October 31, 2005

Secret Bases

After reading this Sunday Times article via Boing Boing about 240-acre secret bases underneath England built to protect rich people from nuclear attacks, I stood up in the middle of work and ran out the door.

I ran and ran, so fast that the businesspeople on Broadway, past the City Hall skyscrapers, accross the Brooklyn Bridge ; I ran and ran, all the way home.

Inside my apartment, I built a gigantic Secret Base in my bedroom. I made couch cushion walls, a pillow floor and a soft blue blanket roof—the kind of hideout I built when I was a kid. I’ve been living in my cozy new home all week.

Inside, there are no newspapers, no student loan bills, no credit cards—none of that invisible stuff that makes you “grown-up.” I’m pretty happy here.

I keep waiting for my little brother to declare war on my Secret Base or for my mom to bring me a sandwich, just like they did when I was small. But nobody ever comes…

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October 28, 2005

Blog Marketing

I just interviewed Shel Israel about the new book he's writing with Robert Scoble, it's up at Publish.com right now...

Blogs have long been popular for allowing millions of independent pundits to gain popularity by criticizing mainstream media and corporate PR.

And usually, when corporations use blogging to promote a product or themselves, the blogosphere responds harshly.

Despite this backlash (or perhaps because of it), Shel Israel and Robert Scoble will try to school corporate professionals in the blogging revolution with their book, "Naked Conversations," which will be published in January.

Israel is a popular business blogger and edits Conferenza Premium Reports, a 7-year-old subscription newsletter that guides investors and corporate leaders through new technology developments.

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October 27, 2005

Novel Excerpt: Empathy

Here’s another excerpt from my nebulous novel

Riding in the New York subway the one night, I saw a row of posters for the Children’s Place clothing line along the ceiling of my train. That overpriced kids clothing line went digging through the garage sale clothes from the Midwest, mimicking the cheap-bin styles from my hometown in smug pastiche.

They stole the purple moony tie-died sweatshirt that the poor girls used to wear in 7th Grade, sweatshirts that smelled like poverty, weakness, and all the things that bullies teased out of you. The ads crammed model kids into school photo poses, pretending to grin like normal children with this white-trash chic.

Someday, squishy-brained alien archeologists will dust the Children’s Place posters like dinosaur bones buried in subway tunnels, wondering why we didn’t understand the Midwest. They’ll wonder how, with all our movies and ads, we couldn’t empathize with these poor places inside our own country.

Andrew O’Hehir figured it out another way in his profile of Gidi Dar, the director of the Israeli movie, Ushpizin. He quotes Dar talking about how to look at fundamentalism without oily smugness:

"'So I go into this fundamentalist world, and we know nothing about it. All the movies done about it are made from the outside. What I try to do is set all the problems and all the conflict aside for an hour and a half, and just accept their point of view. That's a big trip, I think. It's much more interesting artistically, first of all. And politically and culturally it has a much stronger effect. Because here's something you don't know, something you've never seen before. If you identify with these people and remind yourself that they're actually human beings -- and that besides certain differences in the clothes they are very much like you -- well, that's a better starting point for dialogue than you had before.'

This exercise is meant to remind us that whomever we demonize -- whether it's Islamic fundamentalists or born-again Southern Baptists -- are more like us, and therefore more comprehensible, than we generally choose to admit. Without such a perspective, Dar says, 'We're heading toward World War III. Actually, we're in it already. And it's only going to get worse.'"

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October 25, 2005

From Doom to the Washington Post in less than five minutes

A cross between a naked emperor and a teenager with an obviously fake ID, the movie Doom collapsed because it pretended to be an old-fashioned space thriller instead of a groundbreaking cinematic interpretation of a videogame.

Still, in the climactic scene, the director abandoned the inept plot, broke away from the standard third-person omniscient camera view, and suspended the laws of physics—redeeming an hour of god-awful cinema. For five glorious minutes, the movie pretended that “we” were blasting zombies like a real videogame.

