Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Key West Funk

700th Post!

Visiting Key West, I had no idea how much I'd be fascinated by the look of this place. But each street, alley, and house somehow splashes with a glorious mélange of pastel and detritus. Soon I'll post a formal summary of our adventures in the Conch Republic, but today I'll meditate a bit about the funky vibe of this island.

Dripping with sweat, stupefied by sleepy abandon, Key West is a wreck of relics reclaimed and repackaged for tourist consumption. Here, ghost stories and castaways produce a shabby postcard history of rail barons, hanging moss, salvage ships, and joyful despair. Seedy and weedy, this place is designed for distribution by artist print and personal snapshot.

Even so, Key West is no theme park. Its houses, each a potentially wrecked Edmund Fitzgerald, are battened to suffer the real lash of hurricane and tidal surge. Each tin roof may evoke landlubber fantasies of Red Lobsters, of some conference-city blues bar festooned with Walmart holiday lights, but houses on this island make sense when dark clouds roil.

Walking with friends, training my camera toward the clutter of tropical houses and overgrown gardens, I am drawn to the narrow spaces between art galleries and booze shacks, particularly those that stretch away from Duval Street. Dangling trees and spiky bushes pour over the sidewalks, shade for those who study visitors with the precision of bankers.

Bleary from the previous night's Patrón shots, I meet with Mari to wander the misty streets on a Sunday morning. We drift over the cracked sidewalks of an 1847 cemetery, waiting for the sun to peek through bulging black clouds. Roosters strut amid the headstones; nearby, houses are consumed by verdant ghosts.

The old cemetery is stacked with broken graves, some that appear to be freshly opened. How could someone live by, so close to this place? It's bad enough, I presume, that one must confront the eternal mysteries of the dead. Even worse here on this haunted island, one must also abide camera-toting tourists who search the stones in vain for Ernest Hemingway.

Back in the party section of town, near Mallory Square where revelers beat the drums for sunset, the afternoon light glows reddish-gold. The air is drunk, heavy, and thick; no ocean breezes today. The sun melts over the water and this city of humidors offers up a cigar, a smile, and a practiced snip for the vacationing revolutionary. The fan blades turn and nothing moves.

My memories of Key West drain somehow to New Orleans, that cancerous commotion of wrought-iron railings and urine-stained walls, the whiff of elegant decay. Storms threaten both places; a terrible future waits over the waters, but that day is not this day. Instead, locals and tourists strip to their skivvies when rain begins, laughing.

(Photographs by Andrew Wood)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Apple, Urban Biking, and Ubiquity

I came across a brief note about one company's efforts to tap Apple's iPhone as a tool to expand the ubiquitous environment concept, using the device as a heads-up display for bikers.

The application and gear is experimental, and the product thus far isn't all that impressive. But the idea is promising. And heck, how can you not want to read an online blurb that starts with this line?
"If the future could be somehow wrangled from an abstract concept and transformed into a city, that city would of course be Tokyo."
Read the piece: A Heads-Up Map Display for iPhone-Using Bicyclists

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Real-time Web

Jon Swartz's USA Today article "Real-time Web keeps social networkers connected" offers an overview of the Real-Time Web, the supposed follow-up to Web 2.0. It takes merely three paragraphs before the author lobs the money quote, but I'll not make you wait even that long:
"It's always on, and glued to my body, "says [Sara] Wilson, a 26-year old media buyer in San Francisco who has not had a land line since college. "It's like a security blanket." [Incidentally, Swartz cites CDC research suggesting that land-lines will essentially become extinct in 2025.]
Swartz defines the Real-Time Web era as one marked by constant connectivity, abbreviated communication, and a lack of privacy. He then cites Tim O'Reilly's proposal of "web-squared" as a designator for companies that capitalize on the instant/ubiquitous-content era to capture customers.

One result is the rise of social networking games such as Mafia Wars and FarmVille (both owned by the same company, Zynga) that upend the goal of immersive experience, offering instead quick-dips into a virtual community designed to last [prepare for some conceptual confusion] no more than a few moments. [Maybe the key is to pivot from "community" to "society" as the way to interpret this manifestation of public life.]

Swartz lists some impacts of the always-on lifestyle, which include drops in college grades, at least according to an Ohio State study claiming that Facebook-users earn lower GPAs than non-Facebook users. Surely my students would disagree with that claim. So, who's right? Out-of-touch eggheads or perpetually wired hipsters?

