On trying to get some research done, or, Revenge of the zombies

Every research project I’ve ever undertaken (of the kind intended to lead to something publishable, anyway) has tended to fall into a distinct series of stages. It goes more or less like this:

1) Initial idea, followed by exhilaration as several interesting data points and/or previous ideas and/or previous research
investigations dovetail in an unexpected way. Glee. Maybe even some jumping up and down.

2) Initial research. Hey, not too many people have written about this already! Maybe I’ve got a shot!

3) Oh no. Someone else has already written the exact thing I wanted to write. Well, bugger.

4) Renewed determination. Surely I can contribute something to the discussion? Renewed research along previously uninvestigated avenues.

5) Discovery of less obvious questions still worth asking. Cautious optimism.

6) Masses of further research.

7) Writing.

8) Procrastination.

9 through 11) Repeat 6 through 8, in whatever order, as necessary. Somewhere in there, discovery that there really is an argument to be made, after all.

12) Finishing the thing and sending it off.

I’m working on a conference paper proposal due at the end of next month, and I’m still at 4, which bugs me because I was hoping to be at least at 5 or 6 by now. On the other hand, I’m off to Providence this weekend to do some digging in the special collections library at Brown, which I’m hoping will at least start to get me there. In the meantime, I’m fighting off a particularly fierce attack of impostor syndrome. (“It’s not your field!” says my brain. “What makes you think that a bit of library school coursework in book history and a Ph.D in the literature of a different country and time period make you qualified to talk about 19th-century American poetry anthology publishing? Even if it’s accepted, you’ll be unmasked as soon as the Q&A starts!” “Shut up,” I say to my brain. “I’m trying to figure something out here, and you’re
not helping
.” “But it’s not your field!” my brain shrieks again. Repeat several times over. Stupid brain.)

I used to feel like this when I writing my dissertation. The difference between then and now is that now, my future livelihood and professional identity don’t depend on my pulling this project together. The only things at stake now are an interesting conference travel opportunity, a nice extra line on my CV, and, even if the conference opportunity doesn’t work out, a fun side project to work on, which in turn means less sitting around wondering vaguely whether I shouldn’t be doing something more interesting with my spare time.

So why is the zombified corpse of my grad-school-era neurosis still staggering around? Do I have to break out the flamethrowers and chainsaws to make it stop, or what? Any suggestions on zombie-slaying would be greatly appreciated, from those of you who’ve tackled this type of zombie before.

Introducing NoNaShoStoWriMo

I have a longstanding track record of intending to participate in NaNoWriMo and then never actually participating. Every year, usually in spring or summer, I tell myself that this year I’ll do it; and then November rolls around and I haven’t a single idea that could turn into a novel.

But this year I have an idea for at least a short story, if not a full-on novel: the 3-D city modeling story idea that I blogged about last month. And I’m kind of itching for an excuse to make myself write it. Several of us in the Twitter/blogosphere—Rana of Frogs and Ravens, Jill of Writing…or Typing?, and myself—have been talking about using November as a month to write something of roughly short story length; and because it’s only a three-person venture so far, we provisionally called it NoNaShoStoWriMo, or Not-National Short Story Writing Month.

Depending on how the story goes, I’m planning to blog my progress intermittently, or at least tweet word counts, and at the end of the month, I’ll see what I want to do with the results. If any of you, Readers, want to join in, go for it!

Incidentally, there’s also a sweater-knitting NaNoSweMo (or NaSweKniMo) project for knitters. But between the sweater I’m already trying to finish, the shawl I’m knitting for my mom for Christmas, the socks I’m making for one of my knitting groups’ sock charity auction effort, and a handful of other projects, there’s no way I could actually start and finish an entire sweater in November. Unless it were a sweater for a small dog. (And I think dogs in sweaters look ridiculous.)