In those woozy scenes, the first-person camera chased zombies with compulsive glee. The claustrophobic camera-lens wobbled around on roller-skates, and “our” character screamed every time a monster swiped “us.” It felt crazy, it felt obsessive, and it felt…

I can’t explain it yet, and that’s the dazzling part. Hardly anybody can write how it feels to be “you” running around in a virtual world—even though environments like Doom or Second Life are becoming more important every day. In an article about tournament first-person shooter players, Jose Antonio Vargas from the Washington Post described the feeling of being inside the online first-person shooter, Counter Strike:

"Bombs are exploding. The AK47s and the Desert Eagle pistols, two of the guns in CS, are firing. Team 3D, at least in this particular round, is losing."

Reading that description, you can see how normal language stutters and stalls inside these games. In a sea of smart, even-handed prose, this reads like a cheesy action novel. Nobody knows how to convey the feeling of playing with virtual version of “you” yet, but I’m glad Vargas crossed over into this new frontier, ever so briefly…

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October 21, 2005

Why I am going to see Doom

Everybody is panning the movie Doom, but I don’t buy it—this is a landmark moment in human consciousness.

For the last eight years or something like that, millions of kids have steered space Marines around bombed-out space stations in this first-person shooter game. The Doom screen scaled the videogame world to fit between your own two eyeballs, changing the way we imagine things forever.

In this genius first-person view, “you” chopped fleshy pink alien meatballs, trolled through slime pits, and pushed open doors with “your” digital appendages. Pounding the keyboard in Doom, you had the jumpy, 3D illusion that “your” shotgun was sticking out into the zombie moonscape.

Now this movie will try, and undoubtedly fail, to approximate that sense of first-person perspective—ruined as soon as they replace the imaginary “you” with actors. Directors used to worry about how to transfer readers’ imaginary expectations about novels into movies; now they are figuring out how to transfer an imaginary expectations about “you” into movies.

Doom is just the beginning, imaginary versions of "us" will never be the same. From movies to novels, we have to figure out how to represent these new perspectives. Will Carlough defended videogame movies in Slate this week, and it’s time to start paying attention:

“When this trend started, I thought Hollywood would get sick of video games after awhile. But it's not happening. Now they're making movies out of games I've never even heard of. (What system did Alone in the Dark come out on, Atari Jaguar?) Watching every video-game movie may be lame, but it's not as lame as giving up after Doom. Anyway, I figure that in 50 years the line between games and movies will be so blurry that the whole idea of a video-game movie will be moot. Then, my mission will finally be complete. Or, as Raul Julia would say, ‘Game over!’”

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October 17, 2005

My virtual scoop

I just got my first sort-of scoop in virtual journalism at Publish.com, interviewing Wagner James Au from Second Life--the guy with the craziest writing gig going...

From USA Today to the BBC, journalists are paying more attention to virtual communities—writing about computer-simulated marriages, multimillion-dollar economies based on imaginary goods, and the countless hours that millions of users spend inside video game worlds, talking, building, and even publishing.

So, last week, journalist and video game evangelist Wagner James Au decided to boost coverage of the virtual world Second Life by hiring virtual stringers to cover stories. Au will pay the stringers with the in-game currency Linden dollars, which can either be used in-world or be exchanged for real-world currency on a "virtual black market."

Au himself is paid by Second Life owner Linden Lab of Linden Research Inc., but his work is too evocative to dismiss as pure company PR. His stories on Second Life have appeared in Salon.com and Wired, and he's been interviewed about his work as an embedded virtual journalist by NPR and the BBC, among other publications.

Au's constant refrain: Virtual world news and events have real-world repercussions. Or, more to the point: This isn't just a video game.

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The Astroturf-ing of Ann Coulter

Here's a story I wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review, click below to read the rest...

If letters to the editor are like a home-cooked meal, then Capitol Advantage, the country's largest e-mail lobbying firm, is the McDonald's of grassroots public opinion: massive, mechanized, and a little synthetic.

The company guides e-mail missiles for over 1,300 clients, from the ACLU to the NRA. "We're seeing the whole concept of online advocacy campaigns change," says CEO Barkley Kern. "People still contact politicians, but now they see the value of contacting the media."

