Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Traveling this week

I'll be on the road for a few days, no further blog posts until Monday.

Airport Hell

The Independent summarizes a recent high-profile listing of the world's worst airports:
Why are airports so bad? Perhaps it's because travellers are not so much customers as captives, and airports exploit them without mercy. Got to wait for a few hours? Why not stroll through the soulless shops and pick up some overpriced bauble? For most of us, the abiding experience of airports is not horror. It is tedium.
Read the entire article: The World's Worst Airports

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

My Starbucks Card

I admit it: I have a Starbucks card.

Mine is a half-hearted admission of guilt, because I'm not that guilty at the prospect of being seen in a Starbucks.

I once was.

Among my cool friends, the ones who see only art films and read the New York Review of Books regularly, Starbucks is often dismissed as hopelessly square: bad, burnt coffee, silly attempts at exoticism (ohhh, this coffee is from Ethiopia), and, most damningly, death to the neighborhood café.

I sympathize with that reasoning. I prefer local places, even if the quality may be uneven.

But I still like Starbucks.

I began visiting the ubiquitous coffee chain when writing my first draft of a book about ubiquity, the ongoing omnitopia project. I found a Starbucks in Salinas whose plate glass windows offered views of both the interstate and a Wal-Mart. When writing about placeless architecture, it's hard to imagine a more apt site.

No connoisseur of decent coffee, having never drunk the stuff even after a hitch with the Navy, I started with frothy, milky drinks before discovering the thrilling jolt of espresso. Sure, there are "great" espressos to be had. In Italy, I guess. But you can't convince me that Starbucks offers a lousy one.

Eventually I learned to order mine in the doppio ceramic cups -- no paper for me.

And then I discovered those damned toffee bars.

Sometimes the bars have a lot of toffee; sometimes they have none. Sometimes they're a bit dry and sometimes they're tender and moist. But almost always they go perfectly with the thick, strong shot of espresso served in that tiny cup. Almost always, they help me craft a mental vacation from a busy afternoon.

That's the point of Starbucks, for me anyway. I have an espresso maker in my office. And in a pinch, I can brew up a decent cup. Nothing memorable, but nothing too shabby either.

But the chance to walk a few blocks to a place whose employees seem genuinely happy to rap a few moments (when the line isn't too long) and serve some coffee is a good thing.

So now I have a local Starbucks that is "mine." It's near my office (aren't they all?) in San José. I go every day or so, looking forward to the times when the counter-person knows what I want before I have to ask.

I'd never queue endlessly during a morning just to get a jolt. But the afternoon fits with my schedule and has become a consistently happy part of my day for months now.

So, at last, I decided it was time to buy a Starbucks card. Carrying it offers no privileges, no special deals (yet, at least). Sure, I got a couple of free iTunes selections out of the purchase. But I would have happily bought "Stairway to Heaven" on my own eventually.

It's just nice to know that I keep a reminder in my wallet of a relatively cheap and dependable dalliance from the daily grind, a promise of consistency amid seemingly endless variation.

I admit it: I like Starbucks.

Monday, November 26, 2007

No Country For Old Men

Disturbing, dark, solemn, and intense, No Country for Old Men is one of the most memorable films I've seen this year. And while I've only read one Cormac McCarthy novel, The Road, I am amazed that the Coen Brothers so perfectly managed to evoke the author's unmistakable voice in their newest film. Predictably, Jenny didn't much care for it. She's no fan of either the directing duo's work or of this kind of film, so bleak it was. That's OK. I enjoyed it enough for the both of us.

Spoiler Alert

The plot of No Country for Old Men is disarmingly simple: a fellow named Llewellyn Moss comes across a satchel full of money after stumbling upon a drug deal gone wrong. Taking the cash, he is pursued by various thugs, most notably a killer named Anton Chigurh. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, recognizing that Moss has stepped out of his league, also tracks the man. For his own reasons, Bell wants to help Moss. Along with the human characters, the film adds the desolate wastescape of southwestern Texas, a land of prickly scrub and dusty towns. No question, the movie is not a "fun" experience; it's no summer blockbuster. But every scene is its own moment of almost perfect acting, pacing, screenwriting, cinematography, and musical score. The movie coils with menace and strikes in brutal and surprising ways, even while managing remarkable pathos and odd humor. And at its conclusion, you might be amazed at how subtly the film's primary message and point of reference shift from character to character, from present to past.

