Wednesday, March 31, 2010

We Suck at Trending

Today Patrik Svensson, the director of HUMlab at the University of Umeå, presented at UCHRI. He had been asked to provide some "provocations" to stimulate a lively lunch discussion about directions for the digital humanities, although participant Tom Boellstorff pointed out that in the academy "we suck at trending."

Svensson started by noting the radical dissimilarity of the most frequently used words by Digital Humanities, which is described as "the annual joint meeting of the Association for Computers and the Humanities, the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing, and the Society for Digital Humanities / Société pour l’étude des médias interactifs," and the Association of Internet Researchers. Although both groups have been around for over a decade, their vocabularies seem to show little common ground. The DH crowd, which comes out of humanities computing initiatives focused on text-encoding and digital archives, lists "text," "electronic," "humanities," "digital," "analysis," "language," "markup," "encoding," "data," "TEI," "corpus," and "linguistic" as its top words, while AoIR emphasizes social computing and human-computer interaction with "Internet," "online," "social," "web," "digital," "community," "virtual," "research," "media," and "communities" in its top ten terms. Words like "scholarly" matter more to DH; words like "play" matter more to AoIR. Apparently "politics" and "gender" matter more to AoIR, while DH looks to talk about "attribution" and "authorship."

In other words, to use the definition of "information literacy" developed by the Association of College and Research Libraries, DH is about evaluating the scope and credibility of information as discrete sets of self-contained data and seeing how this data can be mashed up in new ways, and AoIR is about "the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information." This may explain why "Critical Information Studies" manifesto-writer Siva Vaidhyanathan was a keynote speaker at AoIR, but was probably only mentioned once in passing at DH in my paper on hacktivism and the humanities. As someone who has attended both conferences more than once, I would tend to agree with the accuracy of Svensson's snapshot of terms in characterizing the differences, although there are certainly crossover people like Matthew Kirschenbaum and Kathleen Fitzpatrick who try to straddle both worlds.

Several of Svensson's articles were used as reference points during the discussion, including "Humanities Computing as Digital Humanities," "The landscape of digital humanities," "From optical fiber to conceptual cyber infrastructure," and "Envisioning the digital humanities." Although Svensson was trained in linguistics and was once a member of a more conventional English department, he has become interested in "seeing spaces" and "meeting people" as well and embracing the fieldwork so central to the STS movement in academia and the combination of "doing and reflecting" involved in building labs and integrating database computing into lived environments.

He also showed a number of position statements that advocated for, despaired about, and defined the digital humanities. These included Brett Bobley's HASTAC Q&A that described the digital humanities as a "game changer" that has to engage with how "technology has radically changed the way we read, the way we write, and the way we learn." I was pleased to see both Christine Borgman and Ian Bogost mentioned prominently in Svensson's digital humanities overview, since both will be attending the Richard Rorty Digital Archive event at UC Irvine. Borgman argues in "A Call to Action in the Digital Humanities" that it a "pivotal moment" in which the DH community is likely to "fall behind," if they don't embrace new modes of knowledge-making being tried outside of the humanities. At the other end of the spectrum of cynicism Svensson presents, Bogost agrees that the problem has to do with the humanities itself, specifically "its members" who pursue what he calls "The Turtlenecked Hairshirt":

It's not "the digital" that marks the future of the humanities, it's what things digital point to: a great outdoors. A real world. A world of humans, things, and ideas. A world of the commonplace. A world that prepares jello salads. A world that litigates, that chews gum, that mixes cement. A world that rusts, that photosynthesizes, that ebbs. The philosophy of tomorrow should not be digital democracy but a democracy of objects.

If we want the humanities to become central, it is not the humanities that must change, but its members. We must want to be of the world, rather hidden from it. We must be brutal. We must invoke wrath instead of liberation. We must cull. We must burn away the dead wood to let new growth flourish. If we don't, we will suffocate under the noxious rot of our own decay.

Svensson also cited a range of other sources from an official ACLS Report on Cyberinfrastructure arguing for the importance of access to "the world's cultural heritage" to the wonderfully snarky blog post of Virtualpolitik pal Dave Parry who points out the "non-rise of the digital humanities" that I also saw in action at the MLA and the problem of fixating on "text visualizations or neat programs." (The comments to Parry's blogpost are interesting to mine, since they include a 1997 MLA paper from Kirschenbaum and jokes about CB radios from MLA VP Michael Bérubé.) In this conversation he also observed that Lisa Nakamura had also been an important critical voice in ridiculing the latent cyberutopianism of the digital humanities.

Svensson argued that it was critical to acknowledge "the importance of physical space" and practices of mutual respect. To this Boellstorff observed that there were certain constraints on interdisciplinarity that could be also understood as "accountability for knowledge practices" and -- although he granted UCHRI director David Theo Goldberg's correction that there were "e-social science" initiatives in Europe -- he argued that a "digital social science" was rarely part of the conversation in the U.S. Boellstorff explained that lately he had been thinking about indexical relationships and Peircean semiotics and how the "digital" might literally be seen to "point." He described how this came from his own research on "virtual embodiment" and how it might relate to the Heideggerian notion of "being in the world." Boellstorff also reminded participants that digital humanities discourses also tend to be marked by language about temporality, particularly expressions of the "proximate future" described by Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell.

Kavita Philip wanted it acknowledged that much of the attention to the digital humanities was being driven by funding and the "capital does things" but should not be treated as a "transcendental signifier." She also insisted that Bogost had not responded to feminist critiques from Marisa Cohn and Anne Balsamo when he was at UCI in 2007. Although this actually doesn't quite match my recollection as moderator of the event, I would agree with Philip that certain forms of reactive cultural politics sometimes do return with the digital humanities like a kind of return of the repressed, as the moment when a recent THATCAMP became completely gender-segregated at a certain point in the day may have made manifest. In connection with this discussion, Boellstorff also described the irony of how heavily skewed female certain areas of scholarship in digital ethnography had become.

The discussion closed with more examination of the enviable physical spaces of HUMlab and how they might encourage practices associated with the "notion of trading zones." As to whether the humanities at UCI would choose to build this kind of built environment, given architectures of control that generally prohibit play and interdisciplinary experimentation in publicly funded research universities, only the proximate future can say.


Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Happy Trials to You

Over the years I have taken many courses in media production as a nontraditional student at the Academy of Entertainment and Technology, which is run by my local community college district. Apparently, however, the local college has now embraced the Google@School program, which promises to save campuses money by outsourcing costly computer services and server maintenance, although the issues about student privacy protections may not be entirely resolved. In an e-mail titled "SMC + GOOGLE = HAPPY STUDENTS" I received the following fatuous bit of purple prose:

Have you heard the great news?! GOOGLE APPS is coming for SMC STUDENTS!

Why this is VERY COOL for students:

- Provides 7+GB storage‐ 800 times more than the current SMC student email system

- Students will have access to Google Docs, Chat and Calendar

- Google’s interface is HIGH QUALITY and STUDENT FRIENDLY

- Students will have a LIFETIME email address (as long as Google is the service provider)

- Student email and documents will be available EVERYWHERE you go!

Why this is VERY COOL for the College:

- Provides the BEST TECHNOLOGY EXPERIENCE for our students.


- Happy Students = Productive and Successful Students!

How and when can you access your new email accounts?

- It’s easy! After April 13th you can access your new account through CORSAIR CONNECT (formerly the Student Self‐Service System)

All-caps ejaculations aside, I find the idea that 7GB of storage, which is not enough to do a typical video project in an AET class, represents such a generous offer, or that "as long as Google is the service provider" doesn't represent a form of coercion. Siva Vaidhyanathan has written about the "Googlization of Everything" as a threat to educational institutions, but in a time of budget crises, colleges may be swayed by temptations to offload IT to a private company.

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Monday, March 29, 2010

Rodent Kill

A recent item in the New York Times celebrates how "A Satirical Site Skewers Chávez and Politics" in Venezuela. El Chigüire Bipolar or "The Bipolar Capybara" doesn't seem as subversive -- or as original -- as the Times represents it to be. The first webisode of their anti-Chávez Flash animated series makes relatively predictable jokes about alcohol use and gags that pander to homophobia. And a lot of the other material is characterized by bad Photoshop and predicable editorial cartoons.

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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Na Na Na Na Na

Although it has received hundreds of thousands of views and even a few mentions in the news media, I'd give low marks to this political remix of a political remix, which takes the "Yes We Can" video and mashes it up with Congressman John Boehner's angry "Hell No You Can't." It gets repetitive quickly. The content on Boehner's own YouTube channel shows a little more remix artistry and includes the video below.

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Saturday, March 27, 2010

Bad Dad

As someone who has written "in praise of bad mommies and daddies," I have to admire the stance of "I Let My Kid Play Violent Video Games," although I think that the lessons learned have more to do with teaching how media work rather than "what Xbox teaches children about the offline world," even if Ian Bogost's thesis about procedural rhetoric and how interactive systems can teach players about implicit rules that also operate in the so-called real world may be correct.

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Friday, March 26, 2010

A Private Matter

When "Facebook's Zuckerberg Says The Age of Privacy is Over," a rhetorician can't help but notice the hyperbole. Certainly, at a time when even the New York Times covers the fact that "Critics Say Google Invades Privacy" with Google Buzz, which at one time defaulted to revealing a person's e-mail contacts to the world, there is no doubt that social computing technologies are likely to make more forms of communication and interaction public than ever before. Coming relatively soon after Google's Eric Schmidt argued that "if you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place," Zuckerberg's assertions that "we've decided that these would be the social norms now" and that a "lot of companies would be trapped by the conventions and their legacies of what they've built" seem to indicate that privacy changes are corporate driven rather than engineered by the public at large.

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Dream On

In "U. of Chicago Student Questions University's Reaction to Facebook Post," a blog for the Chronicle of Higher Education questions the limits of free speech on a popular social network site associated with college campuses. First Amendment Watchdogs Foundation for Individual Rights in Education or "FIRE" have argued that the University of Chicago "repeatedly censors" Facebook posts by its students. In the most recent case undergraduate Joseph Dozier posted the following status update: "Dreamt that I assassinated John Mearsheimer for a secret Israeli organization—there was a hidden closet with Nazi paraphanelia. Haha! :-)" Although Dozier posted a smiley face to indicate that he was joking, his putative target, ex-Air Force officer and security expert Professor John Mearsheimer, took the account of an alleged dream by his ex-student as a threat. Mearsheimer had authored a book called The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, so Dozier's remark seems less completely tangential to Mearsheimer's exercise of academic freedom, but a screenshot of the offending page shows that the student doesn't seem to fit the social profile of an asocial, violent stalker worthy of being feared. According to a transcript from campus police, a student who jokingly responded, "I had the same, exact dream, what the fuck?" was also contacted during the investigation. Dozier apparently initially posted the comment to Twitter as well, on a public feed, but he became concerned because the investigating officer emphasized that the university would want to monitor goings-on on what are assumed to be more private Facebook pages and spoke about his identity as a radio personality in the world of student political broadcasting. My initial suspicion that the friending of professors by students may have played a role in leaking the mockery of an instructor to law enforcement hasn't been verified by information from the public record provided by the campus police.

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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Ada Day

Last year I celebrated Ada Lovelace Day at the Game Developer's Conference, where participants celebrated the legacy of Lord Byron's daughter, who created a name for herself working on the analytical engine of Charles Babbage. This year at Finding Ada, bloggers are encouraged to list at least one contemporary woman making a significant contribution to science and technology. My choice would be NASA's Shannon Bartell, who is a Director of Safety and Mission Assurance. I don't know if her voice was the one I heard at the the countdown to the WISE launch I witnessed, but whoever that Ada was I would recognize her with this post.

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Connecting the Dots

There have been other Google infographics films like this before that address how the search engine company may have a conspiratorial interest in violating user's privacy. This one made with graphics by Patrick Clair, which was written by Elmo Keep and Jon Casimir, was recently featured on Osocio. This video includes information about Google's newer efforts in mobile communication, Eric Schmidt's recent comments, and litigation in the last few years.

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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Ready Aim

A controversial image on a post from former Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin's Facebook page has generated concerns that its visual rhetoric incites violence against Democratic proponents of health care reform, but showing their districts with crosshairs icons on a map. What's interesting to me about the visual rhetoric of the crosshairs image in their web rhetoric, is that it can also be seen as the crosshairs of the Obama administration focused on the interests of a Republican constituency, as in the case of this Internet image.


