Friday, December 21, 2007

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Going for Brokaw on Postman

So, back on December 1st, the Wall Street Journal published a piece by Tom Brokaw, former anchor of the NBC network's Nightly News program, entitled "Books on Journalism" (p. W10) where he named the five books about journalism that he felt were most important. The article begins with the following introduction:

Veteran newsman Tom Brokaw says that these books, taken together, present a peerless portrait of journalism's high aims and low comedy.

And Brokaw himself begins by writing:

The five books I've chosen to write about reflect my own attitudes about the craft I've practiced for 45 years now. They're a mix of the triumphs of journalism, the absurdities, the vanities and the importance of a free press in any society.

The first four books he discusses are The Boys on the Bus by Timothy Crouse (Random House, 1973), All the President's Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (Simon & Schuster, 1974), Scoop by Evelyn Waugh (Little, Brown, 1938), and Murrow by A.M. Sperber (Freundlich, 1986). All well and good, but certainly not blogworthy, at least not in the blogistic judgment of this particular blogist, yours truly. So why are you bringing this up in the first place you might be asking at this point, especially if you have somehow managed to not pay attention to the title of this post. And aha!, there you have it, Brokaw's book number five, well, Tom, why don't you tell the people in your own words:

5. Amusing Ourselves to Death
By Neil Postman
Viking, 1985

Neil Postman's polemic is at once provocative, exaggerated, insightful, myopic and instructive. Instructive because Postman does raise appropriate warning flags about relying wholly on television as a medium for serious inquiry about ideas. Myopic because he fails to acknowledge television's role as a catalyst for learning. Favorable attention for a book on television spurs many more sales than a newspaper's positive review. He is right, however, when he observes that TV's entertainment values can smother rational discourse if the two are not kept in balance. As for his claim that the medium's "form excludes content," it is an exaggerated judgment. Take the subject of global climate change. Scientific arguments are of course essential to making the case, but it would be hard to deny how much the images of shrinking ice caps, rising sea levels and parched landscapes reinforce the arguments. Nonetheless, "Amusing Ourselves to Death," a cautionary tale, should be required reading for all broadcast journalists -- and perhaps for their viewers as well.

So, it's wonderful that the work of my mentor and one of the all-time great media ecologists was included in Brokaw's list. Without a doubt, it is a cause for celebration, and for praising Mr. Brokaw, who was in fact my favorite of the Three Tenors, Dan Rather seeming to have gone off the deep end at some point during the Reagan Era, and Peter Jennings being too biased against Israel, and just too damn Canadian (every time he said "aboot" it grated on my sensitive New Yawker ears). Okay, enough trash talk, and well, thank you Tom for exhibiting such good taste.

So, maybe it's just being defensive to want to argue a bit here, but I can't help but take issue with some of the things that Brokaw says about Neil's book, like exaggerated and myopic. Brokaw is himself being myopic when he talks about television being a catalyst for serious learning. Yes, it can happen, but there are always counter-currents in even the most swiftly flowing river. More often than not, after watching a report on a topic on television, the viewer has the illusion of being sufficiently informed, rather than being motivated to seek out more information.

As for promoting books, what a ridiculous point to make. Sure, favorable attention on television will generate more sales, but how often does a book get any attention at all??? And of the many, many books that are published, how many get the tiniest bit of attention on television??? So, all television does is intensify the star system for books that started in the early 20th century with bestseller listings and book-of-the-month clubs. It's great if you are one of Oprah's picks, sure, and not bad if you get a moment on the Daily Show, but promoting the sale of a few select titles is not the same as promoting book sales in general, quite the reverse, and promoting sales is not the same thing as promoting reading itself. Brokaw completely misses the point that time spent with the electronic media is time taken away from books, magazines and newspapers.

As for images reinforcing arguments, such as the images associated with global warming, there is no question that dramatic visuals capture attention and generate visceral, emotional responses on the part of the audience. Postman makes that point repeatedly in Amusing Ourselves to Death. You might further say that it was impossible to convince people about the problem of global warming earlier on, when all we had to go on was rational argument, statistics, and scientific reports. No good television there. But now that we have images of melting glaciers and massive chunks of ice breaking off, a consensus about global warming is suddenly forming among members of the general public. And it can be equally argued that those images offer no proof or argument for the validity of global warming, so to the extent that people are convinced by them they are exhibiting faulty judgment, being irrational, relying on images rather that logic. Whether you are liberal or conservative, whether you are of the opinion that global warming is true or false, doesn't matter. Whether you believe people are coming to the right or the wrong conclusions, the point is that they are doing so for the wrong reasons, or rather for no reason at all.

Deep down, I think that broadcast journalists believe that Postman's analysis is right, but that television emphasizes entertainment not because of the technology, but because of the industry. If only they were free to follow the dictates of their profession, and not be hamstrung by commercial considerations, television would be able to present serious, in-depth reporting. Well, it's true that PBS does a bit better than the networks (who do better than local TV news programs), but not a whole lot is different from commercial newscasts. And 24-hour cable news channels certainly have not given us much more depth. It's not that it's impossible to do serious journalism on television, it's just that if anyone were to go so far against the bias of the medium, you'd get programming that no one would watch, and that would quickly go off the air.

Broadcast journalists are not that different from Marxist critics in this respect, except that the Marxists would see the journalists as part of the problem, not just their bosses, and would consider the professional practices of journalists and their notions of what news is and is not to be part of the hegemonic system. The problem is that in Communist nations television has also moved towards increasingly more entertaining programming over the decades. Once again, it's not the ideology, it's the technology stupid!

There is no escaping the fact that the medium is the message, and the message of television news is basically one of reassurance, all is well, no matter what the problems are out there, the newscasters still have the perfect hair, impeccable wardrobes, theme music, cools visuals, etc., and the anchors are still in charge, summoning and dismissing world leaders and other important individuals left and right. And the rule still is, if it bleeds it leads, go for the visuals, go for the gut. The newscast is still nothing more than a strip show, with the newscaster singing, let me entertain you! In Amusing Ourselves to Death, TV presents us with a world of the burlesque, and the grotesque.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Mind and Consciousness Symposed

I've been meaning to add a post on the Mind and Consciousness Symposium held at Fordham University on October 27th, which I helped to organize. The symposium followed the annual Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture held the previous evening, which was given by Leonard Shlain this year, sponsored by the Institute of General Semantics. The IGS also was the main sponsor of the symposium, along with several other cosponsors, including our Department of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham, and the Media Ecology Association.

Here's an image of the front and back covers of the program, which was designed by my friend and colleague Janet Sternberg. I think the picture she came up with for the cover is pretty nifty!

And here's an image of the program innards:

The high points of the event included Kathy Liepe-Levinson talking about the importance of narrative for human communication and time-binding--this was one of the most thoughtful presentations of the symposium, and Marty Levinson reading from his book, Practical Fairy Tales for Everyday Living. We also took the opportunity to present Marty with the Media Ecology Association's Susanne K. Langer Award for Outstanding Scholarship in the Ecology of Symbolic Form for his previous book, Sensible Thinking for Turbulent Times. The MEA's awards presentations are held at our annual convention, but since Marty couldn't make it to Mexico City, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to make the presentation. Here's a photo that his wife snapped of Marty accepting the award:

Another notable presentation was by a High School teacher from Maine, Gary Chapin, in that it was an analysis of high school education based in large part on Neil Postman's notions of the semantic environment. Also, Frank Scardilli of the U.S. Court of Appeals, a venerable general semantics expert, provided a detailed discussion of the semantic environment of the justice system. And I gave a talk about the Ten Commandments as an attempt to change and shape the media environment and semantic environment, drawing on ideas I've discussed previously in this blog and elsewhere.

