Back from Spring Break

So I’m back from Spring Break.  It was a fun time, with good family stuff and not enough work done.  I’m off to PCA at the end of the week, so the blog will be spotty until 5 April, probably.  In the meantime, enjoy this picture of Chicago Comic Convention promoters who were hanging out at Navy Pier yesterday.

Star Wars and Comics photo op

Why?

Sometimes the adult human chafes against the parent, and you say things you don’t quite mean.  So then you revise, and this happens:

Setup: we’re 2.5 hours into a three hour car ride, Finn is screeching (not in an upset way, but loudly) and Avery has just finished a particularly long run of questioning everything I say, including the dictum that she cannot take her brother’s toy because it will make him scream more and that I can’t play the Lady GaGa song because I don’t have that song on a CD or my iPod.

Me: [sighing] Arg!  Avery you question everything I say.  You can’t take anything on my word.

[thoughtful pause in which I realize that I endorse this worldview and am expressing tired-ness rather than what I really think.]

Me: And that’s a good thing.  You should ask lots of questions.

Avery: Why?

Ada Lovelace Day: Barbara McClintock

Barbara McClintock
Barbara McClintock

A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock by Evelyn Fox Keller

For Ada Lovelace day this year, I decided to read a book about a female scientist with whom I wasn’t familiar. After some searchin–in which I discovered that nearly every book I could find about Maria Mitchell, the first prominent female astronomer was for kids–I settled on Barbara McClintock, a pioneering geneticist and cytologist who worked from the 1920s into the 1980s. Some thoughts:

  • Keller does a nice job oscillating between discussion of McClintock’s work and summaries of the concepts and ideas circulating in the field at the time. These chapters taxed my atrophied Advanced Placement Bio 2 knowledge, but were ultimately decipherable. The book does leave a few questions for me in its age: having been published in 1983, it doesn’t cover the continuing influence of her work in the succeeding 27 years.
  • McClintock faced a number of challenges early in her career based on her temperament and her sex. At one point, Keller quotes McClintock saying something to the effect of, “I could have been a maverick or a woman, but being both was a major hinderance.” Wikipedia mentions a later biography that disputes whether McClintock faced professional barriers because of her sex, but Keller’s reports of places where her superiors openly said a woman wouldn’t be offered a research position make that hard to buy, in my mind. To be fair, I haven’t read that other biography.
  • McClintock made a number of key discoveries, which I will try to relate here with a layman’s understanding of this stuff: she developed a number of new ways to document meiosis and chromosomes, and her early study of maize chromosomes provided evidence to support several key ideas in the 1920s.
  • She discovered transposition in maize in the 1950s, but the idea was so contextualized and difficult to understand outside that narrow field that it didn’t really get traction until others discovered it in the late 1960s and later. In 1983 she won the Nobel prize for this discovery.
  • She also did some work helping biologists in South America preserve species of maize that were threatened, and realized that the chromosomal differences documented the human migratory pattern across the region. Her survey of the species and reports to anthropologists were also important.
  • My favorite story, though, comes from 1944. McClintock was invited to Stanford where they were studying some kind of mold for which the cytology (meiosis, etc) had not yet been worked out. She was there for about a week before she figured it out and explained it to everybody. Kick ass.

Keller’s biography is largely laudatory, with a little nod to the fact that McClintock’s personality had a lot to do with the ill will she felt from many. But it goes a long way to document how her differing perspective, one of surveying the whole subject (hence the title) gave her insights that led to new bits of knowledge.

Definition of Immersion

Avery was playing her latest Wii game, World of Zoo.  Titled, I imagine, to trick careless parents who’ve been asked to buy World of Goo.  It’s not bad.

World of Zoo
World of Zoo

But here’s the story:
Avery’s playing with the elephant exhibits and is cleaning one of her two elephants with the brush tool.  The other elephant wanders over and butts his nose in.  Avery scowls at the screen and mutters “Get outta here, I’m not brushing you.”

