Thursday, February 26, 2009

Conflict Zone

Check out Trebor Scholz's fascinating slideshare presentation about the use of social media by both sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict being staged in the physical space of the Gaza strip. I've written about some of his examples in the Virtualpolitik book and have also blogged about some of his examples here, but he assembles a comprehensive view of these geopolitical exchanges over a broad range of social computing technologies.

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Saving Face

It was with some amusement that I saw the following verbiage when I opened up my Facebook account today:

Terms of Use Update Today we announced new opportunities for users to play a meaningful role in determining the policies governing our site. We released the first proposals subject to these procedures – The Facebook Principles, a set of values that will guide the development of the service, and Statement of Rights and Responsibilities that governs Facebook’s operations. Users will have the opportunity to review, comment and vote on these documents over the coming weeks and, if they are approved, other future policy changes. We’ve posted the documents in separate groups and invite you to offer comments and suggestions. For more information and links to the two groups, check out the Facebook Blog.

In a hilariously sanctimonious posting called "Governing the Facebook Service in an Open and Transparent Way," founder Mark Zuckerberg actually makes the following claim: "Our main goal at Facebook is to help make the world more open and transparent. We believe that if we want to lead the world in this direction, then we must set an example by running our service in this way."

Of course, Facebook's shareholders probably believe that the main goal of the company is to make money by using a huge database of user-generated content for purposes like online advertising and harvesting marketing data. Although this sound byte didn't seem to allow comments, based on their absence, Zuckerberg referred readers to "Town Hall" sites about Proposed Facebook Principles and a Proposed Statement of Rights and Responsibilities.

It is interesting to see more generally how "town hall" in the American vernacular has become a figure for the spectacle of deliberative processes in which there may be no actual policy making but merely a ceremonial airing of public views in a highly constrained situation or platform.

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Forwarding Address

"Hit 'Send' and then hit the door" describes a new genre in office communications, the e-mail written to business colleagues that serves the practical purpose of providing a forwarding address after a resignation or a termination takes place, which may also take on other rhetorical flourishes to indicate a nose-thumbing at corporate culture. One Google employee leaving Imeem used the subject line "So long, suckers! I'm out!"

The newspaper reporting the story, the Los Angeles Times, also was part of the news item:

When Pasadena-based Wescom Credit Union, a firm with about 1,000 employees, had layoffs recently, there were no mass e-mail farewells because workers don't have access to all-encompassing e-mail lists.

"We have very strict standards, safeguards that IT has put in place don't allow that to happen," said Diane Norton Smith, Wescom's vice president for human resources. "I have seen situations where somebody said goodbye and you get the reply all, reply all, reply all, 'We're gonna miss you,' and that clogs up the whole system."

That occasionally happened last summer and fall when the farewells of laid-off Los Angeles Times staffers hit inboxes in successive waves.

Some of the goodbyes were bittersweet, some philosophical. Many were entertaining.

Jaime Cardenas, a young sports reporter, spliced his note with stanzas from Coldplay's "Viva La Vida" ("I used to rule the world . . . Now in the morning I . . . Sweep the streets I used to own."). Perry Crowe, an editor for the Guide, compared losing his job to a scene from a movie: "It's sort of like in Superman II when Non rips the light off the top of a police car and hurls it at a boy in the distance and it explodes like a motherlovin' mortar round and a woman cries out, 'He was just a boy!' "

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Hey Batter, Batter

In "Real baseball players' moves are captured in video games," the Los Angeles Times explains how motion capture suits are used to give videogame players the sense of individualized action in simulating play.

For titles based on football, baseball, basketball, golf and even skateboarding, that means suiting up pro athletes and putting them through the intricate movements they have spent their lives honing.

With baseball, however, there's a twist. Major league players have unique signature moves. Many go through elaborate rituals, often fueled by superstition, just before taking a swing or throwing a pitch.

"People who play our game really notice when the angle of the bat is 5 degrees off," Clements said.

On, a fan-created website dedicated to athletic video games, readers dissect the minutiae. They point out when a player's jersey isn't quite the right color, or when an athlete's hat is positioned incorrectly.

But they also notice when developers get it right. They praise the realism of Matt Holliday's signature leg kick, Albert Pujols' gait or Jim Edmonds' toe lift.

"Baseball, without question, is the most challenging game to make because so many players have signature styles," said Stephen Park, motion-capture coordinator for 2K Sports, a game publisher in Novato, Calif., that also makes basketball, hockey, boxing and tennis games.

As a Dodgers fan, I was of course reading the article in expectation of a mention of famed shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, who has a legendary at-plate ritual sometimes known as the "Nomar dance." Sure enough, I was rewarded for my diligence, as I read on about how the 1300 animations in the MLB videogame database were made.

There are more than 750 players in Major League Baseball, so it's both impossible and impractical to hook up each one to motion-capture machines. Minor league players are often hired to impersonate stars. The stand-ins sometimes require dozens of takes to nail more complicated rituals, such as the elaborate glove adjustments and toe taps by former Dodger Nomar Garciaparra, Park of 2K Sports said.

"Nomar does about 15 or 16 things, and he'll do it exactly the same way every time," Park said. "The talent has to memorize all things exactly."

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Twit for Tat

Like Chris Matthews' relegation of the item to his "Sideshow," in "A Tale of 140 Characters, Plus the Ones in Congress," the Washington Post describes how legislators in the audience from both sides of the aisle listening to Obama's first State of the Union speech were using the microblogging service Twitter. Writer Dana Milbank also offers some editorializing on the phenomenon:

It's bad enough that Americans are paralyzed by economic jitters. Now the president has to deal with lawmakers paralyzed by Twitter. At a time of national emergency, when America needs the focused attention of contemplative and reflective lawmakers, they are dispatching rapid-fire thoughts in 140 characters or less.

Tech President responded with some irritation to what it perceived as a Luddite critique.

Like many, I used the CNN/Facebook interface to watch Obama's address, so I could see the comments of friends and digital media scholars around the nation. I was also checking Twitter and looking for the #nsotu hash mark.

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Diaglamming Sentences

Almost as soon as the State of the Union address ended, there were a number of data mash-ups of the words in his oration. With tag cloud software that shows the relative frequency of a given word, one can peruse Obama's address to Congress or Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal's Republican response.

Other kinds of visualizations have also become popular like NPR's Obama Tracker, which also produced an inauguration widget.

MSNBC offers an interesting video interface that works with the transcript of the speech to encourage viewers to clip and embed particular sections from the speech into other Web 2.0 applications.

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Recovering America

In the State of the Union Address, President Obama mentioned the resources at, an online portal about how the funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will be allocated that promises to offer transparency and accountability to taxpayers. It is interesting to note how a website launch has become so integrated into other presidential rhetorical gestures in the digital age. It is also worth observing that the site design mimics many aspects of the equally optimistically-named, down to the Share Your Story page. Since announcing the White House Internet team, some might wish that someone with data visualization experience would have been included, given the complexity of federal spending and the need for being able to map and chart it interactively in new ways.

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His and Hers

California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has a Twitter feed that he tried to deploy with real-time pressure tactics from voters who might be spurred into messages like the one below as the budget crisis went into overtime and legislators slept at their desks.

@happysurprise Email your Legislator & tell them to vote for budget. Tweet back who you contacted & use #CAbudgetASAP to let others know

The Twitter feed of California's First Lady Maria Shriver also indicates that she is a frequent updater, who also responds to constituents and posts mini-links, despite the fact that her political stance is much less policy-oriented.

