Saturday, October 5, 2013

Blog Relocating:!

Hello all.  My blogging at this location has slowed down dramatically over the last year or two.  That's mostly my own fault, but Blogger's moribund design and technical limitations don't help.  It looks like crap, it's hard to read, and it makes me not want to blog every time I look at it.  I've been blogging using Blogger for nearly 15 years, and like almost everything in my life, I've been doing it mostly for fun.  It's finally time to get serious, about this and a lot of other things, which means I'm moving my web presence.

My main 'live' new home will be at, a Wordpress blog (see? professional) devoted to weird fiction, strange music, underground art, and anything else that pops on my radar, and prominently featuring my music criticism book of the same title.  I'm bringing it live as we speak, and it will be ready to rock by the end of the weekend.

I'll also be working on, a blog (also Wordpress!  PROFESSIONAL) for a nonfiction book I'm working on, currently titled Conspired! How Space Lizards in Black Helicopters Wearing Tinfoil Hats are Taking Over American Politics, and Why We Need To Cut it Out.  That blog will be exclusively devoted to conspiracism and conspiracist topics.

Finally, there's, a static landing page with my bio and C.V., and linking to my various projects in various ways.

Future rollouts are planned for, possibly having to do with philosophy and deeper intellectual stuff.  There will also be a site devoted specifically to the fictional alternate-Civil War world I first entered with the Scouts of the Pyre novella, available in issues 8, 9, and eventually 10 of Steampunk Magazine, and destined to be an ebook just as soon as the print publication run is complete.

I will make one or two more posts here as I hit milestones with these other projects, but otherwise I'm dropping the curtain on Mindslikeknives.  It has been very satisfying for me to blog here for the past five (eight? Ten?) years or so, but all good things and all that.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

My First Day at The Least Glamorous #Altac Job Imagineable

Note: I now blog at  It's much prettier to look at, and more focused on fun stuff like weird fiction, extreme music, and awesome art.  Also check out my Tumblr at

So, this past Friday was my first day at a new job.  I'm on a trial period right now (okay, let's be precise - I'm an intern, and have been told that will be re-evaluated in a month or two).  The opportunity is certainly interesting, I'm approaching it with an open mind, and it's amazing how little work it took.  I literally emailed a guy and had coffee with him, then got an offer.  I'm excited because it's an opportunity to learn the day to day of the business world as opposed to the academic, and show that I can hack it.  Which, I think it's safe to say, I clearly can.

In many ways, this new position is not the kind of job that gets mentioned when the discussion turns to alternative careers for academics, or #altac.  The buzzwords around that are generally things like research management, admin positions in academia, positions with government agencies - high-level glamour stuff.  I, on the other hand, am for the moment basically a copywriter.  My first assignment for the company, on a freelance basis, was actually writing SEO copy (the equivalent, in my humble opinion, of hiring Gustav Klimt to paint your house beige), and on my first day in the office I churned out some web copy.

But it might not be complete drudgery.  I actually spent most of the day working on my new company's application for a local technology innovation award, and in the near future it looks like I'll be working on investor prospectuses.  These are both tasks that exercise the analytic skillset I developed in my academic training.  For instance, explaining the impact and potential benefits of my new company's technology efforts entails exactly the same sort of social-systematic analysis, projection, and inference that I use when writing about, say, the social impact of car audio technology (forthcoming in Technology & Culture!)  The line of reasoning is reversed (what will happen vs. what did happen), but I immediately found that engaging.  My new company's core offering is a business and social networking tool, and so I got to write about the knock-on efficiencies of networks.  Pretty cool for my first day.

There are other big reasons I'm excited about my new path - mostly coming down to where I place my priorities.  Literally the day before the end of my academic appointment at the University of South Florida, I finished and submitted a proposal for an academic book.  I am excited by the possibility of having that book accepted for publication, but the process of preparing the proposal reminded me that, while there are certain kinds of enjoyment that come with academic writing, there is nothing fun about it.  I want to do things that are fun.

At about the same time, I asked a friend of mine who had recently finished a popular nonfiction book for some details about numbers - and they were eye-opening, maybe even staggering.  She was able to live for a year-plus on the money for writing a 200-odd page book, which I am sure I would have no problem blowing through in four months.  She made more from her book than I did from my postdoctoral fellowship.  I'm sure many other academics are genuinely not interested in writing for popular audiences, and I know there are a large number who are truly incapable of writing with humor, verve, and insight at the same time.  But as someone who has that ability and actually thinks the work is important, some very simple math makes it absolutely foolish for me not to pursue the possibility.

And so I'll be spending my mornings before work putting together a proposal for a book on conspiracy theory and its impact on American politics - a topic I'll also be blogging about over at my new site, Space Lizards in Black Helicopters ( - and yes, I know it's the greatest URL of all time. Thank you for saying so).  This simply isn't something I would have been able to do as a first-year (or maybe even sixth-year) tenure-track professor.  The grind of academic research, teaching, and writing is draining, most of all on your creative resources.  There is no downtime - even your summers are dedicated to research and teaching prep.  There is no time that you can truly call your own, or that will allow you to pursue other applications of your gifts.

For some people that's okay, because teaching and research are truly their focus in life.  I'm not so sure that's true for me.  And in my new office, though there's a good bit of the new-startup buzz that can suck you in if you let it, it also seems perfectly okay to put in your eight hours and then simply go home.  The possibility of truly making a living by working seven hours a day, even after my time as a relatively time-rich postdoc, is pretty exciting.  And it's also exciting that I will be going home to work on a book that more than 500 people might end up caring about.

