Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Iran Update

While it seems inconceivable now that the U.S. would attack Iran, that nation seems hell-bent on provoking a war with us. In response, Defense Secretary is moving another carrier into the Persian Gulf. According to CBS, "planning is being driven by what one officer called the 'increasingly hostile role' Iran is playing in Iraq - smuggling weapons into Iraq for use against American troops."

Read the whole story: "Hostile" Iran Sparks U.S. Attack Plan

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


Gary Wolf has written a fascinating article in Wired about a software application called SuperMemo that uses algorithms to plan ideal times to learn and retain material. The approach suggested in this piece may seem counterintuitive. And some of the implications of this piece, most notably that computers may end of programming us, are pretty wild. But it's thought-provoking stuff nonetheless. Here are a couple of snips:
SuperMemo is based on the insight that there is an ideal moment to practice what you've learned. Practice too soon and you waste your time. Practice too late and you've forgotten the material and have to relearn it. The right time to practice is just at the moment you're about to forget.

SuperMemo . . . predicts the future state of a person's memory and schedules information reviews at the optimal time.
Read the entire piece: Want to Remember Everything You'll Ever Learn? Surrender to This Algorithm

Monday, April 28, 2008

Great Movie Endings - Part 5 - Cast Away

The deserted island is heaven to city dwellers. The rhythmic churning of tides, the vast expanse of stars at night, and the solitary splendor of one's thoughts: this is paradise. It is recreation in a seemingly perfect sense. The return to the warm oceans of our primordial selves represents a fertile fantasy for tourist brochures and private escape. For my grandparents' generation, the deserted island was the stuff of tiki phantasmagoria. My parents watched Gilligan's Island for glimmers of that place. I settled for reruns.

Warning: Spoilers

Along comes Cast Away (2000) and its promise of a more realistic portrayal of life alone on a tiny island in the South Pacific, where reefs tear the skin with razor cruelty, a diet of coconut milk reeks havoc on one's bowels, and there's nary a monkey-butler to be found. I have no expectation that the Robert Zemeckis-directed movie showed everything, but its story of harried FedEx manager Chuck Noland's transformation from a chunky, privileged synecdoche for modern American life into an emaciated, half-crazed islander rings true, at least to me.

Unfortunately, most folks I know who've seen Cast Away dismiss the movie as dull. No action, little dialogue, laden with existential angst. I love it though: the shameless triumph of Chuck's first bonfire, the quiet majesty of urinating into the ocean under the Milky Way, and the somber pointlessness of a funeral held with no attendees. And I dig the movie's harsh shifts in chronology, particularly Chuck's blink-of-an-eye transportation from battered raft to air-conditioned plane flying back home.

I imagine that solders returning from the battlefield know that feeling too, the whiplash speed at which the vivid present becomes the distant past, at least to outside observers. Those who survive those sickeningly fast transitions must carry the mental lag with them for a long, long time. Even their loved-ones rarely understand.

The movie begins on a dusty road in rural Texas, and it ends there too. Again, a number of people tell me that they can't stand Cast Away's conclusion. Chuck regains his fiancée whom he left at an airport with the promise, "I'll be right back" -- only to lose her again. This damned movie wasn't a love story at all! It is about loss: loss of dignity, loss of possessions, loss of faith in the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of modern life.

At the end of the movie, Chuck has lost everything, carrying his world in a rental car. Yet he is more fully human than he's ever before been. Thus the meaning of the last lines, when Chuck meets Bettina:
Bettina: You look lost.

Chuck: I do?

Bettina: Where ya headed?

Chuck: Well, I was just about to figure that out.

Bettina: Well, that's 83 South. And this road here'll hook you up with I-40 East. Um, if you turn right, that'll take you to Amarillo, Flagstaff, California. And if you head back that direction, you'll find a whole lot of nothing all the way up to Canada.

Chuck: I got it.

Bettina: Well, all right then. Good luck cowboy.
We spend our lives seeking escape from what we've sought. We build cities only to dream of the "Old West." We covet jobs only to romanticize retirement. And we make fetishes out of communication devices only to bemoan the obligations of our hyper-connected world.

But Chuck Noland has found a reprieve on that quiet crossroad amidst our empire of signs. Here, now, his freedom is most real. No one waits. No one trails. Every choice is new. For a moment at least, his life opens as an endless horizon.

Some people hated the ambiguity of his last stare into the camera, for Chuck is clearly not happy in the ways that magazines and television shows have trained us to interpret happiness. Yet he's not sad either. He will not follow Bettina down that dusty road, but he might. Some folks hate not knowing what happens next.

For Chuck, and for this movie, that's the whole point.

Visit IMDB's post on Cast Away.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Friday Fun Post - Slip of the Tongue

One of my students, Adrian Jung, shared this video with me: It's a clever and humorous critique of the social construction of ethnicity in the U.S.

