Thursday, May 29, 2008

Buick Enclave

Longtime readers of this blog know that some of my research concentrates on the design and performance of enclavic spaces. You can therefore imagine my delight at seeing spots for the Buick Enclave.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

What? How? and How Well?

Having just read an Atlantic essay entitled In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, I'm a little anxious about reentering the classroom in my formal role as an associate professor of communication studies.

It's not that I've been out of the classroom for too long. Just this spring I taught two Peer Mentor training seminars composed of bright, dedicated, and inspirational students learning to assume leadership roles on campus. Students entering those classes were selected competitively, and even course completion offered no guarantee that they'd become peer mentors. These folks wanted to be present and yearned to succeed.

Summer classes in my home field can be a little different, though. No doubt, many motivated students take these classes. But a sizable number of students show up for reasons that sadden me: The class fits their schedule. They're knocking out core requirements. They want to "get it over with" in six weeks (something like tearing off a bandage).

These folks deserve a useful, accessible, and (dare I say it?) reasonably interesting introduction to the field of communication studies. And yet many have not been adequately prepared for the challenges of an upper-level course. The writing requirements, the technical terms, the abstract theories, and the demand for precision will test students in new and even frightening ways.

That's why I'm spending time rethinking fundamentals about this course. What are its objectives? What are its obligations? What must students be able to do when they complete COMM 101? Providing clear answers to those questions is, I think, the first step for both my students and me. To that end, I'm toying with the following parameters: Students (and professors) should be able to articulate "what," "how," and "how well."

"What" refers to the following question: What are the contexts of communication studies? Contexts include sites of communication such as organizational settings, interpersonal settings, familial settings, and the like. Contexts also include media such as speaking, writing, and online communication. I should add that the most fundamental "what" -- what is communication? -- may be usefully defined as "shared sense-making." Communication, therefore, is the creation of some shared sense through some medium in some context.

"How" refers to the following question: How do we practice effective communication? "How" is tricky because it occurs on at least two levels: the level of the practitioner and the level of the theorist. To practice is to do with purpose and repetition; to theorize is to speculate on the outcomes of that practice. At some level, it's hard to imagine a person who is not both: a person practicing the art of communication in the moment and a person theorizing about what manner of communication will be effective, either now or at some other moment.

Lower division classes such as Fundamentals of Public Speaking focus on practice: how to manage anxiety, how to organize main ideas, how to avoid fidgeting with your hands, and the like. These classes are based in theories that have evolved since the beginnings of human civilization. Yet theories float hazily in the background of most Public Speaking classes. For students at least, doing this speech is the primary concern.

At the upper division, it's more appropriate to explore "how" at a theoretical level. How, for example, does Kenneth Burke's notion of dramatism help us select strategies in various speaking contexts or anticipate the strategies used by others? These questions demand more than an understanding of practice; these questions demand an understanding of method, a way of practicing that exists apart from the practice itself. At this level, "how" refers both to the doing of communication and the doing of communication theory, what we call research.

"How well," finally, calls for us to judge communication in terms of utility, aesthetics, and ethics. Is it practical? Is it artistic? Is it good? "How well" questions invite us to consider communication as more than the mere application of words to problems or theories to words. These questions challenge us to measure our choices according to some standard of quality. Answering these questions, students of communication are invited to explore, articulate, and employ standards that connect doing well to doing right.

I'm cautiously optimistic that "what," "how," and "how well" will help my students get something from Introduction to Communication Studies. It's not so much that these questions are the ideal articulation for the class. There are many other approaches that might work more effectively. But I believe they are clear enough to provide even reticent students some orientation to the purpose of this class. And with purpose comes motivation.

I've seen it work before. I'm sure that students who took COMM 149: Rhetoric and Public Life (here are my blog posts on that course) have probably forgotten our discussions about General Motors at the 1939 World's Fair or Thomas More's attitudes on religion in his Utopia. But I'll bet that most remember the three questions that organized that class: "Who's in? Who's out? Who decides?" Those questions helped students make sense of an admittedly strange experience, one built around a convergence of departmental objectives and personal passions. The questions guided the students, and they guided me.

Maybe these questions (new to me, but hardly new) will accomplish the same goal in COMM 101.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Ready for Summer

I just paid eight bucks for a day pass, forgetting that it's still May and I have a monthly bus pas. I'm so over this month and the semester it represents, so ready for summer, that I'm trying to mentally project myself into June. Who cares what the calendar says?