It's interesting to note that the state's first couple often also reference each other in their posts. Unlike a regular Twitter couple, however, the reader doesn't see them asking each other to pick items up on their way home or run mundane errands.

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Can You Recall?

FDA Product Recall List

FDA Salmonella Typhimurium Outbreak 2009. Flash Player 9 is required.FDA Peanut Product Recall Widget. Flash Player 9 is required. Visit to search for peanut product recalls or call CDC-INFO at 1-800-232-4636 for more information.

Given the number of food scares of recent month, it is interesting to note the fact that the FDA has actually created an online widget for following product recalls for the most recent peanut-related salmonella outbreak. Worried consumers can also choose to follow the feed for FDA recalls on Twitter.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Help a Needy Investment Banker

This send-up of the starving children televised appeal provides a humorous mash-up of two genres: the government video and the charity TV ad. In reality, the Treasury Department has been relatively slow producing online video, especially in comparison to Britain, where the Treasury and the Chancellor of the Exchequer has its own YouTube channel at HM Treasury.

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Do You Tell Them or Should I?

At its best, blogging offers a number of possibilities for improving public discourse and government accountability: eyewitness journalism that rebuts the official stories, crowdsourcing the interpretation of otherwise unread legislation or other government documents, a broadening of the archive to include more materials from citizens, a rethinking of the parameters of public spaces beyond physical locations like parks and city council chambers, and an opportunity for reflection on the history of the present.

At its worst, blogging turns up the volume on the echo chamber, makes the only agenda hype or self-promotion, and churns out totally banal content only of interest to the author him or herself.

Geert Lovink has written about both sides of this "nihilism" of blogging in Zero Comments.

Unfortunately, during the Bush administration, blogging by government officials and employees was almost entirely of the latter kind. It made it possible to hand out actual awards for badness in e-government in 2006, 2007, and 2008.

The plug hasn't yet been pulled on a few of these Bush administration blogs, but many have improved considerably since the Obama inauguration in terms of readability and responsiveness. Evolution of Security is posting more actual behind-the-scenes information in response to reader queries, in the time after former administrator Kip Hawley's Final Post. Dipnote is trying to reinvent inself with the help of Twitter.

But GovGab continues in its unbloggy vein, as if in a permanent time warp. Although "its purpose is to demonstrate the usefulness, practicality, helpfulness, and vitality of federal, state, and local government information though real-life examples in the bloggers' daily lives," the team of citizen bloggers they have assembled have been given a doomed task, since the blog lacks any coherent subject matter or an engaging policy voice that might draw regular readers.

Its point -- the minutiae of our lives are not so indirectly connected to government services -- is certainly a legitimate one to make, but it's a one note message that is difficult to sustain for weeks and months. This month the fare has included aches and pains (National Dental Health Month, runner's knee), dates on the calendar (Abraham Lincoln's birthday, Valentine's Day), and preparing for the switch to digital TV. Reading GovGab is sort of like reading letters from an elderly shut-in, except without the family scandals, racy stories, and recollections from yesteryear that might make its often mawkish sentiments interesting.

None of this is really the fault of the writers, who have been tasked to be inoffensive, generic, and lacking in professional specialization. GovGab is a doomed vehicle rhetorically, and the bloggers were chosen precisely because they lacked the expertise and authoritative voice that draws readers to most blogs, which generally also develop niche topics rather than dispense advice to Joe Citizen.

After passing its first birthday, GovGab is a toddler now. The rationale for the site was reiterated in Gov Gab: Your U.S. Government Blog Celebrates First Birthday, where readers could see the roster of typical government employee bloggers next to their days in which they celebrate their averageness. For more information, you can listen to this interview with director Beverly Godwin in which she says the dated word "blogosphere" about a dozen times, which is particularly ironic since GovGab generally links to sources of government information rather than engages in dialogue with other blogs.

Now GovGab has moved to Twitter, where it hasn't gotten much better.

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Monday, February 23, 2009

A Podium that Doubles as a Crib

In "Screening Obama," The American Spectator is criticizing the President's plan to install a computer screen in the Chief Executive's podium.

To that end, he says, the White House is looking to install a small video or computer screen into the podium used by the president for press conferences and events in the White House. "It would make it easier for the comms guys to pass along information without being obvious about it," says the adviser.

The screen would indicate whom to call on, seat placement for journalists, pass along notes or points to hit, and so forth, says the adviser.

Using a screen is nothing new for Obama; almost nothing he said in supposedly unscripted townhall events during the presidential campaign was unscripted, down to many of the questions and the answers to those questions. Teleprompter screens at the events scrolled not only his opening remarks, but also statistics and information he could use to answer questions.

"It would be the same idea with the podium," says the adviser.

Conservatives are calling it the "Manchurian Podium," but professional teachers like Virtualpolitik pal Scott Kaufman who have become accustomed to these podiums in so-called "smart" classrooms have a much different reaction. In "I’d prefer a dumb one, you know, so he’d always be having to get back to us later," Kaufman describes the value of unobstructed access to the Internet for answering questions from students quickly and accurately without hemming and hawing.

Nonetheless, in an era of books like The Dumbest Generation in which many bemoan the lack of factoids stored in the average person's head in the age of Wikipedia and Google, it's not surprising to see that presidential authority might be undercut by the seeming erosion of Obama's intellectual autonomy.

Does this mean that my friend quiz show ace Jerome Vered should be in the running for Commander in Chief, or does it mean that Obama is showing his smarts by wanting to have the digital information at his fingertips?

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In Record Time

Generally I ignore the various pyramid schemes for swarm communication on Facebook that are often called, somewhat imprecisely, "memes." Usually they involve lists of some kind and personal disclosure and tend to be more like Truth or Dare than games in with chance and skill play a role. But I made an exception for the recent "album cover meme" that has become popular on the site.

To create your own album cover:

1 - Go to "wikipedia." Hit “random”
or click
The first random wikipedia article you get is the name of your band.

2 - Go to "Random quotations"
or click
The last four or five words of the very last quote of the page is the title of your first album.

3 - Go to flickr and click on “explore the last seven days”
or click
Third picture, no matter what it is, will be your album cover.

4 - Use photoshop or similar to put it all together.

Often this kind of digital ephemera that apes an artifact of material culture is created with a web generator, but in this case the different randomized components are assembled by the participant, so the final product is a kind of quip that uses both happenstance and clever styling.

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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Cruising for a Bruising and Using Mayday for a Payday

Yesterday's story in the Los Angeles Times, "Rihanna photo prompts LAPD probe," is as much about privacy in the digital age as it is about a violent altercation between two Grammy-nominated celebrities. Because Rihanna was a possible victim of domestic violence, a digital photograph of the bruised face of the celebrity was taken by the LAPD to provide evidence of the apparent assault by her boyfriend Brown. After that it appears that the photograph was leaked to the tabloid website TMZ, thus compromising the privacy of the subject of a sensitive investigation. The report explains how this breach may have occured:

The handling and access to photos of abused women has been a issue recently in the department. For years, officers typically attached photos from domestic violence cases to the hard-copy reports they wrote during their investigations. With the advent of digital technology, however, patrol officers now commonly carry department-issued cameras and use them to take images at the scene of alleged abuse cases. Those photos are downloaded to a central computer server in the department, so they can be retrieved later by detectives assigned to a case, according to an LAPD detective supervisor who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak about the case.