Food Rationing?

Brett Arends writes in the Wall Street Journal that we need to stockpile food and prepare for rapid increases in the costs of necessities in the U.S. I have no clue whether he's correct, but his article reflects some sense of just how bizarre this month has been. Here's a snip:

I don't want to alarm anybody, but maybe it's time for Americans to start stockpiling food.

No, this is not a drill.

You've seen the TV footage of food riots in parts of the developing world. Yes, they're a long way away from the U.S. But most foodstuffs operate in a global market. When the cost of wheat soars in Asia, it will do the same here.

Reality: Food prices are already rising here much faster than the returns you are likely to get from keeping your money in a bank or money-market fund. And there are very good reasons to believe prices on the shelves are about to start rising a lot faster.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Etymology - Anchor

Referring to the broadcast news "anchor," Newsweek, April 21, 2008, offers a useful description of how this word acquired its usage. Here's a snip:
CBC had a problem. It was 1952, and the network had dispatched its stars to the first nationally television Republican National Convention. But CBS wanted to showcase an impressive rookie, Walter Cronkite. A young producer named Don Hewitt, later of "60 Minutes" fame, conjured up the image of a relay race: each journalist would do a segment, then hand off to the next Cronkite would be the "anchor leg." Three weeks later Cronkite was on his way to becoming the "most trusted man in America."

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Still Undecided?

As an independent voter I should not feel nausea over last night's Democratic primary results in Pennsylvania, but I do -- and not only because I'm an Obama supporter. There's just something wrong about the ability of so many people standing on the sidelines to decide the election for the rest of us. Here I'm referring first to those famed "undecided voters" who after dozens of debates and countless hours of television ads can't quite seem to make up their minds. And yes, these folks largely broke Clinton's way in yesterday's Pennsylvania primary.

That's pretty annoying since Clinton has run such a ragged and insulting race, adding "Kitchen Sink Campaign" to the lexicon of our Hall of Political Shame. Certainly she's forced the Obama camp to face issues that might otherwise have festered and metastasized until fall. But the condescending manner of her attacks, which undeniably worked in the large states, suggests that something is far more troubling about the state of our electorate. Call me an "elitist" (in the laughable vein of one attack against Obama) but reading a New York Times op-ed piece yesterday about the state of education in America inspires me to wonder just what kind of voters are gumming up the works. Here's a snip:
Ignorance in the United States is not just bliss, it’s widespread. A recent survey of teenagers by the education advocacy group Common Core found that a quarter could not identify Adolf Hitler, a third did not know that the Bill of Rights guaranteed freedom of speech and religion, and fewer than half knew that the Civil War took place between 1850 and 1900.
To be fair, some very bright and engaged people are also working overtime to produce an electoral result that is so convoluted that we may yet see a Republican victory in November. Here, I'm referring to the superdelegates who wait and watch while Clinton continues to grind herself and her party into the ground. As I've written before, the Democratic Party's policy of allowing each VIP-vote to count for about 13,000 "regular voters" is ridiculous. Moreover, I continue to believe that any result produced by the superdelegates that overturns the popular vote may destroy the party altogether.

And yet about 300 superdelegates remain undecided ("uncommitted" in their somehow less obnoxious terminology). Again, the candidates have had months to pummel each other, and these folks can't decide? We haven't heard nearly enough about Clinton's White House "experience" and Obama's promise of "change"? I'd just as soon have a series of regional popular votes and be done with the whole primary system. Of course, I'd ultimately prefer neither the folks who can't find China on a map nor party hacks obsessed with their own perks to make this call. Can't we depend upon a broad enough center of reasonably educated and engaged citizens to decide this race? No matter, the Democrats have chosen to assign their fate to an endless round of primaries and the caprices of the superdelegates. Thus even at the risk of contradicting my own despair at rule by the few on either pole, it's time for leadership.

Superdelegates must make up their minds. Now. Not next week or next month or in August. If they are going to earn their elite status, these VIPs have to stop testing the winds, get in front of the parade, and lead their party out of this mess. Otherwise, "undecided" may as well mean GOP.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Closing the Loop

I can never quite understand why some people write emails, receive responses, and choose not to send any kind of acknowledgment. Maybe it's the apparent anonymity of internet communication, the sense that we can ignore necessary and productive courtesy in a way we'd never tolerate in person. Thus, many people fail to "close the loop."

You might be thinking: So?

Here's why it matters: Closing the loop reflects a practical rule that we learn from nature. It's one thing to chop down a tree for its wood. It's another thing to plant several trees after felling one. The first approach works at first but leaves an ugly hole in the ground. The second approach creates a renewable resource, the promise of more to come.

Simple, right? And yet many people don't close the loop online.

Here's my perspective: I regularly receive email-questions related to my academic job, often dozens a day. Students seek advice on homework, strangers request professional expertise, that sort of thing. Each email asks for my time, which I'm happy to give, even if my effort spent on emails exceeds the expectations of my paid employment.