I have not reviewed the Ohio State research in this area, but I can imagine that students leaping from assignment to mobile phone-text back to assignment to instant chat back to assignment to the next digital intrusion are less likely to retain knowledge in a deep-structure way.

Indeed, I remember just recently chatting with some of my students about the movie Gandhi, recommending it as a study in non-violence. A number of students, pretty much all in their early twenties, seemed intrigued until discovering the 188-minute running time. "No way," was the general consensus.

I'm not sure today's students could wait so long without dipping into the info stream. Foregoing the more dreadful implications of the forthcoming term, I imagine that a constant stream of stimulus - the beeps and taps and clicks that signify "you're here" (even more than "I'm here") - is too addictive to delay, even for a few hours.

[Catching a typo in my initial draft, I wonder about the distinction between "I'm here" and "I'm hear." Marshall McLuhan would be absolutely catatonic with joy while studying our current age, coining clever terms and posing philosophical conundrums with each new software iteration and hardware upgrade.]

Swartz's article dribbles off at this point, recalling some University of Melbourne research that found workers who go online for personal matters are more productive than those who don't, before concluding - just ending, really - with an update that 14 states have passed laws against texting-while driving.

At this point I checked and rechecked the article. That's it? Nothing to pull this piece together? Just another factoid whose implicit affirmation of the main idea must serve as a kind of peroration? Then I remembered, USA Today has been preparing for the Real-Time Web communication style since before the first web page went live. In many ways, this journalistic style set the tone for the age in which we live.

Read the entire article: Real-time Web keeps social networkers connected

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


I just completed the Clifton StrengthsFinder, part of the StrengthsQuest collection of self-assessment tools. My university recently purchased access to this skills inventory, and I was invited to give it a shot. Was it worth the time?

Certainly it's an interesting experience, rolling through 178 items, each composed of two distinct terms, with only 20 seconds per item to decide my relative preference for one term over the other. I tried to ignore the implications of each answer and stick with instinct.

Over the 20 minutes or so needed to complete the exercise, I recall changing less than 10-15 responses, even though quite a few items created a strange tension between choices. Harder still was the effort to avoid interpreting a pattern to the questions.

StrengthsQuest analyzed my responses and produced the following qualities, supposedly my top five. Friends who know me well won't be shocked, but I was surprised to find how much I am apparently drawn to the "life of the mind." My top five characteristics:
Input: People who are especially talented in the Input theme have a craving to know more. Often they like to collect and archive all kinds of information.

Relator: People who are especially talented in the Relator theme enjoy close relationships with others. They find deep satisfaction in working hard with friends to achieve a goal.

Learner: People who are especially talented in the Learner theme have a great desire to learn and want to continuously improve. In particular, the process of learning, rather than the outcome, excites them.

Intellection: People who are especially talented in the Intellection theme are characterized by their intellectual activity. They are introspective and appreciate intellectual discussions.

Ideation: People who are especially talented in the Ideation theme are fascinated by ideas. They are able to find connections between seemingly disparate phenomena.
What's missing or under-developed, according to the assessment? Qualities like adaptability, competition, empathy, positivity, and something called "woo" (winning others over), among others - but that's typical; no one excels at everything.

I'm not yet sure what to do with this information, but I'm intrigued by the StrengthsQuest suite. At the very least, it's a useful way to recognize what I (may) bring to a group and where my weaknesses may be augmented by the strengths of others.

Monday, September 21, 2009

More Light Painting: CA 183

This past Friday, Jenny and I headed for SR 183, a stretch of road that links Castroville and Salinas, to find some funky stuff to photograph. We sought abandoned buildings, aging farm equipment, and rusting cars, hoping to convey the somber, strange, and even spiritual quality of the roadside at night. Once more we would experiment with the selected application of light in a long-exposure photograph. In other words, we're learning the art of light painting.

Our first lesson this time was the most basic: It's kind of silly to seek subjects for night-shooting - at night. This instinct gnawed at me as soon as we tossed our gear in the car, but I didn't realize it until we got fully underway. The combination of high speed driving, low hanging fog, and unfamiliar surroundings creates a navigational miasma in which we'd be lucky to find anything worth shooting at all. As experienced neon-photographers, this had never before been a problem for us; those destinations sometimes beckon from miles away. But when it comes to non-lit objects, it's better to scout locations by day and return at night with a specific idea in mind.