Memorial Day weekend was dedicated to backyard BBQ (with a new smoker!), catching the new Indy flick, enjoying a nice dinner in Santa Cruz, soaking in the hot tub, and generally enjoying California life. Jenny and I also began planning our summer roadtrip, set for this August.

Between now and then I have a few tasks to tackle. The Omnitopia book is in press, at the copyediting stage. At some point I'll likely need to work on (hopefully) minor revisions and begin translating my images into print-ready digital files. I'm also teaching a COMM 101 class, which is always a challenge to cram into six weeks. I'm fulfilling a commitment to complete an essay promised for a special issue of Critical Studies in Media Communication. And I'm helping to represent the Office of Undergraduate Studies at various summer orientation activities through the end of July. Along the way, I have a year's worth of notes from my work as Peer Mentor director to condense into action items for my second year leading this program.

Happily, the first two weeks of August are all about family time on the road. We plan to visit four national parks and monuments: Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, Yellowstone, and Devil's Tower. We'll also check out some cool motels, diners, BBQ joints, neon meccas, and other must-see spots in the West. Since gas prices are well above four bucks a gallon around here, I'm sure that costs for the summer driving season will be correspondingly crazy. Folks are talking seriously about ever-higher prices, particularly if we've crossed the so-called Peak Oil threshold. And not knowing just how grave our current economic problems may or may not be, I find myself wondering just how many more long roadtrips I can expect in the future.

But that is an unknown tomorrow. Now I simply yearn for more summer days. I've convinced Jenny to see the races at Ocean Speedway next week. We've got a twentieth wedding anniversary to celebrate. And we're making preparations to send Vienna off to college in late August. Good times and rough days, no matter the mix, It's going to be a memorable summer.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Shameless Media Plug - Asheville Citizen-Times

Recently I was interviewed by Mark Barrett for the Asheville Citizen-Times for a story on the Forest Manor Inn, another motel giving way to more lucrative land-use. Owner Loyd Kirk is quoted as saying that "[h]e and his wife, Leone, have 'had a good life here, but it's time for progress to take hold.'" My quote is pretty basic, my typical lament about people preferring consistency to idiosyncrasy.

The story, "Old-style motel gives way to market forces," was published on May 23, 2008. Sadly it is now only available for a fee.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Unsend! Unsend!

Easily my favorite Lolcat pic - downloaded from indiyana's flicker page

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Route 66 Rock Cafe Goes Up in Flames

I'm sad to learn this morning that the historic Rock Cafe, the beloved Stroud (OK) diner built in 1939, was gutted by flames last night. Only the stone walls and a collapsed roof remain of the central structure. The sign and an adjacent souvenir shop were untouched. Locals suspect a grease fire, but the fire marshal is checking to be sure.

I'd heard of the Rock Cafe for years, but I didn't visit until this March [here's the web entry]. I was lucky enough to meet Dawn Welch, the literal inspiration for Sally the Porsche from the movie Cars. She grilled up a burger so juicy and so tasty that I knew at once why the Rock had been so beloved by Route 66 road-trippers. I can't believe I only had one.

Ron Warnick from Route 66 News, the site where I first learned about the fire, tells a sad story of a fellow who missed visiting the Rock by just a day - and for a pretty pathetic reason: "I ran into an older gentleman who was traveling Route 66. He expressed regret that he didn’t eat at the Rock Cafe the day before. He had decided to watch 'American Idol' in his motel room instead." I'd feel pretty awful if I'd decided to pass the Rock by that day in March.

No one knows yet whether Dawn will try to rebuild [Update: she now plans to give it a go]. The structure seems basically sound; it's the inside that was ruined. That's a lot of photos and paintings and signatures and knickknacks, not to mention thousands of dollars of kitchen equipment, but something tells me that if she tried to reopen, the entire Route 66 community would help fill that place up once more. Here's hoping that this genuine highway treasure isn't lost to the ashes.

Learn More: Route 66 News, UPDATED: Rock Cafe destroyed by fire

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

An Engineer's Guide to Cats

Pretty cool - until the "cat yodeling" scene. Then this video enters the rarefied realm of must-see.

Professors on Facebook

Recently I had occasion to muse about the role of Facebook in higher education. As it turns out, I've been saving a New York Times article on the same topic that appeared prior to my own piece. It was one of those nuggets I bookmarked but never read. Perusing it at last, it seems a shame not to mention Stephanie Rosenbloom's article here.

