Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Guernica From Another Perspective

This is easily one of the most fascinating and disturbing things I've seen online: Lena Gieseke's 3D revisioning of Pablo Picasso's Guernica. Her piece offers an encounter with Picasso's depiction of Spanish Civil War atrocities that adds depth and perspective, helping us see the painting in a new way.

I first heard of this piece while reading Michiko Kakutani's Texts Without Context essay, which explores the power of appropriation to enhance our understanding of art, even is it threatens the sacrosanct nature of the artist.

For me, the question is difficult to answer: Does Gieseke help us appreciate Picasso, or does she merely debase his creative effort? My instinct: any answer must first be freed from such silly dichotomies. Beyond that, I have some thinking to do.

Difficulty seeing the video? Point your browser here:

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Texts Without Context

"If the facts don't fit the theory, change the facts." - quotation falsely but still repeatedly attributed to Albert Einstein
“Each of us is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts” - quotation attributed in one form or another to Bernard M. Baruch, James R. Schlesinger, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan
In her essay, Texts Without Context, Michiko Kakutani, the noted New York Times critic, describes a "culture of reaction without action" when examining how the web transforms creativity into mere content.

Reviewing several books that tackle or illustrate this phenomenon, Kakutani relates how "the contentious issues of copyright, intellectual property and plagiarism... have become prominent in a world in which the Internet makes copying and recycling as simple as pressing a couple of buttons." For her, the mash-up (second cousin to the hip hop sample) represents the most recent and prominent example of how authors are outsourced by the hive mind.

The article doesn't develop much new ground, but it does offer a relatively concise critique of today's decline in nuance. That is to say, Kakutani's piece artfully illustrates how the subtlety of conversation, the complexity of policy, and the breadth of perspective is increasingly abandoned when tweets, ring tones, bumper stickers dominate our discourse.

With increasing specialization, our electronic agents sift through oceans of data to reaffirm what we already know (a concept defined by Cass Sunstein's as "cyberbalkanization"). Kakutani adds, and I agree, that more academic scholarship appears to be built around technologies that allow us to drill further into our intellectual silos, mining narrow "nuggets of information" to prove our theses.

Yes, it's a cliche, but credit must be paid to George Orwell, who forecast this decline in meaningful communication decades ago:
"Relative to our own, the Newspeak vocabulary was tiny, and new ways of reducing it were constantly being devised. Newspeak, indeed, differed from most all other languages in that its vocabulary grew smaller instead of larger every year. Each reduction was a gain, since the smaller the area of choice, the smaller the temptation to take thought. Ultimately it was hoped to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brain centers at all. This aim was frankly admitted in the Newspeak word duckspeak, meaning, to quack like a duck.'"
Perhaps this is the irony of convergence, as more voices gather into the same arena, as more texts fall into the same digital singularity: We are unified in form but not in content. We recognize each other but still come across as strangers, especially in the decline of what Cass Sunstein calls "serendipitous encounters." The convergence into one singularity explodes into a multiverse of infinite singularities from which which nothing, not even insight, may escape.

And I too must admit to being sucked in to the same vortex. After all, this post, for all its hand-wringing angst and its clever references, said nothing new, did it? All I've offered is yet another echo in the same shrinking chamber.

So what else is new?

Read the article: Michiko Kakutani, Texts Without Context

Monday, March 29, 2010

Overpass Mecca Part 3

Jenny and I took advantage of the warming springtime weather by returning to San José for another adventure in nighttime long-exposure photography. This time we set our sights on a highway interchange on the southwest of the downtown core, amazed at how many more vantage points and complex composition opportunities this one has over our previous experiments [check out my new overpasses label].

View Larger Map

We started near the Guadalupe River Park, which frankly depressed me with its murky and unlit pathways. My thoughts drifted to memories of San Antonio's River Walk, and I wondered if San José would ever mount such an impressive display or urban planning. Here, the only pedestrians we saw seemed to be pushing carts with all their earthly belongings. Locking the car on a lonely road far from the towering hotels and friendly restaurants downtown, we bypassed fences and hugged the inside of busy on-ramps, heading for a spot that felt right. As the sun began to dip beneath the mountains, we dropped our gear at last.

We'd arrived with enough light to allow for some individual exploration, so Jenny and I split off to wander the cavernous space in search of shooting positions. Not being intended for pedestrian use, this site is prickly with overgrown brambles. Thus we were sometimes forced to barrel across damp islands of vegetation, shouting across to each other as the cars rumbled a few feet above us so loudly that we could not communicate otherwise. Every few minutes, planes would roar overhead too, sounding only slightly more fierce than the cars.

The columns reminded me of grand Roman spaces, the horizontal and diagonal lights forming ethereal lines and arcs like some sort of superimposed geometry. A cathedral of movement, a San José's overpass seen from underside is pretty distant from the city that I know. It's a strange thing to remember that I drive over this place almost every working day, which is the coolest aspect of urban exploration: seeing the everyday in a new way.

