The Ghosts of Travel Agents: Universities, Electracy, and the coming tsunami, part 1

The Ghost of Industries Past
The Ghost of Industries Past

This is the first in a four-part blog series taking a snapshot of the current economic, political, and grammatological situation facing the modern American university system.  In parts two, three, and four, I will focus specifically on pressures from different quarters challenging us to re-imagine what it is we do.  This part serves as a preface and setup for the following posts (which will probably appear once a week).

A note on influences, citations, ideas

Instead of trying to tease out the who, where, and how I got some of the ideas in this piece, I will up-front acknowledge that this is a melange of thoughts from my reading and from around the web, influenced by the following (among others): Clay Shirky, Steven Johnson, Marshall McLuhan, Lawrence Lessig, Donald Norman, Greg Ulmer, Katherine Hayles, Jeff Rice, Steve Krause, Alex Reid, Bradley Dilger, and BoingBoing. Apologies up-front to those I’ve borrowed from but not cited here.

Setting the stage

If you aren’t a regular reader of my blog (or you show up just for the monthly music round ups), you may want to peruse the following posts to set your personal stage for the coming discussion:

The Ghosts of Travel Agents Past

“I am here tonight to warn you that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate.  A chance and hope of my procuring, Ebenezer.”

“You were always a good friend to me.  Thank’ee!”

“You will be haunted by Three Spirits.”

“Is that the chance and hope you mentioned, Jacob? I — I think I’d rather not.”

“Without their visits, you cannot hope to shun the path I tread.  Expect the first to-morrow night, when the bell tolls One.  Expect the second on the next night at the same hour.  The third, upon the next night, when the last stroke of Twelve has ceased to vibrate.  Look to see me no more; and look that, for your own sake, you remember what has passed between us!”

It walked backward from him; and at every Step it took, the window raised itself a little, so that, when the apparition reached it, it was wide open.

Scrooge closed the window, and examined the door by which the Ghost had entered.  It was double-locked, as he had locked it with his own hands, and the bolts were undisturbed.  Scrooge tried to say, “Humbug!” but stopped at the first syllable.  And being, from the emotion he had undergone, or the fatigues of the day, or his glimpse of the invisible world, or the dull conversation of the Ghost, or the lateness of the hour, much in need of repose, he went straight to bed, without undressing, and fell asleep on the instant.

How will the rising age of Electracy affect the university? We inhabit a system built on models of learning and information exchange as practiced in the Literate era.  While we like to imagine ourselves as exploring and building on the lessons of contemporary media, we come up very short, to my mind.  As we develop more and more rigorous ways to digitize pieces of our former workload, universities must re-examine what it is we do and how we understand our relationship to the economies of knowledge and MONEY.  Consider these spirits from the past:

  • Travel agents – This used to be a profession built on booking plane tickets for people.  The Internet destroyed it.  The individuals who survived the Internet Tsunami did so as vacation planners, demonstrating their ability to sort from among vacation choices and providing value by doing that sorting work for people.
  • Stock brokers – This used to be a profession built on registering trades for people.  The Internet destroyed it.  The individuals who survived the Internet Tsunami did so as financial planners, demonstrating their ability to sort from among investment choices and providing value by doing that sorting work for people.
  • Real Estate Agents – This used to be a profession built on listing and finding homes for people.  The Internet destroyed it.  The individuals who survived the Internet Tsunami did so as “full service realtors,” demonstrating their ability to make homes saleable through staging, clever marketing, and aggressive foot leather, then doing that work for people.

How does this scenario translate for the university?

  • University – This used to be a profession built on credentialing and providing information to people.*  The Internet will destroy it.  The institutions who survive the Internet Tsunami will do so as what? We need to demonstrate our ability to help people become effective economic participants in the 21st century economy, able to wield modern information systems skillfully and do that work for people.

Electracy demands a different kind of student, a different kind of educator, and a different institution to house them.  Let’s hope we build find it before the water gets too high.

Read more: Death from Above: Universities, Electracy, and the coming tsunami, part 2


Too long for a bumper sticker, but awesome anyway.

From one of PZ Myers’ recent posts about gender equality:

Here’s the deal, Fox News. The world is changing. It’s not getting worse, it’s getting different, and I know that’s the kind of thing that makes bitter, cranky old conservatives weep into their scotch and water, but deal with it. Besides, you’ll be dead soon and won’t care any more.

And it’s not just getting different, it’s getting better — those women in the workforce are more independent, more free, and living more fulfilling lives that matter. Welcome it. And hey, how about getting off your privileged butts and making sure that they get paid the same as men, so those families and children you’re so fucking concerned about can get by? (Oh no! Equality!)

Damn right.

April / May Comics Roundup

Alan Moore's The Courtyard
Alan Moore’s The Courtyard

Channel Zero
Channel Zero

Empire State
Empire State

Alan Moore’s The Courtyard by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows

A cthulhu murder mystery with a nice, tight little story and decent art.  Burrows was less intense with his art than in many other comics I’ve read, and thus it worked better than I would have expected.  Very short, though.

