Tag Archives: Paul de Man

Toward a Midwifery of Thought

A series of interactions with the folks behind Kommons.com over the last few days has had at least one unanticipated consequence:  As I was musing about the potential impacts – in particular political – of a site that is staging a broad range of questions and answers for a growing community of users, I remembered out of the blue an essay of my own, written long ago and published for the first time in 1986 by the Modern Language Association (MLA), in the volume Textual Analysis:  Some Readers Reading, edited by Mary Ann Caws.  http://www.amazon.com/Textual-Analysis-Some-Readers-Reading/dp/0873521412 It is funny, and a bit shocking, that I could have almost entirely forgotten what was my first publishing ‘coup,’ as a young upstart appearing in a volume that included essays by a range of critical luminaries.  It was based on the first lecture I delivered as a TA  in ‘Lit 130,’ an undergraduate course in Comparative Literature at Yale taught, at that time, by Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman and J. Hillis Miller, who were also my teachers during my sojourn as a grad student there.

What sparked my recollection was a half-thought about the ‘Socratic method’ and whether the founders of Kommons.com had that model of question and answer at all in mind when they conceived the site (I could, and might, ask them this).  Then it came to me:  I had it in mind when I began my essay ‘Toward a Midwifery of Thought,’ a reading of Heinrich von Kleist’s story ‘Die Marquise von O…’   Miraculously (given the sorry state of my library after multiple moves and untold tumult), I was able to locate the book, and the essay, which begins with a pair of epigraphs.

From Eric Rohmer's 'Marquise von O'

I suspect that, as you yourself believe, your mind is in labor with some thought it has conceived.  Accept, then, the ministration of a midwife’s son, who himself practices his mother’s art, and do the best you can to answer the questions I ask. [Plato, Theateatus 856]

Publishing is to thinking as confinement is to the first kiss. [Friedrich Schlegel, Athenaeums-Fragmente 32]

What follows is my own text’s opening gambit, minus most of the German and the reading of Kleist’s story.

In an essay first published in 1878 under the title ‘Ueber die allmaehliche Verfertigung der Gedanken beim Reden’ [‘On the Gradual Fabrication of Thought While Speaking’], Kleist concludes a celebration of the virtues of thinking aloud by ironizing the institution of oral examinations in the university, arguing that

so difficult is it to play upon a human mind, to coax from it its proper tone, so easily does it sound out of tune under misguided hands, that here even the most practiced expert, masterfully skilled in what Kant calls the art of the midwifery of thoughts, might nevertheless, out of ignorance of his pupil, miscarry.

The allusion is to the exposition of the systematic methodology of ethical instruction in the second part of Die Metaphysik der Sitten [The Metaphysics of Morals] in which Kant, following Socrates in the Theateatus, maintains that the function of the teacher is to guide the student’s train of thought [Gedankengang] by means of adroit questioning (what Kleist terms ‘geschickte Fragen’).  Serving as interlocutor in a dialogical exchange, the teacher plays on the pupil’s faculty of reason, arousing him to consciousness of his own ability to think, and thereby serves as the midwife of his thoughts .  Given the consequences for Kleist’s own thought of his notorious ‘Kant crisis,’ the episode of debilitating doubt precipitated by his reading of ‘the so-called Kantian philosophy,’ which seemed to him to subvert any possibility of epistemological or ethical certainty, his reader might assume that there is something critical, for Kleist, about this borrowed Denkfigur – a figure that yokes the activity of critical questioning, in which the teacher and the reader engage, with a certain (or uncertain) maieutic practice….

My experience with Kommons.com confirms the uncertainty of the maieutic practice, however well-intended. (The intransigent addressee of two of my futile queries is unlikely ever to read this post.)  But I am undeterred.  Unanswered questions, too, will be archived.

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A sort of tomorrow (Stephen Andrews, part 5)

Ah!  Wherefore with infection should he live,

And with his presence grace impiety,

That sin by him advantage should achieve,

And lace itself with his society?

Why should false painting imitate his cheek,

And steal dead seeing from his living hue?

Why should poor beauty indirectly seek

Roses of shadow, since his rose is true?

Still readable under the artist’s painstaking whitewash, these lines from the sixty-seventh of Shakespeare’s sonnets afford a point of entry into a body of work that borrows them, with respect, for purposes of its own.  Their consecutive rhetorical questions begin insistently to develop – like a photograph, perhaps – some of the whys and wherefores of the work that inscribes them:  matters of invention and imitation, truth and falsehood, blindness and insight, life and death.  Not reducible to themes, these concerns operate rather as the pivotal topoi around which each component of Andrews’ Sonnets, positioned in a complex constellation with the others, turns.  Each work in this series, while retaining a singular and idiomatic status, offers itself to the viewer as exemplary:  irreplaceable in its form and effects, but addressing (as Shakespeare’s sonnets address, even as they are addressed) broader concerns of a theoretical as well as a practical order.

For brevity’s sake, then, one image (if it is one) may serve as example:  the 1994 diptych that Andrews calls “Picture This,” a composite gouache portrait layered over partially whitewashed photocopies of sonnets forty-eight through sixty-nine.  For the viewer who is of necessity also the reader of this characteristically palimpsestic text, the title’s imperative translates as a pressing question that is not rhetorical:  Picture what?  For the digitalization of the photographic “original” that preceded its systematic manual reduplication in a subtle palette of greys and yellows renders the question of what appears – the who, what, when and where of reference – indeterminate.  In fact, what we see (or think we see, for even at first glance one’s perception of this work depends to an extraordinary extent on one’s relative proximity to or distance from it, fostering a distinct skepsis or doubt) is an effect of the artist’s superimposition of two images, an act that collapses space as well as time in the diptych’s two dimensions.  A photograph of director Jonathan Demme on the set of the 1993 AIDS-themed film Philadelphia, reproduced in the New York Times, is projected, as in a dream or a hallucination, onto a Polaroid portrait of Andrews’ late lover and muse that was staged in the artist’s studio.  The hands, then, do not properly belong to the head, or with it.  They do not reach out in advance of the unseeing eyes, feeling their way forward through space, anticipating some possible contact to come.  [I am indebted here to Derrida’s analysis in Memoirs of the Blind of the function of the hand in a range of drawings of the blind:  “These blind men explore – and seek to foresee there where they do not see, no longer see, or do not yet see.  The space of the blind always conjugates these tenses and times of memory – but simultaneously” (5-6).]  Rather, they frame the gaze of an absent other.  What may first appear as a portrait that, however mediated and manipulated, retains a mimetic relation to its model, emerges instead as an invented tableau.

Most notoriously and explicitly debated in the second preface to Rousseau’s epistolary novel Julie, ou la Nouvelle Heloise, the relation between portrait and tableau has generally been presumed, in the western aesthetic tradition at least, to be antithetical, mutually exclusive.  According to this conventional wisdom, an image or a text may imitate a particular referent – a person, place, object or event – and so constitute itself as a portrait of sorts.  The tableau, on the other hand, can lay claim to no specific extra-textual referent and hence is fictive, primarily self-signifying.  Underlying the terms of the distinction is the largely uninterrogated faith of the reader in the possibility of determining the referential status of the work at hand.  When we read an image or a written text, seek to understand it, we assume knowledge of and control over its referential and rhetorical modes (as we do when we read the question in Shakespeare’s sixty-seventh sonnet as rhetorical, rather than as real, and possibly urgent).  As Paul de Man argues in his analysis of the prefatory debate over whether Rousseau’s novel is a portrait or a tableau,

The innumerable writings [and images – Ed.] that dominate our lives are made intelligible by a preordained agreement as to their referential authority; this agreement is merely contractual, never constitutive.  It can be broken at all times and every piece of writing [and every image – Ed.] can be questioned as to its rhetorical mode.  Whenever this happens, what originally appeared to be a document or instrument becomes a text and, as a consequence, its readability is put in question.  The questioning points back to earlier texts and engenders, in its turn, other texts which claim (and fail) to close off the textual field.   [Allegories of Reading, 204]. 

“Picture This,” like the other components of the Sonnets sequence as well as the portraits in Facsimile, unsettles not only the question of its own referential status (in a way that does not allow for the closure of a final reading), but the very logic of mutual exclusion, the either/or that has long governed our understanding of the distinction between portrait and tableau.  No less than Rousseau’s novel, “Such a work can be read as the ‘portrait’ of its own negative gesture.  It follows that, if the work indeed represents objects qui ne sont point, then it is the ‘portrait’ of the subject’s initiation to this knowledge…the portrait of an impossible tableau”  (de Man, Allegories of Reading, 199).

It may be that Andrews’ own initiation to this knowledge is legible in the allegorical self-portrait incorporated in the series under the title “W.”, the cryptic initial that serves as his self-inscription and signature.  It is allegorical in that it “portrays” a certain blindness on the part of the artist to the predicament figured in the work.  Like the beloved in “Picture This,” the bereaved lover depicted here is unseeing, whether wittingly or not.  In this instance, it is a question of neither the “dead seeing” nor the “false painting” cited in Shakespeare’s verses.  Rather, the work is rigorously true to the terms of The Draughtsman’s Contract, enunciated by the draughtsman himself in a memorable speech that draws upon the “ambiguous evidence of an obscure allegory” in Peter Greenaway’s film to situate the figure for the artist “in the space between knowing and seeing.”  It is a contract that proves binding for the viewer as well:  “Painting,” like drawing, “requires a certain blindness…. Perhaps you have taken a great deal on trust”  (London, BFI, 1982).

 

 

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‘what history teaches,’ part 1

[‘what history teaches’ is a series of posts drawing on and reworking material originally published under that title in Alphabet City 8 (“Lost in the Archive”), ed. Rebecca Comay.  Fall 2002, pp. 357-65.]

‘Now to date now to date.  Now and now and date and the date.’

— Gertrude Stein, “If I Told Him:  A Completed Portrait of Picasso” 

Starkly subtitled A Book of AIDS, Aaron Shurin’s Unbound collects writings dating from 1988 to 1996, their individual provenance indicated at the end of each chapter.  It is a chronicle, then, of the unfolding of the epidemic during those years in San Francisco, the author’s home and one North American epicenter of the crisis.  But it is a chronicle that Shurin repeatedly and emphatically characterizes as a poetics, and more precisely a “reflexive poetics.”  What might appear as incompatible, even mutually exclusive projects – historiography and poetics – prove inextricable in the instance of Unbound.  Because this text, and indeed Shurin’s entire corpus, deserves a greater readership than it has yet attained, it warrants citation at some length, beginning with the preface, dated 1996.

The range of information AIDS presents keeps one at full attention.  Who knew, to begin with, what dimensions the replicate virus would come to occupy?  The various works collected here are the stations of an enlarging question….  I’ve dated the texts here, and let facts and figures remain as they were originally, to mark the developing way.  But the numbers, their aggregate lines (their additions, multiplications and subtractions) were not my story.  For that reason call this small but incremental book a poetics:  Its way was made with both hands stretched, investigative, crossing and recrossing.  The process – poetic, even lyric – tests the threads as it leads them – as it’s led by them – and coaxes their meeting, otherwise statistical, toward meaning(s).  [Unbound:  A Book of AIDS.  Los Angeles, 1997, 7-8]

Poetics, according to one late twentieth-century definition, is a “descriptive or prescriptive discipline that lays claim to scientific consistency.  It pertains to the formal analysis of linguistic entities as such, independently of signification,” and “it deals with theoretical models prior to their historical realization”  (Paul de Man, The Resistance to Theory, 1986, 56).  To judge by the language of its preface, Unbound‘s poetics has hermeneutic aspirations, seeking to coax its findings toward sense.  As Shurin had already written in 1995, however, in the chapter here entitled “Inscribing AIDS:  A Reflexive Poetics,”  “But one may neither make meaning, as I’d thought, nor find it, after pursuit.  Meaning may be delivered – bouquet or bomb – head on.  For a writer, this is experienced as a demand.  How to write AIDS named me” (72).

Before meaning or meanings may be delivered, before a hermeneutics or a historiography of HIV/AIDS, the epidemic-turned-pandemic makes a certain demand on writer and reader alike:  “The pure rampage of facts unleashed by the disease demanded scrutiny, the heartbreaking lure of incessant efflorescing information – to turn mortal details beneath the scoping light of sentences, to penetrate them, to release them, to be released from them.  [Whitman:  ‘As they emit themselves facts are showered over with light’]” (73).  In these terms, “how to write AIDS” and how to read AIDS entail an ongoing negotiation with language as the vehicle of meaning’s delivery.  For, as Shurin records in his “Notes from Under,” dated 1988, “It is alphabetical from the start, as if the full name were too terrible to be spoken, or because we don’t want to know the elaboration that would cause a true and necessary engagement with its nature; prefer a modest, even pleasant-sounding acronym to keep it hidden:  AIDS” (14).  Unbound‘s “reflexive poetics” here engages the epidemic as alphabetical, elliptical acronym, and goes on to elaborate what amounts to a linguistics of HIV/AIDS, comprising lexicon, syntax, semantics, semiotics, grammar, dialect.

I’m infected by a vocabulary, a prisoner of its over-specified agenda.  I know OK-T4 helper cells, macrophages, lymphadenopathy, hairy leukoplakia; I know the syntax – the route of congregation – more than the definitions.  By how they appear in the sentence I can pretty much tell what the end is going to be.  I read their appearance on the body of a text and get its message.  I see a sign which means one of these words is going to insist on being used….

Am I in or out of control?  I’m learning this alien vocabulary by sight – it’s symbolic – but I don’t understand the grammar.  I can’t apply it to any other situation; it’s a purely local dialect.  Desperate, I use these medical words as markers, to chart the distance between my body and absolute fear, or my body and the hope of health – represented as control by the command of scientific terminology and its promise. [16]

Yet another of the author’s “Notes from Under” takes account of speech-acts and literary structures:  “For this, reading the world, new language events by which we measure grief and fear; how the virus has made us talk about it – forms of disclosure, witness, vocabularies, stories.  A new literary structure I feared becoming master of:  the obituary” (15).

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fledgling’s archive, october 2009, part 1

October 2009  
 

10/21/2009  Grist for the (Twitter) mill  
 

  
 

The following notes, intended for elaboration in the near future, pertain to the language used to describe, characterize or gloss “Twitter,” for example in a Google search result, on the revised Twitter homepage (over against the earlier one) and on the Twitter search homepage.  I’m interested too in what the results of a Twitter search for “twitter” might look like at any given time.  
 

1.  Google search for “Twitter”:  “Twitter is without a doubt the best way to share and discover what is happening right now.”  
 

2.  Twitter homepage:  “Share and discover what is happening right now, anywhere in the world.”  (Remember the relative brevity and simplicity of “What are you doing?”?)  
 

3.  Twitter search homepage:  “See what’s happening – right now.”  
 

4.  “Real-time” results for “twitter” on Twitter search:  In the 60 seconds since the search results initially appeared on the screen, “381 more results since you started searching.  Refresh to see them.”  
 

Here is a good deal of grist for my mill.  My work has just begun.  
 

10/20/2009   Kant weighs in on Twitter, part 1 
 

  
 

Caveat lector.  This post reproduces a few pages from my notebook which may or man not be of interest (or even legible) to anyone but myself.  But I am working on the assumption that pretty much everyone who uses Twitter has at least some interest in how it produces meaning and other effects of language.   

What follow are some paragraphs from Paul de Man’s essay “Phenomenality and Materiality in Kant,” which resulted from a series of graduate seminars he taught at Yale in the early ’80’s.  The essay appears in the volume Aesthetic Ideology, ed. Andrzej Warminski (U Minnesota Press, 1996), which you can find on the press website:  http://www.upress.umn.edu/Books/D/de-man-aesthetic.html .  Taking as its focus Kant’s much-misunderstood Critique of Judgment (also known as the Third Critique), de Man’s essay zeroes in on the notoriously difficult sections devoted to the analytic of the sublime.  
 

In order to make the sublime appear in space we need, says Kant, two acts of the imagination:  apprehension (apprehensio) and comprehension or summation (comprehensio aesthetica), Auffassung and Zusammenfassung.  Apprehension proceeds successively, as a syntagmatic, consecutive motion along an axis, and it can proceed ad infinitum without difficulty.  Comprehension, however, which is a paradigmatic totalization of the apprehended trajectory, grows increasingly difficult as the space covered by apprehension grows larger.  The model reminds one of a simple phenomenology of reading, in which one has to make constant syntheses to comprehend the successive unfolding of the text:  the eye moves horizontally in succession whereas the mind has to combine vertically the cumulative understanding of what has been apprehended.  The comprehension will soon reach a point at which it is saturated and will no longer be able to take in additional apprehensions:  it cannot progress beyond a certain magnitude which marks the limit of the imagination.  
 

[Anyone see where I’m going with this?]  
 

The ability of the imagination to achieve synthesis is a boon to the understanding, which is hardly conceivable without it, but this gain  is countered by a corresponding loss.  The comprehension discovers its own limitation, beyond which it cannot reach.  “[The imagination] loses as much on the one side as it gains on the other.”  As the paradigmatic simultaneity substitutes for the syntagmatic succession, an economy of loss and gain is put in place which functions with predictable efficiency, though only within certain well-defined limits.  The exchange from part to whole generates wholes that turn out to be only parts.  Kant gives the example of the Egyptian Savary, who observed that, in order to perceive the magnitude of the pyramids, one could be neither too far away nor too close.  One is reminded of Pascal:  “Bornes en tout genre, cet etat qui tient le milieu entre deux extremes, se trouve en toutes nos puissances.  Nos sens n’apercoivent rien d’extreme, trop de bruit nous assourdit, trop de lumiere eblouit, trop de distance et trop de proximite empeche la vue.  Trop de longeur et trop de brievete de discours l’obscurcit, trop de verite nous etonne….”  [Pensees, Ed. du Seuil, Pensee 199, p. 527]  
 

[My kindest regards if you’re still with me at this point.  I can only hope that your patience will find its reward.]  
 

  
 

It is not surprising that, from considerations on vision and, in general, on perception, Pascal moves to the order of discourse.  For the model that is being suggested is no longer, properly speaking, philosophical, but linguistic.  It describes not a faculty of the mind, be it as consciousness or as cognition, but a potentiality inherent in language.  For such a system of substitution, set up along a paradigmatic and a syntagmatic axis, generating partial totalizations within an economy of profit and loss, is a very familiar model indeed – which also explains why the passage seems so easy to grasp in comparison with what precedes and follows.  
 

[Did you find the passage easy to grasp?  Aren’t you grateful that I’m not asking you to read the hard parts that precede and follow?]  
 

It is the model of discourse as a tropological system.  The desired articulation of the sublime takes place, with suitable reservations and restrictions, within such a purely formal system.  It follows, however, that it is conceivable only within the limits of such a system, that is, as pure discourse rather than as a faculty of the mind.  When the sublime is translated back, so to speak, from language into cognition, from formal description into philosophical argument, it loses all inherent coherence and dissolves in the aporias of intellectual and sensory appearance.  It is also established that, even within the confines of language, the sublime can occur only as a single and particular point of view, a privileged place that avoids both excessive comprehension and excessive apprehension, and that this place is only formally, and not transcendentally, determined.  The sublime cannot be grounded as a philosophical (transcendental or metaphysical) principle, but only as a linguistic principle.  Consequently, the section on the mathematical sublime cannot be closed off in a satisfactory manner and another chapter on the dynamics of the sublime is needed.  (77-78)  
 

We can pause here, for now.  There is more to come on what Kant – of all people – can teach us about Twitter.  The utility and perhaps the necessity of the concepts of apprehension and comprehension (which may go by other names) for the project or reading Twitter can serve as a point of departure.  
 

