Monday, January 31, 2011

Fragments of a Revolution

I spent hours this weekend glued to the set, watching the Egyptian uprising. For some reason I drift back to memories of a rotten tooth that I once allowed to fester too long. Then one day the pain came, and the required root canal brought more misery.

No one knows that's going to happen tonight or tomorrow in Egypt, but it's clear that the nation's old order is crumbling. What will arise if President Mubarak falls, bringing down three decades of authoritarian rule? It's anyone's guess.

Some fragments of the first few days:

Protestors climb aboard tanks, greeting soldiers with hugs and cheers. Egyptians generally fear the police, but they respect the military.

Vandals storm the nation's Antiquities Museum and, inexplicably, rip the heads off of two mummies [Egyptologists over here are panicking].

Mubarak calls on fighter planes to fly low over crowds, warning them that he won't hold his troops off much longer.

Tourists shoot footage of a crowd marching across Cairo Bridge. The scene shows riot police launching teargas grenades at protestors - who simply lob them back.

The beleaguered president offers a sop to his people by picking a vice president - a first. Supposedly this fellow is hated just about as much as Mubarak. Footage shows the man saluting awkwardly before shaking the president's hand.

CNN anchors breathlessly report tweets: doctors needed at a mosque, looters spotted on motorcycles, the president's party headquarters is in flames. We're told that this is a social networking revolution.

Around here most folks seem unperturbed by the unfolding events. But Egypt controls the Suez Canal, a strategic pathway for oil and other goods. With the U.S. economy teetering on the edge of an abyss, these days may be long remembered as a turning point.

Read More: For a vivid account of the Egyptian uprising, check out Kareem Fahim's Egyptian Hopes Converged in Fight for Cairo Bridge (New York Times)

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Mind-blowing: New Chinese Export

Shanghai street scene (Andrew F. Wood, photographer)
Business Insider has gathered a pithy (and sometimes troubling) collection of factoids about China - info-bombs that will, I'm told, blow your mind!

[No, I will not link to the Scanners Head Explosion Scene that's available with a two-second Google search. Just put it out of your mind.]

Here are three brain-bursting truth-bombs:

• "By 2025, China will build TEN New York-sized cities."

• "There are already more Christians in China than Italy, and China is on track to become the largest center of Christianity in the world."

• "China has 150% more soldiers than America does, plus a high tech 'Kill Weapon' the U.S. can't deal with."

OK, my brain's feeling a bit queazy. Gotta sit down. Now - can you take it?

Read both sets:

15 Facts About China That Will Blow Your Mind

15 More Facts About China That Will Blow Your Mind

Since I'm writing about Shanghai these days and returning to China this summer [here's a link to our first trip] I plan to double-check these facts; I recommend that you do as well.

Still, it's fascinating stuff.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Why Criticism Matters

While preparing for a course that will tackle, among other topics, the state and fate of the "public intellectual" - and also contemplating a lecture I'll present this spring at my alma mater - I came across Stephen Burn's lovely account of collaborative thinking in the internet age:
The Internet calls people out of their loneliness to create electronic selves perhaps more naked or strident than the fuzzy, compromised “I” that moves ghostlike through its everyday routines and disagreements. A solitary reader, brooding over an obscure contemporary novel, or slowly puzzling out a page of “Finnegans Wake,” is suddenly not so solitary. Amid the network of networks there is always another reader, an improvised community into which she can merge and make visible her invented self...

A sensitive membrane has evolved from the historical transactions between author, critic and reader. Though online reviews inevitably vary in quality and insight, their very existence no longer makes it possible to imagine that there is not an engaged general-interest audience out there consuming and thinking about literary works. The audience now talks to itself.
Read more: Why criticism matters: Beyond the critic as cultural arbiter - also read the entire "Why Criticism Matters" colloquy.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Tonight's State of the Union

Wary promises that some members of congress might break tradition and deign to organize themselves in groups not aligned solely to exacerbate our deep cultural divide do little to assuage the sense that the state of our union is anything but strong. No, we're not in Civil War-mode, not really. Heck, I imagine that folks who endured the 60s could point to even more profound fissures in our nation a mere four decades ago. Still, President Obama faces a large and rowdy contingent of lawmakers who seem more indebted to Tea Party bombthrowing than to managing the people's business.

