Deadwood, Season Three

These are late in coming, but over the holidays I watched the third season of Deadwood. It was a season where the main characters hunker down and try to figure out how the winds are blowing so they can survive the storm. What follows is a compilation of various rough notes and impressions I wrote as I watched.

Different Lighting

This season the light is brighter and clearer than the first two. The town seems to exist in a real world of sun and air and not in the delirium and memories of a mad man or in a fever dream.

New Power Struggles

In the second season, characters struggled to control themselves or others in the face of personal weaknesses or improbable alliances. These weaknesses were legion: every major character of the season–Swearengen, Bullock, Mrs. Ellsworth, Joanie, Hearst’s man–were deeply flawed and these weaknesses were varied enough that the season can be seen, overall, as a study of weaknesses overcome (or not).

The third season is different because the battle for Deadwood has been lost. Hearst owns the mines, the hotel. Those who came to the Black Hills only for money get it from him and leave. Those who came to build a life–not just to stake a claim–are all that’s left. The question they struggle with is simple: will their town remain their town and will they have a say? Or will they dance to the tune called by their corporate master, Hearst.

Critique of Corporate Capital

Hearst is corporate power personified, a power the locals are struggling to understand, adjust to and survive. (This is made explicit in dialogue: he cannot even be killed because he will be replaced by the board.) So what is this corporate power like?

Well, Hearst cries over his wounded humanity and vaunt his connection to the earth, but he acts coldly like a violent and dangerous animal. He sleeps on the floor, he spits and kills for the pleasure of demonstrating his power, he squashes unions. He acts how he will, destroying for his own reasons in response to his own whims without every improving what he touches. The walls he tears down in his rooms are an overt symbol of this. The hotel–and Deadwood–are worse for him being there.

It’s telling that after all the threats and dread, the only major character Hearst actually kills is Ellsworth, the most gentle, honorable person on the show, and also the one who knows the most about Hearst’s history.

So if Hearst is corporate power, does Swearengen stands in as a kind of small-business, (mom-n-pop store?) trying to fight off Wal-mart? If so, that’s funny but also seems true to the ethos of the western.

Narrative Deadends

This is a season of narrative possibilities the lead nowhere. Again morphine addiction? (Or maybe not.) The Doc has TB? (Or maybe not.) The theatre troop arrives because…? (Who knows.) And Hearst’s cook…? These and other narrative possibilities never come to anything. They are the stuff of real life, but under Hearst’s reign, they whither.

The Swerve

the swerveI was given Greenblatt’s book by a friend who thought I’d be interested in the way Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things influenced Montaigne and, later, the American Revolution. So I was surprised to discover how little Greenblatt discusses Lucretius’s poem. Instead, he marks off an odd piece of the world “by a geometry of his own” and tells the story of what goes on in it in order to explain how the world changed during the Renaissance.

Greenblatt’s story isn’t the familiar one of Renaissance painters, sculptors, architects, poets and playwrights. It’s even less a story of the church or of kings at war. (Even though it touches on all of these.) It is about men in libraries, private and monastic, browsing shelves, inventing a new handwriting, copying texts when they aren’t working distracting political jobs, and collecting oddball artifacts with whatever money they can pull together. Their story isn’t central; they were amateurs. But Greenblatt makes a case that they were foundational insofar as they provided an important piece of material the main players used in their work.

Ultimately though, my friend’s instincts were right: what interested me the most was information about Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things. In chapter eight, Greenblatt lists what he takes to be the twenty principal ideas of that text, explaining each as he goes along. His list is:

  1. “Everything is made of invisible particles.”
  2. “The elementary particles of matter—‘the seeds of the things’– are eternal”
  3. “The elementary particles are infinite in number but limited in shape and size.”
  4. “All particles are in motion in an infinite void.”
  5. “The universe has no creator or designer.”
  6. “Everything comes into being as a result of a swerve.” (An infinitesimal change in motion.)
  7. “The swerve is the source of free will.”
  8. “Nature ceaselessly experiments.”
  9. “The universe was not created for or about humans.”
  10. “Humans are not unique.”
  11. “Human society began not in a Golden Age of tranquility and plenty, but in a primitive battle for survival.”
  12. “The soul dies.”
  13. “There is no afterlife.”
  14. “Death is nothing to us.”
  15. “All organized religions are superstitious delusions.”
  16. “Religions are invariably cruel.”
  17. “There are no angels, demons, or ghosts.”
  18. “The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain.”
  19. “The greatest obstacle of pleasure is not pain; it is delusion.”
  20. “Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder.”

