Friday, August 31, 2007

New York as Venice

While researching my book on omnitopia, I came across The Building of the City, a volume of the 1931 Regional Plan of New York, which describes a plan of elevated walkways designed to allow pedestrians and motorists to occupy separate spheres:
We see a city with sidewalks, arcaded within the building lines, and one story above the present street grade. We see bridges at all corners, the width of the arcades and with solid railings. We see the smaller parks of the city . . . raised to this same sidewalk-arcade level . . . and the whole aspect becomes that of a very modernized Venice, a city of arcades, plazas and bridges, with canals for streets, only the canal will not be filled with water but with freely flowing motor traffic, the sun glittering on the black tops of the cars and the buildings reflecting in this waving flood of rapidly rolling vehicles.
When I can, I'll post an image of that quasi-utopian vision of metropolis.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Placeless Enclaves

These days, it's hard to visualize a world without mobile communication. Where I work, San José State University, I notice everyday how countless students pour out of their classrooms with mobile phones glued to their ears. When I wait to take my bus home, I see person after person walking along the sidewalk, looking straight ahead while chatting into their hands. And I can hardly imagine the Highway 17 bus ride without hearing at least one passenger engrossing us with his timely communiqués. With our mobile phones, the notion of being "here" seems less meaningful than it once was, or so I suspect. Writing this now, flying across an overpass while onboard the bus, I try to remember a time when making a phone call required an attachment to place.

Think back to the age when telephone booths seemed as ubiquitous as Starbucks coffee shops. You may flash upon that 1967 movie The President's Analyst when James Coburn was captured by spies after entering a phone booth, or you may remember further back to that crazy fad in which college kids would try to pack as many of their buddies into one of those tiny rooms as drunkenly possible. We recognize the oddity of such an era when we think about the so-called "loneliest phone booth," located on Highway 50 in Nevada, a testimony to the ways in which mundane technologies become exotic with the passing of time. In those seemingly ancient days, you could not carry your network world with you. You needed to enter a physical enclave, a place set apart, the phone booth. This was an important place.

Today, in contrast, we carry placeless enclaves, our mobile phones, melding them upon our bodies in almost borg-like fashion. Frequently I'll spot a Bluetooth device hugging the ear of a person who drifts like vapor from place to place, lost in the reverie of some distant dialogue. The creepiest part of the scene is that occasional blue-white flash of the device, blinking with no apparent purpose except to signal to others, "now this is a talker." More frequently I notice folks bolting mobile phones to their pants or coats, demonstrating a perpetual preparation for important calls. And though I want to ask these people, "do you really want to be so obviously tethered to these devices?" I hush my queries. Surely some people need such connectivity, just as I need to mind my own business. And that's entirely the point.

Still, I can almost remember earlier days when we somehow managed to pass through our lives without this kind of connectivity. I look through old college yearbooks that are filled with an endless array of dances, teas, picnics, games, formals, and other forms of place-based interaction. I cannot imagine the students of that age descending the stairs from their classrooms only to open a phone. Surely, even without mobile phones, it must have been loud, a buzzing cacophony of greeting, argument, announcement, and farewell. Today's mobile conversations are loud, no doubt, but they are generally enclosed, a moving cone of personal space that just happens to overlap with hundreds of nearby enclaves. Such is the nature of public life in so many places today.

More and more people talk, alone.

(Photo by Andrew Wood)

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Photography and the blurring of public/private spaces

In June, Marc Fisher wrote an article about the privatization of seemingly public spaces, in this case: the Washington D.C. suburb of Silver Spring. The article focuses on a developer's policy that restricts the rights of photographers to take pictures of the outdoor built environment, even from a street. An excerpt:
[The developer] insists on treating downtown Silver Spring as if it were an indoor mall. They set and enforce rules that would never pass legal muster on a public street. Political candidates have been stopped from handing out fliers. And photographers such as Py are regularly stopped and told to move along. (para 9)
As a number of images intended for my forthcoming book on omnitopia will depict that blurred relationship of public and private spaces, I will follow stories such as these quite closely.

Learn More: Fisher, M. (2007, June 21). Public or Private Space? Line Blurs in Silver Spring. Washington Post, B01.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

A Man For All Seasons

When I teach a course entitled Rhetoric and Public Life, I assign Thomas More's Utopia as a central reading. While discussing that text in class, I also show the final three scenes from the 1966 film A Man For All Seasons. Here is a particularly thought-provoking excerpt from Robert Bolt's play that inspired that film. In this scene, Thomas More responds to his daughter's entreaties that he accept the King's supremacy over the Pope and be thereafter freed from imprisonment in the Tower of London.
More: When a man takes an oath, Meg, he's holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. And if he opens his fingers then -- he needn't hope to find himself again. Some men aren't capable of this, but I'd be loathe to think your father one of them.

Margaret: In a State that was half good, you would be raised up high, not here, for what you've done already. It's not your fault the State's three-quarters bad. Then if you elect to suffer for it, you elect yourself a hero.

More: That's very neat. But look now … If we lived in a State where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us good, and greed would make us saintly. And we'd live like animals or angels in the happy land that needs no heroes. But since in fact we see that avarice, anger, envy, pride, sloth, lust and stupidity commonly profit far beyond humility, chastity, fortitude, justice and thought, and have to choose, to be human at all … why then perhaps we must stand fast a little--even at the risk of being heroes.

