Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Yesterday's Quake

I'd feel pretty silly if I failed to note yesterday's 5.6-magnitude earthquake - the most powerful temblor to hit northern California since Loma Prieta in 1989. I'd just gotten out of class and was waiting for the bus, sitting on a bench a block away from City Hall. It was 8:04 p.m. when I heard a rumbling in the building behind me. About a second later I felt intensified shaking and settled in for the ride. The quake lasted for about ten seconds before subsiding.

As I looked around at the other folks, I exclaimed, "sweet!" Truthfully, though, I felt plenty of rumbling in my gut as I began to wonder whether we'd gotten the gentle part of a much more serious quake elsewhere. Yes, I actually wondered whether our house was still standing. Students were streaming out of the campus, everyone chatting nervously.

Once the bus arrived and we headed over the hill, I attempted to call Jenny and Vienna. No luck: mobile phones didn't work for almost an hour. Eventually, though, we connected and shared our shake-stories. Aside from freaking our cats out a bit, the quake left our house no messier than we left it.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

At Last

At last, I sent out the manuscript for the omnitopia book. That's as good an excuse to have missed blogging yesterday as I can imagine. While my day was organized around myriad details concerning the peer mentor program, I managed to squeeze in enough time to discover that my computer had been struck with a virus, that my images were too big to scan without photoshopping them into manageable pieces, that the faculty lab printer was not networked to the computer I was using, and that I'd run out of writable CDs for the digital copy. But as a drizzle of rain began to fall last night, I held the manuscript and CD in my hand, ready to mail. Today I completed that task and now I look back on several years in which this project has weighed most heavily on my mind.

In many ways, writing this book was akin to writing another dissertation, with a couple of key distinctions. First, while I'm writing this book primarily for an academic audience, I hope that a broader community of readers will take some interest in this project. Also, I hope I've improved at this craft over the past ten years, a little, at least. So, am I done? Not by a long shot. Even though I've signed a contract, this is just the initial manuscript. The series editor will now read it carefully and critically, and he'll decide how far along I am to getting this project into publishable shape. Consequentially I do not consider this blog-post to be celebratory; I'm just pausing a bit before the next step. At this juncture, however, I feel it appropriate to look back a bit on several essential steps that led me to this place.

First, I remember seeing the film Logan's Run as a kid and getting inspired. Just looking at the commercials, I became entranced by the cinematic city (later called the "city of domes" in the television version of the show), amazed by the grandeur and audacity of that view. From one vantage point, an observer could peer out over the entire metropolis, all glittery and geometric with that peculiar seventies-sheen. Captivated by Logan's Run, I tried to create my own domed city, gathering Lincoln Logs, Legos, and other childhood bric-a-brac to fill my room with the phantasmagoria of a wholly contained world. Ordering and populating my city, I first attained the perspective of a planner. Omnitopia, while not even an inkling to me back then, was born with Logan's Run and my first encounter with the God's-eye view.

Then, in grad school, I wrote a paper on The Simpsons, conducting a semiotic analysis of Springfield as depicted in the show's opening credits. I was amazed by that city too, and I spent several hours pausing each frame of the show's intro, exploring how the animators rendered their complex world that seemed to play by alien rules to the urbanity I saw elsewhere. Struggling to make some sense out of Springfield, I concluded my essay with a couple of lines about the city's strange conflation of multiple narratives and paradoxical geography. Unable to find an existing term that illustrated Springfield, I demonstrated typical grad school ambition and coined my own: omnitopia. Even then I knew that the clumsy slapping together of Latin and Greek roots would cause any serious student of etymology conniption fits, but I only planned to use the word in this classroom exercise. I would probably forget it soon thereafter. Yet when my professor, Jenny Nelson, commented in the paper's margins that I should pursue this line of reasoning in future work, I decided to store omnitopia in my long-term memory.