But the absolute high point for me was the talk by Frank Dance, one of the all time greats in the field of communication, former president of the National Communication Association and the International Communication Association, retired from an endowed chair at the University of Denver, Fordham graduate (back in the fifties, as an English major), Mr. Orality as he is sometimes referred to, and all around terrific guy. Here's a picture of him giving his speech:

Frank gave us an overview of Pavlov's ideas about mind and consciousness, which was altogether fascinating since all we ever hear about old Ivan is the bit about the salivating dogs. And because his American successor in the behavioral school, B. F. Skinner, was so adamant about declaring the mind a black box and therefore off-limits, it was only natural to assume that his predecessor Pavlov saw things in the same light. But apparently that wasn't the case, and interestingly enough, neither was Pavlov terribly sympathetic to Communism, even though his work was held in high esteem in the Soviet Union because it made for a good fit with their ideology. Anyway, here is Frank Dance addressing the audience:

The one thing that stood out for me was when Frank explained that Pavlov defined the term symbol as a sign of a sign, a sign in the old nomenclature referring directly to what it represents, in a kind of causal relationship, and eliciting reflex reactions, whereas the symbol is arbitrary and conventional, with no necessary connection to what it represents, and making it possible to respond with delayed, reflective reactions. The idea that signs and symbols are not two distinct categories set side by side to one another, but rather that symbols are signs of signs, second order signs, or metasigns, just strikes me as incredibly elegant (and if this makes no sense to you because you're not familiar with the study of symbolic communication, then don't worry about it). Anyway, I can't believe I never heard that idea before (unless I did a long time ago and just forgot about it). So, here's me and Frank at our panel:

Also noteworthy was the final talk of the symposium by Milton Dawes, one of my favorite general semanticists, who talked about calculus as a metaphor for life, as lived in accord with general semantics. Additional photographs from the event can be found on the website of the New York Society for General Semantics (another cosponsor of the event), on their news page--as of this writing, it is still the most recent item.

One of the benefits of these events is the opportunity to get together with people who you might not otherwise see. I was particularly pleased that Shelley Postman (Neil's wife) came to the symposium--it's always wonderful to have her with us. What also made the event quite special came about because I had posted notice of the symposium on MySpace, and one of my MySpace friends, artist and writer Lana Deym Campbell, actually came down from Rhode Island and attended the entire event, so we met face-to-face for the first time. After the symposium was over, a few of us went out to eat, and what an interesting group it was, as it consisted of Lana, Shelley, Janet Sternberg, and one of our brightest undergraduates, Jonathan Hogan (and I add with pride that Jonathan recently completed his senior thesis under my direction, using a media ecological perspective to examine themes concerning technology in Iron Man comics!).

All in all, it was a day that expanded minds and raised consciousness, and lifted spirits as well.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Social Networking Flurries

So, there's been a flurry of activity since that social networking article came out in the New York Times (see my previous post), with the piece being picked up by a number of blogists. And it was reprinted on Tuesday, December 4th in the Toronto Globe and Mail (p. L-2), under the title "Logging the ancient history of Facebook"--my friend and fellow media ecologist from up north, Alex Kuskis, sent me an e-mail with a jpeg image of the page, so here it is for the record, albeit too small to really read:

No, it's not the article about the monkey, I know what you were thinking. It's on the right hand column.

Anyway, I really am not at liberty to report about all that's been going on, apart from giving you the basic weather report (see the Vincent Van Gogh Weather Map from the post before last), which is flurries, not a storm.

But on the topic of Web 2.0, a short piece in today's North Jersey Record stands out. This is a theme that came up repeatedly in media ecological discussions in relation to television, how being on camera, or just being covered changes people's behavior, not the least by making them more self-conscious. It was a major issue in Neil Postman's arguments against allowing cameras in the courtroom in New York State, and it comes up in the research that Paul Thaler undertook under Postman's guidance. Here now, it is applied to both the somewhat different phenomenon of being under surveillance, and also to being on YouTube:

Worker fights robber to 'look good' on YouTube
Tuesday, December 11, 2007

ELMWOOD PARK – A Dunkin' Donuts employee who whacked a robber over the head with a tip cup Sunday night said only one thought was running through his mind – not looking like a wimp on YouTube.

Dustin Hoffmann, a borough musician who has worked at the coffee and doughnuts chain for 10 months, said he fought back because he wanted to "look good" if the surveillance tape turned up on the popular video-sharing Web site.

"What was going through my mind at that point was that the security tape is either going to show me run away and hide in the office or whack this guy in the head, so I just grabbed the cup and clocked that guy pretty hard," Hoffmann said Monday.

The robber walked into Dunkin' Donuts on westbound Route 46 shortly after 5:30 p.m., ordered a blueberry cake doughnut and handed Hoffmann a dollar bill, Police Chief Donald Ingrasselino said.

As Hoffmann opened the register, the bandit lunged at him behind the counter and started grabbing cash, Ingrasselino said.

But Hoffmann didn't give up the money easily, attempting to stop the robber by grabbing his wrists and hitting him over the head repeatedly with a metal cup used for holding tips, the chief said.

Police are attempting to download the surveillance video in a digital format, but Hoffmann said once it's available, he is putting it on YouTube himself.

"There are only a few videos like that on YouTube now, so mine's going to be the best," Hoffmann said. "That'll teach this guy."

The robber fled with $290 in cash, but not before losing his baseball cap in the scuffle, said Ingrasselino.

The robber, who police described as an unshaven, 5-foot-10 to 6-foot tall white man in his 30s, with a medium build, black hair and long sideburns, was wearing a black baseball cap, a blue sweatshirt, a white T-shirt, blue jeans and beige work boots.

Police believe he is the same man who robbed two Dunkin' Donuts in the past two weeks – one on Route 46 in Parsippany, in which he stole $1,500, and the other on Route 10 in East Hanover in late November.

In January, a Belleville man was charged in connection with a string of burglaries at Dunkin' Donuts shops in Paramus, Garfield, Rutherford and Lodi.

Anyone with information can call police at 201-796-0700.

This is from the Local section of the North Jersey Record, p. L-1 to L-2. The moral of the story is a point made by Henry Perkinson, that television, and by extension video surveillance and YouTube, makes us more moral, in a sense. At least, in this instance, the self-consciousness generated by the media environment makes us concerned about our image, how we appear to others, and therefore about whether our behavior lives up to our ideals. It also shifts the motivation from avoiding guilt, an inner dilemma, to avoiding shame, an outer-directed concern.

Curiouser and curiouser.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

The Secondary Orality of Social Networking

So, last week I was interviewed over the phone by Alex Wright, a New York Times reporter with a media ecological bent, whose work I've often admired. He was writing a piece on social networking, and looking to apply Walter Ong's concept of secondary orality. How many journalists would or could make that kind of connection?

So, anyway, we had a really great conversation on the subject, and he said he wasn't sure when the article would be published, which is par for the course with these things. And he said he'd let me know, which I've heard before, but journalists usually don't let you know, either because they don't know in advance, or because they're too busy and on to the next assignment. As a media scholar, I certainly understand, although it's inevitably been disappointing.

This time, though, Alex e-mailed me that the article would be appearing in tomorrow's (Sunday's) New York Times Week in Review section. Now, I know from experience that you can't get the Week in Review on the web the day before (you can get some of the other sections). And the thought crossed my mind to try to buy a copy of the Sunday Times tonight, but it's cold out, and the paper will be delivered tomorrow morning (actually, half of it comes today, but it's stuff like the magazine, book review, arts & leisure, etc.). So, I figured I'd wait and see.

So, irony of ironies, I get an e-mail this evening from an old MA student from Fordham University, Elizabeth Hatfield, who is now working on her doctorate at Texas A&M University. And get this, she writes: "I saw your quotes in the NY Times article on Facebook comparing it to tribal societies today and found it very interesting"!!!! So, social networking beats all, don't it now?

