Friday, February 29, 2008

All A Twitter

So, one of the things that Paull Young brought up in his talk to my class this past Tuesday, a topic that kept coming up when we went out for dinner afterwards, was Twitter. This wasn't the first I heard of it, my friend and colleague Paul Levinson, who got me started here on Blogger, and over on MySpace, has been mentioning Twitter for a while now, but I didn't see it in action until Paull Young demonstrated it in class, and then continued to interact with it afterwards.

Twitter is a relatively new aspect of social networking, and it has been referred to as microblogging. It's micro, because you only have 140 characters per post. So it's kind of a cross between blogging and instant messaging, kind of an IM that goes out to whoever is subscribed to you.

I suppose the short message format is perfect for short attention spans--it's an ADHD world out there, but more importantly, the format will obviously limit the kind of post that you can put up. So, with Twitter what you tend to get are updates on what people are doing, for example Paull posted that he was going to Fordham to talk to my class. Then, some people who had something to say about Fordham responded (what they said I won't go into).

Or you can post a thought that occurred to you. I subscribed to Howard Rheingold, or as they put it, I'm following him, and yesterday he sent out this message:

Assuming Twitter continues to grow, early adopters have higher chance of becoming hubs in small world network via preferential attachment

Or you can post a URL for an interesting website, blogpost, video, etc.. For example, earlier today, Paull Young sent out a link for this video, which is pretty funny I think, and worth including here for its own sake:

In case that doesn't work, you can go view it directly on the Boing Boing TV site.

I should note that Paull economized in the post by utilizing, a service that gives you a short web address that will connect directly to another, longer one. This seems to be all but indispensable for this new medium. It's also worth noting that the URL came across as a hot link, meaning I could click on it and go to the website, rather than having to copy and paste it into the browser.

What adds to the functionality of twitter is that it works with mobile devices, so for example I have the messages coming in to my cell phone as text messages. You can turn it off, thankfully, but I can see right off the bat that I am going to have to monitor my cell phone's battery more carefully, and recharge it more often. But this does allow you to post to twitter by sending a text message, so you can continue to communicate and interact on the go, without a computer.

Now I can just here my dear old mentor, Neil Postman, saying, "But Lance, to what problem is this twitter a solution?" I can also hear a crowd of his former students noisily echoing that question--be quiet, will you?! I myself have to ask myself, self, is this anything more than a time waster? Do I really need to inform the world of what I'm having for lunch? Or learn when other people are getting up or going to bed? Admittedly, it might be nice for family members to be kept informed of what their loved ones are up to, especially if they are a distance away, but that is quite different from having a number of people who you may or may not know following you, and you in turn following them.

Having been on twitter for all of two days, I think it's a bit premature to offer any kind of extensive assessment. In part, I am just letting you all know that I'm now doing twitter, and in fact I've added a twitter widget to this blog. If you haven't noticed it yet, look over to the right, your right, not mine, under my picture, and the line that says "About Me--Lance Strate," and the one that says, "View my complete profile" and you'll see it: "Twitter Updates," followed by the ten most recent entries. I'm sure it's quite clear that we're dealing with an entirely different kind of animal here, more like a telegraphic dispatch than the epistolatory medium of e-mail, or the weblog form of publication that I am engaged in here.

But, if nothing else, from now on you can get my twitter updates from this site, even if you're not on twitter. And that means that even if I haven't posted a new blog, you can still get some new content when you come to the site. For what that's worth.

Now, I'm sure this post seems altogether a statement of the obvious to anyone already using twitter. Sorry about that folks, but I know I have readers who don't do twitter yet, and may never do it at all. Plus, I have been doing a related form of microblogging for a bit longer--in January I started using the MySpace version of twitter, which involves a combination of posting a short message as a "Status Update" and indicating your "Mood" by choosing from a preset menu that includes many emotions, and also strange entries like blank, crunk, jedi, knighted, ninja, and quixotic. This is a less extensive format, one that's fully integrated into the MySpace environment, with almost no functionality outside of it, but there are enough similarities to give me some additional insight into this mode of communication.

So, I will offer some preliminary reactions and highly tentative thoughts on this medium.

There is no question, on the negative side, that this is a distraction, and no doubt it is a time-waster, and addictive to boot. Of course, that's not unique to twitter, it can be said of most new media today,a nd their older counterparts. I will say that as a form of microblogging, the amount of time spent on this medium is relatively miniscule, much less than the time it is taking to write this blog, for instance, or even to deal with my e-mail. It's the nanosecond culture, an aspect of cybertime at work (as I wrote about in my anthology, Communication and Cyberspace).

What it does provide is a sense of connection. I'm sure the value of feeling like you are never entirely alone is much greater for single people who can feel fairly isolated than it is for busy family types like myself who want nothing more than some peace and quiet and solitude, but I can still see the attraction it would have for everyone. I have observed that on MySpace, when you post your status, sometimes people respond though their own status messages, or by sending a private message. I've had comments when I've quoted lyrics, for example, people saying they like the artist too, and I've seen and participated in the exchange of humorous messages. On MySpace, updates lead to increased online interaction. I would assume that to be the case with twitter as well. And increased online interaction can, in some instances, lead people to interact as well offline, by telephone or in person. My conclusion, then, is twitter means never having to be entirely alone. It also is another means of blurring the distinction between public and private, and undermining privacy, but that's the general thrust of all electronic media, after all.

On MySpace, I've also had people showing concern when I've posted something like I'm not feeling well or I'm aggravated about something. That sense of connection can also provide a feeling of security, the security that accompanies the feeling that you are never quite alone. Maybe no one can rush to your aid, but they could answer a question, offer suggestions, search for information for you, provide comfort and emotional support, etc.

And there there is the power of collaboration to enhance productivity. For example, I tweeted--twitter messages are referred to as tweets, and the verb form, to send a message on twitter, is to tweet--that I was working on a blog about twitter, and received a response from Paull Young which began with a joke and ended with a helpful reference: "Keep it under 140 characters ;) I wrote one on the biz side recently:" and this was followed by the URL to his Converseon blog post, Examples of Twitter Providing Business Benefit. Some of the key points he makes there is that twitter can be used to build a knowledge network--in fact, what I am doing right now in including his suggestion is a fine example of that, as well as a crisis warning system, a method for recruitment, and for beta testing systems, websites, etc. But you can read Paull's post for yourself, after you're done reading this one I hope.

