Friday, January 29, 2010

Friday Fun Post: Crush the Castle

Given the recent drubbing I dropped on the iPad, there's little risk I'll be confused as an Apple shill for giving props to my newest favorite iPod app: Crush the Castle.

In this game, you don't have to worry about complex strategy or convoluted controls. You tap the screen, then tap it again, and that's it. What happens? You control a gloriously old-school weapon called a Trebuchet, which is basically a giant slingshot that hoists huge rocks against a fortified pile.

Sometimes the castle is made of wood, sometimes stone, and sometimes metal. Which is fine, because the more you play, the better your arsenal becomes, starting from tiny stones and growing to an avalanche of pain. All you do is select the your payload, release for maximum damage, and pulverize that sucker.

Technically you're measuring for speed, distance, and velocity, while assessing how various structural elements like beams and fulcrums can best be knocked down. But really you're just laying waste to a kingdom of pixels that can stand for anything bugging you. Oh, and there's a king, a queen, and plenty of hapless guards in the line of fire.

Even if you slept through your high school physics course, you'll quickly become master of the Trebuchet, raining all sorts of mathematical mayhem on your foes. Before long, you'll eagerly eye the map for your next conquest, your next territory, and your next increase in firepower: bigger rocks, then groups of rocks, then bombs that sizzle as they arc through the air and drop onto shrieking foes (then things get kind of freaky).

It's so easy. Just set, release, and watch as the walls come tumbling down.

Play for free at the Armor Games website. Then download the app. Crush the Castle is a fun medieval timesuck for only two bucks.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

2010 State of the Union

It's hard to react to last night's State of the Union speech, because it fulfilled its expectations so thoroughly and - I fear - so pointlessly.

Once more, President Obama delivered a broadly scoped, reasonably detailed, and occasionally artful address that said many of the things that must be said. I particularly appreciated the president's respectful yet direct engagement with the Supreme Court - some of whom were sitting feet away from him - just days after they handed down a singularly disastrous decision that further cedes our country to corporate control. The sum of Obama's speech was a reality-check for the nation and its new leader, a frozen moment of America's increasingly difficult dialogue about its future.

Last night's address introduced us to Obama chastened, a leader forced to profess empathy for fickle voters who seem perplexed that an economic crisis built over the past decade has not somehow vanished by the snap of his fingers. The government will cinch its belt, he promised. Better yet, bailout-banks will start paying the same late fees that cash-strapped Americans have long endured. And we will once again pledge to shrink the debt that has transformed our nation from powerhouse to poorhouse, like an alcoholic swearing off the juice when morning comes, just as we always promise.

Along the way, Obama admitted that comprehensive health care reform, that shimmering Brigadoon of the American imagination, will once again vanish into the mist. Abandoning hopes of universal coverage, the president ushered the nation down the well-groomed trail of compromised incrementalism. We may see a few improvements in health care delivery - apparently the First Lady is tackling childhood obesity - but the systemic faults that profit the insurance industry while plundering American budgets will almost surely remain.

You can bet that the wingnuts on both sides of the political spectrum will continue calling the president a fraud or a fascist, either because he does too little or too much. They didn't need to see the speech to know where they stand. Yet I imagine that most listeners recognized the president's efforts to define some kind of middle ground in American discourse. During the speech, Obama challenged the assembled Congress to think past its prejudices: "We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions. So let's show the American people that we can do it together."

Did his speech do any good? It's hard to say. But judging from reactions and broader political realities, I don't think so.

Republicans generally set on their hands whenever the president veered from generically popular themes such as tax reduction or troop appreciation, when they weren't otherwise smirking to themselves. And Democrats were little better. Yes, they stood and applauded. Glowingly, supportively. Still, I'm certain that members of the president's party mostly daydreamed about their own concerns. Even as they clapped and cheered, they seemed to peer past the peaks of Obama's oratory, fixing their eyes into the abyss of a suddenly vicious election cycle. Holding congress is the highest priority for a permanent political class.

Thinking back to the Massachusetts debacle, many Dems were thinking to themselves, even as the president called for a new national consensus, "Yeah, but when is the next former nude model who drives a pickup gonna appear on the scene? And will he come gunning for me?" Solving the problems of a generation means less to these folks than fundraising for 2010.

So President Obama delivered another fine speech. As usual, I watched and listened and marveled about how wonderful it is to have a national leader who reflects the complexity of our national aspirations: vision and practicality, confidence and humility, forbearance and courage. While many of my friends on the Right seem hellbent on transforming the president into a bumper sticker caricature, I still believe he's the best person for a lousy time.

Thus, to me it seems less a question of whether our nation can be saved. In an era of partisan bickering and popular disengagement, the question is more fundamental: Do we deserve to be saved?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The iPad has landed - with a thud

Yep, I dedicated my morning to watching the Big Announcement from the comfort of my easy chair, resting an aging MacBook on my lap and nestling external speakers on either side of my legs. On one side of the screen: CrunchGear's often cringe-inducing live coverage. On the other side, NYT's live blog coverage, requiring occasional refreshes for updates. In the middle, Twitter coverage generally dedicated to either mocking the lameness of CrunchGear's John Biggs and Meghan Asha's repartee or demanding with increasing intensity: how much will the iPad cost?

There's much to like about this thing. I dig the flash memory (flashing back to memories of several crashed hard drives), the potential for immersive, interactive media, and the sheer audacity represented by a device meant to create an entirely new category of tech toy/tool. But some stuff just doesn't make any sense - starting with the price. $499 (and way up) is a couple hundred above my pricepoint for a something I'm not sure I actually need. Beyond that, I've got a few gripes:

Practicality issues: I'm trying to visualize how I'd integrate this device into my life. I regularly hear that the device is meant to be placed on your coffee table and passed from family member to family member. Well, we don't have a coffee table. OK, you can attach a separate tactile responsive keyboard to the device for, say, writing on a plane without mashing your fingers against the glass. This seems oddly regressive from the perspective of the laptop I'm using right now. More importantly, how rugged can the iPad be? I visualize a thriving market for third-party iPad protectors, which is a shame. Apple products shouldn't require ugly covers to guard their screens.

Software hassles: The iPad lacks multitasking ability. In other words, with a few exceptions, you only run one application at a time. How does that compute for you? How often do you find yourself watching a YouTube video, checking your email, and maybe checking a website simultaneously? OK. Maybe not all that frequently. But when you can't multitask, you really wish you could.

Missed Opportunities: The one potential selling point of the iPad (for me) would be a two-way videochat option that works anywhere. Talking with a pal via live video, on a large enough screen to see the subtleties of emotion, would be cool - especially if you could collaborate on documents on another part of the screen - working together in different locations on the same thing. But this version skipped the chance by failing to include videocamera features.

Name regrets: iPad represents one of the dumbest branding choices Apple could have made. Only someone caught up in the Jobs Reality Distortion Field would recommend a name that inspires images of sanitary napkins (tackiest tweet I saw this morning: "Waiting until Apple releases a bigger version of the iPad: the MaxiPad"). My vote? Ditch the i-prefix, call it the "Tab" (after dealing with the owners of the seventies-era diet drink). Oh well, no one ever confused me for a professional brand consultant.

Oh, and one more thing...

No phone: Douglas Rushkoff writes, "The iPad - contrary to the way most people thought about it - is not a tablet computer running the Apple operating system. It’s more like a very big iPhone, running the iPhone operating system." OK. Fair enough. I love my iPhone. And bigger is better, right? Except, this "Maxi" Phone ... doesn't even have a phone! Sure, there's always a work-around (especially for those folks developing an appreciation for Google Voice). It'd certainly require VoIP and a wireless headset (can you imagine crooking a tablet to your head?) but the resulting blur of communication modes might be worth the price. Still, really: No phone?

So after about 11:30 PST, the announcement wrapped up with Steve Jobs waxing eloquently about how Apple stands on "the intersection of Technology and Liberal Arts." As a participant/observer of both domains, I have absolutely no idea how Jobs relates that grand vision with this underwhelming product.