In which I consider getting ink

A semi-frivolous post, because I have a few weightier posts turning over in my head, but I've been too quiet here of late…

Several of my friends from Facebook and the blogosphere were passing around links to amazing science-themed and literary tattoos over the summer.* Which got me thinking. I've been intrigued by the idea of getting a tattoo for ages. (In grad school the first time around, one of my classmates had a tattoo of a heart on her shoulder surrounded by a scroll that read "Amor Vincit Omnia." Just like Chaucer's Prioress, if the Prioress had been into tattoos instead of brooches.) But since it represents a lifelong commitment of the sort that can't be undone without leaving a scar, I've always hesitated over what kind of image I'd want to put on my skin permanently.

So, straw poll: Of the following tattoo ideas, which do you like best?

Yes, I know: if I actually end up with any of these designs, I'll be the nerdiest tattooed lady ever. And I will wear that title with pride.

* I absolutely love the Vesalius skeleton tattoo.

** Alas, I could never top this printing-history tattoo, which manages to allude to Aldus Manutius and the Kelmscott Press as well as Baskin, and is pretty much the coolest thing I've ever seen in the tattoo department.

*** I admit to being partially inspired by Willow's dream of painting Sappho's Ode to Aphrodite on Tara's back in the Season 4 Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "Restless." My inner classics geek was thrilled that they took the effort to get the poem right.

A few thoughts on Tosca at the Met

I went to my first Met HD broadcast of the season yesterday, and the first I've been to in two years. (They just added a venue I can actually get to: the Katherine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Old Saybrook. I'm still hoping the broadcasts will make to the Garde here in New London, but 10 miles away is pretty good.) I bought my ticket before Luc Bondy's new production of Tosca opened to a mixture of cheers for the singers and boos for the director. "Well," I thought when I saw the first reviews, "this is going to make for an interesting broadcast."

Maybe it's just that I never saw the Franco Zeffirelli production that preceded this one, but I can't really see what all the booing was about. I mean, I wasn't thrilled with all the directorial choices. The three Brides of Dracula scantily-clad women who cavort with Scarpia at the beginning of Act 2, for example. George Gagnidze already makes the character skin-crawlingly creepy; to have the three of them crawling over him while he sings about using and discarding his sexual conquests seems like overkill. And I don't particularly care that Bondy got rid of the business with Tosca setting candles next to Scarpia's corpse, but I do think that having her react to killing him by first almost jumping out the window and then collapsing on a sofa was inconsistent, at best. I can definitely see her having a "holy shit, what have I done?!" moment afterward, but I think she'd be more likely to want to get the hell out of there immediately.

That said, I just don't get the uproar over either the stylized and non-lavish sets, or the timing of Tosca's grab for the knife, or her freeze-frame plunge off the tower at the end (which reminded me of Hitchcock's Vertigo, which, in my book, is a good thing). None of those choices seemed indefensible to me. And Bondy and the singers also found a few moments that struck me as quite brilliant: the way, for example, Tosca makes her Act 3 entrance with dark blue gloves on her recently bloodstained hands, and when she tells Cavaradossi how she killed Scarpia—"N'ebbi le man
tutte lorde di sangue!" ("My hands were filthy with his blood!")—he very gently takes the gloves off as he sings "O dolci mani mansuete e pure." I'd never noticed that moment before.

I think my lack of outrage over this "controversial" production stems from my having discovered opera after I'd already discovered both theater and film. If you've seen, for instance, a lot of live Shakespeare, it doesn't seem at all sacreligious when directors update the setting of a play, or stage it in modern dress on a stripped-down set, or interpret a scene in a new way. Even if you don't like or agree with the interpretation, it would be boring if every production were the same. And one of the many things I love about opera is that it inhabits the territory where music and theater meet. It's not equivalent to theater, but it's also not so detached from theater that it should be treated as an unchanging ritual from which any deviation must be met with yells of protest.

(See also the reactions at Parterre Box, Alex Ross's blog, and My Favorite Intermissions.)

