Wednesday, November 03, 2004

To Paraphrase Henry Higgins. . .

Damn, damn, damn, damn, I have to stay accustomed to his face.

I really wish Howard Dean's campaign hadn't imploded.

But wishes don't mean much now. Kerry's campaign can wish all they want, for example, but the math isn't there in Ohio to put him over the top.

Kerry will need to concede sometime today, and he needs to do it graciously.

So let me be gracious too.

George Bush won, and he is and will remain President of the United States. I'm an American citizen, and George Bush is my President. His win was, especially given the division in the country, relatively strong. He will have won both the popular and the electoral vote by wide enough margins that there is no basis, as there was in Florida voting in 2000, for challenging the legitimacy of his win.

George Bush is my President. I hope that under his leadership the country improves, that unemployed find real work at good wages, that the uninsured find affordable insurance, that the supreme court finds its vacancies filled with moderate judges, that our armed forces or our allies find Osama Bin Laden, that democracy finds firm roots in Afghanistan and Iraq, that Israel and Palestine find a way to live together, that everything both sides agree need to happen finds a way to happen under Bush's watch, that tax cuts and profligate spending some how find a way to magically combine in some kind of economic alchemy to deficit lead into surplus gold. I wish him every success on reaching those goals.

Yes, I know. Wishes don't mean much. Even sincere wishes. But I hope for the sake of the country that Bush succeeds in making the country better.

As much as I wish that, here's what I fear will happen going forward:

  1. Bush will move further to the right, with nothing left to lose, dividing the country either further along ideological lines.
  2. The deficit will continue to sky rocket and the war on terror will continue to expand, thus shrinking the governments options.
  3. That Bush will become more arrogant, and move to policies that begin to unravel the social safety net -- environmental regulations will continue to fall; social security will be pushed toward privatization; tax policies will increasing benefit the rich, shrinking the middle class. In other words, all the trends now in place will continue more earnestly for at least the next two years, before Bush slips into lame duckness.
  4. That a U.S. House with more republicans in it, will be seen as a sign that the votes are there to move the country's fiscal and social policies further to the right, to the hard right, not the moderate right.
  5. That the tone in Washington will become more shrill as the republican power base becomes more arrogant. Any disagreements will be described as divisive, even reasonable objections.
  6. That Bush will pull out of Iraq before the job is done, but using his rose colored classes, will declare victory. That after the first Iraqi election, whenever that is held, he will begin to cut troops, leaving Iraq afester and the Middle East more unstable than he found it.
  7. That Bush will continue to lead by a combination of the propagandistic leveraging of fear (on the war front) and fact-bending (remember the false estimates given to Congress on what the cost of his drug benefits program would be?).
  8. That 6 and 7 will work as strategies because the media is increasingly either divided along identifiable partisan lines (Fox News vs. NPR) or cowed. We no longer have a national objective voice to look at facts in a timely manner. The best the mainstream media could do on the Iraq war issue was apologize after the fact for their failure to be healthy skeptics.

So here I am. Left hoping that my fears are wrong and that my wishes might come true. It's a grim place to be because the history of the past four years of Bush policy does more to validate my fears than give hope to my wishes.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Lion King is Loooong

Missed last night's debate and instead spent the evening with my family. We had tickets to the Lion King at the Opera House in Boston. The Opera House is gorgeously restored, and the cartoon turned to musical was brilliantly and cleverly staged as the actors became one with their puppetry costumes.

But look. The cartoon, while possessed of a few snappy tunes, didn't have a great score to begin with. And the stage musical version added more songs, and, well, they didn't convey any of the emotions they were meant to. They were just long forgetful songs that sounded almost mono-noted and monotoned.

If you're given tickets, go see the musical. But I wouldn't recommend buying tickets. The cartoon was never much to begin with, musically or storywise. The stage musical version, while stunning to look at, takes a bad story and weak score, and makes them worse.

Friday, October 08, 2004

The Price of Bubble Wrap

Doonesbury has poked fun at Bush's campaign events, many of them done in town-hall style. As you can see if you look at the strip from 9/13, 14, 15, 16, 17, and 18, Bush's events rely on highly screened loyalists to ask softball, feather duster light softball, questions.

The Washington Post reports on the consequences of coddling Bush. Here are some highlights:
During a campaign forum in the Cleveland suburbs last month, President Bush was asked whether he likes broccoli, to disclose his "most important legacy to the American people" and to reveal what supporters can do "to make sure that you win Ohio and get reelected."
. . .
Wayne Fields, a specialist in presidential rhetoric at Washington University, said the first debate showed Bush had been overprotected. "If you don't talk to the press and deal with audiences with some degree of skepticism, you can't build understanding so people have confidence in you in hard times," Fields said. "His handlers think they're doing him a favor, but they're not."
. . .
The president has stopped taking questions from the small pool of reporters who cover his photo opportunities, and he has answered questions from the White House press corps twice since Aug. 23, both times with interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi at his side. His last prime-time news conference was April 13.
. . .
Tonight's town-hall audience of about 100 will ask 15 to 20 questions and will consist of an equal number of voters who say they lean toward Bush or Kerry but could change their minds, plus a few who say they are undecided. Bush's debate negotiators had sought to eliminate the event from the debate schedule because they were concerned that partisans could pose as uncommitted voters and slip in with tough or argumentative questions.
. . .

Mike McCurry, who was Clinton's press secretary and is a senior adviser to Kerry, said Bush was hurt in the first debate because his aides do not appear to recognize the benefits of having reporters "regularly ask the hard questions that are on the mind of the public."

"They have been very effective and disciplined at managing a message and getting through," McCurry said. "Until now, they have not paid any real price in their press coverage. They have mostly been getting out of the news every day what they wanted to."

The Bush camp is afraid of "uncommitted voters . . . with tough or argumentative questions." Amazing. A leader who is afraid to talk to the people. Wait, that lest sentence is an oxymoron. His fear means he's not a leader, not in a democracy he's not. No wonder Doonesbury draws him as an empty Roman general's helmet.

