Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Heart of the Matter

If your heart is pounding, it may not necessarily be love.

I was at dinner with my family in 2001 when my heart started beating rapidly. No, it wasn't because we were having meat loaf for dinner. It turned out that I was experiencing an episode of atrial fibrillation, which is defined by the American Heart Association as follows:
Atrial fibrillation is a disorder found in about 2.2 million Americans. During atrial fibrillation, the heart's two small upper chambers (the atria) quiver instead of beating effectively. Blood isn't pumped completely out of them, so it may pool and clot. If a piece of a blood clot in the atria leaves the heart and becomes lodged in an artery in the brain, a stroke results. About 15 percent of strokes occur in people with atrial fibrillation.

Atrial fibrillation, or "afib", is more likely to occur in the elderly, or in patients whose heart has been compromised by illness or surgery. I don't fit any of the regular profiles, and as my cardiologist said, other than the afib, I have the heart of an eighteen-year-old (the bad news is he wants it back!)

Since that initial episode, I have taken a variety of medications in an attempt to control my afib episodes and I have undergone two cardiac ablations:
Radiofrequency ablation may be effective in some patients when medications don't work. In this procedure, thin and flexible tubes are introduced through a blood vessel and directed to the heart muscle. Then a burst of radiofrequency energy is delivered to destroy tissue that triggers abnormal electrical signals or to block abnormal electrical pathways.
After my second ablation failed to completely curtail my heart's fibrillation, my perplexed cardiologist suggested that I have a "mutant" heart. I'm waiting for the super powers. As these two "non-invasive" procedures have only been partly successful, I remain on beta blockers and blood thinners to control the worst of the symptoms.

I relate this information, not to solicit sympathy (although I am accepting any and all donations), but rather as an introduction to a piece I wrote concerning the heart as a metaphor that I presented at the 2005 Media Ecology Association Convention, and a version of which I have posted at a new blog, The Heart of the Matter.

As I was lying on my back after my first ablation (you must remain still for eight hours after the procedure), I began to think about the heart, an organ which most of us take for granted. That didn't help me get to sleep, so I began to think about the heart as a metaphor. It occurred to me that the heart, as related in popular culture, performs functions other than the pumping of blood. To quote from my paper:
The metaphor of the heart is not about the circulation of blood or the regulation of physical health. As portrayed in popular culture, the heart is the site of emotions, of certain deep thoughts that correspond to the true beliefs of an individual. The heart is also portrayed as a source of wisdom that can be tapped if we pay attention to it.
This did succeed in making me drowsy, but I was able to begin a line of thought about the reason why conceptual metaphors, like that of the heart, persist in our culture, despite changes in dominant media forms, social structures and languages. The results can be found at the link above, and I welcome comments.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Bridging The Intellectual Property Divide

Mark Helprin’s Op Ed piece in this past Sunday’s New York Times, A Great Idea Lives Forever. Shouldn’t Its Copyright?, raises issues of intellectual property and inheritance rights that strike close to home. Like real estate or other tangible properties, Helprin claims that copyrighted works are real and as part of the estate of the author, should be passable from generation to generation.

Helprin claims that the writers of the US Constitution gave us the ability to stretch royalty payments off into some hypothetical event horizon with the phrase “for limited times.” Currently, a copyrighted work can be kept out of the public domain for 70 years. With our increasing life spans, that just isn’t enough. For example, at 56 I am at the exact midpoint of my life. If my father had written a cash-generating work when I was in my 20’s, by the time I reach 90 I would have to find gainful employment all over again.

But Helprin isn’t just concerned with his own solvency during his twilight years; he is thinking about his generations yet unborn. Helprin writes:

“Were I tomorrow to write the great American novel (again?), 70 years after my death the rights to it, though taxed at inheritance, would be stripped from my children and grandchildren.”

