Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Mind Map is Not the Territory, But...

As far as I can recall, I first heard about mind mapping on Twitter from Howard Rheingold, whose explorations in communication are always worth attending to.  And not too long ago, I came across a blog post on mind mapping, THE USAGE OF MIND MAPPING METHODE IN READING, from a blog for the University of Ibn Khaldun Bogor of Indonesia, and was interested to learn that there was a connection to general semantics.  The post contains a paper by Novita Sari Asmiaty, who notes that the inventor of the modern mind map, Tony Buzan, says he got the idea from Alfred Korzybski's general semantics, which I find quite intriguing, but also that the history of the mind map can be traced back to, among others, the medieval Spanish philosopher, Ramon Llull.  

Llull is associated with the technique of the memory theater, as discussed by Francis Yates in The Art of Memory, a book well known to many media ecology scholars, including Walter Ong, and memory is part of Buzan's concept of mind mapping, it is important to note.  This mnemonic technique relies on the fact that visual images help us to remember verbal content.  In the most basic kinds of nomadic tribes, the tendency is to follow the same route around and around, rather than wander aimlessly, and certain objects along the route, say a particular mountain, boulder, river, lake, tree, etc., would be considered sacred, invested with meaning, and used to help retain knowledge vital to the tribe's survival.  John Pfeiffer, in his book, The Creative Explosion, believes that prehistoric cave painting, and the caves themselves, served the same function, as the first memory theaters.  Last November, I was pleased to serve as respondent for the first Marshall McLuhan Lecture set up by the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction, and held at the annual meeting of the National Communication Association.  The lecture was given by Australian researcher Lynne Kelly, of the University of La Trobe, the topic was Stonehenge, and this was the first time that she made her argument for understanding Stonehenge in terms of orality-literacy studies (and media ecology), and seeing the mysterious monuments (and many others like it all over the world) as a kind of memory theater.  For a little more on this, here's her university's press release:  Mystery of Stonehenge Solved?

I find it interesting to note that the diagram of the divine, known as the Tree of Life, from the Kabbalah, is also considered a kind of memory theater:

Here's a fascinating look at the Tree of Life in this respect:  A Memory Theater.  Of course, the Zodiac, with its "houses" is a type of memory theater as well, and Shakespeare's Globe Theatre also fits that bill.

Lest this all seem entirely occult and unscientific, it is worth noting that Llull's philosophy is also considered a forerunner of computer science, influencing in turn the modern philosopher Gottfried Liebniz.  Of course, the Kabbalah, especially the Gematria, gave us numerology, which can be considered an early form of digitization.

But the point here is not the quantification of knowledge, but its visual display, and while there is common ground in geometry, the main event is the mapping of thought.  This begins with writing of course, and the simple idea of the list, as discussed by Jack Goody in The Domestication of the Savage Mind (required reading for any self-respecting media ecologist), might be considered the first mind map. 

And in this respect, an important individual whose name is curiously omitted in these discussions is the early modern French educator, Peter Ramus, the subject of Walter Ong's PhD dissertation, and his first major book, Ramus, Method and the Decay of Dialogue.  Ramus developed a technique for the visual display of knowledge where you begin with a concept, divide it into two opposites, divide each one into two, and so on.  For example, beginning with living things, you might divide them into plants and animals, divide animals into vertebrates and invertebrates, divide vertebrates into cold and warm blooded, etc.  Ong explains that this visual dialectic replaced oral dialogue as the basis of education in much of the west, and was especially influential in Protestant countries.  In fact, it was the basis of Puritan education in colonial New England, and form there became the foundation of American education in general.  Ramism represents a shift in emphasis, not only to visualism, but to facts rather than arguments, and to education by the book, and for the first time by a new form that we call the textbook, rather than by the teacher.  From a general semantics point of view, Ramist method comes across as an extreme example of a two-valued orientation, whereas general semanticists recommend employing a multi-valued orientation.  But we can also recognize in Ramism a forerunner of binary logic, information theory, and the basic binary unit, the bit.

As many historians of printing have noted, along with Gutenberg's printing press, the concurrent development of techniques for engraving on printing plates, and then etching, led to a revolution in the production and distribution of visual images, including diagrams as well as illustrations.  And maps.  It's no accident that the Age of Exploration follows on the heels of the printing revolution (see my earlier posts on this subject, One Hell of a Misnomer and Columbus Hot, Vespucci Cool). 

All this eventually leads to diagrams of electrical circuitry, and then to computer programs, which are a kind of artificial mind map.  And computers, in turn, facilitate the graphic display of information in unprecedented fashion, often leading to very poor forms of diagramming.  Among the worst offenders are the purveyors of PowerPoint presentations:

And of course the leading expert on the visual display of information is Edward Tufte, whose website and work is well worth our attention.  He's particularly incisive on the subject of graphing and the visual display of quantitative information, and has produced quite the critique of PowerPoint.  I'm not aware of anything Tufte has written on mind mapping, though.

