Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The RIAA vendetta against webcasting, explained

Mike Masnick at TechDirt provides some background information on the RIAA push to drive webcasters out of business by raising their royalty rates to absurd highs.

The answer is that webcasters favor eclectic artists and independent labels, over the corporately standardized music represented by the RIAA.

Traditional radio, of course, is dominated by a few similarly formated stations that all play RIAA-backed music. 87% of the music you hear on the radio is from an RIAA-member record label. However ... only 44%of the music on webcasts are from RIAA labels.

Quote of the day

Stefanie Olsen at News Blog has this new finding about environmental concerns in the online teen community:

Teens who are most active online and influential with peers are also the kids most concerned about the environment, according to a study published Monday by research firm JupiterResearch. ... Green teens are more apt to listen to music, post a personal page online, respond to an online poll or converse in a chat room, according to the report.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Peer review threatened by online academic publishing

I couldn't help but smile over Andrew Leonard's Weekly World News-inspired headline on Salon yesterday:


This posting on his "How the World Works" blog covered the shutting down of the Weekly World News, and an article by economist Glenn Ellison about the future of peer review in academic writing and publishing.

The issue is over economists who are short-cutting the rigors of traditional academic publication by posting their papers online, for public consumption.

Ellison, Leonard writes, has compiled "data indicating that top economists are responsible for a shrinking share of the articles published in the best journals. And while this might be good for promoting public access to the latest in economic thought, it's bad, suggests Ellison, for the time-honored academic practice of validating the merit of new research through rigorously mediated peer-review."

While there's no question that peer review is essential to assuring the accuracy and soundness of academic research, the practice tended to centralize scholarly authority in a limited number of "elite" journals. If prominent academics bypass the journals by sharing their work online, the privileged status of the journals (and of the universities publishing them) is diminished.

This diminution of privilege begins to level the playing field between institutions of higher learning, since professors at "non elite" schools can now have electronic access to the data and other resources once physically confined to the major research centers.

And in an online world where space and location can't erect barriers to collaboration, “an up-and-coming new-growth-theory theorist at the University of Florida can coauthor a paper with a Stanford or Harvard or Chicago professor without having to move across the country."

Leonard refers to this new development as "the democratization of education." It's also a serious threat to the major research institutions that subsist lagely by commodifying knowledge.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

More generalizations about blogs and narcissism

Edward Champion's recent LA Times article "Blogging: a crash course on introspection" is probably the most muddled commentary on blogging I've encountered in the past year.

His thesis is that "confessional" writing has been "spurred by cyberspace," with narcissistic bloggers baring their most intimate secrets with shameless abandon, pandering to "our voyeuristic culture." Champion wonders "why so many writers want (or need) to expose themselves."

The number of stereotypes and sweeping generalizations Champion manages to compress into the opening paragraphs of the article is truly dazzling. If only he'd taken the time to consult an undergraduate-level textbook on modern literature, he might have also gotten some of his terminology right.

The "confessional" writers were a movement of poets (primarily) who in the 1950s and 1960s began treating an autobiographical "I" as the primary subject of the work, delving with stark frankness into emotional and sexual experiences in a way that violated previous taboos about what constituted proper poetic material.

Champion conflates confessional material with introspection, though they are not the same thing at all. T.S. Eliot, for example, was a deeply introspective poet, but he avoided personal revelations in his own work. I've heard it argued that Anne Sexton, one of the leading confessional poets, was herself not terribly introspective.

The article also seems to equate "confessional" with "narcissistic" and (though Champion doesn't use the word himself) "exhibitionist." However, the "I" of the confessional poets was, more often than not, something other than the "real" I, an invented self or persona that enabled the writer to explore a wider range of themes than his or her personal experience permitted.

What this article contends this all has to do with blogging remains a mystery. Supposedly, writers like Ginsberg and Plath and Lowell are off in the afterlife kicking themselves for having died before the Internet came along and gave them limitless opportunity to indulge in their narcissism and expose themselves to an online audience. Supposedly, a new generation of confessional writers has emerged, again "spurred by cyberspace."

If that is indeed the point of the piece, Champion selects an odd assortment of writers to prove it. His examples -- Amy DeZella, Jane Ganahl, Jonathan Ames, Josh Kornbluth and others -- are professional journalists and performers who were already working with personal materials publicly, before moving to the Internet. In their interviews, they all seem fairly discontent with their online experiences, probably because their presentational styles are better suited to print or stage than to the blogosphere.

