Thursday, September 30, 2010

Wood Writing Guide: Indiana Jones and the Lost Research Question

When you think about it, academic research is sort of like treasure hunting. You enter a mysterious realm, search for valuable objects, and sometimes face unexpected challenges. I guess that's why I sometimes find myself humming the theme to Raiders of the Lost Ark when I start my own research adventures. Heck, when I return from the forest of knowledge with something valuable, I almost feel like Indiana Jones!

Research. Why'd it have to be research?
In my COMM 101 class, students are embarking on their own journeys into the unknown by developing research proposals - and many are experiencing the inevitable stress that comes from such an open ended assignment. For them, research isn't necessarily an adventure. In fact, it might be more like being trapped in the "Temple of Doom."

Oh, the path starts off easily enough. Students are simply asked to use a theory of human communication to analyze an example of human communication. In our class, we use Em Griffin's First Look at Communication Theory as a guide. Of course while walking the path with my students I've also brought a torch to illuminate some denser sections. Even so, inexperienced explorers often conclude that the journey is way too dangerous.

You've got to put your heart into your work.
(Image borrowed from Film School Rejects)
Here's the plot (without the rousing theme music): Students must produce a research project, which means they articulate a research question or hypothesis, review four peer-reviewed journal articles related to their topic, summarize a theory they've chosen to use, and describe the results of their preliminary analysis. They write up a 5-6 page paper and also deliver a brief oral presentation. If Indiana Jones can battle evil Nazis in not one but two separate movies, student treasure hunters can survive this adventure, right?

Well, actually, the journey is harder than it looks. You see, there are many ways to start a research proposal. You want a "topic," of course, but that topic can develop along at least two paths. You might start with an artifact of communication that interests you, and ask a question about it. Or you might start with a question about communication and find an artifact that helps you answer it. Hmm. Which way to turn? Me, I recommend starting with an artifact and going from there.

Artifacts come in all shapes and sizes
(Image borrowed from Fanboy)
An artifact refers to an example of communication. Among other things, an artifact can be a speech, a television show, a movie, a poster, an advertisement, or even observations of human performance or behavior. Indiana Jones would remind us that a Crystal Skull would also be a fascinating artifact (even if it's a lousy movie) but crystal skulls are hard to find. I suggest that you stick with something you can more easily track down. Either way, your artifact must inspire you to ask a question about how it works as communication [Yes, you could develop a hypothesis instead, but let's stick to a qualitative approach for now].

So, let's say you're interested in a television show like The Office. You find communication within the show, and there's plenty of communication about the show. Just remember, your artifact isn't "the show." It's got to be a thing related to that show, an object you've got close at hand. Artifacts of The Office can be downloaded episodes, transcripts of dialogue, or perhaps taped conversations with people who speak interestingly about the show. Indiana Jones can't just wander around looking at treasures; he's got to bring one back to the lab. So should you.

How hard can this be?
(Image borrowed from FanPop)
Once you've grabbed your artifact, you're ready to transform it into a research question. A research question is a relatively open-ended query that allows you to explain something about your artifact. That "something" should be specific; it can't be overly broad. Thus you wouldn't ask something like, "How is The Office an example of communication?" Instead you'd ask something like, "How does The Office depict the workplace as a family?"

But wait! How did that question arise?

This is the hardest part of your adventure, because the choice to focus on something like "workplace as a family" does not present itself naturally. You've got to hack through some dense foliage to reveal a specific research question. That's where a guide can come in handy. Our textbook contains many different guidelines to doing communication analysis that inspire the creation of a particular question. Each chapter's description of theory and method (one usually includes the other or, at least, leads to the other) is like a pathway whereupon you will forge a specific research question that helps you find treasure.

Here are some examples: Chapters on relational communication call for the intrepid explorer to investigate shared uses of symbols (again, something like, "How does The Office depict the workplace as a family?") Chapters on relationship maintenance, though, call for different questions (something like, "How do romantic partners in The Office balance the tension between revelation and concealment?"). Chapters on public communication, as you'd guess, call for still different questions. So after reading the chapter on Aristotle, a researcher might ask, "How does Michael Scott employ ethos to motivate his workers?" See? One guide, many paths.