The wikipedia entry on the Mind map reflects some disagreement on its modern origin.  One sentence attributes it to Tony Buzan, who represents a rather fascinating combination of psychology, language, memory, poetry, computing, and education.   The entry itself says the following about Buzan:  "He claimed the idea was inspired by Alfred Korzybski's general semantics as popularized in science fiction novels, such as those of Robert A. Heinlein and A. E. van Vogt. Buzan argues that while 'traditional' outlines force readers to scan left to right and top to bottom, readers actually tend to scan the entire page in a non-linear fashion. Buzan also uses popular assumptions about the cerebral hemispheres in order to promote the exclusive use of mind mapping over other forms of note making."  For more on Tony Buzan, you can check out Buzan World

But a separate paragraph in the wikipedia entry on the Mind map contradicts what is said about Buzan, which is a paradox generated by collective social media authorship.  That section reads:  "The semantic network was developed in the late 1950s as a theory to understand human learning and developed into mind maps by Allan M. Collins and M. Ross Quillian during the early 1960s. Due to his commitment and published research, and his work with learning, creativity, and graphical thinking, Collins can be considered the father of the modern mind map."  Holding aside the quibbles about paternity and patents (this does all go back to the the invention of lists in the antiquity, after all), it is fascinating to note another reference to semantics here, albeit not of the general variety.  And I do like the phrase, semantic network.  Here's an illustration of one:

Now, the wikipedia entry on the Semantic network says that "'Semantic Nets' were first invented for computers by Richard H. Richens of the Cambridge Language Research Unit in 1956 as an 'interlingua' for machine translation of natural languages.  They were developed by Robert F. Simmons at System Development Corporation in the early 1960s and later featured prominently in the work of Allan M. Collins and colleagues."  And in jumping around like this, I'm actually illustrating a bit of semantic neworking, and yes, it is a forerunner of hypertext, as well as the basis for artificial intelligence programming (aka expert systems).  And it is therefore connected to the idea of the semantic web, which is about bringing together AI and the web, or teaching meaning to computers to give us an intelligent internet.  Put it all together, and the net, the web, cyberspace and virtual reality, all of it represents one enormous, collective mind map.

So, while the roots of mind mapping can be traced back to the ancient world, it is electric technology, computers, and digital media that facilitate the process, and that also introduce a decentralized networked approach to the subject, as opposed to the linearity of lists and outlines, and Ramist visualism.  The if-then logic of the electric circuit board and computer flow chart can be transferred to the organization of ideas and knowledge, to thinking, which is about chains and networks of associations, a nonlinear process that in some ways retrieves aspects of oral culture and mnemonics.

Simply put, while the line was the fundamental organizing principle of the past 5500 years of writing cultures, we have now added, to the simplicity of the line, and its rectilinear frame, the complexity of the network.  The network is the fundamental organizing principle of our new era.

So, Wikipedia, great mind map that it is, has a page providing a List of Mind Mapping Software, in case you're interesting in checking any of it out.  Howard Rheingold mentioned the freeware program FreeMind, which I have downloaded and tried out a few times.  To be honest, I haven't really taken to it.  While I do think in terms of ecological interrelationships, I'm used to jotting ideas down on a pad, and then find a linear way to arrange the ideas.  I suppose I'm pretty much a part of the old literate culture, and additionally,  I'm just not that much of a visual thinker when you come down to it.  But maybe I need to try out Tony Buzan's more sophisticated iMindMap software instead.  

Whatever the case may be, it all comes down to the mind being a territory that we are at once intimately acquainted with, and at the same time find difficult to navigate.  And so, one of the great tasks that we have been engaged in, for all of human history, is the mapping of the our own minds.  The enormity of it all leaves me feeling, well...  a little bit lost...

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Art, Abstracting, and Autism

Temple Grandin's TED talk is well worth including here on Blog Time Passing, as it touches upon several topics of interest, not the least of which is autism.  Grandin is probably the most famous individual to have been diagnosed with autism, and as her case is a mild one, she has been able to communicate a great deal about her condition.  

As she puts it, she thinks in pictures, visually rather than verbally, and that many like her have a similar preference for art over language.  While Grandin is not an artist herself, and there is more of an emphasis on science and technology (geeks, as she puts it), she also notes how visual thinkers like herself can communicate with pictures, and have a facility for the visual arts, and how some can even draw in perspective with no prior training (a technique that otherwise was only developed in the west, and has been associated with alphabetic literacy).  

She mentions Vincent Van Gogh, who has been identified as probably autistic, and how his Starry Night has been shown to accurately reflect weather patterns, and that reminded me of how my friend and colleague Ed Wachtel did his own bit of pattern recognition and produced a visual mash-up of the painting and the Weather Channel, which I reported on in a blog post a could of years ago (see Wachtel's Van Gogh Weather Map).

Her talk here connects to one of the central points in general semantics, the process of abstracting, that is, that we perceive only part of what is out there in reality, and then use words to refer to only part of what we perceive, and with words we can move to higher and higher levels of abstraction by leaving out increasingly more details and using increasingly more general categories or statements.  

Grandin discusses how the autistic mind tends to prefer a lower level of abstracting, visual rather than verbal.  Indeed, I am confident that she would identify general semantics founder Alfred Korzybski as having autistic genes, as she puts it in the video (and this is meant in a positive way, in case there's any doubt, and I should also add that I have no doubt that I have them myself).

Grandin also points to an aspect of abstracting that I've discussed before as a much needed addition to general semantics, the mode of abstracting.  The distinction between verbal and visual is not just a matter of level, it's a matter of qualitatively different modes.  She also notes the difference between visual thinkers who focus on detail (photo realistic visual thinkers she calls them), and those who pick out patterns.  These are two different kinds of nonverbal thinking, and you might say that the pattern thinkers function on a higher level of abstracting, but it is also true that they represent two different modes of abstracting, the detail thinkers leaving the whole out of the part, the pattern thinkers leaving the part out of the whole.

This also relates to the distinctions between discursive and presentational symbols that Susanne Langer makes, or between digital and analogical  communication made by Gregory Bateson, Paul Watzlawick, et al.  While there are important nuances, the basic dichotomy corresponds to  verbal and visual thinking, which in turn is favored by the left and right hemispheres of the brain, respectively.  That relationship was explored by Marshall McLuhan, and after him by the late Leonard Shlain.  

This also relates to the work of Howard Gardner on different kinds of intelligences, which includes not just visual and verbal, but mathematical, biological, and social and emotional.  Different kinds of intelligences are related to different styles of thinking, and are related to different modes, codes, and media of communication.  