Waiting for the Appropriating Moment

The New York Times describes an interesting example of appropriation art in a story about "Texts without Context," which describes David Shields' new book Reality Hunger, a "manifesto" composed half of borrowed and unattributed quotations. In the NYT review of the actual book, reviewer Luc Sante tries to assess Shields' claim that a literary movement is brewing, one that can also be seen in Jonathan Lethem's recent essay on "The ecstasy of influence," which ran in Harper's.

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Monday, March 22, 2010

Twenty-Four Frame Philosophy

In putting together this May 14th event, which celebrates the launch of the Richard Rorty Archive, I'm delighted to announce that philosophers Mark Wrathall and Iain Thomson will be speaking. You can see Wrathall and Thomson in the remarkable forthcoming movie about philosophy, Heideggerian currents in contemporary American intellectual life, and outreach from the humanities to the public in an attempt to speak to people's daily lives: Being in the World.


Sunday, March 21, 2010

Run Time

Watching today's Los Angeles Marathon as it reached its conclusion a few blocks away from my home in Santa Monica, I was struck by the fact that far fewer people were running with iPods than I might have expected, even though the Marathon website was promoting its iMixes specifically for the race. But I also saw far more people were talking on cell phones than I would have expected for a run that leaves most breathless. As I cheered on the runners reaching the home stretch I was particularly struck by the determination of the large number of children running in the race, especially those from Students Run LA, who were easily recognizable in their bright green tops.

In order to stagger start times for the 26,000 participants and yet still provide accurate final finish line times for each of the 23,000 plus individuals who actually made it to the end, which could be posted on the Internet as a badge of pride and an aid to logistics, the marathon's organizers used RFID technology embedded in the runner's numbered bibs and listed times for each 5K unit of the race.

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The Envelope Please

Even though so-called "snail mail" may be falling by the wayside, an idea from Turkish graphic designer Beste Miray for precise GIS-based return addresses with a satellite photo aesthetic is used in

(Thanks to Mitsu Hadeishi for the link.)


Saturday, March 20, 2010

Anniversary Message

Now that I have started writing about how Obama uses YouTube for public diplomacy, I am struck by how different his address to the Iranian people this year is from last year's version. This year he talked somewhat less warmly to Iranian citizens and began to sternly address their leaders instead. Obama complained about refusals of "good faith proposals," the rejection of the U.S. "extended hand" with an Iranian "clenched fist," and the horrific spectacle of the Neda video on the Internet.

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Friday, March 19, 2010

Good Golly Miss Molly

I enjoyed talking to Princeton architecture PhD candidate Molly Wright Steenson over brunch with longtime Virtualpolitik friend Mitsu Hadeishi. We talked about Cold War computing, problem-solving in software design, and goings on around town. Check out her Ignite talk on pneumatic tubes above to see her in action.

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Ludical Delusions

At a keynote address by Kumar Garg of the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Obama White House at this year's Game Developers Conference, creators of videogames were asked, as Wired put it, "What Game Developers Can Do for Your Country." In particular Garg promoted First Lady Michelle Obama's program for Apps for Healthy Kids, an anti-obesity game challenge, as a model of how pro-social games could be promoted by government entities. Mrs. Obama also sent a letter to attendees urging them to participate, and U.S. Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra also addressed the crowd with a videotaped message.

Although Virtualpolitik friend Ian Bogost has created the anti-obesity game Fatworld, which encourages players to consider the systemic factors that create overweight families and communities, he had no kind words for the recent White House pitch.

First, Bogost gave an interview to GamePro, which appeared under the heading "Analysis: Public interest vs. propaganda game development," where he described how such overtures may ultimately prove to be demeaning to games.

"I'm not sure we can yet conclude that the government really wants to make games," he said. "This contest reads as PR more than politics. Look we're hip! We <3>

Even without the contest angle to the Apps for Healthy Kids Challenge, Bogost is still concerned that government involvement with game development could create a negative environment for games. For example, he discussed the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) game design program where the White House partnered with major publisher/developers like Sony to use LittleBigPlanet as a math learning tool for kids. He called it "embarrassing" because it suggests government endorsement of developers – like you should buy Sony products because Uncle Sam trusts Sony.

The only way government involvement with game design would benefit the public, he said, was if they took the medium seriously enough to let game developers do their job.

"If the government is making games," Bogost said, "let's do it the way the government contracts anything else."

Then Bogost published even more damning prose in his own column in Kotaku, "Playing Political Games," which included a nice plug for the chapters on government funded videogames in the Virtualpolitik book. I have omitted his analysis of Fatworld, even though it is certainly worth reading.

I am not thrilled. I am not encouraged. I am distressed and I am embarrassed.

My eyebrow started to raise when the White House announced Obama's Educate to Innovate campaign, a part of which encourages children to build levels in Little Big Planet. LBP is a clever and creative game, and players have done incredible things with its creation tools. It's true, LBP has physics, and physics is relevant to science and engineering. Half-Life 2 also has physics, as it happens.

But I'm not sure the government ought to endorse Sony in general, or one game in particular, as an unusually promising entry point into science. As a part of the deal, Sony gets to put 1,000 PS3s into libraries and community organizations. Don't blink, the US government just endorsed a videogame platform.

But it's the Apps for Healthy Kids contest that really loosens the bile from my liver.

You see, I was in that meeting that Chopra mentioned in his recorded comments before the Game Developers Choice Awards, along with twenty-some other participants from "the games industry." I put the term in scare quotes because only a fraction of us had actually shipped games, and perhaps a handful of those had previously made games dealing with social and political issues.

Like many of my kindred, I raised red flags. Games are hard to make. Good games are complex. The real promise of games as educational and political tools is in their ability to demonstrate the complexity and interconnectedness of issues. Games, like all media, can't ever really change behavior; a game about nutrition won't magically turn a player healthy, just as a game about criminality won't magically turn a player delinquent.

Instead, games can help us shape and explore our values. And today, our values better damned well be complex. They ought to be well informed and nuanced. They ought not to be black and white. They ought not to be bite-sized. They ought to take many factors into account.
. . .

