Friday, December 31, 2010

Christine Nystrom 1941-2010

It is with great sadness that I relate, here on Blog Time Passing, that Christine Nystrom passed away last week, on Wednesday, December 22. Chris was born on March 23, 1941, earned a BA and PhD from New York University, attending Columbia University's Teachers College in between for her MA.  

She was a mentor and a friend to me, and to many others in the media ecology community.  As Neil Postman's student, she produced the first doctoral dissertation in New York University's Media Ecology program that dealt with media ecology as a coherent theoretical framework, completed in 1973, two years after the program began.  As his colleague, Chris gave structure to the Media Ecology graduate program.  

For most of the history of the program, she was one of the three principle faculty members, with Neil and Terry Moran.  And for much of that time, certainly for the time I was there, she team-taught most of her classes with Neil, and they really were an awesome combination, Neil providing charm and wit, and excelling at eliciting discussion, and Chris providing structure, rigor, and intellectual depth.

Chris was a dedicated educator, served on hundreds of dissertation committees--she was the chair of mine, and also mentored Joshua Meyrowitz's thesis, No Sense of Place, Robert Albrecht's dissertation on music, and many more.  And for many of us she went above and beyond in editing dissertations (sometimes to the point of rewriting them) in support of her students.  

She was absolutely brilliant, and a gifted writer much like Neil, but she did not direct her energies to publishing, did not care for the spotlight, and instead focused on teaching, on the success of her students, and supporting her peers, Neil Postman, Terry Moran, and Henry Perkinson (she continually provided Postman with invaluable feedback, editing, and suggestions on his work).  But the few articles that she did publish were absolute gems..  

She was in many ways an unsung hero of media ecology, dedicated to serving the needs of the field in many different ways.

I credit Chris with helping me to improve my writing in very significantcways, and with teaching me how to be a scholar.  She was demanding of her students, and some found that quite intimidating, but her insistence on rigor in scholarship put her in the same camp as Walter Ong and James Carey.  She was a true intellectual, a pure intellectual, but also a woman who had an off-beat sense of humor and imagination.

The loss is a personal one for me, a loss felt keenly by all of her students, and others who knew her professionally, and as a friend.  Many more in the media ecology community know her through her writing, and her reputation as a pioneer in our field.  

I last saw her in September, she asked if I would meet her for lunch before she departed to Iowa to spend her last days with her family, and so we did.  The conversation we had was rambling, we could have talked about so many different things, it seemed as if what we did talk about was almost random.  But it wasn't about the content, it was about the medium, the relationship, one last time together.

And before we parted she looked back on the time she devoted to the media ecology program, and the students that came through it, and said that she thought that she, and Neil, had accomplished something worthwhile, something important.  And of course I said that it certainly was very important, very influential, that media ecology is not something that is going to fade away, that the effects of what they had set in motion will continue to be felt into the future, serving to make the world a better place.

Chris and I first bonded over our mutual love of Tolkien.  When she emailed me asking to meet one last time, she spoke of leaving New York City to head west towards the Gray Havens (the passage to the next world in Tolkien's mythos).  And when we met for the last time, she mentioned the song Bilbo sang in The Fellowship of the Ring:

I sit beside the fire and think
of all that I have seen,
of meadow-flowers and butterflies
in summers that have been;

Of yellow leaves and gossamer
in autumns that there were,
with morning mist and silver sun
and wind upon my hair.

I sit beside the fire and think
of how the world will be
when winter comes without a spring
that I shall ever see.

For still there are so many things
that I have never seen:
in every wood in every spring
there is a different green.

I sit beside the fire and think
of people long ago,
and people who will see a world
that I shall never know.

But all the while I sit and think
of times there were before,
I listen for returning feet
and voices at the door.

For Chris, there are no more sounds of returning feet, no more voices at the door, but the messages she has sent to a time she will not see can still be heard, loud and clear and true.

I have been in touch with Christine Nystrom's friend, Anne Garfinkel, who was contacted by the Pastor at the Church that Chris attended, and he has graciously offered to host a memorial service in their chapel, a location that held special significance for Chris.  Anne is organizing the memorial, for which we all are very grateful, and I am doing whatever I can to help her.  Please share the following information with anyone you think might want or need to know:

A memorial service for Christine Nystrom will be held on Monday January 17, at 11 AM, at The Chapel at St. George’s Church at 7 Rutherford Place (E. 3rd Ave. between 16th & 17th Streets), New York, New York.  It will be an opportunity to pay our respects, share our memories, and celebrate her life.