And I love Grandin's message that we need all kinds of thinkers.  I couldn't agree more, it's diversity that is associated with success, whether it's biological within a species, or social and psychological within a society.
All of this makes this TED talk relevant for the field of media ecology, and I quote Temple Grandin on visual thinking, and include a discussion of autism as a case study, in my own book, Echoes and Reflections: On Media Ecology as a Field of Study.  But of course you knew that, and already have a copy, right?

Anyway, let's hear from Temple now, okay?

So, if you want to learn more about her, you can check out Dr. Temple Grandin's Web Page, which focuses on her work with livestock, as well as Dr. Temple Grandin's Official Autism Website.  She's called Dr. Grandin because she has a PhD, in animal science, and she's a professor at Colorado State University (if you know anything about academia, you know that there are a lot of autistic genes distributed among the faculty).  She's also the subject of a recent HBO movie, called Temple Grandin, starring Claire Danes, and I think it's worth a view.

It is instructive to contrast Grandin's view that we need all kinds of different minds, to what is said in a recent report coming out of the University of Leeds, entitled Research Builds on Genetic Link to Autism and Schizophrenia.  The report begins with the following sentence:  "A genetic link between schizophrenia and autism is enabling researchers to study the effectiveness of drugs used to treat both illnesses. [yeah, I added the emphasis, you bet I did]"  

Illnesses?  I'm sure Temple Grandin would disagree, and other individuals have been very forceful in arguing that autism is neither a disease, nor a disorder or disability that needs to be cured or fixed, or eliminated.  This came up in a conference on autism at Fordham University that I took part in a few years ago, as reported in my blog entry, Autism and Advocacy.

Word choice aside, I do find it interesting to see the reference to a genetic link between autism and schizophrenia.  Before autism was identified by Dr. Leo Kanner in 1943, it was often misdiagnosed as schizophrenia.  And while the two are quite different indeed, there does seem to be a spectrum (as Grandin mentions in the video), and beyond the autism spectrum itself, a wider spectrum that links autism to ADD and ADHD, dyslexia and other learning disabilities, Tourette's Syndrome, and more, with connections as well to Alzheimer's Disease.

Is schizophrenia a different kind of thinking that we need, or a form of suffering that needs to be alleviated?   Such issues are difficult to grapple with, but the basic rule of thumb would have to be whether individuals are a threat to others, to themselves, and whether they are happy with their condition or not.  In the case of autism, it's quite clear how there is a very thin line between genius and dysfunction (or perhaps no line as well), and this ambiguity extends, at least somewhat, to schizophrenia as well.

From the point of view of parents wanting to help their children, especially to enable them to take care of themselves and live independently, which many individuals diagnosed with autism cannot do, research such as this study being conducted at Leeds does hold out some hope.  The trick is to balance this out with the need to accommodate and encourage different kinds of thinking and different kinds of minds, and different kinds of individuals.  

Indeed, the trick is to make a world where everyone can develop to their full potential, along their own path, and where the most helpless members of our society can live safely and securely, cared for with compassion and understanding.

But any kind of mind can understand that, right?

Friday, February 26, 2010

Life Before Search Engines?

Life before search engines?  Especially, life before search engines that are easily accessed via mobile devices?  I vaguely remember it, yes.  Maybe you went to the library to look something up.  Maybe you had books of your own that you could look through to find the answer.   I remember as a kid being really impressed with the Almanac, especially the one called Information Please!  

And of course there was the old encyclopedia.  Typically,  parents were guilted into buying a set for their kids--don't you want them to succeed in school?  Now we have wikipedia, of course, but in a larger sense, the web itself is our encyclopedia, encompassing all knowledge.

But what if you didn't have any reference works handy?  How many questions went unanswered, for want of a search engine?  That's the point of this cool cartoon that one of my MySpace friends recently shared with me.

Notice how the contrast here is between search engines and television, aka the boob tube.  And yes, the point is a good one, television numbs the mind, to an extent, while the internet promotes active engagement, to an extent.  So maybe our cartoon couch potatoes have some reference works nearby, and are just too mesmerized by the old cathode ray tube (life before LED) to get up and look for answers.

But, of course, another option available to them, and the only option before there were books, before printing, before literacy, before writing, was simply to ask the person next to you.  Ask and ye shall receive...  Of course, what you receive might be something like, I don't know... or a wrong answer.  You never know what you're going to get (kinda like Forest Gump's box of chocolates).  But that's how we did it, through speech, oral communication, relying on memory, knowledge being what's inside our heads--as Walter Ong puts it, you know what you can recall.

And if the question is put to more than one person, you might wind up with a difference of opinion on what the answer is.   The result might then be argument, in the sense of debate and disputation, at least discussion and dialogue.  And it may well be that that organic process of human communication is itself more valuable, in regard to learning and understanding, than the mechanical process of obtaining the answer itself.  Not always, but often, I would wager.

Speaking of wagering, this is where the famous phenomenon of the bar bet comes in.  A bar is of course a social situation, and alcohol a social lubricant.  People get to talking, and sometimes get argumentative.  Two people disagreeing may turn to a third, and say, hey buddy, settle a bet for us.  Often, the person they turn to may be the bartender, who is still sober, or relatively so.  Given the frequency with which this sort of situation might come up, bartenders often had a copy of the latest almanac handy, not to mention the Guinness Book of World Records.