10/19/2009    A flock of tweets (like a murder of crows, or a parliament of rooks)  
 

On October 19, in the aftermath of the Stephen Gately / Daily Mail fracas on Twitter, Ian Dunt took it as his point of departure in a column posted on politics.co.uk:  
 

It seems inevitable that within a decade we will see a revolution coordinated by Twitter somewhere in the world.  
 

Here is the historic thing about the utility:  It brings a sense of community – real community rather than what someone in marketing might call community – to the internet.  It is beyond the power of political institutions to control.  So far, the courts cannot tame it.  Now the juggernaut of popular opinion which has it the potential of mobilizing is becoming a major player in [the] political and media landscape – a major player in its own right.  
 

Dunt’s claims for Twitter (which he rightly terms a “utility”) also refer to the groundbreaking events surrounding the issuing of an unprecedented gag order on the Guardian, preventing the paper from reporting on questions raised in Parliament in an effort to protect he interests of the oil production company Trafigura (see my earlier post, “#Trafigura v Twitter,” for a more detailed analysis).  In this instance, not only were #Trafigura and their law firm #CarterRuck trending topics on Twitter over the course of several days, but flashmobs organized via Twitter appeared outside the London office of Carter Ruck in flesh-and-blood protest.  
 

Dunt’s thoughtful column gestures toward further thinking that it does not undertake, and that I will simply stake out here for future elaboration.  For example:  what sorts of relations link the phenomenon of the trending topic and the occurrence of something like a flashmob – that is, real people turning up at a specified time and place for a common purpose?  If Twitter’s trending topics bespeak a community of people flocking fleetingly around a shared interest, what difference might this make to “what’s happening right now, anywhere in the world” (to cite Twitter’s latest homepage)?  When and how do shared interests gather to constitute a community whose life span is longer than a few hours, or a few days?  
 

The lifting of the gag order against the Guardian after social media (as well as print and broadcast journalism) exposed the shameful secrets that Trafigura sought vainly to protect hints at the possibility that a “trending topic” may in some instances translate as intervention, changing, however incrementally, the course of history.  On this basis, Dunt is perhaps right to suggest that it “seems inevitable that, within a decade, we will see a revolution coordinated by Twitter somewhere [“anywhere”] in the world.”  At the rate at which Twitter and other social media are evolving, a decade is, to say the least, a long time.  
 

10/18/2009  “Can’t we all just get along?”  
 

  
 

Even as thoughts, intuitions and questions regarding Twitter and its multiple impacts continue to amass like unread tweets on a trending topic waiting to be released by the ‘refresh’ button, today’s blog-prompt came unbidden as I rustled through the A-section of this morning’s Globe and Mail, which styles itself “Canada’s national Newspaper” but is also my local daily of choice (most days).  Under the category heading “Policing,” and the title “Schools, lies and videotape:  Footage tells only part of the story,” reporters Joe Friesen and Anna Mahler Paperny follow up on two recent arrests in Ontario and the problematic role played by amateur video recording at the respective scenes.  http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/do-arrest-videos-really-tell-the-whole-truth/article1328807/  
 

Raising concerns that date back at least to the explosive video footage of LA police beating Rodney King in 1991, Friesen and Paperny note that “in the jumpy cellphone video of a man being arrested by campus security at the University of Western Ontario last week, several bystanders can be seen aiming their own cellphone cameras in the direction of the action.”  Strikingly similar is the footage of another recent and controversial arrest in Toronto, that of a young man at Northern Secondary School.  In this instance, “As the student demands to know why he’s being arrested, at least three people wave their cameras to let the police officer know that everything is being recorded.”  
 

In Canada, at least, there is another inevitable reference point for such events and their recording, which postdates the Rodney King case by more than 15 years:  the footage of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski being tasered by RCMP officers in Vancouver International Airport.  The video, shot by Victoria resident Paul Pritchard, “contradicted police statements at the time that Mr. Dziekanski was combative and had confronted police.”  
 

http://youtube.com/watch?v=IPe_hf7aBXM  
 

While the events that led to Robert Dziekanski’s death at the hands of the RCMP officers took place in a no-go zone separated from public areas of the airport by a (thankfully transparent) wall of glass, the recent cases in Ontario lead the reporters to observe:  “It’s symbolic of an age of instant, constant scrutiny, where the community instinct to intervene against perceived wrongdoing has been replaced by the urge to stand back and film it” [emphasis added].  
 

These examples, each with its own specificity as to time, place and circumstances, raise fundamental questions about the relationship between history and historiography – between the materiality of events and their transcription or registration through a variety of media (the cellphone with video camera – and SMS, which also enables Twitter – being for now the most ubiquitous).  Friesen and Paperny’s language casts the tendency toward bystander videography of spectacular or overdetermined events in ethical and ultimately political terms, questioning a perceived shift in the “community instinct” from active engagement in the present to passive witnessing for posterity.  
 

The article goes on to cite John Fiske, a communications theorist who has studied the Rodney King instance, and who observes that “the trouble is that the video is seen as the whole truth, when at best it is an incomplete representation of what occurred.  Only about 14 people witnessed the Rodney King incident, but millions saw the video and drew their own conclusions.  The video clip is always one person’s representation of what was going on, which is not the same thing as what was actually going on…. What ‘s going on outside of the camera may be very significant in terms of the meaning of what’s going on, what the camera is actually seeing.  But people don’t think of that.  They also often don’t think that the video clip is subject to interpretation.  They think it’s raw reality itself.”  
 

To the extent that this is the case, one wonders how far our understanding of media has come since the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination, which an astonishing number of Americans came to confuse with the event itself.  In these terms, the image (whatever its medium) is substituted for the event, with which, however, it can never coincide.  And because the image (or, in the case of Twitter, the “characters” or the link) is mediated, transmitted, it is never, ever, “live.”  I’ll have more to say about the need, in appeals to the “real-time” Web, to bear this in mind.  
 

10/17/2009  Save time:  tweet.  Save more time:  retweet.  
 

  
 

Scrolling down my Twitter homepage a few minutes ago, I clicked on Mashable’s “Top 5 Twitter Trends to Watch Right Now” (“now” being sometime on October 17, 2009), as reported by Jennifer Van Grove (http://bit.ly/25ufvg ).  In attendance at the Blog World Expo in Las Vegas, Jennifer took the opportunity to survey a handful of authorities for their responses.  Among them was Chris Pirillo, “Lifecaster, blogger and uber web geek,” who argued among other things that more bloggers are tweeting instead of blogging, that Twitter gives some bloggers the chance to save the “time and energy poured into long-form blog posts, and instead find a way to say the same thing in 140 characters.”  Increasingly, Pirillo observes, Twitter is “augmenting blogging” in this fashion.  
 

For the moment, I’m less interested in the truth value of Pirillo’s assertion, than in what is apparently one of his favourite formulations, as cited by Van Grove:  “Twitter is a great place to tell the world what you’ve been thinking before you’ve had a chance to think about it.”  
 

Conjoining matters of thought and temporality, this pithy….  You know, maybe Pirillo is on to something.  Screw it.  I’ll just retweet.  
 

10/16/2009  Fledgling Initiative?  You talkin’ to me?  
 

I must confess to feeling a little unsettled at the moment.  Having just logged on to the Twitter blog’s most recent update (October 15, 2009), scanned its first paragraphs, and idly clicked on a link, I was startled to see the word that gives this blog its title (and some of its character) popping up everywhere on the page announcing Twitter’s new Fledgling Initiative, which “aims to make awesome wine for the benefit of Room to Read, a non-profit organization extending literacy and educational opportunities to children worldwide.”  The idea is that “every case sold will provide approximately 60 local language children’s books and promote education in the world’s poorest regions.”  And it seems that Fledgling Wine will be drinkable at the least:  “These wines are being made using some of the best vineyards in California by the acclaimed winemaking team at Crushpad [wait…is there a tie-in to TypePad here?]  In addition, 2009 appears to be an excellent vintage in California, potentially one of the best of the decade.  Buy wine for $20.00.”  (A brief detour to http://www.crushpad.com yields the fact that “we’re a combination of wine industry veterans and technology industry refugees….”)  
 

There is a “quick video” explaining how this initiative will help promote literacy, featuring John Wood, an ex-corporate-tech-guy who founded the Room to Read project.  Just beneath the video is “An introduction from Biz and Ev,” which I will record in full here to help myself process what it says:  
 

As a company that’s only one percent into its journey, we’re always thinking about our long term impact on the world.  The Fledgling Initiative embodies two things that are at the core of Twitter’s mission:  providing access to information and highlighting the power of open communication to bring about positive change.  This initiative is just one piece of that approach.  Take part in this mission and pre-buy our limited bottles of the wine. You can follow along with our wine-making activities on Twitter and at some points even participate in its creation.  For each bottle you buy, $5 will be donated to Room to Read, a transformational non-profit that brings books, libraries and ultimately literacy to people in the poorest areas around the world.  The efforts of Room to Read will benefit literacy, and in doing so they’ll allow Twitter to grow.  Because if you can’t read you can’t Tweet!  
 

Okay, so I’m getting over my initial reaction (Wtf?!? They stole my name!), and now my generous side is at war with my cynical side in an effort to make sense of this (and decide whether or not to pre-order a bottle of pinot, if only to have the label as a souvenir).  Earlier this week, I retweeted Mashable’s bulletin that “‘Twitter Adds 110 Million Potential New Users With SMS Deal in India” (http://retw.me/VSLn ).  And now, scrolling down the Twitter blog, I see that @BIZ had something to say about that on October 14, under the title “Hello, Bharti Airtel”:  
 

Twitter is committed to fostering the open exchange of information because we passionately believe it can have a positive global impact.  When people can exchange information freely and publicly they are able to accomplish great things.  As powerful as the Internet has become for the democratization of information, its range is limited when compared to mobile texting – a format uniquely native to Twitter [emphasis added].  There are over one billion people with Internet access on the planet but there are more than four billion people with mobile phones and Twitter can work on all of them because even the simplest of these devices feature SMS.  
 

We have seen people use Twitter to help each other during fuel shortages, track the spread of wildfires, check in during earthquakes, organize major charitable events, spread urgent news efficiently around the world, and much more.  In many of these scenarios, texting has been the key.  People exchanging information quickly and efficiently with the device that has become essential to everyday life, their mobile phone.  In many parts of the world people do not have Internet access but they can text – and that means they can access Twitter.  
 

As we grow, we seek to partner with organizations that share our vision for positive global impact.  Our partnership with Bharti Airtel, the largest mobile operator in India, means a huge population of people [? – ed.] can now send tweets at standard rates and receive tweets for free.  Bharti Airtel is offering people in every city, every village, every remote taluk and even the smallest panchayat the opportunity to connect to Twitter and enjoy the open exchange of information with no added fees.  We are proud to have Bharti Airtel as our partner.  Give Twitter a try with your Airtel phone by sending START to 53000.  And spread the word!  
 

Twitter is not about technology, it’s about people….  
 

Sorry, Biz, but that last assertion doesn’t hold up.  Of course Twitter is first and foremost about technology, and your denial of something so obvious in this context makes me wonder if you are being straight up in the rest of the post.  I’m left with dwindling time, several questions and a wish that someone would help me figure them out:  
 

1.  Why did they have to nick my name?  (This, dear reader, is a rhetorical question and does not require an answer.)  I’m so glad I claimed my URL on Technorati back in September.  
 

2.  How much does it cost to make a bottle of that wine?  If it’s less than $15, where does the rest of the money go?  (This is, after all, “the largest social wine-making process in history,” according to the promo video.)  
 

3.  How does Twitter calculate that it is “only one percent into its journey”?  Are the mixed metaphors symptomatic in some way that matters?  
 

4.  What “percentage” – or what niche – of Twitter users do they reckon will pony up $20 USD for an untried bottle?  
 

5.  How transparent is the Twitter blog?  
  

10/15/2009  #Trafigura v Twitter  
 

  
 

In an attempt to provide readers of this blog with a red thread that identifies its component parts and ties them loosely together (cf. the allusion to Goethe’s Elective Affinities – literary source of the figure of the red thread – in a prior post), I dutifully re-read my last entry, on Steven Johnson’s analysis of Twitter.  I was reminded just how  right he is to highlight the importance of user innovations since Twitter’s inception, and especially how, “thanks to these innovations, following a live feed of tweets about an event…has become a central part of the Twitter experience.  But just 12 months ago [he was writing in June, 2009], that mode of interaction would have been technically impossible using Twitter.”  
 

In fact I had, moments earlier, been doing just that:  following a “live” or “real-time” feed of tweets turned up by my Twitter search under the hashtag #Trafigura.  As I tweeted yesterday, Trafigura – a moniker new to me – sounded  like the name of the horse that finished third.  A cursory survey of etymological sources yielded little of interest, though it pointed to other terms, including prefigure and disfigure, that are not without relevance to the high-stakes unfolding over the last few days.  
 

It is at times like these (though no two times, no two historical moments, are the same) that I become aware that Twitter’s sheer speed, evident in the hectic reverse chronology via which one tracks events as they unfold, is at once its great strength and its potential limitation.  Certainly during the Iranian election and its aftermath, as I strained to follow the rapid-fire timelines under #IranElection and other hashtags, it seemed that the requisite thinking through was racing to keep up with the reporting and other interventions frantically accumulating before each frequent hit of the “refresh” button.  Scott Rosenberg’s pithy formulation – “We publish, then filter.  Say everything first, ask questions later” – does not assuage a certain anxiety that something of potential value will be lost in filtration.  
 

In this case, I spent yesterday assembling a brief archive of reporting and opinion on the gag order (or “super-injunction”) against the Guardian on matters relating to the London-based oil trading company Trafigura and its attempt to cover up the publication of findings into its dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast’s largest city, Abidijan.  Rather than sythesize and paraphrase the accounts in this space, I will simply furnish links to some of them, for those to whom this may still be news, or those who want to read further.  
 

http://uk.techcrunch.com/2009/10/13/thres-nowhere-to-hide-if-your-name-trends-on-twitter-is-there-trafigura/  
 

http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/psa/2009/oct/13/twitter-online-outcry-guardian-trafigura-order/  
 

http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/oct/13/trafigura-drops-gag-guardian-oil/  
 

http://wikileaks.org/wiki/Minton_report_secret_injunction_gagging_The_Guardian_on_Trafigura/  
 

http://techpresident.com/node/15004  
 

http://thewitheringvine.blogspot.com/2009/10/trafigura-oil-and-law-dont-mix.html  
 

http://broadstuff.com/archives/1914-Trafigura-thoughts-from-the-day-after.html  
 

  
 

What will land this episode in the history (of Twitter) books is the fact that the gag order against the Guardian, links to Wikileaks and a variety of other relevant information were reported, tweeted and retweeted on Twitter, with great agility and acumen.  Among others, Mike Butcher of TechCrunch pointed out that “the entire issue trended on Twitter with hashtags including #guardiangag, #guardian, #carterruck (the name of the law firm representing Trafigura) and of course #Trafigura.”  In short, social media, with Twitter leading the pack, helped circumvent the heavy hand of censorship.  As Butcher phrased it in his story title for TechCrunch, “There’s nowhere to hide if your name trends on Twitter.  Is there, Trafigura?”  While savouring this important victory, and the frisson of watching a corporate villain attain the heights of trending topics, I would simply caution that virtually nobody stays on trending topics for more than a day or two.  Historical memory must be there to supplement Twitter, in every instance.  
 

10/13/2009  Twitterfied  
 

One wonders:  is somebody out there at work, right now, on a history of Twitter?  Will there be, one day soon, a chronicling of its origins and development that can hold its own next to Scott Rosenberg’s comprehensive history of blogging?  Certainly, in the case of Twitter, that history has unfolded in unpredictable fashion, and in ways no doubt unforeseen by its creators.  A handy journalistic account of some of the innovations and interventions that have forged Twitter’s path is to be found in “How Twitter Will Change the Way We Live,” written by Steven Johnson (author of Where Good Ideas Come From) for time.com in June 2009.  http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1902818,00.html  
 

Johnson’s claim is that “the most fascinating thing about Twitter is not what it’s doing to us.  It’s what we’re doing to it.”  What we’re doing to and with Twitter, he suggests,  falls into three basic categories:  social networks, live searching, and link-sharing.  Below are a handful of excerpts from his brief but suggestive piece.  
 

The basic mechanics of Twitter are remarkably simple.  Users publish tweets – those 140-character messages – from a computer or mobile device (The character limit allows tweets to be created and circulated via the SMS platform used by most mobile phones).  As a social network, Twitter revolves around the principle of followers.  When you choose to follow another Twitter user, that user’s tweets appear in reverse chronological order on your main Twitter page….  
 

…Twitter users have begun to find a route around that [140 character] limitation by employing Twitter as a pointing device instead of a communications channel:  sharing links to longer articles, discussions, posts, videos – anything that lives behind a URL.  Websites that saw their traffic dominated by Google search queries are seeing a growing number of new visitors coming from “passed links” at social networks like Twitter and Facebook.  
 

…Put these three elements together – social networks, live searching and link-sharing – and you have a cocktail that poses what may amount to the most interesting alternative to Google’s near-monopoly in searching.  At its heart, Google’s system is built around the slow, anonymous accumulation of authority:  pages rise to the top of Google’s search results according to, in part, how many links point to them, which tends to favor older pages that have had time to build an audience.  That’s a fantastic solution for finding high-quality needles in the immense, spam-plagued haystack that is the contemporary Web.  But it’s not a particularly useful solution for finding out what people are saying right now, the in-the-moment conversation that industry pioneer John Battelle calls the “super fresh” Web.  Even in its toddlerhood, Twitter is a more efficient supplier of the super-fresh Web than Google.  
 

This is not just a matter of people finding a new use for a tool designed to do something else.  In Twitter’s case, the users have been redesigning the tool itself.  The convention of grouping a topic or event by the “hashtag”…was spontaneously invented by the Twitter-userbase (as was the convention of replying to another user with the @ symbol).  The ability to search a live stream of tweets was developed by another startup…. Thanks to these innovations, following a live feed of tweets about an event…has become a central part of the Twitter experience.  But just 12 months ago, that mode of interaction would have been technically impossible using Twitter.  
 

Moving into prophetic mode, Johnson foresees a future that is permanently “Twitterfied”:  
 

…it’s entirely possible that 3 or 4 years from now, we’ll have moved on to some Twitter successor.  But the key elements of the Twitter platform – the follower structure, link-sharing, real-time searching – will persevere regardless of Twitter’s fortunes, just as Web conventions like links, posts and feeds have endured over the past decade.  In fact, every major channel of information will be Twitterfied in one way or another in the coming years.  
 

Perhaps.  Probably.  But then again, as Twitter has so lately instructed us, history lies in the unforeseen.  
 

