Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Life in an apartment building - "do you have hit?"
"This is an apartment building" he says. I am frozen to the bone, and I take a shower to warm up. Accustomed as I am to sharing the hot water with my family, I am quick. My NYC connection laughs, and tells me: "There is enough hot water, you can have a really long, really warm shower, you can warm up that way!" I crawl under my covers, and beg him to make me a cup of tea. He complies with a smile, still shaking his head at my frugal habits.

Staying warm in apartment buildings take another, more sinister turn as the bell rings. "This is a city inspector. Do you have hit?" Do I have hit? No, I don't, I haven't been hit and I haven't hit anybody. "No," I reply, bewildered. "What apartment, apartment, 3?" I reply, giving the right number, still confused. As I open the door a man in a uniform and carrying a clipboard is hurrying towards me. "Do you haf hit, iz your hiting working?" he asks, his accent heavy with his east-european background, and he grins at me who opened the door wearing my tight yoga outfit. "Oh, heat, forgive me!" I reply, befuddled. "Yes, we do, we had none in the week-end, but today it is warm in here." And he smiles again, the fatherly smile of one immigrant to another. And like the old russian lady in the Foodtown store who lent me her card to give me access to the discounts, I know he thinks of me as a recent immigrant from eastern europe, Russian perhaps, or from the Baltics, dark and blue-eyed, with high cheek-bones, one of their own. And so he explains it very carefully, patiently.

"You can complain. Call 311 24 hours. Day or night. Then I can come, and I will write them a ticket. Ask for the..." and here I am lost again, the names of the correct office of city inspectors a string of non-sense sounds to me. But I repeat them to him, carefully, with the number. "Remember." he repeats. "Anytime. If you have no heat, you call me, and I will write them a ticket." I assume the "them" are the landlords, and I nod, envisioning this tall aging east-european against the correct Italian woman in her large, dark house with the grand piano in the front parlor, blinds carefully drawn and the house in polished, scentless twilight, counting out the rent in 50- and 20-dollar bills after my NYC connection and I had emptied our accounts in order to be able to pay the rent one cold december evening.

When he is gone I start laughing, then it hits me. People die from the lack of heat in this city. If the heating goes, I have no access to it. There is no electric heating here, no way for me to make this place comfortable or even livable. And I know that, I have spent more than one day wrapped head to toe in blankets, blessing the heat off my lap-top as I wrote my thesis. I just didn't realise I might need an emergency number, one that can call a tall uniformed hero who talks like the crooks in movies from the cold war, armed with a clipboard and the power to write a ticket to a woman in a house that could have been the home of friends of Tony Soprano. Only Tony lives in New Jersey, but that is just across the bridge.
Consumer Heaven?
Or is it hell? My explorations in the inner life of America this time lead me to Costco. I assume all Americans out there now go "Oh", and know perfectly well what I am talking about. For the still unenlightened few, let me explain.

Costco is a supermarket. Or rather, the supermarkets of supermarkets. If you thought your farm-bred mother used to buy flour and sugar in huge amounts, forget it. This is commercial size amounts with all the things you never thought you would need. Feel like a snack? You can have buckets of cookies, crates of chocolate, dozens and dozens of doughnuts, but no, not one single snack.

Supposedly it is all cheap. Exactly. It becomes expensive very quickly because you buy in amounts you will never be able to use. Even at their most sugar addicted, my kids would not be able to go through one box of chocolates from this place before it would go bad.

I managed to keep the shopping lust somewhat in check. Laundry-detergent, shampoo, stuff that will not go bad and which my NYC connection claimed he needed. Although I have been eating chicken all week-end, trying to get through the over-grown beast they were selling. I don't dare think of what was in it to make it grow that big, I bought it to try the claim of my friend (zooming around in an electrical cart and enjoying unusual freedom of movement within what felt like endless miles of isles for me, she was constantly getting this, getting that, exclaiming over the quality of strawberries, the price of meat), that this was the best chicken ever and I would never forget it once I tasted it. I guess I won't, because, frankly, after three days I am fairly familiar with the taste of chicken.
New York spring
It is cold, but the snow is gone, lasting only a few days. And so I could start walking, lazy easy hikes in a neighbourhood too busy with human life for me ever to experience all it offers. Irises peeked out in rare bursts of colour, the spring here oddly grey compared to the wild bursts of life breaking out of the melting mud which I am used to. But I am also not used to the blue of irises in March, or the tight yellow of daffodils restricted by fences and nourished into early bloom while I still wear mittens to walk along the waterside.