Speaking of which, I just googled it, and it turns out that it's now just called Guinness World Records, and although a book is still published annually, it's also a website (another sign of the decline of print media, sigh).  According to its wikipedia entry, "the book itself held a world record, as the best-selling copyrighted series of all-time. It is also one of the most stolen books from public libraries in the United States." The history of this book is also quite interesting, so once again I'm going to quote from the Wikipedia entry:

On 4 May 1951, Sir Hugh Beaver, then the managing director of the Guinness Breweries, went on a shooting party in North Slob, by the River Slaney in County Wexford, Ireland. He became involved in an argument over which was the fastest game bird in Europe, the koshin golden plover or the grouse. That evening at Castlebridge House he realised that it was impossible to confirm in reference books whether or not the golden plover was Europe's fastest game bird.

Now, I just can't help but interject that, with this quote, this post has become related to, in an offhand way, my earlier post, Be Very Afraid. Just saying...  Anyway, back to the entry:

Beaver knew that there must be numerous other questions debated nightly in pubs in Britain and Ireland, but there was no book with which to settle arguments about records. He realised then that a book supplying the answers to this sort of question might prove popular.
Beaver’s idea became reality when Guinness employee Christopher Chataway recommended student twins Norris and Ross McWhirter, who had been running a fact-finding agency in London. The brothers were commissioned to compile what became The Guinness Book of Records in August 1954. One thousand copies were printed and given away.
The first edition was published in 1955, and soon became an annual.  Today, they're no longer associated with Guinness Brewery, in fact, believe it or not, they're owned by Ripley Entertainment.  But it is interesting to note the connection between the beverage and the book, and to recall that bars and beer are social media of the non-electric variety.

And what becomes of the bar bet when answers are just a google search away?  What becomes of the process of argumentation, and the social search for information, please, from others at the bar?  It seems to me that, in our search for quick and easy answers, we've lost something much more valuable, that we're the poorer for trading information for interaction, in this instance.  The questions are more valuable than the answers, the process more than the outcome, the journey more than the destination.  Again, not always, but more often than not.

So anyway, nostalgia aside, here's my nod to Guinness as food for thought!

Why yes, yes I am.  In fact, being snowed in today, I think I'd like one.  Time to get the old human search engine going, and do some googling around in my fridge, I know I have a few bottles left in there somewhere...  Ah, there we go...  Here's to life before search engines, those were the days...

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Scoop About Social Media

It was great having social media PR maven Paull Young visit my class at Fordham University today, he's always a big hit with the students, and not just because of his Aussie accent.  Anyway, he used a YouTube video in his presentation that I don't recall seeing before, one that provides a basic explanation of social media (which is the focus of my class, after all).  It's called Social Media in Plain English.  And here it is:

It's a sweet metaphor for relaying the scoop about social media, to be sure, and clearly, it's an explanation geared towards the business sector more so than it's aimed at us intellectual and creative types, not to mention your basic amateur social mediator.   And, as they explain it, it's a "simple story that illustrates the forces shaping social media. This video comes in an unbranded 'presentation quality' version that can be licensed for use in the workplace."  

If you're interested, go check out the website for CommonCraft, where they say, "our product is explanation."  In this instance, at least, I say, kudos for their production values.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Fantastic Animation

Back when I was a college student in the seventies, I went to see a showing of an animated film from France, actually a French-Czechoslovakian production, called Fantastic Planet.  

 Being a cartoon, or anime as they call them nowadays (although arguably that term ought to be reserved for Japanese animation), it was not all that big a deal to dub English voices onto it, that's one of the advantages of animation as opposed to live action.  Not that you can't dub live action movies and video, but then it's painfully apparent that it's been dubbed, and film purists find that unacceptable, whereas animated movies are by their very nature dubbed, so it doesn't matter all that much.

Anyway, Fantastic Planet, or as it was originally known as, La Planète Sauvage (meaning, The Savage Planet), was a trippy little film that fit right in with the seventies, which still retained much of the spirit of the psychedelic sixties.  The film was originally released in 1973, directed by René Laloux, and it won a special award at the Cannes Film Festival that year.  It was released in the US by Roger Corman's film company, New World.  

Here's the link for the Internet Movie Database page for Fantastic Planet, there isn't a whole lot of information about it, but on the linked "trivia" page one item reads, "Said to be based on the Soviet Occupation of the Czech Republic."  I find that interesting, but a bit of a stretch.  No mention is made of this, apart from a vague comment about the Cold War, on the Wikipedia entry for Fantastic Planet.  

The film, it's worth noting,  is an adaptation of a 1957 science fiction novel written by Stefan Wul, entitled Oms en Série (translating as Oms by the Dozen, om being the word for the humans in the story, and a homophone for the French word for man, homme).

 The storyline is not an unusual one in the science fiction genre, there's a bit of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels in it, and Swift's fantasy is sometimes considered one of the first, or perhaps  the first science fiction story.  Fantastic Planet involves a role reversal where humans are treated in much the same way as we treat animals, and have to rise up against their oppressors.  I just watched the remake of Planet of the Apes on HBO, I had seen it in the theaters and didn't find it as iconic as the original, but the remake did a good job in depicting human beings as domesticated animals.  All of the Planet of the Apes movies, and the TV series based on the movies, were American productions, but the original novel was written by Pierre Boulle, a French novelist also known for having written The Bridge Over the River Kwai, which was also made into a movie.  Planet of the Apes was originally published in French in 1963, under the title La Planète des Singes.  But enough monkeying around.

Really, the main point of attraction in this film is its imaginative imagery, its ability to capture a sense of the alien in visual terms that goes far beyond the science fiction of its day, and even the science fiction of today.  In this sense, fantastic really is the best word for it.