In the coverage by Fox News of the story at "TMZ Responds to LAPD Internal Investigation on Battered Rihanna Photo," which also re-ran the photo of the celebrity to titillate viewers, a TMZ representative argues that the onus should be on the LAPD to manage their own employees and that the celebrity website didn't participate in the illegal act of compromising digital files and merely acquired the photograph in good faith.

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The 3AM Phone Call and the 11PM Tweet

Under the Obama administration the U.S. Department of State seems to be trying to revamp its stodgy image by using online social media much more aggressively than ever before in its public relations campaigns. At the same time, the use of third-party commercial sites to store what would normally be considered the public records of a government agency should give some digital rights advocates pause. (See 1, 2, 3 for some specific cases worthy of concern involving YouTube.)

As a case in point, it is interesting to observe yesterday's Twitter feed from the agency during Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent visit to China. Rather than just using Twitter as a traditional one-to-many channel for official announcements, the feed shows interchanges with U.S. expat and Nanjing Diary author Betsy Drager and Boston local anchor R.D. Sahl.

For example, using its blogging identity, Dipnote, the Twittering State Department drew attention to a "Behind the Scenes" album on Flickr with "New photos from Secretary Clinton's trip to China" last night. (See below.)
Those who arrived at the "U.S. Department of State's photostream" on Flickr from the Twitter link would find factory tour photos of the interior of the "Taiyanggong Gas-Fired Plant" or a miniature representation of the site in a "Taiyanggong Gas-Fired Plant Model." Oddly, visitors might also notice that the copyright symbol was prominently displayed below the images, which has since been corrected to a Creative Commons license, which had been the norm for materials on Flickr from the Obama administration. (Click on the image below to see "all rights reserved" earlier state.)

But the most interesting digital event of the evening came in response to a post from Global Voices Online board member Rebecca MacKinnon, who asked the following pointed question: "Telegraph quotes @zengjinyan:"I am under house arrest because Hilary Clinton came" @dipnote: comment from state dept pls?
Soon Dipnote replied to MacKinnon's query with a "we're looking into it" message, which was subsequently deleted from the Twitter feed.

Like me, MacKinnon immediately noticed the deletion on the diplomatic Twitter page, and she also noticed the copyright on the Flickr images from China and announced it to her followers. A correction of the license soon followed. Perhaps as with Virtualpolitik pal Chris Soghoian of Surveillance State, the Obama administration wants to show that it can act quickly when it comes to materials on the web that violate its stated philosophy of transparency and access.

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Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Finish Line for the Ivory Tower

What I remember most about filing my doctoral dissertation in the pre-digital age was running around. To graduate on time, it seemed we all had to be all dashing about in one particular week, gathering signatures and getting documents double-checked, before the university offices closed for the day and the formalized cut-off was one day closer. Even people who had been done for a long time seemed to be making this cross campus series of dashes, to finish up all the bureaucratic okays with time to spare for the inevitable snafus caused by sick professors and forms lost in their inboxes. As I recall, there was a lot of waving and mimed explanations and rolled eyes and lip reading as I passed by my peers all running around at lightning speed.

The final hurdle was the Special Collections room, where a librarian with a rulered template would check the margins on each page for binding purposes. Dissertations could be rejected if there was a stray punctuation mark over the line. Everyone wanted to get Bill Landis (now at Yale) to do the measuring, because he seemed like a mellow guy who wore flip flops to work and Hawaiian shirts, and he always had a nice calming word of congratulations for the frantic dissertation finishers.

What I don't remember thinking about was copyright. Copyrighting our dissertations was just like having the margins correct: it was just another box to be checkmarked to show that we were no longer slacker graduate students but were now magically transformed into university professionals ready for the job market (or in my case a postdoc that I would lose if I didn't file in time).

Actually, that's not quite true. Even a decade later, I do very distinctly remember having just one moment of reflection when I was looking at the copyright symbol next to my name. I can even tell you exactly where I was. I was standing in front of the copy machine on the fifth floor of the humanities library under bright flourescent lights with about two hours left to go before the deadline, which seemed a comfortable margin in comparison with others still racing around campus in my graduating PhD class. I was conscious that feeling harried was about to end and that these were the last moments before I filed. I was reviewing checklists and copying documents, including my title page, to be ready to walk through the door in Special Collections for the last page-measuring ritual. I was looking at the copyright page, which I added in at the last moment, and leaning against that great and glorious mechanism for copyright violation, the library copying machine, which was still warm from my efforts.

Here's what I thought in that instant of epiphany at the copy machine: I hate the copyright symbol.

Since I already had an MFA in creative writing I had a good reason to feel this distaste. In the weekly writer's workshops, we heaped scorn upon the writers who distributed copies of their poems with it pompously emblazoned on the page. It seemed ridiculous to put the copyright symbol on something that would only be passed out to a dozen people who were there to tell you to make changes rather than accept your work as a fixed product under the mark of final ownership.

(Right, we're going to grab that free verse line about the cicada on your mother's shoulder in the rusty dawn, and we are going to steal it and try to pass it off as our own. Hey, never mind the fact that I've been writing rhymed sonnets for the past two years about my own personal life, which are set in a different part of the country and reflect a different cultural context, I am totally going to jack your verse.)

That little "c" in the circle was a signal of paranoia, of self-importance, and of rejection of collegiality. In my creative writing days I was still doing the post-punk thing, so if I didn't like you, you knew it. I would sit with my arms crossed in the poetry workshop, clad in black leather and fishnet stocking and sporting cat eye sunglasses and earrings made from plastic cake decorations (usually pink baby carriages) on a couch with one or two other female members of what pretty much amounted to a gang. It was an academic gang, of course, so there was no actual violence to go along with the stinkeye, but we were pretty rough on the pretentious copyrighters in critiques.

As an editor of literary magazines in college, I hated to see copyright notices on submissions. Inevitably the work was less good than other writing I would see. Somehow, the copyright announced the writer's effort as overwrought juvenalia. It was like beginning a college essay with "throughout history" or "since the beginning of time": you couldn't say why necessarily what was going to follow would certainly not be good, but inevitably that was the case.

So there I was getting ready to turn in what had seemed just a moment ago to be this incredibly important thing, with the argument that would transform the current debate in academia about contemporary avant-gardes and technologies of writing and procedural composition and the meaning of creating schools of writerly affiliation in the postmodern age, the oeuvre that would help everyone finally understand Heidegger, and I suddenly saw it for what it was: a piece of writing with that symbol that had only represented insecurity and fraud in my mind.

Now, in the digital age, much of this dissertation submission running around can be done without leaving one's computer. You still get the hardbound copies to show your parents, but the documents themselves are uploaded to a service like the ProQuest database for archiving and printing. Like many things that are automated, however, there are inevitable losses. For one, there's no human being like Bill Landis to give you a high five. But, more important, it also limits the menu of publishing possibilities to what can be easily represented on a decision tree and takes out all the potential for administrative nuance that stakeholders might want to bring to the process. One of these foreclosed possibilities is variation from the traditional copyright regime.

For Internet researcher danah boyd, this regime has necessitated an uphill battle to give her dissertation a Creative Commons license, which she describes in a posting on her blog about "licensing your dissertation under Creative Commons." It's become a story in the campus newspaper the Daily Cal with a sympathetic item on boyd's dilemma called "Copyright and Copyleft in Publications: Creative Commons, an Alternative to Traditional Copyright, Promotes Wider Access to Knowledge."

