Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Oh, Mexico, Eh?

So, time for another post about the Media Ecology Association's annual convention in Mexico City last month, I know there's been quite a few but that's just the way it is. This one is a hybrid, first an article then some more photos.

First, we have a Canadian take on the MEA convention. Phillip Marchand, who writes and reviews books for the Toronto Star was one of the participants this year, and also received the MEA's first James W. Carey Award for Outstanding Journalism. I should add that Phil also wrote the first major biography of Neil Postman, in addition to about a dozen other books. And while he was hanging out with us south of the border (or in the case of Canadians like him, south of south of the border), he also covered the convention, or at least got an article out of it, which was published last week. And it really is not only newsworthy, but answering to a higher power (namely me), blogworthy. The title, by the way, is Why print is still king, amid the multimedia din. And as for the article, well, here it is:

Why print is still king, amid the multimedia din
An issue with electronic data viewed on screens is that humans instinctively see it as unstable, `nervous' – because it is, says U.S. media guru
July 22, 2007

Books Columnist

MEXICO CITY – It's a media zoo these days, especially the section where newspapers live and breed. Printed newspapers have been mating with computers and producing websites for some time. It's a survival strategy in a zoo heavily shaped by electronic media. But will the offspring end up devouring the parent?

Such questions were in the air at a recent convention of the Media Ecology Association (MEA) held in Mexico City. The MEA is an association of academics specializing in communications and media studies. The word "ecology" in its title is a metaphor, based on what the Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines as "the branch of biology dealing with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings."

In the Media Ecology Association's case, the organisms are human inventions, but with a life of their own.

"The crossings or hybridizations of the media release great new force and energy as by fission or fusion," writes Marshall McLuhan, our own late great Canadian media ecologist, in his 1964 book, Understanding Media.

Following his lead, one of the participants of the Mexico City convention, Katherine Hayles, writes in her 2002 book, Writing Machines, "the relationships between different media are as diverse and complex as those between different organisms coexisting within the same (territory), including mimicry, deception, cooperation, competition, parasitism, hyperparasitism."

Professor Hayles of UCLA – like McLuhan an English professor with a strong interest in technology – was unknown to me before I attended the convention. In Writing Machines, Hayles, who teaches at UCLA, elaborates on McLuhan's principle that the medium is the message. The book, she writes, is an artifact whose physical properties structure the way we read. The fact that the paper used in printing the book is opaque, for example, is very important. It's "a physical property that defines the page as having two sides whose relationship is linear and sequential rather than interpenetrating and simultaneous." We're so used to the book, however, we don't even think of its physical properties. We just turn the pages and read on. Print literature, she points out, has long been "regarded as not having a body, only a speaking mind."

Newspapers are slightly different. As McLuhan pointed out, the traditional front page, with its mix of often unrelated items, has the resonance of a Cubist painting. By and large, however, the newspaper is also widely regarded as "not having a body, only a speaking mind."

No longer. The Toronto Star, for one, is already enriching its website with more video and audio clips. Users of the website will be face to face with certain, unmistakeable physical properties – and these properties will change users. They will provide them with experiences much different from ordinary reading. For one thing, the reader will become not a reader but an "interactor."

What is it like to be an "interactor"? Ask your children. Pressing keys and pushing a mouse to get information has become second nature to them. Others often find the process, say, of navigating an interactive website as irritating as filling out a form. In a recent online essay, Hayles takes note of this irritation – and also the experience, not unknown to website users, of being "apt suddenly to lose a screen of text in the middle of reading and be unable to recover it without extensive backtracking and exploration." Such experiences, Hayles writes, "teach the interactor, on a level below consciousness, that the text is very unstable, or to put it metaphorically, highly `nervous.' "

Irritation increases when the website user finds the website has suddenly been up-dated. What's going on here? Why this deliberate textual instability? Who or what is getting nervous around here?

Hayles in conversation, it turns out, is relatively optimistic about the development of newspaper websites. "Without a doubt, the process of moving from print to multi-modal information is going to change both newspaper staff and newspaper readers," she comments. "For readers, this changes the sensory input and thus a whole interrelated set of perceptual and cognitive issues."

This business of "sensory input" is another old McLuhan theme. He once predicted that the advent of colour television would lead to an increased appetite for spicy foods. Call him a nutcase, but we got our colour television and then suddenly we were all eating Szechuan. Who knows what will happen once the fission and fusion settles down and we're used to this new hybrid medium of the newspaper website? Who knows what unexpected cultural side effects will hit us when we're finally used to navigating them and dealing with nervous information on the computer screen?