10/09/2009  “Permanence is out of reach”  
 

  
 

Having alluded in my last post to the argument(s) to be made for blogging, as well as tweeting, as artful pursuits, I subsequently located  a few paragraphs from Scott Rosenberg’s Say Everything that make a fairly persuasive case.  They also raise crucial questions about the survival, over time, of these virtual texts.  
 

For all the novelty surrounding it, the act of blogging is fundamentally literary.  A blogger selects some information or experience, shapes it into words and sentences, and hoists it into public view.  Linking may change some aspects of reading, and comment threads and permalinks and RSS feeds may dot the screen, but at heart blogging is a species of writing, in the direct line of descent from the Rosetta Stone through Shakespeare to The New Yorker (and the Weekly World News).  Although a blog lives for today, in the moment, more than most other literary forms, its record is intended for the future as well.  That is why so many bloggers obsessively maintain their archives, painstakingly reformatting older entries to survive each transition from one publishing system to the next. 
 

Will today’s blogs survive long enough to matter to future generations?  Most of us are intensely aware of the fragility of digital data:  a life savings of information can vanish with the theft of a laptop or the crash of an unbacked-up hard disk.  Many early blogs have disappeared from the Web, leaving little or no trace…. Words on the Web, we rightly fear, are ephemeral. 
 

On the other hand, data on the Internet has a remarkably enduring half-life.  Copying bits is what computers do – they are, as Cory Doctorow says, “copying machines.”  Copies of most material that has been posted online since the late 1990’s exist in some form somewhere…. Once a document has been widely dispersed on the Internet, it is difficult to suppress, even when you try, and have the legal right to do so. 
 

Paper fades; bits get deleted.  Libraries burn; disks crash.  Whatever the medium, permanence is out of reach.  No matter:  bloggers might hope to be read by children or even grandchildren, but few dream of immortality for their words.  The Web has made it possible for us to write more, to distill more and consume more…. But blogging’s critics have been so incensed over the ways in which blogging differs from the literary past that they have missed the ways in which it carries literary values into the future.  (345) 
 

More in due course on writing and reading blogs – and on the matter of the archive.
 

 
 

10/09/09  Cards on the table

 
   Benjamin writing
 
A quick check of my Typepad stats just now yielded the following:  22 posts, 8 comments, 7 followers, 760 “lifetime” page views, 38 average page views per day.  So I won’t be featured on Technorati anytime soon (though I have been, inexplicably, on Tweetmeme).  At this stage, I might feel more than a little discouraged at the time and energy it takes to gain a foothold in a medium that claims to allow for the lightning-quick, for transmission and exchange in what is termed “real-time,” were it not for two figures that I hold out, each in his way, as exemplars.  I think first of Walter Benjamin, whose work I have been reading for most of my adult life; in this context, I return to his essay “The Task of the Translator, written in 1923 as an introduction to his own translations of Baudelaire.  Here is its notorious first paragraph, as translated by Harry Zohn: In the appreciation of a work of art or an art form, consideration of the receiver never proves fruitful.  Not only is any reference to a certain public or its representatives misleading, but even the concept of an “ideal” receiver is detrimental in the theoretical consideration of art, since all it posits is the existence and nature of man as such.  Art, in the same way, posits man’s physical and spiritual existence, but in none of its works is it concerned with his response.  No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener.  [emphasis added] 
 http://www.scribd.com/doc/12733233/Walter-Benjamin-the-Task-of-Translator
 
Certainly this blog lays no claim to be a work of art – though there is an argument to be made for blogging, and tweeting, as artful pursuits.  But I did not embark on this project for the sake of my potential readers, nor with the purpose of building a readership – that will either happen, or it won’t.  What prompted me to begin blogging (cards on the table) was the prospect of a regular, disciplined practice of writing, to dislodge my habitual modes of research and more research, voluminous note-taking leading to drafts and more drafts, revisions galore and eventually, should all the stars align, publication within two years of manuscript delivery.  What I’m doing instead (or at least on a parallel track) in this still-experimental space, is essentially posting pages from my notebooks.  Which brings me to my second exemplar, the blogger who writes under the name Salam Pax.  As I indicated a few posts back, Salam blogged earlier this year about finding a notebook that had served as a diary during the months after the invasion of Baghdad, and that had gone missing in the ensuing chaos.  Five years on, he told his readers the story of the lost notebook, and added “I thought it would be good to look over these notes and share what I have from that time with you… I hope I’ll be posting things from the notebook and the papers I have, there are new links I can add and photos which have not been put on the blog at the time.  I will upload it all online and throw the pieces of paper I have away.  Hanging on to all of this for six years is enough.”  http://salampax.wordpress.com
  
 Salam-Pax-the-Baghdad-Blo-001 
 
While my notebooks, some of which date back more than five years and have likewise been retrieved from a chaotic period, can’t hold a candle to Salam’s – they have survived neither siege nor bombs, and chronicle no such historical events – I humbly follow his example in posting pages from them anyway.  But I’ll hang on to the originals, at least for a while.
 
 

 10/08/2009  Give me permalinks or give me oblivion

Scott Rosenberg’s Say Everything is a valuable account of the history of Web-based journalism and the origins and rise of blogging.  In particular, his insight into “the simple utility of a reverse-chronological list” as a way to help readers understand where to look for new material is grounded in a meticulous chronicling of the early days of Web publishing.  At this stage, when many have come to take for granted the instant fix afforded by reverse chronology, when websites (in Rosenberg’s terms) are “less about subscription than about addiction,” it is worthwhile to retrace his steps, to connect what we experience now with the origins and genesis of Web publishing.

 
 

Ii_atom

 
 

Say Everything also makes a persuasive case for the watershed character of the advent of “permalinks,”

 a code for each blog post that enabled other websites and bloggers to link back to a specific post. (Previously it had been difficult to do anything other than point to a blog’s home page, which would change all the time, foiling any attempt to link to a particular item.) Later the Movable Type platform would expand this concept by giving each individual blog post its own separate Web page as a permanent home with a unique address to which links could point.  Most other blogging tools followed suit.  This software wrinkle, lttle noticed at the time, made a huge difference:  it meant that the basic unit of writing online would change from the page to the post.  Blog posts became the atoms of the Web.
 

In our own moment, we are bound to pay attention to the little-noticed software wrinkles that are changing the medium right now.

 10/07/2009  ‘Say Everything.’ Really?

As a relative latecomer to blogging, and as someone whose writing has generally been destined for articles, essays and books, I am still coming to terms with the novelty of one-click self-publication.  While it continues to feel a bit strange to make public what is merely presentable prose – written in one sitting, lacking the presumptive polish of a ‘finished’ piece – I have set aside my qualms for the time being in the resolve simply to take part.

 Like others, I have learned a good deal about the genesis of blogging from Scott Rosenberg’s recent volume Say Everything, whose subtitle is How Blogging Began, What it’s Becoming, and Why it Matters.  The following paragraph seems to have generated the book’s title:
 

Most writers today grew up in a world where the ability to publish was a hard-won privilege, and, once won, guaranteed at least some attention on its basis alone.  That world is rapidly fading.  On the Web, publishing has become an abundant, effectively limitless resource.  Clay Shirky has laid out the consequences for us:  When publishing was scarce, we filtered first, making choices based on relevance or quality before committing words to our limited stock of paper, our costly fleet of trucks, our scarce radio and TV frequencies.  The Web inverts this sequence.  We publish, then filter.  Say everything first, ask questions later. (319)

 I take Rosenberg’s point, and recognize the paradigm shift he is indicating.  But surely any blogger worth reading asks questions before and while writing posts, comments and responses.  Interrogating one’s topic cannot be postponed till after publication, even if blogging allows for the rapid transmission of unfinished work.  And what blogger would presume to ‘say everything’ about anything in a single post?

 In my next post (or some post hereafter) I will return to Rosenberg’s valuable volume, which offers plenty of grist for a blogger’s mill.
 

10/06/2009  Viva Salam Pax

Salam Pax notebook 
 

I predicted in my first post that I would be citing the words and work of others as this blog unspools.  In the spirit of reproducing posts that are better than any I can hope to write – well, I can always hope, I suppose – I offer a sampling from Salam Pax:  The Baghdad Blogger.  I chose this entry from among other possibilities in part because it extends a poignant promise of more to come.
 

 “Looking back, one last time.”  March 22, 2009
 

 In three weeks time it’s the 6th anniversary for the fall/liberation of Baghdad.
 

 Baghdad falls/Baghdad is liberated…all semantics.  What is fact is our life in Iraq as we knew it ended at that day.
 

 Since the start of the war in 2003 we had to move house three times for various reasons.  A lot was given away or lost in those moves including a notebook I used as a diary during the days when we had no electricity or internet access, it also contained flyers and other things from those days.
 

When the bombing stopped a couple of weeks later and the first place with internet access opened I sent all the notes to my blog friend Diana Moon and she posted them for me on my blog.  The blog posts from that time are still online, you can go check them out. 

While looking through the boxes of belongings I found the notebook, with newspapers, photos and the flyers I had kept.  As five years have passed and we’re entering the seventh year of our post-war/post-Saddam lives I thought it would be good to look over these notes and share what I have from that time with you. 

Until the 9th I hope I’ll be posting things from the notebook and the papers I have, there are new links I can add and photos which have not been put on the blog at the time.  I will upload it all online and throw the pieces of paper I have away.  Hanging on to all of this for six years is enough.”* 

Read more at http://salampax.wordpress.com/ 

Viva Salam Pax. 

*Readers of fledgling:  cf. my previous post on Fisk’s Beirut bookbinder, who apparently throws very little paper away no matter how old it is. 

 10/05/2009  The Bookbinder of Beirut

Bookbinding koran

Never mind the fact that there is no journalist that I admire more than Robert Fisk – this is merely anecdotal.  But I find something characteristically instructive, and perhaps salutary, in his recent column for The Independent on the oldest and most honoured bookbinder in Beirut, known for that reason as “Sheik Tijlid” – Sheik Binder.  Here is a sample:
 

There are only five left in Lebanon, repairing old newspapers, handwritten 17th-century Korans, ministry archives, cutting and pasting and then modelling fine leather covers and impressing on that wonderful soft leather the title of each volume in gold leaf.  Riyad Shaker al-Khabbaz lives for his bunker of an office with its ancient iron presses, its century-old steel Arabic typeface from Germany, France and England. Some of his presses come from the homes of priests – who were the bookbinders of Beirut in centuries past. 

He hands me a Koran, written in black and red ink, the margins adorned with yet more handwriting, interpretations of the sura – 300, 400 years old? – and he tells me about his client.  ‘He is a man who greatly loves a Lebanese woman and he wants to give this to her as a gift.  It is worth $100,000.’ 

http://www.independent.co.uk/commentators/fisk/fobert-fiskrsquos-world-not-even-a-civil-war-could-stop-the-old-bookbinder-of-beirut-1786167.htm

For those who dwell in large part in the virtual world, who spend their days staring at flickering screens of one sort or another, such an account may jar them back to a reckoning with the materiality of the written word, and the materiality of the history to which, in one of its multiple functions, it refers.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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fledgling’s archive, december 2009

December 2009

12/31/2009  More from Michelle Lang’s “Afghanistan Dispatches”

A few days before her own death, journalist Michelle Lang blogged about the passing of Lt. Andrew Nuttall, a fellow blogger.  Both died via IED.

“A ‘Rough’ Year in Afghanistan”

By Michelle Lang in Afghanistan Sun, Dec 27 2009

As 2009 draws to a close, Canada’s top general conceded the past 12 months were “rough.”

Speaking to reporters in Kandahar this weekend, Gen. Walter Natynczyk, the country’s chief of defence staff, said the growing danger in Afghanistan and problems with corruption in the summer presidential election made the past year a difficult one. You can read more here.

His comments follow the death last Wednesday of Lieut. Andrew Nuttall, 30, who was killed when an improvised explosive device detonated as he was leading a foot patrol in the Panjwaii district. Nuttall was, by all accounts, a well-liked young officer who was bright and athletic.

At a ramp ceremony last week, attended by thousands of NATO soldiers and civilians who work at Kandahar airfield, Padre Steve Defer said Nuttall loved the outdoors and loved to surf off the shores of Vancouver Island, where he grew up. “The waves at Tofino,” said Defer, “will never be the same.”

 

12/30/2009  RIP Michelle Lang, journalist and blogger

Canadian journalist Michelle Lang, who began reporting from Kandahar on December 20, was killed today, along with four Canadian soldiers she was accompanying on a routine patrol that ended when an IED exploded beneath their vehicle.  She wrote 7 blog posts during what was to be a two-week tour in Afghanistan.  Here is the most recent of her “Afghanistan Dispatches” for the Calgary Herald.

“Wanted:  Combat Barbers” 

By Michelle Lang in Afghanistan Tue, Dec 29 2009

On a recent trip outside of Kandahar Airfield, I started talking with a lady who had an unusual patch on her body armour. It was a skull with the words, “combat barber” underneath.

It reminded me of a story I had read several years ago about Canadian Forces’ efforts to recruit hair stylists to work in Afghanistan.

My editor had asked me to write a story about civilians who come to work in Kandahar and I thought combat barbers would make for an interesting interview.

Yesterday, I spoke with Vanessa Mead, 25, from Fredericton, N.B., who came to Afghanistan one month ago to cut hair.

You can read about her adventures in Afghanistan here.
Read more “Afghanistan Dispatches” at http://bit.ly/4xSmrL

 

12/30/2009  New Year’s Eve with Anderson Cooper (not) and Walter Benjamin

 As the year winds down, I have been thinking, in passing, about the nature of New Year’s “resolutions,” and specifically whether they are of the order of promises, which is to say, of contracts.  Does it matter whether resolutions are made public (which would imply consequences of some sort if they were not made good down the line), or can they remain vows, made and kept internally?  In any case I expect to see lots of resolutions on my Twitter feed in the next few days. 

And herewith I make good on a tacit promise made in my last post, namely to reproduce Walter Benjamin’s “The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses,” which I leave to the reader to align with Stephen King’s tips for writers, addressed earlier.  Benjamin’s theses appear in One-Way Street, which is included in Volume 1 of his Selected Writings, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Harvard University Press, 1996, 458-459).  I thank my dear friend Tom Levin for flipping them to me nearly instantaneously following an email query just now. 

Benjamin
 

I. Anyone intending to embark on a major work should be lenient with himself and, having completed a stint, deny himself nothing that will not prejudice the next. 

II. Talk about what you have written, by all means, but do not read from it while the work is in progress. Every gratification procured in this way will slacken your tempo. If this regime is followed, the growing desire to communicate will become in the end a motor for completion. 

III. In your working conditions avoid everyday mediocrity. Semi-relaxation, to a background of insipid sounds, is degrading. On the other hand, accompaniment by an etude or a cacophony of voices can become as significant for work as the perceptible silence of the night. If the latter sharpens the inner ear, the former acts as a touchstone for a diction ample enough to bury even the most wayward sounds. 

IV. Avoid haphazard writing materials. A pedantic adherence to certain papers, pens, inks is beneficial. No luxury, but an abundance of these utensils is indispensable.  

V. Let no thought pass incognito, and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens. 

VI. Keep your pen aloof from inspiration, which it will then attract with magnetic power. The more circumspectly you delay writing down an idea, the more maturely developed it will be on surrendering itself. Speech conquers thought, but writing commands it. 

VII. Never stop writing because you have run out of ideas. Literary honour requires that one break off only at an appointed moment (a mealtime, a meeting) or at the end of the work. 

VIII. Fill the lacunae of inspiration by tidily copying out what is already written. Intuition will awaken in the process. 

IX. Nulla dies sine linea — but there may well be weeks. 

X. Consider no work perfect over which you have not once sat from evening to broad daylight. 

XI. Do not write the conclusion of a work in your familiar study. You would not find the necessary courage there. 

XII. Stages of composition: idea — style — writing. The value of the fair copy is that in producing it you confine attention to calligraphy. The idea kills inspiration, style fetters the idea, writing pays off style. 

XIII. The work is the death mask of its conception. 

As a holiday bonus (since so many bloggers seem to be offering them), I will append Benjamin’s theses on the critic’s techniques, which also number thirteen. 

The Critic’s Technique in Thirteen Theses 

I. The critic is the strategist in the literary battle. 

II. He who cannot take sides should keep silent. 

III. The critic has nothing in common with the interpreter of past cultural epochs. 

IV. Criticism must talk the language of artists. For the terms of the cenacle are slogans. And only in slogans is the battle-cry heard. 

V. “Objectivity” must always be sacrificed to partisanship, if the cause fought for merits this. 

VI. Criticism is a moral question. If Goethe misjudged Holderlin and Kleist, Beethoven and Jean Paul, his morality and not his artistic discernment was at fault. 

VII. For the critic his colleagues are the higher authority. Not the public. Still less posterity. 

VIII. Posterity forgets or acclaims. Only the critic judges in face of the author. 

IX. Polemics mean to destroy a book in a few of its sentences. The less it has been studies the better. Only he who can destroy can criticize. 

X. Genuine polemics approach a book as lovingly as a cannibal spices a baby. 

XI. Artistic enthusiasm is alien to the critic. In his hand the art©work is the shining sword in the battle of the minds. 

XII. The art of the critic in a nutshell: to coin slogans without betraying ideas. The slogans of an inadequate criticism peddle ideas to fashion. 

XIII. The public must always be proved wrong, yet always feel represented by the critic. 

This seems to me a fitting offering at the threshold of a new year and decade.    

Anderson-cooper 
 
 

P.S.  All the best in the New Year, Anderson. 
 
Posted at 06:01 PM in Books, Television, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Technorati Tags: Anderson Cooper, Harvard University Press, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s resolutions, One-Way Street, Stephen King, Tom Levin, Walter Benjamin

  

12/29/09  My first brush with Stephen King

Having said that (cf. my post from earlier today), I did break down and read a few of the posts in my inbox promising to make me a better blogger in 2010, and actually found a list that made some sense.  I’m pasting it below for my own reference as well as for readers who might find it of interest.  You can find it at http://www.howtomakemyblog.com/book-review-13-blogging-lessons-learned-from-stephen-kings-on-writing/ I’m thinking of revising my avoid-reading-Stephen-King-at-all-cost in light of what follows.

13 blogging lessons learned from Stephen King’s On Writing

 Stephen King’s book On Writing is a very good read. It is targeted towards writers and wanna-be writers, but it is a very inspiring book for anyone.

As bloggers are writers, this book can teach you several lessons and can inspire you in your blogging. Here are the 13 lessons I have picked up from reading Stephen King’s On Writing.

