Friday, September 30, 2011

Origami Urbanism Update: OnStar

I recently received word that my essay manuscript, "Origami Urbanism Amid the Flat City: An Omnitopian Analysis of Commercials Depicting Mutability in Urban Life," has been tentatively accepted for inclusion in the forthcoming Urban Communication Reader III: Communicative Cities and Urban Communication in the 21st Century.

Naturally I'll have some editing to complete before whipping the piece into final shape, but it's nice to pass this part along the journey. I've been working on variations of this essay for a few years now, always keeping an eye on various media for examples of Origami Urbanism. So it was a special treat to spot this OnStar ad earlier this month.

[Oh, and thank goodness for Inception. While my writing on this topic predates that flick, seeing Christopher Nolan's vision of cities that fold into themselves like carpets inspired confidence that this piece is worth pursuing!]

Monday, September 26, 2011

Salzburg and Beijing 2012

As you may know, I'm leading two student tours overseas this summer. The first one is a return to the Salzburg Seminar's International Study Program (May 30 through June 6). I attended ISP faculty meetings in 2010 and 2011 - the second trip to gather video for a forthcoming documentary about the program - but I've never gone with the students. I know it'll be an amazing experience.

Later that month I'll depart again, this time taking students to Beijing for a three week faculty-led program (June 18 through July 10). This one is a four-unit course that concentrates on the intersection of tourism, modernity, and urban life in China. To help pitch that program, I edited some footage shot by Aaron Correll to create a "commercial" for the class. Check it out!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Castle Dunnottar

As we're sl-oo-wly finishing our our Europe 2011 blog, I thought I'd share a clip from our visit to Castle Dunnottar. The calls of seagulls, the whipping wind, the pounding surf... a quiet moment among ruins.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Waffle House Index

Forgive the slightly old news, but I had to share this Wall Street Journal article about the "Waffle House Index." As you may recall, I made a road trip pilgrimage to the nearest Waffle House I could find - in Phoenix, Arizona - back in 09. So you can imagine my fascination with FEMA's unofficial use of Waffle House as an indicator disaster status.
"Green means the restaurant is serving a full menu, a signal that damage in an area is limited and the lights are on. Yellow means a limited menu, indicating power from a generator, at best, and low food supplies. Red means the restaurant is closed, a sign of severe damage in the area or unsafe conditions."
These folks are among the country's most dependable businesses at restarting after a disaster. Putting it another way, if your local Waffle House is closed, you know the weather is bad.

Read the entire article: How to Measure a Storm's Fury One Breakfast at a Time

Monday, September 19, 2011

Shameless Media Plug: Contra Costa Times

Recently I was quoted in a Contra Costa Times article about crowdsourcing businesses that are leveraging the slow economy by paying people to take pictures of public places.

This trend reflects a clever use of increasingly ubiquitous digital cameras - adding detail to Bing results, TomTom directions, and other databases.

My quote is brief - edited as usual (and commonly necessary in my case):

"Crowdsourcing apps that can transform free time into currency and connections offer a smart response to today's economic doldrums," Andrew Wood, a professor of communication studies at San Jose State, said in an email."
Read the entire piece, which offers a useful example of the emerging Gig EconomyNew apps help people make money with their phones.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Athens Street Art: Part 3 of 3

One final day of Athens street art - this time focusing on works that depict feminized (or feminist) imagery. [Oh, and don't forget to check out Part 1 and Part 2.]

Quoting from their website:
"T2B is an independent international film festival
that focuses on public art forms"

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Athens Street Art: Part 2 of 3

Presented with a minimum of comment, here are some more images of Athens street art. [Part Three is coming tomorrow. Missed yesterday's? Take a look!]

