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April 25, 2004

Everything I need to know I learn from TV

There is no one--dead, alive, or as of yet unimagined--that does not have something to do with Rimbaldi.

I'm sure that people with their fingers on the pulse of pop culture already know this, but it's become increasingly clear that David Kelley's next lawyer series will star James Spader. The Practice ended tonight in classic Ally McBeal fashion, and far too much script is being devoted to characters that otherwise would only last two more weeks, for this not to be the case. And the edges on Spader's character are being sanded down very quickly.

Again, I'm sure there are many who know more than I about this, but I spent some time this weekend with Food Network's new Iron Chef America, and I wonder they'll actually go serial with it. Plusses? No William Shatner, no Las Vegas, and a commentator (Alton Brown) who seems genuinely interested in commentating rather than trying to be as kitschy as the voiceovers for the original. Fox's short-lived version was almost unwatchable. Minuses: I've only seen the first two of four so far (I'll catch the encores this week), and in each, I was able to identify ingredients (daikon radish, benito broth) before the commentators. For those of us who watch the original, these are not "mysterious Asian" ingredients--they're staples of Kitchen Stadium. I hope that they treat this not as a one-off special event (also a drawback of the FOX series), but as a regular series, one that introduces people to some of the "culinary diversity" of the country.

Also, I understand why it's important for them to have the American chefs win, but I get the impression that Sakai and Morimoto already know that this is the case. I would have thought, after years in this country, that Morimoto at least would have come a little closer to winning over American palates than he did. Doing it as a series, inviting the judges to actually be critical on occasion, inviting chefs who aren't already celebrities, getting rid of the stupid 5-dish rule, and using ingredients that aren't "special!!!" would go a long way towards making the shows seem a little more authentic. And it would give Food Network (not to mention US chefs) a way to tap into a pretty loyal audience. It's cool to watch "battles of the masters," but it's cool in a different way to be able to make a reservation at a restaurant bc you've seen the chef in action.

Update: Dana Stevens has a review that is good in places, but perhaps a little obvious in others:

I can't weigh in on what made Iron Chef so popular in Japan, but its success as an American import has everything to do with language and with the mysterious gulf that separates one culture from another. Sadly, everything that was charming, exciting, and moving about the original show has been, quite literally, lost in translation.

I guess that last bit was too good to pass up on. But I suppose I'd disagree that its only success was on account of that "mysterious gulf." Part of the success has to do with taking an everyday activity and making it larger than life--for me, that's the universal appeal of the show. Sure, the Japanity of it is cool, too, but I'm also interested in the food. I'm fascinated by the idea of extemporized menus, different styles and approaches, and having a chance to actually watch them work. Most cooking shows are talk show formatted, and I find them as claustrophobic as Stevens does. At the same time, I think that there is some appeal to the show that might be translatable--I'll never have a chance to visit the restaurants I see on Iron Chef, but if Food Network really threw genuine effort behind ICA, it'd be a boon for the chefs who work a level or two below people like Flay and Puck.

To date, though, both attempts at Americanizing IC have reminded me of the first fight in Rocky IV, the one with Apollo Creed dancing with James Brown. It seems really Vegas to me, and that's not what made IC work. Odd ingredients (milk?!), theme shows (V-Day dessert battles), and opponents who really seemed to be invested in competing (think Kandagawa, e.g., or some of the competitors who were trying to rebuild their careers as chefs) make the show more than just an Event. I'm not quite cynical enough to believe that it was all sham--and until there's a version of ICA that seems genuine, I don't think it'll even come close to the original. But I'm still hoping...

June 8, 2004

Truth in advertising?

Caught this over at Anne Galloway's site, and I'm not really sure what to think. Seems that Penguin UK has, for better or worse, joined the rest of us in the 21st century in terms of their ad campaigns. I'm not saying that's a good thing, btw. So you visit their site, and are greeted with the following claim: Good Looking Women Want Good Booking Men.

Umm...yeah. After I stopped laughing, I started looking around through the site. I even started taking their online quiz to "find out how Good Booking you currently are." I did make it all the way to page 3, but I couldn't get past the first question thereon:

See how many bona fide authors you can pick out of this lot:

  • Alan Cumming
  • Hugh Jarse
  • Dave Eggers
  • Phil McCraichin
  • Jack Orff
  • Daisy Chaine
  • Martin Wank

Yeah, that should give you some clue as to the overall tenor of this particular marketing campaign. If I were Dave Eggers, I'd sure be thrilled to find my name in that list. Anyhow, apparently Penguin's hired a model who will bop around from bookstore to bookstore, giving out 1000 pounds a month to someone who's reading the Book of the Month. Oh, wait. Did I say "reading"?

What women really want is a man with a Penguin. You may not even need to read it, just bend the covers, let it stick out of your pocket and the book will do the talking!

I'm not even going to try and crack wise about "a man with a Penguin." I'll leave that to your imagination. To my own imagination, I'll leave the question of who in their right mind at Penguin thought they could drum up sales by giving their corporate image over to the shallow slackwits in charge of the corporate brand for FHM, Maxim, Stuff, or whatever the hell softcore porn rag "men's magazine" they're obviously emulating.

Did I mention that page 2 of the quiz involves matching book to bosom?

Yikes.

August 14, 2004

Competition at its finest

I didn't watch the whole thing by any means, but for a while tonight, I put the Olympic opening ceremonies on in the background while I worked. It's hard for me to feel too jazzed about the Games--the coverage we have here is extremely partisan and talk-heavy. At some point, even though they're the same people who talk about the purity of competition, the TV wonks decided that the only appealing competitions are those where Americans win. And how bizarre it was to hear announcements that this partisanship is now extended to corporate sponsors, as though Coke and McD's need "protection." Maybe this can all be traced back to the Dream Team, when they wore flags to cover up their Reebok logos as they stood on the medal platform. That kind of cynicism only seems to get deeper.

Anyhow, I watched pieces of the opening ceremony, which to my mind has become only slightly less annoying than listening to songs whose lyrics have been written specifically for movies. Those are the worst. But listening to Bob Costas and Katie Couric explain the painfully obvious symbolism of the choregoraphy ("This is cube man, and he symbolizes humanity's evolution as a logical being." "The runner stumbles and falls to the ground here to symbolize World War I.") helped it climb the charts. Add to that the woeful, MST-wannabe observations--of Alexander the Great, who was apparently at one time an average Olympic sprinter, Costas remarked, "In atheletics, at least, he was only Alexander the So-So." Yuk yuk.--and I'm glad that I didn't watch more than I did. I like Costas quite a bit, but listening to him annotate the whole thing, and from a script that others probably wrote for him, was enough to send me looking for infomercials.

August 19, 2004

The NYT Style Guide for New Technologies

Title: X is the new Y

I. Opening anecdote (2-3 pars.)

II. Definition (2-3 pars.)
A. Oversimplification
B. Overgeneralization

III. Examples (3 sets of 2 pars. each)
A. Narrow claim (1 sent./par.)
B. Anecdotal support/quote (1-2 sent.)
C. Repeat

IV. Reservations (4-5 pars.)
A. X may encourage looseness (of prose, morals, etc.) according to "critics"
B. Anecdotal rebuttal, usually indirect
C. Repeat if necessary

V. Conclusion (1 sent., normally platitudinal)


Think I'm joking? Try this NYT article on "web blogs." And no, that's not my typo--their headline reads "Web Blogs." I swear, there are times where I feel like I'm reading the same article over and over from them.

Will both appears in the article and discusses it over at Weblogg-Ed. He's dead on, but my favorite part of the article, I think, had to be the "educational consultant" who implies that teachers see blogs as a way of making their own lives easier. Heaven forbid that it might have anything to do with sound writing pedagogy.