It makes me a bit nervous

Thinking by baboon
Thinking by baboon

So my college has recently started an Honors program, which I was asked to participate in by running an Honors section of our research writing class. Some thoughts thus far:

  • Columbia has always been ambivalent about the idea of honors because it implies that honors students are “better,” which subsequently implies non-honors students are “worse.” Because we have a history as an open admissions institution–lately shifted to “generous admissions”–it’s doubly important to our institutional identity that we be inclusive and not elitist. But at the same time, exit interviews are showing more and more students leaving Columbia because they don’t feel intellectually challenged enough. So we’re forming an Honors program.
  • Part of the challenge has been defining what an “honors” class would be. How does it differ from a regular class? My thinking, based on my experience as an undergraduate, is that it moves faster and gets farther and expects more because the baseline skill set for the class is expected to be higher. The conversations in class tend to be richer and the collaborative homework more fruitful in part because the students are traditionally successful academic students and likely to do the homework you’ve assigned.
  • But there’s also an expectation that instructors will shape the class to make it fit the “honors” experience. But that doesn’t just mean a heavier reading load, we’re warned. This, of course, yields responses from most instructors along the lines of “I already run my class like an honors class!” So what to do?

My WR2HN course has, ahem, a heavier reading load than does the regular version of the course I teach. It also has been much more successful (thus far) in yielding interesting writing from the students. One result is that I’m considering toning my experimental W.G. Sebald – meets Sarah Vowell – meets the Flaneur research assignment down in my summer online classes. Perhaps this project (in its current form) NEEDS a longer gestation period.

But one student (someone planning to leave Columbia at the end of the semester because she doesn’t feel challenged enough) expressed a thought shared by several students when they started to tackle the writing project for the semester: “It made me a bit nervous.” I wonder if that’s the crucial difference between honors and non-honors students: honors students are the ones who’ve figured out the academic game well enough (or had enough exposure to it) to be comfortable with the assignments we offer them. Thus, the classes full of honors students run smoothly because there’s a stronger compatibility between what we want them to do and what they are able and willing to do.

But what if, as Ken Bain writes in What the Best College Teachers Do, the best learning happens at the upper edge of what the students are capable of? Perhaps the goal of honors should be to find that comfort zone in each student and push them out of it in ways that mainstream classes usually don’t.

thinking” image by baboon, used under CC license

The terrible vagaries of March

Morning of March 19 — no jacket needed, temp in the 50s.

March 19, a sunny day in Chicago

Morning of March 20, snowy and crummy, temp in low 30s.

March 20, January returns.

And later in the day.

Darn snow

Crummy.

The Redbreast

The Redbreast
The Redbreast

by Jo Nesbø; translated by Don Bartlett

Recovering alcoholic Harry Hole drags an albatross-laden career behind him, buoyed up by his brilliant successes.  After he makes a critical mistake with political implications, the cover-up pushes him into a promotion and he’s free to do what he wants: follow his hunches.  Conveniently, he’s investigating a strange series of murders that appear to link to one another only loosely if at all.  He works with a series of pals who are as good or better at investigating than he, and he navigates the choppy waters of dating and being on the wagon with a forthright attitude.

Some thoughts:

  • Another Scandanavian book that involves a nasty man in a powerful position coercing a woman to have sex with him.  I really dislike that theme.  Ugh.
  • The alcoholism works alright in this book, but as a trope for detectives it’s past being tired and back to being useable.  I’m glad Nesbø doesn’t spend too much time on it.
  • The neo-nazi elements work well, with the thug character getting quite a bit of page space.  I like the moments of realization he has about his behavior, they remind me of the end of Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (something Kubrick leaves out).
  • I was less interested in all the flashback story telling about WW2.  Admittedly, it added depth to the mystery because it gave the reader a handle with which we could speculate about who the villain was.  But I was pretty pleased when the novel stopped jumping back and forth between the two stories.  Also, see the first bullet again.

