Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Hyperink Cinema: An Investigation

As N. Katherine Hayles has cautions critics to avoid ‘applying critical models designed for print’ to works of electronic literature in fear that ‘the new possibilities opened for literary creation and interpretation will simply not be seen, she neglects to consider whether the models conceived for electronic literature might be used on works of print, and whether this might cause the scholarly community to reevaluate works using this new critical framework. This idea forms one of the central ideas in my thesis, that the recent proliferation of images and other visual media into print fiction demonstrates that the digital is being ‘remediated’ into print, to use Jay David Bolter’s term, and thus it seems prudent to apply the critical apparatuses developed for hypertext to these works in order that one doesn’t miss the ‘new possibilities’ brought about by this shift.

Therefore, a similar approach seems appropriate when examining the films that fall under the new category called ‘hyperlink cinema,’ a term coined by Alissa Quart that acknowledges the influence of the internet and multitasking on the narrative structure of said films. As with the rem
ediation of the digital into print, examples can be found that predate our modern conceptions of when such a shift would likely have begun, sometime in the late 1980s perhaps, but the majority of the films accepted as falling under this umbrella were produced in the past fifteen years.

While Quart and Roger Ebert seem to mostly define the hypertext film as one in which the characters inhabit separate stories, where we gradually discover how those in one story are connected to those in another, an explanation that is adequate for the audience of their reviews if not the scholarly community, a more specific analysis of how such films achieve these narratives is warranted. Therefore over the next few weeks, I will be exploring different films in an attempt to provide an adequate description of the genre, a beginning from which scholars can investigate the digital influence on the narrative of film. These investigations will also serve me as I prepare to present a paper on this topic at the PCA/ACA National Conference in St. Louis this March.

Grounding this inquiry will be the work of George P. Landow, who has developed four axes by which one can analyze a text to determine of it meets the criteria of hypertext: reader choice, intervention, and empowerment; inclusion of extralinguistic texts; complexity of network structure; and degrees of multiplicity in and variation in literary elements. I may modify these definitions a bit, such as suggesting that ‘extralinguistic texts’ be interpreted as devices which are non-native to the genre of film, and to focus heavily on the complexity of the network structure, analyzing how different facets of a film are ‘linked’ to others, and how that is akin to the links contained in a hypertext.

And while this exercise will allow me to simultaneously research a paper and provide content for this space, I also hope that you find it enjoyable. While the majority of the content will be of this nature, and hopefully will exceed the current pace of three posts a month, there will likely be thoughts on other things too, such as a link between comics and film that I need to read up on and perhaps some insights into the economic costs of airport screenings. Feel encouraged to add your voice to the mix, but more than that, I hope you find what you red here interesting.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Baseball & Breast Cancer

A certain confluence of reading came across my desk over the past two days, leading me to make a connection that I otherwise likely would have never considered. For some reason, I got very interested in looking up a book that Buzz Bissinger wrote about Tony LaRussa and the St. Louis Cardinals a few years ago, Three Nights in August, and while it contained some incomprehensible analogies, it was a decent enough book, which I finished yesterday evening. Written a few years after Michael Lewis’s seminal Moneyball, much of the editorializing Bissinger indulges himself in is refuting the ‘bunk’ that sabermetricians like Bill James have more or less proven statistically, a position that websites like the recently retired Fire Joe Morgan have ridiculed for its ignorance.

In this morning’s New York Times Sunday Magazine, mathematician John Allen Paulos illustrates why the government’s task force on breast cancer screening’s recommendation that asymptomatic women under the age of fifty need not undergo mammograms is mathematically a sound one. As anyone who even marginally keeps up with the news already knows, this caused a furor and was quickly sucked into the ever declining discourse on national healthcare. Despite what seems counterintuitive, tests for a relatively rare condition can have a false positive rate of about 1%, which can be quite misleading when the rate of an occurrence is less than 1%. I won’t go into his math, but it’s a short article and easy to understand.

And Paulos is right to remind us that most people don’t think probabilistically, nor do they respond correctly to very large or very small numbers. Think of the uproar ten years ago when mice being force fed aspartame in relatively gargantuan amounts got cancer. It doesn’t mean that other people might not come up with different conclusions using similar data, but to argue against the recommendations from the government panel, one must present facts in his or her argument, not merely use invective.

And this brings me back to Bissinger and statistics. I understand that many things the so-called Moneyball people say seems counterintuitive, and so the average person might be quick to reject them because they just don’t seem to be possible. Take for instance the argument that the player with the best on base percentage on a team be
batted in the leadoff position because over the course of the game, that player will have the most at bats. The rest of the lineup would be structured accordingly, the player with the second highest on base percentage being batted next, etc. This makes sense on the surface because it is impossible to score runs without getting people on base, and it is impossible to win games without scoring at least one run. Having the most people on over the course of night should lead you to have the greatest ability to score runs and give you the greatest chance to win the game.

So why doesn’t anybody do this? Well, baseball managers and GMs don’t think probabilistically much more than the typical person. But let’s say they did. For as long as anyone can pretty much remember, the idea has been for a team to try and get a couple of quick men on base before the third-fourth-fifth part of the lineup, the three players with the most power, come up to try and knock them in. It doesn’t seem to matter that over the three games covered in Bissinger’s book, Kerry Robinson (OBP .281 in 2003) led off all three games while Albert Pujols (.439), one of the greatest players to ever put on a uniform, hit third, and thus got fewer chances at making an impact with his bat.