Then, I got a response from Ted Baker, one of my students in my Interactive Media class--see our Interactive Rams blog. Ted is the most computer savvy member of the class, and was already on twitter, so while Paull Young was demonstrating it via computer projection in our class, Ted had located him and sent him a reply message right then and there, which gave me a chuckle I might add. Anyway, Ted replied with, "don't forget to post a link here when you're done" and I answered back, "I'll include the link, but the post itself will be very basic"--exciting stuff, I know. But in all seriousness, Ted's suggestion is worthwhile in that I might not have thought to do it, or might need the reminder.

In truth, I am quite used to promoting various things on MySpace, mainly though their bulletin function, which sends a message that goes to everyone in your network (everyone you are "friends" with), although there are people who don't read their bulletins, or don't keep up with them when they're not logged on. The status updates can be used to promote things too, although you can't add hot links like you can on MySpace bulletins and with twitter, but they can alert people that you've just put a post up. I've also found that updating my status leads to more blog hits in general (they are measured internally, that is, only the number of logged in MySpacers are counted), and more comments left on the blogs, than I would otherwise get. It seems that just reminding people that I exist gets a certain percentage of them to go to my MySpace blog and see what's there.

So, another conclusion is that microblogging can be used to get attention for yourself and whatever you're doing, for publicity and promotion in other words. In semiotic terms, this form of messaging is a sign that points to and directs people to something other than itself, and has a strange sort of indexicality.

I also got a response from Jamie Grefe, who I have never met, although I did have some contact with him prior to twitter--a week ago he sent me an e-mail explaining that he was a graduate of Grand Valley State University in Michigan, having studied with my friend and colleague Corey Anton, was very interested in media ecology, and is now living in Japan. I'm not sure how he found out, but not too long after I signed on to twitter I got a notice that he had started following me (I get notified by e-mail whenever it happens), and I then reciprocated. So anyway, Jamie replied, "looking forward to reading this. Found a Twitter FanWiki:" and this site indeed looks very interesting. I've bookmarked it and I'll explore it more thoroughly in the near future. Thank you, Jamie!

Oh, funny. I've been going back and forth to twitter to get the responses from people and just check the updates, and I noticed there was one person who was sending messages much more frequently than anyone else, and the messages themselves didn't make much sense. I was following this person because I had gotten the e-mail saying this person was now following me, and so far I've universally reciprocated (the only person I'm following who isn't following me is Howard Rheingold). But I've been hearing my cell phone alert going off over and over again in the other room where it's charging, and all of the messages from this one person is driving other peoples on to older pages, which I find a little annoying. So, the bottom line is, enough is enough, and I'm no longer following this particular individual.

Okay, back to being serious. In today's e-mail newsletter from The Chronicle of Higher Education, there was a notice of an article about twitter--what synchronicity! I saw it mentioned and set the link aside knowing I'd be doing this blog post, so let me now read it as I continue writing this entry. The article is entitled
Forget E-Mail: New Messaging Service Has Students and Professors Atwitter--wait a minute, they stole my joke, the one I used in my title, a twitter, well, I guess that's pretty obvious, huh? Well, there's no copyrighting titles, not that mine is the same, it's just what we arrived at the same pun, so I'll leave mine be. Anyway, the article is from the issue dated February 29, 2008 (p. A15) , and the author is Jeffrey R. Young (maybe a relation, Paull?). The article begins with some basic information, which we've already gone over, about what twitter is and how it works. But since reinforcement is educationally sound, here it is:

Anyone who feels overloaded with information from e-mail, blogs, and Web sites probably won't want to read this. But some professors, librarians, and administrators have begun using Twitter, a service that can blast very short notes (up to 140 characters) to select users' cellphones or computer screens.

The practice is often called microblogging because people use it to send out pithy updates about their daily lives. No need to wait until you are back at your computer to let friends know that you loved the latest Paul Thomas Anderson film or that you thought of a new idea for an academic article while waiting in line at the grocery store. Twitter lets you send a text message from your cellphone to a set list of contacts, called followers, who can set the system to receive messages via their cellphones, their instant-message software, or a Web-based program.

Now, with the preliminaries out of the way, the writer moves from twitter in general to its presence on the college campus:

As iPhones and other "smart phones" become more popular on campuses, and as computing becomes even more mobile, it seems that some form of Twitter-like service may become part of student and faculty life. But the technology has potential costs in terms of money and privacy. Some observers, essentially arguing that there is such a thing as too much information, say that Twittering will never catch on the way blogs and e-mail have.

Here we also see some of the negative aspects of the technology being mentioned, much as I did earlier in this post. That continues as we transition into the question of what would be the specific educational applications of this new medium?

David Parry, an assistant professor of emerging media and communications at the University of Texas at Dallas, says he was reluctant to try the technology. Mr. Parry's first instinct was that Twittering would encourage students to speak in sound bites and self-obsess. But now he calls it "the single thing that changed the classroom dynamics more than anything I've ever done teaching."

Last semester he required the 20 students in his "Introduction to Computer-Mediated Communication" course to sign up for Twitter and to send a few messages each week as part of a writing assignment. He also invited his students to follow his own Twitter feed, in which he sometimes writes several short thoughts — not necessarily profound ones — each day. One morning, for instance, he sent out a message that read: "Reading, prepping for grad class, putting off running until it warms up a bit." The week before, one of his messages included a link to a Web site he wanted his students to check out.

The posts from students also mixed the mundane with the useful. One student Twittered that she just bought a pet rabbit. Another noted that a topic from the class was being discussed on a TV-news report.

The immediacy of the messages helped the students feel more like a community, Mr. Parry says. "It really broke down that barrier between inside the classroom walls and outside the classroom walls."

Now, I think that sense of community is a very powerful and significant effect of all forms of social networking. It doesn't happen automatically, but, as Lynn White, Jr. said of technology, it opens a door. Now, it also seems entirely appropriate to be using twitter in a class on computer-mediated communication, or interactive media, for that matter, where part of the point would be to study the new medium. But how about for any other type of class? Well, the article continues with an example from an English course:

Jason B. Jones, an assistant professor of English at Central Connecticut State University, uses his iPhone to post a message to Twitter after every class session as "a way to jot down a little reflection about the class — how it went, things that were frustrating or worked really well — so that I can remember them later." Students who see the messages often give him a reality check, though. "If I thought something didn't go well, I've had people say, Actually we understood that fine, we were distracted by something else or we were just tired," he says.