Fortunately I've long been able to trust my beginner's luck, specifically that quality of grace which allows me to enjoy good fortune the first time I try something (and the all-but-guaranteed certainty that I'll enjoy much less fortune if I push my luck a second time). So we plowed onward through the fog toward an unknown destination, me knowing (well, being pretty sure) that things would work out. Sure enough, after we pulled onto a farm road leading away from 183, we spotted a cool looking windmill; we knew this would work.

Still, we encountered some of the strangeness of practicing light painting in an unfamiliar environment. With any occasional burst of headlights coming our way, I suffered a sinking sensation of dread, and not just because our shot might be marred by the introduction of unplanned illumination. No, I felt weird, as if photographing a windmill from a public road is somehow illegal. I suppose the feeling arises from the reality that we plainly look suspicious, shining flashlights and taking pictures at night. Anticipating an awkward conversation with, say, a county sheriff investigating those strange lights, it'd be hard to articulate precisely why this kind of work makes sense.

Needless to say, I currently lack the confidence to tackle real guerrilla shoots - what some folks label Urban Exploration - at places that attract my interest. Oh sure, I yearn to bring a camera to contemporary boneyards at night, to traipse through abandoned motels, decaying diners, and nondescript junkyards, to photograph the obsolete stuff of modern life when the ghosts wander about. But those adventures demand a willingness to trespass, which to me raises the specter of late-night encounters that may be less pleasant than an impromptu chat with the law. That's why we're sticking (so far) with places that are publicly accessed and easily exited.

This shoot was a nice start, a chance to practice techniques that will allow for more flexibility and creativity in the future. Using the viewfinder, which is so much better than the camera's "live view," we were able to set a decent horizontal line (though I still ended up using Photoshop's "distort" option when we got home). At that point, we used our headlights to coax a good focus and set about lighting the scene. We employed our handy Maglite (along with a cheap Rayovac that throws wider, softer light) to paint the buildings and fields. It took a little finagling to create a nice image of a windmill and quonset hut, foregrounded by rows of produce [above].

These two images are my favorites, though we took about three hours to get them. As we're still learning the art of light painting, much of our time was spent conferring on technical issues and trying to suss out the answers to unexpected dilemmas. Of course we ooh'd and ahh'd at the pinwheel effect of stars turning overhead. But mostly we worked on problem-solving. Among the things we learned:

• f/5.6 is a useful baseline aperture for light painting. I gained confirmation of this fact after rereading Troy Paiva's "Note on Technique" in his 2003 book, Lost America. [a side note: Paiva's book, with its eerie collection of industrial detritus, inspired this project. I hope I can attend one of his weekend workshops one day and learn from a real master.]

• Many shots require far less time than than we thought: between one and two minutes, which is a good thing. Longer exposures increase the risk of noise, that pixely grain that shows up when a camera's sensor heats over time (of course, lowering the ISO to the equivalent of 100 is a good way to avoid that problem).

• "Red skies," sometimes caused by an excess of ambient industrial lighting, can be cured by setting the white balance for incandescent sources. Normally we stick with the camera's auto-white balance mode, but our D5000 seemed to switch its metering midway through this shoot. Fortunately the fix was easy and the results were obvious.

• Lighting empty space is harder than it looks.

We found that our initial method of painting our car's interior, Jenny swinging a green-gel covered flashlight, produced visible "brush strokes" that detracted from the image. After some experimentation, we agreed that diffused light is better than direct light. In this case, Jenny had the brilliant idea of simply taping a green gel over the car's dome light.

When we hope to light larger empty spaces in future shoots, we will likely rely on multiple bursts of a detached camera flash unit, preferably being reflected against a natural or artificial barrier. Of course, that means we are now in the market for a cheap but decent flash, and we might even search for a photographer's umbrella.

For now we have our memories of CA 183 and the moment when we got this shot [below]. So many times, Jenny and I would study the results of an experiment and wonder, "What went wrong?" But when we saw this image, with its alien glow and unexpectedly gorgeous background illumination, we knew...

We can do this.

