When Social Media is Really Stupid Media

When I hear, read, think about intelligent systems or machine learning, sometimes my gross euphemism muscle goes a little spastic. I just got a notice that a good friend of mine who passed away a few years ago is deserving of a work anniversary from a social network and that he should be congratulated. It is a very strange confrontation. And somewhat morbid.

That’s all I’m going to say on the matter.

Marketing versus Storytelling

I’ve been doing a lot of work on a website, engineering for multiple media types, doing a little javascript, and digging deeper into the possibilities of WordPress and Bootstrap. It would have been a great Rails project but that move might have been a little much. In any event, my job isn’t content or “design.” But the talk today did stray into areas that I would lodge into the category of social media and digital ecosystem storytelling and getting the word out or spreading the news.

Hypothetically, if a writer wanted to create a world of multiple, interconnected novels, and wanted to ride the line between characters who use Twitter and YouTube, how would this be done to encourage metafictional and real-world parallels. The characters, say Marvin and Luisa, Tweet a backchannel to their main storyline or plot. The writer pays a few friends to play these roles on Twitter. In the novel, Marvin and Luisa go to Germany. They rent a car. They have a fight at the counter. After the fight, Marvin gives one version of events in a few Tweets and Luisa returns her version with Tweets of her own. Twitter is mentioned briefly in the novel.

Does the use of Twitter in this regard provide an extension to the story? Is it something that might stand alone, especially if the fictional characters who tweet accumulate real followers, who either expect something more or come to the novel later. If the novel is told from one point of view, what happens when the other characters who tweet provide their own. Does this expand the POV of the novel, invite, for example, a new consideration of the reliability of the teller?

This is not just a question about fiction writing. It’s also interesting in the sense that “marketing” is even more influenced by the thinking of the storyteller. It’s NOT Marketing vs Storytelling; they become one in the same.

On Conservatives and Higher Ed

I don’t know why I bristle at articles like Steven Hayward’s in The New Criterion. It’s called Conservatives and Higher Ed. Maybe I just don’t see or understand as he sees and understands and that might be my problem. He makes this comment in reference to Max Weber and some form of academic gamble:

Now it’s no longer just a steep hill—more like a rock climb without ropes. Max Weber said over a hundred years ago that “Academic life is an utter gamble.” The odds are getting steadily worse, and if you’re a rational person calculating the odds, you may shy away from a Ph.D. track, or consider non-academic paths as more attractive than academic paths. This probably describes conservatives more than liberals.

What Weber was making reference to was the tenuous position that academics have in attracting students to their courses. They might be fantastic scholars but horrible teachers, and this was a real issue. Hayward would seem to imply, also, that one rank is rational and other isn’t. But this is small beef.

My bigger question throughout the piece goes to definitions. Hayward writes

On the surface you’d think that the pool of conservative students who express satisfaction with higher education would lead more of them toward graduate paths, except for their evident alienation from the liberal dominance of the humanities and social sciences, perhaps along with a perceived higher salience for conservatives on pursuing “practical” professional vocations.

I don’t think it’s interesting to frame liberals and conservatives on a scale of “practicals.”

The larger implication in these kinds of articles is that Academia excludes and that college teaching just isn’t attractive to Conservatives because they either want to make real money or feel alienated or there is some sort of systematic bias against their hire in the Humanities. I think the matter is irrelevant to the core mission of the college.

First of all, how does one read Dickinson? The reader reads the poem. If the reader or scholar is Liberal or Conservative or has two heads, the reader must read the poem, unless the poet is banned for being some sort of radical to establishment ideology. Interlocutors can go from there. Does a political persuasion matter? Maybe, but at least we have the poem to work with. Reading or studying poetry may be implicated as a “narrow” pursuit rather than as grand generalist’s concern for breadth. Hayward’s call to Weaver is just odd. There are plenty of poetry readers who see the larger culture at play. Why Ideas Have Consequences became a Conservative “slogan” is beyond me. He quotes this from Weaver:

By far the most significant phase of the theory of the gentleman is its distrust of specialization. It is an ancient belief, going back to classical antiquity, that specialization of any kind is illiberal in a freeman. A man willing to bury himself in the details of some small endeavor has been considered lost to these larger considerations which must occupy the mind of a ruler.