Define - Demilitarize - Deny

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Athens Street Art: Part 1 of 3

It's time for some more street art from our European Grand Tour. Today we're viewing some of the most memorable pieces Jenny and I saw during our time in Athens. Take a look at these images and you'll see signs of a nation in crisis, yes, but you'll also see people using art to convey their struggles, communicating with passion and pathos.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Becoming a Frazier

I recently had the opportunity to clear a dense patch of brush hiding my grandfather's grave. He's buried in West Virginia, we live in California, and I've wanted to pay my respects for a long time. Problem is, I heard that his gravesite was covered by a thicket of weeds. One genealogist even reported that the marker was inaccessible. I couldn't believe it. Preston Allen Frazier died less that four decades ago, and his grave had been lost already? I had to see this for myself. So I conducted some research and found him. Along the way, I began learning about a family history that initially stretches back ten generations at first before diving much deeper into the past.

While my last name is Wood, I was raised a Frazier and taught from my earliest years to see Scotland as my ancestral home. I remember my mom telling stories of isolated hamlets on storm-racked coasts, illustrating how members of our family learned self-reliance on those rocky shores. I guess that's one reason why Mom had me read books like My Side of the Mountain and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, stories of young people facing grownup dangers on their own. Mom also insisted that I read Emerson and Thoreau, but it would take years for me to follow her advice.

Image borrowed from
Mom raised me in Dunedin, Florida, a community that defined itself as a sort of Scottish enclave. I remember seasonal Highland games, and I grew to love the sound of local high schoolers practicing bagpipes in the afternoons. Once, when I was assigned an elementary school assignment to talk about my family history, Mom showed me a picture of a belt and buckle surrounding a buck's head. Upon the belt was a motto that she had to translate for me: Je Suis Prest, which means "I am ready." Pretty cool, I thought, but confusing too: a Scottish family with a French motto, and my grandfather hailed from West Virginia? I had some research to do.

Turns out, the Fraziers trace their roots to an older clan called Fraser, which, according to standard histories, first rose to prominence in the French provinces of Anjou and Normandy (hence the French motto). Some historians tell of Frasers crossing over to England in 1066 as allies of William the Conqueror. Others place them in Scotland about a hundred years later. Either way, the family thrived in their new home, first in the south and later in the highlands.

Over the centuries the Frasers played key roles in Scotland's many political and religious dramas, expanding their influence and building castles that stand to this day. By the seventeenth century, through, widespread poverty in Scotland forced some Frasers to head out in search of better lives. Many fled to King James' plantations in Northern Ireland, only to encounter ruinous rents and religious intolerance. A few, including followers of Protestant Reformer John Knox, pushed further west to America. Around this time, some changed their names to Frazier to denote their Scots-Irish roots (though naming conventions were relatively unfixed back then).

My Aunt Linda tells me that our first American family member was a fellow named Joseph Frazier. Born in 1661, Joseph departed Northern Ireland (his birthplace) between 1720 and 1730. A relatively old man by this time, Joseph brought his wife (Elinor Frazier, née Ewing) and children to America in search of religious freedom in Pennsylvania. They arrived in Philadelphia and settled 70 miles away in Lancaster. The first American Fraziers are buried at Chestnut Level Presbyterian Church. One of their sons who crossed the Atlantic with them, John (born in 1717, though some say 1712), would later marry Isabella Moody (sister of Robert Moody) and purchase a homestead in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. There, the Fraziers and the Moodys helped found the Tinkling Springs Presbyterian church.

At this point, the history gets a bit murky. Did one generation pass, or two? Regardless of the answer, there is no doubt that one of Joseph and Elinor's descendants, Samuel Craig Frazier (b. 1765 - most likely a great-grandson) settled further inland, traveled down the Kanawha River with three of his sons, and took up farming near Point Pleasant, West Virginia, on the Ohio River. Samuel, whose ancestors supposedly fought with William the Conqueror and toiled for King James, is my great-great-great-great-great grandfather, and he's buried in a place called Fraziers Bottom.

My grandfather was born in 1914, not too far from where Samuel is buried. Preston Allen Frazier was raised in a town called Scott Depot, where he was expected to follow family tradition and become a farmer. He tried his hand raising watermelons one summer in his late teens. He rented land from his father and got credit at the local feed store to purchase seeds. He had two mules and a plow, and he worked that land all summer. The result for all those troubles? $20. Preston decided that farming life was not for him and focused his attentions to schoolwork. He graduated at the top of his high school class and began looking forward to college. He knew that the world beyond tiny Scott Depot would make room for someone with ambition and smarts. Yet when he asked his folks to help him pay for college (as they had for his sisters) he was turned down. Preston surveyed his options and chose the one that would take him farthest away from West Virginia: He joined the Navy.