Of course, scholars in digital media have had troublesome dissertations for academic departments for many years now. Just listen to Virginia Kuhn about the trials and travails of those like herself who were the first to file digital dissertations. (I'm an ASCII is forever kind of gal, so I'm not sure that rich computational media with custom code is necessarily a better idea than plain text, by the way.)

For years boyd has toyed with the conventions from one of the trickiest of the many genres of academic blogs -- the dissertation blog -- as she regularly updates apophenia. I enjoy reading boyd's blog, but speaking as a specialist in digital rhetoric, I often advise graduate students to steer clear of producing a dissertation blog, unless they are aware of the risks of providing too much disclosure about postponements and setbacks with committees or too little information about final prose content so the blog seems only to be scattering a few incoherent sybil's leaves for potential readers to decipher.

Now boyd has issued the following challenge to her colleagues still in graduate school. (Her other challenge to academics only to publish in open access journals certainly got attention last year.)

I also want to make a plea to all of you grad students out there who are slaving away on your dissertations... Use Creative Commons. The forms you fill out when you file your diss under ProQuest encourage you to make sure to copyright your dissertation. While theft is part of the framing, it is also framed as being about you profiting off of doing so (and ProQuest brokering the sale of your diss). Realistically, 99% of all grad students are never going to see a dime directly from their dissertation. What's the advantage of keeping "all rights reserved"? Why not let folks use it for whatever non-commercial purposes they deem fit (like teaching a chapter or two in class)? I mean... I would LOVE it if someone translated my dissertation. Or remixed it. Or turned it into a movie. That ain't ever gonna happen, but still... why actively prevent it?

Thanks to Siva Vaidhyanathan for the link.

Update: Okay, I'm practicing what I preach. To all critics interested in Objectivism post-Ezra Pound, remix away!

Creative Commons License
Silent Readings: Lessons in Lessons in Objectivist Poetics for Contemporary American Poetry by Elizabeth Losh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Here is the opening paragraph of my now very dated dissertation, although some of these claims could also be applied today to the current Zero Comments blogosphere that is populated by more writers than readers:

After ten years of heated debate about the “death of poetry,” a phenomenon supposedly caused by professional writing programs and the universities that sponsored them, contemporary poetry criticism has been forced to account for a unique situation in the history of literary reception. The poetry workshop as an institution has evolved into a sort of implausible structure of infinite production as professional poets issue forth from hundreds of new M.F.A. programs by the thousands. Many cultural critics have taken the close of the century as a time of ultimate crisis for verse. They believe that the pyramid of literary production and consumption has been inverted and that the university has transformed the people who should be an outside pool of readers into a dependent class of authors.

Ironically, some of the same critics who railed against university-sponsored workshop poetry in the eighties and nineties are now railing against common Internet practices today. Looking at the critical conversation I represent in the first chapter of my dissertation, it's funny to see many of the same names resurface in books like The Dumbest Generation and The Cult of the Amateur.

For more about Creative Commons licenses for dissertations, check out this link for information.

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Friday, February 20, 2009

All Eyes Open

The academic blogosphere has a new addition that has been getting a lot of attention from college writing program administrators, who must often negotiate high-profile political issues raised by writing classes that may become spotlighted for the curious public. To cover these stories for their news-conscious membership, the WPA Network for Media Action has a Watchblog, which "keeps an eye on American media for the presence of articles or opinion pieces on matters related to the teaching of writing or the administration of writing programs in American schools and colleges." Like all good writing teachers, they -- of course -- present some ground rules for online composition, even as they solicit user-generated content:

Posts do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Council of Writing Program Administrators or any of its regional affiliates. Comments are invited in response to posted or linked news items so as to promote a robust conversation on issues of concern to the profession. Comments will be moderated, and commenters are asked to refrain from ad hominem arguments or inflammatory language.

The site is hosted by CompPile, which has a great "inventory of publications in post-secondary composition, rhetoric, technical writing, ESL, and discourse studies" that is also worth checking out.

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Is Grand Theft Auto Guaranteed in the First Amendment or the Fourteenth?

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has struck down California legislation authored by Leland Yee designed to prohibit the sale of violent videogames to minors. In a decision on Video Software v. Schwarzenegger written by Judge Consuelo M. Callahan, the course ruled that labeling laws violated both free speech provisions of the Constitution and its equal protection clause. It will be interesting to see if the case makes it to the Supreme Court.

The Ninth Circuit also boasts of the features of its new web site, which include RSS feeds for content from the court.

We’ve added RSS feeds, so that you can automatically learn of new content on our web site. RSS feeds are available at this time for Opinions, Memorandum Dispositions, Announcements and Cases of Interest. Click on any of the orange RSS icons to add an RSS bookmark to your web browser or RSS reader.

It is interesting to see the face of Judge Alex Kozinski in connection with these web-based innovations, given that the judge has had a somewhat checkered public history with Internet practices and once claimed ignorance when the story "9th Circuit’s chief judge posted sexually explicit matter on his website" appeared.

Kozinski said he must have accidentally uploaded those images to his server while intending to upload something else. "I would not keep those files intentionally," he said. The judge pointed out that he never used appeals court computers to maintain the site.

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Anyone Who Sues Me for Libel Can Post an Entry on This Blog

Nobody loves a scandal as much as I do, so I was sorry when a particularly juicy sounding one involving then presidential candidate John McCain and a female lobbyist disappeared from the headlines. Now, a year later, the New York Times has announced that a lawsuit from the woman in question has been settled with neither side paying damages or making retractions. The only ground given by the NYT appears to have been allowing her lawyers to have this Shakespeare-quoting public statement posted to the paper's website.

It's interesting to see how official websites for public institutions such as those for newspapers or congressional districts are now perceived as areas for potential spaces for shaming, face-saving statements, admissions of guilt, and other discursive compensations for perceived infractions of the social contract. But does this mean that the easiest way to write for the New York Times is to sue them for defamation?

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Off the Map

I rarely think of myself as living on an island. After all, although not entirely landlocked in my coastal city, I could walk on terra firma in most directions for many a mile on dry land. But when I look at Mapping LA, I'm conscious of how Santa Monica, the city in which I live, is a kind of island, because it is surrounded on all sides by the city of Los Angeles.

Thus, I am apparently excluded, since the Los Angeles Times is seeking user-generated content from the city's actual inhabitants, eventually -- one would assume -- to populate their map of LA neighborhoods with data.

We’ve built these shapes from census tracts and blocks so that we can use census data to profile them. And because we know that no single authority can dictate where communities are, or will be in years to come, we are asking you to tell us what you think. Scroll down to leave a comment or draw your community the way you see it. We’ll listen.

Yet digital mapping initiatives that claim to reflect any granularity about the complicated dynamics of the city have often created hostility in the past, as the newspaper should remember from having covered a scandal involving those who planned to map Muslim neighborhoods in a soon-aborted law enforcement scheme.

Comments indicate that Angelenos are generally grousing about where the Times's would-be cartographers drew the boundaries between their neighborhoods, and they are responding with the irritation of a backyard fence dispute. I've culled four representative comments from the many irked visitors to the site, which demonstrate the types of information representation strategies that have made them unhappy with the newspaper's aerial view.

