Friday, December 31, 2010

Friday Quotations: Fat Fridays

"It is possibly worth mentioning that in Fat Charlie's world, women did not simply turn up. You needed to be introduced to them; you needed to pluck up the courage to talk to talk to them; you needed to find a subject to talk about when you did, and then, once you had achieved those heights, there were further peaks to scale. You needed to dare to ask them if they were doing anything on Saturday night, and then when you did, mostly they had hair that needed washing that night, or diaries to update, or cockatiels to groom, or they simply needed to wait by the phone for some other man to call.

But Spider lived in a different world."

"Stories are like spiders, with all they long legs, and stories are like spiderwebs, which man gets himself all tangled up in but which look so pretty when you see them under a leaf in the morning dew, and in the elegant way that they connect to one another, each to each."

--From Ananasi Boys, by Neil Gaiman

I was at a bookstore the other day, blissfully spending my X-Mas gift cards, and I had to choose between this book and Guy Gavriel Kay's A Song for Arbonne. I've read them both before, but never owned either. I think Kay's may be the superior novel, but for light, winter break reading, Ananasi Boys just felt right. (Plus, it's miles above its predecessor book, American Gods, which has a more epic plot, but a main character so cardboard that you can hear paper rubbing together when he moves too quickly.)

Oh, and if you're into that sort of thing, Happy New Year.

Later Days.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Friday Quotations: Ho, ho, ho.

"Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there.

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tinny reindeer.

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name!

"Now Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! On, Cupid! on, on Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!"

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky.
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of Toys, and St Nicholas too.

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St Nicholas came with a bound.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler, just opening his pack.

His eyes-how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself!
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings, then turned with a jerk.
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose!

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!"

Not so much a quotation as full-out posting someone else's poem. Regardless, the sentiment stands. Due credit to Mr. Clement Clarke Moore.

Later Days.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Friday Quotations: Oh Canada?

"It's a herd of feral hamsters, a major herd, thundering across the yellow plains of the southern reaches of the Great Concavity in what used to be Vermont, raising dust that forms a uremic-hued cloud with somatic shapes interpretable from as far away as Boston and Montreal. The herd is descended from two domestic hamsters set free by a Watertown NY boy at the beginning of the Experialist migration in the subsidized Year of the Whopper. The boy now attends college in Champaign IL and has forgotten that his hamsters were named Ward and June.

The noise of the herd is tornadic, locomotival. The expression on the hamsters' whiskered faces is businesslike and implacable--it's that implacable-herd expression. They thunder eastward across pedalferrous terrain that today is fallow, denuded. To the east, dimmed by the fulvous cloud the hamsters send up, is the vivid verdant outline of the annularly overfertilized forests of what used to be central Maine.

All these territories are now property of Canada."

* * *

"John Wayne, as do most Canadians, lifts one leg slightly to fart, like the fart was some kind of task, standing at his locker, waiting for his feet to get dry enough to put on socks."

--Both excerpts from David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest.

Later Days.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Book List

Books I brought with me to Saskatchewan, in no particular order:

Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism by Ian Bogost
Tom Jones by Henry Fielding
Twilight by Stephanie Myers
Of Grammatology by Jacques Derrida
The Knight by Gene Wolfe
Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice by Sonja K. Foss

I was gonna bring copies of Pynchon's Gravity Rainbow, and Foster's Infinite Jest, but I didn't want to appear eclectic.

Later Days.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Fringe: The Creepy Edition

Remember that Aesthetics course I was sitting in on and for which I went to that Shoppers? Well, today was the day each student taking the class had to present their final paper. I had the option of doing the paper as well, but opted out because... because doing no paper is easier than doing a paper, essentially. (And I wanted to focus on my dissertation and course syllabus, but that's a boring explanation.) And to be honest, I kind of regretted it, after seeing the high quality of papers presented today. (In particular, the panel on masculine aesthetics got me thinking how interesting a paper on the appearance of Barney Stinson from How I Met Your Mother could be. This song alone could take up the whole essay.)