But then again, I did send out those academic book proposals.  I did finish a major publication, also just as I was headed out the door.  I certainly am working to keep my options open as an academic.  Maybe the urge to write about Lacan will catch up with me in six months.  Maybe I'll discover that the professional 9-5 world is less generous with my time than I'm seeing so far.  I am, unapolagetically, hedging my bets.  I'm keeping multiple options open - and more than any idea of simply ditching the tenure track, I think that should be the key theme of the #altac movement.  Having options is not something academics or academics-in-training generally keep in mind, but if they did, maybe it would put enough pressure on things like the adjunct pool and salaries to start having a real impact.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

My Last Day As an Academic: What An Academic Departure Leaves Behind

Note: Not unrelated to the transition covered below, I now blog at  It's much prettier to look at, and more focused on fun stuff like weird fiction, extreme music, and awesome art.  Also check out my Tumblr at

Today is my last day at USF, and I'm doing the final cleanout of my office, while simultaneously finishing final revisions on a journal article.  Yesterday, I finished submitting my academic book proposal.  I've engineered a pretty perfectly punctuated departure, I must say.

In the course of cleaning out my office, I've found I have a weird relationship to paper and information.  I guess it's not just me . . . we were all very excited when it looked like we might be moving into a post-paper world, but that didn't quite work out, did it?  I have stacks and stacks and stacks of paper, mostly printed out from the digital versions of books that I couldn't find physical copies of.  Some of the material I've got sitting around is simply ridiculous.  For example, I have a copy of Michael J. Raine's 2002 dissertation Youth, Body, and Subjectivity in the Japanese Cinema, 1955-1960.  It was given to me by John Peters, who just happened to have a printed copy of it sitting around his office, and knew I was writing and thinking about Japan.  It's about 400 pages long and weighs about ten pounds.  Apparently I brought it with me from Iowa, put it in storage in my parents' house for a year while I was in Japan, then loaded it into a moving truck to bring to Florida.  I never read it.

(Incidentally, a Google search provides no evidence that anyone named Michael J. Raine is currently working in academia, though I did find a corporate lawyer by that name on Linkedin.  Hmm.).

I also have stacks of journal articles, mostly related to one project or another, mostly carried all the way from Iowa, and each either readily available online, or, even more embarrassing, actually saved on my hard drive.  I'm in the process of either archiving .pdf copies of all of them from the usage-restricted archives I'm about to lose access to, or scanning them - printouts of .pdfs - back into .pdf form.

I know this is insane, but at least getting rid of the paper versions of these things is incredibly liberating.  Leaving academia is, so far, incredibly liberating.  The weight being lifted off my shoulders isn't just metaphorical (who knows if I'll ever write that academic book, and who cares), it's physical.  Like, hundreds of pounds worth of weight.


Monday, July 22, 2013

The Ph.D. and the Nonacademic Job Search: A Spectacular Albatross?

In my ongoing post-academic (inter-academic?) transition, one of the very practical questions that keeps coming up is - how do I present my Ph.D.?  On business cards, on Linkedin, etc  . . . I'd be a pretty hopeless 'strategic communicator' if I didn't realize that referring to myself as "Dr. David Z. Morris" made me instantly seem like an asinine boor.  But what about "David Z. Morris, Ph.D.," or just "David Z. Morris," with the Ph.D. tucked on the back of the card, the third or fourth line of the resume, etc?

You can find different takes on this.  The authors of "What Are You Going To Do With That?" (which I strongly recommend) are predictably upbeat, considering their audience of almost entirely MA and Ph.D. holders.  They emphasize the skills and accomplishments indicated by the Ph.D.  Penelope Trunk, on the other hand, is brutal, saying that if it's not directly related to your field, you should Leave Grad School Off Your Resume.

In my case, my graduate degree could hardly be more relevant to the field I'm pursuing work in - my Ph.D. is in Communication Studies, and my work is focused on media technology and culture.  I've taught both business communication and strategic communication for nonprofits, which believe me, is far more educational than simply taking those courses - plus, now I have some actual experience applying what I learned/taught.  So I don't feel much conflict about listing the Ph.D., and even highlighting it.

But still, there are moments when it's overkill - I'm applying for some entry-level positions along with more senior positions,  and in those cases I provide a little caveat as part of my cover letter.  What do you think, though?  Should I just be leaving this off?  But no, no, there would be insurmountable, inexplicable gaps in my timeline.  Nothing to be done but acknowledge that I'm a huge nerd who did something impractical with his 20s.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Separation Anxiety: The Symbolic Trauma of Sacrificing Your Academic Identity

If you read contemporary job search guides (or if you're just a commonsensical tuned-in person) you'll know that your social media presence is nearly as important to how you're regarded by potential employers as your resume.  For someone transitioning careers, this can be tricky.  In my case, there are still people who follow/know me as an academic, but if I leave my online profiles oriented towards that audience, I'll be putting up a big STOP sign for potential nonacademic employers.

So, I'm slowly making changes - like changing my twitter bio and the bio on this page to something that acknowledges my 'transitioning' status (I feel like I'm announcing a sex change . . . ).  I still haven't tackled my main website (, where for a little while longer you can read what I have to say about myself as an academic first and foremost.

These are all strictly practical moves in the game of life.  And for a lot of people, they would be simply practical decisions.  But for myself, and I'm sure for many others in similar situations, there's a kind of existential dread that accompanies changing social media profiles. It's really not at all different from the dread that accompanies turning a C.V. into a resume.  There's not much room in either of those genres, and boy, wouldn't it be tragic if people didn't know HOW AWESOME I AM?  Didn't know all the great articles I've published, all the awesome grants and fellowships I've earned?  There's the threat that one will remain too attached to those old achievements.

