Thursday, February 22, 2007

Insomnia and the storm that was

I can't sleep at the moment, so I've decided to try and fatigue myself with an overdue blog entry. I'm not holding out great hopes. But at least I will be a good blogger and get something new in before or at the one-week-since-last-post deadline I unofficially hold for myself

It has been a while since my last post. Has anything of import happened in Newfoundland since then? Hmm, let me think .... Yes, yes, I do seem to remember a giant motherfucker of a storm. Only vaguely, though. I seem to remember glancing out my window into my parking lot and seeing something like this:

And that's after the plough came through. The second time

Yes, as you might have noticed if you watched the national news for more than a nanosecond the last few days, we got hit with one of those storms I'd like to say we get once or twice a winter here -- if it weren't for the fact that we get them a few more times than once or twice. Say, three or four or twelve times.

And poor Kristen seems to have a talent for visiting me just in time to experience them. Last February she came, and had her flight cancelled because of a comparable storm. All in all, we discovered, not such a bad thing! She ended up staying for an extra two days. So when we woke up on tuesday morning to an ongoing blizzard, we were quite delighted ... until we realized that Air Canada was being a bit cagy and not cancelling her flight, only delaying it by degrees. It was supposed to have left by one in the afternoon ... and then two, and then two-thirty, and the four ... so instead of a lovely extra day of visiting, we were left checking the A/C website every fifteen minutes in the hope that the flight was cancelled. Which it wasn't. Arrgh.

That on top of the fact that we'd had to cancel our dinner reservations the evening before because of the storm. That of course didn't stop us from putting a pizza delivery person through the agony of driving through the snow. Gotta love the gumption of the Giovanni Cabot's people. They're the like the Post Office, only tastier.

Anyway, Kristen made it out yesterday (Tuesday), though her flight was delayed four hours. And driving her to the airport was entertaining, to say the least -- both for the occasional terror of the road conditions, and the perennial amazement I have in watching this city dig out from these storms. I wish I'd had my camera on hand to document the anthill-like activity. Everyone will have to be satisfied instead with some pics I snapped on campus this afternoon:

And downtown:

Friday, February 16, 2007

Why 24 has jumped the shark ...

The problem with shows based on a winning formula is that eventually they do become, well, formulaic. And I have to say, 24 has done a fairly decent job in terms of keeping my interest even when this became apparent around say season three, but lately things have become somewhat ridiculous.

To be fair however, the conception of 24 jumping the shark is sort of entertaining in itself -- one imagines Jack Bauer flashing his badge to Quint and Chief Brody, commandeering the great white "on matters of national security," then riding the shark and jumping it (a la Free Willy) over a jetty or something to have it land squarely on top of the lead terrorist and eat him. Betcha didn't see that coming, Fayed!

But I digress.

My problem is that, now that the show is working through the same basic storyline for the sixth time, in order to keep things from getting stale they've turned things up to eleven.

Bored with the relatively few civilian casualties in previous seasons? Let's start this time with a pre-existing state of emergency! Hundreds already dead!

Not satisfied with near-misses from nuclear weapons? Let's set one off in Los Angeles this time!

You think Jack Bauer's been given an easy ride so far? Let's make him the victim of three years of torture!

And wait! Let's have him kill his best friend to save a terrorist!

Enemies not sufficiently dastardly? Let's make the mysterious bluetooth guy from last season Jack's brother!

That not enough of a disfunctional family for you? Let's make Jack's father the evil mastermind! (Paging Dr. Freud ...)

Jack's willingness to torture has become a little wussy? Let's have him torture his brother! (Shall we start a pool betting on how many episodes it will be before he tortures Daddy?)

To be fair, the expectations game in television is a hard one to play ... shows that hit on a winning formula become understandably reluctant to tamper with it, even when it's painfully obvious that it's becoming tired. Television is a conservative medium in the truest sense of the word insofar as it fears change -- which is why almost every sitcom since The Honeymooners is essentially the same story, with just the characters, fashion and sexual vocabulary changing from year to year. I am in fact enjoying 24 this season, but I have to wonder where it's going to go from here -- what are they going to do next season to up the ante?

