Category Archives: Politics

Gamefication in Education at SXSW (2016)

(Following on from yesterday’s posting about how IT and games are changing the education world, here’s an interview I did for the Austin Chronicle with Grace Lau, director of VR the Global Nomads Group, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing the barriers of understanding between kids in different nations.)

It’s a small world, but, as the old saying goes, you wouldn’t want to walk it. For centuries, the only way to truly experience another culture was to visit it. Now international travel has never been easier, but it seems too much of the conflict-ravaged world is off-limits to the students most eager to learn about it. For Grace Lau, director of virtual reality for education nonprofit Global Nomads Group, technology can still help bridge the gaps of oceans and borders. She said, “When you put people in front of each other, whether it’s face to face or in the virtual world, we found that they’re able to draw out those natural human connections.”

The purpose of GNG is to make students into global citizens. So far, the nonprofit has linked students in the U.S. to kids in South America, Thailand, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and nations across Sub-Saharan Africa – “places with the largest culture gap between the U.S. and abroad,” said Lau. However, their biggest initiative at the moment is in the Middle East.

The core of this initiative was Project Syria, a collaboration with virtual reality pioneer Nonny de la Peña that connected South Central Los Angeles’ View Park Preparatory Charter High School and Mahatta Community Center in Amman, Jordan. Originally commissioned by the World Economic Forum, this VR tool simulates the experience of being in a conflict zone. Lau said, “Through CGI, Nonny’s team at Immersive Journalism re-created a street bombing in Aleppo, Syria. So with these headsets, the students in L.A. went through what it would be like on that street corner. Then we connected those students with Syrian refugees here in Jordan.”

Continue reading Gamefication in Education at SXSW (2016)

The Not-So-World Wide Web (2008)

(There’s been a lot of discussion about representation and access on the Internet in the last couple of years, but this piece I wrote for the Austin Chronicle’s SXSW 2008 coverage shows the issues have been debated, especially about the Anglocentric and Americentric nature of Internet culture, for a lot longer than that.)

Back in 1990, when Tim Berners-Lee wrote the code for a browser he called WorldWideWeb, it was supposed to connect everyone. “Its universality is essential,” he later wrote, saying it could “make sense of what we are doing, where we individually fit in, and how we can better work together.” But whose idea of universal? Is it a one-size-fits-all, anything-goes approach, with no restriction on content? Or a tamed Web, where no one can find anything upsetting?

Before content, there is language. The Web was built in English. All those acronyms (http, URL, TCP/IP) mean something in English. Most websites are in English. But an all-English Web can also be an excluding Web. “Providing a service in English only shuts out huge amounts of users,” says Stephanie Booth, Web consultant and writer of Climb to the Stars, one of the first major bilingual blogs. Living in Switzerland, a country with four national languages (German, French, Italian, and Romansh) where many citizens speak conversational English, she is exposed to the complexities of translation on a day-to-day basis. “People may speak enough English to communicate with the man on the street, but it’s not sufficient for them to try and tame new, potentially scary software or services in that language.”

Continue reading The Not-So-World Wide Web (2008)

Interview: John Dean


(In 2008, former Nixon administration counsel John Dean was in Austin for the Netroots Nation convention. I sat down with him to discuss the state of American politics).

There’s a famous story of heavyweight Republican consultant Karl Rove brushing off poor GOP poll numbers just prior to the November 2006 election, telling a reporter, “You have your numbers; I havethe numbers.” Former White House counsel John Dean argues that the Republicans have taken the same approach to basic freedoms. “I think it’s probably true with all provisions of the Constitution,” explained Dean. “They pretty much read them the way they want to.”

Before his panel appearance at the Netroots Nation convention, the onetime White House counsel to President Richard Nixon and, in recent years, constitutional commentator, appeared at a July 17 fundraiser for Austin’s North by Northwest Democrats at the North Lamar Waterloo Ice House. Much of the Net­roots community has reacted strongly against the July 9 U.S. Senate vote passing the new Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The law effectively rewrites the Fourth Amend­ment, the protection against unreasonable search and seizure, to fit the administration’s world-view – that national security trumps the Constitution and the president makes his own law. Dean decried the decision and said, “It’s just amazing that the weakest president since Nixon can get through the amendments to the FISA bill he just did, when most Amer­i­cans who know anything about it are horrified by it.” But he added that the Internet community shouldn’t feel singled out by the administration in its spinning of the Constitution. “With the Second Amendment, long before the Supreme Court ruled that [the right to bear arms] was about personal rights, they’ve been reading it that way,” he noted.

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Interview: Scott McClellan (2008)

(In 2008, President George Bush’s press long-time press secretary Scott McClennan published his autobiography, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House. I talked with him in the middle of the press furor that it caused.)

Scott McClennan as a young boy, casting his first ballot. His mother, future Austin mayor and Texas State Comptroller Carole Keaton Strayhorn, used it to introduce he and his brothers to politics. Image courtesy of Scott McClennan.

A third-generation child of a family always in the public spotlight. A frat boy who went into the family business of living on the campaign trail. A veteran of Texas bipartisan politics who traveled from the Governor’s Mansion to the White House, a journey few early observers expected to see.

The similarities between George W. Bush and Scott McClellan, who served as Bush’s spokesman when he was governor, candidate, and president, are sometimes greater than the differences. But now the schism between the two over his memoir, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception, has put the Austin-born and -raised McClellan at the heart of the debate about the current and future presidencies.

But when McClellan called from Washington, D.C., his first thought was about someone else from his White House years. “I don’t know if you’ve just heard about Tim Russert,” he asked. The NBC News Washington Bureau chief’s death had been announced only hours earlier. “Reality sinks in when something like that happens.” Of course, McClellan is back in the public arena because of the self-contemplation in his new book, which he will be discussing at BookPeople this Saturday. “I was born in politics. Most people choose it, but I was born into it,” he recalled. “I dedicated this book to those who serve, and none more so than those who want to get involved in politics. They will be able to learn some lessons from my painful experiences.”

Continue reading Interview: Scott McClellan (2008)