For reporters and editors – the "content providers" of the website – Hayles has practical advice, especially regarding the serious issue of navigation. She urges "serious discussions between Web designers, marketers, and content providers, who should make sure that the Web design furthers their intellectual goals for the site. It is essential that the content providers are comfortable with the final design and agree that it furthers their goals of providing in-depth analysis and first rate reporting. I recommend that writers and editors all have a try at designing practice sites to gain a hands-on perspective of the issues involved . . . The trick, I think, is to embrace the new without abandoning our commitment to what print has historically bestowed on our culture."

This from an English professor who assures us in Writing Machines that "Books are not going the way of the dinosaur but the way of the human, changing as we change, mutating and evolving in ways that will continue, as a book lover said long ago, to teach and delight." In similar fashion, printed newspapers may behave the same way. Hayles, in our conversation in Mexico City, thought so. The physical property of paper, for one thing, is too good to lose.

"This material has archival qualities that will never be duplicated by electronic media," she says. "It's a huge problem to preserve electronic data even from 15 years ago." People, she points out, are now talking about a new information Dark Age, in which vast amounts of cultural material, once stored in print form, now stored in electronic form, will be lost.

That is one advantage of printed newspapers. There are others. "It's a mistake to think that paper media of all kinds, including newspapers, are going to disappear," she says. "They have a simplicity and robustness that digital media cannot hope to equal. There's a reason that print has reigned supreme for 500 years."

One of these reasons has to do with ease of visualization. She does not edit her students' essays on-line, for example, because it is more difficult than dealing with printed copies. "You get a total picture of an article or essay if you see it spatially," she comments. "On screen, you only see a little bit of the article at a time, and it's very hard to get a sense of argument, or how section A progresses to section B, if you don't have that spatial dimension to work with. Paper has got this spatial dimension."

In an ideal world, newspaper Web sites and printed newspapers will complement each other. One won't kill the other off via hyperparasitism, or even ordinary parasitism. Cooperation, not mimicry, deception, or competition, will be the order of the day.

Some of us hope so, anyway. After all, professor McLuhan, himself a print lover, urged us to have a balanced media diet – and you can't have a balanced media diet without big helpings of print.

What do I think of all this, you may ask? Well, you didn't, but I'll tell you anyway that I'm not so optimistic. I think the habit of reading the daily newspaper has been lost to a great extent among the younger generation, and will never be recovered. And I think that it will happen gradually, but more and more we'll be turning to some new kind of smart paper, an electronic medium (and that's not print, no matter what you call it), and that print as we knew it will all but disappear. After all, when was the last time you used, or even saw a typewriter (and who mourns for Smith-Corona?)? How often is parchment used in everyday life, outside of ceremonial occasions? Is your college diploma really sheepskin? And where can you find a roll of papyrus these days, outside of some novelty shop with kitschy Egyptian fake/folk art painted on it? And how about good old photographs taken with actual film and developed via chemicals? Hard to go back to that, once you've started using a digital camera.

And speaking of digital snapshots, here are a few more taken at the pyramids of
Teotihuacán. First, a couple with Phil Marchand wearing special headgear, talking to Ed Tywoniak at the top of the Pyramid of the Sun:

And let's not forget about me. After all, this blog is MY exercise in narcissism. Here I am at the top of the Pyramid of the Sun (Robert Francos behind me to the left, also in special headgear):

And one more, it couldn't hurt:

And now two more shots of me, this time with two of my MA students, both of whom presented their first papers at the MEA convention, Marian Kozhan on the left, and Laura Rojas on the right.

And just to show that I go both ways when it comes to photographs, here's one back down at the base of the pyramid with Thom Gencarelli on the left, and Fernando Gutiérrez on the right:

And finally, a couple of pictures of the stairs going up to one of the higher levels of the pyramid. Thom, Ed, and Robert are all visible in this first one, resting up for the rest of the climb:

And here's a little better view:

And this reminds me that I had posted some poetry inspired by our visit, which I posted on my other blog, and this is only FYI, click on the link at your own risk, and only if you care to read some amateur poetry (and if you do, know that the layout on the first one didn't go quite as planned on the way down, due to glitches over there, but I think it works fine and makes for an interesting unintended effect anyway):

Teotihuacán: Two Poems

Well, now, it's nafta--I mean, naptime! See ya in the funny papers!

Monday, July 30, 2007

Blue's Clueless, and So's Steve Burns

So, anyone who's had anything to do with children and children's television over the past decade has undoubtedly heard of the Nickelodeon network's Nick Jr. program, Blue's Clues. The original host, Steve Burns, pretty much defined the show, at least for those of us in on it from the beginning, and we lost touch with the show right around the time Steve was replaced by Joe (last name forgotten), and now the website says something about someone else named Kevin, whoever he might be.