Would I play with the iPad? Yep. Could I fall in love with the product? Maybe. Will I buy it? Probably not anytime soon. Now the wait begins... for version 2.0.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Waiting for Apple (again)

Apple will unveil its new tablet device tomorrow, and gadget freaks shall rejoice - or cringe.

For months, the insanely secretive company has dribbled out rumors and strategic half-truths: The tablet will rescue the newspaper industry! The tablet will be a gamer's paradise! The tablet will create an entirely new consumer need! The tablet will cost between $700 and $1000...

Leaked schematics, faked prototypes, and breathless reports of insider information - Did you hear? A Chinese supplier of widget covers reports that they're creating a new antigravity polymer that can bend time and deep-fry ice cream! - have led finally to the imminent launch of the iPad (or iSlate or iTablet or iWhatever).

As someone all too easily prone to overdoing my enthusiasm for this kind of thing, I'm forced to remember previous media frenzies that fizzled. I'm looking at YOU, Segway. And YOU, Windows Vista. And don't think you can hide your shame, Snakes on a Plane.

Still, it's kind of cool to finally see what Steve Jobs, expressing himself in typical understatement, has announced as "the most important thing I've ever done" (better hide that "World's Greatest Dad" mug, Steve). Fact is, if any company can change everything, it's, well -

Yeah, I'll be hanging on every word tomorrow.

Update: ...And then, tomorrow came!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Talking About Suicide

Warning: This post deals with the topic of suicide. It includes autobiographical narratives but does not offer any particular wisdom or advice. Suicide is a topic of personal interest to me, but it does not reflect my area of professional expertise. Nor does it reflect the opinions or attitudes of any other person or entity. These words, and any errors they may contain, are mine alone.

If you are troubled by the fact that I'm dedicating a post to this topic, you may wish to avoid reading it.

And if you feel suicidal, or if you know someone who does, I encourage you to contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline [link]: 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Their service is free and anonymous.


Occasionally when I'm teaching my course "Rhetoric and Public Life" I think about suicide.

Perhaps that last phrase requires some clarification.

What I mean to say is this: I reflect upon the impact of suicide, which is generally a solitary decision made through the miasma of personal despair, upon the lives of family, friends, neighbors, and even strangers who hear that a person has killed her/himself. In this sense, suicide is a topic suitable for any discussion that includes "public life."

And no, I don't ask incredulously, "why could a person do such a thing?"

I know why.

One of my earliest memories from childhood starts with me waking up in the apartment of two friendly neighbors. I was about seven, and I remember feeling odd about the sensation of lifting my head from fancy silk pillows in a room I didn't recognize.

Two men walked softly into the room. I vaguely recognized them as the couple who lived in the apartment at the end of our row (in the '70s, I suppose, these two guys were considered "confirmed bachelors" - how things have changed). I wondered: Where am I?

I don't remember how I wound up in their apartment. But soon I came to understand that my mother, who must have been about 27 at the time, swallowed a fistful of pills. Somehow that night I was moved to my neighbors' place, which was filled with flowers and fancy knickknacks, and I was placed in their warm and comforting bed.

I have no idea who found my mother. I have no idea how she survived. Was hers a serious attempt or simply a cry for help? I never asked her.

In the time that followed, I was intermittently angry at my mom for threatening to leave me like that, in the hands of people I barely knew. And yet for years at a time I managed to overlook that night altogether. Still, I never really forgot.

Once, in a pique of teenage rage over something inconsequential, I hurled my mother's suicide attempt at her as a verbal attack. I don't remember her literally smacking me across the face in response; she might have just yelled. But I do remember the palpable feeling that her suicide attempt was no trifling matter.

Her effort to kill herself affected me in an existential way, but it was hers. It was personal. My mom always kept part of herself locked up tight. Even a moment in happier times that she described as somewhat close to a mystical encounter, one night at the beach under the stars when something happened to her, would never be fully explained to me. As outgoing as she was, my mother guarded herself carefully. She had few possessions in those years, but her suicide attempt was her property, not mine.

I therefore recognize the potential disrespect that I may inadvertently demonstrate by telling this story. I imagine that even now, years since she passed away in a hospital after entering for a basic procedure, my mom might be angered at my writing this - if the dead concern themselves with the living at all. I promise her, and you: I mean no disrespect.

In fact, I look back upon my mother as a strong, confident, courageous woman who dealt with drunken parents, violent boyfriends, unstable employment, and periods of poverty and homelessness with remarkable optimism and foresight. She raised a troubled son as best she could, wrenching our little family into a world of relative happiness and security with sacrifices that are in some ways unspeakable.

Eventually my mother married a kind man, and together they built a wonderful life. They traveled frequently and they enjoyed years in homes earned through their shared labors. I look back on early days when my mother quoted Scarlett O'Hara, a heroine with whom she personally identified: "As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again" (she remarried for love, I know, but Sandra was always a practical woman). And I remember Mom's justly earned happiness with a man who treated her with kindness and for whom she was a good friend and companion. My mother's death, when it came, surprised and saddened me. But her passing concluded a life she lived on her own terms, with as much dignity as she could muster.

Of my grandmother's reasons to kill herself some years ago, I know much less. Hers was a hard life; at least that's what I remember. I recall flipping through old albums filled with black and white photos. Most were marked with names of people I never met: friends, neighbors, co-workers. I imagine my grandparents with their two children, my mother and her sister, living in Dunedin in the fifties and sixties. They had a boat, they played games at home, they sometimes went out to nice restaurants, they seemed to have a rich social life.

But my mother's parents drank so constantly that I remember them as violent and scary more than anything else. We lived with them for a few years - I've described this elsewhere - when we had nowhere else to go. We moved to my grandparents' house after my mother freed us from living with some lunatic who slept on the couch in our St. Petersburg apartment, when he wasn't beating the hell out of both of us. Living afterward with my grandparents offered some respite but little improvement.

As I've said, I know little about my grandmother. My aunt tells me that Charlene lost her own mother at age 9 and her father when she was 15. She married my grandfather shortly thereafter and promptly assumed the role of stay-at-home mom. Charlene tackled that job with determination, insisting on keeping a clean and orderly house. I'm told that no holiday table was complete without a suitable flower arrangement. Her daughters, my mother and aunt, were well cared for but also reminded of their duties to assume adult responsibilities when the time came. Both were promised college educations, with the proviso that financial support would end at age 21 or marriage, whichever came first.

I'm certain though that Charlene hardly imagined how one of her daughters would return to the old house, divorced, drowning in debt, and dragging a frustratingly mixed-up kid in tow. When she was sober, my Nana tended the house and to the needs of my grandfather and her unexpected house guests. I remember few times in which she was happy. I can't envision what she sought out of life, what she dreamed for herself as a little girl, but I doubt she found her ideal world in Dunedin.

After granddaddy died of a heart attack, Nana found a life with another man. He was a drunk, too. He didn't work, and he contributed little to the house. All he needed was a bindle on a stick to complete my mother's assessment: this guy was a bum. Funny thing though, our new house guest stayed for years and years. He too was a practical guy, and my mom came to understand him a little. This man wasn't evil, and he never mistreated my grandmother. He understood his place in the grand scheme of things. Sure, he was a usurper who slept in my grandfather's bed (my mom could never tolerate that). But he was gentle, quiet, and kind. Again, he drank. But he never hurt us. And he helped fill the emptiness in Nana's life. In his later years, he suffered from a lingering illness. And when he died, my mother was genuinely sad to hear the news.

Only this time, Nana faced debts that had piled up over those last years. All her savings were gone and she was alone.

Looking back, I think I only knew Nana through the men in her life, men who each eventually left in their own ways. I remember her as the wife of my grandfather who seemed to rule our Dunedin ranch house with incontestable domination, the product of an era when men were lords over their castles. I also remember her as the companion of a stranger who lived in granddaddy's house for almost twenty years, who seemed to drift through the day in subservience to the memory of a man he never met. Nana ruled the place after granddaddy died, but she somehow deferred to guests who would never leave.

