Monday, April 20, 2009

Blogging and Reformation

Ian Farrant, an outstanding student in my Interactive Media class at Fordham University, shared some videos with the class that I thought were worth including here. This one in particular speaks to the revolutionary nature of the internet and online communications:

If Gutenberg's invention of the printing press with movable type made the Protestant Reformation possible, perhaps blogging, and other aspects of Web 2.0 and social media, will allow for the long awaited, long overdue, Islamic Reformation?

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Slow of Speech and of a Slow Tongue

So, as I related in my last blog post, yesterday was my daughter's Bat Mitzvah at Congregation Adas Emuno, and it all went exceedingly well. She read and sang several prayers together with our spiritual leader, Cantor Kerith Shapiro, who was very much committed to religious inclusion. The service was simplified and abbreviated, and quite beautiful, and there were many members of the local autism community present, including Sarah's teachers and classmates, as well as members of our congregation.

My son read some prayers for her as well, and I did the Torah reading for her. And then I gave a short speech on her behalf. So, I thought I would share some of my remarks with you here:

The Torah portion that I just read from, Parshat Shemini, tells us how Aaron, the brother of Moses, became the first Priest of God's sanctuary. But the partnership between Aaron and Moses began much earlier, at the time that Moses encountered the burning bush, and God commanded Moses to tell Pharaoh to "let my people go." You see, Moses was a reluctant prophet, and he told God, "I am not a man of words…, for I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue." And we can understand this to mean that Moses, who in our tradition was the greatest prophet there ever was, Moses, the prince of Egypt, Moses the redeemer, Moses the lawgiver, that Moses was a man who had a disability.

Moses was slow of speech, and of a slow tongue, and so God told him that his big brother Aaron would go with him, and that Aaron would be his spokesman, and speak his words for him. And so it was, with the help and support of his family, and his community, that Moses was able to accomplish great deeds, despite his disability.

And so it is today that Sarah becomes Bat Mitzvah, which means Daughter of the Commandments, the very same commandments that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai, the very same commandments that Moses then gave to Aaron for safekeeping. And Sarah becomes a Daughter of the Commandments with the help and support of her family and community.
At this point, I proceed to thank everyone who made this day possible, and I'll leave that part out. After finishing up the acknowledgments, I ended with the following:

We will now present Sarah with her very own prayer shawl, as a Daughter of the Commandments. This tallit has been waiting to be worn for over a half a century. Sarah's grandmother, Betty Strate, gave it to me for Sarah to use, explaining that when I was born, my father, whom Benjamin is named after, brought it home for me to wear on my Bar Mitzvah. But before my Bar Mitzvah, I was given a beautiful new tallit from Israel, and so this little shawl was put away for many, many decades. It is now my pleasure to make it available to Cantor Shapiro to present to my daughter, Sarah.

And from there, the service continued to its conclusion, followed by a wonderful celebration. And later, after it was all over, I was moved to write a poem, related to the speech I gave, which I posted on MySpace, and which I also want to share with you here.


Written for my daughter on the occasion of her Bat Mitzvah, April 18, 2009

I am not a man of words
No I am not
For I am slow of speech
I am slow
And of a slow tongue
I am slow
I am
The words will not come
The words will not stay
My voice will not carry
I am not a man of words
I am not
Not a man
Of words
I am slow
Slow of speech
And of a slow tongue
Tied into knots
I cannot speak well
I am not eloquent
I cannot find the words
I am not understood
I am slow
I am slow
So how can I speak
How can I speak
How can I speak to the god-king?
When I am of a slow tongue
And I am slow of speech
And I am not a man of words
How can I do anything
When I am slow?

Your brother will go with you
He will go
Go with you
Your brother will go with you
To see the god-king
Your brother will help you
He will help
Will help you
Your brother will help you
So you won't be alone
And he will speak your words
Yes he will speak
Speak your words
The words you cannot
He will be your tongue
When you are slow
He will be your voice
When you are silent
He will speak for you
And you won't be alone
And together you will make miracles
Where apart there are none
Together in words
And together in acts
We will make miracles
When apart there were none

Friday, April 17, 2009

A Special Day

Tomorrow will be a special day for my family, as we will be celebrating my daughter Sarah's Bat Mitzvah. Sort of. Since she has moderate autism, the service will be an abbreviated one, Sarah will read and sing a few prayers, Benjamin will read a few for her, and I'll be doing the Torah reading on her behalf. The important point is that it wil be her special day, and many of her teachers, friends, and classmates will be present. It's going to be a special event for the local autism community, as well as a meaningful moment for the Congregation Adas Emuno community.

