Tuesday, March 23, 2010

When The Last Database

My CCCC talk from last Thursday:

When The Last Database You Search Is Not Your Own from Derek Mueller on Vimeo.

Our panel, D.24, was relatively well attended. I printed 30 handouts, and we probably had an audience with that many people or a few more. Bradley has posted his presentation already. Alex may well do the same soon. We talked on Wednesday afternoon over a late lunch about whether or not we would put them online, and we easily agreed that web traffic for presentations like these generates far more exposure to the ideas than the conference venue alone. Feels like a case of pointing out the nose-on-face obvious (will this video get 30 views?), but there are a couple of different discussions this week on WPA-L, a rhetoric and composition listserv/variety hour, about problems fairly typical at national conventions: crowded, over-attended sessions and their opposite, the one-member-audience (a generous friend or colleague, no doubt). Whether the fire marshal was turning late-comers away at the door or whether the carpet mites were the only audience on hand to listen and ask questions, why not post the talk?

A couple of other points: We remixed our talks, delivering them in turn, three by three. The Q&A was terrific; we took several questions and enjoyed thoughtful conversation for the last 30 minutes of the session. Finally, all questions, ideas, suggestions, and insights are welcome in the comments or via email.

Monday, March 22, 2010


I spent time in class today introducing ENGL328ers to a variety of comic writing applications and platforms, the latest of which is Pixton. Pixton is the best thing to come along in template-driven web comics. The site offers several templates--a fairly comprehensive suite of modular figures to be repositioned, stylized, and otherwise modified (color, rotation, size, flip, etc.). For more context, follow the discussion here, and check out user Brunswick's "The Simplest Comic Ever."

Here's my first run at Pixton.

Were I not so much in the weeds following CCCC (e.g., I found frisbees stuffed in my campus mailbox, for Pete's sake), I would create two or three more.

Sunday, March 14, 2010


It is March again: time to try your luck in the internet's most competitive, most hyperbolic NCAA pool. The trophy is small, so small in fact that you might not hear about it when you win. Nevertheless, for the seventh consecutive year the EWM Yahoo! NCAA men's basketball tournament pick'em welcomes everyone from the fearless to the bored to pick against the the savviest basketball futurologists around. There's no time for biting your nail out of nervous habit (well, okay, but make it fast). Simply sign up! At no monetary cost to you, join this year's group on Yahoo!, Brick-à-Brack (ID#21100). If you have questions, heave a three-quarter-court email my way: dmueller at earthwidemoth.com. Invite your friends. Invite your arch-nemeses. But don't invite that shady character who brought a spoiled pecan cheese log to the Superbowl party. The group has room for the next forty-nine who sign up. What's at stake is more valuable than the cash in your pocket: your status as a basketball know-it-all.

Yahoo! Tournament Pick'em
Group: Brick-à-Brack (ID# 21100)
Password: ewm
Firm up your picks after the selection show on Sunday, March 14. The latest you can sign up is five minutes before the round of 64 tips off on Thursday, March 18.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

MAC Championship

As plainly as I can say it, I've never looked forward to a MAC Championship game like I am looking forward to today's MAC Championship game: Akron vs. Ohio, 6 p.m. tip-off. ESPN2.

Above all, I would like to see Ohio win because one of their freshmen, #3 Ivo Baltic, was on teams I coached in the KC area from 2000 to 2004. Now Ivo's a 6-9 forward who developed an impressive facility for basketball (although I got to know him because I coached his soccer team when he was even younger). Often Ph. and I would pick up him for practices; he was what my own coach approvingly called a "gym rat," would leave a practice asking about when would be the next time he could get in the gym. For perspective, and because I am proud of what he has done for himself, here are a couple of photos to contrast with the one below, which D. took after we saw Ohio play EMU at the Convocation Center five weeks ago.

After EMU-Ohio Game

So, easily, I am a fan. And I would greatly enjoy seeing his 9-seeded Bobcats beat the 3-seeded Zips.

The other side of the coin for me, as far as my personal interest in today's game, is that I once had a try-out in front of Keith Dambrot many years ago.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Short Bench

Sunday's game in the Ann Arbor Men's League was special. It was the final game of the regular season. With a win, we would move into a three-way tie for first place, at 7-3. We were facing a youthful, full-court-pressing team from Washtenaw CC (their club team, if you will, although they have a deep bench, a coach, and, for Sunday night's game, cheerleaders). I haven't played in a game with cheerleaders since 1995; they even twiddled their fingers in the air when we shot free throws.