Encountering literature by walking through it

Over on the excellent BLDGBLOG, a new favorite and a recent addition to the blogroll, Geoff Manaugh has been speculating about augmented reality applications for buildings that never were, inspired by a new iPhone application for browsing visionary Manhattan architecture. He also suggests something that sounds a lot like what I've been trying to do with mapping applications and literature:

…back in 2008, in a post that now seems remarkably dated, I suggested that Google Maps should come with a "sci-fi layer"
– that is, a layer that would document where in your city certain
events had taken place or certain structures had stood in a work of
fiction. For instance, the building that Robert Neville's dog runs into
in I Am Legend or the trainyard from Escape From New York, the apartments from Make Room! Make Room!, the high-rise penthouse from The Day After Tomorrow

are Manhattan-centric examples, of course, and drawn only from science
fiction, but this could easily be expanded to include landscapes and
structures elsewhere, from the deserts of the Empty Quarter to central
Paris, and it could include other genres, from the poems of John
Ashbery to Howl to The Great Gatsby.

You could even have a "mythology layer" – roaming around Scandinavia, tracking Thor or digging for the roots of Yggdrasil
– or a "theology layer": you go to Israel and your iPhone
short-circuits from the laminations of charged geography around it.

Read the whole thing, as they say. I still like the idea of map visualization as a way of analyzing the spatial dimensions in a poem or a work of fiction or an author's complete works, but the same principle applied to the iPhone (or whatever device we're using in 10 or 20 years' time) offers all kinds of appealing possibilities for encountering literature for the first time. Walk down a street in any given city and your mobile device tells you how the space you're moving through appeared in a novel or story or poem you've never read. Move into a densely "storied" area (Manhattan comes to mind again) and feel the layers and layers of narrative all around you.

And I would love to see an augmented reality application for Ashbery's poems. Are you listening, iPhone app designers?

Ideal cities, ghostly cities

A team of computer scientists at the University of Washington is creating 3-D virtual models of cities (Rome, Venice, and Dubrovnik, for starters) using nothing but downloaded images from Flickr. As they explain:

In this project, we consider the problem of reconstructing entire cities from images harvested from the web. Our aim is to build a parallel distributed system that downloads all the images associated with a city, say Rome, from Flickr.com. After downloading, it matches these images to find common points and uses this information to compute the three dimensional structure of the city and the pose of the cameras that captured these images. All this to be done in a day.

I'm fascinated by the play between particular and abstract here: the hundreds and hundreds of tourist snaps people take in the Piazza San Marco, and the process that identifies what all those pictures have in common, sifting out the changing quotidian details of weather and pigeons and passers-by. The results are beautifully ghostly, and remind me a little of those ideal cities* that Renaissance painters sometimes invented.

When I read about this project, I immediately saw possibilities for a short story, half speculative fiction, half ghost story, maybe with a bit of New Weird in the mix: someone is working on a project of this sort only on a larger scale, and starts finding odd little blips, or inexplicable clouds of points, or something just very slightly off, in certain unobtrusive corners in the model: a dead end of a narrow street, or one side of the interior of a church, or a shadow that shouldn't be there next to a fountain. And they realize that they're seeing something that's barely visible in individual photographs, but when all the images are fed into the reconstruction, it turns out they've called up…something. Which then, perhaps, begins to appear in the real world. I don't know how it ends, but I want to write it.

* That second painting is my favorite thing in the Walters Art Museum. A poster of it has accompanied me from apartment to apartment for years.

What is the sound of one melancholy wave withdrawing?

My new absolute favorite thing on the web is FreeSound, an archive of Creative Commons-licensed sound files uploaded by users, like an aural version of Flickr's Creative Commons pool. They're tagged with keywords, and some of them (to the delight of someone as map-obsessed as I am) are geotagged so that if you want to hear what a hot spring in Iceland sounds like, you can browse for it on a map of the world.

My first thought, when I found the site, was that this would make a wonderful source of chill-out background sounds. One could download a whole set of sound files of cats purring, or rain falling, or birds singing at dawn, or whatever; assemble them into an album in iTunes; turn on one's computer or plug in one's earphones; and ta-da: instant de-stressification. (I've been working on various solo projects at work that require concentration but still make me want to listen to something in the background. All of the above fit the bill admirably. I especially recommend the cat purrs.)