I also remember one day back when my mother and I were living in Clearwater, surviving on substitute teacher-pay that never seemed to arrive on time, and Nana came over to the apartment. I have no idea why, but she and I began to argue. I recall leaning out of my room upstairs, yelling at her about being a drunk, about being cruel to me as a child, and about her being unable to hurt me now. She was standing on the parking lot and I stood above her from my second-floor room, a ten-year old boy possessing a giddy but guilty sense of power over a woman who affected me so greatly, a woman I never really got to know.

I couldn't begin to tell you about Charlene's aspirations, her goals, her accomplishments. I just never got to know her except as a person who dealt with people around her with a sharp tongue. She did much to build a life for herself, but I don't know what she would have said of her choices or the consequences that followed.

Years later, I can't say I was surprised to receive the phone call. Nana had been alone for a while after her friend died. She, who had always insisted on order and sought to instill a sense of responsibility in her daughters, had been publicly humiliated by a bankruptcy judge. He said she'd have to sell practically everything to pay off her debts, even the furniture. That's when she made her final decision. My aunt recalls that Charlene cleaned the house, got dressed as she deemed most suitable, and wrote instructions on how to distribute household items. And then she killed herself.

My mom had called to tell me, and I handled the news with a certain equanimity. I heard the news and reported it to Jenny, who was sitting across from me in our living room. I did not cry, but I recall Jenny bursting into tears when I said the words. She wept, saying, "that poor, sad woman."

Honestly, as the years passed I never thought about my mother's attempt at suicide or my grandmother's completion of that final act. I'd done a tour with the Navy, finished college, and gotten a good job at a profession that seems suited for my abilities and limitations. With Jenny, I'd built a safe and satisfying life.

Always I remembered the fear that haunted those bad old days. I could never quite forget how everything can be taken away, violently, mercilessly, completely. No door lock is strong enough, especially when the threat abides inside, ordering up a highball, sleeping on the couch, knowing all your weaknesses and most of your secrets. I never rid myself of that nagging fear. But I felt more and more sure of my own security nonetheless.

That's why I was truly shocked for the first time some years ago when I found myself gushing tears in front of a stranger in a cramped office at local suicide prevention hotline center.

I'd applied to work as a phone counselor who could talk with folks contemplating suicide. The choice to work in that capacity seemed reasonable enough, a chance to bring my skills as a professor of communication studies to practical use. I knew I'd be asked to complete 40 hours of training, which seemed superfluous to me. How hard could it be? Answering the phone and helping people contemplate choices other than killing themselves must be like putting together a puzzle. You just have to fit the pieces together.

Naturally I had no idea how wrong I was. The hours of training introduced me to a practical application of communication theory and crisis psychology that I'd never encountered in grad school. I learned from people with far less formal schooling than I possessed, survivors who carried their own deep wounds, who quickly managed to puncture my self-assured objectivity and ludicrous detachment with a wisdom earned through pain and self-knowledge. I quickly ditched my smart-ass attitude; I was dealing with grownups.

And for a year I answered the phone. Every Saturday night from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., I did my best to employ a protocol designed to help callers deal with crisis. I dealt with crank calls, bored teens, lonely shut-ins, and plenty of people who were considering suicide but who had no definite means or plan to kill themselves. I remember only a handful of calls in which I counseled people who seemed, as we said in that office, "highly lethal."

I felt that I did some good during that year, but it didn't take long to abandon the silly heroism of hoping that I, one disembodied voice, could literally save the life of the person on the other end of the phone. All I could do on most nights was try to help a sad and vulnerable person work out a plan to stay alive for another day. Sometimes one more day was all they could promise; one more day was all I could expect. I don't diminish the value of that service, but I don't wish to aggrandize it either.

Those memories follow me long after I completed my service. No, I don't "still hear the voices," as one might say in a movie. But I do remember the feelings of metaphorically walking in the dark with a stranger past an open window and relying on my ears and voice alone to say, "Let's keep going just a little bit more."

Even so I always return to that first meeting with the woman who ran the suicide hotline. She was interviewing me, I presumed, to gauge my interest and expertise in crisis counseling. As I said, I entered that room with confidence. I could foresee the year to follow as an interesting exercise in applied communication. Just show me the phone and I'll be just fine, thank you.

Following her own protocol, she asked if I'd attempted suicide or whether I had family members who had attempted to kill themselves or did in fact kill themselves. I'm not sure I even remembered at first. Then I began to rattle through my story. Well, yes, my mother tried to kill herself. And, as it turns out, my grandmother did kill herself not too long ago. And, well...

What happened afterward is hard for me to understand. I don't know why I began to cry, but I was quickly overwhelmed with tears. I was a little scared, actually. Where did this onslaught of feelings come from? I was embarrassed, too. No one in her right mind would let me near a phone to counsel people in crisis when I clearly had no grip on my own problems. I was shaken. This woman, who really had not impressed me, opened me up like a locked safe with the simplest combination. She simply asked. For some reason she allowed me to join the program anyway.

During my training, I learned that people who have had family members attempt suicide are themselves much more likely to do the same thing, and maybe kill themselves in the process. What's more, people whose family members have killed themselves face an even higher likelihood that they will also attempt the act and potentially take their own lives. So while I'm talking about the experiences of others, most importantly about family members who are no longer alive, I am compelled to answer the obvious question: Have I contemplated suicide, or even made an effort to kill myself?

I have never made the effort, but I have contemplated it twice with a fairly high degree of seriousness. In both cases, I faced struggles that seemed so profound and so unmanageable - crises that called into question my personal sense of security and the worth of my good name - that I did indeed think, "It'd just be easier to kill myself." That I'm still alive is no miracle. No heroes swept in to lift me from rocky shoals. It was just a matter of finding a reason to focus on the small but essential truth that my life, no matter how miserable it may be on rare occasion, is more valuable to those whom I love than any freedom from life's pain to be found in suicide.

I offer no assurance that my choices to reframe those problems are transferable to anyone else. Looking back, it's easy to say, "Hey, I have a family. I have a few friends. I have a job. I have a good thing going here. Nothing happening today is worth losing all of that." On most days, happily, that truth is blindingly obvious.

And for some people, it's easy to pitch forth some sanctimonious rebuke about the selfishness of suicide, even the risk that such an act merits being sent to hell. From a certain vantage point, it's easy to be blithe about the pain of strangers.

But even the most apparently fortunate among us confront obstacles from time to time that appear to be unmovable, crises for which there seem to be no resolutions. Anyone blessed with friends, coworkers, and loved ones can still face dark periods when perceptions are most easily skewed, when no person seems to possess strength or willingness for sacrifice sufficient to help us.

Anyone may be forgiven for thinking that the only control we have left in our lives is the time and method of our deaths. And, particularly in cases of grave and painful illness, many reasonable people hold that artificially induced death presents a compassionate response to prolonged suffering.

So there's no easy resolution from me on the topic of suicide.

I don't advocate it. I don't encourage it. And I don't anticipate it.

I merely state that we should not be ashamed to talk about it. As with any difficult dialogue, there's a time and a place for the topic of suicide (even if some readers argue that a blog post fails to meet that standard). Otherwise, we are left with the gnawing guilt that the contemplation of this act must be as solitary a moment as its commission, that we must face our fears and our most irreversible outcomes alone.

Such an attitude, inevitable if one assumes alienation to be the fundamental reality of public life, is nearly as sad to me as the lengths to which some people will go to be rid of their pain and simultaneously communicate their sadness and isolation to others. I reject the attitude that we must avoid discussing suicide in public. Talking about this subject may be awkward as hell. Not talking about it, though, is much, much worse.

At a minimum, suicide affects those who are left behind in ways that may not be apparent for years. The pain may at first be invisible, but it cannot be ignored. And those left behind must endure the sad litany of unanswerable questions. What could I have done? What could I have said? How could I have missed the signs? At once, we recognize the price of silence and the futility of our decision to value harmony over honesty.

Suicide touches all of us who feel connected in a web of human relationships, bound to each others' choices, pains, celebrations, and fears. All of us in some nearly imperceptible way feel the loss of one of us, particularly when that one's choice to die comes from perceived isolation. That's why I wrote this post: Our lives, our problems, and our potentials for communication are far more universal than initial appearances convey.

No one is alone when thinking about suicide. At least, no one has to be.

Friday, January 22, 2010

We made it. Can we unmake it?

