Feb 24

You’re going to watch the video and follow all of the links, right?

Once this day got started, this day got productive. Let’s see, there was a late breakfast. And then I gave Phoebe some extra milk. I did dishes. And then I checked email, and updated various computer things. I pulled in the day’s delivery from the front porch.

I recently met someone who works at the local Amazon distribution center. She told me about the many different kinds of jobs in her building, and the one she’s doing now. I promised to check with her before we ordered anything heavy. Make sure she’s not working that day, ya know. Of course, I could barely pick up the box that arrived today. I hope she didn’t have to heave that to and fro.

I also took care of the garbage and recycling. This was an involved process. There was an extra bag of garbage. And more recycling than usual, owing to cardboard. I haven’t moved this much cardboard since we moved. Some of the cardboard that I recycled today was, in fact, from the move. The move was last June.

Standing at the giant bin, breaking down cardboard boxes by tearing tape with my keys, I narrowly avoided giving myself a cardboard cut. Paper cuts are bad, but cardboard should be registered and require a permit. Dangerous stuff. The guy that works there was patiently waiting on me to finish the task. He was standing down by the two cattle gates at the entrance. I was the last visitor of the day, according to his watch, which said 4:51, but he was ready to get out of there a little early. This was not the regular guy, Milton, that I’ve come to wave at, but another fellow. People are punctual about their early dinner plans, one supposes.

Anyway, the sun was out and it was an easy enough chore, even if it all took the better part of an hour this time. When I backed the car out to set off for the inconvenience center I looked into the yard and the trees beyond and said, “Spring is starting and you can’t convince me otherwise.” I said this to no one but the cardboard and the other recyclables, because there was nowhere to put a human being in my car. But nothing about the drive, the chore, or my return made a convincing counterargument, either.

The long-range forecast calls for the low 60s this time next week.

In class last night we did not talk about the weather. I warmed up, though, with a little history lesson of Voyager 1, the golden record and Blind Willie Johnson. Voyager 1 has been flying my whole life, and more than twice as long as my students have been alive. And these last few months, Voyager has been slowly, sadly, limping to its own end, decades after exceeding its mission parameters. It’s no less sad for the over-achievement. Perhaps more so. Doug Muir wrote something beautiful about it.

Also, a student asked me what I thought about Jon Stewart’s return to The Daily Show. Short version: It felt right. Last Monday’s re-start was a start, a clearing of the throat, a framing of the conversation. His return is going to be best understood over time. So let’s see what he does between now and November.

And what he did last night. My goodness.

My lovely bride and I did our first research in grad school on Jon Stewart. It was one of the first 2,200 or pieces of scholarship about the comedy-satire-politics show. I think the preemptive criticism in the run up to his return was overdone. Stewart still has one of the most unique and powerful voices in the much broader genre, and the circumstances today aren’t that different than nine years ago when he walked away. More acrimonious, but let’s not forget from whence we came.

If anything, the show runners have to consider how the Daily Show’s style of accountability — via the technological breakthrough of database queries and video playback — is finally more widespread now. That, if anything, blunts the ability for him to tackle his first real target, contemporary media. (People forget who the real satire subject matter is.) That part will need to be reshaped, perhaps, and along the way, he’s going to annoy everyone sporting a little letter behind their name. I could do without making the superficial punchline an ad hominem attack, I never liked that part, but he’s still got plenty of punch in his gloves. And the ratings are there too, much to the chagrin of last night’s subject matter.

For the actual class we discussed Ellen Ullman and Nicholas Carr. Basically, what is the internet doing to us, and why is it all bad? The Ullman piece was prescient, she wrote it in 1998, still stands by it, and, what’s more, was correct. The Carr readings date to 2008 and 2010. The latter is a book chapter of his, but that essay in The Atlantic should give us pause.

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

I think I know what’s going on. For more than a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet. The Web has been a godsend to me as a writer. Research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes. A few Google searches, some quick clicks on hyperlinks, and I’ve got the telltale fact or pithy quote I was after. Even when I’m not working, I’m as likely as not to be foraging in the Web’s info-thickets—reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts,
watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link to link.

For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded. “The perfect recall of silicon memory,” Wired’s Clive Thompson has written, “can be an enormous boon to thinking.” But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

I’m not the only one. When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances—literary types, most of them—many say they’re having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing.

The first time I read that piece I saw a lot of the same complaints. And so I’ve been trying to change my habits — sometimes with more success than others. I think the change has been fruitful, when I’ve been most successful at it.

