Friday Fun

Clambering on the Bandwagon

If you haven’t yet caught the awesome that is Dr. Horrible, do so soon, because it starts costing money on the 20th. I’m a sucker for smart humor and musicals, and Joss Whedon cranks up the goofy to eleven and has Mal Reynolds and Doogie Howser take it into the stratosphere.

(Or, well, actually, it’s probably OK to wait. I mean, it’s sufficiently brilliant that I’ll likely lay down some iTunes cash at some point in order to be able to watch it again. But go, now, look.)


Via MetaFilter:

mathematical limerick

I thought this was wonderfully clever. Standard limerick form: first, second, and fifth lines are longer, and similar in rhyme and meter; third and fourth lines are shorter, and similar in rhyme and meter. The toughest part is figuring out how the first and last lines rhyme.

Learning LOLKitteh

The Ratliff compels, and one obeys.

Well, OK: Clancy wrote, “Mike, you HAVE to do an I Can Has Cheezburger? image,” but while I can read and parody LOLKitteh, I’m far from being a native or even adequate speaker.

I’m doing my best to learn LOLKitteh, certainly, particularly given its recent emergence as one of the fundamental philosophical discourses of modernity. My efforts, however, yield slight return. Tink and Zeugma regard me indulgently as I practice the tense-shifts and contractions, but when I attempt to engage them in LOLKitteh, they flee to the litterboxen.

As Clancy has demonstrated, though, LOLKitteh allows us to speak of that which other discourses and other interlocutors (our friend and colleague Joanna Howard comes immediately to mind) forbid. There is, for example, the practice of interrogating so-called ‘flavor’ as sociocultural and affective construct.

Two cats, Tink and Zeugma, interacting

However, my lack of LOLKitteh fluency has stymied attempts at adequately describing the above interaction.

Your captions are welcomed.

In the Clickstream, Part 6

(This is the sixth and final episode of a piece of serial speculative fiction attempting to explore what future database composition might look like. For context, see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.)

The Cadet system of communication is secure and monitored, but otherwise not much different from the way civilians use the net. Their browsers are larger, perhaps twice the size of the latest model civilian information appliance, but still small enough to slip into a cargo pocket, with the bulk coming from the weatherproof hardened frame and soldiers’ need to thumb the screen in gloves in field environments. The distributed public database that stores their compositions is the same network used by civilian universities, albeit with a firewalled secure area for Cadets’ projects for their Department of Military Instruction classes and other secure-classified topics. It’s browsable by those outside higher education, but even for those who haven’t used it, the concept is likely familiar: projects incorporating a variety of forms of information — writing, visuals, tabular data, video, spreadsheets, music and audio, interactive — are sorted and cross-indexed into various categories and tagged with keywords by authors and users. Users can add comments in a similar variety of formats and rate and rank the projects, and the database automatically creates maps — clickstreams — of the the associational trains of links between projects and tracks the traffic on those clickstreams. In a remarkable hybrid of the song remix and the debates that range across academic journals, users create their own projects building on or responding to other projects, quoting and paraphrasing and parodying and mashing-up, and tag the associated clickstreams, so that one can map over time the emerging parameters of a discussion or argument in the informational topography of the database. When used as a tool for managing information, it’s immensely complex and powerful, and Cadets have an entire plebe course dedicated to teaching them the various methods for navigating it, as well as a cow course — mine, Database Composition — teaching them the most productive ways of manipulating and adding to it.

What the military didn’t count on — what nobody counted on — was that somebody would do the same with the swarms.

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In the Clickstream, Part 5

(This is the fifth episode of a piece of serial speculative fiction attempting to explore what future database composition might look like. For context, see Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, and Part 4. For excellent articulations of the fundamental principles underlying what might constitute database composition, see the work of Johndan Johnson-Eilola, Jeff Rice, and Derek Mueller.)