Next, Blackboard is brought up. For those not familiar with it, Blackboard is educational computing software that schools purchase, that automatically create a private site on the school's computer system for each class, with the students enrolled in the class also signed into the class. You can post your syllabi, handouts, and assignments there, send e-mail to all the students at once, and have online discussions. It's not that different from systems ranging from the old America Online and Compuserve sites and other bulletin boards, to Yahoo! with its groups, Google, and MySpace, Facebook, etc. Blackboard isn't as good as the contemporary social networking sites, but it exists within the university's computer system, behind its firewall, it's purchased and the content owned by the school, and it offers a measure of privacy. Now, here's what the article says:

Blackboard plans to add a Twitter-like messaging tool to its course-management system, which is used at hundreds of colleges around the country. The company recently announced plans to acquire NTI Group, a company that sells text-message notification systems to colleges for use in emergencies. NTI's systems don't have all the features of Twitter, but they could be used in similar ways.

"We're going to incorporate that technology at the classroom level," says Michael L. Chasen, president of Blackboard. For instance, he says, "Professors could send a message to their entire class to let them know that class has been canceled this week."

After all, Mr. Chasen says, many students now communicate primarily using their cellphones. "Having the ability to do mass messaging is becoming more important on a campus," he says.

Now, back to the downside. You gotta love how these articles swing back and forth in this way, fair and balanced, objective reporting, at least in style if not substance. In this case, the problem is that when it comes to cell phones, texting can cost money:

But not every student is excited to see a professor's message on his or her cellphone. It can cost money, for one thing, since many cellphone plans charge a few cents for each text message received. (Companies also offer flat rates for unlimited text messaging, and students who are frequent texters often have such plans already).

I know I have to get on an unlimited plan now. Then there's the problem of transparency. Unlike e-mail or text messages which are sent to a specific recipient so that others have at least some difficulty accessing them, twitter is an open medium:

Twittering also creates a public record of every message sent — at least on the service's default settings — because all Twitter users get Web pages where archives of their messages are posted. So students and professors should be careful what thoughts they share.
Of course, the same is true of Facebook and MySpace profiles, pictures and videos posted to social media sites, and even for e-mail messages which can be intercepted, read by administrators, and forwarded inadvertently or intentionally.

Anyway, now it's back to that sense of community, and in this instance, professional collegiality:

Some college officials are using Twitter to keep in touch with colleagues at other universities. For Laura J. Little, the instructional technologist at Marietta College, that means following the Twitter feeds of people she knows as well as people she's never met.

"I like skydaddy," she says, referring to the Twitter nickname of Corrie Bergeron, an instructional designer at Lakeland Community College who frequently posts links and thoughts. "It's probably really relevant to folks who are isolated in their field," says Ms. Little, noting that she is the only instructional technologist at her college.

Or, as Mr. Bergeron puts it, "It's like a hallway conversation at a conference."

And there is the added benefit of collaborative learning, and immediate consultation:

Twitter can be a much faster way to get help from colleagues than sending an e-mail message to a list or posting a question on a blog, says Ms. Little. Once when she was preparing a presentation, she posted a question to her contacts on Twitter and got an answer in just a few minutes. "If I had posted that on a blog post, it would have taken three hours."

Finally, we have the example of twitter being used by university libraries:

Kenley E. Neufeld, library director at Santa Barbara City College, recently set up a Twitter feed for his library, and he posts announcements about closing times and encouragements to visit the library.

Other libraries and groups are also blasting out updates via Twitter. At a recent conference in Philadelphia, the American Library Association set up a conference Twitter feed, says Mr. Neufeld.

I found this a bit disappointing, as this seems fairly trivial. I would imagine that a more valuable use would be to function as a virtual helpdesk, to get a librarian's aid and advice when you are in the middle of researching something. Sure, we can access Google, but sometimes we need help knowing what to ask, or which of the many answers we get from a search is worth our attention, or where else we should be looking.

Anyway, the article ends on a mixed note:

Still, Mr. Parry, of Dallas, admits that he's seen many colleagues try Twitter and drop it in frustration.

"I think people see it as too noisy," he said.

In other words, it's not for everybody. Maybe not, maybe not, but right now it's all right with me.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Professionalization of Social Networking

This is adapted from a post I just put up on the Interactive Rams blog. During our last Ineractive Media class meeting yesterday here at Fordham University, we were fortunate to have a guest speaker come in. His name is Paull Young, and I initially met him, and his colleague Rob Key, when they invited me for lunch after reading the New York Times article about social networking, where I was quoted several times (see my previous post, The Secondary Orality of Social Networking).

Paull is a Senior Account Executive for Converseon, Inc., a social networking consulting firm, and he give a talk to our class about professional opportunities associated with social networking. He was a dynamic and engaging speaker, especially for an Aussie (just kidding there), highly knowledgeable, and I know everyone learned a great deal from him.

If you click on the link, you'll find that Converseon lists among their services conversation mining (monitoring online conversation about a product or brand), affiliate and search marketing (including search engine optimization), brand reputation management (public relations extended to the online environment), and blogs and social media. Basically, the idea is that most companies don't have a clue as to what the new social media (aka Web 2.0) are about, how to deal with their negative consequences, or how to approach them for their own benefit, and that's where Paull and his colleagues come in. Paull has been blogging for many years now, and his own blog focuses on public relations, and appropriately enough bears the name, Young PR.

During his talk, Paull introduced an interesting concept, astroturfing, which is the oppposite, in a sense, of a grass roots campaign (not to mention a form of evil PR and marketing). With astroturfing, what appears to be a grass roots initiative, or messages produced by private individuals, is secretly the product of organized effort, work done for hire, on behalf of a political group or corporation. Paull provided us with an example that is both amusing, reminiscent of Terry Gilliam's animation for Monty Python's Flying Circus, and at the same time highly sinister because it masquerades as something done by some guy in his basement who just doesn't like Al Gore, but was actually produced and paid for by commercial interests. Here's the video:

Well, the good news is that Paull and some of his colleagues got together to set up an Anti-Astroturfing site and campaign. And just to be clear, he's a list of definitions from their site:


From Wikipedia: In American politics and advertising, the term astroturfing describes formal public relations projects which deliberately seek to engineer the impression of spontaneous, grassroots behavior. The goal is the appearance of independent public reaction to a politician, political group, product, service, event, or similar entities by centrally orchestrating the behavior of many diverse and geographically distributed individuals.

From Astroturfing describes the posting of supposedly independent messages on Internet boards by interested companies and individuals In American politics, the term is used to describe formal public relations projects which deliberately give the impression that they are spontaneous and populist reactions. The term comes from AstroTurf -- the fake grass used in many indoor American football stadiums. The contrast between truly spontaneous or "grassroots" efforts and an orchestrated public relations campaign, is much like the distinction between real grass and AstroTurf.

