Monday, November 30, 2009

Game On

In "UC Irvine takes video games to the next level," the Los Angeles Times trumpets the new programs at the Center for Games and Virtual Worlds, where I am a member of the affiliated faculty and an organizer of one of talks in their seminar series. But the star of the piece was justifiably Dan Frost, who I interviewed today with my colleague Jonathan Alexander for a piece for an upcoming issue in the journal Currents in Electronic Literacy on the theme of "Gaming-Across-the-Curriculum: Playing as a Way of Learning."

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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Pray to Play

Mass We Pray, supposedly from PrayerWorks Interactive, actually leads to a trailer for the upcoming videogame/literary adaptation of Dante's Inferno, which has been praised by Ian Bogost and which I played at Comic-con this year.

Thanks to Marc Van Gurp of Osocio for the link!

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Saturday, November 28, 2009

A Star is Boring

In an unusual pitch, George Mason University is encouraging potential college applicants to watch and upload videos to YouTube that might be featured on their YouTube channel. My seventeen-year-old son received the following message in an e-mail.

Congratulations! Based on the information you provided to the CollegeBoard
I believe you are a strong candidate for George Mason University, Virginia's flagship institution in the Washington, D.C. region. I have selected a small group of students like you to offer a new opportunity.

While many colleges will have your data, at Mason we want to get to know YOU. To help, we are the first university in the country to incorporate YouTube into our online application, allowing you to show off your creativity, talent, and personality.

Want to see what other students like you have done for their applications? Several of our applicants have already made their videos public, just like the one in this email, and you can view them all (you can even vote and help us pick the video of the month - and after you submit, find out what other people think of your video)!

Check out the videos, make your own, and be sure to submit your application. We look forward to seeing you at George Mason University!

This mixture of a not-for-profit educational institution and the aspirations of the young to the social mobility represented by higher education with a platform for corporate data mining and unremunerated user-generated content seems to be incompletely examined by college administrators who obviously have no fear of the Googlization of Everything.

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Friday, November 27, 2009

Rules of Engagement

As someone authoring an article in next year's Pacific Coast Philology, a publication of the PMLA, on "Regulating Violence in Virtual Worlds: Theorizing Just War and Defining War Crimes in World of Warcraft," it was with great interest that I heard from Ren Reynolds about "Playing by the Rules: Applying International Humanitarian Law to Video and Computer Games," a report issued by the human rights group TRIAL.

The analysis chose to focus on video and computer games because, unlike literature, films and television, where the viewer has a passive role, in shooter games, the player has an active role in performing the actions. Furthermore, video games are increasingly used as a training tool within the military and are often set in present day conflicts (e.g. Afghanistan or Iraq), thus illustrating the realism these games have now achieved.

The report aims at developing awareness among developers and distributors of games portraying armed conflict scenarios in order to encourage them to incorporate the rules that apply to such conflicts in real life, namely those of international human rights law and international humanitarian law.

Pro Juventute and TRIAL selected twenty games and analysed them according to a list of violations identified by specialists in international humanitarian law. They were then graded according to the intensity of the breaches identified. Hence, when a behaviour that violates the current rules regulating armed conflicts was sanctioned in the game, the game was labelled as “good”. When such violations were committed by the enemy (i.e. not by the gamer), the game was labelled as “mild”. When the gamer could choose to breach the rules regulating armed conflicts but was not obliged to do so in order to succeed in the game, the game was classified as “medium”. Finally, when such violations were required in order to succeed in the game, the game was labelled “strong”.

The report identified that, while certain games incorporate rules that encourage the gamer to respect human rights and international humanitarian law, most of them contain elements that violate these international standards. The most frequent violations encountered in the games were violations of the legal principles of distinction and proportionality. They include extensive destruction of civilian property and/or injury or deaths of civilians, not justified by military necessity, as well as intentionally directing attacks against civilians or civilian objects, including religious buildings such as mosques or churches. Another common violation was cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or torture. In several instances, these violations occurred in the context of an interrogation and in many cases, they ended in an extrajudicial execution. Direct attacks against civilians were also frequent violations, the victims mostly being hostages or civilians present in a village who were not mere casualties but rather directly targeted.

The report thus recommends that game developers avoid creating scenarios that easily lead to violations of the rules regulating armed conflicts. More generally, the report underlines that, as certain games illustrate, there are means of incorporating rules that encourage the gamer to respect human rights and international humanitarian law. Such an approach should be further developed, in order to create players with a more accurate perspective of what is lawful and what is not in real armed conflict situations or law enforcement operations.

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Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Barricades

Social network sites are featuring images of conflict on campuses in the public university system, as the state of California's fiscal crisis continues to take a toll on higher education. Dramatic video is being circulated of UCLA students protesting a regents meeting at which fee hikes and budget cuts are going into effect, and the video below shows a student on my own UC Irvine campus on the wrong end of an altercation with police.

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Wrong-Way Allocation

Reader Michael Thomas points out the amazing story of this bandwidth sale in which the "U.S. Federal Communications Commission inadvertently sold the operating frequency band of the B-2 bomber’s Raytheon AN/APQ-181 radar to an obscure firm headed by a Russian-educated citizen of Mali." According to the article, "Installing new radar arrays on the 20 surviving jets will reportedly cost 'well over $1 billion.'"