The article describes ways in which some professors use Facebook and other web resources to share aspects of their personal lives with students who might otherwise presume that academic types are unplugged and stored in closets when not teaching. The piece, while offering no surprising insights, does a decent job of portraying at least two sides to the question: should professors be "open books" for their students? Here's a snip: "While many professors have rushed to meet the age of social networking, there are some who think it is symptomatic of an unfortunate trend, that a professor’s job today is not just to impart knowledge, but to be an entertainer."

Read the entire piece: New York Times, March 20, 2008, The Professor as Open Book

Monday, May 19, 2008

McDonald's Sweet Tea

McDonald's has finally rolled out its sweet tea menu item in northern California. I hear that they've launched this product in other parts of the U.S. since 2003, and now it's our turn. As a southerner and a lover of sweet tea, I can attest that the stuff is pretty good. I'm no connoisseur, but my first sip suggested the quality of tea you can find at a decent chain restaurant in Georgia or Tennessee. It's not sublime, but at the price of a buck for 32 ounces, it's all right.

I'm a little sad about it though. For me, sweet tea has always been a delicacy, a sign that I have returned to the land of my birth and upbringing. When on the road south of the Mason-Dixon line, I always ask for my favorite non-carbonated beverage, confident that the server will know exactly what I mean. Around here, most folks respond to a request for the sugary treat with a look of confusion or, worse, a negative answer followed by a reminder that, after all, sweetener is on the table. Yeah, right. That'll do the trick. Sweet tea gains its taste by being brewed with copious amounts of cane sugar, not with sweetener added as an afterthought. For many folks growing up in the South, it's hard to imagine summertime without the stuff.

Truth be told, though, I grew up in Pinellas County, Florida, which is southern but hardly Dixie. My hometown and surrounding environs did not inspire a drawl in my dialect or an appreciation for grits. I grew up in suburbia; my dialect comes from television news and Hollywood movies. So I knew vaguely of sweet tea as a kid, but I had no particular understanding of its meaning. It wasn't until 1992 when I took an ill-fated drive to Jacksonville for Navy reserve duty (following up on my active duty hitch), that I came to understand "the South" as a place imbued with time and character.

It was my first solitary road trip, taking Highway 301 from Tampa to Jax. I tooled along the curvy road, avoiding speed traps and wandering small-town cemeteries. I was smitten by "the road" for the first time. Unfortunately some tiny piece of circuitry fried in my car and I found myself stranded less than an hour from my destination. My vision of the next two weeks quickly shifted from annoyance to genuine suckiness. While my Seabee buddies were whooping it up at the free bar at their off-base hotel, I would be stuck in the barracks because I had no wheels. I had to leave my car in a nearby shop.

Every day, I grew more and more certain that the mechanic was ripping me off, planning to siphon every dollar he could from me. I was angry and frustrated because I had no control over my situation. He'd promise me that a solution was forthcoming only to tell me later that his attempts at repair had failed. Day after day I waited, fuming and indignant. At last, when my two weeks of reserve duty were up and I was thrown out of the barracks, I prepared to personally take on the guy who was taking me to the cleaners. Then I talked with the guy, face to face.

Arriving at the mechanic's shop, looking around and getting my first measure of the man, I understood my situation entirely. The mechanic wasn't evil; he simply had no clue what he was doing. That's where I came to appreciate Napoleon's maxim, "Never ascribe to malice, that which can be explained by incompetence."

Even after two weeks, he had no explanation for why the car wouldn't start. He pulled cables, switched parts, reviewed manuals, and called buddies, but he couldn't crack this puzzle. I informed him angrily that I had no place to stay. But instead of directing me to a motel, he put me up in a house he was fixing. At this point I came to recognize that anger wasn't going to get me home. There I was in an unfinished house, ordering pizza and wondering how I would ever get out of this place. I hated my circumstances, but I could no longer hate this guy. He just didn't know what to do. And he felt so bad about my circumstances that he gave me the key to his house.

I waited and tried to relax, and he called me the next day. He'd had an epiphany the previous night and was now confident that he'd solved the problem at last. Uh, sure, I said, like I hadn't heard that promise before. But having no alternatives I agreed to drive with him to a nearby junkyard. He informed me that we would pick up a tiny computer that governed some automobile function or other. Perhaps this was the culprit, he said.

