Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Inscribed and Monitored

So, at Rosh Hashanah services this morning at Congregation Adas Emuno, I was particularly taken with the prayer called unetanah tokef (which means, "we shall ascribe holiness to this day," the first line of the prayer) . This is a religious poem that is only recited on the Jewish New Year and on Yom Kippur, and its origins are appropriately apocryphal--legend has it that it was composed in the 11th century by Rabbi Amon of Mainz, Germany (where four centuries later Johann Gutenberg would invent the printing press with movable type), although it probably was the product of Byzantine Jewish culture in the 8th or 9th century. The legend has it that Rabbi Amon was asked to renounce his faith, tortured, and before he died, was taken to his synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, whereupon he interrupted the regularly scheduled service, recited this poem, and died. He later appeared to one of his disciples in a dream, and asked that this prayer be recited each year.

The legend matches the apocalyptic theme of the prayer-poem--it's judgment day, after all, but in Jewish tradition that's an annual event, not something that comes just at the end of time. But it does share themes and motifs with Christian apocalyptic prayers, notably the Dies irae prayer of the requiem mass.

But that's not why I'm bringing it up here. What struck me about the prayer, today, was the way in which it described God as a writer, a scribe who painstakingly records all that occurs, and also as an accountant--it has been established for sometime now by archaeologist Denise Schmandt-Besserat that the first writing system was developed by accountants in the ancient Sumerian palaces of Mesopotamia, and that numerals were among the first written characters (in systems such as cuneiform and hieroglyphics, as well as Chinese ideographic writing, each character stands for an entire words, in contrast to the alphabet).

I whispered the point about God being a scribe to a fellow member of the Adas Emuno Board of Trustees, Virginia Gitter, and she added, noting the references to seals, that God also seems to be a notary public. A joke of course, but a seal is the traditional means by which a written document would be validated, substituting for the author's actual presence (if he or she were there, you would know where the words came from for sure, or at least could ask). The signature became the more widely used and democratic substitute for the seal, a sign that seems to be becoming less and less significant now that we have moved from the print era (where handwriting represented the previous era) to an electronic era (where print represents the most recently passed period).

I think it altogether extraordinary to consider this concept of the divine, not as an animistic spirit or as Zeus hurling lightning down from the heavens, but as God the scribe, the author, creation being written, a work in progress that continues to this day. So, anyway, here's a translation of this prayer-poem that I got from MyJewishLearning.com that seems pretty good, although it's not exactly the same as the one we used in our prayerbook. I'll put in boldface all the writing metaphors I can identify, and related references to acoustic and mnemonic terms:

We shall ascribe holiness to this day.

For it is awesome and terrible.

Your kingship is exalted upon it.

Your throne is established in mercy.

You are enthroned upon it in truth.

In truth You are the judge,

The exhorter, the all‑knowing, the witness,

He who inscribes and seals,

Remembering all that is forgotten.

You open the book of remembrance

Which proclaims itself,

And the seal of each person is there.

The great shofar is sounded,

A still small voice is heard.

The angels are dismayed,

They are seized by fear and trembling

As they proclaim: Behold the Day of Judgment!

For all the hosts of heaven are brought for judgment.

They shall not be guiltless in Your eyes

And all creatures shall parade before You as a troop.

As a shepherd herds his flock,

Causing his sheep to pass beneath his staff,

So do You cause to pass, count, and record,

Visiting the souls of all living,

Decreeing the length of their days,

Inscribing their judgment.

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,

And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.

How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,

Who shall live and who shall die,

Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,

Who shall perish by water and who by fire,

Who by sword and who by wild beast,

Who by famine and who by thirst,

Who by earthquake and who by plague,

Who by strangulation and who by stoning,

Who shall have rest and who shall wander,

Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,

Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented,

Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low,

Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished.

But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.

By the way, the line about the "still small voice" is very evocative, as it refers to an inner voice, the conscience, perhaps thought itself as a still, clear voice, small but nonetheless heard, if we choose to listen.

The beauty of this prayer was obviously not lost on the Jewish-Canadian musician and poet Leonard Cohen, who based his song "Who By Fire" on it. There are several compelling versions available on YouTube, and here's one that only makes use of still images, but features a particularly lovely musical arrangement from a live performance:

And here are Cohen's lyrics:
And who by fire, who by water,
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
Who in your merry merry month of may,
Who by very slow decay,
And who shall I say is calling?