The word came in handy when I entered the tenure track at San Jose State University, when my college dean, Lela Noble, surprised me by adding to my fourth-year evaluation that, while I was "on track" for tenure, it would be useful for me to pursue more scholarly journal articles. It seemed like good advice to me, but things got tense when I mentioned that note to my department chair. "She wrote that?" he asked, his eyes wide with concern. Suddenly I understood that my dean's comment was no small addendum; it would become the line against which my tenure prospects would be measured. I lost a lot of sleep over the next two days, realizing that I'd focused too much of my time on other academic projects, failing to advance the peer reviewed-journal part of my tenure dossier. I needed to get productive in that area, fast. I met with a senior colleague (and my office-mate at the time), Philip Wander, and discussed my options. We talked about several papers I'd written, and he encouraged me to revise them. Soon afterward I sent one to an international journal, one to a regional journal, and one to a state journal. I dedicated my strongest work, a preliminary extension of the omnitopia project, to Communication Theory. To this day I am amazed that the editor accepted my rough amblings about the omnitopian implications of airport design and performance. The work needed a substantial revision, but eventually my wanderings around omnitopia got published. I had discovered a research line that would carry me through tenure and beyond. Several articles followed in quick succession, and by the time I got through tenure I had long shed my worries about job security. I was too exited about omnitopia to consider stopping, even after I became an associate professor.

Finally, I recall a conversation with my family while we were on the road that helped cement my confidence in the omnitopia project. As anyone who knows me can attest, I love long-distance highway travel. Two weeks provide a good minimum for a cross-country roadtrip. So, it was during one of those journeys that my daughter asked me, "Dad, what is omnitopia anyway?" She'd heard me discuss the term while I was writing some of those initial articles, and she was curious. She's a bright and precocious kid, so I felt comfortable sharing some fairly complex theory. But I still had to explain my terms in language accessible to a high school student. That's the real test, I think: sharing one's academic work with a non-specialized audience. I did my best, working through the omnitopian framework with my daughter, offering examples and clarifying things even to myself. She asked thoughtful and probing questions, prompting me to rethink a few underdeveloped assumptions. And at the end of my mini-lecture, she confirmed that omnitopia made sense to her. Thereafter on our trips she and I would occasionally point out what we saw as examples of omnitopia. The word and some of its related terminology became a shorthand to our family as we traveled. That's when I knew: When my family adopted omnitopia for themselves as a way of seeing the world, I was sure that this work might merit a book.

Since then I've spent countless hours on buses, in airplanes, at coffee shops, and in conversation, trying to complete this manuscript. Today, at last, I have sent it to an editor, and I feel hopeful that this first draft bodes well for the successful completion of this project. If this book does get published, I will search for opportunities to deliver guest lectures and enjoy the appearances of omnitopia scholarship in other scholars' works. Not everyone agrees with my articulation of the term, and plenty of folks are sure that I'm missing essential components of urban life when using omnitopia as a lens. That's OK with me. I'm just happy to help advance a useful conversation about the city as a site (and as a confounding variable) of human communication and sense-making.

Read At Last - Part II

Read Omnitopia Update

Friday, October 26, 2007

Luxury in the air

CNN reports about the new cool passenger jet, the world's largest, complete with extraordinary amenities:

"The A380 -- as tall as a seven-story building with each wing big enough to hold 70 cars -- is capable of carrying 853 passengers in an all-economy class configuration."

"However, Singapore Airlines opted for 471 seats in three classes -- 2 Singapore Airlines Suites, 60 business class and 399 economy class."

"Each suite, enclosed by sliding doors, is fitted with a leather upholstered seat, a table, a 23-inch flat screen TV, laptop connections and a range of office software. A separate bed folds up into the wall. Two of the suites can be joined to provide double beds..."

Read the story: Luxury jetliner features beds, flatscreen TVs, lobster

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Raking Leaves

Yesterday I drove home after a long day at work, turned into my driveway, and realized that I could not wait another moment before raking the lawn. I stepped out of my car and saw what I'd ignored for weeks, fallen leaves that had engulfed my yard - and formed expanding colonies upon the lawns of my neighbors. Since it's so easy to sneak past the glares of those who live on my block, to click a button that closes the garage door behind me, I had no idea whether the discourteousness of our trees had annoyed my neighbors, or whether they had even noticed. But guilt caught up with me at last.