I forked over about sixty bucks and the mechanic installed the device. And the car started right up. A few adjustments and I was suddenly, shockingly, done with the whole thing. My car, the steel weight that trapped me in purgatory for more than two weeks, was now my ticket home.

You may be asking: what does all this have to do with sweet tea?

Well, here's the answer. I'd clearly been a jerk to this guy for more than two weeks, unforgiving of what (to me) he represented: forces of chaos that buffeted me with no recourse. Yes, he may have been a pretty lousy mechanic, but he tried his best. He'd been patient with me even as I'd been relentless in my calls and barely concealed (and laughably impotent) threats of litigation. Even as he handed me the keys for the last time, I wanted no kind conclusion to our relationship. I just wanted to get the hell out of there. But he wanted to ensure that the car would get me home, so he asked if we could take a lengthy test drive.

We got on the road and headed down a quiet highway for a few miles, him listening to sounds and testing for vibrations that I could not detect. After a while of awkward silence, he said we should get some sweet tea. We were in that place for which the phrase "in the middle of nowhere" was coined, a two-lane highway bordered by tall trees, and he was talking about sweet tea. Whatever, I thought. But sure enough he pointed out a wooden structure further down the road.

It was like one of those homemade stands where you buy fresh-boiled "p-nuts" or a box of oranges, only this one sold sweet tea and nothing else. The mechanic assured me that this was the best tea I'd ever drink and bought me a tall, fat Styrofoam container of the stuff, filled with ice cubes and covered with a plastic lid. I took a sip.

Perhaps I was already in the mood to romanticize the trip, to regale listeners with tales of stress, frustration, and acceptance, followed by some magical moment on a quiet road south of Jacksonville. It's been so long that I hardly recall. But I will never forget that first sip of liquid heaven. It was simple, easy enough for a dude working out of a wooden stand to sell by the side of the road. Yet there was something more to this drink, almost as if it embodied the place where I stood.

The tea was sweet but subtly complex, surprising with its depth. It swirled with seemingly exotic flavors that I could not recognize. The taste mellowed with the melting ice, yet nothing really seemed to be lost. It really was that good. I smiled at the mechanic, and I realized that I had gotten rid of my anger at last. I'd forgiven him for a dollar's worth of sweet tea.

Thinking back on that day provides some reason why I am both heartened and saddened by the fact that you can purchase an entirely passable taste of sweet tea at McDonald's. Something so personally meaningful, even a close approximation, shouldn't be sold at the same place that sells Chicken McNuggets. I'm not even sure half of stuff they sell is technically food.

Even so, while I cannot return South as often as I'd like, and I can never return to that place and time in Jacksonville, I'm mostly happy that McDonald's has decided to package something that reminds me of my past.

It's not the same, but it's really not bad either.

Learn More: St. Petersburg Times, Does McDonald's have the South down to a tea?: This article includes a useful introduction to Florida's "southern question."
Where's the state's North-South line?

"North of Tampa and south of Gainesville," said [Dick] Pillsbury, the Georgia State professor, "it's always been a little waffley there."

"It's much more complicated than simply drawing an imaginary line across the state," said Gary Mormino, the history professor at USF St. Pete who wrote Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams: A Social History of Modern Florida. "You've got these pockets."

Like this: Hernando County has a statue of a Confederate soldier in front of the courthouse in Brooksville, fried green tomatoes are sold at dark-wood-walled Deep South Family Bar-B-Que on State Road 50, and not all that long ago lots of folks nipped on the stuff that came from the stills hidden in the hammock outside of town.

That's the South.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Friday Fun Post-Blockbuster Museum

I just came across a recent Onion video spoofing those touristy "living museums," while managing also to comment on the speed at which the once ubiquitous Blockbuster franchise managed to late-fee itself into oblivion.

Historic Blockbuster Store Offers Glimpse Of How Movies Were Rented In The Past

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Lincoln Financial Spots

A longtime fan of time travel themes, I dig those Lincoln Financial commercials that depict folks talking to older versions of themselves. I've those set on an airplane, a hospital, and a nursery (there may be others). Even after repeated viewings, these spots still manage to impress me.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

We'll always have West Virginia

Adding a new level of surreality to an endlessly bizarre primary race, Hillary Clinton has discovered a strange and wondrous place where rivers run backward and the laws of physics and common sense have been repealed, a land where, as Lisa Simpson might observe, "they wear hats on their feet and hamburgers eat people": West Virginia.

