Friday, March 25, 2011

Travel Time - Brief Blog Hiatus

A research trip and a speaking engagement mean that I'll be away from the blog for a couple weeks. I might drop in from time to time, but generally I'll be offline until Monday, April 11th.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

L.A. Weekend

This past weekend Jenny and I shared a drive to Los Angeles, catching up on conversation while we visited some cool sites. L.A. has always been a tricky destination for us: far enough away to be a hassle, congested enough to evoke dread. Yet there's so much to see and do that I can never stay away for too long. What follows is a basic trip summary - no literary pretenses here. Just a reminder of some places worthy of recollection.

Jantzen "Diving Girl" sign on Route 66
For lodging I usually aim for Pasadena's Saga Motor Hotel, or maybe the Safari Inn in Burbank. This time we tried Jerry's Motel, a 10-room relic in Filipinotown. Sketchy neighborhood aside, Jerry's was well worth the $75 nightly rate for a clean room and amazingly close proximity to downtown. After settling in we headed to West Hollywood to check out the neon signs of Santa Monica and Sunset boulevards (aided by a handy map produced in collaboration with the Museum of Neon Art). The highlight was a glowing Jantzen Diving Girl and the googie glory of a Mel's Drive-In.

Mel's Drive In, 8585 West Sunset Blvd
Following a tasty meal at Baby Blues BBQ, we dropped in to Tiki-Ti, one of the best old school polynesian-pop relics in the country. Jenny, a dedicated teetotaler, kindly tolerated the place, even when I insisted on ordering a Blood and Sand. Actually, she kind of enjoyed that part. The drink is a real spectacle, with patrons yelling, "Toro! Toro! Toro!," while Mike Sr. pours a frightening volume of tequila over an orange-flavored concoction and mechanical toy bulls rampage the bar pushing empty glasses with their horns. That pretty much wrapped the night up for me.

Jenny on the Ferris wheel, Santa Monica Pier
Saturday called for us to sleep in for the first time in weeks, which meant that breakfast became brunch, a perfect time to visit Clifton's Brookdale Cafeteria. Clifford Clinton designed this Depression-era gem to transport diners to the Santa Cruz mountains - transforming a potentially pedestrian meal (yes, they serve Salisbury Steak) into a vacation for urban-dwellers. Today's visitors queue to stack individually priced items on plastic trays while kids salivate at the prospect of getting a toy when they clean their plates.

Deco Delight in downtown L.A.
Afterward, Jenny and I strolled down Broadway in search of art deco and street art. The highlight was Jenny's discovery of Banksy's Parking. We also made our way to a median where I took some photos of the Bonaventure Hotel, that infamous West Coast capital of late- and post-modern architecture.

"The city bristles with malice" - Mike Davis
We then motored to the Santa Monica Pier, where we strolled and chatted - sometimes stopping to watch contortionists and magic acts. We even found one of those fellows who will paint someone's name on a grain of rice. Jenny made sure we picked up this special souvenir for Vienna. Of course we also shared a ride on the Ferris wheel, hanging below a friendly sky to gaze upon the city. Every once in a while I found myself checking the news on my phone - the U.S. had just launched a missile attack on Libya - and I felt the inevitable dislocation of being in two places at once.

Contortionist at the Santa Monica Pier 
Dinner called us to Culver City and Jenny's first visit to Johnnie's Pastrami, a cash-only joint with working jukeboxes and sublimely fatty sandwiches. From there we navigated clogged roads to catch Rango at ArcLight Hollywood - a pricy but impressively upscale way to see a movie. We figured on wrapping up our evening with a quick photo in North Hollywood; I just had to capture the creepy Clown Liquor store at night. Then - would you believe it? - I caught a glimpse of tiki torches. Turns out we were driving by new place meant to evoke the classic Polynesian vibe: Tiki-No (for North Hollywood). Definitely worth a stop.