It took me a little effort to track down the article through Facebook, since I'm not that familiar with the site as I am with MySpace, but I managed to find the link, which actually does go to the New York Times website. And as for the link to the article, click here. But I'll also save you the trip:

Friending, Ancient or Otherwise

Published: December 2, 2007

THE growing popularity of social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace and Second Life has thrust many of us into a new world where we make “friends” with people we barely know, scrawl messages on each other’s walls and project our identities using totem-like visual symbols.
We’re making up the rules as we go. But is this world as new as it seems?
Academic researchers are starting to examine that question by taking an unusual tack: exploring the parallels between online social networks and tribal societies. In the collective patter of profile-surfing, messaging and “friending,” they see the resurgence of ancient patterns of oral communication.
“Orality is the base of all human experience,” says Lance Strate, a communications professor at Fordham University and devoted MySpace user. He says he is convinced that the popularity of social networks stems from their appeal to deep-seated, prehistoric patterns of human communication. “We evolved with speech,” he says. “We didn’t evolve with writing.”
The growth of social networks — and the Internet as a whole — stems largely from an outpouring of expression that often feels more like “talking” than writing: blog posts, comments, homemade videos and, lately, an outpouring of epigrammatic one-liners broadcast using services like Twitter and Facebook status updates (usually proving Gertrude Stein’s maxim that “literature is not remarks”).
“If you examine the Web through the lens of orality, you can’t help but see it everywhere,” says Irwin Chen, a design instructor at Parsons who is developing a new course to explore the emergence of oral culture online. “Orality is participatory, interactive, communal and focused on the present. The Web is all of these things.”
An early student of electronic orality was the Rev. Walter J. Ong, a professor at St. Louis University and student of Marshall McLuhan who coined the term “secondary orality” in 1982 to describe the tendency of electronic media to echo the cadences of earlier oral cultures. The work of Father Ong, who died in 2003, seems especially prescient in light of the social-networking phenomenon. “Oral communication,” as he put it, “unites people in groups.”
In other words, oral culture means more than just talking. There are subtler —and perhaps more important — social dynamics at work.
Michael Wesch, who teaches cultural anthropology at Kansas State University, spent two years living with a tribe in Papua New Guinea, studying how people forge social relationships in a purely oral culture. Now he applies the same ethnographic research methods to the rites and rituals of Facebook users.
“In tribal cultures, your identity is completely wrapped up in the question of how people know you,” he says. “When you look at Facebook, you can see the same pattern at work: people projecting their identities by demonstrating their relationships to each other. You define yourself in terms of who your friends are.”
In tribal societies, people routinely give each other jewelry, weapons and ritual objects to cement their social ties. On Facebook, people accomplish the same thing by trading symbolic sock monkeys, disco balls and hula girls.
“It’s reminiscent of how people exchange gifts in tribal cultures,” says Dr. Strate, whose MySpace page lists his 1,335 “friends” along with his academic credentials and his predilection for “Battlestar Galactica.”
As intriguing as these parallels may be, they only stretch so far. There are big differences between real oral cultures and the virtual kind. In tribal societies, forging social bonds is a matter of survival; on the Internet, far less so. There is presumably no tribal antecedent for popular Facebook rituals like “poking,” virtual sheep-tossing or drunk-dialing your friends.
Then there’s the question of who really counts as a “friend.” In tribal societies, people develop bonds through direct, ongoing face-to-face contact. The Web eliminates that need for physical proximity, enabling people to declare friendships on the basis of otherwise flimsy connections.
“With social networks, there’s a fascination with intimacy because it simulates face-to-face communication,” Dr. Wesch says. “But there’s also this fundamental distance. That distance makes it safe for people to connect through weak ties where they can have the appearance of a connection because it’s safe.”
And while tribal cultures typically engage in highly formalized rituals, social networks seem to encourage a level of casualness and familiarity that would be unthinkable in traditional oral cultures. “Secondary orality has a leveling effect,” Dr. Strate says. “In a primary oral culture, you would probably refer to me as ‘Dr. Strate,’ but on MySpace, everyone calls me ‘Lance.’ ”
As more of us shepherd our social relationships online, will this leveling effect begin to shape the way we relate to each other in the offline world as well? Dr. Wesch, for one, says he worries that the rise of secondary orality may have a paradoxical consequence: “It may be gobbling up what’s left of our real oral culture.”
The more time we spend “talking” online, the less time we spend, well, talking. And as we stretch the definition of a friend to encompass people we may never actually meet, will the strength of our real-world friendships grow diluted as we immerse ourselves in a lattice of hyperlinked “friends”?
Still, the sheer popularity of social networking seems to suggest that for many, these environments strike a deep, perhaps even primal chord. “They fulfill our need to be recognized as human beings, and as members of a community,” Dr. Strate says. “We all want to be told: You exist.”

And there you have it. I'm looking forward to teaching a course on social networking for the first time next semester, and now I have a new reading to assign (insert smiley face here). And I think I should take Alex Wright to lunch, don't you? Anyway, I gotta go now. I figure I should also be posting this on my MySpace blog, so my 1,335 "friends" can all see it too.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Wachtel's Van Gogh Weather Map

My longtime friend and colleague, Ed Wachtel, came up with this bit of pattern recognition, and kindly gave me permission to put it on my blogs. McLuhan would have enjoyed this bit of visual punning, which is based on Ed's recognition of the similarity between Vincent Van Gogh's unique and brilliant style of painting and the look of the contemporary satellite weather map. The added touch of the reference to the Weather Channel is more cleverness on Ed's part.

I believe this would count as an example of formal cause, one of the four types of causes identified by Aristotle, a concept that inspired both Marshall and Eric McLuhan (I published a major piece that Eric wrote about formal cause in the Media Ecology Association's journal, Explorations in Media Ecology). In formal cause, rather than the cause-effect relationship that we are accustomed to, which is one of the four Aristotelian causes, specifically efficient cause, it is the form itself that leads to the effect, and this seems to apply especially to art. So, for example, it is the similarity in forms that motivates and is the cause that led to Wachtel's visual mash-up presented below.

But if none of that makes any sense to you, than never you mind, just enjoy the show, and it's one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, and here we Van Gogh:

Saturday, November 24, 2007

More Thoughts on Thanksgiving

So, last night we had our special Thanksgiving service at Congregation Adas Emuno, and I was one of the lay leaders, along with my friend Eric Fisher, due to the fact that our spiritual leader, Cantor Shapiro, was out of town visiting family. As expected, attendance was very low, as many others were out of town or simply too exhausted from the holiday. We had about ten or so show up, enough for a minyan, including three newcomers, two ladies visiting from New Orleans, and the daughter of one of them who lives a block or two away. Needless to say, it was a delight just hearing the Southern accents. Can you say, shalom, y'all?

So, I should begin by acknowledging that having a Thanksgiving service is itself unorthodox, as more traditional and conservative Jews have no problem celebrating the secular holiday, but do not incorporate it into religious observance. In a sense, for Jews, everyday is Thanksgiving. That is, three times a day we are supposed to recite prayers giving thanks to God.

But Reform Judaism is liberal, progressive, flexible, and adaptable to the modern world and to life as citizens in modern nation-states, so we have no problem adding extra prayers in light of the Thanksgiving holiday celebrated the day before. So, I prepared a few items, and I'd like to share then with you here.

First of all, after the candle lighting which begins our Sabbath service, I thought it would be appropriate, albeit unusual, to begin with the grace after meals. As I said last night, many of us are still full from Thanksgiving meals, and the words are quite meaningful in light of the holiday. I took the English translation, from the Reform version of the prayer, which is a bit abridged, read the first paragraph, and had everyone join together in reading the rest:

From Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals)

A song of ascents. When Adonai brought the exiles back to Zion it was like a dream. Then our mouths were filled with laughter and our tongues with song. Then was it said among the nations: “Adonai has done great things for them.” Truly, Adonai has done great things for us. And we rejoiced. Bring us from exile, Adonai, as the streams return to the Negev; those who sow in tears shall reap in joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing sacks of seeds, shall return with joy, bearing their sheaves.