We have created something that, if allowed to live, will likely kill our country. A feat of engineering born in the nineteenth century, our creation had been strapped to the table for over a hundred years. Until now. The switch has been pulled and a monster has been set loose.

Literary types might read what happened yesterday through the lens of Frankenstein's creature, a seemingly sensitive and tragic figure (in Mary Shelley's novel) that nonetheless reveals the folly of human efforts to dabble with godhood - and then tries to kill its creator.

What have we done?

To answer that question, we should first consider a sad irony, that we've been watching the birth and death of another creature whose suffering seems to have been contrived to draw our attention away from the real story.

For the past year, many of us - myself, included - have followed the plot twists of the so-called health care debate, marveling at the machinations of a legislative monster run amok. We surveyed its hulking movements and traced its inevitable fall into the abyss of lobbyists and demagogues; we knew this monster was too shabbily patched together with stitched compromise and slapdash design to do more than stumble about. We knew it was too big to die, too horrible to live.

A handsome and heroic Massachusetts senator was elected to put a bullet in the head of the beast, and those of us guarding hope for affordable health care in America bowed our heads a little. We performed the narrative to its necessary end. The story was over, the pundits announced, and we turned the page - except that we'd been following the wrong plot all along. The real story had just begun, lurching from the depths of the Supreme Court.

Yesterday, five conservative jurists revealed their masterpiece, surging an electrical burst of law and hubris into a thing nearly as nameless as Frankenstein's creature, an entity given the innocuous title, "corporation." It had waited long on the slab and is now unchained. And now the American voter faces its own transformation into a golem to be marched and maneuvered by creatures of our own making.

I refer, of course, to yesterday's Supreme Court ruling (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission: [link]) that dismantled the already teetering divide between corporate wealth and political power.

Yesterday's decision, that corporations have practically the same rights to contribute to political campaigns as people because (a) they are people and (b) money is speech, means that America's political class can finally abandon its fiction of accountability to the electorate. We might as well change our nation's name to The United States of Walmart.

Oh sure, big moneyed interests have always held sway over political hacks who view their positions as a job rather than a service. But a century of case law and legislation that generally banned corporations from contributing directly to the coffers of candidates is now gone. Until yesterday, corporations could string together glittery networks of fake storefronts and empty office "citizens groups," but they couldn't intervene directly in elections, if only because Americans on the Left and Right shared a tacit agreement that the creature created in 1886, the corporation-as-person, overly threatened the pretense of the level playing field or marketplace of ideas.

Thanks to yesterday's ruling, corporate "persons," entities not subject to normal restrictions of time or space - or age or conscience - "persons" capable of marshaling nearly unfathomable degrees of wealth, can now do just about anything that a flesh-and-blood person can do within the political arena, except vote. But these artificial persons need not vote when they can simply purchase the votes of lawmakers, which makes political power cheaper than electricity. Writing for the Huffington Post, Miles Mogulescu cites New York Times analysis of the profits reported by Fortune 100 companies during the 2008 election cycle. The total: $605 billion. Then Mogulescu does the math. Just what can you buy with that kind of money?
"A third of the Senate is up for reelection every two years. Let's say the largest corporations give an average of $10 million to each Senatorial Candidate [on average, adjusting expenditures up or down depending on the race]. That would be $3.3-$3.4 billion every two years. Let's say they spent another $4 billion on the Presidential election every 4 years or an average of another $1 billion a year... For less than 1% of their profits, the 100 largest corporations would likely be able to control the Senate and the Presidency, and through that, the Supreme Court" (emphasis added).
Mogulescu notes that he's not even accounting for the rest of the Fortune 500, just the top 100 firms. I should add that those profits reflect reported figures. We have no idea how much money these "people" are actually making. We have no idea just what we've unleashed. What we do know is that the American voter has been displaced from the political arena, where advertising dollars command more attention than good ideas.

Certainly we awaken today to the same country. New movies begin their runs this afternoon, the malls will swarm with shoppers this weekend, and a new season of Olympic games will commence in three weeks, setting televisions aglow with packaged heroes and high definition feats of human skill. And editorialists will continue to shake with impotent rage against the machine. Yesterday's New York Times called the court ruling a "radical decision, which strikes at the heart of democracy." Mogulescu calls it a "bloodless judicial coup." Still, we can hardly be surprised.

After all, we built this thing with our votes. And when our votes were ignored or twisted, or simply manufactured, we made this thing stronger with our silence. Centuries ago, Thomas Hobbes imagined a Leviathan composed of our strengths that would ultimately stand on the foundation of our fears. Yet I don't think even Hobbes could imagine what our collective fear of action, of getting involved, of taking responsibility hath wrought. Yesterday's court ruling transcends mere political theory; it compels us into the realm of science fiction.

That's why readers can so easily recognize the parallel. It's a classic trope: human beings create sentient lifeforms to serve them before becoming their tools - or their prey. Fredric Brown foretold the end of the narrative with his brief yet terrifying story, "Answer." In his story, all the computers in existence are integrated into a supercomputer. Mortal minds build it, but mortal powers can hardly match the collective power of this thing. Still, there is hope that the device will gather all the knowledge available to our puny minds and answer the questions that exceed our intellect. Thus the moment arrives and the switch is thrown. The supercomputer is online. An operator addresses the machine with the most obvious question: "Is there a God?"

A flash of lightning strikes the device, destroying the off-switch, and the answer marks the new day: There is now.

Read More

Editorial Board, New York Times: The Court’s Blow to Democracy

Keith Olbermann, MSNBC: Special Comment (clearly an essay that inspired my own)

Miles Mogulescu, Huffington Post: The Supreme Court's Non-Violent Corporate Coup

Note: I'm not the only one using Frankenstein imagery to make sense of this mess. As I was revising my own post, I came across Jason Linkins's piece, The Supreme Court's Citizen United Decision is Terrifying and found his own brief reference to Mary Shelley's story. Surely there are others who agree: The news today is nothing less than gothic.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Up in the Air on Omnitopian Method

I knew I'd eventually reach this point, and now it has happened: a colleague has invited me to contribute to a panel about the movie Up in the Air. And yep, I'll be using an omnitopian framework in my analysis. I said I was done with omnitopia for a while, but I just can't resist.

This opportunity raises a number of challenges, most importantly related to the creative use of omnitopian terminology. In City Ubiquitous I outline an omnitopian framework according to five components: dislocation, conflation, fragmentation, mobility, and mutability, illustrating each with the aid of two films, Jaques Tati's Play Time and Steven Spielberg's The Terminal. In Chapter Three of City Ubiquitous, I was less concerned with how the components relate to each other, focusing more on simpler matters: what they mean and how they work.

Larger issues of their deployment - of method - were saved for the book's Section Two introduction that proposed localization as a way of going beyond description toward the goal of omnitopian analysis. To my way of thinking, localization is a sort of counter-reading - that is, "offering an interpretation that both explains and confounds omnitopian practices through engaged observation" (p. 84). Though less a method than a perspective, I found this approach to be useful in connecting otherwise disparate ideas that had guided my writing from the beginning of this project.

In my description of localization, I therefore borrowed Walter Benjamin's concept of the flâneur gaze, a term that bubbled up from his Arcades Project, to animate my perspective on omnitopia. Localization enacts a method of observation that is both keenly aware and mildly intoxicated with the modern scene, a performance of semi-consciousness that seeks to convey a sense of place not otherwise found in formal architectural or rhetorical analysis (with thanks and apologies to Michael Bowman for his recommendation that I re-read Benjamin's writings on intoxication). Put more directly, while I generally am a critic of omnitopia (at least from the position proposed in my articulation of the term), I see little insight to be gained by merely criticizing it. To unmake omnitopia, one must live it first.

For me, this method has proven to be useful, and the articles that ensued fleshed out a skeleton of ideas into a book that said what I wanted to say. Even so, I think a more rigorous and precise method needs to be explored, and I plan to use the invitation to write about Up in the Air as an opportunity to propose a more purely rhetorical form of omnitopian analysis. Ideally, this method can be employed by folks not otherwise inclined to try my idiosyncratic performances of localization. Right away I'm fairly certain I'll need to read Walter Kirn's original book, from which Up in the Air is loosely adapted, if only to think about omnitopia more textually. From there, I hope that something useful emerges: a method that can be expanded beyond the application of cookie-cutter terms toward the goal of analysis that delivers insights on technique and implication.