Margaret: But in reason! Haven't you done as much as God can reasonably want?

More: Well . . . finally . . . it isn't a matter of reason; finally it's a matter of love. (ellipses and emphasis in original; pp. 140-141)
I've often wondered whether that phrase, "Some men aren't capable of this, but I'd be loathe to think your father one of them," is a typo. But I imagine that Bolt refers to the larger notion of being capable of keeping an oath. Regardless, the sentiment bares careful consideration in any season.

Bolt, R. (1990). A Man For All Seasons. New York: Vintage International.

Monday, August 27, 2007

August Surprises

What is it with August and resignations? Why did this month inspire three high level Bush administration figures, Karl Rove, Tony Snow, and (today) Alberto Gonzales, to resign from the White House? I ask this question facetiously, recognizing that August is a time-honored month for government officials to suddenly discover that they want to "spend more time with their families." Even former House Speaker Dennis Hastert waited until this month to announce that he will resign from Congress rather than stay through his term. How sad.

Supposedly Americans are too busy with summer travel, back-to-school preparations, and other personal pursuits to notice when politicians decide to cash in their chips. I've always found this kind of calculus to be frustrating. One must possess a certain cynicism about the electorate to figure that quitting the White House or other high office -- after spending months defending one's role amid numerous scandals and failures -- will somehow slide past the public consciousness without much recognition, so long as the announcement emerges before Labor Day.

It's sad to imagine that a number of politicians think that way. It's sadder to recognize that they're probably right.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Mrs. Miniver

I was thinking about President Bush's recent efforts to compare the Global War on Terrorism with previous American struggles in Vietnam and, of course, World War II. In that spirit, I recently rented Mrs. Miniver (1942). Given my nostalgic penchant for "homefront" movies like The Best Years of Our Lives, it's a little surprising that I waited so long to finally see this movie that helped solidify American resolve during our early involvement in the Second World War (Spoilers, as you might imagine, follow). I had visions of "chip, chip, cheerio" and "stiff upper lips," and consequently I wasn't sure I could take this movie seriously. And it's true that Mrs. Miniver's English villagers are relentlessly cheerful in the face of German bombs. Thus, when the head of the Miniver household finds his home almost destroyed after an air raid, he remarks that he'd wanted to redo the dining room anyway. Precious. Nonetheless, the film's basic humanity and optimism warrants some appreciation.

An underlying theme of Mrs. Miniver is how England's prewar class rigidity gives way to a more genuinely democratic spirit once the "people's war" brings death, destruction, and even German airmen to the tree-lined community. An upper middle class scion promptly joins the RAF and the crusty dowager yields first prize in a rose-breeding contest to the humble train stationmaster. At night, bombs pulverize the ancient village, and all the people, wealthy and poor, huddle in their air raid shelters. You know that some of these folks will perish by film's end, though I was genuinely surprised at one particular fatality. Mrs. Miniver concludes with a rousing chorus of "Onward Christian Soldiers," and audience members were surely reminded to buy war bonds as they left the theater. Beyond class, beyond self-interest, Mrs. Miniver calls forth a kind of patriotism that's hard to imagine today.

Given that we currently face a war that seems to have no end, struggling with a seemingly implacable enemy who possesses remarkable cruelty, I cannot help but compare our state to that of the Minivers in the early 1940s. If we are indeed caught up in a global struggle against tyranny, it's hard to spot any signs of this war along my own tree-lined road. After 9/11, we all stuck American flags upon our cars and continued supporting oil regimes that help contribute to our miseries. And today, brave volunteers join the ranks of our armed forces, even as thousands of their brothers and sisters have been cut down by bombs and snipers. Yet no one seriously talks of a draft or rationing or any of the other kinds of sacrifice that a real war demands. Watching a movie like Mrs. Miniver reminds me of how hollow the rhetoric of "war" has become.

Perhaps an insufficient number of Americans are willing to buy what the Bush administration is selling. When we hear of no-bid and cost-plus contracts that seem designed to ensure that war profiteers will make their millions despite our losses on the battlefield, and when we see an administration that seems hell-bent on viewing a complex world though a dusty prism of American good confronting non-American evil, many observers can be forgiven for not cheerfully joining the march this time. Even patriots today cannot help but wonder: What kind of war is this?

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Omnitopia Book

I am delighted to announce that I've signed a contract with Hampton Press to publish my book on Omnitopia. The tentative title: Omnitopia: Architecture, Travel, and Communication in the Age of Ubiquity. The book will be part of the Press's Urban Communication series, edited by Gary Gumpert.

I've been working on this book in journal article form and straight-to-manuscript form since 2002, and I'm delighted to bring the omnitopia project to this point. At present I anticipate Hampton Press publishing the book in 2008.

I plan to continue blogging as frequently as possible. Indeed, an increasing number of my posts may relate to the forthcoming book.

If you'd like to learn more about omnitopia, visit my Center for Omnitopia Research.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Hand Puppets

Sometimes you just need to see some hand puppets...