So, as it turns out, not too long ago I was having an exchange over on my MySpace poetry blog, and it made me think about this film, and I checked on YouTube and discovered it could be found there, chopped up as usual, and in several versions.  So I picked out one that I thought worked better than the others, and strung the pieces together, posted it over there as a response to a comment, and now I'm including it in a post over here, just for you, because that's the kinda blogist that I am, you see.  So, without further ado, ladies and gentilebeings, I give you, Fantastic Planet:

And for more on the topic of French science fiction, see my previous entries, To the Moon, Alice, and The Jetty Stream.  I'll have to do a post about Alphaville one of these days, we're discussing that movie in my Science Fiction Genre class at Fordham University this week, but I'll leave that for another time, and just end by saying, viva la science-fiction française!  

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Now Oddcasting

So, I've been meaning to tell you about this, and I've already added the links to my list of links over on the side of the blog page, but I put off posting on the subject until now.  So, here goes:  I've started a podcast.  Well, I've done a podcast.  One podcast, just one, so far.

My friend and colleague, Paul Levinson, had suggested that I get into podcasting a while ago, just as he suggested I start a blog (and here we are), set up a profile on MySpace, and stuff like that there.  So I finally got around to it, and on his suggestion, set up a profile on one of the free podcasting sites out there,  So, you can find my profile at, which is separate from my podcast page, it just seems like every site nowadays has to have a profile page, it's become a Web 2.o cliché!

So, then I had to think up a name for my podcast, which the good folks at Mevio call a show, a term I find amusing, that is, amusing as in amusing ourselves to death, public discourse in the age of show business, which is an excellent title for a book!  So, I concentrated on the fact that a podcast is entirely an acoustic form, like radio and sound recording, the term podcasting combining pod as in iPod, which was the main way that folks at first listened to these things (now there are a number of ways to do so, including on your computer, cell phone, and even via cable television services), and casting, from broadcasting, a form of distribution that began with radio and later expanded to television.  So, keeping in mind that I'm dealing with a sonic medium, I thought about it and came up with a name for the show:  Ear Relevance.

Maybe it's a bad pun, but the pun itself is a play on the spoken word.  So, I also decided to keep the title consistent with the name of my two blogs, and call it Lance Strate's Ear Relevance.  So that was that.  And it was hard to say what kind of "show" it was going to be before I actually got started on it, but I figured it would be a loose and open-ended educational program, a kind of class without curriculum, covering topics in communication theory, media ecology, general semantics, also including some poetry, and overall maybe a bit more coherent than the way this blog jumps from topic to topic whenever I post a new entry.  Anyway, that's how I tried to describe it.

So, in setting up the show, they asked for a picture to represent the show, and rather than use another picture of me (one, which was already there from my profile page, is more than enough), I asked an outstanding artist I know from MySpace, David Arshawsky, if he would do something up for me, and gave him an idea of what I was looking for, and he came through in spades.  Here's what he came up with:

Pretty cool, huh?  So with that image, all I needed was the actual podcast itself, which took a lot more time than I thought it would, but I finally got my first episode completed and uploaded.  I recorded and edited it on my Macintosh laptop, using the GarageBand program, and I had two options, so I first uploaded the episode in the better quality MP4a format.  But I learned that older devices can't play it, and when accessed online it plays more slowly than the more universal, lower bandwidth MP3 format, so I uploaded a second version in MP3, and I'll stick to that format from now on.

So, here is the URL for my podcast page  If you go there, you can "become a fan" and get email updates from Mevio whenever there's a new episode, and there are also links so you can subscribe via RSS feed, Zune, or iTunes--the URL for the iTunes subscription is, which I include here for your convenience, and because I think that's pretty darn cool!

So, you can head on over to any of these places to listen to and/or download the episode, but Mevio also gives embed codes, much like you can get for YouTube videos.  The embed option wasn't working for me for a while, which was one of the reasons I didn't post about the podcast earlier. I'm able to get the embed code now, although I'm getting some kind of error message from blogger, so maybe this won't work.  Well, I'll give it a shot anyway, and if it doesn't work, try the Mevio page or iTunes or whatever.

Before you listen, let me acknowledge that it's amateurish, my recording expertise is limited and my equipment far from professional (for example, you may need to push the volume all the way up, depending on the system...  oh, and let me warn you that the episode is about forty minutes long).  But for good or ill, here it is:


I'm pretty sure I'll do some more episodes, but I don't have any specific podcasting schedule, it'll just be whenever I can get them done, and whenever I want to get them done.  If you subscribe, you'll get them automatically, if not, well, I'll keep you posted and post them here for your amusement.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Winning Body Languished

So, on my last post, The Word and the Nonverbal, I got a rather nice comment from Mark Bowden (click on the good ol' link and scroll down to the bottom to read it), who is a communication consultant and trainer.  He also started to follow me on Twitter, from his profile called truthplane.  And I reciprocated.  That's how things go out here on the social media frontier.

I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about folks in this line of work, at least the ones who act as if they and they alone hold the secret to effective communication, when that's exactly what we teach (or used to teach) in Communication 101 courses.  And there are others who do the same thing in regard to basic anthropology, or general semantics, or media ecology.  I have trouble with that kind of misrepresentation.  But Mark is not one of that ilk, not one of those types, I hasten to add.

Now, maybe this has something to do with the fact that I heard a colleague at a recent faculty meeting talk as if getting paid to be a corporate consultant is inherently evil, a position I find to be absurd in its absolutism.  And maybe it has something to do with the fact that I attended a memorial gathering this week for an old colleague here at Fordham University, Edward Wakin, who did quite a bit of corporate consulting in his day, as well as being the only faculty member we had who really focused on getting students jobs after graduation.   People are entitled to earn a living, after all.