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Under the Bright Lights

Fellow Digital Media and Learning blogger danah boyd recently described a public speaker's worst nightmare scenario in the era of Web 2.0. As boyd explains in "spectacle at Web2.0 Expo... from my perspective," Twittering members of the audience derailed her talk with publicly visible snarkiness that rattled her nerves at the podium.

I think that the backchannel is perfectly reasonable as a frontchannel when the speaker is trying to entertain, but when the goal is to convey something with depth, it encourages people to be impatient and frustrated, to feed on the speaker. There's a least common denominator element to it. I was not at Web2.0 Expo to entertain, but to inform. Yes, I can be an entertaining informant, but there's a huge gap between the kind of information that Baratunde tries to convey in his comedic format and what I'm trying to convey in a more standard one. And there's no doubt I packed too much information into a 20 minute talk, but my role is fundamentally to challenge audiences to think. That's the whole point of bringing a scholar to the stage. But if the audience doesn't want to be challenged, they tune out or walk out. Yet, with a Twitter stream, they have a third option: they can take over.

The problem with a public-facing Twitter stream in events like this is that it FORCES the audience to pay attention the backchannel. So even audience members who want to focus on the content get distracted. Most folks can't multitask that well. And even if I had been slower and less dense, my talks are notoriously too content-filled to make multi-tasking possible for the multi-tasking challenged. This is precisely why I use very simplistic slides that evokes images for the visual types in the room without adding another layer of content. But the Twitter stream fundamentally adds another layer of content that the audience can't ignore, that I can't control. And that I cannot even see.

Now, I'm AOK with not having complete control of the audience during a talk, but it requires a fundamentally different kind of talk. That was not what I prepared for at all. Had I known about the Twitter stream, I would've given a more pop-y talk that would've bored anyone who has heard me speak before and provided maybe 3-4 nuggets of information for folks to chew on. It would've been funny and quotable but it wouldn't have been content-wise memorable. Perhaps that would've made more sense? Realistically though, those kinds of talks bore me at this point. So I probably would've opted not to give a talk at all. Perhaps I'm not the kind of speaker you want if you want a Twitter stream? But regardless, what I do know is that certain kinds of talks do not lend themselves to that kind of dynamic. I would *NEVER* have given my talk on race and class in such a setting. I shudder to think about how the racist language people used when I gave that talk would've been perceived on the big screen.

I suspect that these kinds of more public backchannels may be here to stay at academic conferences. I know from my own talks, that seeing the critical responses of live bloggers and status updaters can be disconcerting, so I'd probably rather keep myself unaware of those exchanges at the moment of performance whenever I can.

From a rhetorical perspective, this conflict between traditional oratory and the text message is interesting, of course, but I suspect this won't be the last story about it.

Thanks to Vivian Folkenflik for the link.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

All That Twitters May Not Be Gold

When commenting on the use of Twitter as a vehicle for public comment on proceedings of the Federal Trade commission, Steven Clift points out the limitations of this single-platform approach.

This may be one of the first government-hosted conferences using Twitter for people to submit questions. (I wonder why not also allow e-mail since most Internet users still don't use Twitter?) On a related noted, why only 31 public comment submission so far? -

Ironically, this short format communications channel is being used for a serious topic that deserves more column space, a "New Media Workshop" on "How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?" to be held December 1-2, 2009 in Washington, DC and via webcast.

The Federal Trade Commission will hold two days of workshops on December 1 and 2, 2009, to explore how the Internet has affected journalism. The event is free and open to the public. The workshop will assemble representatives from print, online, broadcast and cable news organizations, academics, consumer advocates, bloggers, and other new media representatives.

For more see the FTC Twitter stream. Of course, as the screen capture above demonstrates (click to enlarge), it is important to follow the right FTC.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Rifled Faculty Mailbox

A recent New York Times article, "Hacked E-Mail Is New Fodder for Climate Dispute," details how the electronic mail exchanged on scientific mailing lists has become evidence to those who are global warming deniers. Hackers snatched almost two hundred megabytes of e-mail from the British Climatic Research Unit, which is suddenly receiving more traffic from the general public for open electronically published material on its servers as well. They attempted to upload the data to, which published the following statement in response that provides an interesting commentary about digital rhetoric.

As many of you will be aware, a large number of emails from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia webmail server were hacked recently (Despite some confusion generated by Anthony Watts, this has absolutely nothing to do with the Hadley Centre which is a completely separate institution). As people are also no doubt aware the breaking into of computers and releasing private information is illegal, and regardless of how they were obtained, posting private correspondence without permission is unethical. We therefore aren’t going to post any of the emails here. We were made aware of the existence of this archive last Tuesday morning when the hackers attempted to upload it to RealClimate, and we notified CRU of their possible security breach later that day.

Nonetheless, these emails (a presumably careful selection of (possibly edited?) correspondence dating back to 1996 and as recently as Nov 12) are being widely circulated, and therefore require some comment. Some of them involve people here (and the archive includes the first RealClimate email we ever sent out to colleagues) and include discussions we’ve had with the CRU folk on topics related to the surface temperature record and some paleo-related issues, mainly to ensure that posting were accurate.