And there's the rub. This season we're already starting to venture into the absurd. What happens next?

When Jack was kidnapped by the Chinese at the end of last season, I got excited about the prospect of a 24 that would break all its own conventions and have as its story arc a daring rescue mounted by rogue CTU operatives in Manchuria ... away from their usual setpieces, away from LA, eschewing the comforts of home. Have Chloe set up in a remote trailer with jury-rigged equipment on a Chinese mountainside while Bill and Curtis (RIP, poor Curtis) and whoever else was still walking at the end of last season infiltrates the prison camp. Meanwhile, have the president, upon finding out what's going on, have to choose between running interference for his guys and risk an international incident or giving up his people.

That would have been cool. It would have been a departure. And it would have forestalled the shark-jumping for a season or two.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Happy corporate-manufactured kitschy heart-and-Hallmark day!

I was very pleased with my Valentine's Day entry last year, and don't quite have the brainpower today to top it ... so, like so many people do when inspiration fails them, I'll let Savage Chickens express my feelings for me:

Monday, February 12, 2007

Ender's vindication

There’s an interesting article in the current Harper’s about “The Coming Robot Army,” dealing with the increasing presence in the American military of unmanned vehicles. The article’s author, Steve Featherstone, narrates his experiences at a handful of “industry” shows—where engineering firms, large and small, pitch their products to the military. Everything from tank-sized robot weapons platforms to tiny spybots (both airborne and ground-based) is on display, along with promotional videos featuring Full Metal Jacket’s R. Lee Ermy and MacGyver himself, Richard Dean Anderson.

What struck me was the frequent recourse the prostheletizers of robot warfare had to the language of video games when relating the user-friendliness of their machines. “If you can operate a game boy, you’re good,” says one representative. R. Lee Ermy, in full drill sergeant mode in his promo video, screams “The next time you start thinking about telling kids to put away that video game, think again! Some day they could be using those same kinds of skills to run a robot that will save their bacon!”

This made me think of Orson Scott Card’s excellent SF novel Ender’s Game, in which, in which gifted children are recruited early into the military and taught the art of warfare. Ender Wiggin, our protagonist, proves talented beyond the dreams of his mentors and graduates into a specialized form of training, in which he plays simulations of space battles, networked to other children trained at the same academy he attended.

(Warning for those who have not read the novel: I’m about to give away the ending, so if you want to read it—and I recommend that you do—stop reading now).

The simulations get increasingly difficult, with increasingly greater odds against them and an enemy increasingly familiar with Ender & co.’s tactics. Ultimately they face the enemy at their homeworld with a pitifully small fleet against vastly superior enemy numbers. In desperation, Ender sends his fleet in a suicidal attack that destroys the entire alien planet.

The twist is that what Ender took to be a training simulation for when he would command actual fleets from a distance was in fact real—that the ships he and his cohorts commanded were not simulated but actual; and the final, total destruction of the enemy was an actual genocidal (or “xenocidal,” I suppose) massacre.

The point here is that every time I play an online first-person shooter game, I get killed rather a lot—and I suspect that many of the people killing me are all of about twelve years old, kids raised not so much on as in computer and video games, whose intimate familiarity with these virtual environment is second nature … while for me, having grown up with the archaic technology of Space Invaders, ColecoVision and the Commodore 64, the extra split second it takes to be aware of things in those sophisticated virtual worlds is the difference between virtual life and virtual death.