But what happens if someone chooses not to close the loop?

To me, that choice is similar to a person entering my office, asking me a question, receiving a reply, and then leaving wordlessly. How would you feel? Days later I'll wonder: "Did that student find my advice to be helpful?" or "Did that researcher get my reply?" I have no idea whether my time was well spent. And I have little time to waste.

Then I wonder: Why expend energy with no noticeable outcome?

To some folks, closing the loop makes no sense. Maybe it's a corporate mentality that presumes that "thank you" messages are inefficient, a waste of time. Heck, if I email "thank you," and you reply, "thank YOU," and I follow-up, "seriously, thank YOU," the consequence could be an endless loop, a real time-suck. Civilization would soon collapse, right?

Well, no. Courtesy is a foundation for civilization - and productivity.

A person or organization that ignores basic courtesy conserves time now, but ultimately sows the seeds for time-consuming communication failure: people feeling no desire respond meaningfully to each other, ignoring "strangers" who don't appreciate their efforts. Wasted energy and lost productivity result from that momentary savings of time.

Still, we must consider: What about the time it takes to close the loop?

Certainly you don't need to compose a book-length acknowledgment or drip your email with flowery prose. But you've got to say something, if only a brief "thank you," or "got it," or even "cool." The goal is to recognize the gift of personal attention, a gift that is rare these days as efficiency replaces courtesy as our dominant expectation.

I conclude with Ohio University Dean Gregory Shepherd's (Wired, 17.08) observation: "Communication is not just about accomplishing tasks . . . it's about managing relationships." Sure, I'd quibble with Shepherd's utilitarian notion of "management," but I share his focus on relationships. I therefore offer this advice to anyone sending an email:

Ask a question? Get an answer? Close the loop.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Vienna's Going to Reed

I'm delighted to announce that Vienna plans to attend Reed College this fall. While she received a number of other invitations, her two serious choices were UC Santa Cruz and Reed. It was a tough call. UCSC has virtues of physical beauty and proximity to friends and loved ones. The cost is pretty reasonable, too. Then there's Reed. It's distant enough to require a plane ticket, an overnight train, or an all day road trip; it's notoriously rigorous (Steve Jobs is a famous Reed drop-out); and it's insanely expensive. Oh, and Loren Pope describes Reed in Colleges that Change Lives as "the most intellectual college in the country."

Vienna is completing the full International Baccalaureate program, and now she's stepping up to an even greater challenge. Her reading list for the intro Humanities course is a massive survey of Greek and Roman thought that would intimidate any graduate student. And she'll be required to write a senior thesis that is master's worthy. But the 10 to 1 student-faculty ratio, the chances for international travel, and a community of brilliant learning-fanatics will be everything that Vienna deserves.

So after two tours and plenty of sleepless nights, she's decided to head for Oregon. No doubt, plenty of challenges await: personal, academic, and financial. It won't be easy. But Vienna weighed the pros and cons, struggled mightily with her decision, and made the call. Our daughter's going to Reed.

French Theory

Stanley Fish uses Francois Cusset's new French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co.: Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States to explore the Big Theory wars of the eighties and nineties. Good reading:

French Theory in America (April 6, 2008): In this piece, Fish states that deconstructionism "doesn’t take anything away from us. We can still do all the things we have always done; we can still say that some things are true and others false, and believe it; we can still use words like better and worse and offer justifications for doing so. All we lose (if we have been persuaded by the deconstructive critique, that is) is a certain rationalist faith that there will someday be a final word, a last description that takes the accurate measure of everything."

French Theory in America, Part Two (April 20, 2008): In this piece, Fish engages respondents to his first piece: "Theory, at least of the French kind, doesn’t do anything; or so I claim. Yes, it does, retorted many respondents, half of whom said it does something bad, while the other half said it does something good."

Friday, April 18, 2008

Portland Tiki

We just returned from Portland, Oregon, where we visited Reed College (unofficial motto: Communism, Atheism, Free Love) a second time. Vienna has been accepted there, but she's still deciding between Reed and UC Santa Cruz. Thus we made another trip, this time to hang out with Reedies, attend some Q&As, and drop Vienna off to stay overnight in a dorm. That latter part left Jenny and I with some free time, so we toured a couple of Portland's famed tiki haunts, one venerable and one relatively new.