  • Just start it. Whatever you plan or wish to do, just start doing it. Take the first step. Start chasing your dream. When you’re brave enough to start, you will be able to succeed and you will make it happen.
  • Follow your passion. No matter what people say, always do what you like to do. Stephen King’s family, teachers etc all said that he was wasting his time writing, but he kept going on as he believed in it himself.
  • Do it for joy. If there is no joy in it, it’s just no good. Writing is not about making money, getting famous, or making friends. Writing blog posts should be inspired play and it should not feel like work. When you do it for joy, you can do it forever, no matter what.
  • Stick to it. Never give up on your dream. No matter how hard it seems. Good writing is the result of thousands of hours that the writer has spent composing and the tens of thousands of hours spent reading compositions of others.
  • Don’t be afraid of rejection. Is nobody reading your blog yet? If you really enjoy it, it shouldn’t matter to you. Just keep working on producing new material and work on winning blog readers one by one.
  • Find your own writing space. When writing, get rid of the whole world. Find your own writing space, close the door and concentrate. Eliminate all the distractions. Turn off the TV. It will improve the quality of your life, save you a lot of time which you can spend on working on your passion.
  • Make it unique. Blend in your own personal knowledge in your writing. What you know makes you unique. You have your own thoughts, interests and concerns. Be brave and tell people what you think and what you know.
  • Make your writing reader-friendly. Just by looking at the text you can see if it is going to be easy or hard to read it. Easy stuff contains lots of short paragraphs and a lot of white space.
  • Edit yourself. Write a first draft, get away from it for a bit and do something else. Then come back and read it over. Fix the spelling mistakes, and pick up inconsistencies. You need to revise for length. Omit needless words. Cut the bullshit, cut the fluff from your writing. 1st draft – 10% = 2nd draft.
  • You cannot please everyone. You can’t please all the readers all the time, you can’t even please some of the readers all the time, but you should always try to please some of the readers some of the time.
  • Teach yourself. Forget the classes, the lessons, the seminars… you learn your trade best by putting the effort into it and doing it. The most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.
  • Write a lot. Don’t talk about it, just do it. Your time is valuable and you need to understand that the hours you spend talking about writing is time you don’t spend actually doing it.
  • Read a lot. If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time or tools to write either. Everything you read has its own lessons. Reading good stuff helps you aim higher and work harder. You see what can be done, and experience different styles. Reading bad stuff helps you recognize bad things and helps you steer clear of them in your own work.

And yes, bloggers are (for the most part) writers.  Nothing more and, importantly, nothing less.

Memo to self:  retrieve Benjamin’s tips for writers for an upcoming post. 

Posted at 09:22 PM in Books, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Technorati Tags: ” blogging, “On Writing, howtomakemyblog.com, reading, Stephen Kind, writing

 

12/28/09  Blogging in the decade to come

Over the last few weeks, my email inbox has been brimming over with posts from other bloggers proffering advice (and flogging books) on how to blog bigger and better in the new year.  The majority of these posts take the form of lists of what to do differently (which undoubtedly includes translating my sometimes cumbersome paragraphs into something more telegraphic).  I confess that, while I have deleted only a few (whose sources I don’t entirely trust), I haven’t been able to bring myself to read the ones that still await my attention.  There are a number of reasons for this, some of them obvious (celebrations, family time, year-end exhaustion).  The less obvious ones would, I think, appear on the radar of the author of a comment on an earlier post of mine, which I reproduce here in grateful acknowledgement of its thoughtfulness and timeliness.

[ ]

Adriana said:

Oh dear, sounds like you have hit on a rather formulaic view of blogging (if you substitute ‘formulaic’ with ‘wrong’ I won’t disagree much in this case). Your blog is your castle – to paraphrase the English phrase. It is your space to deliberate, write, share, rant, shout, or even offend, if you can face the fallout. Interactivity is overrated and over-used. Sharing and collaboration is often a shield used by people who have little original thought or are afraid to be alone. (This applies only to individuals, my criticism of organisations for lack of interaction, sharing and openness is known.) I think blogs like yours are what still keeps me interested in blogging (I started blogging in 2002 and have seen several waves of people arriving to the blogosphere, each bringing their own assumptions, objectives and experiences. Darren Rowse is but one of them.) I am interested in thoughtful writing, longer forms than just a few bits regurgitated by many bloggers. I like to see ideas that would not have seen the light of day, if not for the blog form and the drive of the author/blogger to capture them for their own reasons, not to please some audience. There are as many types of blogs and ways to write them as there are books and writings styles. They share one thing in common – they are expressions of individuals, not of institutions. That to me is revolutionary! They allow us to drive our ‘identity’, as defined by ourselves. This is one of the most valuable things the web has enabled. So if you decide to write only interminable screeds based on your innermost thoughts and notes, that’s fine by me! The good news is that you will get audience that will value your blog exactly for that. There is no point in writing a blog to fit an imaginary audience. Your blog is an expression of things you want to express and the rest of the world can shut up and read. Or ignore at will. Of course, there are a few things you can do to make your blog more visible and discoverable to others. For example, I found you because you linked to my blog in one of your posts and I liked it enough to explore your blog further. I might even subscribe to it. 🙂

And here is an excerpt from my reply to Adriana Lukas:

To have an indication that I can go on writing without the reader in mind, and still garner readers like you, makes a big difference.

This will still hold true in the decade to come.

Posted at 06:18 PM in Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Technorati Tags: Adriana Lukas, blog post, blogging, Darren Rowse, New Year

 

12/26/2009  Twitter’s ReTweet feature prompts a small insurrection

If this is off-da-hook, I’m hanging up….  But rather than resume my sporadic rant, already well-documented on Twitter, I thought it better to share a useful year-end account of the debates surrounding Twitter’s imposition (sorry, implementation) of its “Retweet” feature, and the resistance of users adhering to the consensual RT practice generated by themselves.  The latter, while requiring slightly more effort than a couple of clicks (since when did copy/paste become labour-intensive?), allowed for both off-the-cuff and more thoughtful editorializing and contributed, sometimes significantly, to the ongoing conversations facilitated by Twitter.  http://blog.sxdsalon.org/2009/12/03/rt-vs-retweet/

RT vs. Retweet

Posted on December 3, 2009 by pete

This is a post about “retweeting,” a beautifully evolved and delicate little social dance called that Twitter users invented, and Twitter’s so-called “Retweet” feature, which stomps on it.

In this post, I’ll call the original, organically evolved practice “RT” (as it is usually written in tweets), and Twitter’s confusingly named mis-feature “Retweet” (with uppercase “R”).

Social Relationship

An RT comes from somebody I follow. The reason I follow people on Twitter is because I want to know what they’re thinking and what they want to say. An RT is a way for somebody to repeat (and perhaps change, perhaps not) what somebody else has said, and give them credit for it. But it’s important to me that it’s not just a little bauble they find interesting (that’s what Favorites are for), but that they’re willing to enter it into public record as something they’re willing to repeat, in their voice.

On the other hand, a Retweet comes from somebody I’m not following. Yeah, sure it’s interesting to see new people on Twitter — but I’m deliberate about who I’m following and who I’m not. If I’m not following someone, I don’t want to see them in my timeline. Let me go see who they are and what they’re about, then maybe I’ll follow them. But please, I don’t want random people popping up in my timeline.

Darn it Twitter – “retweet” Meant Something Else!

The original RT practice evolved as a set of social gestures:

  • repeating what someone else said
  • giving someone else credit
  • sometimes giving multiple people credit, in an RT chain
  • editing original sayings to fit in 140 characters after adding the “RT” string and the @-sign attributions
  • editing original sayings to add commentary or change emphasis

Creating a good RT is an editorial, curatorial and social process. Should I give someone credit, or not? How many people should I give credit? Should I edit it to punch it up, or add emphasis?

Seeing someone else take my tweets and add and shape them makes me feel good. It’s an act of love and co-creation. The RT practice works the way people have talked and chatted with each other, about each other, since people became human and started talking.

Even seeing somebody retweet something poorly — missing an attribution, or editing badly — was a meaningful social gesture. Did they just not know the conventions? In that case, it’s a great opportunity to be social with them and help them out. Are they just mean-spirited, and they don’t really care about other people? Bad retweeters could communicate that, as well.

On the other hand, a Retweet is a simple, mechanical indication that someone liked something. It’s wonderful that social media systems like Flickr, Delicious and Facebook allow you to see what other people think is interesting, with “Like” and “Favorite” affordances — they’re great mechanisms for discovery. Slashdot and Digg are entire services built just on that concept. And of course, Twitter itself has a Favorite feature that they haven’t really exposed as well as they could have for readers.

I don’t have any problem with the Like/Favorite affordances. But @Twitter, for shame — why would you name your Like feature “Retweet,” and completely confuse the wonderful social practices that had evolved so beautifully on your service?

But I Just Want to Share Interesting Tweets Easily

It was a little bit of work to make a regular RT with the standard tools — cutting, pasting, making sure you got the attribution correctly. But third-party Twitter clients and Twitter add-ons like Greasemonkey scripts included easy single-click RT features, which went along with the original social practice, and didn’t break it like the Retweet feature did.

Ease of use doesn’t explain why the new Retweet feature breaks all the sociality of the old RT convention.

Business Model; Relevance and Ranking

I would guess that at least some of the motivation behind Twitter’s implementation of the Retweet feature is that they think it will be good for their business. When everybody is using an automated mechanism, Twitter can tell just by counting button clicks what’s being repeated most often. It automatically aggregates popularity, which of course has some relation to relevance.

I don’t have any problem with Twitter counting popularity of tweets. But again, they should use a Like function, or their Favorite function, for that, instead of bastardizing retweets.

References and Further Discussion

The discussion around the Retweet mis-feature has been ongoing for months. Here are some pointers to other voices.

#saveretweets

Some representative tweets from the last month or so that were posted under the #saveretweets hashtag.

RenVonVit – RT @RayBeckerman: I strongly urge my friends who RT NOT to use the Twitter pseudo-retweet button. #saveretweets
RickyMaveety – @RayBeckerman I saw that feedback request. I gave them feedback. They won’t like it, but I told them the truth. #saveretweets
lacouvee – @dingbatkaren nothing to YAY about!! They just don’t get it #saveretweets
TomRaftery – @franksting Well, it is by a ZenDesk webform. Tbh, I don’t care how it is received, as long as Twitter fix the RTs #saveretweets
eviltofu – RT @ctham: @GrowlyBear I’d rather it does not. I’d rather copy-n-paste entire tweets than use the new RT button. #saveretweets
erika613 – RT @queerunity RT @RayBeckerman Don’t use Twitter’s version of the “retweet” http://is.gd/59hDD #saveretweets
kootenayrev – @buzzbishop So do. Many are boycotting the new RT and just sticking to the old way of RTing. #saveretweets http://bit.ly/Bg75c
triumph68 – @LesbianDad If you want to add comment or alter orig tweet at all (+some other things), use orig “RT” format not the button. #saveretweets
pkieltyka – RT @mhp: Please #SaveReTweets and do away the unwanted implementation RT @jack: Anyone know how to turn off the auto RT function in Twe …
jimrhiz – Twitter clients should keep original retweet mechanisms as well as canned uncommentable version #SaveReTweets @echofon
JulieDeYoung – Thanks, I agree: RT @RayBeckerman What to do with Twitter’s pseudo-retweet button: ignore it http://twurl.nl/jakme5 #saveretweets
RayBeckerman – #saveretweets RT @Kcecelia Continue to:not use new RT,vocally object,provide objections to techies such as,e.g, @davewiner to note/pass on.
RayBeckerman – Twitter tip:Don’t use so-called “retweet” button on Twitter’s web site http://is.gd/4YRfB #twitterfail #saveretweets
cjoehl – RT @Strwbrry_Blonde IT HAPPENED. retweet feature pushed @michellemalkin into my feed. I AM UNFOLLOWING YOU ALL. #saveretweets #p2
CloudK9 – Agree! Using “Genuine Retweet” for this! RT @Andjelija Dear @twitter please #saveretweets. I’m not liking the new system AT ALL. Sorry ;-(
sarachapman – removing comments on twitter’s new retweet function is a joke- whole point of a RT is you’re reacting to something you’ve read #saveretweets
Nanmac3109 – AGAIN, I do not like the new retweet function. I don’t like for ppl to appear on my timeline who I do not follow. grrrrrrr #saveretweets
AmishPhoneBook – RT @NYT_JenPreston When I see all the smart things our readers say, I hope no one ever uses new RT feature. #saveretweets
JessicaPuchala – #saveretweets !!- seriously! — RT @Twitter_Tips: New Twitter RT’s Don’t Get The “Social” In “Social” Media: http://j.mp/2dMiW9
alison99 – Agree 100% RT @LisaBarone: Why Twitter’s New Retweet Feature Sucks http://tinyurl.com/ybs2mft #justsayin #saveretweets
davechapman – @Twitter_Tips I hate that you use the new-style RT so much. My feed is a mess now! I’m gonna unfollow you unless you stop #saveretweets
Makurrah – RT @kootenayrev: Thinking of un-following anyone who uses the new RT feature. A wretched feature. #saveretweets http://bit.ly/Bg75c
sookieverseblog – Hate it. Hate it. HATE. IT. #SaveReTweets
ElVeiga – RT @davechapman: @twitter @ev wanted to let you know I really don’t like the new retweet feature. please reconsider it #saveretweets
jmcesteves – Rerepeating 🙂 RT @plasticmadness I hate to repeat myself, and I hate the word hate, but I hate you damn new RT ways! Grrrr… #saveretweets
denvan – @brandexpression Re. New RT a joke. Nope: I’ve got a growing list of 10+ anti-RT blogs: http://tinyurl.com/yfkega8 #saveretweets
kootenayrev – Thinking of un-following anyone who uses the new RT feature. A wretched feature. #saveretweets http://bit.ly/Bg75c
Makurrah – @HowardKurtz #SaveReTweets and check my new blog post on ” Resistance or Collaboration: How will you ReTweet? http://bit.ly/4j76mO
Stargirlie713 – RT @Shoq: #DieProjectRetweetDie #DieProjectRetweetDie #DieProjectRetweetDie #DieProjectRetweetDie http://bit.ly/z2bYr #saveretweets
AmishPhoneBook – RT @rochtrev: RT @several_ RT @PkaPk: Me 2. RT @bytesize23b: @twitter I oppose new RT feature.I wnt 2 C names of ALL who RT. #SaveReTweets
phoenix_drums – I like MC Hammer as much as the next person, but I don’t recall following the dude. #saveretweets
AmishPhoneBook – RT @rrcarter: @TheDLC I also HATE the retweet function! It’s crappy. Go here to sign a petition against it: http://act.ly/er #SaveRetweets
snugglezz – RT @RayBeckerman: RT @mlharr i noticed w/ the RT button we cannot comment anymore 😦 #sad #twitter @ev @twitter #saveretweets #twitterfail
andrewmueller – @DenVan Worse than that they are saying “we know what is best for users” That said, it may be best for their bus model #SaveRetweets
Just_Vampires – Congrats @twitter – the dumb beta RTs ensure I shall no longer tweet via the web interface. Here’s to tweetdeck and echofon #saveretweets
mireyamayor – Isn’t the personalization what makes you stand out in social media? Why take this critical feature away? @RayBeckerman #saveretweets @ev
RayBeckerman – RT @musingvirtual: RT @GraceMcDunnough Twitter Tries To Change Retweets, Doesn’t Get The Social In Social Media #SaveRetweets
RayBeckerman – RT @MissShuganah: Too bad @ev and @twitter have no competition. Then they wouldn’t be so cavalier about community. #saveretweets Pls RT
OscarB – Ok, the new official RT system is a #BIG #FAIL #saveretweets
tamaracharmed – lLOL! RT @dbugliari: Came home to @Alyssa_milano dressed in black. Apparently, she’s mourning the loss of retweet’s integrity. #saveretweets
Latimore – RT @Jason_Pollock: #SaveRetweets: I think since Twitter is ruining RTs that many will just stop RTing as much since the new feature is s …
Stwo – RT @andrewmueller: @twitter who did U talk to when determining how2implement the new RT function,it certainly wasn’t UR users! #SaveRetweets
reeph – #SaveRetweets @Jason_Pollock I hate the new RT. I don’t like emphasis on the original poster’s handle. Plus, let me edit freely!

Posted at 09:54 AM in Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Technorati Tags: business model, Delicious, Digg, Facebook, Flickr, ranking, relevance, retweet, RT, Slashdot, sxdsalon.org, tweets, Twitter

 

12/25/2009  RIP Lt. Andrew Nuttall, soldier and blogger

Pasted below is the final post on the blog kept by Lt. Andrew Nuttall ofthe Canadian Forces, who, together with his ANA partner, lost his life to an IED a few days ago. 

Update from Afghanistan 4  December 1st, 2009 Posted in Military, Personal/Website| No Comments » (I’ve put some more pictures up on flickr!)  Hi all!  In order to be as open as I can i’m now going to post these updates on my website, although I am going to have to be a bit less specific, but i promise it won’t take away from the story. As well I’m posting some new pictures with this update so it should be a good one! The last I left you was saying I was moving to a new house with no internet. Well many things have changed, yet many things stay the same. The new place was working out excellently for us, and a platoon of ANA (afghan national army) which we started to work with very closely. We spent many long days fixing and improving our compound, as well as the typical patroling around our AO. The situation around this new home was much more tense and fragile than our last, the last time the locals saw any uniformed troops was some americans who ran through the place guns blazing. As such they were quite wary, and so were we because of the high amount of insurgent presense we were expecting. Either way though during all of the days we’ve spent there nothing kinetic (aka fighting) has gone on, and that is relatively typical of the situation here. On one side the people are frightened, impoverished, and seek nothing but safety and prosperity for their families. On the other side is a very small subset of a combination of extreme Salafist muslims (aka seeking to impose an extremist version of islam on the entire world), anti-western mercenaries, and misguided brainwashed (generally) youths that utilize cowardice hit-and-run and ied tactics in order to sway the civilain population of afghanistan and north america to pull their troops out. Then there is us in the middle, an array of nations trying to combine our traditionally conventional forces and conduct combined operations with the young but capable ANA (and young but immature Afghan National Police, ANP), in a barren country with many more needs than just militaristic. Complicated, yes, confusing, only a bit, frustrating, unfortunatly too much. But back to my situation, I spent my first bit of time there talking a lot to the locals together with the ANA. One of our biggest force multipliers is the combined arms team we’ve got working together, the CIMIC people (aka reconstruction and projects), PSYOPS (aka local messaging), engineers, armoured people, and the afghan government (ANA and ANP). Together we can really do some good, when the people are on board. Sometimes the people aren’t as what was happening with me, either their frightened or don’t realize what we can do and it takes time to convince them through actions that we are there to stay and not gone with the next change in winds. So as I was beginning to make some heady with the locals and get more information/weapon and ied caches and such, the platoon recieved another surprise. We had to move another time! Now usually moving around is no big deal, but it definetly throws a wrench into the plans (plus we’ve got to fit in our foosball table!). Either way we found ourselves moving not too far down the road, which works out well as the new place is close to the village we’re trying to improve and is more comfortable. I tried to include as many pictures of the place we’re in now, most of the troops live in the mud hut, while the hq staff is outside in the tent. The mud hut themselves are only a bit dusty (and mouse infested), but are really warm at night and cooler during the day (perfect for afghanistan weather). Plus we’re slowly building up some other nice morale boosting amenities, warm water for showers, a dvd player, a gym with actual weights (instead of sandbags), and of course we’ve got the foosball table and dart board plus many board games. The longer we stay here the better it gets.The other big event that happened was Eid. Its the muslim version of christmas, all of the locals will go home with their families and cook big meals. I had the lucky chance to be at 2 different Eid dinner celebrations with the ANA, where we butchered some local goat and sheep, boiled it in a curry like water, and had it with the best tasting basil i’ve had, of course lots of rice, and huge pomogranetes for desert. Wow it was so delicious, and so much food we all were stuffed! (Though i missed out on the heart and liver soup, and brain pate. Apperently it was delicious, i wanted to try).  After the first Eid meal there was a big dance party, the ANA put on a very scratchy speaker with the usual shrieky arab music. That is when the night started getting a bit gay, you could see that some of the ANA probably joined for the booty, luckily i had to run to attend to the radio. On the second Eid dinner afterwards we sat around and talked for almost 2 hours, it actually was fun sharing stories and jokes. Another big (ish) piece of news that some of you may know already, but my tour is being extended over here. Since canada seems determined to pull out at the end of 2011, their going to extend the last three tours, starting with mine. The effect they’ve told us is only a 3 week extension. But from what I can infer, the effect it will have on me will turn my 6 month tour into almost 8 months. Since I have to be the first one in and last one out, I’m guessing i’ll be back sometime mid June (though thats a total guess now). All of us here (including me) are not worried about this extention. We all believe in what we’re doing and an extra few weeks isn’t going to hurt anyone in the long run (as long as we maintain our vigilance of course). Plus if I end up getting home then, i’ll get to celebrate my b-day with lots of friends and family. Also loop my post-deployment leave into summer leave and get my vacation mustache growing! Heh, but that is waay far away and i’m really not thinking of that. I tend to look about 72hrs to a week out, keeps me from getting distracted.