Creepy clown sells you alcohol
After another leisurely night's sleep we awoke to pouring rain. At once our Sunday plans began to melt away, especially since the L.A. Marathon was snagging traffic all over town. Originally we'd hoped to visit the La Brea Tar Pits, one of those tourist traps that had infected our imaginations since we were kids watching Bugs Bunny. But once we confirmed that many of the exhibits are indeed outside - again, this was no drizzle; it was a deluge - we opted to reschedule that part of our trip. So we wrapped our weekend up at Burbank's Smoke House, packing away a decadent brunch buffet. Then at last, stuffed and exhausted, we began the long trip back north.

(Photographs by Andrew Wood)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Tilt-shift Disney

As you know, I've been experimenting with tilt-shift photography techniques over the past few months. Indeed I might play a little with this stuff during my travels next week (DC, Detroit, and points between). Thus I was delighted to find a video that transforms Disneyland Paris into a miniature toy wonderland.

Sure it's a commercial. But what a fun effect! Amazingly, the video is produced from over 4,000 still photographs. How? Beats the heck out of me. You've gotta see this...

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

No Parking

During our recent weekend trip to LA, Jenny spotted this piece of Banksy street art. According to Eric Richardson (who wrote about "Parking" soon after it was mounted in April 2010) the piece is especially appropriate given its surrounding context: "Just a block away, a resident group is trying to find $6.6 million to convert a parking lot into a grassy park space with a small playground." I don't know whether that group was successful, but I do know that Banksy's piece (presuming he did it) struck me as less an optimistic appropriation of public space - and more a sad expression of loneliness.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Dropped Calls

Pamela Paul writes in the New York Times about the declining role of the telephone in our lives, at least when it comes to its formerly singular purpose: talking.
"In the last five years, full-fledged adults have seemingly given up the telephone — land line, mobile, voice mail and all. According to Nielsen Media, even on cellphones, voice spending has been trending downward, with text spending expected to surpass it within three years."
At this point I must invoke that most frustrating counter-example, homegrown anecdotal evidence. My spouse receives many phone calls per day. But these are generally associated with her various duties at church. Otherwise, neither one of us regularly receive calls - other than from longtime friends.
"For the most part, assiduous commenting on a friend’s Facebook updates and periodically e-mailing promises to “catch up by phone soon” substitute for actual conversation. With friends who merit face time, arrangements are carried out via electronic transmission."
Read the entire article: Don't call me, I won't call you

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Nuke Scare Update

At Cafe Pomegranate, on the bus, and in other places of public waiting, snatches of overheard conversation always seem to center on Japan and those collapsing nuclear power plants. People who've never previously thought about such things are speaking in low tones about containment breaches, wind patterns, and the viability of dropping seawater from helicopters. Japan's crisis is a global event. We may look back on the past week and remember these meltdown days as we recall the Cuban Missile Crisis.

OK, maybe I'm overstating matters. We don't face a determined foe willing to launch ICBMs to obliterate life on the planet. Still, we are condemned to watch helplessly as strangers dance on a volcano. What happens if they fall? At Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, 50 workers stayed behind to try and salvage the plant before further explosions release lethal clouds of radioactivity. As Keith Bradsher and Hiroko Tabuchi tell it, the drama is gut-wrenching:
"They crawl through labyrinths of equipment in utter darkness pierced only by their flashlights, listening for periodic explosions as hydrogen gas escaping from crippled reactors ignites on contact with air… They are the faceless 50, the unnamed operators who stayed behind."
Before long, the narrative gets confusing. Did they stay? Were they pulled out? Are things getting better or worse? It all become a fog. This morning we're told that radiation levels are dropping. Yet the drama is not yet over.

We're also told that a plume of radioactive material is heading for the West Coast. No, this isn't some Chernobyl style face-melting nightmare, we're assured. The stuff will be diluted before it arrives. Few, if anyone, will feel the effects. Of course the Surgeon General recommended Tuesday that we stock up on potassium iodide. [She quickly clarified her remarks, speaking vaguely of "precautions" rather than dangers.]