And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate,
Who in these realms of love, who by something blunt,
And who by avalanche, who by powder,
Who for his greed, who for his hunger,
And who shall I say is calling?

And who by brave assent, who by accident,
Who in solitude, who in this mirror,
Who by his lady's command, who by his own hand,
Who in mortal chains, who in power,
And who shall I say is calling?

So, returning to the original unetanah tokef prayer, what also strikes me about it is the very clear assertion that God is not only watching everything we do, but writing it all down. The parallel between this concept and the modern notion of surveillance, the panopticon, and Orwell's Big Brother, all functions of the secular State is quite interesting. But whereas the modern notion was of a loss and invasion of privacy, this medieval view comes without any real sense of privacy to begin with, privacy itself being a modern phenomenon. From a media ecology perspective, privacy develops within print culture as a consequence of widespread literacy, because reading and writing move us into an increasingly more isolated position, whereas speaking and listening are communal acts.

So, looking at it in media ecological terms, in oral cultures individuals would consider themselves to be always under observation, because all of nature is alive and imbued with spirit. Any given deity may or may not be paying attention at any given time, but it's a good bet that something supernatural has its eye on you. As we move from oral polytheism to literate monotheism, we have the one all-seeing God not only watching, but also recording everything you do. Then, in print culture we start to develop deistic notions of a God who sets things in motion and then walks away and doesn't pay much attention to what we do, coinciding with the advent of privacy. And as noted, the modern State moves in to fill the gap, or as they said on the classic British TV series The Prisoner, Be Seeing You!

And now we find ourselves moving into a time of widespread narcissism and exhibitionism, where we are training the video cameras on ourselves, revealing all in our blogs (yes I know, not all of us, but more and more we're moving that way, and more so with each generation). As the late Tony Schwartz put it, media have become the second god, and especially the internet, if the definition of a god might be something that is always watching you. And it may well be that privacy was the great anomaly, and we are by nature a species that craves attention, that wants to believe that someone is always fascinated with our every action, word uttered, and every thought that pops into our heads.

Well, ok, so much for philosphizing for tonight. So, how about I end with something for the kids? Here you go! This video was sent to me by my MySpace friend Ami:

And finally, may you all be inscribed and monitored in the Book of Life for another year, signed, sealed and delivered!

Monday, September 29, 2008


So, it's Rosh Hashanah time again, so best wishes to all for a happy and healthy New Year on this, the birthday of the world, the original Earth Day!

Five thousand, seven hundred, and sixty-nine years, that is a very, very long time indeed. Tradition has it that the calendar goes back to the six days of creation, which is why Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the world, and really the whole damn universe! And why shouldn't there be a birthday for the whole kit and kaboodle? Why not celebrate the anniversary of the big bang?!?! Although, admittedly, that sounds more like the moment of conception, rather than birth. But who wants to get into a debate about when life begins? We can at least all agree to abort that topic.

Historically speaking, though, 5,769 years ago, the systems of notation used to keep accounts, presumably including an accounting of time, were evolving and being developed into the first true form of writing. This was happening over in Mesopotamia, where our troops are today (may God watch over them and keep them safe, along with all others), on the part of the Sumerians, in places like the city-state of Ur. You know Ur, as in Ur-text, and as in the birthplace of Abraham, née Abram, ancestor of the Jews/Hebrews/Israelites, as well as the Arabs.

So, 5769 does represent the anniversary of the beginning of an accounting of time, the birth of a chronology that in turn gave rise to the first full sense of history, a written narrative of events occurring in linear order over time, as can be found in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. While certainly not a factually accurate accounting, this represents a marked departure from the mythic traditions of other peoples in the ancient world, most of whom had narrative without chronology, or in the case of the few cultures to utilize writing systems such as the Sumerians and Egyptians, had chronology that was not integrated with narrative. It is only with the advent of the semitic alphabet that sufficient carrying capacity in written form was achieved to allow for the creation, transmission, and preservation of the chronological narrative we call history.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Sarah Silverman's Great Schlep for Obama

So, this video is just too good to pass up. It's funny girl Sarah Silverman exhorting her fellow Jewish-Americans to get their grandparents in Florida to vote for Obama. A warning, though--this contains political content, expletives, and lots of Jewish humor!