Let us thank God. Blessed is the name of God now and forever. With your permission, let us thank God whose food we have eaten. Blessed is God whose food we have eaten and through whose goodness we live. Blessed is God and Blessed is God’s name.

Blessed is Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who sustains the entire world with goodness, kindness and mercy. God gives food to all creatures, for God’s mercy is everlasting. With abundant goodness we have never lacked, and may we never lack sustenance forever in God’s great name. God sustains all, does good to all, and provides food for all the creatures created. Blessed is Adonai, who provides food for all.

For all these blessings we thank Adonai our God with praise. May God’s name be praised by every living being forever, as it is written: “When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to Adonai your God for the good land which God has given you.” Blessed is Adonai for the land and its produce.

May God rebuild Jerusalem, the holy city, speedily in our lifetime. Blessed is Adonai, who restores Jerusalem with mercy. Amen

May the Merciful One Rule over us forever and ever. May the Merciful One be blessed in heaven and on earth.

May the Merciful One send abundant blessing upon this dwelling and the table at which we have eaten.
May the Merciful One bless all of our brothers and sisters of the house of Israel who are now oppressed and bring them from darkness into light.

May the Merciful One grant us a world that shall be entirely Shabbat and eternal rest.

May the One who makes peace in the heavens let peace descend on all us, and let us say Amen.

May Adonai give strength to our people; may Adonai bless our people with peace.

After this prayer, I thought it appropriate to say the Shehecheyanu blessing that we say whenever we have a special occasion or milestone:

And the translation I used was:

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who has granted us life and sustenance and permitted us to reach this season.

And then, I led a responsive reading adapted from Psalm 100, which is specifically identified as a Psalm of thanksgiving:

Psalm 100

A Psalm of thanksgiving. Shout to the Eternal, all the earth

Serve the Eternal with gladness

Come before God's presence singing praises

Know that Adonai is God

The Eternal made us, and we are God's people, and the flock of God's pasture

Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courtyards with praise

Give thanks to the Eternal and bless God's name

For Adonai is good

God's kindness is forever, and until generation after generation is the Eternal's faith
I took elements of two different translations to get what I thought was the right effect. Anyway, from there the service proceeded as usual, until right before the prayer for peace, at which point I made a brief statement about how there are people who experience the Thanksgiving holiday as a time of mourning, specifically the native American peoples, and that we, as Jews, should feel a special kinship with them, and given that we have celebrated the American holiday of Thanksgiving, I asked for a moment of silence on behalf of the first peoples of our land. Following that, I had us read together a native American prayer of thanksgiving. We all took turns reading each paragraph, and between each paragraph, we all said the short line together. The specific source was A Haudenosaunee "Thanksgiving" Prayer From Native American Poems and Prayers, and here is how it goes:

GREETINGS TO THE NATURAL WORLD! Today we have gathered and we see that the cycles of life continue. We have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things. So now, we bring our minds together as one as we give greetings and thanks to each other as People.

Now our minds are one.

We are all thankful to our Mother, the Earth, for she gives us all that we need for life. She supports our feet as we walk about upon her. It gives us joy that she continues to care for us as she has from the beginning of time. To our Mother, we send greetings and thanks.

Now our minds are one.

We give thanks to all the Waters of the world for quenching our thirst and providing us with strength. Water is life. We know its power in many forms - waterfalls and rain, mists and streams, rivers and oceans. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to the spirit of water.

Now our minds are one.

We turn our minds to all the Fish life in the water. They were instructed to cleanse and purify the water. They also give themselves to us as food. We are grateful that we can still find pure water. So, we turn now to the Fish and send our greetings and thanks.

Now our minds are one.

Now we turn toward the vast fields of Plant life. As far as the eye can see, the Plants grow, working many wonders. They sustain many life forms. With our minds gathered together, we give thanks and look forward to seeing Plant life for many generations to come.

Now our minds are one.

With one mind, we turn to honor and thank all the Food Plants we harvest from the garden. Since the beginning of time, the grains, vegetables, beans and berries have helped the people survive. Many other living things draw strength from them too. We gather all the Plant Foods together as one and send them a greeting and thanks.

Now our minds are one.

Now we turn to all the Medicine herbs of the world. From the beginning, they were instructed to take away sickness. They are always waiting and ready to heal us. We are happy there are still among us those special few who remember how to use these plants for healing. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to the Medicines and to the keepers of the Medicines.

Now our minds are one.

We gather our minds together to send greetings and thanks to all the Animal life in the world. They have many things to teach us as people. We see them near our homes and in the deep forests. We are glad they are still here and we hope that it will always be so.

Now our minds are one.

We now turn our thoughts to the Trees. The Earth has many families of Trees who have their own instructions and uses. Some provide us with shelter and shade, others with fruit, beauty and other useful things. Many peoples of the world use a Tree as a symbol of peace and strength. With one mind, we greet and thank the Tree life.

Now our minds are one.

We put our minds together as one and thank all the Birds who move and fly about over our heads. The Creator gave them beautiful songs. Each day they remind us to enjoy and appreciate life. The Eagle was chosen to be their leader. To all the Birds - from the smallest to the largest - we send our joyful greetings and thanks.

Now our minds are one.

We are all thankful to the powers we know as the Four Winds. We hear their voices in the moving air as they refresh us and purify the air we breathe. They help to bring the change of seasons. From the four directions they come, bringing us messages and giving us strength. With one mind, we send our greetings and thanks to the Four Winds.

Now our minds are one.

Now we turn to the west where our Grandfathers, the Thunder Beings, live. With lightning and thundering voices, they bring with them the water that renews life. We bring our minds together as one to send greetings and thanks to our Grandfathers, the Thunderers.

Now our minds are one.

We now send greetings and thanks to our eldest Brother, the Sun. Each day without fail he travels the sky from east to west, bringing the light of a new day. He is the source of all the fires of life. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to our Brother, the Sun.

Now our minds are one.

We put our minds together and give thanks to our oldest grandmother, the Moon, who lights the night-time sky. She is the leader of women all over the world, and she governs the movement of the ocean tides. By her changing face we measure time, and it is the Moon who watches over the arrival of children here on Earth. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to our Grandmother, the Moon.

Now our minds are one.

We give thanks to the Stars who are spread across the sky like jewelry. We see them in the night, helping the Moon to light the darkness and bringing dew to the gardens and growing things. When we travel at night, they guide us home. With our minds gathered together as one, we send greetings and thanks to all the Stars.

Now our minds are one.

We gather our minds to greet and thank the enlightened Teachers who have come to help throughout the ages. When we forget how to live in harmony, they remind us of the way we were instructed to live as people. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to these caring Teachers.

Now our minds are one.

Now we turn our thoughts to the Creator, or Great Spirit, and send greetings and thanks for the gifts of Creation. Everything we need to live a good life is here on this Mother Earth. For all the love that is still around us, we gather our minds together as one and send our choicest words of greetings and thanks to the Creator.

Now our minds are one.

We have now arrived at the place where we end our words. Of all the things we have named, it was not our intention to leave anything out. If something was forgotten, we leave it to each individual to send such greetings and thanks in their own way.

Now our minds are one.
I think that everyone found it to be a beautiful and meaningful, and of course spiritual experience. Immediately after saying this prayer, we sang "Shalom Rav," a prayer for peace in the world.

After the silent prayer, in place of a sermon or Torah reading and interpretation, we had prayers for thanksgiving, and everyone was invited to participate, but only Eric and I wound up doing so. Eric gave a moving extemp0raneous talk about all that he was grateful for. And I wrote a prayer, which I had actually posted on MySpace at the beginning of the week on my poetry blog, so I guess you could call it a poem of prayer or a poetic prayer, or whatever. I'll just include it here rather than make you run over to my other blog:

Prayer for Thanksgiving

This time of year is set apart
As a time of Thanksgiving in our land.
And we certainly ought to give thanks
For living in a land of great abundance.
But we can only give thanks
When we give thanks to someone,
When we give thanks to a higher power,
So we give thanks to You, God,
We give thanks to You.