From the Jargon File: (The Jargon File is a compendium of hacker slang)
astroturfing: n.
  1. The use of paid shills to create the impression of a popular movement, through means like letters to newspapers from soi-disant 'concerned citizens', paid opinion pieces, and the formation of grass-roots lobbying groups that are actually funded by a PR group (AstroTurf? is fake grass; hence the term). See also sock puppet, tentacle.
  2. What an individual posting to a public forum under an assumed name is said to be doing.
Oh, and here's their logo:

It is certainly a pleasure, and very much in keeping with our outlook here at Fordham University, to be dealing with professionals who have a firm commitment to ethical practices and a reflective approach to their business.

Anyway, just as another example of the new and powerful phenomenon of social networking, Paull gave us the example of one of the most popular recent videos on YouTube, "Star Wars according to a 3 year old," which at the time of this writing, is up to 2,892,082 views!!!! It is an altogether charming little home movie, I must say:

Paull also showed us the highly successful YouTube campaign "Will It Blend?" which promotes BlendTec Total Blenders with the kind of stupid human tricks that David Letterman is known for. Here's the example he showed us, featuring Chuck Norris:

And Paull showed us one of Converseon's projects, Second Chance Trees for American Express, which was set up on the Second Life, the 3-dimensional virtual reality social network, where they created a place on Second Life for people to enjoy, and gave people an opportunity to buy trees that would be planted both in the virtual world where they can see them, and in the real world where they otherwise would not be able to see the results of their donation. Anyway, here's the YouTube video on the project, which interestingly includes "machinima" among its tags (see my previous post, Last Round of Screenings and Conversations):

And guess what? There's another YouTube video featuring a presentation by Paull Young on this project, so let's take a look at our friend here:

Not surprisingly, Converseon also has its own blog. And Paull also mentioned another website/blog worthy of our attention, FORWARD.

Interestingly, the fact that Paull spells his name with a double "l" came up, along with the point that it turned out to be fortuitous because otherwise he would not be easy to pick out from all the other Paul Youngs when his name is googled. And that gave me the idea that in the future parents will want to give their kids unique names, in order to optimize their kids for search engines--in this way, technology may alter the time honored traditions by which we name our children. And you can probably say goodby to John Smith!

But, you can also say G'day Mate to Paull!!!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Literary Quite Contrary, How Does Your Gardner Grow?

Howard Gardner is a well known and highly respected scholar in the field of education, and educational psychology. He's best known for his theory of multiple intelligences, which argues that, rather than there being one single "thing" called intelligence as is implied by the IQ test (a test that measures something that was never clearly defined), there are many different intelligences, for example verbal, mathematical, scientific, musical, visual, social and emotional, etc. Different people may be better or worse in any one of these, or any combination. Interestingly, for me, his theory was influenced, in part, by the highly uneven combinations that give rise to the autistic savant, an individual who may be on a genius level in mathematics or visual expression, for example, and extremely poor in verbal, and especially social intelligence.

So anyway, this morning as I was reading our local paper, The Record, (traditionally referred to as the Bergen Record, but now officially the North Jersey Record), I was delighted to see an op-ed piece by Gardner on literacy and the new media (the piece is not listed as a reprint from another paper, as is sometimes the case, but appears to have been commissioned by The Record, to its credit).

Gardner is certainly a media ecologist, as he puts literacy in an historical context going back to prehistory (although I find his chronology to be slightly off, as writing was developed a bit over 5,000 years ago, and other forms of notation are significantly less than 100,000 years old. But what's a few millennia among friends? More importantly, he discusses how different communication technologies, different media in other words, give rise to different types of literacy.

And please note that, at no point does he use the term literacy as a metaphor. He's not talking about some vague notion of media literacy, visual literacy, or even computer literacy. He's talking about the ability to create and understand written texts, about knowing your ABCs and minding your Ps and Qs.

And so, without further ado, let me give you over to Howard, in this think piece that's entitled: Gardner: Reading, R.I.P.? and appears on p. L7 of today's Record (February 19, 2008):

Computers, pessimists maintain, are destroying literacy; optimists foresee the Internet ushering in a new, vibrant participatory culture of words.

WHAT WILL HAPPEN to reading and writing in our time? Could the doomsayers be right? Computers, they maintain, are destroying literacy. The signs -- students' declining reading scores, the drop in leisure reading to just minutes a week, the fact that half the adult population reads no books in a year -- are all pointing to the day when a literate American culture becomes a distant memory. By contrast, optimists foresee the Internet ushering in a new, vibrant participatory culture of words. Will they carry the day?

Maybe neither. Let me suggest a third possibility: Literacy -- or an ensemble of literacies -- will continue to thrive, but in forms and formats we can't yet envision.

That's what has always happened as writing and reading have evolved over the ages. It was less than 100,000 years ago that our human predecessors first made meaningful marks on surfaces, notating the phases of the moon or drawing animals on cave walls. Within the past 5,000 years, societies across the Near East's Fertile Crescent began to use systems of marks to record important trade exchanges as well as pivotal events in the present and the past. These marks gradually became less pictorial, and a decisive leap occurred when they began to capture certain sounds reliably: U kn red ths sntnz cuz Inglsh feechurs "graphic-phoneme correspondences."

A master of written Greek, Plato feared that written language would undermine human memory capacities (much in the same way that we now worry about similar side effects of "Googling"). But libraries made the world's knowledge available to anyone who could read. The 15th-century printing press disturbed those who wanted to protect and interpret the word of God, but the availability of Bibles in the vernacular allowed laypeople to take control of their spiritual lives and, if historians are correct, encouraged entrepreneurship in commerce and innovation in science.

Criticism and celebration

In the past 150 years, each new medium of communication -- telegraph, telephone, movies, radio, television, the digital computer, the World Wide Web -- has introduced its own peculiar mix of written, spoken and graphic languages and evoked a chaotic chorus of criticism and celebration.

But of the changes in the media landscape over the past few centuries, those featuring digital media are potentially the most far-reaching. Those of us who grew up in the 1950s, at a time when there were just a few computers in the world, could never have anticipated the ubiquity of personal computers (back then, IBM's Thomas Watson famously declared that there'd be a market for perhaps five computers in the world!). A mere half-century later, more than a billion people can communicate via e-mail, chat rooms and instant messaging; post their views on a blog; play games with millions of others worldwide; create their own works of art or theater and post them on YouTube; join political movements; and even inhabit, buy, sell and organize in a virtual reality called Second Life. No wonder the chattering classes can't agree about what this all means.

Here's my take.

Once we ensured our basic survival, humans were freed to pursue other needs and desires, including the pleasures of communicating, forming friendships, convincing others of our point of view, exercising our imagination, enjoying a measure of privacy. Initially, we pursued these needs with our senses, our hands and our individual minds. Human and mechanical technologies to help us were at a premium. It's easy to see how the emergence of written languages represented a boon. The invention of the printing press and the emergence of readily available books, magazines and newspapers allowed untold millions to extend their circle, expand their minds and expound their pet ideas.