Walking out of our beloved Del Mar Theatre, Jenny and I discussed the various mysteries left hanging in No country for Old Men, wondering about the choice made by the remorseless killer who demanded that Moss's wife determine her fate by a coin toss. He stepped out, wiping his shoe, leaving many observers of the film to conclude that he kills her. To be honest, I'm not sure. Chatting with Jenny as we walked through downtown Santa Cruz, I explained that I prefer to imagine that the fate of Moss's wife may be similar to that of Schrödinger's cat, that we can never really know without going into the house. From this perspective, "fate" remains a sort of choice. An older couple walking a few paces ahead entered our conversation with their own thoughts, and for a few moments we four strangers compared mental notes. I was actually a bit sad when an intersection set our paths apart once more, so much did I enjoy chatting about this relentlessly thought-provoking film.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving

I'll be taking the next couple days off, enjoying the holiday with my family. See you next Monday.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

NCA - Chicago

I've finally resurfaced from the NCA conference in Chicago, after working to complete a lengthy set of interviews for candidates to the SJSU Peer Mentor Program in the days that followed. Only now I can spend a few moments reflecting on my trip. This post won't focus on the academic side of my travels - presenting papers about Greyhound bus terminals and mobile/placeless enclaves, and hearing some of the research shared by my colleagues. Rather, I'll highlight some of the images from the time around the conference that stuck with me:

I enjoyed breakfast at the Artist's Snack Shop with my former forensics coach from Berry College, Randy Richardson, and our mutual friend and colleague, Kathy McKee. I so enjoyed the chance to relax with old friends, sharing our recent adventures in writing along with our other activities. Our conversations carry a collection of well-worn stories and jokes that we tell year after year, offering comfort and consistency no matter where or when they're shared. It always means so much to spend time with people who helped me become who I am. During our breakfast, Randy and Kathy encouraged me to check out Renoir's "Alfred Sisley" at the Art Institute of Chicago. They assured me that my resemblance to the figure portrayed in that piece was uncanny. How correct they were is a testament to our friendship.

I toured the Chicago Art Institute on a drizzly Sunday afternoon, digging the impressive collection of nineteenth and twentieth century pieces. Favorites include Georges Seurat's "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" and Gustave Caillebotte's "Paris Street, Rainy Day," while I also enjoyed the eerie post-9/11 vibe of Richard Misrach's collection of birds-eye view photographs entitled (post apocalyptically) "At the Beach." I was less enamored with the Jasper Johns collection that seemed less about art as communication and more about communication between artists.

I also ambled through Millennium Park, peering upon Anish Kapoor's beloved "Cloud Gate" installation (known informally as "the bean") and photographing the Crown Fountain. I overheard a tour guide explain that the faces on these twin 50-foot tall glass-block installations were picked from regular, every-day Chicago residents. But there was nothing normal about their towering height and creepy one-way stare. I also enjoyed the Frank Geary-designed outdoor amphitheater, notable for its graceful crisscross of silver arcs that hold speakers aloft so that folks sitting on the lawn can still enjoy the show.

I went to dinner with Chris Nix, Kenny Sibal, and Lee Wyman, taking a taxi to Smith and Wollensky. The restaurant is a favorite of mine for its location, ambiance, and quality. This is a red meat and martini place, where the menus are cased in glass framed wooden displays. The prices are somewhat obnoxious, but the steak almost always calls to mind the "ignorance is bliss" scene from The Matrix. Afterward we walked to the Hancock Building, me enjoying the guilty pleasure of a fat cigar. We met a large contingent of Georgetown College students at The Cheesecake Factory. There's something delightfully wrong about ordering a massive dessert at midnight.

While returning to San Jose on Sunday night, my plane flew over a grayish cover of clouds for almost a half-hour, a carpet lit by a brilliant moon. As we began to descend, I thrilled at the prospect of carving through that gray wall, wondering what I'd see below. Sure enough, for almost a minute I waited as my window filled with cloud. Then gradually I gazed upon the clear and vividly lit city. I wondered at the fact that all those people below saw only a dreary cloud cover, maybe not even imagining that angelic moon glowing above.