Maybe this made sense in 1949, when specialists were studying atoms rather than attending to some requirement of becoming a ruler of something. The larger point matters, sure: we shouldn’t get so caught up in one thing such that the future is shut out and that we forget where we live. But this has very little to do, it seems to me, with who’s the liberal or conservative in the room but with the kinds of questions that might be asked: is a science focused charter school a good idea or is a school that treats all subject in depth the way to go? Artists require focus and serious study, however, and we shouldn’t confuse intense concentration with “narrowness.” Programming is difficult. It takes a lot of study. As in poetry. The person who takes up the guitar will find this out fast.

We just hired a new faculty member in our Humanities department. “We want more liberals around here” never came up as a question.

Snowden, Congress, and other Frustrations

Watching Meet the Press is a pretty frustrating activity. The focus is always on Edward Snowden. But there are other issues. For example, there are tens of thousands of security personnel on staff at NSA and other fuzzy institutions like it. Maybe if there was nothing to leak, the problem of the “next leaker” would go away or at least be mitigated.

Maybe if Congress people got to work figuring in a public way what is and isn’t legal for NSA to be doing, rather than wasting further time on events like Benghazi and spending ubertime on electioneering, then the issue would be mitigated.

Maybe if all that money getting elected was channelled toward building more hospitals and hiring more care personnel, the VA issue would be better managed. I hear there’s a jobs problem in the US. I just don’t trust all this hand wringing about things that can be fixed with a little elbow grease and firing of the brain cells. Hm, seems simple enough to me: when there are fewer people at the checkout counter, the other checkout counter lines grow longer. The lines at city DMVs are long because there aren’t enough counters.

It’s pretty simple to see that when a body calls the doctor’s office for whatever necessity, there’s a schedule, and time is equal to space. Let’s say the doctor has ten patients per day. The next day the number doubles. Let’s say the next day, the number triples. Gee, what to do about that?

The fact of the matter is that public institutions have been run down and neglected, from schools to the VA for several decades. The potholes created this winter must be giving public officials nightmares. Identifying problems in this regard is easy.  We know the solutions, too. We just don’t want to pay for it.


The End of Story in Godzilla

Peter Travers at Rolling Stone has a short review of Godzilla. He’s right about the “human” side of the film. I’d agree that the script is strange. I would ask this question, though, what would the human story be?

Chekhov could write a story about love. Gurov, for example, becomes a character who realized that he has it right in front of him. But the reader should be careful not to conflate Gurov’s story with other kinds of stories about love. Chekhov’s story is not about enduring connection, faithfulness (who know what Gurov will think later in his life), or giving or about how love is so fantastic. It’s about a moment of knowing, a realization in the moment that what he’s chased after so long has been with him in the form of Anna all along. In the same way, Connie’s story in Joyce Carol Oate’s famous tale is not about death or violence. It might be about growing pains or naivete. Figuring what “the story” is is a question I pose to students all the time and they struggle with it. They most of time fall back on plot summary as a response. Well, the story is about a kid who leaves his planet and goes on a romp with a pirate and a giant sloth.

I remember as a young teenager worrying whether a shark would crash through the shower wall. The space between the shower wall and the next house going measured about 6 feet or less. How a shark would punch through via air was hard for me to understand. Still, the fear was amazingly palpable, and I would rush through sometimes with soap in my hair during dry-off because I knew that the attack would come during the closed-eyed rinse-off. Jaws had this effect, a lingering fear or haunt of irrational event. Indeed, one of the lingering fears that followed out of my experience with Star Trek was not the wonder of space travel or a longing for world peace, but a fear of living amidst the spirit of totalitarianism and Hitleresque urban reality, where Nazi soldiers are relentlessly hunting down the “other” with no conscious thought. Star Trek taught to me to fear the relentlessness of bullshit.

