Thursday, April 30, 2009

Every Cough and Sneeze

Every cough and sneeze from my fellow passengers on the bus reminds me of the scary possibilities of catching swine flu. These are strange days, with many folks gearing up for a full-blown panic. Should we be so frightened?

David Whelan, writing for Forbes, has posted a useful reminder about the comparative threat of swine flu. He notes that 30,000 to 50,000 Americans die from complications caused by seasonal flu each year. Each of these deaths is a tragedy, undoubtedly, but they are part of a normal cycle.

This new flu? It could be a profound danger, another 1918 catastrophe, but it could also be one of many threats such as the 2003 SARS epidemic that scared the hell out of us before fading into the background, an historical near-miss. Whelen also wisely notes the media's role in whipping these sorts of threats into a public frenzy:
Recalling SARS: "Cable news channels and other media sensationalized the outbreak as if it were a Hollywood movie—a real-life sequel to Dustin Hoffman's 1995 hit Outbreak. A medical historian at the University of Toronto, Edward Shorter, watched what was going on and called the phenomenon 'mass psychosis.'"
Read the entire article: History Says Avoid Virus Hysteria

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Flagstaff Motels

During our recent visit to Monument Valley, I took the opportunity to photograph some of Flagstaff's aging motels. A Route 66 town, Flagstaff has never impressed me with its motel offerings. Many Mother Road-adjacent "Mom and Pop" places have long gone to seed. For my money, I prefer a night in Kingman, AZ - and I hope to stay in Seligman sometime soon. That said, Flagstaff does present a number of photographic opportunities.

(Photographs by Andrew Wood)

Monument Valley

Last night we returned from a four day trip to Monument Valley.

We began early Thursday, heading south on 101 before cutting across the Central Valley on a busy two-lane truckers road. Then from Bakersfield we shot to Barstow where we joined I-40, bypassing Route 66 to make time for our ultimate destination: Flagstaff. That's right, we planned for about 12 hours on the first leg of the trip. The highlight of the day was a stop at Kelcy's Cafe in Tehachapi. "What can I getcha Babies?" introduced us to a goofy, pleasant vibe. And the cherry pie was pretty good too.

We pulled into Flagstaff around dinnertime but focused first on photographing and videotaping some cool Route 66 signage. I hear that the Saga Motel is not an ideal choice for lodging, but the blinking green sign is a must-see. We also delighted to find that the animated wagon of the Western Hills Motel still lights up at night. Dinner brought us to the Route 66 Dog Haus, a drive-thru that serves some of the tastiest franks I've tried.

We expected a four-hour trip on Friday north to Monument Valley, and were happy to learn that we overestimated the time. About 2 1/2 hours later, we joined my beloved Highway 163 and began to thread our way through the weird and awe-inspiring red buttes. Overhead, the clouds advanced with the promise of adventuresome weather, but we found enough time to grab one of my favorite shots of a walk along the road (first picture of this post) that leads back to the Mittens.

We stayed at The View, which is located inside the Navajo property nearest the grand structures. We splurged on a third-floor "Starview" room, though I don't think I'd spend the money for that particular indulgence again. The stars are just as "viewable" from the second and first floor balconies. That said, the room was large, clean, and comfortable.

By the early afternoon the winds were picking up and a dust storm threw the monuments into a gray haze. Undaunted, we drove the 17 mile loop road through the towering rocks, bouncing and jostling with every rut and gully. The storm pounded the car with flying sand, and while I'd normally be pretty upset at this turn, I had to enjoy the adventure of it all. I could tell that Jenny was more concerned though, since she's really come to love the light and color of the Valley. We both hoped to take lots of pictures, but we couldn't be confident about the weather.

Finishing our drive, we got into our room and decided on a nap, hoping that the dust would diminish in early evening. Sure enough, the blue sky began to smile upon us by about six and the haze started to abate. We took another tour of the loop road, gazing upon the sunburnt rocks. At Artist's Point, we surveyed the entire valley with its green scrub and orange towers. To me, it looked like a landing zone for alien spacecraft, something kind of eerie but unmistakably cool. Nightfall brought out bands of stars, but no UFOs.

