December 19, 2005

My final say for COMP 5250

The North American news industry wants you to write by the rules. I teach the rules in college journalism classes. I follow the rules when I write news, which I’ve been doing off and on for more than 20 years. Now I’m writing with some new rules: some days with blog rules; other days with academic paper rules. In this class we’ve also played with ideas from OuLiPo – ever-changing rules we draw up for ourselves for kicks. And I had a revelation.

Continue reading "My final say for COMP 5250" »

December 14, 2005

Interweaving on the web

I've had pretty good luck cooking up three new blogs. "The Harkonnen Chronicle," "Citizen Raphael," and "Dear Friends..." All of them took on life with ease. There's no great trick in concocting characters and writing in their voices. The challenge, for me at least, comes in building connections among these characters.

The connections need to manifest themselves in a few ways. First, on the blogs themselves I want at least some interplay among the characters. So I decided the characters should post to each others' sites. But Raphael and Mrs. H aren't likely to post on blogs. It's not allowed by their chosen media.

So there needs to be another kind of connection, too -- some central place that can steer a reader to all the blogs and provide some of the backstory. Enter Prolix and the onandonandon site.

As Prolix, I can keep tabs on all the sites and link to them. The characters have done some linking to each other, but those links are not comprehensive or systematic; a reader could stumble into one of these blogs and not figure out its relationship to the others. At onandonandon, though, I spell out the connections.

Prolix is now enveloped in the story, too. I had some ideas for story lines in the tiny town of Zemple. I wanted to set up the characters for interesting entanglements later on. I don't know how all of the stories will end, but I'm setting them on a course to intersect. That's why Prolix mentions his grandmother in Zemple -- his grandmother who happens to know Mrs. Hasselbeck. It turns out that Raphael is also there in Zemple, and Dwight Harkonnen has recently returned to town. With Prolix making occasional trips to Zemple, and with him keeping an eye on the new blogs of his friends, there's room for many plot twists and turns.

I've also introduced a couple of characters who don't have blogs but will lurk in the comment sections of the other blogs. The mayor made some appearances, and Mrs. H's typist showed up, too. I expect other familiar names from onandondandon's comment section will also appear, as will a few more of the very-wired citizens of Zemple.

The story lines I see playing out in the immediate future are:
1. The mayor's predicament
2. The smoking ban debate
3. Dwight Harkonen's place in town as a muckraker
4. Raphael's debut on the national stage (sort of) as a poet
5. The face-to-face meetings of the characters during Prolix's trips to Zemple.

December 10, 2005

One difference

I'm thinking about the differences between writing straight-laced news and writing without those news tethers. Here's something I noticed as a put up my first round of posts.

When I write as Mrs H (here's here first letter on her new blog) she herself gets the good lines. There's no (theoretically) disinterested narrator there to set things up. It's Mrs H all the way.

The same is true for Raph and his fridge poems. He's posted one, also on the smoking ban brouhaha. No third party intercedes; Raph talks to the reader.

When I write as Dwight Harkonnen I use my news voice, which in my case, as least, means I try to give all the good lines to the principals in the story and I try to keep myself out of the way. The narrator's voice is still carefully written. I work hard on not being noticed. But there's a sense of being an assembler as much as a writer. In Dwight's first post the dispassionate narrator provides the framework for the spicy quotes from the principals in the story.

In a real news story I'd aim to make up nothing. As I said, I would "assemble" what's there -- the facts, the voices, sights and sounds. It's still a creative act -- very much so. And it's still storytelling, if it's done well. But the source material is all "real" (of course, as interpreted by the reporter). In a sense it's oulipian. The writer faces rules and constraints, and the whole game is wound up in finding creative, fun ways to work within those constraints.

News as oulipo? Well, sort of.

December 9, 2005

Up and running

I'm starting to enter posts for my final project. Dwight Harkonnen covered a city council meeting in Zemple and he filed a story.

The story is based on real stuff. I pulled a couple quotes and the basic story line from a small town paper in northern MInnesota. I augmented and embellished and fabricated quotes and names -- but the arguments are ones I've actually heard in my work as a reporter (who got to cover several smoking ban debates).

Next, Mrs H will recount the story in her own way, and so will Rahael -- with magnets. I'll get right on it.