Weak Analogy

Mickey Kaus, a reluctant Kerry supporter, suggests that instead of Bush trying to retrojustify the war in Iraq by saying it was because Saddam was trying to get around sanctions, should say simply that we went to war because Saddam fooled us. He uses this analogy to make the case:
If a man says he has a gun, acts like he has a gun, and convinces everyone around him he has a gun, and starts waving it around and behaving recklessly, the police are justified in shooting him (even if it turns out later he just had a black bar of soap). Similarly, according to the Duelfer report, Saddam seems to have intentionally convinced other countries, and his own generals, that he had WMDs. He also convinced much of the U.S. government. If we reacted accordingly and he turns out not to have had WMDs, whose fault is that?
The problem with this analogy is that Saddam stopped waving the black bar of soap around.

In September 2002, Bush received authority to wage war in Iraq, and he used that authority to force Saddam to issue a detailed report and to come clean on where and whether he had any WMD's.

That report Saddam issued claimed Iraq had no WMD's, but it was a negative that Saddam could not prove to Bush's satisfaction, nor the U.N.'s for that matter. Still, Saddam dropped the black soap and put up his hands. Inspectors were let back into Iraq, avenues of investigation had been opened. Meanwhile, Bush shaded his intelligence evidence by ignoring the conflicting estimates in it, and presented to the American people the spector of nuclear weapons and biological bombs being unleashed in America by Al Qaeda operatives supplied by Saddam Hussein.

At the same time, the UN Security Council wasn't convinced by PowerPoint Colin Powell has since recanted "proving" Saddam had WMD. The U.N. said in February and March 2003 let's give this inspection process more time and didn't Bush couldn't get his war resolution.

Bush had a choice. He could use the threat of force to investigate further, to allow renewed inspections more time, or, to invade.

So Bush assembled a coalition outside of both UN and NATO auspices, a coaltion where American troops made up 5 times the force of all the other coalition troops combined, a coalition where many members were rewarded for joining via US foreign aide, and rushed into Iraq, changing plans at the last minute because Turkey's parliament elected not to let Bush base operations for invading northern Iraq there.

Bush made the wrong choice, and carried it out in stunningly incompetent fashion. He made a bigger mess of the decision and now Iraq's a hornets nest of pissed off Jihadist and Muslim extremests taking potshots at American troops and any Iraqi's doing anything normal, let alone those signing up to policemen.

Given that Bush could have taken the time to look closer to see whether the gun was real or soap since Saddam had stopped waving it, Bush is in no position to use the Kaus defense. So he's left with something even more desperate now: Bush is saying that the war was still justified, despite how wrong he's been in his most fundamental reasons for going, because Saddam allegedly tried to bribe officials to divert U.N. oil-for-food money into his own pockets.


Strafer Strife

As President Bush continues to go ballistic on John Kerry, his desperate distortions become more and more obvious, inviting yet more and more analysis of just how dishonest he has become. A few days ago it was Howard Fineman at Newsweek listing the deceptions, then it was the closing paragraphs in a Washington Post story on Bush's "policy speech" in Wilkes-Barre. Now the New York Times examines Bush's plan to eviscerate John Kerry by contorting the facts:
To cheers in Michigan, Mr. Bush asserted that under Mr. Kerry, the nation would have to "wait for a grade from other nations and leaders'' before acting to protect itself. Mr. Kerry has repeatedly said that he would not give up the right to act pre-emptively "in any way necessary to protect the United States,'' but has suggested that any president would need to demonstrate legitimate reasons for such an action.

To laughter, Mr. Bush said that Mr. Kerry would impose "Hillary care'' on America, a huge national health care program that would impose increased federal control over the health care decisions of citizens. Mr. Kerry's health care plan is significantly larger than the one Mr. Bush has offered, and it includes increased reliance on Medicaid and state health insurance programs for the poor. But unlike what Mrs. Clinton proposed in 1993, it would not create any big new federal bureaucracy and would retain the current employer-based system, and Mr. Kerry said he was averse to any kind of national health care plan.

To boos, Mr. Bush said that Mr. Kerry had set "artificial timetables'' for pulling troops out of Iraq, which the president warned would embolden the enemy and endanger the troops. In fact, Mr. Kerry said that he could envision beginning to withdraw troops in as little as six months, but only if he succeeded in moving Iraq toward stability, and has decline repeatedly to set a timeline.

Bush doesn't trust his own record. He must, like so many voters, find it so fundamentally indefensible that he can only try to win by shredding a caricature of John Kerry. But just as Cheney and republicans thought the Vice President had won the debate only to see him considered the loser the next morning when fact checkers proved he lied about never meeting Edwards and never suggesting a connection of Iraq to 9/11, so too is Bush beginning to lose in the poll as his own lies about Kerry and the facts in Iraq become more divorced from reality.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

1984 is 20 Years Late

What's King George's last name? It's Bush right?

Because the more facts that come out, the more he sounds like an apparatchik out of an Orwellian nightmare.

I mean it's not what he does to language accidentally through his oral dyslexia (or is it linguistic dyspepsia?), which, while funny, is relatively harmless. What's really frightening is his sustained belief that by saying up is down often enough, people will believe that's the case. Well that's not frightening so much as the idea that it might work, that enough voters will suspend disbelief to re-elect Bush even though he simply doesn't trust them and won't level with them.

So, we learn from Duelfer's report that Iraq had no capability to build WMD's after 1994, much less have any WMD's in their possession. We learn that Bush's whole original rationale for going to war never existed. Remember when he addressed the nation and described the threat as imminent and said we could not wait for more inspections? Here's how the New York Times covers it:
Mr. Duelfer's 900-page report concluded that contrary to Bush administration's assertions on the eve of war, the Hussein regime had rid itself of chemical and biological weapons, nor was it well on the way to having nuclear weapons.

Today, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney seemed to embrace other findings by Mr. Duelfer, that Mr. Hussein planned to reconstitute his military's deadly-weapons capabilities once United Nations sanctions on him were lifted, and that he was constantly scheming to skirt those sanctions.