The Southern boundary of Westwood is Olympic Boulevard. You have drawn the map to EXCLUDE both the Westwood Charter Elementary School and the Westwood Hills Congregational Church. The church has been at its location (with the same name) since 1928. Based on the boundaries you have drawn, nearly every child attending Westwood Charter Elementary School lives outside your "Westwood."

What am I missing? The Times' remapping of Eagle Rock makes no sense -- how can you profile a neighborhood that doesn't actually exist? Eagle Rock is already complicated as it has 3 zip codes and even jumps across York at one point -- let's keep things simple and stick with what we know. The ENRC map is well-established and is probably accepted by 99.9% of the residents here. I doubt Eagle Rockers will take kindly to this new-fangled map based on some blather about shapes, census tracts and blocks.

The area between Riverside Drive and the L.A. River is Elysian Valley- NOT Silver Lake. Your map is calling a good chunk of Echo Park Silver Lake. The border should be at Waterloo Street.

Like other commentators, I don't know where "Crenshaw" is. A "Crenshaw Neighborhood" doesn't exist, and if it does I don't think two people could tell you it's boundaries. The only area I've heard referred to as the "Crenshaw District" is Baldwin Village. So is it Crenshaw Manor and Baldwin Village?

It will be interesting to see how the newspaper handles such reactions to their crowd-sourcing effort if they continue to reflect majority opinion and if any of the borders will be redrawn in response.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Paint by Numbers

Lawyers are preparing to defend former street artist and political graphics wunderkind Shepard Fairey against charges that he used a photograph without properly licensing the image to create the iconic Obama "Hope" portrait that now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.

Digital rights advocate and Stanford law professor Larry Lessig is circulating a web page called "Crowd-sourcing a "fair use" case" to encourage readers to donate examples of Obama images to dispute the originality of the pose that is so essential for claiming what Benjamin described as the "aura" in a traditional original work of art.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Eat Hearty

What does it say about the sensibilities of the YouTube audience that far more Americans probably watched this video of this Saudi man eating twenty-two scorpions than have watched any of the online news clips from Arab language channels that portray an unflattering perspective of the U.S. position in the Middle East?

Of course, this is also a recognizable YouTube genre with cross-cultural appeal, like the man who ate monkey chow for a week.

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Should Someone With a Finger on the Button Have Thumbs on the Blackberry?

In "Will the Blackberry Sink the Presidency?" Newsweek offers a grim assessment of possible impacts of the device on the Obama administration in an article that cites several studies about interruption and divided attention. The story also mentions the research of my UC Irvine Gloria Mark that found average workers only work eleven minutes at a time on tasks without being interrupted, while those in technology fields only clock three minutes of total attention at a time. In addition to claiming Obama could be harmed by interruptions and distractions in his presidential duties, the article is also making a not-so-subtle argument about dependency, since it is sprinkled with words like "addiction" and "habit." In contrast, some might argue that this kind of multitasking connectivity might be a boon, since Obama is stepping into a White House that was formerly associated with terms like "bubble" and "echo chamber."

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Monday, February 16, 2009

Digital Engagement Ring

According to this recent job listing, the UK is interested in improving the government's Internet presence by hiring a Director of Digital Engagement. The position promises a hefty six-figure salary, a cabinet office, and a room of one's own in Whitehall. It's so rhetorically interesting in its appeal to possible candidates for the position that I am reproducing the entire advertisement below.

The successful applicant will:

• Develop a strategy and implementation plan for extending digital engagement across Government

• Work with communication, policy and delivery officials in Government departments to embed digital engagement in the day to day working of Government

• Work with Directors of Communication to ensure that digital media are included in the reporting of reaction to Government policy and initiatives

• Work closely with web teams to ensure that digital communications are making the most effective and efficient use of hardware and software

• Act as head of profession for civil servants working on digital engagement

• Ensure that digital engagement is always a leading part of Government consultation

• Introduce new techniques and software for digital engagement, such as ‘jams’ into Government

• Convene an expert advisory group made up of the leading experts on digital engagement to provide advice to Ministers and act as a sounding-board for the Government’s digital engagement strategy

• Work closely with the Ministerial Group on Digital Engagement, delivering the work agreed at Cabinet on digital engagement

You will manage a small team, directly, but will have to manage relationships with a wide group of senior officials across Government. This will require developing working arrangements in which departmental officials feel they are accountable to the Head of Digital Engagement without the benefit of a formal line management arrangement. These relationships will be at Director and Director General level and may well involve five or six departments at any one time. The relationships will be across professions, involving policy and delivery officials as well as communications and IT. Since this is a new role charged with getting Government to work differently, you will have to develop these relationships from scratch in a pressured environment in which Ministerial expectations of delivery are high.

You will have a small budget, but two key purposes of the job are to assist Government in making effective use of current digital spend, which runs into many millions, and to enable departments to save significant sums on their engagement activities through switching from expensive face to face and postal methods to cheaper digital techniques. You will be accountable for leading Government’s new focus on digital engagement, which is central to Government priorities and with significant risk of reputational damage if this does not happen or Government gets it wrong.

You will be accountable to the Permanent Secretary - Government Communications and to the Minister for the Cabinet Office.

Judgement will be crucial in this role. It leads on the future of Government engagement with citizens through digital means. This means that the post will be breaking new ground on a daily basis, across Government. The agenda is politically very high profile and full of complex issues between and within departments that you will have to exercise very sensitive judgement on how to manage and resolve. You will have a level of professional expertise that is likely to mean that you will be unique in your ability to exercise judgement and provide advice to Ministers and Permanent Secretaries/ senior officials on matters within your remit.

Influence is a key aspect of this role. You will be required to exercise influence across departments with Ministers and senior officials to drive forward the future of digital engagement. This will require Government and individual departments to change the way they do business – from consulting citizens to collaborating with them on the development of policy and how public services are delivered to them. It will involve supporting Ministers and senior officials in entering conversations in which Government does not control the message or the dialogue. Giving Ministers and senior officials the confidence to do this will require influencing skills of the highest order. This role has few direct reports and little direct resource at its command. The ability to make change and delivery of challenging objectives happen by
negotiation, persuasion and influence will be critical.

This is not a role for a generalist. The professional skills required are formidable. Engagement in the digital space is a young ‘profession’ and the job requires someone who would be acknowledged by their peer group to be a leader in this field. The successful candidate will have a CV that creates instant credibility and confidence with Ministers, senior officials and digital communicators in Whitehall.

Within six months the Head of Digital Engagement will have developed a strategy and implementation plan and be able to show concrete signs of momentum in executing the plan.

Within a year the Head of Digital engagement should be able to point to two departments whose use of digital engagement are recognised in the digital community as being world class

Within two years the use of world class digital engagement techniques should be embedded in the normal work of Government.

As someone who has written a book about the rhetoric of e-government in the U.S., it's interesting to consider the English strategy for avoiding the kinds of snafus that I have described. The emphasis on "negotiation, persuasion and influence" and the acknowledgment that agents of the virtual state represent a "profession" that is "young" seem particularly noteworthy features of the ad. Of course, skeptics will also point to the small budget and undefined command structure as potential weaknesses in the very nature of the job. I also think that a "generalist" may be precisely who they need, given the challenges of digital rhetoric.