One of the assignments the students have to do soon includes an element where they chart their own media consumption. If this is done well some people will look at that and think, “Yes, that seems about right.” Others, however, will look at the data they’ve collected on themselves and be stunned.

Maybe that’ll mean something for them going forward.

Let us go forward together, back under the surface of the water.

I made this video before class yesterday with the intention of publishing it then, as well. Only I made a critical error in the rendering and exporting process. (A two-paragraph explanation of everything between now and then goes right here. An explanation made all the more hilarious because I teach this stuff. So I figured: Tuesday. Today, suffice it to say, instead of having to remake the entire video, I remembered Premiere Pro has a pretty decent autosave function, which was a big time-saver.) Having correctly rendered and exported the video, I was able to upload it and remain quite pleased with the result. I think you’ll like it too. I think the beginning and the end are the best part.

Also, enjoy the flounder, the sea anemone and the beautiful eagle ray.


Tomorrow, I’ll have a few more diving photos for you, we’ll go back in time to meet a local 17th century man of considerable importance and I’ll probably try to find a way to talk about riding my bicycle in place. Because, right now, I’m going to go ride my bike.

Feb 24

An officially unofficial day

We generally observe today as the anniversary of us being a couple.

It was a friend group, you see. There were about six of us who were all in the same grad school cohort and within the group there were the two of us palling around all the time. Nineteen years ago we were at a small dinner party and playing board games. The next day we were hanging out again and somewhere in there realized that people thought of us as an us. People, in our group and in the larger cohort and some of our professors too, thought of us as a couple within the group. Where there was the one there was the other. So we celebrate today.

Tonight we marked the occasion with a late dinner at an empty local little restaurant. I also commemorated the evening by teaching myself to hand-fold envelopes, in which I put two little love notes.

Last month, of course, we were celebrating under water. It’s amazing how much material I can get out of a few days worth of dives, no? You should see how many of my dive buddy I’ve not included

And I’ve only added a few of my lovely dive buddy’s photos to the collection. Here’s one now, and that’s me in the middle distance!

I love that wide composition. Like it’s just you in the water, all by yourself. It’s a nice feeling, especially since you’re not. There’s a handful of people not too far away, but you spread out, juuuuust enough.

Here’s some young yellow tube sponge growing on this coral covered outcropping.

And I got lucky floating directly over this nice bowl sponge.

Tomorrow, I’ll show you something else I was lucky to see: a giant turtle.

Last night I had class where we talked about the Super Bowl, and the Huxleyan dystopia. The readings and the schedule lines up perfectly. Also I had the chance to make fun of myself and one of the students absolutely nailed the punchline. I should have dismissed class right there. It was perfect.

One element of some of the readings in this particular class is to help create a healthy skepticism of the media around them. So we also talked about Edward Bernays. And then, as a palette cleanser, I offered them astornaut and author, Ron Garan.

On the way out I saw this on a bulletin board.

Imagine that! They’re publicizing their scholars’ work to the student body. Novel concept! I’ll be sure to attend some of those.

Tomorrow, a giant turtle, and more from under the sea. I’ll put some flowers here and we’ll see one of the oldest courthouses in the land. Be sure you’re here for it all!

Feb 24

Combien de temps?

It was 44 degrees and sunny outside today. And the days, as Wendy Waldman wrote, are getting longer. I’ll take that.

I talked to a former colleague today. He’s in Las Vegas working on Super Bowl productions. He said it was raining and cold. So maybe I have the better end of the deal today. Who can say.

Anyway, I have some writing to do and some grading to get to … so let’s work through a few things quickly here.

In class last night we talked about selected readings of Marshall McLuhan and Ibrham Kendi. This particular group seems unimpressed by McLuhan, which means I should have prefaced the assignment a bit better, but they were good sports about the reading, and several fine points were made in our discussion. I think I’ll show the class the first 90 seconds of this video next week. “And you … are numb to it.”

From Ibram Kendi, we discussed a chapter of the book that inspired this upcoming documentary.

The chapter that they read and talked about comes earlier, and focuses on Portugal, and Prince Henry, and an influential book. I think the assignment is powerful given the times and, sometimes, the personality of the class augments that. But the basis of the reading, for our purposes, is about the timing of the book written by Henry’s biographer, Gomes Zurara, and Portugal, and soon, Europe’s increased navigational skill. Circumstance meets opportunity, meets economics, basically. Or, at least, it seems so from way over here in the 21st century.

But if that is to be a documentary coming next fall, I wonder if this particular reading will stay in the syllabus for much longer after that.