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Highway 17

I ride the Highway 17 bus on a regular basis, partially out of some shallow environmental consciousness but mostly because I live in a single-car family with three drivers. It's a fascinating experience. A one-way trip lasts about an hour -- from Scotts Valley to downtown San Jose -- and I get to hear (and sometimes participate in) all sorts of conversation. Commuters generally respect each other's needs for silence, and they make an effort to avoid tilting their seats into neighbors' spaces. But sometimes a number of folks will transform this mobile space into a mini salon, chatting about California politics, workplace intrigues, and, in the case of commuting faculty members, the joys and hassles of teaching. A recent conversation ranged from comparative bike riding practices in China and Santa Cruz to a discussion about the newly signed state budget. The bus driver, savvy and thoughtful, participated with aplomb while an eagle eye on the road.

Only sometimes can the ride get miserable. Sometimes a gaggle of folks chat so loudly that their neighbors have no chance to concentrate on their own thoughts or laptop projects. And mobile phone users frequently forget that their volume extends beyond themselves and their distant interlocutors. Then there's occasional traffic, rarely bad enough to add more than fifteen minutes to the ride but sometimes stretching the commute to absurd lengths. Every once in a while, I wish I were one of those motorcyclists weaving in and out of lanes, advancing steadily while everyone else idles on the mountain that connects the valley to the shore.

Mostly, though, I like riding the bus. It's an opportunity to write, listen to music, catch up on grading, and (coming home) to decompress. The evening return trip streams along office towers and sprawling blocks of transformers, junkyards, shopping centers, and apartment complexes. The roads converge onto a two-lane that winds about the "hill" (as we term it) until it peaks at a summit, upon which sits a delightful restaurant advertising the "world's best" ribs and lamb. The road begins to descend and clutches of trees break here and there to reveal Monterey Bay on the other end of a blue crescent. Then I spot the billboard that usually advertises Ocean Honda, its anthropomorphic whale smiling a greeting. When arranging to be picked up, I indicate my proximity with a cheery, "Just passing the whale now." At last we pull into the tiny but pleasant town where I live.

The Highway 17 bus costs plenty -- eight bucks for a round trip ticket. But that saves money that would otherwise go to wear and tear on the car, higher insurance costs, gasoline, downtown San Jose parking, and the stress of rush hour driving. The cost has doubled since I moved "over the hill," a bummer (in California parlance). But I still feel that the trip is worth the cost. I arrive at my destination in a relaxed mood, and after hearing a good conversation, I sometimes feel that I've learned something.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Warnings from 1988

In a fascinating article entitled, Dukakis, Once Burned, Refuses to Be Optimistic About 2008, Steve Kornacki describes Michael Dukakis's warning about a Democrat defeat that would follow a failure to learn the lessons of the former Massachusetts governor's stomping in 1988.
Michael Dukakis has seen this script before: a Republican administration besieged by scandal and running out the clock on its second term, while wide-eyed Democrats confidently lick their chops, knowing there’s no way in hell voters will reward the G.O.P. with four more years in the White House. (para 1)
Dukakis's recommendations: precinct-by-precinct organization and rapid responses to Swiftboat-like attacks:
“I’m talking about every precinct,” he said, “with a precinct captain and six block-captains that make personal contact with every single voting household. And I mean starting a year in advance. I’m not talking about parachuting in with two weeks to go. That’s baloney. And these people are people who’ve got to be from the precinct, of the precinct, look like the precinct and talk like the precinct.” (para 10)

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Mad Men

I'm hooked by the AMC series Mad Men. It's been well reviewed, this show about 1960 Madison Avenue advertising executives and their families, yet relatively few people have seen it. I can't say that I'm terribly surprised. Mad Men is easy to appreciate but difficult to like. The show is gorgeously designed and shot, a pleasure of television time travel by way of fashions, furniture, and decidedly un-PC language. A world that generally tolerated three martini lunches, the use of secretaries as sexual playthings, and backslapping anti-Semitism when wrapped up in grey flannel and dotted with cufflinks. The plots unfold and intertwine along a slow course, expanding beyond the office to the kinds of suburbs that Betty Friedan labeled "comfortable concentration camps." Secrets, lies, and the realities of class struggle rarely erupt in the kinds of quick beats that appeal to many of today's television viewers. Rather, the tensions and revelations of this show drip slowly in a series of odd surprises and quiet turns.

At the center of Mad Men is a charming but secretive family man, Don Draper, who regularly beds a downtown lover while returning home to his wife and family. Draper keeps much of his life a secret, such that his wife presumes that his secretary knows more about the man than she does. In one recent episode, Draper rides a train and reacts with quiet dread after a passenger calls him by another name. The protagonist possesses a secret past and a fake identity. Thereafter, his brother contacts him, asking why Don fled his old family and changed his name. Draper then returns home and unlocks a drawer in his desk, placing an unseen object into his briefcase. Is it a file? A photograph? A gun? He visits his brother's dingy apartment room and opens his case, the brother's back turned to him. I remember watching this scene unfold with a sense of grim foreboding. I was sure that Draper would gun his brother down so that his past life would not be exposed. Then the camera reveals what Draper brought: a stack of cash. After the initial shock of the scene's revelation, that this man would pay his brother off to leave New York and never return, I remember thinking: I wish I had such dramatic secrets (and I wish I wore such swell suits)!