Trouncing Barack Obama by 41 points in that state, Clinton found plenty of "hardworking Americans, white Americans" (borrowing her much-maligned phrase) who don't trust that funny-looking, elitist, closet Muslim who refuses to sleep with a flag pin embedded in his chest. It's appropriate that West Virginia's unofficial slogan is "almost heaven," because Clinton's presidential hopes have died. She just won't admit it yet.

Writing in the Washington Post, Dana Milbank offers a clever account of a Clinton campaign whose interpretation of the West Virgina outcome reflects a well-insulated reality distortion field: "She pretends to spot an old friend in the crowd, points and gives another wave; in fact, she is waving at an aide she had been talking with on the plane minutes earlier." Oh, and the article features a dead parrot, too.

Read the entire article: This is an Ex-Candidate

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Cookbook Metaphor

This summer I plan to teach one or two sections of COMM 101, my university's Introduction to Communication Studies course. The class (sixteen weeks of material condensed into a six-week block) often surprises students with its demands of correctness in writing mechanics and its breadth of conceptual coverage. A number of students, heretofore unaccustomed to thinking theoretically, struggle through this class. Many are genuinely surprised that our field is composed of more than people sitting around and talking.

With that challenge in mind, I plan to introduce the course in a more accessible manner than has been my practice in previous years. Back then, I described the field of communication as a giant map. I figured that students would relate to the notion of reading a map to investigate the terrain of our "field" of communication studies. After all, a map helps us answer important questions: Where are the mountains? Where are the boundaries? Where is the center? Where are the deserts? It seemed like a good introduction to communication studies as a site of inquiry. But after using the map metaphor for years, I've concluded that it doesn't work for me.

Beyond the fact that maps frequently distort the territories they depict, benefiting some people over others, my main concern as a teacher-guide is that maps often convey environments that are foreign and potentially frightening to student-newcomers. And if a newcomer doesn't recognize the place-names on a map, she or he may have no incentive go anywhere.

I've seen this principle in practice. Often when discussing future roadtrips with my daughter Vienna, I'd hand her our trusty Rand McNally and simply say, "where do you want to go?" Until recent years, Vienna was nonplussed at my seemingly open-ended gift of opportunity. No place was any more important than any other place on a strange, new map, so why leave home? Today, Vienna has many places she wants to go, and she already knows a number of maps useful to getting to those places. Many students, however, do not possess this knowledge yet.

So I'll try a different metaphor this time: the cookbook. I'll explain that the field of communication is a cookbook that contains many recipes that allow you to combine common (and uncommon) ingredients into unique creations. Some of these creations are individual speeches or effective interpersonal interactions. Other creations are artful analyses of speeches or interactions produces by others. In both cases, the recipe is designed to help you make something tasty, which our field often defines as being "useful" or "thought-provoking" or "persuasive."

Many ingredients necessary for these creations are unknown to the beginning chef, but most people know something about salt and pepper, beef and chicken. We'll start with those. The trick with recipes, I'll explain, is that they should be followed closely, particularly if you've never previously mixed these ingredients in a certain way. Otherwise, even the nicest cut of beef can be turned into a burnt crisp or a boiled monstrosity. Following a recipe demands attention to detail and process. That's what we call "method."

Following some method -- preheat, add this, mix that, garnish, whatever -- allows just about anyone to transform individually unappetizing ingredients into something delicious (if not always nutritious). Following a recipe demands discipline (the word that many folks would prefer we call our "field of communication"), at least when you're first trying it out. The problem is that learning discipline and working within its constraints takes time and effort.

That's one reason to explain the popularity of "fast food analysis," a term that demands some explication. Let's begin with something common to most of us: our understanding of fast food. A meal at McDonald's is lousy for the body, just as bad communication is lousy for the body politic, right? But many folks settle for it anyway. Without pushing this metaphor too much further, I'd suggest that many popular "recipes" for interpreting artifacts of communication -- let's use a debate between two presidential candidates as an example -- are akin to eating at McDonald's. Rather than taking the ingredients (description of speech environment, collection texts and transcripts, observation of nonverbal behaviors, and the like) and combining them in a systematic way to produce a meal, a useful analysis of why one candidate is more effective than another in this case, many folks settle for the McDonald's-version.