January 7, 2005

Flavor is the new taste

If, like me, you watched more than your fair share of football over the holiday season, perhaps (again like me) you encountered the sports fan's version of the old Chinese "man-butterfly" dilemma. To wit, am I watching football with beer commercials, or beer with football commercials? No matter how much you cling to the worldly illusion of the former, those beer commercials sink in a little.

And so, one of the things I've noticed lately is how beer companies are no longer content to exaggerate the "taste" of their product. Now, they are skirting the issue of bad taste by speaking instead of the amount of flavor, as if there's a certain amount of flavor that's significant. First time I saw this was from Miller Lite during their really stooopid "Election 2004" campaign. In one of the ads, reporting on the results of a national taste test, they beam with pride over the fact that a majority of tasters found that Miller "had more flavor" than Budweiser. Not that the majority of tasters preferred the flavor (as you learn in the small print to the ad), but that Miller has more. At least one more company has followed suit in their ads, and recently, I saw that KFC has taken up the "more flavor" banner.

Umm, ok. I'm just going to say this once: motor oil has more flavor than water (I think), but that doesn't mean that I'm going to go out and start ordering pints of it at my favorite bar.

Somewhere out there, there's an ad executive who's feeling all smug and self-important, believing that this strategy is cleverness incarnate. Don't. It's dumb, and more than a little pathetic.

That is all.

January 20, 2005

An Entry Conferring "Most Favored Televisual Entertainment" Status on the ABC Wednesday Night Lineup

Well, not quite all of it. Needless to say, given my hostility to "reality" programming, I can't get behind WifeSwap or SpouseSwitch or FamilyFlip or whatever the hell that crap is called.

But in the interest of continuing my series of Directorial Decrees, and in response to a reader request (!!), I present to you the first recipient of "Most Favored Entertainment" status, the 120 or so minutes on Wednesday night where we are treated to the work of J. J. Abrams. I'm speaking, of course, of the shows Lost and Alias, the back-to-back anchors of my weekly entertainment cycle.

I'm coming quickly to the conclusion that it's largely pointless for me to conceal my own "aging fanboy" status, so I will warn you right now that this post reflects this status without apology. Years and years of fantasy and science fiction leaves a body with particular tastes when it comes to entertainment, and I recognize that those tastes aren't universal, that not everyone will share my preferences. So this is not a post about "why Lost & Alias are great" but rather "why I like them." Caveat lector, and all that.

Damn if I'm not a dork.

So anyhow, one of the core elements that draws me to both shows is a particular style of storytelling that Abrams has been honing to good effect for the last few years, and it's a style that these shows have in common with a lot of epic book series and tv series (and if you have trouble thinking of X-Files or Star Trek as epic, well, umm, don't read further?). For ease of analog, think the original Star Wars, and how provincial and nerdy Luke Skywalker is. Or think the character of Dr. Watson, whose understanding unfolds on our behalf in Sherlock Holmes stories. A good epic series begins with characters with whom the audience can identify. But there's always a disjunct between the character's horizon and the place she or he will ultimately occupy. Luke starts out on Tatooine and ends up defeating the Empire. The process of unfolding that character's horizon until it begins to reach an epic scale is the way that epics work best for me (and for most people, I suspect). When I reviewed the movie treatment of LeGuin's Earthsea a while back, for example, one of the biggest failings of that version was that it basically ignored the unfolding that LeGuin allows for in the books themselves.

So, unfolding. In Lost, a bunch of people get on a plane and crash on an island. There's an immediate goal--how we will get home?--but Abrams's island is far more than it seems at first, which provides the outer horizon of understanding, and a goal that's becoming more and more pressing as Said gets captured by a mystery Frenchwoman (in next week's repeat), as Clare gets kidnapped, and as various suggestions of the supernatural (Walt's strangeness, Locke's miracle recovery, Jack's hallucinations) manifest. One of the ways that Abrams draws that outer horizon out, though, is by giving us flashbacks for various characters each week, helping us to identify with them as individual characters. To my mind, one of the really genius moves of Lost is this strategy for dealing with a 40+ person ensemble cast. The series starts at an intermediate point, and moves both backwards and forwards to create that inner/outer horizon dynamic.

Alias worked a little more traditionally in the sense that Sydney Bristow is our "in," as the opening sequence now goes to great length to remind us. She begins as a part-time grad student, full-time spy for a covert branch of the CIA. Except that she finds out it's not the CIA, but a terrorist organization instead, and so she goes double agent. There's way too much more to capture here, but I'll note that the first three seasons of Alias uses plot tricks galore, pushing that outer horizon outwards, just as we think we understand it all, discovering new family members, Renaissance prophecies, genetically manipulated dopplegangers, competing organizations, etc.

I think that the Abrams crew recognized a couple of dangers in the show. First, it was awfully tough, I think, for the series to attract new viewers. It's not as complex as some people make it out to be, but then, I've been watching since the get-go, and for someone hopping in during Seasons 2 or 3, it was bound to be a little difficult. And the second problem was that the show was in danger of becoming a self-parody. They'd slowly killed and doubled one of Syd's best friends, put another in witness protection, married off her love interest (in the "2 years later..." cliffhanger of Season 2). In the terms I used above, they'd slowly removed Sydney's inner horizon, the life with which the audience actually could identify, and so when Syd flirts with the idea of leaving the spy game for good, it ends up sounding disingenuous--during Season 3, it was pretty tough to imagine exactly what life she'd be leaving for.

So, Season 4. Alias has undergone something of a plot reset. Some of last season's cliffhangers are dumped, almost apologetically. Syd's recently discovered half-sister Nadia is tortured by her father (Arvin Sloane), and yet chooses to join him at the end of the 3rd season. The darkness of that choice has pretty much been abandoned in favor of a much less developed character, one that seems a little at odds with the character as it was conceived last season. They've kept the main characters together, dumped some of the marginal ones, and taken them out of the institutional context of the CIA (they're now a black ops team).

For me, the problem of the new season is that outer horizon. The only ongoing tension is the fact that Nadia remains unaware of Jack Bristow's role in the death of her (and Sydney's) mother. But "I've got a secret" is an inner horizon issue. And after 3 episodes, there's no outer horizon, no real reason for what they're doing, no ongoing villains, no context to place the characters in.

To be fair, I thought tonight's episode was the best of the new season. It felt like they finally committed to treating Vaughn as a character, and they did it in an interesting way, allowing his attempt to turn a former IRA agent turn into self-therapy. And the closing scene, where he falls asleep while Sydney tries to connect with him, led me to think that Vaughn may actually (finally!) grow into a character that's more than just "Sydney's boyfriend." That's a good thing.

And I hope that, after a few freestanders to bring in new viewers, we'll start to develop the kinds of ongoing stories that reward loyal viewing, and make a series more than an interchangeable set of shiny objects. Right now, the potential tension between Nadia and Jack just doesn't do it for me. I simply can't reconcile Nadia crying over a picture of her mother with the potentially dark, kick-ass, wild card character she was at the end of last season. It's certainly not beyond the Abrams crew to simply have her be part of the gang for a couple of months, and then turn out to be someone completely different and unpredictable later on--in fact, that'd be par for this course. But she's got to acquire some inner horizon and characterization of her own or be part of an outer horizon. The character hasn't earned a pass, as far as I'm concerned.

So, I'm guardedly optimistic about Alias. And I'm pretty high on Lost, which strikes me as a show that demonstrates Abrams's ability to learn the lessons provided by three seasons of Alias. Lost has an awful lot of polish for a new show, and it does things that no one else on the networks is even trying. For a while, I'll be watching Lost and staying tuned, but hopefully by mid-season, they'll both be can't-miss.

Labor-saver

Oh. My. God. It's been years and years since I read Mark Trail. Heck, it's been years since I carried on a conversation involving deeply sardonic praise of the faux profundity of Family Circus. And yet, just when I thought the web couldn't give me any more of what I didn't even realize I needed, I found a link (hat tip to Johndan) to joshreads.com. Josh reads these comics so I don't have to.

