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Archive for Language

On Lessig’s Run for Congress

Stanford Law professor Lawrence Lessig, co-founder of Creative Commons and thought leader on issues of technology and intellectual property, recently switched the focus of his advocacy and research to the reform of the U.S. legislature.

At almost the same time, longtime Congressman Tom Lantos died in office, leaving an open seat in the very district where Lessig resides. A group of peers, friends, and fans of Lessig’s work have seen this as a sign that the professor and change agent should run for Congress himself–that he might work to change the system from the inside.

Lessig is taking the suggestion seriously, and is asking for additional input as he weighs his decision whether or not to run. The centerpiece of his campaign would be a pledge that he would take–and that he will encourage other members of Congress to take–

A significant counterargument to his candidacy is that he would have to compete with Jackie Speier, a longtime California pol with the name recognition, resumé, organization, grass roots support, and progressive bonafides to crush him in an election.

But that’s not what I wrote to him about. In my email I posited that:

Adherence to the pledge opens a member of Congress up to becoming an easy target for accusations of hypocrisy, regarding any behavior, past or present, that could be spun as a violation of the pledge. (Cf. Today’s NYT feature about John McCain.)

What’s needed is an open-source methodology for grading adherence to the pledge on some kind of percentage or value scale, rather than a binary system (did she or did she not violate the pledge). Until that value scale is established, the mass media narrative of “balance” will stick to a binary assessment, allowing political opponents to apply our culturally shallow definition of hypocrisy to discredit any member of Congress who takes the pledge.

Your help will be needed on the *outside* of Congress to help develop this alternative system of assessing success in adhering to the pledge, and communicating the results of those assessments to national and regional media in ways that move the discussion forward.

Once you are within the halls of Congress yourself (and perhaps long-term it will be required for you to maximize your success), you will be unconscionably scrutinized in ways that will draw focus from the overarching objectives.

Chris Ereneta

Moreover, I am concerned that Lessig could be chewed up and spit out in a media-driven election.

This is a brilliant, thoughtful, careful man, who made the unfortunate choice of using the word “Corruption” denotatively to describe his next area of focus. After a few months of having to explain his meaning in contrast to the word’s connotations, he has switched to the expression “Change Congress“. Politicians typically succeed with voters when they leverage the established cultural connotations of language, to maximize the communication within the limits of a media soundbite.

Lessig’s much more precise language constructions might not serve him well as a politician.

He’s more careful with his words than I am, and look how many popularity contests I’ve managed to win. Is all I’m saying.

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A portrait of the toddler as a creative problem solver

Of course the key problem I need to solve creatively for myself is getting a new career.

But tonight, within the context of swirling questions about the boy’s emotional, language, and sensory development, we witnessed an act of clear ingenuity.

For a while now, the boy has enjoyed running the hallway loop while I kneel in the kitchen, juggling three beanbags. He careens gleefully around the corner and runs headlong into me. I drop the balls. We hug. He asks to do it again.

(I will note here that we intend to steer him away from encountering any actual, working jugglers, until he has become bored of this activity.)

Last night, however, he added a new variant to the game, one in which he shuts his eyes as he enters the kitchen, I suppose as a self-administered test of how he perceives distance in relation to his own velocity. Having a parent to crash into provides an excellent and dynamically adjusting safety net at the terminus of the test.

While I can respect the developmental leap he is making by conducting this experiment in the first place, I also know that it’s a really bad idea for anyone–especially a toddler–to be running with their eyes closed.

He ignored our advice to keep his eyes open, of course, so we quickly transitioned to another activity.

Tonight, however, during our contact-juggling routine, he began to experiment once again with shutting his eyes before colliding into me. This time we successfully convinced him of the importance of opening his eyes, in part by quoting Dora the Explorer: “So we can be safe!”

But by the third or fourth time around the loop following this rule, the boy was becoming bored with the activity. He was apparently dissatisfied at not having completed his experiment, but he somehow understood that shutting his eyes was no longer an option.

So he came running around the corner with his head turned 90 degrees to the side.

His eyes remained open, but he couldn’t see where he was going. He could once again run into me and the juggling balls without looking.

Mad. Genius.

I was so impressed by the ingenuity of his workaround that I let him do it a few times more.

Tomorrow night, we’ll change the rule from “Keep your eyes open.” to “Watch where you’re going.”
I am curious to see what he comes up with in response to that.

Learning through speech

Amid the raging river of content known as my Bloglines feeds are the writings of Seth Godin, a bit of a rockstar iconoclast in the marketing world. A big idea guy, or as he might posit, a small idea guy.

In a post from Sunday Godin asks: “What’s the point of talking to a group?

He suggests that giving a speech to a group of people–oration–might work to incite emotion or to sell (he sidesteps religion in posing his question), but that it falls short as a teaching tool, particularly in a culture comfortable with the remote control, YouTube, and Bloglines.

