Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Learning about art and power

Today I'm starting research about the relationship between art and power for a short essay.

It seems now that it is a relationship defined, like so many other relationships, by contention among competing forces. There is art that provides alternatives to state power, and this kind of art tends to be emphasized pretty heavily today - art as emancipation for sub-altern groups.

On the other hand many kinds of art have also been defined by ruling classes - the tradition of portrait painting was, at least at first, produced by artists for the wealthy.

One thing that seems pretty constant. Artists, practicing skills that do not directly produce the goods they need for life, need support from other parts of society. Long ago, metal-working artists practiced their craft (and perhaps even invented their craft) for the benefit of kings and nobles. At other times society or wealthy patrons have taken it upon themselves as a collective to support artistic endeavors. In the latter case, artists tend to be more free to do work that is not for the benefit of any particular individual or client, but is rather directed at all of society.

Many questions emerge. What about this artist/not-artist dichotomy? Can people include artistic production in their lives without being solely artists? Is that a possibility that modern digital media make more available or less available than it has been in the past? And would it be positive or negative to have more self-supported amateur artists?

And the boundaries of "art" a YouTube video art? Could software be art?

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Carnival of Conflict #2

Welcome to the May 29, 2007 edition of the Carnival of Conflict. Thank you to all who participated this month. We have great posts, and I look forward to the discussion.

For information about the Carnival including a description, archives and instructions for submitting your own posts to the next carnival, visit here.

Iraq is on the minds of many in the Carnival of Conflict this month. Some, such as Anja Merret and madcap discuss the war explicitly. Others are concerned with related issues of international and domestic strife. Faisal Devji considers the relationship of Islam and Christitanity in Europe. Tim , Doug Ragan and Mad Kane are writing about domestic conflict that stems from the war, continents away from policy-makers and some of the citizens concerned about it. (Which asks the question, "could the citizens of Iraq, the US, the UK and other nations talk to each other?)

Other carnies write about other conflicts. Alfa King's topic is labor organizing. Samir poses for the internet age a question that has been on the minds of democratic theorists for centuries. Is it so great to let the people decide? Who died and made us king?

For all the strife around the world and in the pages of this carnival, I think we see here a pretty good example of why democracy is something in which we should continue to engage. John Harper explains his belief that violence takes more shapes than we realize. Even not trusting a person can be a form of violence, he says. Violent conflict, then, is a pattern that reappears at every level of our society, from military conflict in Israel and Palistine (and over Jewish identity) to college campuses to emotionally abusive inlaws. Violent and destructive conflict takes many forms, it seems, but it is one principle repeating in many contexts.

Could it be that strategies for managing interpersonal conflict, such as those discussed by
Chris and CA could help channel conflict in other forms? I think that making this connection among different kinds of conflict is a powerful argument for democratic forms of government.

Democracy, or more simply the ability of individuals to participate in questioning, improving and celebrating society, gives us the chance to understand the perspectives of those in each part of our society. Through discussion (and blog carnivals) violent conflict can be a seed for productive conflict such as respectful debate over ideas and principles.

Thanks so much for your posts this month, and as always, I hope you'll join the discussion below. (And include your comments about how to make the carnival better!)



Anja Merret asks What about the war in Iraq, Mr. Brown?

madcap considers war-time rhetoric in Berlin by Christmas or Just Forget About It

Islam's role in Europe is the subject of Christendom's Muslim Midwife: Part I by Faisal Devji

Tim reacts to a proposal of Senator McCain for a new approach to international peace and conflict in Senator John McCain Envisions A League of Democracies


Adam Graham wants to Politicize Everything

Union Leaders demonstrate as NPC holds its first meeting by Alfa King

Sammy Benoit says Tom Friedman is Only Trying to Protect the Jews

Ted Reimers discusses Ways to Increase Security and Safety on College Campuses

Samir asks about democratic fundamentals in Tyrannis Populi: Who are 'the people' anyway and who says they are always right?

If This Is True, My Head May Explode by Mad Kane

Jason Kirk parodies the gun control debate in The Oven Control Debate

Doug Ragan writes about conflict in the US legislative branch in Bush's Approval Rating at 33%, Congress 29%

Bill Towson asks, Is the Military Outdated?


