30 November 2006


So how's your PhD coming along?

Please allow me the indulgence to share my progress so far: I'm now a year and a half into the program, and as this semester draws to a close I've completed all of my coursework requirements, and have had my comprehensive requirement accepted. I have a mindmap of my thesis foundation posted on my office wall, and have a not-bad, hour-long presentation that takes people through the theory, research agenda, and methodology (I can also do it in about 90 seconds, give or take, for those that like things really brief; in case you've forgotten, I'm seeking to develop a new philosophy and theory of organization that is consistent with contemporary times). My official thesis proposal just needs to be sewn together from its various component parts, and I am just about to write up my ethical review protocol, which I'm targeting to submit early in January. While that cooks (takes about 3 months or so to wend its way through the U of T ethical review board bureaucracy, even for an expedited review), I'm going to be considering who might be an appropriate third member for my committee, working on analyzing the cyber-education environment data from our wiki-based course this semester, and co-chairing the annual Dean's Graduate Student Research Conference here at OISE (March 23-24, 2007 - presenters are OISE grad researchers; the conference is open to the public to attend and participate if you're in Toronto and interested in pedagogical research). I have a pretty good indication that my SSHRC application is among those that will likely make the final round (actually winning one is another story), and we've been able to facilitate great student involvement in the department this year, thanks in large part to the energy and vitality brought by our new department chair.

All in all, it's been a pretty good year.

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27 November 2006

The Rhetoric of PowerPoint

An excellent essay and lecture from Jens E. Kjeldsen, an associate professor at the University of Bergen, Norway. In it he uses an analogue to media literacy, namely media rhetoracy, to think critically about the effects of PowerPoint, and how to construct effective communication that engages thought, rather than diminishing it:
The presentation program PowerPoint is probably the most used tool in the schools, high schools and universities of today. The use of this program, however, comes at a cost, because it is not just a different and neutral way of teaching. Like the use of any technology, PowerPoint affects not only the way we present and teach, but also the way we think, learn and understand. The program carries an inherent tendency to crate fragmentation of thought and cognitive overload. In order to avoid this we should stop thinking in terms of technology and begin to think rhetorically. What we need is media rhetoracy: the ability to communicate persuasively and appropriately.
This is an academic presentation, so it deals with, among other things, PowerPoint in pedagogy, but the lessons are quite transferable to other contexts as well - including the business world for which PowerPoint was originally designed. One of my favourite lines from the essay is this one:
“If you’ve got nothing to say”, starts a maxim from the advertising world, “then sing it”. Perhaps we could say much the same about PowerPoint: “If you’ve nothing to say, PowerPoint can help you say it loudly and clearly”.
Also quoted, of course, is Edward Tufte, whose critique of PowerPoint set off a firestorm of controversy. Tufte maintains that PowerPoint slides
“make audiences ignorant and passive, and also to diminish the credibility of the presenter. Thin visual content prompts suspicions: ”What are they leaving out? Is that all they know? Does the speaker think we’re stupid?” ”What are they hiding?”
Of course, Tufte's critique might well be the reason for the program's popularity, even among teachers.
Via Jill

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26 November 2006

Image Chef for Custom Graphic Messages

Image Chef has a cute free service that allows you to add custom text to stock images. Very cool for a quick and dirty illustration, comme ├ža.

Yes, I'm in a bit of a weird space, trying to finish up a paper on cyber-education as Gramscian hegemony. Now where did I put the notes from that article?...

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Thank Microsoft for the Zune

Everyone who cares about the future of culture, and loves music, should be thanking Microsoft for the design choices it made in the Zune. The Zune provides a tremendous object lesson for the music industry of what happens if you let the industry design a music player, rather than the market and users. The Chicago Sun-Times runs a review of the Zune that reads like one of the captions in the Museum of Failed Products:
Yes, Microsoft's new Zune digital music player is just plain dreadful. I've spent a week setting this thing up and using it, and the overall experience is about as pleasant as having an airbag deploy in your face. "Avoid," is my general message. The Zune is a square wheel, a product that's so absurd and so obviously immune to success that it evokes something akin to a sense of pity...

