The challenges of group work


During a student presentation in my Detective fiction class today, the small groups were assigned to come up with the idea for a police procedural novel.  One of the groups proposed a story involving a “cat lady” who was murdered in her home by a mysterious killer.  As they finished their description, one member of the group added an amusing expansion to their idea:

Student 1: We were tossing around the idea that the killer might only kill people with cats.  And then he shaves one of them.

Student 2: Well, he was tossing that idea around.

Fall TV Roundup one: The Eyebrow returns

Quick bullets:

  • Psych is wrapping up another great season.  Now that Shawn is dating someone, it dampens the tension with O’Hara, but that’s okay.  All is lovely in Psych-land.  Plus plenty of anti-Mentalist snarking.
  • The Office leaps off nicely.  Episode 1, “Gossip,” followed excellent Michael fumbling, and episode two introduced a shakeup that’s stunning after a bit of Michael assholery.  The Tobe/Dwight side plot was amusing too.
  • Castle and Bones are off to a fine start.  Fringe too.
  • A little shakeup in The Mentalist, as the team isn’t sure they want Jane around.  Also, they’re off the Red John case, but he’s gonna break the rules!  It makes me miss Life, actually.
  • Episode one of The Amazing Race stuns.  A 10-minute elimination!  I was already tired of that team (Yoga in the Hood!), but still, you should at least get to fly somewhere before they boot you.  Zev, the guy with Asberger’s, has a good sense of humor and is coping well.  The Professional Poker playing ladies messed up bad, IMO, by lying to everyone about who they are.  They are already busted and now everyone thinks they’re jerks for lying.  Also, Phil rocks the eyebrow, again.

Douglas Coupland rips off ZeFrank

An interesting development in the circuit of plagiarism, citations, and idea borrowing/stealing.  A while ago, ZeFrank’s The Show introduced the “Earth Sandwich,” in which two people on opposite sides of the world put bread on the ground and make a, well, you get it.  In his upcoming novel and some online videos about it, Douglas Coupland “borrows” the idea quite vigorously.  In the video there’s a tiny link to ZeFrank’s site that implies he helped somehow with the Earth sandwich, but there’s no way someone watching the video cold would understand that it was someone else’s idea.

Watching the comments from Ze’s fans on Coupland’s video channel is amusing.   Check it out for yourself on Ze Frank’s blog. Also, here’s the original “If The Earth Were a Sandwich” challenge.

On eggs and baskets

Hey nbc - I gots all ur eggz

We had a short discussion in my Detective fiction class today about The Jay Leno Show and the FOX Seth MacFarlane comedy block.  Perhaps these shows represent the response from major media conglomerates to the death-by-a-thousand-cuts harried forth by the internet.

As broadcast channels become more and more widespread, the centralized broadcast and publishing media become more and more conservative.  Instead of working to expand their offerings to diversify the niches from which they capture audience share, they back fewer and fewer projects for shorter amounts of time.  Witness the vicious proving ground Fall television shows must run — I haven’t heard of any cancellations yet, but there will be some in a month.  Witness also the rank-closing of the music industry.  As one music industry exec put it in the documentary On Piracy, the industry has trended toward “breaking” fewer artists (interesting choice of words, btw) because they lose so much money to the interwebs.

This practice explains both Jay Leno and MacFarlane’s extravaganzas.  Instead of risking money on a wide variety of projects, the networks concentrate on the “sure thing” that audiences already like.  With Jay Leno, they get a bonus because it’s CHEAP.  It costs about the same to produce a week of JLS as it would to produce ONE 10pm show.  That’s quite a discount, and one that will support a loss of market share.

But as investment bankers and fans of aphorism have long advised, it’s unwise to put all your eggs in one basket.  Entertainment Weekly pondered the Leno Show as either the smartest move in television history, or the worst.  The worst part comes from the gamble they’re taking with those time slots.  If JLS fails, NBC will have allowed the other networks to “become entrenched” in those time slots.  We’ll just have to see.

But I’m curious what the opposite would look like.  What if the networks sought to drastically broaden their audience share through risky programming at odd times, along with comprehensive web-replayability?  There are plenty of smart shows that could be shot with no-name actors and up-and-coming directors for cheap to play at 2 in the morning.  The audience could TiVO or web the shows they’re into, and the unpopular shows could have more time to prove themselves.