The result is typically unsatisfying, maybe a variant of "change" versus "experience" or some other empty-calorie collection of buzzwords, as justification for the choice of one candidate over another ("She just seemed more... presidential!"). It's warmed over fast food, quick but unhealthy, easy but utterly lacking in artistry or personal satisfaction. As Robert Pirsig explained in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (a book that offers a thought-provoking introduction to rhetoric for any student of communication studies), it's ultimately a question of quality or lack thereof. Learning to cook up a speech of your own or an appetizing analysis of a speech produced by another person calls for a cookbook that teaches quality both in production and evaluation.

For this perspective, we'll use our textbook like a cookbook. I prefer Em Griffin's Theories of Communication. The recipes are clearly explained, relatively brief, and generally dependable. Some sections will appeal to the meat-eaters (prediction, control, and "influence" models of persuasion, I suppose) while others will speak to the vegetarians in our class (critical theory, feminist analysis, and interpretative methods come quickly to mind). Some folks will even gravitate to recipes that grandma used to make (perhaps a dash of old-school Aristotle). No chef must be familiar with every recipe in the cookbook. But each should have some familiarity with all the major meal-types (you never know when company is coming over for dinner, preferring a particular dish or being allergic to entire food groups). With this approach I'll try to emphasize the practical side of communication studies. After all, we don't read recipes for their own sakes. We use them to produce scrumptious meals for ourselves and for others.

In an update to this post I might reflect on the utility and limitations of this metaphor. In the meantime, I'm feeling hungry right now…

Monday, May 12, 2008

Oregon Neon

I just came across this video by Frank Schaefer, entitled "Sign Language" (link). It's a brief but informative history of the neon sign that features lots and lots of Portland-area neon. I've been planning on doing a Portland video myself someday. I'm glad I've come across Frank's video for inspiration.


When writing the omnitopia book (in press), I wish I could have had this example of mutability (link).

Here's my somewhat overly-academic description of the concept:

Mutability enables the perpetual change of a place. As a practice of omnitopia, mutability reflects a range of potentials: it may be employed to destabilize a critical response by altering the foundation upon which such a critique could be launched. It may also provide the means through which occupants of omnitopia may change the environment for their own purposes.

Omnitopian mutability is best illustrated by its continual and seemingly automatic adaptation to changing exigencies. While the twisting, growing, morphing buildings of Alex Proyas’ Dark City provide a literally perfect illustration of mutability, we also encounter this phenomenon in more banal environments.

For example, we queue at the airport and study the evolving mazes of retractable line-control ribbons, wondering about the precise stimulus that commands a staffer to craft an opening or alter the flow of waiting flyers. An hour later, more people arrive, and the ribbon-line has been altered to accommodate them. Sitting at our gate, we know that previous flyers used this same site to visit a different place; later, flyers will journey elsewhere from this site. While some gates may be regularly associated with certain flights, the portal generally leads to one location in the morning, another in the afternoon, and yet another in the evening.

Another day, perhaps at an amusement park, we visit a site that alters itself according to changing expectations, marketing campaigns, seasons, and even hourly weather patterns. Rides close, become revised, and even adapted to new purposes. Even “It’s a Small World” must accommodate changing national realities from time to time. As such, these rides become a metaphor for more than mobility; they become a sign of constant change.

We also find the mutability of omnitopia to contain the seeds for its transformation, even momentarily, into a locale. We learn the codes, study the practices, observe the habits, and we sometimes can alter the place to suit our own purposes. Thus, omnitopia remains for some an enclave. For others it becomes a playground.

Friday, May 9, 2008


I had so much fun writing about Battle of the Planets yesterday that I figured I'd follow up with my recollections of Ultraman, perhaps the cheesiest show I've ever seen on television.

Apparently Ultraman has long been a big deal in Japan, but I just remember it as one of those strange shows dumped into the pre-school hour by Channel 44, our local independent station. The Speedway Squad guitar-riff and the chirpy singing were straight out of the sixties, but that's no excuse for those awful lyrics. Clearly an effort to Americanize a much more nuanced Japanese ode to a savior of national identity, the translated version seemed pretty silly even when I was a kid.
Ultraman, Ultraman
Here he comes from the sky.
Ultraman, Ultraman,
Watch our hero fly.
In a super jet he comes
From a billion miles away
From a distant planet land
Comes our hero Ultraman.
The monsters in rubber suits, the dime store special effects, the awful dubbing: Ultraman was the whole package. I suppose it was my first introduction to kitsch. Check it out:

Learn More: Blackcatter's World of TV Theme Songs - Ultraman

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Battle of the Planets

I suppose it's my intrigue at the prospect of a "live action" version of the famed Japanese television show, Speed Racer, but I've lately been flashing back on a cartoon from my youth, Battle of the Planets. Of course, I'm referring to the 1978 American version of the Japanese show Science Ninja Team Gatchaman which was apparently a much darker and more violent series than the one that appeared in the States.