Health care reform (remember that?) is getting wound up for a second serving of anything-goes partisanship. Threats of a government shutdown are echoing through the halls of Congress (as opposed to the plodding of tourists who are now safely isolated from much the Capital Building - another loss to our grim post-9/11 world). And then there are various wingnut committee chairs bent on raining two years of nonstop investigatory fury on a president they'd cheerfully send to a Guantanamo Bay if they could. They presume, I suppose, that all this poison will bleed dry once the other side takes over, that then they'll do half the things they promised their constituents ("Department of Education? Sold to the University of Phoenix. IRS? New headquarters for the Chamber of Commerce!"

Pundits will opine that tonight's State of the Union will mark a major milestone in the Obama presidency - maybe one of those "make or break moments." Yeah. Problem is, they all are. Each speech is a crisp, clear moment of clarity that somehow blurs into the muddy maw of legal wrangling, vicious brinksmanship, pious grandstanding, and guilty handwringing that defines American politics these days. Just how screwed up have things become? Here's a clue: Some people say that Ronald Reagan couldn't get the GOP nomination now; he'd be damned for being too liberal. If that's not a sign that the state of our union is really a mess, I don't know what is.

So good luck, Mr. President. We need it.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Shameless Media Plug: San Jose Mercury News

The Merc ran a story on how smartphone games lure folks who'd never look twice at an XBox into compulsive behaviors. Author Sue McAllster and I had a pleasant conversation on the topic last weekend, and she integrated some of our chat into the article.
"These (games) are sort of brief vacations that we can carry with us," says Andrew Wood, a professor of communications studies at San Jose State. "The idea of being able to get out of your work zone or transportation zone or even family zone and dive into a highly vivid, interactive medium is a real treat."

Wood calls mobile games such as "Angry Birds," "Fruit Ninja" or "F.A.S.T." -- a jet-flying game he was hooked on for a time -- "the high-fructose corn syrup of entertainment," providing delicious pastimes without much nutritional value, so to speak.
Read the entire piece: Games on smartphones snare a new breed of player

Friday, January 21, 2011

Yosemite in Winter - 3 of 3

Peering into that broad Yosemite valley, Jenny and I contemplated a fairly typical end to our trip. We come to this park about once every couple years, generally following a similar itinerary. Yesterday we savored the laughing waters of Lower Falls and hiked the prairies. Earlier today we visited Mirror Lake and Bridalveil. Now we would head west for home, anticipating between four and five hours of conversation, and maybe a nice dinner somewhere. Only this time, Jenny wanted to shake things up a bit: We would drive through the tunnel and check out the scenery that leads to the Wawona Hotel - maybe snap a picture or two.

As we exited the long passage Jenny gasped - she saw a wolf! I craned my neck around but was certain that she'd actually seen a dog - maybe a German Sheppard. "More likely a malamute," I chuckled. "You don't even know what a malamute is," Jenny reminded me. Well, technically, yes, I had to agree. But either way, this was a dog. I kept driving, slowly realizing that Jenny'd never forgive me if we missed a chance to see a wolf up close. So I turned around and headed back, joining two cars parked nearby.

We stared in awe. His eyes darted with each movement; his ears pricked with the subtlest cluck. I had to admit it: "You might be right, Jen!" Some goofball had tossed him a Slim Jim - bad news for wild animals - which meant he had a high tolerance for gawkers. Scrambling to attach the telephoto lens, Jenny snapped dozens of shots. About 20 minutes later we drove off, thrilled with our discovery.

Only a few days later would be find out that our new friend is actually a coyote, not a wolf. No matter. I thought he was a malamute!

(Photographs by Jenny Wood)

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Yosemite in Winter - 2 of 3

Jenny and I agreed that the previous day was such a delight that we could drive home right away and feel satisfied. Still we were excited about the day's photographic opportunities - and, despite subfreezing temperatures the previous night, we'd managed to stay warm and wake relatively refreshed. We began the morning with a favorite excursion: a hike to Mirror Lake.