Preston excelled in the service, rising quickly through the ranks to become the youngest petty officer of that era, just as the United States was gearing up for war. Linda describes the day that Preston was at sea on neutrality patrol. He was set to go on vacation when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor. On the other side of the world, in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, Preston walked to the fantail of his ship and shredded his leave papers. No one would be taking vacations for a while. My grandfather served four years, sending money home to support his mother (though she saved it for her son, refusing to spend it on herself). After completing his hitch, Preston traveled home - and found a telegram on the table. He didn't have to read past the cheerful "Greetings" to know what happened. The army had drafted him. So he kissed his mother goodbye and headed to Norfolk where he waited ("they hid him out," Linda recalls) until his reenlistment paperwork got squared away. If Preston was going to stay in the fight, he was going to serve as a sailer.

My grandfather served throughout World War II and stayed on through Korea. After his Navy years, Preston studied to be an electrical engineer but left school early. Seeking opportunities in New Jersey and Florida, he settled his family in the Sunshine State and found work as an electronics technician at Sperry. Caught up in the postwar housing boom, he and his wife (Charlene Frazier, née Faught) bought a ranch house in Dunedin and began to raise two girls: Sandra, my mother, and Linda, my aunt. Preston Allen Frazier carried a steel lunchpail every weekday until 1976 when he died of a heart attack - just one day before he was set to retire. He was 61. Mom and I were living with my grandparents back then, so his death struck me as a personal blow.

The Fraziers aren't especially prone to sentimentality, but Granddady's death was a family crisis. Linda stayed awhile and helped us cope. But after a while we just drifted apart. Mom and I eventually found a place of our own, and Linda returned to her home in northern Florida. Nana soldiered on for years, and then one day she was gone. With no direct male relatives, the Preston Allen Frazier line ended. I've adopted the name, but my choice is, perhaps, little more than an affectation [Heck, I was born with "Franklin" as my middle name; my mother simply raised me to use "Frazier" after divorcing my dad]. Still, I figured I should at least see my grandfather's last resting place. You can imagine my distress at learning that his gravesite was lost. It was time to plan a road trip and sort some things out.

Coming Soon[ish]: Part II: West Virginia Digging

[NOTE: I am indebted to Linda Frazier for her painstaking genealogical work on behalf of our family. Much of the history presented here comes directly from her emails to me. In sharing this information I hope to further promulgate what I have learned and inspire future conversations about Preston Allen Frazier's family line. Yet I can add little to what she discovered and passed on; none of this material would exist without her work.]

Friday, September 9, 2011

Roy Neary Was an Alien!

One of the great things about watching a beloved movie on the big screen is the chance to catch tiny details you might have missed. A bit of toss-off dialogue here, a hidden piece of obscure scenery there, a chance to read the story with a tiny bit more precision. It's geeky fun. And that's all I anticipated last night in Santa Cruz when Jenny and I saw Close Encounters of the Third Kind in a movie theater for the first time in two years. I've seen this flick over 200 times, so didn't expect too many surprises. I certainly never thought I'd see an entirely new ending. But that's what happened.

CE3K is my favorite movie of all time. Sure, there are technically better movies - plenty of them. Still, only one movie lit up my nine-year old imagination like Close Encounters. Even Star Wars seems to shrink in comparison (at least now). Steven Spielberg's depiction of ordinary people encountering extraordinary circumstances struck a more profound chord in me than George Lucas's blaster-happy space fantasy. Watching CE3K's slow-zoom moments of grownups looking heavenward, terrified and wondrously awestruck - those moments dug deeper in me than the rumble of a hundred Star Destroyers.