That's part of the pleasure of this show. Mad Men recalls an odd and seemingly impossible time in which taciturn silence or clever evasion was preferred to our age of confession. Many of the characters in this show make supposedly grand pronouncements about their achievements, the sexual dalliances, their ambitions. But a deeper level of silence -- a shame that few people possess today -- animates this show. Set during a period of imminent social upheaval, Mad Men recalls an era of choice and change as all the old values, the apparently unassailable foundation of the world, had become so clearly on the brink of collapse. In this show, confidence masks turmoil that lurks below the collapsing facades of the coffee klatch and the boardroom and the overfilled ashtrays. It's not a perfect show, to be sure. None of the characters could be termed "likable," and the turning gyre of secrets may merely reveal only some banal truism. But Mad Men is better than any other new show I've seen this year. It's unique, assured, and well written. If you haven't seen it yet, I hope you'll take a look.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Road Trip Essentials - Part 6

This is a slowly growing list of essential road trip experiences. My goal is to compose a set of 100 must-have moments on the highway. Here are five more, in no particular order.

Design a photo safari around a unique theme. Look for a peculiar style of sign, a specific style of architecture, or an odd sort of plant life.

Take a tour of a corporate museum or factory. I recommend the Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota.

Visit South of the Border, the indisputably tackiest motel complex/miniature golf playground/fireworks store/souviner shop [etc.] in the nation.

Drive a stretch of US 50, America's "loneliest highway." Best bet: Nevada.

Spend a day on Miami's South Beach. Wear white airy pants, try some new kind of rum, and spend the day looking at the blue water.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Cormac McCarthy's The Road

I've finished Cormac McCarthy's The Road, a somber meditation on the interlaced natures of hope and hopelessness. These days I don't read a lot of fiction, and I've never raced to buy a novel featured on Oprah's Book Club. But this tale of a father and son wandering a post-apocolyptic landscape piqued my attention. Only recently did I learn that The Road won a Pulitzer Prize.

The book is cryptic, nearly poetic in its depiction of a world torn asunder by some unnamed cataclysm. Terse descriptions of landscape, survival strategy, and horror weave among dreamily lyrical tones of despair, memory, and even some traces of optimism. Strange and almost mystical words dart into the lines of prose, cyphers that seem hardly to need the aid of a dictionary, their choices suggesting some secret onomatopoeia.

Throughout the tale, we discover clues hidden even from the protagonists, a growing sense of what happened and the hanging gloom that no one can really understand the world through which they pass. All that the father in this story (shorn of numerous niceties of spelling and punctuation) knows for sure is this:
The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions. He got up and went to the window. What is it? [his wife] said. He didnt answer. He went into the bathroom and threw the lightswitch but the power was already gone. A dull rose glow in the windowglass. He dropped to one knee and raised the level to stop the tub and then turned on both taps as far as they would go. She was standing in the doorway in her nighwear, clutching the jamb, cradling her belly in one hand. What is it? she said. What is happening?
    I dont know.
    Why are you taking a bath?
    I'm not. (p. 45)
The novel is sad, numbing, slow, and occasionally shocking. I can't say that one garners any particular pleasure from reading it. But I can tell you one thing. Read beyond the first few pages and try to abandon this journey thereafter. It won't be easy.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Great Movie Endings - Part 4 - The Best Years of Our Lives

Growing up with a grandfather who served in World War II, I developed an early affection for films that depict everyday life from that era. "War movies" always interested me, but I'm drawn even more powerfully to films that show life on the home front. Sure, "weepies" such as Since You Went Away and The Clock were made to elicit the tears of sentimental moviegoers, but I also enjoy these films for their portrayals of otherwise forgotten details of 1940s-America: the economics, the prejudices, the fashions, the mores, all the tiny details of life that seem so alien to a twenty-first century viewer. Of all these movies, my favorite is The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).

Warning: Spoilers

I have seen this movie at least a dozen times, and I never tire of its unflinching account of the personal struggles faced by service-members and their families confronting the difficulties of life once the victory parades have concluded. A cursory view may lead a jaded viewer to reject this movie as a sappy melodrama. And it's true that some moments fail to resonate as they once did. But the film earned its many awards (including seven Oscars) for the honesty of its grand pleasures and small moments. I love a number of scenes. A sergeant holds his wife after spending years apart while his two children look on from a distance. A once-glamorous bombardier wanders among scrapped planes that resemble rows of tombstones. A disabled sailor who finally accepts the love of his hometown sweetheart looks up from his bed, a single tear falling down his cheek. But the movie's best scene is its finale.

The bombardier, a fellow named Fred Derry, has failed to make much of his life back in Boone City. While he once wore the uniform of an officer, Derry is forced to take his old job as a soda jerk, working for the sniveling kid who once served as his assistant. Fred's two-timing wife complains about his inability to provide the evenings of swanky nightclubs and fancy dresses to which she's become accustomed. She also can't understand why Fred won't just "snap out" of his combat-induced strain, those terrors that startle him awake night after night. He's fallen in love with Peggy Stephenson, a kind and patient young woman who sees beyond his current difficulties, but he convinces Peggy to abandon him, fearing the scandal that an affair would bring. Fred is surrounded by friends but feels hopeless. Eventually he returns home to find his wife with another man, a fellow veteran who seems to have had no difficulty adjusting to life after the war. Fred's marriage collapses and he decides to skip town and set off for new opportunities. Waiting for a flight out of Boone City, Fred climbs once more into one of the bombers he flew during the war, reliving terrifying moments that never seem to leave him. As he reels in despair, feeling like a ghost who belongs among the junked planes, a voice from the ground calls him back; the salvage crew has come to dismantle the plane. Fred talks with the boss, forgetting his self-pity and realizing that he might be able to land a job after all. The scene ends with Fred taking a job as a junkman. It's hardly a glamorous career, but it's an opportunity to dismantle his nightmares once and for all.

