Friday, February 25, 2011

Punctuation as Culture

Thank goodness for Pico Iyer's essay, "In praise of the humble comma." Here's a quote:
"A world that has only periods is a world without inflections. It is a world without shade. It has a music without sharps and flats. It is a martial music. It has a jackboot rhythm. Words cannot bend and curve. A comma, by comparison, catches the gentle drift of the mind in thought, turning in on itself and back on itself, reversing, redoubling and returning along the course of its own sweet river music; while the semicolon brings clauses and thoughts together with all the silent discretion of a hostess arranging guests around her dinner table."
I can add nothing, but this: Read it twice.

In praise of the humble comma

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Don't like your review? It's time to sue!

I'm gobsmacked.

An Israeli lecturer named Karin N. Calvo-Goller is suing a German law professor named Thomas Weigend for his temerity to pen a less than glowing review of her book, The Trial Proceedings of the International Criminal Court. Calvo-Goller is also suing the book U.S. review editor for not taking down the offending evaluation.

Writing in the New York Times Adam Liptak crystalizes the craziness: "France is an odd place to adjudicate a claim concerning a review written in English by a German professor of a book written in English by an author living in Israel. The book was, moreover, published by a Dutch firm. The review was published on a Web site in New York. True, Ms. Calvo-Goller is a French citizen. But still."

The French court that accepted the case will announce its verdict on March 3.

Read the NYT article:

Monday, February 21, 2011

Toy Worlds

Embarcadero Center, San Francisco, CA
I spent a bit of time this weekend tweaking my skills at producing tilt-shift photography effects via Photoshop. Using Receding Hairline's Fake Model Photography tips, I experimented with various settings until I began to gain some confidence in my technique.

Las Vegas, NV
Tilt-shift photography stems from a mechanical process available to users of certain kinds of cameras. It's often employed to ensure that parallel lines in the real world do not converge in the camera lens (a well known problem to anyone who has dabbled in architectural photography). A related effect of this technique is the ability to produce extremely shallow depth of field.

Reno, NV
With some practice, a photographer can create delightfully miniature-looking scenes using an optical or software-based tilt-shift effect, as if the viewer is looking down upon a child's diorama. Given my fascination of that sort of thing, I've been hoping for the opportunity to figure out this process. After plenty of false starts I think I'm getting the hang of it.

Ocean Speedway, Watsonville, CA
These images come from my archives, but my next goal is to shoot some new photos with tilt-shift technique in mind. I'll search for overhead shots that possess interesting foreground, middleground, and background elements - yet aren't too busy with detail. Natural views can work, but I think that human-made scenes are better for the ideal "toy world" effect. Check back for updates!

West Edmonton Mall, Edmonton, Canada
Follow-up: Here's my first attempt at setting up a tilt-shift. I took this from the top of the Fourth Street Garage in San Jose. I'm not sure I've got the effect quite right, but I like the direction that this image takes me...

San Jose, CA
(Photographs by Andrew Wood)

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Looking Forward

Rain is falling and the cats are roughhousing - and I am emerging from an epic cold. We're talking a real life-stopper that kicked up last Wednesday. All-night hacking (and not the cool cyberpunk kind). Reacquainting myself with the various bouquets of cough syrup. And so many bloody kleenexes that Charlie Sheen himself would recommend an intervention. So, no blogging of late. Sorry.

I plan to see the doc tomorrow, just in case. But I must teach today (Yes, I'm bathing in Purell - and keeping my distance). I think I may be climbing out of this mess. Thank goodness, because the next few days, weeks, and months promise to be hectic.  Next week I'm doing a departmental presentation that will preview themes for a new article (and ultimately a book) on world's fairs. I'm flying to D.C. over spring break for a week of research and road-tripping. And a couple days after my return I'll head back east, this time to Berry College where I have been invited to present a talk. Along the way I'm launching my second new class this academic year and prepping to teach in the SJSU Humanities Honors Program (a half-time buy-out, starting this fall). Oh, and there's that video package for the Salzburg Program and the documentary for the College of Engineering Global Technology Initiative, both of which involve returning to Austria and China this summer. Busy days.