Then there'll be some interplay among the blogs, and some residents of Zemlple will make comments.

And then Dwight Harkonnen will file another story -- probably about the next city council meeting.

December 7, 2005

back in the saddle

i have my nose above water again in my other classes (both as teacher and student) and i'm itching to put this last project together.

here's the plan

since i've been interested in the authorial voice and the credibility of blogs and all that rot i'm going to explore different ways of writing about an event. i've started three new blogs, one for each voice. the blogs will interact with each other, too.

who they are

all three voices live in zemple, a small town in northern minnesota. as a couple of events unfold in town each of these folks will write about what's going on.

dwight harkonnen is the reporter voice -- old school, just the facts, m'am.

mrs. hasselbeck returns -- she'll compose handwritten letters with her own take on the events in zemple.

and raphael will get into the act -- he'll comment on the same events in oulipian fashion; he's limited to his fridge magnet poetry words.

i don't have any posts up yet, but you can take a peek and see what the blogs look like.

November 20, 2005

Elephant tale

Now that I've learned a little about HTML and I know at least the basics about Dreamweaver, I'll have to go back and jazz up my elephant story.

the_elephant.jpg

My nephew drew a picture for me and my dearest a while back. He left it at our house. So I wrote a goofy story to go with the picture and then I posted the drawing and the story online and sent an email link to my sis in Chicago. I think my nephew liked it. I never really heard much about it. Seems like something that a six-year-old would groove on.

Here's the story, if you want to take a peek. Mind you, I had no idea what I was doing, so the www page is dreadful. But the story is pretty good.

November 19, 2005

Life goes on in Kabul

Afghan LORD hasn't been posting as much of late. Maybe once a week or so.

He's posted some news about attacks in Afghanistan. You still get a sense of there being more going on there than the US media tells us about -- no duh. But there's a sense of normalcy, too. I guess the folks in Afghanistan have a very different sense of normal from mine, given the past few decades.

Sohrab Kabuli (the young man behind Afghan LORD) has a blog in Farsi, too, and I'm guessing he does more writing over there. He also has a blog of computer-techy stuff.

His most interesting work for me continues to be the photos. He's not a terribly talneted photographer, but that adds something. These are snapshots. Sohrab has put a bunch of his pix up on Flickr, and I stopped by for a slideshow.

Tired of Twisty

It was fun while it lasted, but I'm done now.

I've been following I Blame the Patriarchy by Twisty Faster. She's smart and funny and opinionated (to say the least). I've gotten a kick out of this blog. Twisty writes some about food, a bit about her dog, Bert, but mostly about, well, the patriarchy. She's a self-described radical feminist.

A bad turn

The most affecting writing on the blog came after Twisty was diagnosed with cancer this fall. She wrote about and posted pictures of her mastectomy. She writes about this with the usual combination of insight, wit and acid. It was horrifying, fascinating and moving.

I'm right and you're stupid

But the blog's mostly back to politics again. It so happens that I agree with Twisty's politics about 95% of the time, but I don't agree with her tone. Now, I can be an acerbic bastard. Ask anyone I've disagreed with. But Twisty has me all beat to hell.

All_men_suck_all_the_time.com

I get depressed reading or listening to people who do battle with intolerance using ... intolerance. It's not constructive. It sets the debate back. It undermines the credibility of the cause.

When I saw this in a Nov. 3 comment by Twisty, I just shook my head.

I'm also saying that men, on the whole, hate women. I do not know whether they are capable of love.

And plenty of women suck, too

Twisty gets pretty savage with the women she diasgrees with. I guess it's part of the blog persona. (Or maybe the real life persona?) It's tiresome.

The other day she wrote this, and it appears to sum up her approach pretty well:

I'll tell you something. If I view life through a prism...that prism isn't colored with "emotion." It's colored with shit. That hypothetical prism is focusing with pinpoint accuracy the relentlessly harsh white light of day onto every little shit-covered woman-hating, racist, fucktarded act of tyranny that crosses my path, and believe me, there are a million of'em every fucking day, and I'm writing'em all down in my little book, you fuckers.

Anyone can speak the truth. Anyone can do it in a blog. Anyone who does it is a blogger.


Fair enough. But I don't have to read it.