I open the door. Today’s Friday, a training day, when all Cadets should be in ACUs and gear rather than the dress gray. The uniforms of the three soldiers outside my door tell me a lot. One’s an MP, enlisted, Sergeant Restrepo, clearly uncomfortable. Like most base personnel who aren’t involved directly in some aspect of Cadet instruction, he’s in the Army’s conventional duty uniform of camouflage ACUs and black beret. Because he’s an MP, he’s got the powered composite body armor, the web belt with sidearm, and the black shoulder brassard. The two Cadets he’s with are upperclassmen, wearing their gray tunics with Cadet rank. Which means this is official, but there’s no actual officer above the Cadet chain of command with them, so that also means that on the Corps of Cadets side, they haven’t yet put everything together.

It also works to Mala’s advantage that I know both the Cadets. One, Cadet Nestor, was in a section of plebe composition I taught three years ago. Usually earnest and well-intentioned, but also a bit of a joker, she’s worked her way up the Cadet ranks to platoon sergeant status — which tells me something, as well: this has another few hours before it hits serious urgency. The other, Cadet Cohan, I recognize as well: a five-foot-tall martinet and Cadet Honor Sergeant who I’ve seen in two Cadet-run trials for violations of the honor code. I extend my hand to Cadet Nestor. “Amy!” I say. “How are you?” She shakes my hand, a bit bashful, clearly still working out how to best handle the situation. I make a show of looking at Cohan and Restrepo, then step back into the office and open the door wide. “I take it this isn’t a visit for facetime and essay help,” I say. It’s the bluff Amy would be expecting from me, and it’s also the response that gives Cohan the chance to look like a hardass. So I cut it off.

“I know,” I say. “It’s about Cadet Casey. She’s in trouble, and you missed her by about eight minutes.” Cohan gapes. Nestor regroups and nods. I make eye contact with Sergeant Restrepo. “Sergeant?” I ask. “Why are they dragging you along on a morning this hot?”

Cohan speaks quickly, before Restrepo can respond. “Sir,” he says, “It’s an evolving situation. Are you in contact with Cadet Casey?”

“Not currently,” I say. Technically, it’s not a lie: at present, Mala is low-profile and incommunicado. “Like I said, she was here not long ago, and clearly agitated over,” and I pause and borrow his word, “evolving honor concerns.” I turn to Amy. “She’s my student, Cadet Nestor. What kind of trouble is she in?”

Amy frowns. She doesn’t quite know. None of them do. “Sir,” she begins.

“Listen, Cadet Nestor,” I say. “I don’t want to waste your time, and I’ve got things to do. The three of you clearly need to find Cadet Casey. I’ll tell you what: if she’s in contact with me again, the first thing I’ll do will be to immediately send her to her chain of command, and the second thing will be to send information of that contact up the chain. Does that work?”

Cohan nods to Amy, and Amy nods to me. Sergeant Restrepo, with scant interest in the affairs of Cadet officers-to-be, is looking at the art prints on the walls of the English department’s halls. The Cadets are satisfied, thinking of themselves and the Cadet chain of command that exists primarily in the barracks as the only elements of Mala’s chain of command.

They’re mistaken. After Cadets Nestor and Cohan and Sergeant Restrepo depart — one can only assume for Mala’s B hour classroom in Thayer Hall — I sit down and relax. Faculty, both military and civilian, are components of Cadets’ chain of command, as well. While upperclassmen are deeply concerned with their own roles on the Cadet side of the chain of command and how they interact with their superiors and subordinates and their TAC officers, they sometimes forget the faculty aspect. And I’m hoping I’ve just exercised that forgetting to my advantage: I will, indeed, put Cadet Casey in contact with her chain of command, and send notification of that contact up the chain to my superior, who will likely be concerned about the allegations surrounding Cadet Casey and the way they reflect upon the department.

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In the Clickstream, Part 4

(This is the fourth part of a piece of serial speculative fiction attempting to imagine what future database composition might look like. For context, see Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.)

Mala looks at me and tilts her head and purses her lips, her chin drawing up and in, her eyebrows compressed, eyes narrowed. It’s an expression I’ve seen plenty of times in class, and she’s worse at disguising it than most cadets: it’s her “Sir, you’ve got to be fucking kidding me” expression.

“Sir,” she begins.