Or maybe Mark is just that good in his nonverbals, I can't rule that out, his emphasis is on projecting an impression of trust.  But after reading his comment on my post, and going to the URL he left there and watching his YouTube video, I was impressed with his open and modest presentation of his area of expertise, and decided to write this follow-up post on his behalf.  We have had no direct communication, I just find him to be the kind of communication professional I can readily endorse.  So here, take a look at the video:

I also rather like the way this was done, from an aesthetic point of view.  So from there, I went on to check out his website, TruthPlane, and found another interesting video there:

I think this video is very helpful as a starting point, and kudos for all the connections to the animal kingdom--nonverbal communication is the aspect of communication that we share with other species, whereas verbal communication is ours alone, for good and for ill.  

And I like the bit about the verbal being the spaghetti sauce and the nonverbal the spaghetti.  It reminds me of how my colleague at Fordham, Ed Wachtel, once wrote an email spoofing Marshall McLuhan, with an Italian theorist who said that the macaroni is the message.  That inspired me, in turn, to declare on every Passover holiday that the matzoh is the message.  Hey, what can I say, food is an often-overlooked element in the study of orality and literacy.  Walter Ong misses it, although Jack Goody does say something about writing and recipes.  But all this talk is making me hungry, so I'd better wrap this up soon.

Mark does speaking engagements too, and appears to do a great job of demonstrating nonverbal techniques, as can be seen from this video:

There also are some other videos on his YouTube channel, and I'll leave it to you to check them out if you care to.  And he's written a book, entitled Winning Body Language: Control the Conversation, Command Attention, and Convey the Right Message without Saying a Word.  That's a title that fits right in in the Self-Help Section of the bookstore, but I can't help but find it a little over-the-top, and couldn't resist having a little fun with it in the title of this blog post.

The thing is, I had a telephone conversation earlier today with general semantics expert Sanford Berman, who has a PhD in Communication, and studied with S. I. Hayakawa and Irving Lee.  Sandy was criticizing contemporary Communication departments for abandoning the teaching of effective communication, which, on the verbal side, included a good, strong dose of general semantics.  And he has a point, it's much like English departments abandoning the teaching of literature in favor of theory.  Understanding verbal and nonverbal communication will serve students much better in life than teaching them about Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard, Zizek, and company.

So, I wish the best of luck to Mark Bowden, I'll admit to having learned some new tricks from his videos (old dog that I am), and more importantly this has given me food for thought (but now I need to go get some dinner).

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Word and the Nonverbal

It's been over 35 years since I took my first, introductory course on Communication, taught by Jack Barwind, in the first semester of my freshman year at Cornell University (and all the rest, you might say, is history, after a fashion).  That course introduced me to many key ideas and theorists, including general semantics, general systems theory, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, cognitive dissonance theory, Aristotle's rhetoric, Paul Watzlawick, Daniel Boorstin, Marshall McLuhan, Harold Innis, Jacques Ellul, and much more.

One of the topics covered was nonverbal communication, and it was then that I was first introduced to the "fact" that 93% of all communication is nonverbal.  I put "fact" in quotation marks in this instance because that particular fact is in dispute, and that dispute is the subject of this blog.  But in fact, all facts are at best tentative, and technically are not necessarily true--a statement of fact is a descriptive statement (also known as a proposition) that is subject to verification or refutation.  If it's specific, for example if I say it is raining at Fordham University's Rose Hill campus in the Bronx right now (say, 10 AM on February 18, 2010), it's possible to check it out and determine whether the statement is true.  If it's general, for example, if I say that whenever dark clouds gather, rain will follow, we are incapable of checking every possible instance that fits the generalization, past, present, and future, and so we can never prove it true, but according to Karl Popper we can prove it false by finding just one example that doesn't fit (although even that possibility is subject to falsification).

The facts about facts is one of the topics covered in general semantics, and it's also the case that in general semantics the term nonverbal is often used to refer to perception, what we abstract out of events in spacetime (aka reality) through our senses, before applying verbal names to our perceptions and categorizing them with labels.  This usage goes back to a time before the concept of nonverbal communication became commonplace (some at first wrote it as non-verbal).

But in the field of communication, drawing on behavioral studies from researchers trained in psychology, nonverbal communication has been established as an area of study since the 60s.  Defined negatively, by what it is not rather than what it is, nonverbal communication refers to all forms of communicative behavior except for our words.  Nonverbal communication is typically divided into a number of subfields, including

  • Kinesics (more popularly known as body language, although calling it a "language" is considered a misnomer, this is all about body movements, including gestures, posture, facial expressions, and eye gaze)
  • Haptics (the use of touch)
  • Proxemics (the use of space, including the distances between us, use of furniture, interior design, architecture, even city planning)
  • Chronemics (the use of time)
  • Paralanguage (tone of voice and other vocal characteristics and sounds that we make other than our words)
  • Object language (it includes clothing, even hairstyle, and any physical object whose display or use communicates something, such as a wedding ring, or a fancy car used as a status symbol)

This list could be expanded, and the territory could be, and has been, divided up in different ways, but this is the way I used to present it when I taught introductory communication classes, and my goal here is to simply provide a sense of the kinds of phenomena that are covered under this heading. 

I should note that apart from studying these aspects of nonverbal communication separately, they can and have been studied in combination with each other, and in their interaction with verbal communication.  One of the practical applications of nonverbal communication is in the detection of deception, lying in other words, and the expert in the field, who I recall hearing about back in my freshman year, is Paul Ekman.  I highly recommend his book Telling Lies.  And if you've seen, or heard of the Fox network TV show Lie to Me, the lead character, Cal Lightman, is based on Professor Ekman.

One of the pioneers in nonverbal communication, and intercultural communication, Edward T. Hall, is considered foundational in the field of media ecology, his fellow anthropologist, Ray Birdwhistell, was also on the original media ecology reading list.  Both are considered part of the Palo Alto Group, a loose coalition of scholars associated with Gregory Bateson, following up on the groundbreaking work of Norbert Wiener (who coined the term cybernetics), which also included Paul Watzlawick, and Erving Goffman.  I previously posted a tribute to Hall, who passed away last summer (see Hall of Fame)--Hall coined the term proxemics, and while he didn't coin the corresponding term chronemics, he pioneered the study of the human use of time as well as space.  Birdwhistell coined the term kinesics.  Ekman's work, I should add, was also recommended for anyone interested in this area back when Neil Postman and his colleagues had their media ecology doctoral program, and I continue to recommend him to this day.