No matter, those lessons will not be learned and applied to health. Nor will the lessons learned on thousands of commercial games made and marketed on consoles and PCs. Why? Because the contest has chosen to swap expertise for publicity. After the meeting, Chopra's staff was eager, but not to follow up with those in the room; rather, they were eager to go blog about it. Go forth, users, and generate content! One percent of it will probably not suck!

But more importantly, it's my opinion that the White House does not really care if such games get made or not. You see, the kind of game rhetoric I've previously written about and practiced builds arguments into the games themselves: for example, nutrition is a complex function of politics and economics; pandemic flus affect a smaller global population than the media frenzy would have you believe; perfect storms of simultaneous unrest and natural disaster drive oil prices to the highest levels. In each case, the argument is in the model.

But there's another sort of digital rhetoric, one you can read about in Liz Losh's book Virtualpolitik: just the very act of endorsing or making a game has its own political outcome.

By championing the potential existence of games, the force of the games' political or social action becomes irrelevant. The political aspects of the game are not in their speech, but in their existence. Look, the government makes games now! That's a political win no matter how good or bad the games (or "apps," whatever that means might be. As I said recently in GamePro, this contest reads as PR more than politics. Look we're hip! We <3>

These days, when you tune in to the radio or turn on television or load up the web, you'll often hear Obama disparage "politics as usual." You'll hear him call for courage and action. You'll hear him sound brave and determined. Then you'll look at the happy green broccoli on and think, wow, maybe the government is really trying this time. Maybe they mean it in earnest. Maybe they'll use our media to do governance, rather than just as objects to be governed.

But make no mistake, initiatives like Apps for Healthy Kids are absolutely politics as usual. Sure, they're online. Sure, they have large font sizes and rounded corners. Sure, they make the White House younger and more modern. But they do exist not to change the world in which you live. Real change would involve, say, overturning the massive and intricate farm subsidies that have made corn sweetener a part of nearly everything we eat, particularly the cheap, nutrient-poor packaged foods available in lower-income communities. Instead, these contest and initiatives exist to replace the very need for political change with the performance of apparent effort.

They are anything but courageous. They do not take advantage of the unique power and potential of videogames to complexify rather than simplify the world. They promise a magic dreamworld in which cute carrots somehow eradicate a century of politics and economics through the sheer sexiness of a shiny device.

You'd demand more of Valve or EA Sports or Blizzard, wouldn't you? Wouldn't you cry out with vulgarities, unhinged, if this were a commercial rather than a governmental promise? Will you really settle for this as "good enough" or "an important first step?"

It is not enough for the White House to pat this medium on the head, nor for us to accept such affection like so many dogs left out in the cold for the night. Videogames can do more. We should demand more of them. We should demand more of those who would put them in use.

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Emulating Rushdie's Laptop

The New York Times story on "Fending Off Digital Decay, Bit by Bit" tells the amazing story of the born digital archive created for author Salman Rushdie. At the archive for Rushdie at Emory University, digital media designers have created an emulator for Rushdie's Mac desktop that allows researchers to experience an imitation of Rushdie's use of stickies and Eudora e-mail, along with the documents from which he created his book manuscripts.

See below to listen in on a conversation between the archivists and designers who created the site.

However, the story in the New York Times, which includes interviews with archivists at Harvard and Stanford, who spoke about their obligation to climate-controlled preservation and their different from law enforcement style forensics respectively, might lead a critic to reach somewhat different conclusions about this presentation strategy.

At the Emory exhibition, visitors can log onto a computer and see the screen that Mr. Rushdie saw, search his file folders as he did, and find out what applications he used. (Mac Stickies were a favorite.) They can call up an early draft of Mr. Rushdie’s 1999 novel, “The Ground Beneath Her Feet,” and edit a sentence or post an editorial comment.

“I know of no other place in the world that is providing access through emulation to a born-digital archive,” said Erika Farr, the director of born-digital initiatives at the Robert W. Woodruff Library at Emory. (The original draft is preserved.)

To the Emory team, simulating the author’s electronic universe is equivalent to making a reproduction of the desk, chair, fountain pen and paper that, say, Charles Dickens used, and then allowing visitors to sit and scribble notes on a copy of an early version of “Bleak House.”

“If you’re interested in primary materials, you’re interested in the context as well as the content, the authentic artifact,” Ms. Farr said. “Fifty years from now, people may be researching how the impact of word processing affected literary output,” she added, which would require seeing the original computer images.

It may even be possible in the future to examine literary influences by matching which Web sites a writer visited on a particular day with the manuscript he or she was working on at the time.

In the Virtualpolitik book I wrote about so-called "turning the pages" exhibits and the ways that these interface designs fetishize the book as an object, much as the Emory display may expend resources on representation of the interface of the screen rather than on searchability and scholarly exchange.

Archivists at Emory do, however, make an interesting argument about the nature of digital acquisitions and the fact that only about 25% of the data in their Rushdie collection is "user-generated content" and that the remaining 75% is "stuff that came with the system" in the larger data environment. From a preservation standpoint, saving supposedly passive user behavior that leaves traces of everyday life, which would be of interest to theorists influenced by Michel de Certeau could certainly be justified.

Unfortunately Emory archivist Naomi Nelson will not be able to attend this upcoming Richard Rorty Archive event, which also addresses issues of the born digital.


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Feds on Facebook

The concept of social surveillance as it is practiced on Twitter takes on a new significance when law enforcement becomes involved. "When tweets can make you a jailbird" describes how a fraudulent businessman on the lam in Mexico was caught by his own disclosures on the popular microblogging site.

Law enforcement agents are following the rest of the Internet world into popular social-networking services, even going undercover with false online profiles to communicate with suspects and gather private information, according to an internal Justice Department document that surfaced in a lawsuit.

The document shows that U.S. agents are logging on surreptitiously to exchange messages with suspects, identify a target's friends or relatives and browse private information such as postings, personal photographs and video clips.

Among the purposes: Investigators can check suspects' alibis by comparing stories told to police with tweets sent at the same time about their whereabouts. Online photos from a suspicious spending spree — people posing with jewelry, guns or fancy cars — can link suspects or their friends to crime.

Apparently the Electronic Frontier Foundation obtained this 300+ page document, which described current law enforcement practices.

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Monday, March 15, 2010

With You Be My Tedx Bear?