Sigh. I see. A plan to reconstitute deadly weapons, which couldn't be started until sanctions were lifted, that was the clear and present danger that justified rushing into an ill-planned war, turning attention from Afghanistan, and generating even more Muslim anger that's helped make terrorism a more noble sacrifice.

Gross incompetence is one thing, but incompetence and this shifting of reasons slathered in a campaign of systematic denial that things were ever different from what Bush says they are today, when the evidence is so clear that things are different, is gobsmackingly outrageous. How can we elect a president who lacks the courage to level with America?

That we still might is just frightening.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Department of No Relation

This person was not a relative:
Nude Sunbather Dies in Calif. Bar Fight
4:37 PM EDT,September 29, 2004
By Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO -- A man sunbathing nude on the terrace of a bar died after getting into a fight with a patron who complained.

Jay Carbone, 52, fell and hit his head during the scuffle at the Pendulum bar in the city's Castro District, police said. He died Saturday, two days later.

According to police, Carbone ordered drinks and disrobed. After about an hour, another man complained and asked Carbone to put his clothes on. Police said Carbone replied, "If you don't like it, get out."

No immediate charges were filed.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Internet Use Up; Television Use Down

The University of Southern California Annenberg School's Center for the Digital Future released their fourth annual report on the Internet and its impact.
Among the findings from Year Four of the Digital Future Project:

• Internet access has risen to its highest level ever. About three-quarters of Americans now go online.
• The number of hours spent online continues to increase, rising to an average of 12.5 hours per week – the highest level in the study thus far.
• Although the Internet has become the most important source of current information for users, the initially high level of credibility of information on the Internet began to drop in the third year of the study, and declined even further in Year Four.
• The number of users who believe that only about half of the information on the Internet is accurate and reliable is growing and has now passed 40 percent of users for the first time.
• The study showed that most users trust information on the websites they visit regularly, and on pages created by established media and the government.
• Information pages posted by individuals have the lowest credibility: only 9.5 percent of users say information on those sites is reliable and accurate.
• Television viewing continues to decline among Internet users, raising the question: “What will happen as a nation that once spent an extremely large portion of time in a passive activity (watching television) transfers increasingly large portions of that time to an interactive activity (the Internet)?”

The Digital Future Project compares findings from all four years of the study, looking at five major areas: who is online and who is not, media use and trust, consumer behavior, communication patterns, and social and psychological effects. (Quoted from Press Release Summary/Report on Ten Trends)

The CDF also identified ten trends they see emerging from this and their prior reports, many of which, in the summary linked to above, offer elaborations on the list above from the 4th year study by drawing on prior studies as well. I'm interested in three items from the list above and the list of ten.
  1. More people are going online and spending more time online, especially as they increasingly move from dial up to broadband. As people move online and become Internet regulars, the Internet becomes a more important source of information, often the primary source.
  2. People are properly more skeptical of the information they find online as they spend more time online. That is, they become more savvy. However, once they come to trust a source or site, they return to it, whether a government source, an established news source, a particular blog, community, and so on.
  3. As people spend more time online, they spend less time watching television, including television news.
I think this election cycle is a benchmark moment in these trends. We're seeing quite clearly the confluence of these trends, both its benefits and risks. For a recent example of course, look no further than bloggers who assailed the authenticity of the Killian memos used in the 60 Minutes report. The Dean campaign's, and currently Kerry and Bush campaigns', use of blogs as fundraising tools has proven pivotal.

Or more impressively to me, and not campaign related, are the bicyclists who started posting streaming video demos of how they could pick their bike's U-shaped Kryptonite locks. It caused a consumer backlash and pr fiasco that forced the company to offer a redesigned locked to its customers (though that may have come too late). But the lock owners, using cyclist message boards and WWW sites, drove this story before any consumer reporter managed to do a report on the local, let alone national, news.

But back to the bloggers. Bloggers, mostly, in this case, conservative bloggers skeptical of the so-called "elite media," drove the Killian memo story, with assist from conservative traditional media such as Fox News and The National Review Online. Even so, it was an impressive event that forced traditional media to look more quickly into the documents authenticity than they may otherwise have. It helped set the news coverage agenda. (Note: This kind of thing cuts both ways, politically/culturally: a while back mostly liberal bloggers called out Trent Lott's remarks on Strom Thurmond, and got that into mainstream press.)

The bic-lock story is even more impressive because it wasn't so much second hand press criticism, but actual reporting and demonstrating key information factually.

Both stories benefited from broadband --the streaming video and graphics images showing the picked lock; the swapping of PDF's of the Killian documents and word files mimicing the fonts in those documents via blogs in the Killian story.

But broadband's not a key just because it allows for richer and more interactive content. It's also a key because it lets you always be on the Internet if you want to be, without tying up a phone line. Those of us who work this way know the benefits: turn on the computer and you're on the Internet. You can check your email on a whim. Browse your favorite WWW sites between phone calls or meetings. Read an article online, hear a news report on the radio or see it on television, and blog a response while you're reading, listening, or watching. Read other bloggers, and respond to them. Or respond in email lists or discussion boards and other community spaces. People are making their own protest posters and campaign art. They're making their own Internet based position ads, satires, and commentary in Flash and other digital video formats.

The technologies of big media sit increasingly on everyone's desktops (yes, there's still a digital divide, but it's closing, if slowly). What's also important is that the skepticism people learn to bring to Internet sources begins to bleed and to applied to more traditional sources, including of course newspapers, magazines, and television news and infotainment. So the authority of all sources is being questioned.

The risk is that the skepticism and questioning becomes kneejerk and based on dogma (see Wayne Booth's Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent for what that entails), where you distrust a source not for what they say, but for who or what entitity is saying it and fail to move beyond that distrust to give the source a fair hearing. This leads to paranoia.

What's needed is a healthy skepticism, one that allows, at least, for the possibility that sources you don't agree with and don't fully trust at face value might none-the-less have good points to make, good and accurate stories to tell from time to time.