Well, i’m off back to the command post to get back to the battle. I can’t believe that its almost December, feels like time is flying! Though its getting really cold now. The nights and morning it might even be 0 and even during the middle of the day its not super intense hot (though still those of us not on mission will try to get some rays on our pasty white farmer-tans). There’s even been a couple big rain and thunderstorms, very surprising as they came up really fast, though don’t usually last long (max an hour), and its nice to wet the ground and get the dust down. Though after we see lots of local activity as they will get out and tend to their crops because water is definetly a scarce commodity that these people are very efficient users of.

Thank you very much everyone for your emails and care packages! I will do my absolute best to answer every message, and every package recieved feels like christmas! (Actually my first happy day here was when i got a nice care package from a grandmother in greenwood, ns. A random one i definetly was not expecting, but definetly a huge lift of the spirits).  Keep sending me updates of all of the great times you will have in the winter. I hear that the west coast is getting an early snow, thats fantastic, wish i could be the for the snowboarding! Please all stay healthy and live everything to the fullest!!

Much love to all,

andrew

Posted at 04:38 PM in Current Affairs, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (2) Technorati Tags: Afghanistan, Canadian Forces, IED, Lt. Andrew Nuttall

 

12/18/2009  A question for Clay Shirky

This, as it turns out, is my first mobile posting, punched into my trusty BB as I wait in a cafe for my kid and her friend to exit the nearby cinema.
I’ve just re-read Clay Shirky’s “A Speculative Post on the Idea of Algorithmic Authority” for the fourth time – in hard copy, of course. Two colours of highlighter compete with scribbled marginalia at this point. Having already pasted up the OED definitions of “algorithm” and “authority” in an earlier post (when in doubt, adhere to etymology and historical usage), and reviewed what are in fact fairly tight arguments in what Clay terms a “placeholder” for a full-fledged formulation (would that still be speculative?), I find myself wanting to ask one question, fmi.
In what I take to be a key paragraph, Clay writes:
“There’s a spectrum of authority from ‘Good enough to settle a bar bet’ to ‘Evidence to include in a dissertation defense,’ and most uses of algorithmic authority right now cluster around the inebriated end of that spectrum, but the important thing is that it is a spectrum, that algorithmic authority is on it, and that current forces seem set to push it further up the spectrum to an increasing number and variety of groups that regard these kinds of sources as authoritative.”

So Clay, what forces do you have in mind? Some seem obvious, but others perhaps less so. And as I wrote the other day, this seems like front-burner stuff in the context of the “content farming” discussion.

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Posted at 03:43 PM in Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (0) 

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12/16/2009  “Algorithmic authority”:  Keeping up with Clay Shirky

I’m feeling an urge to contribute something by way of a gloss on or supplement to Clay Shirky’s “Speculative Post on the Idea of Algorithmic Authority” (http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2009/11/a-speculative-post-on-the-idea-of-algorithmic-authority.html )  I’ve been thinking about it off and on for a couple of weeks now, and more intensively since my encounter with the flurry of posts on the menace of “content farming” (cf “‘Content farms’?  Can we parse this before we start to worry?”, posted yesterday).  Clay’s “rough and ready” idea is summarized in the final words of his speculative post:  “algorithmic authority handles the ‘Garbage In, Garbage Out’ problem by accepting the garbage as an input, rather than trying to clean the data first; it provides the output to the end user without any human supervisor checking it at the penultimate step; and these processes are eroding the previous institutional monopoly on the kind of authority we are used to in a number of public spheres, including the sphere of news.”

Clay is clearly (obviously and with lucidity) working through the crux of the problematics that, to my mind, are obscured by the language of “content farming.”  In an effort to follow in his footsteps (no easy task, I recognize) and earn for myself the insights he is making available to others, I decided to resort to an established authority whose basis is not, on the face of it, algorithmic – a source I have never failed to find productive in some way.  Thankfully, one can now access the Oxford English Dictionary without having to go to the reference room of the nearest library, or to use the handy magnifying glass to read the miniscule print of the compact edition, less legible with each passing year.

With the online version it’s as simple as copy and paste.  I wanted to check the definitions of “algorithm” independently of Clay’s work in any case, since my 11-year-old daughter asked me about it a couple of weeks ago, and I wasn’t entirely confident of my reply. (They’re doing algebra in grade 6 – it’s not long now till I will  be unqualified to help with math homework.  Hallelujah.)

GeneticAlgorithmOut

Herewith the OED definitions, with my highlighting for future reference:

1. = ALGORISM 1a.

1699 Phil. Trans. XXI. 263 The Algorithm or Numeral Figures now in use. 1774 T. WARTON Hist. Eng. Poetry III. 46 The first who brought the algorithm from the Saracens. 1852 R. GRANT Hist. Phys. Astron. Introd. 9 The ingenious algorithm of the Indians.

2.Math. A process, or set of rules, usually one expressed in algebraic notation, now used esp. in computing, machine translation and linguistics.

1938 HARDY & WRIGHT Introd. Theory of Numbers x. 135 The system of equations..is known as Euclid’s algorithm. 1960 E. DELAVENAY Introd. Machine Transl. 129 Algorithm or algorism.., used by computer programmers to designate the numerical or algebraic notations which express a given sequence of computer operations, define a programme or routine conceived to solve a given type of problem. 1964 F. L. WESTWATERElectronic Computers ix. 146 An Algorithm is a set of rules for performing a calculation. 1966 OWEN & ROSS tr. Revzin’s Models of Lang. ii. 22 A..more convenient way of arranging the phonemes is suggested. It is given by an instruction (an ‘algorithm’) consisting of six points.

3. Med. A step-by-step procedure for reaching a clinical decision or diagnosis, often set out in the form of a flow chart, in which the answer to each question determines the next question to be asked.

[1968 L. B. LUSTED Introd. Med. Decision Making iii. 70 Two..[studies] show that an algorithm in terms of a computer program can be developed for a computer based medical history system.] 1970 Scottish Med. Jrnl. XV. 378 (heading) Flow charts, diagnostic keys and algorithms in the diagnosis of dysphagia. 1985 Brit. Med. Jrnl. 23 Mar. 916/1 The algorithm illustrates the steps towards establishing a functional and aetiological diagnosis.
 
 
 In the spirit of due diligence I thought I’d go ahead and check on the definitions of “authority” as well.
 

  I.Power to enforce obedience.

1. a. Power or right to enforce obedience; moral or legal supremacy; the right to command, or give an ultimate decision.

1393 GOWER Conf. I. 257 The pope..Of his papall auctorite Hath made and yove the decre. 1480 CAXTON Chron. Eng. III. (1520) 20/1 They chose another man the whiche sholde have more auctoryte..and they called hym dictator. 1590 Harl. Misc. (Malh.) II. 176 He hath aucthoritie over all kinges and princes. 1598 BARRET Theor. Warres IV. iv. 113 Their Colours..represent the authoritie Royall. 1603 SHAKES. Meas. for M. II. ii. 118 Proud man, Drest in a little briefe authoritie,..Plaies such phantastique tricks before high heauen, As makes the Angels weepe. 1665 BOYLE Occas. Refl. IV. xi. (1675) 233, I allow lawful Authority a Jurisdiction over my Actions, that I deny it over my Opinions. a1680 BUTLER Rem. (1759) I. 251 Authority is a Disease and Cure, Which Men can neither want, nor well endure. 1872 RUSKIN Eagle’s Nest §94 If ever you find yourselves set in positions of authority.

b.in authority: in a position of power; in possession of power over others.

c1460 FORTESCUE Abs. & Lim. Mon. (1714) 108 Men that were in grete Auctorite. 1551-6 ROBINSON tr. More’s Utop. 15 Nowe placed in aucthorytye and called to honoure. 1611 BIBLE Prov. xxix. 2 When the righteous are in authoritie, the people rejoyce. 1722 SEWEL tr. Hist. Quakers (1795) I. Pref. 12 Speaking to persons in authority. 1878 HOPPS Jesus x. 36 The people in authority..would try to stop him.

2. a. Derived or delegated power; conferred right or title; authorization.
  (The relation to sense 1 is seen in ‘by the (king’s) authority, by authority of the King.’)

c1375 WYCLIF Serm. Sel. Wks. 1869 I. 56 Reprovede him sharpli bi autorite of God. c1400 Apol. Loll. 8 If he pronounce wi{th}out autorite..a{ygh}ennis {th}e lordis wille. 1483 RICH. III in Ellis Orig. Lett. II. 49 I. 153 Upon auctorite or commission yeven unto him. 1535 COVERDALE Mark xi. 28 By what auctorite dost thou these things, and who gaue the this auctorite. 1790 BURKE Fr. Rev. 6 To open a formal public correspondence..without the express authority of the government under which I live. 1831 CARLYLE Sart. Res. III. vii, He carries in him an authority from God.

b. with inf. Conferred right to do something.

1535 COVERDALE Ezra vii. 24 Ye shall haue no auctorite to requyre taxinge & custome. 1559 BP. SCOT in Strype Ann. Ref. I. App. vii. 13 By commission from him, prestes hathe aucthorytie to forgyve sin. 1719 YOUNG Revenge IV. i, Am I not your wife? Have I not just authority to know That heart? 1855 PRESCOTT Philip II Pref. 8, I also obtained the authority of Prince Metternich to inspect the Archives of the Empire. 1858 LD. ST. LEONARDS Handy-bk. Prop. Law IV. 20 The authority to sell does not include a power to receive the purchase-money.

3. Those in authority; the body or persons exercising power or command. (Formerly in sing. = Government; a Local Sanitary Authority or similar body is also spoken of as ‘the authority.’)

1611 BIBLE 1 Pet. iii. 22 Angels, and authorities, and powers being made subject vnto him. 1652 NEEDHAM tr. Selden’s Mare Cl. Ep. Ded. 1 The Supreme Autoritie of the Nation, the Parlament of the Common-wealth of England. 1682 LUTTRELL Brief Rel. I. 233 Authority has thought fitt..to prosecute the offenders for the same. 1760 T. HUTCHINSON Hist. Coll. Mass. Bay iii. (1765) 395 The authority treated him kindly, and sent him home. 1833 I. TAYLOR Fanat. x. 456 The conduct of the authorities. 1859 MILL Liberty 172 It is a proper office of public authority to guard against accidents. 1865 LIVINGSTONE Zambesi xx. 403 The Mozambique authorities. 1870 Statutes V (Tramways Act) 491 Orders authorising the construction of tramways..may be obtained by (1) The local authority of such district. 1880 Sat. Rev. 25 Dec. 809 The actual authorities of the Post Office. 1909 Westm. Gaz. 8 Sept. 2/3 The Port of London Authority is a thoroughly practical body of men. 1951 Good Housek. Home Encycl. 189/2 It is usually possible to obtain the free services of one through the local Health Authority.

II. Power to influence action, opinion, belief.

4. Power to influence the conduct and actions of others; personal or practical influence.

c1410 HOCCLEVE Mother of God 92 Syn thou art of swich auctoritee Lady pitious. c1449 PECOCK Repr. V. ix. 531 Hi{ygh}e in wisdom and in auctorite and in fame. 1542 BRINKLOW Complaynt i. (1874) 7 Them which beare any auctoryte..in the cowncel or Parlament. 1673 Lady’s Call. I. i §20 Such an autority there is in vertue, that where ’tis eminent, ’tis apt to controle all loose desires. 1705 ADDISON Italy Ded., With your Lordship’s Interest and Authority in England. 1792 Anecd. W. Pitt III. xliv. 202 It is your duty, my Lords, as the grand hereditary council of the nation..to feel your own weight and authority. 1818-60 WHATELYCommonpl. Bk. (1864) 125 The person, body, or book, in favour of whose decisions there is a certain presumption, is said to have, so far, authority.

5. Power over, or title to influence, the opinions of others; authoritative opinion; weight of judgement or opinion, intellectual influence.

c1386 CHAUCER Sqr.’s T. 474 Preued..As wel by werk as by Auctoritee. 1481 CAXTON Myrr. III. xii. 160 Good clerkes..of grete auctoryte. a1677 BARROW Serm. (1683) II. viii. 119 The auctority of the ancients doth more prevail with me. 1724 A. COLLINS Gr. Chr. Relig. Pref. 18 Is there anything that..stifles the light of truth, but autority? 1794 SULLIVAN View Nat. II. 231 The proper way of reasoning from authority, that what seems true to some wise men, may upon that account be esteemed somewhat probable. 1865 MILL Liberty ii. 21/2 He is either led by authority, or adopts..the side to which he feels most inclination.

6. Power to inspire belief, title to be believed; authoritative statement; weight of testimony. Sometimes weakened to: Authorship, testimony.

1303 R. BRUNNE Handl. Synne 1239 Seynt Poule {th}at sagh Goddys pryvyte, He sey{th} yn hys autoryte A feyre wurd vs for to save. 1494 FABYAN I. i. 8 Therof is founde lytell auctoryte. 1586 THYNNE in Animadv. Introd. 73 Untill I may see good authoritie to disproove it. 1710 PRIDEAUX Orig. Tithes v. 253, I deny not Ingulph’s autority to be good, but for his Copy there is his autority only. 1875 SCRIVENER Lect. Grk. Test. 12, I have been recently informed on excellent authority. a1885 Mod. Do not accept news on the authority of the evening papers.

7. The quotation or book acknowledged, or alleged, to settle a question of opinion or give conclusive testimony.

c1230 Ancr. R. 78 {Th}en ilke autorite, {th}et..schal beon vre strenc{edh}e..a{ygh}ein {th}es deofles turnes. c1386 CHAUCER Friar’s Prol. 12 Lete auctorités, in Goddes name, To preching and to scoles of clergie. a1535 MORE Confut. Barnes VIII. Wks. 770/2 Hys fyrst authorite be these words of saynte Austyne in hys fyftieth sermon. 1608 SHAKES. Per. III. ii. 33 By turning o’er authorities. 1706 POPE Lett. Wks. 1736 V. 55 To corroborate these observations by some great authorities..in Tully and Quintilian. 1876 GREEN Short Hist. Pref. 6 Giving in detail the authorities for every statement.

8. a. The person whose opinion or testimony is accepted; the author of an accepted statement. b. One whose opinion on or upon a subject is entitled to be accepted; an expert in any question.

1665 GLANVILL Sceps. Sci. 77 To confront such celebrated Authorities. 1855 PRESCOTT Philip II, I. II. vi. 210 Historians in a season of faction are not the best authorities. 1860 R. WILLIAMS Ess. & Rev. 59 Egyptian authorities continue the reign of Menephthah later. 1867 A. J. ELLIS E.E. Pronunc. I. iii. 65 Wallis is the great authority for the fully developed pronunciation of the XVIIth century. 1871 BLACKIE Four Phases i. 1 A great utilitarian authority. a1885 Mod. Who, may I ask, is your authority for the statement? A. B. He is no authority!

9. Comb., as authority-maker.

1678 CUDWORTH Intell. Syst. I. v. 893 These justice-makers and authority-makers pretend to derive their factitious justice from Pacts and Covenants.
 
 
It turns out that “authority” is also a keyword in the OED’s definition of “consensus.”  More on this as time allows.
 
[cf Clay’s response to my subsequent question to him on kommons.com]
 
 
 
12/15/2009  “Content farms”? Can we parse this before we start to worry?

Yesterday I retweeted (the user-generated way, which allowed me to editorialize “Nightmarish”) the rww Sunday Editorial “Content Farms:  Why Media, Blogs & Google Should Be Worried”  (http://bit.ly/68LAmv ).  The fact that I follow Richard MacManus (author of the editorial) and Co. on Twitter demonstrates that I take them to be authorities of sorts, such that, if they are worried, perhaps I should be as well (though the last thing I need is more anxiety in my life). 

So I did a bit of homework on this pending threat to my relative tranquility as a blogger, and read a cluster of recent posts around the question of “content farming”:  Michael Arrington’s “The End of Hand Crafted Content” (http://techcrunch.com/2009/12/13/the-end-of-hand-crafted-content/ ); “Why Social Beats Search” by A VC (http://www.avc.com/a-vc/2009/12/why-social-beats-search.html.); “The Revolution Will Not Be Intermediated” on Doc Searls’ Weblog (http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/doc/2009/12/13/the-revolution-will-not-be-intermediated/ ) – all of these posted on December 13, 2009.

Along the way, I realized a couple of things.  First, my anxious response to the notion of “content farms” was based in part on some unconscious association with cruelty to animals, and especially to horses (e.g. the invidious “PMU farms” where mares are relentlessly exploited to produce estrogen-based products for women).  But more importantly, my trouble has been with the word “content” in this context, and the slippery imprecision of its usage with reference to the Web.  In rww’s editorial, for example, Richard MacManus writes that “companies like Demand Media and Answers.com…create thousands of pieces of content per day.”  I get what he’s talking about, but I also get the beginnings of a headache.

Pmu mares

And what “really scares” Michael Arrington?  “It’s the use of fast food content that will surely, over time, destroy the mom and pop operations that handcraft their content today.  It’s the rise of cheap, disposable content on a mass scale, fed to us by the portals and search engines.” I guess I resist the image of me (or any blogger I respect) with jaws wired open, ingesting whatever is coming down the pipeline.

Doc Searls’ post of 12/13 came closest to making sense on this matter.  “…I’ve been hand-crafting (actually just typing) my “content” for about twenty years now, and I haven’t been destroyed by a damn thing.  I kinda don’t think FFC is going to shut down serious writers (no matter where and how they write) any more than McDonalds killed the market for serious chefs….  Nothing with real value is dead, so long as it can be found on the Web and there are links to it.  Humans are the ones with hands.  Not intermediaries.  Not AOL, or TechCrunch, or HuffPo, or Google or the New York Freaking Times.  The Net is the means to our ends, not The Media…. The Net and the Web liberate individuals.  They welcome intermediators, but do not require them…. what matters most is what each of us as individuals bring to the Net’s table.  Not the freight system that helps us bring it there, no matter how established or disruptive that system is….  We seem to think that progress on the Net is the work of “brands” creating and disrupting and doing other cool stuff.  Those may help, but what matters most is what each of us does better than anybody or anything else.  The term “content” insults the nature of that work.  And of its sources.”  [emphasis added]

Finally, a kindred view on the debased usage of “content” in this discussion, and more broadly in relation to the Web.  I underscored above the instance where the word marks a link to a much earlier post on Searls’ blog, entitled “The personal platform” and dated January 31, 2008 (http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/doc/2008/01/31/the-personal-platform/ )  It seems that the figure or model of “content” has been troubling Searls for some time:  “Until I read this piece by Adriana Lukas this morning I hadn’t fully realized how the ubiquitous use of the word content, which I’ve griped about for years (and which Adriana quotes), frames our understanding of markets, and media, in ways that place presumed control in the hands of “providers” other than ourselves.  Even  UGC – “User Generated Content” – is not seen as ours, but as freight for media companies to forward for their own purposes.  As John Perry Barlow put it a few years back, “I didn’t start hearing about ‘content’ until the container business felt threatened.'”