And it is easy enough to give thanks to You,
For those of us who live comfortable lives,
Who have our health, and the love of family and friends,
Who have clothing to wear and a roof over our heads,
And more than enough to eat,
Not to mention some measure of material wealth.

And for those of us whose lives are not blest by such abundance,
Or whose lives are touched by sickness, tragedy, or isolation,
It still may be easy to give thanks,
If we have found spiritual fulfillment,
Inner peace and outer contentment.

For all of us who feel some form of satisfaction with our lives,
It is a time when we ought to be recalling our good fortune,
And recounting our blessings,
And giving thanks for all that we have received,
It takes so little effort
For us to do it for ourselves,
We need no one else to speak on our behalf.

And that is why, God,
That I do not want to speak now
For the self-satisfied and the satiated,
And instead I want to give voice
To those among us who are angry at You,
Yes, angry at You, God,
And for that reason find it hard to give thanks,
At this time of year, or any other.

I want to give voice for those among us who are angry at You,
Because some of us seem to get more than our fair share
Of sadness and affliction,
More than our share of pain, hardship, and tragedy,
Because the burden You have placed on some of us
Seems so much heavier
Than what You have asked the rest of us to carry,
Because the world that You created
Sometimes seems so unjust, arbitrary, even cruel.

And I want to speak for those of us who are angry at You, God
Because we see evil triumphant,
Oppression and murder rule the day,
Because hate, aggression, and violence go unanswered,
Because there seems to be no punishment for the wicked,
No reward for those who do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly,
Because the innocent go to unmarked graves without number,
And because even at the best of times, Your angel of death haunts our days.

And I want to talk to You, God, on behalf of those of us who are angry with You,
Because our prayers seem to go unanswered,
Because Your silence is overwhelming,
Because Your eclipse leaves us in the dark,
Because Your absence leaves a void in the human soul
That no science, philosophy, or politics can hope to fill.

I want to say a prayer, God, on behalf of those among us who are angry at You,
And find it difficult to give thanks,
Wanting instead only to ask You,


In our tradition,
It is no sin to question God,
To debate God,
To argue with God,
So why should it be a sin to be angry at God?

And just as there are times
When we ask God to put aside his anger,
And grant us forgiveness,
There are times when we too need to put aside our own anger,
And forgive God.
To forgive You, God, for not living up to our expectations and fantasies,
To forgive You, God, for not being the God that we want You to be,
For instead being the God that You are,
To forgive You, God, for not being an overprotective parent,
And instead being a partner,
And leaving it up to us to finish what You started,
To complete Your creation,
To repair reality,
To heal the world.

And if we find it in our hearts to forgive You, God,
Then maybe,
Maybe then,
We can all of us find it in our hearts to give thanks
For what we have received.

For the gift of life, however brief and troublesome, still, life itself is a miracle.

For our bodies, through which we can enjoy pleasure and delight.

For our senses, through which we can encounter great beauty, and wonder.

For our feelings, through which we can know love, and joy, and hope.

For our minds, through which we can learn and grow,
Acquire knowledge
Gain understanding,
Seek wisdom,
And find meaning.

For our spirit, through which we can experience
The sacred and the sublime,
The holy and the holistic,
Transcendence and communion.

For the universe, through which we can experience
Connection across time and space.

For others like ourselves, from whom we can draw comfort and strength,
With whom we can form communities, gaining commitment and purpose.

For the chance to make things better than they were before,
To contribute, even in the smallest of ways,
To be a part of something greater, so much greater, than ourselves.

And so, it is for these gifts above all else,
Which You have provided to all of us
To each and every human being,
We give thanks to You, God, we give thanks to You.

And there you have it. And maybe it needs some explanation, but I think I'll let it stand on its own. And afterwards, the service concluded as usual, followed by an intimate oneg.

It was an evening and a Shabbat to be thankful for.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thoughts on Thanksgiving

I had a few free moments this morning to start on a post about Thanksgiving, and now I'm returning to it. My wife and daughter had a chance to go see the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade this morning, a friend from my daughter's school had a couple of extra tickets for reserved seating, lucky ducks that they are. Then we all went out to eat at Charlie Brown's, my son and mother as well, and for a small group this sure beats working like hell to make a big meal and then staring at leftovers for a week. But that's neither here nor there.

In some interactions I've had about this holiday, some of the controversy that surround it has come up, and that prompts this post. At the core of the trouble is how we react to Thanksgiving as a symbol, and the meaning we attach to it, making it a problem that general semantics might mitigate to some degree. And the first thing to be said is that Thanksgiving is a symbol, not a "thing" in and of itself, it has different meanings for different people, and we probably need to separate out the historical realities from the myth and ritual it represents today. And we probably need to understand that the holiday is not the same "thing" as the mistreatment of native Americans by European settlers in the New World, and at the same time that criticism of the holiday is not the same "thing" as a personal attack on us as individuals.

We Americans set aside this day to take a break from work, which we most certainly need to do, and to express our gratitude for all that we have, which we also very much need to do, and to get together with family and friends, which is a good thing. As a ritual, it is a national, secular substitute for the kind of harvest holidays, which generally involve feasting, which can be found in cultures all over the world. I have heard tell that it actually was based on the Jewish Festival of Sukkot, our harvest holiday.

The American Thanksgiving myth itself is a good one, one of peaceful coexistence and community, and we also very much need messages about community to counter the heavy emphasis on individualism in our culture. Every society has its sacred symbols and rituals, and this is one of the main ones in American culture, and ought to be respected as such. And it may be that the story of the Pilgrims' first Thanksgiving is something of a myth, but no society can survive without a set of myths to bind it together.

Many myths have some connection to history, though, and this one certainly does. And somehow, we have never reconciled our history of warfare against native Americans with the present day. It's easy to say, that happened centuries ago, and has nothing to do with me--it would be especially easy for me to say so, my parents immigrated to the US in 1955, so we had nothing to do with it, so pass the cranberry sauce please.

But maybe we do need to do something more, like add a ceremony to this holiday, a period of silence and mourning to remember the price that was paid for our present-day comfort? And when you think about it, we have this holiday about the Pilgrims, we have Columbus Day which is also controversial, we even have Martin Luther King Day, but we don't have a national day of remembrance that recognizes the first peoples and nations of our land. If you really think about it, it is hard to explain why we don't have anything like that? Doesn't it seem conspicuous by its absence?

To move forward, we do need to achieve some kind of reconciliation with the past. And we have yet to achieve that.

Tomorrow night, I will be one of the lay leaders for a special Thanksgiving service at Congregation Adas Emuno, and everyone will be invited to say their own prayers of thanksgiving. And I intend to ask for that moment of silence to remember the indigenous peoples of this hemisphere, and all over the world. When Eurpoeans first discovered the Americas and encountered the native peoples, some thought it might be the ten lost tribes of Israel. And there certainly is much that our people have in common with indigenous peoples, so we of all people should acknowledge them, as we also acknowledge the American ritual of giving thanks for all that we have in our lives.

I'll write more on this in my next post.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Shuffling Off to Buffalo

Sorry to have been quiet on here for so long, dear blog, I promise to pick up the pace of my posts soon. Right now, though, I'm getting ready to fly up to Buffalo, New York in a few days to give a public lecture about Neil Postman in general, and specifically his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. First, I'll be meeting with a small group of honors students for a seminar discussion about Neil. Here's what the poster for that looks like:

And now this, the poster for the big lecture:

This second one is open to the public, so anyone in the area who might be interested is very welcome to attend.

Last weekend, I participated in a general semantics symposium, and I will blog about that, with pictures, after the dust settles.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Jazzing It Up with Jon Corzine and Max Weinberg

So, last night our whole family went to a fundraiser for The New Jersey Center for Outreach and Services for the Autism Community, otherwise known as COSAC. (For my previous post on COSAC, see Two of the Faces of Autism). My wife is a member of the COSAC's Board of Trustees, I should add. So we got all dressed up and headed over to the East Brunswick Hilton for "Jazz It Up For Autism" which was this year's theme.