Research is harder than it looks!
(Image borrowed from Daily Mail)
Again, this journey is hard because while you have a guide (and a torch-bearer) you must still enter the jungle of ideas without a clear sense of what you'll find. That's the craft of research. The journey demands a willingness to take a first step, knowing that you might feel lost for a while, knowing that you will encounter obstacles in your way, knowing even that you may have to turn around and start along a new path. It can be scary, it can be frustrating, but it can also be a lot of fun.

Searching for the Lost Research Question requires courage to define your own story, not just to repeat the stories of others. Indeed, do you remember that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones admitted, "I'm just making it up as I go along"? Again, that's the craft of research. Strangely enough, though, while we're talking about presumably artificial things like movies and school work, "I'm just making it up as I go along" is a good definition for real life. It's a treasure hunt, a risky journey, and an unforgettable adventure.

And the best part? You get to write the script!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Houston Art Deco - Pathology

"In our country, we have no tradition of, how you say, irony." 
As a lover of art deco, I had to add a stop to our recent drive through Texas: Houston's Roy and Lillie Cullen Building at the Baylor College of Medicine. The goal was a bas-relief sculpture called "Pathology." According to Houston Deco, Edward Galea created this piece as part of a history of medicine. I remember outlining the trip, which would demand a major detour through traffic-clogged surface streets. Jenny looked dubiously at the plan, and then she saw a picture of the sculpture. "Yeah," she said, "We've got to get this…"

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Logan's Run Diorama

(Image by Keith Goldman)
Keith Goldman is my personal hero today. This guy used Legos to recreate scenes from Logan's Run. Let me tell you a little about how cool this is to me. As you may know, I'm fascinated by miniature cities. I call 'em "tiny towns," but basically I'm referring to any model of urban life whose small size allows its creator to produce an interesting effect upon the viewer. This effect might include the pleasure of the God's eye view, the ability to see everything, or some approximation of everything, in one perfect gaze. Another effect is the paradox of conflation: placing distant, even contradictory, locales in close proximity to each other (echoes of omnitopia).

Logan's Run exemplifies that God's eye view. Indeed, I'm pretty sure that the movie was my first experience with that kind of a vision. A 1976 sci-fi dystopia, Logan's Run can't be recommended for its acting or story. Mostly it's famed for a set that, at the time, was a remarkable achievement in miniaturization: a domed city filled with gorgeous people living an idyllic life - with just one catch. Today that amazing city looks obviously, painfully, like a plastic toy. But maybe that was kind of the point back then.

Since I was eight years old back in '76, and because we didn't have money to see flicks that often, I was only able to catch snippets of Logan's Run through trailers than ran on television. I also remember seeing a book that contained stills from the movie, though I guess the tie-in was just a repackaged version of the William F. Nolan novel. I felt stuck outside that domed city, unable to visit for more than a fleeting moment. So you can imagine how excited I was when I heard that a television series was set to air in the fall of 1977.

(Image by Keith Goldman)
Sadly, the show was, if anything, even more cheesy than the movie; I don't remember watching more than a couple episodes. No matter, I erected my very Logan's Run city in my room, using Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs and whatever other building toys I could gather. Without getting overly psychological, I recall finding real joy in producing an idealized metropolis of order and control. My domed city was a therapeutic counterpoint to the chaos I sometimes found outside my closed door [I've written about this elsewhere in, of all things, an essay on Waffle House].

Thus I am so pleased to see this Goldman fellow perfecting that fantasy in Lego form. He had his own reasons, of course. I wouldn't presume to guess them. But for all the ironic detachment one can muster for a project such as his - and you've got to have a sense of humor to reproduce scenes from Logan's Run in Lego form (even using that swell tilt-shifting technique to create a sense of depth) - I'm sure that Keith also knows the pleasures of assuming a God's eye perpective on a world that otherwise can overwhelm us, children and adults alike.

