Wine Log: Cornaro Voldobbiadene Prosecco D.O.C.G.

I helped a friend out during their trip to Venice (I helped very little actually) but this wine was the thank you gift they gave me when they came back. I know so little that I can say: we discovered that prosecco is like champagne, but from Italy. (The Beav insists that we knew this, or at least, that he did and that I would have too if I had paid attention in Rome.)

This bottle was a treat and I’ll leave the commentary to the Beav: “Wow, it’s like apples, but…” Then he sips again and says, “It’s very good. But we’re going to have a headache.”

Whatever. Sometimes il faut souffrir pour être saoul.

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Thanksgiving

It’s Thanksgiving in the States, and even though I’m living on the wrong side of the border for it to be official, it’s still my favourite holiday. One moment in a busy year to step back, take account and to recognize that I have a pretty good life and a lot to be thankful for.

I’ve been lucky and that’s a good reason to remember to be generous. Because not everyone has been.

Writing and Revision on the Interwebs

I’ve been disappointed in my posts these past two months. (Not all the time, but often enough.) When I am, it’s because they seem generic, even review-like. I don’t see my memories in them. And worse, I don’t hear my voice.

Two things seem to be at play:

1. I haven’t had much free time, so I’ve written posts long after finishing a book or watching a movie. Which means the posts are memories of memories, and given how rushed I’ve been the initial experiences remembered were probably dim and bland to begin with. So not great raw material.

2. While the delay between experience and post certainly matters, the bigger source of change seems to be that so many of these posts are written immediately as posts. In the past, I’ve always worked through my thoughts in my notebooks before writing. Without that working through with pen and paper, my posts and my memories and my thoughts feel thin and tentative, like the beginning of thoughts rather than their realization. Worse, I’ve seen myself yielding to the temptation to cover for the lack by talking big. Which I hate.

So.

Until my hellishly busy semester comes to an end in a few weeks, I’ll be writing short, nearly summary posts until I’m caught up. Then when I can think again: back in business.

…I’ve always joked that I was a reviser rather than a writer. These last few months feel like a kind of natural experiment establishing this as true.

 

The Player of Games

The Player of GamesThis is Iain M. Banks’s second Culture novel and then one that made me fall in love with the series.

Two things stuck out to me as I read: the overt sexual politics and the narrative strategy.

The sexual politics: this is a novel about a member of an enlightened, tolerant society who finds himself in a place where power is structured sexually. What’s interesting here is that readers–American, British, Canadian, in other words, Western Anglo–will likely identify with the protagonist, the member of the Culture confronted with alien sexuality. And yet, those readers are not like the protagonist. They are like the alien culture. Our society is sexist, like theirs. Our sexism is arbitrary, like theirs. It is held up by and holds up religious and political institutions. In the Culture, sex does not operate as a fundamental distinction between people because all people can and most people do switch from one sex to the other and back again. This is queer transsexual liberation operating from the centre as a norm rather than from the margin as critique. It’s like watching the queen of Canada sniff into her teacup with disdain at someone who’s too bigoted to consider a sex change.

The final scene in the novel makes the implications of this approach to sex and sexuality material. The protagonist, home again, discovers that a former female lover has been living as a man while he was away but is transitioning back to a female body. This lover’s body is at a stage where it lacks anything but ambiguous, rudimentary genitalia. Yet these two, happy to be together for the night and with no plans for anything to carry over beyond that night, don’t care and aren’t hindered. What matters to them in that moment is each other and not each others’ bodies. It’s a powerful scene.

(Incidentally, this disruptive sexuality is matched by an equally disruptive anti-racism: the members of the Culture are brown-skinned and are genetically modified to allow them to mate with other species. Their adaptability is grounded on the embrace and celebration of miscegenation.)

I have less to say about the narrative. I’ll just point out that as is the case with The Use of Weapons, there is a discovery at the end of the novel that changes the meaning and implications of what has gone on before. This discovery is not as meaningful as the one in The Use of Weapons–the alien culture’s game is an allegory of their society and a tool for organizing society–but it is a nice way to end the book and once again serves as a demonstration of Bank’s control over his material.

The Bitter Agonies of Click-happiness

My biggest problems with the wiki project to date have arisen because students don’t read what’s on their screen or pay attention to system prompts. They are used to web-pages that either do nothing or have been designed to just take them along for the ride. When they want something to happen they start clicking buttons–seemingly at random and without waiting even a moment to see what their click did–expecting apparently that if they click enough or in the right place the site will eventually do what they want. But it doesn’t and the carelessness wrecks havoc!