Here's a picture of my daughter (she's the one with autism, in case you haven't been keeping up with every detail of my life), and my son. There's an amazing bond that they have between them, although at home, more often than not, he makes her shriek at the top of her lungs by annoying her left and right, which is what siblings do, I imagine (being an only child, I can't state this for a fact).

This year's event was a really big deal in no small part because the Governor of New Jersey, Jon Corzine, came by and gave a little talk. I didn't get to meet him myself, I'm low priority at these things, but he did have a photo op with my daughter. They love having my daughter around for these things, because she's photogenic and fairly well behaved. This would be her second picture with a New Jersey Governor, as she had her picture taken with now disgraced ex-Governor Jim McGreevy years ago. One of these days I have to try to find a copy online, or scan it from the newspaper it appeared in. I also don't have the photo of my daughter with Corzine, as it was taken by one of the staff photographers. But I'm sure we'll get copies eventually, and I'll post it here as soon as I can. In the meantime, here's a picture my wife took of my daughter waiting for her photo op with the governor. In case you're not familiar with him, Corzine's the one with the beard, glasses, and bowtie. And that's the back of my daughter's head in the bottom foreground.

Okay, but here's the kicker. My son, who was supposed to be waiting with me, instead ran off to the VIP room to hang out with my wife and daughter, so my wife got a picture of him with Governor Corzine.

Now, is that cool, or what? Anyway, the other big attraction for this event was a special guest, Max Weinberg. Weinberg is famous for being the drummer in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, and also the leader of the Max Weinberg 7, the band for the Late Night With Conan O'Brien TV talk show. Again, I was the only one who didn't get to meet him, but I'm glad that my wife did (she worships Springsteen), and that my son did as well (he's gotten into Springsteen lately). Springsteen is the official state religion of New Jersey (that's not a joke, I am absolutely serious here), and after all, I am the only member of our family who is not from Jersey (I'm a native New Yorker, and I like Springsteen, but he's not God, man!). Anyway, here's a picture my wife snapped in the VIP area of Corzine and Weinberg talking.

So, aside from all this, there was a big fancy dinner, and here's a shot of my son and me at our table.

Gov. Corzine gave a very heartfelt speech. Everyone was commenting that he really does seem to care about the autism epidemic. There were a few other speakers, and a special presentation made to Max Weinberg, and to Robert and Michelle Smigel, who had a great deal to do with the success of the event. Robert Smigel also has a Conan O'Brien connection, as a head writer and as Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog. He was also a writer for Saturday Night Live, and is best known for his TV Funhouse cartoons. And no, I didn't get to meet him either. In all honesty, after all the high profile stuff with the Media Ecology Association this summer in Mexico, it's a pleasure to settle back into comfortable anonymity. Anyway, they had a dance band performing, and for one set Max Weinberg sat in on the drums, and they played a few Springsteen numbers. And I got up to dance with my daughter.

We were doing the little bit of the Lindy Hop that I know there. She loved it, I almost plotzed. It was quite a workout. Oh and here's some pictures of Max Weinberg playing with the band, and I have to say that that guy is really, really good!

And once the set was over, it was back to the table for some recovery time.

And that pretty much sums it up. It was a rare night out for us as a family, and a memorable one. Thank you, COSAC!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Information Cultures

I've previously posted about anthropologist Mike Wesch and his award-winning YouTube video (see In the Footsteps of Ted Carpenter), and it seems that he's been at it again. What I like about this new video, Information R/evolution, is that it provides a contrast between the older information technologies of print and file cabinets, and the new information environment that we now find ourselves in. So, here, take a look:

Okay, now, to be fair, I should balance out my praise for this well-produced and thought-provoking example of applied media ecology, with a bit of criticism. So, here goes. What's missing from this quick take, and as Neil Postman would point out, the very format works against more complex discussion of ideas, is the fact that the previous technologies, beginning with the use of the printing press to mass produce "blank" forms (I put blank in parentheses because of course they are not blank pieces of paper, but printed text with standardized blank areas where individual information is to be filled out) was revolutionary, a technology of information processing and control. They made possible the emergence of bureaucracies (the very word bureaucracy refers to bureau, the ancestor of the filing cabinet) and complex horizontal organizational structures, as well as filing and in general the ability to collect and process hitherto unimaginable quantities of data about all aspects of a society. This led to the rationalization of society, accelerated its differentiation into increasingly more discrete subsystems (and subsubsystems, etc.), and laid the groundwork for modernization and mass society.

Now, I'm not saying that Mike should have included all that in his short video, which is after all about how things have been changing recently, but I am saying that this is the part of the story that has been left out. In fact, if you follow Marshall McLuhan's arguments, then the revolution, or evolution, that Mike is portraying in fact represents a kind of rewinding backwards, from the modernized, bureaucratic, differentiated society, to something more akin to tribal or village life where there are few boundaries between what we would call sectors of society, everybody knows each others' business, and there is a relatively low degree of specialization among the members of society and their activities.

Anyway, McLuhan would describe Mike's videos as probes, whose purpose is to test, explore, and open up thought and discussion, and I think I just demonstrated how effective they are at that sort of thing. Anyway, Mike also recently uploaded another video that provides a very revealing sense of what students today are like:

The format appears to be taken from recent advertising and public service spots, and is certainly more than a little sobering for those of us in higher education. But this also complements the other video, as it shows, at least among this one population, the effects of the information r/evolution that we are experiencing. Well, so much for western civilization, eh? So it goes.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


MetaInternetaHyperPoeta! Kind of has a ring to it, doesn't it? Well, this is the name I've come up with for what a couple of guys on MySpace have done. So, let me start things off with the link:

Now, if you click on that link, that may be the last I see of you, because it will take you to a poem that these two fellows wrote, and many of the words in the poem are linked to other pages with other poems. So, you can either go ahead and read/explore it, and meet me back here later, or not at all, or if you like, you can read the comment I left for them on that poem's blog page (third page of the comments I believe), which I've pasted in below (slightly edited).

Wow! Fabulous! What an immense undertaking, David and Si, and apparently very much the labor of love. You have really used the medium well here. The idea of hypertext, and hypertextual poetry (or should we say hyperpoetry) has been around for almost two decades, predating the web itself (which relies on hypertext markup language aka html), but there is surprising little experimentation with the form here among the MySpace poets, at least the ones I've encountered. And maybe rightly so, as just because a technology makes it so you can do something doesn't mean that you ought to do it.

But this isn't a hypertext in the original sense, that is, a single-authored work with links that allow you to move in nonlinear fashion among different pages. This is web hyperpoetry, where the links take you to other pages that already exist, and that were created by others. So, at once you have a poem that stands as its own work, and as others have indicated, it is a fine write in and of itself. The fact that it's co-authored makes it a little bit atypical, especially for a poem, but collaborative writing is far from unknown in print culture.

But it seems clear to me that you did not write this poem first, then decide to look for appropriate links, but rather that you had the idea to create this new form, and that the writing of this poem was shaped and influenced, at least in part, by the other poems that you were thinking of including. That imposes certain constraints, of course, which can often lead to a better work than just going free form, but it also means that in some way you have retrieved aspects of traditional oral poetry (e.g., Iliad,
Odyssey, Beowulf, etc.), in which pre-existing elements are woven together to create a new composition.

In other words, while this is not epic in scope or theme, but rather a more individualistic, inner-directed, self-conscious meditation on poetry of the sort that was born out of print culture. It is epic in the sense that it goes beyond the individual to represent an entire community and a tradition of sorts (albeit a very young one). It is epic in weaving (and the weave metaphor is at the heart of epos, that's what rhapsode is all about) a grand tapestry that stands as a great celebration of poets and poetry. And of community. More than anything else, you have made a beautiful and loving statement about a community of poets, a tribe!