Since emails are normally intended to be private, people writing them are, shall we say, somewhat freer in expressing themselves than they would in a public statement. For instance, we are sure it comes as no shock to know that many scientists do not hold Steve McIntyre in high regard. Nor that a large group of them thought that the Soon and Baliunas (2003), Douglass et al (2008) or McClean et al (2009) papers were not very good (to say the least) and should not have been published. These sentiments have been made abundantly clear in the literature (though possibly less bluntly).

More interesting is what is not contained in the emails. There is no evidence of any worldwide conspiracy, no mention of George Soros nefariously funding climate research, no grand plan to ‘get rid of the MWP’, no admission that global warming is a hoax, no evidence of the falsifying of data, and no ‘marching orders’ from our socialist/communist/vegetarian overlords. The truly paranoid will put this down to the hackers also being in on the plot though.

Instead, there is a peek into how scientists actually interact and the conflicts show that the community is a far cry from the monolith that is sometimes imagined. People working constructively to improve joint publications; scientists who are friendly and agree on many of the big picture issues, disagreeing at times about details and engaging in ‘robust’ discussions; Scientists expressing frustration at the misrepresentation of their work in politicized arenas and complaining when media reports get it wrong; Scientists resenting the time they have to take out of their research to deal with over-hyped nonsense. None of this should be shocking.

It’s obvious that the noise-generating components of the blogosphere will generate a lot of noise about this. but it’s important to remember that science doesn’t work because people are polite at all times. Gravity isn’t a useful theory because Newton was a nice person. QED isn’t powerful because Feynman was respectful of other people around him. Science works because different groups go about trying to find the best approximations of the truth, and are generally very competitive about that. That the same scientists can still all agree on the wording of an IPCC chapter for instance is thus even more remarkable.

It is interesting to analyze how these assertions operate and the implications they contain: that old-school listservs are better suited to scientific debates than blogs, that there exist private spheres as well as public ones, and that the Internet fosters conspiracy theories rather than a recognition of dissensus.

From the perspective of what my colleague Mark Marino calls "Critical Code Studies," perhaps the ClimateAudit attempt at reading lines of code is perhaps most interesting and their assumption that a simple comment annotation serves as the "smoking gun" rather than more sophisticated black box algorithms.

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Monday, November 23, 2009

Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

Ren Reynolds of the Virtual Policy Network reports that the British government has recently released the Code of Everand game, which uses the design aesthetic of popular quest-oriented massive online games that are popular with K-12 students like Runescape, although developers adapted the MMO format for the education of young citizens about traffic safety.

After playing the game for an hour, I soon discovered that much of the game actually plays more like Frogger, since players have to avoid being crushed by the "monsters" whooshing by in the "spirit channels" that they may attempt to cross, preferably at a designated crosswalk. In addition to traps and spells, the main protocol of the channel crossing involves looking right and then looking left to prepare to enter left-side-of-the-road traffic. (See below.)

The "about" page elaborates the game's design philosophy as follows:

Code of Everand is a multiplayer online game, which has been developed by the Department for Transport, to engage children making the transition from Primary to Secondary school, on the topic of road safety. The aim is that players will improve their road safety behaviour and apply what they have learned in the game, to the real world as a learned response. The Department for Transport’s aim is to reduce child pedestrian casualties and deaths among this age group by allowing young people to practice good road safety behaviours through a channel which is known to be very popular among those making the transition to Secondary school.

As a recent article explains, the game was actually developed by Area/Code, a firm perhaps best known for its theoretical work with ARGs and pervasive games.

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Science Fare

The MacArthur foundation has been trumpeting the White House's announcement of the Lab Day initiative today and its involvement with new plans for science education and digital learning, so I checked out the streaming video of the event at a website that prominently also encourages citizens to join the commercial social network site Facebook and plugs the hipper new government URL, which might get more play in the limited character world of texting and status updates.

I had mostly turned in to hear the brief mention of digital learning initiatives, which gave little play to work being done with computer programming or social networking by MacArthur and other philanthropic organization: "The MacArthur Foundation and industry leaders like Sony are launching a nationwide challenge to design compelling, freely available science-related video games." But I was struck by the introduction of reality TV show stars from Mythbusters by the president and the links between pedagogy, DIY, and reality television that I have also been exploring in a new project.

As a transcript of Obama's remarks indicated, students will "have the chance to build and create, and maybe destroy just a little bit..." and be "the makers of things, not just the consumers of things." Obama also expressed his enthusiasm for the White House's plans to host an "annual science fair" and continue holding events like their recent "astronomy night." The entire spectacle ended with a robot demo from two high school students.

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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Losing Touch

A Recent Wall Street Journal Opinion piece, "If Odysseus Had GPS," points to a relationship between technological innovation and narrative genres that might not be necessarily there. Of course, telephone communication is often featured in movies, and cell phones have become an important part of plot lines that once created suspense by having characters out of contact, but the continuing contemporary fascination with castaways seems to indicate that the Odysseus storyline is a permanent part of our culture. It could be argued, in fact, that the more we are connected, the more we experience anxiety about disconnection.

Thanks to Peter Krapp for the link.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Brussels or Bust

For the next few days I will be at the Video Vortex conference, which has been organized by Geert Lovink's Institute of Network Cultures. After I get back I plan to report on the conference, along with the recently held Mobile Media conference at UCLA. As if that weren't enough conference madness DAC 2009, the international conference on Digital Arts and Culture will be at UC Irvine in just a few weeks.