Sunday welcomed us with blue skies and plenty of time to explore. We started with a gorgeous sunrise, waking around 6 to catch first light. The sky was blue and purple as the light crept across the sky. Jenny and I shuttled from stop to stop, looking for the perfect vantage point. Then nearly as we made our final decision the morning spilled over the horizon. The sun rose between the buttes and we smiled at our good fortune of just being here.

Jenny had longed to hike around the Mittens, so we began our day with Wildcat Trail, a moderate hike that gets somewhat strenuous toward the end. Together, we circled West Mitten Butte in a 3+ mile loop, catching sight of horses that shaded themselves from the sun. The breeze was cool and the trail was deserted, other than one fellow who crossed our path in the opposite direction. While we were never too far from the hotel, we marveled at the prospect of being out on the valley floor with nothing but looming rocks and a vast horizon to orient our way.

In early afternoon headed north to a spot I'd only seen on the map: Valley of the Gods. Once again we faced a bumpy road that traced through a land of red giants. The road was, if anything, rougher on our car. But Jenny was happy to note that we seemed to get even closer to the formations. At one point, we even spotted a dirt road that seemed to reach all the way back to monuments that brought us here, now distant and tiny. Along the way, we enjoyed seeing the changing shadows that crawled around the outcroppings, a story in light and color told by the shifting wheels of our car.

Later, we returned south to visit Goulding's Museum, where we particularly enjoyed an exhibit dedicated to all the movies that have been shot in Monument Valley. I then committed us to a Western double-feature night: Stagecoach and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, with roadrunner cartoons during the intermission. As usual, Jenny smiled that wan "how did I marry this guy" smile of hers that I love so much. A pleasant lunch and a visit to the gift shop completed our stay. I bought a panorama postcard and stuck it on the back seat, so as we departed the valley we had a double-view of the experience and the image.

We returned to Flagstaff and grabbed dinner at Bigfoot BBQ, the third in a trifecta of odd and delightful meals. Bigfoot is located amidst a funky collection of vintage clothes and artifacts in an old town mall. The ribs were Kansas City-inspired, dry rubbed and spicy. The sweet tea was forgettable, but the peach cobbler made Jenny's night.

Monday returned us to the road, another twelve hours (which turned into about fourteen). This time we took the Route 66 alignment through Amboy. I had to see how the ghost town is livening up thanks to the preservation efforts of Albert Okura. The gas station is open, and now a cafe serves authentic tacos. I asked about the cabins as was told to wait a couple more years for lodging to open in Amboy. We'll be back, that's for sure. The rest of the day was dedicated to chatting, sleeping, and reminiscing on highlights from our happy time spent together among the red rocks.

(Photos by Andy and Jenny Wood)

Monday, April 27, 2009

Ayers or Uluru

These two postcards collected from our 2005 Australia trip illustrate the cultural tensions of visiting Uluru, formally known as Ayers Rock.

I was fascinated to learn that the Ayers Rock and Uluru postcards are published by the same company: Barker Souvenirs, Alice Springs.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Friday Fun Post: Sneezing Slo-Mo

So wrong. So much worse. And then... So clever.

Update... And so quickly removed from YouTube. Bummer!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Boom Goes the Box

NPR has posted a story about the once-ubiquitous boom box. A staple of 80s-culture, the box was beloved and mocked even then as a symbol of potent excess, a sort of street-rebellion, and a sign of changing times as music became less connected to place and more to mobility. Here's a snip:
As the '80s wore on, cities started enforcing noise ordinances. The Walkman became popular, and it was lighter and cheaper. Gradually, people stopped listening to music together. The rap world eventually left the corner and moved online. People still pass songs around, but now it's on file-sharing sites and blogs. Headphones are universally accepted, and eye contact is frowned upon.
Read the entire piece:

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Ephemera: Collier's Ad

I've always wanted to share this piece of ephemera. I can't remember quite where I found it, but I love the distance in time that this piece of paper represents.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Lexus ad: "The world is not so complex"

The 2010 Lexus RX "City" commercial illustrates another terrific example of omnitopian mutability.

