Sunday, March 28, 2010

Image Rhetoric & Politics

One of the repeated subjects in my multimedia comp exam reading list has been images in general. Basically, the question is, how do you do a close reading of a picture? And, for that matter, why would you want to?

Well, here's one answer:

This image is "title page" image of the Facebook group "I hate it when I wake up in the morning and Barack Obama is President." I've been meaning to do a post about the group at large ever since I saw it. And I might still, at some point. But since it involved both religion and politics, things were going to get a little heated. So we'll stick to the picture. Because by most measures, it's a pretty effective piece of rhetoric all by itself.

As a starting point, the pic is an altered version of this movie poster:

According to Roland Barthes, there are three levels to consider in a photograph: the relationship between text and image; the photo itself, which is a "text without a code," and the cultural connotations of the image. So let's look at each of these, in turn.

1) Text and image. Taken alone, the text makes good use of loaded words. First, "political virgin" is, at the time of the election, at least, one of the more credible arguments against Obama; compared to McCain, and most of the Democratic and Republican candidates, he had significantly less political experience. At the same time, in Western culture, the term "virgin," especially when applied to males, connotes a sense that the individual is unusual and, pushed to the extreme, dysfunctional and unmasculine. This sense is further extended to the byline: "He's Come Too Soon." Though the straightforward reading is that it's supporting the previous point, that he is too inexperienced to be president, it also refers to another failure at being "truly" masculine, the premature ejaculation. The slogan takes what is usually perceived as one of Obama's previous positive points--his positive message and push for change, represented by the grin in the picture--and turns it into a sexual eagerness that prevents him from reaching full manhood.

2) The photo itself. Barthes claimed that photographs were texts without codes, because they represented reality purely. This assumption concerning the photograph's access to reality was common in 60s writing on the camera, and is just as commonly shunned now. In an age of Photoshop, reality is, at best, "reality."

However, I'd argue that this twist on reality works in the picture's favor. To borrow from another set of theorists, Grusin and Bolter, new media forms tend to work through remediation--through repurposing old media forms into new combinations. If this new form tries to appear as seamless reality, it is claiming a sense of immediacy. If it draws attention to its composite nature, it is claiming a sense of hypermediacy. I think that photoshopped images have gone all the way around. That is, an image like this one is no longer pretending to be seamless reality, but a violation of it. As such, its purpose is to draw attention to the skill of the distorter, in reappropriating the image for a new context. In this case, the image claims that its designer has a certain level of computer savvy, and is familiar enough with both Republican arguments and pop culture to be able to mix them in such a form. Typically, right-wingers in the United States have a reputation for being somewhat traditional and humourless; this sort of image allows them to state their case while defying this stereotype.

3) Cultural Connotations. I've already alluded to these elements in the previous points, but that's okay, because personally I think that one of the big problems of semiology is that it tends to become blurry when you start to distance yourself from linguistics. Anyway, the immediate context of this picture is the rest of the website. Part of the underlying joke of the site, as suggested by the title, is that Obama's presidency is (or should be)nothing but a bad dream caused by head trauma. The picture works in that context, contributing to the humor. However, there is a clear problem with the picture: if the joke is that Obama lacks experience, it becomes less and less effective the further Obama's presidency progresses. After all, he certainly has more presidential experience at this point than anyone he ran against. The discrepancy reflects something that I didn't notice until a closer inspection. As the right hand bottom corner of the picture suggests, the image is actually taken from MAD magazine.

In its original context, (that is, the original context of the photoshopped image that is already taken out of the ad-based context of the actual original image) the picture is part of a series of images in a MAD magazine published before the election. The series depicts multiple similarly distorted images satirizing both candidates, thus demonstrating that the original focus is not to support any one political agenda, but to simultaneously provide humour at the expense of politics in general, and to demonstrate the proficiency of MAD writers to create images that make political arguments.

This realization changes the elements I was arguing in favor for in point 2. The author of the site is no longer demonstrating his own savvy in being able to photoshop an image. Instead, it comes from being able to link the image to his own site, and to change its context from something nonpartisan into something partisan--a much lower accomplishment on the computer-skill level. (Hell, if I can do it...) In fact, if someone comes to the site, sees the image, and doesn't realize until later that it was a copied image (someone, say, like me), then far from being to the page's author's credit, the image's presence discredits the page. Thus, we see the full complexity of the remediation balance. While originally, it seemed like a simple matter of immediacy giving way to the hypermediacy of the photoshopped image, adding another level of hypermediacy by placing the image in a new context damages my sense of the picture's immediacy, in that I no longer feel connected to the page's author as the image's creator/distorter.

And yet, there is still another level where the image works--the level of Internet community. By sharing a picture that has been in wide circulation, the author of the page identifies himself as a member of a community that distributes the picture. A person who shares similar political beliefs sees the image, and knows that he or she has found some common ground. The image, then, is less about attracting neutral parties and more about shouting the author's position to those who already agree with him. And really, isn't that what politics are all about?

Yeah, so all this is really sort of a dry run for my object test essay for the comp exam. But when I regurgitate it in 2 months, try to look surprised.

Later Days.

running--so, did we ever decide on the "running as separate post" issue?

Yesterday's Run:
Distance: 13.6 km
Time: 1 hr, 20 min. Sort of.
Speed: 10.2 km/h

The "sort of" qualifier is that at the half way point, I went for a 20 minute walk in the park. I saw of squirrels. It was nice. Given the distance of the walking path, you could add another 2.4 km onto the distance, and take the speed down another 2km/hr.