Godzilla tries to follow two stories in its first hour. The cover-up story and the story of obsession due to personal loss. Both lines are killed pretty quick. Because the cover-up was benign–it doesn’t amount to the level Cranston envisions in a speech–and the obsession fruits nothing avertable other than a belated “Wow, you were right” from his son, Ford; the obsession has an a priori causal function: Brody wants to know what caused his wife’s death. But uncovering the cause has absolutely no consequence to the film.

The cover-up had no corporate, political, or Star Chamber etiology. Joe Brody’s wife Sandra is killed because a famished Monster needs to eat; whether this is known before hand or as an effect doesn’t really matter other than to understand that Monsters require nuclear fueling (but that’s pretty loose). This leads to a “proliferation” narrative where the hunger for nuclear power reveals an imbalance in the forces of nature, at least as viewed by Dr. Serizawa, and therefore requires a rebalancing. The balancer, of course, is guess who? But a proliferation backstory here doesn’t really make a lot of sense (there are too many real stories of this). The power of such a narrative doesn’t unify because the “gee, if we’d just left Godzilla alone in the first place” . . . then what?

And so the real story unfurls: survival and a story of “Gee, I hope Godzilla doesn’t hold a grudge because of our historical mistreatment of him.” The evolved Godzilla story is always the same, in other words: will he win the battle and save the day? That’s the grand narrative of sport without the save the day part.

The turnabout in the “real” story comes from Admiral Stenz, who finally relents to the good Dr’s plan: let Godzilla take care of the MUTOs; we can’t do it. This is the “let nature take it’s course” story. But that’s not a story; that’s a theme; nature will right itself if left alone. It’s a shorthand for plot devices and human retreat. Okay, let’s watch em fight now. In a way, cliche kills the potential storytelling in Godzilla because I don’t think many writers have put a lot of thought into what the story should or be as an alternative to the typical: will he triumph? Even in the older Godzilla films, story never really took significance. We wanted to see monsters and we wanted to see them fight. In the series, theme is more significant than plot, which is bad for storytelling but sufficient for seat time in the theater. People might argue the real story already happened or exists in the mythological ether and so Godzilla becomes psychological emollient, therapeutic elixir, cathartic spectacle, echo of dooms to come, or a symbol of the horrendous residue of war and irrational exuberance.

It seems to me that’s it’s difficult to sustain or write a “human” story in the context of disaster. When the Poseidon turns upside down, the story becomes “we have to get out of here,” a simple story of escape and survival. I find that The Poseidon Adventure and Willy Wonka have a lot in common. Both tales know what they want to accomplish. Not everyone is going to survive. The bad people will get what’s due them and that’s always satisfying. We smile or pump fists when the “bad guy” is spattered blind with acid by a fan-headed lizard and his pathetic can of shaving cream disappears in the mud.

There are no “bad guys” in Godzilla. There’s no force for the sake of it or evil to shine out of its hole, no henchpeople, jackboots, Smaug or Sauron, no veils of secrecy to disrupt. There are, however, unintended consequences to avert in their rawest form albeit of mysterious cause. No message exists in the film that says we’ve learned anything or that, yes, we should dump more funds into solar panels to avert the next disaster. Maybe people will interpret the preposition of imbalance in the film; maybe they will read climate change or human arrogance, or read something akin to “Let’s not revive the Tyrannosaurus.” I dont see it. What I see is human fatigue, sadness, and sense of ineffectualness.

When the tsunami comes, when the buildings crash down, when the dictator rallies, when dopes protect their political friends, when drought displaces and kills, thousands of human stories end just as the Cranston and cover-up stories end. Godzilla wakes from his fatigue after the fight, fatigued still, and requires recovery in the water off San Francisco. This monumental fatigue is a lingering image (it provides the most powerful juxtaposition in the film): the indefatigable monster. Maybe that’s good enough.

