Desert of My Real Life

{June 29, 2016}   Information Archives

I’ve been spending Wednesday mornings in the library this summer working on my Freaks and Geeks project in the company of other academics working on their own projects. One of the frustrating things about today’s session is that I’m trying to find a particular advertisement that NBC created for Freaks and Geeks that used the tagline “What high school was like for the rest of us.” And I can’t find it. This made me start thinking about all of the cultural ephemera that we have lost because we don’t pay attention at the start of a project to archiving the materials of the project.

As I’ve said before, I’m also working on a project this summer (and into the next academic year) that will transform my university’s structure around interdisciplinary clusters. No other university has attempted such a vast overhaul of the way they do things and so we are being watched by people all over the higher education landscape. I am serving as a guide for the project (I’m not always completely sure what that means). A group of us guides decided last week that we should be documenting the process of change as it occurs and no one is going to do that documentation if we don’t. So we’re working on a proposal describing how to do that. In the meantime, some of us have started our own personal documentation using various social media platforms. We don’t know exactly what will happen with the materials that we create and collect or how we will end up using them but we hope that we will be able provide lessons (both positive and negative) to other universities that are thinking about major transformation initiatives.

Once again, I see connections between my two major projects this summer, even though they seem very different from each other on the surface. This idea of connections also got me thinking about how I do my research for the Freaks and Geeks project (which is no different than the way most people do research). I sometimes find myself having followed paths of inquiry that have led me in very different directions compared to where I thought I was going. For example, I was researching other television shows related to high school. The TV show James at 15 is on that list. It was only on for two seasons and I was just a year younger than the title character. I loved that show! It was another “realistic” look at high school kids, but with less comedy than Freaks and Geeks. I haven’t seen (or really even thought about) the show since its original airing. I wanted to know if it was as good as I remembered and so I did a bit of research, starting with Wikipedia. I discovered that Kim Richards played James’ sister in the show. That name seemed familiar but I couldn’t remember why. So then I researched her. She was Prudence in the show The Nanny and the Professor, which I also loved when I was a really little kid. It turns out that Richards also was one of the original members of the cast of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, which is a show that I have never seen. The interconnectedness of knowledge and information would be an interesting premise for a blog called “Rabbit Hole” in which the author described their wanderings around the Internet that happen simply by clicking links and seeing where they end up.

Interconnectedness of knowledge, TV shows about high school, information archives. I get to think about all the fun things.

I have two major projects that I’m working on this summer. One is related to the television show Freaks and Geeks which I love and use in my Analyzing Television class every spring. The other is related to the development of strategic clusters at my University. In doing research for the Freaks and Geeks project, I discovered a comment by one of the stars of the show that made me think about our approach to strategic clusters. I love these kinds of connections that bring together the various aspects of my work.

If you don’t know Freaks and Geeks, it was a show that lasted only one season on NBC in the 1999-2000 season. It was created by Paul Feig, produced by Judd Apatow, and (mostly) directed by Jake Kasdan. Each of them had worked on other things before the show but, despite its short lifespan, the show brought them to prominence. One of the things that is remarkable about the show is that it launched the careers of some of our most successful young actors today. Many of those actors have gone on to be well-known in a variety of creative endeavors. Linda Cardellini was a 24-year-old actress when she was cast as Lindsay Weir, the leading role on Freaks and Geeks. She has since gone on to success in both television and films, winning a TVLand award for her role in ER in 2009. James Franco, who portrayed Daniel Desario in his first major role, has starred in blockbuster movies and television shows, taken smaller roles in critically-acclaimed films, hosted the Oscars, published poetry and short stories, written and directed documentaries and docudramas, and starred on Broadway. Jason Segel, who portrayed Nick Andropolis, starred in the hit television show, How I Met Your Mother, and has achieved commercial and criticalsuccess in his film career. Seth Rogen, who portrayed Ken Miller, was nominated for an Emmy as a staff writer for Da Ali G Show, and has written, directed and starred in many movies. John Francis Daley, who starred as Sam Weir, also starred in the hit show Bones and co-wrote the movie Horrible Bosses, among other accomplishments. Creators Feig and Apatow are clearly very good at identifying young talent.