Next week will not be great for running opportunities. It's 5 degrees and raining right now, so, no, and I've got a GSA meeting on Monday, a general GSA meeting on Tuesday, SOMETHING on Wednesday that I can't remember for the life of me at the moment, though the realization will eventually hit me like a ton of bricks, and a friend's birthday on Thursday. On top of my regular stuff, it means little running. Well, unless I give up TV for a week or start getting up at 6. But really, what are the odds of that? And it's not just the running that's going to suffer. I don't when I'll find time to do my laundry this week--and that's going to hurt everyone near and close to me.

*EDIT: Wednesday is PhD Bowling Night. And we only have an event, like, once a year, so I really want to make it. And given this post and the last (which took about an hour and a half to write), the "no time to run" excuse is already wearing thin, isn't it?

Later Days.

Friday, March 26, 2010

This One's For the Saskatchewan Folk

Recently, my youngest brother, currently residing in Alberta, posted on his Facebook status that he felt out of the loop and wanted to get the news on what's going on in Saskatchewan. Since I'm even further away than he is, I felt the obligation to make something up. And since the other brother thought there was some value in what I came up with, I thought I'd post it here. It's random nonsense, but I kind of like it.

By popular demand, Brad Wall has been replaced by an actual Wall. While Wall has provided valuable infrastructure to the current parliament as a whole, people doubt Wall's long term planning ability. Further, Wall's leadership capability has been called into question; whenever quick action is called for, Wall is reputed to just stand there, blankly. When questioned about this lack of activity, Wall stood silently for 45 minutes until all the reporters felt embarrassed and went home to spend more time with their families.

Later Days.

Friday Quotations: Something Old, Something New

I was going to post Hopkins' "Pied Beauty," but I went back to read it, and it turns out that it was a little more religious-oriented than I wanted for the moment, or at least, until I do few posts on religion in general. So in lieu of that, here's a quotation from Lev Manovich's "The Language of New Media":

"Umberto Eco once defined a sign as something that can be used to tell a lie. This definition correctly describes one function of visual representations—to deceive. But in the age of electronic telecommunication we need a new definition: A sign is something which can be used to teleact." (170)

The semiotician in me rocks back and forth in absolute glee at the implications of this statement. The rest of me shakes its weary head and wonders when the hell I developed an inner semiotician.

Later Days.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Well, that was a fun four days.

I'm violating both the run choice and the diet today. To make up for it, I've read an extra 100 pages of text.
...I might be on to something here. If I can harness the guilt over destroying my health as an engine to drive my comp reading, and yet somehow not actually destroy my health, the next two months will go much more easily.

Later Days.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Wednesday Comics: He Tells It Like It Is

This is from Avengers: Initiative #34, By Christos Gage and Jorge Milina. The first panel's the focus here. Background: As the 90s "Death of Superman" saga showed, comic book characters are infamous for coming back from the dead. In Marvel comics, this tendency was often represented by the saying "No one stays dead but buck Bucky and Uncle Ben." Ben being Spider-Man's uncle, who died to teach him that whole "with great power comes great responsibility" thing, and Bucky, Captain America's teenage sidekick, who died in World War 2 to demonstrate what a bad idea it is to take a teenage sidekick into World War II. I mean, to demonstrate the pathos of war.

But in another highly televised superhero offing, they killed Captain America, and replaced him with Bucky, who survived death by rocket in the 1940s by... sigh... being retrieved, revived, and reprogrammed by Soviet soldiers, and kept in suspended animation between missions for the next 50 years or so. (The brainwashing wore off.) So that's who the guy on the left is.

The guy on the right, on the other hand, is the mercenary turned Avengers-Iniative leader, Taskmaster. His power is that he can instantly imitate any fighting style (or anything, really) by watching it for a few minutes. He started off as a super-villian with a unique twist: rather than ever commit any crimes himself, he trained the henchmen of other villains. He spent a few years freelance, then got significantly expanded in the Agent X series by Gail Simone, where he became a foil to the lead character (who himself was an amalgamated foil of an Asian assassin, a German telepathic assassin, and Deadpool. Comics, right?). More recently, he was put in charge of training superheroes by the Green Goblin at the Initiative Training facility, and his story has consisted of a rise from mediocrity into the big leagues, combined with the realization that he probably preferred mediocrity. (His wikipedia page badly needs an update, BTW, for any industrious fans out there.) So essentially, the character whose entire shtick is that he creates imitations of unique techniques is complaining about things not being sacred.
This amuses me. That is all.

Later Days.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

This is a good use of my time.

A friend of mine on Facebook is musing on wearing a rope belt. I wish to mock him, with this image:

This is the midriff of Luke Dunphy, from Modern Family (excellent show. Full review in due course). The fun part is that this image, as far as I can tell, does not exist on line. So I had to spend about an hour combing through youtube videos until I found the show, look for the right episode (among 15), find the scene, printscreen the whole thing, copy into an image, and upload it onto a web page, all so I could provide the link to it on the Facebook post.
Worth it? Of course it was.

Running For the Past Two Days:
Run: Needle, Monday. Needle, Tuesday.
Distance: 11.9 km, both times.
Time: 1 hr, 10 min, 1 hr, 4 min.
Speed: 10.2 km/hr, 11. 1 km/hr

Man, that's quite a difference, huh? Well, it was raining pretty hard by the end of Monday, so I'll attribute the lack of speed to that.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

How I can I better meet the needs of my constituents?