Inhabiting fascinating worlds

For those of us of a 19th- or 20th-century frame of mind, books play a special, perhaps even spiritual, role. Works of fiction -- the writings of Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, Toni Morrison, William Faulkner -- allow us to inhabit fascinating worlds we couldn't have envisioned. Works of scholarship -- the economic analyses of Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes, the histories of Thucydides and Edward Gibbon -- provide frameworks for making sense of the past and the present.

But now, at the start of the 21st century, there's a dizzying set of literacies available -- written languages, graphic displays and notations. And there's an even broader array of media -- analog, digital, electronic, hand-held, tangible and virtual -- from which to pick and choose. There will inevitably be a sorting-out process. Few media are likely to disappear completely; rather, the idiosyncratic genius and peculiar limitations of each medium will become increasingly clear. Fewer people will write notes or letters by hand, but the elegant handwritten note to mark a special occasion will endure.

I don't worry for a nanosecond that reading and writing will disappear. Even in the new digital media, it's essential to be able to read and write fluently and, if you want to capture people's attention, to write well. Of course, what it means to "write well" changes: Virginia Woolf didn't write the same way that Jane Austen did, and Arianna Huffington's blog won't be confused with Walter Lippmann's columns. But the imaginative spheres and real-world needs that all those written words address remain.

I also question the predicted disappearance of the material book. When they wanted to influence opinions, both the computer giant Bill Gates and the media visionary Nicholas Negroponte wrote books (the latter in spite of his assertion that the material book was becoming anachronistic). The convenience and portability of the book aren't easily replaced, though under certain circumstances -- a month-long business trip, say -- the advantages of Amazon's hand-held electronic Kindle reading device trumps a suitcase full of dog-eared paperbacks.

Books in jeopardy

Two aspects of the traditional book may be in jeopardy, however. One is the author's capacity to lay out a complex argument, which requires the reader to study and reread, following a circuitous course of reasoning. The Web's speedy browsing may make it difficult for digital natives to master Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason" (not that it was ever easy).

The other is the book's special genius for allowing readers to enter a private world for hours or even days at a time. Many of us enjoyed long summer days or solitary train rides when we first discovered an author who spoke directly to us. Nowadays, as clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle has pointed out, young people seem to have a compulsion to stay in touch with one another all the time; periods of lonely silence or privacy seem toxic. If this lust for 24/7 online networking continues, one of the dividends of book reading may fade away. The wealth of different literacies and the ease of moving among them -- on an iPhone, for example -- may undermine the once-hallowed status of books.

But whatever our digital future brings, we need to overcome the perils of dualistic thinking, the notion that what lies ahead is either a utopia or a dystopia. If we're going to make sense of what's happening with literacy in our culture, we need to be able to triangulate: to bear in mind our needs and desires, the media as they once were and currently are, and the media as they're continually transforming.

It's not easy to do. But maybe there's a technology, just waiting to be invented, that will help us acquire this invaluable cognitive power.

Howard Gardner teaches cognitive psychology at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is directing a study of the ethical dimensions of the new digital media.

Now, far be it from me to argue with the esteemed Professor Gardner, but I must conclude by saying that I do not share his optimism about the future of literacy.

While I believe that a significant minority will retain reading and writing skills, I think that minority will be a combination of an affluent elite, for whom literacy will be a luxury item, and certain vocational groups, for whom literacy will be a requirement, say computer programmers. But for the latter vocational literates (Eric Havelock used the term craft literacy), they may only use reading and writing for utilitarian purposes, not to obtain culture, entertainment or enlightenment.

The same short attention span that Gardner writes about in his piece will, in my opinion, drive people away from the written word altogether, and toward the visual. And while images can never entirely replace words, speech recognition and speech synthesis software will go a long way towards making literacy unnecessary for increasingly larger numbers of people.

Anyway, that's just my op-ed rebuttal, for what it's worth (about a buck forty-nine, I figure). Believe me, nothing would make me happier than to learn in no uncertain terms that I'm wrong and Howard's right.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Digital Comedics

Okay, sorry to disappoint, but I'm not going to put forth a new aesthetics for our new media. I just want to share a few funny videos with you that have to do with this particular topic.

Now then, how about some good old fashioned stand-up comedy? Well, not all that old fashioned, because it's about the internet:

And now, back to the musical comedy, with this song about MySpace that one of my MySpace friends, Tracy G. Chapman, aka ~queenie~ brought to my attention. If you're not familiar with MySpace, you may not get all of the references, but it's still pretty amusing:

And there you have it, a bit of fun fun fun, for everyone.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

On Plagiarism

So, I've been meaning to put up a post about this topic, and finally, finally, I'm getting around to it. The world can rest easy now.

Plagiarism. That's at topic on everybody's mind these days. Or maybe not. But it comes up a lot in academia, especially when it comes to students. I have a certain aptitude for spotting it in student papers, not that I'm perfect--I suspect I occasionally may let one get by me--but I'm pretty good. Just recently, I had a graduate paper that included an entire Wikipedia entry, incorporated into the paper seemingly seamlessly. Now that's depressing, but I've also seen those Amazon customer reviews of books incorporated into papers, and that's just awful.

But probably the worst instance was a few years ago, an undergraduate paper taken completely off of the internet. Now, that's not what stands out, it was the students response when I told him he was getting an F in the class for plagiarizing the term paper. He said to me that he hadn't committed the plagiarism, it was the guy he hired to write the paper for him!!!

Of course, plagiarism comes up with professors, scholars, intellectuals, and professional writers as well, sometimes due to intentional copying, sometimes accidentally (or so they claim). It seems that word processing facilitates accidental plagiarism, as files can be shifted and reformatted, and the citation gets lost, and the writer forgets that someone else wrote those words (I find that hard to accept, but then again, other people's memories may work differently than mine). I've seen this come up occasionally with people I know.

It also comes up through the media, with journalists for example, occasionally turning out to have copied a report or feature from somewhere else. And in politics, Joe Biden was knocked out of the Democratic primaries in 1988 by because of his plagiarism. That was a little strange, because plagiarism is not so much of an issue in public speaking, with its strong roots in oral tradition, than in publishing, but it turned out that he also plagiarized while a law student. Too bad, because Biden was and is otherwise an outstanding candidate.

Electronic text, and the internet in particular, have made plagiarism extraordinarily easy, because all it requites is a copy and paste, plus substituting your own name for the author. I have a book chapter coming out this year (hopefully) where I argue that cut, copy, and paste are the three most basic tools defining the digital age.