I don’t currently own any intellectual property, but would like to acquire some. However, if Helprin could also arrange to make all perpetual copyrights retroactive, I might have some real claims. Family oral tradition informs me that language was invented by a distant ancestor. For the sake of possible future legal filings, let’s call him Blob Bechman:

Blob: Eureka! I’ve just created and copyrighted language!
Mog: What?
Blob: I’m sorry. You can’t say that without paying me a royalty.
Mog: But…
Blob: No. You can’t say that either.
Mog: Why?
Blob: Nope. Not that either.

Several eons later, again, according to family tradition, a direct ancestor presented the Ten Commandments to the Israelites:

Moses: Here are the Lord’s Commandments, copyright 6000 BCE. Any other nation that wishes to follow any of these rules must tithe to me or else live by their own rules.

Other nations: Suits us.

More recently, from my Hellenic family branch:

Group of Bards: Homer, open source is no longer permitted for rhapsodists. You can't go around all of Ithaca using our material. It's copyrighted!
Homer: Ye Gods!

And this just in: The descendents of Socrates are suing the descendents of Plato for copyright infringement.

While I agree with Helprin that most living authors aren’t paid enough, I disagree with his contention that intellectual works are a form of property, like real estate. Perpetuating the distinction between the intellectual property “haves” and “have nots” would inhibit complete public discourse, shackle future artists and favor those who can afford, down to the nth generation, to keep up the royalty payments.

For example, young documentary film makers today have special problems including archival footage in their works because they can’t afford the fees involved. And it is ridiculous that only well funded corporations can afford to sing “Happy Birthday to You” to each other.

I believe that it is a mistake to use the term “property” with regard to creativity. True intellectual "property" is a relationship between freely conversing individuals (who follow all Ten Commandments), at least after the author’s death.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

My Presentation at Sonic Foundry Conference

I managed to sneak a few words about Media Ecology into my presentation at Sonic Foundry's "Unleash the Buzz" conference.

The entire conference was recorded using their Mediasite technology. My presentation concerned my institution's experience implementing the regular recording of classroom lectures and can be found here.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Yet Another Award

As I mentioned in my previous post, I have been nominated by Paul Levinson for the Thinking Blogger Award. I accept this award humbly, gratefully and thoughtfully.

As part of my acceptance, I am now required to "tag" five other blogs that I consider worthy of the award. Normally, I would include Lance Strate's blog, but since Paul beat me to it, I won't burden Lance with the need to identify an additional five thinking blogs. Also, I would normally nominate my other blog The Savage Mind on Madison Avenue, but that would just be recursive. So, without further ado, here are my nominations for "5 blogs that make me think":
  1. Crooked Timber by a variety of contributors
  2. Unclaimed Territory by Glenn Greenwald (at
  3. Ghost in the Wire by Ken Ruffo
  4. Talking Points Memo by Joshua Micah Marshall
  5. Some Guy with a Website by August J. Pollack

Each of these bloggers is asked to do the following:

  1. Choose five other bloggers, as worthy as you (notify them, as I have notified you, and write up a nifty little post like this)
  2. Include in your post this link to the origin of the Thinking Blogger Awards,

  3. Display the "Thinking Blogger Award" in some permanent spot on your sidebar or wherever with a link to the post that you wrote (here is an alternate silver version if the gold doesn't fit the sophisticated color-scheme your of blog).

That's it!

Thanks again, Paul!

Thinking about the Thinking Blog Award

(with apologies to the spirit of Jack Benny)

I was walking down a dark Internet alley when suddenly I was accosted by Paul Levinson.

"Your top five nominees for the Thinking Blog Award or your life!" he demanded.
"Well?" he finally said.

"I'm thinking! I'm thinking!" I exclaimed.

(More to follow)

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Look What’s Happened to Me!
(I Can’t Believe Myself)

For super heroes, evolution is not a theory.