Or rather, he reads the comics so that I myself want to. It's early, but I'm thinking that Josh will join Merlin's 5ives, the Onion, and Homestar in my personal Hall of Funny. Good stuff.

And yes, I almost titled this post "A Post about Collin Brooke, the author of Collin vs. Blog"

January 23, 2005

Must G33k TV

I've gushed in this space before about Monk, where I described it as the best television show not appearing on HBO. And while I think Lost may be giving it a run for that title, I'm not ready to do the soul-searching necessary to offer up such a decree. The new season began on Friday, and again, if you're not watching the show, you should start. While it's not quite as dramatic as Alias's remake, Bitty Schram left the show (over a contract dispute, I think), and they recruited Traylor Howard, whose career has mostly been being the "Girl" in Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place. Her role there was largely cute and perky, I think. Much less so on Monk, I suspect.

And the result was basically a transition episode, introducing us to her, and giving us backstory to explain Sharona's absence. Not bad, but not brilliant.

And only part of my point in posting. By the end of the Patriots-Steelers game tonight, I was anxiously waiting for the new CBS show Numb3rs, which features, among others, a pretty solid geek ensemble:

  • Rob Morrow, formerly of Northern Exposure
  • Sabrina Lloyd, formerly of Sports Night
  • Judd Hirsch, formerly of everything and then some
  • Peter MacNicol, formerly of Ally McBeal
  • David Krumholtz, formerly of...umm...er...The Santa Clause

Morrow's an FBI agent, while Krumholtz is his brother and a math professor who apparently harnesses serious mathematics to assist him in his cases. I say apparently bc I don't really have the math to know. The show seems pretty interesting, although I'm hard pressed to say how they'll manage to come up with solid plots over the long term. But Ridley Scott is one of the execs, and it was pretty stylish. They did a lot of flashy math interludes, modeled (I suspect) after the CSI stuff, where formulae get superimposed on phenomena, with lots of arrows and notations.

While I don't really know the math well enough to comment, I can mention that tonight's episode featured some insights that I've come to associate with network studies--the human tendency to seek underlying patterns, even when resisting them on the surface, for instance. I got the impression from the trailers that Krumholtz would be a lot less socially adept than he proved to be in this episode, which was something of a relief, bc they didn't go for cheap stereotypes in that regard. He is a little bit of a Beautiful Mind type, and I'm sure that this was another influence on the visual style of the show.

All in all, I'd call it intriguing, and worth another look. Except, of course, that CBS has scheduled it for 10 pm on Fridays, which is the same &*#$@!ing time as Monk. Of course. All of the props scheduled for CBS, for airing a show with smart people as the protagonists, have been cancelled for airing it at a time designed to remind smart people in the audience that their social lives are such that they're actually home to watch it. Not nice.

Oh, and every single reference to the show I've seen (including the URL for the show's page at CBS) keeps the 3. Woot.

That is all.

January 24, 2005

Creepy is the new Cool

The Starburst commercial begins in the hallway of a high school, with a slightly geeky guy standing there, as several girls get out of class and walk into the hallway. The boy calls out to Cheryl, who turns, and he tells her that he's got to show her something. They walk into what's clearly an art studio, and he walks her over to something that's covered with a cloth.

He takes off the cloth, and it's the bust of a female head, built entirely out of Starburst. "Cheryl, it's you," the guy explains. "I used lemon for your hair, because your hair's fresh and yellow. And I used cherry for your lips, because your lips are so juicy."

And as Cheryl stares at him in what I can only imagine is an emotion roughly parallel to my own as I watch this, he starts making out with this weird Starburst Chia Head. And as this happens, we hear Lionel Richie's "Hello" playing in the background. Umm. I was young enough when this song came out that I completed missed its psychotic, stalker overtones. Yeah. No longer. This particular combination of commercial and song may very well haunt my dreams tonight.

"Is it me you're looking for?"

Not so much.

February 11, 2005

Apparently Stacy's Mom's daughter has also got it going on...

You may recall that last month I posted a mildly disapproving entry about the new Dr. Pepper commercial. Not being content to just let their creepy commercial rest on its own demerits, the good folks at Dr. Pepper, purveyors of the taste of originality, have decided to enter the spam business as well. To wit, my new friend "Stacy" has contributed her own insight:

I absolutely love this commercial! How funny to do a take-off on the video. You think the boys are looking at the Soccer Mom but are really more interested in the Dr. Pepper. It's finally great to see a well done commercial! I'm off to buy some Dr. Pepper!

Ah yes! I absolutely love this comment! How funny to explain this commercial to us as though we were absolute morons! It's finally great (?!) to see a well done comment!

And yes, "Stacy," I'm stunned by the originality of your fake name, and overwhelmed when I think of just how much Dr. Pepper you'll be able to buy with the checks you're getting from Dr. Pepper! Just think! All you have to do is spam a bunch of blogs with fake comments, and they'll give you money! What a great scheme! All the boys are looking at your comments but will really be more interested in the Dr. Pepper! How clever!

Let me just say that I will be drinking my own urine before I buy Dr. Pepper. Commercials fade from my memory, but crappy, exclamation point ridden spam has just earned Dr. Pepper permanent Nemesis status.

That is all.

Update: Apparently, it's not all. "Stacy" has a friend named "gary," who shares her high opinion of Dr. Pepper:

Wow you guys need to lighten up, the commercial is a spoof intended to be funny. I loved the Stacy's Mom spot and the I Can Do Anything For Love spot as well. I hope they keep playing them, I love to hear the music and the ad makes me laugh. You rock DR Pepper and Stacy's Mom.

Wow, "gary," you're right. Thanks for reminding me of the other commercial--its relevance to the original post is so undeniable that I almost swallowed my tongue. You rock, "gary," you rock. I hope you keep trying to spam that entry, I love to read your fake names and your thinly veiled advertising pander (this time masked with really bad grammar) makes me laugh.

Comments.....off. Go spam somebody else. That is all.

February 23, 2005

Jump the Sark

I knew that Jen would be happy, what with the returns of Julian Sark and Anna Espinoza to the roster on Alias tonight. I was pretty pleased, too, but I do have a thought or two.

First, it's pretty clear that the whole Rimbaldi arc is about to fade. For the first couple of seasons, Rimbaldi was an eerily prescient prophet and genius-level inventor, who'd provided the juice for all sorts of wacky quests and subplots. Tonight, they made a big point of treating Rimbaldi as someone that certain "zealots" believe in, and now, apparently, it's all about how the zealots (like Espinoza) will do all in their nefarious powers to make R's visions come true. The agency has shifted from the prophecies to the people who foolishly believe in them. Unless they end up tying this to Sloane somehow, my guess is that this belief is not long for the new-look Alias.

And that's too bad. Because right now, there's no kryptonite on the show. No one can really die--although that's not stopping them from the old gunshot coma, clearly--and so they're going to run into the Superman problem, or perhaps more appropriately, the Superfriends problem. As long as the Superfriends are taking on individual villains, they're pretty much unstoppable. But when you've got a Legion of Doom to match them up with, then there's actually the possibility of loss, and that makes it interesting. SD-6, Covenant, whatever--there's got to be an LOD pretty soon, or they're going to run out of plot.

The common theme here, and the thing that Lost is still doing well, is that there's no larger puzzle that the Alias crew has to figure out. And that role has been played both by LOD-style organizations and by Rimbaldi in seasons past. So while I'm happy to see Sark and Espinoza back, I'm still waiting for the return of the arcs that made me a die-hard fan. And pretty soon, I'm going to start getting impatient.

That is all.

March 7, 2005

Stop me if you've heard this one before

Technically, I suppose, that means that you should have stopped reading with the title. I wasn't watching 24 that closely tonight, but much to my dismay, I did get a chance to see a promo for a new comedy erring airing on FOX in April.