The spot begins with a downtown traffic jam, horns honking amid a canyon of gray towers.

The gray Lexus is stuck.

A male driver (wearing the nondescript uniform of commercials pitching to the upper middle class) lets his head fall back against his seat. He's mildly annoyed but not really frustrated.

His gaze runs over the weather forecast for Houston on a Monday.

His fingers caress a button near the gear shift.

The weather has been replaced by a GPS map depicting downtown. The driver is alerted to an accident on 6th Street.

Then the ad begins to demonstrate the omnitopian practice of mutability.
"Because we can't reinvent traffic..."
From above, claws descend upon the cars, pulling those around him toward the sky. A taxi, an ugly van, all the cars are yanked off the ground.
"...we reinvented how the driver navigates around it."
Even the buildings that surround him are hosted aloft.
"With advanced XF realtime traffic and predictive weather..."
The buildings drop pieces of their foundations as they ascend, but the road ahead is clear, ordered.

The driver scans his dashboard again, itself a panorama of technological efficiency.
"...suddenly, the world is not so complex."
The driver parks next to a "Vinyl Store" in an old building. The scene is horizontal, none of the shifting axes or perspectives of the previous scenes. A few buildings remain in the background, distant.

Thanks to Lexus technology, the complex city mutates into a path for his personal pleasure.

Check out the commercial: Lexus City

Also take a look at a 2010 Palm ad: Life Moves Fast

Monday, April 20, 2009

Our Highways of Tomorrow - 1944

From my collection of artifacts depicting "the world of tomorrow." This 1944 ad is from Motor bus Lines of America. Here's the text (ellipses in original):
In many parts of America, the highways of tomorrow are already here. And plans for more of these better highways are well under way . . . wide, safe thoroughfares between cities . . . and routes that stretch through scenic splendor to all the wonder spots of the nation.

Over these highways, you will ride in tomorrow's intercity buses . . . buses that will bring you luxurious innovations never enjoyed before. You also will have many more spacious new terminals, improved restaurant and comfort facilities, fast and frequent schedules, better service in every way.

Some of these improvements will come almost immediately with the end of the war. Others will follow quickly. Still others must await a clearer understanding of post-war problems in meeting the transportation needs of a nation at war, so will they continue to prove a powerful force in furthering the nation's peacetime advancement. INVEST IN AMERICA'S FUTURE. BUY WAR BONDS!
This advertisement illustrates technological enthusiasm promised by corporate planners in America's twentieth century postwar period, a key topic in COMM 149: Rhetoric and Public Life.

(Illustration by John Howard)

Friday, April 17, 2009


I was at a local pizza joint yesterday when I heard T-Pain's "Can't believe it." I know the song's been around since July 2008, but I'd somehow missed it.

And there it was again, the "Cher effect" that has sullied so much of contemporary pop music. I listened and wondered: what's the best way to explain the sound?
  • A cat being strangled by Robby the Robot?
  • An 8os-synth band chewed up by a food processor?
  • The auditory culmination of all that is conventional and trite in pop music?
I dunno, but it reminded me of a New Yorker piece about the effect. Here's a snip reminding me to chill out a bit:
"At this late date, it’s hard to see how the invisible use of tools could imply an inauthentic product, as if a layer of manipulation were standing between the audience and an unsullied object. In reality, the unsullied object is the Sasquatch of music. Even a purely live recording is a distortion and paraphrasing of an acoustic event."
Read the entire piece: The Gerbil's Revenge

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Swell update

As you may recall from an earlier post, I have decided to help bring the word "swell" back into regular use. Naturally I cannot do it alone, and I have no illusions of being all that influential, but it's worth a try nonetheless.

Swell deserves a comeback. I think it presents such a nicer perspective on life than the ubiquitous "cool." Moreover, I believe that swell - with its nearly glandular exuberance - offers an appropriate counterbalance to the stresses of lean economic times. Just how bad can life be when you're "swell"?

So how goes my swell-advocacy? Slowly.