2009-09-27 Tweets

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Your insurance is worthless now!

Why Airports Suck
Why Airports Suck

Airport, starring Burt Lancaster and Dean Martin
Why We Suck: A Feel Good Guide to Staying Fat, Loud, Lazy, and Stupid, written and narrated by Dennis Leary

Airport is one of those movies I’ve always meant to see but never got around to, until I noticed that it was going to play on AMC one night.  Thank you TiVO.

Why We Suck is the latest screed from Dennis Leary: fun, caustic, the anti-PC book with healthy doses of old-fashioned values and modern liberal perspective.  I agreed and disagreed with much of the book, often simultaneously.

Both works build on the ingrained values at the heart of the American ideal and overturn them at the same time.  Both works also feature fire on their covers but do not actually have any fire inside.  (Or in Leary’s case, fire crackers.  Not one fire cracker anecdote.)

  • Both works have a strong dose of “family values.”  Leary spends a significant portion of the time espousing the old fashioned take on men and women–that men are genetically inclined to go out and win bread, and women to stay home and rear babies.  He makes ample room for working mothers, but has no patience for mothers who dislike mothering, especially stay-at-home mothers who don’t mother.  He’s equally angry at dads who don’t make time for their kids.  Airport involves lots of familial relationships, but the Dean Martin and Burt Lancaster both have troubled marriages.  In one, the marriage breaks up because the tension at home is damaging the kids; in the other, they break up because the philandering husband knocked up the flight attendant and discovers that he really loved her.  Yikes.
  • Both feature badassery.  George Kennedy plays the cigar-chomping Joe Patroni, a burly get-things-done guy who has to move a snowbound jet off the runway so the plane in trouble can land safely.  Dennis Leary plays the same character, basically.
  • Dean Martin’s rascally plane captain gives the hangdog Burt Lancaster all kinds of grief, with hyperbolic rants like “Tell that airport manager to get off his duff and clear that runway!”  Dennis Leary plays the same character, basically.  But he’d say ass.
  • Neither work has time for bureaucrats.  Leary sides with the working class, the people who get up and do it.  He scoffs at the lazy, the fat.  He criticizes the entitled, heaping blame on Bush and his cronies, often for the free ride they got as they climbed to their positions.  Airport manager Burt Lancaster takes a similar tack in a standoff with the officious head of the Airport Board of Trustees.
  • Old ladies are prominent in both works.  One of the subplots in Airport follows a spunky old lady who has mastered the art of stowing away on flights.  Leary’s mom could well be that kind of woman (or would if it weren’t illegal).  She’s got pep and a no-nonsense attitude.

Most importantly, both works make a sketch of America both proud and ashamed.  We’re a complex people, capable of much but also fat, lazy, and stupid.  It’s startling how well Airport holds up, and I’m surprised to find as many connections to Leary’s book as I have.

Favorite moments:

  • From Airport: when the captain tries to reason with the Willie Loman who’s purchased both flight insurance and a bomb (not nearly as funny as the hilariously mustachioed Sonny Bono from Airplane! 2), he warns “Your flight insurance is worthless now!”  I don’t know why, but I thought it was pretty funny.
  • From Why We Suck: Throughout the early parts of the book, Leary regularly chastises his readers that they may be unworthy to read the book or should put it down right away.  My favorite moment?  He refers to an abacus and then, after a pause, says “And if you don’t know what an abacus is, turn off this audio book right now and throw it out the window, along with whatever you’re using to listen to it.”

Campus Security Alert

An email alert from Campus Security today, from the scripts of Hu$tle to the streets of Chicago:

The Office of Campus Safety and Security has received a report of a financial “scam” SUCCESSFULLY committed in the area of Congress and State. Here are the details:

The below described suspects convinced a student to participate in this “scam” by informing her that they would split a check for $800.00, which was found in a lost wallet, with her. For her to receive her split, she would have to give them $60.00 in cash. The student gave the suspects the $60.00 in cash. She was told to follow them to an office, where their boss would cash the $800.00 check. The suspects took her cash, went into a building, leaving her outside. They never returned.