As the Chronicle of Higher Education reports in "Some Participants Criticize Format of Blockbuster Ed-Tech Conference" not everyone is happy with the TEDxNYED conference, which included Virtualpolitik friends Amy Bruckman and Dan Cohen in their roster of people "examining the role of new media and technology shaping the future of education."

The forum was a regional spin-off of the "billionaires-and-brains edutainment summit in California," as one participant, Dan Cohen, of George Mason University, described the mothership TED conferences and the hugely popular videos of their presentations. The theme Saturday was how new media and technology are shaping the future of education. And the speakers — including Lawrence Lessig, Michael Wesch, Henry Jenkins, Gina Bianchini, Jay Rosen, and David Wiley — each had 18 minutes to deliver what sometimes felt like a "greatest hits" snapshot of their ideas, with the chance for future online glory if the videotaped talks go viral.

In the blogging frenzy that followed the blockbuster conference, that constrained, no-questions-from-the-audience format seems to have generated as much online commentary as the speakers' ideas. Mr. Cohen produced a somewhat critical piece about how the format "pushes speakers like me toward theatrics," and Jeff Jarvis, of the City University of New York, also criticized the setup in harsher language that you can read here (includes profanity). Talks by speakers like Mr. Wiley (Brigham Young University), Mr. Lessig (Harvard), and George Siemens (Athabasca University) are all online. You can also sample dozens of audience reactions by trawling the blog commentary aggregated on this site.

At a time when conferences like the Digital Media and Learning conference" or Trebor Scholz's upcoming conference on Open Learning Technologies include a large contingent of critical voices, TEDxNYED often seemed like a throwback to cyberutopianism complete with media-pleasing clichés.

Although I had to say as I watched the live stream and transcribed my reactions to Twitter that it was "nice to see and hear @dancohen in action showing that academics can do the TED dance too" and that I appreciated "George Siemans talking about how 'the problems of education' may be less concerning than the technological 'solutions' posed," I found myself wondering about speakers claiming that "technology has no ideology" and expressing my belief that "game-ification" should not be a word that people say in public. I was also amused that so much of the conference was devoted to speakers talking about the analogy between the press and the university, a rhetorical trope that I am writing about in my new book. In general, I found myself agreeing more with Jay Rosen on his praise of proximity+creation than Jeff Jarvis on his love of distance+curation.


Sunday, March 14, 2010

Double the History, Double the Fun

There's an interesting platform studies problem discussed in "Duplicating Federal Videos for an Online Archive." Archivists dealing with the problem of transporting materials from one potentially fragile medium to another and the problem of unindexed moving images. But they are also managing to "crowd source" solutions to their problems by calling on the services of volunteers. Although the concept of remains only in proposal stages, those working for the the International Amateur Scanning League and on FedFlix have hopes that their services will aid the National Archives and other government record-keepers in preserving videos for posterity.


Saturday, March 13, 2010


Today's THATCAMP Socal at Occidental College brought together a number of people working on digital humanities projects in the area. I have often argued that Southern California is a site of "regional advantage" in the digital humanities, so it was nice to see that dynamic on display during the day's "unconference," although Virtualpolitik friends Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Steve Anderson were unable to attend at the last minute.

The day started with general introductions and planning for sessions. In the first session on "Geographic Systems in the Humanities," UCHRI's Barbara Hui talked about her Litmap project, where she has provided definitions and explanations of the theoretical concepts behind the work, which includes a mapping of The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald, which connects a reading of the book with an ability to visualize the map of the narrative. Hui recommended Beginning Google Maps Mashups for novices starting to work with Google maps. Her mashup uses AJAX and PHP too. Many in attendance talked about the era before ESRSI, when there was a "steep learning curve" in mapping projects, and recommended resources at Lookback maps. Hui plans to attend the O'Reilly conference Where 2.0 at the end of the month.

Other mapping projects were described by Holly Willis, who talked about the Departures project at KCET. Ronan Hallowell discussed the REMAP project and how geotagged photos might construct a compelling history of Los Angeles in a scholarly social network supported by Ning. There were also plugs for University of Virginia's Institute for Enabling Geospatial Scholarship
and, a literary atlas of Europe or "literary metaspace." Others mentioned the UCSB geowiki that uses Second Life and information from a Zelda constructed map to show how cognitive mapping and other forms of game mapping, which might include frustrations as well as thoroughfares, could be shown. Finally, Jackson Stakeman showed parts of it only eats itself. Participants went off to their divided session thinking about the idea of "Graceful Degradation" in their own web design strategies.

Willis demonstrated the much anticipated 2.0 release of Sophie, a multimedia authoring tool created by Bob Stein, formerly of the Voyager Company and the TK3 reader. Sophie was created in Squeak first and now is available in a Java version, which was released on January 15. Having used earlier versions of the software, I appreciated improvements in the timeline and layers, although I cringed when presenters described it as having an "interface like PowerPoint." Willis also reminded attendees of the memory of the late Anne Friedberg, who had argued for "possibilities for authoring that are rich and exciting" and wondered if possibly "we don’t have the imagination yet to author in this environment." Willis took participants through the hierarchy of "books," "pages," and "frames" that organizes the software and showed how "halos" that allow rotation off the grid, "chain halos" that could be seen as "how text works," the systems Javascript interpreter, and the materials for a "comment page" that provides a window to the web. Although she apologized for the fact that some editing and Flash embedding were disabled right now, she talked about the robustness of HTML five. With an applet that still takes five minutes to load, the group talked about the limitations and virtues of the programming language Small Talk, upon which Squeak is based, and discussed how Java runs differently on different machines. They also ruminated about the "Alice and Wonderland" of this software, which could created a "book inside a book." As the session wound down there were more philosophical questions about "what is the difference between a book and a website" and the issue of providing an "extended reading place for extended thought." There was also speculation about "emotional responses to a book." People mentioned Frans Masereel's Die Stadt before moving on to a technical discussion of import and export annotation sets. As a reading experience, designers speculated that it would probably be easier to adapt for Android than for iPad users. Sophie is currently supporting five projects in the digital humanities.