Channel Zero by Brian Wood

A paean against the surveillance state in the vein of The Handmaiden’s Tale or V for Vendetta.  Imagines that in the cause of “security,” the state will unleash a surveillance society and a morality campaign and regular people will suffer under the boot of oppression.

The art has a sketchy, scattered quality to it that works well, but it definitely yields the force of the narrative to the written text being superimposed on it.  There are whole swaths in the middle of the narrative where the imagery adds very little to the story.

Fight the power, man.

Empire State: a love story (or not) by Jason Shiga

A quick read in the alterna- memoir comics genre, Empire State follows the undirected malaise of a mid-twenties art school layabout who doesn’t know what to do with his life.  He takes a cross-country journey to try and connect with an old crush, but life is hard and love is harder.

It’s somewhere between Dan Clowes and Harvey Pekar, with a little Peter Bagge thrown in.  It’s a good book, but another quick read.

 I thought snow was supposed to feel like a cotton ball

I thought snow was supposed to feel like a cotton ball


Could you make something any less fun?

This month, I searched the Flickr commons for photos with the keyword word “School.”  Here’s what I found.

Hill School, May Day
Hill School, May Day

I never thought the ol’ May Pole looked like very much fun, but boy does this photo make it look like a drag.  It also makes me wonder what the two poor fuckers in the middle did to lose their ribbon-spinning privileges.  Obviously the guy on the right wore dark pants, but what about the guy on the left?  Perhaps his tie that reaches past his belt was “too racy.”

Dyson vacuum brush won’t turn

Another in our series of technical posts for specific problems.  Enjoy.

We put vacuum cleaners through the meat grinder over here, what with two cats and a dog and two active children.  Anyhow, our Dyson FancyPants™ vacuum wasn’t working very well, so we went to work on it.  First, we discovered that one of the l-bends in the wand tube could be removed, and found inside a massive clog built up (like a pearl) around a black pen.  Somehow we vacuumed up a pen.  Jeez.

Home exhibition: A vacuum cleaner used as a hair dryer
A sure way to clog your vacuum with hair (Home exhibition: A vacuum cleaner used as a hair dryer)

But the vacuum still wasn’t working in the upright position.  So before we gave up and called a repair person, I googled the problem.  Here’s what I found:

Stand vacuum up and with it plugged in.

Rotate knob between carpet and bare floor and back 5 times leaving it on carpet when finished.

Rotate vacuum back from upright position and lay vacuum on the floor, rotating it onto its side.

Turn vacuum on. (link)

I felt pretty silly following these directions, which read to me like an ancient ritual to appease the Cyclone Cleaner Gods.  But I did it nonetheless, and hot damn if it didn’t work like a charm.

Other posts that will not be relevant to you at all:

One plus one plus two plus one … plus one

Six Suspects
Six Suspects

Six Suspects by Vikas Swarup

When prominent cad and criminal Vicky Jay is shot at a party celebrating his acquittal in an open-and-shut murder case, six different people are brought into custody for questioning in the murder.  Each had their own reason for wanting Jay dead, but who did it?  Swarup’s novel weaves the backstory of the characters to show how these very different individuals ended up at the party, and why they wanted to kill Jay. A few thoughts:

  • Swarup highlights the way the remnants of the caste system still flow throughout Indian culture, shaping how people from different classes view their relationships to one another.  Money creates some social mobility, but not nearly as much as we imagine it does in the U.S.
  • I wonder at the horribly corrupt politicans in the story, and lament the idea that this is the norm in India.  Then I remember that I’m from Illinois and I live in Chicagoland, and recall the idiom about glass houses.
  • I found the overt racism that Ekert encounters more striking in some ways.  It’s not that racism is eradicated in the U.S. (in fact, it’s more insidious in some ways because it’s more covert and subtle) but that it’s not out-loud.  In the novel, several different people call Ekert a “black bastard” or a “darkie,” language that left polite company in the U.S. decades ago.

At times funny and often enlightening about the Indian culture, the book is good but was a slog for me.  I recommend checking it out, but found that for myself it didn’t get faster to read until the last fifty pages.


Tweets from 2013-05-19 to 2013-05-25

The Undead Gourmet

An essay I wrote for Philosophy Now magazine has just appeared in the magazine.  Here’s the teaser:

The Undead Gourmet

Brendan Riley asks: is it okay to kill a zombie just because it wants to eat you?

“I’m just trying to eat as few people as I can before we leave for Portugal tomorrow!”
Zombie Honeymoon (2004)

“What are they?”
“They’re us.”
Dawn of the Dead (1978)

When the tall ice-blue zombie in the checked shirt chomps into his girlfriend’s neck during the opening sequence of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), we feel bad for her and revolted by him, but we don’t feel judgmental. Nor do we feel judgmental when someone terminates a zombie. These attitudes comes part and parcel with the basic assumptions of the genre: zombies are not people, but they are inherently dangerous, representing a distinct threat to the order of the universe, and must be put down. Zombie stories establish these ideas over and over again, depicting survivors struggling with guilt, at first unable to kill zombies who used to be family members, and yet driven to do just that. (link)

Where did they get that title?