So we're watching the show in Santa Cruz last night, just like we did a couple years back, and I'm focusing on those tiny details that only a large canvas can reveal [Spoiler Alert, blah, blah, Spoiler Alert]. For example, did you ever see a guy rolling around the Project Mayflower landing site in a motorized wheelchair? Or have you noticed the peculiar way Ronnie cocks her head - just a microburst of disdain - when Roy makes his Mashed Potato Pronouncement? [Check out Jenny's version!] Yeah this flick feeds my inner geek.

OK, If you've read this far, you probably dig Close Encounters too. I therefore hope you won't mind a bit more background before I get to the point of this post. As you likely know, Steven Spielberg has fiddled with CE3K regularly since releasing the flick in late '77. Studio pressures to rush production forced him cut corners, and the results disappointed him. Some of film's original effects were sloppy, and the pacing didn't feel right. Version 1.0 contained scenes that Spielberg thought to be extraneous. And it failed to convey the international breadth of the aliens' message. Even so, the movie made buckets of money. So Spielberg pestered Columbia Pictures for some of that cash to buff out his movie's rough edges. And they agreed.

They agreed, that is, with one important proviso. Columbia Pictures promised to finance Version 1.5 - as long as Spielberg would take the audience inside the Mothership. He did, and CE3K fans have debated the decision ever since. In the intervening years, Spielberg has disavowed his "Special Edition" ending, and subsequent versions have relegated the Mothership-as-Las-Vegas finale to the scrapheap of "additional scenes." But as far as I'm concerned, the 1980 version makes it clear that Roy Neary was an alien. He didn't search for aliens. He didn't become an alien. He was an alien all along.

To understand why, let's go back to that infamous Special Edition conclusion. Roy is walking alone into the ship. He's sporting those sexy seventies-sideburns and some gnarly beard scraggle. The spaceship's interior seems weirdly sterile, though, like a corporate disco. It's now 1980 and Steven Spielberg is giving the suits at Columbia Pictures what they want. Anyway, Roy is looking around, taking it all in. Then he stares upward into the fiery neon chandelier of that vast floating city. Above him, tiny aliens twitter and gawk. He's welcome; he's been expected. Suddenly a shower of pixie dust pours upon him. [Yeah, if you've read this far without seeing CE3K, there's no other way to describe it. Roy Neary is covered with pixie dust]. The scene then cuts back to original footage. A third kind of alien exits the ship. It's not one of the childlike rubber-skin moppets we saw a few minutes earlier, and it's not that creepy spindly thing that announced the visitors' greeting. It's something new. As many folks have wondered, maybe the aliens transformed the human Roy Neary into an extraterrestrial. So, in that way, Roy could now be one of "them."

Maybe. But I'd prefer to take this thesis one step further.

I think that the 1980 version of CE3K indicates that Roy Neary was an alien all along. How could that be? Well, first, we know that the visitors have been messing with humans for decades. They've kidnapped some people and implanted visions in others. Their reasons remain inscrutable, but their methods suggest tremendous power. I mean, heck, they can float a huge oil refinery-type vessel low over Devil's Tower, flip the thing over, and not scratch a single lightbulb on the tarmac. As one dude intones, "They can fly rings around the moon" [though we've got 'em beat on the highway]. Regardless, it's clear that they can levitate objects ["Non-ballistic motion" is a technical term used by one character]. I'll bet they can mutate objects. And people? Sure, they can do that too. I mean, come on, they're aliens!

The way I see it, the visitors planted Roy onto Earth - maybe in 1944 [the year he says he was born] or some time afterward. Then, and this is important, they implanted human memories so that he would think he's an earthling. Now, you know they have that kind of technology because these dudes implant visions into people all the time. Remember how they use that process to convince dozens of folks, maybe hundreds, to make the dangerous journey to Devil's Tower? Typical interpretations of CE3K have us believe that aliens are implanting that same vision in Roy when his truck conks out at the railroad crossing. But I believe that the operation serves a different purpose. This encounter is designed to wake Neary up.