If there really were a new confessional school of writing in the process of emerging online, I'd be interested. But Champion hasn't found one.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


Technorati Profile

Britannica isn't the Pope

Slashdot yesterday provided this link to "Errors in the Encyclopedia Britannica that have been corrected in Wikipedia."

The page lists 62 of them, in fields ranging from history and biography to math, science and linguistics. This one, for example, is on "Pushkin in Bohemia":

It is a basic fact of Russian history that the tsarist administration never allowed the poet Alexander Pushkin to go abroad, a nuisance that he deplored in Eugene Onegin and other verses. Therefore, Britannica's assertion that "frequent guests" of Karlovy Vary included Alexander Pushkin and Tsar Peter I the Great is untrue. -- Ghirlandajo10:27, 16 December 2005 (UTC)

Certainly the study of history, just like every other academic field, advances through debate, conflicting interpretations or selections of evidence, the discovery of new source materials, and the evolution of critical theories.

As I've contended before, that's the rough, sometimes contentious process through which all human knowledge must pass before it achieves status of generally accepted truth. And Britannica, as an artifact created by fallible human beings, may include the occasional facual error, without having its overall credibility and authority challenged.

But the point of this story is that Britannica is not infallible, and that authentic scholarship is happening at Wikipedia, as well.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Bloggers, editors, and I.F. Stone

At Salon today, Gary Kamiya writes in praise of old-fashioned editing and editors, and naturally touches on the blogosphere:

In the brave new world of self-publishing, editors are an endangered species. This isn't all bad. It's good that anyone who wants to publish and has access to a computer now faces no barriers. And some bloggers don't really need editors: Their prose is fluent and conversational, and readers have no expectation that the work is going to be elegant or beautifully shaped. Its main function is to communicate clearly. It isn't intended to last.

Still, he says, the better writers will be the ones who ultimately prevail in the electronic age, as quality rises above the glut of competing voices. Success will be awarded either to the highly talented writer, or to the writer who collaborates with a highly talented editor.

Kamiya's piece reminded me of a tribute to another of my heroes, the rebel journalist I.F. Stone, that Dan Froomkin posted back on July 9.

"The best blogger ever," Froomkin wrote, "died in 1989 at the age of 81." The I.F. Stone Weekly, which ran from 1953 to 1971, was essentially a paper blog. Stone's newsletter was composed as a miscellany of short articles, opinions and commentary on material written by other journalists, like today's blog.

The newsletter's other blog-like quality was that it was unapologetically opinionated and passionate, "a far cry from the passionless prose that afflicts so much mainstream political reporting."

Like so many of today's top bloggers, Stone built a community of loyal readers around his voice — an informed voice, full of outrage and born of an unconcealed devotion to decency and fair play, civil liberty, free speech, peace in the world, truth in government, and a humane society.

Froomkin criticizes the feeble attempts at blogging so many newspapers have launched, which he complains are written "in monotone." Stone's informal, impassioned, energetic style is what the print-reporter-turned-blogger ought to be emulating.

As Kamiya contends, editors have a significant role to play in the future of online media. But both writers and editors need to be attuned to the way that blogging involves a different approach to voice from the newspaper column.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Quote of the day

The important point that I'm trying to make is that storytelling has nothing, whatsoever, to do with logic. Logic is a limping stepchild of the true processes of the spirit. It's an illusion. It's a defective little parlor trick. Associations are the way that we perceive. Electrical connections caused by the juxtapositions of experience. That's the way we are really built, and storytelling takes into account that truth.
--David Milch on his vision of HBO's surreal John from Cincinnati

I wish Milch had been allowed to complete Deadwood, which was a far superior show. But I like what he has to say about perception being associative, and the ultimate illusory quality of logic.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Quote of the day

Copyright developed in the age of the printing press, and was designed to fit with the system of centralized copying imposed by the printing press. But the copyright system does not fit well with computer networks, and only draconian punishments can enforce it.

The global corporations that profit from copyright are lobbying for draconian punishments, and to increase their copyright powers, while suppressing public access to technology. But if we seriously hope to serve the only legitimate purpose of copyright -- to promote progress, for the benefit of the public -- then we must make changes in the other direction.

Richard M. Stallman, in the Abstract to his talk "Copyright vs. Community in the Age of Computer Networks," before the Computer Science Club at the University of Waterloo.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure

Robert Blechman's insightful article, at blogcritics, on how science fiction has depicted time travel in terms of the dominant media of the time (vehicles and roads in the print era, portals and beams of light in the early television days), set me thinking about one of my favorite movies of all time, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.