(Image by Keith Goldman)
Check out Keith Goldman's Flickr page to see his version of Logan's Run

Check out images of contemporary lodging environments that may remind you of Logan's Run: San Francisco Atrium Hotels

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Hades Landscape

Love Blade Runner? I do. Yet I love it for different reasons as the years go by. At first I dug the action. Then I fell for the is-he-or-isn't-he-a-replicant puzzle. Now I dig the movie's depiction of Los Angeles 2019 that is almost retro but still surprisingly futuristic.

That's why I'm so tickled to have come across this short video by Douglas Trumbull, Blade Runner's visual designer. In it, he describes the clever use of old school miniaturization to produce a vision of a hellish city that still haunts me.

Check it out: I'll bet you had no idea just how complex that opening scene was... Hades Landscape

By the way, I'm teaching a graduate course this spring in which I plan to spend a week exploring some scholarly and critical readings of Blade Runner. I may kvetch about my life now and again, but you'll never hear me complain about this job!

Learn More: Future Cities - my brief summary of A. O. Scott's essay about film directors' efforts to depict dystopian cities of tomorrow as warnings about the world of today.

(Eye image borrowed from Wayne Lorenzo Titus' blog-post, The details: Blade Runner's Postmodern Legacy)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Night of the Living Trekkies

Screw the new book - this is a movie I want to see! Difficulty accessing the video? Click the link:

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Sieger Crushes the Castle

Remember Crush the Castle? Yeah, I'm referring to that delightfully time-sucking guilty pleasure whose name perfectly describes its function. It's the Snakes on a Plane of videogames. Well now there's a mutation called Sieger, and it's swell. More variation in architecture, more complexity (some folks must survive the siege!), and more cool splintering effects. It's dumb; it's fun.

Go Play!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Trip Summary: Shanghai Expo!

At last I've uploaded the trip summary from our visit to the Shanghai world's fair!

Oh, and I'll definitely add to the trip summary as time allows: our visit to Hangzhou, our follow-up days in Shanghai, our journeys through Thailand...

Those stories are coming over the next few weeks.

Friday, September 10, 2010

A Silicon Valley Expo in 2020? Can't See It Clearly (Yet)

I'm gonna put this in the "would be cool, but never gonna happen" category: news that governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is spearheading efforts to host the 2020 world's fair - in Silicon Valley, no less. Wyatt Buchanan writes in the San Francisco Chronicle that efforts are underway to make that happen, starting with a trip to China.

OK, naturally I love the idea that the gov is raising public awareness about the international expo concept by attending the 2010 World's Fair. I mean, Shanghai is running the largest and most expensive expo in history and virtually no one in the United States has heard of the thing. Schwarzenegger's overseas trip is helping to change that. Heck, one of my students mentioned the visit in our Communication and Culture class!

Then again, the idea of a U.S. world's fair - our first since the New Orleans debacle of 1984 - faces obstacles that may be insurmountable. These include the perception that such a gargantuan event will cost more money than it raises, especially now that people don't need a world's fair to get a taste of global culture or witness innovations in technology. Some say, reasonably enough, that the internet - really, the shopping mall - killed the international expo idea decades ago. At least for Americans.

Oh, and let's not forget the fact that the U.S. isn't even a member of the Paris-based Bureau of International Expositions, which sanctions these events (and, for some reason, monster horticultural shows). We pulled out of that group years ago. Add the shoddy state of our pavilion at the Shanghai expo and it appears that America has abandoned any pretense of leadership in the world's fair arena.

Things can change, of course. We can decide to mount a memorable expo and transform Silicon Valley into a true center of 21st century thinking. A homegrown 2020 extravaganza could happen. But it'll take a transformation in American attitudes about these international events to get us started down that road. That begins with one thing: knowing that there's a great world's fair going on right now.

Learn More: Read Jim Wunderman's San Jose Mercury News, August 28, 2010 editorial in support of the Silicon Valley World's Fair:

Update: San Jose Mercury News September 12, 2010 story: Plans unveiled for bid to put World Expo 2020 at Moffett Field (with rendering of proposed fair!)

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Shanghai Expo: Chile Pavilion

Just for kicks I banged together some footage from our visit to the Shanghai World's Fair. This piece comes from the Chile Pavilion, which explores that eternal question: What is a city?