Finally there's this video seeking to explain the disaster to Japanese children, comparing the reactor breakdowns with a little boy popping toxic poops. Really, there are few words to add - except to say that we all feel like children now (most of us, I guess). There are a few experts offering assurance that things will get better. A few others insist that things are much worse than we know. As with the Cuban Missile Crisis, the mass of people watch and wait.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Garden of the Forking Paths

While preparing to teach a course on the rhetoric of urbanity (focusing the next lecture on the concept of urban labyrinth) I came across a reference to Jorge Luis Borges's short story, "The Garden of the Forking Paths." This story has flitted around me for years, a particle among the infinite yawning buzz of Things I Should Read. Finally today I downloaded a copy and wormed my way through its intricacies.

It'll take many re-readings, I suspect, to ever claim any mastery of this piece, but I can tell you this: "The Garden" is an essential stop for anyone interested in alternative histories, science fiction, hypertext, probability, or simply the mere pleasure of good reading. As with my notes from The Man in the High Castle I offer little guidance here, just some quotes that struck me as especially meaningful:

"Everything happens to a man precisely now. Centuries of centuries and only in the present do things happen; countless men in the air, on the face of the earth and the sea, and all that really is happening is happening to me" (p. 40).

"The author of an atrocious undertaking ought to imagine that he has already accomplished it, ought to impose upon himself a future as irrevocable as the past" (p. 42).

"In all fictional works, each time a man is confronted with several alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the [this particular fiction] he chooses - simultaneously - all of them. He creates, in this way, diverse futures, diverse times which themselves also proliferate and fork" (p. 47).

"To omit a word always, to resort to inept metaphors and obvious periphrases, is perhaps the most emphatic way of stressing it" (p. 49).

Hypertext does not invoke "a uniform, absolute time… [but] an infinite series of times . . . a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times" (p. 49).

Finally, a disturbing and entirely perfect line, considering the shocking way that "The Garden of the Forking Paths" ends: "Time forms perpetually toward innumerable futures. In one of them I am your enemy" (p. 50).

Monday, March 14, 2011

Global Legos

AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye
Over the weekend I attended a lovely gathering of folks dedicated to globalizing our campus. Just the day before, I worked with colleagues helping to plan an international trip, trying to make sure students get a clear sense of their possible leadership roles in an increasingly connected world. Of course my thoughts could never stray from the images and sounds pouring in from Japan. The 9.0 quake threw another sad but essential dimension of our global conflation into sharp relief: nothing more than a flat screen monitor separates us from the pain of others.

When the initial reports began streaming in Thursday night I could hardly sleep. The quake was bad enough, but the subsequent tsunami was worse, wrecking a broad swath of northern Japan and racing toward Hawaii and western North America with the speed of a jet plane. It was about 2 in the morning when newscasters were reading the estimates of impact, just hours away. Eventually I settled into nervous slumber - not expecting waves to crash into my house, of course - but rattled with the anxiety that more bad news was on the way.

I stayed home that Friday (no meetings "over the hill," thank goodness) and I'm glad I did. Pals described an epic traffic jam on Highway 17, a soul-sucking slog exacerbated by gawkers who gathered at the summit to watch the waves roll in. Hawaii was generally spared, but the ports of Crescent City and Santa Cruz (yep, just a few miles away) were hammered. Back in Japan, international shipping container units - that perfect symbol of global modernity - had been tossed around Sendai like Legos. The airport was devastated, and thousands of lives were snuffed out throughout the region.

Then we heard about the nuke plants.

Perhaps four are facing various stages of meltdown. So far we've witnessed one "hydrogen explosion" (a horrifyingly ambiguous term, if you ask me) - and fear that another could be imminent. Experts promise that Japan's nuclear woes do not portend another Chernobyl. But hundreds of thousands of people have been evacuated anyway. As a last ditch effort to contain the damage, at least one two reactor cores have been flooded with seawater. Just in time, because seismologists predict that a 7.5 level aftershock will further shake Japan in a day or two. Oh, and just for good measure, a volcano has erupted in that country's southern region.