As a teacher, I wonder often how best to bring students to healthy skeptics and not just paranoid skeptics.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Research and Order in WPA Land

I'm reading Jeff Rice's "Yellow Dog" blog entries WPA II and WPA. Just a few thoughts in response, in no particular order.

By way of summary: WPA stands for Writing Program Administrator, and in the first post, Works Progress Administration. In WPA, Rice describes how he links these meanings using Greg Ulmer's idea of "puncept" to question composition studies "dependence on "order" as a governing principle of methodology and pedagogy." In WPA II, he elaborates, in response to the comments others made on the WPA post.

In WPA II, he writes:
I'm reading Nancy Sommers' article in the latest CCC, "The Novice as Expert," and here we find a nice example of the WPA instituting order. Like Andrea Lunsford's St. Martin's Handbook, Sommers justifies her work and research as WPA at Harvard with student comments collected in an evaluation process. All of the comments are supportive and enthusiastic.
I don't have the Sommers' essay at hand, but I am familiar with Andrea Lunsford's St. Martin's Handbook. I currently work for Bedford/St. Martin's, the company which publishes the book, and I worked on The St. Martin's Handbook even before coming to work full-time for Bedford/St. Martin's.

No where does Andrea Lunsford justify the research that went into the St. Martin's Handbook "with student comments collected in an evaluation process." Lunsford and Bob Connors, when they began their work for the St. Martin's Handbook, did research on the frequency of formal error in student writing, drawing a large and extensive national sample of 30,000 student essays. (That research was published in their Ma and Pa Kettle Do Research essay). In subsequent editions of the book, they returned to those essays and asked different questions. They also surveyed instructors and students prior to the 4th edition, asking about how the Internet, computers, and other digital technologies were shaping how students write. That was a national survey of 2,500 students and 53 teachers. The current (5th) edition of the book was informed, in part, by Lunsford's interviews with first year student writers at Stanford University, where Lunsford teaches.

But those were formal research interviews, not course evaluations.

That said, it seems to me that there are two key issues raised by Rice.
  1. What is the role of order and why does a Writing Program Adminstrator seek it?
  2. Can applied 'puncepting' (if that's the way to phrase it) be a form of invention?
One of the main connections between the two questions --order and invention-- is found for Rice in textbooks:
The usefulness of these kinds of writings, I believe, is the exploration of digital invention (not codification of..) whose focus does not mirror the ways invention is typically taught in a composition textbook or classroom. (WPA)
Or to put it even more explicitely, in a comment on this post, Rice writes:

"Where do you find the common expressions valuing order in writing programs?"

Textbooks, textbooks, textbooks. (WPA, see comments)

I think this is a fair conclusion. Textbooks do provide some order and structure to a composition course, and when adopted program wide with a common syllabus, to a program. But what I've learned from working at a textbook publisher for the past four plus years is that order found in textbooks emerges from the field, from what and where people are teaching and from how instructors see the role and purpose of the writing they teach.

And I think this is the heart of Rice's critique: the role is traditional, or what Rice, in his examination of Sommers' essay, calls cliche'. First year college writing programs and courses and curriculum are gateway --not gatekeeping-- entities. Yes, if students don't do well in a FYC, that might contribute to them quitting college, or in some cases, if they don't repeat the course to reach a certain grade, being forced to leave college. But the fact is, most WPA's and most writing instructors see themselves as there to help students succeed in college. And yes, that success often means, supporting either the given order and idealized form of order as enlightened participation in civil discourse.

This emphasis is expressed in many forms -- course descriptions premised on "college writing," or assignments that emphasize "research skills," "critical thinking," "analyses," and "academic conventions." The arugment is that through these skills, students will learn to question authority, to critique order, to seek alternatives, to invent new ideas and persuade others of their values in a civil and orderly way. Textbooks are in fact part of this system, and do express the values and views of a discipline.

Textbooks come from ideas about teaching, and those come from one of two places generally: An instructor who has a teaching idea that he or she thinks would work in a book, an idea, usually that other books do not address at all nor in quite the right way. This idea is presented to a publisher for consideration. The other way a book gets done is when an editor hears an idea or approach or issue arise in the field that they think a textbok could help address.

And editors are avid followers, indeed members of, the field they edit and develop books in: they read journals; attend sessions at conferences; talk to professors about teaching and other professional issues when they travel to campus; participate in discipline email lists and blogs; and when they can, talk to students. So when an editor has an idea, they'll sometimes get in touch with those instructors and scholars whose work they've come to know and they'll invite them to work on a book of some kind.

I wouldn't be surprised if someday an editor doesn't ask Rice about using puncepts in a writing book, or else seeing that idea picked up and put into a first year composition textbook. It's a good idea; it would be fun to do and fun to teach.

Which brings me back to puncepts and order. If puncepts are an example of a good way to create new topoitic paths of invention, and if those paths somehow disrupt the current order, that's only going to be temporary. Once an idea begins to circulate, whether through a textbook, or lore, or professional workshops, blogs, conferences, email lists, or other means, it becomes absorbed, and goes from revolutionary to merely evolutionary before settling down into routine. In other words, it becomes codified.

What gets lost in the transition from new to codified is the excitement of something being risky, rare, and well, a bit disorderly because it's an experiment. What is also often lost are the intellectual excitements that made an idea new. We see it in terms that were once liberating to the field, and needed to used with some explanation of what they meant, like "writing process," and that are now taken for granted and attached to the original insights and research that lead to the term by a kind of collective shorthand. Jenny Edbauer, I think, is getting at this process of loss, as order inevitably finds a way to codify (and commodify) what was once unodered. Her post to WPA-L on rhetorical analysis essays turning up in paper mills is a good example.

What's useful too, in this context, are two things. Ideas like those Rice pursues which attempt to bring something new to the mix, in this case, puncept as a way of invention, and work like Edbauer's, where if I'm reading right, she's trying to, in her dissertation, make the familiar, rhetorical analysis, strange again by rediscovering and recalling forth the circumstances that made the approach exciting and unpaper millable. In her case the move to do this is to bring back the complexity at the root of such assignments and to remind instructors that the complexity is required. These teaching things --by which I mean not just rhetorical analysis assignments or a given invention strategy-- to work well, can't be rote or routine. They need to be invented anew each time.