Hence, the insistence of military engineers’ on the Playstation-esque qualities of roboticized warfare makes me think that Orson Scott Card’s dystopian vision was pretty spot on. One of the principal criticisms of the novel was its lack of believability (always a dubious thing when talking about SF, but that’s another discussion), insofar as some readers couldn’t accept the premise of twelve-year-olds exhibiting the kind of expertise as those in the novel. I’m not so sure. In the CGI industry, firms don’t hire computer programmers and train them to be artists—that would be futile. Rather, they hire artists and train them to use computers, because a talent for art is not something that can be taught. If warfare ever does come down to the remote operation of machines from computer terminals, who then becomes the best candidate—the twentysomething soldier relatively new to the intimacies and nuances of cutting-edge technology, or the ten-year-old prodigy who wipes the floor with people twice his age at computer game competitions?

And would the generals let him know those are real people he’s wiping out?

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The week that wouldn't end

Normally weekends don't make much of a difference in my life, nor have they for a long time. I frequently work half- or full days on Saturdays and Sundays, either at home or at the office, and my weekly schedule is open enough that if I'm totally overwhelmed, I can take some me-time midweek. It's one of the reasons I love my job.

But all I could think this week was "My god, is it Friday yet?"

I'm not sure what it was, but this week seemed to last forever. Part of it -- or much of it, I guess -- was simply the intersection of a variety of tasks and concerns. We're hiring two new people for next year, a postcolonialist and a Shakespearean, and we saw candidates for both; as I'm on the search comittee for the former, monday and tuesday were taken up with the interview and squiring the candidate around campus to her various meetings. We had a department meeting on Wednesday (always fun), a candidate for the renaissance job thursday and friday, and we hosted a poetry reading last night -- which, being on the Pratt Comittee, I was partially responsible for organizing this week.

Oh, and there was that teaching thing I do as well. On tap for this week was Alfred, Lord Tennyson in my second-year class, and The Human Stain by Philip Roth, the film Dark City and some apparently blood-pressure raising writings by erstwhile neocon Francis Fukuyama. Good times.

And marking essays ... though I did not get as much to to attend to that as I would have liked, as my second-years can attest. Monday, guys, I promise!

All in all, not exceptionally mind-blowing ... I hear my computer network-guy brother tell of his not infrequent 36-hour (or more) marathons getting a new network up and running, or of the all-nighters he pulls when a network goes down somewhere, and it makes me feel positively lazy. I think part of my problem this week was just frustration with the glacial progress of my own research. Considering that I come up for a formal interim tenure review in September, I'm getting a bit anxious about getting some writing out there. I have three articles on the go, two relatively close to completion and a third a little more of a ways off, but what they all need is a few days of focused attention. Would that I were that enviously hated species of academic who can devote the odd half-hour of free time that surfaces in a day to productive writing. But no ... I'm one of those who requires a certain amount of momentum, and that first half-hour is usually taken up in necessary screen-staring.

However, as Danine pointed out to me yesterday in a much-appreciated reality check, I'm actually in pretty good shape for the review, and when it gets down to it I can use the summer to devote uninterrupted time to the articles. (Given that the ideal plan however is to finally perform major surgery on my thesis this summer -- a task I look forward to as much as I would to, well, major surgery -- I'd really rather have them out of the way).

OK, enough of me whining about my week. Given the administrative circus I've been engaged in this week, I would like to provide my non-academic readers with one occasional glimpses into the machinery of academia offered here on this humble blog. The topic du jour: the academic job interview.

I bring this up in part because of course I'm involved this year for the first time in the hiring process, but also because of a question raised by a student. I had let my second-years go a little early on Monday because I was heading directly from class to the two-hour interview with this week's candidate. One of my students commented, as we walked from class, "A two-hour interview? Wow, that's pretty intense." To which I responded: "That's just a fraction of the interview, actually."

You see, not satisfied with the various fiery hoops through which we have to jump over the course of a graduate degree -- comprehensive exams, ball-breaking scholarship applications, the thesis, the thesis defense -- universities impose a particular species of hell on prospective faculty members in the form of the day-and-a-half interview. First of all, there's the process of application, in which you send your CV, letters of reference, teaching dossier, and writing sample (the assembling of which represents a week of work in and of itself), which the search committee pores over with excruciating minuteness.