Our continuing pop culture fascination with mutant super humans suggests a hidden subtext promoting evolution over creationism. Like many of my generation, I’ve seen just about every superhero TV show or movie (except The Fantastic Four, nuff said). I used to watch the original Adventures of Superman when I was a boy. I caught the original Batman TV series, The Greatest American Hero (origin of the best TV theme song ever!), Wonder Woman, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, Buffy, TV-Star Trek series I, II, III, IV and V, and so on. (I include Star Trek even though the super powered characters were generally non-human). The latest chapter in video-hero evolution is Heroes, which each Monday night kicks 24’s butt.

Recently I’ve seen all the old and new Superman movies (should I say golden and tarnished silver age?), Batman Begins (which, compared to the other Batman films should have been called Batman Gets It Right), X-Men, Dos Equis, Triple Sec, and, of course, Spidey. (Does anyone besides me think that making Peter Parker a “webmaster” in the current Spider-Man comic series is just a little too cute?)

So here I am, a fifty-something baby boomer who has been brought up via the mass media on the Nietzschian belief that there can be supermen, that evolution is leading inexorably to human beings who can fly through the air, lift heavy things, cling to walls, change the weather (back at you, Mark Twain!), bend space and time and stretch their bodies like silly putty.

And why not? When you compare humanity’s current evolutionary state to our closest monkey’s uncle, it is clear that we are far superior. Our brains are so large that we only need to use 10% and often use much less. Every year some Olympian or Marathoner runs faster, jumps higher, swims more synchronously. To your average orangutan, we must seem like the types of Super Hominid into which they’d all like to evolve. But for those of us already at the top of the evolutionary trail, where is there to go but up, as in “up, up and away!”?

One clear advantage we have over the other apes is the ability to imagine the next steps in evolution and the amount of spandex that will be involved. No longer dependent on random genetic mutation to help us forage more efficiently for food or increase our ability to procreate, we can conceive of the types of super abilities that enable us to best the evil mutants who clearly didn’t get the evolutionary memo.

Evolution is no longer an environmental issue: It is a moral issue, which brings us back to creationism. If the purpose of evolution is not survival, but the triumph of good over evil, and if these stories are told with the aid of continually improving CGI, what chance have the stories collected in the Bible? If our morals and mores depend not on divine direction but on random mutation, what gives with that old time religion? One of the creepier aspects of Superman Returns, among many creepy things, was the rather obvious portrayal of the Man of Steel as a sort of divine intervener. Can a feature based on Ruben Bolling’s Godman be far behind?

By the way, I missed Heroes this week, but I did see Spider-Man 3 over the weekend.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Battle of the Bandwidths

Computers pro and con: Old school battles new school in a paradigmatic shift.

At about the same time this article, "Seeing No Progress, Some Schools Drop Laptops" appeared in the New York Times, I delivered a presentation on Internet-enabled communication at a Sonic Foundry's Rich Media Users’ Conference in Madison, Wisconsin.

The New York Times article discusses how schools systems are not finding any benefit to student test scores from their adoption of laptop computers. Some school districts, such as Liverpool, NY, are abandoning their laptop programs entirely, citing high maintenance costs and students' use of the laptop to surf the web, hack into local businesses and access Internet pornography. Educators find that there is no difference in test scores between students given laptops and those who learn the three R's using more traditional media such as textbooks and other written materials.

Sonic Foundry's Mediasite™ recorder, which is in use at my educational institution, is one of several competing products that may be revolutionizing the use of computers and the Internet in the classroom. Mediasite™ combines into one source the video, audio and Powerpoint slides presented in a classroom lecture. This combination of several sources is the “rich” in rich media. Recordings are stored permanently on a server and can be viewed via video streaming from anywhere in the world.

So here we have a technological opposition, a battle of the bandwidths as it were. On the one hand we have old school academics who can't figure out how to effectively use the laptop computer in their classrooms. On the other we see pedagogic innovators who embrace the opportunities generated by computer-based technologies. Though the discussion revolves around the effective use of technology, the real conflict may be between a space-binding medium (paper-based books) and a medium that binds both space and time equally (Internet-connected computers).

