Mountebank Blog

"There is nothing so impossible in nature, but mountebanks will undertake; nothing so incredible, but they will affirm."

On Being a Wizard

There are many things to like about Gandalf, but one of the best is that he is a wizard not because he is some kind of magical creature, not because some other wizard bit him, but because he learned to be a wizard. When he has a serious question, what does he do? He goes to the library!

(First animated gif I made from “scratch,” too).


Walking the Open Dissertation Walk

Inspired by some conversations about copyright and third-party “sales” of dissertations, I decided it’s high time (embarrassed I haven’t done this before!) to get my dissertation out there and available for anyone who wants to read it. ┬áPlease do read, do comment, do share, and let me know that you did!

So, in several different formats, here we go.

First, if you don’t want to read the whole thing, why not just look at the cloud.

Or if you are inclined to read, you can download, or read here on the screen, the abstract.

Download (PDF, 50KB)

And if that piqued your interest, you can either download or read right here the whole megillah:

Download (PDF, 1.78MB)

Newspapers Will Fold?

Time Magazine lists 10 Newspapers that will either Fold or Go Under Next.

1. The Philadelphia Daily News
2. The Minneapolis Star Tribune
3. The Miami Herald
4. The Detroit News
5. The Boston Globe.
6. The San Francisco Chronicle.
7. The Chicago Sun Times
8. NY Daily News
9. The Fort Worth Star Telegram
10. The Cleveland Plain Dealer

They give their reasoning for each one in the linked article above. It could be they’re right, even about all of them.

But here’s something I notice…I read this list because of a link from one of my twitter community–somebody I don’t know in “real life” at all. He linked to this Time Magazine story. On Yahoo News (where that link above is going to). And Time is actually just taking it from 24/

So if I’m counting right, this story reached me only after being re-purposed 4 times from its original source. And now it’s reaching anyone reading this after a 5th.

Content “producers” become content aggregators–and content “consumers” become content disseminators in the new media economy. And then those disseminators comment on the content, and re-purpose it, and make their own points. Like I’m doing here. So everybody’s role gets reshaped. Who’s the “real” producer?

Interesting times, that’s who.

(And by the way, I can’t think of a time in the past 10 years or more when I’ve actually bought a paper copy of Time Magazine–or even touched one except when stranded in a doctor’s office with nothing else available.)

Know How to Ask

In the course I’m co-teaching in the CUNY Graduate Center’s Interactive Technology and Pedagogy program we’ve been talking about some of the skills and tools that students need to know and use in the media universe. We discussed (it was a digression, as I remember) how access to information sometimes can be a curse as well as a blessing, if students don’t have the appropriate questioning, critical, and researching skills.

And then serendipitously I was reading Robert Silverberg’s Nightwings (I read the first part long ago, when it was a Hugo-winning novella, and only recently discovered that Silverberg had added another whole section to expand it into a full novel.)

In Silverberg’s imagined post-lapsarian world, some kind of pickled human brains take the place of networked computers…but there’s still that same problem:

Any citizen has the right to go to a public thinking cap and requisition an information from the Rememberers on any given subject. Nothing is concealed. But the Rememberers volunteer no aid; you must know how to ask, which means you must know what to ask. Item by item you must seek your facts. It is useful for those who must know, say, the long-term patterns of climate in Agupt, or the symptoms of the crystallization disease, or the limitations in the charter of one of the guilds; but it is no help at all to the man who wishes knowledge of the larger questions. One would need to requisition a thousand informations merely to make a beginning. The expense would be great; few would bother.

For larger questions, neither the Rememberers nor the internet can be of much help…at least not without the real skills, almost enough to be a Rememberer, or more than a Rememberer, yourself.

Citizen Journalists

In all the reporting and discussion about the LAPD’s actions at the May Day Immigration Rally in MacArthur Park in LA, I came across a vignette in LA Times reporter Jill Leovy’s first-hand report:

At a press conference with Chief Bratton about 9 Tuesday night at the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Park View, tensions between the informal press and the formal press bubbled over.

As the chief spoke, with Assistant Chief Earl Paysinger at his side, at least 40 people surrounded him, with six or seven squatting on the ground in front to hear better. About half of the group appeared not to be official members of the press corps, but rather, protesters and self-appointed journalists affiliated with the protesters. When it came time to call out questions — often a competitive moment among reporters from competing news agencies — the protesters held their own.

As questioners peppered Bratton with demands for answers, some seemed more intent on expressing their own views than hearing Bratton’s and there was confusion about whether those speaking were paid by an established news organization or were self-appointed.

A large man in front of the chief to his right, who had been heckling with words of skepticism throughout the event, repeatedly asked in a loud voice whether the chief planned to appoint a civilian panel to investigate the incident. He interrupted reporters. Tempers flared. Dave Clark, a well-known broadcast journalist with KCAL 9 and CBS 2, admonished him to be quiet. “We are trying to work here!” Clark said.

At one point, Bratton also asked this man to be quiet. The press conference was being held for the benefit of the official media, he said. The man responded by insisting he was a “citizen journalist,” but then backed down, professing his respect for the chief.