Since so much had been edited from the original Gatchaman series, Sandy Frank Productions saw fit to integrate new footage featuring a strikingly R2-D2-like robot named 7-Zark-7, who would move the plot along, providing exposition to cover the holes left from the show's Americanization. No matter, most of my friends started off being jazzed about the series that promised to provide at least a facsimile of Star Wars, with its rockets and spaceships and cool hardware.

While the show aired in afternoons, I remember the first episode running in the evening. As soon as the show ended, I called my friend, Billy: "Did you see those missile launchers?" I shouted. "Did you see that amazing ship?" And the character named "Princess" was appealing in her own way, too. Yep, the show caught our attention.

But episode after episode, we began to notice the same footage being used. And while G-Force -- "Watching, warning against surprise attack by alien galaxies from beyond space" -- possessed some cool abilities, the whole concept simply got old after a while. I guess there are only so many times you want to see a ship transform into a giant flaming bird to fight robot monsters. Eventually we lost interest in Battle of the Planets. The stories never seemed to change, the characters were kind of bland, and Zoltar was a little too, well, ambiguous for us ten year old boys.

Still, you've gotta love that intro...

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Cell Yell in Austria

Writing in the International Herald Tribute, Eric Sylvers provides another example of efforts to curtail the problem of "cell yell." Here's a snip:
Graz [Austria] last month issued a plea to its citizens not to use cellphones on public transportation. No fines are being given to transgressors, so Mayor Siegfried Nagl is counting on the civic sense or shame of his constituents to cut down on cellphone noise pollution.

Rather than send out ticket-writing noise police, the city has outfitted trams and buses with stickers that say "please don't use your mobile phone."
Read the whole article: Austrian city asking for polite cellphone use

Last Day

In the movie Logan's Run (1976), everyone who lives in the city, a glass and neon oasis within a post-apocalyptic ruin, has a Life-Clock crystal that tells them how long they have to live. It's a horrifyingly practical solution to the threat of overcrowding: thirty-year life spans. And when the crystal blinks red, it's Last Day, time to die. Most city-dwellers celebrate Last Day. Young and beautiful, they are confident that they will be "renewed" to live again.

But some, particularly those reaching the end of their Life-Clocks, know literally or instinctively that the blinking red crystal portends death with no resurrection, and they try to breech the city seals and escape to "Sanctuary." They are called "Runners." Chasing after them, "Sandmen": hunters who put Runners to sleep.

That, to put it simply, is what's happening in the Democratic primary.

Hillary Clinton outlasted a crowded field but is now reaching the end of her political life span. She looks at Barack Obama, that young and beautiful Chicago wunderkind, and knows that her crystal is blinking red. She has run and run. No safety could be found in North Carolina. She hoped for sanctuary in Indiana, but she only found a brief respite. The Sandmen are close behind, ready to terminate her campaign. And as this embedded video indicates, serious media pundits are concluding that it's time for the Clinton campaign to be put to sleep. I hate to sound cruel, but in a race whose drip-drip rhythm is nothing less than tortuous, I agree.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Del Mar Neon

Last night I shot some video of the Del Mar Theatre (Click here to see it) in Santa Cruz, CA. Due to some changes in how YouTube distributes content, you now need to scroll down and select "watch high quality video" to view this piece properly. I'm seeking a work-around. Thereafter, I'll try to embed the video properly.

[Note: If you have a YouTube account, you can default to high quality by changing your user settings.]

What They Didn't Teach You in Graduate School

Want to be a tenured faculty member at a college or university? Read this first.

Paul Gray and David E. Drew's What They Didn't Teach You in Graduate School

Update: Bummer: The article is now behind a pay-wall. OK. Here's another crack at it - from the same authors: Paul Gray and David E. Drew offer rules for finishing up that dissertation and finding a first job. Not the same piece, I imagine. But it looks helpful...