He provides a link to a post by Adriana Lukas for mediainfluencer under the title “Content is for container cargo business” (http://www.mediainfluencer.net/2008/01/content-is-for-container-cargo=business/ ), which in turn begins with two citations from Doc Searls on “content.”

Doc Searls on Content in 2005:  “The word content connotes substance.  It’s a material that can be made, shaped, bought, sold, shipped, stored and combined with other material.  “Content” is less human than “information” and less technical than “data,” and more handy than either.  Like “solution” or the blank tiles in Scrabble, you can use it anywhere, though it adds no other value.

And again in 2007:  “Stop calling everything “content.”  It’s a bullshit word that the dot-commers started using back in the ’90s as a wrapper for everything that could be digitized and put online.  It’s handy, but it masks and insults the true natures of writing, journalism, photography, and the rest of what we still, blessedly (if adjectivally) call “editorial.”  Your job is journalism, not container cargo.”

As Searls belatedly notes on his own post of 2008, “But rather than gripe some more, Adriana offers a useful way of framing the full worth of individuals, the creative goods they produce, and what they bring to both social and business relationships:  the concept of the person as the platform:

Content is media industry term.  The number of people talking about content grows every day as they assume roles that before only media could perform.  With more tools and ways of distributing, photos, videos, writings, cartoons etc. are being ‘liberated’ from the channel world.  Alas, often sliding into the platform and silo world.  As far as I am concerned there are only two platforms – the individual user and the web.

Years later, in light of the purported menace of “content farms” coming soon to a search engine near you, this might ring a bit naive, or utopian.  But at least Searls and Lukas reflect upon and resist the ways in which “content” has become radically debased coinage.  With its value so diminished before the fact, it’s harder to worry about what little is left.

Posted at 12:52 PM in Current Affairs, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink
 
 
12/14/2009  Chris Brogan v Makurrah on the language of blogging, part 2
  
It occurs to me that I might borrow a technique, and the language that makes it work, from someone I just began to follow on Twitter yesterday.  @danielbachhuber sent the following tweet on December 13:  “Two pieces, loosely joined: @jayrosen_nyu’s explainthis.org and standard fare at the @guardiannews.  http://db.ly/71  The link is to a post on his blog, one that I recommend as (to quote him) “an entry point for deeper learning” about the possibilities inscribed in Jay Rosen’s conceptual framework for explainthis.org.  For now I will simply borrow the “loosely joined” structure or relationship to tie today’s post to yesterday’s, which was on Chris Brogan’s advice to bloggers to keep their words small and their language simple.

What I want to pass along today is something like the flip side of Chris’ case (or just another piece of some greater question).  My source here is an article by Erin Anderssen for the Globe and Mail, published Saturday December 12 in the F (for “Focus”) section of the paper, and online at http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/technology/gr8-news-were-entering-a-new-era-of-literacy/article13977421/

Under the title “GR8 news:  We’re entering a new era of literacy,” Anderssen reports on received wisdom about the dumbing-down of the English language, but also on the research of a number of academics across several disciplines that cuts against it.  Here are some of her findings.

Ever since the send button clicked on that first sloppy e-mail, digital technology has been accused of ruining the quality of writing.  Describing the fate that awaited prose in a world overrun by texting, John Sutherland, emeritus professor of modern English literature at University College, London, made a dire pronouncement:  Texters, he wrote in a column in the Daily Mail, are the ‘Genghis Khans’ of the written word, ‘pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary.  And they must be stopped.

Clearly, Prof. Sutherland is no fan of the shorthand texters use – GOYHH, they might snipe back at the language scholar (as in, Get Off Your High Horse) – but more than a few worried academics share his gloomy prognosis, suggesting that literature, as we know it, is doomed by pulpy Web-based pose [sic] and careless punctuation….

But take heart, dear scholars. A new study from California’s Stanford University has produced some reassuring news:  Young people may not be writing so badly after all, and, in fact, their prose is evolving in some promising new ways.  They write more on their own time, their school essays are longer, their voices are more attuned to the people who will read their words.  They know better – at least by university – than to drop text-speak into a class paper.

[Permit me to insert an image here, one that I discovered during the year I spent at Stanford on a faculty fellowship.  I do this for myself and for any readers of this post who could use a visual break.]

Stanford quake
[This is the men’s gymnasium at Stanford, photographed on April 18, 1906 after the great earthquake struck at 5:13 a.m.  I’m also fond of the image below, depicting the entrance to the university at the end of Palm Drive before and after the quake.  Perhaps it goes without saying that I had a terrible time at Stanford….but that’s for another post, probably another blog, entirely.]

Entrance_intact

Back to Erin in the Globe:

In the Stanford study, undergraduate students submitted pieces of writing over the course of five years, including everything they wrote for school.  Their contributions amounted to 15,000 samples – blog postings, journal entries, e-mails, PowerPoint presentations, honours theses, scripts and an astonishing amount of poetry.

Only 62 per cent of the writing was done for class assignments – the rest of the samples were other items the students submitted voluntarily.  On their own time, the students – half of whom were pursuing science or engineering degrees – were remarkably prolific, says Andrea Lunsford, director of Stanford’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric, who spearheaded the study.

Much of the personal work was intended to be active, to make a case or argue a point.  For this generation, she says, “writing is performative.  It gets up off the pages, walks off and does something.”

[I will keep my own sense of the performative function of language to myself at this point, in deference to the prof who actually did all this work. – Ed.]

While students at Stanford may be a select group, Prof. Lunsford has also completed a similar study by amassing a random collection of essays by first-year university students across the United States.  In a sample of more than 800 papers, there was not an LOL (or any other text lingo) to be found – though other English professors say they do crop up.

And her research showed that over the past century the length of student essays has increased dramatically – from an average of 162 words in 1917 to 422 words in 1986 and 1,038 words in 2006.

In addition, while 25 years ago, the most common assignment was a personal narrative, first-year students today are most often assigned papers requiring a thesis and sources – and consequently, Prof. Lunsford concludes, more “higher-order thinking skills and complexity”….

There is more worth reading in this thoughtful piece.  Perhaps the most interesting outcome of Lunsford’s research is her crediting the students whose work she studied with kairos, the ancient Greek term for the ability to say the right thing at the right time.  This is surely a hopeful sign.  And she is right on the mark when she argues that teaching proper punctuation and the ability to make a cohesive written argument is first of all the responsibility of educators.  “If we want students to sustain dense, richly sourced arguments then we will have to teach those skills throughout schooling,” she argues.

I expect to encounter some of those dense, richly sourced arguments in (for example) blog posts, in the near and longer term.  And I can hope, can’t I, that some of those savvy students might one day find their way to my blog, and not mind if I use words with more than two syllables to make my case?

Posted at 11:25 AM in Current Affairs, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink 

 
 
12/13/2009   Chris Brogan v Makurrah on the language of blogging, part 1

This a.m. my inbox yielded another post from the prolific Chris Brogan:  “Write Better Blog Posts Today.”  The “today” was an effective hook – of course I want to start writing better posts today, right away, right now – so I read with attention, finding myself admiring once again Chris’ willingness to share the benefit of his experience.  He offers a good deal of solid advice, succinctly put, and I would recommend the post to novice as well as more experienced bloggers.  Read it at http://www.chrisbrogan.com/write-better-blog-posts-today/

But I had to disagree on one point, which I reproduce below:

A caution about choice of words: a great piece of advice a professor once gave me was this: “tell it to me like I’m 6 years old.” Ken Hadge said that’s what he told anyone trying to sell him something the moment they used a large word. The other day, I spoke in front of a huge international audience. I used the smallest words I had, except for one: serendipity. I had never considered how hard to translate that word might be to other cultures. The definition of serendipity is: the faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident. I could’ve found another way to say it, or could have bolstered up the original use of the word with a simple definition. Because I missed this, I lost some small part of my audience.

Words matter. Choose yours for an inclusive audience. Everyone knows you’re smart already. Save the big words for your crossword puzzles.

For the moment, I will simply append here the comment I left for Chris earlier today:

This is a great post, Chris – lots of wit and wisdom. I disagree, however, on one thing – I think that the professor who gave the advice about addressing him like he’s a 6-year old misses something important. One thing a dedicated blogger can give his/her readers is language, including words they might not know, but might want to know. Your example of serendipity is a great one: use the word, gloss it in another clause – you’re giving the gift of new words that others can turn around and regift. It doesn’t have to be an either-or: go ahead and use more complicated or sophisticated language (which may in fact be required to make your point precisely), but provide the meaning or sense as well. Surely we’re not under pressure to leave out the better part of our vocabulary to reach an audience.

I haven’t heard back yet, but I know from my Twitter feed that Chris is in transit and will be offline all day.  But there is more to be said about the language of blogging in what some are calling a new era of literacy.  I’ll return to this in tomorrow’s post.

 Posted at 03:10 PM in Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink

 
 
12/11/2009   Journalism: a prognosis (from the Nieman Lab)
 
A link provided by Dave Winer on protoblogger.com led me to a useful piece by C.W Anderson on the Nieman Journalism Lab’s website, entitled “Next year’s news about the news:  What we’ll be fighting about in 2010.”   http://www.niemanlab.org/2009/12/next-years-news-about-the-news-what-well-be-fighting-about-in-2010/

Prognosis 

Following a handy summary of “What we kinda-sorta know” at this stage (e.g., “‘bloggers’ versus ‘journalists’ is (really, really) over,” “Some information won’t be free, but probably not enough to save big news organizations,” “The news will increasingly be produced by smaller, de-institutionalized organizations”), Anderson tries to “pretend (just for a moment) that all those fights are settled,” in order to reflect on the possibilities for discussion and argument in the year to come.  The following are his candidates:

1. What kind of politics will be facilitated by this new world? In the old world, the relationship between journalism and politics was fairly clear, and expressed in an endless series of (occasionally meaningful) cliches. But changes on one side of the equation inevitably mean changes on the other. The most optimistic amongst usargue that we might be headed for a new era of citizen participation. Pessimists see the angry town halls unleashed this summerand lament the days when the passions of the multitude could be moderated by large informational institutions. Others, like my colleague Rasmus Kleis Nielsenat Columbia, take a more nuanced view. Whatever the eventual answer, this is a question we should be trying to articulate.

2. What kind of public policies and laws will govern this new world? Law and public policy usually move a few steps “behind” reality, often to the frustration of those on the ground floor of big, social changes. There’s a reason why people have been frustrated with the endless congressional debates over the journalism shield law,  and with the FTC hearingson journalism — we’re frustrated because, as far as we’re concerned (and as I noted above), we think we have it all figured out. But our government and legal system don’t work that way. Instead, they act as “consolidating institutions,” institutions that both ratify a social consensus that’s already been achieved and also tilt the playing field in one direction or another — towards incumbent newspapers, for example. So the FTC, the FCC, the Congress, the Supreme Court — all these bodies will eventually be weighing in on what they want this new journalistic world to look like. We should be paying attention to that conversation.

3. What kind of networks will emerge in this new media ecosystem? It’s a strong tenet amongst most journalism futurists that “the future of news is networked,” that the new media ecosystem will be the kind of collaborative, do-what-you-do-best-and-link-to-the-rest model most recently analyzed by the CUNY “New Business Models” project. But what if the future of news lies in networks of a different kind? What if the news networks we’re starting to see emerge are basically the surviving media companies (or big portals) diversifying and branding themselves locally? This is already going on with the Huffington Post local initiative, and we can see national newspapers like The New York Times trying out variations of this local strategy. A series of “local networks,” ultimately accountable to larger, centralized, branded organizations may not be what “networked news” theorists have in mind when they talk about networks, but it seems just as likely to happen as more “ecosystem-esque” approach.

4. What’s the future of journalism school? This one’s fairly self-explanatory. But as the profession it serves mutates, what’s in store for the venerable institution of j-school? Dave Winer thinks we might see the emergence of journalism school for all; Cody Brown thinks j-school might someday look like the MIT Center For Collective Intelligence. Either way, though, j-school probably won’t look like it does now. Even more profoundly, perhaps, the question of j-school’s future is inseparable from questions about the future of the university in general, which, much like the news and music industries, might be on the verge of its own massive shake-up.

5. Human beings, data, and “the algorithm.” This one fascinates me, and it seems more important every day. In a world of Demand Media, computational journalism, and AOL’s news production strategy, questions about the lines between quantitative, qualitative, and human journalism seem ever more pressing. If we are moving towards some kind of semantic web, what does that mean for the future of news? What role are programmers and developers playing? How will they interact with journalists? Is journalism about data, about narrative, or both? Is journalism moving from a liberal art to an information science? And so on.

These, as Anderson attests, are “big, big questions.”  But we’ve been preparing ourselves to tackle them for a while now.  There are more than a handful of folks I trust to share this daunting task – in fact, some of them are well underway already.

 

12/10/2009   The self-flagellator’s monthly report

 With no expectation that this post will garner many page views, I am nonetheless pleased to announce that I have finally completed the masochistic task I set myself, namely a re-reading of all the posts published on fledgling during the month of November, in hard copy and with red pen in hand.  And while during much of the time that I was conducting this review I felt like I’d rather be reading someone else’s blog (I wonder what Dave Winer is up to?), it was an enlightening exercise nonetheless. 

Cat_o_seven 

As I began this accounting, I kept the language of my TypePad profile as a frame of reference, and specifically its enumeration of my “interests”:  “Blogging in all its manifestations, including Twitter; journalism; historiography; literary and cultural theory; history of aesthetics.”  If this is the equivalent of an ad for my blog, I wanted to see (for one thing) whether the product was delivering on its promise. 

In brief, then:  The total number of posts for November is 25.  An analysis of their predominant themes yielded the following: 

Blogging (8 posts) 

Twitter (7 posts) 

Blogging and Twitter (2 posts) 

Social media in general (1 post) 

Breaking news/current events (3) 

Print journalism (1) 

Other (3) 

For the most part, then, the content is in line with the terms of my profile.  What the numbers alone don’t convey is that, as the month unfolded, more and more of the posts were devoted to blogging, even at the expense of micro-blogging.  This was unanticipated, since Twitter was my focus when I began the project.

The other matter that does not register in this number-crunch, but that has had an irrevocable impact on fledgling, is my signing on to posterous in late November, to embark on a companion blog, makurrah’s posterous.  My hopes for that site are bound up with my hopes for this one, and I have already begun utilizing it as (among other things) a gloss or set of marginalia on this, the “macro” effort. 

Posted at 01:43 PM in Current Affairs, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink

 

12/09/2009   A quick-compose update:

 I’m still re-reading the hard copy of my November posts from “fledgling,” doing informal accounting and scribbling marginalia. Reading my way back from the latest post (11/30/2009), I’m struck by the extent to which this blog is more about blogging than anything else. I’m wading back into the #SaveReTweets imbroglio – will have a fuller report shortly.
 
Marginalia

 

12/07/2009   A downer (guest post) from ProBlogger

 In my continuing effort to seek out good advice on blogging, and more importantly good examples of engaging and purposeful writing in this medium, I signed onto ProBlogger the other day and read a guest post by Nathan Hangen entitled “10 Things I Wish I Knew when I Started.”   http://www.problogger.net/archives/2009/12/05/problogging-10-things-i-wish-i-knew-when-i-started/ 

By this point, having run across a quantity of conventional wisdom in list format, I wasn’t particularly optimistic going in.  But Nathan’s post not only made sense; it provided examples from his own history of blogging that resonated in a meaningful way, and had me making changes almost immediately.  I revamped the design of fledgling (I’d been equivocating) in response to his emphasis on the importance of making one’s blog stand out, visually, from the crowd.  Moreover, I promptly subscribed to ten additional blogs in and around my “niche,” with an eye to leaving comments and adding to the conversation (taking the “social” in “social media” more seriously, in effect).  One of those new subscriptions was to beginnerblogger.com, whose author got back to me straightaway, thanking me for the follow and offering a suggestion on my blog’s design. 

I was feeling on the right track, and grateful for the pragmatic assistance available in the blogosphere.  But when I opened the email containing today’s ProBlogger offering, the title of the post raised not only doubts, but hackles.  This too was a guest post, written by Rob Sutton from “Ramped Reviews” and entitled “How Getting An F On Your School Paper Makes You A Better Blogger.”  You can read it at  http://www.problogger.net/archives/2009/12/07/how-getting-an-f-on-your-school-paper-makes-you-a-better-blogger/  

Knownothing
 

Could there possibly be more bad faith inscribed in the title of a blog proffering advice about blogging?  It’s tantamount to saying, go ahead and fail at school, it won’t keep you from being a popular blogger and making tons of money by selling ads on your site.  In the very first line of his post, the author confesses (or perhaps brags) “This comes to be a surprise to many, but I hate writing.”  He then goes on to boast about “throw[ing] over 2,000 words a day on a screen for others to read and why is everyone I know surprised that my words now turn into dollars?” [I’m keeping my virtual red pen firmly in check – it would be too easy to demonstrate ignorance here.] 

This guy obviously had some inept teachers during his school days (I’ve never been one to blame the student when learning goes awry).  And of course it’s very easy to make an argument that lively and persuasive writing works better on a blog (or anywhere else for that matter) than text that is grammatical but uninspired.  Who doesn’t know that?  I would simply say, without reservation, that if someone hates to write, then they are involved in blogging for reasons that have nothing to do with writing.  And they are in no position to give advice to bloggers who know that if you hate writing, you are seriously compromised as a reader as well as a writer.  As to what kind of blogger that makes you…. 

Let’s leave it there for now. This may be a case where the less said, the better. 
 

Posted at 12:19 PM in Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink

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12/04/2009   A question via Quick Compose 

Does anyone else find it challenging to read their blog archive in full on the screen?  I’m finding that reading it in hard copy is a very different experience.
 

12/03/2009   The self-flagellator

For the past several days I have been feeling (and resisting) an urge to push pause on the blogging and tweeting, in order to take stock of what, thus far, my efforts in this sphere might amount to.  Perhaps it has to do with the fact that this is exam season on the campus where I work – some reserve of empathy with the anxious and exhausted students around me driving me to punish myself (by way of a crude mimesis) by reviewing my own output since roughly mid-September, perhaps?  But it’s not that simple, or virtuous, alas.  For the impulse derives, I’m afraid, not from the example of youth dedicated to learning (or at least graduating with some prospect of employment), but from one of those dead white guys some of them are made to read.  Yes, my friends, I mean Kant. 