I'm trying to view it as a moment of freedom.  I have actually accomplished things outside of academia - but more importantly, I have GOALS outside of academia.  This is a chance not just to change how people see me online, but to rethink how I see myself.  Watch this space as I tweak, poke, and prod that self-presentation/self-perception.

P.S. There is another practical concern.  Even as I'm looking for real-world jobs, my plan is to continue applying for academic jobs for the upcoming cycle, pretty much in case I end up really loathing wherever I end up.  I will have to carefully calibrate my self-presentation so that academic hiring committees really understand where I'm coming from.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Quest for Freedom: Why I'm Leaving Academia. Temporarily. Maybe.

Today is a big day. Many of my friends and family know about it, but this is the first time I've posted here on the blog about a major transition in my life. In about three weeks, I will no longer be employed by the University of South Florida as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow. My two-year contract is expiring, so there's nothing terribly dramatic about that. What's more notable is that I'm not, as most academics at this juncture would be expected to, packing up and shipping off to another city to start either a tenure-track job or a visiting assistant professorship somewhere.  Instead, I've spent the last few months fine-tuning a resume (not a C.V.), thinking about what skills I've acquired in my time in academia, and, starting a few weeks ago, applying for jobs in copywriting.

In other words, I'm leaving academia.

I don't know if this is a permanent bail.  Probably not.  Right up until the end of my fellowship, I seem to find working on my academic book proposal (for my book on Japanese Underground hip hop) way more compelling and interesting than the task of finding a real-world job, so we're already experiencing some nostalgia.  But for a number of reasons, I feel I have to take some time to discover what the alternatives are, and whether I feel they might fit me.

The idea of doing this first emerged about nine months ago, and I blame love.  There was a woman, and I felt things that I hadn't felt about anyone in a decade.  She opened me up - and I thought to myself, how can I leave this? It's the expectation, the way the model works - from postdoc in place A to Assistant in Place B, with no choice, nothing but the luck of the draw.  And the profoundly dated presumption that as a primary breadwinner, a professor could pick up and carry his (presumptively, his) entire brood anywhere.  But now marriages dissolve because neither spouse can or wants to compromise on their job.  Which, for me, seems like mistaken priorities.

That love affair ended in blood and fire - itself a transformational lesson in how callous humans can really be - but in the meantime other thoughts had crept in.  Last November, I visited my friend, an assistant professor at a private liberal arts college in a very small town.  I went there, and I saw he and his wife putting on a triumphant performance of mutual tolerance, and I took the three-minute walk to the only coffee shop in the three-stoplight town, and I heard the stress in his voice as he lamented his three year review, and the amount of pressure put on his teaching evaluations.  He seemed worn, old.  Another academic friend of mine indirectly revealed that for her full-time professorship, she was being paid barely more than I was earning doing only research.  The professorship that I'd been dreaming of all these years began to seem like a less alluring reality.

I powered through graduate school in Iowa City and nearly had a breakdown from loneliness and life-threatening weather, maybe because I could not conceive of a better alternative.  In Florida, though, one is given a profound window onto the possibilities afforded by money and flexibility.  I began to think I might someday want to be able to be spontaneous.  I might want to have great experiences that didn't involve reading.  I would perhaps really someday like to have sex on a boat.

Maybe a catamaran.

This is not to say that I want to get rich, but it will at this rate be another seven years before I can pay off a small amount in student loans.  This is an oppressive thought for me.

There was another, perhaps even more profound, because more immediate, factor.  About a year ago - just before everything went so horribly with a woman I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life with - I connected with the principal organizers of The Venture Compound, an art gallery and performance space manned entirely by lunatics and flame-headed igniting angels.  I'm in its grip, fascinated and immersed, now committed to really make this place survive, committed to insane dreams of building something.  I maneuver city politics and I meet people from all walks of life, furniture makers and architects and witches, and because we are generous with our secret selves, our darkest thoughts, they feel that they can be, in turn, and so they stand there nothing but men with their skin on.

I am in the world, suddenly, I am of the world.  I have completely inverted my relationship to being.

And so now, I'm fantasizing about a new life, where I am part of a team that pursues a great goal together, instead of a series of piddling goals separately.  I want to think about the least predictable ways what I'm doing could impact, not just a few elites, but a true public.  I want to intervene in something other than debates.

I don't know if I have it in me.  Sometimes I look at myself and I just see some passive eunuch.  And I look at the world and it seems bleak, how do all those people do it out there without an institution behind them, without some superficially benign branch of the nanny state at their back, massed rifles just out of sight?

No, I don't really feel that way.  Education is a vital public good.  But still, how can I live if the government isn't forcing those Iowa farmers to support me?

But I think I'll figure it out.  I really do.  After all, people do it all the time, right?  Every day.  And it's not necessarily comfortable, or easy, there's that feeling of some small hook pulling your belly down hollow from the inside.  But in return you get the certainty that you have lived.  We as humans have been so diabolical to one another that, within a strictly bureaucratic framework, we have constructed a subjective experience that on a day to day level, for many people, is as terrifying as being stalked by a jaguar.  People kill themselves because they don't think they can handle the whole contraption, all of it put into place by nothing but humans working with and against fellow humans.

Wish me luck in the insanity.

I would like to thank Penelope Trunk and her utterly fearless integration of her personal struggles into her blogging about the professional world for inspiring me to pursue some new directions in my writing.  For the next few weeks or months, I'll be trying to combine my subjective experiences with some genuinely helpful and substantive reflections on the passage from academic to post-academic.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Venture Compound Evolution Quest: Building Something Great

As great as my time at USF has been for my scholarship, the greatest thing that Tampa Bay has given me is my connection to The Venture Compound.  Venture is an arts collective focusing on young and emerging artists, and I've been serving as their Director of Communication for about a year now.  This is the biggest part of a major new chapter in my life - the transition from academic contemplation to some serious dirty-hands engagement with projects aimed at making a world that I want to live in.  The Venture experience has been amazing in every way, starting with discovering a large community of aesthetic like minds who were committed to making art happen with a professional approach.  Our mission of bringing the weirdest possible art to the widest possible audience is something that pushes my buttons in every way.