Anne has asked that you RSVP if you intend to come, to help in the
preparations (of course if you don't RSVP and decide at the last minute that you do want to come, please do join us). Also, if you would like to come up and say a few words at the memorial, we ask that you let us know in advance as well, to aid in the organization of the memorial program.  Please RSVP via email to

Also, there have been some inquiries about sending donations in Chris's memory.  Chris's niece, Jenny, has indicated that they can be made to New York University's Cancer Institute, The Smile Train, Hiefer International, or Hospice of Central Iowa.

And here are a couple of pictures taken last year, no captions necessary...

Rest in peace, Christine Nystrom, rest in peace.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Digital Damage Control

So, last month I appeared on a local TV news segment about "Digital Damage Control," to use the dramatic title they gave to the story.  It's all about what to do when something negative pops up in the search results for your name, or organization, or product for that matter.  How do you address the problem of bad Google publicity?

You would think that if it's something false, or blatantly offensive, you could just appeal to the better natures of the site owner, or blogger, or internet provider for that matter, but no, that doesn't work very well.  Often you'll get no response whatsoever, or maybe a shrug of the shoulders.  So, what can you do, who can you call?  Not Roto-Rooter, that's for sure.

Well, why don't you check out the segment, which originally aired on the 11:00 PM news on November 11th (that's 11/11 at 11, but who's counting?).  And note that the sound is a little on the low side, so you may have to turn your volume up a bit.  After you're done, meet me back here so I can correct a few errors.

So, yes, I confess, somewhere on the internet there is a listing for Sex Vixens from Outer Space, and my name is attached to it as the author.  But it is not in fact a movie, which would be a more serious matter, what it is, is a Commodore 64 text adventure game from the 80s.  And frankly, I wish I had the programming skills to create a game like that, I really wanted to make my own text adventures back in those early days of the personal computer revolution, but I never got past the basics of BASIC.  Anyway, I had an Atari 800, not a Commodore, and let me tell you, that Atari was a great little machine.  But I digress.  The point is, whoever the author was, it wasn't me.

And in case you're wondering if there might be someone else out there with the same name as me, well, it's highly unlikely, as that is the only listing that has ever come up on any search engine under my name that is not me.  As far as I know, I am the only Lance Strate on the planet.  It's interesting to think about that sort of thing, by the way, that is maybe, in the future, people will be given or create for themselves unique names, perhaps by using one or more middle names, and maybe titles, to make it possible to find them without confusion on search engines.

So anyway, what I figure happened is that, back in the 80s, someone used my name as a pseudonym in this one instance.  My guess is that it wasn't someone that I knew very well, although I could be wrong, but I don't recall knowing anyone who knew how to write code for the Commodore, and I think it more likely that it was somebody not too close, maybe even one degree of separation removed, who heard my name and liked the sound of it, or thought it would be funny to use.

Hey, if anyone out there has any idea of who the actual author of Sex Vixens from Outer Space might be, or if the real author is out there, let me know.  I bear no grudges, I'm just curious at this point.

When I first started to check up on myself via search engines (back before google was a verb), this item came up in the first ten rankings, at one point even as the first!  And I admit to being taken aback, feeling uncomfortable, both for the association with this kind of content (obviously, the real author did as well, which is why a pseudonym was used), and for the fact that it is, essentially, a false attribution.  A me that is not me.

I was uncomfortable, but the news report is incorrect in saying that I deliberately tried to bury it with all of my digital activity.  First of all, while feeling uncomfortable, it just didn't bother me all that much.  Second, I had no idea what to do about it, so I just ignored it.  And as more and more pages listing my name appeared on the web, e.g., my online publications, citations of my work in other publications, listings on various sites, sites selling my books, web pages at Fordham and elsewhere, and eventually social media profiles, my blog posts, etc., it just naturally got pushed further down and down and out of awareness.

And I had no intention of ever bringing it up, until Andrew Siff contacted me about doing this story, explaining that a friend of his (Alan Gottlob I presume) had developed this sort of search engine problem.  So we met at Fordham University's Lincoln Center campus for the interview.  Andrew was interested in seeing my own Google search results, so I decided to share this example with him, which proved to be a very useful illustration.  But obviously, it's more dramatic to say that I used a deliberate strategy, rather than to say that it just happened naturally, as a result of being active online.

But hey, I got some really good face time on this story, don't you think?  Name time as well, but well, that I take for granted.  But it was also great to see Fordham University get some good publicity out of it.