The Zune is a complete, humiliating failure. ... Throw in the Zune's tail-wagging relationship with music publishers, and it almost becomes important that you encourage people not to buy one. ... Microsoft's colossal blunder was to knock the user out of that question [of what users want and Apple doesn't provide in the iPod] and put the music industry in its place. Result: The Zune will be dead and gone within six months. Good riddance.
It seems to me that Microsoft can't really be that clueless. They have always known their market pretty well. So my guess is that the impetus for the Zune came from the music industry themselves, whose attitude is pretty well summed up by Doug Morris, the head of Universal Music:
"These devices are just repositories for stolen music, and they all know it," said Doug Morris, CEO of Universal Music Group. "So it's time to get paid for it." Well, Morris is just a big, clueless idiot, of course. Do you honestly want morons like him to have power over your music player?
Of course not. And neither does Microsoft, who implements just what the industry ordered, simply to shut them up. Why else would a company make a music player that is incompatible with their own existing (Windows Media) Player? Why else would Microsoft make a player that cannot play music that had previously been bought from them, forcing you to repurchase all the music that you already own (or, as they might put it, force you to relicense all the music that you already have rented)? Why else would they design a marketplace that doesn't even take real money?

Killing the content industry's overwhelming influence in the market for devices and distribution is the only sane and logical explanation. And Microsoft always acts in a sane and logical manner, right Steve Ballmer?

Of course, if I'm wrong, and the Zune isn't merely an elaborate hoax or object lesson to the content industry, can you imagine this attitude being carried over to your computer desktop and file system via Windows Vista? Shudder!
(Thanks David)

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21 November 2006

A Short Trip from Abu Ghraib to UCLA

Not that anyone is physically making that trip, mind you. But psychologically, the growning acceptability of extreme, but non-lethal, force has enabled the mental leap from one place to the other. With the presidential precendent set via the recently signed Military Commissions Act for making it up as you go along, police seem to be using increasingly out-of-proportion measures to ensure "compliance." Witness the recent incident in which a UCLA student was brutally tasered for failing to produce student ID in a library. And when I say "witness," I mean witness: the incident was captured on video by a fellow student using his mobile device and posted to YouTube [Warning: The video itself is disturbing. In particular you may want to turn down your speakers, as his screams of agony will stay with you for a very long time.] Towards the end of the video, police can be seen and heard threatening innocent bystanders with equal treatment if they don't "get back."

The police may view the taser as a better solution to ensure compliance than lethal force, but I doubt very much that the facts of this case - student who is sitting, minding his own business and doing his research without ID in the library - would have justified an arms-drawn response. Rather than a replacement for the handgun, it seems that at least the UCLA police are considering the taser as an acceptable alternative to handcuffs, or even conversation. As for UCLA's administration, the acting chancellor defends the action, because anyone in the library after 11 p.m. without student ID could be a terrorist, dontcha know.

What a shameful state of affairs.

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19 November 2006

Scholarly Online Media Journal

When I was at the McLuhan Program, we had talked about creating a scholarly journal that both provided a venue for in-depth exploration of topics interesting to the endeavours of the Program, and explored alternative ways and means of engaging the scholarly community in that exploration. For a variety of reasons, it never quite got off the ground - so far, all that has been produced is a cover page via Open Journaling System of a bunch of presentations from the 2005 McLuhan Lectures. When the content is posted, I'm sure it make for interesting reading (although without a venue for discussion and engagement, which was sort of the point at the time), simply because the participants that Twyla Gibson was able to attract to that outstanding series were interesting people.

But the journal itself as medium? Boring.