So, as part of my contribution to the effort, a couple of months ago I started work on a funding campaign to raise money so we could make some needed upgrades to facilities.  Last night, that campaign came to a close, with us raising $1,661, including some offline contributions.  For a lot of nonprofits, this would be a pretty minimal sum, but for us it's the largest amount of money we've ever had in one place.  We've got detailed plans for how to spend that money, and you can look over them at our Indiegogo page:

I decided to use Indiegogo because we weren't entirely confident of our fundraising potential, and their flexible funding option appealed to us.  As it turns out, I was definitely overconfident about how much we could raise, so I'm glad I was a little cautious.  Still, obviously the effort is a success, and it's going to allow us to do some amazing new things at Venture.  Even more important, I hope this establishes our legitimacy as an arts institution with a large community of serious supporters - something that's going to mean a lot for future fundraising.

We have had plenty of expressions of support and love that can't be measured in dollars, and in most respects, that's the most important part.  Still, there's something truly moving about having so many people make real sacrifices to support us, and most importantly trust us, in this more abstract way.  We make a lot of jokes about what a bunch of screwups we are, but clearly we have cultivated a lot of people who disagree, and are willing to see what we can accomplish with more resources.  We don't plan on letting them down.

(If you missed the opportunity to be part of our fundraiser, don't fret!  I'm sure we'll be doing it again soon.  Though of course it won't be nearly as cool the second time around.)

Saturday, June 22, 2013


In addition to my wide variety of other shenanigans, I'm on the Board of Directors of the Venture Compound, a nonprofit arts collective where I have various duties, including running our current Indiegogo fundraiser.  And our fundraiser is KICKING ASS.  Following is current info on our status.  Please visit the fundraiser to kick in and earn some great premiums including our awesome t-shirts, membership privileges, and our epic PIZZA PARTY!

WE ARE KILLING THIS. Our fundraiser has hit $1,120 raised. What does that mean? Well LEMME TELL YOU:

Gallery Lighting: FUNDED. – We love art, but sometimes our gallery doesn’t. We will now have proper gallery lighting so we can showcase the greatness of our artists.
Remaining Fire Code Needs: FUNDED. – We can buy an emergency exit door, updated emergency lighting, and fire extinguishers. Yay for not dying!
Backyard Prettification: FUNDED. – We know you love our pallets and broken plastic chairs. But how about some hand-built wood benches, tables, and maybe even outdoor lighting? How about some garden boxes? How about a FUCKING JUNGLE GYM? NOW THEY'RE COMING. Well, we'll give the jungle gym a 'maybe.'
Venture Compound Sign Hanging Committee : FUNDED. – Now we can afford to hang the awesome sign Jim built!

What We Can Do If We Hit $1400:
TV Mountain Historical Landmark Rescue Plan. 
TV Mountain needs to be rewired and engineered for endurance so we can all continue to enjoy 15-channel, quadruple-track old-movie marathons in shuddering monochrome. This would involve cleaning up the wiring and building new shelves so we don’t die when a 35” Samsung from 1989 falls from the top row.
Check out more info on TV Mountain HERE: 

What We Can Do If We Hit $2,000
Sound Enhancements: It might not cover our entire wishlist, but a couple hundred could let us make some real upgrades to what you hear. Believe it or not, The Venture Compound has been using BORROWED SPEAKERS for over a year.  We'd really love to have something to call our own.  We'd also like to get our hands on a recording unit for RECORDING LIVE BANDS - recordings that would be released to YOU, the public.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Audiogalaxy History

I've just discovered the blog of Tom Kleinpeter, a former founder and engineer at Audiogalaxy, a music sharing website where I cut my writing chops.  There were two very separate teams there, and I didn't know Tom well, so it's fascinating to read about what was going on on the other side of the wall, so to speak.

I owe a lot to my Audiogalaxy experience - it basically got me into grad school.  It's nice to know the founders are still plugging along.

There are three parts to the series:

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Single Indian Tear - Remastered Catalog Now Online!

I post here a decent amount about my fun band from 2008-2010, Single Indian Tear.  Well now, thanks to my awesome partner in crime Craig Eley, you can buy both of our albums on Bandcamp.  Better yet, they've been remastered by Iowa City's awesome Sam Knutson.  Get caught up, because we're hoping to have our whole Tenebre project (including remixed visuals) available soon.


Saturday, May 25, 2013

Re-Presenting: How I Invented Witch House (and Ghostface) . . . Full Version

Up until they take it down, here is the first half of the film edit and re-scoring I did in collaboration with Craig Eley back when we were in grad school together.  It predates much of the stuff that came in around 2010/2011 inspired by Italian horror movies . . . and now Ghostface Killah's 12 Reasons to Die.  Not that we were anywhere near that polished, but I'm still really proud of this.

Friday, May 24, 2013

I've been waiting to bring it to you . . . Scouts of the Pyre, Part 2, now live!

 Oh my many dears . . . it has been a LONG time coming, but Steampunk Magazine issue 9 is now live, and features part 2 of my campy pulp serial "The Scouts of the Pyre."  It's a lovely story about the struggle of the Union army about a horde of zombie slaves . . . enjoy, for free, in the online version, or order a beautiful hard copy!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Why Rational People Buy Into (read: create) Conspiracy Theories

I haven't talked about it much here, but I spent last semester teaching the first edition of a class on the theme of distrust in communication, about half of which dealt with conspiracy theory.  One of the biggest misperceptions about conspiracy theory (including in some scholarly literature) is that it's the realm of deluded idiots.  In fact, it's more accurate to say conspiracy theory appeals mostly to people with a moderately sophisticated skepticism, but without either the training in citation and information management to find reliable alternative sources, or perhaps even without the basic faith that there is such a thing as 'the truth.'