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Problem Solved

Of course, I love web generators almost as much as cell phone trees and have written an entire scholarly paper about them and the ways this online genre offers opportunities to parody the pseudo-interactivity of Web 2.0 and other phenomena of contemporary Internet culture. Given the popularity of tax cut calculators during the last election, it is true that the central joke of the GOP Problem Solver could be aimed at some Democrats as well. Users type in an answer in the online form that asks "What is the biggest problem in your life?" and the system generates a tax cut of various sizes.

Thanks to Siva Vaidhyanathan for the link.

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Sunday, February 15, 2009

My Funny Frankenpine

I love cell phone trees. I have a portion of my Flickr site devoted to them. I gave out Christmas calendars that allowed me to share my favorite snaps of them with geospatial data.

So I certainly noticed the cover of The Infrastructural City when I saw it in the window of my local art and architecture bookstore. From the text I learned that these sublime creations were also known as "Frankenpines" and could be seen as a symbol of how the city can be mapped as both artificial forest and web of potential communication nodes. Other essays acknowledged a confluence of interests around beloved local institutions like The Center for Land Use Interpretation. As a native Angeleno who married into a family of designers and landscape architects, I would probably have picked up the book even without the jaunty cellular specimen on the cover.

Since the collection was edited by Kazys Varnelis, who also edited the excellent recent title Networked Publics in which the collaboratively written essays avoid the exhausted utopian paeans or dystopian diatribes that fill far too much of the computational media bookshelf, I found myself recommending it to others.

Now the Los Angeles Times is suggesting that even more people should be reading Varnelis's book, since the Obama stimulus plan is calling for infrastructure-building at a time when critical reflections on the nature of infrastructure are few and far between. Check out "What's the future of 'The Infrastructural City' of L.A." for the review.

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Maybe They Just Hated the Crayons and Rainbows

Publicists for the Killeen Furtney Group who are representing the controversial mother of octuplets, who pursued fertility treatments despite having already had six children and no source of personal income with which to support her enormous family financially, complain of receiving death threats from enraged taxpayers. A website requesting PayPal donations that the publicists established apparently exacerbated this popular outrage about Nadya Suleman's continued public relations efforts. The site also features a comment form that might be called asking for trouble or inviting selective reading by those at the other end.

The Suleman case represents a number of thorny issues about reproductive freedom, but the emphasis on the website isn't on making a feminist case for the rights of those seeking fertility treatments and for women to make decisions about their own bodies but on appealing for funds by drawing on online baby book clichés and stock imagery from the visual culture of infancy of blocks and crayons.

Online appeals for funds can often be tricky. What disgraced evangelist Ted Haggard thought of as a private request via e-mail to a few supportive friends soon became a news item for the broader Christian community complete with a link to a Microsoft Word file in which Haggard makes his digital case for cash.

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Saturday, February 14, 2009

On the Tweet Where I Live

I'm afraid I'm like many Twitter users, unsure of how to use the service and integrate it into my daily life. Even on inauguration day when I was actively following the Tweets of others, I found myself more comfortable engaging with microblogging-style interchanges in Facebook status updates.

One solution is to make the locative aspects of this kind of computing more present by using filters like Nearby Tweets to check out what is happening in your neighborhood by using information from GPS enabled cell phones. However, since I live near an area of clubs and bars in touristy Santa Monica, it's mostly the random musings of the hook-up crowd, so I don't get a sense of the Zeitgeist of my neighborhood.

Technology columnist David Pogue suggests that part of the confusion may have to do with how the site adapts itself to multiple needs. In "Twitter? It’s What You Make It," he explains how the possibility to tap into collective intelligence was what attracted him at first.

I was serving on a grant proposal committee, and I watched as a fellow judge asked his Twitter followers if a certain project had been tried before. In 15 seconds, his followers replied with Web links to the information he needed. No e-mail message, phone call or Web site could have achieved the same effect. (It’s only a matter of time before some “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” contestant uses Twitter as one of his lifelines.)

Pogue then describes being confronted with conflicting advice and contradictory sets of basic principles. He felt his confusion was resolved after a discussion with Twitter co-founder Evan Williams, which led him to the following conclusion:

Twitter, in other words, is precisely what you want it to be. It can be a business tool, a teenage time-killer, a research assistant, a news source — whatever. There are no rules, or at least none that apply equally well to everyone.

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Friday, February 13, 2009

Looky Here

In "Agency Skeptical of Internet Privacy Policies," the New York Times reports that a recent press release, FTC Staff Proposes Online Behavioral Advertising Privacy Principles," makes clear that federal agencies are expressing skepticism about how forthcoming Internet companies that collect data are with the users of their social computing applications. The days of non-regulation and voluntary compliance may be coming to an end, according to the FTC's official report at Behavioral Advertising, Moving the Discussion Forward to Possible Self-Regulatory Principles. Certainly many who specialize in digital rights have argued that user agreements with endless verbiage that force consumers to agree to give up their privacy without any conditions in order to even use the products to which hours of unpaid labor are often contributed.

Update: Check out the snazzy new design of the FTC website above, and consider how this story about how "Facebook’s Users Ask Who Owns Information" may show that the FTC has good reason to be interested in privacy policies.

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Brother's Keeper

It's been said that the problem with social network sites is that you can never get totally away from your past or lose yourself entirely in the world, but this could also prove to be one of the strengths of this kind of social computing platform, because distributed communication allows people to stay connected despite the dislocations of the postmodern world.

Suzanne Hurray Seggerman, president and founder of Games for Change, has an innovative use of the social network site Facebook as a possible tool to help find missing persons. She launched a Facebook group called Looking for Robert Phillip Snyder b. 08/16/59, where several members are already using amateur data mining techniques to help track down Snyder.

Looking for Robert Phillip Snyder, born in Huntington Long Island on 8-16-1959. He worked for the US Park Service in Washington state in the 1980s. His brother Chris is a homeless guy on my corner - a good, kind and decent man who would like to find his brother. I've never seen Chris strung out, or drinking - he's always cheerful and kind to everyone in our neighborhood. He works when he can - shoveling our cars out of snow ditches, helping with the set up of the local market, doing odd jobs whenever anyone asks him. He likes to ride his bike and read books (mysteries are his favorites) and has been gentle and sweet with my daughter ever since she was a baby. When I first met Chris on his birthday 15 years ago, I remember that we were both in our early 30s - and that he looked his age. He was relatively healthy, with clean clothes and a normal weight. Not surprisingly, all that has changed over the years. Now he's extremely thin, grimy, losing his teeth and looks a decade older than his years, though he is always friendly and cheerful. I worry about his ailing health and want to help him find his brother before something more serious happens to him. I think through the power of Facebook, we can help Chris find his brother. Even if you have issues with how or why people become or stay homeless, please consider this as someone simply looking for a long-lost brother.

Considering some of the experiences that I've had recently with homelessness in my neighborhood, in which there was also a brother's keeper angle involved, I'm hoping for a happy ending in the Snyder case.


Cool Under Pressure

Government websites now provide more multimedia resources, although they also continue to provide traditional print reports that document incidents, disasters, new policies, publications from fact-finding committee, and other bureaucratic forms of public rhetoric. First the Coat Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board released video of the dramatic footage of the recent plane landing in the Hudson River without fatalities. Now the FAA has released the audio files that record the calm, businesslike exchanges that the pilot carried on with aircraft controller even as a deadly disaster loomed. The neutrality of the voice that frames the file and authenticates the contents is also an example of the affect-free professional decorum associated with aviation and its public rhetoric.