(Photographs by Andrew and Jenny Wood)

Friday, September 18, 2009

Friday Fun Post: Awesomely Bad Engagement Photos

Really, what else do you need for a Friday Fun Post?

Prepare to see just how Awesomely Bad engagement photos can be...

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The New Literacy

I've been meaning to share this link to Clive Thompson's Wired piece about the Stanford Study of Writing. As you may recall from the shrieks of shock emanating from English departments near and far, the Stanford project has reported that today's students write more and write better than generations past. Here's project leader Andrea Lunsford's money quote:
"I think we're in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven't seen since Greek civilization" (cited in Thompson)
According to the Stanford Study, today's students are particularly adept at kairos, the ability to structure messages according to the expectations of varied audiences. How could this be, many professors may ask, when so few students seem interested in writing meaningfully (or coherently) in class?

In his summary, Thompson offers one reason why: most students write for audiences (in blog posts, in tweets, on Facebook walls, and in countless texts per day) far more than they write for professors. All those social networking messages, all those lengthy screeds about life posted on MySpace, all those videogame walkthroughs... They've got to count for something.

The responses to the Stanford Study, and to celebratory reviews such as Thompson's, have stirred up a mob of academic townspeople looking to storm the castle. And I'm inclined to pick up a pitchfork of my own. But first, I've got to read this study for myself.

Read the Report: Stanford Study of Writing

Read Thompson's Summary: The New Literacy

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Push Poll Fun

Back when Jenny and I more frequently occupied opposing sides of the political fence - she seriously considering herself a Republican and I seriously considering myself a Democrat - we regularly received all sorts of partisan hackery in the form of alarmist mail and robocalls.

After we became independent voters, we hoped that the onslaught would drop. Sadly, we were wrong.

Just yesterday, for example, Jenny received a Republican National Committee "2009 Obama Agenda Survey" in a loud yellow envelope. The survey, which warns "DO NOT DESTROY" five times in a single line, is really a fundraising pitch, complete with a gift guide starting at $30 (allowing cheapskates to swallow their guilt with an "option" option).

While all 15 questions are hilariously one-sided, there are two contenders for the most obnoxiously deceptive question:
• "Do you believe that the best way to increase the quality and effectiveness of public education in the U.S. is to rapidly expand federal funding while eliminating performance standards and accountability?"

• "Are you in favor of creating a government-funded 'Citizen Volunteer Corps' that would pay young people to do work now done by churches and charities, earning Corps Members the same pay and benefits given to military veterans?
But my favorite, the one belonging in the Push Poll Hall of Shame, is this question:
• "Do you support the creation of a national health care plan that would be administered by bureaucrats in Washington D.C.?"
Sounds more innocuous than obnoxious, huh? Well, imagine this alternative:
"Do you support the creation of a national defense force (including a group called The Army) that would be administered by bureaucrats (called Generals) in Washington D.C. (in a building called The Pentagon)?"
Some folks hate big government, until they love it. Give me a break.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Light Painting

As Jenny and I work to master the Nikon D5000, our new prosumer-quality DSLR, we're exploring the art of "light painting," a technique that allows photographers to produce images that are beautiful and unsettling. We have a lot to learn.

To that end, I'm sharing notes from our weekend shoot, even though (a) the pix aren't great and (b) the formality of these observations may appear a bit silly. Yes, we're just taking pictures, but a formal writing mode helps me organize lessons I hope to internalize through practice.

What's more, if you are also learning about night photography or, better yet, already a master of the genre, these tentative observations may inspire you join a conversation about creative camerawork in low-light situations. Here's where we are thus far:


Jenny and I hope to enhance our understanding of long-exposure night photos in which we selectively reveal objects by colored light illumination.


• Nikon D5000 - set for timed exposures

• Remote clicker - necessary to set precise exposure times

• Maglite flashlight with variable-focus beam - so far, our only illumination tool

• Gels - colored transparencies to add color to our exposures

• Stopwatch - to monitor exposure times

• Tripod - to reduce blurriness


We photographed a grove of trees and an old wooden fence along Trout Gulch Road near Aptos, CA. During our shoot, the sky was foggy and the moon was hidden. Without car headlights, we experienced near pitch-black conditions. For safety's sake (and the sake of common sense) we parked off-road and avoided standing on private property.