I've also completed my first draft of the trip summary for our visit to the expo. With luck, that piece will go online next week.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Logos Without Shame

Interested in graphic design? In the mood for some wicked snark?

Take a look at Your Logo Makes Me Barf. There you'll see a furniture store that uses a mustachioed Irish-Canadian taxi driver clown as its mascot, a university that promises "D+ opportunities," and a beauty salon that's actually a booty salon.

You can't make this stuff up. Except, worst of all, someone actually did. Maybe for money!

Oh, and you've got to check out the threats delivered by an interior design company whose lame logo goes under the analytical knife. They're gonna have their lawyer send a "Cease and Assist" letter!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Shanghai Expo: UK Pavilion

While working on my 2010 Asian trip summary I'm taking a break to share images from one of my favorite Shanghai World's Fair exhibits: The United Kingdom's pavilion and its marvelously etherial Seed Cathedral.

The Seed Cathedral stands about 60 feet high and is composed of 60,000 acrylic rods, each containing seeds. The idea is to convey the UK's efforts to preserve our planet's fragile biodiversity.

Entering the Cathedral is like standing inside a chandelier. The structure is made of wood and steel, with thin aluminum tubes serving as sheaths for delicate tendrils that wave in the wind. Reverence is, perhaps, the best word to convey the feeling this place seeks to elicit.

After Expo 2010 closes its doors in October, the seeds will be distributed to schools in the UK and China, "just as dandelion seeds are blown away and disperse on the breeze" [Having seen this quote many places online, I think ArchDaily is the original source.]

The best way to see the Seed Cathedral, of course, is personally. However, there's a virtual version that does a decent job of conveying the experience. Check it out!

Photo from Centre Pompidou
(I never noticed the face until I saw this photo in Paris)
Learn more:

• Interview with designer Thomas Heatherwick

• YouTube video of UK Pavilion

(Photographs by Andrew and Jenny Wood)

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Velveeta Machete

Image borrowed from Machete Trailer
First of all, it seems a bit silly to get pissed off at a movie called Machete for being anything other than what it is. Films named after weapons generally don't deliver more than their titles. Would you expect Oscar greatness from Saw or The Naked Gun or, I dunno, Two By Four: The Movie? OK, Sling Blade proves an exception to the rule. But most of the time it's best to downshift expectations.

Robert Rodriguez's newest guilty pleasure is a busty, bloody, barfing ode to a film genre that exists, I think, mostly in retrospect: Mexploitation. At the same time Machete provides an exemplar for that broader, more generally disappointing crop of ironically detached meta-ploitation films that stretch beyond parody (such as Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood and lamer examples I can't bear to name) to genuine homage.

By homage I'm referring to movies like Alien Trespass and Black Dynamite and, of course, Grindhouse: movies made by auteurs willing to scrounge backlots for discarded camera lenses and old cans of aging film stock - or at least willing to digitally produce the patina of age. Meta-ploitation flicks are purist holidays, a chance for transport back to the grimy Times Square theaters of film-historian legend whose posters are now coveted by serious collectors. Machete, with its scratchy intro and 70s-porn star interludes, shows that Rodriguez is serious about this genre.

By now pretty much everyone knows that Rodriquez directed Machete as a fake-trailer between Grindhouse's features, only to dream of ginning it up into a full-blown feature. Sounds like fun, right? Of course exploitation flicks were famous for jamming all the good parts into the trailers; the movies were never as good as the commercials.

And that's the problem. Machete stretches its plot to feature-length while mistakenly trying to add some depth to the cheesy mixture. Oh, don't worry, it's still got the good parts, which means that we See! "Machete's" wife and daughter decapitated by a slimy drug lord, See! "Machete" double-crossed and left for dead, and See! "Machete" rise up for revenge. [Danny Trejo's character is actually called "Machete," just in case you weren't sure.]

There's no doubt at the end of this grisly Hard-R flick, "If you're gonna hire Machete to kill the bad guy, you better make damn sure the bad guy isn't YOU!"