Our tour started with The Alibi on Interstate Avenue. This place has been around since horse and buggy days -- it was once called the Chat-n-Nibble -- but transformed itself into a tiki bar and restaurant in the postwar era. Even now The Alibi features a glorious animated sign, complete with neon flames, and the dim interior hides all manner of "Polynesian" goofiness, most notably a trio of day-glo hula-babes. For the décor alone, and its proximity to the glorious neon of the Palms Motor Hotel, The Alibi is worth a visit. The problem, sadly, is everything else. The food is lousy, the music is straight from 70s AM radio, and (most tragically) the bar's basic Mai Tai tastes like sweetened motor oil, safely without a hint of booze. It's so awful that I couldn't finish the thing. Jenny and I downed our greasy drumsticks and potato skins and scooted fast.
Our evening took a positive turn when we headed for Broadway, navigating a nest of one-way surface streets and finding a place to park the car. At last, we entered our other stop for the night: Thatch. Stepping onto the wooden footbridge over a murky grotto at the door's edge, we found ourselves into a narrow but cheerful tiki bar that opened in 2007, quickly earning a reputation is a regional must-stop for tikiphiles.

Pointy puffer fish glowed red and orange and green and imposing idols lured us from the city into a fantasy of 50s and 60s-era American kitsch. We ordered some pu pus, including a carafe of cashews (though macadamia nuts were available, too), and I settled into an artfully mixed Mai-Tai: fruit-garnished, frothy, amber-colored, semi-tart with just a hint of sweetness under the parasol. Perfect. I followed that libation with something called an Aviatrix, which is a staff member's interpretation of an 1850s-cocktail. Having no point of comparison, I happily sipped the complex drink, offered by a dude who assured me that he was the best bartender I would ever have. Things got blurry right about then and I knew quickly that there'd be no third drink for me. I will return, though. Thatch is a great tiki bar. All the more reason for me to hope that our daughter will choose Portland!

(Photographs by Andrew Wood)

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Floating Central Park

The Daily Mail reports plans to launch a mammoth cruise liner that will feature a park, allowing guests to wander a New York-style city that even includes trees and al fresco dining. Here's a snip:
"The park will be located on Deck 8 of the 16 deck ship and open to the sky, with dimensions of 62ft (19m) wide and 328ft (100m) long."

"Trees in the park will tower more than two-and-a-half decks tall and the area is to have micro-climate control techniques to make sure the plants thrive."
Read the whole story: The 220,000-tonne cruise liner that has its very own New York-style Central Park.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Shamrock Court - Before and After

During my recent Route 66 trip, I came across an Ozark stone motel west of Sullivan, Missouri. After some research I found the name: Shamrock Court. No longer catering to overnight guests, the site continues to amaze with its handcrafted artistry.

(Photographs by Andrew Wood)

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Facebook and Teaching

The Peer Mentor "Monday Crew" and I recently enjoyed a visit from a faculty member who is researching the integration of Facebook into some of our classes at SJSU. Our guest admitted that, as is often the case, she herself is still learning about this social networking site, and that most of her students know more about the topic than she does. She therefore focused her presentation around questions posed to our students (posed, actually, by one of our students who is working with her). The conversation stimulated my own thinking about Facebook's potential role in the classroom, reminding me of the days when computer-mediated communication was my primary research emphasis. I found myself thinking that Facebook might appear somewhere in my post-omnitopia research agenda. Maybe.

Facebook fascinates me. I have used it for a couple of years now, but I've only recently begun delving into its many applications. Current favorites include Flair, an Office Space-inspired corkboard where users can post buttons, and the Album feature, where I'm uploading pictures that show me growing up (my earliest pic is from 1970, when I was two). For me, Facebook is a combination personal network-newspaper, blog-extension, image repository, and doorway to several communities. As its designers intended, this site has become a part of my daily online.

Even so, Facebook raises interesting questions and challenges to me as a faculty member. When I walk by the computer lab in Clark Hall, I see dozens of students typing away, but many of them are not doing homework; they are checking their Facebook pages. And I am certain that an increasingly large percentage of students who bring laptops to class are hardly limiting themselves to notetaking; many are updating their Facebooks ("OMG! I am soooo bored!"). That's OK, actually. All of us -- faculty, students, staff, and administrators -- are becoming adept at multitasking. Frankly, as long as one student's extracurricular browsing in class isn't distracting to her or his colleagues (or obvious to me), I don't really mind. Adult students, after all, are responsible for their own learning.

Yet what about "friend" requests? Frequently (most often at the beginning of a semester) I receive requests from my students to accept shared links between our Facebook pages, making us "friends" in the terminology of the site. What exactly does that mean? It's interesting that while Facebook started as a social networking site for college students, "taking a class from…" is not one of the options for Facebook-friend descriptions. As I recall, we might be identified as "taking a class together," but that doesn't quite summarize the nature of the student-faculty relationship (to my thinking, at least). Given the ambiguous nature of the meaning of Facebook "friend," I don't make such requests of my students, even when I'd really like to. I am always happy to receive these requests, but I don't feel that it's appropriate for me to impose myself in that manner.