Keeping our feet on crunchy snow to avoid slippery ice patches we climbed a moderately steep incline, saying hello to the occasional snowshoe-wearing trekker. From time to time we passed groups of folks sledding down snowy hills. Jenny and I agreed that we'd buy some sleds for our next winter trip (though I secretly hoped that we could find a hill with a decent ski lift). Arriving at Mirror Lake we delighted to see that much of the surface was frozen over. Gingerly, and then with growing confidence, we crossed the frozen plateau and peered at branches that dipped underneath the ice.

Later we headed for the prairie near Yosemite lodge, gazing at the mist hanging over the snow. I saw a clutch of trees standing in spindly solitude against the white plain; I knew I had to snap some pictures. The sun hung low, so I dashed out of the car. I wanted that light. Jenny saw the thick layer of snow and contemplated her socks. This hike would be solitary, she announced, but I didn't mind. Like a wheezing locomotive I clomped my legs up and down through the snow in a steady push toward the grove. Midway to my destination I abandoned hope of keeping my feet dry. I was committed, my camera ready. I arrived just in time - for the sun to set behind the cliff. I smiled anyway.

Looking back toward the lodge I saw a thin line of cars parked along the prairie's edge. A few folks had ventured onto the field. Some threw snowballs; others made snowmen. They were laughing, but I couldn't hear them. Alone near that grove of naked trees I could only hear my own breathing. An icy chill was creeping through my socks, tingling my feet. I hurriedly composed shots of reflecting ice and that arrow of trees. I dreaded the march back through the snow, but I couldn't tarry. Though Jenny is patient I couldn't make her wait too long. I turned away from the grove and began to ply my way back.

We enjoyed lunch and hiked a little more, climbing a treacherously frozen pathway to Bridalveil Fall. Then we made our way to the tunnel view and its glorious panorama of El Cap, Half Dome, the Three Brothers, and Bridalveil. As usual we fielded requests to take pictures for other couples (once more I appreciated our decision long ago to buy a cheap but functional tripod). Jenny struggled to make sense of the controls of one especially odd camera while I surveyed the scene. Finally it was time for us to begin our drive to Scotts Valley, both of us missing our kitties and anticipating a relaxed evening back home. There was just one last drive Jenny wanted us to take, a detour that would lead to a most surprising encounter.

(Photographs by Andrew and Jenny Wood)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Yosemite in Winter - 1 of 3

We finally visited Yosemite in winter. For years we've made the pilgrimage to that sublime valley, in spring, summer, and fall. But the snowy season has always eluded us. We planned a winter trip a little while back, only to find that our Saturn wasn't built to accomodate chains. Then our car went belly-up and we were forced to get a new [used] one. At about the same time, Jenny learned that the national parks were free for this weekend, and we managed to get one of the last remaining accommodations. So we bought some chains, practiced putting them on, and geared ourselves up for an arduous adventure - just in time for a stretch of unseasonably warm weather. Rounding the switchbacks of the CA-120 entrance road, we faced a new concern: would there actually be snow on the ground?

John Denver was rhapsodizing about the Rocky Mountain High when we first spotted a line of sludge along the road. With every turn the pile grew higher and higher, dusting the rocks before covering them altogether. In well-lit places the snow would disappear, only to return once we'd corkscrew into a dim canyon. By the time we reached Camp Curry, the white stuff could be measured in feet. Turns out that the park's high elevation and sun-blocking cliffs all but assure a decent winter snowpack. I was still wearing flip-flops when we scrambled atop the ice to get keys for our heated tent. At last we would see Yosemite in its wintery glory!

The panorama of white prairies dotted with the occasional snowman thrilled us [we live in California but still react to snow like Floridians]. As usual, our first major stop was the lower falls. We read that the tumbling water freezes at this time of year, but warm temperatures set loose gushing torrents that rivaled anything we've seen in springtime. Bypassing the warning signs, we scrambled over the rocks to get closer to those rainbow cascades. I remembered swimming in a pool under the falls during an early-summer visit. This time I'd have to keep some distance. Getting too close means getting drenched with icy spray. No matter. Jenny decided that we must climb those rocks once a year, as long as we can. To her, each step toward the glistening water is a sign of youth.