Open question: How are the running updates sitting with everyone?

I was pretty hesitant to add them as a regular feature because
a) I thought it would be more than I was willing to share, and
b) I didn't think anyone would care.

I want to dig deeper into both concerns, because I think they unearth a deeper issue of my blogging ethos, not to mention how I feel about running. Let's take a hard look at what I am willing to share: disturbing dreams, political beliefs, and existentialist ponderings as to my true nature and being. (Guess which one this post fits under?) And what I'm NOT willing to share: I don't use proper names, I try to avoid talking directly about my specific research tasks, and I don't like using stories that involve other people without running it by them.

As for b), let's look at the content. I've got comic book features that most of my readers don't care about, book reviews for books that, as far as I know, people aren't that interested in, and personal stories that rarely even involve a second party. So for the most part, I don't really care whether people are interested or not. So why the concern with running?

One more item to ponder: I seriously considered putting up a disclaimer in the first running post that I wouldn't be posting *ALL* my runs, just so I wouldn't have everyone knowing (and potentially belittling) my running efforts. I haven't done that; what you see here is my entire list of physical activity, for better or worse.

So what info is to be weened from all this? Well, I like running--or exercise in general. I also feel like my running is a private activity. And I like the feeling that I'm taking positive steps towards my own fitness. (Which is a lot bigger a statement than it may appear to be. But of my reticence to discuss running issues is probably related to my body image, which is a much bigger Topic That We Don't Talk About.) I like sharing that positivity. The downside is that the guilt that comes from skipping a day (or a week, or a month. Things happened, dammit) is now magnified in front of an audience. But for me, one of the main purposes of blogging is to take things stuck in my head and get them out, and this is one of those things.

I'm pretty conflicted here. So we'll conclude with two points:
1) Running updates. Good or bad?
2) On the subject of running updates and body image, here's a running update connected with body image. I'm skipping today, but I'm planning on doing a 10 k every day for five days, starting tomorrow. So if you're not liking the running updates, you're really not going to like this week.
Also, the resumed running has forced me to admit that running alone is not going to make up for the past half year of debauchery. So I'm changing the food intake. For the next month, I'm giving up pizza and chocolate. And it's probably very telling that the one thing I deleted on this post was the complete list of ALL the products I'll be consequently giving up. Although I'm really going to miss those Cadbury eggs...

Later Days.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Friday Quotations: It's At Least The Second-Best Quotation That Can Be Found on the First Page

First: running.
Run: Half Needle with University Twist
Distance: 12.5 km
Time: 1 hr, 12 min
Speed: 10.4 km/hr
The Twist is that instead of heading home half way, I went to the university instead.

Second: I just received word (the email came about 5 minutes ago) that I was accepted to a conference in Montreal, to deliver a paper on the video game Mass Effect. which = awesome. The problem is that it's immediately after my written comp exam (the exam will be on the Friday, and the conference is the following Tuesday), but probably before the oral exam can be held. So I'll need to talk that over with my committee, if it's doable at all. But still, Montreal. Awesome.

Third: Today's quotation. I wanted to find something from Mitchell's Iconology, but the book doesn't lend itself to awesome quotations; it's more about ideas considered at length. So here's the opening of a book I started reading today that I found very effective:

"Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board. For some they com in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eye away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men."

Any well-read members of the audience want to guess (or Google, I'm not picky) the book in question?

Later Days.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Comic Panel Wednesday: Yeah, I'll Be Honest--Totally Not Trying Today

In honour of Green Irish Drinking Day, here's Shamrock, the super-powered Irish girl, from Marvel's Contest of Champions. According to Wikipedia,Shamrock is possessed by the souls of thousands of victims of wars who manifest themselves as poltergeists which affect probability within a 20-foot radius of her, altering situations so that she is given an advantage. In essence having "The Luck of the Irish". Which makes them the most depressing luck-based power in the superhero pantheon, at least until Scarlet Witch went insane.

Now, if you haven't done so already, go out there and drink something green.

*UPDATE: Thursday Run.
Distance: 7.6 km
Time 1 hr
Average Speed: 7.6 km/hr

Super slow, I know, but in my defense, I took a detour and spent about 20 minutes walking around the park. There were geese and swans and bunnies and horsies and people playing Frisbee golf. 's cool.

Later Days.

A Day in the Life of a Person of Consequence

Happy Green Irish Day! Yeah, I figure we should call it what it is. Of course, if you want to be entirely accurate about that, you probably need to add "Excuse to Drink in the Middle of Week" day.

As you may guess from that cheery introduction, I am not in a great mood. In fact, my state is that of one of the worst sleep combinations (The Blogger spellchecker doesn't recognize the plural of combination. Honestly, people. We can do better.): I've got the weariness of the sleep-deprived, and the grumpiness of the just recently awakened. And considering it's 3 pm, I got some 'splainin' to do.

First, as you have no doubt noticed, I haven't posted a running update in a few days. This filled me with great shame (as is the point), and I got up at 6:00 am today to go for a run. Sadly, due to my own special brand of asthmatic insomnia, I didn't get more than about 4 hours of sleep. The run itself was great, if consequential. I nearly slipped on a banana peel, and if I was in a different mood, we'd be discussing how my life is that of a cartoon character. In my current mood, this would degenerate into a rant on how no one watches the classic Looney Tunes any more, and how children are now forced to watch the mediocre. (Look at ABC's morning line-up: That's So Raven, Hannah Montana, The Suite Life of Zach & Cody. Honestly, as a kid, if there was that little animation in MY Saturday morning cartoons, I'd wonder why I was being punished.)