Flag_large1
 

If you are still reading at this stage, you may be one of the few to recall my post of 10/20/09, “Kant weighs in on Twitter” (a lame placeholder for a proper title).  In that text I cite a long passage from Paul de Man’s essay “Phenomenality and Materiality in Kant,” the crux of which I reproduce here. 

In order to make the sublime appear in space we need, says Kant, two acts of the imagination:  apprehension (apprehensio) and comprehension or summation (comprehensio aesthetica), Auffassung and Zusammenfassung.  Apprehension proceeds successively, as a syntagmatic, consecutive motion along an axis, and it can proceed ad infinitum without difficulty.  Comprehension, however, which is a paradigmatic totalization of the apprehended trajectory, grows increasingly difficult as the space covered by apprehension grows larger.  The model reminds one of a simple phenomenology of reading, in which one has to make constant syntheses to comprehend the successive unfolding of the text:  the eye moves horizontally in succession whereas the mind has to combine vertically the cumulative understanding of what has been apprehended.  The comprehension will soon reach a point at which it is saturated and will no longer be able to take in additional apprehensions:  it cannot progress beyond a certain magnitude which marks the limit of the imagination. 

Right.  To make a long story short, I have given myself a masochist’s assignment:  to begin to try to comprehend (understand as a whole, or cumulatively, to the extent possible) what has to now been a matter of apprehending the ephemeral components of this project as they appear, fleetingly, only to disappear again according to the strict laws of reverse chronology. 

Reverse chronology is of course at its cruelest and most unforgiving on Twitter, with which I’ve begun this attempt at comprehension.  I have printed all of my tweets from the month of November and begun to analyze them.  I can already share a couple of things, for those who might be interested, about the translation from virtual to material.  When you print your Twitter feed, the tweets are numbered, with the most recent appearing as #1.  My November tweets run to 148.  What is slightly unsettling about this accounting is that tweet #1 has long since been displaced as such, though it’s only December 3.  So the numbers in front of me are not current, stable, or reliable, but rather traces of a time now past. 

As a somewhat reluctant student of Scobleizer’s “pimp my blog” school of tweeting (whose obverse is the “pimp my tweets” school of blogging), I was curious to see just how many of my tweets would turn out to be serving this purpose (I had no clue going in).  Of the 148 in total, 57 tweets had links to posts on fledgling – around 20%. 

The predominant thematics running through the November tweets appear to be 1)Twitter’s introduction of its Retweet feature (of which I am highly critical, though I try to maintain a sense of humour about it) and 2) “meso-blogging,” to which I came fairly late in the month in the form of posterous and my new blog on their site.  The possibilities afforded by a blog neither micro (Twitter) nor macro (fledgling), but dedicated to negotiating the space between the two, animate a number of the tweets posted in late November. 

Then there are the one-offs (on Molly Ringwald playing the MOM in the tween soap The Secret Life of an American Teenager, or news that Al-Jazeera English got CRTC approval, which means they will be broadcasting in Canada soon, or reports that Springsteen won’t be performing with the E Street Band ever again), @replies, RTs (all and only the copy/paste way.  #SaveReTweets). 

More results as they emerge.  Once I get a handle on the months’s Twitter output, I will turn to November’s posts on fledgling and makurrah’s posterous.  I may or may not pull an all-nighter. 

Posted at 03:03 PM in Television, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink 

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12/02/2009   The gift of reader engagement

  
 
As I embark on today’s post, I’m feeling as though my identity as a blogger is undergoing a small crisis (Do I term it “small” because my average daily readership is, perhaps thankfully, paltry?  I’m not sure.).  Just last night I was confidently converting my Twitter avatar from the one I’d adopted for World AIDS Day – not back to my former little green bird, a small commemoration of #IranElection, but “forward” to the one I use for this blog as well as makurrah’s posterous:  a fledgling bluebird in the wild.  With my avatars aligned, I was ready to move ahead with what I’ve come to think of as my blogging trinity. 

But this morning I opened an email containing a recent post by Darren Rowse of ProBlogger, to which I subscribed about a month back in the spirit of consulting more experienced bloggers across a range of disciplines and practices.  I have to admit that its content threw a wrench, at least provisionally, in the works. 

Readers of fledgling will know that this is my “macro” blog, which it to say the place where I entrust pages of various notebooks of my own, and reproduce or at least flag material I run across that informs my project as it unfolds.  It is, in other words, a locus of writing as well as curating texts, with a view to future work (whatever its eventual form) that the blog will (I hope) make possible.  The experience of writing it is, for the most part, solitary – a solitude with which I’ve made peace over the course of my working life as a writer.  The readers, should they materialize, will be welcome as a kind of bonus, or gift – that’s primarily how I’ve conceived of the reception of my written work, including the blogs. 

But ProBlogger, or at least Darren Rowse, works on a very different model, one predicated on interactivity.  In the video component of his post “7 Questions to Ask On Your Blog to Get More Reader Engagement,” he comes across as a thoughtful and likeable guy, who recounts an experience of meeting someone at a party, asking the person some polite introductory questions (“What do you do?”, “What are you working on?”, that sort of thing), and then being “talked at” for half an hour rather than treated with reciprocal consideration and given an opportunity to tell his own story.  This experience is utterly familiar, and his appeal to it in the framework of blogging etiquette is fairly persuasive. 

See for yourself at http://www.problogger.net/archives/2009/12/02/7-questions-to-ask-on-your-blog-to-get-more-reader-engagement.html 

For Rowse, just as “it doesn’t feel good to have someone talk AT you” in a “real life conversation,” it is also the case that “Blogs can be like that and in this post we explore the power of asking questions on your blog.”  He goes on to “share 7 types of questions you can ask to increase reader engagement.” 

Here are Rowse’s 7 questions (or “types of questions”): 

– What Do you Think?  [Not clear on the use of upper case here, but never mind. – ed] 

– How Do you Feel? 

– What Will You Do? 

– What is Your Opinion? 

– What is Your Story? 

– What is Your Experience or Example? 

– What Have you Been Working On? 

His sign-off is in keeping with his message, on the video as well as in the written post:  “Of course there are plenty of other types of questions – what type do you ask and how do you find people respond?” 

A quick scroll down the page showed that, in the brief hours since its publication, the post had garnered loads of comments, most of them of the order of “Great advice, thanks Darren.” 

So what is my problem? (Yes, that is a real, not a rhetorical question, so please feel free to respond.)  Maybe the better question is, what are my problems?  (There are a few people who would have a lot to say on that matter – come to think of it, some of them read this blog.)  There are several aspects of the kind of “interactivity” advocated by Rowse that provoke resistance on my part.  For starters: 

– To be perfectly frank, I’m not even sure I want people to be reading my notebooks.  This is partly residual, I suppose, from twenty-odd years as an academic who only made things public when they were finished, polished, ready (in my judgment) for prime time. 

– Rowse’s schema reminds me of the helpful response of a member of my family who is reading the blog with some regularity, and making suggestions to boost its page views.  Things like “more pictures would be good” and “if you use difficult words, can you link to an online dictionary?”  He’s undoubtedly right (and I have tried to grab more images.  Have you noticed?).  But can’t I expect my readers to do a bit of the work themselves? 

– I do not conceive of my role here as that of a teacher, imparting a body of knowledge.  Been there, done that, in spades.  I figure any reader who wants to engage as a peer (or a mentor) knows to hit the comment button without my having to ask “What is your opinion?” 

– There are some traits that all blogs share, and it would be useful at some stage to enumerate them.  But all blogs aren’t the same.  They are not created equal.  They have different raisons d’etre, different objectives, different temporalities and life spans.  So how can they all be expected to engage readers in the same ways? 

I’ll return to these and related questions shortly.  Oh, and I nearly forgot to ask:  What have you been working on? 

Posted at 11:36 AM in Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink

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Filed under Books, Culture, Current events, Journalism, Media, Reading and writing, Tech

fledgling’s archive, october 2009, part 2

October 2009

 

10/31/09  Hard core (not what you think)

With this post I will take some preliminary steps toward the goal of comprehension (cf my earlier posts on Kantian apprehensio and comprehensio), with the example or target being Twitter’s new “lists” feature, and microblogging’s iterative mode more generally (Josh Marshall of TPM makes reference to this with some frequency – I’ll return to some of his formulations down the line).  Taking the form of another page from my notebook, with little commentary for the moment, this will remain a draft even when it’s published; though it may appear obscure for now, I will try over time to make its relevance clear. 

The theoretical stakes in thinking through the repetitive, iterative character of Twitter itself and of the user’s experience are very similar those that underlie an essay by Paul de Man entitled “Anthropomorphism and Trope in the Lyric,” which appears in the volume The Rhetoric of Romanticism (New York: Columbia UP, 1984). The latter part of the essay takes the form of a reading of Baudelaire’s sonnet “Correspondances.   

The canonical and programmatic sonnet “Correspondances” contains not a single sentence that is not simply declarative.  Not a single negation, interrogation, or exclamation, not a single verb that is not in the present indicative, nothing but straightforward affirmation:  “La Nature est un temple…Il est des parfums frais comme des chairs d’enfants.” (243)  

Much of de Man’s reading, which I’m only telegraphing here, turns on the meanings and effects of the word “comme” (“like”) in Baudelaire’s text: 

When it is said that “les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se repondent…comme des longs echos,” then the preposition of resemblance, “comme,” the most frequently counted word in the canon of Baudelaire’s poetry, does its work properly and clearly, without upsetting the balance between difference and identity that it is assigned to maintain.  It achieves a figure of speech…. All this is playing at metaphor according to the rules of the game.  But the same is not true of the final “comme” in the poem:  ” Il est des parfums frais comme…/Doux comme…/–Et d’autres…Ayant l’expansion des choses infinies/Comme l’ambre. le musc, le benjoin et l’encens.”  Ce comme n’est pas un comme comme les autres….here “comme” relates to the subject “parfums” in two different ways or, rather, it has two distinct subjects.  If “comme” is related to “l’expansion des choses infinies,” which is grammatically as well as tonally possible, then it still functions, like the other “commes,” as a comparative simile:  a common property (“l’expansion”) links the finite senses to an experience of infinity.  But “comme” also relates to “parfums”:  “Il est des parfums frais…/–Et d’autres…/Comme l’ambre, le musc, le benjoin et l’encens”; the somewhat enigmatic hyphen can be said to mark that hesitation (as well as rule it out).  “Comme” then means as much as “such as, for example” and enumerates scents which contrast with “chairs d’enfants” as innocence contrasts with experience or nature with artifice.  This working out by exemplification is quite different from the analogical function assigned to the other uses of “comme.”   

In de Man’s reading, this use of “comme” in the sense of “such as, for example” is aberrant, out of order:  

For although the burden of totalizing expansion seems to be attributed to these particular scents rather than the others, the logic of “comme” restricts the semantic field of “parfums” and confines it to a tautology:  “Il est des parfums…/Comme (des parfums).”  Instead of analogy, we have enumeration, and an enumeration which never moves beyond the confines of a set of particulars….” (emphasis added)

Baudelaire’s sonnet thus exemplifies the way in which   

Enumerative repetition disrupts the chain of tropological substitution at the crucial moment when the poem promises, by way of these very substitutions, to reconcile the pleasures of the mind with those of the senses and to unite aesthetics with epistemology.  That the very word on which these substitutions depend would just then lose its syntactical and semantic univocity is too striking a coincidence not to be, like pure chance, beyond the control of author and reader.”  (RR 240-250, emphasis added)   

Here, then, are a few more notebook pages waiting to be re-read, ordered and introduced into our ongoing analysis of Twitter.   

Posted at 01:45 PM in Books, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (0)   

Technorati Tags: analogy, Baudelaire, enumeration, Josh Marshall, Paul de Man, The Rhetoric of Romanticism, TPM, Twitter   

 

10/30/2009  Calling all curators. Tend your lists.

For regular readers of this blog:  file today’s post under “apprehension,” and not yet “comprehension.”   

   

My Twitter “lists” function was activated today, a full 30 days after the Twitter blog published “Soon to Launch:  Lists,” written by the project lead, Nick Kallen (@nk).  The mild frustration that marked the wait for the “small subset of users” who got to try the feature on beta to expand to include me and my ilk was comparable to that involved in awaiting the H1N1 vaccine rollout (in the meantime, I got the flu).  Thus far, I’ve only had time to locate five lists posted by five trusted sources.  I have yet to track these new feeds extensively, or to begin to compile lists of my own (a bit of reaping before I sow).   

What first intrigued me about the new feature was the idea that users could “curate” lists of Twitter accounts (@nk’s post uses this term; it also asserts that “lists have the potential to be an important new discovery mechanism for great tweets and accounts”).  http://blog.twitter.com/   

From early on in my thinking about social media, and certainly in my practice, I have conceived of blogging and microblogging as the curation of ideas, sources and images.  To the extent that the lists feature enhances – even as it complicates – the activity of curation, it is a development to be welcomed (and of course monitored).   

A quick detour via the Oxford English Dictionary (almost always worth the drive) reminds us that to curate is to “select, organize and look after the items in a collection or exhibition,” and that the Latin root is curare, meaning “to take care of.”  My sense, at this early stage, is that care will be required in the thoughtful and progressive deployment of Twitter lists.   

For a handy assessment of the potential downsides, check out scobleizer’s posterous (post and extensive comments):   

http://scobleizer.posterous.com/twitter-lists-limitations-bugs-impact-and-brilliance.htm   

Also worth consulting, as ever, is Dave Winer:  http://r2.ly/mgfw   

I’ll have more to say on the list as figure in due course.   

Posted at 07:00 PM in Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (0)   

Technorati Tags: blogging, Dave Winer, Nick Kallen, Oxford English Dictionary, scobleizer, Twitter, Twitter blog, Twitter lists   

 

10/29/2009  Diversify your media portfolio

Morning tonic: some characteristically adept reporting and analysis by The Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders, writing from Prague as the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall draws near:  “In Czechoslovakia, human network made the message go viral” (October 29, A20; http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/in-czechoslovakia-human-network-made-the-mesage-go-viral/article1343132/ ).  Recalling the history of the Czech resistance and its multiple modes of communication, Saunders’ article provides an important context for the vaunting of Twitter and SMS as instruments of political mobilization in our own time.   

In 1989, Jirka Meska was in the business of making information move, as fast as possible, around the communist state of Czechoslovakia.   

Officially, that meant he was among the country’s highly protected elite software engineers, responsible for writing operating systems and networking applications for the primitive mainframes of the Eastern Bloc.   

Unofficially, he had discovered more effective information-spreading techniques.  As a secret link to the country’s anti-authoritarian underground network called Charter 77, he was capable of helping cause 10,000 people to appear at a protest suddenly, or to stop work for a day, an escalating wave of actions that played a key role in bringing down the government.   

“It got to the point that half the country could know something within a few hours, even though it couldn’t be mentioned in any of the media or spoken over the phone,” the bearded programmer said the other day in his Prague campus office.   

Twenty years after the Berlin Wall fell on Nov.9, 1989, and the communist government in neighbouring Czechoslovakia joined its neighbours in giving up power six weeks later,the activists involved are struck by the fact they were able to communicate with a speed and efficiency that would be difficult today – even though they lacked the cellphones, e-mail networks, Twitter accounts and websites used nowadays by anti-government movements in places such as Iran.   

Former resistance members in the Czech Republic and the former East Germany say there were two factors that made news move at better-than-Twitter efficiency in the revolutionary days of ’89:  A network of human relationships that conveyed information informally on a regular basis, and a population who were highly focused on only a few channels of information, both official and clandestine.   

“You didn’t have people looking at 200 different TV channels and 10,000 websites and e-mails from thousands of people,” says Rainer Muller, one of the East German dissidents who brought 200,000 people onto the streets of Leipzig in October of 1989.  “You could put something on a Western TV or radio station and you could be sure that half the country would know it.”   

The technology was often primitive, for a good reason:  Using the telephone was extremely risky, and the print and broadcast media were regime-controlled.   

Mr. Meska, the software engineer, held such an important position that the regime had a high threshold for his insurrection.  So he became a trusted communication hub for the underground, a human router – though he resorted to a pre-digital medium to reach the nation.   

“I went into the research institute’s photocopy office one day with a copy of the underground secret newspaper Lidove Noviny, and I was surprised to find that the woman there let me make a copy of it,” he said.  “So later that day I came in and made 200 copies.  And after that I became a samizdat publisher, effectively.”   

Each of those copies would reach hundreds of people, because they would be circulated among networks of people – not members of the underground, but ordinary citizens who were used to meeting at pubs, passing on information and rumours, and sending them along to other circles of friends the same day….   

The phone was a risk – but the East Germans discovered it could be used effectively if large groups of people shared calls from public phones.   

And the goal was always to reach radio and TV stations outside the Iron Curtain that reached across the border.   

“We would hold a weekly telephone conference in which we would report on what was going on, and the purpose of this was to have someone different each day who could relay all the information to the Western media through West Germany – this proved an extremely effective method to reach the whole country,” said Mr. Muller, the East German…..   

After the Berlin Wall fell in Germany, Czechs began to organize a serious resistance movement known as the Civic Forum in early November, 1989, and within six weeks it became the government.   

It was launched in typical lo-fidelity fashion:  Czechs, who gathered habitually at the theatre, suddenly found the actors reading anti-government news rather than lines from the play.  It was massive, fast, and more effective than a text message.   

Here I refer my readers to my previous post, “A flock of tweets (like a murder of crows, or a parliament of rooks),” in which I cite Ian Dunt of politics.co.uk, writing in the aftermath of the Stephen Gately/Daily Mail surge on Twitter:  “It seems inevitable that within a decade we will see a revolution coordinated by Twitter somewhere in the world.”  Revolutionaries everywhere (fledglings included):  heed the lessons of Prague.  Diversify your media portfolio.   

Posted at 12:53 PM in Current Affairs, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (0)   

Technorati Tags: Berlin Wall, Charter 77, civic Forum, Czech resistance, Czechoslovakia, Doug Saunders, Globe and Mail, Ian Dunt, Jirka Meska, November 1989, Prague, Rainer Muller, samizdat, SMS, Twitter   

 

10/29/2009  A novice blogger’s inventory

   

 This, it turns out, is my 40th post on fledgling.  While it’s not a major milestone by any stretch, I thought it could serve as an occasion for taking stock of the posts to date:  not in terms of their quality or effectiveness (that is not for me to say), nor in terms of how many readers they have reached (despite Typepad’s dashboard data, this is not yet clear).  What I’d like to inventory for my own purposes going forward is this:  What is it that prompts the post in the first place?  To what source does it owe its existence?    

As of October 28 and excluding this post, my totals are as follows:   

– 39 posts   

– 11 comments   

– 1146 lifetime pageviews   

– 28.65 average pageviews/day   

So, without regard to any psychological or even analytical response I may have to those numbers at this stage, I’d like simply to tally figures on what sources prompted them.   

– A particular tweet or link served up by Twitter:  11   

– The Twitter blog:  3   

– Other online sources:  8   

– Print sources:  4   

– Broadcast sources:  1   

– My notebooks:  7   

– Mostly unmediated experience:  5   

For me, these numbers attest to how unpredictably this project has unfolded thus far.  I foresaw more posts originating with a conceptual or theoretical claim (which would then be tested against individual cases), and there is an element of pleasant surprise at how many of the prompts have come by way of particular tweets and their indispensable links.  At the same time, I am aware that some version of Kant’s two acts of the imagination, apprehension and comprehension, will be required for any critical reading of Twitter (cf my post “Breaking news:  Kant weighs in on Twitter, Part 1,” from which I take the liberty of quoting once again in this context).   