The Great Schlep from The Great Schlep on Vimeo.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

First Act of Public Mass Debate Shun

So, it was tempting to shun it, but I broke down and watched the debate, you know, on television, like most everyone else. My cell phone was going off like crazy with text messages from all the people I follow on Twitter, almost all of whom were rooting for Obama like he was their favorite sports team. No one seemed interested in an impartial examination of the issues, it was all about scoring points. No big surprise there. That's the sophisticated, media savvy view, after all. Very depressing.

My former MA student Mike Plugh, an ardent Obama supporter, posted a thoughtful, albeit one-sided blog: What Wins a Debate. My friend and colleague Paul Levinson, who also has been cheering rather loudly for Obama posted a similar kind of assessment: Both Candidates Speak Well, But Obama Looks More Presidential in 1st Debate. But it's an old, old commonplace that viewers committed to a candidate will typically perceive that their candidate won the debate.

Loathe as I am to lower myself to the level of political analyst, I think I will say some things here because I'm not sure anyone else is saying them. I don't have a candidate myself, so I do think this is an impartial assessment. And what I have to say has nothing to do with issues or positions, just how well they did as actors in front of a camera in the Greatest Quiz Show Ever Told. And I don't think it's going to make much difference who's elected, and this was reinforced by the general lack of disagreement between the two candidates on many issues, the biggest argument being on budget and taxes that amount to the tinniest percentage of things, and over whether it was a good or bad decision to go into Iraq, which cannot be proven either way and is a moot point in any event.

So, on to the handicapped horse race.

First, and most importantly, the outcome of this debate was pretty much a draw. No one screwed up in any major way, there were no really dramatic moments, the debate was substantive and a bit dull, and I don't think that anyone who is undecided will have been moved to one side or another by what they saw in the first debate. Not much entertainment value, I bet lots of folks changed the channel after half an hour or so. This was the most even-handed debate since George H. W. Bush squared off against Mike Dukakis. So, I expect that the polls will show that the debate had little or not impact on people's voting decisions at this point.

Overall, I think McCain won on the nonverbal cues. He looked good, mostly relaxed, did not overheat, employed a conversational style reminiscent of Ronald Reagan, but also was assertive and authoritative, establishing dominance for most of the debate. Next to him, Obama looked like the smart kid who knows a lot, but thinks he knows everything, while McCain looked like the firm and confident adult, perhaps a bit of a strict disciplinarian. This was especially the case when the debate shifted from the economy to foreign policy about forty minutes into it. Of course, quite a few viewers may have changed the channel by then, negating McCain's advantage.

I think that many people who did not follow the Democratic primaries would expect Obama to be highly charismatic in the debates, based on his reputation, and they would have been disappointed with his style, which was relatively unemotional, at times wonkish. He's no grat communicator (you remember, that's what they called Reagan, who was not all that good at making speeches like Obama is, but was brilliant on camera).

On the other hand, Obama did hold his own, and as the less experienced, and more exotic of the two candidates, this helps him look acceptable as an alternative to McCain, and as someone who could indeed be president. In other words, the two candidates came across as relative equals in their presentation of self, and this could only help Obama overcome the resistance to his candidacy from voters who would be otherwise sympathetic to the kind of candidacy he represents.

So, my assessment is that overall McCain did a little better, offset by the fact that Obama held his own as the new kid on the block. The outcome: even-steven!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

What Makes a Poet

So, last week was my birthday, and the less said about that the better, if you know what I mean. But I do want to use this blog post to say thank you to one of my MySpace friends, Simon Philbrook, who has taken a leadership role in the MySpace poetry community. Si posted a wonderful bit of poetry last week under the heading What makes a poet? (a birthday poem for Lance), and I want to share it with you dear reader (whoever the one person reading this blog may be), and enter it into the permanent record that is this blog, however permanently ephemeral it all may be. And in case you missed it, I did make that title, What makes a poet? (a birthday poem for Lance), a hot link, so you can click on it and go to the poem, and there I did it again. And now I'll do it one more time: What makes a poet? (a birthday poem for Lance) . Hey, you can't do it too many times, or at least I can't. What makes a poet? (a birthday poem for Lance) What makes a poet? (a birthday poem for Lance) What makes a poet? (a birthday poem for Lance) What makes a poet? (a birthday poem for Lance) What makes a poet? (a birthday poem for Lance) What makes a poet? (a birthday poem for Lance) What makes a poet? (a birthday poem for Lance) What makes a poet? (a birthday poem for Lance) What makes a poet? (a birthday poem for Lance) What makes a poet? (a birthday poem for Lance) What makes a poet? (a birthday poem for Lance) What makes a poet? (a birthday poem for Lance) What makes a poet? (a birthday poem for Lance) What makes a poet? (a birthday poem for Lance) What makes a poet? (a birthday poem for Lance) What makes a poet? (a birthday poem for Lance) What makes a poet? (a birthday poem for Lance)

There, you see!

