Archive | April, 2012

Revolutions in reading

30 Apr

We thought of the Occupy movement and the Tea Party and the Arab Spring and the ongoing revolutions in technology and communications (of the types I’ve been writing about in this blog), and we came up with the theme of “Revolutions.” Then we asked UC Berkeley faculty and staff to give us their best recommendations of readings centered on that theme.  We got an excellent and eclectic list, which we’ll be forwarding on to incoming freshmen. Now you get to see it too (and the cool cover the reflects the strength of this list):


A Farewell (for now) to my R4B Students

26 Apr

This is a blog that I created for the New Media Faculty Seminar I attended here at Cal this semester. It’s been a place for me to think ever so briefly about the readings and discussions in the seminar. Some of my colleagues, or others, may read this.  However, as our semester together nears its close, I write today’s blog post primarily for you, my students.

I’ll start here:

Imagine a veteran of combat, someone just returned from the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, walking into a bar back home. He sees an older veteran of the Vietnam War already sitting on a stool and cradling a beer bottle. The younger veteran approaches and juts his chin upward in greeting. The older veteran responds by tipping the mouth of his bottle towards the wall opposite them, where there is a poster of Picasso’s Guernica:

The younger vet just nods in reply. He knows. They both know. Enough said.

Or perhaps not. Who is the audience for this exchange?

Perhaps we need some writing as a means of communicating.  That’s been the dominant mode in our class, the thing we’ve been working on together.  Tim O’Brien, who writes more eloquently about war than perhaps any other living American writer, has written book after book in an attempt to remember what he saw and did as a soldier in Vietnam, his stories sometimes recursively circling back on themselves as he searches for meaning by writing his stories again and again, trying to get closer to the truth. As the narrator of his short story, “How to Tell a True War Story,” puts it, “You can tell a true war story if you just keep on telling it.”

Or maybe we need a more visceral image, something that’s less abstract than Guernica or something that’s at less of a literary remove than a short story, to get us (civilians) to feel a small measure of what war means for those in the thick of it. I thought about posting a few disturbing images that stand on their own, ones that have jarred me in the past, and then I thought, “Now why would you do that, especially for this audience and this purpose?”

And then, magically, on the very day I was having these thoughts, Colby Buzzell, an Iraq war veteran and former gunner for the Army, put writing and photographs together to reflect on the ugly photos that soldiers sometimes take during war.  Let him explain.

Hold it hold it hold it hold it!

[Use your imagination to insert the clichéd sound of car tires squealing to a halt, or else a needle screeching across a record…wait, have any of you ever used a turntable?]

What exactly do I think I’m doing here?  Why am I starting this blog post with a few thoughts about war? Perhaps it’s because war was the subject my previous sets of R4B students studied while they worked on their writing, their reading, their research. And Colby came to see several semesters’ worth of my students to talk about his memoir, a memoir that, as it happens, was based on a series of blog posts he wrote anonymously while he was serving in Iraq.

But we haven’t discussed war at all. What the heck is up? The previous subject is obviously still there in my brain like a cookie stored on my computer, waiting to be accessed.

No, that’s not quite the right analogy. I’m not making strong links in this meditation, am I? My flow needs some work.

Time to revise.

Start again:  We communicate in different ways and in different contexts.  We use different modes and technologies to communicate meaning. Writing (and reading) is the means that I use most often to make sense of the world; your means of communicating and making meaning may well be different. Writing still remains an important skill in our fast-evolving, tech-heavy world, though that may be changing.

Let’s risk a digression, and take a trip to Japan to look at some different photographs. Take a moment to look at the images in this slideshow. What do you see?

These are photographs that were recovered in areas ravaged by the 2011 tsunami in Japan. By themselves, many of them are strikingly beautiful multimedia works of art.  This technological means of representation and memory—the photograph—has been altered by Nature, by saltwater and dirt and bacteria so that the original objects have been radically damaged. Overlay that with the fact that some of the people in these photos surely died in the tsunami, and that there are efforts afoot to reunite these photos with the people who lost them, or with their survivors, and the pictures take on an almost unbearable poignancy. (Thanks to Tim Gotch for drawing my attention to these.)