The New York Times explores these issues in a new blog post from Maggie Koerth-Baker.  The comments section is well worth scanning - not a single one of the first dozen responses comes down on the side of information-based rationalism.  They all defend conspiracism as somehow a positive model for 'questions that need to be asked.'  Or they say that left-wing conspiracism are okay, it's right-wing conspiracies that are harming democracy.  It's really mind-boggling and scary that this is the audience for the New York Times.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Mysterious Rap Group Behind Korean Solidarity Demos in Japan

My pal Brent Fujioka recently sent me a hot tip.  There are currently significant anti-racist demonstrations being held in Tokyo to oppose the so-called Zaitokukai, an anti-Korean hate group.  Information about the demonstrations can be found here and here.  The group claiming affiliation with the demos is calling itself "Shit Back Crew," and there's little or no information on them here at their tumblr:

It's strange that they feel compelled to cover their faces, but otherwise this is really encouraging and interesting.  Anyone who has further information, it would be appreciated.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Spring Breakers in Tampa Bay: Glorying in the Pirates' Beautiful Wreck

This piece was originally commissioned to run in the online version of Creative Loafing Tampa.  It was apparently declined - all I know is that it never ran.  Maybe why it wasn't wanted will be more clear to you than to me (I have yet to get an explanation from the editor).

People in Tampa Bay have been fretting about director Harmony Korine’s new movie, Spring Breakers, understandably perturbed by a film set in their hometown that is, if the previews are any indication, a serving of debauchery with a side of carnage.  I moved to Tampa Bay in August of 2011, bringing a completely clean slate.  I had never even been to Florida, but I was offered a job, and so I came.  As an outsider who has now seen the length and breadth of the Bay, and who has now seen Spring Breakers, I think the film gets Tampa Bay right.  Not mainly in the hedonism, the crime, or the murder, though I know there are plenty of those around here.  As anyone familiar with Harmony Korine must have known (his last film was titled Trash Humpers, and that title is just as literal as this one), Spring Breakers is not the simple exploitation movie it’s being billed as.  It’s an uncomfortable meditation that captures a feeling unique to Tampa Bay.  It shows a truth that’s difficult, but that should be treasured.

Much of what I found when I came to Tampa Bay reminded me of my hometown of Fort Worth, Texas: brutal heat, tatty public facilities, and a sprawling highway system and six-lane surface roads that marked it as a driving town.  There were differences, too – from St. Pete to Temple Terrace, the poverty was more in-your-face than at home, with panhandlers on every intersection and condemned homes around every corner.  Those unlucky enough not to own a car raced, Frogger-style, across those wide roads, infants in tow, praying for their lives.  Groups of men lounged aimlessly in the green spaces of grocery store parking lots.

Also different from home, though, was the multi-species parade of brighter things mixed right in with that abrasive reality.  There were the professionals that occasionally ventured from South Tampa, sometimes classy and more often delightfully cartoonish.  There were the hipsters, legion with their tattoos and mustaches, in bars across the street from by-the-hour motels.  In October of 2011, there were anarchists in the streets.  There were hand-painted signs for jerk chicken and oxtails.  There was a creative class throwing together shoestring and tape and getting things done.  There were the mangroves and vines stretching through suburban backyards like Father Knows Best got transplanted to Borneo.  There were the nonprofits and activists striving to make things better.  There were lizards sunning themselves on sidewalks, scattering with each step.

Spring Breakers’ story of hedonism and bad endings is just a superficial detail, part of the trappings that let this slow, smallish art film pass as a big deal party-caper flick (Amazingly, it cracked the Billboard Top 10 this weekend, but given broadly negative reactions from misled audiences, watch for it to drop like a rock). The movie’s soul, ironically, is on its surface.  Korine’s focus is on the feeling he hangs on his inconsequential plot, a hallucinatory strangeness fleshed it out with garish colors, ethereal voice overs, blunted melodies, slow pans, and harsh lighting.  The vibe is lonesome and desperate, like it’s all a frantic display of confidence by someone whose soul is crumbling.  It’s a feeling Korine said he found in Tampa Bay as nowhere else in Florida – darkness and light, in struggle, in flux.

That’s not something any sane tourism board would put on bus signs, but that doesn’t make it less true, or less valuable.  Tampa Bay is a place of decadence, desperation, and degradation, but also of possibility and excitement and change – and all for the same reasons.  Think of New York City in the 1970s and 1980s.  People lived in fear of being mugged or killed, but there was CBGBs and Keith Haring and Studio 54. Then Disney bought out Times Square and shut down the porn theaters.  Within what must have seemed like months, New York – the New York we dream of, the New York of Taxi Driver and Manhattan and Wild Style – was gone.

Spring Breakers is about the desire to change, and to escape, about how even when that desire gets pushed too far, it can still be beautiful.  Like New York in the 1970s, Tampa Bay is a royal mess because nobody owns it, and nobody controls it, because right now, nobody wants to.  It’s a place of both risk and freedom, where it’s easy to try something and the costs for failure (and here the film doesn’t get it quite right . . .) are low.  It’s a city being made before our eyes, a city whose future, unlike those of so many older cities, has yet to be written.

I was originally hired for a two-year job here in Tampa, but I’ve decided to stay and see what happens.  I think Harmony Korine would understand.