So, who is this Simon person you well may ask, or as he is known around MySpace, circles, "Si" (may not be his real name, how the hell should I know???)???

Well, here's what he looks like:

Si is from Brighton, which is some sort of place in jolly old England. I don't know much about it, but I got this from the wikipedia entry:

In the Domesday Book, Brighton was called Bristelmestune and a rent of 4,000 herring was established. In June 1514 Brighthelmstone was burnt to the ground by French raiders during a war between England and France.

This sounds about right to me, but I think there's also something more in there, something about a beach, which perhaps is apparent from a couple of those photographs. Or is it that Brighton Beach place in Brooklyn or Russia or something? Or was that the place in The Who's Quadrophenia? Wherever it might be hiding, it shouldn't be too hard to find it, what with the 4,000 herring and all.

In any event, you can take a look at Si's MySpace profile and figure it all out for yourself, just click here:


And in all seriousness, Si is an outstanding poet, and you can read his work for yourself on his blog, just click here:

Si's Blog

And that about wraps it up, except for, er, well, one more time:

What makes a poet?
(a birthday poem for Lance)

Oh, and one more time, thank you Si, my friend, thank you!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

More-On Politics

So, I want to share with you a YouTube video that my friend Andrew Postman put together just recently. It's about politics, and the presidential election campaign, and I suppose I should note that I made my feelings known in a post this past February, Political Ponderings, and I don't think I need to trouble you with them again.

Andy's video is clever and well done, and expresses a sense of disillusionment with McCain, describing it as, "the story of what can happen to a man." On the Media Ecology Association listserv, Andy wrote the following:

While I honestly respect opinions on both sides of the political divide, certain behavior in the last couple of weeks finally moved me to action. Over the weekend, I taught myself iMovie and made this movie, which is now on YouTube (link below). It will take under four minutes to watch. If you think the video is of use to pass along to others or post somewhere, please do. If not, not. I realize there are people out there who will disagree with my conclusion. I respect that.

Either way, thanks for watching. I appreciate it.
Note that this does not necessarily translate into an endorsement of Obama, as it is just as easy to say, a pox on both their houses!

And now this:

And hey, please go ahead and watch it over on YouTube, leave comments for Andy, and pass the URL on to others:


And now for something maybe just a little different, here's a poem about politics, sort of, that I wrote in the summer of 2007. For those of you who like puzzles and puns, this could keep you busy for a little while.

Ship of Fools

the ship of state shape shifts
O shun navigation old son
the cybernetic government drifts
steering by the bull horns hun

head for safe harbor day of treason day for rest
Jack Druid's lumbering about too much to drink
what err what err everywhere dropped bawl to digest
shipwrights play their part for the prince blue plan ink

to build a vessel titanic that God could never swallow
a wailing walrus of a schooner Joe knock on wood
a major league mass hull it has Moe bedecked and all hollow
even armored call it fish mail Levi-Ethan would call it good

be he moth or be he mammoth Wally the point is she be large
the harsh ebb lows the tide in time pin oak key on the nose
pin tales on donkey Otie of nights in a shining barge
crew sadists accrue Jay on emission arose is justice Rose

set sail on disk count leave it up to freight
red tag by morning cod dish for breakfast all's ship shape
load mess cargo at a snail's pace food courts judge peaces of fate
eight royals make Spanish dough Lars be calm they risk no escape

pump galleons of guess Seline riddle me this
empty tanks giving Turkey stuffing abets money on the foe
oil czar dean of an urge Genie us don't you miss
O zone me for sun block aS UV radiates shun the embargo

shipping over seize the smug glares wearing shades in cages
contra band plays merry Archie soused of the bored doorway
him my grey shun ill eagles be low my numb mom wages
good defenses make good neigh boars horse O they say

so fools pita head Hank course away now
mock twain and beyond Gordi in knots don't hold back
row them and down boys bloat and mend the bow
ready the canon Madamme the torpedoes and attack

can we win can bling can eggnog turn the tide?
dip low ma see gumbo tsunami might work
freed traitors flooding marked cats kept tenses let it ride
unlucky role played bad break levitax newer liens done Kirk

