Friday, October 30, 2009

Cheap Bikes, High Cost

Steven Erlanger (NYT, registration may be required) writes a sad yet strangely hopeful article about the current state of an ultracheap bicycle rental program in Paris, a means to reduce carbon emissions and enhance healthy living. The problem is that 80 percent of the first bikes in the program have been trashed or stolen. Why?

Erlanger explains that all this increased mobility is an insult to people who lack access to the French capital city. Erlanger quotes transportation sociologist Bruno Marzloff who describes a sense shared by some poor immigrants that the bikes represent yet another perk for those who are already privileged:
"It is an outcry, a form of rebellion -- this violence is not gratuitous," Mr. Marzloff said. "There is an element of negligence that means, 'We don’t have the right to mobility like other people, to get to Paris it’s a huge pain, we don’t have cars, and when we do, it’s too expensive and too far.'"
That said, one must wonder at the wisdom of renting custom-made bikes costing the equivalent of $3,500 each, only to be surprised that so many are stolen or damaged.

Erlanger's article concludes with a description of efforts to dissuade people from trashing the bikes: "Posters showed a cartoon Vélib' being roughed up by a thug. The caption read: 'It's easy to beat up a Vélib’, it can’t defend itself. Vélib’ belongs to you, protect it!'"

Read the entire article: Reality Proves a Setback for Cheap Bike Rentals in Paris

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Shameless Plug - City Ubiquitous Wins Jane Jacobs Award

I'm delighted to pass along some happy news: My newest book, City Ubiquitous: Place, Communication, and the Rise of Omnitopia, published by Hampton Press, has received the Urban Communication Association's Jane Jacobs Award.

As the UCF website explains: "The Jane Jacobs Urban Communication Publication Award recognize an outstanding book and/or journal article (published in 2006-2009) that exhibits excellence in addressing issues of urban communication. It is named in honor of the late social activist and author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The book award brings with it a $500 prize."

I will receive this award on November 12th at the UCF reception at the annual meeting of the National Communication Association, this year being held in Chicago. There, and in other venues, I'll thank the many people who helped this book come to fruition.

This award caps an exciting year for City Ubiquitous, as I've given presentations on the book at the Cal State East Bay "Communication and the Future" meeting (as Guest Scholar and New Book Speaker), the Heard Museum (in Phoenix, AZ) for the SJSU Alumni Association, and several local groups, including the First Congregational Church of San José and the Mountain View Technology and Society Committee.

After November, my next trip takes me to Albuquerque where I've been invited to present the keynote address at the Rocky Mountain Communication Association's 2010 conference, April 17.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Paris Daguerreotype - 1839

For no particular reason, I thought I'd post one of the most famous photographs ever taken: Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre's View of the Boulevard du Temple. I could stare at this image for hours.

Just think: This isn't some painting or literary vision. This is an actual image of Paris from 1839 [don't you wish you could see this image colorized?]. Oh, and see those people in the lower left?

These people aren't the creation of a poet or historian, as most people from before the age of mechanical [image] reproduction are to us. These people really stood on that street in Paris 170 years ago.

What's more, when you consider all the other people thronging the city that day, only these two stood still long enough to be captured by Daguerre's long exposure (something between 3 to 15 minutes, I'm told). Everyone else that day, at least in terms of their physical appearance, is lost to history.

In terms of photographic process (or any similar technique of image reproduction), this fellow paying for a shoe-shine and the fellow doing the work are the first people in the world.

And, as if we're time-traveling to 1839, we can see them.

I just think that's intensely cool.

Download much higher resolution version of the image:

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Pick Up Your Visual Scanning!

Remember the scene in Star Wars when an X-Wing pilot shouted, "Pick up your visual scanning"? Stripping away the geek-speak, he was simply reminding us that when storming a Death Star, we're wise to look out the window once in a while.

That's good advice, especially as more and more people wander the lanes and trenches of public life, typing Tweets, emails, and Facebook updates onto their mobile phones - and walking into trees (and people) because they forget to look around. What can be done?

Type n Walk to the rescue! For 99 cents, this app promises to help you avoid collisions when you're too busy typing to watch where you're going. It works by using your iPhone's camera to project a live view of the world in front of you. Upon that image, you can type your message.

Yes, that means people have more incentive to walk around staring at phones.

One silly limitation: You must copy/paste your message into whatever app you're using to communicate. Another glitch is the lack of landscape view. But I'm sure the creators of Type n Walk will fix those hassles. Is there any other problem? Beyond the whole "I can't believe anyone would use this app for real?" problem?

Nope, can't think of any...

Monday, October 26, 2009

Text-Talk, Like Kudzu, Continues to Colonize

Earlier this month, I came across a CNN story [link] about a reality show performer named Kandi Burruss whose fiance, Ashley "A.J." Jewell, was beaten to death at a strip club called "Body Tap."

You can't make these names up, but that's not my point.

What struck me (so to speak) was CNN's inclusion of Kandi's Twitter posts about her loss. Here's the copy/paste:
"im just in one of those moods where i dont wanna talk, i dont wanna b held & told its gonna b ok. i just wanna cry myself 2 sleep, alone," she says.

"i could never n a million years imagine this happening. please pray for AJ's children. that's who im the most concerned 4."

"im bout 2 giv my swollen eyes sum rest now. i just wanted to say thanks 2 every1 for their prayers."
Look, I don't mean to trivialize this tragedy. Anyone deserves compassion in Kandi's situation. Perhaps we should leave this as a live-and-let live situation (except for the dude who inflicted blunt force trauma on A.J.).