As soon as this semester is over I'll be taking Twisty off my list of bookmarks.

November 18, 2005

Protect yourself

Things have gotten pretty quiet over at Onandonandon since the semester has progressed, but I got a kick out of this exchange earlier this week. It's particularly interesting given our conversation in class about the exchange between Professor Fetzer and Dayna.

Do you s'pose he wears the sort of protection we're talking about in these posts? Do you s'pose he's read the MIT study about aluminum foil hats?

November 17, 2005

The more I read blogs, the less I know what blogs are

I am not against blogs. I am not worried about blogs lack of a clear identity. The definition of blog is not worked out yet, and that is fine wonderful, even as far as I am concerned. But some people get uncomfortable around blogs because blogs are new and they straddle categories.

Since blogs fall between the established genres they are pushed and pulled by the expectations pinned to old, established forms. News people want blogs to follow news rules; fiction people want blogs to follow fiction rules; surrealists want blogs to break all the rules. When blogs fail to play by the rules of the established forms some people get mad. Especially journalists. Others get confused.

Confusion in Norway

Even bloggers get flummoxed trying to figure out what a blog is. Jill Walker announced on her blog that she tried a new open-source browser called Flock.<1> Later the same day she was back on her blog with a not-so-happy critique of Flock. She's displeased at the mixing of public and private, personal and professional that a tool like Flock produces.

It connects the aspects of my digital life too much.... I dont want my students and colleagues and neighbours to find my photos.<2>

It takes us back to this: What is a blog?

It's not all new

Writers have crossed genre barriers, or straddled them, as long as there have been genres. But most of that writing was filed away in manila folders or sitting safely in a spiral notebook on the top book shelf in the spare bedroom or published in a small batch for a select audience.

We try to do the same on the www. We have a professional face on the corporate www site; we let our hair down on the personal blog. But the www is not as secure as a dark spot on the top book shelf. Things on the Internet have a way of getting found. And linked to.

So here's Jill, an avid poster of all manner of material to the www, trying to figure out how to keep here online life comfortably partitioned: this is for the family; this is for the students; this is for...me?

Yes! I mean, no! I mean...

The other morning I ate pancakes and argued with a good friend. She said blogs are evil time- wasters. They allow people to fabricate personalities -- and anything else they wish -- and present phony information to the world. They are "not real," she said. There's no accountability, she said. Why don't these people get real lives? she asked.

I said no, no, no. Bloggers and blog readers have very real conversations and exchange very real info. I asked, Who made you guys (she works in a big, mainstream newsroom) the arbiters of truth? What about the thousands (millions!) of stories you choose not to cover? And when you do cover a story, you present pretty much one person's (the reporter's) take on the thing.

At that point I wondered, How did I get on the other side of this debate? Earlier in the week I had been -- sort of -- taking the other side of this very question in the first post I made to my own brand new blog.<3> In that post I asked:

Isn't the blogoshpere full of cranks and rumormongers and self-appointed "truth-tellers" with nutball political agendas?

Now here I was, a week later, arguing that such a view is self-righteous. The problem is, like all good, thorny questions, this one includes a good-sized hunk of truth in both points of view.

Consider Hurricane Katrina. Bloggers were reporting bedlam in the convention center and the mainstream press was calling the reports mere rumor. But the stories were true, it turns out. <4>

But wait. The blog Boing Boing (joined by many, many others) went on to talk about reports of rape, murder and mayhem in the Astrodome in Houston. Boing Boing posted an internet chat with a blogger in the dome by the name of Jacob Applebaum. He had interviewed people with atrocious stories of life in the Dome.<5> Boing Boing preceded the transcript of the chat with this forewarning:

I have no way of substantiating the statements of those Jacob spoke to, but I present them here as a snapshot of first-person accounts.

Over the next few days we heard other first-hand accounts, this time from reporters and aid workers in the dome who said these reports had been false. Weeks later, investigators reported they found no evidence of widespread rape and assault. Boing Boing and hundreds of other blogs had fueled the flames of rumor. And, my guess is, years from now people around the country will still believe horrible events took place inside the Astrodome.

But we cannot blame that on blogs. At least not entirely. Rumors existed long before blogs, obviously enough. But I wonder if blogs might be changing the mechanics of rumors giving them more authority, more reach, and more speed.