Noah government is an ark key too much is a tear Annie
candied dates good at tacking each other as the wind blows
Mister Christian leads a mute tinny band out of tuna uncanny
playing Nero My Cod Toothy on fire roaming he goes

So we sail the seven seas of Sir Cum's ask-tell navy gay shun
1. Poli Sea: home to many herded hydra Deb baiting amongst themselves
2. Embass Sea: foreign so very rainy terror Tory's station
3. Legitima Sea: bases of author eddies prose and consent aligning the shelves

4. A B Sea: alfalfa bit soup the shoals call it Litera Sea
5. Priva Sea: in excess a bull and dream moat body heat-vaporating
6. Intima Sea: aka Six Sea, beware imp each man takes in turns liberty
7. Luna Sea: sailing by moon is shunned Armstrong race dictating

but ship of fuels spills its guts slick move Gil again
skip her two million errors his wife move he starboard
hollow wood out cries fund razors save the sea quell number ten
clean nuptials? I'll ask her pipe line laid for safe's ex harbored

famous Al G. an inconvenient bore at cause a kiss Stan
speaks truth about Emir Ricka a star is burn and bright
O beast O very weighty neigh shun great is thy span
sea to shiny C note glow bell worming at kin's diet light

so dive dive dive you boat Ben ether sea
twenty Thou sand leaks voyeur urge to the bottom of it all
form a sub come Mitty sin a Tory Al cast broadly on TV
parties sects you all congress is always greener on the mall

investdignation time a point asp ash hull persecutor
have herrings Cherry have testes moaning call witless to the stand
bring on the supreme courtesans come missionaries program the supercomputer
right it wrong Cap size it super a report in every storm we planned

so chase 'em and the arkonauts a quest shunt not aside
task Andy shall Reese even odds ask aweigh ye journey lists
press on peep holes write to no drink deep the mead Tia confide
foist amen damn meant no secretions Papa rot seamen get the jists

so answer now and swear not total that Ruth and no think butt
who takes the rap in syncs ships? loose slips of girls bad luck for sale hearse?
Did DOS boot error sport holes in the SS Lose-It-Potamia, bag dad it all, Jabba Hut?
Was it pie rates of the carob bean theEMParks emptying their purse?

was it Bermuda shorts triangles of flesh and fabric crew's ships all poise and food?
was it Po' sidin' aluminated sub fang erred three hole pointure wounds made?
try dent and scrape and airing out the contracted hull Burton but good?
did inept tunes in the keys of seas shake rattle and roll over bait oven's arcade?

or was it an iceberg let us pray in man tis folly to trust?
not burg but 'burb sub urban subversion of the engine's viscosity core?
neither burb nor burg but ball of ice at high velikovicity thrust
comet strikes coral reefer causing SS Tyrannosaurus wrecks and this means war

and can you tell a port from harbor can you tell a port away?
can you be me up Scott free enter pries my cold gun from me?
do we fish and see experts see beyond the prescient day?
can you give 'em healthcare Harry or make rudder Kennedy?

a drowning man knows nothing of the waters that engulf him
gone overboard and in too deep he cannot find his way
clinging to life rafter death to gather sticks for ferries we swim
and we fools all build our ship of state to float just one more day

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Blasphemy or Blasfunny?

One of my MySpace friends, Misha, posted this on her blog, and I thought it was pretty damn, oops I mean darn, funny. It does make fun of a kind of Christian conservative mentality, and so is potentially offensive, but it clearly is not a critique of evangelical or fundamentalist Christianity, but rather of some of the popular culture manifestations of what Stephen Prothero refers to as the American Jesus. Of course, I leave the final judgment up to you, and merely provide the service of bringing this new development to your attention.

In an unrelated development, I learned from someone on Twitter that filmmaker Kevin Smith is making a new movie entitle Red State, a horror movie due out next year. You can read all about it on wikipedia. Kevin Smith is best know for his depictions of New Jersey, which is where I live, and for the most part a blue state. So we have red for blood, blue for bruises, and white for I've had enough already, make it stop, I surrender!