But I can't wrap my head around Kandi's choice to share news of her genuinely painful suffering in the language of text-talk. To reiterate: "im bout 2 giv my swollen eyes sum rest now... i just wanted to say thanks 2 every1"


Your fiance just got his head pulverized, and you're too bereaved to spell "everyone"?

Maybe the matter is the medium. Twitter demands brevity; the 140 character-cap doesn't allow for encyclopedic bloviation [that's what blogs are for]. And then there's the matter of personal choice. No doubt, anyone seriously calling herself "Kandi" is going to write however she darn well pleases.

Still, if I were sharing heartbreaking news, in any form, I'd take a break from trendy-chat. I'd certainly differentiate between "sum" and "some." But that's just me.

What about the larger trend? Well, it's hardly news that people -- "ppl," in text-talk -- increasingly resort to telescoped language. It's quick and it's popular, yet it could also represent a problem, especially as functional and fashionable choices continue to blur our willingness, if not our ability, to convey complex ideas in meaningful ways.

At some point I fear that we're creating a world where public discourse is little more than a cacophony of car honks and fart noises, the verbal equivalent of typing (or saluting) with one middle finger. And when it transforms from clever technique to ubiquitous practice, all this rapi-tapping pushes us further along into the din.

No, I'm not railing for some abstract principle of "decorum" or "etiquette." I'm just advocating the more basic principle of "not sounding like an 14 year old who just discovered Prince," at least when writing about the loss of a loved one. That's my hopelessly outdated dream.

wats urs?

December 20, 2009 update: Here's a copy/paste from CNN's report of Ashton Kutcher's Twitter Post following the death of Brittany Murphy: "2day the world lost a little piece of sunshine. My deepest condolences go out 2 Brittany's family, her husband, & her amazing mother Sharon."

January 5, 2010 update: Here's a copy/paste from one of Tila Tequila's Twitter Posts following the death of Casey Johnson: "R.I.P my Angel. @caseyjonsonJnJ u will forever be in my heart! I love u so so much and we will Marry when I see U in Heaven my Wifey."

September 16, 2010 update: Creepy loser Wisconsin prosecutor sends repeated come-on texts to crime victim, including this gem: "Are you the kind of girl that likes secret contact with an older married elected DA ... the riskier the better?" followed by the kicker: "I would not expect you to be the other woman. I would want you to be so hot and treat me so well that you'd be THE woman! R U that good?" Really. R U that stupid?

December 30, 2010 update: Raz-B tweets his displeasure at Chris Brown: "@chrisbrown u victimize victims, ur a homophobe, ur on the down low & a woman beater. Merry Christmas & thx 4 showin every1 ur true colors."

January 17, 2012 update: Some idiot ignores a restraining order: "Even though u r mad at me will u still marrier [sic] me? ... I love you!"

Related Posts

Text-Speak and the New Discourse - Djelloul Marbrook has written an interesting piece about the impact of online communication on what counts as good writing, and he offers a provocative thesis, that today's electronic writing, often a lazy mishmash of lazy and hackneyed tripe, may yet unfold into something new and transformative.

Dont h8: Keyboard Got Me LOLing - A fullsize keyboard for folks who write in LOLs has arrived. It's called the Fast Finger Keyboard, and it offers a host of TextTalk options under the function keys, everything from ASAP to TTYL. The keyboard also allows you to switch from QWERTY to A-Z formats.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

One man's thoughts on same-sex marriage

Difficulty seeing this video? Point your browser here:

I understand that people of good will will disagree on the issue of same-sex marriage. But this fellow deserves some attention. He's a lifelong Republican. He's a WWII vet. And he's the father of a gay son. His voice is halting, but his message is crystal clear.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Faux Revolt

Last Friday, I was grabbing a beer with a new departmental colleague, David Terry, when we spotted this San José protest. Folks were chanting, waving signs, and drawing attention to their cause. We had to stop a while and see what the fuss was about.

Problem is: We couldn't quite understand the point of this revolt. The protesters were shouting slogans about "lower dues," which makes sense in a certain way. But then we had to ask: what were they rebuking? What dues? And what's with that other sign that announced, "Downtown Living"?

Then it all became clear. These scruffy looking "protesters" were advertising $270,000+ condos. They were apparently being paid to provoke some sort of rebellious attitude in support of local landlords.

Ah, give me that vibrant downtime life!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Yosemite 2009

Jenny and I returned last night from a weekend trip to Yosemite, where we enjoyed lovely fall foliage, up-close encounters with wildlife, and a memorable hike up Vernal Falls. For various reasons, we'd had to reschedule this trip twice, but this weekend was a perfect getaway, and we enjoyed (nearly) every minute of our visit.

We arrived Saturday afternoon and quickly found that transcendentally beautiful vista from which to gaze over the valley floor. I've seen this perspective plenty of times, taken lots of photos too. But this view never ceases to amaze. Thereafter we started our tour at a favorite site: Lower Falls. The torrent of water usually slows to a trickle this time of year, but recent rains produced a thunderous cascade of roaring power that delighted us with sprays and rainbows.

Darkness came fast, though, as the sun set behind the mountains earlier than we'd expected. So we finished the last of our brisket saved from lunch at Central Texan BBQ and commenced to exploring the long exposure abilities of our new D5000.

We're still working on the technicalities (especially the ability to focus on distant objects in no-light conditions), but the multitude of stars offered a dazzling show. That night we enjoyed a heated tent at Camp Curry, though the skittering of woodland creatures playing on our roof woke us up early.