The movie has one last moment, though, a final scene that draws a tear every time. Fred has come back to town, employed and growing in confidence, and he's agreed to serve as best man for the sailor who's overcome his own demons and decided marry his high school sweetheart. Peggy has arrived as well, since her father and the sailor are friends. The wedding is simple but poignant. The sailor fumbles his vows in a manner that affirms the deep humanity and honesty of the movie. All the while, Fred and Peggy stare at each other, recognizing that they have never fallen out of love. As the wedding concludes, Peggy seems to glow with a radiance that only Fred can see. They draw toward each other and embrace. Fred warns her of difficult days ahead: "You know what it'll be, don't you, Peggy? It may take us years to get anywhere. We'll have no money, no decent place to live. We'll have to work, get kicked around…" But Peggy simply beams with that radiant smile. She knows, as does the audience, that the "best years" of their lives have only begun.

Visit IMDB's post on The Best Years of Our Lives

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Life as Simulation

John Tierney has written an article in the New York Times that describes Nick Bostrom's research on the possibility that our lives are actually manifestations of a computer simulation. Here's an excerpt:
Dr. Bostrom assumes that technological advances could produce a computer with more processing power than all the brains in the world, and that advanced humans, or “posthumans,” could run “ancestor simulations” of their evolutionary history by creating virtual worlds inhabited by virtual people with fully developed virtual nervous systems. (para 5)
Robin Hanson, an economist at George Mason University, [suggests that] you should try to be as interesting as possible, on the theory that the designer is more likely to keep you around for the next simulation. (para 16)
New York Times, August 14, 2007: Our Lives, Controlled From Some Guy’s Couch

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Searching for Eitel's

I literally have no clue about this matchbook. I bought it a few years ago while collecting artifacts for my roadside and motel books. Any recollections out there?

Monday, August 13, 2007

Road Trip Essentials - Part 5

Here's another in an occasional list of essential road trip experiences: 21-25 (in no particular order):

Stay at the Devil's Tower National Monument KOA in Wyoming. Watch Close Encounters of the Third Kind under the shadow of the tower and keep an eye open for strange cloud formations that hide UFOs.

Sleep one night in your car or, better yet, under the stars. Naturally you need to concern yourself with safety and respect for private property, but seek one opportunity to avoid the constriction of formal lodging.

Drive through a righteous electrical storm (not on purpose, mind you). Slow down to a reasonable speed and watch the lightening fill the sky.

Listen to an audiobook of a title you'd never have the patience to read otherwise.

Memorize a great poem or lines from a favorite speech. Practice it during long, boring stretches of road.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Aunt Hattie's - Before and After

Aunt Hattie's was a St. Petersburg landmark since opening in 1939 as a hamburger joint. By the time my mother made a habit of visiting in the 1970s, Aunt Hattie's had a new building and had expanded to become a pleasant sit-down restaurant known for its toy chest. I remember waiting for my chance to seize a prize after I cleaned my plate.

In a St. Petersburg Times article, Elizabeth Whitney recalls: "It was oranges in the foyer free for the taking, the player piano beating out East Side, West Side, hostesses in Gay Nineties garb, the children's treasure chest of free gifts . . . The servings were big; the prices were low."

A 1968 postcard reveals a much revamped restaurant, like the rambling building that I remember. Unfortunately, after suffering a rash of problems in the early eighties, including a much-publicized incident involving a dining room rat-attack and flood damage from a hurricane, Aunt Hattie's closed in 1985.

Do you have any memories of Aunt Hattie's? Please leave a comment. 

iPod Noise Pollution

The Associated Press has distributed a story that describes iPod Noise Pollution as a product of two phenomena. The first is fairly typical, anonymity:
Like the cell phone, the iPod and other music players can foster a sense of apathy when the user is among strangers. It's easier to blow off social norms -- and channel Justin Timberlake during rush hour -- when you don't know who you're irritating. (para 16)
The other source for iPod Noise Pollution is perception. We imagine that these media devices are excessively loud because many of us have come to expect a much quieter aural environment. The article quotes Wired magazine's Leander Kahney:
Our world, he said, has become freakishly quiet. "It's not noise pollution -- it's noise absence. And I find it almost more disturbing and upsetting than I did loud noise. It's sort of unnatural." (para. 9)
The article concludes that a gentle tap on the shoulder generally serves as an effective request for strangers playing their iPods too loud to turn the volume down.

Of course, it might also be useful to anonymously slip these folks a Why Do You Do That Note, as in Why do you play loud music in public places?.

Read the whole story: Hey you, with the iPod...keep it down!