Those of us who live in California know that our state is due for similar wreckage (well, maybe without the volcano). Our own customized Big One is deemed a virtual certainty within the next thirty years. One day our friends in Japan will watch, horrified, as we suffer a pain they know all too well. Our two countries are bound together, and they will help us then - even as we try to help them now. That's the face of globalization, too. More than malls stocked with exports, more than movies with globish dialogue, our expanding international network means that we suffer together when bad times come.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Coming Up For Air

As I prepare to present a lecture at Berry College this upcoming April, I find myself thinking about my topic, "Seeking the Public in a Mediated World," in the interstitial portions of my life - especially as I'm walking from place to place. So earlier today I was departing the Engineering Building and heading for Cafe Pomegranate for lunch when I started looking closely at students and their cell phones. I wasn't feeling creepy. Given my topic, this kind of attention felt safely like research. Understanding what students, digital natives, are doing with their phones in public life is an important source of insight as I prepare my remarks. At the same time, I found myself returning to my own years as a college student.

It's a frequent go-to image for me, comparing my undergraduate experience at Berry College, back when their slogan was "aspire to the top," and relating that vision to my current life here at SJSU. My romanticized recollection of those Berry years leads me to see students walking from place to place with their heads tilted slightly upward. That was the point of Berry architecture: all those spires built to draw our attentions toward the heavens. In contrast, despite some fairly monumental architecture here at SJSU, I see students predominantly tilting their heads down, their concentration pulled to their mobile phones. Such a clear distinction: up verses down.

Contemplating that image, I saw one young woman jerk her head upward. Just for a second. She snapped her gaze at my midsection and then, merely a half-beat of time elapsing, returned her focus to her tiny screen. All the while, her fingers jabbed at those buttons. Really, it looked precisely like she was surfacing from a deep ocean, gasping for air. What can I say? That moment gives me hope. The notion that we cannot survive in the digital depths without having to look at people - present, engaged, consequential - represents an essential humanity.

That is until we sprout gills. Then, maybe, we need never surface again.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Communicating with Millenials

I was just invited to submit an abstract for a potential panel about Millenials to be presented at our forthcoming National Communication Association conference. Here's the direction I might go:

Communicating with Millenials: Closing the Loop with the Always-On-But-Never-Quite-There Generation

This paper examines the pleasures and occasional frustrations of communicating with today's college students. The author begins with an analysis of how contemporary mobile media technologies intersect with the social needs of Millenial students, highlighting elements of anxiety and control that reflect broader cultural dimensions. The author continues by analyzing transcripts from a focus group of students invited to discuss and reflect upon their communication habits and expectations, especially those arising when they interact with faculty members. Finally the author proposes practical strategies for connecting with Millenials: an approach that starts with understanding and the presumption of mutual regard but also offers hope that some basic decorum need not become a lost art.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Motel Kids

Last night's 60 Minutes presented a heartbreaking reminder of how the Great Recession has hurt those who can least protect themselves. Scott Palley's story crystalizes just how bad things have gotten with a report on Florida families forced to live in motels and with neighbors after losing (nearly) everything in today's economic doldrums. I know it's a cliche, but this piece will draw tears. And it will inspire hope. Seriously, you've got to see this: Hard times generation: Homeless kids

Friday, March 4, 2011

Praise for Prezi

Thanks to a tip from Justin Lloyd, I've recently started playing with a web-based presentation tool called Prezi. It's a relatively new app created by a Budapest-based startup that, since its 2007 launch, has grabbed the attention of folks who are frustrated with the limitations of traditional presentation software. If you give talks - in academic settings, corporate venues, wherever - you should take a look at Prezi. Here's why:

Traditional presentation software (I'm a sucker for Keynote, but I also used PowerPoint for years) is organized around the slide. You can think about the larger narrative, and there are many ways to connect slides to broader themes, but the slide view seems to inspire a sort of silo approach toward information: "This slide contains these facts; that slide contains those facts. Let's look at them one at a time."