I led a session about "curating our teaching," which ostensibly dealt with a very practical subject -- creating online teaching portfolios and thinking about dos and don'ts for the job market, but was meant to facilitate a broader discussion about self-presentation, institutional rhetoric, and the digital humanities. I think it did do that, but it was also part of one of the more remarkable parts of the two-track sessions at the conference, where participants had entirely gender segregated themselves, as this Twapper record of the conference Twitter stream shows. With only one exception the male participants were upstairs at "Data Visualizations + DH Platform" while I led the feminized" session on "Electronic Portfolios." Our group also talked about how "playfulness" can be misread by the serious academy and looked at examples like this video welcome by VP friend Mark Marino.

As we all moved upstairs for the final session on "Digital Pedagogy and Multimedia Literacy," Joshua McVeigh found himself leading an impassioned discussion about the video "3.5 til infinity," which was created by students at Stanford, who were on a trip to study natural selection and Darwin's legacy in the Galapagos Islands. It turns out that there are tons of "Darwin raps" of various kinds on YouTube. I often find myself wary of what I call the "Vanilla Ice Problem" when so-called "nerd rap" is celebrated by the digital humanities community. Stakeman raised a somewhat different issue about "too much focus on student product" in certain digital humanities discussions. As he put it, ""the digital humanities needs to do some sit-ups to get some more strength."

This led into an argument about how to grade such works and whether it was better to rely on rubrics that evaluate the final product by set criteria or a looser overview of process. I found myself disagreeing with rubric opponent Edward O’Neil as the IML multimedia rubric was discussed. Stakeman showed his own work with IML 346, where students were encouraged to take on Jersey Shore nicknames to protect their privacy as FERPA-protected students in an online environment. He also talked about the logistical problems of orchestrating the "first wave" of student input, which often consists of what he called "night before commenting." See a thread here. Although many used Commentpress to facilitate online class discussions there were also fans of Digressit in the room.

The last examples came from the universally praised Neon Tommy from Annenberg Digital News, which aggregates the work of highly skilled journalism students, and the possibly less successful mashups from content from Brave New Films, where students were encouraged to create opposing viewpoint videos based on "pasting and juxtaposition" like "Vietnam and Afghanistan."

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Friday, March 12, 2010

Live from Radio City

For those following the Critical Code Studies discussion taking place this month, it is definitely worth checking out the video Algorithms are Thoughts, Chainsaws are Tools from Stephen Ramsay, which is an interesting example of the video essay as an emerging genre.

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Rorty Archive Event

“Time Will Tell, But Epistemology Won't: In Memory of Richard Rorty”

A Celebration of Richard Rorty's Archive

Humanities Gateway 1030

University of California, Irvine

May 14, 2010

Confirmed speakers include Michael Bérubé, Steven Mailloux, and Mary Rorty.

In March 2010, the UCI Library's Special Collection launched the archive of Richard Rorty, the pragmatist philosopher, critical theorist, and public intellectual who is commonly described as one of the most important thinkers of his era. The Richard Rorty papers are part of UC Irvine's Critical Theory Archive, which includes significant works of Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller, Wolfgang Iser, and Murray Krieger. Included in the UC Irvine collection are electronic word-processing files, created between 1988 and 2003, which were retrieved from Rorty's 3.5" floppy disks during processing of his personal papers.

Participants will address a number of key questions for criticism in the era of computational media. What is an archive if it includes “born digital” materials? How do new forms of digital production and reception change the character of scholarly discourse? What is the relationship between public memory and computer memory? How should teaching materials be handled in the age of open courseware? How can Rorty’s ideas about philosophy as cultural politics be read in both the liberal and the academic blogospheres? How can more dialogue between critical theory and the digital humanities be fostered?

This celebratory event is sponsored by the UC Irvine Libraries, the UC Irvine Humanities Center, and the systemwide University of California Humanities Research Institute.


On Easy Tweet

TechPresident reports on the Twitter beat for political reports here.

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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Return to Spender

The Chronicle of Higher Education posted a link to a bad e-mail from a student who seems to lack rhetorical sensitivity (and perhaps basic psychological help) in order to facilitate instructor sharing of their own terrible e-moments in student-professor communication. Publicizing this "greatest student e-mail ever written" does raise a number of questions about student privacy and instructor decorum. Students are also mocked electronically at "That's "Professor' Uptight to You, Johnny."


Wednesday, March 10, 2010


It is interesting to see how the online behavior of "JihadJane" is being evaluated by those who only knew her in her offline life. Accounts of her use of terrorist rhetoric also include the antics of self-regulatory groups that police the behavior of outliers and serve as "griefers" to those who cross boundaries of netiquette. These include the Jawa Report, the YouTube Smackdown Corps, and other groups that go after Internet jihadis.

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Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Maybe the Packrats Might Like More Fliers

Migraine Train

Digital artist
Rafaël Rozendaal
has created a particularly sensory overloaded piece at R-G-B. Check it out! And see how long you can stand letting it play!


Monday, March 08, 2010


Web 2.0 critic Andrew Keen has certainly embraced Web 2.0 of late. Check out his exchange with VP friend Siva Vaidhyanathan about the "Googlization of Everything" here. Of course, I would tend to agree that it is questionable to assert that all Internet behavior promotes civic engagement, and it may not always be wrong to say that Social media and the internet do not spread democracy.

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Obsolescence and Its Discontents

VP colleague Kathleen Fitzpatrick has been busy with her book-in-progress Planned Obsolescence.

There’s a delicious ambiguity in that sentence: is it too late for a book — the literal, physical object — to change the world, or is it too late for any textual form? This text isn’t yet a book, though it’s headed in that direction. And possible or not, it’s determined to change the world, or at least the small segment of it where our colleges and universities reside.

And it’s attempting to begin creating that change here, with this site. One of the points that this text argues hardest about is the need to reform peer review for the digital age, insisting that peer review will be a more productive, more helpful, more transparent, and more effective process if conducted in the open. And so here’s the text, practicing what it preaches, available online for open review.

I’ll be relying on these reviews in revising the manuscript before its final submission. If all goes according to plan, the book will be forthcoming from NYU Press, which is sending the manuscript out for blind review as well. I’m grateful to those anonymous readers, and will certainly take their comments very seriously. But the conversation that takes place here will be key to my revision process.

Please read and comment here, either all at once or at your leisure. Respond to the text, but also respond to the other readers. I’ll be joining in the discussion as well, of course, and I’ll also be posting more general thoughts about the project’s development to the site’s community blog.