Right, so after the run, I perform my morning ablations, write up a lesson plan for tomorrow, accidentally delete the lesson, decide that I could probably reconstruct it from memory in a few hours, run some errands, and I'm at the university by 10:00. I read and transcribe my notes for a chapter from my comp (and laugh ruefully at the pathetic standard by which I currently judge being "productive"). Then it's up to my office for a brief lunch (apple, green apple flavored licorice, and apple juice. Yeah, I don't know what happened there), and a chapter from Kafka's The Trial. When you're in an academic building, Kafka's portrayal of bureaucracy becomes less "amusing" and more "deeply depressing and existentially horrifying."

At this point, approximately 1:30, I fall asleep. I wake up at a quarter to 3. I had a strange dream, even by my standards: I dreamed I had stumbled into an alternate reality where parents were honor-bound to murder their children if they failed to achieve something the parent deemed appropriate for the child. But the values were really esoteric, like if the child had worn enough blue over the course of a year. It was basically a combination of personal aesthetics and eugenics. I remembered thinking in the dream that this would make a good short story, if I could get the style right. And then I woke up, and typed out this entry.

And there you go. One day. -ish. I suppose it's possible I may do something of interest in the course of the next 8 or so hours, but given my current urge to bike home and bury my head under the covers, it seems unlikely.

Wednesday's Run:
Title: the Needle
Distance: 11.9 km
Time: 1 h, 7 minutes.
Average Speed: 10.66 km/hr

Later Days.
PS. I'm not really this annoyed at the world in general. "Grumpy" is a fun persona to slip on, but I wouldn't want to live there.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Shiny Temporal Doom

I was all set to do an epic Daylights Savings Time. I was planning on staying up till 2:00 am, then going on a long, rambling rant on how so much of the world has lost an hour to a ridiculous, arbitrary system that really has no justifying basis beyond "well, everyone else does it." Really, it's international peer pressure at its ugliest. When, I ask, will someone shoot this elephant? Or, rather, refuse to shoot this elephant. Orwell is complicated. And throughout this epic rant, I was going to hold Saskatchewan up as the paragon of common sense, for having the tenacity, the boldness, to stem off all the madness in our indomitable prairie way.

And then 2:00 am rolled around. And 2:01 am, as scheduled. Something had gone wrong. What was it? Oh yeah--it was 2:01 am Monday morning. Mr. I-Represent-the-Intellectual-Future-Of-This-Country forgot the tenet that days change at 12:00 am, which means that 2:00 am Sunday, the Daylight Savings point, was 24 (okay, 23) hours ago. In other words, the incredible inconvenience, the monolithic travesty, the universal idiocy had gone right by and I hadn't noticed. My only timepieces--my iPod, my cellphone, and my computer--had adjusted themselves. I didn't have a direct schedule for today, so there was no adjustment there to make either. I thought I hadn't quite felt refreshed after what I thought was 8 hours of sleep, but that's it. In fact, it was slightly less inconvenient than if I had been in Saskatchewan, because I didn't have the problem that all my TV shows were an hour off.

Does this mean that I've become an Ontarioan? Have I adapted to life under the arbitrary clock? Have I lost my Saskatchewanianism?

Pffff. Perish the thought.

I am a small town, grain-elevator admiring, horizon-watching, cold-enough-for-ya commenting, bunny-hug wearing prairie boy, and don't you latte-swilling, multiple-laned highway driving, clock-switching, Liberal-voting city slickers forget it.

*EDIT* Okay, it turns out my cell phone AKA my alarm clock did NOT automatically adjust itself. So now I'm late for class. And now I'm debating whether it'd be more or less embarrassing to show up an hour late, or just skip it entirely.

Later Days, and Peace Out, Y'all.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sunday Blehs

Behold, a rationalization so powerful, so great, so magnificent in its shear effrontery that it will shake the very heavens to the ground!

Which is a pseudo-poetic way of saying I'm going to skip going for a run today--as I did yesterday. My reason? Well, it's 3 degrees, raining, and windy. I'm okay with running when it's snowing out, provided the sidewalks are neither slippery as death or buried under three feet. But rainy and cold? There's not a lot you can do. Can't take the iPod, 'cause electronics don't do so good in precipitation. Can't bundle up in warm clothes, 'cause by the end of the run, they'll be soggy clothes, which is worse than being cold in the first place. Can't do the university gym, 'cause that place is full to the rafters on a Sunday. And so, I'm left in a Catch 22--either I feel bad while running, or I feel bad for skipping running.

My solution? Put on a pot of tea, work through an extended version of the other exercise items (curls, weight-lifting, push-ups) to compensate, and mark some papers while watching reruns of So You Think You Can Dance, Australian Edition. 'Cause if you can't exercise yourself, you might as well watch someone else do it.