Still wearing my "dress-causal" clothes I grabbed a rake and dug in. For a moment I wondered at whether I should rake my neighbors' lawns without asking them, but I decided to risk the awkwardness and finish the job my trees had started. Five huge piles of dried, red leaves had accumulated as Jenny rode up on her bike. She was already tired and sweaty from her in-town commute from work, but I acquired her services nonetheless. I was possessed, determined to clean those yards. Within about a half-hour the leaves were gone, stuffed into our green bin.

Across the street, one of the neighborhood kids shouted "looks great!" and my embarrassment subsided. Her mom joined us and we chatted about our community's upcoming Halloween plans. They informed me that everyone is buzzing about our plans to outdo our previous porch displays (last year we did an alien autopsy), and I smiled with pride about our plans, offering only a few vague hints about this year's theme. After raking those leaves and talking about Halloween, I felt a burst of civic pride. Entering the house, removing socks drenched with the sweat of exertion and enjoying a cool shower, I thought to myself, Scotts Valley is a nice place to live.

Oh yeah, when I arrived home today: the trees had covered my yard again. Damn leaves.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Don't Tase Me, Bro - Part 2

The state of Florida (Department of Law Enforcement) has released a report exonerating officers who tased Andrew Meyer (the "don't tase me bro" dude of YouTube fame). The report found that officers acted correctly in subduing the University of Florida student who pushed his way in front of a group of waiting students, made a rambling speech about John Kerry, employed inappropriate language in a public forum, refused to submit to police instructions, and fought against their attempts to remove him.

Read a WFTV story to learn more.

Read my original post on the subject.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Cliches and crutches

While completing my book on omnitopia I decided to conduct searches through each chapter, hunting for words that laden my writing with laziness. I have noted my tendency to rely upon certain favorites -- examples: continuum, environment, encounter, experience, explore, particularly, phenomenon, recognize, singular, seemingly, vast -- when I allow myself to drift into an almost unconscious flow.

How depressing it was to find the word "explore" 25 times in a single chapter! Fortunately this kind of search helps me rethink ideas that may have "flowed" with inadequate precision. Reading a draft, spotting that comforting word, I tend to presume "all is well" and continue without careful consideration. Choosing instead to identify my crutches I unearth phrases that need tending or pruning. Sometimes entire clauses reveal themselves to be useless or meaningless.

Click. They're gone.

Searching for clichés and crutches is a real hassle, but it provides some confidence that this manuscript is nearing completion at last.

Monday, October 22, 2007


I'm a longtime fan of Fark, a news aggregator that provides a broad range of stories that range from breaking headlines to "only in Florida." In many ways, reading Fark has replaced much of the pleasures of my daily paper. One of my favorite parts of the Fark experience is the talkback feature where readers comment on stories in clever (and sometimes frustrating) ways. Reading the talkbacks, I enter a world of unlimited semiosis where comments reflect back to previous conversations without end. Arising from these talkbacks are a vibrant and growing assortment of Fark clichés. I recognize most, but struggle to keep up with the plethora of new ones. Happily, I have found a website that keeps track of these internet memes: Grampy's Cliché City. Take a look!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Atrium Elevator

Here's the last image from my recent visit to San Francisco-area atrium hotels, a sign I photographed in an elevator. It's nice to learn ways to channel an occasional sense of alarm productively...

Outside the Atrium

This is part three of a four-part series of photos from my recent visit to San Francisco-area atrium hotels, researching my almost-complete book on omnitopia. My images seek to gently subvert the design of these places by walking around their perimeters. "Some subversion," chuckles the critical reader. But these sites are not built for exterior traverse. One is meant to enter them through a flow of interstate or shuttle, being deposited through lobby into the vast interior. The banality of the purely functional exterior is not meant for touristic consumption. Naturally, that's where I want to go.