So, in anticipation of this event, I want to include in this post an interesting video that was created by Tiffany Shlain called The Tribe. Tiffany is the daughter of the California surgeon, and media ecologist, Leonard Shlain (for whom I have said many prayers of healing at Adas Emuno). You can get background information about the film and filmmakers at the website for The Tribe. But here's the synopsis:

What can the most successful doll on the planet show us about being Jewish today? Narrated by Peter Coyote, the film mixes old school narration with a new school visual style. The Tribe weaves together archival footage, graphics, animation, Barbie dioramas, and slam poetry to take audiences on an electric ride through the complex history of both the Barbie doll and the Jewish people- from Biblical times to present day. By tracing Barbie's history, the film sheds light on the questions: What does it mean to be an American Jew today? What does it mean to be a member of any tribe in the 21st Century?

So, what are you waiting for? Watch it already, it's less than 20 minutes long:

[Sorry, at some point after I posted this entry, the video was made private.] This video actually says a lot about my son and his peers in the Jewish community. The form of the film interestingly mimics the discontinuities of electronic media, from television's flow of broken narrative segments and interrupting commercial messages, to our clicking around and following various links on the web.

But I also want to add something here that relates to the autism community, and I was fortunate to find the following video on a blog post by one of my MySpace friends with the profile name Flame in the Snow. The video is described as follows:

Slideshow of the transition of autistic author, artist, singer-songwriter Donna Williams from infancy to adulthood with a parallel journey told through her artworks.

I have read a number of the books that Donna Williams has written about her experiences growing up and living with autism, and really love them, so I'm very happy to include this video here:

So, that's all for now, I'll let you know how it went. Oh, and let me leave you with a favorite picture of my daughter and me, taken at a fundraiser for autism a couple of years ago.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Man-Cause and Effect

Writer William Safire, who for decades has authored the "On Language" column for the New York Times Magazine, is no stranger to general semantics, as evidenced by his most recent entry, I Don’t Do ‘Do’ in the April 10, 2009 issue. The brief reference occurs in the second section of his column, under the heading "War on Man-Causation" which begins like this:

When Janet Napolitano, the new secretary of homeland security, testified before Congress, she caused a stir by ostentatiously avoiding the use of a certain familiar word central to the mission of her department: terrorism. A reporter for the German magazine Der Spiegel asked, “Does Islamist terrorism suddenly no longer pose a threat to your country?” Napolitano replied, “I presume there is always a threat from terrorism,” and also noted that she had referred to “man-caused disasters.” She added, “This is perhaps only a nuance, but it demonstrates that we want to move away from the politics of fear.”

This is certainly a noteworthy bit of rhetorical invention, and as Safire proceeds to take note of it, he reminds us of general semantics' founding father, old Alfred K.:

The Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan commented: “Ah. Well, this is only a nuance, but her use of language is a man-caused disaster.” Noonan makes an excellent point of light: a word is not the thing itself. (That was the message of the general semanticist Alfred Korzybski, famous for “a map is not the territory.”) Renaming terrorism “man-caused disaster” does not begin to deal with the real thing that is terrorism.

An excellent bit of snark on Noonan's part, but of course, Safire himself begs the question of what is the "real thing" that is terrorism, or whether there is any "real thing" in the first place. Don't get me wrong, I am with Safire in the sense that there are real events that occur that involve the murder of innocent civilians by nongovernmental and nonmilitary organizations and groups.

Of course, sometimes any death of innocent civilians is called terrorism, but there are operational definitions that can be brought to bear, albeit with less than perfect boundaries, to distinguish individuals and groups operating as criminals from groups engaged in violence out of political (or religious) motivations; likewise we can also differentiate violence committed by organized police or military where there is at least some offical chain of command and semblance of accountability, even if it is the last resort of an interntional war crimes tribunal.

I think there's also cause for separating violence committed against civilians from violence committed against military and police officials, even though the latter is sometimes conflated with the former. But there is a sense in which a political uprising might with some legitimacy attack the organized forces and officials of what is perceived to be an illegitimate or otherwise tyranical government or invader, as opposed to targeting noncombatants and anyone outside of the chain of command.

When I was growing up, and the Vietnam War was raging, there were the regular armies of North and South Vietnam, the latter aided by the US, the former less directly by China and the Soviet Union, and there was also the Viet Cong, insurgents largely working within South Vietnamese territory on behalf of the Communists to the North. And the type of warfare they were engaged in would probably be called terrorism today, but back then it was called "guerilla" warfare. "Guerilla" is Spanish for "little war" and the term dates back to the Naopleonic invasion of the Iberian penisula at the start of the 19th century. As a child, I always thought that they were saying "gorilla" warfare, and you can imagine the mental picture I drew based on that!