And it sounds like the kind of utter dross that you'd hear at 2 am coming out of the mouths of a couple of drunk guys in a bar. Hey! You know what would be a cool show? We could do a comedy starring Pamela Anderson, and it'd be called "Stacked," cuz it'd take place in a bookstore! Get it? Stacks of books? Get it? That'd be soooooo cool!

Umm, yeah. Not so much. Honestly, is that all you got? And advertising it during 24? How bout you keep that weak shit to yourself?

That is all.

March 31, 2005

Mix-a-lot

For slightly longer than I've been keeping this blog, I've engaged in another time-honored tradition, the mix tape. Partly this has been inspired by iTunes--when I buy a new CD, or download some music, if I like a particular song, I'll go ahead and throw it into a date-based playlist, which has left me with playlists for the last three years. And then, usually in Feb or March, I'll winnow the list down so that I can fit it on a CD, and burn a copy or three--one for the car, a couple for friends, etc.

I'm not especially intense about cut-off dates--my primary rule of thumb is that I acquire the music during the year in question, even if I don't end up discovering it until a little later. But even that gets bent a bit: I got Transatlanticism for my birthday last year, but didn't really listen to it until 2004, which is why a couple of songs landed here. The songs don't always all fit together into any category other than the most important one: I like em.

I've been putting off my 2004 CD for no real reason, and so I thought it might be the kind of project to drive away some of the doldrums. We'll see if it works. In the meantime, though, here's my playlist and what you'll hear if I give you a ride anywhere for the next few months:

my 2004 playlist

I always feel somewhat compelled to apologize for my music tastes, so I'll resist that here. I suppose it comes from having friends who know TONS more about music than I do, and from the fact that, at one point in my life, I would have described myself as someone who knew much more than I do now. Mostly now I just read Pitchfork and rely on the listening stations.

That is all.

April 13, 2005

A. Sloane

That's A as in Another. Or Arthur, or Alvin, or Andy. Doesn't matter. If tonight's episode was any indication, the producers of Alias have finally returned to form, and added an honest-to-goodness, LOD-style, criminal mastermind into the works. And true to their roots, it's a heretofore unknown member of the family.

Rock. And. Roll.

In other news, I was interviewed today by Jeff Young (I think--I forgot to jot his name down) for the Chronicle. We had a nice conversation which began from the changing circumstances of university presidents, many of whom try to respond to all mail and email they receive. As you might imagine, with IM plagiarists, Ward Churchill, etc., they're getting a lot more correspondence these days, and it's exacerbated by the fact that most of them are accessible now via a simple web search and an email message. Events that at one time would have been covered by the campus newspaper and precious little else can now cascade into national news in a matter of hours. As slow as we've been to take up blogging in the academy, there are plenty of people out there blogging campus speakers, leveraging extra or intra-campus networks, etc., all of which makes it a lot more difficult to keep track of (or keep a lid on) what's happening on a given campus.

This kind of transparency cuts both ways. On the one hand, we might argue that it forces universities, from the president or chancellor on down, to be more responsible to the people (be they parents or legislatures) who are helping to fund them. On the other, though, as these presidents with an "open inbox" policy are quickly learning, it can be crippling. We're reading some introductory essays about SNA (social network analysis) in my course this week, and something that Valdis Krebs has to say is directly relevant:

The secret to network benefits is in the pattern of direct and indirect connections surrounding a node. It is the pattern of relationships, that a node is embedded in, that either constrains or enhances the ability to get things done in the organization. The goal is to obtain wide network reach without having too many direct ties. It is the indirect ties that provide network benefits. Research has shown that both individuals and groups who are central in organizational networks, yet are not overwhelmed by direct ties, are very effective in getting things done.

The benefit of being at the top of a hierarchy is that the entire organization exists in part to solve problems and handle things before they ever cross your desk. The drawback of making that hierarchy transparent is that everyone outside that hierarchy starts at the top when it comes time to (a) blame and/or (b) flame. It's far easier to simply start at the top than to try and figure out how far down you have to go to find the person or persons responsible for whatever it is one disapproves of. And every one of those emails, from the hundreds of people who criticize you for uninviting a controversial speaker to the hundreds from the other side who criticize you for not doing sooner, is a direct tie. And even if you have 2 boilerplate statements, one for each side, and you just skim to figure out which one to use, responding to each of those direct ties can be utterly paralyzing.

Combine this with the shortcuts and connections that are multiplying--thanks in part to blogs but also in part to telecomm more broadly--and the next move, one you can already see in some places, will be to talk about management rather than growth. Smarter cats than I are already talking about the Dunbar Number as a ceiling to the size of effective social groups. Seems a small leap to me to suggest that there are analogous Dunbar numbers for direct ties, where ties include people, emails, projects, etc., and that this idea will be used to justify a return to some degree of opacity in the upper echelons.

If I'm lucky, then some of what I said today on the phone approached this level of coherence. And if any of it was quotable, then you'll be seeing my name next week (ideally, attached to something that doesn't sound too utterly dopey) in a Chronicle near you.

That is all.

July 4, 2005

Independence month

I'll probably venture forth with one or two additional carnival posts, but today, as I reflected on the notion of independence, I realized that it's been almost a week and a half since I watched television of any sort. Having had to move to a temporary space, I decided not to bother switching either my phone line or my digital cable. Partly, I'm being cheap in the sense that I'd almost certainly have to pay my providers both to switch it and to switch it back. Also, since I'm going to be attending the Penn State Conference next week, and ranging westward from there, there didn't seem to be much point in (a) paying, and (b) paying for what would ultimately have been a fairly short period of time.

The result is an oddly quiet, pre-digital cocoon that I'm inhabiting just now. Of course, I come into the office to blog, email, etc., but I do a lot more reading in my homespace than I'm accustomed to doing normally. Oh, and I finally succumbed to the siren song of Netflix. I'm through the first two seasons of West Wing, and will probably embark on the third before I leave next weekend. Teaching assignments over the years have interfered with my ability to watch faithfully, and so it's interesting to see episodes that I hadn't before (or had forgotten) and to see them in order.

I know. How boring am I this weekend? Well, that's what you get for interfering with the slow, grinding process that is the composition of the presentation I'll be delivering in roughly a week. At 8:30 a.m., much to my future delight.

Anyways. That's all.

August 17, 2005

Devil vs. Deep Blue Sea

I'm trying to decide which recent commercial disturbs me more:

Target's use of "Baby Got Back" for their new back-to-school campaign, or

Lee Iacocca and Snoop Dogg appearing together in the latest Chrysler campaign. For shizzle, Iacizzle?! Oh. My. God.

August 29, 2005

Now Listening

Picked up a copy of the new New Pornographers album Twin Cinema the other day, and it's pretty much on endless repeat on my iTunes right now. I happened across Electric Version a few years back, and went nuts over it, picking up their first album and releases from A.C. Newman, Neko Case, etc. By now, it's gotten to the point where I don't understand how everyone isn't listening to them. EV is one of my favorite albums of the last 5 years, and TC is as good if not better (Pitchfork gave EV an 8.1 and TC a 9.0).

I tend to find one song that hooks me, and then build my impression of the album around it, using the hook to keep me listening to the other songs as well. And right now, I'm grooving on "These are the Fables." It's not "typical" of the whole album, but then, one of the things I like about the NP is that most of the songs aren't typical of the whole. So anyhow, give it a listen if you have the chance...

September 16, 2005

Just so you know...



Not so much with the NYT Select
That is all.

April 21, 2006

The Rhetoric of Rollback

I don't have a great deal to say about this, but lately, I've been somewhat fascinated by the resignation of Scott McClellan. In particular, I'd like to recommend to you Jay Rosen's analysis of McClellan, whom Rosen sees as a crucial figure in what he calls the "Rollback" of media privileges at the current White House. Let me quote at length (although there's plenty more where this came from):

McClellan’s specialty was non-communication; what’s remarkable about him as a choice for press secretary is that he had no special talent for explaining Bush’s policies to the world. In fact, he usually made things less clear by talking about them. We have to assume that this is the way the President wanted it; and if we do assume that it forces us to ask: why use a bad explainer and a rotten communicator as your spokesman before the entire world? Isn’t that just dumb— and bad politics? Wouldn’t it be suicidal in a media-driven age with its 24-hour news cycle?