I've decided that I particularly love the thrill of setting up a camera alongside a busy highway, feeling the wind of cars racing by. We take reasonable precautions to allow for some space between ourselves and the vehicles. And we never use a flash, for fear of startling drivers. Indeed, I believe that our choice of protected position renders us invisible to anyone but the most eagle-eyed motorists. And by the time we check our long-exposure shots, the cars are nothing more than brilliant lights, receding.

Not everything worked smoothly, of course. We managed to time our shots to capture the glowing trails of jets landing at the nearby airport, but we couldn't quite align our schedules with the lightrail trains that poked along less regularly. And then there was our own departure. We arrived with sufficient light to make our way without much hassle. By the time we'd wrapped up the shoot, though, we'd gotten thoroughly disoriented. With our flashlights illuminating thin corridors, we stumbled our way between the crackling hillsides and pulsing culverts until we finally saw a train track leading to surface streets. Exiting from our nighttime adventure, it seemed strange to walk someplace so normal.

(Photographs by Andrew and Jenny Wood)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Kon Tiki - Tucson, AZ

Kon Tiki is the best Polynesian Pop spot in Tucson, Arizona. But that's not saying much. Most folks say it's been open since 1963; some say 1961. The confusion is irksome, but once you drink one of their infamous Scorpions you'll slur the details too.

Jenny and I have been inside twice, once back when we were researching our motel book (in '03, or so) and more recently during our 2010 weekend in Tucson. OK, we've been inside three times, but one visit doesn't count. I'll get to that in a moment.

Back in '03, we confronted the odd placement of this homage to Hawaii Five-O reruns and Thor Heyerdahl voyages across the Pacific. A dreamy abode of stone idols and dark rum, Kon Tiki is jammed among dusty strip mall businesses in a dreary part of town. Crossing the threshold requires some faith in the tiki gods.

During that first visit, birds squawked in a terrarium while semi-pro drinkers lounged the afternoon away in beat-up chairs that might have been patched together with electrical tape. The meal was canned-quality Ameri-Chinese gunk. Lots of gooey sauce and pineapples. We had a good enough time, though, and tipped appropriately. Even so, our server chased us out into the parking lot, asking why we didn't tip her more.

Let's say we left with a bad taste in our mouths.

This time we returned more optimistically, especially since a new owner has pledged to restore Kon Tiki to its old glory. Sure enough, the place is cleaned up a bit and they've commissioned swell mugs and glasses for collectors. Heck, starting this April, they're even planning to start lighting the torches outside. The food isn't much improved, I must say. But who goes to a tiki lounge for the food?

As per my custom, I carefully surveyed the menu, which runs delightfully amok with strange drink names that sound like mystical incantations (though I couldn't tell you why this place sells a "Suffering Buster" instead of the more common Suffering Bastard).

A sucker for the classics, I drilled right into the Mai Tai. They serve two kinds in this place, an "original" and a house style. But are reputed to be "improved" by Kon Tiki mixologists over the Trader Vic classic, but neither did it for me.

The original suffered from an overly syrupy constitution and a discordantly intrusive rum flavor. The house style was lighter and more balanced, but still overly pushy for my tastes: too much like a pink grapefruit "Let's party, Ladies!" drink, when I prefer something a bit more subtle. No matter. The effect was pretty potent either way.

By the way, during this last trip, we visited Kon Tiki twice. The first time was a Friday night when the place was packed with local 20-somethings and not one single aloha shirt to be found. Bouncers, Auto-Tune dreck, and woozy lines out the bathroom: it was like someone had taken the most depressingly generic college bar you could imagine and teleported in some Maori idols, just for the hell of it.

Thank goodness we returned Saturday afternoon, when the place was quiet, relaxed, and better suited for exotic fantasies of sand and surf. The service was slow and the food -- well, again, no one goes visits this kind of place for the food. Still, we enjoyed our return and can happily add Kon Tiki to our second tier of must-see places that keep the Polynesian Pop spirit alive in these decidedly non-tiki times.

It's not a Top-10 Essential, but Kon Tiki is worth a visit when you're in Tucson.

Once more, here's my list of top tiki lounge experiences:

10. Castaways in Colorado, CO
9. Drift in Scottsdale, AZ
8. Thatch in Portland, OR
7. Forbidden Island in Alameda, CA
6. Trader Vic's in Chicago, IL (closed)
5. Tiki-Ti in Los Angeles, CA
4. House Without a Key in Oʻahu, HI
3. Hula's in Santa Cruz, CA (ranking skewed by homefield location; ask for the Tiki Room)
2. Mai Kai in Fort Lauderdale, FL
1. Kahiki in Columbus, OH (closed)

(Photographs by Andrew Wood)

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Weekend in Tucson

Jenny and I just returned from our weekend in Tucson, where we spent most of our time hiking Saguaro National Park. We'd planned our trip on a whim when Jenny's iPhone "dinged" a decent price for Southwest tickets to Arizona. Weirdly enough, we'd been a bit snippy with each other at that moment, and the idea of a mini-vacation to reconnect seemed like a perfect idea. So we booked the tickets right then.