All media are best understood as environments that we live in, not just things that we use (or ignore), but this poem truly brings that to the fore as what you create is a poetic environment that the reader can move through, and explore that community of poets. This is truly representative of a new, electronic form, that is outer-directed and other-directed, and yes, environmental. I think that, more than a good write, this stands as a significant achievement of lasting value.

On a personal note, I would add that I feel privileged to have been able to join that community, and honored to be included in this work. Thank you, guys.

And I hope I've made myself sufficiently clear: I like it, I really, really like it.

So, there you have it. All that I have to add is that I have now come up with the perfect name for this new form:
MetaInternetaHyperPoeta! Come on now, say it with me: MetaInternetaHyperPoeta. Now, try saying that ten times fast! Or just go back and enjoy all that poetry.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Eureka? I Have Lost It!

So, I have on many occasions made reference to all of the quality television that is available nowadays, especially via cable channels. We may well look back on this period of time, rather than the fifties, as the Golden Age of Television, or maybe call it the Platinum Age, because gold just isn't good enough, hasn't been for a long time.

But even though there are many outstanding programs to choose from, there still is something about television that lends itself to the mediocre, to junk, which Neil Postman argued, in Amusing Ourselves to Death, is what television does best. Back in that first Golden Age of Television, Ernie Kovacs said that television is a medium because it is so rarely well done.

But enough with the cooking metaphors. The point is, sometimes we don't want to watch something that requires focused attention, that asks us to ponder deep messages or make sense of complex story lines. Sometimes, we just want to veg out and be entertained. And when I say we, I of course mean me, myself, and I, and the vast majority of Americans, of course, of course.

But it is also true, for me, and I suspect for you, that sometimes we start watching a show that we think might be interesting, and it isn't terrible, so we continue to watch it, even though it's not all that exciting, out of some form of inertia, habit, or just to pass the time. Maybe the show has potential that it's not living up to so far, but maybe, just maybe, things might change.

So, this is the situation I find myself in when it comes to the SciFi Channel's original series, Eureka, which completed its second season not too long ago. And if you click on that link, you can go to their page on the SciFi website, and there are episodes of the program you can watch if you care to.

When the series premiered, I thought the concept was a promising one. The title of the program is also the Greek word for "I have found it!" and the image of a scientist or inventor shouting "eureka!" is pretty much a commonplace in our popular culture, or at least it was when I was growing up. As for the program itself, Eureka is the name of a small town, set up in secret, that is populated almost entirely by super geniuses, as a kind of think tank/industrial park/colony for creative thinkers in the applied, and theoretical sciences.

Now, the premise here is an intriguing one. On the one hand, we have the traditional all-American small town, on the other we have good old American ingenuity, on the one hand old-fashioned community, on the other, progress. The two sets of values and myths are contradictory, but co-exist generally by being kept apart from one another. Bring them together, and we have the potential for a new American myth, a new synthesis to emerge, much like Claude Lévi-Strauss said that the function of myth is to mediate cultural contradictions.

And let me emphasize once more, this is a very American myth. If it were Europeans telling this sort of story, then it wouldn't be a small town, it would be a wonder-city, a metropolis (as in the Fritz Lang silent film). It's the small town that makes this peculiarly American.

So, what we would expect from this sort of series is a sense of excess. Futuristic technology popping up everywhere, lots of robotic devices, a kind of Jetsons meets Andy Griffith. The ads promoting the show led us to believe that's what we would be getting, and for that matter, so do the opening credits. And through the miracle of computer graphics, making it so should be a cinch.

Only, the show never delivers. There's lots of Andy Griffith, sure, but just not enough Jetsons to satisfy the set-up. Maybe it's because much of contemporary technology, computers, virtual worlds, biotech, just lacks the visual interest of the older, mechanical devices that once signified the futuristic. But even so, the problem is that there is one futuristic technology highlighted in each episode, typically presenting a mystery to be solved. But just one, which is hardly excessive. Otherwise, there are a few things here and there, including a smart house, but it's just not technology popping up everywhere, gratuitously.

Futuristic technology should be environmental in this show, not just the occasional gadget. That's what's missing, as the environment itself is essentially an ordinary contemporary small town. What this program demands, or seems to promise and fails to deliver, is excess, technology as far as the eye can see, embedded within the context of the small town. In fact, if done right, this sort of myth should set things up so that the technology is what makes a return to small town life and genuine community possible, thereby resolving the contradiction between the two myths.

Apart from the lack of a surfeit of new technology, the series seems to be sidetracked and distracted by the presence of some alien intelligence that some of the scientists are trying to study. Sure, that fits the science fiction theme, but as it becomes the central mystery that ongoing plot lines revolve around, it detracts from the emphasis on invention that the show seems to be about.

The problem goes farther than the mise-en-scène, and extends to the characters, the inhabitants of this scientific small town. When it comes to scientists and inventors, it goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway, that such folks are typically portrayed as eccentric. But one of the minor disappointments of the show is that, of the regulars that make up the cast, eccentricity is largely limited to Jim Taggart, a supporting, relatively minor character (an Aussie crocodile hunter type), played by Matt Frewer, the former Max Headroom whose comedic talents seem not to be put to very good use here. The other major character type you would expect to find dominating the cast is the nerd, which in the program is concentrated in Douglas Fargo--but why is he the only nerd here?

In the cast picture below, you can see how resolutely normal everyone looks. In the foreground on the right is the main character, Sheriff Jack Carter (Eureka's version of Andy Taylor/Griffith). He is supposed to be our point of identification, the regular guy who, in the pilot, becomes the Eureka's new sheriff, and in every episode is dumbfounded by all the genius and advanced science and technology that surrounds him, but is able to use his basic common sense to solve every problem that comes his way--a fine albeit mild manifestation of the anti-intellectualism basic to American culture. Now, that's fine, but rather than representing the audience as an observer of Eureka's technological excess, he becomes the focus of the program, so much so that the sense of wonder that we should be experiencing is replaced by Carter's own ordinariness. Joining him as a newcomer to Eureka is his rebellious teenage daughter, second from the left below, who humanizes Carter, but places further emphasis on his character as opposed to the technology.

Henry Deacon, dressed as a handyman with a beret, had the potential to be an eccentric inventor type of character, but over the course of the series shifts from a jack-of-all-trades, perhaps the biggest genius of them all, to a star-crossed lover, then a man with secrets looking to avenge his love who was died in an accident (or was it murder?). It's a shift that is too abrupt and loses exactly that charm that we might expect to find in Eureka, as Henry does not turn out to be the goofy kind of inventor you'd expect to find in this scenario. As for the chick next to Sheriff Carter, that's Beverly Barlowe, the town's shrink, who's more than a little sinister. She's an intriguing character with potential, but underutilized, until the end of the second season where she suddenly has a significant role at the end.

Carter's love interest through the first season and into the beginning of the second is Alison Blake, on the far left, who is divorced from Nathan Stark, the slick looking (and arrogant) bearded guy in the suit. Both are resolutely normal aside from being geniuses. From Alison's point of view, her relationship with Nathan is clearly over, although they remain cordial colleagues. Nathan seems to have regrets, and is definitely jealous of Carter. So now, kudos for the interracial romance/love triangle. But while the first season presents Alison and Sheriff Carter as gradually getting closer and closer, there's an abrupt about-face during the second season, which ends with Alison getting back together with Nathan. Simultaneously, Carter finds a new love interest, so, there are no hard feelings on either end, and it is all very pat, it seems to me.

It's as if someone in authority suddenly stepped in and told the producers that they were advocating divorce and immorality with this scenario, given the presence of the ex and the fact that they have a child (with a disability to boot). And they were somehow pressured or convinced to change direction suddenly, abruptly. I'm not saying this actually happened, just that this is how it looks to me. And for whatever reason it happened, they would up eliminating one of the better elements of the series as a consequence.

At the beginning of the series, Nathan's parental role was very much downplayed, and his son is pretty much identified as Alison's child. What brings them back together during the second season is their son, Kevin, who has become involved with the alien entity. Again, not a bad development overall, but it eliminates one of the interesting sources of conflict in the series.