Friday, August 10, 2007

Kellogg's All-Bran Cereal

This ad is right up there with the Nutrigrain I Feel Great ad as being one of the most gloriously subversive commercials I've seen in a long while.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Learning to Fly

During our Wood Family Southern Routes BBQ Tour, we visited North Carolina's Outer Banks and took hang gliding lessons from Kitty Hawk Kites. This was our second try -- the first attempt back in 1997 was scuttled due to a lack of wind. During our training and while receiving feedback and encouragement from our instructors, I decided that the lessons necessary to ensure a safe and exhilarating glide over the sandy dunes might be useful in other aspects of life. Now, this isn't to say that I flew a hang glider. My experience was that of a student taking micro-leaps that lasted mere seconds. But above the ground, contemplating every moment with a rare exactness, I picked up a few pointers whose utility may stretch beyond this singular experience. Never being afraid of a little pretension, here are six lessons I learned while learning to hang glide.

Get Help

Leaping off a dune with only the wind to help you avoid a gritty dirt sandwich ought not be attempted lightly. We sought instruction from experienced and patient hang gliding aficionados who understood the theory and practice of human powered flight. While we knew what we wanted to do, we wanted to leap off a sand dune and end our day without a hospital visit, we didn't know what we didn't know. As a professor, I find that aspect to be most critical to the learning experience. Students are sure they know what college is about, getting the required credentials to do what they've always planned to do. Any kind of instruction that doesn't seem to correlate directly with those goals appears superfluous to a large number of students ("Will this be on the test?"). And yet, even though I had no interest in learning about the proper technique for gripping the cross-bar, I had no idea of how important that skill would be until I found myself over-compensating when the lift carried me up and I crashed quickly thereafter. A spirit of inquiry and a search for patient and knowledgeable help augmented my enthusiasm with experience and helped me improve quickly.

Run Fast

A necessary component of human powered flight is a hard working human, at least at first. Our glider required about 25 miles per hour of wind to take flight. With a light breeze, we needed to add the extra energy to gain any altitude. That required a fast run, even though we came to fly and not to jog. I watched some people make a few half-hearted plods before hoping that the wind would take over and lift them up. Those folks generally ate dirt. Since we were students, we had the help of experienced instructors who ran alongside us, contributing their energy to ours. But I frequently heard an instructor explain to a frustrated student who crashed after only a few steps, "You stopped running on me!" I've seen the same thing in the classroom and elsewhere in life. Many people hope that hot air will lift them up, or that kind people will help them along. But all of us eventually must run alone, and it's best to begin that run early. Looking back, I remember wasting my high school years and having to sprint during my twenties to catch up. But getting up to speed eventually results in a strange circumstance: the harder you run at first, the less you must pump those muscles later. Eventually the wind of good luck, good friends, and good circumstances will keep you aloft for a long, long time. And the whole flight will seem effortless. You'll look down on the dune and see folks sorrowfully running from place to place, even though their paths lead only in circles. That's why it's best to exert the effort to run early and run fast in order to get anywhere.

Look Ahead

Our trainers repeated one mantra over and over: keep your eyes on the direction you seek to go. It's a simple enough principle. When you're driving a car, if you turn your eyes to the left, you'll tend to turn the wheel in the same direction. If you turn your eyes to the right, the car will follow. With concentration, you can look one direction and turn another, but doing so takes particular attention. Hang gliding calls for attention to multiple details, so many in fact that you'll find it almost impossible to counteract your instincts; you can therefore pretty much count on your direction following your eyes. Like I said, it's pretty simple. Yet there's a meaningful lesson to be learned when trying to leap off a sand dune. If you keep your eyes on the ground, you can count on landing soon, sooner than you may like. Oddly enough, lifting your eyes perpetually skyward leads to similarly troublesome results: you'll pull the glider at too sharp a pitch and stall. But if you concentrate upon a goal ahead of you, and if you keep your eyes on that point, your body will tend to follow your vision. Your ability to get anywhere requires that you know where you want to go. It's not blind optimism that keeps your eyes facing forward. Far from it, this kind of focus trains your body to submit to your desires.

Adjust Gently

Hang gliding forces you to abandon the human-made desire to find drama in every decision. Think about the summer blockbusters or romantic dramas you may have seen at the movie theater. Every decision seems to drip with meaning. Every move, every turn, every action must be big, big enough to make an impression within the blink of an eye. Soaked in this media bath, many of us seek similar drama in our daily lives, almost as if we imagine ourselves to be living some sort of movie to be viewed by others. Serving as our own narrators, we tell stories that seek to compete with the ones we see on the screens of our lives. Walking through a city, we can be forgiven for such hubris. Jumping off a dune, we learn quickly to be more delicate, eventually. For me, the process involved many mistakes. During my training, when I was given an instruction to pull the bar in, I'd pull in, sharply, dramatically. When given an instruction to let the bar out slightly, I'd let it out a lot, movie-style. Result? Dirt sandwiches, lots of 'em. Eventually I saw more successful flyers practicing what I continue to learn. With their joyous leaps, they demonstrated that most complicated procedures require a delicate touch. With hang gliding, a tap of one inch or less is sufficient to adjust the pitch. A delicate pull to the left or right can alter the course. You want to do more; you think you should manage this gangly device. But if you've selected the proper equipment and received the appropriate training, it's best to trust what brought you to this place. Adjustments must be made, of course. Winds change, forming tiny bursts of energy that demand small modifications. But overreacting to these natural phenomena creates vicious feedback loops that end badly. With most things, whether in hang gliding or in life, the lesson is the same: Make your initial choices with precision until you have a good feel for the wind -- and lots of space between your position and the ground. Then, you can be as dramatic as you like.