Here's a group that seems to have more than a clue about the making of a contemporary journal - especially one whose subject matter is media:
MediaCommons, a project-in-development with support from the Institute for the Future of the Book (part of the Annenberg Center for Communication at USC) and the MacArthur Foundation, will be a network in which scholars, students, and other interested members of the public can help to shift the focus of scholarship back to the circulation of discourse. This network will be community-driven, responding flexibly to the needs and desires of its users. It will also be multi-nodal, providing access to a wide range of intellectual writing and media production, including forms such as blogs, wikis, and journals, as well as digitally networked scholarly monographs. Larger-scale publishing projects will be developed with an editorial board that will also function as stewards of the larger network.
The "about" page is certainly worthwhile reading for anyone contemplating a new journal, and in particular, those who are thinking about media tropes.
(Via academhack)

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16 November 2006

YoogleTube and the Approach of Evil

I, like countless millions of others, am a great fan of YouTube. The idea that people can post video clips of all sorts, from the sublime to the truly ridiculous, that are subsequently streamed in a common, browser-accessible format, is a clear example of the consumer-becomes-producer reversal that characterizes culture production in a UCaPP [ubiquitously connected and pervasively proximate] age. But now that YouTube has been bought by the "do no evil" company, Google, there are a number of actions that cause one to lift an eyebrow.

The latest is a cease-and-desist letter, received by TechCrunch, to take down a little utility that allows you to save a YouTube stream to your own computer. And, when it is pointed out to YouTube's lawyers that there is nothing in the YouTube terms of use that would preclude saving video to your harddisk, they say, in effect, "Right-o! We'll get on that and update the terms of use!" Such chutzpah, especially since they, like the big music industry, are pissing off the very people that both made them successful, and who supply the content that feeds their value.

As for me, I happen to like the VideoDownloader Firefox extension, combined with the Democracy Video Player.

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A Cloudy Vista for Users

Microsoft is kicking off a chain of product introductions that give the users the privilege of getting less value for increasingly more money. The limitations of the Microsoft Zune media player have been well documented, including the fact that if you had bought and paid for music from a Microsoft Plays4Sure music store, it won't play on the Zune - and that's for sure. You pay more, and get less.

Now, we are beginning to see the vista of a new Windows operating system that takes the philosophy of "your computer belongs to the content providers" to new lows. Thanks to the technological protection measures built in to each and every Windows Vista system, you can be guaranteed that something that you legitimately own will be prevented from working on your shiny new system, either now or in the future. We have seen glimpses of this in the past with the multimedia capabilities in PowerPoint (which is why I still use PPT 2000), the ripping of some CDs in iTunes (which is one reason I use Media Monkey), and the disappearance of some programs recorded on TiVo. But listen to the patronizing justifications offered by Microsoft officials for giving users the ability to do less with what they own, and to pay more for the privilege:
Microsoft's official position is that Vista's DRM capabilities serve users by providing access to high-quality content that rights holders would otherwise serve only at degraded quality levels, if they chose to serve them at all. "In order to achieve that content flow, appropriate content-protection measures must be in place that create incentives for content owners while providing consumers the experiences they want and have grown to expect," said Jonathan Usher, a director in the Consumer Media Technology Group within Microsoft's Entertainment and Devices division. "We expect that the improvements in Windows Vista will attract new content to the PC, which is exactly what consumers want."
Yes, but. It is obvious that consumers want access to new content - they always have, all the way back to piano rolls. But just as each new innovation that was thought (by the content industry) to kill their business models has, in fact, created new markets, each an order of magnitude greater than the last, consumers overwhelmingly do not want third parties to tell them what they can, and cannot, do with their equipment. This is especially true when an unrelated party (say the RIAA, MPAA, or CRIA) mandates a limitation on content that is in no way related to them. Further, no consumer wants what is their legitimate and legal consumer right arbitrarily restricted by a technology company that is, in effect, defying the law through technological restrictions.