Overall, it’s a good book.  It took me a while to get into it, though.  The payoff isn’t bad, but the book isn’t quite as good as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

The Analytical Engine

The Analytical Engine by Jon Steinhagen, playing at the Circle Theatre from 10 Feb to 28 March.

A romantic comedy that turns on the question of head versus heart, The Analytical Engine romps along lightly, with solid characterizations, several amusing twists of plot and character, and a well-crafted narrative to fit the drawing-room comedy genre. A few additional thoughts:

  • While everyone in the cast does very well, extra praise goes to Jon Steinhagen (the playwright), whose hilarious bachelor merchant gets the most laughs and has to do the most flustering and buffoonery. Excellent.
  • The play turns on a brilliant young scientist who has used Charles’ Babbage’s ideas for an analytical engine to build herself a nineteenth-century eHarmony machine, which matches her to the town lawyer instead of her less glamorous admirer. Hilarity ensues.
  • We get a visit from Lady Ada Lovelace, who serves as a wise figure not unlike Leonardo Da Vinci in the Drew Barrymore vehicle Ever After. She gives advice for our lovelorn inventor and helps provide quite a bit of amusing dialog for the other characters. Interestingly enough, I have Ada Lovelace on my mind since 24 March is Ada Lovelace day. Who’re YOU going to blog about?
  • The mother of the family is an amusing character as well. We come to see that she’s deeper than the first act would have you believe. She gets the best line, though: “If you have daughters, I hope that you are lucky and they don’t have brains.”
  • Second best line comes when the two men are about to duke it out. Ada delights, “Oh! It’s turning into something out of an amateur theatrical!”

Well worth a look if you enjoy light comedy and a pleasant evening at the theatre. And if you don’t, what kind of monster are you?

Rules for a good modern zombie movie

I just saw Zombieland and, like many, enjoyed it quite a bit.  The film does an excellent job of balancing the genre with its own angle, of blending humor and horror and solid characterization and a bit of fear.  If you haven’t seen the movie, its protagonist narrates by means of his personal set of zombie-survival rules, so I thought I’d write a review that does the same.

Rule 1: Set the appropriate tone
By crafting a careful opening that helps shape the viewer’s expectations, you’ve done half the work you need to do.  Zombieland‘s opening explains its balance between gore and humor from the opening moment. C.F. Dawn of the Dead (2004) has a killer opening sequence.  Also, 28 Days Later.

Rule 2: Distinguish yourself
The zombie genre has matured.  A good zombie movie needs to make a space for itself by innovating, either through striking moments or dialog or conceits (like this film’s rules).  Shawn of the Dead does this very well, with its constructed camera style.

Rule 3: Don’t forget the zombies
In the drive to develop strong characters we care about, it would be easy to forget about the zombies.  Don’t.  Zombieland balances this well, giving us plenty of abandoned apocalypscapes in contrast with plenty of sprinty, bloody zombies.

Rule 4: Make the characters real people
Humorous zombie films fail when the characters never touch the viewers.  While Return of the Living Dead entertains, it never tugs at your heart strings.  By contrast, Shawn does; Zombieland‘s genius reveal in Bill Murray’s house gives us insight into Tallahassee’s character and brings an entirely new register to the film.  Tallahassee’s background doubles the depth of the film in a single swipe.

Rule 5: Great set pieces
The climax of the film can’t just be another space — zombie apocalypses are about the apocalypse part, not just the death.  The amusement park ranks right up there with the Dawn of the Dead mall and the 28 Days Later mansion.

Rule 6: Let the story take precedent
The story of JAWS goes that Peter Benchley got thrown off the set after he protested the ridiculous air-tank shenanigans.  Spielberg claimed that if he’d brought the audience that far, they’d buy the ending.  So it goes with Zombieland.  The early film gives much more care not just to detailing the rules, but to showing them in action.  The later sequences in the film are less careful about it, with the characters not only breaking their own rules in the name of personal growth, but breaking rules of common sense like goofing around in a mansion or turning on a giant amusement park.  Sometimes you need to let the story be what it is, common sense and know-it-alls be damned.