To place colored light where our camera would otherwise record nothing at all, we experimented with various apertures, time-lengths, flashlight "brush strokes," and focus techniques (this latter aspect being especially tricky at first). The following steps produced the most promising results:

1. Set the focus in the camera's auto-mode, aided by the direct illumination of your car headlights. Once you're sure of a relatively crisp image, switch to manual focus and turn off the headlights. Switching from auto- to manual-focus ensures that your camera won't adjust settings after you've dimmed the lights. You might ask: Why not simply keep the headlights on? Well, you can. But doing so diminishes the control you have over light-placement. When it comes to light painting, start with an empty canvas and add only the illumination you desire.

2. Set the aperture at a medium size at first. We selected f/8 on our camera, yielding sufficient depth of field while allowing adequate exposure, but we may play with this setting in future sessions. [You can learn more about these technicalities with Matthew Cole's Explanation of the F/Stop webpage.]

3. Set ISO low in order to limit noise (pixelation caused by your digital camera's image sensor struggling to interpret limited light). We settled on an ISO of 200 but may vary this aspect in future sessions.

4. Ensure that your flashlight "brush strokes" do not fixate too long in one area, unless you intend to coat (or "burn") excess light there. By the way, you can briefly step in front of the camera for detail-work; there's little risk that you'll appear in the final shot - unless you stand in front of the camera for too long in one place.


Trees: We liked the saturated green of this image, but the relative distance between foreground and background confounded our efforts to illuminate distant foliage. The result was more negative space than we anticipated. We will experiment with a larger aperture, a longer exposure, and, perhaps, different lighting sources.

Fence: Our goal was to control and differentiate light more precisely than we could with the trees. Thus we painted eight minutes of red on the upper fence and an extra two minutes of white on the lower fence, ground, and surrounding area. The results were hardly impressive, but they show promise. We now need to work on saturation and seepage.

In this image, over-saturation creates a jarring disjuncture between the top and bottom of the fence. The red (orange, really) is so thick, you can hardly discern the wood grain. We'll play with timing to reduce color-fill. We also want to avoid seepage. See how the fence posts sort of "drip" from orange to white? Taping some cardboard under the flashlight ("lidding" seems like a good term) might help. Our goal: control the intensity and placement of color.

Next Steps

Our next experiment calls for improved control color through structural lidding. In this process, one person will paint the exterior of a building with minimal white light, while another person coats a window in blue from the building's interior [first attempt added above]. This process should create a cool "television light" effect and, more importantly, demonstrate how we can use built obstacles and natural shapes to more precisely add color onto (and into) low-light spaces.


During our first session, we encountered two non-artistic issues that merit further discussion.

Nighttime weather brings condensation and the attendant threat of camera damage. At one point when we observed drifting mist, we covered our equipment (though not the lens) with a plastic bag and, fortunately, no harm was done. Even so, we must research just how much natural condensation our newly purchased (and somewhat pricey) camera can take before we invite the future risk of electrical failure.

Equipment loss in low-light situations is a second issue we failed to anticipate. At night, it's surprisingly easy to misplace remotes, lens caps, and other small items. We didn't lose anything, but we did stress for a few frantic seconds when our clicker appeared to vanish in the darkness after I set it down in the grass. It's important to practice a consistent method of item storage, especially when distracted by arcane technical matters or lengthy exposure times.


We'll keep at it. So far, our images suggest that we're following a fruitful direction. And I can't wait for the next evening of spare time to try new techniques. My personal goal? To use light painting - perhaps aided by strobes and flashes, which may spread more intense color over wider areas - to evoke the sadness and spirituality of aging tourist courts, abandoned gas stations, and other relics of the automobile age.

Any advice? Post a comment. As the saying goes, "don't keep your light under a bushel."

(Photographs by Andrew and Jenny Wood)

Friday, September 11, 2009

Friday Fun Post: Painting from Google Street View

Check out Bill Guffey's clever use of Google Street View. He grabs sites around the world and then paints them: art from the everyday.

Here's a swell collection of images: Vincent Van Google: Artist uses Street View website to travel the world virtually

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Obama Enters the Ring

For many observers, it's taken too long for Barack Obama to formally enter the ring of America's health care debate; he's chosen, some say, to hang behind the ropes while partisan hacks grapple with the art and fakery of a wrestling match. Well, now there's no doubt: this president has joined the fight for real.