When I taught this class last fall, the Kendi conversation was a bit different. So often these things just come down to the dynamic of the people in the room. I know that to be the case, and yet it always impresses me, one way or the other.

Just so you don’t think there were no photos of me diving in Cozumel, there were. Here’s me and Jennifer the turtle.

So we’re checking this turtle out, and she’s wedged herself into that little rock and coral formation pretty good, such that I wondered, for a moment, if she was stuck. You stay a reasonable distance away, because you’re not trying to harm or even spook the creatures. And after we’d been there a moment or two the turtle seemed to realize that we weren’t going to do her harm, and so just sat there, ignored us and allowed us to take pictures.

These are drift dives, and there are seven people in the water. But what a drift dive means is that not all seven people are in the same place. It’s hard to swim against these currents — more on that on another day — and so you c’est la vie in bubbles. You see this, you miss that. With Jennifer the turtle, then, was the local divemaster, me and my lovely bride. The dive master, at one point, takes his fin off to try to show a sense of scale, because that turtle was very large. We’re all moving around, taking turns giving the best views. At one point the dive master is just to my left and I hear him scream. Underwater, of course, that sounds like “RAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!”

Now, I know that only the three of us are here. I know where all three of us are in relation to one another. And I know it’s this guy, the professional. The first three synapses that fired were “The dive master is yelling,” and “It can’t be good that the dive master is yelling,” and “What will I need to do for this man, and then what?”

All of which happens, of course, in the moment it takes to turn my head to look at him, to my immediate left. I see him there, wide eyed, and he’s pointing back across me, to my right.

We’d been so focused on that turtle that we hadn’t seen the shark, sleeping just four feet away from us.

This was a nurse shark, and nothing to be scared of. The yell was more of an “OHMYGAH! LOOK WHAT WE ALMOST MISSED.”

This was funny because when we got back to the surface and he was telling the other four divers about it, he tried to tell the story like we had somehow missed it, but for his expert eye. Someone pointed out that he was the one making the “RAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!” noise.

And that someone …

He also said, did the dive master, that believe it or not, he named that turtle. He was the pleasant jokester sort, and so I asked, with a big grin, if he meant right then. No no, he said, several years before. So that’s Jennifer the turtle, and it was lovely to meet her. And her shark neighbor.

Let us quickly return to the Re-Listening project. This is the one where I am playing all of my old CDs in the car, in the order in which I acquired them. And today’s installment puts us in the late summer or early fall of 2004. It was a good time for music collection, if you were around people with musical tastes you liked, or if you had a good library close at hand. If you had one or both of those, and a CD burner, you could add to your collection quickly and inexpensively. Both of those two things will be the case in a few of these upcoming installments. The library, in this instance.

I borrowed from the local municipal lending institution, R.E.M.’s “Eponymous.” I did not own a copy of a single R.E.M. song at that point. Hadn’t needed to. But here was a greatest hits and here was the clean copy at the library and i had one of those giant cylinders of blank CD-R discs at the office.

And so …

Because this is a greatest hits — I think in the most artistic possible meaning, which is to say they wanted to fulfill their contract with I.R.S. and get onto their new deal at Warners, and a greatest hits record is a good way to check a box on a list — there’s not really a great point to dissecting this. And since it was a library addition, I always thought of it is a catalog addition, something to round out a corner and fill up a part of a CD book. It’s great, but I never listened to it all that much because, basically, most of these songs were always on the air somewhere, it seemed like.

I was struck, listening to this yesterday, though, how the tracks improve over the course of the CD. The instrumentation, the lyricism, the production values, all of it. The tracks were shared on “Eponymous” in chronological order, so that makes sense. And somewhere around “Driver 8,” which was off their third album, you can hear the full band understanding they were going to reach their real potential.

So that’s fun.

Also, and there’s no really good way to illustrate this, but while you’re basically listening to the first wave of modern rock music there (Remember, it’s the early 1980s and the boys from Athens are the absolute antithesis of everyone else playing anything at that moment. So we’re talking R.E.M., The Pixies, Camper van Beethoven and not much else.) you are also hearing the stuff that inspired the next 15 or 20 years of music.

They called it quits in 2011, of course. They’ve denied reunion rumors and said no in countless interviews in the years since. It’s easy to believe. And probably the right choice for everybody involved, but still a bit unfortunate for fans.

Update: And just a week later, this happened. There’s a touring act commemorating the 40th anniversary of “Murmur” and that show was in Athens and look who all got on stage. Reportedly, this was the first time they’d been together in 17 years.