Arriving in mid-morning after waking at an ungodly hour, we promptly made our way to a Little Anthony's, one of those 50s-diners. You know the type: black and white tile, James Dean posters, car shows... I tried their Recession Special, which offered a tasty burger, fries, soda, and small Sundae for six bucks. It was a pretty good deal. From there, we made our way to the east park. That's right, Saguaro National Park spreads out east and west of the city. As per our tradition, we started with the delightfully cheesy orientation video before the main event. At last, we began to thread through groves of towering cacti.

We'd come for the Saguaro, of course, to see these icons of the West we'd recognized even as children in Florida. For us - for a lot of folks, I imagine - a howling coyote, a red butte, and a spiky Saguaro form a mythical triangle of old movies, storied road-trips, and collective memory. We'd flown and driven a long way to see them up close. And then there they were. Gnarled, weird, awesome.

Jenny, as you may know, loves things that tower over her, so she was enchanted with these green monsters that sometimes climb two or three stories. The gangly "arms" of the cacti point upward most of the time, but sometimes Saguaro are more strange. Once in a while, we'd spot a cactus that seemed like a mutation, with arms that curved downward or with bodies that looked like they sprouted out other bodies like a mad scientist's experiment run amok.

Our first hike was Mica View, a welcome respite from a congested morning of planes and cars. Once we hit the rocky trail, Jenny and I were alone at last, free to make our own way on the rocky sunburned trail. The path was clear enough, but sometimes we'd amble along a dusty wash or pick our way through a cluster of Saguaros away from the designated trace. We took pains to avoid the cholla, prickly pear, and other dastardly flora, but they seemed magnetically drawn to us. I started in shorts and flip-flops but quickly saw the wisdom of hiking in long pants and proper shoes (much to Jenny's bemusement).

Predictably, our off-trail wanderings got us thoroughly lost. Thank goodness for the satellite views provided by our trusty iPhones! I felt a little silly depending on such high-tech luck, but as clouds began to roll in from the west, I swallowed my pride. As we made our way back to the trail, Jenny spotted a loping jackrabbit whose big ears called for our camera. Too quick, he bounded away. Eventually the clouds grew sufficiently dense for us to head back to town in search of the Flamingo Hotel (really a motel) for brief nap. Happily, the first of several for this trip.

A few hours later we were back at the park, waiting for sunset. A cool breeze had scooted all the clouds away, leaving a purple and pink sky. The sun sank behind Tucson and the mountains beyond, and a silvery crescent moon rose. We snapped some pictures in the orange light, scampering for the best views. After nightfall, Jenny and I hiked a bit more, searching for a cactus that seemed right for another of our light-painting experiments. I was grateful for Jenny's recommendation that we pack our flashlights and gels for this trip, because the unearthly effects we captured - especially with the stars pinwheeling around Polaris - were worth every grunt from lugging our gear through the airports and down the trail.

The next morning, we slept in before grabbing breakfast at an unexpected place: Waffle House. As I've written elsewhere, this 24-hour chain is a Southern tradition, but Waffle House has also grabbed a toehold in some western states. Next stop: the western park. Now I wasn't sure what to expect, but I can say unequivocally that this direction was even more impressive than the eastern site. The panoramas of Saguaro are even more awesome out there.

We began with a mellow hike up Signal Hill, looking to spot Hohokam petroglyphs, before taking some time to wander away from the trail once more (we never seem to learn). This time we discovered just how invisible a camera bag can be once it's put down next to a cactus. "Which cactus?" "The green, spiky one!" Luckily it wasn't long before we gathered our stuff again and returned to the gravel and dirt road. Feeling every bump and jerk under our rental car's tires, I waited for the inevitable scrape of cactus spines against the paint job. And we both understood why the dude driving a Lexus in front of us crawled at no more than five miles an hour. Kicking up clouds of dust, we passed him and found our own comfortable cruising speed.

While we rounded a hill, Jenny then spotted a sea of purple and yellow flowers. Oh, yeah! Spring in Tucson. We'd hardly hoped that we'd see much in bloom this early in the year, aside from a scattering of orange blossoms on a handful of cacti, but colorful patches of life fluttered in the breeze on this hillside. Jenny sought a perfect perch to compose her shots while I managed to rediscover my dread of the horribly misnamed "Teddybear Cholla." Picking the spines out of my flesh, I looked down to notice that my favorite pants were spattered with dark purple splotches. I tried to avoid stepping on the flowers but clearly wasn't careful enough when kneeling to find my own favorite compositions of cactus, mountain, and sky. I didn't mind too much, though. Now these pants have clearly been somewhere.