Analyzing last night's speech before a joint session of Congress, Adam Nagourney (NYT; registration may be required) does a swell job of laying out the political side of President Obama's challenge when it comes to bringing real health care reform to fruition:
It is one thing to create and surf a political movement, as Mr. Obama did in capturing the White House. It is quite another to lead an uneasy country and a politically divided Congress toward tough decisions that create winners and losers.
In his speech Obama crafted a clear and coherent argument about the need for reform. He proposed specific steps toward a workable bill, and he masterfully personalized the debate by invoking one champion of health care reform, the late Senator Kennedy, pausing before his conclusion to consider the "character of our country."

And yet I think the president's finest moments were in the bumpiest times. Obama - courageously, I think - warned Progressives not to sink the ship by fixating upon the single-payer option as the only star in the heavens. And Obama rightly rebuked Republicans (many, but hardly all) for demagoging the debate with misinformation and outright lies about "death panels" and free passes for illegal immigrants.

At this moment, in a manner seemingly scripted by a Hollywood dramatist, some GOP back-bencher from South Carolina - Why learn his name? Even members of his own party will likely send him back to the minor leagues in 2010 - let loose with an epithet that shocked the entire chamber, responding to a president standing before Congress with the invective, "You lie!"

Part of me wishes that Obama would have seized that moment and called this loony out, by name if possible, thereby painting the entrenched enemies of reform with the face of a know-nothing bomb-thrower. Just as a successful bill should honor one of its longtime heroes - the Edward M. Kennedy Health Care Reform Law rings a bell - its villains should be named and shamed.

But Barack Obama is no back-alley brawler; the president was wise to pull his punches. Hitting the GOP and hoping to wrangle the necessary votes from Democrats alone will not work in this case. The country has been wound into confusion and frustration during a sweltering summer of health care town hall meetings that revealed little more than the disparate poles of American political discourse.

That's why I loved the moment when our young president cited Arizona warhorse John McCain by name during last night's speech, praising his 2008 opponent's contribution of an idea Obama hopes to sign into law: a health care safety-net for the most poor among us. Even through the distance of a television screen, I read McCain's bemused smile and grudging thumbs-up as a sign of respect: The Kid from Chicago has got the touch.

Nagourney writes that Obama is a fighter who works best against the ropes, and I agree that the president may yet pull this thing off. Still, many an idealist has been been carted from the health care arena on a stretcher. Last night's speech offered a way for our nation to rethink the narrative of this drama, but many grueling rounds remain before a meaningful bill can become law.

This year we will get the full measure of President Barack Obama.

Read Nagourney's Analysis:

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Infomercial Hell

Among my favorite guilty pleasures are half-hour infomercials.

I suppose I got the bug as a young man working in the video production industry, especially one day when I went out for an informercial shoot. The product was one of those stone surfaces that you bake (or microwave, or whatever), which then heats your food and keeps it warm. Honestly, I remember being pretty impressed with the gimmick back then.

On that shoot, I began to understand the initial message of all infomercials: Your life sucks. Too much back-breaking work, too many clogged lint traps, too many lids that you just can't open! Then comes the pitch, the revelation of a path to a better life: a device so simple, so elegant, so perfect, that you know you'll improve your life (and the lives of your family!) just by whipping out a credit card (Sorry, no C.O.D.).

Then comes the crisis. Surely this product is too expensive, someone will wonder. In persuasion theory the strategy is called "inoculation," injecting the body with a weakened virus - in this case a poorly crafted argument - to bolster one's natural defenses. "Too expensive?" comes the reply... "Why, how can you afford not to buy it?" Pretty soon the audience is convincing itself: "What's my problem? Why haven't I called the toll free number? Do I like living this sucky life?"

The commercial ends with glorious confirmation. Happy guests, happy host, happy audience members. There's just one thing to do...

That's the idea, at least.

But what happens if you never get to that moment of catharsis? What happens if you never escape the life "before" the purchase? To the folks at Funny or Die, the result would be nothing less than Infomercial Hell.

Want more infomerical hell?: Return to this past summer's episode of Daytime Dispatches

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


Surely FML (need it be spelled out?) is an internet cliché, but I still check the site regularly. There's an unabashedly guilty pleasure lying in each miserable narrative of surprise and embarrassment. That said, I cannot avoid the presumption that most entries are written solely for shock value, their truths shaped and mutated by the scripts and props of maybe a dozen typical memes (and the abbreviation of space).