Harold Innis, a founding father of Media Ecology, argued that the nature of a civilization is determined by the characteristics of its dominant communication medium. Cultures that carved their stories into stones were time-binders and tended to be conservative in terms of change and stable in terms of social hierarchy. Stones were hard to carry any distance, but lasted a long time. This is an example of a time-binding medium.

Papyrus is an example of a space-binding medium, which the Romans used to command a vast empire. Papyrus could be carried easily and allowed the Romans to send orders over great distances, but it didn't last very long, and was subject to destruction by fire and other forces. Cultures that used more portable materials were able to command vast empires, but lacked the stability of stone or clay cultures.

The Internet, upon which rich media technology is dependent, may be the first instance in human history of a medium which binds both space and time equally. The ubiquity of the World Wide Web is counterbalanced by the permanence of server storage and retrieval, a combination I have called the “Memory Well.”

A school system which based its pedagogy on the Internet would have to change its notion of what knowledge is and how to communicate that knowledge to its students. Just as the handheld calculator freed students from the need to memorize the multiplication tables, the Memory Well may force a reassessment of what needs to be taught and how to teach it. This may be the crux of the dispute between the pro and con computer forces.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Attending Rich Media Conference

Light blogging at the beginning of this week as I am presenting at a rich media conference in Madison, Wisconsin. I'll post some thoughts concerning rich media's time and space-binding characteristics later.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Drawing From The Internet Memory Well

As internet technologies provide access to media memories, everyone will have to watch what they say--over and over again.

In the current online issue of Newsweek, Eleanor Clift alludes to Marshall McLuhan's prophecy that externalizing aspects of the human nervous system will result in a significant change in our media ecology. We used to hear about news items “disappearing down the memory hole." With the advent of YouTube, blogs, Google, Lexis-Nexis and other web-based resources, we can now draw almost anything from the Internet-based Memory Well. Clift notes that:
Thanks to technology, what goes on in the confines of Congress doesn't have to stay in the chambers’ corridors. “There’s no more transparent moment than putting something on the Internet,” says Karina Newton, director of new media for Speaker Pelosi. It’s her job to glean the moments and put them out on YouTube, and what breaks through is sometimes a surprise. Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank being heckled by Republicans and asking, “Does whining come out of my time,” drew nearly 50,000 hits. A 10-minute clip of bureaucratic jousting about what constitutes a power-point presentation attracted almost 100,000 viewers. “It’s where the message and the medium come together,” says Newton, echoing Marshall McLuhan, whose “the medium is the message” defined the television age.

The Memory Well will redefine private vs. public areas. As Joshua Meyerowitz described in No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior, the older mass media have already blurred the distinctions between adult and child, between genders and between social classes. Even so, some areas remained more “hidden” than others.

When we lived under conditions of primary orality, human memory was the only way to transmit cultural heritage from one generation to the next. During the manuscript and print eras, written documents replaced memory as the primary means of transmitting information over time and space. In the early years of electronic media, only a few had access to external memory devices to record and preserve our culture. An electronic broadcast would be sent to many, but then disappear into the "aether."

With video cell phones, cheap editing technology and internet access, what once was available to few is available to many. What was private has now become public. And the Internet has added a readily accessible Memory Well to enable cultural recall and dissemination. Items dropped down the Memory Well no longer vanish forever. We now can retrieve video, audio, text and photos at will.

The ability easily to retrieve many if not all of our artifacts will bring about an ontological shift in our culture. For example, in oral cultures a person’s word was his bond. Without written records to provide proof, people had to depend on the spoken word to bind agreements. Our political leaders must now cope with a new power the Memory Well has given to the spoken word. This has profound implications for politics, education, social policy and the mass media themselves, including broadcast news organizations and the press.