This scam actually appears in an episode of Hu$tle, but in a version involving a fancy dog and a bartender. The old rule: you can’t hustle an honest man. Someone who wants to get something for nothing ends up with nothing for something. Or, as campus security advises us:

· If an opportunity appears “too good to be true” it probably is.

286 pages of awesome

Today I turned in my application for tenure. Whew.


Now it’s a simple matter of waiting for approvals from my English Department colleagues, my Chair, my Dean, the All College Tenure committee, the Vice President for Academic Affairs, and the Provost. The Provost will let me know on 15 March.

Cue the Jeopardy! theme… 492,480 times.

The hat makes the detective

Alleyn's crew
Alleyn's crew

We finished watching “Death at the Bar” last night. A good installment, but without much that really stands out as excellent. This punnily-named episode tells the story of a lawyer murdered at a pub (double-play on bar. Get it? GET IT?), perhaps with a poisoned dart. A few thoughts:

  • CID Alleyn’s assistant, Inspector Fox, scowls his way along, smiling in a taciturn way and grumping about stuff. He rules.
  • The story includes suspects with an unspoken homosexual subtext that works really well. Given England’s attitude about male companionship in the 1940s, it’s not surprising that the subtle communication among the characters was as explicit as it got.
  • The owner of the bar is played by Paul Brooke, a heavy-set British character actor with a lazy eye whom I will always think of as Mr. Titspervert from Bridget Jones Diary.
  • The British have a meditative approach to shooting these kinds of mysteries that solidifies their place as intellectual exercises rather than dramatic stories. There was one shot that went about 50 seconds too long (it was a one minute of the train from London arriving in the tiny town where the murder occurred. Inspector Fox leans out from the car about halfway through the shot and watches the train creak to a stop. It does nothing for the story except to establish a leisurely pace.
  • Alleyn exemplifies the gentleman detective, despite his role as a professional inspector. At one point, as he strides through the low tideland mud talking to one of the locals, his crisp suit and hat looks downright dapper. “He looks dapper.” I say to Jenny. When I asked if she imagined I’d ever look dapper, Jenny thought for a long moment and then said no. She tried to say that no-one looks dapper anymore, but I agree with her original assessment: I’m no dapper dan. At best, I’ll achieve tweedy.

Support MAP funding (an Open Letter to the Illinois legislature)

Also sent snail mail to Rep Karen A. Yarbrough, Sen. Kimberly A. Lightford, and Governor Pat Quinn.

I am writing to ask for your help in supporting the Monetary Award Program (MAP) during the second half of this year. It’s my understanding that MAP has been funded at only 50%, and without your intervention, it will not provide the remaining funds to students in the program.

As I’m sure you know, students receive MAP funding based on need, and rely on that funding as an essential part of their tuition package. Without it, some students will be obligated to take on even larger loan obligations, and many more will be forced out of school for lack of funds. When we fail to provide higher education access to students from modest backgrounds, we betray our country’s founding notion that everyone should have a chance to succeed.

MAP plays an essential role in our state’s higher education infrastructure. Failing to fully fund it will result in fewer students pursuing college degrees at a time when our information economy desperately needs smart, educated workers. Funding MAP means funding our future. Our students need you. Please don’t fail them now.

Brendan Riley
Assistant Professor, English Department
Columbia College Chicago

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town
Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town

by Cory Doctorow; narrated by the author

GoodReads says I’ve been reading Someone Comes to Town since 3 April. That’s when I discovered and downloaded the back-episodes of Cory Doctorow’s ongoing reading of his novel. It finished last week and I’m pleased.

The book tells the story of a man in a magical family of oddities: his father is a mountain, his mother a washing machine. He’s got a bunch of magical brothers, including an evil one. The main character also undertakes crazy maker projects, like sanding his entire house and filling it with bookshelves. And helping a dumpster-diver build a citywide free wifi network.