My plans to stay home were compromised by my decision to spend the time grading students' papers. It's a scientific fact that any act, no matter how exhausting, miserable, or seditious, is preferable to grading students' papers. So I went for the run--it was to the fourth closest primary school to my apartment, and back. See, I split the difference: I went for the run, but I made it very short. It took... about 24 minutes, and covered about 4.2 km. So yeah, about the usual speed. It was wet and miserable, and now I feel guilty about putting off my comp reading instead of feeling guilty about not running.
Because at the end of the day, the only thing you can't outrun...
is yourself.
And cars. And trains. Probably bikes. In general, most artificial modes of transportation. Also fast animals, and natural phenomena.
Later Days.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Friday Quotations: Alan Moore is as talented as he is terrifying

"THis is an IMAGINARY STORY (Which may never happen, but then again may) about a perfect man who came from the sky and did only good. It tells of his twilight, when the great battles were over and the great miracles long since performed; of how his enemies conspired against him and of that final war in the snowblind wastes of the Northern Lights; of the women he loved and of the choice he made between them; of how he broke his most sacred oath, and how finally all the things he had were taken from him save for one. It ends with a wink. It begins in a quiet midwestern town, one summer afternoon in the quiet midwestern future. Away in the big city, people still sometimes glance hopefully from the sidewalks, glimpsing a distant speck in the sky... but no: it's only a bird, only a plane. Superman died ten years ago. This is an IMAGINARY STORY...

Aren't they all?"
--Alan Moore, "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?", Superman #423

"The next morning, still wondering [whom I'd get to write the story], I happened to be having breakfast with Alan Moore. So I told him about my difficulties. At that point he literally rose out of his chair, put his hands around my neck, and said, 'If you let anybody but me write that story, I'll kill you.'" --Julius Schwartz, editor of Superman, circa 1985.

Alan Moore, in all his glory

Later Days.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Comic Panel Wednesday: Monkey Business

From Hellboy: Conquerer Worm.

Hellboy hates goddamn Nazi-Frankenstein monkeys.

Wednesday Run: The Needle Route
Distance: 11.9 km.
Time: 1 hr, 5 min
Average Speed: 10. 9 km/hr

*ADDITION TWO* Because frankly, it feels a bit like false inflation to add these running things in a new post. So I'll just tack them on to the end of whatever I wrote last. Ahem.
Thursday Run: University Loop
Distance: 9.4 km
Time/ Average Speed: Don't know. Forgot the watch. It was under an hour, though. Probably.

Later Days.

Book Review: Peace, by Gene Wolfe

"To myself, I am an artist, shaping the past instead of the future. I write, yes. My hand moves across the paper carrying my pen, and there are words and I try to tell myself they have all come from me. It may be that all mankind, living and dead, has a common unconscious, Mr. Weer. Many great philosophers have thought that. It may also be that more than man takes part in that unconscious. The world shapes itself, I find, very fast, to what I write."
--Peace, by Gene Wolfe.

First: for those who don't want to discuss a well-written, cerebral novel concerning memory and growing old, there's a discussion of a well-written, high concept comic book in the post below. Something for everyone, that's my motto. That, and "one more pizza pop."

If you're an avid enough reader, the odds are that, somewhere in your collection of authors, you've got One of Those. An author whose work you've heard praised up and down. Who's respected by people whose opinion you respect. And yet, every time you sit down to read one of his books, you're left scratching your head, because you don't get it. Is the problem with you, with the author, or with the world in general?

For me, Gene Wolfe is One of Those. I have attempted to read several of his books. Two I didn't even finish: The Knight, which is sort of the story about a knight in (transported to?) a fantasy realm, and The Shadow of the Torturer, which I got 3/4 of the way through when I realized that I had been reading this book off and on for weeks, and I had no idea who half the characters were. The one I had finished was Pirate Freedom, and I wasn't too impressed. Plotwise, it was the story of a boy who had travelled through time from modern times to pirate days for no particular reason (it's several months, in fact, before he notices he's gone back), and then travels back to modern times, becomes a priest, and writes down his life story before trying to get back to the pirate days. Compared to the others, it was actually a fairly stock fantasy plot, and though well-told, it was a little disappointing. It was like sitting down to watch a Luis Buñuel movie, and finding out that it was Downey's Sherlock Holmes, instead. It's good, but it wasn't what you thought you were starting.

Peace is not straightforward. This is an understatement. It is, variously, the story of an old man of eighty, gone senile in his home alone, or the story of less old man of sixty or seventy, gone senile in a doctor's office, or the story of a child fallen asleep in his aunt's house. All right, let me try again. Peace is the story of Alden Weer, as he muses back (or, through a more extreme reading, forward) on his life. The novel is a series of loosely-connected vignettes, stringing together various parts of his life. The retelling is vaguely chronological: a childhood accident that takes the life of a friend, a Christmas with his mother and grandfather, growing up with his aunt (which includes a deep character study of, first and foremost, her, but also of her four suitors), a buried treasure plot with a maybe love interest, Lois Arbuthnot, and an encounter with a book forger and his daughter. And in between these scenes, we get the stories of the people around him: the factory that sells orange juice concentrate, the druggist working as apprentice to a man who deliberately created circus freaks and is slowly turning to bark himself, and the diary of a servant girl--plus countless short stories of folklore. And all of this is recounted by a man living in a house in which the rooms have been made up to resemble the places he has lived in throughout his life.

My problem with most of Wolfe's writing is that they're not fantasy in the sense that I'm used to, with magical kingdoms and elves and whatnot. Rather, they're fantasy in the sense that reading them is like moving through a waking dream. Most of that feeling comes from the sense that his books are composed of ellipses, or lacunae. The text has these weird gaps in it--a story that's been building up for pages and pages suddenly breaks off to talk about something else, and the only reference you have to its conclusion is a offhand comment fifty or so pages later--or sometimes, fifty or so pages back. In Peace, for example, most of the folklore-based stories don't have endings at all, just places where the narrative stops, because the speaker's been interrupted, or a page has been torn out, or whatever. This fragmentary mode can have a sinister aspect. Often, it turns out that the one of the characters died in an accident, or was killed, and there is a hint that our narrator may be the one who killed them. Obviously, a novel where it's completely ambiguous as to whether the main character is a serial murderer is not going to be to everyone's taste.