What I can say about Blue's Clues is that it was pretty innovative, and pretty much put Nick Jr. on the map as an alternative to PBS as a source of television programs (aka electronic babysitter) for preschoolers. If you're familiar with Blue's Clues then you know what I'm talking about, and if you're not, you could just skip ahead to the video, which is amusing in and of itself and require no prior knowledge of the Nick Jr. show, and in fact is entirely unrelated to Blue's Clues apart from the fact that Steve Burns stars in it.

I must say, though, that in my opinion the Blue's Clues program is essentially a watered-down, less manic, more educational, more stable version of Pee Wee's Playhouse. Pee Wee's Playhouse was a very creative children's program, with strong appeal to adult viewers who could enjoy the sheer weirdness of the program, starring the comic Paul Rubens as Pee Wee Herman. The show ran from 1986-1991, ending about half a decade before Blue's Clues premiered. This show was pure postmodernism in action, and exemplified all of the characteristics of television that Neil Postman argued were leading us to amuse ourselves to death. But it was very amusing indeed, great fun, but also really, really strange. And strangest of all was the character Pee Wee Herman, who seemed entirely ambiguous, not just sexually but in terms of age--was he a childlike adult, or an adultlike child or what? In this, Pee Wee also illustrates what Postman identified as the disappearance of childhood.

There were other points of ambiguity in the series, which I won't go into now, because that's not the point of this post. And of course, how can I resist mentioning that Rubens career was severely damaged not long after the show came to an end, when he was arrested for obscenity, after he was caught abusing himself (as the saying goes) in an adult XXX movie theater. Interestingly, while Ruben's troubles with the law have kept his show out of syndication for children's television, it's now shown on cable as part of Cartoon Network's late night Adult Swim programming (when kids graduate from Nick Jr., they migrate to Cartoon Network's regular programming, I should add).

Now, Steve Burns is nowhere near as strange as Paul Rubens was (or still is), and beyond that, the Pee Wee Herman persona and Pee Wee's Playhouse was the brainchild of Rubens, while Steve Burns, as I understand it, merely answered a casting call and was chosen for the starring role in Blue's Clues by the program's producers. But the Nick Jr. show has traces of the hallucinogenic quality of Pee Wee's Playhouse in that both made everyday objects such as furniture, food, flowers, etc., into characters with personalities, both featured segments where the main characters would dive into the world inside a picture hanging on the wall, and both revolved around some kind of game--more so Blue's Clues with it's mystery/puzzle/guessing game, but Pee Wee's Playhouse had it's Word of the Day, which only Pee Wee and the other anthropomorphic residents of his playhouse, and the viewers at home, were aware of, and when anyone said it, everyone would yell and scream! Like I said, it was manic. But along with that, while Steve Burns is nowhere near as ambiguous a persona as Pee Wee Herman/Paul Rubens, he still has that childlike adult/adultlike child quality, but again, in much milder form--but still noticeable!

Steve Burns has not been arrested, to my knowledge, but I recall him launching into a tirade against the producers of Blue's Clues after he left the program, having appeared on it from its debut in 1996 to 2002. But there also were a number of rumors started about him, that he had become a hippie-type, that he had joined the Hells Angels (improbably!), that he had become addicted to heroin and died of an overdose! According to the Wikipedia article on Steve Burns:

The legend may have started from Burns' appearance as an autistic teenager in an April 1995 episode of Law & Order, in which his character died before the opening credits. Burns' "overdose" may also have been simply another iteration of a sub-genre of urban legend in which celebrity figures whose public personas are associated with innocence are supposedly revealed to have a hidden, seedier side. There was a rumor that Steve left Blues Clues because of his mental issues. According to a 15 minute documentary on Nickelodeon, titled "The 10 years of Blue", Burns left Blue's Clues to start a self titled band. Burns was quoted on said program saying "[He] didn't want to lose [his] hair in children's television.

The article goes on to indicate that this wasn't a bad move for him:

After Burns left Blue's Clues in 2002, he recorded a rock album, Songs for Dustmites, which was released in 2003. The album was produced with the assistance of producer Dave Fridmann of Tarbox Road Studios, and with the assistance of and contributions by Steven Drozd, drummer for The Flaming Lips. (During the recording, Burns portrayed an engineer aboard a spacecraft in The Flaming Lips' film, Christmas on Mars.) The album was well-received by critics, many of whom expressed surprise at the album's quality (given their previous associations of Burns as "merely" a children's show host). Burns followed up the album's release with an international tour in 2003 and 2004. Burns also made an appearance on Figure It Out: Wild Style as one of the panelists.