On MySpace, I've seen plagiarism come up a number of times among the little community of poets that I've joined. What follows are expressions of outrage, and a kind of circling of the wagons, as many different writers point their finger at the culprit. A public shaming is the main punishment. Sometimes the reaction seems a little extreme to me, as there really is not very much at stake, certainly no money, no fame, but it is true that this sort of writing comes from the very core, so its theft might seem all the more hurtful, and insulting, for that reason. Writing in general seems to retain a link to our sense of self. I've noticed that students get more upset about bad grades on their papers than on exams, regardless of how much either counts towards the final grade.

There are some people who don't care about being plagiarized, but I've also seen some people, whose writing I can't imagine anyone wanting to steal. getting all bent out of shape over the possibility of someone plagiarizing their work, whether they should copyright it somehow before posting and all. My understanding is that what we put out there is a gift, as my colleague in London, Richard Barbrook has argued, and we are paid back by the status that gift grants us. It's a lot like tribal culture all over again, aka secondary orality and the global village.

In the end, there's not much anyone can do to stop plagiarism from happening (although there are remedies once it's happened). There's been quite a bit written about copyright law in recent years, but all the agonizing simply underscores the fact that the very notion of copyright has been undermined by the electronic media, not just computers and the internet, but radio, TV, and audio recordings. This is just one of the ways in which the electronic media are reversing the biases of print culture.

Media ecologists have long pointed to the fact that copyright laws were introduced as a reaction to printing technology, a way to protect printers and publishers as an industry. Along with copyright, the concept of originality is a product of print culture. Before print, the ideal of writing something completely novel just did not exist. There was no anxiety of influence, and no guilt about copying someone else's words, just as my students feel no guilt, not do I feel any anger, when they copy my words into their notebooks during class.

So, anyway, I kind of tried to tie all of these related threads together in a poem I wrote and posted on my MySpace poetry blog, and I thought I'd bring that up in this blog, since the topic is relevant. So, I'm going to paste the poem in below for quick and easy reference. In fact, I'm going to copy the html code for the entire blog entry and paste it in here, good old copy and paste:

A Page

From the

Fordham University

Student Handbook:

and now this:

Our Plague Days

A plague! A plague!
Of plagiarism!
A pox upon our house!
A noxious pox of chicken scratch!
A literary apocalypse!
Fifth horseman riding roughshod over fourth estate!
Trespassers on intellectual property!
Transgressors eschewing all decency!
With your insincerest form of flattery!
And your crimes of dispassion!
Dispatched with dishonesty!
Prosper not, base cheats and ne'er-do-wells!
Stealing sentences!
Robbing phrases!
Purloining expression!
With such contemptuous disease!
Thieves in the digital night!
With your evil tools of cut and paste!
Word-burglars with your copywrongs!
Absconding scoundrels!
You are our affliction!
Outcast dispel this foul air of derivation!
This contagion that eschews all quotation!
Vile pestilence that you are!
I wish you Damnation!

But hold!
These lines came to me in a fever!
But now a chill attacks my spine!
Are these words that I have penned truly mine?
Or did I stumble 'pon them in some grave tome?
Digging about late one night in times long passed away?
Now half-remembered, now half-dismembered?
Be it ale or ailment, might I be under the influence?
O, the anxiety! Sweet muse, grant me certainty!

Aha! I have it! To insure that nothing unoriginal issues forth from my mouth or hand, I shall henceforth communicate in a language entirely of my own devising, known only to me!

Z okzftd! Z okzftd!
Ne okzfhzqhrl!
Z onw tonm ntq gntrd!
Z mnwhntr onw ne bghbjdm rbqzsbg!
Z khsdqzqx zonbzkxord!
Ehesg gnqrdlzm qhchmf qntfgrgnc nudq entqsg drszsd!
Sqdrozrrdqr nm hmsdkkdbstzk oqnodqsx!
Sqzmrfqdrrnqr drbgdvhmf zkk cdbdmbx!
Vhsg xntq hmrhmbdqdrs enql ne ekzssdqx!
Zmc xntq bqhldr ne chrozrrhnm!
Chrozsbgdc vhsg chrgnmdrsx!
Oqnrodq mns, azrd bgdzsr zmc md'dq-cn-vdkkr!
Rsdzkhmf rdmsdmbdr!
Qnaahmf ogqzrdr!
Otqknhmhmf dwoqdrrhnm!
Vhsg rtbg bnmsdlostntr chrdzrd!
Sghdudr hm sgd chfhszk mhfgs!
Vhsg xntq duhk snnkr ne bts zmc ozrsd!
Vnqc-atqfkzqr vhsg xntq bnoxvqnmfr!
Zarbnmchmf rbntmcqdkr!
Xnt zqd ntq zeekhbshnm!
Ntsbzrs chrodk sghr entk zhq ne cdqhuzshnm!
Sghr bnmszfhnm sgzs drbgdvr zkk ptnszshnm!
Uhkd odrshkdmbd sgzs xnt zqd!
H vhrg xnt Czlmzshnm!

Ats gnkc!
Tgdrd khmdr bzld sn ld hm z edudq!
Ats mnv z bghkk zsszbjr lx rohmd!
Zqd sgdrd vnqcr sgzs h gzud odmmdc sqtkx lhmd?
Nq chc H rstlakd 'onm sgdl hm rnld fqzud snld?
Chffhmf zants kzsd nmd mhfgs hm shldr knmf ozrrdc zvzx?
Mnv gzke-qdldladqdc, mnv gzke-chrldladqdc?
Ad hs zkd nq zhkldms, lhfgs H ad tmcdq sgd hmektdmbd?
N, sgd zmwhdsx! Rvdds ltrd, fqzms ld bdqszhmsx!

Zgz! H gzud hs! Sn hmrtqd sgzs mnsghmf tmnqhfhmzk hrrtdr enqsg eqnl lx lntsg nq gzmc, H rgzkk gdmbdenqsg bnlltmhbzsd hm z kzmftzfd dmshqdkx ne lx nvm cduhrhmf, jmnvm nmkx sn ld!

Poetry Blog Rankings

That last banner is for real. If you want to do me a solid, you can click there, register (name and password), and vote for me by giving me the maximum number of stars, natch.

Anyway, you can also see that same poem in its original setting (and colors) by clicking on the link I am providing here: Our Plague Days. Why should you bother, you may ask, and well you should, when I already gave you the poem right here? Well, because if you go to the other site, you can read all of the comments people left, and my own replies. Some are funny, some get into the media ecological notions I brought up earlier. The comments also provide some indication of how different people read things differently. I think they're really interesting, but that's just me.

