Saturday, March 29, 2008

On libraries and gaming

There are lots of librarians out there who fundamentally object to the presence of video games in library collections or video gaming programs for teens and other age groups in library buildings. As someone who has spent countless hours of his life with a video game controller in his hand gaping slack-jawed at a flashing screen, I'm more ambivalent about the implications of gaming in the library.

I recently received an article written by some random freelancer decrying the presence of games in the library. In high dudgeon (and, presumably, with veins popping out of his neck and forehead), he yells into my email inbox:

Unfortunately, it appears that this country's librarians have decided to do their part in the dumbing-down of America. What has happened to this country? All of the librarians I have known were in love with the written word and truly enjoyed opening the door to their world to young people. Perhaps, today's crop of young librarians would be better served answering their calling as arcade attendants and movie theatre managers. Generations of Americans who valued education and insisted that their children understand not only the importance but the enjoyment of the written word, have given way to barely functioning illiterates who spend hour after hour trying to get to the next level of Guitar Hero.

He then goes on to decry the decline of literacy in the United States. Now, I am completely sympathetic to his viewpoint, but public libraries are not and never have been strictly educational institutions. While public education is one of it's core functions, the library's mission is to provide recreational and entertainment opportunities to the people as well. In that sense, I have little problem offering gaming programs to library users. In fact, I do it myself on a regular basis with my teen patrons. They have fun, and it's a way to get people into the library that might not otherwise show up. If they wind up picking up a book on the way out, all the better. Also, I'm not sure the library is even capable of fighting the growing ignorance among the American public in any meaningful way. We do what we can with the resources that we have, but ultimately the most important bulwarks against mass ignorance are the public school system and the press. Perhaps if the schools were not turning out "barely functioning illiterates" on an industrial scale, or if the press were more interested in reporting real news than scandal and celebrity gossip, then librarians would have a bigger audience for more edifying programs and services. Trust me, I'd rather be reading great works of literature with my teens than refereeing video game tournaments.

At the same time, some people within the field take an enthusiasm for gaming too far and try to imbue it with educational functions that it simply does not have in order to justify offering games and gaming programs to folks such as our irate library user above. In a recent article in the New York Times on gaming programming at the New York Public Library's central branch on 42nd Street in Manhattan, a library official argues that

“What we’re seeing is that in addition to simply helping bring kids into the library in the first place, games are having a broader effect on players, and they have the potential to be a great teaching tool,” Mr. Martin said. “If a kid takes a test and fails, that’s it. But in a game, if you fail you get to take what you’ve learned and try again.
..In a lot of these games you have to understand the rules, you have to understand the game’s world, its story. For some games you have to understand its history and the characters in order to play effectively.”

This is the "everything bad is good for you" argument, and I think it's bogus. While I don't have any empirical research to support me at my fingertips, I don't think that the skills that gamers learn while playing a particular game are really transferable outside that context. It's true that many of today's games are very complex and have very rich story lines, but I just finished playing Call of Duty 4 on XboX360 and I don't think that because of that, I've gained some sort of expertise in counterinsurgency techniques. And observing the teens that come to my gaming programs, they're certainly skilled at the games that they play but many of them have trouble dealing with the types of complex arguments and ideas offered in books and other print media, partially because their bias toward the visual has reduced their attention spans. Playing games repeatedly makes you a better gamer, but in itself such activity probably won't help you become a better student or a more informed and active citizen. If we offer gaming services to our patrons it's more or less for entertainment purposes only.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Bye-bye to municipal wi-fi?

When I lived in Philadelphia, the announcement of a free or low-cost municipal wi-fi network was an exciting development. It represented an innovative infrastructural investment that spurred other cities around the country to take up similar projects. But as an article in today's New York Times makes clear, these projects were flawed from the start and are stagnating because they were based on a "public-private partnership," for-profit model that was not truly municipal. The networks were not to be owned and operated strictly by the city but would be contracted out to private tech firms, namely Earthlink. From the article:

“The entire for-profit model is the reason for the collapse in all these projects,” said Sascha Meinrath, technology analyst at the New America Foundation, a nonprofit research organization in Washington.

Mr. Meinrath said that advocates wanted to see American cities catch up with places like Athens, Leipzig and Vienna, where free or inexpensive Wi-Fi already exists in many areas.
He said that true municipal networks, the ones that are owned and operated by municipalities, were far more sustainable because they could take into account benefits that help cities beyond private profit, including property-value increases, education benefits and quality-of-life improvements that come with offering residents free wireless access.

Benefits beyond private profit? What a novel idea!

Nobody expects to make a profit out of public transit but it's a necessary piece of any community's infrastructure and that's why government government has to put up the money for it. The same idea applies to investing in free or low-cost high-speed Internet access. Unfortunately many cities such as Philadelphia simply don't have the capital budgets to make such investments. That's why it's probably necessary to have a commitment at the state and/or federal levels to make real municipal wi-fi possible, but in an environment where significant public spending on anything else besides weaponry is anathema, I don't see that happening any time soon. It's completely insane that the richest country in the history of the planet can't come up with the will or the money to make such important and necessary investments for its own economic and cultural well-being, but I'm used to these things by now, I suppose.