Thursday, September 11, 2008


As a tribute and memorial, I thought I would post here two poems I've posted on my MySpace poetry blog on this theme.

long, long time

rubble, rubble
toil and trouble
jet engines scream
buildings crumble
fire burns

ashes upon ashes
dust upon dust
fire burns

shock and stumble
fire burns

autumn leaves fall
fire burns
fire burns
fire burns

swing me low
sweet cherry
it has been a long, long time since I been home

swing me low
sweet cherry
it has been a long, long time since I been home

what followed

following the shock and the panic
the desperate race to collect the children
and huddle together in what once was
the safety of the home
the black curtain of smoke
rising in the distance
the horror replaying replaying replaying on TV
(but cable only, the networks knocked off the air)

following the exodus, stuck in traffic
the tiny sliver of an island sealed off
like some bad sci fi movie

following the chaos and the confusion
the mad rush to the supermarket
the cries of disbelief and anger
the first of many tears

following the day of madness

came a long moment of silence
a time of stillness
a quiet never known before
in the city of cities
no cars on the road
no planes overhead
no people rushing to work, or play
the ever-present buzz was gone
the white noise replaced by black silence

and all that could be heard
was a whispered accounting:

one brother
one husband
one son


Sunday, September 7, 2008

PowerPoint, What's the Point?

So, people always ask me about PowerPoint presentations.

Well, no, no one asks me about PowerPoint presentations, actually, and maybe that's the point.

But maybe if they did ask me about PowerPoint presentations, I'd answer by saying, what's the point? What's the point of PowerPoint, on the one hand, and what's the point about complaining on the other, as in point of fact, I am powerless to do anything about their proliferation.


The point I am trying to make is that, despite the popularity of PowerPoint, many of the people I come in contact with have a powerful distaste for the medium. Some despise it, while other more moderate individuals only hold it up to ridicule.

Many of us who studied with Neil Postman recall his advice, when it comes to public speaking, never to use visual aids. Apart from the problems that often come up when some sort of technology is being used--you know, just getting it to work right--Neil felt that visual aids only serve as distractions, and that our emphasis should be on the spoken word. It is certainly true that, given a limited amount of time available to prepare a presentation, time spent on visuals will take away from time spent on writing, refining, and rehearsing the speech, which is why I tend to avoid visual aids myself.

But of course it could be argued that PowerPoint has only taken the place of older forms of lecture support such as slides and overhead projectors, and this is true enough. Still, the problem brought on by this new technology has something to do with the fact that it has become so much easier to prepare really snazzy, professional-looking visual aids via PowerPoint than it was before, so that instead of becoming an afterthought, visual aids threaten to become the main event.

Certainly, in public speaking classes in the past, instructors would indicate whether use of visual aids would be forbidden or optional for a given assignment--almost never were they required. But nowadays it is not at all unusual to find a course devoted specifically to making PowerPoint presentations, that is, preparing the PowerPoint itself, and giving your presentation with the aid of PowerPoint, or with PowerPoint being the main point.

Of course, the use of PowerPoint as a crutch is entirely understandable, when you consider that individuals tend to name public speaking as their greatest fear, death coming in a distant second.

To be fair, PowerPoint can be useful when dealing with a speaker who is difficult to understand, say because of a heavy accent, or when speaking to people who have a hard time understanding you, say to folks who are less than completely fluent in English. And of course it makes perfect sense when you need to make reference to images, for example, in a lecture about painting or architecture. From a media ecology perspective, it makes sense to allow for appropriate use of a technology, as well as arguing against inappropriate use.

But otherwise, PowerPoint seems to feed into the worst tendencies of the abstract visualism that came in with the printing press, and the more recent rise of image culture, and it seems to go hand in hand with the decline of eloquence that we have been experiencing over the past century. Perhaps nothing makes the point more powerfully than The Gettysburg Powerpoint Presentation.

And then there's this comedy video that Gregory Reynolds recently shared with the Media Ecology Association listserv:

And if you're interested in a more serious assessment, I do recommend Edward Tufte's essay, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within, which can be downloaded as a PDF file for seven samolians (that's US dollars, for those of you who unfamiliar with the old school slang). Tufte is our leading voice arguing for appropriate use of visual aids, diagrams, graphs, tables, and illustrations. A sample from the essay is available free of charge: PowerPoint Does Rocket Science--and Better Techniques for Technical Reports. Although it is probably impossible to say for sure, we have the argument that the space shuttle Columbia disaster may have something to do with oversimplification due to PowerPoint, and a similar argument has been made in reference to decisions made concerning our occupation of Iraq.