It's not always a break, either; on occasion, you see a drift, as Weer's memory seems to shift. At the beginning of the section with Ms. Arbuthnot, he confesses that he has entirely forgotten her name. In his recollection, they discuss the St. Louis Library system, King Louis the Fourteenth, and the book seller Louis Gold, and the next time they talk, she names herself Lois, and his forgetting her name is never mentioned again.

These breaks and slips appear throughout Wolfe's writing, but in Peace, I think they're the main event. On the book's jacket, someone has commented that "The novel reveals a miraculous dimension as the narrative unfolds. For Weer's imagination has the power to obliterate time and reshape reality, transcending even death itself." This blurb entirely misses Wolfe's point, which is that we all do that, all the time: that's what memory is. And though it happens throughout our entire lives, we're used to seeing it (narratively, at least) in the very old and the very young--try to unite the fragments in Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. I think that's why I preferred Wolfe's work here--when the character he describes is very young and/or very old, a fragmented, broken up story seems more natural, and less frustrating.

Bottom line: I really enjoyed this book, and although it's definitely not to everyone's taste, it's convinced me to go back and try his other books again. Except Pirate Freedom. I'm done with that one.

Later Days.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Tuesday Run

Distance: 9.0 km
Time: 50 min.
Average Speed: 10.8 km/hr

That's it for now. Hopefully, there will be a book review in the near future.
Later Days.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Sunday Run

To the University Library, and back.
Time: 45 min.
distance: 8.2 km
average speed: 10.7 km/hr

A little better speed this time. I attribute it to the fact that, unlike last run, I DIDN'T get lost and go 3 k out of my way.

The most annoying part came at the library itself, though. To break up the run, I thought, hey, it's a ten storey library. The stairs would be a good bit of exercise. Sadly, it appears that many have thought the same. And one enterprising group thought it would be a great idea to put up little motivational posters on every damn landing--about 20 in all. "Almost there!" "Feel the burn!" "If she can do it, so can you!" (accompanied by a photo of a baby crawling up steps). Call me a bitter, cynical, maladjusted maladroit if you must, but I've always found this sort of thing really annoying. Being cheered on by friends and people who know you is one thing, but anonymous cheerleading just distracts me from the object at hand (ie. propelling myself upwards without collapsing into a heap). The medium is counterproductive; some of these posters were rather detailed, and to take it all in, you had to stop and actively read them. I'm pretty sure that wasn't the intention. Additionally, they didn't have twenty different posters, so I saw the same enlarged "motivational" photo of a pumped up calf muscle about five times. I'm proud of my calves too, but that's taking it a bit too far.
I realize the intentions are (probably) good. And that I'm grousing. Just don't bug me when I'm exercising, 'kay?

Later Days.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Friday Quotations

This one's an old favorite.

"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle." -Philo of Alexandria

Later Days.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

"Exciting" New Feature

Person of Consequence, what did you do over the last six months?

Well... there's no kind way to put it.

I got fat.

You know the Freshman Fifteen? It's like that, only instead of being an 18 year old living on my own for the first time, I'm a 26 year old who should know better. Granted, there are mitigating circumstances, as there usually are in such cases. First, there was the lit theory comp exam in November, which cut down on running opportunities. Then I spent most of December struggling to breathe in a hostile environment that was trying to kill me. But hey, that's winter in Saskatchewan; I knew what I was signing up for. But again, not conditions amiable to fitness. And then when I got back, I was diagnosed with asthma, which precluded January and February running. All in all, it's been a long time. (Granted, my eating habits were not helping. An unfondness for cooking and a fondness for microwavables do not make for healthy eating.)

But that's behind me. I've got a clean (well, cleaner) bill of health, and I've been getting back into a routine. I'm not every day yet, but I'm doing better than every other day. So here's the new feature: I go for a run, I post my time and distance, and this will motivate me. Or give me an opportunity to brag. Or shame me. Or whatever. The point is, I'm doing it.

Distance: 11.9 km
Time: 1h, 8 min
Average speed: 10.5 km/hr.

Not too shabby. Or to use a different parlance: Booyah. The kid is back.

Later Days.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Wednesday Comics: Well, Technically, He's One of About Five Superheroes I Can Match in Height

Some background for this one: I hate Wolverine. I mean, I really hate him. I hate how overexposed he is; I don't care what your super power is, if you're on a half dozen different teams, you're cheating. I hate how ridiculous his healing power is; he's survived being burned down to his skeleton, decapitated, and driven over with a steam roller. Forget wolverine; the man's spirit animal is clearly a cockroach. I hate the way he gets to be world-weary team leader AND brash, cocky loner; pick a cliche and stick with it, damn it. I hate his convoluted, conspiracy-laden backstory that constantly revises itself in a desperate attempt to find something actually interesting to hang itself onto, or some sense of unity in what's really thirty odd years of ideas tossed together. Most of all, I hate that a man who routinely goes on vigilante murders gets to run around on teams that supposedly call themselves Earth's greatest heroes.