Accepting a friend request from one of my students raises still more issues to consider, particularly when I receive updates about that person on my Facebook News Feed. Becoming a Facebook "friend" can mean that if a student uploads a toilet-crouch pic from a drunken party, I see it. And if a student uploads a barely clothed "look at ME" photo, I see that too. I often see far more than I wish. Sure, students can place limits on who receives these updates and (to some extent) isolate some parts of their Facebook-identities to selected "friends," but few take such precautions. I suppose part of the reason is lack of expertise on the various Facebook settings, but I suspect that many students see no meaningful reason to reserve their doings from the eyes of others. We live in an age of exhibitionism. Sure, older folks from all generations have likely made similar complaints. But the global extent to which a person can embarrass her- or himself today is mind-boggling. So I warn students to be aware of the personal and professional implications of their Facebook posts.

What remains is some investigation into the uses of Facebook for teaching purposes. Many faculty members are gravitating (warily in some cases) to online course management tools such as Blackboard. These sorts of learning resources offer online quizzes, live chats, threaded conversations, and other ways to extend the classroom beyond brick and mortar. And many students report general satisfaction with tools like Blackboard. Yet I'd imagine that they spend much more time in Facebook than they do Blackboard, devoting more time to these sites than they spend engaged in rapt attention to some scintillating lecture (note the emphasis here is on engagement, not mere time). Does that mean that we should move some or even all of our teaching/learning to Facebook, since so many of our students are there all the time anyway?

At this point I don't know. Facebook complicates the distinction between "higher learning" and the other myriad realities of student life, bringing to sharp relief the fact that many students aren't nearly as interested in their formal educations as their professors wish. Students learn more things of value, they might even claim, from their friends' Facebook postings than from their professors' ethereal musings. But what happens when their profs become their friends? One approach is to advocate that professors go where the students are. If students are hanging out on Facebook, then I should hang out there too. Another approach, though, is to reaffirm the sacrosanct nature of the college classroom, a site that privileges oral discourse over other forms of human interaction. Sure, I can use Facebook for some purposes, but I ought not abandon the classroom. That's a pretty neat distinction. But defining the debate this way risks oversimplifying a complex truth: faculty and students will create all manner of strange hybrids, forming mashups of form and substance that will often fail and sometimes produce brilliance. It just doesn't make sense to imagine a solely on-ground or online learning experience.

That being said, I continue to value the in-person experience of live interaction. The classroom still matters to me, if only because I've never yet been able to replicate the moment when strangers can amaze themselves with their individual and collective wisdom as I've experienced in the class. The dingy walls, the broken clock, even the presence of some folks who'd rather be anywhere than here, become tolerable when a critical mass of people slip into the same mainline and jam to shared knowledge, all agreeing with the feeling that, "something is happening here, something no one quite anticipated." For that reason I will experiment with Facebook and other social networking and learning management sites as ways to augment my "on-ground" teaching, but not to replace it. Not yet, anyway. Will I never teach solely online? I wouldn't make such a hasty promise. Changes in my personal circumstances or growing awareness of teaching modes that I've not yet encountered will surely challenge me to try a strictly online class one day. I'm kind of excited about the chances to stretch myself in new directions. And teaching solely online will be a stretch for a forensics-trained public speaker. But for now, I'm happy to gather all the tools at my disposal -- in person and online -- to the singular goal of helping students learn something meaningful.

Convincing them that what I have to teach is meaningful, well, that's an entirely different challenge.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Why Fly? Take a Train

Dennis Jaehne forwarded me Stephen Bayley's article in The Observer about the nightmarish experiences suffered by people who enter airport terminal-space. A snip:
"The rapidly changing culture of air travel is one of the significant characteristics of our age. Within a generation, what was once a romantic, privileged adventure has turned into a humiliating ordeal. Unless you are in prison or have recently been sectioned under the Mental Health Act, no other experience in contemporary life requires an individual so completely to forgo his independence and endure such joyless, harrowing regimentation as travelling by plane."
Read the whole article: Want to rediscover the joy of travel? Take the train ...

Friday, April 11, 2008

Friday Fun Post - Carry On Wayward Son

I was mildly stressed today that I had nothing to post. I've spent so long working on the Route 66 website that I haven't really resurfaced to think of new ideas. This morning I figured I'd upload some link and commentary about Iran, the "Axis of Evil" member that seems once again to be looming in U.S. military sights. But I just couldn't right something so heavy today. Perhaps I'd post nothing at all. Few people wait urgently for my little missives. That was my thinking anyway.

Then I saw this YouTube video, which is recommended by Diablo Cody in this week's Entertainment Weekly. For folks who remember rockin' in the seventies and eighties, hearing a ten-year-old kid kick ass on Kansas' "Carry On Wayward Son" is just too cool to miss. So here it is.

Now, my Friday can begin...

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Drive Route 66!

It's time to drive Route 66!