Our group has been up and down this year. We started 5-0, which was good enough to lock up a sponsor for the state tournament later this month in Midland (why it is in Midland, I have no idea, since all eight teams are from SE Michigan). We started the season with ten guys, more than most carry. One--the only guy older than me on our team or in the division--decided to quit for reasons I won't bother going into. That left us with nine. Several of our early games were 40+ point routes (against teams in a division below ours). One was a triple OT win against a team that later beat us by 40--our poorest outing of the season. The other two losses came to a close rival; we lost one of those by four points, the other by five. So: although we finished in a first-place tie, we wouldn't win any of the tie-breakers based on head to head matchups or point differential. So it goes. I don't know how they'll settle who gets the trophy.

Why was Sunday's game special? Well, aside from the eventfulness of playing against a "team" of 18 and 19 year-olds (i.e., babies who were born the same year I graduated high school), instead of having our usual nine players, we had five. Four didn't show up because of Winter Break, injuries, absent-mindedness, I don't know. We hadn't been short-handed like this before. I am too old to be nervous about basketball games in a recreational league. But: it was going to be difficult to hold off a team of fit, pressing youth for four quarters.

The game started off smoothly enough. We were down 31-29 at halftime. Nobody was in foul trouble. I had just one foul in the first half, and fouls are as you might expect the main concern when playing without a single sub. A couple of bad plays (or bad calls or both) can leave you in the unwinnable mismatch, four vs. five. Next, something terrible: in the first 1:24 of the third quarter, I was called for three fouls: two blocking fouls, which might have been charges were I willing to fall onto my back (I'm not), and an official's hallucination. The new problem: four fouls with 6:36 remaining in the third quarter.

We adjusted (put me on the right frontcourt corner of a 2-3 zone). And--this is why it was special, mostly--I managed to finish the game without fouling out. Also, we won by 12 or 13 points, entirely because our team defense was excellent. We held them to something like 20 points for the second half.

I'm blogging it because I'm pretty sure this is the last league game I'll ever play in. I will travel to Midland in late March for the state tournament. After that, the only basketball I play will be lunchtime pickup games with EMU's regulars twice each week. I still enjoy playing for fitness, recreation, and communion, but I like being able to skip a day when I want to, I like being able to go home when I'm done for the day, and I like being able to walk one building over from my office to play among people I know (and who are not absurdly competitive).

Friday, March 5, 2010

Ignite Ann Arbor 3

You might have read this is Global Ignite Week (or #giw, pronounced goo?). Speakers in 40 cities worldwide have (or will) gather for Ignite-style presentations: short-form talks, 20 slides set to rotate automatically after 15 seconds. Last night I attended Ignite Ann Arbor 3 in Blau Auditorium, U of M. Sixteen speakers presented to an audience of more than 400.

Here are a few impressions:

The program was eclectic, offering a mix of topics and viewpoints. They used double-projection: the rotating slide deck projected onto one screen, while a static title/presenter slide showed on the other. Double-projection offers flexibility for a program like this. Before the program and during intermission, organizers used both screens to display different Twitter streams (based on hashtags) associated with the event. Beyond the Ignite presentations, the evening included a rock-paper-scissors tournament (my scissors were obliterated by a rock in the first round; no two out of three?) and a funky laser light show the served as a segue between Mike Gould's "Running with Lasers" and the 15-minute halftime break.

Presentations ran a wide gamut: niche procedural (e.g., how to kill a mastadon, Bolognese, lasers), local flavor (e.g., lunch gathering, Ann Arbor's pitch for Google super-high-speed), activism (e.g., Washtenaw County foods, water council), progressive business infomercial (e.g., electronic vehicles, home funerals), and researched specialization or curiosity (e.g., early television, dyes, British slang, molecular communication).

I expected most speakers to deliver from memory and impulse, but several did not. Had I to guess, I would say that two-thirds used some sort of note cards or more. The slide deck functions as a way-finder of sorts--certainly slides prompted the more extemporaneous speakers when they lost track of what they wanted to say. The most conspicuously scripted talk of the bunch--Gould's bit on lasers--also struck me as more rigorously done because the script, I suppose, allowed him to synchronize his delivery with the slideshow. It also seemed fine-tuned because the script allows a speaker to get words and phrases exactly right.

Knowing How vs. Knowing What
I had a more favorable impression of talks that shared procedural knowledge or that expressed some niche understanding of how to do something. That is, some talks were informative and also more clearly situated in the realm of personal knowledge, whereas others acknowledged working with outside sources to develop the talk. Ignites don't afford speakers much opportunity to incorporate elaborate evidence or to disclose much about working with sources. In at least two talks, speakers mentioned that they'd done research online, but in both cases they seemed to downplay those choices.

To put it another way, as I drove home, I felt more resolved in preferring talks about something I don't already know how to do or that I can't find out about by searching online.