Despite my occasional announcement of plans to advance past omnitopian musings, to tackle new writings, this project seems worthwhile, and I'm genuinely excited about seeing it through (hoping that the panel proposal for this fall's National Communication Association conference in San Francisco is accepted). It's a chance to wrap up some unfinished work and, best of all, hang out with cool people and chat about a fascinating film. Still, I admit to flashing back to Michael Corleone's line from another movie, the third Godfather, that speaks to my situation today: "Just when I thought I was out - they pull me back in!"

Difficulty seeing the Corleone video above? Point your browser here:

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

After Massachusetts

Yesterday was really a stunner. Scott Brown - I still can't believe we're talking about a Cosmo centerfold hottie - claimed his Massachusetts Senate seat - the one held by Ted Kennedy since real life Mad Men were charging three-martini lunches to their expense accounts. And now Democrats gather for the famed circular firing squad.

There's plenty of blame to go around, a chain of shame that grows from national party hubris, rises through the ranks of ever-cautious wait-and-see-ers, and collapses at the doorstep of a singularly tone deaf candidate whose campaign even managed to misspell Massachusetts on a television ad. In a larger sense, though, we might simply be seeing further proof that Americans prefer to calibrate against one party taking too much power, tilting against the majority to ensure a fair fight (or just for the sheer orneriness of sticking a middle finger to the clowns in charge).

Either way, Democrats face a bevy of miserable options that mark a spectacular downfall from grace not seen since the dark morning after the 1994 races when Newt Gingrich vaulted from the bomb-throwing ranks to the Speaker's chair. When it comes to health care, Democrats can try to cram the Senate's version through the House, which would represent an impressive feat of arm-twisting by current Speaker Nancy Pelosi. More likely this administration and its congressional surrogates will watch dreams of health care reform vanish in the same puff of smoke and mirrors so well known by Clintonistas.

The insurance industry wins another victory as once again Americans are suckered into voting against their own interests - and against their own stated preferences, beaten silly by buzzwords like Socialism, Government Takeover, and the dreaded Obamacare. Surveying the wreckage of today's political landscape I feel like Charlie Brown, looking up crazily at the sky above only to find Lucy staring down, laughing. Health care reform isn't dead, but the pulse is fading. I am amazed mostly, well, that I'm amazed.

Me, I left the Democrats years ago. It seemed the most sensible way for Jenny and I, frequently clashing opponents when it comes to policy and politics, to have conversations that didn't end with shouting matches. Our choice to become independents removed much of the partisanship from our household, inspiring us to relax our previously fixed positions. But the big picture remains the same, as bumper sticker-spouters shuffle the deck chairs and the rest of us watch the damn ship sink.

It's amazing how one Senate race can change things - or, closer to the truth, reveal how things really are. It's disillusioning too, which I admit as a guy who performs gimlet-eyed cynicism while hiding a secret reservoir of hope that we may still pull our country out of the drink. It's all a little disorienting. Of course, maybe my shock is really about the nature of yesterday's victor, a guy with pictures that have to be pixelated for The Cobert Report.

My Republican friends are surely celebrating an amazing victory. I can hear the laughter and the clinking of glasses from last night's parties that never really ended. And I can even hear the question, with all traces of mockery concealed by genuinely glowing sentiment: "Hey, the Dems elected Stuart Smalley. Why can't we get a little beefcake?"

Sure, why not?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Waiting for Massachusetts

Political junkies like me are breathlessly anticipating tonight's Massachusetts election returns that will determine the next person to fill Edward Kennedy's seat, and not solely for the historical significance of this race.

No, this is more broadly about efforts to wrap up health care reform that had supposedly passed the high hurdle of compromise among Democrats. And from still a broader perspective, this is about the power of one party to employ the filibuster to derail opposition on the other side of the aisle, regardless of what most Americans claim to want.

It's strange how things got this way. Historically the filibuster, and its demand for a supermajority to be broken, was a rarely invoked hammer swung by a smaller party against its larger rival. When both sides possessed large contingents of moderates who could work together for the greater good, the filibuster reminded everyone to be civil.

Those days are long gone. One after another, big-thinking strategic thinkers have been sent packing, and the current minority party has decided to use the filibuster in place of meaningful debate and respect for electoral mandate. Politics becomes no more than mere tactics.

Yeah, I'm pissed at Republicans today, but this failure is shared by both parties. Each side is led by thick-headed, thin-skinned hacks who once would have been dismissed as bomb-throwing backbenchers, folks necessarily bypassed by bipartisanship. The problem is that virtually anyone who might be mistaken for being a "statesman" left the building long ago.

So we're waiting to hear if a former nude model, now a stalwart Republican, wins a seat once considered a mortal lock for the Dems and breaks their 60 seat hedge against filibuster. Even I, a Californian, am following this race closely; it's exciting political theater. But it is also quite sad.

Someone will win today's election, but no one will win the broader battle. Instead we see further proof of how selfish agendas have supplanted what Lincoln summoned as "the better angels of our nature."

No matter the outcome of this vote, and no matter what kind of health care reform finally reaches the president's desk (if any plan survives tonight's bloodletting), it's clear that America is sick - and getting sicker.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Rainy Day of Reflection

Enjoying a day off at home...

The Martin Luther King Holiday inspires reflection for us all, of course, but I'm also enjoying the chance to process my own personal revolution of turning 42 on a rainy Monday.

I'm sitting on my easy chair with a purring cat on my legs. The fireplace is lit and Jenny's making breakfast. I think I'll do a little reading and maybe watch a movie. For dinner, we've got reservations for Benihana, a family favorite for celebrations.

Despite the gray skies, it looks like a nice day.

Oh, and here's a video sent from Lynnae, a friend from back in Spain. It pretty much says it all!

Difficulty seeing the video? Point your browser here:

Friday, January 15, 2010

Friday Fun Post - The Internet is Made of Cats

Listen once, then try to get the chorus out of your head!

Difficulty seeing this link? Point your browser here:

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Walmart as a Virus

So intensely cool (but I'm a geek for this sort of thing): an animated history of Walmart's growth until 2006.

The choice of color, sort of a pea-green blob, transforms one of the last quarter-century's amazing (and most omnitopian) success stories into something akin to a viral outbreak.

While I love this project, I'd prefer the author of this animated map to have used the infamous Walmart smiley-face. Really, do you think they'd sue?

Check it out:

Thanks to Jared Elson for posting this link to Facebook.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Speaking from Strength

While I'm teaching a public speaking course over the winter break - 16 weeks of content and performance (and drama of all kinds) in 12 days - I've been thinking lately about ways to augment my students' learning with some of the insights gleaned from StrengthsQuest training.

As you may know, StrengthsQuest stems from Positive Psychology research suggesting that people generally possess a matrix of themes that are colloquially termed "strengths." The word may be misleading because a "strength" for one person, no matter how that quality is positively defined, may be viewed as meaningless or even counter-productive to another person.

Thus one person may possess the strength of "competition," striving to win in contests against other people, while another person may gain strength from "harmony," avoiding conflict and seeking common ground. From this perspective, a harmonizer risks acting from a relatively weak position by trying to adopt the persona of a competitor. That's perhaps why the StrengthsQuest folks label each strength in the less directive term of "theme."

More interestingly, the initial StrengthsQuest applications that I've explored encourages folks to concentrate less on one particular theme and more on the matrix of their top five themes (as determined through various tests and exercises). One would imagine that the resulting matrix produces a coherent "whole self" that is easily readable as a narrative for how to be at one's best.

The truth, as always, is much more complex. Whether due to the vagaries of assessment tools or the complexities of human beings, a person's matrix frequently includes themes that appear to contradict each other. Upon reflection, this seeming inconsistency makes a lot of sense. Most people are synergistic, emerging from various and sometimes disparate parts. Even harmonizers may be "competitively" mellow.