Withholding Violence by John Harper

Tim Abbott explores a balance between avoiding and seeking conflict in Elephants in the Room

Chris discusses a visual model for dealing with interpersonal conflict in Breaking the Drama Triangle

Alwitt Xu provides a CSS tools collection.

Good Riddance Rosie O'Donnell by Tracy Coenen

Sheila C. introduces her family in My In-Laws Rolled In a Gigantic Nutshell of Chocoloate-Covered Psychosis

Business life lesson - conflict resolution by CA

Thanks for coming to the carnival, and I look forward to your responses.

Find out about submitting your work to the carnival here.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Public Sphere on a Dead Man's Chest: Politics of the Pirates of the Carribean

Maybe Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End is not transcendent political theater, but when I saw it today, I couldn't help but think that it carries a message (intended or not) to today's political climate.

On face value, the politics are simple. An evil corrupt and powerful official is trying to brutally and ruthlessly kill the heroes. The heroes (this is an American film) represent freedom, the oppressed, liberty, etc. etc. This is a perfectly traditional dramatic conflict, although today, it is a little bit subversive. Compare Pirates to the upcoming The Kingdom . The Kingdom seems from the trailer to be an example of a different kind of traditional American film story. Virtuous G-men go into somewhere dangerous to clean out the evil-doers. In these years when dissent from the Government line is considered disloyalty and nearly sedition, telling a story about smelly and drunken but virtuous outsiders resisting and overcoming an evil authority is downright radical.

And the plot thickens. Who is the villain? Not just "The British", a favorite punching bag for American anti-authority films, but an unholy usurpation of British state power by a for profit corporation! (A rejected name for the film was, I've heard, Halliburton on the High Seas )

There are all sorts of things to look at. For example, it seems to me that the pirates could be a kind of middle class. They'd done some pretty terrible things (including enslaving the spirit of the oppressed - Calypso), and no one doubts their devotion to limited self interest.

Also, does Davy Jones have a place in this discussion? Or does his role not extend into the political battle that is happening in the movie?

And the final moral? The pirates unite in the end, but what really saves the day is the heroism of the two cleanest and whitest pirates, Elizabeth and Will. Can the downtrodden never create free social and political space for themselves without defectors from the elite class?

Set sail for liberty. Har, har har. *groan*

Thursday, May 24, 2007

House of the woods: Zero-footprint architecture?

Here is a visual aid to help explain my question/idea.

What if buildings had to leave the ecosystem of the place they are built on the same? So if you built a house in the woods, you'd have to let the woods stay. Only very limited chopping down of trees.

I think it would help us deal with climate change if our culture and built environment were to ease the boundaries of built/wild, or inside/outside. Or perhaps it would be better to say we should let the outside inside. Suburban sprawl is a kind of example of the built world encroaching farther into the unbuilt. Today we need to use our formidable talent for design to reverse the flow - let the outside come into our homes and buildings.

This picture is concept art for one such building. A forest home, with stiff panels for easily constructed and customizable walls, struts to keep it off the forest floor, and a hard top with sealed holes to allow the house to be built around the trees.

A moment reveals plenty of problems with this idea, but maybe ideas like this one could spark debate and discussion over how to do the necessary: reduce the footprint we make as a society, and reduce our cultural propensity to force the natural environment (and even our own natural bodies and minds) into regular shapes with right angles.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Lennon Documentary: stories of the revolution

The 2006 documentary The U.S. v. John Lennon stirred feelings in me that I think reflect a great question in the American Left currently. People like me have heard stories about optimism crushed by reality. We've heard about touchy-feely naivete. Middle class kids getting their kicks by smoking pot and rebelling against their parents. Unrealistic. The words they used are tainted with the negative light on these activists: "love", "peace", and even "activist". These are the narratives through which we understand the protest movements of the Viet Nam war years.

And these narratives are the ones through which mainstream American culture understands the politics of those days.

There are alternative narratives like the documentary. Democracy in the Streets which I wrote about last month is another counter-narrative. These show another perspective and another set of stories and experiences. There was real intellectual force to the left. And this force was beyond simple anti-war and anti-establishment. Certainly there were real problems. In the operation of political power, hypocrisy and abuse can happen. Miller's book gives a good explanation of some of the problems that developed in the student protest movement. But real vision was present as well. In the documentary Lennon appears in footage calling for peace. He calls for peace everywhere: in the world, in the city, in the bedroom. Everywhere.