Based on some comments by the cast members, however, I would argue that Feig and Apatow were also very good at nurturing young talent. For example, Segal, Rogen, and Franco, who at the time were 19, 16, and 20 respectively, would get a script written by someone else on Friday and then get together on Sunday to “improve” it. Rogen has said, “We felt if we made the scenes better on the weekend, if we came in with better jokes, they would film it. And they would! And we didn’t know it at the time, but that was completely un-indicative of probably every other show that was on television.” Reflecting on the experience, co-star Busy Phillips comments, “I don’t think it’s surprising that 8 or 10 of us that were on the show have successfully written and produced our own things. … Judd and Paul and Jake and all of the writers made us feel like all our ideas were worth something, when so many other people were telling me that basically I was a talking prop.”

These comments make me think about my University’s current effort to move to a strategic cluster orientation for our academic experience. Strategic clusters are a way of organizing a university around discpline-based affinity groups. The idea is that faculty, staff, students, and outside partners with similar interests work on problems, tasks, events, and so on across disciplines, each bringing their unique disciplinary knowledge and perspective to the endeavor. The reorganization of a university into clusters is a huge project but one that is likely to have many benefits. The benefit that I’m most excited about is that students, as part of their regular academic experience rather than as an add-on, will engage in work that will be useful outside of the classroom. I think students take the work more seriously when they perceive that there is an audience for it beyond the instructor of the course and a use for the work beyond the existence of the course. For example, the student blogs for my Analyzing Television class are more insightful and of a higher quality than the papers students used to write for the class that only I would read. I think that’s because the blogs are public and I work to make them known to a larger community of readers who will give the students feedback on what they’ve written.

The comments from the Freaks and Geeks cast members make me think of another benefit of strategic clusters. If student ideas are taken seriously on these “real-world” projects, they will see their participation as more important than just being “a talking prop.” Encouraging student ideas and actually using their ideas on these projects will benefit both the projects that the students are currently working on and the students themselves in the long term as they see themselves as vital, valuable contributors to their disciplines. If the creators of a very public television show can use the work of a group of college aged people in a serious way, so can we. And so should we.

{June 19, 2014}   HCF Redux

Three episodes into Halt and Catch Fire and I still can’t make up my mind about whether it is an interesting show or not. I really want to like this show. I love that it isn’t afraid to be confusing about the underlying geeky details of computing. The show almost relishes those moments when characters articulate what they’re thinking about the technology without speaking down to its audience. On the other hand, the motivations and actions of the characters outside the realm of technology are the stuff of melodrama and really cheapen the engagement we might have in the pseudo-historical story of developing a new technology that is very different than all that has come before.

Spoiler alert–there is one major plot twist that I’m going to discuss below that if you haven’t yet watched the first three episodes of this show, you might want to avoid.

One of the reasons that this show has intrigued me is that Cameron Howe, the (genius) developer of the BIOS of the new personal computer in the show, is a woman. She is androgynous in her name and her appearance and she is brilliant and defiant. All of that intrigues me when the story takes place in the early 1980s. She is focused on developing this really base level machine code without which the hardware cannot succeed. So psyched that a woman is central to the success of this new machine. On the other hand, she is the only character who is shown shopping for new clothes because, of course, in the middle of trying to revolutionize computing, she would be concerned that her clothing isn’t feminine enough. Annoying.

Another woman in the show, Donna Clark, is portrayed as both the nagging wife of our hardware genius, Gordon, and the unacknowledged originator of the chip layering idea that we already know will be the thing that allows our new computer to be light enough to be portable. I might appreciate the complexity of this character if it wasn’t done in such a shallow obvious manner. Donna seems to be the inhibitor of Gordon’s real genius because she keeps reminding him that he has children and they might need a little bit of his attention. The bird that shows up in episode three was a bit much for me, especially when Donna was the one who had to be practical and kill it with a shovel. Metaphor, anyone?

Lee Pace’s portrayal of Joe MacMillan has been particularly annoying. His single emotion seems to be anger. The story line about the scars on his chest is only interesting if the creators take advantage of the inconsistencies that Cameron pointed out in his telling of how he got them. I get it. He’s angry. With EVERYONE. So let’s start explaining some of the past events that have so far been alluded to. And here’s the big spoiler–what is up with sex scene with LouLu’s boy toy? That was a plot twist that surprised me. But I don’t think Lee Pace is great in this role because he seems to think that playing a genius means constantly displaying arrogant anger. I think it would have been much more interesting if he had played that sex scene more tenderly.