I can’t help but think Godin has extrapolated from his own boredom at a recent class or training session and concluded that his own learning pace and style is shared by everyone.

Yes, instructor-led training is often poorly conceived and executed (in the example he cites, the teacher read unwaveringly from a prepared text), constrained by politics and resources, and is often inappropriate for the material. But of course that’s why there’s been such a massive shift in the past fifteen years towards self-paced interactive learning systems–first CD-ROM “Multimedia”, then web-based–in corporations and universities. (This of course comes with its own problems, e.g. the assessment of skill acquisition using multiple choice questions.)

Sometimes when looking at the challenge of guiding a population of learners towards knowledge, having a teacher stand up in front of a group of people (even if some of those people are watching on screens from far away) is the best medium for the task. Because as Godin himself admits, sometimes engagement and human emotion are important parts of the learning equation.

Ask anyone who’s learned from remarkable teachers–there’s no technological substitute.

The Quoting Gene

Update: We’re currently exploring to what extent this behavior falls under the rubric of hyperlexia, an early-childhood syndrome that pretty much mimics what I write about below:

The boy doesn’t speak so much as quote from his stories.

“Stories”, in this case, being an umbrella term encompassing books, videos, and audio recordings, which he listens to on CD in his bedroom or in the car on Mommy’s or Daddy’s iPod.

As an example, when tonight at dinner he shouted enthusiastically: “Spaghetti, yummy!”–or to be honest, “Hnehi, yummy!” (his consonants remain a work in progress)–he was not simply stating his enthusiasm for the spaghetti and meatballs, but was in fact quoting from Leslie Patricelli’s Yummy Yucky board book.

(We know he was quoting because he followed his exclamation with the accompanying line from the book, “Worms, yucky!”)

Many of the boy’s stories he has access to in all three media, because the Thomas & Friends Industrial Complex develops many of its properties in all three, and also because of Scholastic’s consumer-repackaging of the video adaptations of children’s literature done for more than fifty years by Morton Schindel and his Weston Woods Studios.

This multimedia synergy is a perfect match for how his brain has been wired. It reinforces the stories through repetition (recorded or when we read to him), a process complements his own compulsion to store entire stories as rote memory. (We first identified this compulsion at the age of one and a half–before the video or audio was introduced. Even then he displayed a fierce need to convert a new/unknown book into a familiar/known book, by shouting at us to repeat the beginning of the book over. And over. And over.)

And since family and friends are impressed by his ability to recite entire stories, they are willing to forgive the fact that he remains incapable (or more precisely: unwilling) to answer a direct conversational question, with even a token nod, let alone a verbal response.

The traditional use of quotations in writing or public speaking is based on the premise that someone has expressed an idea using better words than I could come up with myself, so I’ll repeat what they said.

In one sense, language itself is based on this premise. I’m thinking of a round thing, that rolls and bounces. I heard someone else express this idea once in a way I’ll repeat now: “Ball.”

But the quoting gene in the boy’s DNA sequence is the same one found in the individual, who when reminded of a particular scene in, e.g. Raiders of the Lost Ark, does not simply mention it, or describe it, but rather recites it, at length, to demonstrate not merely the relevance of the cultural reference to the current moment, but to prove mastery of the source material, if only to one’s self.

It is the same gene that will propel him, at a point in between the ages of eleven and fifteen, to commit entire Monty Python routines to memory.

I would be tempted to turn the gene off if the option were presented, as I expect that it will cause him a great deal of trouble in the social arena, especially when it comes to dating.

My best hope for him, I suppose, is that he finds friends who also carry the gene, and some similar taste in movies, etc., with whom he can at least develop social skills within a subculture of quoting geekdom.

If it was good enough for his old man…

…is I believe how the expression goes.

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New Home Cinema

Home cinema” has in the past two decades been a consumer sales term used to make “home theater” sound more upscale. It uses the term “cinema” as defined (archaically, or perhaps merely in Britain) as a theater at which one would go to see a movie (as distinct from a theater at which one would view a live dramatic or dance production).

Whether due to my late 20th Century suburban California upbringing or my bachelor’s degree in Film, I tend towards the use of “cinema” as more broadly the art of motion pictures, or a subset therein. E.g. “Classic Hollywood Cinema”, “Italian Neorealist Cinema”, “New German Cinema“.

For me, then, “Home Cinema” is a broad term encompassing the full breadth of consumer “home movie” making, starting (according to Kodak) in 1923 with the release of the 16mm “Cine Kodak” Camera and the Kodascope Projector. In the 1930s, 8mm film cameras and projectors were introduced, lowering prices, and quadrupling the number of minutes per reel. Super8 followed in the 1960s, further democratizing the process of home movie making–a simple cartridge made film loading easier, and allowed for automatic ASA settings within the camera. Battery powered cameras eliminated the tiresome hand-cranking of older formats, and made light metering, zooms, and ultimately sound recording possible.