How can StrengthsQuest aid public speakers? Initially - and I need to do a lot more thinking about this - students might benefit from mapping several of the 34 themes onto the Greek concepts of ethos, pathos, and logos (old-standby terms in many public speaking classes). Here, I assume that all speakers present some composition of these three qualities, distilled for the sake of conversation into "personal credibility," "emotional appeal," and "logical organization."

So, if a student speaker identifies a five themes as primary strengths, and those strengths relate closely to pathos, perhaps that speaker might wish to investigate ways to capitalize on that component, to master its intricacies and complexities, to be a pathos-based speaker when circumstances allow.

Certainly that speaker must also convey some degrees of ethos and logos, just as any person must practice underdeveloped strengths from time to time. Even harmonizers must compete occasionally, and all speakers must convey at least a little credibility and organization in virtually all situations. But the principle remains: experienced speakers develop a speaking persona that emerges from their strengths, not just their speaking situations. Speaking from their strengths, they tend to be more genuine and confident, and ultimately more effective.

At some later date, I might return to this idea, augmenting this thread with a question I plan to share with my students today: When you're giving a speech, how do you know if you're doing well?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A little psychic

For some reason I've long had a desire to visit a psychic and get my fortune told. I'm certain that the ritual is an extended shakedown, something akin to, "well, I can see five years into your future for fifty bucks, but something mysterious seems to happen at year six. If only my crystal ball were a little less cloudy... Maybe another twenty would clear things up."

So what? I love a good story. That's part of the pleasure of visiting a psychic or a similar money-trap.

The picture above was snapped in Santa Cruz - the first in what might become a small collection of psychic-sign photos. Not far away, you can visit another spectacle of scam: the famed Mystery Spot. It's a hoot, but chances are you won't believe that you've actually stumbled upon a spot where "the laws of nature have been repealed!" No matter. It's fun to watch a gifted story-teller weave tales of ancient curses, scientific investigations, and local legends. And some of these folks have been casting their spells for decades.

Ah, the lure of roadside Americana. And sometimes there's even a giftshop!

(Photograph by Andrew Wood)

Monday, January 11, 2010

Last Call at All-You-Can-Eat Academy

It's a strange thing to live in California and read that folks in the north and south of our state have experienced fairly potent earthquakes these past days. Here in Scotts Valley, the memories of Loma Prieta are fresh [check out a freaky YouTube video from the event]. Yet neither Jenny nor I felt as much as a tremor during this week's jolts. Even so, the quakes illustrate something to me, a sign of secure things slipping away.

Consider then my especially odd position as a college professor. My job is to help students find their footing in a complex world of challenges and opportunities. By helping them engage in the energetic push and pull of college life, I help enable their journeys beyond the gates, ultimately hoping to watch them set their paths toward some meaningful future. The problem is that the future may be much harsher than anything they've been promised. For both undergraduate and graduate students - heck, for all of us - tectonic plates are churning.

Thinking on this, I remember attending a professional conference a few years back and participating in a panel designed to help students get the most out of graduate school. The gathering was organized to share inside tips and practical realities that don't appear in the brochures, and the audience was packed with smart young folks eager to join the fast track. Most of these students were contemplating bright futures as professors of communication studies.

It's an article of faith that students planning to join the ranks of the tenured and tenure-track professoriate attend conferences like these, meeting would-be mentors and other assorted luminaries in hopes that wisdom and maybe a little networking-mojo might rub off on their own job-searches. They are told that conference attendance is part of the long but stimulating path toward a job as a communication professor (or some other related job in the humanities). It's not easy, but the path leads somewhere worth going.

And since several of the panel participants were current or former leaders in the field - we're talking Association presidents and the like - the atmosphere in the room dripped with enthusiasm and potential. We'd come to talk about the future.

So we commenced to offering our comments, sharing a semi-guided conversation that tacked between predictable bromides and occasionally unscripted words of useful advice. We all seemed fairly well in sync, even me: a relatively Young Turk as compared to the seasoned pros who were the panel's real draw.

I felt confident enough in my role at the panel that when one student asked about academic job prospects after grad school, I responded promptly - not with pleasure but with a directness that seemed appropriate, given the nature of the news. I said something like this:
Grad school can be a wonderful experience, but you need to know one fact: The opportunities to land a tenure-track job are poor, and those chances are growing worse. Many universities are cutting tenure lines, replacing them with an accordion-style workplace composed of an adjunct pool that expands and contracts with the economy.

What's worse, master's and doctoral programs are producing more students than jobs, and many folks who complete their degrees will never get tenured employment in the academy. There may be "jobs" - one here, one there - and adjunct instructors can cobble them together sufficiently to pay the bills. But no one should blindly go into this market with the illusion that a graduate degree guarantees anything.

This is not to dampen your hopes or mock your efforts. Jobs are out there, and folks continue to earn tenure and enjoy a decent middle-class life at many colleges and universities. I did; so can you. But it's not easy, and it's going to get harder.

College administrators, often pushed by boards of trustees and similarly politicized groups, may indeed be using changes in the economy to dismantle the tenure system to create a more presumably compliant workforce, a cadre of interchangeable workers whose academic rights and responsibilities become replaced with the Keep-Your-Head-Down survival instincts demanded by the most dismal types of corporate regime.

So, work hard in graduate school - get teaching experience, network at conferences, and publish - and you may yet land your dream job. But plan for alternatives too. The academic market is changing under our feet. The old reliable foundations are going away, and no one can promise you a future of lifetime employment...
In many ways, I was differentiating between two types of Academic Future. One is an All You Can Eat buffet: Just show up, wait your turn, and eat your fill. The other is a Thanksgiving Feast where every year someone removes another chair from the table. The former Future is a vision of plenty. The latter Future is a vision of scarcity.

Certainly, my memory does not serve to reproduce my remarks exactly as I delivered them, but I recall precisely how several of my fellow panelists followed up on my dour description of the menu of options faced by graduate students today.

They eviscerated me.

Luminary after luminary took their turn assuring the students that I did not speak for them or for the field. "Jobs are available," they said. "The trends are precisely the reverse of what you just heard. Universities are growing all over the country, and veteran professors are retiring at a rapid rate. There may never be a better time to get a job!" [Again, these aren't actual quotes, just paraphrases from an admittedly faulty memory]

Thereafter I observed a palpable change in the atmosphere. The students who attended the panel in search of wisdom and assurance seemed much happier after hearing that my remarks were so clearly wrong. The experts in the room, long-tenured professors looking back on decades of experience and promising the Big Picture, had managed to set the world back on its foundations. The conversation went on, sparkling with promise and pleasantries. Tips were offered, stories were shared, futures were solidified.

I tried to stay in the game, joining the dialogue when I felt I had something useful to say. I had no intention of being a spoiler, and truthfully I felt embarrassed at being called out so publicly. I'd read the same articles in Chronicle of Higher Education as the other panelists; I'd seen the same towering piles of applications for each treasured hiring opportunity; I'd observed the expanding pool of hardworking adjunct instructors chasing after the same teaching opportunities, with increasingly low pay (particularly when counting for inflation) and shrinking benefits. And I imagined that a significant economic downturn would merely exacerbate the problem. Things seemed bad for too many people, and they could easily get worse.

Looking back about four years ago at that conference, I had no idea just how bad things would get.

Anyway, the meeting ended and I offered my best effort at collegiality, saying goodbye to my fellow panelists. I remember feeling that I'd somehow angered one or two of them, that I'd done something worse than say the wrong thing. I shook a couple of hands, but I couldn't wait to escape those dismissive looks. The luminaries were off to the next panel or the next party or the next escapade (surely together, I mused) and I departed the room alone. I felt like a fool. It was time to slink off, find a nearby dive, and disappear.

A couple blocks away I stood in line to find a seat at a greasy spoon-type diner, still nursing my guilt and embarrassment. I thought I'd told the truth, balancing it with some assurance but also a necessary degree of reality. "I did," I said, "and so can you. But it's not easy, and it's going to get harder." Those words coursed through my ears. I felt that I'd been honest, but that I'd hardly let slip some sort of secret. Doesn't everyone know just how tough the job market is getting?