Increasingly, it seems, the “citizen journalists”–bloggers, amateurs, “protesters with cameras,” whatever you want to call them–are not just holding their own, but surpassing the “official journalists.” The coverage they provide is wider, more blatantly subjective, polemical, less professional, untrained…it’s a whole different kind of new medium.

I like this–I find it exciting, and I find the potential for a better-informed, more media-savvy public to be quite promising. But there are also drawbacks, of course. We need to learn a new vocabulary, and new critical standards for evaluating this new medium–it’s unfiltered, and while I would never say that it should be filtered, I definitely think that we need to develop and clarify our own filters.

But that’s something we should have been doing all along–the “official” journalism was really never any more trustworthy or objective (not at any time in history–rosy-colored nostalgia aside), and if the new journalism foregrounds that fact, it’s a very good thing.

Josh Wolf (the videographer/blogger who was jailed for six months for refusing to turn over his video of a demonstration) was asked (while he was in jail) “Are Bloggers Journalists?” His answer (in part):

The question has no simple answer, just as there is no easy way to respond to being asked, “Are Christians good people?” Most would respond that some are and some are not; certain zealots would proclaim that all Christians are good people by definition, and still others would argue that all people are good despite whatever bad things they may have done. A fourth group would claim that the very idea of “good”and “evil” is an entirely artificial construct and a completely irrelevant measure, and all of these arguments are a valid response to the question that is before us tonight.

The simplest answer is that some bloggers are journalists whereas others are not. After all, few would contend that the 16 year-old who writes about her daily exploits on her Myspace page is a journalist. But what happens when this very same girl manages to break a story on her principal’s scheme to embezzle from the school? Does she then become a journalist? When she returns to writing about the guy in chemistry, is this now journalism? In a recent essay, Bill Moyers cites Tom Rosentiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism who points out that “the proper question is not whether you call yourself a journalist but whether your work itself constitutes journalism.” Given the paradoxes inherent in tonight’s question, I’m inclined to think that Moyer and Rosentiel are onto something.

Can bloggers be journalists? Absolutely. A blog is nothing more than a medium. Sure, the cost of entry is cheaper than launching your own daily newspaper and the rules of engagement aren’t nearly as formalized, but when you think about it, how different is this than the development of any new medium? I imagine that when radio was invented there were plenty of newspapermen and a few newspaperwomen who were clamoring that radio-news was not real journalism. This same scenario likely played out again with the advent of television. Today it’s the internet, and like the journalists of yester-year many are quick to discount blogs as a viable medium for transmitting news and some probably feel threatened by the development as well.

Are bloggers journalists? Is it good for us to have “citizen journalists”? That’s probably not an important question. We have them. So the better questions might be how should we regard them? How should we use them?

An Excellent Blackboard Tool

bFreeIt’s not often that “excellent” and “Blackboard” can go in the same sentence, but the University of North Carolina has released a (free, Creative Commons Licensed) tool that helps to add some excellence to Blackboard–or at least take away some of the anti-excellence. bFree quickly and neatly grabs the content from an exported Blackboard course–one of those zip archives that are hard to deal with in any way except importing them back into Blackboard or tediously going through all the weirdly named files to find your content. It doesn’t (yet) export discussion forums–but for most of the main sections it works perfectly. It preserves the file and folder structures, and lets you export to either a collection of files neatly arranged in their folders, or even to a website.

WordPress as a CMS

Well, I’m here to tell you it can definitely be done. I’m not the first to discover this, of course, but I really was surprised to see just how well, and how easily, it works. My favorite art historian wanted (with her colleague) to turn all the content they had developed (“lectures” from online courses, podcasts, YouTube videos, flickr images, great sites and web resources) into a kind of free, multimedia, online textbook for art history.

Their experience was that most of the art history textbooks for undergraduates were just, well, wrong. They were pitched to a level that didn’t match, they weren’t engaging in either style or content, and they managed to turn the exciting social history part of art history into just more dull-as-dishwater, decontextualized, blahblah.

(A perfect example of this–today I was in the Art department at my college, and I saw a copy of Gardner’s Art Through the Ages–one of the major textbooks in the discipline, being used extremely effectively, extremely practically….It was used as a booster to lift a computer monitor up to eye level. Probably would make an excellent doorstop or paperweight, too.)

Even the textbook publishers who did have websites connected to their texts seemed to just reproduce the text–nothing towards making them more engaging–and in any case, those sites were closed–available only to people who bought (for more than a few dollars) the print textbooks or some kind of access key.

So they wanted to do something different in style, something open, something making good use of multimedia, something searchable and visually attractive…and they didn’t want to have to learn a whole lot of html, flash, css, and everything else. And they wanted to be able to collaboratively add to and edit the site.

WordPress to the rescue! With a theme they liked, wordpress’ built-in pages and custom fields, and a few expedient plugins (and the help of their friendly neighborhood geek guy–me), over one long weekend they got a very good start, which can easily be continued and expanded, at creating exactly what they wanted…!