As an aside, the article briefly touches on an aspect of the municipal wi-fi issue that has potential relevance for public libraries. “If we don’t have Internet, that means I’ve got to take the bus to the public library after dark, and around here, that’s not always real safe,” says a young North Philly resident who has come to rely on the low-cost network and a laptop provided for free by a local community organization. For many public libraries, free computer and Internet resources has become one of, if not the most, important ways to get patrons in the library. Sometimes I get the feeling that I don't work at a library but a big computer lab that just happens to have some books in it. My library and many others provide patrons with a free wi-fi hotspot, but having a city-wide network would be preferable for a variety of reasons. It's possible that the adoption of municpal wi-fi networks might reduce demand for library services, but I'd like to think that this isn't a zero-sum game and that patrons come to the library for a variety of reasons. Like the books, for example.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Friday Art Explosion

George Grosz, Fit For Active Service, 1916-1917

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

That Obama speech

I feel a bit schizophrenic about the speech that Barack Obama gave Tuesday in Philadelphia. The media billed it as his grand statement on race, prompted by the recent firestorm of controversy that has surrounded Obama's relationship with his former pastor. In my view, however, the uproar surrounding this whole incident is not just about race and may in fact be about something even deeper.

Rev. Jeremiah Wright's statements (many of which I would agree with) questioned a notion that is deeply held by the overwhelming majority of American citizens: that this is a fundamentally moral and just nation. Wright did not just speak about the realities of race in the U.S. He forcefully denounced U.S. foreign policy and the notion that America is only a force for good in the world, even when it is committing or abetting horrific acts, such as the continuing Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. Most Americans simply can't deal with the notion that their country perhaps does more harm in the world than good, or that others might view us with less than total admiration. I think after almost eight years of the Bush administration and its vast criminality, many people's sense of the innate goodness of America has been unsettled. They want to feel good about America again and Wright's statements strike at the source of such insecurities. I think the feeling that Obama might not be totally invested in the idea of a fundamentally benign America (recall the American flag lapel pin flap or the controversy over his wife's comments about being proud of America for the first time during the campaign) and not just the fact that he is black might explain at least some the incredibly strong reactions to some of the things that his former pastor said. And it definitely explains why he chose to give his speech in front of an enormous phalanx of American flags.

That being said, even tough I take issue with some aspects of Obama's speech, I found it to be largely compelling and even moving in places. While denouncing Wright's particular statements and disavowing any notion whatever that the U.S. or its allies (namely Israel) might be the source of oppression or instability in the international arena, he bravely refused to completely disown the man and the black church community from which he comes. He lucidly explained the history of racist structural inequalities that continue to constrict the lives of African-Americans and other people of color while deftly addressing the fears and resentments of working-class and downwardly mobile middle-class whites. In doing so he identified a common enemy - corporate power - as well as common goals: better schools, healthcare, housing and jobs for all. Before this speech I was more enthusiastic about the excitement and movement surrounding the man's campaign and not Obama per se. But after yesterday's speech I'm more enthusiastic by the possibilities offered by the man himself. Clearly a lot of the right instincts are there. We have to do the political work necessary to allow him to act on them if he gets elected this fall.

Five Years Too Many

Today marks a very ignominious anniversary. Five years ago today, our government launched its invasion of Iraq with promises that it would be a "cakewalk" in which our troops would be hailed as "liberators" by the Iraqi people and be home in time for supper. Well, five years, billions of dollars, thousands of dead American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis later, we're still there with no end in sight.

On March 19 in 2003, I and several of my friends and comrades were arrested in an action in front of the federal courthouse in Camden, New Jersey to protest the beginning of the war. We were right then, and unfortunately the need to engage in struggle to end the war continues. I hope to see you at tonight's anti-war march in Brooklyn, which begins at 6:00PM at Grand Army Plaza and ends at the military recruitment station in downtown Brooklyn. More details can be found here.

Articles of note:
Spencer Ackerman argues that to really fight terrorism, we need to get out of Iraq.

In These Times reports on Iraq Veterans Against the War's recent Winter Solider hearings and the plight of Iraq war vets.

Robert Pollin and Heidi Garrett-Peltier on the economic impact of war.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Slavoj Zizek: "Go to masturbation. Leave me alone"

Slavoj Zizek gave an in-studio interview with Amy Goodman for today's Democracy Now! program about the lectured he is scheduled to give tonight to open up this year's Left Forum gathering in New York. While talking about the various conflicting legacies of the events of 1968, he started talking about how there are apparently big masturbation gatherings going on all over the world. Here are excerpts from the transcript:

It’s the same with ’68. If you ask people today, what will you get? Ooh, that wonderful explosion of creativity, anti-bureaucratic, sexual liberation, and so on. That’s, for me, precisely the least interesting part of ’68. That’s the ’68 which was perfectly integrated into today’s ideology, self-expression and so on. So if you want to draw the line, one line from ’68, it is what, for me, as an old-fashioned guy who likes erotics but with love, is the nightmare. Today’s legacy of that ’68 is alive. And, you know, they have in California, and now it’s spreading to Europe, a terrible thing called masturbation. People gather, you masturbate publicly, you’re not allowed to touch the other, and, of course, each one has to pay some money, which goes to politically correct causes and so on. And the idea, it’s like self-expression: you are alone, but in a crowd. This kind of—this is what I don’t like...If we indulge a simple nostalgia for ’68, it means sexual revolution and all that, so I will tell to those guys, “Go to masturbation. Leave me alone.”