In contrast, Prezi allows me to put all the information on one broad canvas, enabling audience members to see how all the pieces fit together. Additionally I can inspire retention by displaying information spatially as well as chronologically. Doing so, I can prioritize information through the depiction of physical scale not easily replicated with traditional presentation software.

Sure, PowerPoint allows me to display a headline for main ideas and smaller sized font for secondary points. But Prezi allows me to create informational groups and the zoom out to show surprising connections or zoom in to reveal details. This malleable "big picture view" helps audience members grasp the whole without getting bogged down by the parts.

Best of all, while I can use Prezi to create a path from node to node (zooming into and out of the canvas as needed) I can also click anywhere I choose, reorganizing the narrative on the fly. So if an audience member wants me to return to a particular point, I can reorganize the flow of ideas to accommodate the impromptu need.

Prezi is really cool, but it's hardly perfect. The "zebra" interface takes some adjustment, and the choice of fonts and features is relatively limited when compared to PowerPoint or Keynote. Oh, and the Flash-based app can occasionally glitch up on you, requiring some patience and even an occasional restart during Prezi-creation (no problems during delivery, though, thank goodness). Yet whether you're using the desktop or web-based version, you're sure to find that Prezi inspires new ideas about making presentations flow.

The pricing structure feels about right - with free options and educator-discount options available. I went ahead and splurged on the pro version, and I'm glad I did. So take a look at Prezi - and see whether it helps you rethink your next presentation.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Cityville Update

J.P. Mangalindan has written an interesting article about Zynga's Cityville phenomenon by interviewing Yick Kai Chan, the architect hired to help design the game's buildings. As you'd imagine, this fellow faces some bewildering constraints when trying simulate a complex and dynamic urban environment on a computer screen:
"It's about exaggerating the important real-world elements, blowing up the gestalt of the building, like a caricature artist would do when drawing people."
With an estimated 95 million monthly active users (a drop from a recent high of around 100 million) Cityville continues to draw attention for its clever intersection of fauxcale and easy altruism.

Read the entire article: Meet CityVille's Frank Gehry

BTW, here's the current iteration of my city. It's change a lot since I first wrote about this game.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

In Praise of the Tourist Trap

Recently a Facebook pal (Michael Hirsch) shared Jeffrey Tucker's blogpost entitled "In Praise of the Tourist Trap." This is one of those essays that grabbed me from the start. I found myself notating phrases from each paragraph until I realized that I must share the whole thing.

Tucker's essay, as the title indicates, recommends that critics of the built environment complain a little less about the ersatz nature of modern places and focus a little more on the pleasures they offer. We may all be tourists in our own worlds, and the fauxcales we inhabit may indeed be fake. Yet we suffer a myopic loss when we fail to account for the momentary smiles they inspire. Thus:
"In the airport, you can stand in one spot and choose to walk twenty feet in any direction and find yourself in a Spanish or Thai restaurant, or grab a book from a literary looking place, or have a Starbucks, or eat a decadent cinnamon roll, or pretend to be on Savile Row at a high end men’s store, or perhaps get a massage or toss down a martini or two, trying on the high life for as long as it lasts."
The alternative, Tucker proposes, is a kind of Bauhausian sterility reminiscent of a DMV office. From this perspective the divide sets bureaucratic functionalism against corporate boosterism. Yet more importantly, the debate calls to mind a question of authenticity.

We presume some value to experiencing things "as they really are" - but what precisely does that mean? Just because a cheesy Texas 10-gallon hat found at a DFW gift shop might force an embarrassed grimace, must we therefore conclude that this ephemeral piece of consumable culture is necessarily less meaningful than a memento earned through some supposedly more authentic encounter with culture? Does dust make it real? Sweat? Pain?

Perhaps the definition of authenticity resides in discursive construction rather than ontological meaning. Put more directly, authenticity might just be a matter of taste.

Read Tucker's post: In Praise of the Tourist Trap