I am tempted to say that old school media have some degree of accountability that Boing Boing does not have. When a New York Times reporter gets caught lying or passing along bad information, there is a name on the story in question. The reporter (and editors) have to explain themselves. They get shamed, or reprimanded, or fired. Sometimes. So my background as a news reporter makes me reflexively flinch at the anonymity of blogs.

In her article, Feral Hypertext: When Literature Escapes Control Jill Walker says that is a common reaction.<6>

Hoaxes, spams and scams abound on the internet, and often the reason that people get so upset by these cases is precisely that the author function has begun to slip. We can no longer trust that the person who claims to be the author of a text is its true author, as is evident from the Kaycee Nicole<7> hoax and its ilk. (p.3)

Hoaxes were around long before the internet. The Piltdown Man charade didnt rely on email or blogs or IM.

A sucker born every minute

Still, its distressing to go to Amazon.com and find people as recently as 2004 writing glowing reviews of A Rock and a Hard Place by Anthony Johnson.<8> Its been years since an expose in The New Yorker <9> revealed that the author doesnt exist: this autobiography of a 14-year-old boy and his horrific early childhood is phony. But heres a reader on Amazon posting a review on October 30, 2004:

Tony's story is absolutely terrible. His abuse is almost unfathomable. For this reason a lot of people can't tolerate it. They need to believe his story is fake. I emailed with Tony and I'm pretty sure it was him. It was a couple of years ago. Does anyone know if he's still alive? When the book ended, he was suffering from full blown AIDS and had just had his left leg amputated because of the disease. There's a good chance he's no longer alive. Tony, if you are still alive, please believe that I found your story TRULY inspirational.

I have to admit, though, that The New Yorker piece has been collected in a book composed entirely of media hoaxes and they did not all rely on the web for their success.

So is it fair to look at the buzzing back and forth of web hoaxes, coupled with the general untrustworthiness of online information, and conclude that modern journalism is suffering at the hands of bloggers and other web denizens? Jay Rosen at New York University doesnt believe it.

Journalism schmournalism

Rosen presented a paper at the Blogging, Journalism and Credibility conference in Amherst in January of 2005, and in it he argued that news consumers dont buy the old notion that the press is more credible than other information sources.<10>

In 1988, 58 percent of the public agreed with the self-description of the press and saw no bias in political reporting, according to the Pew Research Center. (And that was regarded as a dangerously low figure.) By 2004, agreement on no bias had slipped to 38 percent. The notion of a neutral, non-partisan mainstream press was, to me at least, worth holding onto," wrote Howard Fineman of Newsweek, Jan. 13. Now it's pretty much dead, at least as the public sees things. <11>

So maybe theres no credibility to erode. Maybe reporters like me should admit that all writing is subjective. Maybe we should consider the history of hazy authorship in the news: unsigned editorials; ghost-written columns, fabricated letters to the editor. Maybe the news never had any more authority than blogs in the first place.

Maybe.

Endnotes
1. http://jilltxt.net/?p=1555
2. http://jilltxt.net/?p=1557
3. http://onandonandon.typepad.com/onandon\andon/2005/09/wet_feet.html
4. The blog Boing Boing wrote up a nice little spread on these shenanigans. http://www.boingboing.net/2005/09/02/npr_interview_with_h.html
5. http://www.boingboing.net/2005/09/07/katrina_rape_murder_.html
6. http://jilltxt.net/txt/FeralHypertext.pdf
7. http://www.museumofhoaxes.com/kaycee.html
8. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/customer-reviews/0451181859/ref=cm_cr_dp_2_1/102-0912108-5936126?_encoding=UTF8&customer-reviews.sort_by=-SubmissionDate&n=283155
9. Tad Friend, "Virtual Love," New Yorker, November 26, 2001, pp. 88-99
10. http://journalism.nyu.edu/pubzone/weblogs/pressthink/2005/01/15/berk_pprd.html
11. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6813945/

(moon)light verse

Boris E. Nadary-Chandra pays this tribute to UMD's new, "Under the Wild Ricing Moon" sculpture.

Sometimes, under the wild ricing moon, the girl will build a fire out by the pond, the pond shaped like a star in the Chippewa forest. When the moon is brightest, shining like glass, shell stand on her hands and walk to the edge of the water. The ground will shake, just a little. The wind will whisper. Then silence.