So yes, I've got some things against the character. That said, Jason Aaron's Wolverine: Weapon X is awesome.
The latest issue is setting up a new story line: an army of killer cyborgs has been set back in time to eliminate superheroes' lineage before they were born. But that's all beside the point. The real point is Wolverine and Captain America getting together for a beer night. Captain America admits he wasn't always comfortable with Wolverine as an Avenger (thank you!), Wolverine, in a roundabout manner admits he's glad the Cap's back, and they talk about the women in their lives. In a gruff, masculine way. Wolverine has been Mr Stabby-Slash for a long time, but it's rare to see him portrayed as someone with actual real feelings and such. So, panel of the week:

(Sorry about the extra space. Paint is not the most user-friendly of image tools.) Yes, yes, it's still drenched in testosterone and manly swagger, but...what can I say? It got to me. As of this moment, I like Wolverine.
A fight breaks out approximately six panels later, BTW, when Wolverine takes exception to someone objecting to his taste in music (country). I never saw the appeal of the Wolverine bar fight. It's a guy with a healing factor, decades of fighting experience, and unbreakable, metal bones fighting ordinary drunks. Doesn't that essentially come down to Wolverine being a bully? And country music. Man, I hate...
Well, I should have known it wouldn't last.

Later Days.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Media Night

I was originally going to post this in a series of Facebook statuses, but since I haven't done a post here in a while, I thought it might make an interesting experiment in live-blogging. (Yes, I know that's not what live-blogging means. And yes, I know that I said I wouldn't blog about comp stuff. Look, it was either this or a post on the Aero Chunky bar, okay? And I've got to save something for sweeps week.)
Person of Consequence welcomes everyone to another round of "I'm finishing this book before I go to bed, dammit." This evening's challenger is "The New Media Reader," by editors Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort.
7:43 pm. Currently, I'm on page 635 of 800, with an essay by Bill Nichols. It seems like he's trying to update Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." And by "seems," I mean, "that's explicitly what he says he's doing," and the title is also a fair give-away: "The Work of Culture in the Age of Cybernetic Systems." Benjamin essentially said that artwork was originally imbued with an aura of authenticity, but that aura vanishes in the age of mechanical reproduction, especially with technology like the cinema and the camera. Nichols is expanding this idea to the computer, with an emphasis on Baudrillard's concept of simulation and psychoanalytic ideas like the masculine gaze and object fetishization.

8:13 Half an hour, and I've finished the essay and made it 8 pages. This bodes poorly.
Nichols actually covers a lot of the ground that, a few years later, Hayles will be covering in "How We Became Posthuman." They both place emphasis on the cyborg, on abstract/material, on blurring computer and life. Hayles gives a less homogeneous, more sustained view of cybernetics, though. Next: supper, (banana red pepper mushroom pizza) then Lynn Hershman's "The Fantasy Beyond Control."

8:41. Tasty, but slight. (The essay, not the food.) Hershman, a digital instillation artist briefly describes some of her works and what she wants to do next. Basically, she uses interactive systems to require the viewer to make choices that reveal his or her engagement with media. p 649, reached. Next up: Pelle Ehn and Morten Kyng on "Cardboard Computers."

9:18. Ehn and Kyng consider the use of the mock-up, and what happens when you make the transition from a cardboard mock-up to a computer model. Coming at it from entirely practical considerations, they reach a conclusion similar to Nichols: the computer blurs the line between model (or mock-up, or simulation) and actual product. The application of Wittgenstein language games seems to work well in this context, and there's a nice "unifying power of computers" sort of rhetoric. I like the idea of the mock-up: it's basically a physical, material object whose only resemblance to the abstract product may be the way we choose to perceive it.
Next: A trip to the other side of Star Wars' past with "The Lesson of Lucasfilm's Habitat" by Chip Morningstar and F. Randall Farmer. p 663, and counting.

10:06. Where the hell did that 45 minutes go??? Okay: Habitat. It's essentially an early example of a MMOG, played with all the computational power a Commodore 64 can offer. Which is basically equivalent to your average modern microwave. Two of the designers here comment on their experiences with it, and how they were constantly surprised by what the users came up with. This is the first essay in the book that really moves from the one user, one computer model to the more modern conception of cyberspace. And what's really interesting is that the designers explicitly say that for cyberspace games, the implementation platform is unimportant. Of course, they have an economic reason for stating that; they really want to convince people that cyberspace can be reached on Commodore 64s rather than virtual reality goggles or something. But still, it's the sort of declaration that makes a McLuhanite howl in fury. As things become more abstract (ie., the move from the personal computer in front of you into cyberspace), I think it becomes easier and more convenient to forget the technology involved. And that's page 679. Next up, an excerpt from Jay Bolter's "Writing Space."

10:38. Ok, that's better time. Bolter basically follows the same pattern here that he did in his book with Grusin, "Remediation": he states his theory, then demonstrates it through a series of mediating (pun intended examples). In this case, the theory is that "our writing space has been a hybrid of verbal and pictorial elements" since at least the ancient Greeks, and he goes on to prove it. He starts with the basic element, letters, then moves on to consider the basic form of the electronic page; pictures in text from the illuminated medieval manuscript to the computer form; diagrammatic space, that is, a codified, labeled picture; and the closely related numbering space. It's a book I'm clearly going to have to read for my larger dissertation. And that's page 691. Next up, Stuart Moulthrop, and "You Say You Want a Revolution?". I like that the editors parse the title for the headings: "You Want a Revolution." Yeah, that means the same thing.