I've uploaded a website meant to share my recent experiences on the Mother Road. I hope you'll point your browser here:

Visiting my new site, you'll search for the "Gemini Giant," visit a gas station selling 400 kinds of pop, meet the unofficial "Mayor of Route 66," tour a real Texas ghost town, and hang out with the Bottle Tree Man.

I developed this site to give you a mile-by-mile feel of Route 66 and maybe even offer some tips for helping you plan your next road trip.

So head on over -- drive the whole road with me or use the map to select the states that interest you most.

One more thing: This site is in development, and I've surely left some typos or opportunities for clarification. So if you spot any parts of the pages that need a touch-up, let me know!

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Route 66 Travel Advice

While working on my Route 66 website, I found myself reflecting on random pieces of advice about highway travel that I couldn't place elsewhere. So here are my top ten pieces of wisdom for anyone planning to drive Route 66 (or any lengthy stretch of the road).

1. Try to avoid renting a car with a rear spoiler. It obscures your view and looks kind of stupid.

2. Whether at a fine restaurant or at a greasy spoon, overtip your server. Don't make a scene about it; just leave a couple more bucks than you would normally. On the road, you need all the good karma you can get.

3. Don't buy all your souvenirs in one place; grab a couple every day. That way you help lots of local businesses and get more opportunities to meet cool people.

4. Pack half as much as you think you'll need. Spend your time getting your kicks, not hauling heavy bags.

5. Make copies of your credit card and personal identification information (front and back). And keep those copies away from the originals. You won't need them - until you do.

6. Never eat at some place on the road that you could visit at home. Avoid chain restaurants and other familiar places. Try for something new and unique with every stop.

7. Send postcards. Even in this age of instant communications, everyone loves to receive a physical souvenir from the road. Buy a book of postcard stamps and use every one of them before returning home.

8. Abandon the desire for everything to be "perfect." Unforeseen changes in weather, itinerary, health, and the like happen. They're inevitable. Find value in where you are and the people with whom you share time.

9. Remember that few people care that you're "on vacation." People you meet along the road tend to live near by, and few get as many chances to travel as you. Talk less, listen more, and remember that the world doesn't revolve around your grand adventure.

10. Write something about your trip every day. Be specific and detailed about where you go, whom you meet, and what you do. Otherwise you'll look back a couple of weeks later and have only hazy memories where crisp recollections should be.

Got travel tips of your own to share? Post a comment!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

66 in 08 Poster (300th Post!)

I'm about finished with the first draft of my Route 66 website, complete with photos, stories, suggestions, and other tips to plan your own perfect trip on the Mother Road. I'll need a couple of days for spell- and fact-checking, but I feel pretty good about how things look thus far.

In the meantime, I thought I'd show a photo (not too high quality, I'm afraid, thanks to glare and fluorescent lighting) of a poster I put up in my office, which features a collage of images and souvenirs from the trip.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Death by Blogging

Matt Richtel writes in the April 6, 2008 issue of The New York Times that some bloggers forced to meet the demands of the web's endless cycle are literally writing themselves to death, maybe. Certainly the recent deaths of two noted bloggers has raised concerns about the harried nature of our 24/7 lifestyle, but no one knows for sure why Russell Shaw and Marc Orchant died. To Richtel, their passing may reflect a larger phenomenon. Here are some snips:
It is unclear how many people blog for pay, but there are surely several thousand and maybe even tens of thousands.

The emergence of this class of information worker has paralleled the development of the online economy. Publishing has expanded to the Internet, and advertising has followed.

Even at established companies, the Internet has changed the nature of work, allowing people to set up virtual offices and work from anywhere at any time. That flexibility has a downside, in that workers are always a click away from the burdens of the office. For obsessive information workers, that can mean never leaving the house.
Read the entire article: In Web World of 24/7 Stress, Writers Blog Till They Drop

Friday, April 4, 2008

Car Guys on Route 66

Readers of this blog may recognize my interest in Car Guys, those iconic figures from the roadside that seem drawn by the same artist. I call them "Car Guys" because I've first seen these figures - notable for their thick exterior lines, their impersonal expressions, and their rugged no-nonsense attitudes - on signage for car-related businesses: garages, repair shops, and the like. Here's one I found in Lebanon, MO, a Car Guy who works for Don's Auto Glass:

However, in that same city, I came across a Car Guy (or at least a relative) who does not work in the auto industry. Apparently this guy dreamed of the Old West and found a job selling western goods. I'll still call him a "Car Guy" because of his resemblance to his cousins. But clearly it's time for me to expand the term a bit.

Later in my Route 66 trip I met more traditional Car Guys, those dudes who understand the innards of a new-fangled import. Though they prefer pre-seventies American cars, Car Guys understand more than most the exigencies of globalization, and as long as they can keep a steady paycheck, they're happy to learn new things. This one works for Maxwell Automotive Services in Carthage, MO.