I'm told that NCA will be held in San Diego next year, which is nice enough. But I'm delighted to hear that we're returning to Chicago in 2009. It's my favorite conference city, one I can't wait to see again.

(Mobile Phone Photos by Andrew Wood)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Iran Update

Gareth Porter writes in the The Asia Times that the September attack against an alleged nuclear site in Syria was, in fact, a message being sent to Iran.
Until late October, the accepted explanation about the September 6 Israeli air strike in Syria, constructed from a series of press leaks from US officials, was that it was prompted by dramatic satellite intelligence that Syria was building a nuclear facility with help from North Korea.

But new satellite evidence has discredited that narrative, suggesting a more plausible explanation for the strike: that it was a calculated effort by Israel and the United States to convince Iran that its nuclear facilities could be attacked as well.
Learn More: A warning shot for Iran, via Syria

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Off to NCA

Just a note about my forthcoming trip to the National Communication Association's annual conference in Chicago. Since I'll be generally offline during this trip, there will be no further blog posts until Monday, November 19th.

Economic Consequences of Bush Presidency

Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate, has written a powerful indictment of the costs associated with the Bush presidency. It makes for sober reading.

Here's a snip:
Up to now, the conventional wisdom has been that Herbert Hoover, whose policies aggravated the Great Depression, is the odds-on claimant for the mantle “worst president” when it comes to stewardship of the American economy. Once Franklin Roosevelt assumed office and reversed Hoover’s policies, the country began to recover. The economic effects of Bush’s presidency are more insidious than those of Hoover, harder to reverse, and likely to be longer-lasting. There is no threat of America’s being displaced from its position as the world’s richest economy. But our grandchildren will still be living with, and struggling with, the economic consequences of Mr. Bush.
Learn more: The Economic Consequences of Mr. Bush

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Shameless Media Plug - Saskatoon (Canada) Star Phoenix

In an article entitled Landmark 'theme' motel in Montreal closes doors for good, published on November 10, I was asked to provide a brief history of the American motel. It's a tiny clip of a lengthy interview, but it's nice to share...

Monday, November 12, 2007

Are reporters doomed?

David Leigh of The Guardian has written an interesting article about the state of journalism in the internet age. While focusing mainly on British reporting, he offers some compelling analysis that is pertinent on this side of the Atlantic. Here's a snip:
The internet is an incredibly rich information resource, and a great tool for worldwide sharing. But as well as overloading us with instantaneous terrors, it also degrades valuable principles — the idea of discrimination, that some voices are more credible than others...
Read More: Are reporters doomed?

Friday, November 9, 2007

Conference Fees

I'm getting ready for the National Communication Association's Annual Conference, this time in Chicago. I've attended that conference since 1991, missing only one in the intervening years. To me, the conference is a great chance to get caught up on emerging scholarship, share some of my own work, and meet interesting people. My favorite part, however, is the opportunity to reconnect to old friends going back to my undergraduate years. Having attended, I think, 15 NCAs, thus far -- and planning many more -- I regret only one thing. I wish I had bought a lifetime membership.

When registering for your first or second big-time professional conference, those lifetime rates seem exorbitant. And on a student's paycheck, they are. But by my fourth or fifth NCA, I knew that I'd gain membership to this profession somehow, and I knew I'd attend many more NCAs. So, I'm feeling an acute sense of "if only." If only I'd paid that rate back then, when the cost of attendance was merely exorbitant. With various inflationary pressures (some less necessary than others, I think), the yearly cost has become a real pain. Sure, I can afford it. But I'd rather have bundled all those bills up early and paid them at once than as a fee that climbs year after year.

Perhaps anyone reading this who plans on making regular conference attendance part of her/his professional plans may benefit from the lesson I've learned.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Oil Apocalypse Movie

The Guardian describes an upcoming movie called Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash that depicts a global crisis following the time in which oil production passes its peak and begins to decline, even as developing economies in China and India demand more and more.