At the waterside I walk almost undisturbed in the cold sunlight, but fishermen brave all weather in the hope to catch their prey. In the same way as Norwegians will soon bring their chairs, windscreens, coalburners and other necessary items for human comfort into the mountains for easter, I found these two gentlemen tucked up at the pier somewhere in Bay Ridge. Dressed for the weather - but not a fish in two months.

From the pier I have the best view of Manhattan. The skyline looks somehow softer, rounder and more welcoming, with the daring peeks of the WTC gone from the picture. But Manhattan has recovered almost everything, including the press of human bodies in lower Manhattan, filling up my favourite cheesestore and bakery in Bleecker street.

During this stay I realised suddenly that I had not recognized a celebrity even while I was standing right next to him and he spoke to me, teasing me and my NYC connection, as we waited impatiently for a table at a Brooklyn restaurant. My celebrity-recognition abiliy kicked in when I more than a year later had breakfast at the Narrows Coffee Shop and realised that the guys who had signed those pictures probably hung out around here at some point. Oh, well, good thing I am not considering a career as a paparazzi. Celebrities are safe from me for at least a year after any chance meeting.

Of other profound experiences in this week while I have been silent, I have walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, admiring the web that keeps it up.

I have also measured my hand against the back paw of a polar bear, and while I have large hands, I would have to grow a few more if I want to have a chance at covering the same area as one trapped polar bear doing his (or her) laps in the pool at the Children's Zoo in Central Park.

This is the closest I have ever come to a polar bear, and believe me, I don't want to come any closer. I am perfectly happy seeing them in Central Park, and somebody else can go to the Arctic for the Polar Bear Census.

Monday, March 22, 2004

Do you miss your sneakers? I know where they may be. The corner of St Marks and 2nd avenue (?).

Or, perhaps you are more concerned with where the red lightbulbs grow? I found they grow in Brooklyn, Bay Ridge. These are pygmy bulbs, but they look very ripe.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Blog space
I almost chose Jeff Jarvis' way out of showing my blog space, because I blog everywhere. As long as I have a computer hooked up to the Internet and a browser that is compatible with Blogger, I blog, baby, I blog. And that is why I love blogs, because it liberates me from working at one geographical point. Mobile technology and the Internet sets me free!

So the above picture is of my blog space, even if it is not my computer, but that of my NYC connection. It could have been from an Internet Cafe, my office in Volda, the computer-room where the kids keep their stuff or on my lap top just about where ever I get the urge.

meme by way of Kaye Trammell.
Transit - but going where?
It is still dark when I get up, the suitcase carefully packed the day before. I will be away almost a month, the preparations have been exstensive, at work and home. The little plane takes off, and carries me into dawn.

Beneath the wings of the plane the mountains soar and dip, dressed in silky white, pure, virgin solitude for mil after Norwegian mil.

I long for the throngs of human beings, for voices and bodies pushing and jostling.

Old ladies and young girls, mingling in the streets and open spaces of the city, a girl begging for money for a room for herself and her unborn child. I pass her by, the implications of her need impossible for a Norwegian. A pregnant girl, unprotected, needy, on the streets - my mind refuses to understand what I have just passed. And the girl looked so young, she could have been my own, my bright musician girl. Safer then, to watch the old ladies choose flowers to brighten their day. One day that may be me - I can deal with that thought.

But I cannot flee the snow, only here it is grey and gritty, as it settles on the fence and in the yard. I watch it through the window. No layer of soft crystal silk this, and I do not venture out.