The outer facade of the SFO-Hyatt resembles a fortress against the traffic noise of highway 101. A fence, a stagnant creek, a thin line of trees, and some orange netting guard the perimeter. Near the walls, equipment, storage containers, and doors that open only outward ensure a tight seal. A place ostensibly open to the walker out for a stroll, this environment calls forth an almost militarized sense of security.

Reflecting on an afternoon wandering the borders of the Hyatt, seeking the ways in which public and private life leak back and forth across their thresholds, I recall one of my favorite books, John Stilgoe's Outside Lies Magic. An advocate for mindful wandering, Stilgoe inspires me to cut across designated pathways, to search for the hidden flows of commerce and history that connect seemingly disparate structures. Encountering the urban scene this way, I read signs as an outsider.

Tomorrow I will share one last image from my tour through the San Francisco Hyatts, a humorous look at the ways in which safety and fear merge at an alarming rate.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Alone in Public Life

This is part two of a four-part photo essay from my recent visit to San Francisco atrium hotels. These notes reflect some of my amblings while researching a book on omnitopia.

The atrium hotel complex conflates disparate environments -- lodging, commerce, entertainment, tourism -- gathering large numbers of people into an coherent continuum. The milling, chatting, laughing amalgamation resembles the ancient agora, a site for public life. What interests me most, though, are moments of isolation, when an individual faces the vast interior alone.

In many ways, this project is inspired by Edward Hopper's grim depictions of modern life, people waiting in all-hours cafes, lost in their own thoughts in motel rooms, standing alone at gas stations. The bright and vibrant colors of contemporary life seem muted somehow. And in turn they mute us.

In these waiting places, many of us practice technologies of anticipatory disengagement. We use mobile phones, iPods, and other aural enclaves to augment other acceptable ways to isolate ourselves. Yet I think that these gaping interiors alone contribute to our experiences of isolation. Even when we chat among friends, sipping Starbucks in a hotel lobby or grabbing a snack in a mall, each of us alone occasionally looks upward toward the open spaces of the atrium and feels somewhat smaller than we are.

Outside the privileged enclave, other individuals carry their worlds with them, not in iPods or mobile phones but in shopping carts. Here the frontiers of omnitopia reassert themselves, while inside the atrium the world seems endless.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

San Francisco Atrium Hotels

Over the weekend, I visited two atrium hotels in San Francisco, one at Embarcadero Center and one near the city's international airport. Writing a chapter for my omnitopia book, I've been doing research on the ways that atrium hotels transform much of public life into a massive interior, creating an enclave against the weather and against troublesome elements of urbanity.

What intrigues me most about these environments is their integration of corporate and consumer spaces. Embarcadero Center opens into an elevated spine of buildings that draw patrons away from the street and into a safe enclosure. the SFO Hyatt enacts a sort of fortress that stands detached from the interstate and surrounding buildings, gathering a wide range of spaces into a singular place.

For me, the atrium has been a hallmark of my personal visions of "the future" since I saw Logan's Run in the late '70s. Though atriums may seem dated in an EPCOT-Center like manner, they are mainstays of buildings rising throughout Asia and the Middle East.

This week I'll post several sets of pictures from my writing-trip. Tomorrow I'll concentrate on individuals in and around these atrium hotels. Thursday I'll present a photographic look behind the scenes of these complex structures. And on Friday I'll show a sign from an atrium elevator that might inspire a chuckle or two.

(Photos by Andrew Wood)

Cat Humor: Wake Up!

Try not to laugh at this...

Monday, October 15, 2007

New Jersey Courtesy Campaign

New Jersey has developed an interesting way to deal with difficult dialogues regarding rude transit users who spread their stuff on multiple seats or yak loudly on their mobile phones. Rather than accosting the troublemaker directly, you simply point to a poster. Here's a snip:
As part of the campaign, the agency is putting up posters on all trains by the end of the month that feature pictures of people venting about many of the problems that commuters complain to NJ Transit about.