What's worse, I imagine that today's crush of cascading and conflicting reading opportunities makes it difficult even to peruse a page-full of new FMLs, real or otherwise. It all becomes a blur, hard to sort, easier to ignore. Happily, there's help. To save you some time and hassle, I've taken the liberty of summarizing a typical day of FML posts, distilling each to its most elemental narrative, editing the list to fit your busy schedule.

Best of all, if you care to manufacture an FML for yourself, you'll find plenty of building blocks here, everything necessary to craft your own tale of woe.

Let's call this collection: Q[uickly]FML:

• Something scared me; it was not scary to others. I appeared foolish. QFML

• I thought my friends/family love(s) me. Turns out, they don't. QFML

• My family treats me like a child. In fact, I am well over 18. QFML

• I thought my significant other was cool. (S)he's not. QFML

• I really thought she was a he; she's a she. QFML

• I looked foolish in front of a child. QFML

• I accidentally injured myself. QFML

• My bf or gf is cheating. QFML

• Crap! "Reply all." QFML

• I's robbed. QFML

• Fired. QFML

Oh, here's a bonus entry: No week on FML can conclude without a story that ends like this:

• ... while we were having sex. QFML

Did I catch 'em all? What would you add? Let me know by posting your own QFML nugget: a building-block for dozens and dozens of clones that change the places and names but ensure that the suffering remains the same.

Monday, September 7, 2009

My Life According to Steely Dan

Another day, another Facebook meme: Yeah, I'm punting on this post. What can I say? It's Labor Day!

The pitch is to use song names from one artist to answer these questions, and then - pass it on...

Pick your Artist: Steely Dan

Describe yourself: "Almost Gothic"

How do you feel: "Reelin' in the Years"

Describe where you currently live: "The Last Mall"

If you could go anywhere, where would you go: "Aja" - but I'm flexible. I'll be happy with "Any World (That I'm Welcome To)"

Your favorite form of transportation: "Bad Sneakers"

Your best friend is: "Two Against Nature"

Favorite time of day: "Countdown to Ecstasy"

If your life was a TV show, what would it be called: "The Royal Scam"

What is life to you: "Pretzel Logic"

Your Fear: "Haitian Divorce"

What is the best advice you have to give: "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" - as "Any Major Dude Will Tell You"

How would I like to die?: "Do it Again" - of course, "Don't Take Me Alive"

My soul's present condition: "Through with Buzz" - in other words, "FM (No Static At All)"

My motto: "Everything Must Go"

Wish: "Things I Miss the Most"

Friday, September 4, 2009

Friday Fun Post: Clever Contextual Ads

The world is inundated with advertisements, and yet so many of these pitches are mind-numbingly dull. Most are, in fact, but not all.

Check out this set of advertisements that depend on some clever integration of the human- or built-environment to make sense.

The pleasure of making sense of them merits inclusion into the hallowed collection of Friday Fun Posts! Have a great weekend.

See them all: Creativity in Advertisement

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Scratch the Cat?

While playing with my iPhone this weekend, I started thinking about those "virtual pets" that were popular a few years ago. It would be fun to have an animated kitty on my phone, I figured. I possess my new toy with the passion of a fetish object; it seemed appropriate to add even more life to this thing.

So I looked at a few options and decided to join a web-based "pet" site that allows you to create, feed, groom, and play with an animal of your choice. Within minutes, I was staring at the pixelated face of an 8 week-old kitten who stared back at me through the screen. I fed her, I gave her water, I stroked her fur. I named her Apollonia.

My choice of name follows a family tradition in which we give all female cats living with us an appellation that starts with an A, preferably something reminiscent of Greek or Roman mythology or history. Apparently, among other things, Apollonia refers to a Greek martyr for Christianity. Yes, I felt a bit Godlike. I had given life to a virtual cat.

And then after returning to work, I forgot her.

The next day, I received an urgent email. Apollonia was hungry.

I visited her website - ready to press the button necessary to free me from seeing a graphically dead kitty, a corpse swarming with virtual flies.

I found the website, readied my clicking finger, tutted at my forgetfulness, and...