On Sunday, we rented bikes and toured the park in the absolute best way. The bike-idea was Jenny's, and at first I wasn't excited about the whole thing. But I caught the vision fast. Without concern for traffic, our bikes allowed us to amble from place to place, stopping whenever we wished. So when we'd see something cool, like a majestic deer munching on leaves, we'd simply dismount without a care for a parking spot. And because the bikes are so exquisitely dorky, there was no need to worry about locking up. Who'd steal 'em?

Throughout the afternoon, we rode bike paths as yellow leaves rained on our heads. Another visit to the Lower Falls, this time climbing the rocks to enjoy more splashing water, and then we toured some the prairies, enjoying views we'd missed during previous car-bound visits.

One of my favorite moments from the ride: the chance to enjoy one remarkable tree that sported brilliant orange leaves. More than a dozen other folks had the same idea, hanging from limbs and craning for perfect photos.

Later on, we decided it'd be nice to visit Vernal Falls. Jenny and Mari trekked up to the footbridge a few years back, bringing back only pleasant memories of a mellow hike, and it seemed like a relaxing jaunt at first. But I was winded and cranky soon enough. So much elevation! And while I've lost plenty of weight in the past few months, I was still unprepared for a "mildly strenuous" hike. We made it to the bridge and savored the view of Vernal, satisfied that we'd gotten our workout for the day. Then I saw the mist trail climbing still higher and knew: we had to keep going to the top.

This time it was Jenny's turn to grouse, but we soldiered up those steep stone steps, both of us dazed nearly to the point of unconsciousness when we saw the top of the falls for the first time (my repeated phrase at that point: "We made it... We made it... We made it..."). Looking down on the valley where we started, barely seeing that first footstep that led to this place, I felt proud. Do I want to take the next challenge and try Half Dome? Oh yeah. At night, no less. But only after lots and lots of cardio conditioning (and finding a way to convince Jenny).

Light rain cooled us off on the descent and the evening promised a deep sleep. Problem is, our woodland creature friends returned, determined to keep us up with their nocturnal antics. Early on, we realized that one of our new friends was a tiny mouse with big ears. A few hours later, we discovered a new pal: a wide-eyed ringtail who stared at us with the same amazement as we had for him. Jenny worried that our flashlight would hurt his wee little eyes, but I figured he's tough enough to live in Camp Curry; he can handle a little light.

The next morning brought fog and the promise of rain -- and some forlornness on our parts, given the realty that we'd soon have to head home. But we managed to fit in a gentle hike to Mirror Lake. Jenny loved searching for reflections, while I smiled in gratitude at my choice to wear shorts and flip-flops this time, even in the cold. My flexible attire allowed me to cross one stretch of achingly chilly water in search of a perfect place to enjoy my own place for reflection amid Yosemite's grandeur.

We wrapped up our visit with a decadent lunch at the Ahwahnee Dining Room, both of us bummed that our trip was nearly over. Still, we agreed that the trip was exactly what we needed, especially during this complex and busy time in our lives. We'd come to Yosemite to recharge ourselves, personally and as a couple. And we left the Valley with stories, smiles, and promises that we'd return. This place is a world treasure, and we live less than five hours away!

(Photographs by Andrew and Jenny Wood)

Friday, October 16, 2009

Shot-by-Shot Analysis: Courtyard's "New Stay"

Difficulty seeing the ad? Point your browser here:

While completing an essay on editable landscapes, I banged together some thoughts on the Marriott Courtyard chain's "It's a New Stay" campaign. The free-wifi spot does a fine job of illustrating the omnitopian concept of mutability, especially the implication that office work colonizes the natural world, rendering the outside little more than a stage-set for corporate machinations.

The spot begins with an office-worker typing on a laptop. He is "white collar," literally and professionally. Even so (and though he is clearly gendered "male") the worker does not possess a uniformly recognizable racial or ethnic identity; the privilege of his position does not flow from an easily perceived institutionalized inequity. Marriott's Courtyard concept, while hardly an expansive agora, seeks to enact a sense of place whose demographic contours are less visible than the one expressed (or at least imagined by some critics) in Marriott's signature brand.

The office-worker is viewed from profile, and we adopt his position, occupying a narrow space of possibility. The room is dark, lit only by a vertically shaped lamp. A similarly functional glass of water is the only other prop. The man types on a keyboard that is tethered by a thin data-cable. The rapid strikes of piano keys convey his rhythm of drive and productivity. Then the man removes the cable, his face displaying a brief tight-lipped smile of satisfaction. Simultaneously, the scene switches to a wider angle, revealing that his "office" is actually a hotel room, now lit by several vertical lamps. The white pillows of his bed provide the only other contrast to the black and deep-red color of the scene.

At this point, the room dissolves. The couch and a wall are pulled to the left; the bed and rear wall swing to the right. Outside, a city appears in two halves: a green park below, shafts of office towers above. Another edit depicts still a wider angle shot while horns and woodwinds augment the piano, projecting an ethereal ambiance. The office-worker occupies a center position within a newly open space whose windows resemble stylized arches. Light fills the room, which we now recognize as the Courtyard lobby. As a trio of oval lights descend, other business-types rotate into view. One dyad sits back-to-back; a man reads the paper while a woman picks up a mobile phone. The hotel lobby is their place, too, but not entirely.

The office-worker continues the performance of manipulating his environment. By his design, we see the lobby itself disappear, the front desk spinning to the left. He smiles that curt look of confidence once more. His head down, his eyes focused on the screen, he is somehow reshaping this environment merely by tapping that keyboard. A voice-over explains: "Free wifi: Giving you the freedom to get out and work wherever you want." Voices chant a ditty that transforms the scene also, but not entirely, returning to a softer version of the first tone. The arches sink toward the floor, becoming a low wall covered with flowing green flowers. The worker is free to "get out," though he continues his productive labors.