"The posters are a social safety valve," Doug Bown, president of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers told the Asbury Park Press for Sunday's newspapers. "Instead of having to initiate your case, you can point to the poster."

One poster shows a woman whose mouth is wide open, appearing to be screaming, under the words "How many seats do you need?" Another poster shows a man plugging his ears with his fingers under the words "I can't take the noise!"
Learn more with this AP article, Transit Launches Courtesy Campaign

Friday, October 12, 2007

New Route 66 Visitor Center

The Associated Press reports the opening of a new Route 66 Visitor Center. Here's a clip:
A restored 1930 gas station in southeast Kansas reopens tomorrow as a Route 66 Visitor Center.

A grand opening ceremony is set for 1 p.m. at the center in downtown Baxter Springs, followed by a reception at the nearby Baxter Springs Heritage Center and Museum. A program will include some Route 66 oral histories.

The Baxter Springs Historical Society used volunteer work and materials to match a $26,000 grant from National Park Service Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Battlestar Galactica - Season 4 Trailer

Here's the trailer for the next (supposedly last) season of BSG. It looks pretty awesome to me.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Atrium Collapse

Just yesterday I wrote about my plans to study atrium hotels in San Francisco, and today I hear of the collapse of a hotel atrium in Baltimore. Freaky.

Happily, at this point, there is only one reported injury.

(Image from WBAL TV)

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Portman Atriums

This weekend I'll be visiting San Francisco to photograph two Hyatt hotels, one designed by famed architect John Portman and one that reflects his influence, designed by Mark Hornberger. The goal of this shoot is to help complete a chapter on hotels I'm writing for the omnitopia book.

To me, atrium hotels demonstrate a key aspect of the omnitopian sensibility, the desire to enclose a synecdoche of the world within a glass enclave, one that appears to blur interior and exterior spaces while enacting a firm distinction between two distinct urban worlds.

One thing that I particularly find when thinking about these places is their construction of spectacle. Looking upward as row upon row of rooms climb toward the light one senses an almost spiritual reverence that could never be found in pre-Portman hotels.

When I return from that trip, I'll post plenty of photos to illustrate what I mean.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Iran Update - Pinpoint War?

The Telegraph has published an article entitled Britain 'on board' for US strikes on Iran, which describes a narrowing of plans to assault Iranian forces.
Washington sources say that America has shelved plans for an all-out assault, drawn up to destroy the Iranian nuclear facilities and take out the Islamist regime.

The Sunday Telegraph has learned that President Bush's White House national security council is discussing instead a plan to launch pinpoint attacks on bases operated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Quds force, blamed for training Iraqi militants...

Vincent Cannistraro — who served as intelligence chief on Ronald Reagan's National Security Council and then as head of operations for the CIA's counter-terrorist centre — said: "What's on the table right now is tactical strikes."...

The White House and Downing Street would justify such an attack as a defensive move to protect allied troops in Iraq. But moderates in the US government are concerned that the counter-terrorist argument may be used by hawks as a figleaf for military action that could escalate into all out war with Iran.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Vanishing Route 66 motels

Scott Craven of the Arizona Republic has written another piece about Route 66 motels, following up once again on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's recent listing of endangered historical sites. This article concentrates on Earl's Motor Court, which has taken some inspiration from the movie Cars. Here's a snip:
Inspired by the Pixar animated film (its landscapes reminiscent of the 1950s Southwest), the Earls dug the old neon signs out of storage, reinstalled them and gave the hotel a fresh coat of paint. They also returned to the old way of renting rooms by the night, rather than by the week or month.

"We realized that we were really dumb, that we needed to have enthusiasm about where we were and what we did," Floranel said. "I love it. We're getting people from all over the world who want to experience life on Route 66."
Next time I'm "standin' on a corner in Winslow, Arizona," I'll check this place out!