It’s an enchanting book with major drama and a good arc, but it’s in the little details that it really succeeds. The sections about network philosophy could be excised from the magical horrorshow and be their own thing. A few other thoughts:

  • More than some of Doctorow’s other books, I feel like there are a lot of tangents or threads that weave in and out of the story but don’t get resolved. Under that umbrella of real-life’s unexplained and unrelated events, the magical elements of the story stay in bounds, and the story doesn’t feel like a cheat.
  • There’s an amusing twist in the idea that Alan (the main character) and his other brothers are each named ordinally, using the alphabet for their first initials. The names themselves are less important, so the narrator and characters refer to Alan by any random A name. It’s a little disconcerting early on but it works later.
  • That the audio-book is being performed by the author gives the interpretive elements a distinction and value that are just great. The down side, however, is that the timely updates on Doctorow’s status will seem odd and annoying in archived versions of the book. I also tired of the cuckoo clock. I like it, but Doctorow commented about how he liked it every darn time it went off.
  • I mentioned the book shelf project above, but I wanted to quote the relevant passage below. It’s the bibliophile’s fantasy.
  • I’ve pondered the title, which doesn’t have the utilitarian title like Eastern Standard Tribe or the jaunty zazz of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Zazz aside, I don’t understand it. It could refer to Alan’s brothers, who interrupt his wacky life in his polished-wood bookshelf house. He could be both, the person who comes and the person who leaves.

Anyhow, worth a look or listen if you’re into his books or this sounds interesting to you.

The Book fantasy, from Cory Doctorow’s Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, follows after the break.

Continue reading Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town

In which I pontificate on the significance of zombies

I was interviewed for this week’s edition of Are We Alone? Science Radio for Thinking Species. You can go to the website to listen to the episode “Skeptic Check: Waking the Dead,” or you can listen to the bits with me right here, when I get them edited up.

Update 2009 09 23: I’ve excerpted the episode to just include the zombies section. I’m featured in a big chunk of it. I think I did okay, but I’m afraid I sound a bit erudite. I actually use the phrase “one might argue.” Put down the monocle, Lord Fauntleroy. Anyhow, here is the zombie section of the episode:

Also, the reporter refers to me as an Associate Professor of English. I’m still an Assistant Professor, I’m afraid. I’m pretty sure I got it right in our interview, but oh well.

2009-09-20 Tweets

  • Want to try Netflix free for a month? email me. #
  • Recently enjoyed: Dr. Who Christmas special, Runaway Bride. Delightful! #
  • favorite song regularly played on The Current? “Dominos” by The Big Pink #
  • I just noticed that sausage and assuage are anagrams. #
  • weather in chicago — delightfully cool. #

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Blood on the Coal

I first heard this song at Unwigged and Unplugged concert I attended last Spring.  It’s a Folksmen song about an out-of-control train running into a coal mine and killing a bunch of people.  The best couplet?

Now an Irishman named Murphy said “I’ll stop that Iron Horse”
As he stood athwart its passage, and it crushed him dead, of course

Please enjoy a bootleg video of that song in concert, compliments of YouTube.


Roald Dahl was a bit of a cad

The Irregulars
The Irregulars

The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington
by Jennet Conant; narrated by Simon Prebble

The Irregulars tells the story of the British spies who worked for their country’s cause in D.C. during WW2. These spies did an awful lot of information gathering, as well as some press manipulation and character assassination, and even perhaps some more villainous stuff. Conant crafts a compelling narrative from a wide variety of sources, including the secret official history of those years. Some interesting tidbits:

  • Roald Dahl was injured early in the war and spent the rest of the time attached to the embassy in America. He spent much of his time writing war stories and other dark tales, and spying on upper-crust American society.
  • Dahl was a cad, sleeping with lots of ladies and apparently showing little real affection for them. One person described his behavior toward women who’d fallen in love with him as cruel.
  • Dahl hung out with Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt. He got lots of invites to the White House because he was very friendly with Eleanor.
  • Ian Fleming, another friend of Dahl’s in the secret service, gave him the idea for a story about a woman who murders her husband with a leg of lamb and then serves the lamb to the cops. “Lamb to the Slaughter” was the story that Dahl wrote.
  • Dahl also came up with the idea for a story about a man who wagers his Cadillac against another man’s lighter, with the latter asked to forfeit his finger. This story later became “The Man from the South” — a famous Alfred Hitchcock Episode.

As usual, Simon Prebble does an excellent job with the reading, giving real emotion to the sometimes dry text with his elegant upper-crust British voice. Delightful.