The graphics wouldn't load. I tried accessing the page through wifi and then through AT&T's notoriously spotty network. I restarted my computer and tried again. No luck, no cat, just an empty box. Once my creature gazed upwardly from that enclosure, her life given by me. Now she was nowhere to be found, lost amid the spectral desert of zeros and ones. Like any busy god, I was frustrated. Unlike God (I hope), I was pissed.

Screw this, I figured. I don't have time to stress about a virtual pet who won't even load when I come to visit. I've got two real cats in Scotts Valley who, every single day, "download" their fur all over our non-virtual carpet and furniture. Tufts of wispy detritus are constant reminders to groom our sweet kitties. We feed them, we play with them, we love them. We are hardly gods to them (more like "staff," as any cat lover will affirm). So be it. With these two waiting at home, I need no pixel kitties.

I then began to wonder, how do you "uncreate" a computer cat?

Searching the site, the part that was working despite the hassles of reaching it online, I found plenty of ways to buy "accessories" for a virtual pet, and lots of reminders that Purina cat chow is popular with real cats too. But "uncreating" a cat?

Oh, God. I knew what I was trying to do.

Guilt-laden, but unwilling to confront the implications that I was abandoning a helpless animal, a creature scratching at my computer screen for attention, I returned to my email, where I read my first reminder to feed Apollonia. I clicked the "no reminders" button. Then I closed my laptop. This was a permanent decision.

I would not feel guilty, I told myself. Maybe I'd get a virtual pet rock instead.

So today I decided to write a note about the ethics of keeping virtual animals, musing about the implications of these simulacra, how we can assign and un-assign meanings to them so easily. I'd explore an interesting query without too much personal investment. A harmless question:

What does it mean to kill a virtual animal? Does the act desensitize us to the prospect of killing for real?

I figured I'd write something thought-provoking, a note that demonstrated suitable reflection on my own ironic position, but ultimately something designed to help me prepare a lecture about online ethics one day. An abstract future for an abstract topic.

Just one problem: I needed to go back to the site and grab a quick pic of Apollonia, preferably still scratching at my screen, to illustrate the post. I was in full utility-mode. Get in, get the pic, get out. I needed an image depicting our strange and fascinating online era, nothing more. So I returned to the virtual pet site and looked...

I couldn't find her.

Was Apollonia dead already?

I began to click frantically. Where is she? Has she starved, her cries so long ignored by my email filter? I clicked and clicked.

And then I found her.

Apollonia was panting, mewing frantically; she was hungry.

I clicked the virtual "food" icon.

A big bag of Purina cat chow appeared and poured itself into her bowl. Apollonia ate heartily, kicking the bowl back when she was done.

She was thirsty too, and she trilled with joy at the sight of a bowl being filled with life-giving water. She gulped it down.

I looked into her half-crazed eyes - an expression that asked, as only a cat can ask, "where the hell were you?

I pet her, trying to soothe her fears at being left alone so long. She purred.

I offered her a toy mouse, a gesture of regret at my cruelty. She played.

I then closed the page, checking one last time to confirm her healthy status, and opened my calendar. There, I added an item to my daily schedule: Feed Apollonia.

The reminder appears every day, weekends, furlough days, holidays: Feed her, repeating at the same time each afternoon. Until September 15th.

After that, we'll see...

November 28, 2009 update

Well, slow graphics and buggy interface inspired me, at last, to send Apollonia to a "farm - upstate." No worries. She's playing with lots of virtual mice and has, I suspect, many friends.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Connecticut Lawmakers Hard at Work

This AP photo illustrates that while the economy continues to limp along, lawmakers are still working hard to fulfill their sworn duties. Confused? Let me translate this image (photographer unknown).

While the screens to the left appear to depict time-wasting games of solitaire, I'm certain the playing cards are symbolic of how Connecticut legislators are prioritizing their stacks of budget priorities. Hearts for social programs, Spades for construction projects, that sort of thing.

The baseball website to the right? Not what it seems. Actually, you can clearly see one of Connecticut's elected officials researching how to "hit the budget deficit out of the park." This objective requires consultation with experts, what with all the balls lawmakers must keep in the air. Better check with a ballplayer.

Note: While the related story is posted here, Senate Approves Budget, the image comes from the front page of the Connecticut Courant. That's a weird word to spell, so here's a hint: You can't spell "Courant" without rant. Also, I must admit, I found this image on Drudge.