So where do I currently fall in regards to this show? I still like that the show doesn’t sugar coat the technicalities of what this group of people is trying to achieve. I want the show to succeed in telling that story. On the other hand, I think the layering of the interpersonal relationships has been a bit heavy handed and has taken away from what might be a powerful story.

{June 5, 2014}   HCF

I just watched the pilot episode of AMC’s new show, Halt and Catch Fire, which airs in Mad Men‘s Sunday 10pm slot. I was pretty intrigued by the slew of previews I saw while watching this spring’s half season of Mad Men (and by the way, since when does a season start in the spring of one year, take nearly a year hiatus, and then end in the spring of the following year?). I definitely recognize that a show about building a new computer in the early 1980s has the potential to be incredibly boring. There was a lot of good stuff in the pilot as well as some potentially bad but I definitely wasn’t bored.

One of the annoying things about the show is the arrogant genius behaving badly trope. Lee Pace plays the first arrogant genius, Joe MacMillan. When Joe is introduced to us, he is driving his Porsche very, very fast and runs over an armadillo, which is our first clue that he’s in Texas. Joe makes speeches full of the vision thing and gets annoyed when his fellow computer salesman, Gordon, tries to talk about mundane details like free installation. He is a master manipulator, which I found annoying, but he has some mystery in his background, which I found intriguing. I look forward to finding out what he’s been doing since his disappearance from his IBM job a year prior to the events of the show. The second arrogant genius is Cameron Howe, a woman who is a senior at an engineering school, where, for some unknown reason, Joe is a guest speaker. She is the misunderstood genius that no one pays attention to because she is so far ahead of her time. As Mackenzie Davis portrays her, Cameron reminds me of Watts, the  Mary Stuart Masterson character in Some Kind of Wonderful, complete with anger at the world and a punk soundtrack playing on her Walkman. But she’s a genius so we forgive her her quirks. The final genius is not as arrogant as he is depressed. Gordon Clark, played by Scott McNairy, was the inventor of a failed computer who has been reduced to selling other people’s computers. When we first meet him, he is drunk and his wife has brought their kids to the jailhouse to bail him out. He drunkenly reminisces about the failure of his computer–when they tried to turn it on to demo it, it wouldn’t turn on. But he is also a visionary, having written an article for Byte magazine about open architectures for CPUs. Joe quotes that article to convince Gordon to come work with him on his new project.

Although I found the genius trope annoying and over the top, there was a lot about the show that I enjoyed. I really enjoyed the history of the show. Even though it’s fictional, it reminded me of a lot of things that I haven’t thought about in years. Byte magazine is one of those things. I loved that magazine and was a regular reader in the 1980s. It seemed completely believable to me that someone might have written an article for the magazine that inspired someone else to take a big chance on trying something new and different. Other mentions in the show that brought back memories: CP/M, SCP, the dominance of IBM (International Business Machines) in the computer industry of the day and the joys of playing Centipede at the arcade. I also liked the reverse engineering scene although I can understand that if you don’t have a tech background, that scene might have been confusing or boring or both. That’s probably why it’s kind of glossed over. Most viewers probably won’t be too excited about watching guys using an oscilloscope to record pin voltages and then recording the contents of 64K of ROM to get the BIOS instructions in assembly language. Just writing that sentence makes me smile. It’s a very cool scene.

I am a little torn by the title of the show. On the one hand, I think it’s cool that the title refers to an assembly language instruction, HCF. Assembly is a low-level computer language which means that there is a very low level of abstraction which means the programmer is very close to writing code in binary, the zeroes and ones that the computer understands. It is really geeky to program in assembly these days as most software is written in languages that contain instructions at a higher level of abstraction from binary. HCF is an instruction that halted operation of the computer by instructing it to repeat the same operation over and over. The “catch fire” part of the instruction comes from the story (myth?) that some of the wiring in an old computer heated up so much by this repetition that it actually caught fire. Nice. On the other hand, “halt and catch fire” seems like an obvious metaphor that sometimes the best laid plans blow up in your face. Bleh. In fact, metaphor in this show is pretty obvious. At one point, for example, when it looks like Gordon won’t work with him, Joe pulls out a bat that has the inscription “Swing for the fences” and so he does, literally, by hitting a ball over and over until he breaks a window. Not so subtle.