As the heat rose, we returned to town for a break at Kon Tiki, an old school Polynesian Pop Paradise that has stood for decades as a timewarp to the early 1960s. The city had grown around this place, but the vibe still pulsated with American fantasies of the South Pacific. Outside the sky was a crisp, sharp blue, while inside the atmosphere was dark and mysterious, a dreamy phantasmagoria of rum drinks and wooden idols. I tried Kon Tiki's basic and house Mai Tais, neither of which I could recommend to a connoisseur. Even so, Jenny appreciated the fact that we could enjoy a meal away from the bar, and we both dug the surreal break from nature.

Returning outside, blinking languidly under the harsh light, we headed back out of town, this time for a horseback ride at Pusch Ridge Stables. It'd been years since Jenny and I rode, but the folks working there had no problem selecting horses that aligned to our personalities (my attitude being a bit snippy, thanks to molasses-slow traffic leaving Tucson). After being taught how to "steer" our new-found friends ("Sugar" for Jenny; "Zeke" for me) and being reminded not to allow them to eat too much along the trail, we set out in a line of five. Under the growing shadows of sunset, we sauntered atop a ridge dotted with more yellow and purple flowers. It took little imagination to forget that a highway was nearby. A couple hours later, as pink clouds strung themselves below the sun, we returned to our car and headed back to our motel for the night.

On our final morning, Sunday, we continued our tradition of sleeping in - rising well after the gladdening departure of a hassle of obnoxious partiers who woke us at two in the morning. We started our day with some urban photography, shooting a Ming-the-Merciless-type deco building right out of William Gibson's "Gernsback Continuum." Then hunger pangs drew us to El Charro Cafe, the famed Mexican restaurant whose brunch buffet of breakfast items and heaping plates of corn-husk carnivore goodness appealed to our varied appetites.

Once more at the park's west side, we returned to Jenny's favorite hillside spot to take more pictures of flowers. We also took a hike to Valley View Overlook Trail to enjoy another expansive panorama of cacti filling our gaze from west to east. The wind had died down, so the heat was a bit more heavy this day. Both of us felt sluggish, perhaps recognizing that our little trip was almost over. Slowing down to savor each vista, we nonetheless admitted that the site of cactus - just days before, a mental vacation - had become a bit more common to us now. Still, we loved stopping occasionally to hear the wind that whistled through the green spines of the Saguaro. No pictures I'd seen could prepare me for the pleasure of that sound.

An afternoon nap back at the motel (Jenny and I are suckers for consistency) and we drove to the park one final time for sunset. The clouds and haze conspired against us this time, and we couldn't quite get the photographs we'd planned, but we had to admit that a lousy dusk here was better than most other places in our regular lives. Dinner was at Daisy Mae's, an honest open-fire mesquite steakhouse on Tucson's outskirts. We flipped through pictures and chatted while preparing ourselves for the depressing duties of packing and departing early the next morning.

For us, Tucson is cactus and hiking and sunsets, which leaves so much more to have discovered. As with all great trips, we concluded this one with the same promise: We're going back.

(Photographs by Andrew and Jenny Wood)

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Internet of Things

Here's a Friday Thought-Bump that imagines the growing grid of interconnected knowledge about "everything." Click the pic to see the video.

Difficulty seeing this video? Point your browser here:

Thanks to Steve Sloan for recommending this video.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

What's the value of print photos?

I just read a fascinating article about how Facebook may be inspiring us to stop caring about printing our photos. Writing for The Washington Post, Caitlin McDevitt cites IDC projections that a third fewer photos will be printed in 2013 than in 2008, a trend launched with the introduction of cheap digital cameras but now increasingly propelled by social networking sites.

One potential problem with all that cloud-based photo sharing? Facebook doesn't store images at their optimal resolution for printing. The images are only good enough for computer screens. Yet many folks apparently presume that once they upload a picture to a social networking site there's no point to archiving a high resolution version for future purposes.

Indeed, McDevitt quotes Photo Marketing Association research that concludes, "nearly 40 percent of households with digital cameras no longer print out their pictures." While I don't see sufficient evidence to relate this statistic to the author's broader point about Facebook, I am nonetheless intrigued by the suggestion that physical media are becoming less important to a growing number of photographers.

Read the entire article: Pros and cons to Facebook's fast-growing role in digital photography

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Want a letter of recommendation?

I'm planning to "go live" with this note about recommendation letters in a week or so. Gonna post it on my homepage. Now I'm just taking some time to let this draft percolate and circulate.

I'll admit, it's a lengthy document. But after writing scores of rec letters over the past 12 years, I figured I should offer some consistent advice to students who may one day ask me to write for them.