So in the end, Nature maybe wins out over us and our efforts to tame it via technology.

By the way…sorry…BTW, have I succeeded in distracting you yet with my hyperlinks via this “ecosystem of interruption technologies” as the writer Cory Doctorow (qtd. in Carr 91) calls the Internet? No? You’re still with me? Good.

Because elsewhere in Japan, there other things going on. Have you ever heard of “vocaloids”? Until last week, I never had. You may shortly be able to take a De-Cal course about this, which is how I found out about it (from Alex de Guia of the Student Learning Center).

I imagine that if E.M. Forster were sitting with his afternoon tea watching this video, he’d have done a spit take:

This is Hatsune Miku, who is apparently a huge pop star in Japan, where she sells out concert halls with her singing and dancing and irresistible cuteness. She is also a computer program. A tech company created Miku a couple of years ago using technology developed by the Yamaha Corporation, and then, somehow, she evolved into a pop star that people would pay to see in concert. What?!

The Machine Sings.

Yes, those are actual Japanese fans—that is, actual human beings—in the audience who paid actual money to attend an actual concert and wave actual glow sticks while actually going wild. Presumably not all of them are on Ecstasy.

Those Japanese…crazy. For all the ways in which we human beings are much the same the world over (see again those tsunami photos), there are still plenty of things that are culturally specific and arise out of certain contexts that make us distinct. You’d never see something like that in America, right?

Except maybe that’s not so different from sitting passively here in America in a dark theatre to watch other kinds of computer-generated entertainments:

And then some of you were in Coachella a couple weeks ago where you saw Tupac Shakur brought back to life.

A dead rapper projected onstage so he could perform once more alongside his old buddies. Was it cool or creepy? A little of both. At least Tupac was alive once, an actual human being who spoke and rapped these words at some point before Dr. Dre and company made a Pepper’s Ghost out of him. I imagine that Tupac will finally get to rest in peace when there isn’t anybody left who stands to make money off him.

But back to Miku for a second. Apparently some of her human fans write songs for her using Yamaha’s technology, and then Miku performs some of those songs in concert; so maybe she’s sort of a social media crowd-sourced musical collaboration. Part machine, part human.  (Look at me, using the female personal pronoun to refer to Miku…I mean, to refer to the program…I mean…)

And as this PBS Idea Channel video questions:  who’s more real—a computer program like Miku or a manufactured human pop star like Lana Del Rey?

Trying to push against the on-rush of technology and the increasing presence of machines, let alone dealing with so many of the other challenges in our lives (chief among them our mortality), can come to seem like each of us is Sisyphus, eternally doomed as in the myth to keep pushing that rock back up the hill only to have it roll back down to the bottom again.

And yet I liked this formulation by Albert Camus taken from a book of his essays—a reminder that even in the face of absurdity or doom, we have to keep persevering and even to laugh and to try to enjoy ourselves: “One has to imagine Sisyphus happy.”

(Caution:  this quote of Camus is drawn from a secondary source, albeit a very reliable one.)

The Flight of the Conchords seem to have Camus’ spirit in mind (thank you, Satya Levine, for reminding me this was out there):

The fact that we can joke about such things sometimes means that we take them dead seriously.

Are you distracted yet?

So what was this all about? Out with it already.

This is writing. A mostly linear medium you’ve been reading here from top to bottom, from beginning to end (sort of). As with any book that you could choose to put down, you’ve had opportunities to jump away, though in this case you’ve had even more of them than a printed text affords you.

Even if you haven’t made it this far, I know somebody—or some thing, some program, some company—has followed me this far. I used the Collusion add-on from Mozilla to track the companies that have been following me. By clicking on each of the nine hyperlinks and videos above on this page, I have been tracked and cross-tracked not only by the original web sites I visited but also by about 24 other big name companies (like Twitter) and odd-sounding advertising and data mining companies (like “” and “”).  Here’s what that looks like:

(If you’re reading this online and you’ve clicked those same links, those companies have also tracked you. Sorry about that. Maybe I need a privacy policy on this blog.)

So, all that web surfing isn’t free. Somebody is reading me. After all, I’m somebody’s—or lots of somebodies’—micro Tupac ATM.

But have you been reading me?

My job as the writer here was to keep you reading, keep you with me from beginning to end, and if I’ve failed maybe that doesn’t matter because this is just a blog post, a piece of digital ephemera full of silly digressions and errors and elisions.

But it does matter to me if you’ve made it to the end, if I’ve made myself clear rather than serving as a human version of the Postmodernism Generator.  I trust that the same imperative will apply for you as each of you put together your final project for me and for the audience you’re imagining.

My job, in short, was to convey my meaning to you, my audience.  To present a unified piece that cohered—around a theme, a gesture, an argument.  Is this an argument?

What I think I mostly want to say is this: each of you is a distinct person, not a machine.  If I could standardize and mechanize my teaching more, and standardize your output even more, a machine might be able to grade some of your papers. However, I can’t input each of you tidily into my Larkinoid program and spit out great writers at the other end. (I can’t even do that for myself.) Maybe I’m falling prey to another version of Jaron Lanier’s “lock in,” only in this case it’s a lock in of the education system, or of academic writing conventions, or of my teaching. Perhaps it’s time to revise or re-program.

So here we are, learning how to write the human way—not very efficient, perhaps, but it’s the reality of the moment. In my view, it’s also a major part of what makes things interesting.

The truth is that while teachers can (and should) help guide you, you mostly have to teach yourself to write; you have to discover for yourself.  If you want to develop the muscle—if you don’t want to lose the muscle and turn into a lump of flesh like Vashti sitting in her little cell at the beginning of Forster’s short story—then you have to keep working the writing muscle, the reading muscle, the thinking muscle.  If you do this, if you don’t let yourself get overly discouraged as you push that rock up the hill, if you keep working, you’ll teach yourself more about how to write well than I or any other instructor (or machine) could ever teach you.

And you’ll be a very interesting human being.

You can do it, yes?

Good luck on the journey.

# # #


Works Cited


(Not entirely necessary, given that this is a blog post. However, I can’t very well ask all of you to carefully keep track of your sources if I don’t do it myself, can I? The sources for the jpegs above, admittedly, have not been cited.)

Buzzell, Colby. “My Father’s War Pictures, and Mine.” Daily Beast. 20 Apr. 2012. Web. 26 Apr. 2012.

– – -.  My War. New York: Berkley Caliber, 2006. Print.

Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows:  What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. New York: Norton, 2010. Print.

“CV01 Hatsune Miku -World is Mine Live in Tokyo, Japan.”  Perf. Hatsune Miku. (Really?–yeah, OK, I guess I should cite her as a performer… maybe)YouTube. You Tube, 13 Apr. 2012. Web. 26 Apr. 2012

“Flight of the Conchords – The Humans Are Dead.” YouTube. You Tube, 15 Mar. 2007. Web. 26 Apr. 2012.

Forster, E. M. “The Machine Stops.” The Eternal Moment and Other Stories. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1928. Print.

Gopnik, Adam.  “Facing History.” New Yorker. 9 Apr 2012: 70-76. Print.

Gotch, Tim. “The Memory Salvage Project:  Haunting and poignant images recovered from the tsunami.” Spookymoonbeam. WordPress. 9 Apr. 2012. Web. 26 Apr. 2012.

“Introducing Collusion.” Mozilla. Mozilla. Web. 26 Apr. 2012.
Lanier, Jaron. You Are Not a Gadget. New York: Vintage, 2011. Print.

Leon, Melissa. “Hatsune Miku, Japan’s Holograpm Pop Idol.” Daily Beast. 18 Apr. 2012. Web. 26 Apr. 2012.

“Lost & Found: 3.11 Photographs from Tohuku.” Exposures Blog. Aperture Foundation. 28 Mar. 2012. Web. 26 Apr. 2012.

Lost & Found Project: Family Photos Swept by 3.11 East Japan Tsunami. n.d. Web. 26 Apr. 2012.

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Penguin, 1991. Print.

The Postmodernism Generator. Communications from Elsewhere. n.d. Web. 26 Apr. 2012.

Rugnetta, Mike (narr.). “Is Miku Hatsune A More Authentic Pop Star Than Lana Del Rey? | Idea Channel | PBS.” PBS Idea Channel. YouTube, 28 Mar. 2012. Web. 26 Apr. 2012.

“Staff.” Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. U.C. Berkeley, 2012. Web. 26 Apr. 2012.

“Tupac Hologram Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre Perform Coachella Live 2012.” YouTube. You Tube. 17 Apr. 2012. Web. 26 Apr. 2012.

Winerip, Michael. “Facing a Robo-Grader? Just Keep Obfuscating Melliflously.”  New York Times. New York Times. 22 Apr. 2012. Web. 26 Apr. 2012.

Comics Grow Up: Reading Scott McCloud

19 Apr

Scott McCloud has been influential in college composition since Understanding Comics came on the scene.  I can recall tutoring football players who were using the book at the University of Pittburgh back in 1994.  Various of my past and current colleagues have used his text to help students more carefully read graphic novels like Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and Joe Sacco’s Palestine, among others.

Comics and graphic novels have only grown in popularity over the past couple of decades, of course:  more and more of them have been published, and their influence on the culture can be seen in phenomena such as the popularity of ComicCon and similar conventions as well as in Hollywood’s embrace of graphic novels and classic comic book heroes as a means to make money.  Some of the results of the latter efforts have been excellent (if not sublime), while others have been ridiculous:

And comics seem to adapt pretty well to the new medium of the Internet, though rather like their linear cousin, the book, one wonders what might be lost in the translation to on-line comics, to iPad graphic novels.  (Indeed, the placement of Robert Coover’s essay, “The End of Books,” just before McCloud’s in The New Media Reader signals the more-than-chronological relationship of the two forms.)

The poet Donald Hall, the critic Sven Birkerts, and others have written about the way reading fosters and develops the imagination in a manner that electronic media do not.  Unlike say, TV, while reading a book, the reader participates in the “co-production of images” with the writer, imagining the scene as the writer has described it.  With TV shows, movies, or (now) a web video, a different kind of cognitive work is going on.

McCloud’s work makes me wonder if comics are, in some ways, a kind of middle ground between the imaginative (and largely linear) work of the reader of text and the spacial/visual/aural experience of TV/movies/web videos.  With comics, the imagery is presented to the reader, but in the spaces between and within each panel, there is imaginative work in time and space being done.

Comics used to be the realm of children.  (I can remember eagerly running to my local 7-11 with a quarter to buy the latest copy of Spider Man or Batman.)  Now they are an entertainment, and an art form, for adults.  Another signal of the infantalization of our culture or a mere evolution of art and the culture? Perhaps a little of both.  I shall contemplate the question further while looking at an image on the tin garbage can in my home office, a garbage can I’ve had with me since I was 10 years old:

The Self as Aggregation of Data

18 Apr

Thanks to James B. Rule and to several of my students who are looking into privacy policies in different ways, I’ve been thinking about privacy this week.

Here’s James’ article for The Huffington Post about the Obama Administration’s Framework for a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, which frames in some of the problems with “The Framework,” and points to the kinds of questions we ought to be asking about who has the right to our personal data.

And then earlier this week, I came across this article published on 2/29/12 and written by Alexis Madrigal for The Atlantic. The article’s title gives you a sense of what it’s about: “I’m Being Followed:  How Google–and 104 Other Companies–Are Tracking Me on the Web.”  This article made me want to try the “Collusion” program offered by Mozilla to track just who is tracking me. (Anyone ever tried this?)

What price are we paying for convenience?  What price for access to “free” on-line content?  We have firewalls to protect us from hacking, (very few) pay walls to monetize our content, and a thin “name wall” (Madrigal’s term) between us and the data we provide about ourselves with every click we make.  Am I a man, or am I 00011100101010101010101101010101010100000000…?