Here's a recent example of its power: When Ann Coulter called the senior White House correspondent Helen Thomas an "old Arab" in a February column, the American-Arab Antidiscrimination Committee (ADC) sprang into action, loading Coulter's phone number and the e-mail address of Universal Press Syndicate, which distributes Coulter's column, into a digital form. Ten minutes later, Capitol Advantage had delivered the e-mail to 15,000 ADC subscribers. In less than two weeks, the release had generated 600 protest e-mails, two articles in the Detroit Free Press, and support from twenty members of Congress.

Not bad for a quick cut-and pastejob. Capitol Advantage says it seeded over 18 million "constituent messages" last year alone. But the tactic can backfire.

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October 12, 2005

NYPD Speaks in Tongues!

Here's my most recent Newsday story, rescued from un-archived oblivion, just follow the link...

Earlier this year, Officer Jackie O'Keefe resolved a domestic-violence case using nothing more than a flip-top cellular phone.

During the investigation, O'Keefe questioned a battered Chinese immigrant using a portable phone that connected her to interpreters in more than 150 languages - a powerful tool for this diverse neighborhood in Flushing. In 109th Precinct, 63 percent of the residents speak a language other than English at home, according to City Planning statistics.

"It's horrible to see someone crying and hurt when you can't speak back and forth," explained O'Keefe, 26. "I'm a police officer, and I couldn't do anything for her!"

The Chinese immigrant spoke into the cellular phone, and an operator instantly relayed the story back to O'Keefe in English. The abuser was arrested, rescuing the Chinese immigrant and her teenage daughter from years of violent abuse.

In diverse communities like Flushing, victims are often stranded behind the language barrier. As this interpreter-phone becomes a part of police work in the city, officers, interpreters, and city officials are debating how to reach out to these neighborhoods.

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Ecuador Goes Crazy!

Here's a story I wrote for Newsday in May, I'm saving it from un-archived oblivion, just follow the link below...

A crowd of 50 Ecuadoran immigrants gathered inside the offices of Delgado Travel in Jackson Heights one recent day, watching the political situation in their homeland unravel on jumbo television screens.

The crowds had gathered last month at the travel agency, a nerve center for the local Ecuadoran community, to watch the minute-by-minute developments as then-President Lucio Gutierrez fled the country.

"We played Ecuador news all day," said Linda Delgado, 30, whose parents emigrated from Ecuador and started the travel agency three decades ago.

The people "were glued to the television," Delgado said.

Earlier, Gutierrez had disbanded the country's Supreme Court, a move some considered to be an attempt to consolidate power. The move generated a throng of angry protesters outside the presidential palace in the capital city of Quito and led to Gutierrez's ouster from office. He is the third leader of the country to be ousted since 1997.

Political instability in Ecuador, such as that experienced in recent weeks, has contributed to the rapid growth of Ecuadoran immigrants in New York City, according to city officials.

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Salon.com Shows Video!

Here's my latest Publish.com story, follow the link for more...

Venerable arts and politics Web magazine Salon.com neared its tenth anniversary this year with a big problem—the site hadn't been redesigned in five years. Web readers worship innovation like a cult, and that kind of lapse can get a publication excommunicated.

So last week Salon.com redeemed itself with an under-publicized and deceptively simple redesign.

Besides revealing a brand-new aesthetic, the redesign will also reveal a brand-new feature this week: an official video blog. With the video blog, Salon hopes to tap what many experts see as the future of the Internet.

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Google Gets Sued!

Here's something new I wrote for Publish.com, click the link to read the rest...

The future of digital libraries seemed to ride on a single lawsuit last week, as the New York-based Authors Guild went to war against search king and Internet superpower Google.

Led by three Authors Guild members, the complaint seeks unspecified damages and a permanent injunction to shut down Google Print—a fledgling service that will scan digital copies of millions of books from five prestigious research collections, allowing Google users access to bite-sized pieces of this database through keyword searches.

"The authors are all tremendously supportive," said Paul Aiken, a spokesperson for the Authors Guild, a legal organization that defends over 8,000 members. "They told us, 'It's about time somebody did this.'"

Google responded with an unapologetic press release: "Just as Google helps you find sites you might not have found any other way by indexing the full text of web pages, Google Print, like an electronic card catalog, indexes book content to help users find, and perhaps buy, books."

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