The nature of this "outside" affirms the omnitopian message of this spot. A fern appears to the man's left and a table topped with a tall drink (and a straw) appears to his right. Other people rest in chairs fit for vacation, their clothes relaxed and informal. But our protagonist blurs those worlds, even as he lifts that tropical-looking drink to his lips. His chair, one of those ergonomic-types in black-plastic, remains firmly rooted in the office. The organic form of the wall hides its disciplinary function, but not much better than the corporate structure evoked by that chair. The voiceover reminds us, "Free wifi at Courtyard: It's a new stay." Indeed it is, a stay defined by fluidity rather than status. But the new stay affirms the old narrative the office-worker who manages this place continues to be managed by unseen bosses. For a moment, he swivels his chair just a tiny bit and looks up from that keyboard toward the clouds. But he doubtlessly is pleased by this editable landscape.

He's going nowhere.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Subways to Everywhere

I never get tired of these...

Here's a cluster-map of the increasingly ubiquitous Subway sandwich chain:

Why do the folks in Nevada dislike Subways?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Speed, Gaze, and Modern Life

This is the second in an occasional series of posts about modern art. These days, I'm focusing on nineteenth century imagery related to urban life. My ideas are hardly formed; these are just musings, really. All the same, I'm happy to share them with you.

Velocity marks the modern landscape, that spatial environment produced with the nineteenth century advent of high-speed mass transportation, such that we can hardly imagine a contemporary city that fails to convulse with movement. Artists' efforts to depict the modern urban world have therefore imagined the city as a site of perpetual mobility, where locales of stasis sometimes convey the existential angst of death, surveillance, and alienation. Critiques of the city, of course, flowed freely from nineteenth Romanticists whose palliatives against Enlightenment excesses demanded an accounting of our hubris to believe that well planned cities produce well planned lives.

J.M.W. Turner, the British Romanticist, illustrates the concerns shared by some artists about the new city with his canvases that depict humanity's travels/travails amid the sublime power of the natural world. Turner's 1844 Rain, Steam, and Speed (The Great Western Railway) [shown above] balances a Roman-style arch-bridge and a humble fishing boat on the left with the explosive presence of a locomotive that rips through the foreground toward the viewer. London, behind, is lost to the mist and smoke. Like Turner's 1838 Fighting "Téméraire" Being Tugged To Her Final Berth to be Broken Up [wiki entry], we find no pleasure of power in this image but see instead a sense of loss. The modern era catches us all off guard, transforming the world. We bob in our own boats, fearing we may too be washed overboard or broken up in some other way.

How little could Turner and the Romanticists imagine the perfection of urban renewal in the latter half of the nineteenth-century. The growth of intra-city streetcar and omnibus lines, not to mention the expansion of commuter trains that enabled the rise of suburbs, completed the modern dislocation of formally related activities. One could live in one district and work in another, shopping entirely elsewhere, without caring to know one's neighbors in any of these environs. Indeed, the detachment of constant travel marked, particularly among the merchant class, the promise of progress and the improvement of one's personal economy.

At the level of government, such mobility and dislocation added more: a justification and implementation of complex reorganizations of urban life. Romantic or otherwise radical critics could no longer block the narrow lanes with barricades, either in their art or with their bodies; the ancient passages of the medieval city provided no sanctuary, no place for conspiracy. Thomas More presaged this disciplinary utopia when, describing the role of communal labor in a healthy society, he emphasized, "[t]here are . . . no secret meeting-places. Everyone has his eye on you."

This utopia became increasingly realized in the era of Haussmannization, when Napoléon III ordered the transformation of Paris by calling for a military array of boulevards whose seemingly infinite sightlines would enable not only an efficient sewage system and propagation of green spaces but also the bureaucracy of human-data analysis and rapid reaction police forces, the all-seeing eye of ubiquitous power. Some artists of that period, most notably those who augmented mid-century Realism with the ambiguity of emerging insights into psychology and experimental efforts at symbolism, crafted visions of the city whose orderly designs appear to rest upon a perpetual geography of fear.

Gustave Caillebotte's 1876-77 Paris Street; Rainy Day, for example, confronts the impact of Haussmannization by literally splitting the scene with a lamppost, producing two columns of the city. The Paris to the right is nearly filled with three figures occupying a shared horizontal frame. Advancing toward the viewer, a man and woman walk together. They are shown almost entirely, though we cannot see their feet. The man shares his umbrella with the woman who holds unto his arm. Their gazes are directed toward the left, looking outside the scene. Walking toward them, his back to the viewer, another man (cut almost in half by the Caillebotte's frame) appears to lack space to maneuver around the pair. Maybe he will bump into the woman and a moment of unexpected interaction will ensue. The city behind is similarly complex with a tumble of buildings set beneath a gray sky.

We may contrast this version of Paris with the alternative perspective on the left of the canvas. There, one finds three primary groupings: a duo of men in the left foreground, a man and a woman carrying separate umbrellas in the middle background, and a solitary man walking nearly into the lamp to the right. Collectively, they form a triangle rather than a horizontal frame. Each point is safely isolated; all are free from any likelihood of interaction. We see them entirely, their bodies submitted to our gaze, and that of another with whom we identify. Looming above the people in the left-hand scene, another triangle reflects the strollers' ordered positions: a multi-story building topped with an apex that resembles a human eye. The building is the new city, an impossible perspective of conflated space and perpetual sight. Gathering both frames together, the eye looks upon man and woman who are hidden only by one shared umbrella. All walk; the only other forms of transportation in this version of Paris are two horse-drawn carriages. None may escape the urban gaze of authority.