We dedicated the next hours to hiking and photography. Jenny and I took turns finding compositions that pleased us, imagining how our growing love of HDR would transform each high contrast tableau into a gorgeous picture. Above us, the sounds of crackling ice ricocheted through the air - evidence of the warming sun upon those frozen walls of stone. Leaving our car behind we tramped atop a silent white cushion of snow, picking out a path through collapsed trees that cast long shadows. I felt mighty smart about doubling up on socks, but all my preparations couldn't save me when one unexpected footfall dropped me into a waist-high pile of frozen precipitation. We snapped a few more pictures under the blue sky and then stood together in the quiet. By 4 p.m. the light began to fade and we headed back.

Mist hung above the snowy expanses when we returned to Camp Curry. We enjoyed a brief nap in our tent and then tackled a surprisingly good buffet dinner. Afterward I submitted to Jenny's entreaties and joined her on the dance floor. The band wasn't bad, but they played too much blues for Jenny's dancing sensibilities. Later on we bundled up for a walk under a nearly full moon that lit the valley. We brought a flashlight as our only precaution against occasional patches of back-snapping ice and wandered away from the lights, picking out constellations and staring at the dark outlines of Yosemite's monumental cliffs. Once we returned to our tent, we piled on the blankets and double-checked that the heater was working. The temperature dropped below the freezing line, but we stayed toasty.

[More Thursday]

(Photographs by Andrew and Jenny Wood)

Friday, January 14, 2011

Santa Cruz Falcon Guitar

Ever seen a Millenium Falcon guitar? Aren't you glad you did?

I love Santa Cruz.

Thursday, January 13, 2011


Yes, there is a Simpsons porn movie - why did you ask?

So we've got that covered.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

If the facts don't fit the theory...

One of my favorite Simpsons lines comes from Kent Brockman, blow-dried anchor of Springfield's local news, who famously rants, " I've said it before and I'll say it again - Democracy simply doesn't work!" I'll hold off on the deeper political philosophy behind that statement and simply share an article that has been waiting on my to-read pile since last year: Joe Keochane's Boston Globe piece, "How Facts Backfire."

Summarizing research from the University of Michigan, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and other institutions, the article tackles the notion that a well informed citizenry produces good decisions. Current research, it seems, indicates an alternative vision, suggesting that facts can sometimes bolster falsehoods rather than challenge them. A pertinent quote:

"In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger."

Keochane explains that this response - initially a redoubt against cognitive dissonance - is called "backfire," a mode in which a person measures the validity of a fact against a belief and either amends or ignores the fact in case of conflict [recalling a phrase often - likely incorrectly - attributed to Einstein: "If the facts don't fit the theory, change the facts."]. Backfire increases, Keochane says, in cases of information overload and with persons whose ideologies are especially connected to their senses of self. The result: "misinformed people often have some of the strongest political opinions."

One final sobering quotation: "In an ideal world, citizens would be able to maintain constant vigilance, monitoring both the information they receive and the way their brains are processing it. But keeping atop the news takes time and effort. And relentless self-questioning, as centuries of philosophers have shown, can be exhausting. Our brains are designed to create cognitive shortcuts -- inference, intuition, and so forth -- to avoid precisely that sort of discomfort while coping with the rush of information we receive on a daily basis. Without those shortcuts, few things would ever get done. Unfortunately, with them, we’re easily suckered by political falsehoods."

Read more How Facts Backfire

Monday, January 10, 2011

Tomorrow Calling

Click for video from
Recently I came across a video I'd been seeking for years: the BBC adaptation of William Gibson's "The Gernsback Continuum." A short production - barely 11 minutes - "Tomorrow Calling" is an earnest if somewhat cheesy depiction of Gibson's sublime short story. It is also, as you'd imagine, a British retelling, abandoning the story's references to L.A. and Tucson (and San Jose!).