Saturday, November 14, 2009

Why Can't I Do This?

The use policy on the White House Flickr photo stream makes a series of demands in the legalese posted next to the images.

This official White House photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.

In this case, I've added some relatively lame Photoshop editorializing that is certainly not my best critical work. But by manipulating the photograph to insert a wounded Iraqi child into the White House Halloween holiday scene, I'm clearly violating the terms that are specified next to the image. But this alteration also makes a political statement and should thereby be protected speech on first amendment grounds.

I also have questions about the rules that limit use to news publication and personal printing by the subjects in the image. If a mother of one of these children prints out the image, is that a violation of the terms of use? What about a pro-Christian anti-Halloween activist who might want to show the image to others at a political gathering that should again seem to be under free speech protection.

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Thursday, November 12, 2009

First Time Farce, Second Time Tragedy

My UC Irvine colleague Peter Krapp gave a talk today called "Of Games and Gestures: machinima and the suspensions of animation" in conjunction with the new lecture series at the Center for Computer Games and Virtual Worlds in which he argued that the "trained motion of players" and the "virtuoso ballet" that may build on "an archive of gaming performances" initially should not be "reduced to fan culture" not only because gaming is inscribed within certain historical conditions but also because such "gestures are neither necessary nor natural" as they express an "attitude or emotion" and also convey information about the "motion of the camera in game space." In thinking about machinima in the context of silent cinema, Krapp argued that the pantomimes of both art forms reflected a kind of melancholy about increasing technologization and the need to prove one's humanity. Unlike contemporary big budget films that can be summarized in their pitch lines or in their plot round-ups on IMDB, machinima can be difficult to summarize. By combining game demo, fan art, and media history, machinima represents much more than a mass-mediation of user generated content. He conceded that there was also "a ludic angle" to the record of performance, but that this record has a longer history that dates back to Muybridge. (I had seen Krapp earlier this year give an interesting talk that also referenced Muybridge about Taylorism and scientific management that offers a database of employee maneuvers.) Krapp asserted that a society that has lost its gestures is consequently obsessed with them as life becomes indecipherable and the subject must retreat to bourgeois concerns, interiority, and psychoanalysis.

Krapp showed a number of classic machinima favorites, which included I'm Still Seeing Breen (above) , along with Cantina Crawl X, the first episode of This Spartan Life, Warthog Jump (which inspired the Flash game Warthog Launch), and A Few Good G Men (below).

Yesterday, I saw Enda Walsh's play The Walworth Farce from Ireland's Druid Theater, a devastating play about a paranoid schizophrenic patriarch and his two terrorized sons who are forced to reenact an alternative version of a fratricidal family drama. As the two young men act the same play over and over, the pathos of a visitor gives their puppetry particular emotional investment. When Krapp had to answer the familiar question about when videogame content would be enough to make someone cry, I thought about how machinima could probably bring about this same emotional power of an "off" reinactment, as Walsh's play demonstrated.

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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Open and Shut Cases

Thanks to my fellow NEH-Vectors Fellow Micki McGee for this image of the banner for the 2009 Adobe Government Assembly. Of course, having a company that manufactures proprietary software celebrate its openness in a bid for more government contracts might seem a strange rhetorical move, but at least it indicates that Google isn't the only one making this pitch. Choosing to highlight a YouTube video on the platform of its Mountain View competitor in a number of fields may also seem strange, but the conflation of the administration's rhetoric of "transparency" and the PDF format loathed by pro-disclosure groups like the Sunlight Foundation depends on inferring a presidential endorsement.

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Suggestion Blocks

The idea of using collective intelligence aggregated through the Internet is nothing new. Whether it is editing a Wikipedia article or figuring out a good hotel in a strange city, the process of so-called "crowd sourcing" plays a role in many forms of decision-making.

Because of what researchers call the "availability heuristic," which makes information easily recalled overvalued, there is a tendency to make decisions based on a single vivid anecdote rather than a mass of information derived from as many data points as possible. In theory, the quantitative approach of crowd sourcing should derive either a broad consensus or the odds of a singular brilliant insight, as actual trends and truths would be more likely to be spotted.

Now this theory is being applied by the General Services Administration of the federal government, who -- according to "GSA aims to improve procurement process" -- have now embraced the approach of soliciting volunteer labor from amateur analysts and are using "rapidly expanding social-media tools -- such as Facebook, Twitter, and wikis" to foster changes in the government procurement system.

Do you have an idea for improving the government's $528 billion-a-year acquisition system? The General Services Administration wants you to share your plan with the world on an open Web site. It might even use your suggestion in a future procurement.

The article explains that the initiative involves two web addresses that are on .com domains rather than .gov sites. and (Sadly there is no as the latter site seems to imply.)

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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Truth Be Told

Since I happen to know that the U.S. government has created military videogames about washing hands to avoid dysentery, this doesn't seem so unlikely to me. Games about learning common nouns and verbs in Arabic, negotiating with the locals, and spotting IEDs in monotonous landscapes are already in the field.

Thanks to Michael Zyda for the link!