Henry James: The Artist’s challenge

Really, universally, relations stop nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so. He is in the perpetual predicament that the continuity of things is the whole matter, for him, of comedy and tragedy; that this continuity is never, by the space of an instant or an inch, broken, and that, to do anything at all, he has at once intensely to consult and intensely to ignore it.

–Henry James,  Preface to Roderick Hudson

Banning My Memories of India

For most of us, most of the time, banning books or burning them isn’t real. Not really. These acts exist for us primarily as stock melodramatic symbols in movies or on TV. In movies, calling for a book or a poem to be banned marks a villain as ignorant, tyrannical and without taste. Actually burning a book marks the villains, usually in this case a mob, as beyond hope and the situation as lost. In these stories, a banned book launches the plot; a burned one launches the third act: escape not resistance is the task at hand.

Outside of movies and TV, banned books are usually news stories and not events in our own lives. These stories are also symbols, tales of “down there” or “over there” where people who should know better but don’t, try to get away with attacking “freedom” or “free speech” or “knowledge.” In these stories, it’s the threatened abstraction–“open access to information” or whatever–that’s obvious and concrete to us. The book-banners are vague and imaginary, simple Clarence Darrow-types stepping off the stage à la Purple Rose of Cairo to twirl their moustaches and argue badly for blatantly mistaken ideas. My frustration with their villainy reassures me that these are exceptional instances and that things are ok where I live.

The closest I’ve ever been to book banning was in high school, where I discovered at thirteen that Stephen King’s novels were kept behind the front counter and that I needed a note from my parents to check them out. More recently my sister discovered that she had to write to give permission for her son to check out books on American history from his school library, apparently because history is scary and therefore inappropriate for children beneath a certain age. When my sister told me that the school understood interest in such books as a sign that a student might be troubled or depressed, my blood boiled. This book banning was still a symbol–it told me volumes about this place–but the symbol was close now and real enough to cut.

Doniger-The Hindus
Doniger’s book with a cheap statue of Ganeesh I picked up as a souvenir of how much I learned about art in India.

Now I read in the news that Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History has been discontinued in India and  existing copies pulped by Penguin, and I’ve felt it like a punch to the chest. I read this book as I travelled through India several years ago. It was clear, exciting, and it laid out the web of stories I needed to make sense of what I saw. Our trip was long, most of the summer, and archaeological: the Beav and I visited the major political and religious sites of four of the five major empires of southern India.

We were travelling on our own and without guides, so without consciously planning to do so, we divided the monumental task of understanding this distinct cultural past between us. The Beav read about the political and architectural history, and as we walked the sites, he explained to me what we were seeing. I read about literature and mythology and especially Doniger’s book, and I explained the stories the elaborate carvings found everywhere told. As we travelled, I also read Indian novels–The God of Small ThingsThe Bachelor of Arts, The Man-Eater of Malgudi–and was able to make sense of them largely because of what I’d learned in The Hindus. (I have no idea what I’d make of the final chapter of Arundhati Roy’s book without Doniger’s discussion of tantra.)

And now The Hindus is being banned in India by people trying to protect a religion I’d understand not at all if I hadn’t read the book they wish didn’t exist. And so this news story about “over there” is oddly and unexpectedly personal. Because without this book, I wouldn’t have learned as much in India as I did or have loved it as much, and I certainly wouldn’t now care as much as I do that fundamentalists have won their battle with a publisher.

The New York Times story about the ban is here and the story about Doniger’s response is here. Arundhati Roy’s letter in the Times of India is copied below the break.

Continue reading “Banning My Memories of India”

Attributes, Agents and Links

In my original template, dates and deadlines, kinds of material and their topics, and everything else I needed to know about a note was indicated and organized visually in map view using nested containers, colours  screen position, badges, borders and even pattern overlays. This worked well but it also made my maps rigid rather than creative spaces. Every visual element was assigned with little room left to experiment. I’m trying to change this with my template revision my displacing some of this visual information from the map onto other attributes.

Flat Maps

Because of how I’ve generated notes using my “wiki view,” my maps start out autogenerated, unadorned and monochromatic.

Autogenerated Map
These maps are also oddly beautiful.