Was I wrong?

As I choked on that question, three or four people, each wearing the overly precise stare of a grad student job hunter, walked by me and then stopped. I couldn't recognize anyone, but I somehow knew they'd attended the panel. My mind swam with frustration. A rising young professor, I made an ass of myself in front of my senior peers, and now these grad students were here to watch me wallow alone in my own shame.

Then one guy looked me squarely and said this: "Thanks for saying it. No one else would."

I can't say that I felt much better at that comment. But I felt a little better. And that was enough.

Remembering that conference and that moment afterward, I find myself re-reading Thomas H. Benton's January 30, 2009 Chronicle article, Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don't Go. In his piece, Benton lays out a nuanced critique of the delusional structure of today's grad-to-market machine - an argument I wish I could have articulated as effectively some years back. I can't agree with every element of Benton's essay, but this fellow (even writing under a pen-name) undeniably drops some powerful truth-bombs. Examples:
"The reality is that less than half of all doctorate holders - after nearly a decade of preparation, on average - will ever find tenure-track positions."

"Most undergraduates ... seem to think becoming a humanities professor is a reliable prospect - a more responsible and secure choice than, say, attempting to make it as a freelance writer, or an actor, or a professional athlete - and, as a result, they don't make any fallback plans until it is too late."

"[H]umanities Ph.D.'s, without relevant experience or technical skills, generally compete at a moderate disadvantage against undergraduates, and at a serious disadvantage against people with professional degrees."

"Even if the long-awaited wave of retirements finally arrives, many of those tenure lines will not be retained, particularly not now, in the context of yet another recession."

"The minority of candidates who get tenure-track positions might as well be considered the winners of a lottery."
I think about essays such as Benton's - and my own experiences trying to share a similar vision - and I realize just how strange it seems for both of us, each enjoying the benefits of tenure, to convey the bad news. I've heard critics who dismiss these warnings as little more than self-satisfied bits of economic tourism. We may be seen as "slumming," visiting the realities of the academically disenfranchised, boo-hooing a bit about their tough lot, but still fiercely maintaining our grip upon personal safety while doing pitifully little to challenge the forces that perpetuate the problem. Indeed, we are part of that problem.

I appreciate those rebukes, and I admit that it's much easier to be a truth-teller when safely secured in my own little bubble of tenure and promotion.

Still, writing these words is more than an empty exercise in back-handed self-congratulation ("My, my... I got this gig somehow despite it all"). In fact, I've never put much stock in the so-called security of my line of work. And I fully expect that my life will change substantially in ways I do not plan or prefer. Like an earthquake, it could happen a decade from now or in the next moment. Should such a shattering event rock my foundations, I'd like to think that I'm not so locked into this life that it'd be impossible to live some other way, in much more humble circumstances if necessary.

Perhaps that's a perspective that comes from being married to a Mormon. To members of her faith, prayer alone is not the key to salvation. Keeping a year's supply of food storage is also part of the deal, just in case. God helps those who help themselves, she is taught. She's right.

All of us - those of us currently fat and safe, and those already feeling the rumbles of collapsing girders - are wise to recognize the tenuous nature of our situations, to contemplate the profound changes marching across the world. An unsustainable culture of always-on, always-improving, always-expanding humanity is confronting a shrinking age of limitation and retreat. Things are changing fast. Maybe not entirely for ill, but certainly in directions we cannot fully anticipate.

Of course, possibilities remain that we may somehow prolong the metastasization of the society we seek to join and perpetuate, as evidenced by our "All-You-Can-Eat Academy." And I hope that Doomsters such as Benton and myself are proven wrong in thinking that the tablecloth is being ripped under the plates, that the Boomsters are correct in forecasting an ever-growing table for all those willing to wait in line ("All you have to do is work hard - but don't worry. It's not that hard").

I'd love to be wrong.

But it seems to me that one day we'll look back on these years and ask ourselves, "How long did we think the endless buffet could last?"

Read More: Katz, S.N. (1996, October 6). What has happened to the Professoriate? Chronicle of Higher Education, 53(7), B8-B11.

Update 1: Conn, P. (2010, April 4). We need to acknowledge the realities of employment in the humanities. The Chronicle Review.

Update 2: Sadly dead-on video: So you Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities

Update 3: The Economist: The disposable academic: Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time - for some pertinent quotations, check out my blogpost, Academic Market Update.

Friday, January 8, 2010

My Favorite Dingbat

Wrapping up my most recent tour of Los Angeles Dingbat apartments I'm delighted to share one last pristine example. Located at 1553 South Fairfax Avenue, this one may not be as iconic as other examples, especially given its lack of fanciful scripted name (see The Hauser for example). Still, I love this place...

Maybe it's the asymmetrical layout of the front façade. Maybe it's the pleasing balance of beige and hunter green (I'm fairly color-blind, so I'm just guessing here). Maybe it's the way the building appears to nearly float atop those tiny stilts (dig that International Style!). But most likely, it's those swell tubes projecting with geometric precision from the right side.

See 'em? They don't jut far from the façade, but they recess sufficiently inward to provide resting spots for local birds (I waited around for a while to get a decent pic of one sticking his head out, but wasn't that fortunate). It's so cool to watch the effects of morning shadows on these adornments, so eye-catching and gleefully useless.

Oh, I snapped a decent pic of one bird, mocking my efforts to photograph one roosting in one of those little tubes. Underneath, you can spot an essential component of Dingbat style: over-sized and stylized street address numbers. Again, seeing the shadows play with that san-serif font was pretty cool.

As is often the case, William Gibson offers some insight:
"Architectural photography can involve a lot of waiting; the building becomes a kind of sundial, while you wait for a shadow to crawl away from a detail you want, or for the mass and balance of the structure to reveal itself in a certain way."
In my return visits to L.A. - and in trips to other Dingbat meccas - I may eventually discover an ever more perfect example of this architectural form. But for now, 1553 South Fairfax Avenue is my favorite Dingbat. Is there one you like? Post a comment - preferably with a Google Street view so we can see it!

(Photographs by Andrew Wood)

Thursday, January 7, 2010

L.A. Dingbats - Part 4

Following up on previous stops in my L.A. Dingbat Tour (1, 2, and 3) here's the fourth installment of my adventures in move-in modernism (ohhh, sounds like the title I might use!). I'll begin with a sign that dingbat owners are fully capable of getting a laugh out of their otherwise bland structures. That's right: This place is called CheeZee Apartments (10617 Woodbine Street). Oh, and take a look at the owner's logo (lower left)...

Another one of my favorite Dingbat names: "Quo Vadis" (1502 Wellesley Avenue). Translated from the Latin, this means (something to the effect of) "Where are you going?" That's an illustration of how some Dingbats work; they transform an otherwise bland situation into something memorable through strategic excess.

Perhaps the goofiest use of strategic excess: A dingbat apartment called "Che" (927 6th Street). Yes, this place comes complete with an icon of the revered and reviled revolutionary. I have no idea why...

Want some more Dingbats? Of course you do! The following are some of my other new favorites, discovered during a delightful December visit that was blessed with clear blue skies and manageable traffic (a rarity in the L.A. metroplex).

11333 Venice Boulevard

5871 South Fairfax Avenue

5871 South Fairfax Avenue (3/4 view)

3550 Jasmine Avenue

3438 Mentone Avenue

1642 Westgate Avenue (dig the faux Asian font, above)

1642 Westgate Avenue (detail view)

1433 9th Street

917 6th Street

917 6th Street (detail view)

Check back tomorrow. I'm posting pix of my absolute favorite Dingbat. I'd waited for a long time to see this one, and it was entirely worth the visit. Beyond that, I'm not sure when I'll return to L.A. But I know I'll keep my eyes open for more Dingbats to share. Any advice on next stops? Please post a comment.

(Photographs by Andrew Wood)

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Helm's Bakery Animated Neon Sign

Following up on yesterday's post dedicated to L.A. Neon, here's a video I shot this past December of the Helm's Bakery animated neon sign...