Loosen Grip

I was surprised by how big and awkward a hang glider can be -- and I was particularly surprised by how little force was needed to guide it. Our training gliders were about 80 pounds each, full of wires and poles and straps. Yet our trainers reminded us, "A hang glider wants to fly. It's built and designed to catch the wind. Its natural inclination is to take flight, so don't get in the way." Again and again we were told this simple truth. Yet my inclination seemed constantly at odds with that of the glider. Running my hardest, pumping my body full of adrenalin, my fingers gained a death grip on the bar almost every time. Every jar, every bump, every jostle would then transfer itself to the wings, resulting in turbulence and, ultimately, rough landings. Here I am reminded of the planners in the 1997 film Contact who, ignoring the instructions they were given, insisted on bolting a heavy seat in a spacecraft designed to travel without one. The chamber shook with fury, almost tearing itself apart, until finally the seat dislodged and smashed against the ceiling. At once, the ride became smooth, frictionless. In both cases, the lesson is to unlearn social principles, to let go of our desire to direct things that remain only loosely subject to our control. This does not require abandonment of influence, only recognition of our limits. Any accomplishment takes initial effort, a running start, but once we become airborne, the real trick is to allow the forces around us to come to our aid, not to disregard them, or worse, to fight them. My young soul sees a single person flying a hang glider. The lesson from that limited vision is control. The more experienced flyer sees an intersection of forces that result in a hang gliding person. The lesson from that expanded vision is humility.

Try Again

Five tries. Five. And I only experienced one flight in which I landed on my feet. As any successful person will tell you, failure is a powerful incentive that leads to improvement, at least it is for those who have ambition. The taste of dirt after a ditched landing, the recognition that you screwed up and almost got hurt, the possibility that you might get hurt for real next time: these things lead us to avoid the dune cliffs of life. It's so much easier to watch other people take their leaps, whether sports heroes or cinematic action stars. They try and succeed and, vicariously, so do we. But eventually the game concludes or the movie ends and we are stuck once more with the undeniable reality that life will continue pretty much as it did yesterday. One more day gone, one more chance lost. And while we are genetically wired to ignore this reality as long as possible, one day we will run out of chances to fail or succeed or even try. I'll leave discussions of the afterlife to those inclined to such musings. As for myself, I am drawn to the heavyset woman I saw that day of training, the poor soul who leaped spastically like an electrocuted fish from the water, with no grace and no control. Time and time again she would crash to the ground. And I'll admit that I chuckled to myself, despite how foolish I myself must of looked. But she kept at it, pumping those legs as fast as she could. By her fifth try she caught some air and returned with the swagger of a fighter pilot. She looked silly, and so did I. Neither one of us was built for fight, and both of us needed plenty of help. But she persisted, and so did I. This is the final and most important lesson of hang gliding (or anything worth doing): falling comes before flying.

These are six lessons I learned while learning to hang glide. They're not profound, and they're hardly original. But I believe they provide useful insights that expand beyond one day on the dunes. It took Jenny and I ten years to return to Kitty Hawk and cash in our "wind checks," and it took gallons of sweat and hours of work to accomplish our goal. But we flew, even if just for a moment or two, and we saw the value of lessons taught by twenty-something college students working their summer jobs and trying to help clueless tourists get airborne. We saw the values of inquiry, effort, focus, precision, humility, and persistence. Leaving the North Carolina Outer Banks, satisfied that we hang glided at last, I looked back on this experience fondly and with a sense of completion. But not Jenny. She wants to skydive. I can only imagine what I'll learn then.

(Photos by Jenny and Vienna Wood -- and a friendly stranger)

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Wood Family BBQ Tour - Online!

We have returned from two weeks of sumptuous BBQ and goofy adventures throughout the Deep South.

The 2007 Wood Family Southern Routes BBQ Tour included a visit to New Orleans and the Gulf States region, hang gliding lessons in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and even a night in a Mississippi shotgun shack. Along the way, we discovered the best brisket and ribs we've ever eaten.

If you'd like to retrace our steps over 4,500 miles, 15 days, and 21 BBQ stops, point your browser to:

You'll find plenty of stories and about 100 photos.

Check it out!

PS: If you spot any spelling errors or other typos, please feel free to let me know at:

wooda AT email DOT sjsu DOT edu

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

See the USA

Here's a music video I created a few years back, set to Dinah Shore's See the USA in your Chevrolet. It's composed mostly of public domain video clips, photographs, and postcards.

Difficulty seeing the video above? Click on the link:

[Note: If you select the link rather than the embedded video, please click "Watch in High Quality" to get the best looking view.]

Monday, August 6, 2007

Road Trip Essentials - Part 4

Here's part four of a growing list of essential road trip experiences. Soon I'll start adding to this list less frequently, interspersing this blog with other entries. But eventually I'll conclude this project at 100.

In no particular order...

Cruise Highway 101 and visit the redwoods. Pass through the Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree and buy silly souvenirs at the nearby shop.