Monday, May 5, 2008

I have the Touch

I've been playing with my new iPod touch since receiving this gift from members of the Peer Mentor Program on Thursday. It was a genuinely surprising present. I received it (along with a wonderful oversized card that includes messages from dozens of students) at the end of a ceremony about which I had stressed about since last August. To be truthful though, while I was delighted at the prospect of an iPod with a bigger screen, I didn't initially "get" this new toy. It's just an iPod that allows you to "scroll" and "flip" through pages with your fingers, right? Wow, was I wrong. Now that I've had a weekend to play with this thing, I've concluded that the iPod touch is easily the coolest gadget I've owned for a long time.

Let's begin with its best feature, the fact that it's wireless. On some level, I guess I'd known that the Touch is wireless since it came out last year. But I confused that capability with all the bad press I'd read about the iPhone, which required users to sign into a two-year contract with AT&T. As a (begrudging) Verizon user, I was annoyed at the limitations and costs built into a device that's supposed to make my life easier. Contemplating the iPod Touch, I simply presumed a similar deal. Happily, this is not the case. The Touch offers the same kind of wireless access I've grown to love with my MacBook. Read a signal? You're online. No contract needed.

Of course, I'd also heard that many of the cool features that came with the iPhone were lacking with the Touch. Again, old and no longer accurate news. My new toy allows me to access the weather, mapping tools (with satellite imagery), YouTube videos, gmail, and the broader WWW. While it doesn't have a camera, I'm happy to let my Verizon phone handle that duty (along with more pedestrian concerns as making and receiving phone calls). In short, the Touch offers me practically everything I wanted with an iPhone -- without the hassle of a contract or the awkward configuration that risks ugly smudges on the screen when I make a call.

Oh yes, the touch screen. Recalling my first generation iPod, I bristled at the thought of a screen that gets scratched in a light breeze. And those ugly, oily prints would only worsen the experience, or so I thought. Well, I've only had the Touch for a few days, but thus far I'm delighted. I bought a leather carrying case and a transparent screen protector and have experienced no hassles. A couple wipes with a micro-fiber cloth and my Touch looks good as new.

Accessing the web in this manner demands touch anyway. While the browser reveals the web just as it appears on my laptop, the appearance of 2-point font is a little hard on the eyes. Behold the power of double-tap: a quick dut-dut of fingers and the page zooms in to the area I want to read. Expand or pinch my fingers a bit and I get even more control over the size of the page. Rotate the Touch in my hand and the screen flips to horizontal mode (an effect whose animated coolness still manages to amaze me). From that perspective, even narrow columns become practically oversized, certainly large enough to read. Certainly, it's not an ideal solution for all pages. But it gets the job done "in a pinch."

Even typing on the screen is easier than I anticipated. Whenever I tap on an input field, a graphical keyboard appears, with each keystroke popping a brief indication of the latter I just tapped: feedback to know what I'm typing. As with the web browser, this component is limited enough for me to avoid typing a thesis on my Touch. But a quick response to an email received on the bus? No problem.

As with most Apple products these days, the iPod Touch contains hidden elegance that users like myself will generally not notice. I know that an impressive amount of thinking went into making a device that works so well, inspiring the old "how did I ever live without this?" exclamation. And yet the Touch merely promises the world I long to inhabit, when all our information is digitized and accessible everywhere.

Inspired by movies like Minority Report, I await the day when practically everything becomes a terminal to the datasphere, when we can conjure up wikipedia pages from thin air just by wiggling our fingers a bit. One day we'll look back on even the most impressive tools like the iPod Touch and wonder in amazement how we tolerated being tied to devices we had to hold, devices we could drop or lose.

But that's the future. Right now I remember yesterday at Coffee Cat, reading Facebook via my iPod. From that page, I learned that Vienna was having a stressful day. Returning home, I found her door closed. I never would have known to knock and chat with her, but this handy device helped me check in with my daughter. She's OK, just dealing with end-of-high school hassles. But the notion that a music player could also keep me posted on my family -- that's too cool for words. Here are five, anyway.

I love my iPod Touch!

Thursday, May 1, 2008

One Year Anniversary

Today marks the first complete year of this blog's existence!

Careful readers will spot an April 30th post, but that is an illusion created by me to work around a bug in Blogger. The attempt failed, but I kept the post anyway.

In fact, my first post was on May 1st, one year ago.

I'm reflecting on this fact (achievement? obsession? sad proof that I need a life?) and will likely expand on this post later on. In the meantime, I'm enjoying some cyber-cake.