And, honestly, while I don't want a student to be turned off by my mini-dissertation on the topic, anyone who'd scan this and conclude, "I don't want that guy to write me a letter," would save us both plenty of grief by making that decision before I begin.

So, here's the draft.

Any thoughts? Recommendations? Concerns?


Looking for a Letter of Recommendation from Andrew F. Wood? Please read this first.

Rec Letter Status

[Note to blog-readers: The beginning of my rec letter document will begin with a status update, featuring one of these two options.]

• Able to receive write a letter with two weeks notice.


• Unable to accept letter requests at this time. Please check back [at a time to be noted, eg. "Please check back in April."].

Executive Summary

While I'll cover all this material in more detail below, here are the highlights: I am delighted to write letters of recommendation for worthy students, but I can only write those letters under the following circumstances:

(1) You have earned an A- or above in our most recent class, or you have served as a Peer Mentor during my service as program director.

(2) You email me sufficiently detailed information about your personal and/or professional expertise that I have already observed.

(3) You provide adequate time (at least two weeks) for me to write a strong draft.

(4) You ask at a time when I am not already overwhelmed with other commitments (see Rec Letter Status, above).

Those are the quick bits. Now for some context and necessary instructions. Please read this entire document if you wish to proceed in seeking a rec letter.

Let's start with some background:

I know the value of a solid rec letter. Indeed, I depended on original, specific, and well-written rec letters when I was a student, and I cheerfully accept my responsibility to help you in turn. It's good karma. That said, there's much about writing a decent rec letter that most students don't know. Let me give you some background from a faculty member's perspective.

We'll start with time. Your rec letter will consume, at a minimum, about two hours of my time. That includes time necessary to review your materials, write an initial draft, seek editorial feedback, and complete follow-up revision. Thereafter I may also receive requests to revise that initial letter for you as future job opportunities arise. Each such request is likely to cost about 15 minutes more of my time, which adds up quickly when you consider how many students seek letters and subsequent revisions each semester.

Of course, this presumes that your future employer only requires a standard rec letter. Sometimes they create all sorts of short-answer forms and idiosyncratic check-boxes ("Is this student in the 90th percentile? The 95th percentile"?) in their efforts to circumvent the tendency of some writers to produce meaningless boilerplate recommendations. For them, the practice makes sense. For me, the result is another imposition of time on top of the all-purpose letter I'm likely to write for you anyway.

We both know that a minimum expenditure of two hours and a little hassle is a small price to pay for the opportunity to help you get a scholarship, a seat in a grad program, or a job in this competitive market. But please understand: The time I dedicate to your letter must be added to my already packed schedule. My university does not reduce my other obligations of teaching, publication, or administration when I write your recommendation, nor do I receive any payment for this additional work. The only remuneration I receive (or expect) is the satisfaction of knowing I could help you.

Having agreed that rec letter-writing is a time-consuming but necessary task, let's tackle the next question:

Can I write a letter for you?

I can write you a detailed and persuasive letter of recommendation and commit to revising that recommendation for future job opportunities if you meet each of the following criteria.

• Read this document in its entirety.

• Earn nothing less than an A- in the most recent class (six week or longer) you've taken with me, or work as a Peer Mentor for one full semester during the period of my service as program director.

• Request your letter in sufficient time to allow me to fit this assignment within my schedule (two week minimum).

• Send a complete request via email.

Please note: On occasion I must decline rec letter requests, even those offering reasonable deadlines, during periods when other commitments overwhelm my schedule. If I accept your request, I will complete your letter on time. If I decline your request, chances are that I'm working to fulfill previously made commitments.

OK, assuming you meet these criteria...

Here's the most important requirement for me to write you a letter.

Help me write about your qualities that I know best.

How does that work? Let's presume that you are building an application composed of several letters and (typically) a personal statement. You are responsible for arranging those components into a package that integrates your varied dimensions into a strong candidacy. My job is to contribute my personal and professional credibility to evaluating one relatively limited aspect of your application.

From this perspective, it makes little sense for me to write about your off-campus volunteer efforts or your dedication to some other personal activity unless we both agree that I know you well enough to make such an assertion. It's better that I focus on areas where I have some expertise. Therefore I'll only write about what I know.

How well I know you is an issue, though. Have you participated actively in class, or have you been mostly quiet? Have we discussed your goals during office hours or have I rarely seen you outside of class? Have you made an effort to stand out in some other way, or are you essentially a stranger to me? It's my job to get to know my students, but it's your job to help me know you better by exceeding minimal standards, by excelling rather than merely doing OK.