But there's more that I want to relate. One of my MySpace friends, who also has a poetry blog, published a poem that he dedicated to me, after reading Our Plague Days. The poet's name is Moses Roth, he's from Israel, and he goes by the handle of "Moses the One and Only (aka Moses the Holy Dude)" on MySpace. Over in Israel, I assume he is known as Moshe. Here's his picture:

So, since this was a poem he wrote for me, and as I've stated in the past, this blog is an exercise in narcissism, I am going to provide you with the link so you can go take a look at what he wrote (for me) and posted. Oh, and to avoid confusion, he refers to me as Lazerleh, because my Jewish name is Lazar (these are names that are used for religious ritual purposes, if you don't have a biblical name like Benjamin or Sarah), and the ending is a diminutive. In turn, I refer to him as Moshe, Mosheleh, Moisheleh, Moisheh, or Moi. Anyway, here's the link to his poem: Spa(w)n.

Pretty cool, huh? I thought so. Thank you again, Moishie!

So, his post links back to mine, and in turn, to show my appreciation, I added another post which linked back to his: Spa(w)n by Moses the One and Only (aka Moses the Holy Dude.

Being the astute reader that you are, I don't have to tell you that this post now adds another link to the chain. Isn't the web wonderful, and blogging just grand? I guess that instead of saying that it's not copying if you use quotation marks, we now say that it's not copying if we provide hot links. That's progress for you!

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Political Ponderings

So, it's all politics, politics, politics these days. And I'm really not all that gung ho about politics, not like my friend Paul Levinson. The way I see it, none of these people running for office are really on my side, none of them really represent me or my interests. It's all about picking the lesser of the two or more evils.

I am reminded of the words of Treebeard the Ent in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, when he was asked whose side he was on in the coming War of the Ring, and responded with something like, "I am not altogether on anybody's side, because no one is altogether on my side." That's how I feel. Although I should note that Treebeard goes on to say something like, "But I am no friend of those tree-burning Orcs!"

And that's it exactly. I'm not sure I can tell you what makes for good politics, but I know what I don't like!

Overall, I feel that the two-party system is a big part of the problem. Jacques Ellul writes about it in books like Propaganda and The Technological Society. Two parties give us the illusion of choice, the illusion of democracy. But in reality, they are the next worst thing to having only one party. Both parties function almost like teams to root for--go blue states, yay red states, while the real administration is left to technical experts, economists, foreign policy experts, military experts, etc. The politicians are experts in one thing and one thing alone, campaigning.

So, maybe that's too cynical, but even if you give the politicians some credit as managers and policy and decision makers, the problem with only two parties is that they try to cover too much ground and end up with uneasy coalitions of interests and positions that are logically, and psychologically incoherent, fundamentally irrational in a political system that is supposed to be governed by rationality. And to make matters worse, both parties try to move towards the center in order to gain the broadest appeal possible, resulting in a blurring of distinctions between the two. In trying to be most things to most of the people, they become less and less to fewer and fewer of us.

So, I really didn't mean to go off in this direction, but hey, it's my blog and I can cry if I want to. And I can't help but be reminded of the last two stanzas of Mrs. Robinson, as sung by Simon and Garfunkel:

Sitting on a sofa on a Sunday afternoon.
Going to the candidate's debate.
Laugh about it, shout about it
When you've got to choose
Every way you look at this you lose.

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio,
Our nation turns it's lonely eyes to you.
What's that you say, Mrs. Robinson.
Jotting Joe has left and gone away,
Hey hey hey.

But if that's too staid for you, I also recall from my youth the lyrics to Alice Cooper's I Want to Be Elected:

I'm your top prime cut of meat, I'm your choice
I wanna be elected
I'm your yankee doodle dandy in a gold Rolls Royce
I wanna be elected
Kids want a savior, don't need a fake
I wanna be elected
We're gonna rock to the rules that I make
I wanna be elected, elected, elected
I never lied to you, I've always been cool
I wanna be elected
I gotta get the vote, and I told you about school
I wanna be elected, elected, elected
Hallelujah, I wanna be elected
Everyone in the United States of America
We're gonna win this one, take the country by storm
We're gonna be elected
You and me together, young and strong
We're gonna be elected, elected, elected
Respected, selected, call collected
I wanna be elected, elected

So, now that I got that out of my system, I want to dazzle you with my brilliant insights on how this has been an unusual, highly irregular set of primary campaigns going on, and that's what I really wanted to comment on.

First, we began with all this noise and self-congratulations about the diversity of the candidates. We had the first serious woman candidate, the first African-American, the first Mormon, and first Italian (and maritally, and follicularly challenged) candidate, and so on. It all seemed so nice and sweet before things really got going, and people started to realize that they couldn't all get nominated or elected. At least, Giuliani self-destructed, so there was no reason to suspect anti-Italian prejudice and defamation--and believe me, that would have come out, especially with Rudy's association with certain scandals. It woulda been like The Sopranos, fugedaboudit!

Here on my Blog Time Passing, I have previously brought up the topic of Mormons (see Love (American Style), Big, Bigamy, Bigamist, and Big Love, Big Hate). And while Romney has not yet given up the ghost, it seems pretty clear that he's done for, and although McCain is the big winner, there is no question that Huckabee is the spoiler. The bottom line here is that the Mormon candidate was rejected by a significant number of Christian conservatives, the very people who they saw as their natural allies, and rejected on account of the belief or prejudice that Mormons are not Christians. Huckabee personifies, embodies that rejection, but it's the large scale rejection that counts. How can the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints and its followers possibly come out of this experience unchanged?

Does Romney remind you at all of John Kerry?

Does Mike Huckabee remind you at all of Richard Nixon, albeit minus the ski slope nose? And as they said on TV when I was very little, do be a do-bee, don't be a huckabee, or something like that.

Anyway, jumping over to the Democratic side of the fence, it has become painfully apparent that you can have an African-American nominee or a woman nominee, but you can't have both (since Oprah isn't running... this time around at least). If Hilary Clinton wins in the end, and my guess is, she will, I suspect that all of Barack Obama's supporters who got their hopes up about putting the first African-American into the White House will be more than disappointed, alienated in fact, and won't support Clinton, or vote for her. And if it's Obama who comes out ahead, I suspect there will be bad blood and a loss of support from the Clinton camp. Either way, the Democratic primary has become so divisive that it seems to me like whoever wins the nomination will lose the election.