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Alternatives are being sought for those who teach and conduct research with YouTube, as scholarly critiques of the Google-owned commercial site begin to appear, such as the recent Video Vortex Reader, a collection of articles that includes the work of Geert Lovink, Lev Manovich, Alexandra Juhasz, and myself. Higher education is just beginning to realize the difficulty of making accommodations to this omnivorous database of videos that fundamentally relies on fostering proprietary technologies and gathering consumer data in ways that trouble privacy advocates.

In "YouTube Goes Offline," the official blog of the video sharing site explains a pilot project that will be better suited to universities that use the site for disseminating online lectures.

We are always looking for ways to make it easier for you to find, watch, and share videos. Many of you have told us that you wanted to take your favorite videos offline. So we've started working with a few partners who want their videos shared universally and even enjoyed away from an Internet connection.

Many video creators on YouTube want their work to be seen far and wide. They don't mind sharing their work, provided that they get the proper credit. Using Creative Commons licenses, we're giving our partners and community more choices to make that happen. Creative Commons licenses permit people to reuse downloaded content under certain conditions.

Unfortunately, as the posting goes on to explain, the company is also making plans to monetize these downloads, obviously with the intend of furthering partnerships with distance learning initiatives that would benefit from pay-t0-play models for displaying and archiving content.

At the same time, the New Media Consortium, which presented recently at the traditionally technology-averse MLA, about new forms of publication and scholarship in the digital humanities. Their presentation is available in two parts on YouTube.

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Taken for Granted is designed to be a site for one-stop-shopping for those pursuing taxpayer-funded projects, but even the site's own FAQ acknowledges possible pitfalls to be encountered in its Byzantine procedures and from its overloaded servers nearing deadline times.

Blogger Isaac Seliger has described in " Lurches Into the 21st Century" some of the problems with at all levels from platform to interface to code, as the following passage indicates.

One fun aspect of submitting through is that the system generates a total of three emails after upload to confirm the upload process, but gives itself 48 hours to do so. Thus, the real world deadline for submissions is actually two days in advance of the published deadline, since, unless there is a system meltdown, the funding agency is unlikely to give you any slack. So, if the upload gets screwed up, you’re generally screwed as well. And, of course tech support (actually provided by IBM) is closed on weekends, making Monday submissions especially festive. Finally, the tech support people have no knowledge of the funding programs and the program officers at the funding agencies have little if any technical knowledge. This sets up a perfect opportunity for being bounced back and forth between the two, making a call to tech support a virtual guarantee of frustration.

This endemic problem with lag time is an open secret at universities, which have designed means to compensate for problems with agencies like the National Endowment for the Humanities by building in safeguarding procedures of their own.

Cheryl Ball
passed on the following amazing piece of bureaucratic prose from her own university's guidelines on how to handle online submission with

The federal grant submission system is currently experiencing significant system problems. These problems stem from the system’s inability to process ever larger numbers of submissions as additional federal agencies require submission through this system. As a result, university research offices across the nation are finding that they are unable to log in to the system. If they are able to log in they are unable to submit, and if they are able to submit they do not receive a tracking number – required for a submission to be considered submitted “on time” by the posted deadline. It is taking 3-7 days of continual attempts to submit to receive the tracking number prior to the posted deadline for grant opportunities.

If the proposal does not get processed through the system (assigned a tracking number) prior to the posted deadline, it will be considered “late” and not accepted for review. There are no allowances made for system problems. The and agency stance is that we have been advised that the system is overloaded and having problems, so it is the PI/institutions fault if the proposal is not processed due to system problems.

Therefore the following process is recommended and requested:

1. PIs should contact RSP for an appointment to come in to review the appropriate submission package forms and requirements as soon as they think they might submit.

2. As work on the submission progresses, PIs should email the application package to their contact in RSP so review can begin on sections as they are completed. If the application package becomes too large to email to RSP, it may be sent to RSP on a flashdrive .

3. 1 week prior to the posted grant proposal deadline the PI must bring the completed proposal application package and the completed RSP Proposal Submission Form to RSP for review. Please note that RSP staff work Monday through Friday 8am to 4:30 pm, and are not available to assist PIs after hours or on the weekend.

4. Proposals must be submitted by the ISU internal deadline to insure that RSP has adequate time to review the proposal.

5. Failure to submit a proposal to RSP by the internal deadline may result in the rejection of your proposal due to errors or omissions or overload.

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Writing in Sand

Jane Fountain has written convincingly about the historic role that online forms played in creating the conventions that govern the design of government websites as a site of Weberian bureaucracy and the resources of the virtual state. It is also worth examining how some online forms may inspire more user frustration than others. I am thinking specifically about writable PDFs, which seem like a good idea in that text is more legible than hand-written versions, but these forms suffer from the defect of not allowing users to save work as they write.

Consider the state of California's form to "Request for Orders to Stop Harassment," a common form used in domestic violence cases and other potentially lethal situations in which a victim is being stalked, threatened, or tormented by a fellow citizen who has not been caught in the act by a law enforcement officer. The form allows the injured party to make a case in complicated "he said/she said" situations.

Unlike forms that only emphasize descriptive checklists, such as the Los Angeles County's inspection form for substandard housing, which catalogs common situations requiring remediation like "Overgrown vegetation, weeds, and debris constituting an unsightly appearance or a danger to public safety and welfare" or "Attractive nuisances in the form of abandoned or broken equipment and neglected machinery," the restraining order form contains a number of open-ended questions that require references to specific records or careful choices of language, such as "How do you know the person in 2?" and "Did the person in 2 engage in a course of conduct that harassed you and caused substantial emotional distress?" and "Should the other people listed in 3 also be covered by the orders described above?" Those who fill out the form are frequently instructed to "describe" or "explain."

And yet, one accidental brush of the mouse can delete the entire carefully composed narrative of abuse or humiliation, requiring the victim to start over from the very beginning. Furthermore, in Firefox the button marked "Print This Form" did not lead to the expected result while the all to easy to activate "Clear This Form" worked perfectly.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

King for a Day

In his talk "Society as Software," John L. King dissected a number of glossy new media titles, such as Lawrence Lessig's Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace and Gert Hofstede and Gert Jan Hofstede's Cultures and Organizations: The Software of the Mind, that depend on the analogy between human procedures for cultural organization and lines of machine-readable code despite the absence of the term "software" in their indexes. He also expressed his disappointment in the Cartesian critique of Richard Rorty's "The Brain as Hardware, Culture as Software" despite his respect for the recently deceased philosopher. Although he didn't meantion Cultural Software by J.M. Balkin among what he calls his "list of frauds," he argued that the analogical concept has "traction" but little substantive analysis about how the comparison actually works.

Chiefly he argued that the claims of these humanists and social scientists have far too little to do with the discipline of computer science with which he has associated himself and reflect a vernacular sense of the "loose notion of society" that has little to do with machinery. As he put it, understanding software can be challenging but understanding society is even more difficult. In contrast, King asserts that there is a lot to be learned from mothballed works in information science on the topic, such as the 1975 book Computing an Introduction to Procedure and Procedure Followers or the 1987 article by Leon Osterweil "Software Processes are Software Too." King pointed out that Osterweil even compared the law to software years before Lessig made this same rhetorical move.