So, before you request a letter, review our interaction history. Search for individual emails, essay responses, and personal conversations. These will provide the kinds of evidence necessary for me to write a compelling letter. Once you gather these materials, you're ready for the next step:

Identify two or three specific, observable traits that demonstrate your excellence

Think about those traits that demonstrate your personal and/or professional persona. Here, I'm thinking about traits like "creative," or "hard-working," or "passionate." I'm also thinking of more purely professional traits such as excellence in research or organization or writing. There are many, many others from which you may choose. You need only identify two or three traits and support them with evidence.

For each character trait, develop at least two specific, observable examples from our shared experiences. To illustrate, if you report being "a strong writer," share a comment I made about your writing on one of your essays, or describe an office hour visit in which I commented on your promising prose. Avoid generalities - and do not write lengthy narrative sentences. Stick to facts and let me do the wordsmithing.

Remember, each trait requires at least two specific examples. More examples are always better, but stick with things that I have seen, and remember: You're trying to set yourself apart from the competition. Where do you shine? Once you review your traits for specificity and the reasonable likelihood that I have observed them, you're ready to share your request with me.

Don't forget the necessary details

In your email, include the following information:

• Each class (including semester/year and grade) you've had with me (not required if you were a Peer Mentor during my service as program director).

• Two or three personal or professional traits with at least two specific supporting examples per trait.

• Contact information and website addresses (if available) for each recipient of your requested recommendation.

• Information about the job/scholarship and/or opportunity for which you seek a recommendation.

• Indication of whether I should send the letter(s) directly or provide them to you.

• Deadline for each letter recipient.

Here's what I do

I'll review your email-request and determine whether I can write a letter for you. Even if the answer is no, I'll reply as promptly as I can. If the answer is yes, I'll inform you about any other materials I need: clarification of your points, the addition of a resume (rarely a requirement; there's no need to send one with your request), or other information about your letter recipients. I'll then confirm my deadline and complete a first draft by that date. Thereafter I'll seek your feedback on that draft, inviting you to comment on ways the letter can be improved. I'll appreciate specific and direct feedback (catching me in a typo won't embarrass me; I'll be grateful for your help). Finally I'll submit the revised letter as you direct, either to you or to your selected recipients. I'll also keep a copy of your letter in case you need me to amend it for subsequent job opportunities.

That's it. Well, almost...

One final thought: It was kind of a pain to read this, huh? It was no picnic writing it, either. But that truth illustrates how seriously I take letters of recommendation. When it comes to your potential letter, our shared goal of your success is surely worth a little bit of time and hassle. So let me know if I can serve you by writing a rec letter. And if you have any questions about this document, feel free to ask.

Good luck!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Overpass Mecca Part 2

Last night we returned to San José's Overpass Mecca, a glorious snarl of concrete ramps and streaming car lights that offers stunning photography opportunities. Once more we set up our D5000 to capture long exposure images, this time feeling a bit more confident in our process. Even so, the night was cold and we shivered with each set-up. Jenny'd take about ten minutes to compose her shots and try a few experiments while I'd scout the next location. During my turn, she'd search for her next inspiration (and update her Facebook pals!). Like that, we leapfrogged from site to site.

When doing night photography, I feel less guilty about employing photographic tricks to capture a sense of what I see. After all, the image in the camera viewfinder is almost invisible. The long exposures necessary to capture any kind of light already represent a sort of cheating. Then there's the choice of white balance, a tough issue when working under the city's yellow lamps, since different settings produce entirely different results. Finally, is the necessity of post-processing when the in-camera image is transformed to be viewable on a computer. More art that journalism, night photography is about capturing feeling rather than reality.

Taking these sorts of shots is not without some degree of risk. Remember, we're stumbling about a dimly lit crosshatch of road arteries that are not designed for pedestrian use. Abandoned junk and detritus, along with patches of dense, spiky vegetation, require careful footwork. Add a few wandering street-folk, and we pay close attention to our surroundings and our exit strategies. Then sometimes we'll spot a swell vantage point that requires us to hike along a high-speed roadway, the cars whizzing with only a concrete strip between us. When we get the shot, it's worth all the hassle.

I love the feeling of hoisting our reassuringly heavy tripod over my shoulders as Jenny and I search for new positions to set up our shots. Sometimes we'll spot a perspective and march towards it with confidence. Other time we'll wander aimlessly, searching for the right feeling. It's all for the production of dreamy, ephemeral images, but we also gain a genuine feeling of work and accomplishment as we climb up grassy hills and slide down rocky embankments. Jenny and I are continuing our tradition of urban exploration with theses photo shoots, and I can't wait to see what turns up next.

(Photographs by Andrew and Jenny Wood)

Friday, March 12, 2010

Matt and Marilyn

While attending services for Carl B. Mattson (Jenny's uncle), we enjoyed an opportunity to sit with family and flip through old photo albums. Given that my grandfather served in World War II, I've always felt a kinship with Jenny's family, especially since most of their young men also answered the call at one time or another. Turning those old pages, I loved hearing stories about the Mattson family patriarch, Einar (nicknamed Matt), who married a young woman named Marilyn and started a family that included a granddaughter named Jenny, whom I would eventually marry.