Too Short to Establish Exigency?
I was chatting with a couple of people in the Blau atrium after the session let out, and a student from ENGL328 said she was surprised at how infrequently speakers set up the exigency for what they were going to talk about. The short-form presentation models (Ignite, Pecha Kucha, etc.) don't leave much time for an opening setup, yet, absent a brief setup (e.g., what is parkour, anyway?) a rapid delivery talk can be jarring or temporarily disorienting. This could be resolved in a few ways. The program could include a once-sentence abstract for each presentation. Or, the MC could read a one- or two-line intro to set up the talk. Would this reduce the impact of the presentations? I don't know. But a bit more Why this? Why now? would have helped in a couple of cases last night.

Which Leads Which?, Slideshow vs. Speaker
Yet another impression was that these talks touch off an intriguing tension between the slide deck's automatic rotation and the speaker's command of a deliberate message. In some cases, the message trumps the slideshow; other times, the slideshow is in the driver's seat. The tension is more clearly resolved in some talks than in others, and while I don't think I have finally a preference for one or the other, this speaker-slideshow tension to my surprise has become a point of noticing, even a point of fascination: Which leads which?

If my schedule allows it, I am pretty sure I will attend Ignite Ann Arbor 4. I haven't decided yet whether I will try to participate. To be sure, the evening left me with a richer sense of what is possible in this evolving genre of short-form presentations, and I now have many terrific examples recommend as students begin preparing their own Ignites as one of the final pieces in ENGL328.

For other impressions of last night's event, check out #ignitea2 on Twitter.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Same Room, Different Century

A week ago Sunday, I followed a link posted at The Blogora that pointed to a 2007 New Yorker article, "The Interpreter." The article lays plain the research and travels of Dan Everett, a linguistics professor at Illinois State, who has dedicated most of his career to discerning patterns in a language spoken by an Amazonian tribe called the Pirahã. Honestly, as I followed the link, I didn't expect to read the whole thing, but after a couple of paragraphs, I was in the article's clutches. Rather than quit it, I pressed on, figuring it fit in nicely enough with the ideal-ambition of keeping alive eclectic reading habits as a beginning assistant professor.

The article does a nice job of introducing, albeit with great simplification, Everett's research and setting it in relation to Chomsky's propositions about universal grammar. Pirahã language practices are, according to the article, a "severe counterexample" to Chomsky's famous theory. I won't attempt a full summary of the article here. Instead, I want to pick up just one line from the essay--a line that has grown louder and louder in my head this week since I read it. It comes up late in the essay, in a scene where Tecumsah Fitch, another linguist, visits Everett in the Amazon to corroborate his claims about the absence of recursion in the Pirahã language. Fitch ends up fumbling with computer equipment. The equipment acts up due to high humidity; Fitch leaves the lab-tent to attempt repairs, while Everett remains with the reporter and a young Pirahã man.

At this moment, according to the article, Everett says, "'But the problem here is not cognitive; it's cultural.' He gestured toward the Pirahã man at the table. 'Just because we're sitting in the same room doesn't mean we're sitting in the same century.'"

Same room, different century. For Everett, this identifies a methodological quandary: how to traverse discordant temporalities in a culture's language development, especially in light of popular, contemporary language theories. But the room-century line is suggestive of much more, even if it only points out the possibility of two people occupying common time-space when they are not in the same century. I find it to be a rich paradox, perhaps more for how well it generalizes to everyday encounters concerning technology. I mean, have you ever had a technology-focused experience in which you thought, "which century are we"?

I suppose that sounds judgmental. I don't mean it quite that way. Let me try again. Maybe it would help to revive, for these purposes, Alfred Korzybski's peculiar system of time-stamping words (I'm remembering that something like this comes up in Nicotra's RSQ article on Burke and the General Semantics movement, but my copy is at the office right now, so...remembering will have to do). Including the date in a superscript annotation offers us a different handle on a term's temporal shifts, helping us locate its valences in time. I have no idea if this impression of time-stamping aligns with its function for General Semantics; no idea at all. But it does help me think through the same room, different century problem. By reviving time-stamp markups, that is, we could more readily differentiate computers1995 from computers2010, the Internet1998 from the internet2006, or composition1985 from composition2009, or rhetoric1965 from rhetoric2012. May be nothing more than a passing curiosity, a late winter thought experiment. And I doubt it would be much good in conversation: too fumbly, too parenthetical. But I can think of a handful of occasions, such as, say, in a course syllabus, when it would help position everyone in the same year to differentiate writingthesedays from writingassumedtobeeternal. Some day I2050 hope to look more deeply into time-annotation or time-binding (?) for the General Semanticists than I have here.