Record Store Day Picks for Abstract Electro/Hip Hop Heads

Going through the list of RSD exclusive releases is a fun trip - learning about cool new artists, and mostly, trying to spot interesting stuff based on names + art alone.

Here's what I'll be looking for, starting with the most exciting stuff:

GZA Liquid Swords Chess Box: Whaaaaat

Brian Eno/Nicolas Jaar/Grizzly Bear:

Conny Plank + Neu! and others:

Evian Christ: DUGA-3:

Oval: Systemisch:

Ready to Die white vinyl:

TR-909 Book: Featuring Schoolly D!

Non-Phixion: I Shot Reagan:

Dan Deacon: Konono Ripoff no. 1:  (brilliant title)

Moon Duo: Circles Remixed:

Codeine: What about the Lonely:

Cuntz: Aloha:

Black Milk: Synth or Soul:

Austra + Gina X: Mayan Drums:

I'm sure I missed some good ones, lemme know.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Neolithic Survivor: Role-Playing Globalization, Culture, and Technology

Note: I now blog at  It's much prettier to look at, and more focused on fun stuff like weird fiction, extreme music, and awesome art.  Also check out my Tumblr at

Note: What follows is an experiment.  I had a very productive class session last semester using this activity to teach about cultural globalization, and decided to write it up for publication in a pedagogy journal.  I just finished a rough draft, and decided, what the hell, might as well make it available for teachers now rather than waiting for publication. And while I'm at it, I might as well solicit some last-minute editing tips, right?  In particular, I'm a bit concerned that this somewhat complicated game is not really clear.  So, if you enjoy this and find it useful, you might repay me by offering any pointers in the next couple of days before I submit.  Thanks!

“Neolithic Survivor” is a single-class activity exploring concepts of cultural formation, intercultural communication, and technological change.  The activity is appropriate for courses on intercultural communication, cultural globalization, and communication and technology, and is intended to help students think expansively about the role of technology in shaping cultural values and ethnic identity.
A Neolithic Survivor game in progress.
Note the three different colors of figures,
representing three different teams.

Theoretical Grounding:

The spread of communication technology has combined with more open post-Cold War trade regimes and social liberation movements to increase the flow of information, goods, and people across cultural and political boundaries.  This condition of the current world system is commonly referred to as “globalization” (Beck, 2000; Castells, 1996; Pieterse, 2009).  Globalization involves a distinct heightening of the frequency and intensity of the interaction of nations and groups from different cultural, economic, and historical positions.  The mixing of these different cultures includes not just the sharing of cultural texts (music, movies, television), but also the increasing uniformity of the global technological infrastructure.

There are long-running arguments about what impact communication and other advanced technologies have on the structures and practices of disparate cultures, particularly including traditional cultures or those still in the process of modernizing.  Some have argued that the spread of communication technology is sufficient to transform traditional societies into modern ones, and that this process should be celebrated and promoted (Lerner, 1958; Schramm, 1964). Others, particularly after the failure of early ‘modernization’ efforts globally, have argued that the implementation of new ICT (information and communication technologies) can conflict with basic cultural values, either rendering the technologies less impactful or altering the culture’s underlying values (Kyem, 1999, 2012).  Finally, more and more scholars have pointed out ways that both technologies and messages are re-articulated to local needs, resulting in significant differences in how similar communication tools are used across cultures (cf. Appadurai, 1996).

This debate builds on ideas about the relationship between technology and culture explored by Harold Innis and Marshall Macluhan, who argued that the formal properties of communication technology have a more profound impact on societies than the content of the messages those technologies transmitted.  For instance, Innis argued that certain forms of communication emphasized extensions of a culture’s power through space to construct empires, while others provided superior duration of cultural influence through time (Innis, 2008; McLuhan & Lapham, 1994).  To fit the curriculum of my courses, my version of “Neolithic Survivor” emphasized and specifically rewarded students for engaging with these concepts of ‘time-binding’ and ‘space-binding’ media.  Technology cards and other elements of the game can be easily modified to emphasize different key course concepts.

It can be difficult for students to get a big-picture view of how the dispersion and adaptation of technology can restructure something as subtle as culture.  As with most communication courses, the first task in teaching about globalization is often to get students to look at themselves and their own surroundings as ‘unfamiliar,’ as having origins and differences , as something other than a completely natural and taken-for-granted norm.  The goal of the “Neolithic Survivor” activity is to take students out of their familiar settings and push them to think of culture as a ‘blank slate’ that is formed in a complex interaction between cultural practices, ideas, and interactions between groups.


Technology Cards:  Use the attached file to print and then cut several dozen cards representing a randomized selection of ‘technologies’ that will be handed out to teams.  These are the most important element of gameplay.  We define ‘technology’ quite loosely here, with a few examples of things teams can ‘discover’ being: stonecarving, navigation by stars, pottery, money, bronze, large stone structures, numbers, writing, the wheel, agriculture, musical instruments, religion, stone inscription, fire, stone tools, smoke signals, and the bow and arrow.

Obviously these do not represent any ‘logical’ progression, and sequences of discoveries that might seem strange do arise – but as we’ll see, this is part of the game’s learning potential.
I would encourage instructors to use their own creativity to add technologies to the stack that are either relevant to specific lessons, or that they just think would be fun to work with and talk about.

Playing Pieces:
You’ll need about a dozen markers or figures about the size of nickels to represent players’ tribes.  They should be four different colors, or otherwise marked to be distinguishable by team. If you happen to be a board game fan, you can probably find something appropriate around the house – I was able to use various figures from a Dungeons and Dragons board game.