In the worst cases, they erase other students’ work or lose their own. (And they don’t save work in intermediate steps. I don’t understand. Who doesn’t save work?!?) They also don’t pay attention to where they are on the site or adjust to context, and so for example, they lose formatting by cutting and pasting from a display screen to an edit screen. (There’s no markup on the display and the bold, bulleting, etc. they see there disappears in the plain text editor. They respond by clicking randomly and by the time help arrives they’ve erased their tracks badly enough that they have to start the mark-up all over again.)

Teaching attention and carefulness is hard because they are about habits not knowledge.

 

Wine Log: Villa La Reserva Malbec 2010

This wine feels like the shrunk-down version of an typical French red from the south-west, but spunky and charming and worth showing off to friends.

It was easy and great and I suspect it would be a bit of a chameleon, able to pair up with almost any fish or shellfish as long as it were prepared with a non-cream sauce. It wouldn’t be great pairing, but it would work…and just might be a surprise.

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Classroom Wiki: Revisited

The wiki project is off to a solid start, and students seem to like it. My fears about basic site maintenance–can I run the tech for this project on my own?–have also faded. Things are stable and work. That said, my initial goals for the project have been radically revised: what I imagined this project would be about is not what I’m dealing with and so my goals and what I’m trying to teach are changing. Fast.

Linking as Literacy

The most substantial change is in my literacy goals. As it turns out, markup and the distinction between content and formatting is not difficult. Linking is. Creating links (as opposed to following them) requires working at a level of abstraction that is quite difficult for my students to handle. You must hold bits of text in your head, juggle them, and always read (and write) with an ear turned to hear echoes of other things that you could search for and link to. Or at least, you need to see places that ought to link to something and mark them with a link, even if that link is just pointing to a blank page in the wiki for the moment.

Linking also invites confusion. Links can be arranged as a kind of file hierarchy that duplicates a finder or explorer structure. Which is fine and some of my students have fallen back on this strategy. But links can also (more profitably?) be arranged in a web that resembles, when things go wrong, a knot or, when things go right, a line thrown blindly out into the darkness that you hope will grab something useful on the other end. Building a webbed structure requires faith in the process, faith in the idea that good work connected link-by-link will slowly develop into something useful and insightful in the end. But that kind of faith is hard for overworked students to muster. They don’t want to waste their time. And of course: are the links graded?

From Revision to Note-taking

Linking now seems more important to me than revision. I would like students to learn both to make links and to “make links.” And so, I have shifted my expectations and have adjusted the assigned work. I am now encouraging students to take notes on the wiki rather than to create finished texts there. I want this note-taking to be experimental, personal, idiosyncratic; I want it to be a process where they notice, collect and select info and then mark its importance by formatting and arranging it and by drawing links between their various collected tidbits. In order to allow them to experiment in private, I have set up a private group space for each student where they can post pages that only they can access. It was laborious to do but worth it.

Annotations

A principal assignment for the wiki is now going to be an annotation of a poem. I will assign everyone a poem. They post it correctly formatted and then add explanatory and interpretative annotations as footnotes. These annotations will be sourced and will connect to additional resources on the wiki or the web. It’s a new kind of task. I’ve never done it before and it is only possible online.

What I like about it is that it encompasses both aspects of the course content: literary analysis through close reading and hypertextual, online writing. In this, it moves completely beyond my initial conception of the project, which was mostly just a repackaging of my normal class as an online activity. With this assignment, the wiki project creates something new and useful that changes how I teach my course.

Surprisingly, I’ve had only one major problem so far this term.

The Responsive Web, Take Two

I shared my thoughts about the responsive web with some friends and they responded with variations of “people follow the business, the customer is always right, the future is mobile not the PC.” As you might imagine, I was unconvinced.

The argument that the move toward a mobile web is driven by consumer demand depends upon the majority of web traffic going through small screens, and I’m not sure we’re anywhere near that being the case. Or ever will be. I have a smartphone and do a lot of things on it, but I don’t do general web-surfing and don’t think most other people do either. I think there are a very small number of sites that people visit on phones and that most of these are large commercial ventures like Facebook, Google Maps or The New York Times. I think many of these wind up having apps that replace the web interface entirely.

What I think I’m seeing is a designer-driven trend saying “you need to be mobile ready.” And in response, a lot of small traffic sites, most of which have most of their visitors coming through on their desktops and laptops, theme things for mobile. The end result is that, suddenly, interesting sites are sacrificing a hard-won complexity of real value in order to service hypothetical phone browsers that will never show up.