Of course, I had to be the first convert. It's one thing to say the word and then explain why I'm using such an out-of-date reference. It's another to weave it into regular conversation without apparent pretense. It's still another to say "swell" without thinking about the choice. I've reached that third level of swelldom.

The problem is that I have to be conscious of the word's impact. To most other folks, "swell," when used at all, tends to be offered sarcastically. "That jerk stole my parking space? That's just swell." Therefore, to avoid, confusion, I tend to stop myself from uttering the word if I'm conducting a formal conversation lacking in the context of friendship. All the more, I usually strip "swell" from my emails, which lack even nonverbal cues to affirm my good intentions.

On the other hand, I'm delighted that "swell" has joined our repertoire of inside-lines among the Peer Mentors with whom I work. The word's renewed utility came in an odd way. With this crew, "hella" is the word de jour. You know, "that's hella cool!" I'm told it's a NorCal thing, but I'm not sure. Anyway, it merely took the connection of "hella" to my own addition to our discursive universe to win some converts - at least humorously.

That's right: "hella swell."

No one, at least not to my knowledge, uses the phrase without a knowing smile. But I see "hella swell" as a gateway to the normalization of my new favorite word. That truly would be swell.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Disneyland with the Death Penalty

As fan of William Gibson and as an author who spent some time in Singapore while researching my new book, City Ubiquitous, I'm dumbfounded that I have never read Gibson's non-fiction essay, "Disneyland with the Death Penalty." Published in Wired in 1993, this piece lays out a number of themes that are likely to resonate with readers of City Ubiquitous. Today I rectified my error and read Gibson's essay.

With his typically bleak humor, Gibson spends a few days in the "air conditioned city." Labeling it a "smug, neo-Swiss enclave of order and prosperity," he compares it to early-90s VR: too crisp, too geometrical, too perfect. I was particularly interested to read Gibson's comparison of Singapore to an amusement park, relating micro-regions such as colonial-era Arab Street and Little India to Disney-esque theme park zones. Gibson even manages to drop a reference to the Atlanta convention zone, suggesting John Portman-like transits that elide the grimier vibes of public life. And naturally he spends some times in Singapore's malls. Here's a snip:
"Ordinarily, confronted with a strange city, I'm inclined to look for the parts that have broken down and fallen apart, revealing the underlying social mechanisms; how the place is really wired beneath the lay of the land as presented by the Chamber of Commerce. This won't do in Singapore, because nothing is falling apart."
Read the entire article:

(Photograph by Andrew Wood)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Out of Style

Yes, I'm one of those folks shocked to learn that split infinitives do not constitute a grammatical weapon of mass destruction. I'm also coming to grips with the fact that my zealous distaste for passive voice might be a little . . . excessive. And the notion that untamed adverbs are evil all the time? Well, maybe not always. That said, I continue to critique prose that wilts from indecision or general sloppiness, and I often find the cause of these problems nested among these two latter sins.

Yet I could not help but be impressed with Geoffrey K. Pullum's hurl of vitriol upon one inspiration for my notions of compositional correctness: The Elements of Style. Published (commercially) 50 years ago this week, Elements has long marked a safe recommendation for students seeking to improve their writing. The book earns at least a thoughtful head-nod among self-styled writing experts. We've all heard of Elements. Some of us have even read it!

But few have torn into the book with Pullum's fury.

Read on: 50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice

Monday, April 13, 2009

Hyperlocal Newspapers

Claire Cain Miller and Brad Stone (NYT, registration required) wrote a useful article on hyperlocal newspapers designed to provide rich content about people and events within a few blocks of the reader.

As large newspapers struggle to maintain far-flung bureaus - falling one by one to more nimble online resources - hyperlocal papers concentrate on concrete notions of space.

As the Knight Foundation's Gary Kebbel puts it, “Our democracy is based upon geography, and we believe local information is such a core need for our democracy to survive.”

Hyperlocal papers are a little more sophisticated than the average neighborhood gazette, though, using GPS, sophisticated search techniques, and blog-content gather material. Advertisers are the types of small business that once limited their presence to the Yellow Pages.