You would think so, but if the goal is to skate through unquestioned—because the gaps in your explanations are so large to start with—then to refuse to explain is a demonstration of raw presidential power. (As in “never apologize, never explain.?) So this is another reason McClellan was there. Not to be persuasive, but to refute the assumption that there was anyone the White House needed or wanted to persuade— least of all the press!

What's fascinating to me about this is how the WH has (successfully) undermined something that many of us in rhet/comp simply take on faith--the value of effective communication. Of course, one could argue that McClellan was wildly successful and effective in his (non)communication. But there's something deeply cynical about this, and directly at odds with the optimism necessary to teach writing (or speaking, for that matter). We have to believe that the skills and talents necessary to communicate well will ultimately carry their own rewards. Goodness knows, it's difficult enough to teach what is perceived as a contentless course without having that fundamental optimism thrown into question.

And I don't mean to suggest that we should all now experience existential crises because of one demonstrable moron, regardless of how centrally placed McClellan happened to be. The larger pattern includes a lot more people who were hired by the current WH not because they were in any way qualified but because they assented. McClellan's just one of many.

At the same time, though, when I think what a blow this administration has dealt to the idea of reasoned discourse, the idea that we can and should communicate with one another, and that we should make a good faith effort to persuade and to be persuaded--when I think of that blow, it makes me a little sad. I know that, as ideals go, this one is pretty impossible, but it's one of the ideals that underlies our society far more than I think we sometimes realize. As we teach our students to write themselves and the world, we do so with an ethic that is undercut both by the idea that "McClellan was there to make executive power more illegible" and by the fact that no one really ever called the WH on it, not the press, not those of us interested in rhetoric, not the general public.

Anyways. Anyone interested in contemporary rhetoric and particularly political rhetoric should zip over and bookmark Rosen's column.

That is all.

May 19, 2006

Kevin Kelly, "Scan This Book!"

I have to admit that I was all ready to read Kevin Kelly's piece for the NYT Magazine ("Scan This Book!") and to dislike it. I was ready to dismiss it as this decade's version of Robert Coover's "classic," "The End of Books." A number of blogs that I follow have been moderately aflutter in the wake of Kelly's article, which is normally a good sign, but then there's that exclamation point in the title. Never been fond of the exclamation point.

And predictably enough, it's precisely those places that warrant the exclamation point that I have the most trouble with. (for a nice critique of Kelly's hyperbole, along with a comment thread where Kelly himself makes an appearance, try Nicholas Carr.)On balance, though, the article was a good one. So here's the deal (this is Carr's summary):

By scanning, digitizing, and uploading the words printed on the pages of the dusty volumes caged in libraries, he says, we will free those words of their literal and figurative bindings. They will merge, on the web, into a greater whole providing a greater good:
The static world of book knowledge is about to be transformed by the same elevation of relationships [that we find in hyperlinked web sites], as each page in a book discovers other pages and other books. Once text is digital, books seep out of their bindings and weave themselves together. The collective intelligence of a [digital] library allows us to see things we can't see in a single, isolated book ... All the books in the world [will] become a single liquid fabric of interconnected words and ideas.

You will no longer have to read books piecemeal, one by one. Instead, says Kelly, you'll be able to surf from book to book "in the same way we hop through Web links, traveling from footnote to footnote to footnote until you reach the bottom of things."

I think that Kelly underestimates the amount of power and cultural inertia that books, and specifically book publishers, have for us, almost as much as Coover did. Telling for me is the comment from the CEO of HarperCollins, who doesn't "expect this suit to be resolved in my lifetime." I think that the front-end of Kelly's vision will ultimately prove to be a lot more problematic than any of us could possibly imagine.

But for me, that's not the biggest issue, although I can see how it would be for many people. Kelly's essay is less like Coover's and more like Vannevar Bush's As We May Think, now more than 60 years old. In fact, it would be instructive, I imagine, to place the two side-by-side in a course, and, barring references to the technologies of the time, see how closely they resemble one another. Bush's Memex runs on microfilm because that's what he's got technology-wise, but otherwise, there's a similarity in the vision offered by the two articles despite their temporal distance.

One important difference, though, is that Bush is fairly specific about the utility of the Memex--he begins his essay by highlighting a crisis in research that has certainly not abated in the past 60 years:

Professionally our methods of transmitting and reviewing the results of research are generations old and by now are totally inadequate for their purpose. If the aggregate time spent in writing scholarly works and in reading them could be evaluated, the ratio between these amounts of time might well be startling. (Bush)

In other words, the Memex (and by extension here, Kelly's "liquid") is most useful for people who use books in a more extensive and varied sense than mere consumption. This is not to say that consumption is somehow "less than"--goodness knows, I do my fair share of consuming books--but I use books in a different way than most of my non-academic friends. Lots of different ways.

The real magic will come in the second act, as each word in each book is cross-linked, clustered, cited, extracted, indexed, analyzed, annotated, remixed, reassembled and woven deeper into the culture than ever before. In the new world of books, every bit informs another; every page reads all the other pages. (Kelly)

Setting aside the hyperbole of this passage, what I see is a pretty fair description of some of the things that I do when I do research and write scholarship, although I can't speak for how deeply I weave my words into the culture. But my point is that this is a particularly "academic" list of goals for the vision that Kelly offers. His attempts to tie this universal library to other pop phenomena, though, is less persuasive for me:

Just as the music audience now juggles and reorders songs into new albums (or "playlists," as they are called in iTunes), the universal library will encourage the creation of virtual "bookshelves" — a collection of texts, some as short as a paragraph, others as long as entire books, that form a library shelf's worth of specialized information. (Kelly)

Well, sort of. I think Kelly's right to note that this model will work for reference books (e.g., cookbooks, travel guides), because those are pop genres that are specifically built for use in a way that most other books are not. But I'm less convinced that short story anthologies, say, are going to take in the same way that iTunes playlists do, except among more esoteric subcultures. Like academia. Because to have a library shelf's worth of specialized information means, presumably, having to read that shelf's worth of information, whether front-to-back or side-to-skipping-side.

Despite some skepticism in my tone here, though, I like this essay. At the same time, I don't think that the vision offered by Kelly is quite as universal as he imagines, regardless of whether we're able to achieve it. I do, however, fervently believe that this vision will transform academic work (and other fields where research is a core element). I don't think that it's immodest of me to suggest that what we're doing with CCC Online represents baby steps in the directions that Kelly suggests, and so I'm particularly conscious of all the compromises and difficulties that even a single step in this direction entails. Like Steven, I believe that what's most interesting about this article are the hints towards "what kinds of writing and reading practices will emerge as all these books take on new digital lives," but I think that those will take even more time to sort out.

That is all for now.

May 21, 2006

Cutting off your nose to spite your fa(n ba)ce

Yeah, I know base is spelled wrong, but I was a little too pleased with the clever.

I'm not an expert in copyright, even though I think it's of vital importance these days. In part, this is because academic work is characterized time and again as worth less (if not worthless), and since that's the focus of my creative and critical effort, I don't have as much stake in those discussions. My enlightenment in that regard is slow and gradual.

Helping me along, though, are the kinds of shameful displays of police power like the one in Detroit this weeked. In their attempt to show the country that they're just as assholic as the RIAA, who did after all sue a 12-year old for thousands of dollars, the MPAA staged a raid at a comics convention this weekend. And like everyone else, I'm sure, I got a little chuckle out of this line from Sean Frost:

Comic Book Guy from The SimpsonsPeople spoke of a large group of sad fat men in handcuffs and a bus waiting to take them away.