In this article, I was struck by a particular line:
Oil companies say that there are still major reserves to be exploited. In particular, Arctic and Antarctic fields - which are being freed of ice and snow as the world heats up - are being sized up for their reserve potential.
One may find better examples of "vicious cycle," but not today.

Read the article: New 'disaster' movie warns world of oil apocalypse

Follow-up: Here are my 2008 reflections on the movie.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Wood Writing Guide - Its vs It's

Really? The difference between "its" and "it's" is so hard to decipher? Apparently for the writer of this article, it is.

This is the point where I remind you just how prone I am to typos of all kinds, and it's true: anyone can slip an apostrophe into most the inappropriate linguistic crevasse. Yet an increasingly large number of students and even professional journalists seem to make this error. I wish they'd stop.

I wonder about the most effective reminder to help folks avoid the its/it's dilemma. So far, the best I can discern is a simple reminder: "it's" always means "it is" or "it has" and any sentence with "it's" should be capable of being read that way. Otherwise, stick with "its."

Oh yeah. "Get over it. No one cares" won't work. Sorry. It's a passion of mine.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

New Sanfrakota

Lately, AT&T has run an ad campaign that illustrates the notion of mobile enclave, an intersection of technology and performance that allows its practitioners to carry miniature version of the world with them. The mobile enclave is best illustrated by the iPod's (and, now, iPhone's) enablement of a portable bubble of sound whose impressive storage capacity allows users to disconnect from the outside world for increasingly long periods of time. Consider the contrast of radio that is static (in terms of motion, if not in terms of quality), limited to a narrow range of music, and innately public. With new personal data, navigation, and entertainment devices, we need not be tied to those old media-sites. AT&T illustrates a fascinating expansion of the mobile enclave concept with its "works in more places" spots.

Here's a typical example: "You live in New York. You work in San Francisco. You play in South Dakota. AT&T Works in more places like New Sanfrakota." The name is awkward and confusing at first, but it undoubtedly grabs your attention. Where is this place? Then you realize that the name is meaningful only to its author. The place is a conflation of nodes designed to further an individual ambition or corporate vision. New Sanfrakota - and other amalgams such as Philawarapragueacago - are precisely not places for you or for anyone else.

A number of critics have castigated this campaign as being confusing or, worse, kind of stupid. Bloggers have emphasized that AT&T, regardless of its ad budget, sells a lousy product. A reasonable critique. Yet I'm drawn to the ad campaign's proposal that we want to carry our own artificial worlds around, tying together personalized nodes that allow us a more perfect dislocation from the places through which we pass and the people by which we walk.

I wonder how this trend will end.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Shaking Hands

These days I'm conducting interviews - 72 of them - with potential peer mentors. Along with the way, I'm shaking lots of hands. Some of these introductions have helped develop rapport. Some, however, have not set things off quite so well. In that spirit, here's an interesting article I found on CNN about deadly handshakes.

The worst way to shake hands

Friday, November 2, 2007

Wood Family Halloween 2007 - Video

Here's a video from our Wood Family Halloween: Psycho Circus.

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.]

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Wood Family Halloween 2007

Once again, the Wood Family created a haunted porch sensation for our Scotts Valley neighbors. This year's theme: Psycho Circus. Taking for granted the fact that many people think that clowns are creepy, we created a multimedia Halloween carnival this year. The highlight was a freak show with a two-headed baby (with cooing and gurgling sound effects), a crawling hand, and a man-spider hybrid. Jenny rigged the baby to wave and the spider to bounce when folks peered into the boxes. The carnival also included a gory "Corpsy the Clown" (absolutely earning our yearly "PG13" warnings to parents), a video display of scary movie clown scenes, hanging clowns in the upper windows (lit by strobe lights), and atmospheric music from Michael Hedstrom's "Midnight Circus" CD. Rounding out the spectacle, Jenny gave tours of the freak show as a bearded lady and I handed out candy as "Creepy the Clown," complete with dangling cigar. Psycho Circus, which ran from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., was a smash. Countless waves of kids waited in line to climb the porch and enjoy the show!

To see pictures of Psycho Circus, point your browser to:

In the next day or so I plan to upload a brief video from the show as well...