A couple of other things made me roll my eyes as well. Most of the bonding/conflict stuff between Cameron and Joe, for example. The trick quarter, the conversation about VLSI, and the stupid sex scene all seemed too superficial and lazy. But I understand that first episodes are tricky. The characters have to be introduced and established quickly and so shortcuts are often taken. I just hope the show relies more on the cool stuff once the story is established. I will keep watching to see what they do with this fairly promising start.

The 2012 Summer Olympics are nearly over. I haven’t watched them much, mostly because I can’t stand the way they are covered by NBC and its affiliates, especially in prime time, when I’m most likely to be watching. I don’t think this video aired on national television but it sums up NBC’s attitude about the Olympics–it’s only marginally about the sports and performances. The main focus is on disembodied female athlete body parts moving in slow motion, sometimes during the execution of an athletic move but often just as the athlete moves around the playing area. It’s soft core porn. Interestingly, I watched the video earlier today on the NBC Olympics page but now it’s gone. I guess someone at NBC came to their senses and realized that it’s inappropriate to focus on female Olympians bodies without emphasizing their athleticism. But anyway, sexism in the coverage isn’t what I was planning to write about tonight.

I wish NBC would focus more on the performances of the athletes. An athletic performance can be interesting and amazing even in the athlete hasn’t overcome significant life difficulties to be an Olympic athlete. Each of those athletes, even the ones who have had fairly mundane lives outside of their athletics pursuits, has overcome incredible odds to make it to the Olympics at all. For every athlete that makes it to the Olympics, there are probably thousands of others who tried and didn’t make it.

That said, one athlete that caught my attention for overcoming incredible odds to make it to the Olympics is Oscar Pistorius. He is the sprinter from South Africa who has a double below-the-knee amputation but who has now competed in the Olympics using prostheses, earning him the nickname “The Blade Runner.” His participation in the Olympics has been controversial. Some have claimed that the prostheses he uses give him an advantage over other athletes and, as a result, in 2008, the IAAF banned their use, which meant that Pistorius would not be able to compete with able-bodied athletes. Although the ban was overturned that same year in time for Pistorius to participate in the 2008 Summer Olympics, he failed to qualify for the South African team. But this year, he was on that team and both the 400 meter individual race and the 400 meter relay. I saw his heat in the 400 meter individual race and although he came in last, it was an inspirational moment.

Pistorius’ historic run reminded me that over time science fiction often becomes science fact. Remember The Bionic Woman? I loved that show when I was about 13 years old. Jaime Sommers was beautiful, brave and bionic. She nearly died in a skydiving accident but she was lucky to be the girlfriend of Steve Austin, aka The Six Million Dollar Man, who had had his own life-threatening accident a number of years earlier. He loved her so much that he begged his boss to save her by giving her bionic legs, a bionic arm and a bionic ear to replace her damaged parts. Unlike Pistorius’ legs, Jaime’s clearly were “better” than human legs, allowing her to run more than 60mph. Her bionic arm was far stronger than a human arm, allowing her to bend steel with her hand. I always loved her bionic ear, which allowed her to hear things that no human could possibly hear, but only if she pushed hair out of the way first.

Speaking of hearing, I love the story about the technology that is being used to make the Olympics sound like the Olympics to home viewers. The Olympic games have a sound designer named Dennis Baxter. He is the reason we can hear the arrow swoosh through the air in the archery competition. This is a sound that folks at the event probably can’t hear. And yet, Baxter sets up microphones so that we, the television viewing audience, can actually hear that arrow move through the air. Baxter claims that this technology makes the event seem more “real” to the viewing audience.