Read the entire article:

Friday, April 10, 2009

Friday Fun Post: Flutter

Too busy for Twitter? Try... Flutter!

Difficulty seeing this video? Point your browser here:

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Animated Neon Sign: Boulder Creek

Here's some video I recently shot of Scarborough Lumber in Boulder Creek (CA). The sign had been down for a long while, but it's now working again.

Difficulty seeing the video? Point your browser here:

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Sunday at Starbucks

A few days ago I found myself recalling a line from the Gospel of Matthew: "As ye did it unto one of these my brethren, even these least, ye did it unto me." While I'm no expert on comparative religion, I'm certain that some version of this warning is common to all faiths: be kind to those in need. You never know...

So I'm sitting in Starbucks on Sunday. I brought my thick book and laptop and iPod for a couple hours of video editing, some writing, and a little bit of morning relaxation. This guy on the couch next to me spots my Mac and leans over.

"You an iPhone man?"

I'm not sure how to answer. "No," seems reasonable enough. I work a Mac and happily enjoy my iPod Touch, but I don't pay AT&T the requisite fees to play in the larger iWorld (not yet).

I offer some mild explanation to that effect, but the gentleman bores in further, delighted at the prospect of extolling the virtues of his phone. Seconds pass, then minutes. He tells me about the apps, the speed, the utter suckiness of comparative Verizon products. He's in full-on monologue mode. An audio-taped commercial to which I can only nod (iNod, I guess).

Problem is, I came to Starbucks for the company of buzz, but not really to chat.

He catches a breath and I catch an opportunity to interject my thanks for his advice.

I assure him I'll share his arguments with my wife when it's time to return to the family debate over how much we're willing to spend on wireless.

He seems to catch the hint, pulling back and turning his gaze away from me.

I feel vaguely guilty, but not too much.

Across the aisle, another guy - a Starbucks regular, it seems - utters greetings to the fellow who'd been chatting me up.

Ahh, I think. That'll do it.

I get back to my work, editing a video.

A few minutes later, the first fellow leans over to me again, picking up the book I'd brought with me, The Difference Engine.

"I write science fiction, myself," he announces.

Thus begins another monologue. Something about Oort Clouds and Venusian diamonds, the impossibilities of FTL travel and disparaging comments about wormholes, plans for a five-volume "hard" sci-fi epic and descriptions of the short story that'll pull it all together.

I cannot nod and "uh huh" fast enough to keep up with the growing cathedral of ideas being built verbally, brick by brick. At one point I even interject, "this is cool, but I'm having a hard time processing all this."

I figure the pseudo tech-speak will both affirm what he's saying and break the spell. Something like, dude, I grok - but cut it out.

Nope, he reviews his blueprint and returns to building his city of words, each a narrow beam that glints against the superstructure, broadening it, deepening it, driving me nuts.

At this point, only a sledgehammer will do.

I won't repeat what I said. It was sufficiently direct and contained a decent attempt at kindness. But I hate the words all the same. He knew what I meant, and he stopped talking to me.

I settled back into my editing, only occasionally noticing that a few other regulars certainly knew him. By name, they'd greet the guy, share some news, show some respect. Three or four others. Not me.

Is he lonely? Is he brilliant? Is he crazy?

I haven't a clue.

Eventually a friend of his came by and the old man picked up my book, showing it off. I removed my earphones and found myself in a brief conversation about steampunk literature. A normal conversation, with turn-taking and everything.

The two fellows wished me a happy day and left, leaving my book with me.

What happened?

Again, I haven't a clue.

But I wonder if I missed the chance to be kind, to be patient. All and all the entire interaction lasted no more than 30 minutes. I could have humored him. I could have listened to him. I might even have learned from him. But soon, he was gone.

Did I dodge a bullet, an afternoon suffering under the assault of an unending one-way conversation? Or did I miss the chance to serve another person?

Was he "the least of these?"

Or was I?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Chicago Burlington Diner

Anticipating this summer's 2009 Wood Family Diner Tour, I thought I'd share a lovely (and pricey) new addition to my postcard collection: The Burlington Diner.