I stay in, playing with my new ball, writing, reading, recapturing the dreams I put aside in times of too tight schedules and curriculums that need to be managed. I am away, but still I am home, at home in my mind and my tasks in a way I can never be when my space and time is devoted to everything but what might be in my mind. And so I occupy my body with exercizes, while my mind roams.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

In desperate need of a different routine, and where is better for that than somewhere else, somewhere without the same habits, demands, roles and patterns? So I take a trip to New York, the city where I play the role of writer and observer, rather than administrator, facilitator and participant. For a few weeks I'll be selfishly busy with my job, my interests and myself, a much-needed period of rediscovering the personae I can inhabit.

When I travel I am somebody else: brave, strong, independent. I would have loved to add enticing, mysterious and sophisticated, but even transatlantic crossings can do only so much... Still, this brave new me tests and tries and experiences and thinks new things, and I carry it with me back into the routine of mother and teacher.

Where others go to isolated, quiet spots to work and think, I go from just such a place and dive right into the buzz of a metropol. I can hear myself think all day and night here in Volda. I need to hear something else, even if it's just the syncopated sound of the ambulances as the drivers signal their personal little tunes through the crowded streets.

So, until I arrive in New York Friday afternoon, I am offline. Unless you know my cellphone number.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Workplace harassment
A cultural difference in workplace harassment which perhaps mirrors the climate in workplaces in Norway and the United States - and which makes me Quite happy that I am, after all, working where harassment is defined with such sensitive, delicate personalities in mind.

NC UNLAWFUL WORKPLACE HARASSMENT POLICY FAC, the definitions of harasment at Fayetteville State University or at Indiana University claim that harassment is threats and intimidation, based among other things on race, gender, disabilities, religion, creed - there is a long list, and it is rather specific. To imagine working in a place where they need a written policy and legislation to be protected against these things is intimidating in itself. The Norwegian version is softer:

Mobbing på arbeidsplassen blir definert som en stadig og langvarig nedvurdering av en ansatt og hans eller hennes arbeidsinnsats
Mobbing er tilsiktet og ondsinnet
Sexpress er også mobbing
Det er mobbing når en eller flere personer i et avgrenset arbeidsmiljø gjentatte ganger og over tid blir utsatt for negative reaksjoner og handlinger fra ett eller flere individer i samme arbeidsfellesskap, hvor man faktisk oppholder seg halvparten av sitt hverdagsliv
Mobbing er å systematisk krenke et annet menneske
Mobbing er psykisk vold satt i system

"Mobbing" is the Norwegian word for harassment (and yes, it is a rather new Norwegian word which became well known in the 1970-ies, and it comes from "mob" - the activities of a mob, mobbing). This is not a legal form, but taken from the union against harassment in the workplace. It defines harassment as any long-term, systematic, malificient or just negative activity in one place from a group or from certain persons. Violence does not appear in this definition, because violence and threats are so totally unaccepted that Norwegians would not even consider protesting it a sensitive or problematic issue.

Or - Norwegians just haven't started digging in the dirt around workplace harassment yet, and we can expect to uncover much more unpleasant work-relationships than we have seen so far. I hope not.

Friday, March 05, 2004

some kind of birthday
Three years today. Now back to flagellation, penance and all that other anti-demon stuff.
Excuse me
While I deal with my personal demons. No, nothing that at any scale would be considered worth suffering for, the only person who needs worry is me. Be back after some exorcism.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Non-academic work
It barely exists in my life, but inspired by Clancy and Anne, I found a project I started more than a year ago, before my hands really refused to cooperate. This pair of mittens was never finished because I discovered that it was too small for all the adults of my family. No, they are not that tiny, just normal size for a woman, which means a woman not related to any of my ancestors. They are traditional Selbu mittens, selbuvotter, and I am bringing this pair with me when I go to NYC, to see if any of my friends there have daintier hands.

The other project will take a bit more time to finish, and I may have to go shopping for more wool. I tend to make everything several sizes too large. Sometimes that's a good thing.