Yet Rodriguez can't quite leave well enough alone. So with the addition of extraneous subplots and undeveloped secondary characters, "Machete" must become a symbol of Mexican pride amidst the moral and technological wasteland of Gringo culture. A reasonable enough proposition, resulting in occasionally laugh-out-loud dialogue like, "Machete don't text." Hell yes!

But by speaking of himself in the third-person, as he frequently does, Trejo's character becomes somehow less vivid than his trashy trailer-persona. Not quite a walking myth, "Machete" is merely a shill for Rodriguez's half-baked assault on those brain-dead politicians who've turned America's immigration debate into a sad sideshow ("SEE! Headless Bodies in the Arizona Desert!"). Ultimately this flick folds under the pressure of its director's expectations.

Yes, the film features "Machete" swinging on intestines, getting it on with the ladies, and plunking an M134 minigun on a chopper to kill the bad guys. It's the trailer made into a movie. Sometimes it's even fun (the blink-and-you'll-miss-it scene of ice cream cart-venders on the warpath is almost worth the price of admission). But Machete tries so hard to do everything right, it fails to do terribly well.

As I wrote three years ago, Machete looked like it'd be a gas as long as Rodriquez didn't invest the exercise with too much gravity. Produce it as a roadshow, toss it up on aging outdoor screens and in rundown burlesque theaters, I said - just don't expect it to work in a suburban cineplex. Unfortunately that's exactly what the director chose to do, trying to hit several audiences with the same sledgehammer.

The results are a sloppy second-take of a great first trailer. Hell, I think only ten people lined up to last night's show (in admittedly sleepy Scotts Valley). Friday night, and only ten die-hard folks bought tickets for Rodriguez's latest splatterfest. Once again, meta-ploitation fires blanks and misses the target.

Oh well, there's always Hobo With a Shotgun.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Machete At Last

Yeah, I got suckered by Snakes on a Plane, and I'm willing to admit in retrospect that Grindhouse was a bit more about malstalgia than actually enjoying a movie. So be it. Tonight Jenny and I are gonna see Mechete (Review to come on Monday). In the meantime, check out my original comments on Robert Rodriguez's Mexploitation pic.

Bonus Wayback-Post: Relive summer nights at the late, great Skyview Drive-In (including "Let's All Go to the Lobby" intermission trailer)!

Follow-up: Here's my review of Machete (the movie).

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Start of an adventurous semester

Well I'm back in the classroom - the first semester courses I've taught in three years. So far the experience has been pretty much what I expected: harried, hassled, and hard. But it's also a lot of fun. I'm prepping a new class (Communication and Culture), which means that I'm writing new lectures, developing new presentations, and dealing with new challenges on a weekly basis. The material I'm covering - world's fairs and expositions as sites of cultural definition and contest - is familiar to me. But finding ways to connect esoteric notions of progress, civilization, and "the modern project" with the lives and interests of my students produces new opportunities for reflection.

Elsewhere I'm teaching COMM 101 again. That's our department's introduction to communication studies class. As I've noted in other blog-posts on the subject, 101 is designed to welcome folks to the field, ideally to instill a sense of enthusiasm for our degree and department. Even so, the course - at least as I teach it - often comes as a surprise to students who'd never before been exposed to the rigors of theory or method. The terminology, the specificity, and the depth of material covered can be overwhelming. So far, most of my students are taking the course in stride, but several asked to stay for about a half hour afterward to focus on developing their topics for the forthcoming course project. I'm glad I built some office hour time after that late-afternoon class. The conversation was fruitful, and I think my students got the clarity they needed.

Then there's consulting work, development of my post-omnitopia research, submitting my just-completed sabbatical proposal, and the guilty pleasures of personal writing (that danged Asia blog-series remains on the back-burner) - not to mention all manner of homefront adventures. I feel that after sitting in a cabana most of the summer, I've taken a high dive into the pool of life. I feel the splash of cold water, and I'm exhilarated. Tired. Freaked out. Grateful. Unsure. Determined. Mostly, I feel lucky that Jenny and I are helping each other through our personal and shared struggles and opportunities. You know, on October 9th, we're scheduled to skydive (God knows why). I feel like I'm already there.