Read more: Check out my recent follow-up viewing of Paris Street; Rainy Day

(Public domain image from Wikipedia Commons)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Shot-by-Shot Analysis: Palm Pre

Difficulty seeing the ad? Here's the link:

Palm recently launched a campaign for its new Prē smart phone that includes this television advertisement. Since I'm working on a paper about the omnitopian practice of mutability in urban life, I thought I'd share a shot-by-shot analysis of the spot.

The commercial begins with a wide establishing shot of a woman wandering through shoulder-high grass. Surrounding her, rocky hills stretch toward the horizon.

The perspective changes and we are behind her. She is wearing a light, flowing dress that reveals her shoulders. We have adopted her point of view, staring over a verdant valley that is broken in three rows: sky, hills, and grass.

She completes the climb atop one of those rocky hills and now stands above the flat green plane, which appears to be marked by linear hedgerows. The scene is reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich's 1818 painting, "Wanderer above the sea of fog" [wiki entry]. This is no sublime encounter; she is heroic, standing at the apex of the earth, ordering her domain with a godlike gaze.

Ethereal music swells.

Now we adopt a position under her, looking up at her body; her gaze looking downward. A serene, close-lidded facial expression conveys calm and control among the clouds. In her right hand, amid a grip that is both firm and relaxed (evidenced by a curved wrist): a black object. She lifts it up and stares at its features, her grasping-arm now rigid.

We are now her, looking down. The smart phone, an ovoid-rectangle, is gripped in our right hand. The fingers are no longer feminized by the addition of the springtime dress; they could belong to any person. The phone screen depicts orange flowers standing among grass stalks. The field beyond is blurry and undistinguished, a blank canvas. A finger presses a button.

Incidentally, connecting these two shots, minuscule san-serif font announces the fantasy-nature of this scene: "Sequence speed adjusted for dramatization purposes. Actual performance may vary." The white color of the words, combined with the moment in which the background changes, produces a nearly perfect impossibility of reading the message. The first half-disappears into the clouds; the second half disappears into the hand.

Once more we adopt the prone position beneath her, as the camera sweeps above. The woman is now our avatar; we loom above her as she crouches upon a rock, one hardly taller than a person. The hill has disappeared; the other hills have now assumed more clearly pyramidal shapes.

Surrounding the woman, lines of orange-clad people, all with black hair, form concentric circles that stretch outward in straight lines. The martial order of their radiated standing suggests that they are Buddhist monks who gather around the blond-haired woman who stands atop the rock.

They leap to their feet as percussion enters the musical mix. Drums announce the woman's mechanized power over the monks. Their outstretched hands connect each to another, yet the result does not create a prison; the monks have formed a temple to her. She is god on earth.

A wider view confirms a human circle of monks on a valley surrounded by green mountains. The woman no longer appears within the human circle.

Along a medium angle of diagonal overhead movement, the monks crouch before her, the subject barely in view. They prostrate themselves to her environmental manifestation, a pyramidal trio of mountains that convey triple-order.

Quick shots follow: a medium close-up of the woman pressing the screen of her phone with monks in mid-motion, then a tight close-up of her finger selecting a calendar event, "Call with B- Office" (afterward, she will pick up dry-cleaning). Her finger depresses and a white halo expands from the event.

Now we adopt a perfect god's-eye view, suspended over the monks who surround the woman.

A voice-over defines this place:
"My life."
The scene is ringed by clouds, establishing our commanding view. Ripples of human motion represent the movement of the digital halo, stretching out and then returning back to the woman in the form of falling bodies. The dance of discipline.
"Like all our lives..."
A lower overhead view, almost parallel with the monks. They stand, only to fall back in a looser ring of circles as the perspective leaps upward once more.
"... is made up of so many other lives."
A rapid succession of shots -- medium close-up, wider shot, zooming overhead -- depict more martial movements of the monks. Their actions resemble calisthenics.

Another close-up shot of a generic finger, which now presses a matrix of photographs. A baby fills the phone's screen, its eyes oversized and black.
"My family's lives..."
The monks leap to their feet, their hands outstretched, their bodies posing in ripples.

The woman swipes a finger over the device, and the monks mutate their forms and relationships accordingly.
"Friends' lives..."
The monks produce an empty row stretching from the woman to the field beyond. A cluster of them form into a spinning ball.
"Work life..."
Her fingers push the phone open to reveal a keyboard. The monks pump their arms outward and drop to the ground in waves.
"Play life..."
Her finger drifts across an arc of icons. She makes her selection and the objects squeeze off the screen, revealing the phone's wallpaper of orange flowers. The screen then fills with a splash image for Pandora internet radio.

The monks leap playfully before dropping again in prone positions.
"My life today and my life next week..."
More finger-flicks and the monks perform intricate and detailed adjustments to parts of the circle, subtle choices that barely affect the whole.
"All of them rearranging themselves. All the time."
More quick-burst motions.
"Isn't it beautiful..."
One more overhead image viewed from the clouds, a human lotus in orange.
"... when life simply..."
Her finger flips through screens, summarizing the symphony.
"...flows together."
We then return to a medium-shot of the woman closing her phone and looking up at the clouds.
"Introducing... the Palm Prē."
In the final image, the phone is alone against a blurred backdrop of clouds and mountains. It is a mediating force in black plastic. A monolith with no people.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Zombies Reach Scotts Valley, Take a Nap

Preparations proceed for this Halloween's Zombie Apocalypse. Jenny found instructions for making zombie guts, I purchased some extra severed body parts, and we've even created a "Special Report: Zombie Uprising" video that will display on a television in our porch "house."