I see some respite ahead in the form of a sabbatical. My application has been tentatively approved, though no promises can be made until a number of budgetary issues are resolved at the state level. So I'm on the cusp of having the time to write a new book. Maybe. Wow, maybe I should just hide under the covers for the day. I can't complain, but I sure wish I felt a little less like I'd been hit by a truck.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Egypt's Revolution

What a difference one day makes.

Yesterday - sick at home and glued to the TV - I watched as President Hosni Mubarak spoke to his people, speaking as a father to children, pledging to stay in power for the good of his people. He would share some authority with his hand-picked vice president, and he would step down after September elections, but he would not leave immediately. The nation, he said, could not endure a fast dissolution of his dictatorship. The nation had another opinion.

In Tahrir Square Mubarak's speech was projected against a giant white sheet amid seemingly countless throngs of chanting people who'd set up a tent city and committed to staying until the end. I watched and waited as the 82 year old president plowed through paragraph after paragraph of legalisms. He designated committees. He highlighted constitutional changes. He promised punishment for those who killed pro-democracy protestors.

The crowds watched in silence and disbelief before exploding in anger. They waved banners and pumped their fists. They would not tolerate one more day. Even as Mubarak was speaking, some protesters began streaming toward the state media building and the presidential palace where tanks awaited them. The army had held their fire until now, but the nation seemed set for bloodshed. And then today, Mubarak just left - like a rotten apple that had finally fallen to the ground. The weight of history proved too much for the man.

Today they're cheering in Liberation Square, as the Egyptian military has essentially completed a coup against the previous government. Jubilent youth are celebrating their freedom. But no one knows what is next for Egypt. The old boss is gone. Things are different, and for now that's enough.

But only for now.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Splendor of Cities

David Brooks recommends Edward Glaeser's new book, Triumph of the City. A pertinent quote: "Far from withering in the age of instant global information flows, cities have only become more important." Why? Because cities produce synergy: "When you clump together different sorts of skilled people and force them to rub against one another, they create friction and instability, which leads to tension and creativity, which leads to small business growth."

Read the article: The Splendor of Cities

Monday, February 7, 2011

Brother, can you paradigm?

Recently I was asked to share a brief summary of my research paradigm. For what it's worth, here's what I drafted:

The study of public life – especially that domain of structures, texts, and performances where ideas and ideals become naturalized and contested: that’s where I like to work. My original training is journalism, and the writers who inspire me are essayists. Consequently I get a bit heavy-lidded when conversations grind around paradigmatic, theoretical, and/or methodological considerations. Naturally one must be able to articulate a position within some recognizable framework of ideas, lest puffery trump precision. Yet the ends must stretch a bit further than the means for academic work to be relevant. For that reason, I get itchy at the sight of lengthy literature reviews and threadbare analyses. My passions lead me to topics and authors who seek first to say something worthwhile and then to find (or build) the necessary structural support to connect specific ideas to specific audiences. Scholar-as-explorer, not scholar-as-pedant, summarizes my approach to academic life.

The nature of this exploration, of course, does not demand that you wade through distant jungles to do meaningful work. An adventurous writer can forge exciting intellectual journeys even from relics that gather dust nearby. Carolyn Marvin’s book, When Old Technologies Were New, and Paul Fotsch’s article, “The building of a superhighway future,” spring immediately to mind. I’m also a fan of Greg Dickinson’s work, especially his QJS piece, “Memories for sale: Nostalgia and the construction of identity in Old Pasadena,” which first alerted me to our field’s spatial turn. These exemplars inspired my tentative tiptoeing into a larger world than the one sometimes envisioned in our journals.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Classroom Phone-a-Friend

What happens when an instructor calls on a student to answer a question in class and receives nothing but a blank stare - or worse, a look of panic? I've experienced that tension more than once in my years at SJSU, and I've found that gamification can help transform those moments into opportunities.

No doubt, gamification may sound like nothing more than yet another buzzword churning its way through some academic circles. Nonetheless I'm exploring ways to implement this idea into my teaching, especially in moments of anxiety. One technique: Phone-a-Friend.

The idea's pretty simple. When I call on a student to answer an impromptu question, I allow some time for percolation and try to offer supportive nonverbals. A little tension in this moment is OK, but I'm not trying to freak folks out. If the student tries to pass with a limp "I don't know," I stay with her/him, encouraging a bit more time and reflection on the question. If, however, the student starts to sweat I sometimes offer an alternative: "Would you like to phone a friend?"