The question I always wonder about is can you make and sustain huge changes, upset a given order, in an institutional context without going about it very deliberatively and patiently and politically astutely. In other words, in an orderly fashion. When departments undergo radical revisions in direction without building consensus and support, they're often disbanded, abandoned, or the WPA is replaced and reputiated. Those failures are often about a failed revolutionary approach, a failed cult of personality at the top (Not always of course; we've seen great programs gutted for no logical reason, which leads to the cause in the final clause.) , or the perception from higher powers that be than the WPA that what the program is doing isn't worth pursuing. And what happens when programs implode, or get taken over? What happens to those people, those faculty and students? Where do they go and what do they become?

So I don't see how a WPA can proceed without some order. Or how a textbook can be orderless, even if it were purely hypertextual in every sense of that word. But it should be possible to create a model where there was room for recreation and reinvention.

I doubt, though, that within an institution as conservative in purpose and goals as a college, you're going to have any truely revolutionarily unordered approaches. Even a Montesorri college, where there such a thing, would not be unordered. If only because there's a theory to give it shape and order.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Bloggers Crow

Bloggers --especially conservative bloggers-- are crowing that blogs, in questioning the authenticity of the Killian memos have brought down, have even killed, the power of old media/big media. Andrew Sullivan's written a piece on this for Time Magazine.

I was going to write that bloggers should temper that crow with some humble pie, that the blogosphere would be only one, big self referencing pool of opiners were it not for the fact that broadcast outlets, often starting with talk radio and cablenews, give their views air time.

Except that this would be wrong. I think broadcast attention helps, but really what we're seeing is not so much the death of big media like CBS, NBC, and ABC, as we are the diffusion of media outlets and means. That is, certain well trod blogs are part of a new universe of more diverse news, or unewsiverse. The shift isn't so much about blogs as it is about fiber optics. The growth of cable television and the growth of the Internet happened pretty much at the same time.

We're at the point where slightly more than half of Internet users now have broadband access. As that shift continues, we'll see even more growth in people turning to the Internet for news, and a greater merging of the role that blogundrity, analysis, and on rare occasions actual reporting start to play. The reporting will be, most likely, of the kind that we see now in traditional news when reporters interview eye witnesses, first on the scene responders or air "amatuer video" of crashes, beatings, hurricanes, tornadoes and so on.

Often those reports are fairly unfiltered and those interviewed aren't given column inches or air time for any other reason that represent immediacy to the event. News reporters aren't so much filters as conduits, with perhaps the reporter offering more context.

In the new media landscape, the context will be linking and cross referencing. A videoblogger will upload his or her video of some event, an amatuer photographer will get a picture the wire services didn't, and they might give their impressions of what they saw in a supporting text entry or audionote. Other bloggers will notice and opine. Broadcasters will go to the WWW site for the video, or report on the bloggers analysis.

And so things will merge even further.

What's at risk is the slow and patient vetting of news, the investigatory story, the deep and patient reporting that takes time and money and sustained access.

Update: This piece by the Philadelphia Inquirer nails it (link found via Romensko's MediaNews) . Here's a key quote:

Writers for Web logs - or blogs - began the questioning of the bogus documents. Bravo to the "blogosphere" for that. But other "old media" such as newspapers nailed the story down and drove it home.

The blogosphere is citizen dialogue in action, which is great. If bloggers' watchdogging makes journalists more careful, that's also great. The real lesson for the mainstream media is a very old one: Get the facts right. Speed without accuracy is no good.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Typewriter Science

Update: Below, where I reposted Slate Fray messages, I say in two places that independent experts should examine CBS's original Killian documents. However, CBS doesn't have the originals, according to this excerpt from the end of an LA Times story on the controversy:

Howard Rile of Long Beach, former president of the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners, cautioned against feverish vetting of the memos without seeing the originals and other documents produced at the same time and place.

That could be difficult because CBS says it does not have the original memos.

"We shouldn't have to be be doing this over the Internet," Rile said. "This sounds like a case that could be resolved very quickly if you get the evidence and examine it; if you get the original."

CBS has made the same mistake so many blogs and conservative radio talkers are making -- coming to conclusions about a document's authenticity (and it's only one document of the four that that is being challenged) without looking at the original. With the original, one could assess the age of the paper, perhaps test the ink, see the way the letters are embedded into the paper by the typewriter's keys, and so on.

Where is the original? Without it, we're stuck in a rounds of circumstantial analysis and counterarguments, which no doubt is part of the point with Bush backers. Because even without the one memo, there are enough facts to clearly show that George Bush got into the guard because of his connections, and that as time went on, he became increasingly indifferent to his obligation. He was a spoiled and aimless rich kid from one of the most politically connected families in the country.

I just read a summary of the Killian memo debate in a Slate piece by Josh Levin. I've posted a response to that article, followed by a reply to a Fray poster who responded to my response. Here are those posts, edited a bit for clarity (changes appear in italics), with links to the originals I put up in Slate.
Subject:Further Updates: Or More You Need to Know
Date:Sep 11 2004 5:23AM

From The Boston Globe, "Authenticity backed on Bush documents" By Francie Latour and Michael Rezendes, September 11, 2004:

After CBS News on Wednesday trumpeted newly discovered documents that referred to a 1973 effort to "sugar coat" President Bush's service record in the Texas Air National Guard, the network almost immediately faced charges that the documents were forgeries, with typography that was not available on typewriters used at that time.

But specialists interviewed by the Globe and some other news organizations say the specialized characters used in the documents, and the type format, were common to electric typewriters in wide use in the early 1970s, when Bush was a first lieutenant.