Ugly stereotypes aside, what drives me bananas about this is that gun shows are somehow beyond the abilities of the authorities to regulate, but by God! if you're selling a bootleg copy of the collected Thundarr the Barbarian, you've just bought yourself a one-way ticket to the slammer, fat boy!

Okay, I'm a little calmer now. It's instructive to see how the comments fall on either side of this particular debate. Many of the comments I've seen are sympathetic, but not all. Speaking of Thundarr, our old pal (who used to run with Ookla the Mok, a character who was absolutely, positively, and with complete certainty not a Chewbacca knock-off, although he was directly responsible for my inability to correctly pronounce/spell out UCLA when talking college basketball), one of the writers for that series (among others) has made clear his approval for the crackdown. Although "in a very small way, [he] feel[s] sorry for some of the guys who got busted yesterday," he trots out some legitimate arguments for the crackdown. What he doesn't mention, of course, is that the reason people will go out and buy a DVD of Thundarr (if only!!) or the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon (from 20 yrs ago and scheduled for DVD release later this year, allegedly) is the demand created by bootlegs and comicons. I'm sympathetic to arguments about writers and voice actors (and small presses, studios, producers, et al) and the idea that royalties make a much bigger difference to them, but the desire to create a blanket, black&white policy that will protect the latest Disney blockbuster as well as Thundarr is just misguided in my opinion. And it's the problem that I have with any of the pro-crackdown artists--there's a strange denial of reality in such arguments, both in terms of the privilege of corporate production and distribution, which allows them to jack prices (because as we all know, it costs twice as much to produce a CD as it does a vinyl disc or cassette), for example, and in terms of the different economies of circulation. Is a bootleg copy of Thundarr taking money out of someone's pocket? I doubt it. On the contrary, I suspect that a quality DVD, with some decent extras, is going to be of serious interest to most of the people who buy and sell the bootlegs.

Comicons, fan clubs, and other events like them (inc academic conferences, btw) are Long Tail distribution in action. The people who haunt these events are collectors, which means that they want bootlegs, perhaps, but they'll also want the figures, the official DVD, the posters, the lunchboxes, and every other piece of junk ever associated with the original. You crack down on these people, and basically, you're earning their lifetime enmity--you're pissing off the very people who are likely to form the core of your fan base. I don't know about you, but that just seems dumb to me.

Finally, no, I'm not especially nostalgic for Thundarr. I just remember watching it as a kid, and I vaguely recall that it was the first cartoon I watched that seemed really poorly made. You know how there's a point in your consumer life cycle where you realize that you can tell the difference between something decent and something crappy? I think Thundarr was it for me. And now I've used that name enough that it'll appear in my blogcloud for the next month or so.

That is all.

May 22, 2006

Diss-appointments

For the second year in a row, in our program, I'm supervising our Summer Dissertation Writing Group, a group that meets every other week over the summer to give our dissertators a little more community, a place to bring drafts, and most importantly, some structure for their summer. Speaking as someone who does this almost annually, I know that it's easy to let most of the summer slip by, particularly when there's a big project looming. Gradually, this group is becoming a program event, as I encourage students not yet dissertating to join us as readers, in part to give them some idea of what to expect when it comes to their capstone project.

One byproduct of this is that I spend some time in the early summer every year thinking specifically about dissertations. I almost left this as a comment over there, but Parts-n-Pieces has a post today about reading a disappointing dissertation. To wit,

Yesterday afternoon I read a dissertation-- all 120 pages of it-- and it was crap. Really. Crap. And a few times I was quite horrified by what I was reading. Really. Horrified. Offended, even.

Now, it wouldn't be exactly ethical for me to talk about dissertations, given that I've only been sitting on committees for a few years now. I don't want to say something about them, and have colleagues worried that I'm talking about their work in this way. So let me say a couple of things about my own dissertation, instead.

One thing that I don't think I understood at the time is that the dissertation is to the book much like the seminar paper is to the journal article. In an ideal world, I would have made a living wage as a grad student, and I wouldn't have felt pressured to find a job so quickly (I finished in 3 and a half years), and this pressure wouldn't have transferred in part to my committee. In an ideal world, a dissertation would be approved only when it was at least good. Mine wasn't. It was good enough, and while there are still parts of it that don't embarrass me, they are only parts of it. The only way that external factors don't enter into the process is if the student can afford (economically, psychologically) to take enough time, and if that time is used really well. This was not the case for me, and speaking as someone who's witnessed (up close or at a distance) dozens of these processes, I can say that it's pretty rare. Just as it's pretty rare that you would simply send out a seminar paper for publication (although I've read a few such as a reviewer), I think it's rare to find dissertations that are "book-quality."

In itself, though, this is not a horrible thing. I'm nearing the end of my first manuscript, and honestly, I'm glad that it's taken me as long as it has. I feel as though I'm ready now, almost ten years out from graduate school, to say something book-length to my colleagues. I know for a fact that I was not ready to do so when I was writing my dissertation.

As I've written this book, I have no question, however, about my ability to write a book-length project. I'm not saying that it's been easy, but I don't doubt that I'm capable of doing it. That's no small advantage.

Dissertations also are a great source of practice for the student in terms of working with a group of readers, responding to multiple sets of comments, and even having to negotiate multiple perspectives, each of which is a common feature of the manuscript review process. The important difference, of course, is that your diss committee has a stake in your success and will want to see you succeed, ultimately. I understand that this is not everyone's experience with the process, but I think it common enough that this is the case.

You might have guessed this was coming: the dissertation is also training for the rhythm of the scholarly writing life, which is much different than writing seminar papers (read, read, read, read, purge) or comprehensive exams (an even more extreme version of the event model). I've written before about how graduate faculty aren't perhaps as good about explicitly teaching this different rhythm as we could be, but I am also somewhat embarrassed to admit that, as a student of writing studies who had spent 6-7 years teaching people to write, I was kind of stupid when it came to my own dissertation writing. All of the things that I had taught my students about the writing process? It took me way too long to figure out that those things also applied to my own writing.

And really, none of these things speak to the quality of a given dissertation (or lack thereof). It's tempting, I think, to go into the process thinking that this is your great contribution, and that by now, you've acquired the skills you need to in order to "join the profession." For me, this attitude resulted in a vast overestimation of what I needed to accomplish in my dissertation--the fact of the matter was and is that my dissertation did not "change the discipline," except in very indirect ways (and then only probably once my first book is finished).

In short, I think that the dissertation was an incredibly important stage for me as a scholar, writer, and colleague, but honestly, it wasn't for any of the reasons that I thought it would be at the time. I don't think any of us try to do mediocre work in our dissertations--I know that that wasn't my goal. But I also know that at the time, that dissertation, mediocre as it seems to me now, was what I was capable of at the time. And that's true, I think, for most of us.

When I teach courses on technology, I usually employ a standard that I think of as T+1. That is, regardless of where each student starts, I want them to push themselves to the next stage. I think that this is what the dissertation accomplishes as well; it pushes the student and gets them closer to being able to write a book-length work, B+1. For some rare students, B+1 is enough to get them to the point of being able to send out a manuscript. For most of us, though, it takes longer, B+5 or B+10.

Yeah, that's me hanging out there at around B+29. But that first +1 helped me get started on the journey to 29, and so, as weak as my dissertation was/is, I'm as grateful for that part of my education as I am for anything else about grad school.

That is all. Good luck to all you summer dissertators...

July 25, 2006

Unbounded idiocy

One of the things we like to do in the graduate program here, especially considering how young we are as a program, is to buy program copies of our alumni's dissertations. This would be a substantial project at a program with the history of a Purdue or Texas or Ohio State, but it's not been so bad here. With a minimal budget, though, and at $63 a pop, we have to be strategic. It's not an automatic thing because we can't always afford it.

With a little money left over this year, and having fallen a bit behind in the stocking of our dissertation shelf, last week I placed an order for 6, 4 fairly recent ones and a couple from the days when we had occasional comprhetters earning degrees through English. So I head over to UMI, which I've used before for this very purpose, and like last time, I struggle a bit with their site, which seems to be designed specifically to prevent people from placing orders.