But I digress. And really, the point I had set out to make is that "terrorism" viewed from a general semantics perspective is a high-level abstraction, and the only way to deal with it sensibly is to bring it down to more concrete terms, provide operational definitions (being careful not to reify them), and turn the single concept into an array of different, albeit related phenomena.

Taken to an extreme, we might say that each action that could or has been labeled as "terrorism" is an individual case and should be evaluated on its own terms, independent of any such categorization, and there is much to be said for such an approach. The devil is in the details, as the saying goes, but the danger as well is in not seeing the forest for the trees. We need to generalize, it's entirely useful to do so, but probably best to maintain our generalizations at a lower level than that of "terrorism" as a unitary concept. And it would be best to avoid what Wendell Johnson called "dead-level abstracting," that is, sticking to the same level of abstraction. To avoid it, we need to go back and forth, comparing the general to the specific, and the specific to the general.

To be stuck only on specifics, to deny the possibility of generalization and categorization in favor of a complete and absolute sense of difference, is very much in keeping with cultural and moral relativism, and postmodernism, and this brings us back to Safire's column, because in all fairness, he had his sights set on another issue:

Napolitano, however, is to be hailed for breaking the taboo that has afflicted the word man. Political correctness, driven by the abhorrence of sexism in language, has banished such phrases as the forgotten man, man on horseback, century of the common man, even man in the arena. The adjective manly is forbidden and mankind is out, replaced by humanity. Chairman finds its substitute in chairperson or plain chair (although The Times requires a writer to choose between and chairmanchairwoman). The only acceptable use of man is when it is introduced by hu.

Not anymore! Thanks to the vocabulary policy adopted at the cabinet level by the Obama administration, long-awaited change has come to lexical misanthropy. With the start of what phrasemakers could call “War on the Word ‘Terrorism,’ ” Napolitano’s coinage of the compound euphemism man-caused shows we finally have a top-level politico who can do nuance.

Safire is joking around, of course, and somehow I don't expect a return of the repressed man-terms just because of this one neologism (and might it be considered sexist in implying that only men cause disasters, a reasonable supposition at one time, but not any longer given that female suicide bombers have become practically commonplace?).

But for its poetic qualities alone, I do wish we could retrieve that word, so beautiful in its simplicity, man, as referring to the entire human race. But then again, maybe the human race is just too unattactive itself to merit such a perfect verbal representation. Maybe in our clumsy, awkard, bumbling ways, we deserve such graceless terms as humankind, humanity, and homo sapiens?

Of course, the map is not the territory, and neither is it the terror, Tory.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Story of the Internet

OK, just a quick note here, to say that this video is really well done, and I like the way it shows how a number of different developments in different kinds of technologies, in different nations, and at different times, all came together to form the internet. Really impressive work!

Of course, taking a big picture perspective, we might say that the bias of electric technologies has been towards greater convergence of technologies and services--this is a point McLuhan made decades ago, and Mumford before him. It's not that the internet was inevitable, there are many different ways that things could have worked out. The evolution has been dynamic and fluid, and chaotic, like a stream, but like a stream, it has followed a certain, unmistakable direction.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Tweet Police

Is it a crime to use Twitter all of the time? Some folks seem to think so. Others, in the guns don't kill people, people kill people camp, think that it's only the way that some people use Twitter that's the crime. Hence, this video, entitled "Twitter Cops," another production from the comedy group The Landline:

In all seriousness, it's the medium that's the message, and the message in this instance is connection, plain and simple, it's a sense of relationship that is established, much like the sharing of otherwise insignificant gossip. It's not surprising that this Cops parody is muy macho, because men have traditionally been impatient to get to the point in conversation, whereas women's style of communication more readily allows for talking for its own sake, for the sake of establishing, maintaining, and reinforcing relationships. Men tend to miss this subtle point in being goal-oriented, rather than paying attention to the socioemotional dimension of communication.

Maybe what we need, then, is not Tweet Police, but Twitter Maids?

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Can There Be News Without Paper?

Can there be news without paper? That is, news without newspapers? That's the question folks are trying to answer, in effect is journalism dead, now that newspapers are dropping like flies?

And of course, journalism emerged out of the print media environment, at a time when news was synonymous with newspapers.

Numerous innovations led to this development, such as the application of steam power to printing in the 1820s, leading to the first cheaply produced, majorly mass produced daily newspapers, such as the penny press in the US. And this led publishers to look for news to fill the daily paper, first turning to crime blotters and introducing reporting on crime, and then moving to the artificial creation of news items in the form of pseudo-events, to use Daniel Boorstin's neologism, media events that only exist because of the presence of the media, such as the interview, the publicity stunt, and the press release.