So it turn out that social transformation like we talk about today was the goal of some. They hoped to transform people and our social and cultural machines such that we could stop producing the many kinds of violence that appear at every level of our societies. What happened? Why are most narratives today that the peace-niks failed? And why are the peaceful themselves marginalized?

Lennon said at a concert, (I'm paraphrasing) so what if flower power didn't work? We start with something else. He also said that people make a mistake when they say they see kids getting bored with "activism" and think the revolution is over. The revolution, he said, the peaceful transformation of every aspect of society, will take a long time. The stories tell us that ideals of the protest movements were wishy washy and have passed away. But maybe those are just stories. "War is over, if we want it".

Easy web application design

Scratch is great, and YahooPipes it cool too (although am I the only one who still finds it to have a decent learning curve?). But we still need progress in the 'easy web application design' department. I've been trying to get Ruby on Rails to work, but the tutorials are written for people comfortable with using the Terminal on macs. And usability and command-line interfaces do not often go together.

Is there something that can make web programming as intuitive as the programming of Scratch? or does the computer future depend on educating the public on the methods of object oriented programming and control-view-model architecture?

Sunday, May 20, 2007

This old revolution

The protagonists of the revolutions I know anything about tend to come in two general forms. First, there is a disgruntled elite that, while powerful, isn't as powerful as it would like to be (the new upper class of merchants in America in the 18th cen., the middle class in France in the 18th cen.). Second, they empower a large but previously disenfranchised group to upset the political structure that both groups perceived as deleterious.

We could even put this model in sort of socialist terms, if we were so inclined. In a given power structure, there is a group with excess social labor (labor for effecting social change) and a group with excess social capital (a new class with new wealth and aspirations). Put together excess labor and excess capital and you get growth.

Lets look at today. Some have talked about a green "revolution". Technology will "revolutionize" the way we interact with the environment. Many also talk about a kind of social revolution, reforming government to be more democratic, transformingourselves, our communities, our cities, our farms, our businesses -- everything.

Who are the actors in this revolution? Corporations and think tanks are quite active. For all the democratizing potential of Google, its still a ginormous corporation. "Going green" is not for everybody - it only works if you can afford not to eat processed and easily accessible food. And if you can afford expensive hybrid cars and renovations. And the internet is only good for civic participation for those who care to use it that way. Its easy to talk about politics on the internet if you want to , but are non-political people being drawn into civic life online? As Heather Hopkins' post (which i've cited way too many times) demonstrates, PLENTY of people using social internet tools are not voting. Is it safe to say that if they are not voting, they are not likely to be having other kinds of political influence either?

Maybe we have a disgruntled middle-to-upper-class elite, one that wants to redesign cities and cars and lifestyles. But these (we.) are the enfranchised, seeking to be more enfranchised. Is that enough to save democracy? To save the planet?

Friday, May 18, 2007

Fight me!


is a Giant Robot that has Enormous Tusks, Black-and-White Stripes and a Computer for a Brain, is Easily Confused, and can turn Invisible.

Strength: 11 Agility: 3 Intelligence: 9

To see if your Giant Battle Monster can
defeat speeker, enter your name and choose an attack:

fights speeker using

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Working on story-sharing

not much today - I'm learning a little about php and xml, (and Ruby on Rails ). The goal is to write or at least design an application for sharing stories of life in Columbia, MD. The ultimate goal is to use citizen journalism here to develop the community's ability to discuss and make decisions collectively. Democracy needs deliberation and the skills and infrastructures and habits of participation.

Right now I'm trying to figure out the design - php? javaScript/XML? Ruby on Rails?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Good Job MySpace

Clearly, we want internet spaces to be safe for their users, and sex predation is a particularly disgusting form of online violence. But when "North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper said 'it's sad that MySpace is going to protect the privacy of sex offenders over the safety of children",( CNN did he really think sex offenders were the only issue?

MySpace takes the position that it will only disclose private information "when proper legal processes are followed." The Attorney Generals of several states did not follow those processes when they sent a letter to MySpace requesting the information.

We want an internet safe from predation, and we also want an internet in which private information can only be shared with third parties (including the government) through open processes enacted by accountable individuals. MySpace is not choosing sex offenders over children. It is choosing rule of law over rule of government officials.