Jan 24

That was some sunny day

It got up to 42 degrees here today. And, for the best part of the day, it was sunny. This, I think, is why I have the unshakeable and mistaken feeling that spring is just around the corner. It’s the sun. I’m in recovery from years of the midwest’s monotonous gray skies. Right or wrong, early or on time, I look outside and think, it’s coming.

“It” being spring.

But it’s not. Not yet. We could be two months out from spring, somehow, but I see green grass and blue skies and shadows and I smile. I smile and I wait and wonder.

Where I park on campus I have to go through a little security checkpoint. There’s a guy in a hut and he’s looking for a sticker on my car. The guy that works the evening shift is an older gentleman. Quick with a smile and full of good patter. Every time I see him my goal is to make him laugh. I don’t think he gets a lot of that in his work role, because he’s always the one delivering the cheery spiel and the interactions may be plentiful, but they’re necessarily brief. So I try to bring a joke, or an unexpected reply to a gregarious man who has one-liners down to an art. But when you get him, he’s got a fantastic laugh. I asked him if he, too, thought it felt like spring. Two more months, he said.

I was afraid of that. But I smile and I wait and wonder.

Tonight in class we talked about some of the work of Lev Manovich and Jurgen Habermas. The students get Habermas pretty well. Manovich is a bit of a mystery, but they come around. We also talked about Photoshop, because that’s coming up in class.

I start this spiel like this. You don’t have to know everything about Photoshop for this class. You do need to some things, and we’ll touch on many of those. We have terrific tutorials available to you online, and I’ll try to one-on-one with you, if it might help you. I tell them they can follow along on the incredible tutorials and spend 19 hours and be well-versed. I tell them the way you learn this program is by doing, and that there are several ways to do the same thing, which comes down to preference and your efficiency. I tell them I have been using Photoshop for a quarter of a century, now, often on a daily basis, and I don’t know how to do everything. Don’t sweat it. You learn as you go.

I say, if I were a gambling person I would bet you a dollar that I will learn something about Photoshop, this program I’ve used for 25-or-so years, in the course of this class. And so then we do a few things on the big screen — which the students tolerate, I’m pretty sure.

In the new version of Photoshop there are mini-tutorial videos built in. You mouseover a tool or a panel and this little box pops up. You can play a short video that gives you an overview. It’s well done. I point out a few of those. And then, on the third one, I actually play the video. It runs 52 seconds. Tutorial demonstrated.

And then I say to the class, “Remember how, about 10 minutes ago I said I would learn something about Photoshop? Just did.”

Big laugh. Human element of the class instructor established. Another thing crossed off the To Do List.

Back underwater. It is a mild winter here, but I’m still in Cozumel in my mind.

Check out this anemone, which the divemaster is helpfully pointing out.

Look who is strong!

In an upcoming post, I have a great and impressive anecdote to share about strength underwater. So keep coming back to look for that.

But, for now, here’s another mysterious brown bowl sponge.

Or, if fish are more of your thing, here’s a closeup of a sergeant major.

And this is the saddest site you can see on a good dive. You’re tank is running low, and you’re having to ascend on an afternoon dive.

I’ve got another good six, eight minutes of air there, guys.

(For some reason, I suck down the first third of a tank like I’m never going to breathe again, but I can stretch out that last 1,000 or 1,200 for longer than anyone would think possible.)

It probably has to do with heart rate. So let’s talk about cardio. Since I last talked about riding my bike, last Wednesday, I’ve covered 164 miles, and am on a nice little streak of six consecutive days with a ride. My legs are starting to notice, too.

One of those rides was in virtual Scotland. I saw the virtual aurora borealis.

A friend of a friend has a wife who seems … I only met her briefly, once, several years ago. She leaves an impression and it might be the wrong one altogether. Anyway, we were talking about Alaska and she was talking about the shopping there and what there is to do and what isn’t there, and all of those sorts of conversations are insightful about a place, because you can learn new things, and a person, because you can learn what they value.

She found the aurora borealis to be utterly boring. And the malls, too.

I have never seen the aurora borealis in person, but whenever there are photos, videos, when a news story pops up, or when I see them in virtual Scotland, I get a good laugh.

So boring.

Anyway, with any luck, in a few days I’ll set a new personal mark for most consecutive days riding. This is the sort of thing that means nothing to anyone, but the person doing it. Eventually, it won’t mean much to that person, because there will be other goals to achieve.

If my legs keep working.

Tomorrow, we’ll see how January worked out, mileage-wise. The cycling spreadsheet returns for 2024.

Jan 24

Getting ahead of myself

We are still in winter mode. Though it seems like I’ve been there for a while. It’s more of a feeling than a concession to the calendar. And it’s not a glum feeling. Not a “Gah!” for a change. Rather, it is this feeling that spring is just around the corner. Weekend after next. I blame early commercials for the Master’s and auto racing, the earliest signs of spring. This is, of course, where the trouble kicks in. I think it is almost spring, but we’re nowhere near it.

Back home, they’re still three weeks out, minimum. And this is the real problem. The part of my spirit that thinks about the southland in the springtime knows when that is coming. It knows that, mid-February, a big, impossible, miraculous transition will be upon upon us, that nature’s fanfare is set to provide a paradigm-shifting crescendo early in the act. But only there. Not here.

Being my first winter here, I am also looking forward to my first spring here. I have no idea when that will be. But I found a site that suggested the coldest average historical day of the year is in February. Right about that time it turns to spring back home. So it isn’t a glum feeling today, but give me three weeks.

The thing about the weather is that it sticks around. We still have icicles in the air.


And all of the snow is still on the ground.

It’s supposed to warm up a bit today and tomorrow. This will all start to disappear. It’s only been around for four or five days now.

I had a class on campus this evening. My first in-person class of the semester, which began last Tuesday. It is an evening class, the last class block of the day and, as such, it was the last first class of the term.

I did my song and dance, learned the names of a third of the room and the something interesting about almost everyone. In a few more weeks I’ll have most everyone’s names under control. This semester is going to be my best one yet for matching names and faces.

I showed the class this video, which is always more impressive to me than any class that has ever watched it with me.

I think this was the first time I’ve ever watched that where I didn’t see something new, and I’ve watched that video a lot.

We talked about the class, and that felt rushed. I also gave a 36-slide presentation that covers, roughly, 3,000 years of human communication. So we went from Egypt to Martin Luther — with brief stops in Japan and Ghana — in a hurry. Next week, we’ll discuss the late middle ages and the early modern era of Europe. It’s a class called New Media, and this is the curriculum. We stare at all of human history for two weeks, and for the next month or so we’ll read a bunch of brilliant 20th and 21st century scholars discussing all manner of communication concepts that will get distilled down to television and social media.

I’m looking forward, most of all, to the sidebars. I taught this class last term. Occasionally the conversations ran off the rails. Each time it did, that was the best part of the class that day. I’m curious to see if that will be at the same places as the fall, and if this group of students’ comparisons and explanations will be same as last semester’s comparisons and explanations.

Anyway, if there’s snow outside, there are the warm waters of Mexico on this page. Please enjoy with me a few more photos from our recent trip.

The other day I said I’d never seen a filefish, which may as well be a generic a name as you’ll find on the sandy ocean bottom, that looked quite like this. And then, suddenly, I started seeing them everywhere.

The other fish is the black triggerfish (Melichthys niger). In Cozumel, you’ll bump into them quite a bit, but usually only in ones or twos. They’re beautiful, and they only look black underwater. With proper light they take on a complex color scheme. They can even modify their color somewhat. I don’t know where they fit in the Disney hierarchy of fish and underwater creatures, but they seem like they should be in a stately position to me. Something about those two little stripes.

But then you read about them, how they are aggressive looking for food, how they hunt in packs around Ascension Island. Mob feeding, they call it. How they’re opportunists and relentless, and while that probably hurts them in the saltwater caste system, I admire them even more.

One day on this trip, after our dives were done, I confessed to my lovely bride my unpopular opinion of reef diving. I don’t get agog over lobsters as everyone else does. They just … sit there … waving their antennae at you. Now, those times when you see one crawling along from A to B, that’s interesting, but otherwise, meh.

And so she took it upon herself to make sure that I saw every lobster anyone found for the rest of the week. That’s what dive buddies are for. Here are two of them now.

She’s still my favorite fish, though.

I felt like I saw fewer yellow tube sponges (Aplysina fistularis) than our trip last year. This is purely observational, of course, as I was not taking census survey data. I love these little things, and not because of Spongebob. That color really pops, as you can see, and the formations that the sponges make are sometimes highly ambitious.

The hawkbill turtle is a big yellow tube sponge predator. And that’s probably the cause here. As we’ll see in some other photos later, the turtles living on the Palancar reef are quite impressive.

As are the brown bowl sponges. This one needs some scale, and it didn’t work out that anyone was nearby at the moment. But do you see that fish in the bottom-right corner of the photo? That will at least give us some sort of perspective.

A small person could hide in this sponge. I am sure of it.

And we’ll hide from January with more photos, and a video, tomorrow of course. See you then!