What does Microsoft have to say about this?
"It remains up to the market to determine the equilibrium that drives any free-enterprise system. Consumers are the final arbiters because they can vote with their wallets," Usher added. "This is as it should be in any well-functioning market, and we believe the improvements in Windows Vista play to this strength."
Again, yes, but. If there was a truly open, free and competitive market, this would be true. However, for the overwhelming majority of consumers who acquire their operating systems without choice, bundled with the computer they pick up at the local electronics store, there is no practical way to vote with their wallet. Few are able to install and configure an alternative operating system. Microsoft's smug appeal to market dynamics is buoyed by their de facto monopoly over the computer desktop. Here's a little gedankenexperiment for Microsoft: If you offered Windows Vista both with and without the TPM that gives remote third parties the ability to turn off content that the user has acquired legally, that also gives Microsoft the ability to turn off YOUR access to YOUR documents (that's right folks, documents you create are now at risk under Vista TPM architecture), how many would buy the TPMed version? Do you really think that Hollywood would not release its latest blockbuster movie for the vast market that would - if it could - tell Microsoft to deep six its TPM?

The sad fact is that the average consumer isn't aware, and doesn't care - yet.

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14 November 2006

Corporate Blogging

In the interest of my research, a friend who shall remain anonymous passed along an email that had been passed to my friend, from a company CEO to all his managers, asking if anyone was aware of any "blogs" (sic) written by their employees. If so, the quote blog unquote should be brought to the head honcho's attention immediately. One wag from the company in question made the observation that in order to appropriately burn witches, one first needed a source thereof.

Not only does this show tremendous distrust of employees (as opposed to, say, reminding people about the sensitivity of proprietary information), it also goes a long way to promoting distrust of management among employees, as well as fostering cynicism, resistance, and feelings of disempowerment (yeah, yeah, I'm reading from the various empowerment literature at the moment). Does the CEO want engaged, motivated, creative and innovative workers? Apparently not, since such an action runs counter to creating an environment that would foster the best in competitive creativity and innovation. (And if you don't believe me, you can check out Chris Argyris's article from 1998 [HBR 76(3)], Empowerment: The emperor's new clothes?)

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The Communist Manifestoon

Imagine Marx and Engels's Communist Manifesto brought to life by classic cartoons. Now, give your imagination a rest, and have a look-see courtesy of YouTube:

This is a brilliant treatment of the classic work that has the added bonus of nostalgia - I grew up with these wonderful 'toons, many (most) of which I recognized immediately. The other aspect of this work that I find completely fascinating is how it subverts and reverses the North American cultural socialization (no pun intended) that was the subtext of many - if not all - of television's early cartoons. We were tacitly taught to value capital accumulation and industrialization, and to emulate the gender, race, class, and sexuality stereotypes of the day. Taking those works that would be completely inappropriate to today's (more) enlightened sensibilities and using them to illustrate the great-granddaddy of contemporary political economy and emancipation discourse is sheer subversive genius, I think.

And, for those who would like to hear the opposing view, circa 1936, YouTube offers this for your viewing pleasure (also a classic piece, characteristic of the times).

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10 November 2006

What is a Consultant?

Consultant: Someone who, when you ask him/her the time, asks to borrow your watch, then tells you the time, and keeps the watch as her/his fee.

Consultant: Someone who obtains his/her advanced education from his clients' most knowledgeable employees, and then bills the client for the privilege of teaching her/him.

Or, as Joel Spolsky explains, someone who writes really, really poorly, for people who read and think even more poorly.

At least when I do consulting, there is good and interesting entertainment value!

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Writer's Withdrawal

David Weinberger's got it bad!
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05 November 2006

So He's Been Found Guilty

Big surprise. Just as surprising as the timing of the verdict, just two days before the American mid-term elections, which, of course, was merely a coincidence of the calendar, you understand. The Bush administration did absolutely nothing - nothing at all - to influence the date upon which to bring down the verdict, even though the defence had yet to deliver their closing arguments in the case. You wanted closing arguments? You should have kept a better eye on the political calendar. Coincidenza?

If it's actual justice that we're seeking in this world (pardon me for being a tad cynical), a relatively more appropriate court would have needed to be found, coincidentally, a form of court that the American administration does not seem to support.

Saddam Hussein was an evil despot, of that there is little doubt. He was enabled and supported in much of his evil doing by other evil despots, who, because they are Western, will never be called to account for the damage they have wrought.

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