“Listen,” I respond. I’m thinking through the options: today’s Friday, a training day, and we’re almost at the end of first hour. As a cow, a junior, she’s got her afternoon clear, but it’s 0826 and she’s got three morning classes left and mandatory mid-day formation at Washington Hall. After the sit-down Cadet lunch — all 4,316 cadets eating in the same facility, at the same time, in an environment that every visitor I’ve had has said reminds them of the dining hall scenes in the old Harry Potter movies — her schedule gets a lot more free. “How are you doing in your other classes? What have you got B, C, D hour?”

She thinks for a moment. “I’m good, sir,” she says. “B minus in Chem but otherwise OK.”

So I ask: “If you get a COR, can you walk some hours?” CORs are electronic Cadet Observation Reports; the ways that faculty tell a Cadet’s chain of command that the Cadet has screwed up, and the penalty is marching for hours around the quad. Mala’s so scrupulously careful that she’s never had to worry much about hours, and the emotions that cross her face make it clear: Cadet Casey doesn’t walk hours.

She swallows. “Yessir.”

I nod. “OK,” I tell her. I speak slowly, deliberately, for the sake of clarity and emphasis. “What I am about to tell you is not an order. This is advice about one possible way to rectify the situation into which you’ve been put. Following it will violate policies and the orders of your chain of command.” I pause. “You will see trouble for this.” She nods. I’m now the one to take a deep breath. “I also believe,” I say, “that it’s the only way out of this situation that both upholds the integrity of this institution and the Corps of Cadets and keeps you from violating the Honor Code.” She nods again. “Cadet Casey,” I continue, “if you blow off the rest of your morning classes, you’re going to generate CORs for your B, C, and D hour classes, and you’re going to walk hours for those CORs.” Her eyes get a little wider, but she nods. I’m gambling here: most faculty I know don’t bother with reporting attendance until the end of the day, especially on Fridays, so Mala’s absences won’t hit her chain of command until COB, which makes lunch still fairly safe territory for her. And the fact that it’s a Friday works to our advantage.

“Sir,” she blurts. Frustrated. “There’s nothing I can do.”

“There’s plenty you can do,” I respond. I slip my antiquated civilian laptop out of my bag and hand it to her. “Take this. It’s Friday; you’ve got walking privileges. There’s wireless off post.”

She nods. She knows where the public wireless points are in Highland Falls, the tiny town outside the Academy’s south gate. They aren’t safe, but they’re temporarily anonymous to the point where she can at least get on a secure channel and not have her transmissions blocked by the military filters for a few hours. “First order of business,” I say. “Get Tim, get him to watch for what you’re going to write. Get his network in on it.”

She nods. “They’ll tag it,” she says. “That’s the idea, right?”

“That’s the idea.” Mala’s already grasped the nature of response here: the power of the disciplinary action being taken against her is that it lies in secrecy. The clickstream accusation of plagiarism and its concomitant implication of treason only hold teeth inasmuch as they connect to secret-classified Air Force documents; documents closely held. Mala can’t disprove synchronicity in terms of the time frames of document release. What she can do, though, is publicly reframe the debate over what happened, and that’s what I’m sending her to do. “After Tim,” I tell her, “update your public bookmarks. Make everything point your way, to this.” I gesture vaguely, but she understands: to this situation, this mess.

“Yessir,” she says. She’s buckling on the body armor as we talk, gearing up the distributed computing, the sounds of microturbines and hydraulics and the unmistakable pings from her earbud: nine in a row, messages received. We both know they’re likely from her Cadet Chain of Command, and they’re likely best not listened to right now. She grimaces and slips her browser into its front pocket and shoulders her carbine. “Sir,” she says.

“Go change your clothes, Cadet Casey,” I say. “Highland Falls. Secure wireless. Change the topic. The swarms are secondary, not primary. Write your paper to shift the argument to management of affect and management of information rather than management of technology.”

She stands there in my office door a moment, thinking, and I hear the backpack hardware gear up as well, its tiny chuff of condensate. “Management of affect, Sir?”

“Tim’s a Tamil,” I say. “He loves you.” She blinks, nods. “Why?”

Then: gone. She moves quickly, faster than her peers.