In 2003, Steve Burns supported The Flaming Lips on their UK tour.

Burns recently contributed a cover of They Might Be Giants' "Dead" to the TMBG tribute album, Hello Radio.

For more on his career as a musician, you can take a look at his website, Steve Burns Rocks!!!

But before he left Blue's Clues to play the rhythm and blues, he starred in a short film directed by Jonathan Judge, entitled Hot Pants: Enchilada Surprise. This was 2001, so if you've seen this one already, my apologies, I'll try to do better next time. If not, but you are familiar with the Nick Jr. series, his character here is not that far off from the one he portrayed in Blue's Clues, same nice young man, now out on a date with a nice young girl, both from New Jersey!

And if you haven't a clue, blue or otherwise, about what I've been writing about so far, no matter, as I said, this stands on its own merit as a very funny film. Be warned, however, that it involves just a little bit of crude humor.

Anyway, this is courtesy of YouTube, where the description of this film reads:

"A perfect date goes from bad to worse in this re-telling of the urban myth of the Enchilada Surprise. Ben and Suzy are having the perfect first date until Ben orders Enchiladas Surprise at a Mexican restaurant. Now Ben's in a battle to avoid the ultimate humiliation."

Absolutely hilarious! So funny you will crap your pants!

Starring: Steve Burns
Director: Jonathan Judge
And now, this:

Sunday, July 29, 2007


I doubt that many people reading this (not that many people do read this) would recognized that the title of this post, "It Is Balloon!!!" is a reference to the classic sixties television situation comedy, F-Troop. It was a popular program when I was a kid, and continued to be popular in reruns on one of the local channels in New York City (was it WPIX?). Like many sitcoms of that time, it was a complete farce, in this case a parody of the westerns that dominated the motion picture industry for decades, and specifically the subgenre of the cavalry movie. In this version, the Captain was foolish, the Sargent and Corporal were operators and con artists (shades of Sgt. Bilko), and the Indians were peaceful, reasonable, more or less modern, and business partners of the Sargent and Corporal. Back in those days, the premise of the sitcom would be pretty much summed up in the opening credits, often in the theme song. The F-Troop theme song's lyrics went like this:

The end of the Civil War was near
When quite accidentally,
A hero who sneezed abruptly seized
Retreat and reversed it to victory.

His medal of honor pleased and thrilled
his proud little family group.
While pinning it on some blood was spilled
And so it was planned he'd command F Troop.

Where Indian fights are colorful sights
and nobody takes a lickin'
Where pale face and redskin
Both turn chicken.

When killing and fighting get them down,
They know their morale can't droop.
As long as they all relax in town
Before they resume with a bang and a boom
F Troop.
So, anyway, there was one episode that revolved around a hot-air balloon, which after all was a new technology in the 19th century, first used for surveillance during the Civil War, I believe. The balloon was a symbol of the modern, which provides some insight into the ending of The Wizard of Oz, where it plays a role not that different from Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days. As for F-Troop, to be perfectly honest, I remember nothing of the plot of the balloon episode, only that it climaxed with the balloon rising up in the sky, and the Indians looking up in wonder and shouting, "IT IS BALLOON!!!" And the reason I remember this scene is that it was one of the highlights used in the promotional spot that the TV station used to run over and over for the program. So it is burned into my memory. But it also was a very funny moment, at least from the point of view of a young boy, and I remember that line being repeated by me and my friends endlessly. It still makes me laugh, thinking about it.

So all this is a rather long-winded and irrelevant introduction to the fact that our family went to see hot-air balloons yesterday, at the New Jersey Balloon Festival, or to use its full and proper name, the 25th annual Quick Chek New Jersey Festival of Ballooning (and don't you hate the corporate usurpation of proper names?). No, we didn't ride in one, not our cup of tea, we just went to watch. And here's some of what we saw.

As the sun was going down, three balloons were inflated, that the others would chase after.

and here they go:

and now, the many other balloons started to inflate:

and those that were fully inflated started to lift off, while others were just beginning to inflate on the ground. In this shot, you can see that dusk is approaching:

And now, would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon? No, me neither, but how wonderful, truly full of wonder, it is to watch them slowly rise into the sky:

Some, like the Pepsi can, never got off the ground (which was part of the plan).

Most of the balloons that remained on the ground were specialty balloons, and many of them demonstrating the value of a good corporate logo, icon, and especially, mascot:

The wind picked up a little as the sun went down:

This next shot captures the hot air mechanism at work, but more on that later:

And who doesn't love Mr. Peanut™? Actually, my son doesn't because he's allergic to peanuts.