Read More at:

See also, Daily Kos

Unless and until an expert examines the original documents in CBS's possession, and not PDF's downloaded from the Net, the forgery claims have little basis in anything but speculation. And many of the bloggers who jump-started the discussion are getting their facts wrong (for example claiming that no typewriter existed at that time that could create superscripted "th" of the type found in the documents), and are making observations that are beside the point (They can replicate the layout and font with Microsoft Word. Well yeah, that's what a font is supposed to do, look the same whenever it's used. So what's the point?)

Slate Fray Link:

Reply to a Fray Post by gadfly19

Subject:RE: Further Updates: Or More You Need to Know
Date:Sep 11 2004 6:30AM

I agree with your observations, generally. A few thoughts:

I think the best way, perhaps the only way, to help settle it --there will be groups that are never satified-- is for CBS News to share the original documents with independent examiners.

As for Killian's family, I feel for them. It's got to be painful to have someone you love, who has beed deceased for so long, cast posthumously into this debate about events from over 30 years ago. That said, it's very possible that they're wrong. Or put another way, as much as you love and know a person, there's often a lot you don't know about their day-to-day lives at work. I know my wife, for example, whom I'm very close to, doesn't know everything I do at work, what I write, and so on. I know the family claims aren't that simple, but I can see where it's possible that they might believe to the point of absolute certitude that the Killian wouldn't have held or written the views in the documents, but they could well be wrong.

And yet, for all that, here's where I agree with you most: Even if the documents are proved indisputedly genuine or undoubtedly forged, we're still not left with a serious discussion of current issues. I'd rather have that discussion than this campaign coverage reduced to a bad episode of Cold Case.

Can some reporter, any reporter, just ask each candidate this: You've said we're at war with terror, but terror is a tactic. And to say we're at war with terrorists, people who commit terror acts, is circular. Who are these people? What is their ideology? And how do we successfully end this war with them?

Slate Fray Link:

Long Now

On the Internet, Sterling is amassing a roll call of their once-honored personal computer names: Altair, Amiga, Amstrad, Apples I, II and III, Apple Lisa, Apricot, Atari, AT&T, Commodore, CompuPro, Cromemco, Epson, Franklin, Grid, IBM PCjr, IBM XT, Kaypro, Morrow, NEC PC-8081, NorthStar, Osborne, Sinclair, Tandy, Wang, Xerox Star, Yamaha CX5M. Buried with them are whole clans of programming languages, operating systems, storage formats, and countless rotting applications in an infinite variety of mutually incompatible versions. Everything written on them was written on the wind, leaving not a trace.
Stewart Brand, from the Purpose Statement for Long Now's Library Project.

Long Now is a foundation that was established in 01966; the group adds a zero to the front of the establishment year and to all contemporary dates because its goal is to think, and plan, for into the future: 10,000 years. The zero leaves room for the future, reminds us of it, and asks us to think about it and to work towards it. Long Now seeks to counter Here Now thinking, short term thinking. In thinking long, they've established two main projects; one that has to do with preservation (The Library Project), another that has to with planning for the future (The Clock Project).

James Wolcott referenced Long Now in a post about the current presidential election, which is mired on the documentary minutiae of where Bush and Kerry were 30 years ago, and whether what they were doing matches precisely to what their biographies claim. Nor are the campaigns themselves talking much about the future. The future, for both campaigns is now. Both candidates, between swipes at one another, profess to be candidates of optomism who bring hope for the future, but neither seems willing to discuss the future, or to plan for what will sustain us in the future. But really campaigns are essentially cynical operations. They lofty rhetoric is a patina stretched thin over a relentlessy negative message about the opposition.

So like Wolcott, I found the visit to Long Now to be refreshing, especially for me, the library project. How do we record and preserve the works and records of our day so that the future can learn from both our triumphs and mistakes? And the question for Long Now isn't philosophical, it's also practical. They're not just imagining a library that will be there in 10,000 years from now, they're working to build it. Now that's optomism.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

If We Could Only Elect One Beer

After an election somebody is out of work. When we met over lunch, Brabender realized that these all-or-nothing stakes would offer a vivid way to illustrate the difference between consumer and political ad campaigns. "Can you imagine if there was going to be a vote in November and there would only be one light beer?" he mused, seeming to relish the prospect. We considered how the conventions of negative campaigning might apply. ("There they go again. Flip-flopping Miller Lite says it's 'less filling' and that it 'tastes great.' So which one is it? We're Bud Light, and we approved this message.")
From, Joshua Green, "Dumb and Dumberer: Why are campaign commercials so bad?"
The Atlantic Monthly: July/August 2004

Word Count: Word Use as Art

Here's how they describe themselves:
WordCount™ is an artistic experiment in the way we use language. It presents the 86,800 most frequently used English words, ranked in order of commonality. Each word is scaled to reflect its frequency relative to the words that precede and follow it, giving a visual barometer of relevance. The larger the word, the more we use it. The smaller the word, the more uncommon it is.
The interface is kind of cool to boot. In addition to viewing a word's ranking, you can also see words in the ranking neighborhood. So diplomacy (10434) sits, appropriately enough, next to acknowledgement (10435). But alas, perhaps because of diplomacy failures, terror comes in for more frequent use at (5292), and is separated from damaging (5295) by only brussels and brighton (5293 and 4).

The is the number 1 most frequently used word; Conquistador is number 86,800

All the rest are somewhere in between; where's your favorite word?

Monday, July 12, 2004

The Office View

Here's a partial view of what I see if I look out the window of my office. The windows from my window belong to the Park Plaza Hotel in Boston, where I work.

Shades stay down most of the time, as they are in this picture; though even when they're up, you can't really see into the windows unless someone turns a light on.

It's not exactly a stimulating view, but it's useful in that it lets you alone, which is a good thing when you're trying to work.

Friday, July 02, 2004

Employment Rates

The Washington Post (and other news outlets) reported today that the job growth rate for the month of June was not as high as analysts had predicted it would be, only 112,000 new jobs instead of the 240,000 that had been estimated.