Intensifying the situation was the invention of the telegraph in 1844, which placed a new premium on speedy dissemination of information, and with it rapid turnover, and of course, the scoop. In addition to the wire services, this placed special premium on the reporter; it also changed the style of writing, with emphasis on the inverted pyramid and who, what, where, when, why, and how--put all the most important information at the beginniing of the article, in case the transmission gets cut off, or the editor wants to shorten the article to make it fit--and the style of layout, resulting in the mosaic look of the frontpage, with most articles continued on other pages, slapped together in the midst of incoming reports, a decidely nonlinear structure in which it is impossible to read a newspaper from beginning to end in order.

Whew! And then there was the wedding of printing to photography, so that photojournalism becomes part of the mix after the Civil War. And this is only to name the most significant of many innovations in printing technology.

And so it came to pass in the late 19th century that the newspaper barons donated money to universities to found departments and schools of journalism, so that with journalism professors came also the professionalization of journalism. Workers and managers within the print media organizations were no longer just reporters, and editors, but now became journalists, a special status, and more and more a sacred calling, or at least so they themselves saw it.

Of course, in the 1920s, broadcasting emerged as a competitor to newspapers, but broadcast journalists in radio, and later television, still modeled themselves after print journalists, often started out in the newspaper industry, used experienced newspaper reporters and editors to write and edit broadcast news, drew heavily on printed reports, etc.

And today, the bloggers, or as I prefer to term them, the blogists, either immitate print journalists, or define themselves in opposition to the journalistic establishment, which makes them just as much defined by them.

So, is journalism dead? No, of course not.

Is journalism dying? Yes. It had a good run, for over a century. Now it's coming to an end. Simply put, no journals (meaning daily newspapers), no journalism. We will no doubt continue to use the word, but the activity it refers to will be something else entirely. Let's call it blogism for the sake of clarity. Changing the meaning of words without good reason was referred to by Neil Postman as the demeaning of meaning, and the fact that words can reference different phenomena at different times and in different situations had much to do with Alfred Korzybski's formation of general semantics as a non-Aristotelian system.

Can there be news without paper? There will still be information and intelligence, yes, and rumors and reports. But news as a separate and distinct category, one clearly delimited and differentiated from opinion, entertainment, and fiction? I don't think so, no. That will disappear.

And the incompatiblity of good old journalism within the new media environment is highlighted in the following humorous video from The Landline, aka Landline TV:

Beyond the absurdity of oldstyle newsmen in our new blogosphere, journalism also emerged in a culture in which science, with its emphasis on objectivity, was displacing religion as the dominant narrative, ideology, mythology, and wordview. The assumption that reporters are capable of providing an objective account of events is fundamental, I would argue, to the legitimacy of journalism as a profession. And for some time now, the ideal of objectivity has been called into question, and more or less dismissed in favor of postmodern cultural and moral relativism. The end of the subject, the death of the author, the rise of the posthuman, all sound the death knell of journalism as collatoral damage.

So, all you need to do is to be like Daniel in the lions den, and read the writing on the wall: Extra, Extra, Read All About It: "Journalism is Dead," Says God.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Jump They Say

Last week in my course on the Science Fiction Genre at Fordham University, I focused on time travel, and had the students screen (before class, on their own time) The Terminator and 12 Monkeys, and also La Jetée, the brilliant short independent film by Chris Marker that 12 Monkeys is overtly based on, as it is acknowledged in the credits--it is also an unacknowledged, possibly indirect influence on The Terminator. I've previously posted about La Jetée--The Jetty Stream--and Chris Marker--The Marker of Photography, so this is something of a follow-up, and if you've never seen La Jetée, you can see it cut up and not the best quality via YouTube (embedded in The Jetty Stream), although I highly recommend the recent DVD release of the film, coupled with another of Marker's works, Sans Soleil.

In fact, I was interested to learn, from reviewing the DVD for class, that rock star David Bowie was very influenced by La Jetée, has said that he always wanted to use it somehow, and incorporated it into the music video for his 1993 song, Jump They Say, which appears on his Black Tie White Noise album.