Let me run with this for a minute. Let’s say that LaRussa decided to buy into this strategy and placed Pujols as the leadoff hitter. Fans and the media, again like most of us not used to thinking probabilistically, would ridicule the move because even though it makes a certain amount of sense when you actually do the math, most people who listen to or broadcast on sportstalk radio aren’t doing the math. So unless it works, and works quickly, LaRussa (and the GM who let him do it) may be ordered to switch back or risk losing their jobs. But what would that result be based u
pon? Invective, and nothing more than the argument that ‘it’s never been this way before, so if this new plan was going to work someone smarter than LaRussa would have figured it out already.’

What is so frustrating to people like me, people who don’t think probabilistically but still understand that statistics are a science, is that the opposing argument not only adds nothing to the discussion, it is dismissive. Just as popular opinion has been against the recommendations of the breast cancer panel, it is against the sabermetricians who are looking at baseball in new ways. And while it may make a certain amount of populist sense to side with popular opinion, siding against science is always going to leave one standing in opposition to facts, a position from which it is very hard to win an argument.

Unless, of course, you can yell very, very loudly.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Star Trek's Hypocritical Federation

Can there be any doubt that Quark is the most moral character on Star Trek Deep Space Nine? While his bible, the Rules of Acquisition, may not be something that I agree with, he places it as the centerpiece of his life, citing it frequently, and using it as a guide to pursue his endeavors. Whether we think that family should be exploited for opportunity or women should be treated as subservient is beside the point: Quark has a code of ethics that he sticks to in virtually every situation.

Contrast this with Captain Sisko, a man who allows men to be killed and bribes another in order to perpetrate a lie to the Romulan people and ensure that they entered the Dominion War on the side of the Federation. Much has been made of this episode, yet the judgments usually come down on the side of Sisko, whose temporary abandonment of a moral compass perhaps leads to the greater good, at least from the perspective of the Federa
tion and its allies.

Also consider the outright hostility and contempt that Sisko and other Federation and Bajoran characters feel towards Quark. That he remains steadfast in his unpopular beliefs even in an atmosphere where his very personhood is looked down upon, is something that would be lauded if we just stripped away some of the descriptors.

For a society that claims to respect other culture’s beliefs, the members of the Federation that we see on television seem to sit in judgment quite often, and not just in the case of the Ferengi. When Worf seeks to end his brother’s life at the latter’s request, he is threatened with prison and questioned severely for attempting to perform a legal and customary ritual between consenting people in his culture. In the episode ‘Waltz,’ in which the Defiant is looking for a marooned Captain Sisko in the brief window before they must return to protect a convoy, Doctor Bashir sneers at Worf when the latter says that it would be dishonorable to fail to return to the convoy, claiming that he doesn’t care much for Worf’s honor.

Is it possible to reconcile the lofty ideals of Federation society with the way we see such behavior portrayed on screen, behavior for which I have only provided the briefest of examples? In many ways, the Federation is merely a stand-in for the modern day United States, a superpower who uses its military and economic strength in order to force other countries to behave in a way the United States thinks is correct. The Federation does pretty much the exact same thing, forcing new members to meet certain criteria in order for acceptance. We also rarely see any dissention by members of the Federation against the central government, creating the impression that societies cede their individuality to some degree in order to gain the military and economic strengths the Federation wields. The respect for these alien societies seems to be an abstract notion, which to be fair is often reflected in American society regarding cultures in other countries.

I am sure there are all sorts of colonialist and imperialist critical frameworks that could be applied to this issue in order to better understand the gap between what the Federation is said to be and what evidence shows it is. Obviously, this is a rough outline of these ideas, or what might actually be two separate ideas, but with the new direction I am hoping to take here, I hope the following conversation will help clarify some points and hopefully muddy the waters a bit as well. Please, weigh in.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Reading List: November 2009

Despite a decision over two weeks ago to shift the focus of this space, noting has yet happened because (1)I have been busy and stressed, and because (2)I just haven't felt as though I have had anything worth saying. Yet my commitment to the change remains theoretically strong, so hopefully I will spend some time this month writing about interests of mine.

There are several films that fall into the hyperlink cinema genre that I have yet to watch though they sit in my living room, and I have also been pondering the seeming cultural superiority that Star Trek's Federation inhabits yet simultaneously denies, especially as this pertains to the Ferengi and Deep Space Nine. Thoughts on such topics shall, hopefully, be forthcoming.

In November, I completed 5 books and 5 graphic novels:
  • The Never-Ending Sacrifice by Una McCormack
  • Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
  • Are the Humanities Inconsequent? by Jerome McGann
  • The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite by Gerard Way & Gabriel Ba
  • Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
  • Fallen Son: The Death of Captain America by Jeph Loeb, et al.
  • Green Lantern: Secret Origin by Geoff Johns & Ivan Reis
  • Invisible by Paul Auster
  • Assignment: Earth by John Byrne
  • The Umbrella Academy: Dallas by Way & Ba
Unreserved recommendations for The Umbrella Academy, which is a cross between a typical superhero family and a Wes Anderson movie. Auster's new novel was also decent and a departure from his last few works. However, I was quite disappointed in Chronic City, not because it was bad but because it was just mediocre and I expect better from Lethem. And while Loeb's Captain America story wasn't very good, he did do some interesting things with the layout and using 70s era artwork, with the reduced color scheme, to contrast modern sensibilities in flashback portions of the narrative.

Questions, comments, et cetera, ad nauseum.