Many in government today seem to feel that as representatives of the law, law does not apply to them. Thank you, MySpace, for taking a stand for individuals' rights.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Scratch from MIT

Have you played with Scratch? If not, its a program developed at MIT to make it really easy to program animations. Below is a video of how it works, and you can visit my first project. It came out a little goofy, though. That's the problem with Scratch, so far. Its still kind of buggy and idiosyncratic. Hopefully future versions will fix user interface problems like what challenged me. But its a great introduction to the genre of everybody-accessible computer programming. Should we be planning to include more rigorous tech literacy in our school system? We do basic things, like how to use word processing and navigate desktops. But when should we introduce code concepts like loops and logical branching?

Here's Scratch's video to explain itself.

If you have got videos to share here, post them in the comments section.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Web usability - for community, creativity, or commerce?

On the BBC today is a story, "Web 2.0 Distracts from good design" . "Web usability guru" Jakob Nielson's point is that web 2.0 dynamic content is so trendy today that many sites are overlooking good design. Sites are adding too many tools for enabling community and content creation, and cluttering themselves. Since the vast majority of users are not content creators (90% of users), sites shouldn't cater to them. Mr. Nielson says, "Most people just want to get in, get it and get out." Instead of catering to the minority, sites should focus on quickly giving the information users are seeking.

I think Mr. Nielson (or at least this story) misses the point of web 2.0. The potential of dynamic sites and web applications that enable community-building and content creation is not that this is something that everyone already knows how to use and looks to the web to do. The potential of web 2.0 is to CHANGE how people use the web. Transform it from a place people go only to find information. Web 2.0 design should focus on helping users learn to create content - helping people feel comfortable with the idea of publishing their work online or with the tools for doing that.

Given this goal, Mr. Nielson does have a point. Too many bells and whistles are intimidating, and could drive users away, or back to their old web habits of simply consuming information. Web interfaces should be simple (see Google and Twitter for good examples). But they should be simple not because they should make it easy for people NOT to get involved in content creation and online community.

Today's web sites should draw users into community and online creation, and teach them skills to make online community a positive part of their lives. 90% of people do not have to be shut out of web 2.0 because they don't already like to use it.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Puget Sound Activism on YouTube

Here's political theater's internet cousin: People for Puget Sound, an environmental protection group, have published soap opera parodies on YouTube. My favorite part of this one is at the end - what on earth is squirting out of that creature's head?
Do these videos work? It got me to visit their site.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Just read Wright, Ronald: A Short History of Progress

This book explores, from a thorough and scholarly perspective, the modern myth of progress.

Progress, Wright explains, as mainstream Western culture has understood it, is a belief that history moves in one direction. Technology advances, humans become more moral (more civilized, less barbarian), and while there may be accidents, unregulated markets lead a march into an ever brighter future. An individual 100 years from now will almost inevitably be better off than one today, because of the march of material progress.

Wright doesn't dwell on this, but he does point out that this myth is clearly a fiction even today. There are plenty of groups starving around the world now who were perfectly well fed one hundred years ago. And "progress", as we define it, includes a relentless centralization of money and power into the hands of an ever-smaller group of elites. Our continued accumulation of material goods (or rather, the continued accumulation by a tiny ruling class) can only continue as long as there is capital in the form of water, air, land, flora and fauna to take. And when there is nothing left to take from the Earth's existing natural capital? Our civilization will be in a lot of trouble.

And what's more (and the main point of the book): this trend isn't even remotely unique to 'modern' civilization. One large, highly complex human society after another has followed the same path. And one after another depleted its resources, collapsed into infighting over the remnants, and eventually dissolved.

Our society is not different in that plenty of others have followed the pattern: exploit to grow, deplete, implode. But we are different in that previously, civilizations have been local. When the Roman empire fell, other non-Roman parts of the world were still flourishing. But our modern civilization holds the entire planet in its grip. In its economic reach, in its ecological reach, and in its military reach. If things go bad, they go bad for everybody.