While searching for an old television, one more mobile than our large-screen set, I spent hours combing through local options and even the nearby thrift store. Then while I was driving home, I discovered that one of our neighbors was giving their old TV away!

This porch fright-fest will be our best yet.

(Image from Newspaper Clipping Generator)

Friday, October 9, 2009


Little by little, I begin to understand Paul Simon's Graceland. For example, consider the lyric, "The Mississippi Delta was shining like a national guitar." For years I had no idea what that image meant.

Then a friend explained in passing that a National Guitar refers to that gleaming metallic instrument that a blues player might strum. Apparently the metal was designed to produce resonance amid other instruments.

At once I can see that gleaming silver water of the river, a wide path that crawls through tin shacks and desolate towns and fantasy islands of gambling promise, and I know where it goes: "I am following the river, down the highway, through the cradle of the civil war."

On one level, the river is the cradle - and the grave - of the war that defines America's character. We hope to find ourselves reflected in the newly poured monument to the Greatest Generation of WWII, but in our quiet and honest moments we must return ever more to the place that cleaves us in two.

The soul of our country is splintered by that original sin, that civil war, and all the interstate highways with their perfect designs of frictionless mobility cannot take us too far from where we began and ended - no matter how hard we work to keep it all together. We hope to go somewhere else, though we never seem to get there. Always, always we return.

Returning, we seek grace, a pitiful thirst for forgiveness. But we carry with us the baggage of that war, of our wars. Our traveling companions are the wrecked lives and broken promises ("ghosts and empty sockets," Simon calls them) of haughty confidence that we could somehow wander from our circuitous past to find a straight and level grade.

So we return, always to who we are.

Simon offers an image of this eternal return, and I smile in recognition: "There's a girl in New York City, who calls herself the human trampoline. And sometimes when I'm falling, flying, or tumbling in turmoil, I say, 'Whoa,' so this is what she means." Yeah, I know what she means too.

OK, truthfully I don't know what possessed Paul Simon to write Graceland, I shudder to imagine the crisis he felt when crafting those lyrics, but I say with some certainty that his was not a mellow experiment in emotional tourism. Simon undoubtedly confronted some dark recess in his life in order to write that song.

He wrote it for his own reasons, but we all feel the meaning on a personal level. At some point we all go to Graceland. And on the way, waiting in some dingy bus terminal, perhaps, where "everybody sees you're blown apart," we find we've lost that thing that once kept us together. We see what once seemed lost to our blindness now brightly manifest.

At Graceland we renounce our right to defend ourselves from all the pains of a life lived with hope. We abandon our obligations and seek redemption in flight. The gates swing wide and we float among the ghosts, shattered and broken - but not quite damned - by "every love, every ending" we held so tightly. Graceland is surrender; it is failure; it is acceptance.

I've kept this song on the periphery of my life for so many years without facing, directly, the inevitability that I would one day encounter its message as more than a great addition to a road trip playlist. I know I'm too bound for Graceland. No, I'm in no hurry to get there; I'm happy to drag my feet and get lost in the dust. But my destination is no different.

I just need to build some faith that the destination is no more scary than the departure.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Oath of the Horatii

One of the ways I'm using my furlough time is an effort to expand my understanding of modern art, defined, perhaps arbitrarily, as the period following Rococo and sliding toward that even more amorphous era called "contemporary art."

I have tackled this project for a number of reasons, one of which is my envy of students who dive into the humanities with a gusto I haven't experienced since my early 20s. I've forgotten so much from that period -- even though I teach about modernism in many of my classes -- that it's time to refresh my visual literacy.

One piece that calls for careful analysis is Jacques-Louis David's Oath of the Horatii (1784, oil on canvas). A neoclassical masterpiece, the painting conveys the virtue of a strong state, particularly when contrasted with the presumed weakness of the family. In Oath, Horace presents swords to his three sons, the Horatii, who have agreed to fight three representatives, the Curiatii, from neighboring Alba Longa. This single battle will decide the outcome of the war.

Interpreters typically read the composition of Oath as three triple-field rows, but I'll concentrate on more obvious triptych of left, right, and center columns. On the left, the Horatii stand in unison, a balance of triangles meant to convey truth and order. The warriors' energetic grasp for weapons finds balance in their expressions of stoic calm; they will do their duty without undue emotion.

Horace, in center, appears to bestow a benediction upon his sons, with one hand pointed slightly above them toward the heavens. Yet tracing the angles from hand to feet to feet to hands suggests a (mostly) closed-loop of rational choice, one that does not require external blessing. Horace, like his heroic sons, conveys calm; sending his sons to war calls neither for celebration nor for tears.

The women to the right, in contrast, weep for the imminent losses they will suffer, both in terms of their brothers and their loved ones in Alba (the families are related in several ways). Their curved forms and disconnected gaze from the warriors conveys David's attitude toward the weak and insular nature of personal and familial concerns.

Historically-minded viewers know that one of the sisters in this scene will suffer grievously for her choice to bemoan the death of her husband, one of the Curiatii, rather than respect the sacrifices made by her brothers for Rome (only one returns alive). In this context, Oath offers an unambiguous message about the need to subjugate personal desire beneath national exigency.

And yet this statement of patriotism served conflicting causes. Originally commissioned by Louis XVI, Oath originally fulfilled an uncontroversially didactic purpose, ennobling the French populous (and incidentally affirming the power of the French state). Of course, following the upheavals of 1789 and the bloody separation of the king's crown from his body, the newly empowered revolutionaries found no problem reinterpreting David's work according to their own conceits.