Although he illustrated his talk with everything from film stills from Rocky IV (to illustrate Cold War ideas about man and machine) or historical photographs of steam engines, King's main example had to do with the computerization of air travel procedures that is still dictated by the three aging IBM databases designed to calculate the number of meals needed in-flight. In taking the audience through his own experiences booking a flight on Northwest to his speaking engagement, he explained how -- just as computer scientists grapple with attempting to remake the Internet in initiatives like GENI and avoid the pitfuls of the "bricolage" that we currently have, which is characterized by unanticipated uses and purposes -- integrated systems for air travel show the impossibilities for testing the system as the events of September 11th did. King also offered a hopeful message about how even during "runtime" the passengers on United Flight 93 were also able to exploit affordances and attack the attackers during their unanticipated combat mission.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

These Are a Few of My Favorite 25 Random Things

I've been holding out against the latest Internet meme in which people list "25 Random Things about Me" and tag others to similarly divulge their lists. After being tagged, I've given in to previous viral fads for posting "eight random facts" or "five things you don't know about me," but this one seems to strain the conventions of reciprocality that continue to be important in online communities, as much as I've enjoyed reading lists by McKenzie Wark, Amy Bruckman, and Eszter Hargattai and as interesting as these disclosure memes may be as a distinct genre propagated by social network sites even more vigorously than more public blogs. Obviously the appeal of this pyramid scheme for selective and ironic self-display runs beyond the circle of scholars of Internet culture, since even former California governor and present-day Attorney General Jerry Brown is getting into the act with his own list that includes a dislike of the pesticide malathion and nostalgic memories of being a high school cheerleader.

Digital wags are also getting into the act. Andy Borowitz has posted "25 Random Facts about Marie Curie," and David Mirsky, former guardian of the Worst of the Web, has suggested cataloging "25 Things about Nothing."

Update: In "Facebook's '25 Things' Too Many" and "Charles Darwin Tagged You in a Note on Facebook," news organizations like the Los Angeles Times and Slate get into the act.

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Friday, February 06, 2009

Procedures and Networks

This week I watched homelessness begin, much of it from the window near where I am writing this blog entry.

I was at work for the actual moment of its inception, when -- on a cloudy Wednesday morning -- the sheriff came, and the locks were changed on an apartment unit near our alley. It had been occupied for over thirty years by a person who was now our former tenant, one whose mental illness had frightened and exhausted his neighbors in recent years.

Those who lived near him had endured months of blood-curdling shouting of threats and obscenities the in the middle of the night, smashed mailboxes and gates, torn-up paychecks and notices, stolen packages, disabled hot water heaters, and urine and human feces in the walkways. They were the audience for ugly confrontations in which their deranged fifty-eight-year-old neighbor would announce that he would kill them on their door stoops if they protested that they were in the right about issues of civility involving everyday conflicts about shared public space and the details of lights, garbage cans, and parking places.

I became practiced in making small talk with the police, who would knock on our door on a weekly and sometimes nightly basis. One time it was a mustachioed detective, who came with a dossier of photographs under his arm. I could see that there were shots of a woman's body covered with bruises.

Of course, we had delayed the inevitable as long as possible, because it was obvious that there were some organic factors involved. At first these changes made him docile and childlike. He wrote apologetic notes on legal pads expressing his fears that he may have neglected to pay his rent. Sometimes we would open our mailbox and there would be a half-dozen such notes crammed together with checks, as though he had forgotten each one as soon as it had been deposited in our box.

In the beginning, his expressions of helplessness were a welcome relief: he had always been a curmudgeonly presence in the neighborhood, the lone Republican in a block of liberal Democrats, who was likely to be drunkenly abusive to those who came to his door, especially women or people of color.

But, even during what now seems a honeymoon period, there were signs that we might not be able to handle his demands. He called to express outrage about the poor security conditions in the building. He reported that someone had broken into his apartment and had stolen his television, and he wanted repairs and perhaps even compensation. There was a broken window to support his claim, but we were puzzled when we found the television set in the garbage can. Later it came out that he had broken into his own apartment and had loudly announced his intentions before doing so, even when the other tenant-spectators pointed out that he could just wait a few minutes and enter through the door without causing any damage if he just made an emergency call to management for a key.

As his condition worsened, medical people and nurses came and went. Sometimes he seemed drugged. He shuffled around the bungalow courtyard as if puttering at imaginary chores. His car acquired more dents and then disappeared from the street entirely. We accepted the idea of having a premature senior citizen as our doddering and forgetful tenant.

Then he he began to send the home health aides away, and it was as though he had returned to being his former obstreperous self. He began to talk long striding walks in which he would glare contemptuously at street people and those he called "crackheads." When we would pass him during our own promenades, he clearly knew us and addressed us by name dismissively. He seemed alert and impatient during our attempts at neighborly interchanges.

Then he began to harass the other tenants, as if hoping they would move out and leave him in peace to perform what were becoming increasingly strange rituals. He threatened to shoot his neighbor across the way and bragged of owning "three guns." He threw himself and heavy furniture against the wall that he shared with another neighbor and would scowl at him menacingly when he stole his newspaper in the morning. They were afraid of him, but they were also afraid of what he might do if they called the police to file charges.

It took the better part of a year to evict him, despite a file of pleading letters from the other tenants. Before that, we spent a year trying to get him the full-time in-home care that he seemed to need. It was no use. He had turned away everyone we sent: a social worker, a health inspector, an entire psychiatric emergency team. Although we often felt like his victims, we even filed the paperwork to treat his case as possible elder abuse, in hopes that an investigation would get him the medical care and housekeeping assistance that he so obviously needed. Adult protective services told us that they couldn't help him if he refused care. Anyway, they said, he was fifty-eight and the cut-off for eligibility was sixty.

On the day of the lockout, no one came. His brother and caregiver were notified; they responded with outrage and obscenities but were no shows when it really mattered. He came back to try his key in the door. It rained. He came back again. It rained again. Like a caged animal, he tore up newspapers and made a bed for himself in them. He hiked down his pants and urinated in the greenery. It rained again. Every day the police were called. They had procedures too. We collected their business cards and slips with the incident numbers. One time, I watched him be cuffed on an outstanding warrant with his back turned obediently toward them. Another time, I watched the officers run into the alley to apprehend him after he had torn off a window screen and was bashing it up into a tool for more mayhem.

It made me think about computer games that purport to be games for change. The same kind of playable computer simulations for generating multiple outcomes from multiple factors that are currently used to raise consciousness about hunger, illness, and injustice could dramatize how homelessness begins as well. After all, homelessness can be seen as the product of the aggregation of rules and, as Ian Bogost might say, epitomizes the principles of procedurality. Too young to be judged senile, too old to be ruled dependent, too seemingly nonviolent for longterm lock-up, too violent for family living.

His lack of social networks also obviously played a role, since there was no one to come for him on the day that the locks were changed on his apartment. He had lived a solitary life: worked at home, never married, and avoided the church congregations and civic organizations and neighborhood associations that might have helped him when his behavior began to deteriorate.

My point is this: learning about distributed communication and computational media isn't just about gadgets and new technologies; it's about being able to model social dynamics as well and maybe even understand possible solutions to complicated and seemingly intractable problems like homelessness.

From my perspective, it's too late for this particular person. We're installing new gates. We're turning our address into a fortress. But this experience of seeing how homelessness happens in slow motion over the course of years makes me see people on the street differently and makes me wonder if the process is as inevitable as it can seem.

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