Besides the masculinity papers, there were papers on pretty wide variety of topics. Highlights included papers on the aesthetics of the video game Fable, a not-for-the-squeamish discussion on the self-mutilation in Dans ma Peur, and one enterprising gentleman gave a pretty good performance of the Joker ala Dark Knight, and talked on the aesthetics of chaos and supervillainry.

All the presentations were good, but what really got me thinking was a comment the professor made, on how doctors, those operating on the body, get to decide to decide sometimes get to decide what makes that body beautiful--or just normal. That brought to mind another performance on the body I've seen recently, on the last episode of Fringe. I'll say this just once: Spoilers ahead. (I'm going to analyze the episode in some detail here; if you just want to skip to the video clip at the end, I understand.)
Fringe is the middle of a fairly complicated multiple-season alternate universe plot at the moment, but the 22-episode per season format means that you get a few filler episodes every season. This episode, technically, was a filler episode, but it deviated from most in that it wasn't mind-numbingly dull. The A plot is a story straight out of the Twilight Zone. A ballerina commits suicide, and her body parts are distributed after death according to her organ donor status. But one of the members of her old depression support group is also a specialist in tissue regeneration, and happens to be in love with her as well. So he steals the body, and then goes around stealing back her organs, and lovingly sews them back into place. It should be noted that he tries to be as merciful as possible with these thefts, using his tissue technology to stabilize the organs' new owners--not much comfort when your new eyes have been gouged out, but it's something.

Anyway, once our cadaver-inclined Casanova gathers back all the body parts, he plans to use his technology to jump-start her brain, but before he does that, he dresses her up in a tutu, hooks her up to a series of pulleys and levers, and mechanically makes the dead body perform a dance. The scene is quite possibly the creepiest thing I've ever seen on prime-time network television. (And if you want to skip to the movie clip at the end NOW, I understand.) Still here? Really? All right. The scene is also really interesting for how the manhas imposed himself on the artistic scene. The girl has been reduced to a collection of limbs, devoid of volition. Is ballet any more than music and mechanical precision? There's also a heavy gender relation, one that also gets exploited in the B plot. This girl's last choice was to end her life; the scientist is, in a sense, violating her will by assuming she "made a mistake" and that he, as the representative of science, has both the means and the moral right to bring her back.

After this scene, the actual ending of case is almost a denouement. He performs the revival, and the show's protagonists finally arrive on the scene shortly later. They find him upstairs, and the girl in the basement, dead again. He won't say anything beyond "I couldn't bring her back. I brought back something, but it wasn't her. It... didn't have her spark." In other words, he could recreate the mechanics of her performance and the flesh of the body, but her inner essence couldn't be duplicated.

And this is where the B plot comes in. You may have wondered exactly what was going on when the protagonists of a show don't come in until the final act. Well, they were busy--trying to find the scientist, yes, but also dealing with the emotional fallout from the last episode. And this is where things get complicated. If the A plot was classic horror film stuff, then the B plot is pretty hardcore sci-fi. (If I lose you, just scroll down to the end, and... well, you know.) Okay: the main plot of Fringe is that FBI agent Olivia Dunham and associate Peter Bishop investigate paranormal phenomena, mostly those created years ago by Peter's father and cast member, Walter Bishop. (Essentially, it's the X-Files, but with more plot and less pointless bafflement.) The last season ended with a harrowing escape from an alternate universe. However, there was a shocking twist where Olivia was captured by the enemy and replaced by her alternate reality self, without her teammates being the wiser.

The captured Olivia was brainwashed into thinking she was the alternate reality Olivia. A voice in her head--physically embodied by hallucinations of Peter--keep telling her that she is not who she thinks she is; there is, in other words, some core part of herself that they couldn't brainwash away. She fully regains her memory, and escapes narrowly back into our universe.

At the same time, the alternate reality Olivia has been pretending to be the original. She gets physical in the original Olivia's budding romantic relationship with Peter, and takes it to the next level. And she generally skulks around and gathers info until the original Olivia returns and the faux one hightails it back to her own reality.