Finally, I punch through, and place the order. Hooray. But not, apparently, processing the following bit of information, sandwiched between the "secure server" and "delivery whenever we get to you" lines:

Dissertations ordered online are available in unbound shrink-wrapped format only.

Oh. Hooray. We got a box today that was full of reams of unbound paper, just the thing for our shelves. It was my screwup, I know, and it pisses me off that it cost us $250, but then I thought to myself: I can rage at myself anytime. Really: What. The. Hell? Why can I send a piece of paper to them to order bound copies, but they can't handle an order placed over the internet? Honestly, would it cost them that freakin much to offer 2 options instead of 1? And what's with defaulting to unbound reams of paper? And charging a price for it that makes Kinko's look like the bargain bin?

From their crappy website to their prehistoric e-commerce to their unchallenged monopoly, I'd rather save up my rage and extend it, wrapped and ribboned, to our friends at UMI, purveyors of the single-worst commercial experience I may have ever experienced. Thanks, UMI, for all your damn help.

Actually, you know, I'm thinking about how much more effective, both in terms of cost and personal satisfaction, it would be to keep ms. copies of our dissertations, and to go with a POD company like Booksurge. Instead of paying $63 dollars per dissertation through them, if we had .pdfs of our dissertations, a 300 page hardcover book would cost us less than $30, and it'd probably be a better product than we get from UMI anyway.

Hmm.

Update: I've never been happier to eat crow. MB called ProQuest today, and I don't know what she told them, but they've offered to send us bound copies, and rather than making us pay for the full price ($63 per), they're only charging us the difference between the bound and unbound price (about $22 per). The site is still far more of a pain to use than it should be, but I can't complain now about the overall service or their willingness to bail me out of my mistake.

July 31, 2006

Hey, I could snoop

I've already forwarded this to a couple of people, but I thought it worth linking more broadly. Timothy Burke has a new entry describing archival work: Historian as Snoop: Experiencing the Archive. It occurred to me that this would be a nice introduction to archival work for either a history course or a methodology course in our own field:

Archives often take you to a juncture like this. You’re rarely without tools that help you decide what to make of a set of documents, but you often still find yourself having to make some basic choices about what happened, what it meant, and whether anyone should care. But even before you get to those choices, there is a kind of secret pleasure that precedes them: a historian in the archives is often a kind of combination of Miss Marple and Mary Worth, a detective, judge and gossip, learning about the complicated art of being human from the traces and fragments of writing that accidentally trail behind individuals and find their way into boxes and files all around the world.

I'm no historian, that's for sure, but then, 5 years ago, I would have laughed at the idea that I might spend some of my time doing empirical/statistical work. And yet, here I am. The older I get, the harder it is for me to dismiss any method--not that I dismissed them per se. But whereas at one time, I would have been interested in applying one framework across many phenomena, now I'm more intrigued by bringing multiple frameworks to bear on the same thing.

Hmm. Writing that out feels right, but it also feels a little more absolute than I intended. Ah well. Go read Tim's piece. That is all.

September 21, 2006

A Tale of Two Telecities

A couple of the more attractive ensemble shows debuted this week, and I made time to catch them. Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and JJ Abrams's Six Degrees both started out pretty well. I'll withhold judgment until I'm a few shows in, but one difference stood out to me.

At the end of 60, NBC explains that if I missed any of tonight's episode, I can go over to the NBC site and catch a "two minute recap." Contrast that with ABC's approach, which also requires me to visit their site, but offers me the entire episode, and for free. Heck, just for kicks, I may go watch the episode again. The two minute recap? I've already seen next week's "two-minute recap"--it's called the tease for the next episode.

NBC already embarrassed themselves by taking on YouTube, so it doesn't surprise me too much that they would demonstrate again their utter unawareness of what the Web might do for them. What's unfortunate is that someone like Sorkin--whose episodes are probably among the least effectively reduced to a 2-minute tease--has to suffer for the network's shortsightedness. They're jumping on the "season arc" bandwagon with some of their shows, but they still don't get that making the first few episodes as available as possible will only pay off in the long run, a long run that the shows themselves require. Ah well.

That's all. I need to blog Scott McCloud's visit, and I'll try and do that tomorrow...

Update: Okay, clearly I need to just take all of this back, and pull my head out. Sorry about that. I was totally wrong. I'm not sure why they would just plug the 2-minute replay instead of the full episode, but both are available on NBC's site, even for the crappy shows.

February 4, 2007

So repugnant even a caveman in a burger suit at the UPS whiteboard would say so

Speaking of commercials, as far too many people are this time of year, I present to you the four most shudderingly foul words I can imagine:

Maple Cheddar Breakfast Sandwich

I'm no fan of bad commercials, goodness knows, but at least most of them are bad commercials on behalf of pleasantly mediocre products. I'll be honest: the very notion of the MCBS makes me want to avoid the business in question. Not that I go there more than once or twice a year, but still. Yuck.

Go Bears!

February 23, 2007

Going out with a whimper

Although I still use them from time to time, as their affordances are useful for a particular context, I don't spend much time anymore on listservs. And today, I unsubbed from my last holdout, a disciplinary listserv ostensibly devoted to my specialty. As with the blog, I go through phases of listserv fatigue, but over the last few years, the fatigue periods seem to grow longer and longer, punctuated more by silence than by activity.

My unsubscription was prompted by a message today which, under the auspices of continuing a discussion from earlier this week, launched into what, as best as I can tell, was a largely unprompted invective against blogging. I won't repeat it here, both because I'm not sure the list is public and because I'm not interested in dignifying it. Long and short, though: blogging, the message suggests, "atomizes, isolates, and individualizes knowledge." A few more sweeping generalizations, and a strange fascination with the idea that blogs are assholes, or like assholes, or bloggers are assholes. I don't know.

And honestly, I don't really care. My experience with blogging is so different--of course, it could matter that I actually maintain a blog--that the message could have been in another language for all the sense that it made to me. I was sitting in Panera today, reading Amanda Anderson's The Way We Argue Now (Amazon), and in it, she has a chapter on ethos in the Foucault/Habermas debate. Anderson is accounting for a comment from Foucault that he is "a little more in agreement" with Habermas than Habermas is with him. By saying this, Anderson explains:

Foucault implies that there is no external perspective from which one might adjudicate their differences or agreements, precisely because one essential element of agreement stems from the attitude of the thinker towards the other's work.

This stuck with me, because it fits nicely into the network-y/visualization thinking I've been doing, particularly when it comes to thinking about ways to map conversations and/or disciplines, and to chart changes. One of the things that Anderson's doing in that chapter is shifting the relationship between Foucault and Habermas, undoing the knee-jerk binary through which that relationship is frequently viewed. The link between the two is still there, but its character is altered, assuming that Anderson's various interpretations are persuasive.

It sticks with me not because I can really disagree with the specific charges leveled against blogging in that message, because I'm sure that there are plenty of examples that anyone could trot out to validate them. What irked me most is the foreclosure of any sort of conversation; it was almost beside the point that it was initiated by someone with little to no direct experience of our community. Almost. Anderson explains that this comment from Foucault is consistent with his "dislike of polemic":

The polemicist...proceeds encased in privileges that he possesses in advance and will never agree to question. On principle, he possesses rights authorizing him to wage war and making that struggle a just undertaking; the person he confronts is not a partner in search for the truth but an adversary, an enemy who is wrong, who is armful, and whose very existence constitutes a threat. For him, then the game consists not of recognizing this person as a subject having the right to speak but of abolishing him as interlocutor, from any possible dialogue.

There's something to this for me, not the least reason for which is my own general avoidance of confrontation. And it's also not to say that I don't fall back into polemic myself. I do. But I've got a lot more interest in figuring out how my ideas connect to, diverge from, and/or relate to someone else's than I do in waging a polemic/war. Even though, I suppose, it could be argued that my entry is doing just that.