The artist himself showed similar flexibility. David cheerfully claimed the prizes of the Royal academy and yet quickly joined the side of the revolutionaries, even participating in Robespierre's Reign of Terror. David fared well enough through this period of strife, selling his gifts to king, jacobin, and emperor alike before finally accepting exile in Brussels after the fall of Napoleon. Interestingly, while the painter was not allowed to be buried in France, David literally left his heart in Paris. It remains buried there today.

You might find it easy to remember the completion date for Oath, generally stated as 1784 (sometimes 1784-85). Just add 200 years and sing a few lyrics to Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA. You'll discover a parallel between these two works in the ways powerful people often manipulate the sacrifices of others for their own benefit. Indeed, anyone who blanched at hearing The Boss's ode to returning Vietnam vets at Ronald Reagan reelection events in 1984 can appreciate the odd history of David's Oath of the Horatii.

The dead and wounded will never lack people willing to claim their voices for political purposes.

(Public domain image from Wikipedia Commons)

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Baby Jedi

I figured that yesterday's Babies in Star Wars Costumes post would be a one-day affair - a brief respite from a stressful day.

And then Alena Ruggerio sent this.

There are no words to describe how cute this is...

Alena found the image from a knitting website. Any idea who created it?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Babies in Star Wars Costumes

Seriously, what can I add to a headline like "Babies in Star Wars Costumes"?

Clicky-clicky for more...

(Image from Gizmodo)

Monday, October 5, 2009

Trip Report: Key West

On the last weekend of September, we flew to Florida to meet with old friends, Mari and Craig Napoli, for a long weekend in Key West. For Jenny and I, the trip to the southern tip of Florida, the dangling line of islands that dips toward Cuba, was a first.

We decided to splurge after receiving hefty discounts on airfares from Delta after being stranded overnight in Atlanta some time back. With every glitch in Delta's process during this trip - adjustments in schedules, and unannounced change in flights - I had to marvel at the company's audacity: "You paid us to screw you once; the second time is (mostly) on us!"

Somehow, though, we made it through the maelstrom of despair and boredom that is modern air travel to be met by our friends on a muggy Thursday afternoon. Thereafter we drove south to Fort Myers and checked into a motel court where tiny green frogs climbed the outer walls. The next morning, our adventure would begin.

Friday morning, we boarded the Key West Express, a catamaran service that transforms a potentially all-day roadtrip into a three-hour water excursion. The process for ticketing, boarding, and seat selection was relaxed, even though the security provisions are fairly strict. After a lengthy wait, we finally cast off and began bounding through the water, the wind and spray slapping against us when we stood topside.

Since all four of us are mobile gadget fiends, we mainly stayed below, playing with our own tiny pocket universes. Real conversation had to wait until we left the phone service area. My complaints about the tendency to lose ourselves in these portable enclaves must have seemed pretty silly to my traveling companions, since I can't seem to stop fiddling with my own new iPhone.

There's something wonderful about sitting in wide, comfy seats - like a four-top restaurant booth, and watching the white clouds and blue water. Nothing to do but chat and relax. It reminded me of the Wood Family's trip to Australia, when we rode the Ghan from Adelaide to Alice Springs [Check out Jenny's written recollections]. We'd seen weather reports that threatened thunderstorms during the length of our weekend, but the skies looked friendly.

Around noon we arrived, to the squeals of drunken 20-somethings who announced in their loudest "Vegas-baby" voices just how much fun they were about to have. Soon enough we exited and dragged our bags about five blocks to our B&B, Curry House. The humidity added to our vacation vibe to make for a slow amble, and we were all drenched with sweat upon our arrival.

Curry House turned out to be an excellent choice, graced with pleasant rooms, a quiet neighborhood, and reasonable cost. Along with its pool, I particularly liked the shared balcony that connected our two rooms. Before long we decided to hit the streets in search of lunch. As I mentioned in my Key West Funk post, the city is a wandering photographer's dream, with tin-roofed bungalows, tumble-down fences, and streets traversed by bikes and scooters, all contrasted against tropical clouds that towered above us. Our spouses patiently endured frequent delays as Mari and I stopped to take pictures.

We stopped for lunch at Pepe's Cafe ("Open Under Old Management") that celebrated its centennial this year. Our server seemed more interested in helping us find the right balance of tastes than overloading us with purchases, and after scarfing through the complexities of sweet-jellied jalapenos and adding a few shucked-by-order oysters, we agreed that we'd started the day right. Once we finished a little more touring, we returned to Curry House and relaxed at the pool, eventually being joined by a friendly crew of folks who brought their own mini bar of mojito fixings.

By sunset, we joined the throng of revelers at Mallory Square, watching street performances (like the unicycle artist above) and surveying the scene to find a good spot to see the sunset. The crowds were quite lubricated but in a mellow way. I lit up a cigar and settled into the collective pause, waiting for the red-orange orb to sink below the surface. The smoky clouds and melting colors were entirely worth the wait. Dinner was at Alonzo's Oyster Bar, followed by a walk back to our rooms for the night.

Saturday started with breakfast at Curry House, and then a return to the docks for a morning of snorkeling. We took the Sunny Days "Fast Cat" to a reef about an hour away and swam at two locations (although Jenny got the unlucky break of getting seasick). I have no idea what kinds of fish we saw - lots of big blue ones and a few similarly sized green ones - I just remember valiant efforts to avoid pulsating purple jellyfish, whose stings can range from mildly unpleasant to pretty awful.

I did a pretty good job avoiding the things, hanging out of reach but floating close by to study their gentle movements, until the very last moment while waiting to board the "cat." That's when I felt the unmistakable sting of tendrils raking across my stomach. The welts of redness on my gut impressed the crew enough for the captain to study a reference guide. Apparently I'd been stung by a real nasty one. However, I was assured that my ability to breathe was a good sign. Many squirts of vinegar later and I felt OK.