Anyway, there's also a text version of the story online, under the title of Undoing Digital Damage: How To Write Your Way Out Of Trouble, filed by Andrew Siff on the station's website.  And I got a Google alert last month that pointed to the same story appearing on the MSNBC website, I'm not sure if that means it also aired on that cable news channel or not, but it's since disappeared from there.  Anyway, the story has a tag line, "The keyboard may be mightier than the sword -- If used properly."  And then it begins,

Fordham University Technology Professor Lance Strate couldn't help but laugh when he googled himself -- and saw a surprising hit.

And let me stop right there, I can't help but laugh, and note that I'm not a Technology Professor, as you probably know, I'm a Professor of Communication and Media Studies.  Okay, continue please,

"Somebody claimed I'd written this soft-core film for a Commodore 64," said Strate, who pointed to the link on projection screen inside a classroom on the school's Manhattan campus. The film he supposedly wrote was called Sex Vixens From Space. But the professor never wrote such a script, and never even owned a Commodore 64. Strate laughed it off, assuming some mischievous blogger had co-opted his name for some reason. Then, he happened on a pretty good strategy to abolish the fictional shout-out.

He wrote some real stuff.

Okay, you remember from a few paragraphs above, it was a text adventure, not a film.  Not as sexy as they made it out to be, no.  And there were no bloggers back in the 80s.  But, hey, details, details.  Let's move on,

His blog, Lance Strate's Blog Time Passing, advises the young, the old, and the in-between to write, write, and write some more. And by keeping it clean you'll gradually earn a good reputation, impervious to any search engine. After all, Google and other navigators tend to rank searches by the age of a post. And recent writings register higher. So, you can also tweet your way to a clean rep.

Check it out, dear friends.  Blog Time Passing has made the news!!!!  We are the story!!!  And so what if I never actually advised anyone "to write, write, and write some more" before.  By quoting this here and now in Blog Time Passing, I've made it so!  A self-fulfilling professy, don't you know?  So get to it, boys and girls.  Write away!  And yes, keep it clean!  And thank you so much, Andrew, for the great publicity!

But wait, there's more,

Of course, it's not always so easy. Financial advisor Alan Gottlob was horrified to see the words "insurance scam" only a few hits from the top when he entered his name into Google. The phrase came from an article he insists was totally false. But his attempts to reach the author, the editor, and Google itself have proven unsuccessful.

"Makes you feel angry," said Gottlob. "Makes you feel like you can't get the truth out there."

And let's get some more Fordham in there, if you don't mind,

The truth, say young Web-surfers, is that the Internet tends to be written in permanent ink. Rebecca Bates, a student at Fordham said it's all about knowing the risks before you even log on for the night.

"You're putting yourself out there," she said. "You should have the knowledge that anything you put out there, anyone can see."

But wait, what about me, me, me? 

Professor Strate offered other advice. Use an alias, or alternate screen name, if you plan to post anything too controversial. That way, it won't show up in a search for your name.

Yes!  I get the last word in, sort of.  Use an alias.  Like the author of Sex Vixens from Outer Space did, ha ha.  Ah, the irony of it all!

So, all in all, this was a good story, and great fun, and maybe did somebody some good somewhere.  And you can go check out the video on YouTube at and like it or comment or whatever it is that people are doing nowadays.

Or just go google yourself.  I mean it.

Oh, and stay tuned for more on this subject later on, including something big coming up a few months from now.  No, I can't tell you now, you'll just have to wait.  But when the time comes, I may call upon you to do a service for me...  And I'm not talking google here.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Chanukah By Candlelight

So, last night my son showed me this video, which I very much enjoyed, and said I'll have to post it over on the Congregation Adas Emuno website (which I'll do tomorrow, but Blog Time Passing gets it first!).  

And today I saw it mentioned online via The Chronicle of Higher Education's e-mail newsletter, which directed me to a short item entitled, ‘Candlelight,’ the Viral Video From the MaccabeatsThe Chronicle introduces it by saying, "A Hanukkah treat from the Maccabeats, an a cappella group at Yeshiva University. It’s viral, folks, so apologies if you’ve already seen it."  So this is officially an academic topic now, as well.

And over on the video's YouTube page, the Maccabeats write

Buy this song on itunes!


Based on Mike Tompkins' a cappella version of Taio Cruz's "Dynamite". Video created by Uri Westrich

And I think they deserve our support.  So, anyway, okay, here's the video:

And all that's left to say is, Well Done, Gentlemen!  And Happy Chanukah to all, and to all a good night!