Blechman's piece reviews Paul Levinson's novel The Plot to Save Socrates, which presents an intricate tangle of time jumps instead of a linear journey to another age and a return trip back. Blechman notes that Levinson's characters "hypertext" across time.

Like Dr. Who, the title characters of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure use a phone booth as a time machine, but the movie (released in 1989) is eerily prescient of student research techniques of the 21st century.

In the film, Bill and Ted are high school friends whose plan to become heavy metal stars is threatened by the fact that they're both failing history. When they need to give an "excellent" report in order to fulfill their strangely significant destiny, a force from the future provides a time machine so they can travel into the past and capture historical figures (Abraham Lincoln, Billy the Kid, an hilarious Socrates, and others) to give the report for them.

Many of our students have become Bill and Ted. They hyperlink, following trails of embedded associations rather than pre-structured routes laid out by inductive or deductive logic. They gather raw source material, often with randomness that frustrates their professors, and present what they've collected as finished work, something they view as original because of their novel juxtapositions of items that had never been brought together before.

Our students, I believe, sincerely interpret what they do as research. We academics, of course, dismiss this kind of work as slapdash laziness. The disagreement represents a gap in training and experience in professional research. It also represents an age gap, however, between one generation that's grown up with hypertext and the internet, and another that mastered research techniques using print.

Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure should probably be required viewing for both students and professors in every Introduction to Research Writing class around the country, with a question for class discussion: "Did Bill and Ted make an excellent report? Why, or why not?"

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

More bad news for print publications

NPR's Morning Edition has carried a story about another blow to traditional print publications. This time, though, no one's blaming the Internet, since the problem originates with the United States Postal Service.

Postal rates for magazines are scheduled to rise on July 15, an average of 13%, but the increases will not be uniform. Because they're not automated to USPS standards, small magazines like the American Poetry Review will see a steeper hike (20% or higher) than the big titles like Time, which may see increases of less than 10%.

To the editors of the small magazines, the inequities seem both unjust and suspicious.

NPR interviewed Teresa Stack of The Nation and Jack Fowler of the National Review, publications on opposites sides of the political divide that are nevertheless united in criticism of the USPS policy that will cause enormous increases in mailing costs.

"For a small magazine, $100,000 is a major amount of money. Opinion journals, because they are opinion journals, are often kryptonite to potential advertisers. Therefore, we are much more dependent on lower postal rates than the big boys."

The big boys in this case are the magazines published by media giants like Time Warner. Professor Robert McChesney (University of Illinois-Champaign) believes, in fact, that Time Warner was one of the architects of the new rate policy, which in effect eliminates a "periodical subsidy" that's been in effect since the beginning of the postal service.

That subsidy was created in the first place because "the founding fathers wanted to subsidize the delivery of newspapers and magazines," in the belief (as McChesney says) "that self-government requires a diverse and vibrant press. And the genius of the postal subsidy then, as now, is that it doesn't favor a particular viewpoint. It doesn't allow the government to pick which magazine gets it and which doesn't."

One might argue, as the USPS and Time Warner do, that this is no attempt to undermine a free and vibrant press, in order to favor corporate media. It may be true that this is simply a case of economic concerns trumping the needs of a democratic society, which is perhaps an even sadder interpretation of the situation.

In either case, corporate media continues to grow, and the independent press is further diminished.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Knowledge, information, and generations

Loyd Case at ExtremeTech wrote a fascinating comparison of how different generations view information:

"I think ... that the baby boomers tend to view information as simply words, pictures and diagrams. My older daughter regards information as something that's mutable, and that flows, not as something fixed and chiseled in stone. We see that on the Internet, too, as people experiment with mashups of different media, with information (data) mixing freely with algorithms to create different ways of looking at the world."

Case attributes the difference to the difficulties my generation faced in simply acquiring information the old-fashioned way, through laborious research using alphabetized categories and the Dewey Decimal system, in contrast to the ease with which today's students can locate almost any fact with a few keystrokes. My own students give me disbelieving looks when I tell them that a 30-second piece of research they've performed on LexisNexis would have taken up to an hour during my undergraduate days.

Case contends that this ease of finding information is also "creating a generation of skeptical kids who can better sort out bad information from good information." Our generation, by contrast, "had to rely on editors and peer review to uncover bad information. Even then, bad information would propagate, and would often take years to correct."

While much hand-wringing occurs each time a factual error is discovered on Wikipedia, it's astonishing how quickly mistakes are corrected online, bad data replaced with good data, the vigilance of the online information community in spotting errors. The result, Case says, is that the new generation is one of "editors, synthesizers, and creators" equipped with tools to build knowledge structures we could never have imagined.