But what gets me is this tidbit at the end of the article: "June's Labor Department report showed that average hourly wages rose by a 2 cents to $15.65, a 0.1 percent increase, less than the 0.3 percent expected. The average workweek fell by two tenths of an hour to 33.6 hours. Total hours worked in the economy dropped 0.6 percent."

$15.65 x 33.6 hours x 50 weeks = $26,292.00

That's not a good wage in today's economy, with housing, heating, and food costs being what they are. It's certainly not a wage one would want to support a family on.

And I would venture to guess that many people who are in these new jobs are making less pay than they did in their old jobs. I would also assume that while they were out of work, that they may have chewed up savings and/or increased debt. Coming back to work for less under those stressed circumstances is better than not working at all, but it's hardly cause for celebration.

And at 33.6 hours, what kind of benefits are these people getting, if any? Are they jobs in places where you need to work a full forty hours a week to get health insurance?

The economy may be on the mend, on paper, and by all economic theory, but going back to work for only $26,292 isn't the kind of thing that would make me at all excited about endorsing Bush's economic policies.

Meanwhile, businesses are being encouraged to offshore more jobs to survive. Again, according to the Washington Post: "In blunt terms, the report by the Boston Consulting Group warns American firms that they risk extinction if they hesitate in shifting facilities to countries with low costs. That is partly because the potential savings are so vast, but the report also cites a view among U.S. executives that the quality of American workers is deteriorating."

So the good paying jobs get outsourced more cheaply and what new jobs American workers can get offers fewer hours and less pay. These same workers who have increased productivity dramatically over the past decade or so are now deemed inferior.

And Bush and Cheney are bragging about this? They're proud of what's happening to working families and they think this is a good economic outcome?

I wonder if they will say what percentage of the tax cuts they love so much go to companies outsourcing jobs?

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Follow Up: Blogs and Teaching

A less obvious answer lies in getting teachers open to change, to examining carefully all their practices to ensure that the writing they ask students to do is grounded in interest, choice, value, and authenticity.

2. See also BLOG THREE HUNDRED EIGHTY-EIGHT, A Guided Tour To Blogging.

Monday, June 28, 2004

Blogs and Teaching

I've been puzzling over how to think about blogs in a writing course. Well not puzzling over whether I might use them were I teaching a course at the moment -- I would in heartbeat, but how.

As a teacher, the technology behind a service like Blogger is too good not to experiment with and in; it's a really a good pedagogical playground. I could use a Blog as simple course interface -- a place to post a syllabi. I could ask students to keep blogs, assigning them different prompts or activities to post.

They might keep a blog for research projects. Or as shared and public reading journals. Or really, anything else we can think of to write on that's course related. With any luck, some would come out of the experience with a newly discovered writing voice, along the lines/along the way Austin Lingerfelt describes in "(this) space", an essay on blogging and writing.

Though at this point, my thinking is that blog use in the course would be better used as a way to simply introduce students, if they're not already blogging in some form, to the technology and possibility offered. It would be optional to make the blogs public, though for some that's half the fun -- being read. And like any kind of writing tried in a writing course, the goal would be to find enough ways to prompt students to write interestingly, or rather to find an interest in what they're writing despite the fact that it grew out of a required course (as first year writing courses, the kind I most like to teach, are).

Much would depend upon where I taught, the context for the course I was offering, and what I was contracted to do by the program as an instructor of that course. But choosing to experiment wouldn't be an easy choice to make.

The harder question for me, and frankly the more interesting question, is what's the future of blogs as pedagogical tool. Not among the trailblazers, like Jeff Rice and the folks he links to in his "TechRhet" entry (an entry that comments on a techrhet email list discussion about the role of blogs, a discussion I took part in and that forms the basis of this rumination). Trailblazers and people who jump and make use of a new, or relatively new technology and do cool things are interesting to study and learn from. And a lot of them are in fact asking questions about blogs and teaching.

But I'm always more interested in what to say to instructors who are not pioneers.

I ask this because I spend a good part of my job for Bedford/St. Martin's traveling to campuses, often giving workshops on teaching with technology. And not just technology we offer as a college publisher, but very often on helping people use the technology at hand, whether that's word processing software in a networked computer lab, a course management system they have on campus, or an amalgamation of freeware, including blogs.

The thing I find is that there needs to be a compelling reason for teachers to change what they're doing and the technologies they're using. Sometimes teachers are self-compelled. They might stumble across an essay like Austin's (linked above), and be moved to try blogs. They might hear a good teaching story at a conference. (I heard several at Computers and Writing 2004.) They might be motivated by a technology grant or teaching and technology program on their campus.

Unfortunately too, many teachers are compelled by circumstances not of their choosing. The department might be feeling pressure to do more with technology in way or another. And so instructors might all be given course WWW sites and asked to use them in some way. Or they might be under pressure from students to do more online.

And there are the vast majority of teachers who simply see no reason to switch what they're doing; they remain uncompelled, or unmoved by arguments others find compelling. And often for good reason: what they're doing is working for them. How they teach writing fits into their course loads, their lives, the way they manage their time, how they respond to students, when and where they do work, and so on.

So for these teachers, what advantages do computer-based, and more significantly, blogs, however you want to define them, offer? Why use a blog, why add a new technology layer onto what one is doing? How can we make clear the advantages? How do we help teachers learn how to shift the way they work? How do we keep learning curves gentle rises and not rock-face climbs?

Those are the questions that I think matter not only with Blogs, but with any new technology. They were the questions that mattered 20 years ago and 10 years. They mattered with email lists and file sharing and MOO's and chatrooms; they matter now with Blogs and they'll matter in the future with whatever new technology or innovation changes the way students and teachers write and teach and learn writing.

Friday, April 16, 2004

The Press at a Presidential Press Conference

Well, you can see why George Bush rarely does press conferences (only 12 so far), let alone in prime time (the one on April 13th was only his third). He can't -- or won't -- go off message, and the longer the conference goes on, the more dim the President seems because he's reduced to repeating himself over and over.