(I read a very long post on this by a design firm that I can’t find now. The writer claimed that clients would want to create a responsive site. The firm goes through traffic numbers and over-and-over sees that the percentage of mobile traffic is in the single digits. And yet, the client wants to spend tons of money to create a responsive site “because it’s the future.”)

To my eye the move to mobile is something like getting LP owners to buy their music a second time on 8-track tape. Or maybe a better analogy would be the push to get ordinary, word-processor-as-typewriter users to buy the new versions of Microsoft Office. The power of the web is its mutability. It changes and becomes bigger and better all the time. An internet that “upgrades” (MSWord, now with a ribbon!) or changes formats (Internet, now available on in 3″ format!) is different insofar as mutability and continuous variation is replaced with incremental differences that can be packaged, named and monetized.

 

Hughes–To Artina

To Artina

I will take your heart.
I will take your soul out of your body
As though I were God.
I will not be satisfied
With the little words you say to me.
I will not be satisfied
With the touch of your hand
Nor the sweet of your lips alone.
I will take your heart for mine.
I will take your soul.
I will be God when it comes to you.

–Langston Hughes

The Use of Weapons

The Use of WeaponsI’ve just read The Use of Weapons. It’s the third of Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels and as good as the first two. (This Link leads to his Wikipedia page.) Unlike The Player of Games (and more like Consider Phlebus), this novel is difficult to plough through at times: the basic structure of alternating chapters is an obstacle to putting the story together for the first third or more of the book, and even once an over-arching story begins to form, the chronology is fragmented enough that entire segments feel disconnected from the rest until well into the book’s final third.

And yet the writing is crisp, controlled, and evocative, and the world described is simply fascinating. This book—and the series—is a great read. That said, if you are thinking about reading it, don’t follow the jump, because there are spoilers. Continue reading “The Use of Weapons”

Damages, Season 2

I watched the season in a rush, disappointed but not hating it either. I typed up my thoughts on what followed the first episode as I watched. Everything’s included below.

  • The gay killer with chapstick sucks. Because. But also because it’s such a lame No Country for Old Men rip off.
  • Timothy Olyphant is dreamy. And yet, there’s a problem: his character is vague. He’s supposed to be ambiguous and we’re supposed to be wondering “is he a good guy or a bad guy?” But I’m just asking “Who is this guy?” This is a writing problem.
  • Episode after episode feels like the writers are figuring things out as they go. And the results feel improvised and short-sided rather than spontaneous or unexpected. The constantly returning characters are not a positive solution to dramatic problems.
  • Ellen (the actress and the character) is horrible and anorexic. She is pouty, often thick, and generally useless. If Patty were the character I am supposed to believe she is, she would be fired immediately.
  • Episode 7 seems to be the place where things are settling out and getting rolling. The pieces seem in place, Patty is back where she needs to be. Episode 7 out of 13. First episode of the second half, things begin…
  • Biggest, dumbest most annoying Ellen moment yet: the stupid, obviously not honest, FBI agents are revealed to being fakers; their investigation is a shame. Ellen’s response? “You guys better be real” and then she turns and stomps out of the room. She is an idiot.
  • I would LOVE for Patty to hire Marcia Gay Harden’s character for her firm. And to send Ellen to jail. MGH should be on this show forever. She’s that good. And a great counterpoint to Patty.
  • Patty’s outrage over her husband’s affair measures this difference between this show and House of Cards. In HOC, the marriage is about loyalty, trust, faithfulness, and shared dreams. The affairs—and both men and women have them–are not betrayals of marriage, they are something else, operating in a different arena, and subject to rational (rather than societal) judgment. Here though, the affairs are presented as obvious violations of marriage; any other possibility is taken off the table. So when Patty doesn’t care about the adultery, only her reputation, she’s manifesting as ruthless and amoral. This seems like a profoundly old-fashioned and patriarchal approach to promiscuity and was a disappointment. I felt like the writers couldn’t rise to Patty’s position (the position I imagine her character inhabiting) and so they lessened her by sketching out a miserly sexual politics for her.
  • Every single plot point involving Ellen is stupid.
  • Glenn Close’s boobies being perky and assertive in a tan turtleneck sweater are the sexiest things I’ve seen on TV in a long time. She too is dreamy.
  • I hate the final episode’s reconciliation between Ellen and Patty. Partly because I have been rooting against Ellen for the entire season, but also because the lead up to it makes no emotional sense.
  • Yet, that final scene also did what the season as a whole should have done. That last episode should have been unpacked and developed across the season. Grrrrr.

….so I’m disappointed, and yet, I have hope for this show still. If the writing can be sorted out and Patty’s character unleashed, this could be a good show.