Sometimes, under the wild ricing moon, Jenny is going to take her canoe off the rack down by the river. She will pull her hat down over her ears -- her blue hat with yellow, felt stars -- and she will whistle for her dog Artie. Then shell call for the owls and the wolves, and the matron whitetail deer, and the fish will peer up through the marbled water, and shell readjust her perspective.

Sometimes, under the wild ricing moon, a miserable elephant at a Midwestern zoo will pine for palm trees, will trade snow for loam, will bury cat-tails and dream the smell of African rats. Plates of sushi catered for an unhappy event, will gather bacteria to the tinny strains of Abbas Waterloo. Frat boys will build bonfires. Squirrels will chase squirrels. A woman will mow the lawn.

Sometimes, under a wild ricing moon, I will try to propel myself like a rocket man through its giant hoop. I will laugh out loud when I gaze at the giant ring and think to myself that it looks like a humongous nuva-ring. I will picture a hippo hula-hooping with the giant moon. I will have a picnic as I drink almost an entire bottle of my favorite wine. I will want to smell burning leaves. I will think about the time I lived up north.

Sometimes, under the wild ricing moon,

Jenny is going to take her canoe off the rack down by the river. She will pull her hat down over her ears -- her blue hat with yellow, felt stars -- and she will whistle for her dog Artie. Sometimes, under the wild ricing moon,

I will want to smell burning leaves. I will think about the time I lived up north. Sometimes, under the wild ricing moon,

you will remember him. You will remember the smell of lentil soup and fresh bread. You will remember how he touched your hand before he asked a question. Sometimes, under the wild ricing moon,

the frat boys are going to build bonfires. Sometimes, under the wild ricing moon, squirrels will chase squirrels. Sometimes, under the wild ricing moon, a woman will mow the lawn. Sometimes, under the wild ricing moon,

mother is going to read stories to Amanda well past bedtime. Shell ask, Are you warm enough, honey? Do you want another blanket? Sometimes, under the wild ricing moon,

the ground will shake, just a little. The wind will whisper. Then silence. Sometimes, under a wild ricing moon,

November 13, 2005

Games as cod liver oil

Gonzalo Frasca wants game makers to create games with more meat more social consequence. He wants them to be good for you.

In Videogames of the Oppressed, he says most games will continue to be for entertainment, but he asks why a healthy number of games cannot encourage critical attitudes.

Its a laudable goal. Why not use games as tools for better thinking? But Franscas argument has some holes and some weak spots. Eric Zimmerman writes a more detailed and cogent response than mine which he posted as a Riposte on EBR, and he makes several points that also occurred to me. But heres a distillation of what I thought about Frascas essay.

Frasca distinguishes between simulation and narrative. Games, he writes, are simulation. He says narrative is constituted by a fixed series of actions and descriptions, while videogames need the active participation of the user not just for interpretational matters, but also for accessing its content. He finishes this thought by writing, narrative is about what already happened while simulation is about what could happen.

There is room for much crossover here between video games and narrative. Zimmerman and others have made that point. So I would not say games and stories are mutually exclusive, but I will say this: narratives have taught social lessons and spurred people to think for millennia. Frasca does not make a convincing point that games have much to offer in this area that narrative does not already do and better.

He admits, at some length, that gamers would need to become proficient coders to add the sort of complexity he wants to add to game characters. Most gamers are not going to do that, he says, but some will.

As the public becomes more familiar with manipulating and modifying simulations, the concept of designing their own may become more appealing.

But is it a game, then? Zimmerman wonders about that in his Riposte: If gamers program detailed personalities into characters (so the gamers can watch how social interactions play out in the game), do not they begin to take the play out of the game? If characters begin acting more on plot lines than according to variables that players choose each time they play, what you are left with looks more like a short story than a game.

November 9, 2005

Everything's a story

And what does that get you?

Henry Jenkins makes some valid points about recognizing the narrative lines inherent in games. But a person wonders if he takes his point too far.

He uses Star Wars as an example. It's a movie, it's a game, it's a novel adapted from the screen play. All of these elements, Jenkins tells us, are part of one big story. A kid who watches the movie and then plays the game uses information from the movie as a backdrop for the game. The "stories" become intertwined.