11:24 pm. No... how did? Gah. Another 45 minute interval. Okay, quickly: Moulthrop's big question is what a digital revolution would mean, and if we're capable of it. He considers the revolutionary ability of hypertext under the McLuhan Laws of Media: What does it enhance, what does it render obsolete, what does it retrieve that was obsolete, and what does it produce or become when taken to its limits? Hypertext, he declares, renders TV obsolete. Well, in terms of the Internet it certainly does; I watch nearly all my shows online these days, and my TV is a conduit for my Xbox. And, more controversially, hypertext performs a recursion on literacy, which means it brings it back, but different. That's a description that gives him a suspicious amount of wiggling room. And I think he gets a little caught up in his revolution; though a little more skeptical than some of his predecessors, it basically falls into the other direction: if it's not utopia, it's dystopia. Anyway, p 705. Next up: Robert Coover's "The End of Books." No recursion, then?

11:53 pm. That was quick. Probably because it was four pages long. Coover presents glowing praise of hypertext as the next great medium, and stomps on the corpse of books for a bit. I think this text is most useful as an artifact; it was, as the editors put it, one of the mainstream declarations of the power of hypertext (originally appearing in printed form in The New York Times Book Review). And in terms of Bolter and Grusin's remediation, it would be interesting to study how Coover attempts to remediate the book in favor of hypertext. I guess I can buy the idea that the book is, very slowly, going to go extinct (though probably not in my lifetime); linear storytelling, on the other hand, isn't going anywhere until people stop living linear lives. And that's p 711. Next up, Scott McCloud's "Time Frames." Comic books. Real fun!

12:16. That was fun. And probably the quickest I'll make it through 20 some pages all night. Even the editors here admit that McCloud's techniques for comics don't extend perfectly into new media; maybe they just liked it because it's a cool text--that's my reason. (Okay, and that the juxtaposition of image and text for narrative purpose is relevant to larger issues.) Anyway, this is chapter four of Understanding Comics, which means it's about how time is conveyed in comics, through spacing, motion lines, words, etc. He also looks at how timelessness is conveyed, and how motion is apparent. About the only thing he doesn't cover is nonmotion, AKA stillness. The only reason that popped into my head is that I'm in this comic book reading group, and last time around, one of the members asked how we could tell that the characters in one of the book were photo-based. Well, I answered, because they're clearly posing. But how do we know that? asked the other guy. And I didn't know. And don't know. So: stillness. Mystery for another day. For now: p. 740. Philip E. Agre's "Surveillance and Capture." Longest essay left in the book. But first, a break to watch tonight's Big Bang Theory. What? It's called priorities.

1:26. ...And we're back. Agre's big idea is that we need to replace the surveillance metaphor of Big Brother and Foucaldian panopticons with the capture model, which collects only specific information about people. That is, surveillance is visual, surreptitious, invasive, centralized and state-oriented; capture model applies linguistic metaphors to human behaviors and emphasizes de-centralization. I'm not sure I buy Agre's notion of capture, as it's a little too cozy with computer science artificial intelligence study and computerized notions of information, but Agre is right in pointing out that we need to be aware of how accepting the surveillance model colors our worldview. Onto p. 763. Espen J. Aarseth's "Nonlinearity and Literary Theory." I hope he's going to talk about Dark Castle again.

2:19 am. If you want to dig through my archives, you can probably find my original review of Aarseth's "Cybertext." (It's too late at night for hyperlinks.) All of that basically still stands, and this essay is essentially an abridged version of the terminology he sets up there (which, frankly, makes it a little more readable). As the editors point out, he extends the discussion to more than just hypertext or computer-based texts; he wants to form a terminology for all sorts of nonlinear texts, from a Choose Your Own Adventure to the I Ching. After multiple readings, though, I still don't know the difference between scriptons and textons, except that they're derived from exactly the part of linguistics that gave me conniptions in Andersen's "A Theory of Computer Semiotics." So if anyone could inform me of said difference, I'd be grateful. Moving on: p 783. "Nomadic Power and Cultural Resistance" by the Critical Art Ensemble.

2:53 am. Idea: in the global village, those in power have become nomads, either roaming the world and taking what they want, or retreating to electronic bunkers. In such a world, traditional forms of protest are no longer valid, so the protests must go online. "By whatever means electronic authority is disturbed, the key is to totally disrupt command and control." "A small but coordinated group of hackers could introduce electronic viruses. worms, and bombs into the data banks, programs, and networks of authority, possibly bringing the destructive forces of inertia into the nomadic realm." It only sounds mildly less "Anarchist Cookbook" in context. p 792. "The World-Wide Web" by Tim Berners-Lee, Robert Cailliau, Ari Luotonen, Henrik Frystyk Nielsen, and Arthur Secret. Call me a pessimist, but five writers bodes poorly for an engaging article. Too many cooks, etc. 8 pages left...

3:09 am. Essentially, the essay is an introduction to the web, aimed at an audience of reasonably adept computer users. It's very much an early document, explaining the difference between the web and its competitors, like gopher. I suppose it was included because the editors wanted to end with a sense of history--rather than the sense of immediate, brand new existence often associated with New Media, they deliberately closed with a work that would invoke a sense of the past and history. It's a bold choice. I would have ended with something, you know, interesting, but the ending's the important part.

This was useful. I'll do it again the next time I decide to cram an 800 page anthology into my brain.

More coming later. NO! NO MORE LATER! DONE! DONE!

Later Days.