And, since I kept surfing looking for knitting links rather than going home to make dinner:
Knitting in Norway
NYC yarn shops - in case I feel inspired while I am there
Learning to let go
It is one of those things I am not really good at, but I am seriously considering it today. I just received the reviews for my paper for Into the Blogosphere. I haven't even looked at them, but according to the editors the reviewers have been quite critical. I expected that, because I wrote a controversial article, one that does not sit well with the US tradition of academic writing, and also not with American understanding of culture. It is when I want to discuss subjects that I consider obvious that I realise how alien the United States culture really is, including the US academia (where we find most of the reviewers).

So, I have to rewrite the article. That's cool, I can do that. But they also ask me to expand it from 3000 to 6000 words, I have to do it in two weeks in the middle of the most stressful semester for years teachingwise (which of course is not the fault of the editors, just part of the usual screwed-up logic of the universe), and then, after I have actually written a whole new article, it may be accepted. So I will be going through the whole acceptance-or-not process over again. This time with an additional letter explaining how I address the comments of the reviewer, so I won't just be resubmitting the paper, I will also be submitting an application for publishing where I have to defend my choices for the rewrite.

I am really not sure it is worth it. Sure, I would like to participate. Sure, I like to publish. But I don't need to kill myself to do it. If I let this one go, I can use the topic somewhere else, revise at my leisure, and do a better job all around. That sounds very tempting. And it's a lesson in letting go which I need to learn. Lean back, watch the deadline flutter by, and look around for something else to do. We'll see what kind of learning experience this turns out to be.

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Games, violence, money and the criteria of news
Galtung and Ruge wrote one of the most cited articles in media theory: Johan Galtung and Mari Holmboe Ruge,"The Structure of Foreign News: The Presentation of the Congo, Cuba and Cyprus Crises in Four Norwegian Newspapers," Journal of Peace Research 2 (1965): 64-91. In this article they make a list of criteria for foreign news, and prove that the media work after these criteria when selecting news. Since then there have been a lot of different lists of news criteria, some created by researchers studying the news, some by the different newsdesks in order to ease the work of selecting "the good bits" from the stream of information flooding a desk every day, 24 hours a day.

One of the main points of Galtung and Ruge was that once a topic is over the threshold - once it is accepted as "good news" - it remains interesting.

We see this in the way media treat media panics. By now every researcher who actually know something about media theory also knows that blaming violence on the media is a too simple solution, and the connection is impossible to prove as a general rule, only under some special circumstances. There are some connections between the use of violent content in media and the tendency to use violence to the extent that people who already have chosen violence as the main problem solver will prefer violent content, and in some instances use it as an instruction manual. Thus you get the copies of fiction violence. When the karate kid movies were at the most popular in Norway, we had a period when people getting into fights in bars and country dances would kick rather than use fists, knives or bottles. This was considered very bad, as it was easier to get seriously hurt from a kick, and soon they returned to the more traditional ways and used their fists or various blunt instruments. (English marines training in Norway will use their heads, by the way, a style of drunken fighting that is not traditionally Norwegian, and it causes much grievance and outrage among the locals. Even brawls have a culture.)

Media reporters do not have this kind of understanding of the mechanisms of choosing news stories. To them the techniques of selecting a good story is rarely questioned. Or if it is, the question is: will this sell? And they know that a certain set of topics will sell, such as this, the description of a program on swedish television 4:

21:00 Dödligt spel
Svensk dokumentär från 2004. En genomsnittlig tonåring som spelar dataspel under sin uppväxt har genomfört uppåt tiotusen mord när han blir vuxen. En del av sina offer har han halshuggit, styckat, förnedrat och torterat. Om och om igen. Och varje gång har han belönats rikligt. Kan dataspel vara farligt? Kan barn bli mördare av att spela dataspel? Dokumentären tar med tittarna på en resa i dataspelens konstgjorda värld. Världsledande forskare presenterar sina senaste rön om hur dataspel påverkar den mänskliga hjärnan och resultaten är häpnadsväckande. Dessutom blir det ett besök bakom kulisserna hos världens största dataspelstillverkare.

The translation of the first sentences: "Lethal game. Swedish dokumentary from 2004. An average teen-ager who plays computer games while growing up will have gone through with approximately ten thousand murders when he's an adult. Some of his victims he will have beheaded, cut in pieces, humiliated and tortured. Over and over again. And he will be rewarded richly every time. Can computer games be dangerous? Can children become murderers from playing computer games?"