On Godzilla

The Godzilla movies were some of my first films. Godzilla and The Smog Monster we saw at the drive-in in El Paso in the early 70s. My son and I did some prepping. We watched the first version last week and finished with Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla last night, then went to the latest today.

I thought it was fantastic. I’ve read some no-spoiler critiques over the week out of curiosity if they came through the feeds. Some were interesting. Others were curious for their points of contention: the monster is too fat; the solutions to beat the monsters illogical, such as trying to defeat monsters that feed on nuclear power with nuclear weapons.

Gareth Edwards did a wonderful job with the notion of scale, though, which has always been a theme in Godzilla storytelling: scales regarding theme itself and scales regarding the relationship of just things juxtaposed to the monster. One of the common tropes in Godzilla is the image of the military (or the notion of human force), especially as seen with toy tanks lined up in preposterous ineffectiveness. Edward’s Godzilla is a moving landscape and imagines how a living landscape of tremendous size would displace water and air and fit within the built world. Consider how a beetle or an ant would translate human motility in film.

In the film, especially near the end, Godzilla is at war with gravity itself. The filmmakers appear to grasp the physical reality of a creature of such tremendous mass fighting the strength of the earth’s pull. From a game perspective, the ending boss battle is probably the best thing I’ve seen in a long time. It was the perfect read of later Godzilla movies that treated the monster with more humor and sense of emotional connection than the somber pickle-looking thing of the 1954/1956 work, which is understandable. Even still, at the time, they were pretty technically difficult to pull off.

It seems to me that the Edward’s version paid attention to the problem of eyes, also. He fixed this issue. Later in the film, the eyes of the monster tell their own story, related to the issue of massive girth, and the sadness and tragedy that comes with this “problem of such size.”

It’s a winner for me.

Theme Testing with Bootstrap

I’ve been playing with a new theme over at the test blog. It’ll soon become the default. It uses the Bootstrap framework on top of WordPress. This isn’t newfangled, but it is an interesting exercise. The test comes with three examples of use (I was too lazy to make a link back from the My Work page). The barebones weblog acts as the front page. Secondly, there’s a My Work link to a custom page template linked via the wordpress dash, which uses a custom template and a custom header, made available via get_header( “custom-header” ). The third test is a custom template with a simple navigation bar which hacks to link pages inside a bootstrap container.

For me, navs have always been a pain in the ass, especially when they involve wp_list_pages. I don’t need them on my own setup but I’d like to understand how to code the automation into the Bootstrap’s variety of designs. When I place list-pages into a bootstrap ul I get a bulleted horizontal list of pages. When I use the div nav inside ul navbar nav the navigation works but just looks cheap.

It would seem as if wp_list_pages could go into any ul without fault. But I’m not good enough yet to sort through the dilemma. I just don’t like holes or saying something like, “I’ll figure that out later.”

What’s I’ve found valuable here is the possibility for solid web artifacts that can draw from numerous systems.

Of course, the placeholders are little images of Carianne Garside’s artwork.

Saturday Thoughts

On Mozilla: Yeah, this pretty much sums things up for me. For me this is a question of collaboration in a quagmire. In this, liberalism as a political ecosystem is tarnished. Big win for atavism.

And here’s an excellent read on Octavio Paz. Sort of like: did Kundera turn informant or not and what would you have done no matter?

And this on Indie games doesn’t make sense to me. One thing, I don’t know what Indie actually means. It’s an unnecessary term, in my view.

Childhood and Stray Tires

Reading this Atlantic piece brought to mind a memory of the El Paso, TX streets when I was a kid in the late 60s and then 70s. My friends and I would find stray tires. We’d roll them to the top of a steep street and let them go and watch. They’d bounce against parked cars, the occasional fence, walls. Most everyone understood that there were kids stalking the neighborhood.

It wasn’t all rosy. Most everyone understood that too, least of all us. Guess what we did with the discarded but not-so-empty box of Benson and Hedges. We’d be called for dinner, enter and eat, then leave again. We rarely saw parents, and when we did it was like encountering exotic wildlife.