That said, I have a few complaints (these are a bit spoilery, I guess):

  • “Always check the back seat” never had a payoff.  I cry Chekhov’s gun.  Also, we never saw what was in the roller-bag Columbus carried.
  • It was unclear to me if the zombies are undead or 28 Days Later infected.  They seem to be the latter.
  • For people as crafty as the girls, I don’t buy that they’d turn on all the lights in the amusement park.  And by the way…
  • Why was the power still on?  Lame.

Another Human Target Wilhelm Scream

Did you hear that?
Did you hear that?

Another appearance of the Wilhelm Scream on Human Target.  This time, the mission takes Chance deep into the jungles of Peru(?) where he leads a bunch of ne’er-do-wells into a minefield.  The first or second “rebel” to step on a mine Wilhelms as he flies into the air.

Also, this episode introduces Kim Coates as “Bertram,” a villainous “pirate” whom I’m sure we’ll see again.  I remember Coates most distinctly for his nervous, jittery performance as the “paper paper” drifter.

Chat Roulette

So, like the good humanities scholar I am, I’m writing about something without having tried it.

ChatRoulette is a fascinating idea, both for its brazen webby-ness (chat with people you don’t know!), its instant and obvious trollery (dudez show their junk!), and the potential for hilarity.  The two funniest ideas I’ve heard out of it so far: 1) reaction videos to appalling images (Goatse, to start; if you don’t know what that is, you probably don’t want to), and 2) Piano improv.  Check out this video, courtesy of BoingBoing:

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=32vpgNiAH60]

What I find fascinating about all this goes to the old William Gibson canard (paraphrased here), the Web finds its own uses.  What the owners of ChatRoulette thought people would do with it isn’t what people might ultimately do with it.  Here are some other ideas I have off the top of my head:

  • Chat Roulette chain letters: make a sign with a funny message that asks other people to mimic the message; try to get as many Chat Roulette users to show the message as possible.
  • Using only your face, see how many <5 second connections you can get in a row.
  • See how long you can go without giving any input, like the Chinese media interviewer who went by the pseudonym Mrs. Silence (or something like that).
  • Collect locations

But I can’t bring myself to play it because I really don’t want to see some guy’s butt.

Why not wii?

Beatles
Beatles

I just ordered Guitar Hero 5 (with a guitar) and Beatles Rock Band for the Wii.  How come the Guitar Hero controller will work on the Wii Rock Band Games but the Rock Band controllers won’t work on Guitar Hero?  Those jerky guitar heroes are so snobby.

The Worst Hard Time

The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, by Timothy Egan; narrated by Peter Lawlor

A duster rolls across the prairie
A duster rolls across the prairie

Whoa doggies, the dust bowl sucked. Worst Hard Time tells the story of the Great Depression through the eyes of the people living in the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles, an area called “no man’s land” that was the high plains before the farmers showed up to plant wheat. It’s a harrowing and fascinating book about a mythological but nonspecific part of American history. A few thoughts:

  • It’s interesting to see the same kinds of battles we fight now being fought then. On one hand you have scientists and other folks who look at the evidence and say, “Hey, we did this. We’ve got to try and do something to fix it.” And then you have people who revile those proclamations, irritated that anyone would blame the farmers for the plight of the dust bowl. One story that threads its way through the whole book involves a group of people called the “Last Man Club,” panhandle-dwellers who vowed to stay on “until the last man.” The founder of the club moved to Amarillo. The parallels with modern evaluations of global climate change are hard to ignore.
  • It’s difficult for us to imagine or understand the sheer volume of dirt in the air during the dusters. Like nothing most of us have ever seen. The storms rolled in and made it difficult to breathe or even see. People sealed up their houses against the dirt and still it came in everywhere. A new condition arose among the dust-bowl dwellers called dust pneumonia. After the third year of dust storms, doctors started seeing diseases usually reserved for men who’d spent lifetimes deep in coal mines.
  • Human greed can be directly recognized as the most significant factor in causing the dust bowl. To whit: people started farming the grasslands during the 1900s and 1910s. When WW2 started, Herbert Hoover (as U.S. food administrator) guaranteed $2/bushel of wheat, and the gold rush was on. With the land in the panhandle so cheap and the wheat so profitable, farmers plowed under more and more of the grasslands. After the war, the wheat price dropped precipitously, bottoming out so low that some places couldn’t sell wheat at all, and it would rot in piles at grain elevators. Of course, the farmers had bought stuff on credit using the high water mark as their income, so they plowed and grew MORE wheat to try and make up the difference in price through quantity. This pushed the price even lower. Finally, wheat and drought combined to drive many farmers away, leaving the land bare and exposed to the wind. Substitute wheat for housing prices and you have a vision of the last ten years in the American real estate market.
  • Egan drives his story by focusing on a town, a few key figures, and the historical forces shaping the region.  It’s full of detail and heart, and lots of dust.  The harrowing details of life during the storms hit the hardest, as with the woman who learned not to serve dinner until people were ready to sit down, as it would start accumulating a dust coating the instant it was served, or the man who believed his claustrophobia came from the fact that his infancy was spent in a crib with a damp sheet draped overhead every moment of every day.  This leaves out all the poor souls who died from breathing dust or getting lost in the storms.
  • Very interesting, too, are the last chapters that highlight the lingering problems in the region.   One of the answers to the drought, early on, was to tap the enormous Ogalala aquifer, an underground water reserve the size of Lake Erie.  In the 1930s, it was impractical; now we’re doing it faster than ever.  Egan says at present rates, it will run out within a century.  It was  also during the depression that the government started farming subsidies to help keep families on land.  Now, of course, farming subsidies have been perverted into corporate profits for large-scale industrial farms.  I find it interesting that the region of the country most vocal about being “anti-big government” has its industry so closely tied up in a socialist program like farm subsidies.  How long would those concerns survive, I wonder, if the free market really got hold?

Narrator, Peter Lawlor does an excellent job.  His subdued southern accent works well for the narrator voice, and he does just enough characterization to give the first-hand accounts a distinct sound.

An interesting book, all told.  Well worth the read.  Or listen.

Critical Regionalism

Critical Regionalism
Critical Regionalism

Critical Regionalism: Connecting Politics and Culture in the American Landscape by Douglas Reichert Powell

*Full disclosure: the author works in my department and is a friend of mine.

In Critical Regionalism, Reichert Powell proposes a mode of critical inquiry one might describe as palimpsestic. Recognizing the multiple forces that go into shaping concepts of regions, scholars should explore and engage with as many perspectives as possible, seeking to understand how all the interested parties understand their region. By highlighting these different perspectives and histories, a critical regionalist scholar can work to build bridges between the parties and make positive change in the way regions are defined and explored.

The book suggests a methodological approach to the study of place that weaves among regional studies, geography, history, culture studies, and literary criticism. Much of the book centers around Johnson City, TN and Appalachia. The multivalent perspectives of the region that come into play are fascinating and delightful, and the critical regionalist approach develops on fronts both historical and literary. Reichert Powell also calls for a more engaged academy, suggesting that universities construct themselves as bubbles separated from their home communities and we would do well to dissect our own concept of the “place” of the university in the larger world.

I also noticed some connections to other scholars and scholarly projects (aside from those directly mentioned by DRP):

  • Jeff Rice’s work on place seems particularly relevant in the context of this book. Not being someone who studies place much, I can’t say where this book settles into such discourses, but there it is.
  • I’m reminded a bit of Ulmer’s Heuretics, with its intensely personal lens used as a guiding and structuring device.
  • Reichert Powell mentions De Certeau a couple times, but I couldn’t help noticing the connections between this book and The Practice of Everyday Life.

A solid scholarly work and definitely worth a read.