This leaves the original Olivia feeling pretty violated, especially when Peter confesses that he was sleeping with the alternate reality version of her. (And yes, I recognize the ridiculousness of that sentence.) She has a breakdown in her apartment, throwing the clothes out of her closet, ripping the sheets off the bed. Finally, after the scientist-ballerina case has played out, she lashes out at Peter. Even the scientist could tell that the body in front of him wasn't the woman he loved; why couldn't Peter tell the same?

Okay, on the surface, it's a ridiculous thing to hold against someone: "Why can't you love me like the necrophiliac organ thief?" But it speaks to the same underlying question: "What makes a person's identity?" Olivia saved herself because she found some core that was more than what she was told she was. The scientist recreated the form of the girl, but not what he truly loved about her. And Olivia lashes out at Peter and her possessions because she's forced to confront the notion that they weren't sufficient to identify her: someone who could copy her face and body could swoop in and take her life, and no one knew the difference. Whatever core essence she has beyond her physical appearance didn't make any difference.

This all ties back to aesthetics, for me, because modern individuality is tied so much on expression and appearance. If we express ourselves through the products we buy and the clothes we wear, is there any element of us that isn't reproducible? Is there any core to us that extends beyond the surface? And if there is, is there any way we can prove its existence to anyone else? Or see their inner self? Can you prove that it's me, your beloved blogger, writing this? Or could I be someone who was just sufficiently schooled in his rhetoric and cadence?

And to leave everyone with the really important question:

Is that just the creepiest thing ever?

Later Days.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

What Have I Done? What Am I Doing? What Will I Do?

I think it's been a while since I've done a large scope sort of post, but with the upcoming trip, now seems like a good time for one of those.

What upcoming trip, you ask? I'm making the annual pilgrimage back to Saskatchewan--actually annual this time, as I haven't been back West since last X-Mas. I've waited about a week longer than usual for return trip, for a few reasons. First, most of the people I knew from my university days have traveled on themselves, and have no family in the area to necessitate their own return pilgrimage. (Even my little brother is only back for four days, which makes my own twenty days seem like gross overkill.) Second, my brother has (vocally) pointed out that this is the first time the family house in Someplace Else is already pretty full. Considering that those other people are paying rent and not just greasy freeloaders, (my words, not his) I feel like I should put some limits on my dwelling time. I actually considered waiting another week, but then you get into X-Mas time flight prices, which... no. No thank you. I just hope the family doesn't get sick of having me around.

...I've gone from "this trip is going to be shorter" to "I hope I'm not there long enough for everyone to want me to leave." Best flip-flop ever.

It's not a bad time for me to be going. Work wise, I've just finished my dissertation proposal. Without giving too much away, I'll be researching video games in terms of some of W. J. T. Mitchell's work, and using Bolter and Grusin's remediation to a fair extent. I've also finished my course syllabus for the course I'm teaching next term. Again, I don't want to give too much away, but I have put The Social Network on the course, and I am going to talk about zombies a lot. The point is, the dissertation and the class are my two big projects, and while I might do some small work on them over the break--the course especially, since I teach the day after I get back--I've reached the necessary December milestones for both of them and can afford to sit back a bit.

Which, in classic rambling style, brings me to the actual point of today's post. I'm going to have pretty limited computer access while in Saskatchewan this time around. And while there are actually quite a few topics I've been meaning to post on, this limitation combined with the usual December lethargy means that posting is going to get rather sporadic. I'll post when I can, but expect a drop in service. But hey, quality over quantity, am I right?

In the mean time, in the spirit of the holidays, here's one of the musical numbers from the Muppet Family X-Mas. Because you can't have too much of the Muppets during the holidays (or at any other time, for that matter).

Later Days.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Friday Quotations: Why Should Videogames Be the Only Maligned Media?

"Rube Goldberg told me that what I was saying was bullshit. He said, 'Shit, boy, you're a vaudevillian. Don't forget this is vaudeville.'"
--Will Eisner, on his attempts to argue that comics could be more sophisticated and artistic.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Welcome toThe Daily---: A Story of Delayed Gratification

Well, that was weird.