Jon Stewart, among many others, already makes great use of the Memory Well to call our leaders and celebrities to account. Juxtapositioning what they say now with what they said then generates laughter now, but will have more dire consequences in the future as the new Media Well-based standards take hold.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Had I But World Enough, and Time,
This Blogging, Lady, Were No Crime

One thing I've discovered about blogging is that, to be done effectively you have to do it often. If you don't post frequently, you aren't really serious about being a blogger. One problem is that posting takes time and something original to say, both of which I have little.

This doesn't seem to be a problem for other bloggers, like my friend Lance Strate over at his eponymous Lance Strate's Blog Time Passing, where he seems to be able to post something new and interesting almost daily. I can only assume that he has abandoned his other responsibilities and devoted himself almost entirely to his blog. (It's an addiction Lance. You can get help!)

Another problem is that my hit rate is low and I am reluctant to post anything new until I'm reasonably certain that the current post has been given sufficient play. Of course, I fudge on this a little, since my hit rate is so low that a single post would be sufficient for the entire year. I assume that if more people were reading my posts, I would find more time to write posts and more topics to post about. And, if more people then linked to, and purchased from, my Amazon link, I'm sure my productivity would be Dickensian.

A third problem is that I’m not quite sure what my purpose is in blogging. There are as many types of blogs out there as there are bloggers, but what type of blogger am I? What is my personal reason for sharing my writings via the Internet? Let's look at some metaphors for blogging.

Is it a "public dairy," where I record my experiences on a daily basis? Frequent readers of this blog (hi Mom!) have probably noticed that I've posted little information about my personal life or experiences. There are many blogs, that are of a more personal nature, like St. George's University medical student Ishie's A Caribbean M.D. is Good Enough For Me!, which she uses as a way to maintain contact with her family and friends back home. Though open to the world, this blog is really meant to be read by her circle of friends and family. My purpose isn't to make public my personal life, although I have played with the idea of a separate, private blog to share with my posse. Again, its a world and time problem.

Is it a personal “Op Ed” page? Paul Levinson’s blog and yes, Lance’s site, are examples of this, at least among those with a Media Ecology slant. I don’t know if my type of writing is Op Editable as I can’t imagine it ever appearing opposite the editorials of the New York Times or the Washington Post. I don’t speak from the authority granted by public or private service, or from personal expertise on a given topic. At best, I see my posts as comparable to the lighter, non-serious columnists like Dave Barry or Maureen Dowd. (Yes that was a slam.)

Is it a “digital press” where I post news reporting and commentary? Good examples of this is Glenn Greenwald's Unclaimed Territory, now hosted at Salon, or Josh Micah Marshall's Talking Points Memo on the left side of the political spectrum, or Matt Drudge's Drudge Report on the right. There is no doubt that these blogs now act as a counterpoint to and critique of the reporting of the main stream media, and that they now have a place in the political process of our country. My blog is not necessarily concerned with public affairs, although I do, from time to time comment on current events. This is just a bad habit I picked up in elementary school that I haven't been able to outgrow.

Is it “show and tell?” Maybe my metaphor for blogging is also a result of my early school days. Maybe this is one elaborate "show and tell" where I find something that interests me to bring in as frequently as I can. The key phrase here is "that interests me."

One of the things I like about blogging is that there are no filters, no gatekeepers and no censors. I post whatever I like, grammatical warts and all. I have to admit that one of my purposes in starting a blog was to get “out there” some of the things I’ve thought and written about. Then I go back and read what I've written to see what it is I've been thinking about. If it’s especially good, I might read it more than once. There is even the possibility of recycling older posts for further review and reflection. (What, you’ve never heard of reruns or sequels?) I am my own publisher, editor and reading public. What a rush!

I’d like to think that the thoughts expressed in this post are unique and original to blogging, but I’ve just discovered that there is an entire genre of self-reflexive blogs that have already been here, done this.

Oh well. I’d better quit now before I get hooked!