Playing Board:
You’ll need a playing surface divided into roughly even-sized squares that fit your figures.  The attached file representing the Fertile Crescent may be used, or if appropriate for your class you may use a different regional map and turn it into a play surface.  Scale is not really important to gameplay.
Depending on your technology circumstances, you may want to print your map out on a transparency.  The ideal possibility would be if your classroom is equipped with an overhead projection camera, allowing the image of the board to be magnified for the whole class, in which case you can just print on plain paper.  Otherwise, you may need to project the board as a transparency, or in a worst-case scenario you can place the playing board in the center of the room and allow students to look at it more closely as needed.

The Activity:
Neolithic Survivor is a turn-based game that simulates cultural change and hybridization over time as a group of small tribes in a nonspecific prehistoric period move, grow, and adopt new technologies.  While it is played in part on a game board, the largest portion of its gameplay consists of collaborative storytelling, in which the players make decisions whose outcomes the instructor determines.

This kind of gameplay is based largely on the creative and collaborative model of tabletop role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons[1].  While such games often involve complex statistical systems to simulate probability and outcomes (most often in combat), their more deeply distinctive feature is the way players make choices and a gamemaster improvises the consequences of those decisions in a way that constructs a larger narrative.  Neolithic Survivor focuses almost exclusively on the storytelling element of such games, with the instructor serving as gamemaster-for-the-day.  As we’ll see, this means that the game calls on an instructor’s ability to be creative on the fly.

A game of Neolithic Survivor tells the story of three or four primitive tribes and their transformation, over the course of hundreds orthousands of years, into sophisticated communities with distinct identities and mutual relationships.  The emergent story is a parable, and is not meant to reflect any real instance of similar development.  Instead, it is intended to capture a sense of what it means for a culture to make decisions about technological usage and interactions with others, and to develop in particular ways as a result of those decisions.

At the beginning of the game, read this script:

As the game starts, you are playing as the leaders of a tribe of very early humans, living a very rudimentary nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle in the Tigris/Euphrates river, far back in human prehistory.

Each receives one technology card per turn, for every five population.  After receiving your card, you have three to five minutes to work as a group to write one or two sentences about how you will use your new knowledge.  How will you use it increase your power?  How can you use it to influence your population?  The population of another tribe?  Can you use it to claim territory?  Be creative!  Try to come up with actions that will either improve your tribe’s monopolization of space or your monopolization of time. You may use a computer/smartphone/tablet to research ideas for how you will act each turn.

But you can only use your new technology in ONE way, so be thoughtful!  For example, if you discover fire, you can use it to construct a system of communication by smoke signals or to cook food, but not both.  Your communication enhancement might give you greater ability to move or more prowess in battle, but more healthy food would increase your population.  Also note, some technologies can interact with previous discoveries!  For instance, if you have already discovered bows and arrows, you can use fire to make flaming arrows.
After all groups submit their actions for the turn, I will determine the outcome of the turn.  I will award “population points” based on the creativity and effectiveness of your planned actions each turn (or I may take points away!). Everyone starts with five population points.  Each additional five population points earns you an extra population marker, which grants you an extra population figure, which allows you to control an extra territory and gain an extra card each turn.

Following this introduction, the game proceeds as follows:

11.     Divide students into three to five teams.  Ideally, this is an activity in a class of no more than 30 students, so that each group is small enough to operate collaboratively.  Have each team, or tribe, pick a name.  The instructor then creates a visible scoreboard on a whiteboard or the like, with a column for each team.  Each team begins with five points.  In this game, ‘points’ represent the population of a tribe, and can grow or shrink on the basis of game outcomes.
22. Using an overhead projector, display the map.  Using any method to decide order of selection, have each team pick a starting location, with each team represented by some sort of figure or marker.  Council them that map features make a difference – encourage them think through what it might mean to plant their tribe on a river or coastline, for instance.
33. Distribute, at random, one technology card to each team.  Give teams three to five minutes to collaboratively write a one- or two-sentence description of how they will use their new technology on a slip of paper, with team name.
44. Game master (instructor) collects all technology decisions.  At this point, teams may also move their figure one space, if they wish.  During later turns, when they may have more than one game piece, they can move none, some, or all of their pieces.
55. Game master (instructor) evaluates all technology decisions, and assigns population points, generally in a range between one and three, depending on the creativity and effectiveness of the teams’ declared use of the technology.  Outcomes of decisions may depend on each tribe’s geographic location, or on the interaction of more than one decision.  For instance, land near rivers will provide better results for tribes that choose to invest in agriculture.  Also, in the event of a conflict between tribes (almost guaranteed sooner or later), the game master has to resolve the conflict, deciding how many population points each side lost or gained, and what territory each tribe controls at the end of the turn.  This determination is based on any number of factors including teams’ declared strategy and relative level of technological development.
66. Each turn is identical in structure, though they will get more complex.  Each turn will take at least ten minutes to resolve, so games will generally involve between four and seven turns in one class session. 
77. As the game continues, teams accumulate more population points, and one figure is added to the playing surface to represent every five points of population.  This allows teams to control multiple types of terrain.
88. Teams ALSO receive an additional Technology Card for every five population points they have on the board.   Teams need to describe how they will use each piece of technology.
9 9. As the game continues, teams accumulate more technologies, at random, and become more differentiated from one another, with different advantages and disadvantages.  If teams get a new technology card identical to one they have already received, they can use the same technology in a new way (remember, each new technology can only be used one way).
1 10.  Remind students that because this is a narrative game, decision making and planning are very open-ended.  Students can get very creative, and you may have to improvise, as I’ll show in the sample game described below.
111.  The game ends when time is up.  If you want to debrief in the same class session, allow at least ten minutes, but you may also want to devote a second class session or substantial chunk to discussion of the game.
112.. Count up population points to determine the winning team.  Students will be drawn into a game they think they can ‘win,’ but as with all educational games, who wins isn’t of as much interest as the process.