Portions of chapter 3 were originally published in the Journal of Electronic Publishing and on MediaCommons. Portions of chapter 1 were presented as part of an online conference held at Interdisciplines. Thanks are due to the editors and coordinators of those projects, and to the many scholars whose responses to the talks I’ve given about this book have helped to shape its development.

Finally, enormous thanks are due to Eric Zinner, Monica McCormick, Bob Stein, Christian Wach, Brian Hoffman, and everyone else who made this publication possible.

Make sure to weigh in with your own commentary soon!

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Sunday, March 07, 2010

The Night of the Living TED

This is the joke about TEDxNYED that I could just not resist making as I watched the proceedings. More later about this on Virtualpolitik.

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Saturday, March 06, 2010


A website/conference/advocacy group called Reforming the FCC has appeared with sponsorship from a number of digital rights groups including Public Knowledge and the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation. The group has expressed approval for the FCC's recent efforts on outreach. (I've actually given them a worst in show prize for their terrible web presence in the past.)

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Friday, March 05, 2010

PowerPointing Out the Issues

The Washington Post reports in "RNC's finance director behind controversial fundraising pitch" that a "confidential and crude" PowerPoint presentation that included a depiction of President Obama as a socialist Joker embarrassed the party enough to inspire leader Michael Steele to publicly apologize for their gaffe in digital rhetoric. Although the presentation was originally attributed to a low level "staffer," the actual author was veteran Republican political operative Robert Bickhart. The PowerPoint presentation, which is available at this website from, also contains Photoshopped images of congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, along with heart-shaped diagrams that situate "true believers" and arguments for putting "fun" in "fundraising."

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There Is No "T" in Natives

At the recent Digital Media and Learning Conference closing keynote speaker Sonia Livingstone argued in her talk that the rhetoric of the "digital native" encouraged misguided policy making that cast children both as innocent victims and as magically computationally savvy next generation saviors.

Ezster Hargittai seems to have reached a similar conclusion in "Digital Na(t)ives? Variation in Internet Skills and Uses among Members of the 'Net Generation,'" which examines how dynamics of class and education play out in patterns of Internet use and the role of parental modeling.

Hargittai's abstract for the published results of her study reads as follows:

People who have grown up with digital media are often assumed to be universally savvy with information and communication technologies. Such assumptions are rarely grounded in empirical evidence, however. This article draws on unique data with information about a diverse group of young adults’ Internet uses and skills to suggest that even when controlling for Internet access and experiences, people differ in their online abilities and activities. Additionally, findings suggest that Internet know-how is not randomly distributed among the population, rather, higher levels of parental education, being a male, and being white or Asian American are associated with higher levels of Web-use skill. These user characteristics are also related to the extent to which young adults engage in diverse types of online activities. Moreover, skill itself is positively associated with types of uses. Overall, these findings suggest that even when controlling for basic Internet access, among a group of young adults, socioeconomic status is an important predictor of how people are incorporating the Web into their everyday lives with those from more privileged backgrounds using it in more informed ways for a larger number of activities.

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Thursday, March 04, 2010

Bat Out of Hello

Stefano Gualeni gave a talk in this year's seminar series for the Center for Computer Games and Virtual Worlds at UC Irvine, which may have contained more philosophical content than would-be game designers in the audience may have expected. In the European context, such a talk would probably seem like much less of an anomaly, given the presence of theorists like Miguel Sicart or conferences like the Philosophy of Computer Games.

Known for creating the Tony Tough games and a popular basketball simulator, and for lending a hand to the anarchic Fairytale Fights, Gualeni explained that he had trained as an architect and therefore wanted to start his talk with Rafael's famed fresco of the School of Athens to introduce his overview of metaphysics, which quickly made its way to Martin Heidegger's criticism of the "fundamental mistake" of assuming a separation between the real world of objects and the mental world of subjects, so central to Western thought and a major concern of René Descartes' substantial dualism that opposed the thinking think and the extended thing.

Then Gualeni jumped off from Plato's "myth of the cave" to an elaborate diagram that went from the base in the "Real" where subjectivity functions to make sense of the world through real experience and interaction to the real of metaphysics, which must mediate with abstract representations, such as charts, taxonomies, or phylogenetic trees. Atop of this structure he sketched out "Mediaphysics" as the realm of the imagination, which provided some answer to Hume's assertion that human beings are confined within the sensory apparatus. For Gualeni it is impossible to wax philosophical without mentioning Marshall MacLuhan who argued that first the man made the hammer then the hammer made the man. He also used Borges' famous story about "The Library of Babel" to argue that computational media are fundamentally different from books.

Which brings him to his central question: "What is it like to be a bat?" It is also the question asked in 1974 by the realist philosopher Thomas Nagel, and one difficult to answer because we are bound to human subjectivity and one recently re-asked by Katherine Hayles in her plenary talk at DAC 2009 as being critical to so-called "object-oriented ontology." The question serves as the subject for Guileni's game Haerfest. He reframes the question in the context of the game as "not what is it like for me to be a bat but rather what is it like for a bat to be a bat."

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Hello Dalai

Although the Dalai Lama may have been skeptical about Twitter, he now has a verified Twitter account with frequent postings. Mashable credits a meeting with Twitter CEO Evan Williams for spurring the Tibetan spiritual leader and advocate for his people's political sovereignty to join the popular microblogging site. A Dalai Lama hoaxster had deceived the more gullible in the Twitterverse for a while. Of course, as my colleague Jenny Cool has pointed out, Tibetans have been active users of social media for a long time, in order to manage their government-in-exile of their San Francisco hosted domain.

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Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Personalized Response

The Onion has been doing a nice job mocking the world's most profitable search engine company. In "Google Responds To Privacy Concerns With Unsettlingly Specific Apology"

Acknowledging that Google hasn't always been open about how it mines the roughly 800 terabytes of personal data it has gathered since 1998, Schmidt apologized to users— particularly the 1,237,948 who take daily medication to combat anxiety—for causing any unnecessary distress, and he expressed regret—especially to Patricia Fort, a single mother taking care of Jordan, Sam, and Rebecca, ages 3, 7, and 9—for not doing more to ensure that private information remains private.

Monday's apology comes after the controversial launch of Google Buzz, a social networking platform that publicly linked Gmail users to their most e-mailed contacts by default.