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Club Reporter

My first blog posting for the Digital Media and Learning website is now live, which features my interview with civics educator Joseph Kahne at "Digital Media and Democracy: Early Returns."

As I've written before, I've had some reservations in the past about the MacArthur Foundation's seeming infatuation with the exoticism of digital youth and their absence of what I have taken to be serious critiques of the proprietary software model. But over time I have come to respect their support for important new initiatives in higher education and in civic institutions and for their funding of even-handed scholarship that may question the utopian assumptions that philanthropic organizations might otherwise tend to find very appealing.

I also feel very fortunate to be part of such an excellent team of bloggers.

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If I Can Measure It, It's Information

Virtualpolitik friend Siva Vaidhyanathan is quoted in today's Los Angeles Times article, "Google to buy AdMob in bid to reach mobile users."

"They define everything in the universe as information," said Siva Vaidhyanathan, a media studies professor at the University of Virginia, "which means everything in the world is potentially in their domain."

Because Google is fundamentally an advertising company, Vaidhyanathan said, its highest priority is to "harvest users' attention" and sell that commodity to eager marketers.

Vaidhyanathan raises an interesting point about how information is defined and how that definition assigns a monetary value and how the number of potential factors classified as information in Google's scheme reaches into the realm of sublime numbers. Of course, when information was first being defined with mathematical theories during the Cold War, information scientists like Claude Shannon and Norbert Wiener realized how this quantification might have economic and political effects, even if they understood those effects in the context of a battle with a Communist other.

In contrast, some argue that "Google Devalues Everything It Touches."

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Monday, November 09, 2009

Distance Counseling

According to "Second Life Duty Now Required for Penn State's Online Advisers," academic advisers for the Penn State World Campus Island will now be meeting with students in the online virtual world Second Life to help their distance education students pursue their curricular objectives. It might be somewhat disquieting to have mentors who look like undergraduates themselves with their younger, fitter avatars.

Students on the real campus get to chat with their advisers face to face. Now online students who never set foot there can do the “exact same thing,” says Shannon Ritter, social-networks adviser for the Penn State World Campus.

Almost the same thing, anyway. Second Life requires users to choose avatars, or graphical representations of themselves. So students who want to meet with Rachel Zimmerman will find themselves chatting with a character called RachelM Snoodle. Looking for Karen Lesch? The adviser goes by KarenM Magic. All advisers are required to cover at least two hours a week.

Given how often support staff deal with tears from frustrated students, I'm not sure that the "exact same thing" is possible in an environment in which there is such limited paralinguistic contact.

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Sunday, November 08, 2009

Calling the Kettle Black

The four-part story on NPR The End of Privacy largely focuses on discrete platforms, such as Facebook, cell phones, digital records, and online data, rather than the British model of the more integrated surveillance society, which also includes public surveillance cameras in the mix. It also caused the station to find itself justifying its own cookie policy on the grounds of the code's preservation of anonymity, a claim that privacy advocates might find dubious, given how easily it is to use web surfing data to tie behavior to an individual.

As one commenter points out, the network's explanations are highly suspect:

The cookies that Mr. Robinson pointed out in his comment are third-party tracking cookies. They are used by advertising companies to profile users and their habits across the internet for marketing purposes; they have nothing whatsoever to do with the usability or functionality of NPR's website. NPR's "response", rather than addressing the issue raised by Mr. Robison, instead tries to shift the attention to first-party cookies -- those which ARE legitimately used for website functionality. NPR does not in any way address the third-party tracking cookies.

It's ironic and angering that on a series having to do with personal privacy and the internet, NPR tries to whitewash their own practices. NPR, of all organizations, ought not to underestimate its audience's intelligence.

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Saturday, November 07, 2009

Virtual News

Sometimes the New York Times has excellent coverage of the Internet and gaming, especially if it has work written by new media journalist Clive Thompson. Sometimes it has terrible coverage. Not all the stories about online gaming in the newspaper were ill-informed today. In "Chinese Agencies Struggle Over Video Game" not only describes an interesting dispute between the authoritarian government's Ministry of Culture and the more culturally conservative Administration of Press and Publication over regulation of the game World of Warcraft. It also pointed out that U.S. massive games tend to have a much smaller part of the total market share than games developed in China. For more coverage of the controversy, check out "Clarification from the Ministry of Culture" from Web2Asia.

But "Virtual Goods Start Bringing Real Paydays" makes a number of missteps, even though it talks to real gamers about their virtual purchases and identifies sources from big players in the market of social games like Zynga, Playfish, and Playdom. The big mistake that it makes is relying on the opinions of venture capitalists, who tend to have poor understanding of reputation economies or the subversive potentials of online social networks.

Analysts estimate that virtual goods could bring in a billion dollars in the United States and around $5 billion worldwide this year — all for things that, aside from perhaps a few hours of work by an artist and a programmer, cost nothing to produce.

“It’s a fantastic business,” said Jeremy Liew of Lightspeed Venture Partners, a venture capital firm that has invested $10 million in several virtual goods companies. “Because it’s digital, the marginal cost for every one you sell is zero, so you have 100 percent margins.”