Gameplay Examples
The rules for Neolithic Survivor are relatively simple, but the real engagement and learning opportunities for the game come from students’ creativity and the game-master’s responses.  Each student decision about how a team will ‘use’ a technology or otherwise act or move produces unpredictable results as they interact with the decisions of other teams.  A few examples taken from games played in the authors’ classrooms will help show how this can work at the level of individual technology uses, on a turn-by-turn basis, and over the course of a game.  To help show the bigger picture of the game’s flow, these examples are drawn from a single real game.  These examples show that while the game emphasizes communication technology and practices, more material aspects of life and technology are also represented.

Example Technology Use 1: A team receives a card giving them the ability to draw durable images on stone.  Drawing on Harold Innis’ discussion of time-binding media, they specifically choose to inscribe religious imagery.  The game-master responds by declaring that they have successfully founded a new religion, increasing social order, and awards them two population points.

Example Technology Use 2: A team, who earlier in the game had learned agriculture and chosen to settle near a river basin on the map, are later given the card granting the ability to create pottery.  They choose to use this technology to store food.  The game-master declares that this drastically increases their durable food supply and grants them four Population Points.

Example Technology Use 3: A team who had earlier discovered the bow and arrow and established a military subsequently invent musical instruments.  They choose to use music as a form of military control.  The game-master awards them 2 population points to represent their increased ability to defend small threats, and informs them that their military is now particularly potent.

Example Turn: A team that has developed both military power and a powerful religion moves to attack a team that has built a larger population by focusing on agriculture and social structure.  There are no rules in Neolithic Survivor for combat – the game-master simply has to make a decision based on what makes sense given the circumstances.  In this case, the game-master chooses to reduce the population of each team, which is much more damaging for the smaller, aggressive tribe.  As a result of this mistake, the smaller, religious, militiarized tribe decides in the next turn to pursue peace with the tribe they had attacked.  The game-master chooses to allow it, and the two teams negotiate a peace and then merge, along with their technology, to form a culture with strong agriculture as well as intense religious practices and military strength. 


This game simplifies culture to a Neolithic context, with a small population, limited geography, and only a few ‘moving parts’, and shows how it grows larger and more complex with innovation.  This model provides easily digestible insights into many fundamental ideas of communication, technology, and culture.  Though the game-master should always dictate outcomes that are sensible and proportionate (i.e. punishing teams that make unstrategic decisions and rewarding those that act carefully), there will ultimately be no neat, linear progression to the game, and the game can be actively engineered both before and during play to emphasize different concepts depending on the course context.

In a course focused on technology and communication, the game could illustrate the idea that communication is constitutive – that forms of communication do not simply ‘reflect’ the cultures that use them, but in fact shape those cultures in non-deterministic ways.  Observations of how fire can be used in different ways can build into discussions of how modern technologized communication has different impacts on the various societies that adopt it.

In a course about identity or globalization, the game could show how cultures and ethnicities are not pre-given, but emerge through a process of change over time.  For instance, in the gameplay example above, the struggling team that chose to ‘merge’ with a more successful team illustrates a fairly historically common process of melding or hybridity (cf. Kraidy, 2005). The game’s mix of randomness (in the discovery of new knowledge) and strategy (in teams use of technology) is particularly suited for illustrating the concept of contingency – the idea that any given cultural formation is the result, not of the logical unfolding of some inherent national or ethnic ‘essence,’ but of a series of historical events that are the product of the strange alchemy of purpose and luck.  The game may, then, serve as a powerful support for a course that advances a position of cultural anti-essentialism (see West, 1990).

The game’s main shortcoming is that it relies heavily on the improvisational skill of the instructor/gamemaster, and on a sense of cameraderie and exploration in the classroom.  The game’s structure is intentionally open-ended, and there are relatively few hard rules in place to deal with the vast number of possible actions undertaken by a team.  An instructor/gamemaster must be prepared to quite literally make things up as they go along.  Particularly in the awarding of points and declaration of a winner, this might lead to student unrest if the course as a whole is not already on a steady footing of collaborative exploration.

Works Cited:
Appadurai, A. (1996). Modernity At Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (1st ed.). Univ Of Minnesota Press.
Beck, U. (2000). What Is Globalization. Polity.
Castells, M. (1996). Rise of The Network Society (Information Age Series) (1st ed.). Wiley.
Innis, H. A. (2008). The Bias of Communication (2nd Edition.). University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division.
Kraidy, M. M. (2005). Hybridity: The Cultural Logic Of Globalization (1st ed.). Temple University Press.
Kyem, P. A. K. (1999). Examining the Discourse About the Transfer of GIS Technology to Traditionally Non-Western Societies. Social Science Computer Review, 17(1), 69–73. doi:10.1177/089443939901700107
Kyem, P. A. K. (2012). Is ICT the panacea to sub-Saharan Africa’s development problems? Rethinking Africa’s contentious engagement with the global information society. Progress in Development Studies, 12(2-3), 231–244. doi:10.1177/146499341101200309
Lerner, D. (1958). The Passing of Traditional Society: Modernizing the Middle East. Macmillan Pub Co.
McLuhan, M., & Lapham, L. H. (1994). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Reprint.). The MIT Press.
Pieterse, J. N. (2009). Globalization and Culture: Global Mélange (Second Edition.). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Schramm, W. L. (1964). Mass Media and National Development: The Role of Information in the Developing Countries. Stanford University Press.
West, C. (1990). The New Cultural Politics of Difference. In Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Culture (pp. 38, 19). MIT Press. Retrieved from

[1] So as not to waken students’ skepticism, it might be best to omit the roots of the game they’re about to play . . .