Childhood culture. Here’s an added feature: since we were out so much, we knew who to avoid; we knew where the strange people were, who’s dog would bite, what house or region was off limits. We knew the gang signs.

That doesn’t mean everyone survived.

My Changing Attitudes about Failure in the Classroom

Over the years my attitudes about managing classroom activity has changed. It’s a long story. It begins with my own college experience being read to by the professor or even further back being told that thinking on my own would get me into trouble in grade school. I hated school. But I loved graduate school. I thought (which was probably a mistake): why not take the things I liked and make them work at the undergraduate level.

The thing I liked about undergraduate and graduate learning was that, for the most part, I could make my own decisions: I could drink beer instead of going to class; I could go to class and drink beer; it was up to me. To me compulsory is a dirty word and my fingers still smell of the iron bars of grade school. Yes college: I could do it or not do it and take the consequences. I remember a conversation with a professor. I said, “I have to do this reading.” He stabbed me with his reading-shrunken eyeballs and said, “You don’t have to do shit.” In addition, the lively use of technology by many of my professors was an inspiring mix of theory, application, and invention. The good professors would think a lot about why something might work and then try it, even if it failed. Then they would try something else. They asked questions like: how can we make big classes feel smaller? How can we take the advantages of residential colleges and mimic these with tech?

Recently (by recent I mean the last ten years or so), I’ve altered my strategies to include more emphasis on competency-based evaluation and instruction, generic assessments, and to placing more of the burden of learning on the people in my courses. By competency-based I mean telling students that they’re not after a grade on a paper but aiming to improve thinking and skills through written revision and hard work. By generic assessment I mean going from something like this:

Read this specific article and evaluate the author’s use of evidence

to this

Evaluate an author’s use of evidence in support of an argument. Find the author on your own.

Much of the above has to do with the fact that I like to change readings a lot and I don’t want to have to rewrite every assessment I provide to students.

By placing more of the burden on students, I mean to remove what I see as artificial or un-unassessable quantities in the regular movements of the semester: what’s the proper punishment for missing a deadline, I ask myself: grade diminishment or loss of opportunity to learn something? Recall the above conversation with my professor: he meant, “It’s up to you, Bub.”

I still have deadlines, but I tell people that if they miss a paper, what they miss is the opportunity for assessment. This presents a lot of risk, risk I’ve been willing to live with. For example, years ago I stopped reading student drafts because I found it difficult to avoid what might be called robotic or automated revision. That story goes like this: Cut this, this, and this comma and here’s a little about why, and develop the idea in this paragraph with more evidence. The commas would go, simply to reappear elsewhere and in the same context, and people would simply not do the development, responding with the common, “I didn’t know what you meant.” The whole business started to feel oddly enabling. I asked: does teacher editing lead to deep learning?

The typical semester now goes like this: students revise their own copy based on discussion and concepts worked on in class. I expect students in the research course to find copious amounts of information on topics and to study it against some fairly formulaic questions (what I call the argument framework): what’s the problem; what’s the position; what are the arguments; what’s the evidence; what are the appeals; and is it all done effectively or ineffectively by the author or authors and why? What’s your take? Students hand in their respective papers, I evaluate them and provide general ideas about improvement and expect students to revise, applying what they’ve learned. The results are still pretty raw, but those results reflect writing only the student has touched. They own them.

The general competencies are: identification, description, and evaluation/analysis.

Hypothetically, it all sounds pretty well and good. But in the last few years, students have taken the option of not turning things in for evaluation and waiting until the end of the semester to make their case, as the majority end-of-semester grade comes from final portfolios, which is meant to show the results of assessment and revision. Most of the time this makes for strange papers that show almost no improvement because very little option for improvement was made available. They’re supposed to own it all.

Consider this scenario. Student A stumbles to class most days but forgets to wake up in time for the first Chemistry exam. The teacher notes that the student failed to take the exam, hence marking a zero in the grade book. Let’s say this happens throughout the semester, grossing the student a zero in Chemistry. The teacher’s puzzled because attendance was perfect, with the exception of exam days. What’s the accurate conclusion: the student failed to demonstrate any knowledge of the subject even though they attended every session and appeared to take notes? I could give this story the most positive of outcomes: the student weeps about the goose egg but invents a new cure for disease in their basement.