In this context, the Edwards candidacy was ludicrous. He is not distinct enough from Clinton or Obama on the issues for there to have been any point to his campaign, and if he had somehow won the nomination, he would have denied it to both the first woman and the first African-American--talk about lose-lose. I suspect that his refusal to give up had more to do with his wife's terminal status, their last hurrah campaigning together, almost like that was all that was keeping her going, keeping them from facing reality--denial in the face of death and defeat alike. I say this with only the greatest of sympathy and respect for them on that count, and I pray for a medical, rather than political miracle for the Edwards family.

And then there's McCain, who on the surface seems like another white male, but actually would be the first Vietnam vet to ascend to the presidency, assuming he's not swiftboated like the last one running. For more than two years now, I've been saying he's the most likely candidate to be the next president, last year I was saying it quietly and hesitantly, because it looked like his campaign was hanging by a thread, but I still said it. And the fact that all of those conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter don't like him is a ringing endorsement as far as I'm concerned. And as reviled as Joe Lieberman became after his failed bid for the Vice-Presidency and almost losing his Senate seat, he still has my sympathy, and his endorsement of McCain means a lot to me. It is really too bad that contemporary American politics would not allow for a bipartisan ticket.

By the way, I believe that, of all the candidates, McCain best matches McLuhan's notion of the cool candidate with charisma, one without sharp, distinctive features, one who most resembles the crowd. Interestingly, I think that Obama to some extent also shares these traits.

As for who I'm likely to favor in the general election, all I can say is that I don't know yet, I'm going to have to think about it and consider the issues. I used to automatically support the Democratic candidate (a typical New Yorker), but I can't say that they're entirely on my side anymore, so I'm going to see who gets the nod, and really evaluate, you know, be a good citizen and all. And I may put up a post about it when I come to a decision, but maybe I won't. After all, what makes you think it's any of your business? (That's a joke, son!)

But all of this is leading up to the point that I wanted to get to in this blog, and still have not gotten to for some strange reason unknown to me... And that point is how awful the primaries are. It's been bad enough to give such disproportionate power to Iowa and New Hampshire, but this Super Primary just past was a big mistake, as it resulted in a highly superficial campaign where specific local issues in any of the participating states were totally neglected.

I have to admit that until now, I thought a national primary, just one day, across the entire nation, would be the best thing, as it would give no one state an advantage. But it turns out that a national and even a super primary does give one state a complete advantage: the virtual state of being, that is, the media. Okay, but, so what then? It seems like it's a damned if you do and damned if you don't situation, right?

Well, no. I was blown away by the elegance of a solution to this conundrum that I read in an op-ed piece in the North Jersey Record (aka Bergen Record) on Tuesday (Feb. 5, 2008, p. L7), entitled "A Better Way to Conduct Presidential Primaries" and as always, while providing the link I will spare you the trouble of heading over there, and bring the mountain to Mohamed, as it were (and note that it appear under a different title online for some strange reason):

Fumbling primaries
Tuesday, February 5, 2008

IN THE AFTERMATH of Iowa and New Hampshire, many Americans have begun to question the nominating process itself. Are two tiny rural states really the place to kick off an all-important national selection process?

According to a survey conducted for The Associated Press and Yahoo News, fewer than one in five voters favor Iowa and New Hampshire's "favored state" status, and nearly 80 percent would rather see other states get their chance at the front of the line.

Officials in those other states, meanwhile, fear that if they hold their presidential primaries too late in the season, the nominations will already have been decided and that they will become irrelevant. That has led states to leapfrog each other to go first, pushing the start date ever closer to New Year's Day.

The result: a colossal spasm of absurdity unfolding today known as Super Duper Tuesday. A total of 24 states -- including New Jersey -- are scheduled to hold their primaries or caucuses on a single day. These include some of our largest states, such as California, New York and Illinois. Together these two dozen states hold enough delegates to nearly decide the presidential nomination all by themselves.

Having a single primary day with so many states should be called Super Stupid Tuesday, because it gives great advantage to those candidates with the most campaign cash and name recognition to compete in so many states simultaneously. It creates a virtual wealth primary in which new presidential faces will be quickly eliminated.

In addition, states with primaries after Feb. 5 -- including Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, North Carolina, Virginia and others -- may find that the nomination is already over before they even have a chance to vote. Even if it isn't, the mere possibility that it could be will lead some of those states to leapfrog in the 2012 presidential election, continuing the anarchy.

Utterly broken

The current system is utterly broken, and more and more people realize it. Fortunately there is a better way that would allow the maximum number of states -- little states, big states and medium-sized states -- to be relevant to the presidential nomination process.

A national plan would establish four primary days, each held a month apart. The states would be grouped into four clusters, by population. The smallest 12 states, plus federal territories and Washington DC, would vote first, followed by the next smallest 13 states, then the 13 medium-sized states and finally the 12 largest states. These four primaries would begin in March and end in June.

This national plan has a number of advantages over the current anarchy. First, by starting with small states and moving on to ever larger ones, it gives all states an influential role and allows more voters an effective voice. The big states would vote last, but since they hold the most delegates, the nominations wouldn't be decided until the final day.

Second, it accomplishes the recommendation of the Vanishing Voter Project at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, that the nominating process should "remain competitive for a longer period of time in order to give the public a greater opportunity to engage the campaign and to become informed about the candidates."

It also creates a shorter interval between the primary season and the nominating conventions in the summer, helping to sustain the public's level of engagement.

Door-to-door politicking

Finally, a national plan preserves door-to-door "retail politicking" in small states early in the season, and gives lesser-known or under-funded candidates a chance to catch fire. Party members would have more time to consider whether early frontrunners best represent their party's chances of winning, and late-blooming candidates would have a chance to bounce back from early defeats.

In 2000 the Republican National Committee nearly adopted just such a plan. It's a pity it didn't, since it would have led us out of the current morass. Both major parties are planning to review their nomination procedures, and they should put in place a nationally coordinated presidential primary plan by 2012.

The nomination of our nation's chief executive is too important to leave to such a chaotic, state-by-state process.

Steven Hill is director of the Political Reform Program of the New America Foundation and author of "10 Steps to Repair American Democracy."

And since it's come up, let give you the link for the New America Foundation, with the stipulation that I know nothing about this organization.

And there you have it. I seriously cannot think of a better solution, of any solution, and I have to say that this plan is sheer genius! So, I hope you didn't mind having had to wade through my rambling thoughts and put up with my idiosyncratic political views to get to this point, but I am what I am.

So, I don't know how, but let's make it happen. Four months, four primaries, first the 12 smallest states, followed by the 13 next smallest, followed by the 13 middle sized ones, followed by the 12 biggest. Everyone gets a say, no ones shut out, the campaigning is manageable, and local issues get to be addressed. Brilliant!!!