Jenkins takes issue with critics who doubt the prevalence of narratives within games. He takes Jasper Juul to task. Juul wrote in a 1998 paper that "you clearly cant deduct the story of Star Wars from the Star Wars the game."

Jenkins responds:

This is a pretty old-fashioned model of the process of adaptation. Increasingly, we inhabit a world of transmedia storytelling, one that depends less on each individual work being self-sufficient than on each work contributing to a larger narrative economy. The Star Wars game may not simply retell the story of Star Wars , but it doesnt have to in order to enrich or expand our experience of the Star Wars saga.

We already know the story before we even buy the game and would be frustrated if all it offered us was a regurgitation of the original film experience. Rather, the Star Wars game exists in dialogue with the films, conveying new narrative experiences through its creative manipulation of environmental details. One can imagine games taking their place within a larger narrative system with story information communicated through books, film, television, comics, and other media, each doing what it does best, each a relatively autonomous experience, but the richest understanding of the story world coming to those who follow the narrative across the various channels.

Juul tells us the game will not stand on its own; we cannot infer the Star Wars "story" from the game. And Jenkins retorts that in "a world of transmedia storytelling" all media blend together in our reading of stories. The game affects our reading of the movie and vice versa. The movie, the game and the novel are part of one big story. Presumably so are Star Wars action figures and Star Wars drink cups at fast-food restaurants. Each medium borrows from the others; each medium colors our reading of the others.

That much of the argument is sound -- obvious, even. But the extension of the argument moves onto shakier ground. This is an overbroad conclusion: Since game players bring elements of the movie story into their game playing, the game must contain the story.

Her's the problem with that reasoning. It means that everything contains the Star wars story. If a kid plays the game after school on Wednesday, the story he constructs will certainly contain elements of the movie (if he has seen the movie), but it will also contain elements of the fantasy novel he is reading, elements of the history of ancient Egypt he is studying, and elements of a conversation he had with friends over lunch.

It's pointless, though, if we conclude that the story of Egyptian history contains elements of Star Wars. Sure, our schoolboy game player will bring elements of the movie to his understanding of Egyptian history. But if we conclude that Egyptian history is therefore "part of" the Star Wars narrative we have cast such a large theoretical net that the exercise becomes meaningless. We're left with the conclusion that everything is part of every story.

In some sense this is true. Stories exist only in our minds. All narratives twist and tangle in our memories -- all the stories we know affect our reading of any one story. But if we expand the notion of "story" that far, it no longer has any meaning or usefulness.

November 8, 2005

More games as stories

Henry Jenkins describes the world of game theorists as divided against itself: designers who thrill to the "game spaces" and spectacular graphics they create; and, storytellers -- fans of story lines in games. Jenkins wants game designers to talk about the technical guts of game design and he wants them to talk about stories.
He says designers with computer science backgrounds tend to have "too limited an understanding of narration, focusing more on the activities and aspirations of the storyteller and too little on the process of narrative comprehension."
Jenkins goes on to describe the design process for rides at Disneyland. He -- and the Disney designer he quotes -- contend that game designers can learn from Disney. Theme park rides and digital games share this: they create worlds that their players -- or riders -- inhabit. Each of those worlds is based on a story. As Jenkins tells it, narrative is crucial to successful rides and games.
I can't help but focus on one aspect of Jenkins argument: rides and games have story lines. Jenkins alludes to a key difference. He says people on a ride must "keep their hands inside" the car; gamers use their hands to muck about in the game -- and the story.
If I read a story, watch a movie, go on a ride at Disneyland, I receive the narrative. of course I interpret it. I create its meaning in my own reading of it. But the author of the story has charted a course for me.
In good reader-response fashion, we might argue that no two readers of a book or movie or theme park ride will experience the same story. The readers are active in the sense of decoding and interpreting the story. But they are passive in the sense that the author has built a narrative for readers to follow. Readers experiences and interpretations vary widely; the narrative itself does not.
Things change in the interactive realm. In games and in collaborative writing no central author controls the narrative. The story as it appears on the screen is unpredictable and ever-changing. Of course, each reader creates her own meaning -- but my point is, each reader is working from a different text in the first place.