Difficulty seeing the video? Point your browser here:

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

L.A. Neon

Later this week I'll post images from my recent Dingbat Tour - an ongoing photographic survey of mid-century L.A. structures that transformed the International Style into working class apartment living. In the meantime, I thought I'd share some images of the neon signs that caught my eye during the trip. First up, the unmistakable Bob's Big Boy marquee, reason enough to visit the place Johnny Carson used to mockingly call "Beautiful downtown Burbank."

While in Burbank, I stayed at the Safari Inn, an otherwise unremarkable two story motel that boasts one of the most gorgeous neon signs on the West Coast. Sitting atop a deck overlooking the pool, you can sip an adult beverage and enjoy the traffic under the setting sun. Watch out for the "Manager's Walk-In Special," though; it's no better than the price you can get online.

Johnnie's Pastrami Restaurant is a perfect spot for late-night eating. Even well past midnight, all sorts of people jam the parking lot in search of rich, tasty comfort food. And the rolls... I've typically found French rolls to be overly crunchy, but not the ones served stacked high at Johnnie's. Order their regular sandwich - tell 'em you want cheese, or you'll get it plain - and savor every bite. This place is fantastic.

I'll end today's neon tour with a stop at Helms Bakery, also in Culver City. The bakery is long gone, replaced by food and furniture offerings. But far-thinking preservationists rallied to save the animated neon sign, lighting it every night to the appreciation of retrophiles everywhere. I'll post a link to my YouTube video of the sign tomorrow. And trust me: You'll want to check it out. It's amazing.

(Photographs by Andrew Wood)

Monday, January 4, 2010

Joshua Tree - December 2009

Jenny and I wrapped up 2009 with a post-Christmas trip to Joshua Tree National Park. We'd both been so busy in the last few months, being stressed with various projects and deadlines; it was a perfect time to unwind somewhere simple and uncluttered.

For me, the trip was an affirmation of Hunter S. Thompson's insight, that "Every now and then when your life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in..." you've got to hit the road. OK, I wouldn't have followed Thompson on a Las Vegas ether binge, but I understand why the desert spoke so strongly to the guy: Sometimes you've got to get as far from the city as you can.

After 8 1/2 hours of driving, the sun was already low in the sky when we arrived at the Morongo Basin. Passing through the city of Joshua Tree, we even spotted a sign for a "street with no name." We had just enough time to survey some of the weather-beaten Jackrabbit shacks of Wonder Valley near Twentynine Palms and plan for an evening of light painting. These cabins were built as homesteads after 1938, attracting folks willing to build on practically any land as long as they didn't mind the lack of electricity, running water, or other niceties. Some are occupied but most have been left to decay slowly away.

We plodded down dirt roads in search for particularly eye-catching shacks, though our tour was interrupted by a big black dog that loped alongside our car while barking furiously. We raced away, fearing that we might accidentally hit him, turned a corner and slowed down on another street - only to having him start chasing us again! We laughed nervously for a while afterward, wondering where we might see him next.

After sunset it was time to drop off our bags at Joshua Tree's Safari Motor Inn and grab a meal. We drove to nearby Pioneertown and joined the crowds at Pappy & Harriet's Palace, a locally beloved honky-tonk that serves a decent enough steak. Yelp reviews told tales of hippies and bikers, but the vibe was mostly family oriented during our visit. We stuck around long enough to hear a traveling Hoosier sing about his "gypsy blood" before heading back to Wonder Valley.

The temperature had quickly sunk into the low thirties, and the cabins glowed eerily under the nearly full moon. Wispy clouds scooted overhead, producing ghostly blue trails through the lens of our D-5000. Our goal was to practice long exposure techniques on these weather-beaten shacks.

Jenny and I took turns composing shots, with me arranging for bursts of red or green and her opting for more naturalistic effects. We'd open the shutter and paint surfaces with our flashlights for a minute or two. Even as our teeth chattered in the cold and we struggled to work around practical and technological obstacles, we enjoyed the camaraderie of working together. A couple hours later, we returned to the warmth of our motel and a good night's rest.

By next morning, the clouds were replaced by crisp blue sky. It was time to visit the park and begin our day's excursions. We had no particular plan, other than a few vaguely remembered landmarks gleaned from cursory studies of websites and visitor's guides. The park's desolation requires that visitors bring food and water, along with layered clothes to accommodate extreme shifts in desert temperatures. As is usual for us, Jenny and I neglected that sort of planning and just rode on in.

The mild daytime weather attracted lots of visitors, and the idea of following crowds in search of desert solitude makes little sense to me. Happily, Jenny's adventuresome spirit joined with my wanderlust and we departed the popular trails in search of quieter respite. Around us, mammoth rock formations beckoned and we spotted a formation whose phallic nature demanded an ascent. We called it "Action Rock," the point beyond which our adventures waited.

We scampered and shimmied and tramped our ways over the boulders beyond Hidden Valley toward our own peaceful spot overlooking a clearing of Joshua trees. One outcropping called to us, and Jenny and I answered by navigating upward. Despite the seemingly vertiginous height, we worked together to identify safe footholds and climbing routes before reaching our own humble summit.

After some rest we headed back down and, using Action Rock as our guide, returned to the crowded trail. It's hard to explain, but the discovery of our own tiny place to commune and enjoy the landscape calmed my search for solitude. Afterward, I didn't mind hearing the voices of all those other visitors; it became fun to share this place.

Thereafter we took in the panorama of Keys View, which is diminished somewhat by urban haze, before searching for Joshua trees to photograph. Sharp light, long shadows, and broken shapes created a curiously affecting tableau. Interstate 10 and the big cities it connects felt a million miles away from this place. I should add that while the song refer to a place in New Zealand, I couldn't get these U2 lyrics out of my head: "The moon is up and over One Tree Hill; we see the sun go down in your eyes."

We even saw a couple coyotes by the roadside. This was the moment we'd sought, the time to enjoy real distance from everyday life. Occasionally a car would race by - and we even gave a map to a Japanese couple who'd gotten lost - but mostly we dug the quiet and the breeze and those strange trees.

In later afternoon we made quick stops to take photos at Skull Rock and the Cholla Cactus Garden where the setting sun concocted gorgeous illumination for the barbed spines, all as prelude to our visit to Arch Rock. Bathed in brilliant orange, the stone bridge attracted dozens of photographers, each waiting their turn to stand in the empty space beneath. We presumed we'd take one more similar picture until the guy in front of us mustered the courage to climb the arch. Naturally we both had to give it a try.

Finding a trail that led to the bridge was easy enough, but taking those steps up the ascending arch was another thing entirely, especially as it pitched more sharply toward the apex. Even though the total climb hardly exceeded 15 feet, that last scramble to the top required calm and focus, but the reward was a tranquil feeling of satisfaction and an awesome survey of the world under the gathering dusk. The moon was rising and people were searching for their own private perches to watch the sunset. We also began our search.

We sought to photograph Joshua trees in the gloaming, and after returning to our car we threaded our way between mountain ranges to find the perfect vista. My accelerator foot grew heavy as we both feared we might miss the right moment. And then we spotted the place, one with plenty of open horizon and hard-scrabble trees. Our fingers ached in the evening chill as bands of red and purple stripped the western sky. About an hour later, as silvery jet contrails drifted under the moon, we left the trees and cranked up the heat.

We wrapped up the day with a hearty dinner at the Joshua Tree Saloon, a locals-hangout whose dark interior and bar-quality grub regularly gets snippy online reviews from the SUV crowd. Then it was time to return to our motel. The Safari Inn was not terribly memorable on either night, other than the bright light that burned through the window shades. Still, it was relatively clean and quiet and close to one of the park's entrances, and the price was right.

The rest of our trip focused mainly on the return home. Morning began at the Country Kitchen, a friendly din of home fries and local chatter. The place was packed enough for the owner (a Cambodian woman known by regulars as "Mom") to require couples to share larger tables ("You sit together. Be friends."). Then after one last drive through the park we rejoined the yawning highway. Hellish L.A. traffic snarl under fog and drizzle broke up a bland stretch along the interstates, but we enjoyed the chance to chat and reminisce - and plan the next trip.

Learn more: (NYT) Where the Rebel Meets the Road in Joshua Tree

(Photography by Andrew and Jenny Wood)