 Apprehension proceeds successively, as a syntagmatic, consecutive motion along an axis, and it can proceed ad infinitum without difficulty.  Comprehension, however, which is a paradigmatic totalization of the apprehended trajectory, grows increasingly difficult as the space covered by apprehension grows larger.  The model reminds one of a simple phenomenology of reading, in which one has to make constant syntheses to comprehend the successive unfolding of the text:  the eye moves horizontally in succession whereas the mind has to combine vertically the cumulative understanding of what has been apprehended.  The comprehension will soon reach a point at which it is saturated and will no longer be able to take in additional apprehensions:  it cannot progress beyond a certain magnitude which marks the limit of the imagination.   

In other words, I could continue ad infinitum taking my cues from successive tweets (which is good to know:  writer’s block shouldn’t be an issue).  At some stage – or rather periodically along the way – the effort to reach a cumulative understanding of what has been apprehended must, for a time, take precedence.   

Posted at 10:12 AM in Books, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (0)   

Technorati Tags: apprehension, blog post, comprehension, inventory, Kant, Twitter, Typepad   

 

10/28/2009  Breaking news: Google’s got “real-time” data. But, um, “how do we rank it?”

   

Thanks to @jayrosen_nyu for providing today’s prompt, in the form of a link to Marshall Kirkpatrick’s coverage, for ReadWriteWeb, of Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s recent interview at the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo in Orlando (http://jr.ly/n9fs ).  While much of what Schmidt had to say in the 45-minute interview was directed to business leaders, Kirkpatrick kindly excerpted “6 minutes that we believe is of interest to anyone who’s touched by the web.”   

A few highlights from those six minutes bear directly on my last two posts on the new Bing/Google/Twitter configuration.  In Schmidt’s own words:   

– “Real-time information is just as valuable as all the other information.  We want it included in our search results.”   

– “We can index real-time info now – but how do we rank it?”   

– Learning to rank user-generated info “is the greatest challenge of the age.” [emphasis added]   

Kirkpatrick concludes his report with the affirmation that “Schmidt believes Google can solve that problem.”  But whether or not this is the case, it is only responsible to ask whether it is Google’s CEO who decides what the greatest challenge of the age might be (perhaps especially when 39 of his allotted 45 minutes were addressed directly to business leaders).     

Posted at 11:04 AM in Current Affairs, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (0)   

Technorati Tags: Bing, Eric Schmidt, Gartner Symposium/ITxpo, Google, Jay Rosen, Marshall Kirkpatrick, ReadWriteWeb, real time search, search ranking, Twitter   

 

10/27/2009  Twoogle? Googlitter? Key documents, part 2

On October 21, 2009 at 2:41 P.M., @EV posted the following on the Twitter blog:   

@google  Nice!   

Our friends down in Mountain View want to organize the worlds’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.  A fast growing amount of information is coursing through Twitter very quickly, and we want there to be many ways to access that information.  As part of that effort, we’ve partnered with Google to index the entire world of public tweets as fast as possible and present them to their users in an organized and relevant fashion.   

We’ve always taken an open approach to how people experience Twitter, particularly in how and where tweets are read.  Users have benefited greatly from the abundance of choice provided by our ecosystem partners.  We’re honored to take this next step with Google and tap into their expertise to support the rapid, open exchange of ideas.   

You can read more about our collaboration on the Google Blog.   [emphasis added]

   

RT@google:  Tweets and updates and search, oh my!  is the playful title of the update to the Google blog posted by Marissa Mayer, VP of Search Products and User Experience, at 2:09 P.M. (i.e., shortly before @EV posted on the Twitter blog).   

At Google, our goal is to create the most comprehensive, relevant and fast search in the world.  In the past few years, an entirely new type of data has emerged – real-time updates like those on Twitter have appeared not only as a way for people to communicate their thoughts and feelings, but also as an interesting source of data about what is happening right now in regard to a particular topic.   

Given this new type of information and its value to search, we are very excited to announce that we have reached an agreement with Twitter to include their updates in our search results.  We believe that our search results and user experience will greatly benefit from the inclusion of this up-to-the-minute data, and we look forward to having a product that showcases how tweets can make search better in the coming months….   [emphasis added]

My own strong hunch (inscribed in the boldface of the emphasis-added) is that, when the laudatory language of all four posts is distilled, the essential consideration that remains to be thought will be time, and specifically the variable and potentially incompatible temporalities of these media and the events they seek to register and archive.   

Posted at 12:59 PM in Current Affairs, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (0)   

Technorati Tags: @EV, Google, Google search, Marissa Mayer, real-time updates, tweets, Twitter, Twitter search   

 

10/27/2009 Twing? Bitter? Key documents, part 1

Once again a perusal of the Twitter blog has opened up possibilities and necessities for reflection on Twitter, its temporalities and its impacts (current and to come) on journalism and historiography.  I am transcribing parts of these key documents here, with emphasis added where it may assist in assessing the stakes of what transpired on October 21, 2009.   

There are two posts on the Twitter blog with that dateline.  The first (the earlier, which thanks to reverse-chronology is not the first you encounter on the page) is by @BIZ, posted at 11:40 A.M. (time zone unspecified) under the title “Bing Goes the Dynamite”:   

We very firmly believe the open exchange of information can have a positive impact on the world.  Every day we see evidence supporting this belief.  Most Twitter accounts are public for a good reason – people find value in openness.  An open approach means value for users, value for partners, and value for Twitter.   

We have a team focused on delivering value from a search and discovery perspective at Twitter and they’re just getting started.  Twitter is earning a reputation for delivering real-time results to queries about things that are happening right now.  Moreover, there are already tens of thousands of Twitter apps and more to come because people want the choice to consume and create tweets wherever and whenever they prefer.  The folks over at Bing took a keen interest in Twitter and worked fast to establish a working relationship with us in line with an open approach.   

You can read more about Bing’s new Twitter search on their blog or just try it out. Twitter is providing Bing access to the overwhelming deluge of public, real-time tweets rushing in from all around the world so they can help you find those that make the most sense right now.  While Twitter currently presents tweets based simply on timeliness, Bing is experimenting with new solutions such as “best match.”  We hope more working relationships with organizations in the search business will mean even more variety for our users.   

Because of our open approach there are many ways to interact with Twitter, and there will be many more to come.  As we work to mature our service and platform offerings, we also hope to develop meaningful relationships with companies that share our vision of creating value for everyone involved – especially users.  Whether it’s emerging startups, big companies, or people simply sharing information, we’re establishing successful partnerships.  Also, it’s fun.  [emphasis added] 

It sounds like fun.  So I was quick to click on the link directing me to the Bing blog, which turned out to be their “community page.”  There I found a post dated October 21, 10:24 A.M. (again, no time zone given, but in any event the posting predates that of @BIZ on the Twitter blog).  Authored by Paul Yiu and the Bing Social Search Team, it is entitled “Bing is bringing Twitter search to you.”   

One of the most interesting things going on today on the Internet is the notion of the real time web.  The idea of accessing data in real time has been an elusive goal in the world of search.  Web indexes in search engines update at pretty amazing rates, given what it takes to crawl the entire web and index it for searching, but getting that to ‘real time’ has been challenging.   

The explosive popularity of Twitter is the best example of this opportunity.  Twitter produces millions of tweets every minute on every subject you can imagine.  The power of those tweets as a form of data that can be surfaced in search is enormous.  Innovative services like Twitter give us access to public opinion and thoughts in a way that has not before been possible.  From important social and political issues to keeping friends up to date on the minute-by-minute of our daily lives, the web is getting more and more real time.   

Search has to keep up…. today at Web 2.0 we announced that working with those clever birds over at Twitter, we now have access to the entire public Twitter feed and have a beta of Bing Twitter search for you to play with (in the U.S., for now).  Try it out.  The Bing and Twitter teams want to know what you think….  [emphasis added] 

I’d also like to know what you think, but not before you read my next post.   

Posted at 11:53 AM in Current Affairs, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (0)   

Technorati Tags: @BIZ, Bing, Bing Twitter search, Paul Yiu, real time web, Twitter, twitter blog, twitter search   10/26/2009

 

10/26/2009  No end in sight

Monday morning and I am still facing my half-read printout of “The Reconstruction of American Journalism” (http://cjr.org/reconstruction/the_reconstruction_of_american.php?page=all ), the report by Leonard Downie, Jr. and Michael Schudson, published on October 19 in the Columbia Journalism Review, which has already been through the critical ringer on Twitter.  I promised myself I’d have it read and processed before this past weekend, to enable timely and substantive commentary, but the truth is that at the halfway point I became convinced – prematurely, I admit – that I had already read the report’s single most interesting line.  I cite it here in the context of the paragraph in which it appears.   

What is under threat is independent reporting that provides information, investigation, analysis, and community knowledge, particularly in the coverage of local affairs.  Reporting the news means telling citizens what they would not otherwise know.  “It’s so simple it sounds stupid at first, but when you think about it, it is our fundamental advantage,” says Tim McGuire, a former editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “We’ve got to tell people stuff they don’t know.”   

While I’m sure that the CJR report, skewered as it’s been in some circles, offers other formulations pertinent to the fledgling project, this one resonated in the circumscribed context of my own ongoing reflection on the purpose of this weblog.  While it does not set out to “report” in any conventional sense, it is certainly written with the goal of telling people – my handful of readers, now and to come – things they don’t know.  And the mostly unpredictable ways in which the posts are prompted, how they unfold and where they wind up, more often than not tell me stuff I don’t know, or didn’t know I knew.   

I promise to finish “The Reconstruction of American Journalism,” but I can’t say whether I will return to it here.  What I will pledge to take up is the matter of how reading Twitter with an eye to its impact on journalism and historiography involves an ongoing negotiation between reading individual tweets (in all their idiosyncracy) and theorizing microblogging in general, conceptual terms.  There is no end in sight.   

Posted at 11:19 AM in Current Affairs, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (0)   

Technorati Tags: ” Twitter, “The Reconstruction of American Journalism, blogging, Columbia Journalism Review, Leonard Downie Jr., Michael Schudson, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Tim McGuire   

 

10/23/2009  Minister Twitter remembers

One factor that makes blogging a) different from the kinds of writing I’m used to, and b) likely to keep me engaged for some time to come, is this:  I don’t sit down at the keyboard with an outline or a set agenda, but rather take my prompts where I find them each day (these tend to fall within the framework of the blog’s long-term project).  At this stage, anyway, I often come across a promising starting point while scrolling through my Twitter homepage each morning, without knowing where it might lead. Today, for example, I am taking my cues from three tweets posted by someone I have recently begun to follow.    

Of the individuals I track on Twitter, Shashi Tharoor is to my mind among the more compelling.  His profile lists his location as New Delhi, though his tweets, from all over the map, prove him to be highly peripatetic.  His Twitter bio, by definition abbreviated, retains the quality of an impressive cv:  “author, humanitarian, peacekeeper, columnist, former UN Under-Secretary General, now Minister of State for External Affairs, Govt. of India.”  He is also the recently elected MP for the district of Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala state (contracted to “Tvm” for tweeting), which I knew, having followed the Indian elections earlier this year.   

   

 
[The blog from which I borrowed this photo, http://alexp0205.wordpress.com/, includes a post entitled “Shashi Tharoor removes his own posters,” which quotes the then-candidate on his soon-to-be constituency:  “This is a beautiful town, and I don’t want politics to disfigure it.”]   

But it was less my interest in this accomplished and multifaceted figure than the content of one (then two, then three) of his tweets from yesterday, October 23, 2009, that kick-started this post.  I first ran across this one, which I promptly saved to favorites:  “Oct 23: day I lost my father, Chandran Tharoor, at age 63, 16 years ago. Still feel the pain of profound loss.  But now he’s always with me”.  I then noted another tweet from the same time frame:  “Oct 23:  commemoration of great Tvm fighter Achamma Cherlan who led peoples march for dem rights & responsible govt on 23.10,1938” – hence 71 years ago.  Around nine hours later, Shashi posted yet another commemorative tweet with the same dateline:  “Oct 23:  happy birthday to @23jacob, the man who put me on Twitter!”    

The fact that Minister Tharoor was prompted to tweet – thrice in one day – in commemoration of persons and events of importance to him is itself remarkable, and says a good deal about his relationship to Twitter. To dispatch tweets that range from birthday wishes to the person who “put me on Twitter,” to the remembrance of a historic civil rights march in his home district, to marking the anniversary of his father’s death – these are indications that the author takes the medium seriously, and that he may indeed warrant his nickname, “Minister Twitter.”   

In keeping with the objectives of this blog, which pertain to the impacts of Twitter and other social media on the history and historiography of our time, I would pause for a moment over the tweet that went out in commemoration of the death of the writer’s father.  Very likely these lines mark only one of several ways in which this anniversary was kept.  Of broader interest, perhaps, are the idea and the practice of commemorating by way of a medium – Twitter – that is characterized by frenzy and fragmentation.  A tweet is, apart from a vapour or a shadow, the furthest thing from a monument; indeed, it is barely an inscription (though it can be of course be archived).  What is the intention – and more importantly the effect – of commemorating a death (and so a life), in this most ephemeral of media?  It is an exercise “too poignant and too transitory,” to cite William Wordsworth, writing in his Essays Upon Epitaphs. More remains to be said on this matter, as time allows.   

Key excerpts from Wordsworth’s text are at http://www.english.ucsb.edu/faculty/ayliu/unlocked/wordsworth/essays-upon-epitaphs.html
    

Posted at 01:31 PM in Current Affairs, Film, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (0)   

Technorati Tags: blog post, blogging, Essays upon Epitaphs, Minister Twitter, Shashi Tharoor, tweet, Twitter, Wordsworth   

 

10/22/2009  Biodegradability and the cultural compost: “And so human life is enriched”

   

In general, I bristle with indignation at any post or tweet (or ad, or conversation, for that matter) that begins with “Best piece you’ll read today….”, or words to that effect.  This may be due to the indelible memory of the prophecy delivered by the chair of a department to which I had applied for a job long (indeed a lifetime) ago.  After my lecture, having escorted me to my accommodations for the night, he announced with perfect confidence: “This is the nicest hotel you will ever stay in.”  Never mind that the chair of a university  English department that wanted to hire me had just ended a sentence with a preposition.  I was outraged at the assumption that a Victorian guest house in a third-tier destination was to be the apex of my travel experience.  Over the next several years I wantonly booked and stayed at several lavish havelis and converted palace hotels in Rajasthan; in ultra-hip boutique hotels with room service from great restaurants in New York; in Willa Cather’s auratic cottage with spectacular views of the Bay of Fundy; in a converted 16th-century monastary high in the Sierra Madre in Puebla state… and in so many other unforgettable spots that I’ve in fact forgotten what the bloody small-town guesthouse in [________] even looked like.   

As I was saying…I don’t respond well to anyone telling me in advance what I will think or how I will experience something.  But because @NiemanLab is often a Twitter resource worth exploring, because its links usually net me something worthwhile on journalism and social media, I clicked through to what proved to be an interesting site, new to me, called posterous (http://mbattles/posterous.com/ ), which includes a blog authored by Matthew Battles entitled library ad infinitum:  the republic of letters and the storm called progress. His post of October 21, 2009, under the title “the novel dies a thousand deaths,” reproduces part of a letter from the novelist F.Marion Crawford to Stewart Gardner, dated August, 1896.   

“The old fashioned novel is really dead, and nothing can revive it nor make anybody care for it again.  What is to follow it?…A clever German who is here suggested to  me last night that the literature of the future might turn out to be the daily exchange of ideas of men of genius – over the everlasting telephone of course – published every morning for the whole world….”   

   

Battles is right to call this a “rich quote,” which can be viewed from several angles.  Here are his thoughts on the matter:   

In the first [way to look at it], Crawford’s vision is prophetic, if hasty.  The nascent, steampunk, fin-de-siecle telephone network took a century to evolve into an internet.  The struggle now is to comprehend and accommodate a daily exchange of ideas not among “men of genius,” but among everyone with a connection.   

But another way to spin this is to recognize the apolcalyptic mode for what it is:  not a harbinger, but a self-renewing mode of modern consciousness.  The telephone didn’t kill the novel; neither did radio, television, or rock ‘n’ roll.  Yesterday, Barnes and Noble announced that its own ebook reader, the nook, will connect using the AT&T wireless network – the evanescent digitized great-grandchild of Ma Bell (who was still in utero in Crawford and Gardner’s time).   

I like to think the two perspectives aren’t contraditory.  Eras end, media grow old, new modes of consciousness emerge.  And so human life is enriched.   

Matthew ends his post on a high note (memo to self – maybe that’s what it takes to get the quantity and quality of the comments he elicited).  In response, his reader Tim wrote a thoughtful and supportive message (“I absolutely believe this – so much so that I wrote my dissertation about it!”), which ended with a link that, via several other links (too many to reproduce), led me to the transcript of a BBC radio broadcast aired in July 1927.  In that programme, Leonard Woolf and Virginia Woolf debated a question that they had proposed to the producers in advance:  “Are Too Many Books Written and Published?”  The edited transcript, compiled by my colleague Melba Cuddy-Keane from pages preserved in the BBC Written Archives Centre and published in the journal PMLA (vol. 121, #1, January 2006, 235-244), is of great interest to the literary and cultural historian. I take this occasion simply to note down several of Virginia’s arguments (Leonard’s are also carefully drawn), with an eye to their potential value for reading across media in our own historical moment.   

   

V.W.  Yes, that is one of the great drawbacks of books.  They last a lifetime.  They take up space on our walls for ever.  They need dusting for ever.  How many times, after all, is one going to read the same book through?  Of all the books in your library how many have you read twice?  Yet there they stand, unopened and, I am afraid, often undusted, month after month and year after year.  What is wanted is some system by which private libraries could be thrown open to other people, so that readers living in the same neighbourhood could use each other’s books.  The present system, by which each of us has a certain number of books locked up doing nothing on his shelves is the most wasteful that could be invented.   

The concepts of waste and waste management will be of interest, along with the unavoidable matter of biodegradability and what we might term the cultural compost.   

V.W.:  ….Books will have to be cheaper.  Books ought to be so cheap that we can throw them away if we do not like them, or give them away if we do.  Moreover, it is absurd to print every book as if it were fated to last a hundred years.  The life of the average book is perhaps three months.  Why not face this fact?  Why not print the first edition on some perishable material which would crumble to a little heap of perfectly clean dust in about six months time?  If a second edition were needed, this could be printed on good paper and well bound.  Thus by far the greater number of books would die a natural death in three months or so.  No space would be wasted and no dirt would be collected – an ideal state of things in my opinion….   

   

 
No space wasted, no dirt collected.  Fine rules for a blog post.   

Posted at 02:10 PM in Books, Travel, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (0)   

Technorati Tags: Anselm Kiefer, BBC, ebook reader, Leonard Woolf, Matthew Battles, Melba Cuddy-Keane, Nieman Lab, novel, PMLA, posterous, Twitter, Virginia Woolf   

 

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