He never looks good after the first few questions. So resoluteness becomes stubbornness; conviction becomes cement; concern becomes cynicism. He converts his assets, as time goes on, into negatives. As a critic of Bush's policies, I think this process reveals a truth -- he lacks imagination. He's intellectually lazy and dishonest. He doesn't question a decision once it's been made, even when the actions taken need adjustment.

He rushed to war on March 19, 2003. He made the war primarily about Saddam's WMD and argued we could no longer wait for him to disarm and that we were in immediate danger from those WMD's. Even though, given the lack of WMD's to date, Saddam had apparently disarmed. Bush could have taken more time -- the summer, another year, to let more inspections play out, and used that time to build a coalition with U.N. imprimatur (not control, but just backing) that would have made the post invasion safer and more likely to succeed. But he didn't.

If the war is about democracy and freedom and America's role as a country which needs to foster that --a laudable goal-- then Bush should have taken the lead up and planning for war far more seriously than he has. But he rushed into war and bungled the postwar planning. The war was the easy part; our military shredded a paper tiger. But winning the war and winning the peace and securing democracy are markedly different. And Bush has so far failed miserably in planning for peace and democracy.

Bush has failed as a President not so much for going to war, but for making the public argument for war predominantly about WMD because that was the scariest scenario, for politicizing the war very early on via Karl Rove's strategies, for not revealing --and not looking to see-- the true cost of such an effort in terms of lives, monies, resources. He's failed not in boldness, but in honesty on what the war would cost. He also failed to truly trust the American people; he duped them into the war by linking Saddam to September 11.

Bush didn't have the patience to make the case that this war was needed to spread democracy and to bring a tyrant to his knees. He didn't have the courage to tell the people and congress what this war would cost in people and money. And he didn't have the foresight to see how difficult and continually dangerous the post war occupation would be.

In September of 2002, USA Today ran a cover story about Bush's war preparations which reported that analysts were being told not to prepare any reports or estimates that considered the complications and possible negative outcomes of invading Iraq. That is, in part of the propaganda effort, there was a deliberate --and unconscionable-- decision made to not consider the true costs, the true effort, the true sacrifices this war would require.

But that is not surprising. Bush failed to put into his budget an 87 million dollar funding for post Afghanistan war efforts. Embarrassed republicans in congress had to remember that and add it into the budget. Bush is negligent and dangerous because he doesn't attend to the details.

And that's why the press did so poorly at the press conference -- they never pressed on the details, but instead on the symbolic and the trivial. The reporters turned their brief question period not into a moment to learn new information or to ask questions that pressed on the details of Bush's actions in calling for the war, in starting it, and in carrying out the aftermath. No, they focused on cheap --and stupid-- gotcha questions. How many times was he asked to admit mistakes? How many times was he asked to apologize? And how many times did Bush deflect those questions and repeat his speech?

Why not ask questions about policy details? Why not ask questions strategy? When those were asked -- who will we be turning sovereignty over to? -- Bush didn't have good answers, but at least he tried to answer those, and in the trying, we got some measure of his thinking and planning and learned how abysmal they've been.

But no. For the most part, the press focused on issues or aspects of issues made them like jackals, hoping Bush would slip. So as bad as Bush came across, the press came across as worse.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

Andrew Sullivan as Witness Why The M Word Matters To Me -- Feb. 16, 2004

In this eloquent Time Magazine essay, Andrew Sullivan, who also has been writing wonderfully about this at his Daily Dish blog, gives witness to the argument I made below about "civil unions" being a shabby "separate but equal" approach. He talks about what it means --emotionally, developmentally, logically, personally, and socially-- that he grew up, and continues to live, in a country where gay marriage is forbidden.

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Gay Marriage in Massachusetts

Text of the amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution limiting civil marriage to a man and woman.

The amendment is dishonest. It pretends that marriage is sacred and must be reserved only for heterosexual couples for some reason. But marriage isn't necessarily sacred, especially in the eyes of the state. In the eyes of the state, a marriage occurs when a couple gets a marriage license and has the license signed by someone the state designates that power to, whether it be a Justice of the Peace or a member of the clergy. No ceremony is required. All that the state demands for granting a couple the status and benefits of marriage are a few signatures.

So when the ammendment says, "The people also wish to establish civil unions to provide to same-sex couples all the benefits, protections, rights and responsibilities under state law as are granted to spouses in a marriage. . ." and "Two persons of the same sex shall have the right to form a civil union if they meet the requirements set forth by law for marriage between a man and a woman." all the state is saying is that you can get married, but you can't call it marriage. You get the benefits and responsibilities, but a second level, compromise term -- "civil union." In order to unite civilly, you need to meet the same requirements (such as they are) man and a woman who want to marry. So to civilly unite, you have to meet the requirements of marriage, only the state won't say you're married.

So again the question is, what's so special about the word "marriage" that only heterosexuals may legally have it describe their state sanctioned unions? Well, according to the amendment, nothing much. What does it marriage really mean? Ultimately, what it means depends upon the couple who marry and where they get married and how they approach their marriage. A marriage is only sacred if a couple believes their love to be sacred. It's only religious if the couple marries in accordance with the tenets of their faith, both in word and spirit. The Supreme Court decision doesn't force any church to perform same sex marriage ceremonies. The decision doesn't undermine the rights of people of faith to marry in accordance with their moral and religious beliefs.

Further, the decision doesn't undermine the meaning of marriage or dilute its value. In fact, it strengthens marriage by extending it, by making it possible for more people to marry. The decision, at its heart, says there can be no such thing as separate but equal. The court recognizes that gay and lesbian couples exist, and that many of them are committed to one another with as much love as any heterosexual couple, and that they have been discriminated against by the state for no good reason. This discrimination didn't help heterosexual marriages. It only stigmatizes those who are gay and their families, especially the children of those couples.

Defining marriage as only the union of a man and woman is something a church might do, but not something the state should do. The amendment's own language makes it clear how wrong the designation "civil union" is. It's a second-class, second-rate designation; gays and lesbian are not second-class, second-rate citizens. To treat them that way is wrong, said the Massachusetts Supreme Court. And the Court is right.