I didn't know that they just got masturbation over in Europe, but I'm not surprised that California sent it there.

I'd give anything to see someone ask him a question about masturbation tonight, but alas, I can't go. I'll probably be too busy masturbating.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Socialists re-elected in Spain; radical Spanish librarian not happy

Congratulations to Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero and the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) on their triumph in yesterday's elections. The PSOE certainly has its share of problems, but Zapatero has done much since his election in 2004 to establish a more independent foreign policy and overcome the legacy of Franco's fascism and Catholic moral authoritarianism. So cheers to this good news.

An article in the New York Times on the election contained a couple of quotations from a radical Spanish librarian critiquing the PSOE's actions while in power that I found to be interesting:

In the upscale Madrid neighborhood of Salamanca, Gloria Perez, a 58-year-old librarian, said the poor economic performance of Mr. Zapatero’s government prompted her to shift her vote this time to the United Left, the main Communist Party, from the Socialists.

“Zapatero has not done enough to bring down the price of rents, control mortgage costs, help young people and get us workers better salaries,” Ms. Perez said. She added that she was not impressed by tax incentives offered by the two main parties, including the Socialists’ promise of a 400-euro tax rebate, about $620, for all taxpayers.

“What good is 400 euros going to do me?” she said. “That’s bread today, hunger tomorrow. We need reforms that will help us in the long term: better work contracts, better salaries, less inflation.”

While I would likely have been a PSOE supporter, I wish we had more like her among the ranks of American librarians, and especially in my union local.

Bush: reading is actually not fundamental

Where is Laura Bush when we need her?

I just received word that President Bush's 2009 federal budget proposal does not include any funding for the popular and successful Reading Is Fundamental program, which distributes free books to kids through local public libraries. Here at my library branch, the RIF program might be the most popular of all our activities, if the chaos that takes over the childrens' floor each Friday afternoon between 3:00 PM and 5:00 PM is any indication. Please take the time to send a message to your congressional representatives urging them to restore funding to the program by clicking here.

To put things in perspective, the budget proposal includes $515.4 billion for the Department of "Defense" alone ("a nearly 74-percent increase over 2001," the department's budget overview almost gleefully notes) as well as a $70 billion "emergency allowance" to support the Global War on Terror (GWOT). Further, Bush will apparently "request additional funding once the specific needs of our troops are better known." Oh goody. Compared to these astronomical figures, the $26 million required to run the RIF program is a drop in the bucket. But apparently, here in America, we have more important priorities than teaching kids to love books and reading. We have a GWOT to win (and defense contractors to keep in business).

Every search you make, every click you take, I'll be watching you

The thought of Sting stalking anyone is scary enough, but scarier still is the enormous amount of information Web companies are collecting about their users' consumer preferences in order to market to them more effectively, according to an article in today's New York Times. By collecting oodles of information about our search queries in Google and our purchases on Amazon, these companies are then able to charge astronomical sums for advertising space on their webpages.

Unsurprisingly, industry figures don't see any potential pitfalls in such practices. “What is targeting in the long term?” said Michael Galgon, Microsoft’s chief advertising strategist. “You’re getting content about things and messaging about things that are spot-on to who you are.” I suppose if you think that who we are is defined solely by the things that we buy, you'd have to concede Mr. Galgon's point, but luckily not everyone takes that dismal view. According to the article, 85 percent of respondents to a recent poll said that companies should not be able to track online behavior to show people ads. I hope that as public awareness of such practices spreads, opposition will grow. If not, however, we might find ourselves in a situation like this before long.

Friday, March 7, 2008

"The fundamentals are sound," or; How to lie with statistics

As you may have heard, companies cut 63,000 jobs from the economy in February, a staggering figure that seems to confirm the fact that the U.S. economy is indeed on the verge of entering or has entered a recession. But somewhat strangely, the unemployment rate also fell in February. Not too many people are familiar with the statistical methodologies that allow such a phenomenon to happen, but David Leonhardt spells it all out in a really good piece in today's New York Times. As Leonhardt explains, "the government's definition of the unemployed includes only those people actively looking for work. And last month, the number of people in that category fell significantly. It seems that more of the jobless gave up looking for work. So the unofficial number of unemployed fell, even as the labor market worsened."

The piece gives a short but rather interesting account of how the current methodology came into being. Well worth reading.