Eight minutes later, I’m alone in my office with the door closed, hoping that my browsing and tagging on my government machine is sufficiently discreet. It isn’t, of course, and it doesn’t matter that it isn’t, and I knew it wouldn’t matter. There’s the knock of body-armor knuckles on wood.

A male voice: “Professor Edwards?”

I don’t answer.

Seconds later, the same voice, and again the rap of armored knuckles on my door: “Military Police, Professor Edwards.”

(To be continued.)

In the Clickstream, Part 3

(I know; it’s a day late for Friday Fun. This is Part 3 of an ongoing series of speculative fiction attempting to imagine what teaching composition might look like twenty minutes into the future. Parts 1 and 2 are here and here.)

I’m a civilian, and as a civilian, there are things I’ll never know or understand about Cadets. First among those things is the emotional baggage with which Cadets approach their time at the Academy, and their time in what comes after. Not a single one has doubts about where they’re all going after graduation. Whether it’s our high-intensity local conflicts in Sudan and Indonesia; the emerging flashpoints in Guyana, Belarus, and Sri Lanka; or our dwindling counterinsurgency garrisons in the Middle East — they know they’re going to be in harm’s way. Their guaranteed graduation prospect is that soon, someone, somewhere, will shoot at them. As the Brian Turner poem puts it: here, bullet.

What I can’t get used to is that the guarantee of mortal peril makes Cadets the most fatalistically cheerful students I’ve ever met. There’s no time here for being sad, for performing unhappiness, real or purported. Here there are no drama queens.

I turn to Mala. “Is he on?”

She thumbs, nods. He’s not only on, he’s realtime, in front of his webcam. From a Sri Lankan satphone, though, there are drops, so they cut out the sound and refresh the headshot every ten seconds, with the T9 filling in the nuance. PONNAMBALAM THURAISINGAM shows up at the bottom of the screen, but Mala thumbs him as Tim. I’m one of my generation’s dwindling population of breeders, but I’ll admit: from his headshot, he’s a hot boy. Although Tamil by heritage, he wears his Sri Lankan Army uniform with pride, and it’s clear he knows he looks good in it.

“Tell him what’s going on,” I say. “Free channel. You know to be careful.”

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In the Clickstream, Part 2

(This is part of a piece of serial speculative fiction attempting to imagine what digital writing instruction might look like twenty minutes into the future. Part 1 is here.)

The clickstream in question — the one out of the nineteen geolocated here at the Academy that has to have gotten her the board — is on the CTC subnet: the Combating Terrorism Center. They’re in the same building as us, two floors down, and while they’re widely recognized for their research and their professionalism as global leaders in their cutting-edge approach to counterterrism studies and interagency joint efforts with the FBI and others, their name isn’t the only thing that’s an anachronism. At a place as bound by tradition as this one, they take pride in accentuating the second syllable, and Mala couldn’t stand them when I sent her to talk to them about a senior thesis project. They’re soldiers and civilians, like us, but the civilians are mostly retired military, working on scholarly studies of terrist organizations and networks. They’ve put together monographs and white papers and book chapters on the economics of terrism, histories of terrist philosophy, entrepreneurial terrism, terrist poetics, all that you can imagine, and last fall they hosted the seventh annual International Terrorism Studies conference. Mala said they should’ve put the “or” in bold to show their old-school cred.

They are in some ways as old-school as this Academy gets. Even now, years since the Pentagon took the Army’s advice from TRADOC and raised holy hell by incorporating the points of view of an Italian Marxist and a Duke University literature scholar into its strategic vision, the CTC constitutes the only group on campus who still want to refer to themselves exclusively as warfighters rather than peacekeepers. Training and Doctrine Command read Hardt and Negri and said: yeah. That’s what we do. Under the realities of terrism and distributed combat — under a regime of ongoing war — we need to train peacekeepers. But the CTC wasn’t having it, not a bit of it: we’re warfighters and warfighters only, they said, just on a new field of battle; and nothing less than victory, complete annihilation of our many and diverse enemies, is acceptable. When Mala went to talk to them, that was the perspective they offered, and in a shop heavy with males from the Army’s combat arms branches, they also made it quite clear exactly how much they might value what she had to contribute.