The phrase, as you know, comes from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. The reference is no longer contemporary, but the phrase has nonetheless sunk into the broader culture. Most folks know what it means. Still, I found it useful to offer some clarification the first time. "You can ask anyone in this class for the answer," I say, "Then you can confirm whether you agree or disagree."

The first time I do "Phone-a-Friend," students invariably ask their most proximate neighbors. They're a little unsure of the game and want to get it over with. But they catch on before long, and eventually they start to use the technique more strategically. "Why ask this person, when I can ask that one across the room?" Their choices reflect many different motivations. Yet the result is generally a richer sense of community. Best of all, students discover more value in paying attention; questions could come from anyone.

Phone-a-Friend is initially about stress-reduction. When feeling "called out," students can transform anxiety into power. They can call on someone else, practicing a dual role of student and instructor. Ultimately, though, Phone-a-Friend is about adding a bit of playfulness to classroom learning. From this perspective gamification leverages a recognizable and pleasurable process to encourage attitudes and behaviors that may be otherwise difficult to habitualize. From my admittedly anecdotal experience, Phone-a-Friend represents one way in which gamification can produce meaningful results.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Thinking About Theory

Anticipating a COMM 101 conversation about communication theory, I'm playing around with a graphical display to help illustrate how theories work in a most introductory way.

Theory, as I will elaborate in class, may be likened to a lens upon the world that places some phenomena in sharp relief while obscuring others. I'll admit that Em Griffin (author of the textbook I assigned for the class) prefers another analogy, fearing that the notion of theory-as-lens diminishes communication research into a kind of determinism: "I use this lens, I see this thing. No need for actual interpretation."

It's a fair critique.

Yet I hold that theory-as-lens is useful for students first struggling to make sense of just what they're supposed to do in class: apply theories (and their respective methods) to specific artifacts of communication and see things they may not otherwise see.

Eventually students learn - we all do - that the theory is not the point, just as the map is not the territory. We don't want theories to merely confirm what we already assume to be true. We want theories to awaken us to things that would otherwise be obscured by the noise of data overload. At the same time, though, I want students to understand that theories are choices to see the world in a certain way. That alone is worth a moment's reflection.

So we begin with some low-end kinetic typography, which involves exporting a Keynote show (employing the "magic move" slide transition) into a Quicktime video - and subsequently uploading the thing to YouTube. With this technique I attempt to demonstrate how a researcher might first see some phenomenon of communication: an assemblage of texts (words, sounds, images, whatever) without any particular meaning. The texts might be randomly assembled or logically ordered (and, yes, that assemblage is a kind of meaning). But they do not apparently mean anything special.

This example demonstrates a test-theory of the most basic sort: "If I smile, people will smile back. If I frown, people will frown in return." My theory's method calls for me to scrutinize the eyes and the mouth of a person with whom I'm interacting. Doing so, I am inclined to ignore seemingly irrelevant variables, stuff like skin color or whether my subject ate garlic for lunch. As I smile, I focus only on the pertinent variables; the others shrink. And what do I see? A smile! Same result with a frown.

One final element of this example calls for us to consider how theories can alter what we see, not just highlighting certain phenomena but altering them to accommodate our expectations. Thus in the second half of the video, the texts that comprise my observation actually shift their positions to reveal an even more obvious pattern.

With this example I hope to introduce a basic perspective on theory as powerful but also potentially dangerous. Used correctly, theories highlight what we might miss in the buzz of everyday conversation. Abused, theories can alter the texts we read so drastically that we might as well not bother looking in the first place.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Mac as Modernism

Clever contrarian article about the retro origins of Mac's supposedly contemporary design. Tasty quote:
It is easy to imagine a ThinkPad or a Dell on the assembly line, in a clanking factory that stinks of solder: You can see their every join and part; you can almost smell the plastic they’re made from. Their attempts at decoration only make the industrial coverup more apparent, like reeds planted near a tailings pond. Whereas the water-carved clamshell of my beautiful Air just seems to have arisen from the waves, immaculate and virtuous, without a whiff of brimstone or fuel oil.

One other reading of what the Air represents: It may not be about the apotheosis of modernist design so much as its approaching disappearance.
Read the article: Why Mac's Modernism Is Old