Still, the cartridges only lasted a mere 3 1/3 minutes, and editing remained for the most part in-camera. (It was possible to splice film with tape and/or cement, but since the film stock was reversal, a bad cut was irreversible.)

With the advent of “portable” video cameras (the camera was portable, but carrying the tape deck on your shoulder–murder) came the new term, “home video”. What was most revolutionary about this new format was the ability to take long, uninterrupted takes on a single two-hour tape. This further broadened the appeal of home movie making, and diminished the appeal of home movie viewing (say what you will about the blurry jitters of Super8, its length forced users to exercise discretion in their shot length, and even the most boring films were over after just a few minutes).

Editing remained a practice of the persistent, but those who invested in editing solutions, or even those who hooked two VCRs together were rewarded by the ability to edit without damaging your original source tape, and to dub a secondary audio track underneath the live sound.

Adobe Premiere helped bring home video editing to the personal computer in a limited fashion, but the shot heard ’round the world in the home digital video revolution was Apple’s decision to ship iMovie and a FireWire port with its consumer desktops and notebooks (iMac and iBook). Sony, Canon, and others had already been selling MiniDV cameras with IEEE1394 (FireWire) out ports, but Apple made the connection useful to the standard consumer–offering sophisticated digital effects, transitions, and titling without any degradation in video or audio quality. Yet with the addition of iDVD and the synchronization of the two applications in the suite called iLife, the final audience remained trapped within the living room.

Fast forward to 2005, and RSS2.0-with-enclosures–the choice of podcasters for syndication and distribution–has been adopted (along with modern blogging tools) by a small band of videomakers as a way to publish their short videos via the internet to a distributed audience. Among these pioneer videobloggers and video podcasters are parents, who use this confluence of technologies to convert the home movies of yesterday into a new digital mass medium.

This is what I call the New Home Cinema of the 21st century.

As a videoblogging parent myself, I am interested in exploring this wave of media: its aesthetics, its meaning, its economics, even issues of ethics and safety. What motivates its creators? How is this affecting children’s development, and the emotional life of the family? How does it reflect or respond to the larger culture of “reality” television programming? How does it differ or how is it the same as home movies in the past? Is this just a repackaged “America’s Funniest Home Videos”?

I hope to engage in dialogue with mediamakers working in the New Home Cinema. I’ll begin with the world of “videoblogging”, after which I hope to explore video destination sites such as Video Google and YouTube. I’ll primarily focus on videos featuring children, but will probably sidestep into pet videos and domestic-themed videos (gardening, cooking, etc.).

I expect that I will draw the line before I get to performative videos (e.g. amateur narratives, comedic sketches, lip synching) or audience-address videos (e.g. personal diaries), but the borders are often blurred and overlapping. These are of course also only possible with consumer access to the technology and tools, and as such could be included under this rubric, but I am most interested in the depiction/portrayal/simulacrum of domestic realities of home and family, so that will be where I direct my focus.

We’ll see where my exploration takes me from there.

Fucking Nunberg

Ok, so I’m a couple of weeks late on this, but what. the. fuck. was with Nunberg‘s June 21 commentary about the value of memorizing poetry.

Listen if you want to get in a mood to break your radio into tiny shards. I nearly crashed my car.

So fine. The kids aren’t forced to memorize poetry in English class any more. Nunberg acknowledges this is a natural evolution in the curriculum, and accepts that there’s no academic value to recitation per se.

But then he goes and says what a shame it is, because there is beauty and power in memorizing and speaking a poem through one’s self that cannot be replicated by simply reading the words on the page.

Which: you elitist, racist fuck.

Apparently the sounds of the entirety of American popular music have never reached the high parapets of Nunberg’s ivory tower.

Since the introduction of radio (or, ok: the 45 rpm single), it has become nearly impossible to pass through one’s adolescence and teen years without internalizing, and yes, reciting poetry through one’s self.

Here’s an idea: let’s get together all the people everywhere whose emotional lives have been forever changed by reading Byron (dead people included) and see if they can pack the same size stadium as Tori Amos.

Which, I know this is not a popularity contest, but come freaking on.

And today’s kids can spin rhymes “by heart” at Nunberg’s head until he gets dizzy, plenty of them with verse they’ve created themselves.

There’s my next idea. Let Nunberg assemble a team of his contemporaries who did endure recitation curricula, and let me round up a half dozen twelve year olds and: Poetry Slam.

I would so fire his ass.

Cute Boy Report: Talking the talk

Discernible words spoken by The Boy:

Hot dog

JD and I are not self-conscious about the absence of “mama” or “dada”.

Not at all.