Writing courses are similar. A student may participate in the day to day and then fail to turn in a paper, or not participate in the day to day and turn in nothing, or play the truant, turn in all their stuff at the end, and win the golden apple. In the first two scenarios, what they’ve failed to do is demonstrate what they’ve learned (maybe they didn’t show and neglected  their papers because they were working on a novel). In a writing course the main method for providing proof of learning is the much-loved academic, MLA-styled paper, the revised paper, and then a final proof. In a competency push, I want to be able to compare the first to the final, where evidence of learning shines through. Problem is: students are not providing me the drafts.

Time to rethink my approach.

Why I Worry About Students

Well, I worry about a lot of things. I’m a personality that worries.

It would appear that nationally the causes of higher education, one of which is to produce independent, thoughtful citizens (real rabble-rousers, you might call them), are being crushed by political interests. Most people have read about student debt and the costs of “choosing” to invest in an institution after high school. But the investment is lopsided with national and state government transferring costs to “the people.” We know that one person’s debt is another person’s profit.

I’m encouraged by organizations like Young Invincibles. I wonder if they’ll have as much impact as our  civil engineering graders.

There are a number of big sectors in Higher Ed. Public colleges and universities, privates, and for-profits, and somewhere beneath these trade schools stick their nose out from under the bed. What an interesting story this has been since financial turmoils in the 70s, late 90s, and 2008. It’s a complicated story. Sufficit it to say, most public institutions and families are increasingly going it alone, wielding their pea shooters in the woods. (I’m still waiting for the verdict on the Bayh-Dole Act.)

I live on metaphors. They help to boil things to their approximate essence. So, I imagine I’m a local politician in Connecticut driving the winter streets. What I see are humps, cracks, and holes in the gritty pitch from this long cold season and its mysterious substances meant to melt the ice and corrode brake lines. Someone’s going to have to pay for the repair, and I’ll be waiting for the complaints. It’s a life phenomenon: in your 40s, 50s, and mores, you’ll complain about paying for stuff you couldn’t imagine paying for in your 20s. Maybe our new robot kitchens in the future will bust holes in the wall board by opening the cabinet doors with too much force. Could happen. Or the metallurgical requirements of my coming bionic fingers will hammer the final coffin nail into some rare frog “somewhere south of not here.”

But I speculate this: we need all-out return to publically-funded higher ed and the material that holds us all up. And that means solving the inequality equations. Maybe my students will start marching on their own behalf.

Then there are a hundred other things to worry about.

Test 2

This shouldn’t come as a title.

Okay, another test.

Not much to say at the moment except that this post goes via Fargo 2.

Reading Ecologies and Information Architecture

I caught Andy Fitzgerald’s last post titled Architecting the Connected World this morning. He writes:

Here (the model of down-scrolling) we can see different modes at play. The trackpad isn’t strictly symbolic, nor is it iconic. Its relationship to the action it accomplishes is inferred by our embodied understanding of the physical world. This is signification in the indexical mode.

“Embodied understanding” is the language I’ve been looking for in the context of thinking across or against digital and analogue objects. Translation: reading a NYT article in a database vs the paper NYT vs the digital NYT. Fitzgerald’s analysis has to have something to do with how teachers approach research and reading with their students. Objects can be out of their original context. Sure, a rattle snake in a boot is still dangerous. But the serpent is “out of context.”

I’ve always thought scrolling was a bad idea. Such a text is fundamentally different than a page turn or swipe text. As the scrolling habit has evolved, I’ve begun to rethink how reading on the screen and scrolling through hidden abundance just adds to more hidden abundance. The prior paragraphs slide out of field. There’s only so much one can see in the traversal, and then there’s the swipe. In Tinderbox, the writer can side-by-side the draft. He or she can write against the scroll.

It’s a different leverage to craft.