Here's text from the card's reverse:

A Unique Place to Eat
The Burlington Diner
An Original Burlington R.R. Diner
4183 So. Halsted St. Chicago, ILL.
Famous for Good Food

Serving Day and Night Since 1939
For Ladies and Gentlemen
Phone: VIrginia 7-9078

Opposite Chicago Union Stock Yards
And International Amphitheatre

Clean and Quick Service
Best Coffee In Town
Air Conditioned

Monday, April 6, 2009

Alien Trespass

So I managed to talk Jenny into seeing Alien Trespass with me on opening weekend. This after getting her to sit through Invasion of the Humanoids a few days before. Needless to say, after that first swim through the depths of schlock cinema Alien Trespass was a hard sell.

Should you see it? That's a tough question to answer.

Alien Trespass attempts to recreate the look and feel of a 1950s grade-z monster flick. You know: rubber suits with zippers on the back, lame matte paintings, and cheap desert locations. Back then it seemed that all the aliens were landing in desert communities just a few miles away from Hollywood.

While a pretty funny movie, Alien Trespass doesn't play for laughs. Each goofy line is delivered with earnest pluck. Despite knowing asides to commies and Edsels (they'll be around forever, don't you know?), the movie aims for a time-capsule vibe, as if this piece of 1957 flotsam just drifted ashore. In color.

For some reason, I flashed back to Gus Van Sant's remake of Psycho. There, you find dedicated filmmakers, costumers, cinematographers, all trying to recreate that certain frisson. Color is judged a must for contemporary audiences. Otherwise the project is all about authenticity.

No surprise then that the tiny audience (maybe a dozen, mostly our age or older) laughed just as heartily at the meta-jokes as they did at the lines. Oh goodness, look at the cheesy rear projection! Wow, that shot is out of focus! Didja see that? The car stopped down the road as if caught in freeze frame, but the grass is still swaying in the breeze.

Movies like Alien Trespass and The Devil's Rejects and Grindhouse - and one presumes Robert Rodriguez's hoped-for Machete - play off that media knowledge, the ways some movies only comment on other movies. As you'd imagine, the audience for that kind of experience is pretty slim. [Follow-up: Here's my review of Machete (the movie).]

I enjoyed Alien Trespass they way I'd enjoy an evocative essay about exploitation cinema, as a kind of cultural homework, the way I enjoy photographing tropical deco architecture in South Beach. In that mindset, I'm not looking at the "text"; I'm studying the context. If you dig that process, see Alien Trespass. Otherwise, I can't promise much.

A few years ago, Jenny and I drove to Bisbee, Arizona. We stayed overnight at The Shady Dell, where you can eat in a 50s diner and sleep in an airstream trailer. We paid a premium and rented a real swell lodge for the night, watching It Came From Outer Space on a black and white TV that evening. It was a blast, sort of. But so much of the pleasure was of the "look at us, we're paying to watch black and white TV" sort. We purchased a passport to the past, but we could never quite forget where we were.

Maybe the problem is similar to both attempts: We can't close our eyes tightly enough to ignore the world we seek to depart.

I'd sure love to learn how.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Friday Fun Post: Worst Star Wars Costumes

Holytaco recently posted a fun collection entitled "The Worst Homemade Star Wars Costumes."

And yes, this boy has got a bucket on his head.


Thursday, April 2, 2009

South Beach 11st Street Diner

I sure am looking forward to the 2009 Wood Family Diner Tour! As you may know, we're heading to the northeast to visit the most chromed, most greasy, most friendly, and most historic diners in New England this summer.

Anticipating that journey, I thought I'd post another pic from our recent tour of South Beach Miami. The 11th Street Diner is the only one of its kind in these parts, and it's a gem. It's open 24 hours a day, boasts a full bar (if that's your thing), and offers decent grub.

By the way: Got any hints for must-see New England diners? Please post a comment.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Deco Detail

These detail images from Miami's Art Deco District were shot last week during our return trip to the sun-drenched paradise of mojitos and mai-tais.

(Photographs by Andrew Wood)