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Road Trip Essentials - Part 8

More road trip essentials, with 36-40 must-do stops along the highway. In no particular order...

Take a pilgrimage to the death-site of a beloved actor, politician, or family member. Connect with her or his mortality - and your own.

Go to a biker bar. Order a PBR and strike up a conversation. Most bikers are actually pretty cool.

Cross a long distance only on farm roads. Avoid even the two-lanes. Get so lost that even GPS can't save you.

Tour a local history museum of a town too small to have a Starbucks. Stay at least two hours; talk to the curators.

Listen only to AM radio stations for a day.

Road Trip Essentials - Part 7

My road trip essentials feature is back, with 31-35 must-do stops along the highway. In no particular order...

Since fast food is such an important (if regrettable) part of the roadside experience, search out "fast food firsts," such as the first KFC and the first Pizza Hut.

Visit an alligator farm. Just make sure you don't confuse this stop with a petting zoo.

Drive Route 66 through Texas and plan a stop at Cadillac Ranch. Bring spray-paint so you can add your words of wisdom to this tourist trip for the ages.

Visit the McDonalds in Vinita, Oklahoma. Eat a burger over the interstate.

Plan a theme trip searching for "capitals" of the world, such as a town boasting itself the "lentil capital of the world."

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Halloween Clown Costume

This Halloween, the Wood Family is continuing our tradition of creating a PG-13 "Haunted Porch" for the neighborhood kids. Last year's theme was Alien Autopsy. The theme this time: Psycho Circus.

Preparing for Halloween, therefore, I've been searching for a great clown costume, and this one appealed to me: something creepy, with lots of skulls and crossbones. Then I noticed one selling point: "Makes a great Easter Costume."

What kind of weird-ass Easter do these people have in mind?

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Iran Update - early October

The Sydney Morning Herald reports escalating interest in bombing Iran. Here's a snip:
AUSTRALIA, Britain and Israel have reportedly "expressed interest" in a US campaign to launch surgical bombing raids on Iran targeting Revolutionary Guard Corps facilities.

A report in The New Yorker by the journalist Seymour Hersh said the Bush Administration had stopped trying to justify a campaign against Iran on the basis of curtailing Iran's nuclear ambitions. It is instead redefining the war in Iraq as a strategic battle between the US and Iran.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Death Race 2000

As I discovered this weekend, Roger Corman's 1975 production of Death Race 2000 makes a swell double-bill to Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof. Both movies mock the American blurring of cars, sex, and violence, though Death Race 2000 takes itself much less seriously. That'll happen when a film's budget can be transported in piggy banks. Director Paul Bartel recalls, "Because Death Race was so cheap and looked so cheap in many ways, it was easiest to do it satirically and not have to worry if it seemed futuristic" (p. 156). I first became intrigued with Death Race 2000 because of its promised depiction of a dystopian American future. But, aside from the cheesy matte shot that frames the race -- and a few 70s-era buildings that looked vaguely futuristic in an EPCOT Center sort of way -- Death Race 2000 is set securely on back roads that demanded no filming permits.

Despite its half-hearted efforts and political and media satire, this movie is really abut a transcontinental road race in which drivers run pedestrians over for points. Heads explode like tomatoes while, at the pit stops, it seems that no women can keep her clothes on. This was, after all, a 70s-"Hard R" flick. Still, you've got to love a movie whose main character is called Frankenstein after losing various body parts to car wrecks. And, yes, Sylvester Stallone plays a Chicago mobster-type racer who crashes into his own pit crew to score points. Death Race 2000 is made for an evening of bad jokes and bad food (I chose pizza combos but would select pork rinds if I ever planned to watch it again).

Death Race 2000 is an awful movie, a classic of exploitation cinema.

Bartel, P. (1984). Death Race 2000: New World's violent future. In D. Peary's (Ed.), Omni's screen flights/screen fantasies: The future according to science fiction cinema (pp. 152-157). Garden City, NY: Doubleday.