It amazes me to look at these old pictures because of how young Matt and Marilyn were. Seeing those bright, confident eyes, I can imagine that they felt much as Jenny and I did in our early years of marriage. They were separated by military service, as we were -- and then came the happy day when they reunited at last. The aging Western Union telegram doesn't say much about that day; it's a somewhat perfunctory announcement. But I can imagine the thrill that flimsy piece of paper generated, word that Matt was returning home at last after his years of service in the Pacific.

Jenny and I hardly endured the kind of hardship shared by her grandparents; my military service was in the peacetime Navy. Even so, I feel connected to her family as I look through those pictures. Turning page after page, I can envision two young people staring out over the decades, unable to know what challenges and opportunities would come their way. Of course, I can still talk with Marilyn, since her house continues to serve as the gathering place for family events. I enjoy asking her about her life and recollections. But sometimes there's nothing quite like seeing a picture from way back then to make it all real.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

World's Fair Exhibit this October

This October, the National Building Museum is mounting an exhibit called Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930s. I can't wait to check it out, if only because I always have a good time at that Washington D.C. venue.

Back in 1999, I traveled to D.C. solely to check out my first NBM exhibit, See the USA: Automobile Travel and the American Landscape, and I had a swell time. Since my funding was modest, I decided to save a few bucks by sleeping in Reagan National Airport. That decision reaped surprising rewards.

Those two nights spent wandering around a bustling airport played a major role in inspiring me to write City Ubiquitous: Place, Communication, and the Rise of Omnitopia. After all, I was able to see first-hand how structure and perception meld in some places to create an environment stripped of locality, an all-place. And, of course, I would later find origins of omnitopia in world's fairs - especially the 1939-40 New York World's Fair.

So I feel a real connection to anything associated with the National Building Museum and hope to return this year. Who knows? This exhibit might spark my next book!

Learn more: Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930s

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Carl B. Mattson

Over the weekend, we traveled to Florida to commemorate the passing of Jenny's uncle, Carl B. Mattson. He was a good guy, sorta quiet but whip-smart. Indeed, as family members mentioned a few dozen times during our conversations, this guy literally was a rocket scientist.

Carl spent the latter part of his boyhood years in Largo, Florida, home after his mother relocated a family of three boys and one girl (Jean, Jenny's mother) from Wisconsin following the untimely death of the family patriarch. Carl was raised to be independent and resourceful. And though he was a shy and unassuming person, he followed his father's example by enlisting for active duty during wartime.

Starting with a tour in the Vietnam theater, Carl applied his love of aircraft to a steadily increasing range of responsibilities, from painting planes to working as an engineer for the Space Shuttle program. He was such a humble guy that we found out only after his death that he'd patented a number of innovations and had won all sorts of awards for his work to improve the operations of the NASA clean room.

I'm sure there's much else about Carl that was unknown to most of his friends and family. He was a private person who generally went his own way in life. Family members shared stories about how he'd avoid doing drudge-work on the farm by reading. Some folks would get upset, but the elders knew best: "Just leave him alone," they'd say. They knew Carl's potential, and he knew what he was doing.

Along with savings to help his mother in her later years, Carl left behind a number of photo albums, mostly black and white shots of him in the service, boating with friends, and growing older. Toward the end of his life, a slow but cruelly determined disease wasted away at his mobility. Loved ones told him to pursue traditional medical remedies, but Carl insisted on managing his body just as he managed his life, on his own terms and in his own way.

His family worried for him, but the Mattsons have always been a live-and-let-live lot. They'll offer advice and help when you need it (I know this personally, and have benefited from their kindness on many occasions). But in the end, they let people go their own way. That's why so many conversations in Jenny's grandmother's house tend to drift off to comfortable silence.

I won't attempt the trite poetry of saying that Carl drifted off with similar ease. I wasn't there, and I can't know. His final years were undoubtedly tough and sometimes lonely. But he departed in a hospital bed surrounded by loved ones: those physically present and those, we can hope, waiting to take him to places where he can keep his head forever in the the clouds.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Update on Wood's Unsought Advice

Lately I've been inundated by time-crunch writing projects, and my bandwidth for blogging has taken the hit. But that doesn't mean that I'm abandoning Woodland Shoppers Paradise. Indeed, I'm pushing toward a decent first draft of a multipart series tentatively titled "Wood's Unsought Advice," which has been percolating for a few months now. Perhaps over the weekend I can make some progress and prepare to share it with you. No specific plans for when, but I'm hoping for "soon."

"Unsought Advice," is hooked on the idea that we can apply philosophical insights to contemporary workplace dilemmas. That's right, everyday stuff like how do deal with "Bungie-Bosses" or "zero-sum gamers" - or the dreaded game of salary negotiation "chicken." Oh, and how to keep a job in today's lousy economy.