So, I found the music video on YouTube and screened it for the class. As it turned out, La Jetée was only a minor element in the video, the main inspiration being the following image from La Jetée:

But there were numerous references to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and I was interested to read further about the video in wikipedia--here's a pertinent excerpt:

As the lead-off single, “Jump They Say” received a considerable promotional push from Bowie’s new label, Savage Records (though Arista Records distributed the package in Europe). A striking video was shot by Mark Romanek, depicting Bowie as a businessman paranoid of his colleagues, who seemingly conduct experiments on him and find him a disturbing influence, forcing him to jump from the roof of the corporate building to his death. The video is heavly influenced by Jean-Luc Godard's 1965 film Alphaville, as well as Chris Marker's film La Jetée and Orson Welles' The Trial - both from 1962. The influence from Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey from 1968 is also obvious. The song, while not Bowie’s first release since Tin Machine, was pushed as a comeback single, and reached #9 in the UK charts – Bowie’s first top 10 single since “Absolute Beginners” in 1986, and his last to date.

I would embed the video here, but YouTube says that embedding is disabled by request, so you'll have to go over there to see it, if you care to--here's the link: Jump They Say.

And here are the lyrics, for what they're worth:

Jump They Say lyrics

When comes the shaking man
A nation in his eyes
Striped with blood and emblazed tattoo
Streaking cathedral spire

They say

They say

They say
he has no brain

They say
he has no mood

They say
he was born again

They say
look at him climb

They say 'Jump'
They say 'Jump'

They say
he has two gods

They say
he has no fear

They say
he has no eyes

They say
he has no mouth

They say hey that's really something
They feel he should get some time
I say he should watch his ass
My friend don't listen to the crowd
They say 'Jump'

They say 'Jump'

Watch out

Watch out

They say hey that's really something
They feel he should get some time
I say he should watch his ass
My friend don't listen to the crowd
They say 'Jump'
Got to believe somebody
They say 'Jump'
Got to believe somebody
They say 'Jump'
Got to believe
They say 'Jump'
Got to believe somebody
Got to believe
Got to believe somebody
Got to believe
Got to believe somebody
They say 'Jump'
They say 'Jump'
They say 'Jump'
They say 'Jump'

And somehow, I can't resist the temptation to contrast this with Van Halen's lyrics for his song Jump:

I get up, and nothing gets me down.
You got it tough. I've seen the toughest soul around.
And I know, baby, just how you feel.
You've got to roll with the punches to get to what's real
Oh can't you see me standing here,
I've got my back against the record machine
I ain't the worst that you've seen.
Oh can't you see what I mean ?

Might as well jump. Jump !
Might as well jump.
Go ahead, jump. Jump !
Go ahead, jump.

Aaa-ohh Hey you ! Who said that ?
Baby how you been ?
You say you don't know, you won't know
until you be here.
Well can't you see me standing here,
I've got my back against the record machine
I ain't the worst that you've seen.
Oh can't you see what I mean ?

Might as well jump. Jump!
Go ahead, jump.
Might as well jump. Jump!
Go ahead, jump. Jump!

Might as well jump. Jump!
Go ahead, jump.
Get it and jump. Jump!
Go ahead, jump
Jump! Jump! Jump! Jump!

And all I have to add to all that is, yumpin yiminy!!!!!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Play Ball!

I can't believe baseball season is starting up again, already! Being a NY Mets fan, I have mixed feelings, hope coupled with a lingering sense of dread after the last few disastrous season enders. Ah well, hope springs eternal, and I look forward to getting a look at the new stadium at some point this summer. I have many fond memories of Shea Stadium, but I won't miss it, it really was not well-designed for watching baseball games.

Anyway, in celebration of this new beginning,
I thought I'd include this little poem I wrote on the subject:

Myths of Baseball

Abner Doubleday, double, double day!
Invented baseball, so they double say!
Did he do it? No double way!
It’s a bit of fakelore, O double kay?

James Fenimore Cooper, coo coo cooper!
Wrote no baseball rulebook, wasn’t sue sue super!
That’s a mistake, a blue blue blooper!
I’m sorry to have to be a party poo poo pooper!

But the first recorded game was at Ho Hoboken!
That’s where baseball first was spo spo spoken!
By two New York clubs, no joe joe jokin’!
With every play new records were bro bro broken!

And as an added bonus, here's one of the funniest comedy routines every devised, and one that, in it's own way, is pure poetry, at least in my opinion:

Abbott and Costello, they may not have been as brilliant as the Marx Brothers, as original as Laurel and Hardy, or as over-the-top as The Three Stooges, but they were up there with those other comedy acts,, and Jerry Seinfeld speaks highly of them as a major source of inspiration for his own comedy.

Speaking of which, here's a classic moment from the TV series:

Loogie or not, there's always a bit of magic in the air when baseball is being played:

A great movie, yes, but I also recommend the novel that it's based on, W. P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe, a marvelous excercise in baseball rendered via magic realism, and even more so his amazing companion novel, The Iowa Baseball Conspiracy. They are great reads, even if you're not a baseball fan!

And now, let's PLAY BALL!