First of all, anyone who collects virtual goods will tell you that not all digital items are created equal and that "few hours of work by an artist" has to be done by someone who can create a compelling image using only a few pixels wisely. Games that are successful, like Farmville, which is one of their examples, rely on having a range of crop and animal animations that are visually engaging at a number of scales. To have the cuteness quotient of what the Japanese call "kawaii" characteristics requires a particular attention to the aesthetics of the screen.

Second, the idea that players are merely passive consumers eager to purchase meaningless tokens underestimates the likelihood of player revolts, particularly since -- as the article itself admits -- most players play for free. For example, last year's PackRat revolt, which I am writing about in the upcoming collection Facebook and Philosophy shows how participatory culture punishes what it perceives as systems of greed.

Finally, there is a tone of amusement at this mysterious behavior, despite all the explanations that the article offers, that seems ironic, given that something like the greeting card industry doesn't get similar amazement for having customers. Buy your friend a greeting card and it may well cost you over five dollars, including stamp, gas, and time for selection. And then who can see it? How does it give your friend any continuing pleasure once it is opened? Virtual goods are profoundly about the social and the public dimension of online interactions, a quality that the NYT doesn't always seem to get.

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Theory You Can Dance To

In preparation for the conference on The Internet as Playground and Factory, Virtualpolitik friend Trebor Scholz is inviting people to go to an online archive of video clips of the presenters and then create a new composition from the components.

Download the clips from Vimeo and remix them with some great dance beat. The material is licensed under a creative commons license. We'll feature the best submissions at the ...event and archive all mashups on the conference website.

Contestants have until November 11th, so get your open source video and audio editing software ready!

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Friday, November 06, 2009

Following Heroism

As the news media begins to publicize the apparent heroism of police officer Kimberly Munley who shot Fort Hood gunman Nidal Hasan four times despite being wounded herself, it is interesting to see so much attention paid to Munley's Twitter feed, even though her most recent post was from July, where she remarks that she is "still recovering from a long night of work from Saturday!" Hundreds of people have become followers of Munley, who is still hospitalized, and many have sent messages of thanks and well wishes.

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Thursday, November 05, 2009

Battle Plan

The culturvis photostream now is publishing representations of videogame play to promote a new form of documentary evidence in game studies.


Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Mix and Match

Sketch2Photo promises to automate the work of selecting and compositing images from different sources in order to create seamless montages with the right composition and visual rhetoric without the multi-step alterations of an image editing program like Photoshop.

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Latin Killed the Romans and Now It's Killing Type Designers

This Lorem Ipsum generator for designers of web pages and print materials is designed to replicate the classic "dummy text of the printing and typesetting industry," which has been "the industry's standard dummy text ever since the 1500s, when an unknown printer took a galley of type and scrambled it to make a type specimen book." According to the site the scrambled nonsense originated in "sections 1.10.32 and 1.10.33 of 'de Finibus Bonorum et Malorum' (The Extremes of Good and Evil) by Cicero," one of history's greatest rhetoricians. The maker of the generator promises to deliver text "free from repetition, injected humour, or non-characteristic words."


Pictures from an Exhibition

The White House has released a Flickr set called the "First 100 Days" that presents a carefully selected digital album of images. Of course, some of them borrow from the visual language of the Kennedy years, but what is also striking about the collection is how many show Obama on the telephone, a traditional landline with a curled cord. Often he looks uncomfortable with the device, as though not accustomed to being tethered in this way. None of the images show the Chief Executive on his Blackberry or interacting with mobile computing, although he does appear to be holding it sealed in its case in one moment of gesticulation. And when computers are shown, the focus is elsewhere, in this case of a game of football in the outside of the Oval Office.

One notable exception to the visual rule about omitting mobile devices is this image, where "Blackberrys, cell phones and communications devices are tagged with post-its during a briefing on Afghanistan and Pakistan in the Cabinet Room 3/26/09."

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Sentenced to Death

As someone who teaches academic writing to college students, I am always struck by how much difficulty they seem to have with the most basic sentence formulae, such as "According to _____," or "__________ argues that . . ." Now the University of Chicago Writing Program has created a tongue-in-cheek sentence-generator called "Make Your Own Academic Sentence" that will create an overly wordy theoretical string of words for "your next article." I like the fact that the first choice on the first pull-down menu is "the public sphere" and that the revisions actually work grammatically as well. I think this produces much more elegant results than the similarly themed Postmodern Essay Generator, which I write about in this essay and in the Virtualpolitik book.

Thanks to Siva Vaidhyanathan for the link!

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Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Tagging Someone's Property Because a Website Tells You To is Thinking for Yourself?

This is a line that I heard last night as I watched the premiere episode of V, the remake of the 1983 TV miniseries about aliens who pose as humans to disguise their identities as carnivorous reptiles. ABC is trying to encourage online fandom by plugging the "Peace Ambassador Program" and emphasizing the plot device that aliens are recruiting human collaborators by using the Internet to spread their propaganda. (Of course, the Internet is also the source of paranoid conspiracy theories that bring doubters to the resistance movement as well.) Given all the online tie-ins, it is surprising that the network didn't make the website that they show in the series "" a working site.

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Too Many Gizmos

In "The Digital Fog of War," military blogger for the New York Times Captain Tim Hsia

Instead of something akin to a smartphone, soldiers lug around several disparate pieces of equipment: GPS devices, iris and fingerprint scanners, charts for calculating collateral damage estimates related to artillery or airstrikes, hand-held radios, cameras, notepad and pen.