To begin working with these maps, I simply grouped notes loosely to get a basic sense of flow. This arrangement was ad hoc and changed based on what I was looking at. As I’ve worked and my notes have multiplied, this map has become a challenge to work with and to “see”–but this confusion is useful and generative. So I’ve resisted eliminating it by simply “tidying up” the map.

Flat Maps
A very early map with few notes or links.

The one container I have created so far is called “Daily Schedule” and I use its map view to plan activities that have clear start dates or deadlines. But even here I have resisted nesting containers and have tried to move information into non-map attributes: my schedule is now built with overlapping adornments and on-add actions set the $StartDate attribute automatically for aliases dropped on an adornment.

Adornment Schedule
Same old grid but now flattened into overlapping adornments

Having working $StartDate data allows me to use timelines, something I couldn’t do before and have barely begun experimenting with.

Boolean Attributes & Agents

In addition to $StartDate, I have created a series of user attributes to carry the information I’d previously stashed in note colour, badges, etcFor example, material types are now stored in $Story, $Film, or $SecondarySource attributes. $OralPresentations and $Assigned attributes criss-cross these and distinguish materials selected for use from those that were simply considered.

All of these attributes are boolean, which is another departure. In my previous template I used mostly sets. For example, I had a $MaterialType attribute that was first a string and then a set. But typos were a hassle and selecting from (or remembering) multiple names for the types I was using was too. Having multiple yes/no attributes (one per type) is easier for me to maintain and keep consistent.

These new boolean attributes also make it easier for me to build agents on-the-fly. Do I need a schedule of oral presentations? Then I create an agent that searches for $OralPresentation as “true” and set it to sort by $StartDate. Am I building a bibliography of supplementary readings and screenings? I create an agent that searches for $Story, $Film and $SecondarySource as “true” and $OralPresentation and $Assigned as “false.”

These agents have a simple syntax and take only moments to create. As a result, I can make them up as I need them even if I need them only for a short time.

Link Types on a Map

Finally, the links on my top-level map have become extensive and they read primarily in terms of density. But I have been thinking about what else they might be made to tell me if I thought of them in terms of link types.

What I’ve realized is that many of these links are simply for navigation, and I don’t need to see them in map view. Others are navigational and also informational insofar as they indicate kinds of materials and the relationships between them. It seems there would be value in assigning these different links different types and then setting them to display differently on the map. Navigation links could be hidden, for example, but links to required and supplementary materials might be presented in different colours.

And in a Note Text…

If link types can be useful in map view, it also seems they ought to be able to differentiate relations between materials in note texts as well. For example, right now link-text colour simply tells me what I’ve clicked on. Knowing instead that a green link leads to an assignment and a blue link leads to reading notes could be very useful. But I suppose this depends on whether I could set up rules or agents to make link-text colour representative of link type. And I don’t know how to do that or even if it’s possible…

The End (for now)

And so this post ends with ideas and speculation and I take that as a sign that my description of my template revision has caught up with my practice and that it’s time to wrap up the series. When the term is further along and I know more about how things have gone, I’ll give an update.

What I Teach. How I Teach.

I’ve been thinking about the mismatch between how revolutionary my “wiki view” seems to me and how completely insignificant it appears when I reread my description of it in my last post. When I reread, my take-away is: so I’ve started writing notes…in Tinderbox…”The Tool for Notes”…and… (yawn).

So I’m wondering: what is it about my work that makes writing and navigating notes with links seem so powerful?

The answer I think lies in the way I have been using “course content” to refer to two different things. On the one hand, it is my knowledge of a field, call it literature. On the other, it is all the lectures, activities and assignments I create for my students so that they can practice skills and demonstrate knowledge. The first of these is what I teach; the second, how I teach it.

In order to organize how I teach, I need to sequence course lectures, activities, and assignments so that they fit within the time constraints of a single semester. I also need to manage and track my movement–and my students’ movement–through this sequence. My original template offers me the tools I need to do these things.

Sequence is less important when organizing what I teach. Literature is complex. It operates through language. It organizes itself aesthetically. It is a field of meaning and a history and an etc. When I organize what I teach, I create an interpretation of this complexity pitched at my students.

My “wiki view” creates a word-based system for organizing what I teach that is independent of the graphical representations of sequence that organize how I teach. It allows me to dive into and swim freely through a sea of words. And when I need a breath of sequential air, I know that I can come up to the surface and bob around in map or outline view.