Mala came back and said she thought that misogyny and xenophobia might not be the most productive ways to engage in theorizing counterterrism, and she’d look elsewhere for folks to partner with.

After that, I didn’t hear from her for a while, until Lieutenant Colonel Fensis told me she’d joined his AIAD. AIADs are Academic Individual Advanced Development Opportunities, DoD-funded opportunities for Cadets to get out of the Academy and work on projects in the field, and in the English department, they’re usually tied to service learning and community literacies, particularly in countries in the developing world. LTC Fensis, with his interest in postcolonialist literatures, was taking his group of Cadets to Sri Lanka for ten days over winter break, and I immediately knew what Mala wanted to do.

Database composition isn’t just a junior-level composition course. It’s an overarching method the Academy’s adopted, a way of helping Cadet knowledge circulate, a way of publicizing to the broader academic community and the world the knowledge our Cadets are creating, a way of asking Cadets to value on their own the composing that they and their peers perform in and outside the classroom, and a way of evaluating Cadets’ integrity and public responsibility and overall suitability for officership. For all these reasons, faculty follow clickstreams just as closely as Cadets, watching the strackbacks and spingbacks, who aggregates whose essays from their SNS and scholarly homepages. Cadets take it for granted, but as a member of an older generation, I admit I find it breathtaking to trace a link back from a viral Cadet spirit video to a homepage to a peer shout-out to a course feed to a four-star “chk him on Said — wishn i nu that b4 my thesis” comment to an instructor’s syllabus to a student’s public tagcloud for an engineering project to a “might help u w hist209 rdngs” strackback to a plebe composition essay, and to realize that this is how Cadets are aggregating and recycling knowledge and offering it out to the world on a regular basis. And here’s the thing: if you mean-rank the Academy’s top ten most-populated clickstreams, they’re all firsties — all seniors — with one exception. That exception is Mala. In three years, Cadet Casey’s writing has climbed up from plebe obscurity to the number four slot in the top clickstreams. She’s still a junior — a cow, so nicknamed after a plebe asked a firstie when he could go on pass while the juniors were on leave, and the firstie replied, “When the cows come home” — and an English major, but nearly all of the Corps of Cadets regularly read and sping and cite her work. And the two most-cited and highest-rated essays she’s written are her yearling sociology and political science work on Ilankai Tamils and the LTTE.

Which is why, with the clickstream from the CTC, I’m worried. The AIAD led by LTC Fensis was an adjunct to JSOC counter-terrism exercises conducted hand-in-hand with the largely Sinhalese Sri Lankan military and input from the CTC. And I know Mala, and I know how stubborn and contrary she can be. So I thumb down the connection and the power button, and I turn and make sure the office door’s closed, and then I say:

“You know what this is about, right?”

She looks at the floor. Nods.

I ask: “What happened in Sri Lanka?”

She looks back up. Her face brightens for the first time this morning, and I’m happy to see it.

“Sir,” she says. “I met a boy.”

(To be continued)

Acknowledgments: The ideas about what database composition might look like are directly derived from the stuff Derek Mueller’s been working on and talking about for a long time before I came to them, and of course the idea of deploying strackbacks and spingbacks — secure trackbacks, secure pingbacks — in student writing come from Derek’s amazing CCCC presentation a couple years back. And beyond Derek’s contribution, much of the fun I’m having inheres in taking real Army stuff here at the Academy and projecting it 20 minutes into the future: believe it or not, there are high-level Army policymakers who have read or are reading Hardt and Negri. AIADs and the CTC are real, and the CTC is indeed in the same building where I work. However, I want to emphasize that they’re extraordinarily good, smart, talented people, and certainly not the trolls I fictionalize them as here. At the same time, though, I feel it’s important to acknowledge the fact that xenophobia and misogyny can also sometimes be an unfortunate working reality in the military.

In the Clickstream, Part 1

0725 with iced coffee. I drop my bag at the door and close the office blinds, blocking February’s rising glare and heat. Early morning email and paper-shuffling, putting off grading. I don’t realize it’s a training day until Mala — Cadet Casey — shows up for facetime in camo ACUs and full gear.