To invoke general semantics, the problem with PowerPoint is that it tends to be used to increase our level of abstracting. Just as the map is not the territory, and can never represent the entire territory, we might also say that

  • Bullet points are not the presentation.
  • Bullet points are only part of the presentation.
  • Bullet points do not provide all of the reasoning and evidence being presented.
  • Bullet points are oversimplifications.
  • Bullet points are annoying.
That last bit is not so much general semantics or media ecology, but if you get my point, well, then more power to ya!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Tenth Anniversary of the Media Ecology Association

So, today, September 4th, is the Tenth Anniversary of the founding of the MEDIA ECOLOGY ASSOCIATION. Ten years ago, Thom Gencarelli and Casey Man Kong Lum came to the Bronx to meet with Susan B. Barnes, who was on the faculty at Fordham University back then, and me, at our offices in Fordham University's Rose Hill campus, in Faculty Memorial Hall, which is technically off-campus, on Belmont Avenue--it's the same avenue that gave rise to Dion and the Belmonts, as in Why Must I Be a Teenager in Love:

But that is besides the point, which is that the four of us planned to meet the evening of September 4th, 1998, in our Department of Communication and Media Studies conference room (Room 433). As luck would have it, Paul Levinson, then a visiting faculty member, was hanging around, so we invited him to join us at our meeting, and the five of us talked it over and voted to form the Media Ecology Association. We decided that Sue Barnes would be the first Executive Secretary, Thom Gencarelli the first Treasurer, Casey Lum the first Vice-President, and I was given the honor of being the first president. I've continued in that office for the past ten years, and will finally be stepping down when my term ends in January.

It's been an amazing ten years, and creating and building the MEA has been a real labor of love. We've come a long way over the past decade, and I think we're all pretty proud of it. Because a Thursday night at the beginning of the school year is not exactly optimal for getting people together, we'll be celebrating with a small group going out to dinner. You can read about our Fifth Anniversary event, which was very special, and view the amazing video that was produced for that occasion, by going to one of my older blog entries: And Now This...

But for now, I have to get going or they'll be calling me late for dinner, so let me just end with...


Monday, September 1, 2008

Sign of the Times?

I was very taken with the short film, Historia de un Letrero, a Mexican production whose title is translated as Story of a Sign. It is a charming parable with religious overtones, or would that be undertones? In any event, this comes across as a fable with a moral about the power of words, and how changing the wording of a sign changes the reactions and responses of those who read it. It therefore serves as a nice little vignette for making a point about language, communication, persuasion, and both general semantics and semantics in general.

The religious sensibility has something to do with this being a "Latin" film, I imagine, and the young man in the film who comes to the aid of the blind beggar could be interpreted as a Jesus-like figure (and isn't Jesus typically depicted as an Italian, visually, as opposed to a Jew, owing to the long Italian tradition of religious art? (of course, in American television and film, there is a longstanding tradition of using Italian and Jewish actors interchangeably to portray Italian and Jewish characters, both having that Mediterranean quality and communicating ethnicity in contrast to the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant types)). As a savior-figure, the young man seems to provide a variation on the old saw about giving a man a fish and feeding him for a day while teaching a man to fish feeds him for a lifetime. Certainly, the blind beggar seems to treat him like some kind of messiah.

This film is not without its controversy, however, and I will admit to feeling less than comfortable with the portrayals, and some of the folks on the media ecology listserv took great offense with what they felt was a patronizing attitude on the part of the filmmakers towards the poor and the disabled. No doubt, some of the anger this film generated was due to the yuppie-like appearance of the savior, seeing him as a smug professional PR or ad exec type who did nothing significant to change the blind beggar's circumstances, and did not even donate his own money to the unfortunate man.

While I leave you to draw your own conclusions (and how interesting it is that this film leads to such disparate interpretations) I would point out that if we accept the critical view of the film, it uses images and narrative to manipulate the audience, just as the blind beggar's sign is about using word choice to influence the passersby reading it. In other words, on two different levels this film is about the same thing, the use of communication techniques, symbols, and media to achieve effects, specifically to influence and manipulate individuals.

Anyway, the film is described simply with the following: "Sometimes all it takes is a stroke of a pen. A beautiful film by Alonso Alvarez." And here it is: