Tag Archives: writing

So What? A few final CW R4B thoughts

6 Dec

A few words on the last day of College Writing R4B, Fall 2013 

For Mimi, Nick, Nathan, Brent, Jeevan, Kristine, Jasmine, Noosha, Grant, Kevin, Kevyn, Alan, Michelle, Richard, Nicole, Estefania, and Lulu…
[Note:  If you’re reading on a computer, the hyperlinks in the text should come through fine. For those of you reading this on a mobile device, some of the hyperlinks don’t seem to be activating, so I’ve listed a few raw URLs at the end of the post. ]

We live in heady times.  Every day there is something new.

Talk of Amazon delivering packages by drone and Google doing so via robot, and of hyper-connected, love sick couples in Seoul, along with ongoing discussions of whether the Long Tail is a good thing–for consumers, for artists, for businesses, for the culture.

Remember the Long Tail?  Jaron Lanier talked a little bit about it:  most of us are in the long tail, while a few Amazonians, among others, are in the slender tippy top of the curve.

Speaking of Lanier, here’s what he had to say in the New York Times a couple of days ago about that Amazon drone delivery idea:


“I can easily picture a scenario where drones deliver things to upscale tech-savvy customers,” he said. “But note the implication, whether intended or not, that working-class truck drivers will no longer transgress geographic class lines. It’s also hard to imagine delivery drones flying unmolested in restive working-class or poor areas. They’d become skeet or be ‘occupied,’ depending on the nature of the neighborhood.”

A prospect both funny and sad because it all seems so likely.

An End to the Introductory Digression…

What is it that I want to say to you?

I’m not sure, but I’ve given myself an hour to do it.  (Or 50 minutes, really, since that’s how much time we have together each day.)  This is in keeping with the ethos of the speed of technology.

I suppose I want to say this:  The sentence is human.

The sentence is human?

Human, the sentence is.

(Yoda version.)



Is it human, though?

It is.

Is it?

(Apparently, I’m talking to myself; that’s what writers do sometimes.)

Only humans can write sentences, really.  Machines can’t write them.

No? Well…

Jewel Darling, you are my covetous infatuation. My lovely infatuation. You are my precious sympathy. My precious desire impatiently adores your fancy. You are my avid fancy.

What the…?

Jewel moppet. You are my loving rapture. My heart breathlessly adores your desire. You are my beautiful adoration. My precious charm. My sympathy impatiently tempts your yearning.

These are love letters written by a computer program. The program itself was first written over 60 years ago(!)

And then there’s this:

“WISCONSIN appears to be in the driver’s seat en route to a win, as it leads 51-10 after the third quarter. Wisconsin added to its lead when Russell Wilson found Jacob Pedersen for an eight-yard touchdown to make the score 44-3 … . ”

This is a news story from just a couple years ago, generated by a program designed by the company Narrative Science, one of whose founders said at the time:

“In five years,a computer program will win a Pulitzer Prize — and I’ll be damned if it’s not our technology.”

Program + input of data = news story.

But can such a program write this?

Quoyle experienced moments in all colors, uttered brilliancies, paid attention to the rich sound of waves counting stones, he laughed and wept, noticed sunsets, heard music in rain, said I do. A row of shining hubcaps on sticks appeared in the front yard of Burkes’ house. A wedding present from the bride’s father.

For if Jack Buggit could escape in a pickle jar, if a bird with a broken neck could fly away, what else might be possible? Water may be older than light, diamonds crack in hot goat’s blood, mountaintops give off cold fire, forests appear in mid-ocean, it may happen that a crab is caught with the shadow of a hand on its back, that the wind be imprisoned in a bit of knotted string.  And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.

A machine can’t write that. Not yet.

(It’s from the last two paragraphs of The Shipping News, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Annie Proulx.)

The Shipping News

So:  what’s my point?  What’s the So What?

Still not sure, other than showing my biases.

I think it’s partly this, though:

We read on machines.


We write on them.


We do research on them.


And we use them to cite so incredibly easily. (Though my citation here, particularly of the images, is quite poor. Most of the images come from Creative Commons.  I’ll take the time to cite them later.  This post, like so much that is online, is a draft.)

(An aside on “citation” and provision of evidence:  Don’t you love it when articles give you a hyperlink trail so they don’t have to give you all sorts of tedious explanatory context?   And sometimes you can find little gems.  For instance, they can just go:  “For something quite silly, go here or here.”)

Machines might serve as excellent tools to do a certain degree of our writing and reading for us.  

But in this context, there are certain things a machine can’t do–that a machine shouldn’t do.  Sharp writing and careful critical reading become even more important as automation makes aspects of it undeniably easier.

So who’s going to do it?

You are.

(You knew I’d say that, didn’t you?)

Mimi and Estefania will show us how cyberbullying and sex trafficking online, respectively, might be stopped by, in part, expanding our Circle of Empathy.

Noosha will make us more aware of what Facebook might be doing to women’s body images, and maybe Nicole will provide us solutions to that problem by showing us some non-stereotyped female gamers who will kick some misogynistic butt.

Or maybe we’ll all just chill out, go to Disneyland, and wear RFID wristbands with Kristine, except Kevin will say, “No No! Don’t you know what they’re going to do with your information?! Doesn’t anyone care about their privacy anymore?”

Nathan will tell us to calm down, he knows just what to do, let’s all go on Twitter and pass along information about this crisis as it happens, and if we decide we don’t want our RFID bands anymore, then Michelle will tell us how to dispose of them properly.

Or else she’ll totally freak us out by showing us something like this: 


Maybe one way to deal with all that e-waste is to generate less of it by pirating more things and torrenting them, though Kevyn will actually give us other ways in which we ought not to worry so much (and worry a little? yes?) about piracy.

And what happens if the Great Firewall of China comes down? Less piracy?  More growth?  Richard will show us–and the Chinese economy–how to make a booming economy boomier.  In the meantime, Lulu will give us the tools to become as famous (and rich!!) as social media make-up maven Michelle Phan.

Speaking of make-up, let’s watch some baseball being umpired entirely by technology, and then take a moment to stare at Grant’s newly peroxided Game of Thrones hair.

[Self conscious, real-time, staring-at-Grant break]

Is he remaking his in-person image for an online presence?  Brent will tell us what he thinks about that, and Alan will tell us whether that’s why teens find Facebook so appealing, even as Jasmine tells young people that people, people, Facebook isn’t reality and there are better ways to achieve true happiness and among them is…Jeevan!  Jeevan!  Stop looking at your own profile picture!!

Not to worry though, all will be well, because once he leverages his Obama-esque knowledge of social media campaigning, Nick will solve all our problems as our future Senator from California.  You can all say you knew him back in his humble beginnings in 263 Dwinelle.

(BTW, what a crappy room, eh?)

So, the machines have started, and E.M. Forster (may he Rest in Peace) might well be dismayed if he were still with us (and he is still with us–his writing!).  But the humans haven’t stopped yet. I have faith in you.

In the meantime, it’s best to laugh in the face of our imminent demise.  That is, until machines get a sense of humor too. So I turn now–as I often do at this time of the semester–to the Kiwis:

Cheers and Adieu.


Raw URL Links (in case the embedded ones above didn’t work):

On Amazon delivery drones:  http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/03/technology/amazon-delivers-some-pie-in-the-sky.html

On Google delivery robots:  http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/04/technology/google-puts-money-on-robots-using-the-man-behind-android.html?_r=0

On “The Love App” in Seoul:  http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/11/25/131125fa_fact_collins

About the Long Tail and blockbusters:  http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2013/12/02/131202crbo_books_sanneh

Narrative Science:  http://narrativescience.com/artificial-intelligence-data-engine/#section2

Computer generated articles:  http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/11/business/computer-generated-articles-are-gaining-traction.html?pagewanted=all

Creative Commons:  http://search.creativecommons.org/

Something silly #1:

Jimmy Fallon, Rashida Jones, & Carrie Underwood: A Holiday Mashup

Something silly #2 (a book trailer for the novel Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart):

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 “adnxs.com” and “tynt.com”).  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.