Hsia takes what could be called a "platform studies" approach to the problem of computational media in the military and even makes what an uncomplimentary analogy to the Atari system that is the star of Ian Bogost and Nick Montfort's book Racing the Beam: the Atari Video Computer System: "To members of the Xbox generation, however, military hardware and software seem to date from the Atari era: Too often it is bulky, confusing and impractical."

In terms of software, the main culprits for the Army’s Luddite setup here is a weak architecture and lack of interoperability between systems.

Without going into operational and technical specifics, there are multiple systems the military uses for tracking vehicles and units, but many of these systems do not speak to one another. Even within systems one unit often cannot speak or synchronize with another because a software upgrade or patch makes their equipment incompatible. This results in a confusing battlespace where units sometimes lack complete situational awareness of other units operating around them.

There are also too many platforms being tailored to specific uses, inadvertently adding to the fog of war. Command and control, intelligence, logistics, and medical systems all have a plethora of platforms with their own hardware and software requirements. These operating systems are an extreme hindrance for forward-deployed personnel operating in austere environments as they entail a greater support tail, and, more importantly, they all need power.

In contrast, Iraqi forces are content with their one-size-fits-all bomb-detecting device from Cumberland Industries, even though the Amazing Randi has directly challenged the company to prove the following advertising claims:

Simultaneous Detection of Multiple Types of Explosives or Drugs. The ADE651® incorporates electrostatic ion attraction [ESA] technology to target the specific substances. It can accommodate multiple substance detection cards to detect a broad range of explosive or drug [narcotic] substances. It can more specifically identify a substance by removing detection cards from the ADE651® after detection is received until the attraction is lost.

Ignores All Known Concealment Methods. By programming the detection cards to specifically target a particular substance, (through the proprietary process of electro-static matching of the ionic charge and structure of the substance), the ADE651® will “by-pass” all known attempts to conceal the target substance. It has been shown to penetrate Lead, other metals, concrete, and other matter (including hiding in the body) used in attempts to block the attraction.

No Consumables nor Maintenance Contracts Required. Unlike Trace Detectors that require the supply of sample traps, the ADE651® does not utilize any consumables (exceptions include: cotton-gloves and cleanser) thereby reducing the operational costs of the equipment. The equipment is Operator maintained and requires no ongoing maintenance service contracts. It comes with a hardware three year warranty. Since the equipment is powered electro statically, there are no batteries or conventional power supplies to change or maintain.

High Explosives or Detonable Explosives Trinitrotoluene (TNT), DNT, Nitro Esters (PETN, nitroglycerine, ethylene glycol dinitrate), Ammonium nitrate, Dynamite, RDX/Hexogen/Octogan, Black Powder, ammunition & Propellants, Tetryl, Narcotics, Cocaine/Heroin/Morphine, THC/Marijuana/Cannabis, LSD/Ketamine/Midazolam, Amphetamine / D-methamphetamine, Ecstasy, Opium/Opiates, Chloro-Methyl & Benzodiazepine drugs, Ivory, Human Recognition (Detection).

For more about this device, read "Iraq Swears by Bomb Detector U.S. Sees as Useless."

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Stage Five Clinger

For the past two years, New York magazine has been publishing online sex diaries that also highlight the role that ubiquitous communication technologies are playing in urban casual sex practices. As the magazine points out, there is even an iPhone app for gay men to help them find a geographically convenient hook-up. Writer Wesley Yang explains how mixed reality cruising works with new distributed computing practices.

The social technologies that assist in dating and mating today are more than palliatives—they’ve changed the nature of the game. If the cold approach is more than you can deal with, put up a Craigslist ad, or join OkCupid, Manhunt, or Nerve. If the phone call makes you nervous, send a text message. And while you’re at it, send a text message to a half-dozen other people with everyone’s favorite late-night endearment: “where u at?” If nothing works out and you find yourself alone at home again, simply fire up XTube or YouPorn and choose from an endless variety of positions to help you reach a late-night climax.

Virtually everyone under the age of 30 has grown up with their sexuality digitally enhanced, and the rest of us are rapidly forgetting the world before we all were hooked into the same erotically charged network of instantaneously transmitted messages and images. This must be true across the country, but it seems particularly suited for a city as dense, morally libertine, and sexually spirited as New York. Part of the promise of this city has always been that there’s another prospective partner a subway stop away, but not until recently could that partner interrupt your daily business with a cell-phone snapshot of their parted thighs. And of course, the same technology that makes it easier to score also makes the sexual boast or confession easily transmissible to millions of other people.

Today, in "Cellphones, Texts and Lovers," New York Times columnist David Brooks analyzes the diaries and puts forward a hypothesis that seems somewhat at odds with his conventional championing of the free market, because in arguing that technology is compromising the "recurring and stable reciprocity that is the building block of trust" he also appears to question the ideology of choice and unregulated consumption that appeals to many neo-libertarian conservatives of his own party.

People are thus thrown back on themselves. They are free agents in a competitive arena marked by ambiguous relationships. Social life comes to resemble economics, with people enmeshed in blizzards of supply and demand signals amidst a universe of potential partners.

The opportunity to contact many people at once seems to encourage compartmentalization, as people try to establish different kinds of romantic attachments with different people at the same time.

It seems to encourage an attitude of contingency. If you have several options perpetually before you, and if technology makes it easier to jump from one option to another, you will naturally adopt the mentality of a comparison shopper.

(Thanks to Ava Arndt for the link!)

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Monday, November 02, 2009

Cracks in the Adobe

The Sunlight Foundation has posted an editorial that asserts "Adobe is Bad for Government" and questions the hypocrisy involved in how this proprietary software company is adopting the popular language of "open" government on websites like Adobe Opens Up in order to promote its products. However, transparency advocates at Sunlight complain that even the Adobe PDF format makes it difficult for health care legislation to be searchable and remixable.

So next week, Adobe's having a conference here to tell Federal employees why they ought to be using "Adobe PDF, and Adobe® Flash® technology" to make government more open. They've spent what seems to be millions of dollars wrapping buses in DC with Adobe marketing materials all designed to tell us how necessary Adobe products are to Obama's Open Government Initiative. They've even got a beautiful website set up to tout the government's use of Flash and PDF, and are holding a conference here next week to talk about how Government should use ubiquitous and secure technologies to make government more open and interactive.

Here at the Sunlight Foundation, we spend a lot of time with Adobe's products-- mainly trying to reverse the damage that these technologies create when government discloses information. The PDF file format, for instance, isn't particularly easily parsed. As ubiquitous as a PDF file is, often times they're non-parsable by software, unfindable by search engines, and unreliable if text is extracted.

As a recipient of mail for "Adobe Government Solutions," I can attest to how special tutorials and workshops for government employees are direct e-mail marketed. Next week I can attend a session on Photoshop Lightroom 2 for design savvy civil servants on matters of such civic import as creating "proper digital exposure," importing images, and making virtual copies. (See above.)

Thanks to Michael Powers for the link to the Sunlight editorial.

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Sunday, November 01, 2009

Job Fare

There are three interesting postdoctoral positions in new media studies that are getting attention on the conference circuit, but may not be disseminated online as much as they should.

I'm a big believer in postdoc positions, when they are structured intelligently for something other than cheap labor, in ways that help recent PhDs think about larger questions about interdisciplinary, the presentation of knowledge, and how to position themselves in current debates. All of these positions come with fair compensation and the opportunity to participate in a vibrant scholarly community.

1) With about a salary of about sixty-eight thousand dollars, the biggest purse goes to the 2 year post-doc position in Software Studies with the University of Bergen and the research group at UC San Diego. The ad, which is excerpted below, for the postdoctoral fellowship is here.

Multimedia technology and visual analysis is one of the strategic research areas for the department. Applicants must have achieved a Norwegian doctorate or equivalent PhD education abroad. The candidate must either have a Ph. D. in information science or a documented strong competence in information technology in combination with a Ph. D. in another field that is relevant for the position. The successful candidate will work in relation to the project "Visualizing Patterns in Databases of Cultural Images and Video", on which the department cooperates with the California Institute of Telecommunications and Information Technology, at the University of California San Diego.

The successful candidate will have Bergen as his or her base and will be a member of one of the department’s research groups, but will also have to spend some of the time in San Diego.

The ideal candidate should have both technical knowledge of computers and digital media and solid understanding of contemporary research issues in one or more disciplines dealing with visual and media cultures (media and new media studies, journalism, game studies, film studies). The candidate will work on using information visualization and data analysis techniques to analyze cultural patterns in large sets of visual media (such as movies, TV programs, web pages, games or other media.) This work will be carried in collaboration with other members of Software Studies Initiative at Calit2/UCSD ( using the tools and methodologies developed in the lab.

2) For great roundtable discussions and an exciting Ivy League atmosphere, it is difficult to beat the Academic Fellowship at the Berkman Center, which offers a $48,000 stipend at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

The Berkman academic fellowship is designed to support an early-to-mid career academic conducting research expected to yield valuable data and/or new insights related to Internet and society.

The Berkman Center looks forward to facilitating and advancing significant works of scholarship achieved through both traditional and experimental methods. The academic fellowship provides a focused opportunity for the production of such works as articles, books, and other considerable contributions to our understanding of cyberspace.

Beyond executing the plan proposed by the fellow, interaction with, support from, and contributions to the fellows and Berkman Center communities play a vital part of the academic fellowship experience.

3) Last, but certainly not least, the Yale Information Society Project is developing a great track record for selecting interesting young scholars with an interest in public service through their Resident Fellows Program.

The Yale Information Society Project is now accepting applications for 2010-2011 ISP postdoctoral fellowships at Yale Law School.

The Yale ISP resident fellowship is designed for recent graduates of law or Ph.D. programs who are interested in careers in teaching and public service in any of the following areas: law and innovation, media studies, Internet and telecommunications law, intellectual property law, access to knowledge, first amendment law, social software, digital education, privacy, cybersecurity, standards and technology policy, biotechnology, and law, technology, and culture generally.

Fellows receive a salary of approximately 44,000 USD plus Yale benefits. Fellows are expected to work on an independent scholarly project as well as help with administrative and scholarly work for the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. A small number of special ISP visiting fellowships are also available for persons who provide their own sources of funding.

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