The traditional Car Guy is physically strong. He inspects and observes, of course, but he's ready to lift heavy objects so you don't have to. This Guy, working at Jay's Precision Alignment in Elk City, OK, illustrates the working ethos of his kin.

Finally in Grants, NM, I realized that not all "Car Guys" are men. Spotting a downtown laundromat, I noticed the same thick lines, the same all-business look, the same clear, irony-free life. This "Car Guy" is a woman who knows a thing or two about hard work. Oh, and look in the background. You'll spot a friend. Do they go out after work?

(Photographs by Andrew Wood)

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Portraits of Route 66

While I'm working on the website for my recent Route 66 trip, I thought I'd share some of my favorite portraits of folks from the road. Some of the text is from our Motel Americana website, some is from the forthcoming site.

At Shea's Gas Station in Springfield (IL) I met both Sheas, father and son. Bill Senior is a D-Day veteran, a little more than 80 years old, and his son speaks respectfully of his dad, showing me a container of sand from Utah Beach where his father's feet hit the surf. The Station is a museum of the Shea Family's dedication to the gas business. A container even holds Bill Senior's Texaco uniform, complete with bow tie. The younger Bill explains that many servicemen viewed Texaco and similar jobs as merely a change from one uniform to another.

The museum includes two buildings filled with decades of bric-a-brac, including a couple of Bell telephone booths. Bill junior describes how Ma Bell once paid businesses like his to keep a telephone booth on their property, until one day the company switched the deal and started charging them. We chatted for a while, moving through the displays, and I was grateful for the chance to talk with folks who are exactly where they want to be.

Visiting Henry's Rabbit Ranch in Staunton (MO), I had no idea what to expect when I arrived and almost two hours later, I wasn't quite sure I could believe what I experienced. Chatting about road history, comparing notes on famous '66ers, wading into politics, and waxing philosophical, Rich Henry and I shared a great conversation, all while enjoying the company of one of his many rabbits, Montana, who is a presidential candidate (sadly left out of the debates).

Rich's welcome center looks like an old gas station, but it's a replica. The "Snortin Norton" trucks outside, though, are the real thing, just as is the Stanley Cour-Tel motel sign that Rich rescued from oblivion a while back. I'd always wanted to see that sign in its original location near St. Louis but missed my chance. Pulling into Henry's I couldn't believe my luck -- there it was!

If you ever pass this way on your own travels, make time (and plenty of it) to stop and chat with Rich. Maybe by then he will have completed his commemorative park dedicated to the many bunnies he's helped raise since his daughter decided she'd overestimated her ability to care for the two she started with. Right now the park simply offers grave marks for each rabbit that has passed over the "rainbow bridge." Ask Rich to tell you about that bridge and try not to shed a tear.

I set my course for Lebanon (MO) and the Munger Moss Motel whose sign advertises, “Here yesterday, today, and tomorrow.” Bob and Ramona Lehman maintain this Mother Road classic out of love for the people who keep the road alive. Ramona explains, “They're just good people. They're humble people. And it's like one big family that keeps growing and growing and growing and you care about ‘em -- and they care about you.”

Running the Munger Moss since 1971, Ramona takes great pride in her motel; she has also started to develop theme rooms, including one for each of the eight states linked by Route 66. However, the coolest theme belongs to the Coral Court Room, dedicated to the famed St. Louis landmark replaced by tract housing a few years back. With its pink and black tile and satin sheets, this room would fit nicely in any bordello -- a perfect homage to the famed No Tell Motel.

Cruising a quiet stretch of road marked with ghost buildings in Paris Springs (MO), I spotted a brightly painted Sinclair gas station and read the sign: Gay Parita. The gate was open, though no one was around, so I walked around a little. Before long a fellow stepped out of a nearby house and advanced toward me; I felt that familiar twinge. Was I trespassing? Nodding appreciatively at the station, I said, "It looks like a labor of love!" He broke open into a broad smile and asked if I'd like a tour. Before I knew it, I'd just met Gary Turner, a guy who rebuilt a gas station that burned down in 1955 just so he could greet travelers passing through.

Gary showed me lots of pics of how the place had changed, beaming with pride at his glorious reproduction. But more than anything, he is thrilled at how many people have visited him since he rebuilt Gay Parita. Visitors have mailed him souvenirs from all over the world, all expressing their joy at chatting with this guy. I suppose the way best to describe Gary is to point at the poster of Cars over his desk. Remember Tow Mater? Imagine that beloved character in human form: that's Gary.

Built in 1922, Barstow's (CA) Route 66 Motel offers an example to other towns seeking to revitalize their aging main street districts that might otherwise fall prey to the scourges of drugs and prostitution. Ved and Mridu Shandil have refurbished the formerly non-descript motel into a Mother Road must-see, complete with antique cars between the cottages and round beds in many of the rooms.