(Seriously -- I was quite amazed at the level of detail with which we examined the applications. When the cut comes down to a handful of comparably impressive candidates, any mistake or inconsistency can sink an applicant. It made me somewhat incredulous that I ever made it to the interview stage).

Some universities then perform a series of phone interviews with a long list, and on the basis of that narrow it down. Mercifully, we skipped that step.

Then, if you're called in for an interview, you fly out to wherever the university is (we had two candidates come in from the prairies, which made for a lot of travel time), and you a subjected to a series of meetings with a variety of administrative types -- the Dean of Arts, Dean of Graduate Studies, Vice-President Academic, Faculty Relations, Faculty Union, and of course the Head of the Department -- all of whom ask you questions that are variations on the same theme: namely, Why Should We Hire You?

You also deliver a half-hour or so lecture to the department to demonstrate your research chops, followed by a half-hour question period. And then of course is the interview with the search committee, which here lasts two hours.

Also on the roster: an open lunch to which all members of the department and graduate students are invited, and dinner with a three or four faculty members. And if there is one thing drummed into you -- if you come from a university nice enough to train its graduate students in how to interview well -- it's that there is no time during this process when you are not being interviewed. So in other words, limit yourself to one glass of wine with dinner, and keep your game face on. More than a few promising candidates have sunk their chances by saying something off-colour after one glass of wine too many.

The basic idea behind all this is partially to test the candidate's stamina. This is an exhausting process, even if you're gregarious and like to talk about yourself (as I do). I can't even begin to imagine the seven types of hell endured by people who are shy. At MUN, we're actually comparatively humane -- spreading it out over a day and a half gives the candidates a breather here and there, and our faculty is generally very friendly and courteous. Some universities however make a point of cramming it all into one endless day ... starting at 8am, leaving no time between meetings, and basically trying to run the candidate off his or her feet. Also, some people, even if they're otherwise very nice, will be difficult or even hostile in the job talk question period, or the interview -- principally to see if they can rattle the candidate, to get him or her to drop their guard.

Yes, we're all really rather mad here.

Friday, February 02, 2007

I'll take oddly-named stage managers for 500, Alex ...

Answer: Tiggers are wonderful things.

Question: What is the wonderful thing about Tiggers, Alex?

So this falls into the realm of the ultra-cool: one of my dearest friends will be a contestant on Jeopardy! The Lovely and Amazing Tigger Jourard -- Trivia Geek, Theatrical Martinet and Stage Manager Extraordinaire -- flies to sunny LA to tape her episode on February 7. And I'm betting that the only way she won't be kicking serious ass is if they decide to bring back Ken Jennings. Even then, Mr. Smartie-pants better bring his A-game.

Read about it all here.

For those who don't know Tigger, she and I were joined at the hip for all four plays I've directed ... and let me tell you now if you're thinking of dabbling in the directorial end of the theatrical pool, you need to find yourself a Tigger to be your stage manager. It helps that she was actually a professional stage manager for eighteen years, before finally leaving theatre for sanity reasons. I met her in winter of 2000 (well, I'd met her before, but only really got to know her at this point) when she agreed to come out of retirement as it were to stage manage a production of Joe Orton's Loot that a friend of hers was acting in. I was playing Hal (the last time I acted in a play, incidentally), and we hit it off immediately. That summer I made my first tentative foray into directing with UWO's Summer Shakespeare ... and I asked Tigger if she would be willing to stage manage.

The conversation went something like this. Tigger: "What play do you want to do?" Me: "Richard III." Tigger: "OK. What story do you want to tell?"

At first I thought the question was a bit wacky. What story? Richard III, of course! But then as I thought about it, it made increasingly more sense, and I realized the depth of this woman's wisdom. And the rest is history.

Here's Tigger relaxing with her hubby Bryan. Please note the Macbeth shirt he's wearing.

Answer: all our love and best wishes.

Question: What are we sending with Tigger to LA, Alex?

Break a leg, sweetie!