January 20, 2009

Getting up early to watch the One Black

Situated all the way out here on the edge of the world there is a long tradition in New Zealand of getting up early to watch 15 men in black shirts chase a leather ball. So it didn't seem terribly different to get up early to watch one black man chase a leather bible across the Capitol steps.

It was a bit unclear for a while whether we'd actually see coverage of Obama's inaugration. For a few days we thought the only channel showing the event was the local feed of Al Jazeera (they also European sports events and German news shows), which we didn't receive, currently living in a neighborhood located inconveniently out of sight of the transmission tower. But then we got word that TV One, one of the main networks, would be starting their Breakfast show early to bring us coverage. This was a mixed blessing. While we receive TV One, the host of Breakfast is more than a little annoying.

The host is a former radio host who then stood for Parliament for the (conservative) National party, and lost to a transgender Labour party candidate in a fairly conservative rural district (I guess this shows that what passes as fairly conservative in New Zealand is a little different than in America, but that's by the by). By the standards of American network television, the host of Breakfast is unusually voluble about his political opinions. He hasn't been hiding his exasperation with the enthusiasm for Obama.

To a degree this exasperation reflects a real difference in political enthusiasm between New Zealand and the United States. People don't get excited or enraged by local politicians to quite the same extent. It would be like Americans getting really enthusiastic about their state house majority leader. Rarely happens. But the news in New Zealand would have done viewers here more of a service by at least trying to explain the enthusiasm, and respecting it, rather than dismissing it. The charm of the American transition between presidents is that the pageantry is over pretty quickly, but the pageantry and enthusiasm is done well.

In any event, the coverage was unexpectedly good. The best comedic moment came when they decided to skip coverage of the invocation, which was dismissed as "Someone is saying a prayer now" and that they would return to coverage of the event when something important happened. Of all the ways to not have to hear Rick Warren's awful accent this was a good one.

The other moment of comedy gold came when the Breakfast host introduced a former New Zealand ambassador to the United States who had been in the United States for 3 previous inaugurations. But as he often does the host struggled to get quite the right word and said the ambassador had "overseen" three previous inaugurations. The implication being that the Americans couldn't quite get it right without New Zealand oversight. Maybe, maybe. Now if only they could get them to schedule future inaugurations for more convenient New Zealand viewing ...

Posted by eroberts at 2:41 PM

January 15, 2009

History on the south side

Last semester I taught a social history course that centred round students doing primary research with the 1924 Houghteling survey of 477 Chicago families. One of the students did a very interesting essay that mapped the distance to work of two groups of employees. Using the file of addresses that he had compiled I then set out to see some of the houses, and whether they still remained. Most of these houses are on the south side of Chicago, where there has been a bit of urban change in the last 80 years.

Setting out with a map and camera I had a list of 40 houses. I did this historical research on foot. To this degree I was being faithful to the original investigators who certainly walked around the Chicago neighborhoods collecting the surveys. With 40 houses to cover I ran. If you are familiar with the south side of Chicago you will appreciate that a white guy running around with a piece of paper and a camera taking photos of people's houses might attract attention. However, I only had one person ask me what I was doing. He was bemused by the explanation that I was an historian. I guess that's what the Chicago Police Department now call undercover agents -- historians. Covering 21 miles (2:50 running, 4:00 total out there) I only got to 31 houses. About half of them were probably the original 1924 house. The results are summarized in the table below for those who are interested.

The diversity of the transformation was interesting. Some of the houses had been replaced by UIC. Others had been replaced by gentrification, particularly in the Bucktown area. Yet others, particularly near UIC and around 18th - 21th St were now largely Hispanic neighborhoods, perhaps today's unskilled immigrant laborers*

This was a particularly fulfilling intersection of running, research and teaching. With the addresses of all 477 families computerized I could envisage a student project to map the transformation of all of these houses. This would even be possible from New Zealand with Google's Street View. But such a project would hearken back to an earlier era of social science which studied neighborhoods as things in themselves. Modern social scientist might perhaps declaim that study of the neighborhood as superseded by a methodological focus on the individual and family in different contexts. So, there goes the neighborhood.

You can see a picture of the transformation here: www.evanroberts.net/chicago_houses

* I hasten to add that I am not implying Hispanics to be unskilled laborers, but am echoing the title of the original research.

House is now Total
Presumed to be 1924 house 16
Newer construction, sympathetic style 2
replaced by industrial buildings 2
apartment building 1
Church parking lot 1
Newer construction, since abandoned 1
Parking lot for Howard-Orloff Jaguar Volvo car dealer and on-ramp for I-90/94 1
Presumed to be 1924 house, but front unit probably knocked down 1
Presumed to be 1924 house, but front unit probably knocked down? Original survey doesn't mention front units 1
Public housing units 1
replaced by commercial buildings 1
school(?) and park 1
UIC Environmental Safety Facility 1
UIC Parking lot for Eye & Ear Infirmary 1
Grand Total 31
Posted by eroberts at 10:20 PM

January 7, 2009

Spoons: Watch it a couple of times

Like summertime TV everywhere the options on New Zealand TV in the summer are pretty bad. That probably explains how they acquired Spoons to broadcast at odd times like 10:20 on a Tuesday. Spoons is good foam roller and stretching time TV. Not so funny that you fall off the foam roller, yet not so dull that I stop roller-ing and stretching. This, of course, is why there was no second series of Spoons.

There is one overarching premise to the sketches on Spoons: people don't always tell their romantic partners everything they are thinking. The secondary premise of the sketches often seems to be misanthropy. Again, this is why there was not a second series. The great insight of the Hollywood romantic comedy in all its similarly repetitive glory is that a budding romance is a nice thing, but with many opportunities for humor. Spoons is bleak in its assessment of human nature. I enjoy black humor, but there's only so much of it I can take. It turns out 30 minutes in one sitting is a little much.

The best part of Spoons is the sketch that seems to end every show, where a man goes to his storage unit containing just a folding chair, calls his wife and says he'll be home late for some plausible reason (traffic, supermarket delays, urgent deadlines etc). The repetitive sketch works because it's explicit—the same character, the same empty storage unit, the same structure of the conversation with his wife—and also because of the element of the absurd. Are there really people who hire storage units to get away from their families? (any correspondence on this matter will be kept anonymous ...)

The rest of Spoons is too repetitive in the structure of the sketches, varying just the actors and the settings. It's funny to see one skit based on the idea that men won't come out with their partner's female friends because of what women [apparently] talk about without men present. It's not nearly as funny the 3rd time with more variation in the clothes the actors are wearing than the actual joke.

Yet the reason I've persisted with watching Spoons instead of the other 5 options is the refreshingly abrasive British humor. The abrasive humor is another way of saying misanthropy, but it is a humor you don't often see on American TV. It's a pity the writers and actors couldn't diversify the sketches in Spoons a little more, because the method would apply to other situations than dating. The promise of the series seems to have been lost in the over-application of a good idea.

Posted by eroberts at 6:00 PM