We returned under a brief shower, and then we walked the blocks back to our B&B in shorts and bathing suits. Soon after we dug into plates of oysters and other goodies at Conch Republic Seafood Company, an open-air restaurant by the docks.

By afternoon, Jenny and Mari took off for some shopping while Craig and I hit the Hog's Breath Saloon, a swell place with outdoor seating whose overhanging trees create a cool interior. Here we finally heard our first Jimmy Buffett song and enjoyed the wandering roosters who sometimes delighted in attacking the servers (the island supposedly boasts between 1,500 and 2,000 feral chickens, strutting and crowing all day).

But we dug the nearby "Smallest Bar in Key West" even more. No more than a covered alley, the narrow sliver offered enough room for Craig and I to chat with a couple of other guys and a philosophically minded bartender. Three Patrón shots for me and a couple more beers for Craig (much to the chagrin of our respective spouses) and we were ready for another sunset at Mallory Square.

The rest of the evening was spent drifting with the crowds, waiting for the beginning of our Ghosts and Legends of Key West walking tour. Jenny and Mari dutifully photographed the various "orbs" and "phantoms" pointed out by our guide, even though I'm certain the effects were created by the various light beams emitting from our group's cameras as they sought to photograph the ghosts. We learned about necrophilic lovers and haunted dolls until it was time for our eerie walk back to Curry House.

Sunday morning demonstrated one of my great fortunes, the fact that I can down all sorts of hard stuff without suffering a hangover. Thus Mari and I kept our date to take our own Key West sunrise photo tour, greeting the chickens and a cloudy sky. The highlight of our walk was the 1847 cemetery whose aging tombstones and weed-covered walkways inspired the morbid fascination of us both. Naturally we stopped for a quick photo of B. P Roberts' famed epitaph, "I told you I was sick."

Returning to our B&B, Mari and I rejoined our spouses for breakfast and a group photo (with me warily eyeing our cheap travel tripod for signs that it'd tip our pricey camera into the pool) and then commenced to window shopping along Duval Street, all of us practically melting from the heat. Thereafter we took the necessary "southernmost point" photo and dropped by another B&B owned by the same folks who run Curry House. And then, for reasons that confounded me at the time, we visited a butterfly conservatory.

Now I love butterflies, but I thought it crazy that we'd pay to go someplace warm and humid on a day like this. I was thus delighted to learn that the conservatory was somehow cooler than the air outside. So we lazily followed the paths, photographing the flitting creatures and colorful birds. One big butterfly landed on Mari's shoulder and sat still for minutes, briefly revealing its blue wings to our shared laughter and delight.

Lunch was a pleasant stop at Camille's Restaurant, where locals seemed to outnumber visitors by a healthy percentage, whereupon we shopped a little more until it was time to grab our tickets for the "cat" back to Fort Myers. Craig and I managed to outrage about a few dozen folks who loudly announced that their random seating was some type of queue, albeit one not able to be seen by outsiders. While I bantered with a couple folks about the nature of invisible lines and difficult dialogues, Craig grabbed our tickets anyway, placing us in fortuitous seats for the ride home.

One final afternoon of swimming at Curry House and we forlornly lugged our bags to the docks. Returning north along the coast, we took in one last tropical sunset from the comfort of our "cat" and chatted into the evening. Plenty of logistics followed -- driving home, dealing with airline hassles, struggling with camera connections, printing tickets and the like -- and then Jenny and I made our way back to California. Days later as friends asked about the weekend, my response was always the same: "Too short." We've got to get back to the Keys one day soon. Over there, I hear the sun sets every day!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Shameless Media Plug: City Ubiquitous Review

Benson Bright Gillespie, writing for Cite Magazine (the architecture and design review of Houston) has posted a kind review for City Ubiquitous. Here's a snip:
The oscillation between analytical discourse and narrative provides a good balance to the text. The book reads like something between a textbook and a novel.

I strongly recommend City Ubiquitous: Place, Communication, and the Rise of Omnitopia to anyone who lives amidst the enclaves about which Wood writes so passionately.
Read the entire review: Book Review: City Ubiquitous

Thursday, October 1, 2009


Yay! Another texting-while-living article! Happily, I never tire of these.

This piece, by the AP's Karyn D. Collins, quotes someone from the Johns Hopkins University's Civility Initiative [I love that name] who bemoans the fact that students increasingly multitask in environments - time with family, attending a lecture at school - that have traditionally called for some degree of single-mindedness.
"We're seeing behavior that you never would have seen before," he said. "Students getting up in the middle of class to answer their phones, texting during class, students watching TV on their laptops during lectures." -- P.M. Forni
Not only in my line of work but also in a class I'm taking off campus, I see this regularly: students who are confident they can attend to their social duties and functional obligations while staying in touch with their BFFs, constantly. For many of these folks, texting-while-living is so much better than merely being where they are.

Some parents respond with draconian restrictions and even investigations of their kids' text logs - one response that I can't accept. Instilling responsibility requires that you offer an opportunity to get things right, not just the threat that every error will be scrutinized. Still, the next generation's always-on/partially-there mentality troubles me.

I'm hoping to get past the "what's with these kids?" stage and gain some understanding of how this constant tappa-tapping makes sense to its practitioners. It's relatively easy to condemn the youth for being youthful. Heck, it's an ancient tradition! But I'm sure constant-texters hear such nattering as static, nothing more. I just don't yet know why.

Read the entire article: No texting at dinner! Parenting in the digital era