Starting with Socrates (really, with Chilon), I've titled my first post, "Know Thyself." Subsequent posts are called "Seize the Mayhem," "See Things First As They Are," "Keep Secrets. Unless You Can't," "Tend Your Gardens," and "Perform Thyself." Can you guess the philosophers I chose to illustrate these topics?

I claim no uniqueness to my approach. Plenty of books out there do what I'm doing. But that's why my advice is "unsought." No one's waiting for it, But I'll share it all the same. At minimum, the series provides me an opportunity to work through a few ideas of personal interest. And if I'm lucky, maybe one reader will benefit from using ancient or modern philosophy to think through an office hassle. Worse case scenario: I'll reap some comments about just how far off the mark I am. Which is OK. I'm a sucker for helpful advice.

So keep your eyes on these space. "Wood's Unsought Advice" is coming.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Fall Back into Teaching

As I anticipate returning to regular classroom teaching this fall, I smile at the prospect of those "first days," the chance to meet new classroom cohorts and imagine them becoming communities of learning. My years directing the university Peer Mentor Program (wrapping up this May) have added a number of positive experiences to my life, along with plenty of useful skills to my repertoire. All the same, I am excited to get back into a more traditional classroom environment, at least for a while. Looking forward to that opportunity, I also look backward to undergraduate and graduate professors whose varied teaching styles are somehow mixed and mingled in my own professorial persona.

Back at Berry College, labeled by one of my mentors as a "little Ivy," I remember rich, polished staircases and an almost reverential hush when walking through Hermann Hall, and I recall one professor who brought an old school lecture style to his classroom. Surely I'm over-dramatizing the details, but I can still see this guy walking up to the podium and literally reading from a yellow legal pad. No videos. open-ended conversations. No class skits. Just a man reading his notes.

And his notes were scintillating. Again, this is a rosy memory distanced by more than 15 years, but I dug his classes. Listening to this fellow's recitations you could follow a complex line of thinking from point to point, concept to concept, objective to objective. There was no fluff and no razzle-dazzle. Just ideas, from his mind to yours. Some students hated the whole thing, of course, and I even made a little money running nighttime tutoring sessions for folks struggling to make sense of it all. Still, for all the classroom parties I've forgotten in other classes, I won't forget the lessons I learned by watching a professor work his ideas in front of us.

At the same time, I remember another professor, this time at Ohio University, who needn't have done more than read his published essays out loud to earn our regard. He was, and is, that well respected. Indeed, I remember one occasion when I was serving as his co-instructor (really as a glorified TA), when the professor announced, "Sorry, class, but there's no other way for me to cover this material. I'm going to have to simply lecture for the next hour..." He seemed genuinely apologetic about needing to lecture. The students didn't mind at all. His rare choice to lecture served as kind of a special occasion.

Moreover, one evening when I was taking one of his heavy theory classes, the kind in which doctoral candidates would sift through recently published essays and try to impress each other (and the prof, naturally) with down-inflected confidence, he said, "Look, I'm not sure how to make sense of these readings. We're going to have to explore this stuff together." Again, no one could doubt his gravitas, but I think I respected him even more when I saw his willingness to allow us to play inside one of his intellectual frontiers.

Striking that balance, locating myself along the continuum of knowledge-transference and knowledge-exploration, is a shifting goal, one producing an emergent persona that must adapt to the mood of the room and the objectives of the day. Sometimes I will necessarily plow through an idea; other times I'll cheerfully admit that I have no specific outcome for our interaction, that getting there will be all the fun. Both ways, and in others I can't quite anticipate, I will enjoy the adventure of teaching and learning. Honestly, I can't imagine having a better job.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Digital Publishing

Recently I was talking with a student who mentioned an interest in opening a small book store organized around one of those Espresso Book Machines. I'd heard of the concept somewhere but had to file the conversation for later research anyway. During our chat, I shared my memories of wandering Archer City, Texas a few years back, touring the town where Larry McMurtry set about building his fantasy used bookstore one decaying building at a time (see NYT article). How cool I marveled, that the writer of The Last Picture Show (scroll to bottom of link) could transform some of his hometown into a stage-set of ideas.

I returned to the Espresso Book Machine yesterday, catching a reference to the all-you-could-possibly-want book printer in a New York Review of Books article that had been moldering in my "must read" file. In that piece, Jason Epstein provides an overview of the digital publishing revolution that might be interesting to younger readers if only they could imagine a time when everything worth seeing or hearing hadn't already been transformed into pixels. While virtually nothing in Epstein's essay can be called news, the author nonetheless does a pretty fair job of conveying the sweep of change affecting the written word.

Read for yourself: Publishing: The Revolutionary Future