But here's the thing. In the pilot, Kevin is introduced as a young boy with severe autism, mute (although with a hint of speech). He is also potentially a savant, which fits in very well with the scenario for Eureka. The inclusion of an autistic character is an obvious point of interest for me, and I looked forward to some interesting developments. Sure, there's a tendency to latch onto the whole savant thing in film and television narratives, and to exaggerate it to absurd proportions sometimes. That's a stereotype, but at least Kevin wasn't another rain man, and I looked forward to some plots dealing with childhood autism.

But those plot lines never materialized. Instead, through the intervention of the alien entity, Kevin was magically transformed into a typical child, feeding unrealistic fantasies of recovery from autism. This was very, very disappointing. In the final episode, he is freed from the alien influence, with the understanding that he would revert back to his earlier state. But at the end, in a brief scene, he seemed to retain his power of speech, somehow. I just can't help but think that this represents a missed opportunity to actually engage in a substantive way with the realities of autism.

So, not enough fantasy where fantasy is called for, and not enough reality where reality is called for. This is a program that could have been something special, but has unfortunately missed the mark.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Magic Hat

So, I'm a guy who likes to have a good beer or two, every now and then. Maybe more now than then, like right now, as I write this. You might say I'm a bit of a beer snob, I won't try to dignify the situation by suggesting that I'm some kind of connoisseur, I just like some flavor with my suds, whether it's a light Mexican Sol or Pacifico or a German wiess beer, or a good old pint o' Guinness Stout. I'll even take some cheap Genesee Cream Ale now and then. Just please, please, no Budweiser!

So, yesterday I stopped by a local liquor store to pick up a six--in New York State, where I grew up, beer was never sold in liquor stores, but only in supermarkets, grocery stores, and beverage centers, while in New Jersey beer is only sold in liquor stores. And I saw a beer I don't remember seeing before, that really caught my eye with it's orange and brown label and packaging. The brewer's name is Magic Hat (how about that!) located in South Burlington, Vermont, and the name of the beer is the enigmatic #9!!! A reference to The Beatles perhaps--remember Revolution #9 (number nine, number nine, number nine...)--or to Cloud Nine maybe, or the nine lives that cats are said to have?

I really can't tell. But the name is followed by the following description: "flavored not quite pale ale" which is also a bit mysterious. Definitely what McLuhan referred to as a cool medium. In fact, a nice, cold one. Anyway, on the little label on the neck of the bottle I found the following text:

The ancient ritual of brewing a distinctly rich and flavorful beer is nothing short of magic. Our mysterious mix of time-honored ingredients, chaotic chemistry, humble patience, and blind faith age into the secret brew we share in the rousing company of good spirits.

Tell me that's not intriguing, and ya gotta love the reference to chaos theory--maybe a bit of the old magic ecology? So, I open the bottle, and notice that under each cap is a little message--shades of Snapple! The one I just opened said "It's all a Movie, but it's Your Movie" which isn't exactly fortune cookie profound or Snapplishly noteworthy, but does add a little bit of fun to the proceedings.

But none of this means a lick if da beer don't taste good. But if it didn't taste good, I wouldn't be writing this, would I? And it is good, excellent really, absolutely delightful, and surprisingly so. It's definitely on the pale side, light, but it does have a lot of flavor, a fruity quality that's not too strong, just enough to give it a little extra something. The bottom line? I found it utterly delightful.

Now, you may be wondering if this is some kind of paid endorsement. It isn't. This is entirely unsolicited, 100% me just wanting to share this with you, and recommend something that is both interesting in regard to packaging, and a really great beer. I am getting nothing in return for this.

But, if the Magic Hat Brewing Company sees this and wants to send me some more, well, I won't protest.

But even if you are an absolute teetotaler, let me recommend their website to you. I took a look before writing this, and I have to say that it is also quite involved, and a bit mysterious. One frustrating thing about it is that I couldn't copy and paste their images to pretty up this post, or copy and paste their text, so I had to type the following in all on my lonesome--see what I do for you? Here's what they say about #9, which appears to be one of about a dozen or so beers that they sell:

A Beer Cloaked in Secrecy

An ale whose mysterious and unusual palate will swirl across your tongue and ask more questions than it answers.

A beer brewed clandestinely and given a name whose meaning is never revealed. Why #9? Why, indeed.

A sort of dry, crisp, fruity, refreshing, not-quite pale ale. #9 is really impossible to describe because there's never been anything else quite like it.

And they're right! I really can't compare it to anyone other beer I've ever had.

Anyway, the website,, is more than a little strange-looking, intriguing in its imagery, offering "amusements" and "happenings" in addition to information about the beers, a shop with t-shirts and the like, a search engine for finding outlets that carry the beer, and under the heading of "Mother Ode" there's "A Brief and Illuminating History of the Magic Hat Brewing Company, An alchemistic tale of great intestinal fortitude and mental fermentation" all in the form of an extended poem!

I should add that I think there are problems with this web design. It's attractive, fun, intriguing, but difficult to navigate or get a handle on. I'm not sure it's as effective as it could be. But you can go judge for yourself now, if you care to. Me, I'm going to get another #9.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Fantasies of Seinfeld

So, my son has discovered Seinfeld, and turned into a huge fan of the series. Not that there's anything wrong with it, mind you. The series is, after all, the best sitcom ever in the history of broadcasting.

As has so often been repeated, it was the show about nothing, which actually means that it was the show about communication (ever read what Plato had to say about rhetoric in the Phaedrus and the Gorgias?). It was Erving Goffman's The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life turned into twenty-two minutes of comedy a week. And more often than not, it was a show about media--someone needs to compile a key of all of the references to motion pictures, other television shows, comics, and other forms of popular culture that were used in the series. As a show about nothing, it was easy to fill it up with innumerable references, allusions, and quotations.

And so, not surprisingly, Seinfeld has lent itself to further play with its iconography, re-imagining the sitcom along the lines of grand fantasy. In this spirit, I want to share with you an image my son found on the net, entitled Seinfeld Wars:

I thought that was pretty comical, especially George as R2D2, and Newman in the background as Darth Vader. Jerry fits in nicely as Luke Skywalker, Elaine makes sense as Princess Leia (and Elaine is essentially a Jewish-American Princess, even though the character is identified as a shiksa (non-Jewish woman) on the show--George and Kramer are both Jewish character types as well, even though they are presented as gentiles).

Probably the toughest decision was whether to make Kramer into Chewbacca the Wookie (Kramer does have some animalistic traits), or to depict him as C3P0, as was done here. I think this was the right choice, as they share the same quality of awkwardness, although the decision to have him hold a gun strikes me as a mistake--that's not C3P0 at all! Instead, a better correspondence would have been to give Kramer one of his typically confused expressions.

So anyway, I took a further look, and found a Seinfeld Wizard of Oz as well:

This one isn't as good, simply because the correspondence between the characters is less than perfect. Sure, Elaine could be Dorothy, who else? Jerry? Actually, in terms of group dynamics, that would make more sense. So, Jerry as the Tin Man? No heart? Jerry? I don't think so. Kramer as the Scarecrow works in regard to body type and that same awkwardness, although (as my son just pointed out to me), personality-wise the Cowardly Lion might be a better fit. Again, George as the Cowardly Lion seems to be more about body type than personality. So, nice try, but it just doesn't work.

Now, I have not done an exhaustive search, so maybe a Star Trek Seinfeld is out there? Jerry as Captain Kirk, Elaine as Lieutenant Uhura, George as Dr. McCoy, and Kramer as, what else? The alien, Mr. Spock. Well, if it hasn't been done, maybe there's an artist out there willing to take this on?

How about applying McLuhan's laws of media to form a Seinfeld tetrad? Here goes:


All right, all right, enough already, I admit it. This has been the blog about nothing, and that's no fantasy.