You see, Roy was planted on Earth, complete with "human" feelings and fears, to learn about us. He's a sleeper agent. When visitors read his mind, they can learn more about us than any probe could convey. Perhaps the aliens see their actions as part of a "foreign exchange program," a predecessor to when they announce themselves to technologically inferior civilizations. Thus when Roy encounters aliens at the railroad track, his fear is real. He has no idea that he is one of them. At that moment, a message is implanted in his mind. For other contactees, the message is, "Come to Devil's Tower." For Roy, the message is different. It says, "Come home."

Think about it. Roy Neary has always felt lost on Earth, especially when confronting adult responsibilities. He's done his best to follow the rules; he's got a job and a family. He pays his mortgage and has a hobby (model railroading, a signifier of travel and freedom). Still, the "real world" has always felt fake to him. That's one reason why he's drawn to Pinocchio. He wants to become a boy in order to become "real." That's why Roy relates so easily with Barry Guiler (the little boy whom the aliens abduct). While others try to manage and control their encounters with the visitors, Roy and Barry simply want to get close to them.

Compare this response to some other reactions to seeing the aliens at the landing site. Barry's mother looks for a while but then grabs a camera. Snapping picture after picture, she detaches herself from the scene, just like those scientists who barely look at the awesome spectacle unfolding around them. They too reach for technological distance. Meanwhile, standing nearby, Barry just stares and stares. Roy does too. Eventually, the others will come to understand what Barry and Roy know, that this is a moment which transcends science. It is, to quote François Truffaut's Claude Lacombe, "an event sociological," one best experienced as music, as play. Lacombe eventually admits that he envies Neary. A leader of an international group searching for evidence of alien visitation, Lacombe is the scientist who seeks a childhood fantasy - a reflection of Spielberg's next great alien fantasy, E.T. He is stymied by words and resorts to music and hand-signals. Yet he can only grasp so much. For Barry and Roy, such wisdom is child's play.

Oh, and we must consider the aliens themselves, especially those silly looking tiny gray ones that spill out of the ship once the other abductees are released. Not only were those creatures played by children, I believe that they are children. Or, more to the point of Spielberg's vision, they retain a childlike sense of wonder that attract Barry and Roy (and, to a lesser extent, Lacombe). The visitors possess ancient and frightening powers. But (as Barry explains in the novel) "they play nice."

Now we return to the Special Edition's finale, when the pixie dust begins to fall. For years I've wondered what that stuff was meant to represent. Was it some sort of bio-mechanical magic that helps humans survive the stresses of interstellar flight? Were the abductees coated with the same stuff, only to be re-humanized upon their return? Maybe. But the presence of that third alien-type - not quite the ancient-looking "greeter," not quite the childish-looking "grays" - tells me that Roy has been literally transformed. Maybe he's a hybrid. Or maybe he's a unique alien-type who is capable of such inter-species communication. I'll leave that sort of analysis to the truly obsessive CE3K-ophiles. As for me, I think that Neary has been returned to his old alien self. He is now going home.

I hope my hypothesis offers some insight into what Steven Spielberg was up to in 1980. In particular, this explanation responds to critics who couldn't abide the thought of a father abandoning his family to go play with aliens. Spielberg has often said that Close Encounters of the Third Kind dates him as a director, perhaps more than any other movie he's made. It signifies his younger, less mature self. After having children, Spielberg says, he could never again promote such selfishness. The Neary-As-Alien thesis represents a sort of half-step response to his guilt. I mean this guy chose Pinocchio's "When You Wish Upon A Star" to accompany scenes of a father ditching his wife and kids! It's a pretty lousy thing to do, actually. I'm a middle-aged guy, and I understand that now. I'd never flee my family to fly with ET.

But what if Roy was an alien? How guilty would he be then?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

MC Frontalot in Santa Cruz

Jenny and I saw MC Frontalot perform last night at the Crepe Place in Santa Cruz. It's an odd venue, admittedly, but plenty of nerdcore aficionados packed themselves into the restaurant bar for a standing-room only show that featured two opening acts. Gnarboots unleashed a Dead Kennedys-like punk vibe, especially when singer AdamD plunged into the crowd to belt furiously fun tunes. Brandon Patton followed up with a zesty goulash of indie, folk, and Irish yell-alongs. (My favorite: "Mixed-Up Modern Family"; Jenny's least favorite: "Ketchup and Mayo" - say no more). Turns out, Brandon is otherwise known as BL4k Lotus: bass guitarist for the evening's main act.