Or it would be, were I to do two things, both of which are equally tempting. I'm tempted to refute those claims, drawing on my own experiences, talking about all of the collaboration, networking, and working-with that maintaining a blog has prompted in my academic life for the past three years. I'm also tempted to critique the listserv post, and perhaps even the list itself.

But I think I'll refrain. Which isn't to say that my entry here is snark-free--that'd be some sort of record, I think. It is to say, rather, that a community where someone feels comfortable (much less justified) in making those sorts of comments is not the kind of community I have any interest in being a part of.

That's all.

September 2, 2007

Pricing one's self out of the market

Lately, for some odd reason, I've been watching BBC America, and in particular, among other shows, I've been watching episodes of Gordon Ramsay's "Kitchen Nightmares." It's a lot more palatable than his FOX show, Hell's Kitchen, which is a show that seems designed to determine just how much foul-mouthed abuse aspiring cooks are willing to endure to make their dreams come true.

Nightmares, on the other hand, involves Ramsay visiting various restaurants all over the UK, and attempting to help them reverse their bad fortunes. There's still plenty of swearing, but Ramsay shows a softer side as well, as he really goes out of his way to encourage young chefs even as he's chewing out the idiots.

Anyhow, one of the changes he inevitably suggests to almost every restaurant owner is to lower prices. Lower prices gets people in the door and sets up traffic flow, customer loyalty, repeat customers, and a chance to sell them luxury items like appetizers, desserts, and drinks. Makes sense, but it is sometimes surprising how many restauranteurs fear the lower prices.

I was thinking about this when I saw the announcement that NBC is no longer going to be selling on iTunes, and that includes some of my current fetishes like Heroes and BSG. Or rather, I should phrase it differently: iTunes is no longer selling NBC content, because NBC wanted to more than double their per episode price, bumping it from $1.99 to $4.99, and this despite the fact that everyone else has stuck with the $2/episode price.

As unfortunate as it'll be not to be able to download the occasional episode when I miss them, I'm actually happy to see Apple take a stand in this instance. It seems like every time I hear about a network missing the point of digital downloading, that network is NBC. Maybe the loss of revenue will prompt them to spend a little money on hiring someone with a clue.

Heck, I'd even pitch in $4.99 to see that happen.

November 30, 2007

Words and Pictures

There's a nice entry up over at if:book by Nancy Kaplan, on the topic of the recent NEA report about reading. I can't say much about it (the report, that is), as I have many better things to read with my own time. Kaplan does a nice job of taking on the NEA's graphic "representations" of their findings, which don't support their conclusions. For example, the decline in reading? It's actually at the same level it was in 1971. The NEA report starts from a later date, so as to make it look like more of a decline than it actually is. And so on.

It's a nice, contemporary example of the kind of analysis that Edward Tufte has been doing for years with respect to information design--too bad that kind of reading proficiency is neither advocated nor practiced by the report.

Anyhow, her conclusion:

Because of changes in the nature and conditions of work, declining proficiency in reading among American adults might cause some concern if not alarm. It is surely also the case that educational institutions at every level can and should do a better job. Yet there is little evidence of an actual decline in literacy rates or proficiency. As a result, the NEA's core argument breaks down.

That is all. Go take a look.

December 7, 2007

Reading Reimagined

Matthew Kirschenbaum blogged about it when his CHE piece ("How Reading is Being Reimagined") came out online, but given the choice between plunking down money or relying upon the "free" copy in the department, well, I'll take the two week delay.

But I got around to reading his piece today, and I did want to express appreciation for a couple of points in particular. It's an essay that balances nicely the critique of the NEA report with the promise of new media. A couple of things jumped out at me:

First, I think this point is easy to overlook:

The structure of To Read or Not to Read presents itself as tacit acknowledgment that not all of its own text will likely be read by any one reader, since it is clearly designed to be "not read" in at least some of the ways that accord with Bayard's observations. The report is accompanied by an Executive Summary, a condensed version of the major findings. Its internal organization is carefully laid out, with summary points at the head of each chapter, topic sentences, extensive notes, sidebars, and sections labeled as conclusions.

I mention this passage not for its critique, but because it connects with some of the stuff that Derek is working on with respect to abstraction, and it points to something I'm increasingly conscious of: the range of scales through we approach texts. It's rapidly becoming one of the key ideas that I'm working through in my own writing. And at CCC Online, for that matter. It's not an issue of reading/not-reading for me, but of negotiated distances.

A second quote that poked at me:

Reading your friend's blog is not likely a replacement for reading Proust, but some blogs have been a venue for extraordinary writing, and we are not going to talk responsibly or well about what it means to read online until we stop conflating genre with value.

Again, my point is a little less obvious. I'd add that we need to stop misunderstanding genre itself, in terms of a set of language-objects like books, blogs, magazines, etc. Which is not to say that MK is wrong here. The problem is that thinking about reading in terms of consuming objects (a book, a blog, a newspaper) is always going to lead to the substitution he's arguing against. And this is something I hope my book gets at a bit. The problem isn't the range of acceptable objects so much as it is our acceptance of "objects" themselves as the measure of the practice, if that makes sense.

(I've arrived at that position in large part as I've been converted by the work of genre studies folk in our field, btw. When I taught a course on genre a couple of summers ago, I entered the course highly skeptical of the material we were reading--it's the only time I've taught a course whose subject I was "against" to start with...)

Anywho, one last observation, which itself has nothing to do with MK's article. It's title is "How Reading is Being Reimagined," but on the cover of the Chronic Review, it's listed as "The New Metrics of Reading," which strikes me as somewhat different. On the front page of the Chronic site, it's called "Literacy.net," and includes the tease

All you need to do is skim the NEA reading report online and you'll have some questions. And that's the point, writes Matthew Kirschenbaum.

I've never really noticed how fast and loose they seem to play with their descriptions of content. I know that Becky has run afoul of the CHE headline writers before, but I guess I haven't paid much attention otherwise...

Anyways, it's a good article. Go read it. That's all.

December 8, 2007

A December to Dismember

I've got some college hoops on in the background while I work and play Scrabulous, and it's occurred to me that visitors from another planet would honestly believe that Christmas is the holiday where we meat popsicles buy each other Lexuses (or is that Lexi?). Seriously. I've seen 5 or 6 commercials reference the holidays in the past hour or so, and 4 of them were for Lexus.

If I had that much disposable income for gifts, I could think of only about 8 gajillion better things to spend it on. So, just so we're clear, if you're expecting a gift from me this year, chances are it won't have an oversized, four-foot bow on it.

That's all.

January 18, 2008

All your Scrabbles are belong to us

Another head shaker from the land of old media:

If you're on Facebook, there's a good chance that you've come across Scrabulous, which is a Facebook module that allows you effectively to play Scrabble with other Facebook users. According to the Motley Fool, Scrabulous has upwards of 600,000 users a day. This popularity has unfortunately attracted the attention of Mattel and Hasbro, who own the rights to Scrabble. Their response? Cease and desist, of course.

What should happen? The two guys (count em: one...two) who created this insanely popular version of the game should be rewarded, licensed, franchised, and lauded for doing what the dinosaurs who own Scrabble haven't: produce a high-quality, online version.

What will happen? Scrabulous will probably get retired, and there will be tens of thousands of new, brand-hostile customers.

But it's less about avoiding hostility and more about understanding that "in an edgeconomy, people sharing/hacking/using/etc your goods can actually create massive amounts of value for you." That's from Umair Haque, writing about something else entirely and yet the exact same thing. Company after company walks down this path, and it seems like, to a person, all of the stiffs in charge make the wrong decision. Maybe this will go down differently, given that all the public clamor, from individuals to techonomics blogs, weighs in on the side of "opportunity." But somehow, I doubt it.

That's all.