Those bees look like bears to me, but it's all about the honey. Anyway, all of the balloons in the air came down, leaving only the ground-based ones, while over on the concert stage Blues Traveler started their concert. It was great listening to them live (we weren't seated in the concert area), especially when they did their big hit from the nineties, "Run-around" (in case you're not familiar with it, here are the lyrics:

Words & Music by J. Popper

Once upon a midnight dearie
I woke with something in my head
I couldn't escape the memory
Of a phone call and of what you said
Like a game show contestant with a parting gift
I could not believe my eyes
When I saw through the voice of a trusted friend
Who needs to humor me and tell me lies
Yeah humor me and tell me lies
And I'll lie too and say I don't mind
And as we seek so shall we find
And when you're feeling open I'll still be here
But not without a certain degree of fear
Of what will be with you and me
I still can see things hopefully

But you
Why you wanna give me a run-around
Is it a sure-fire way to speed things up
When all it does is slow me down

And shake me and my confidence
About a great many things
But I've been there I can see it cower
Like a nervous magician waiting in the wings
Of a bad play where the heroes are right
And nobody thinks or expects too much
And Hollywood's calling for the movie rights
Singing hey babe let's keep in touch
Hey baby let's keep in touch
But I want more than a touch I want you to reach me
And show me all the things no one else can see
So what you feel becomes mine as well
And soon if we're lucky we'd be unable to tell
What's yours and mine the fishing's fine
And it doesn't have to rhyme so don't you feed me a line

But you
Why you wanna give me a run-around
Is it a sure-fire way to speed things up
When all it does is slow me down

Tra la la la la bomba dear this is the pilot speaking
And I've got some news for you
It seems my ship still stands no matter what you drop
And there ain't a whole lot that you can do
Oh sure the banner may be torn and the wind's gotten colder
Perhaps I've grown a little cynical
But I know no matter what the waitress brings
I shall drink in and always be full
My cup shall always be full

Oh I like coffee
And I like tea
I'd like to be able to enter a final plea
I still got this dream that you just can't shake
I love you to the point you can no longer take
Well all right okay
So be that way
I hope and pray
That there's something left to say

But you
Why you wanna give me a run-around
Is it a sure-fire way to speed things up
When all it does is slow me down

But you
Why you wanna give me a run-around
Is it a sure-fire way to speed things up
When all it does is slow me down

And, it was a bit of a gimmick, but hey, what the hey, with the air cleared of balloons, and the concert already begun, they had a skydiver descend to the field, and then head over to the concert area to deliver John Popper's harmonic to him, so he could play it on "Run-around" (and other songs). Here are some pictures showing the patriotic theme unfolding:

The guys (there were a couple of others coming down with him) doing this actually had jets in their boots which went off as they got close to the ground, but we didn't get any shots of that.

Anyway, as the sunlight faded, still more ground-based balloons inflated, including the Energizer bunny and a birthday cake:

And, as you can see, the darker it got, the more impressive the balloons looked as the hot-air mechanisms would fire up periodically, shooting flames up inside of the balloon, and lighting them up in the night:

Such enormous constructions, filled with a whole lot of nothing (shades of Seinfeld!), that's where the expression, you're full of hot air comes from. But hot air is nothing to sneeze at, being lighter than air normally is, this was the first form of antigravity to be developed, genuine levitation. How amazing it is, if you just stop and think about it. How dignified and stately. What was high-tech in the 19th century seems so quaint to us, but there's much to be said for the sense of time that's associated with ballooning, not rushed, just going with the flow. No wonder the top 40 pop song "Up, Up, and Away" became so emblematic of sixties optimism and the beginnings of the counterculture. I know it kitschy, but we don't shy away from kitsch, we make the hard decisions here on Blog Time Passing, so here goes:

The Fifth Dimension - Up, Up And Away Lyrics

Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon
Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon
We could float among the stars together, you and I
For we can fly we can fly
Up, up and away
My beautiful, my beautiful balloon
The world's a nicer place in my beautiful balloon
It wears a nicer face in my beautiful balloon
We can sing a song and sail along the silver sky
For we can fly we can fly
Up, up and away
My beautiful, my beautiful balloon
Suspended under a twilight canopy
We'll search the clouds for a star to guide us
If by some chance you find yourself loving me
We'll find a cloud to hide us
We'll keep the moon beside us
Love is waiting there in my beautiful balloon
Way up in the air in my beautiful balloon
If you'll hold my hand we'll chase your dream across the sky
For we can fly we can fly
Up, up and away
My beautiful, my beautiful balloon
Up, up, and away.....
So, yes, up, up, and away, because... IT IS BALLOON!!!!