This raises such interesting questions about augmented reality. We can never directly experience the “real.” It will always be mediated by at least our senses. We know for a fact that our brains fill in holes in our visual perception. Our brains augment what we perceive via our senses. When we perceive an Olympic event via transmission technology (like television or the Internet), are we witnessing the “real” event? Is it still “real” when technology augments some aspect of our sensory perception, like when Baxter adds microphones to allow us to hear things we wouldn’t hear even if we were attending the event? When does technological augmentation become unreality? Where do we draw the line? And most importantly, does it matter? Do we care whether we’re experiencing something “real”?

{September 8, 2010}   Mad Men Mixed Media

Mad Men is one of the most interesting shows on television right now.  The characters continue to reveal layers of complexity into the show’s third season.  The early 1960’s setting is rife with tension–between women and men, blacks and whites, old and young, between the staid 1950’s and the revolutionary 1960’s–that we know is going to explode any minute now.  And the story lines focused on advertising provide hints and clues as to how we became the media- and celebrity-obsessed culture that we are today.  It is fascinating to watch.

I just finished watching Season Three on DVD from Netflix.  There were a couple of episodes in this season that made me think about the ways in which the show crosses boundaries. 

First, it crosses a boundary between different media.  In particular, I think the show combines photography with television in ways that I haven’t seen before.  This is particularly appropriate since the show is about advertising in an age when photography was of paramount importance.  The episode that made me think about this was in Season Two, when Betty’s father, Gene, dies.  The last scene of the episode shows Sally in the foreground lying on the floor watching television (so appropriate), her face illuminated by the light of the TV.   To her left, in the background, the adults sit around the kitchen table, lit by an overhead (presumably flourescent) light, drinking cocktails and smoking cigarettes.  They’ve been telling stories and laughing about Gene, celebrating his life without dismissing their grief at his death.  Sally doesn’t like the laughing, doesn’t understand that laughter and celebration is a great way to honor someone who has just died.  The tableau of a grief-stricken Sally in the foreground and the laughing adults in the background is reminiscent of great photography.   No, it IS great photography.  The show is full of these tableaux.  It is beautiful to watch.  That is one of the things that makes this a great show.

The second interesting boundary that the show crosses is between fiction and non-fiction.  In Season Two, there was, for example, an episode in which Bert Cooper bought a painting by Mark Rothko, who, at the time, was a relative unknown.  The characters in the episode have discussions about the nature of painting in the face of the abstraction of this particular painting.  The episode gives us a glimpse into the kinds of discussions that were occurring at the time.  The discussions give the episode a sense of reality and groundedness.  But the last two episodes of Season Three are outstanding in their examination of the ways in which real life events impact the lives of these fictional characters.  And this is a spoiler alert.  If you haven’t watched these episodes of the show, skip the next paragraph.

President Kennedy is assassinated in the next to the last episode of Season Three.  The nation is shaken.  Even the Republicans are upset.  There are many tableaux in this episode.  It is beautiful to watch.  But the impact of the real-life assassination of President Kennedy on the lives of these fictional characters is moving, and, I suspect, realistic in a way that illuminates what this event meant to real people of the time.  The episode features a wedding that occurs a few days after the assassination, before Kennedy’s funeral.  It is a touching nightmare.  But it is the last episode of the season, when people have moved on but the impact of the assassination is still being felt that moved me most.  In this last episode of Season Three, a number of characters have been moved to make major changes in their lives, at least in part because of this major event on the national stage.  Don makes a pitch to Peggy for her to join him in his new ad agency.  She is resisting in uncharacteristic ways, in ways that we, the audience, celebrate.  She wants to know why he wants her.  He tells her that, unlike most people, she sees Kennedy’s assassination in a way that is real.  She sees that in this huge tragedy, people have lost their identities, a sense of themselves.  The tragedy has made them question who they are, who they thought they were.  As someone who has had a terrible thing happen recently (even if it was my “choice”), I understood this.  I recognized this as true.  As “truth”.   Tragic events make you question who you think you are.  This was illuminated for me by this last episode of Season Three of Mad Men.  Isn’t that the definition of great fiction?

When dramatic events occur, people question who they are.  And this episode of Mad Men made me remember this or maybe made me realize this for the first time.  This crossing of the boundary between fiction and non-fiction illuminated for me a truth that helped me understand my actual life.  It helped me understand who I am, why I feel the things I feel.  What more could I ask of a TV show?

et cetera