Another pioneer in nonverbal research who figured prominently in the field of communication (but not in media ecology) is Albert Mehrabian.  And certainly one of his claims to fame is the fact that most textbook discussions of nonverbal communication begin with the fact that 93% of all communication is nonverbal, a fact that I remember from my freshman communication class, a fact that originates with research conduced by Mehrabian. 

So, now, this past summer, there was a video that came to my attention, circulated by some of the public relations people I'm in touch with on Twitter and other social media, that claims to bust the Mehrabian myth.  And I've been meaning to put up a post about it, so here it is:

Now, I have no problem with the point that these folks at CreativityWorks, which apparently consists of two British communication professionals, Martin Shovel and Martha Leyton, are making.  I've seen more than enough presentations by folks, including communication scholars, who seem to think that a snazzy PowerPoint presentation is more important than any content that they have to present, or that it can mask their apparent lack of content.  

But I do find the video overly dramatic, in that I never felt that the "Mehrabian myth" really dominated people's thinking all that much.  It just struck me as a way to make the point that nonverbal communication plays an important role in interaction, and that something that we tend not to pay attention to at all is in fact something that we ought to pay some attention to.  As an undergraduate, I didn't think much of the 93% figure one way or another, except insofar as it might be the answer to a question on a test.  As a graduate student and professor, I treated it as a metaphor, a way of saying that "a lot" of our communication is nonverbal, noting that the use of a statistic was an example of scientism, trying to sound scientific in order to make the claim more persuasive than it would otherwise be.  

I mean, how can you measure how much communication occurs in any given situation.  Sure, you can set up operational definitions and conduct research, but communication is, in my view, a qualitative phenomenon that cannot be quantified.  And that is even more true for meaning, whatever I. A. Richards's well intentioned efforts to apply scientific method to literary study in the early 20th century.  I just never took the figure of 93% seriously, and I'm surprised that anyone else did, although I guess I shouldn't be.

A related analogy is that of the tip of the iceberg, the point being that the communication that we are aware of is just the tip of the iceberg, the majority of our communication going on below the level of our awareness.  The point being made is that human communication is subtle and pervasive, understanding communication is not obvious, even though we engage in communication constantly, and that's why we need to study the topic.  A further analogy could be made to the psychoanalytic notion of the unconscious mind, which nonverbal communication is largely analogous to.  You might say that 93% of mental activity is unconscious, and that would be consistent with a Freudian view, and perhaps also line up fairly well with research in neuroscience.  And again, the point really is that we are unconscious in regard to the much of our communication behavior, and we could become aware of more of it than we otherwise are.

In any event, as a graduate student I also eventually learned that, while the scientistic "fact" of 93% was generally accepted by communication theorists, whose social/behavioral science approach dominated the northeast region of the United States, which is where I did all of my studies, scholars in the related area of rhetorical criticism, who were strongest in the south and midwest, objected vehemently to the inclusion of nonverbal behavior under the heading of communication.  Coming from a tradition of speech and rhetoric, they believed that words were the only true concern for our field, that other forms of behavior should be left to the psychologists, that nonverbal expression typically occurred without conscious purpose and therefore was not part of their humanistic focus.  I found this line of thinking quite interesting, even if I did not agree with it.

The significance of nonverbal communication, though, would be in its role as metacommunication, to use Watzlawick's term, communication about communication, communication that tells us how to interpret the content (which is mostly verbal) and also establishes and maintains how we relate to one another.  The same words mean very different things if my tone of voice and facial expression indicate that I am angry, or sad, or calm, or sarcastic, or asking a question as opposed to making an authoritative statement.  

Essentially, it is difficult if not impossible to establish effective communication unless we first establish some kind of relationship, and at least have an intuitive understanding of its nature.  On a somewhat different but related note, if you want to see if a television comedian is really funny or not, turn off the sound.  If you watch, say, Seinfeld that way, you can see how the facial expressions, gestures, and actions of Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer are still extremely humorous.  This also accounts for the great success that Monty Python's Flying Circus enjoyed in the United States.  American viewers of the British sketch show did not get any of the topical references, and we couldn't understand what the hell they were saying for much of the time, but their behavior and voices were (and continue to be), simply stated, hilarious.

The Mehrabian myth about nonverbal communication only makes sense when you include an understanding of metacommunication.  To use a verbal example, if I call you a jerk, that's communication, that's content.  If I then say, I'm just kidding, that's a verbal form of metacommunication, telling you something about how to interpret the content, and also about how we relate to each other (on a friendly basis).  If I just said I'm just kidding,though, without the content, it would have no meaning, it only works when it modifies a content-level message.  This is the point that the video makes when it shows you the cartoon guy talking without hearing his words.

But we should also recall that animals communicate entirely through nonverbal communication.  If a strange dog growls at you and bares his teeth, there are no words, but I think you get the message.  Babies also communicate in this way.  When a baby cries, we know that he or she wants something, and then we proceed to see if it's milk, or a diaper change, or just some company.

This all relates, in media ecology terms, to McLuhan's saying that the medium is the message.  Animals and babies communicate through the medium of nonverbal communication, and so do we as adults.  The medium of language is also the content of speech, and writing (McLuhan noted that the content of a medium includes another medium), the medium of spoken language is the content of our bodies (produced by the human body), and in this sense our words are powerfully influenced by the nonverbal.  