"The Gernsback Continuum" makes a regular appearance in my COMM 149 classes - sometimes to the consternation of my students who struggle to wrangle with the author's rat-a-tat pop culture references and full-tilt plunge into weirdness.

Never read the story? I recommend that you start there. Afterward you might check out the BBC's version. Doing it the other way around - or, God forbid, limiting your exposure to the video - would be like dismissing the need to read The Great Gatsby because the movie is available at Blockbuster [Ooops, I'm dating myself. I mean Netflix].

And, no, Gibson's short story isn't "great literature," but it's certainly worth a read. Then a look.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Want to Write a Blog?

Recently I was asked to offer some advice for blogging on a regular basis, year in and year out. This query came at an opportune time, since I have nothing to blog about today! So, for what it's worth, here's my advice for being a regular blogger:

1. Consider it exercise. Working out regularly (I'm told) may not be much fun, but it's worth doing. Regularity maintains tone and inspires positive feedback: "I did it today; I can certainly do it tomorrow. I did well today; I can do better tomorrow!" Build blogging into your schedule, and ensure that you can dedicate at least thirty minutes per session. You may need a lifetime to write the next great novel, but you should be able to bang together a decent couple of paragraphs in the time necessary to watch a sitcom.

2. Take breaks. Like exercise, regular blogging can become a deadening slog if you are compelled to work those words every day. I therefore blog four or five times a week and feel no guilt about taking weekends off. Indeed, just as muscles need some time to rebuild after serious exercise, so must your brain recharge after lots of writing.

3. Blog for yourself. Folks work out in the gym to use specialized equipment, sure. At the same time, many enjoy the public nature of the exercise. It's the same with blogging. An audience inspires exertion. Comments appear to equal success. But remember: you are the first audience. Write to express yourself, not to impress others. Working for praise - whether in the arena of sweat or ideas - is an empty pursuit.

4. Write what you know. Launching a New Year's resolution to become a weightlifter makes little sense if you have no knowledge about the skills necessary to pump that iron - and no plans to gain that background. Similarly you should not write about something that is generally foreign to you. Survey your life to determine your domain of experience, and focus there. Chances are, someone in the world wants to know what you have mastered. And if they don't, there's always Rule Number Three.

5. Stay hungry. That Survivor song, "Eye of the Tiger," was made to help Rocky find the heart necessary to defeat Clubber Lang. It was a reminder that hunger drives those who enter the ring. Writers too must stay hungry. They must yearn for knowledge. So if you want to blog, read good blogs - along with books, magazines, journals, newspapers, etc. Look for interesting topics. Listen for fascinating conversations. Stay hungry for ideas. And never be satisfied with what you have accomplished. Always try to learn something new - and you'll always have something to write about.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Shared Space

Ryan Blum kindly shared a link to an '07 Washington Post piece about a European experiment with public space that still resonates with me. In the article, Craig Whitlock describes a promising experiment in which cities respond to the deadly mix of walkers, bikers, and motorists by doing something that may seem counterintuitive: they reduce regulation rather than expand it:

"This contrarian approach to traffic management, known as shared space, is gaining a foothold in Europe. Towns in the Netherlands, Denmark, Britain and Belgium have tossed out their traffic lights and stop signs in a bid to reclaim their streets for everyone."

Whitlock reported that the German city of Bohmte dismantled their traffic restrictions and left only two rules: a 30 mph speed limit and a requirement that everyone yield to the right. The thinking behind this bold move is to require people to be more aware of their surroundings, to force them to consider the impact of their interactions when they are not locked into an omnitopian web of anesthetizing rules.

Is it working? The Washington Post cited encouraging trends but also some doubts.

This summer, I hope to explore some European shared space myself!

Learn More: A Green Light for Common Sense

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Excel City, California: Mojave-Fresno Roadtrip (Part 3)

View Larger Map

As you know I'm fascinated by relics and ruins. But during my recent trip to Mojave I found an even more sublime encounter with the detritus of urbanity: dead cities that were never born. This is one of them, discovered using Google Maps to chart my path across the desert. I was drawn to this grid of streets just north of Mojave and West of California City [here's a link]. I had to see what all that geography looked like up close.

