had manifested in the earlier journal questions. Although some were “undisturbed but cynical,” Miller described how many who participated in this form of passive reception rather than active surveillance found themselves discomforted by ambiguous doses of news, that often could be characterized as “romantic soap operas” with unanticipated sequels. She discussed how students felt jealous, not only of the new relationships of former sexual partners but also of the platonic relationships with same-sex friends when Facebook told them they had not been included in plans or invited to a party. She also said that many students discovered friends’ sexual orientations through Facebook and that their feeds often announced unexpected “coming out” messages. She also pointed out how the Facebook feed could contain messages about tragedy, and hypothesized that perhaps it could also make young people more aware of the Iraq war being fought by their peers and thus serve as a point of empathy.

Update: Miller has since contacted me to correct my joking account of her "running away to join the circus." As she says, "Immediately after high school, I became a flying trapeze artist by deliberately (and with my parents' perplexed consent) choosing to train and tour with France's national training center for circus artists."

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Where's Hillary?

The daily schedules as First Lady of Hillary Rodham Clinton have now been released and are posted on the website of the Clinton Library. There are redactions in these documents, mostly to delete addresses and social security numbers of third parties, according to a press release. What is surprising to me is that the materials posted on the website in response to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) are frequently presented in the form of clunky PDF files, rather than given to the public in the form of an input interface with genuinely useful browsing and searching features.

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Stand and Deliver

Online video-sharing services like YouTube have played a prominent role in this year's presidential election, a fact further dramatized by Barack Obama's stirring speech on race in America yesterday. Thanks partly to the efforts of, the YouTube video of the speech on CNN, which was posted on one of the Barack Obama channels has garnered over two million views. As a rhetorician, I think it uses different tropes of comparison remarkably well, including at one point comparing his statements of his controversial minister, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, to the occasionally racist white grandmother with whom Obama grew up. Wright has become well-known thanks to YouTube for his support of Louis Farrakhan and fiery anti-Eurocentrism, but one of the strangest anti-Wright videos actually uses the Church Sign Generator to create its main digital effects. In the full text of Obama's speech on race, he mentions YouTube specifically.

Update: Apparently the McCain campaign has suspended one of its staffer for disseminating this mash-up video, "Is Obama Wright?," through Twitter.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Mapping Culture

Tonight I learned about the California Cultural Project from my cousin Josefa Vaughan. Designed to help applicants for funding by giving them powerful demographic tools to produce more convincing rhetoric in the genre of grant-writing, which my colleague Ellen Strenski once called, a "history of the future," this initiative to "collect comprehensive information about the cultural sector in California" was started by the Pew Trust and launched in Pennsylvania and Maryland as well. Users can learn about these data management resources by completing a series of online courses.

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Not to Be Had at Any Price

As I've been finishing up getting rights and permissions for all the images that might appear in the forthcoming Virtualpolitik book, which is slated to be out in Spring 2009 from MIT Press, I decided to inquire about the costs involved in reproducing two covers from TIME magazine. Because the covers are so much an iconic part of their brand identitiy, I knew that this intellectual property might be pricey, so I wasn't that surprised when I was told that this cover of its 2002 Persons of the Year about The Whistleblowers would cost over six hundred dollars a year for reproduction rights. The image wasn't that essential to my argument about the media and channels that whistleblowers choose in the age of e-mail, online video, wikis, and blogs. In the chapter that covers political Photoshop, including several "blackface" and "burqa" incidents of political photoshop, I had also hoped to show the controversial intentionally darkened "American Tragedy" cover of OJ Simpson, which I juxtapose with Tibor Kalman's intentionally Africanized portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. A representative of the magazine told me, however, that the "cover is restricted and permissions to use are not available under any circumstances."

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Monday, March 17, 2008

If You Show Me Your Database, I'll Show You Mine

The practice of making databases public in the scientific community can sometimes present challenges to journalists and members of the public who are analyzing the results and trying to interpret the related academic discussion and debate. A case in point might be the recent press release from the WMAP mission, which shows both dazzling pictures and more pedestrian information graphics in its most recent release of its five-year results, which The New York Times recently reported on about how "Gauging the Age of the Universe Becomes More Precise." Notice how information-poor the pie charts of the universe's recipe components look next to high resolution images of this timeline of the universe.

Thanks to Facebook friend Ned Wright, who was interviewed in The New York Times article, for the link.

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

Pod Creatures

I've written about the Hotzone anthrax-simulation game on Virtualpolitik before, but I wasn't aware until this week that it had been transformed into the The POD Game, after the acronym for "point of dispensing." The basic interface still involves decision-making based on the statements in the speech balloons of somewhat stereotypical victims in a mass-medical situation, but now members of the public can demo the game themselves. You can learn more about their other products at Public Health Games, and I promise to deliver a full review when I am back from traveling.

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Heroes for Fearos

I've been looking at the website for Virtual Heroes and thinking about the themes that it represents in its products in the "Games for Health" or military-funded videogames genres. This group for "Advanced Learning Technologies" boasts of their connection to the military recruitment game America's Army and showcases a range of products based on training. As a public servant, I have trouble with the "heroes" metaphor in general, since I think that literacy and effective social services can also be life-saving, if not heroic aspects of state-sanctioned digital rhetoric.

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Saturday, March 15, 2008

Return from Fatworld

I've been playing Ian Bogost's new persuasive game Fatworld on and off for the past month. Leaving aside the question of whether or not his games "powered by sarcasm and social commentary" are "fun," which has been at issue in recent reviews of his work in Wired and, it seems like there's certainly entertainment to be had in the virtual world that Bogost presents, which reflects many aspects of the prepackaged consumerism that guides the practice of everyday life in mainstream America. As the game says, "this little town lets you experiment with the politics of nutrition -- the relationships between social and economic conditions and health" in which each day represents a year of living, because as the game explains:

Existing approaches to nutrition advocacy fail to communicate the aggregate effect of everyday health practices. It's one thing to explain that daily exercise and nutrition are important, but people, young and old, have a very hard time wrapping their heads around outcomes five, 10, 50 years away.

While many videogames and virtual worlds offer you an avatar that is fit and muscular or busty, depending on your gender, Fatworld often presents you with avatars who are out-of-shape and old, like the sixty-four year old man that I took out through the slick, cartoony landscape of the game. Certainly, Fatworld's built environment is dominated by fast food establishments and convenience marts in ways that made me miss the farmer's markets, backyard produce, and ethic shops to be enjoyed in near my real-life house in Santa Monica.

Doing meal planning with grim lists of pre-packaged foods that were labeled "Atkins" or gluten-free certainly didn't whet my appetite, but there were other aspects of the game in which the procedural logic was more engaging. For example, one could actually do "exercises" in Fatworld to burn off calories that incorporated casual games that frequently rewarded dexterity in keyboard speed and accuracy. Players can also grapple with game economics by shopping for real estate in Fatworld or even opening an eatery of their own. And, of course, I always like to visit the cemeteries when I'm in a new city, and Fatworld has one too.

I thought the emphasis on how urban geography and biologically predetermined genetics that might include food allergies was an interesting response to the ideology of freedom promoted by the billion-dollar diet industry, but I wasn't as sure about the more crass messages to be found in the Govern-o-Mat where bribes were common currency rather than social activism or the tactical use of the media, particularly when the game's creators provided links to a more nuanced range of sources about food politics.

Do make sure to play the game long enough to see the world's scariest load screen, a giant, bulging gut with a tape measure calibrating the inches.

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Friday, March 14, 2008

Treasure Trove

I always know that every time that I do a search for PowerPoint files that are stored on the White House website, I know that I will find something good. Today I discovered a PowerPoint presentation promoting, a site that supposedly allows citizens to see programs that are performing well and those that are underperforming. Of course, the White House is known for having totally ridiculous metrics that represent quantitative information, such as the Executive Branch Management Scorecard. At least one of the departments in the defense sector gets a thorough tongue lashing for lacking "quantifiable outputs and outcomes to allow monitoring of the program and how well it serves the warfighter." In general, however, failing departments seem to be affiliated with health or education programs. Since I am interested in social marketing efforts, this negative assessment of the Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign was also a notable item. Many of the "successful" programs are indicated with a "competitive" designation in parentheses, which seems to indicate that they are also frequently so-called "faith-based initiatives." Apparently Anti-Terrorism Assistance is also an excellent performer.

What's strange is that this website doesn't provide budget figures, numbers of clients served, and all the standard measures of performance that I remember being critical for purposes of review. Check out how the White House slams the EPA with very few specifics here.

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The Best of Both Worlds

This ad for a Belgian university is an attention-getting trans-national example of political Photoshop. It's interesting to also note the signifiers of Hillary Clinton that they chose, such as her turquoise necklace. Of course images of men's faces with women's hairdos have appeared before on Virtualpolitik. (Link via Marc van Gurp at Osocio.)

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Faster Than a Speeding Bullet continues to use metaphors of collective intelligence to explain their strategy of often emphasizing low-budget, user-generated political ads, which are more likely to be seen on YouTube than on a traditional broadcast network. Following up on their Bush in 30 seconds contest for best anti-Bush spot, the grassroots Internet organization for small-scale contributions and modest house parties is proposing an "Obama in 30 Seconds" competition. Of course, with so many corporate brands seeking out user-generated content from willing members of the population, the implied component of direct democracy in this approach could be difficult to sustain. I'm interested in their use of the photomosaic technique, which often functions as a signifier of the body politic, as has been pointed out in Bruno Latour's volume on Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Mr. Gates Goes to Washington

There are many areas with which I would tend to disagree with Bill Gates. But with the current anti-immigration sentiments of legislators, his testimony today before the House Committee on Science and Technology to argue for more H1-B visas for skilled foreign workers in the area of computer science reflects a pragmatic understanding of the global job market. Gates argues that the U.S. has many incentives to keep Ph.D.s who are foreign nationals inside the country, in light of the national diversity represented in today's computer science departments and corporate R&D programs.

Against Gates' argument, the Programmers Guild has an energetic digital rhetoric presence, which includes an anti-immigration blog and a YouTube channel. The latter outlet includes a whistle-blower video about unethical job advertisement practices in the technology sector to satisfy PERM requirements with "fake ads."

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The Dogs of War

This month's controversy about a video that appears to show a U.S. soldier throwing a puppy off a cliff has generated an enormous online debate. Even though Gawker and YouTube were pressured to remove the video earlier, it continues to resurface as a document of seeming brutality among members of the military. There are three obviously interesting things about this video: 1) the debates taking place among "spoilers" in online communities who claim that the video cannot be authentic, which also take place in relation to other digital rhetoric stories, 2) the ways that this video can be seen as part of a larger genre of callous soldier brutality videos that have spurred military brass to forbid unauthorized online video sharing with sites like YouTube because of the outcry in response to footage of soldiers laughing while blowing up a mosque or taunting a child with a water bottle proffered from a moving truck, and 3) the outrage related to online video that shows cruelty to animals, whether depicted in so-called "crush" videos produced for sexual gratification or undercover video of mainstream industrial animal husbandry practices.

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Light Years

Everyone has their own form of morbid curiosity. Some people read murder stories or obituaries. Others slow down when passing a car wreck. Here's my personal variant, which says a lot about my research interests: I like to check the websites of politicians who have resigned from office because of an irreparable scandal to see how long the site will be frozen in the positive past of the do-gooding office-holder before it changes to a successor's information or to web oblivion. I've watched the webpages of David Vitter and Mark Foley in the past to see when their indiscretions would be reflected in the formalized representations of their web personae.

Now I'm on the deathwatch for the official New York State page for disgraced former governor Eliot Spitzer, who resigned today. Although the site has been updated with links to a few tight-lipped statements about the scandal, which involved both patronizing a prostitution ring and hiding financial records that show the illegal transactions, the biggest image on the webpage still shows a smiling, hard-working governor Spitzer helping small business and the little guy. At the bottom of the page we see Spitzer posed behind a podium with the state seal and flashing a thumbs-up to the crowd.
Sometimes I feel that this process is like watching the sky and waiting for a star that has already gone dead to wink out once the time it takes for light to carry the record of this event to Earth has finally elapsed. But for now Spitzer is still triumphant and still serving his constituents. It will be interesting to see what his successor, David Paterson, will bring to the visual identity of the virtual state in New York. As a visually impaired person, he may view the website differently.

Update: Satiric videos about the scandal are already appearing. See this one and this one for examples. His status as "client #9" is a frequent refrain.

There has also been some coverage of the design and content of the website of the Emperors Club VIP website for the call-girl ring Spitzer frequented, along with the MySpace page of a possible prostitute who may have worked for the organization and had Spitzer as a client. The Emperors Club site actually was taken down quite quickly after the scandal broke.


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Zombie Line

Tonight's meeting at Electronic Arts sponsored by our local LA Chapter of SIGGRAPH focused on the topic of "digital acting" and the work of the videogame behemoth to create convincing AI applications at a time when the military is no longer sponsoring as much research and development. For a long time the mantra among game developers has had to do with creating "direction" rather than "puppetry," so that 3D characters seem to have an internal logic of their own that replicates character motivation. Several of the presenters reminded audience members about last year's panel discussion on the notion of the "uncanny valley," which I reported about here. In particular, speakers referenced the "zombie line," which indicated where one-to-one correlations of visual fidelity and motion fidelity may lie.

Lots of the discussion also had to do with EA's collaboration with Steven Spielberg. I met a nice, very tatooed member of the team working on the Spielberg's "casual game for the Wii" in the elevator, but I still wonder if he was just messing with me to suggest such a thing would be possible. Also amusing was Iranian-born EA Art Director Habib Zargarpour speculating about what the Justice Department might make of his collection of explosion reference files should they ever fall into their agents' hands.

The weird footage highlight may have been seeing the human actors made to look CG in the Need for Speed franchise with the assistance of glue-permeated clothing and lots of shaving of male body hair. Either that or seeing the test footage of the real human Tiger Woods in preparation for his simulated incarnation for which he was reduced to an eerily proportioned wrap of a 2D light diffusion map of his face. Producer Neville Spiteri and Animation Director Eric Armstrong also showed video characters able to follow actions with their eyes that appeared to be taking place on the other side of the display that contained them.

Personally, I thought the procedural animation probably looked the coolest among the evening's video/demo offerings, since I can never get tired of animations of guys running into things or into each other, which I will happily watch for hours and hours, just enjoying the beauty of its mathematical expression. Much more entertaining than football.


Monday, March 10, 2008

Dumbest Confidentiality Notice on an E-mail that I Have Ever Seen

CONFIDENTIALITY NOTICE: This e-mail transmission, and any documents, files or previous e-mail messages attached to it, may contain confidential information that is legally privileged. If you are not the intended recipient, or a person responsible for delivering it to the intended recipient, you are hereby notified that any disclosure, copying, distribution or use of any of the information contained in or attached to this message is STRICTLY PROHIBITED.

Okay, now guess the source.

One of my Hollywood connections to Virtualpolitik and thus a person who is justifiably anxious about nondisclosure issues and/or ownership of valuable intellectual property?

One of my hotshot software sources worried about losing control over proprietary code or a leak that could affect the value of stock prices?

One of the government agencies working on military or security issues that I have interviewed over the years in the course of writing the book?

A lawyer handling a digital rights case involving a gag order?

Someone at the university in charge of student privacy and the custodial control of sensitive personal information?

Nope. None of the above. This message was attached to a mass e-mail to parents from A PUBLIC HIGH SCHOOL with top secret information about the high school exit exam and the dates of Spring Break.

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Fear Mongers

The big story about digital politics this month is the suspension of the Virtual Jihadi exhibition by Iraqi-American artist Wafaa Bilal at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. This is particularly surprising news, given that I know several people at RPI from the game studies conference circuit, and it certainly never sounded like a reactionary environment. But as I pointed out in an article in a recent volume of media/culture, the very idea of "terrorist videogames" excites the cultural imagination of regulatory forces.

The seventh chapter of the forthcoming Virtualpolitik book, which is about satires of surveillance and authentication, will include analysis of an installation by Bilal, whose work I also saw at last year's SIGGRAPH.

Update: Inside Higher Ed has written about the controversy here. The Sanctuary for Independent Media also hosted another version of Bilal's show, but apparently pressures to shut it down have come into play in the new location as well.

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Sunday, March 09, 2008

Geoengineering for Dummies

In the DIY science category of YouTube videos, this is an interesting case of pointed political satire, which is trained on overly simplistic solutions to the problem of global warming. Perhaps they should try Mentos and Diet Coke?

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Keep the Customer Satisfied

A few minutes ago, I just completed a user survey from the ForeSee Results corporation about my satisfaction with the official government website of the U.S. Department of State. Many of the questions that the customer service researchers asked seemed to indicate that the State Department was aware that its search engine and archive of online video left something to be desired. As a regular user of the site, who frequently searched for Virtualpolitik-related materials, I also indicated my annoyance with having important digital documents of U.S. public diplomacy efforts frequently removed from the site, as personnel and site design specifications changed over time. In addition, I felt compelled to add that when it came to using the World Wide Web, British diplomats at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office were far ahead of their U.S. counterparts.

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Saturday, March 08, 2008

A Shout Out

Today was International Women's Day. Given the fact that this day originated in protests against capitalist abuses of women's labor in the textile and garment industries, it's ironic to see the number of corporate sponsors affiliated with the "official" International Women's Day website. Seeing a hijab-wearing spokeswoman saying that "Cisco specifically has a culture of equality" seemed particularly strange to me, given the large technology company's human rights record in China and the way that the feminization of labor in computer manufacturing has been interrogated by labor activists. The featured video also emphasizes "education" rather than interventions through the "law" in ways that might make feminists suspicious.

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Hate Crime

One of the grim aspects of studying digital rhetoric involves looking at In Memoriam web pages that commemorate the lives and deaths of individuals. As I describe in the upcoming Virtualpolitik book, murder victims more frequently have such pages, some of which are designed to seek justice or publicize the need to intervene in certain social ills. I've come across such pages for a classmate at the tony private school that I attended as a child or for former students at the youth center where I once worked. The recent murder of gay teenager Lawrence King by one of his tormentors in an Oxnard school has been commemorated in two very different websites. Lawrence King Memorial, which was established by the boy's uncle, features family snapshots and gratitude toward those who arranged for the funeral service, supported the fund established in his name, or expressed support as well-wishers. Visitors may also visit the guestbook with over 170 pages of comments, many of which came from people drawn to the site through a Remembering Larry Facebook group. In contrast, Remembering Lawrence King from the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network foregrounds advocacy on public policy issues. It prominently lists its affiliated MySpace and Facebook pages and encourages users to "Register Your Remembrance Event."

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Loaves and Fishes

Virtualpolitik friend Virgil Griffith has come up with another great web application aimed at those in the higher education community who will do a lot in the pursuit of free food. As a graduate student, I know that the possibility that free food might be offered at an event to supplement my cost-effective pasta and potatoes grad school diet was often sufficient incentive for attendance at lectures and meetings. Part of the reason I attended the external review meeting of writing programs that eventually led to what has now been a ten-year career as a writing program administrator, when I was teaching a rhetoric of science class as a grad student, was the fact that I thought that the occasion of having visitors from other campuses would surely be reason for at least a plate of sandwiches. And until very recently I never presided over a staff meeting at which food was not served. Using Google calendar, Griffith has created Freefood at Cal Tech and Freefood at MIT.

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Friday, March 07, 2008

Trigger Finger

A new serious game about the genocide in Rwanda, "Hush," is definitely worth playing. As Ian Bogost points out in Gamasutra, it avoids the central mistake of USC's similarly themed Darfur is Dying, because its creators chose "to focus on a singular, personal experience as a solitary approach to the topic of genocide."

The game is a typing game that involves concentrating on letters that appear on the screen with innocuous words like "child," "hush," or "young." Typing these letters correctly is supposed to represent singing a lullabye to calm a young Tutsi child who has been hidden from marauding armed Hutus. As soldiers go by the house and are visible through a window on the play screen, it can be difficult to concentrate on your typing task. Failure causes the screen to go red to symbolize the killing of mother and child. Unlike other so-called "rhetoric of failure" games that emphasize the difficulties of existence in situations like ethical McDonald's executive or harried food inspector, it is possible to actually "win" and survive for another day in "Hush."

Note: This game is not recommended for PC-users, since I found it crashed my machine several times before I played it successfully on a Mac.


The First Googler

President Bush describes his use of web applications from the popular search engine company in this video.

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Thursday, March 06, 2008

Neoliberalism Explained by Sock Puppets

In addition to explaining the new economy, this video from Monochrom features tandem Googling, tips for life hacking, and the intervention of the online porn monster. This is the group that also did "The Void's Foaming Ebb" about old media and new media.

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For Display Purposes Only

According to "Pentagon bans Google from mapping military bases," the Defense Department has put base commanders on notice that they must forbid filming at ground level by representatives of the web applications giant who might reveal possible security vulnerabilities in their 360 degree views. Head of the Northern Command, Gene Renuart says that Google has been cooperative. Apparently the controversial street-view information from Fort Sam Houston has already been taken offline.

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Visualize This

When I think about the history of artists' roles in AIDS activism, I usually think about tactical media interventions that tend to be very low-tech: SILENCE=DEATH t-shirts, red ribbons, costumes, performance art, and street theater come immediately to mind. However, Make Art/Stop AIDS at the Fowler Museum presents a twenty-five year retrospective on artistic message-making about this global pandemic that features a number of pieces that foreground computational media. For example, this photomosaic on a 2004 report from the UN was featured in the show. From a little web surfing I also discovered that the idea of creating a digital composite photo of the epidemic was also picked up in this 2005 request for user-generated content for a website at that is now defunct.

UNFPA invites everyone with an Internet connection to submit a photograph of himself or herself and a brief comment about AIDS to be placed in the “I’ve Got the POWER” photo mosaic world map according to his or her country of residence. When visitors to the “I’ve Got the POWER” website click on any individual photograph in the mosaic, a larger version of the picture will appear along with the comment. Comments may have to do with what a person is doing to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, or what the AIDS crisis means to him or her personally, or the honoring of a friend or a family member who has died of AIDS.

Artists who provided visualizations of the virus also deployed advanced technologies. The gallery had work from the Visualize This collaboration, which used images of T-cells taken with electron microscopes, alongside work by Lennart Nilsson showing the HIV virus attached to a white blood cell.

There was some striking web art in the exhibition. HIV-Positive in Los Angeles tells the stories of twelve individuals living with HIV and uses each subject's voice in the soundscape of the piece. Electronic musicians Ultra-red also had a piece in the show.

The installation included social marketing spots from the Brazilian health ministry, the Heroes Project in India, The Three Amigos cartoons from South Africa, and PSAs from Gran Fury.

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

I Before E

Lately, it seems like the lower case "e" is being replaced by the lower case "i" in the naming conventions for technology related initiatives, although references to e-Government and e-Learning still abound. The plenary speaker at last weekend's iSchools iConference at UCLA (on "iFutures: Systems, Selves, Society" no less)was Microsoft xBox "cruise director" Christa Phillips. Phillips runs GamerChix, which borrows a Rosie-the-Riveter visual aesthetic to appeal to female gamers. I suppose the criticism of the Gamerchix paradigm to be made is the way that "videogames" or "online games" get constituted very narrowly by a set of corporate products that are aimed at a particular youth demographic. As the indie feminist collective of game designers at Ludica often points out, it's important not to count out nostalgic adventure gamers or online card players, who show that there are far more "girl gamers" than many may acknowledge.

Thanks to David Kay for the link.

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Busy Signal

The New York Talk Exchange is another interesting project from the MIT Senseable City Lab, which also worked on Real-Time Rome and other projects covered here on Virtualpolitik. Now installed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the NYTE presents data visualizations that show how data flows from the Big Apple to around the world via IP addresses and telephone numbers in the city.

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The President's Slide Show

The genre of the travel slide show gets considerably less attention now in the age of digital technologies that encourage many-to-many photosharing and geotagging activities that integrate travel photography with other kinds of data representation. Yet slide shows continue to be an important rhetorical occasion for many older Americans who document their travels and then share their experiences in exotic locales with others. Even Al Gore describes his presentation about global warming in the film An Inconvenient Truth as a slide show, so ways of thinking about the politics of image presentation often go back to the tropes that pre-date PowerPoint. Visitors to the Africa pages at the White House website this month can see President George W. Bush's slideshow of Africa. Full video of the slideshow is on the main page. Although the images come from official photographers for the White House, Bush's commentary emphasizes visual jokes that relate to his own personal reception and individual wit.

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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Media Convergence

A video introduction to the new issue of Computers and Composition Online in which I make a brief appearance and show some of my students' work.

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Monday, March 03, 2008

A Modest Proposal

Since introducing Kindle, the wireless e-book reader, it seems that online book-seller is much less likely to offer the "Look Inside This Book" feature that regular users of the site rely upon to locate information. To finish up the Virtualpolitik manuscript, I frequently consulted this tried-and-true look-up tool to find critical phrases or suggestive pieces of text that did not merit a mention in the printed index offered by the publisher. In fact, often I have done this with books that I have already purchased from It seems like it shouldn't be too much to ask to use Amazon's electronic indexing, if you give them your hard-earned money to purchase their books, and yet now regular customers find this feature disappearing from where it was once prominently featured.


Island Getaways

Recently commuters in Southern California may have noticed small but official-looking brown signs that read "ISLANDS OF LA NAT'L PARK" around the city. The signs also direct the inquisitive to the URL There visitors will discover that an artists' collective is designating traffic islands worthy of more attention from busy urbanites. Participants in the project are encouraged to upload photographs of these micro-oases and geotag them for an area map on Flickr. A blog explains the group's rationale further.

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Sunday, March 02, 2008

Snuff in Enough

As a rhetorician and a feminist, I find that I have real trouble with a film like The Violent Oppression of Women in Islam by YouTube director IslamicReformation. As the warning in the front indicates, it contains very graphic content of women's mutilated and naked corpses, in order to argue for a general crusade against Islam on behalf of the West with feminist principles as justification. This video was featured as part of "Islamo-Fascism Month" last October and has been frequently forward via e-mail links.

In the United States, it is true that our news coverage tends to be sanitized in comparison to the rest of the world, where the consequences of war are often shown in close-up photographs of dead bodies. But I don't think I'm just speaking from American prudishness, in expressing discomfort with its status as a feminist work of digital video. I might argue that the appeals to emotion that it makes also have an unmistakably pornographic component, including one twice repeated gratuitous shot of a naked woman in chains. It also contains a number of distortions of fact, beginning with depicting female circumcision as an Islamic practice. By focusing exclusively on women's bodies rather than also include consideration of women's minds, the video also misses a number of significant -- although perhaps less visceral -- issues about the lives of women in the developing world. Education and political participation are also important areas for global feminists. In other words, this film reinscribes some of the same biases that it claims to deplore.

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Cops and Robbers

Tabloid journalism is certainly nothing new. For centuries tales of rape, murder, and intrigue have been important for the print culture of the English speaking world. Now Harvard has made an extraordinary collection of crime broadsides available to the public in digital form. Check out Dying Speeches & Bloody Murders: Crime Broadsides Collected by the Harvard Law School Library. The collection includes some wonderful engravings along with accounts of feral criminals like Thomas Biggs. Thanks to Robert Folkenflik for the link.

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Man on the Street

Man-on-the-street interviews are often used in the broadcast media to provide a sense of the Zeitgeist and can often pad network programming when there isn't enough b-roll or footage of expert talking heads to fill the alloted time. Man-on-the-street interviews can also be used for comic purposes, to demonstrate widespread ignorance about a topic, sometimes in ways that reaffirm cultural stereotypes about the parochialism of Americans about world events.

In the case of the campaign of Barack Obama, these man-on-the-street interviews are frequently used to show that Obama's supporters can not point to specific policy positions or legislative achievements when asked to explain their enthusiasm for the candidate. This kind of footage also appears on shows that satirize American political life on networks like Comedy Central as well.

However, this video about "technical specifics" from one Obama supporter has been watched more than six hundred thousand times as a kind of counter-case.

The young man, Derrick Ashong, also made a vlog-style posting explaining a little bit about his own family's history and his emotional attachment to the candidate here.

Thanks to Patricia Hartz for the links.

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Saturday, March 01, 2008

Iatiomitn is the Hgihset From of Felttary

In "Makers of Scrabble to shut down online version," The Los Angeles Times reports how a popular Facebook application developed by two brothers in India is causing large game conglomerates in the United States to defend their intellectual property. Of course, anyone who has spent any time on Facebook has encountered the Scrabulous phenomenon, where players are often hustling for games on the popular social networking site. What's interesting is that the most obviously copyrightable part of the game, the numerical values of each letter, actually comes from a frequency calculation based on the pages of The New York Times. Although Bruce Schneier may question if people can claim that a numerical sequence constitutes a trade secret, perhaps the Gray Lady may have grounds to want to get in on the dispute as well.

Update: The New York Times is also covering the story here.

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Remix Politics

Like many Angelenos, I have come home to find Jack Nicholson's voice on my answering machine urging me to vote for Hillary Clinton on Super Tuesday, but this mash-up of Nicholson clips -- in what what would otherwise seem to be a massive copyright violation -- which was apparently put together by director Rob Reiner, is something new.

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Surprise Package

After reading my reviews on Virtualpolitik, Geert Lovink sent an envelope full of recent materials from the Institute of Network Cultures that included work by his colleagues covering topics that ranged from Netporn to a critique of the "creative industries." Opening this wonderful media theory present, I was particularly impressed by 1) the collaborative spirit of the materials, 2) the way the varied forms of print documents -- including newspapers and pamphlets -- could respond to issues being debated in the present in the public sphere unlike relatively slow-paced academic publications, and 3) the terrific graphic sensibility and color choices in the design. University publishers in the United States look very staid in comparison.

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