The technologizing of the word means that other nonverbal factors play a part as well, such as the choice of writing system, use of spaces between words, line breaks, paragraphing, punctuation marks, capitalization, handwriting, typeface and font, type of writing surface, other physical characteristics of the print medium, and other display, transmission, and storage characteristics of the electronic medium.  This aspect of the nonverbal goes far beyond the issue of snazzy PowerPoints, or dramatic delivery.

And that brings me back to the point made by CreativityWorks, and I want to conclude by saying that they are absolutely right, content counts, words are our most important form of communication.  The medium is the message does not mean that we should ignore content, and as Neil Postman has made clear, words and language, as a medium, can be characterized as content-centered, in fact.  So, bravo to Mr. Shovel and Ms. Leyton, I wish you the best of success with your consulting, and I add my endorsement 100% to your message, but only 93% to your nonverbals.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Pete of Pete's Café -- Rest(aurant) in Peace

I was saddened to learn last week of the passing of Pete, owner of Pete's Café on Fordham Road, a diner that I have frequently dined at over the past two decades that I've been teaching at Fordham University.  

I've had many a conversation with colleagues there over coffee, and sandwiches, burgers, salads, and the like.  And most of the time, Pete was there, always ready with a smile and a word of greeting.  Pete was a neighborhood celebrity, and we loved him for giving us something more than just another bland coffee shop of the sort that the TV show Seinfeld made famous.

My colleague, Ron Jacobson, told me earlier today that no less a newspaper than the New York Times ran a story about Pete, under the headline:  Mourning a Diner Man, if Not His Mustache.  The story is dated February 17, it's written by Sam Dolnick, and it features the following photograph:

The caption under the photo reads:   "Anna Nikolopoulos holds a photo of her late husband, Pete Nikolopoulos, founder of Pete’s cafe. He died Feb. 2."   And Dolnick begins the story with a reference to Pete's famous mustache, I suppose that's an irresistible lead for a journalist:

Maybe it was the handlebar mustache that kept them coming back. The perfect curlicues framed an everpresent smile and gave everyone, new customers and old, a conversation piece and a reason to remember Pete of Pete’s Cafe.

For more than three decades, Pete Nikolopoulos presided over his diner on East Fordham Road in the Bronx as the generous host with the funny mustache, the neighborhood uncle who would pour you free coffee, ask after the family, and wink at your girlfriend.

Generations of Fordham students went to Pete’s to soak up hangovers with greasy eggs and fries. Deans discussed office politics over coffee, while neighborhood regulars lingered over tuna melts and gyros.

By the way, I can personally recommend both the tuna melts and the gyros to you, and I'm a big fan of their chicken wrap.  In fact, if you go to my profile on foursquare, a social networking site based on geographical location that I haven't done all that much with, you'll see that among the few things I have done there is post a few tips, the first and foremost reading:  "@ Pete's Cafe: Have a gyro or chicken wrap."  But, to return to the story, and the sad news, as told by Dolnick:

But Mr. Nikolopoulos is no longer there to play host. He died of a heart attack on Feb. 2 at the age of 56 during a business trip to Sparta, Greece. For the past two weeks, as the news has slowly spread through the Fordham community and beyond, members of his enormous circle of friends have stopped by the diner to pay their respects — and eat lunch, as Mr. Nikolopoulos would have wanted.

I'm sorry to say that I have not had the chance to stop by and pay my respects.  Truth to tell, I mostly order in to my office these days.  But I plan on heading on over there.  I hope they still have the Pete's Cafe T-shirts with a cartoon image of Pete on them, I really want one now.  Of course, his mustache figures prominently in the image, and in our memory as well, as Dolnick relates:

On Tuesday, his widow, Anna, sat at the counter accepting the condolences of old customers and retelling “famous mustache stories.” There were the trophies he won in various mustache contests. 

Oh, and there was the woman who accosted him on the street, waving a single piece of hair. She said it came from his mustache, and it had been her lucky charm for years.

“He took pride in his mustache,” Mrs. Nikolopoulos said. “It kept him unique. And he loved standing out.”

And Pete's story is classic tale of the American Dream, as Dolnick explains:

Mr. Nikolopoulos came to the United States in 1976 and worked as a busboy and a dishwasher, first in Manhattan and then in the Bronx, at the diner at the corner of East Fordham Road and Hoffman Street, where Pete’s now stands. The Greek couple who owned the diner liked the friendly young man, and in 1978 they sold him the business, his wife said.

Mr. Nikolopoulos quickly made the place his own. The wall behind the counter is covered in his photographs, mustache always well-coiffed, standing with mayors, councilmen and neighborhood friends.

And the story of Pete and his café is also a Fordham story, as Dolnick reveals:

Everyone who had been to Pete’s more than once, which seemed to include everyone who had attended Fordham University since 1980, remembered his affability and his charm. 

“He went to every single table to say hello,” said Stephie Mukherjee, an assistant dean at the school who has been eating lunch there for 18 years. “As I’m talking, I can still see him with his kindness, talking to everyone.” 

It wasn’t just idle conversation, at least not all of it. Mr. Nikolopoulos met his wife, then a Fordham student, at the diner. As she tells the story, he flirted with her as soon as she stepped inside the diner, before classes had even begun, and he kept at it for months. She finally relented and went out on a date with him. Seven months later, they were married.

“He was a very charming guy,” Mrs. Nikolopoulos said. “He was very charismatic. I wanted a solid foundation, and he was solid.”
The couple had three children together over 23 years of marriage, but she could never persuade him to lose the mustache.
“I couldn’t stand it,” she said, “but it was him.”

It all comes back to the mustache, the mustache was Pete and Pete was the mustache, and so very much more.  Rest in peace, dear Pete, our friend, rest in peace.