She’s angry and tense. Lips pressed in a thin line and perspiration streaming. It’s what passes for a winter morning, but the way she flops in the spare chair and then props a foot up on my filing cabinet, she’s glad for the building’s laboring and antiquated central air. She pops the buckles on the composite shin and thigh pads, up one by one, speaking as she goes.

“Sir,” she says. “I know I’m early.”

Nod. “Hot out there,” I venture. She does the other leg.

“You have no idea.” Blows a stray hair out of her face. It’s not meant in a mean way: I don’t, actually. I’m a civilian. My car has AC. She’s in twelve kilos of body armor, web gear, batteries, distributed information systems, and she’s been going since 0520. I wait for the anger to spin out words.

Cadet Casey, of the neighborhood of Georgetown, Washington, DC, is one of those students, the kind you meet once or twice in a career. Overachiever: handle with care. First day of class, she tells me she went up the chain to get my cow Database Composition section because I tutored Cadet Maas into the Josephson Fellowship at Trinity. She wants some of that.

The Department’s made its own concerns evident in signs subtle and clear, their suasive force underscored by that subtlety. Cadet Casey is the only child of a certain outspoken and soon-to-be-promoted three-star flag officer. Indeed: that one.

Cows are juniors here. Frosh, plebes; sophomores, yearlings; seniors, firsties. I’m an outsider, a civilian, and I’m only slowly learning the terms and names, the protocol, what goes on at a military academy with its decorum, slang, traditions. Things unusual and usual: Cadet Casey isn’t in one of the permanent Lieutenant Colonel Academy Professor’s sections. She’s in mine. Remarkable in her poise, and in the absence of self-regard and self-consciousness common to the exceptional students I’ve encountered elsewhere.

She’s got the armor and distributed computing off, piled in a corner. She sleeves the sweat away again. “Sir,” she says, and chokes the R. I’ve never seen her this discomposed. The tops of her ears flushed red, her jaw set. “I got verbal seven minutes ago that I’m being boarded.”

A board is a combination of investigation and trial; an attempt to ascertain whether and how badly a Cadet fucked up. Military justice, with Cadet legal representation, and often for the minor stuff, it’s dismissed. On the other end of severity, though, there’s the possible prospect of expulsion, separation from the Corps, UCMJ action. Courts martial and sentences at Leavenworth, and worse.

I use my teacher voice. “OK,” I say. I suspect, but ask anyway: “What for?”

When they finally figured out service learning and database pedagogy, the military academies loved it. Air Force at Colorado Springs, Navy at Annapolis, Army here at the Point: we had the cash to send out Cadets, get them interacting with the world, the third world in particular, crafting collaborative and evolving documents with peer communities, getting those communities internetworked — and then, of course, hooking them into the broader observable network. Altruism meets military intelligence via data mining.

She meets my gaze and takes a breath through the teeth. “Honor,” she says.

Mala Casey doesn’t commit honor violations.

I thumb up the browser. “OK,” I say, and hand it to her. “Show me your clickstreams.”

Her thumbs fly. She’s T9ed all her life and it’s remarkable to watch her go as she SSLs in via her thumbs, and even more remarkable to hear the “denied” chirps. She’s stunned. “Give me that,” I say, and do my own thumbing, clumsy, until we’re in on the tiny keypad and then the command line prompt opens up with its vasty open blackness after the colon.


I seek: who’s up in my student’s clickstreams, tweaking her data, adding and modifying, getting her an honor board?

I get back nineteen discrete IP addresses, all of them geolocated here, plus one through Australia that’s probably Cadet Moser with a porn hider user agent he forgot to turn off. And one student, Mala, who’s got monthly traffic off the chart, local links, many of them from Database Composition students, but many more from yearlings and plebes.

I narrow my query. Nobody greps or agreps anymore, but the engines carry enough historical baggage to recognize the strings I throw. I get a hit: the clickstream that has to be the one that got her the board.

And when I see it, I realize I’m in a whole lot of trouble.

(To be continued)

This is a piece of speculative fiction attempting to imagine what teaching writing with database technologies might look like at some point in the future. The final episode has links to all the intermediate episodes, as well.