The couple shows visitors a guestbook filled with the names and memories of road-trippers from around the world, many who have left photos and other memorabilia. For Ved and Mridu, the Route 66 Motel is more than a business; it’s their passion: “Number one: this is Americana. Number two: We are proud to be in Barstow.”

As the sun was beginning to set in Oro Grande (CA), I followed a friendly and dusty section of 66, which the Jerry McClanahan guide mentioned as being particularly photogenic. I read something about "bottle trees," thinking little of it. But I screeched my tires when I rode past a yard filled with tall poles branching with dozens, hundreds, countless numbers of bottles. I pulled over and then heard the sound, wind transforming the glass containers into musical instruments and fans of varying sizes spinning in the cool breeze. A sign offered admittance, and I quietly began to wander the yard, not wanting to bother its owner. Then I heard a hearty welcome, or at least I thought I did. Lost in a forest of bottle trees, I felt a little discombobulated. Maybe it was a trick of the wind. But then I heard a second greeting, "Come on over hear and sit down!"

I spotted a smiling fellow with a gray ZZ Top beard motioning me toward him. I walked over and sat down, and that's how I met Elmer Long, proprietor of the Bottle Tree Ranch. Elmer retired from a day job at the nearby concrete plant, where he picked up his equivalent of a college degree reading the classics, with a particular fondness for the works of Homer. Now he tends to his garden of bottles, occasionally venturing out to unearth more treasures from the desert that he uses for his various art installations.

One of Elmer's greatest kicks is to visit with strangers who happen by, talking about his family, his thoughts on life, and his eccentric collection. As we compared notes on our kids -- he's got a handful working their way through college, and mine is just about to start -- I grew less and less concerned about arriving at the coast by sunset. Some generic image of the Santa Monica pier could hardly compete with the opportunity to talk with this cool dude.

Our conversation ambled for its time until it was right that we part. Asking him if he'd allow me to take a portrait, Elmer quickly assumed the pose he often offers to tourists. I offered to send him a copy of the photo, but he demurred. Elmer has more photos of himself and his beloved trees than he can possibly store.

(Portraits by Andrew and Jenny Wood)

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Jack Webb's Grave

While on my Route 66 trip, I had the occasion to visit the gravesite of Jack Webb. Readers of this blog know that I have long been a fan of Webb's shows, like Dragnet, Adam 12, and Project UFO, and I've often thought that it'd be somehow fitting to pay my respects to the man who produced these shows. Of course, I'm not much for cemeteries, but after I had arrived at the Santa Monica Pier, concluding my journey of more than 2,000 miles, I began to wonder just where Webb is buried. I'd heard something about Forest Lawn Cemetery, so I figured I'd start there.

The next morning was Sunday, and I met an old high school friend whom I hadn't seen in more than 20 years. He and his family shared a pleasant breakfast with me at Bob's Big Boy in Burbank, and as we were parting I asked how close I was to Forest Lawn. "Very close," was the reply, but I had some difficulty understanding my friend's directions. So they drove out to Forest Lawn with me following behind, waving farewell once they were confident that I could make my way. The next step was finding the gravesite. Fortunately Jenny was at home and was willing to "vector me in" as we say in the Wood Family, looking up Jack Webb at Find a Grave. Within seconds, she found his plot: Sheltering Hills, Lot 1999. Then I looked around and realized that I had no idea how to find one gravesite among thousands.

At this point the final piece of the morning's kindness trifecta came into play. I spotted a maintenance worker parking his scooter and figured he might wave me in the right direction. Instead he smiled and offered to walk me right to the spot. Scraping grass from the numerical markers, he wound us steadily higher up the hill before finding the grave. I thanked him and looked down at last on the simple site. No flowers, no monument, no special symbolism, just "Jack Webb 1920-1982." It seemed sadly appropriate. Jack was a driven man, focused rigidly on his passions of television production and jazz music, leaving little room for close friendships. I imagine that few mourned him in a personal way.

I'd come a long way, minutes from Burbank, days from Chicago, to be here. And yet I quickly snapped a couple of pictures, focusing my thoughts on lighting and composition, before turning to walk down the hill. A few steps later I realized I'd missed the point of this visit, and I returned. Standing once more over the gravesite, I murmured a few quiet words of thanks. Jack Webb always seemed to be slightly behind his times, at least in the Technicolor world of the 1960s. By the time I recognized his particular style and began to watch shows for their production as much as their plots, Webb had become the stuff of satire. But I thanked him genuinely for bringing some pleasure into my life. I kept my words simple, as he would have wished. And then I turned away one last time.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Neon Highway

I'm back from my Route 66 adventures and will be working on the website over the next few days. In the meantime, check out a video I produced (aided by Nelson Riddle's glorious Route 66 theme), featuring some of the animated signs I saw along the road.

Difficulty seeing the video above? Click on the link:

[Note: If you select the link rather than the embedded video, please click "Watch in High Quality" to get the best looking view.]