I was embarking on my usual daily anaerobic exercises--200 push-ups, 200 sit-ups, and some light weightlifting (yes, I'm trying to brag in an overly affected modest manner, just ignore politely and move on)--and, also as usual, my background noise per choice was an episode of the Daily Show, as streamed through the Comedy Network's website. (Look at that! A legal use of the Internet to watch television. How quaint.) But due to a crossed wire of some sort, the show kept stopping every fifteen seconds or so in order to load. So I'd get a few seconds of some joke, then a weird pause. I endured this process for approximately 20 minutes of work-out time, during which I received about 9 minutes of actual show. (BTW, the original title of this post was "Welcome to the Daily Sh---," which was more faithful to the actual pause in my viewing, but provided a sort of mixed message in terms of signaling today's content.) This stilted method of viewing drew a number of things to mind:
1) It was the first time I finished the my exercises before the interview segment, making it my fastest workout ever. (I know this isn't actually the case, but please, be quiet; I really need a win right now.)
2) I'm reminded of how big a role immediacy plays in the modern media culture. I want what I want, and I want it now. Internet lags, television commercials, video game loading time, waiting for book releases, listening to an entire song (I've got a friend with a record player) --they're all anathema to culture of NOW, dammit. I had to actively resist an urge to turn off the stream, because a large part of me would rather listen to nothing than be forced to wait.
3) The pauses really drew attention to the structure of the show. The Daily Show is very formulaic in this regard; there's the opening run-through of the news, a consultation with one of the reporters/comedy people, and a commercial. Followed by a a more in-depth look at some more news items (or a feature on-location piece by one of the reporters), another commercial, and then a closing interview. The formulaic approach comes in part from the news format the show is satirizing, and in part from the late night talk show format that it actually is. But another big reason for the formula is that, once people are used to it, they ignore it, and that's what the show wants you to do--to focus on the content rather than their format.

The constant breaks drew attention to the format. Not at the broad level I've been describing, but at the micro-level of the individual joke. There's the framing, from Jon Stewart, the set-up (some kind of news clip, usually), the punchline, and the laughter. With the show slowed down to a crawl, I found myself looking for each element more and more. And because the cut-off happened at various places, I got to see how each element blended into and anticipated the next, particularly the set-up and laughter. You could often predict exactly what Stewart was going to do for the punchline, just from the news clip used. And despite what you might think, the joke doesn't end with the punchline, but with the laughter, the reaction to the punchline. I think both of these elements draw attention to how much of comedy and humor is in its communal component; to follow Kenneth Burke a bit, you identify with the group by anticipating Jon's joke and reacting with them. Of course, that's the main function of a studio audience to begin with.
(There's been a lot of noise in the press this year comparing Jon Stewart to Glenn Beck. It would be interesting to see if his show, while not a comedy, follows the same pattern of formula and community creation/enforcement. If only I could figure out a way of doing it without actually watching the show...)

4) It reminded me a lot of my own research habits. Particularly, it mirrored the painstaking efforts I once went through to map out the conversation tree of a scene in the video game Mass Effect (in case aficionados are wondering, it was the scene with Wrex on Virmire. Flowchart of the conversation is available upon request). There would be a few seconds of speech, then I'd push pause, and frantically rush over to my computer to type out what had just been said. It was significantly worse than transcribing an actual video, because there's no rewind button; if I missed something, I had to reload the entire scene and try again.

More generally, it reminded me of my close-reading method, which is basically to read a passage, stop reading, spend a few seconds jotting notes and reflecting, then return to the text. Watching the Daily Show in this broken manner reminded me of the pros and cons of this approach--you get a very good reading on the micro-level, but at the cost of missing the bigger picture. I might have to rethink my approach a little in the future.

To recap: muscle building, entertainment, and scholarly reflection, all in one 20 minute work-out. Truly, I am the modern Renaissance man. Ladies, get in line.

Later Days.

Monday, December 6, 2010

And another thing: why don't THE BOOKS come to ME?

I went down to campus today to retrieve the text I'm using for my course next term (but more on that another time). As long as I was on campus, I figured, I might as well go to the library and take out a book I've been meaning to get. ETA of side-trip: five minutes. Actual time expended: 30-40 minutes. Effort level: orange. Patience: 0.