McFrontalot bounded onto the floor with spastic, geeky abandon. Clip-on reading light, Office Space "I hate my job" white button-down, and spectacles that only a Princess Leia impersonator could love: Front brought the whole package. His performance was crisp, jazzed, and tightly-paced, offering the rowdy crowd a great set of oldies and new stuff from five albums. Before things got kicked off, I asked if he might sing "Tongue-clucking Grammarian" (I've got some papers to grade). Would you believe it? He opened the show with it! I guess every geek gets lucky once in a while.

(Video and Photographs by Andrew Wood - music and performance, of course, belong to MC Frontalot)

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Prague Street Art

How to describe the street art we saw in Prague? Put it this way: Prague's got a Franz Kafka museum that features two men pissing phrases into a fountain; send a text and you can watch the words dissolve in the water. The world's got plenty of pissing statues, I guess, but how many allow you to control the flow via text message? Prague is clearly a place where absurdity rises to the level of art. That's why I love the stencil-work we saw here.

One must-see stop: a wall dedicated to John Lennon where local students (and a few tourists able to find a can of spray paint) regularly cover and recover the surface with phrases, lyrics, and bits of doggerel. Walking along the Charles Bridge to find the wall, you may spot a souvenir stand selling framed photos of especially iconic work. Keep your money. Bring your camera and take your own shots. That's part of the pleasure of this kind of hunt: its ephemerality. Come back tomorrow, and you'll surely see something new.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Stenciling Sturgeon Along the Danube

While visiting Budapest this past summer, Jenny and I met a small group of folks spray painting sturgeon upon the walkway near the Danube. I wanted to watch from a distance, not being sure how to explain my interests in street art, but Jenny insisted that I introduce myself. We spent so much time photographing graffiti over the past few days that it'd be a shame to pass up an opportunity to talk with an artist of this shadowy genre.

The folks I met were really cool about allowing me to shoot video, explaining their actions as part of a broader campaign called the Danube Study Path. The effort seeks to inspire interest in the river's changing social and natural ecosystem. I guess the idea here is that you see a sturgeon on the sidewalk and wonder why you rarely see them in the water.

I'm not entirely sure whether spray-painting sturgeon will produce any results (or whether this was a "sanctioned" part of the Study Path), but I appreciated the artists' friendly tolerance of a stranger shooting video. Oh, and given the weird lighting conditions and my choice to use a relatively cheap camera, don't be surprised that the footage suffers from excess noise. Social activism isn't always pretty.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Friday Fun Post: "Honey, your coffee just doesn't TASTE any good"

Thanks to YouTuber shaunclayton for producing this sad-creepy-funny look at 50s and 60s-era depictions of family life ruined by "criminal coffee."

Thursday, September 1, 2011

2012 China Tour

So excited! The SJSU Communication Studies department is moving forward with a summer study tour in China. Here's the pitch...

Visit Beijing and earn four upper division units in communication studies!

This summer (June 18 to July 10), Dr. Andrew Wood is leading an intercultural communication study abroad program to China, with a special emphasis on tourism, modernity, and urban life.

Students will stay at Communication University of China, which provides comfortable dormitory housing, low-cost meals, and easy access to the sights of Beijing. Classes focus on conversation and real-life exploration, and you will have lots of free time. That means opportunities to climb the Great Wall, wander the Forbidden City, experience the Peking Opera, and more.

Pricing (excluding airfare and visa fees) is about $2,500, which covers housing, course fees, food, and several local tours. Cost for airfare and visa fees is an additional $1,500. The course meets COMM 161F requirements, but course substitutions can be made if you've already taken that class. If you're a communication major, you should apply for this terrific opportunity.

Want to learn more?

* Step One: Contact the course instructor:

* Step Two: Attend an orientation meeting. Choose either Wednesday, September 28th (12 to 1 p.m.) or Thursday, September 29th (12 to 1 p.m.).