Travel the North Dakota's Enchanted Highway. Photograph the giant grasshoppers, geese in flight, a horseback Teddy Roosevelt, and other metal sculptures that line the road between I-94 and the town of Regent.

Visit a neon mecca such as Colorado Springs/Manitou Springs, Colorado; Albuquerque, New Mexico; or Wildwood, New Jersey. Take lots of twilight photos.

Sleep in a teepee motel. Four remaining teepee motels can be found in Rialto, California; Holbrook, Arizona; Wharton, Texas; and Cave City, Kentucky.

Drive cross-country for a week without accessing any form of media. Avoid television, newspapers, and internet. Pack a mobile phone, but use it only for emergencies.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Road Trip Essentials - Part 3

Here's part three of a growing list of essential road trip experiences. I might work on this project over the next few weeks and perhaps even create a glossy poster once I reach 100.

So, here are the next five...

While driving any road called Highway 11 play John Mellencamp's "Minutes to Memories."

Drive cross-country from east to west, reading the nation's topography as a story.

Organize a road trip by theme. We've had luck with trips dedicated to BBQ joints, presidential sites, and noted numbered highways.

Visit Darwin, Minnesota, and its famed "Biggest Ball of Twine." Listen to Weird Al Yankovic's song of the same name at least ten times before you arrive.

Find an empty highway with a straight and level grade. Play Judas Priest's "Turbo Lover." Got your foot on the pedal? Find the metal.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Road Trip Essentials - Part 2

Here's a follow-up to Road Trip Essentials: five more can't-miss cross-country experiences.

Cradle a steaming cup of coffee and eat a piece of cherry pie at a small-town diner late at night. Try the Hunter Dinerant in Auburn, New York.

Take a lonely walk on an empty highway in northern Nevada. Have your friend park a mile up the road, around a curve, and wait as you trudge the desert road with only your footsteps for company.

Sleep in a shotgun shack. Don't pass through Mississippi without renting a room at the Shack Up Inn near the Highway 61-49 crossroads in Clarksdale. I can recommend the Pinetop Shack.

Eat a lobster roll in Maine. Travel Highway 1 in search of that sublime concoction of lobster meat and mayonnaise in a grilled hotdog bun. Don't forget a squirt of lemon. Even if you hate mayo, you'll love a lobster roll.

Spend a year gathering the ultimate road trip playlist. Aim for older stuff: dinosaur rock, folk, blues, and some jazz. Better yet, create a night-driving list for when you've passed midnight have two more hours to go. On a good road trip, this should happen at least once.

More to come, eventually...

Friday, August 3, 2007

Road Trip Essentials - Part 1

My daughter, Vienna, is planning to take her first road trip after her eighteenth birthday, less than five months away, and she's asked me to construct a list of essential road trip experiences. However, I've been a bit nervous about fulfilling that request. To me, any effort to define the perfect road trip experience will only reveal my ignorance, the places I haven't yet seen. My inclination is to wait another two or three decades until I'm sure I've traveled enough of the country. But as the philosophers say, I ought not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. So, here are five essential road trip experiences. Later on, I'll add more. In no particular order…

Drive a dusty stretch of Route 66, preferably west of Oklahoma City, while the trains roll alongside; listen to Nat King Cole's "Laura."

Visit a tacky tourist trap. Count the billboards on your way to Wall Drug in South Dakota.

Eat some genuinely sublime barbeque. Set your course for Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and gorge at Dreamland.

Drive through the southern Utah desert along the red rocks in the rain; listen to The Doors' "Riders on the Storm."

Stay at a classic Mom-and-Pop motel like the Blue Swallow in Tucumcari, New Mexico. In the twilight, find a metal chair and watch the cars roll by.

More to come…

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Citizen Journalism

During CNN's coverage of the Minneapolis bridge collapse one anchor noted the amount of video that was pouring in from "citizen-journalists" throughout the city. Sure enough, regular folks, using equipment they'd probably purchased at some big box electronics store, had captured some truly extraordinary motion and still-photograph images.

As a former broadcast journalist, I can attest to the color and crispness offered by high-end professional equipment, and I certainly miss using my terrific betacam, which cost more than my yearly salary back in the late '80s. But these days even the most pedestrian equipment can capture stunning and stirring images. And these pictures can be distributed worldwide with or without the need of the Fourth Estate.

Right now, I find myself thinking about how in the early years of electronic mail the U.S. Postal Service once offered to "authenticate" messages with some sort of virtual stamp, in an effort to glom its increasingly irrelevant institution onto an entirely new medium. Twenty-something computer users stroked their soul patches, downed their espressos, and laughed.

I have no doubt that traditional news media offer something important to the world, what Dan Rather used to call "context and perspective." Despite the paternalistic ring to that term, I understand its utility. And during a crisis, I still turn on the television to a major news network. But I also fire up the browser to sift through story aggregators like Fark and Drudge (I note with some shame).

Today these media occupy different devices. But as broadband gets faster and faster, allowing traditional media to stream their content through online portals, I wonder if I'll even bother with the television in the next few years.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Gas Station Matchbook

Here's an old matchbook with no other identifying information. This was probably a generic image used for many businesses. I like this image's depiction of (what appears to be) an old gravity-fed gas dispenser and for its "formal" vibe, a reminder of an era in which motor travel was a pleasure enjoyed mainly by the wealthy.