I think the potential here is very exciting–student sites, course sites, more of these “web-books” (or whatever you want to call them), that can be used to publish and collaborate and produce. The idea of the CMS is perfect for this kind of project, and yes, there are many CMS’s out there. But for simplicity of installation, configuration, extension, design…I like the wordpress!

For this was on seynt Valentynys day

The Parliament of FowlsThe lyf so short, the craft so longe to lerne,
Th’assay so sharp, so hard the conquerynge,
The dredful joye, alwey that slit so yerne,
Al this mene I be Loue, that myn felynge
Astonyith with his wondyrful werkynge
So sore iwis, that whan I on hym thynke,
Nat wot I wel wher that I flete or synke.

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!

On Online Discussion Forums

Forum Cartoon from weblogcartoons.comI’ve discussed before my on-again off-again membership in the online discussion forum Global Affairs. I’ve been banned, reinstated, considered quitting, taken long breaks, thrown up my hands in disgust, been forbidden to send private messages to some members, and received very friendly and considerate messages from others. I’ve won a “post of the month” award, read posts by others that have brought tears to my eyes, or had me literally trembling with anger. I’ve been called a bigot, a socialist, a decent human being, a true gentleman, an ideologue and an apologist. But through all of that, since November 2002, I’ve been an active member of the forum, reading and posting day after day.

So, why?

I’ve been thinking about this in a couple of contexts–one, of course, and always, is the connection and the contrast with the kinds of online “forums” that I run when I teach online. Those are different than the experience at GA (or the other forums where I’m a member and post some of the time, but less frequently–at BroadbandReports, UbuntuForums, Brighthand,TotalChoiceHosting, InternetInfidels, Beliefnet…I didn’t realize there were so many!). A discussion forum where I’m teaching a course is different for me–and I think that it’s different for the students than for the participants in the other forums, too. (I’ve often wondered how it would go if someone I knew from online discussion would take my online class. How would we interact in the class, and how would we interact in the forum, after that?)

And there’s another context–recently my daughter has started her own involvement in her own online discussion forum…and she seems to enjoy it (and be frustrated by it, and drawn to it), just as much, and in the same way, as me. Brings up some interesting nature/nurture questions!

I’m thinking that part of the appeal has to do with the community–which is rather obvious–the people about whom I end up caring, who have characters and roles that feel familiar, and comfortable, with shared in-jokes and jargon. But connected to that, too, is the adoption of a persona. I don’t think that my online persona is all that different from my face-to-face persona, but the fact is, when I look at it (looking back, especially), I’m much freer online–to be playful, or aggressive, or to push arguments way beyond where they can really productively go.

This seems to be what my daughter does, too–the hot political topics of the day, or the bigger philosophical questions (the existence of the soul)–online I get totally involved in discussing these, and discussing how we’re discussing them, and little tiny elements of the discussion of the history of this discussion. Face to face, to preserve peace, or to save time, or just to get anything done, there’s just no time for this.

It’s also especially attractive to discuss these issues with people who are so, so different from me (except that they’re the same in one important area–they like to discuss things online!). I seem to spend the most time, and have the most fun, in forums (like GA) where I’m a distinct minority. Almost everyone (very few exceptions) is politically far to the right of me there–and almost nobody (very few exceptions) has the same kind of experience (professional, personal, academic) that I have. Over and over again, I’m the sole defender of a point of view–against multiple (I won’t say enemies, but opponents). And I must like that, somehow, because I keep coming back for more. My daughter’s role in her forum is the same in this regard, too.

Of course, there are also advantages which are shared in all asynchronous online discussion (as I’ve written about elsewhere). There is time to consider, to take someone else’s argument apart line-by-line, to pursue an off-topic drift or digression. There’s also the entire resource of the internet right there–to cite sources, investigate claims, illustrate with images, and so forth. The “wizard factor” (you want to see a hedgehog? I wave my hand and there’s a hedgehog!) that I enjoy so much in teaching online shares its magic with all online discussion.

Finally, there’s something I notice especially in the tech-oriented forums (and the tech areas of broader-ranging forums like GA). People like to help each other in these forums. How do I get the Beryl Window Manager working in Ubuntu? What should I say on my resume about a college that changed its name after I graduated? What do I do about an invitation from an in-law I can’t stand? In these forums, people ask for help with problems from the mundane to the life-threatening, and they get it…and everyone values both the giving and the getting. That’s a human interaction, whether it’s in the online world or the physical world, which is truly valuable.

There’s plenty more to be said on this subject…but it’s partly what I’m thinking now.

I Wish I had Created this one!

A great quick introduction to Web 2.0, and while it makes points that many others, including me, have made before, I like it a whole lot better than the other ways the points have been made.

It does a great job of using the medium to illustrate the medium…and all in less than five minutes.

Best of all is the conclusion: “We’ll need to rethink copyright/ authorship/ identity/ ethics/ aesthetics/ rhetorics/ governance/ privacy/ commerce/ love/ family/ ourselves.”

Excellent work by Michael Wesch and Digital Ethnography @ KSU.