This new freedom to develop what I teach in a way proper to my field is, I think, the revolution I’m feeling.

Course Planning in “Wiki View”

The roots of my course plan revision reach back to the classroom wiki project I began creating last May. As part of my early preparations for this project, I created a personal wiki to experiment with the software I’d be using and decided to populate it with course materials to get it started quickly. This got me thinking about how planning a course in my Tinderbox template was different from what course planning would look like on a wiki.

Now, it was obvious almost immediately that the wiki was too limited to do any actual course planning. But at the same time there were two real and enormous benefits that I could see in a wiki-based approach. First, the wiki forced me to focus on texts and how pieces of text lead me to other (or new) materials. Second, the wiki nurtured a mild but generative confusion as I worked. Both of these seemed worth importing back into my Tinderbox template.

So, in this post, I’ll explain how I’m rearranging my template to shift my focus to the text of my notes, and in my next, I’ll explain how (and why) I’m “breaking” my template enough to let in some confusion.

The Problem of Title-Notes

Because I worked in outline and map views in my original course planning template, many of my notes consisted of little more than the title attribute (plus whatever attributes or copy-pasted text I used to catch them later with agents). These titles needed to be short enough to be viewed on a single line or within a reasonably sized box. They were also largely static.

In practice, the titles of empty notes named or described content (lecture notes, exercises instructions, etc.) stored outside my template, often as a keynote or word processing file. Generally but not always, I linked to that external file from my note. Generally but not always, I copy-pasted the content of that file to the note on the day I taught so that it would be included in the Nakajoki view printout I brought to class.

Notes as Titles
Dig down into map view and you find a bunch of empty notes.

Notes in my Wiki

In my wiki, things worked very differently. There were no map or outline views, and page-note titles were displaced to the top of my browser window. I was forced to deal with the actual content of pages and found this confrontation with the imperfect messy details of my work inspiring.

I also found that depending on links to navigate created a pressure to state ideas and information rather than merely to name them. In principle, blank pages in the wiki were the same as blank title-notes on my outline or map views, but in practice they were not. I needed note texts with links to navigate from page to page on the wiki. A blank page was a dead-end in a way an empty note wasn’t in map or outline view. The way past these dead-ends was to add content and links, even if only provisionally, so that the blank obstacle opened up and gave me a way to move on to the rest of my materials.

Living in note texts and making them lead one to the other through links pushed me to bring materials into existence and toward maturity in a way I hadn’t been pushed to do in my original course template.

Creating “Wiki View” in Tinderbox

A primary goal of my template revision has been to create a similar immersion in note texts and a similar link-driven push to develop materials in Tinderbox. To do this, I set my old template aside, created a new file, and:

  1. switched my preferences to hide the sidebar;
  2. created a first note called home in the initial outline view and opened it;
  3. closed the initial outline view;
  4. worked out from the home page, creating and writing new notes as I need them.

This set-up recreated my wiki experience. Note titles, which were central in my original template, were here displaced to the title bar, and my note text was pushed front-and-centre. As I write material, I added links to new notes, and used these links to navigate.

Wiki View
My “Wiki View”

But It’s a Tinderbox Wiki

This set-up is not, however, simply recreation of my wiki experience. It also improves on it in two ways.

First, links in my new template open in a new window. Some might find this annoying (and tabs are coming to Tinderbox) but without the sidebars, the note window is very compact and I like seeing and working on multiple related notes simultaneously. (Multiple windows also makes linking pieces of text to other notes very easy.) More importantly, open windows can be arranged on my desktop as an ad hoc map view but with one great benefit over a regular Tinderbox map: my note texts on this map are both visible and editable.

Second, because of how Tinderbox is built, this new way of working can operate alongside all of the course planning strategies I used in my previous template. My workspace has been expanded–an entirely new “ground level” space has been created underneath the eye-in-the-sky map views–but those map views are only a hotkey way. When I’m ready to do so, all of the notes I create in wiki view can be organized into semester schedules and content groupings just as I did in the past. Which is incredible.

(What’s even more incredible is that, although I’m working in a completely new and better way, I get the sense that, if it talked, Tinderbox would say “well of course you can do that” as if it had been designed to do exactly this new thing and had been waiting all along for me to realize it.)

Next up, how I’m cultivating a bit of confusion