So I found my way to this site, testing the suspension of our new (used) car in search of the grid. It's a strange thing to encounter these lonely roads, which from above resemble an Excel document yet are actually rutted dirt paths. Sometimes I'd see piles of stones marking four corners of a future homestead. Other times I'd spot a beer can or the ashy remains of a campfire. But I saw no signs of life. Still Google Maps confirmed that I was driving on streets! Broadway, Spring, Lemon, even a Main Street.

From time to time I'd roll past a wooden marker. Otherwise I could only imagine. Was I on bustling Church Street, or had I slipped into one of Excel City's lesser traveled avenues (marked by number alone). I could be wrong, but this looks like one of those bursts of speculation that arose periodically in the last century. Cities in the desert waiting to bloom. Using the language of William Gibson: "a tomorrow that never was." No homes, no families. Just dirt roads and the occasional Joshua tree.

Come to California's beautiful Excel City! A glorious grid in the middle of the Mojave Desert. A city of tomorrow that exists in overhead view alone.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Mojave-Fresno Roadtrip (Part 2)

I thought I'd share some photos from the Fresno portion of a brief roadtrip I took last week. As I mentioned yesterday I was drawn to the quiet and solitude of the desert. Indeed I was delighted to explore several ghost towns that haven't even been born [more on that paradox tomorrow]. Yet when the rains threatened, I decided to head north and try out some HDR photography on the motels of Fresno.

I'd been here some years back, drawn to Fresno's gritty relics of roadside Americana. As I expected, a number of my favorite motels have been razed. Others, like the Astro Motel, looked like they won't stand long. The dreary nature of this place was compounded by the sight of tent camps stretching along arterial roads, proof that the lousy economy has trashed the lives of countless Californians.

The Motel California is still standing, continuing its strange service as a satellite of the state's penal system. I can only imagine the cheery postcards that were once sent by traveling families who stopped here decades ago. I'm sure someone wrote something like, "We made it, even with a broken radiator! At last we're in California! - at a cute (and perfectly named) motel." Few residents behind the barbed wire would share such joyful sentiments today.

I wrapped up my tour with a stop at the Storyland Inn. Several years ago this motel was a haven of sorts for folks who might otherwise be homeless. Residents committed themselves to keeping drugs off the property and local organizations helped children living at Storyland stay focused on their homework. That dream was fading then, and the motel is boarded up now, another casualty of a dying valley.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Mojave-Fresno Roadtrip (Part 1)

No berries for sale today
Over the winter break I enjoyed a brief roadtrip to southern California, focusing my time on Mojave and Fresno. Truthfully I wasn't overly excited about the prospects of a solo driving tour, but Jenny sensed my road fever and recommended that I hit the pavement. Sharing a couple weeks together in the same house - without the necessary diversion of our traditional work schedule - inspires that kind of creative thinking, I guess.

Relic airplanes at Mojave Airport
Gusty rainstorms bracketed my travels. Still I quickly fell into the familiar, happy routine of long distance driving. My daily total would be less than 350 miles, but I could have driving 500 or more with a smile. I had no particular destination in mind when I pulled away from the garage. I just knew that I wanted to head south. Maybe LA to photograph some Dingbat architecture. Maybe further east. Finally as I slotted myself onto the 101 the desert spoke to me. I would avoid the smoggy metroplex and seek solitude.

Semiotic Ghost 17 miles east of Mojave
I searched out shuttered berry stands for some reason, and craned my neck to read the spindling lines of California's irrigation woes. I reached Mojave some time around four. Already darkness had set in. I grabbed a swell room at the Desert Inn and then returned to the highway in search of that old Rocks Cafe sign 17 miles east. I savored the scrape of barbed wire and the chill wind. Later I lit a cigar and posted myself across the highway from a bail bonds office to capture the zippy threads of headlights. I felt renewed. Next morning I would mosey over to the airport to snap one of its famed lines of airplanes that roast under the sun. Perhaps I would also revisit the aging motels of Fresno.

This bail bonds business is open late
More photos tomorrow.