This month, I searched the Flickr commons for photos with the keyword word “School.”  Here’s what I found.

Are they spelling out Help?
Are they spelling out Help?

The official title for this image on Flckr is “Are They Spelling out Help?”  I have studied the image for longer than I’d like to admit trying to figure out first how the titler got “help” from this picture, and then what words they COULD have been trying for.  Ultimately, I think it’s not a word at all, but a geometric shape they were going for.


Pile of papers and books
“What a mess” by pst (cc licensed)

Grading grading grading grading

grading grading grading.

Grading grading.



Grading grading grading.

Tweets from 2013-05-12 to 2013-05-18

Like something out of Manifest

This month, I searched the Flickr commons for photos with the keyword word “School.”  Here’s what I found.

In honor of Columbia’s street art festival, Manifest, here’s a photo from a ballet that looks like something you’d see in the South Loop on Friday.

Children holding umbrellas artistically
Margaret Barr’s “Strange Children” [ballet], 1955

Worlds collide!

Worlds collide in a bad way
Worlds collide in a bad way

I read blogs for a variety of reasons:

  • humor – cuz’ I like funny stuff
  • academics – cuz’ it’s my job
  • Skepticism and Rationality in sciecne – cuz’ it’s interesting
  • Freedom of speech (particularly on the internet) – cuz it’s interesting AND it’s my job

In skimming my feed today, I discovered an overlap in which these TWO WORLDS ARE COLLIDING…

The Skeptical OB is a blog I read about the homebirth community and movement.  I stumbled over there from Pharyngula and stayed because Dr. Amy Tuteur discusses the homebirth community and their rhetoric in ways I find particularly interesting (though they’re not really germane to my situation, as we’re done having kids).

Over the last couple months, she’s begun a lawsuit seeking damages over a false DMCA claim from a blogger she wrote about.  It’s strange to see these two worlds crossing in this way, but I’m intrigued to see how it plays out.  Tuteur’s  case is important, because it represents a moment where low-stakes writers can be seriously damaged by DMCA claims, and so her ability to recoup costs or impose sanctions on this blogger who mis-used the DMCA will go a long way toward making sure that speech stays free.  We’ll see what happens.

April music: Brian Setzer, They Might Be Giants, HelloGoodbye



  • Brian Setzer Orchestra, The Ultimate Collection [Live] – a fine collection of nostalgic big-band swing music.  It’s good, but there’s nothing here that stands out for me, perhaps because it’s too nostalgic.  I am very fond of his rendition of “Summertime Blues,” though.
  • They Might Be Giants, Nanobots – TMBG are very good at coming up with the musical version of bon mots.  They have distilled this skill down to a precise and sharp point with Nanobots, in which they craft 25 two-minute songs, each with its own little bit of joy.  Favorites: Nanobots, Lost My Mind, Circular Karate Chop, Destroy the Past, 9 Secret Steps and You’re on Fire.  Winner of the weird award: Darlings of Lumberland.
  • Tom Lehrer, 3 songs – “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” is a classic from Dr. Demento so that was familiar and pleasant; “Bright College Days” hasn’t aged well; “The Elements” is great.  I wonder if he can still perform it.


  • HelloGoodbye, Would It Kill You? – I like the pop/rock sound of this band.  They remind me quite a bit of Rodeo Ruby Love in many ways, and of Vampire Weekend in style and vocal timbre.  “The Thoughts Give Me the Creeps” is my favorite, but this album is generally very good. (Oh man, seeing the video, I realize these guys are SUPER HIPSTERS. Oh well.)


  • Daytrotter songs (more of the 200 songs I downloaded from Daytrotter last year) – “Alcohol” by Golgol Bordello is a great cover (and has lots of ‘o’s in its name!); “We Ok” by The Very Best has an anthem-y dance-y groove sound that’s reminiscent of slow fun. songs; “Heartstring Freestyle” by Macklemore feels authentic and casual, with a slightly Caribbean feel and a ukelele.
  • Rolfe’s MNix tape, a collection of four mini-eps from a buddy of mine – Loin Groove is a ska band from the 1990s and sounds like it: “Numb” is my favorite here; Surahoolies is alt-pop that reminds me a little of Toad the Wet Sprocket: “Buried Stockings” has a delightful Indian beat to it; The Blue Up? is an alt-rock band with female singers, not too dissimilar from 90s era Juliana Hatfield with the vocal stylings of The Pretenders: “Spoons for Seven” has a trippy almost Bjork-ian sound to it; Woodpecker is a guitar and banjo folkie band and my favorite of the four EPs: “Matt & Ben” is an amusing indictment of the indie music scene, “Scrabble Duet” is a nice romantic song, “Nothing Gets Chix Hot Like a Guy Who Cares a Lot” is a funny little peep of a song.

Tweets from 2013-05-05 to 2013-05-11