Its a short and intense read. I did it in two days and couldn't put it down. And it left me with a driving sense of urgency. We shouldn't wait for technology to save us. We shouldn't wait for our elites to save us. We must now, with the tools we have now. In our cities and towns, we must get together and figure out how to stop exploiting the environment we have. As Wright puts it, the Earth is an investment. We need to live not off the capital, but off the interest.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Joining Twitter and MySpace MyVote

Well, I decided to try Twitter. I don't expect to use it a lot, cause I'm not really in a Twitter-ing community...That is something I think doesn't get discussed a lot in the blogosphere: The idea of blogging still seems a little silly/unintellectual/nerdy/some combination of those to a lot of people. And its also inconvenient to many, as well - you have to be able to send a lot of text messages to use it when you're not at a computer. And text messages in the US are not as cheap as they might be. Twitter, then, must be a tool mostly for those who've got some cash to spend.

Rheingold in Smart Mobs talked about the Japanese mobile internet model, which is oriented towards youth customers without a lot of money to spend. Contrast that to the American model - serving corporate customers who can afford to spend. And different cultures emerge around these models. One is accessible and appealing to mass society and the other, while appealing, is very elite. If the web 2.0 is to deepen democracy, it has to be available to everybody, not just people who ALREADY have political power.

One idea in this vein: Heather Hopkins found that MySpace users are less likely to vote than others. Maybe we could launch a campaign to use MySpace to get people to vote and talk about the elections?

Anyway, here is my Twitter badge.

Monday, May 7, 2007

If you haven't discovered, I recommend you check it out. Its social internet radio, organizing artists, genres and more with tags.

Here's an example of one tool: I typed in Allman Brothers (I'm on a major blues kick, now that I'm learning guitar) and it created a channel of music from artists that have been identified as similar to the Allman Brothers.

Enjoy. I love this tool so far.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Urban Campus: People-centered cities

Please read Green Streets at BLDG BLOG. I think it hits on a change to our urban/suburban landscape that is both vastly transformative and very do-able.

Imagine a scene: You're traveling to Washington DC, visiting the Smithsonian, perhaps. But you don't drive all the way downtown. Instead you park in a tourist satellite parking lot and hop on the metro into the city. And when you're there, there is hardly another car to be seen. Most streets, formerly for cars, are now exclusively pedestrian thoroughfares, planted with trees and small flower gardens. A few streets are still open for big trucks to make deliveries, and above-ground trams supplement the underground metro. This is a city that doesn't belong to the automobile any more. Its cleaner. Its air is healthier. Its quieter. People have the right of way.

There are many examples of streets closed to automobile traffic in American cities. Streets can close for special events, and car-streets can close more-or-less permanently to become pedestrian walkways. Silver Spring Maryland has a very successful downtown area with one such street, and it is easy to see how the walkway drastically improves the area's appeal.

Cars are divisive in so many ways. Philadelphia is a case study. The Vine Street Expressway and I-95 bound the city on the east and north. I-95 prevents almost all growth beyond it. And Vine Street created, and still maintains, a border between wealthy and poor areas in Philly. They also have a tendency to cast others as obstacles. Other people get in your way in parking lots, in heavy traffic, in drive through lines. There are plenty of places where the presence of others is a boon - a club, a lecture, a play. But its hard to think of situations where the presence of a lot of other cars is positive.

I think the time is here for us to get together with our communities and reduce our reliance on autos. We can develop the technology, the infrastructure and the policy to do it. We just lack the will and leadership, so far, to get together and work out practicable alternatives.

I'm going to spend some time looking for resources, advocacy groups and research that deal with issues relating to this. If you know of good info, please share!

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Videos of Presidential Candidates: Clinton at Rutgers from

I'll be trying to find as many online videos of Presidential Candidates as I can and posting them to Talk Lab. I hope you'll help collect them too. To see all the videos, at least until there is a better repository for them, go to the Candidate Video label on blog posts.

This way, whether its on YouTube,, CSPAN, or anywhere else, we'll have a single source for finding candidates videos, and talking about them too :)

If you know of videos I should include, please let me know, through the comments section or email.

Here's the first: Senator Clinton speaking on Women and Politics at Rutgers University. She does a good job with this speech. The first big chunk is weighed down by tributes of various kinds. Senatorial shout-outs, as it were. But later, when she starts talking about her two main points, she is animated, interesting to hear and even entertaining and thoughtprovoking.

The two main points:
1) Women are a vital force in American Politics.
2) Politics matters. Social change through politics really happens, despite popular myths to the contrary. She gives excellent stories and descriptions of of how political change has improved opportunities for women even during her lifetime.

ps. I recommend skipping a lot of the beginning announcements and tributes. You've heard all that before.