"I'd like nothing more than to apologize in person to everyone we've let down, but as you can see, many of our users are rarely home at this hour," said Google cofounder and president Sergey Brin, pointing to several Google Map street-view shots of empty bedroom and living room windows on a projection screen behind him. "And, if last night's searches are any indication, Boston's Robert Hornick is probably out shopping right now for the spaghetti and clam sauce he'll be cooking tonight."

If that's not enough mockery of the Mountain View company for you, you can also check out this video about the high security "Opt Out Village" compound, where those who want to protect their privacy can give up modern communication and trade.

Thanks to Ava Arndt for the links.

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The Archive Opens

Stay tuned for more about this unique digital collection. The UC Irvine Critical Theory Archive also has the laptop of Stanley Fish, along with born digital materials from Rorty that are now available to researchers who have gained permission for online access.

*Richard Rorty Papers Open for Research at the UC Irvine Libraries*

The papers of the late philosopher Richard Rorty, whom the New York Times called "one of the world’s most influential contemporary thinkers," are now available to researchers at the UC Irvine Libraries, Department of Special Collections and Archives. Rorty was a controversial figure in philosophy, advancing a distinctive form of pragmatism that emphasized the historical contingency of the discipline. Displaying a remarkably broad intellectual range, Rorty's work was influential in fields from literary theory to political science and history. He ended his career in the Department of Comparative Literature at Stanford University.

The Richard Rorty Papers are unique among scholarly manuscript collections at UC Irvine and elsewhere, given that they include not only paper manuscripts, but also more than 1,000 digital word-processing files recovered from Rorty's floppy disks. Among the digital files, researchers will find scholarly manuscripts, letters, essays, speeches and lectures that reflect not only Rorty's intellectual development, but also his insights into political issues and world events. The topics he addressed include the labor movement in the U.S., the foreign and
domestic policies of the Clinton administration, and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. These digital manuscripts, converted to pdf format for preservation, are available to researchers through the website UCIspace @ the Libraries (

The digital files complement the collection's 60 boxes of materials in paper form, which include handwritten and typed manuscripts covering a nearly 50-year span from Rorty's graduate school days through the end of the century. Rorty died in 2007 at the age of 75. Included in the paper files are thousands of letters to and from friends and colleagues such as scholars Barry Allen, Annette Baier, Richard Bernstein, Robert Brandom, Hubert Dreyfus, Milton Fisk, Raymond Geuss, Katherine Kearns, Bruce Kuklick, Juergen Habermas, Ian Hacking, Maurice Mandelbaum, Gerald J. Massey, Alexander Nehamas, Jacques Poulain, J.B. Schneewind, Quentin Skinner, and Gregory Vlastos. Among the public figures represented are judge and legal scholar Richard Posner and U.S. Senator Bill Bradley.

The collection also includes letters and writings dating to Rorty's youth. After he left his home in New Jersey to attend the University of Chicago just before his 15th birthday, he wrote many letters to his parents, both of whom were writers and activists. These and the return correspondence are included in the collection.

Given Rorty's considerable engagement with literary and critical theorists such as Jacques Derrida and Stanley Fish, Rorty donated his papers to the UC Irvine Libraries' Critical Theory Archive in 2006. The Archive also holds the papers of Derrida, Fish, and Paul de Man, among others.

The Richard Rorty Papers are available to researchers in the reading room at the Department of Special Collections and Archives at UC Irvine Libraries. A guide to the collection is available online at


It's My Party and I'll Fie If I Want To

Fallout from social computing snafus associated with the Oscars and the Olympics has caused award winners at both to be treated with persona non grata status. According to this story in the Los Angeles Times, a producer of the critically acclaimed film The Hurt Locker was to be barred from the ceremony because of trash-talking about another best film nominee, the sci-fi extravaganza Avatar. Allegedly Nicholas Chartier sent an e-mail urging academy members to vote for films from his production company rather than "the $500-million film" alternative.

Bronze medal winning snowboarder Scotty Lago was punished for allowing slightly racy pictures of erotic horsing around with his medal to be photographed and then disseminated virally on the web. This round-up on "Scoring Social Media Use in the 2010 Olympics" describes controversies, crowd sourcing, and new types of information graphics playing out in the winter games.

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Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Help Channel

After finding this amazing documentary portrait of James Baldwin from 1963, "Take This Hammer," I wanted to check out more of the DIVA website, which describes itself as a "web-based tool for storing, sharing, collaborating over, and contextualizing files and other content" for "faculty and staff" of San Francisco State, although it is also clearly open to others interested in fair use content for teaching and learning in higher education.

Critical Commons is more searchable, better curated, and clearer in its free culture politics, but there are also useful materials for those who want to bring a database of footage into the classroom environment easily that features a lot of local public television coverage of the area.

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Not a Gay Old Time

This "Treatise on Homosexuality and Gaming" plays with the identity politics of game play and its hypermasculine gender roles. The author criticizes how gay people aren't presented as minorities in game narratives, how lesbians are objectified, and how androgyny may pass for gay-friendly.

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Nazi Punks

European concerns about Google and YouTube also include worries about how the video sharing site for the search engine company propagates Nazi propaganda, which is barred within German national borders. Of course, some of this content, such as films produced by Third Reich propagandists are actually of use in the classroom to show the historical context of the visual culture of the period.

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Monday, March 01, 2010

Grad about the Boy

Grad students are willing enough to mock themselves on YouTube, as several videos demonstrate, whether it be with low-tech information graphics or skits with dozens of participants. However, when grad students at Iowa State posted "The English TA Experience," which seemed to also undermine their ethos with their undergraduate charges, university administrators responded very negatively.

This YouTube montage of Simpsons clips shows mockery created by the animated show instead.

Shows like 30 Rock have also gotten into the act.

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Redesigning the Lecture

A recent report on "Redesigning Large Lecture Courses" may sound familiar to those who remember the Pew Program in Course Redesign from the nineties, which I wrote about in this paper several years ago. Now the emphasis is on the so-called "hybrid learning" that I was an advocate for rather than abandoning lecture courses or turning them into vehicles for distance learning, which some Pew acolytes were advocates for. The Pew Redesign project has left many dead educational websites behind like this one. Let us hope that this decade's redesigners won't leave so much abandoned virtual real estate behind.

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