Clearly, something has gone wrong here. To determine what, let's discuss the event not in chronological sequence, but in order of whom I blame most for the mishap. And if you have half as much fun piecing it all together as I did writing it, then I had twice as much fun writing it as you did piecing it together. And that's just one of the tautologies we'll discuss today!

--Myself. First, for naively not obtaining the appropriate Library of Congress listing before even heading into the library. Second, for being equally naive in assuming that this listing would be easy to obtain while in the library. Third, for making an error in eventually writing said listing, forcing me to repeat the whole process over again. And finally, for choosing today of all days to put the winter liner into my coat, transforming a climb of high tedium and low discomfort and effort to high tedium, high discomfort and middling effort.

--Whoever designed the elevators at this library. There's an indicator of which floor the library is on for the main floor, and only the man floor. That means that waiting for the elevator on any other floor is less a matter of patience and more a matter of faith that the doors will, at some point, open. Having little faith in elevator gods, my own lack of patience (which means this perhaps should be under the previous entry) meant a few extra stairs were walked on top of the number called for by the following two entries.

--The students. All I wanted was to use a computer for a thirty second search. But every computer was occupied, on floor after floor, forcing me to go up five flights looking in vain for that one unoccupied terminal. Now, I wouldn't have been so upset if the students were legitimately working. But for every student doing actual work, there were two checking their facebook, or surfing youtube, or sleeping at the computer, or ignoring the screen in front of them entirely while they worked on their laptops. And the students in the actual study carrells weren't any better--a given sample of half a dozen had two working, one gone to get snacks, one texting, one surfing the net, and one sleeping again. Kids today, I tell you.

--The way this library's computer system is set up. But even that, as annoying as it was, wasn't the real target of my ire. I actually like that the computers in the library are open to all at this university; it makes a far more egalitarian statement than, say, the University of Toronto library, which not only requires you to be a student to use the computers, but to enter the library in the first place. And I'll admit it, if I'm working on a computer for a prolonged period, I have my own tendency to check my email, go to a favorite site, or, type up a blogpost. (Today's work is going great, btw. Just.... just great. Stellar.) What really bugs me is that there's no computers reserved solely for catalog searches in addition to the other computers. Even most public libraries have managed to get one of each by this point; it's somewhat ridiculous that my university's main library can't even reach that standard. And because of this, above all the other reasons, I had to walk ten flights of stairs and spend half an hour to get a chance to do a thirty-second search and 5 minute retrieval. (And another thirty minutes to type it all up. It never ends, I tell you!)

And that's how you turn a one-sentence complaint into a 600+ word blog post.

Later Days.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Friday Quotations: Randomizer

The search for this week's quotation has caught me a little off guard, so I'm going to select a random book of the shelf, and go with the first sentence. I'm sure it will be as inspiring as it is serendipitous.

Ah, here we go: "In 1848, a review of Mary Barton published in the Athenaeum observed: 'How far it may be kind, or wise, or right to make Fiction the vehicle for a plain and matter-of-fact exposition of social evils, is a question of limitations which will not be unanimously settled in our times.'"
Introduction to Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton, by Jennifer Foster.

Hey, that turned out better than I thought. We got a quotation within a quotation, some 19th century class, and an issue I've always found fascinating: the didactic nature of literature. As the entertainment industry rose and the public speech went into decline, you might say that in our current state, fiction is the primary vehicle for exposition on social evils these days--sad as that is. For my two cents, I think all fiction contains a discourse on, if not exactly social evil, some sort of didactic message. Even the absence of any redeeming message can be interpreted as a statement on the purpose of fiction. And from what I remember, Gaskell's Mary Barton was fairly direct in tackling the issue of class inequality. And while I felt the mix between characters and broad social commentary was a little heavy-handed in places, the clear intent definitely made it stand out in mind compared to other 19th century works of the time that I've read.

And as everyone knows, Elizabeth Gaskell was a great believer in the proper celebration of birthdays.

Later Days.