And my second thought was "Ooh, one of their top recordings is a nightingale singing. Come to think of it, I don't think I've ever heard a nightingale. I've always wondered what all those poets were talking about. Wait a minute — someone should totally put together a set of sound files to go with the Norton Anthology of Poetry! Think of all those students who've never heard a nightingale or don't know what a dulcimer sounds like!" And I still think it's a rather good idea. I mean, imagine the possibilities:

This house has been far out at sea all night,
The woods crashing through darkness, the booming hills,
Winds stampeding the fields under the window…

Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring…

The passengers lie back.
Snores. Some long sighs.
A dreamy divagation
begins in the night,
a gentle, auditory,
slow hallucination….

But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Who else wants to build an open-source multimedia poetry anthology? I think it would be really cool if such a thing existed.

State of the blog: a meta post

So you've probably noticed I haven't been posting much lately. There's no specific reason for that, really; I just haven't felt like I have as much to say, somehow, which kind of bothers me. Something about having shifted from still-learning mode to full-time job mode, or possibly it's because a lot of my linkblogging and briefer thoughts have gotten siphoned off into Twitter. Or maybe it's just that there's been less posting among the community of bloggers I started out with. Or perhaps all blogs have a finite lifespan; mine turned six in July, which is verging on elderly as blogs go.

I'm trying to get back into writing more, because I miss it, even when I can't think of anything to write about. But I've also been looking at my (steadily dropping) visitor stats and wondering how many people are still reading, and if anyone besides me is getting anything out of it.

I still like having a blog as an impetus to think and get words out, and I don't think this one is going anywhere anytime soon. Ideally, I'd be working more on various writing projects in my spare time, and I'd also manage to post about them. (I suspect at least some of my current blog-angst has nothing to do with my posting schedule and everything to do with my motivation to pursue interesting projects, and my fear of becoming boring now that I'm starting to settle down.) But I'm a bit betwixt and between at the moment, and wondering how much of my energy to devote to blogging. So I thought I'd say something about it, and if you, Readers, have any advice on reviving a flagging writing habit, or dealing with the haunting fear of being dull—or if there's something you think I should consider writing about—I would love to hear.

Random bullets of opera

It's so hot my brain is melting. Which means it's time for a link post…

In search of a better to-read list application

I read more books, or at least it feels like I read more books, when I
can keep a tally of them somewhere. I also read more books when I have
a way of tracking all the books I want to read — the ones that friends
and colleagues have recommended, the ones I read intriguing reviews of,
the ones that come through my selection queue at work and make me think
"Hmm, I'd like to read that after it gets here." I started off with
just a series of pen-and-paper lists (books to read, books read) in the small
notebook I use almost entirely for lists of things; it's a decent
solution, but until I attempt to index the notebook, it's a bit tricky
to find the lists.

So I started looking for a digital equivalent to the paper lists.
There for a while I was tracking my reading with a Facebook application
called, simply, Books, which has the advantage of integrating to-read,
currently-reading, and finished-reading lists. The main drawback is
that you have to be a Facebook user to use it or see it. LibraryThing,
which has been my home library cataloging application of choice for
years now, has added to-read list features in recent months; I tried
that, too, but in the end I think I'd rather keep LibraryThing as a
catalog of books that I own. (A lot of the books I either want to read or am
currently reading are books I borrow from the library. Surprise

The latest thing I've tried is bkkeepr, a service that lets you
track your reading via Twitter. You send it direct messages containing each
book's ISBN and some simple metadata: "start" or "finish" to indicate
when you've started or finished reading something; page numbers to
signal how far you've read. You can even use it as a note-taking application if you message it with a page number and a text note, as long as it all fits Twitter's 140-character limit. I like its elegant, simple interface, the fact that I can update it from any number of devices, and its potential as a tool for keeping track of my thoughts while reading. If only it had a to-read list option, it would be ideal for my purposes.

So, readers: do any of you have a preferred application for managing the to-read list? Is there anything I'm missing?