This description puts the documentary right into the middle of a media created and media maintained terror of a new medium. This fear of new media is well above the treshold of news. Television had to battle it. comics have been through it. Videomachines were sent by the devil and would cause chain-saw massacres in every home. Now the games and gamers get it. So why this terror of the new medium? I don't think it has much to do with the concern to protect the weak and feeble-minded potential murderers out there. This is all about money.

Television is one of the media which has the most to lose, as statistics show that games take time away not from people's reading , but from their "screen-time". The decline was an average of 10 minutes a day from 2001 - 2002 according to the Norwegian media barometer, but say 4 mill. times 10 minutes times 365 days, and that is a lot of money to television companies! An other matter the swedish documentary points at is childhood obesity. Interestingly enough, research has connected childhood obesity not so much with computer games as with all sedentary media habits, particularly television. Decreasing television viewing by an hour a day has more effect than increasing physical activity, because it also reduces exposure to commercials. The coke-swilling, hamburger-gobbling habits that the swedish activist blame video games for, are according to this research created by television and commercials, and maintained by the sedentary lifestyle learned in front of the screen.

Of course television have an interest in supressing this kind of information, and placing the blame somewhere else. And because new media are always above the treshold of media interest, and because media panics and moral panics are so easy to maintain and so easy to make people understand, making computer games the new big bad wolf is not just an economically strategic move, but also a very easy one. Activists trying to protect their children from the new evil will happily show up in television to be interviewed, fund research to confirm their fears and of course, make outrageous statements and claims that will push the rating back up - at least for a little while.

I will not be able to see the program in question Wednesday, but I expect it will be sent in Norway in not too long. Perhaps they have found some research I do not know about, that connects the dots and makes this entire rant meaningless. Until then, some statistics on media use, health and children:
From medialiteracy.com
From the Norwegian media barometer (in norwegian)
Culture, media and time use in Finland
Internet use In Canada
While media statistics in Palestine is concerned with totally different issues.

And the link that triggered this whole long rant came from Dennis.

Monday, March 01, 2004

Cheats and meta-games
Mia Consalvo, of New York Times fame, is concerned about cheating and the moral consequences of cheats, particularly for researchers. Do we, the observers and analysts, really understand the playing experience if we cheat? I just posted a lengthy comment on her blog, but since I have been thinking a bit about this problem in my thesis, I want to post it here as well.

Roger Caillois, in Man, Play and Games, writes about "the corruption of games" (chapter IV). According to Caillois:

The cheat is still inside the universe of play. If he violates the rules of the game, he at least pretends to respect them. He tries to influence them. He is dishonest, but hypocritical, He thus, by his attitude, safeguards and proclaims the validity of the conventions he violates, because he is dependent upon others obeying the rules.

I found that the players I played with viewed the programming and the statistics of the game as a game in itself. Since they were hard-coded and not soft, social rules, to be able to get around them was a part of the game. And to be kicked out and denied access for breaking the system was a part of some players' style, and just proof that they had managed to find an error in the programming, a confirmation of their ability at the game.

The soft, social rules were a lot more problematic. To break the agreement and assume that its rules did not apply to you was a serious and complicated offense which could ruin the game for many other players. In my thesis, I discuss this in Chapter 7, under "the spoilsports of MUDs."

To mistake the game for something other than a game, turning it into an obsession where the events of the game and the events of your real life become so tightly merged that you no longer know the difference between IC and OOC - that was the worst kind of corruption for the players I interviewed.

As a researcher, I find that understanding cheating is as important as understanding the game. To understand the rules fully, you need to know how far they can be bent. As for cheat and hint pages: I consider them part of the games. Some game producers put in certain cheats, hide them and then wait to see how long before they are found. It is a meta-game within the game.

It is like practicing: to be well prepared to understand all of the potential in a game isn't cheating. It may make the game less surprising for you, but it will enhance your experience of mastery. The real question is what kind of player you are.