Dr. Jason W. Ellis' Blog on Science Fiction, Cognition, Computers, LEGO, and Pedagogy
Author: Jason W Ellis
I am an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.
On Thursday, Feb. 14, I’m filling in for Prof. Rebecca Mazumdar in her ENG3402 Special Topics Class on The Graphic Novel.
Students were asked to read the first two books of Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Chapter 3, “Blood in the Gutter” of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (1993) for today’s class.
During today’s class, we’ll discuss The Dark Knight Returns, Superheroes, and the Antihero. These topics will return for discussion in future classes when Prof. Mazumdar joins you next.
These are some resources that will inform our discussion (in the order of reference):
Tiner, Ron, David Roache DRo and John Platt. “Batman.” The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Eds. John Clute, David Langford, Peter Nicholls and Graham Sleight. Gollancz, 15 Oct. 2018, http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/batman.
Yesterday, I deleted my EA Origin account, because I was fed up with how things were “going according to plan.” EA’s and other forced online game portals plan seems to be two fold: 1) require players to login to a service to play a local-instance, single-player video game, and 2) waste as much time and bandwidth resources of players as possible in the function of updating the front end portal and the games accessed via the portal by denying users the choice to update if and when they choose to do so.
The straw that broke the camel’s back for me was the above message from EA–“it’s all going according to plan” and the unending “preparing” to download a very large, required update for Star Wars: Battlefront II.
Finding a few free minutes before bed, I wanted to fly the Millennium Falcon through the wreckage of blasted cruisers and obliterate as many TIE Fighters as possible. I play against computer-controlled adversaries. I don’t play against other players over the Internet. Everything regarding my game play experience takes place locally on my PC.
Nevertheless, EA requires me to login to Origin before playing Star Wars: Battlefront II. Before logging in, Origin required a software update. I did this. Since I hadn’t logged in for a few months, I had forgotten my password. I had to reset it. I logged in. Then, Origin required a large update to Star Wars: Battlefront II before I could play the game. I waited. I waited some more. I only wanted to play the game for about 10 minutes before bed time. Now, I had invested about 20 minutes on updating software and resetting passwords.
While it was “preparing to update” as seen above, I began researching how to delete my EA Origin account. I discovered that they make this as difficult as possible. You have to chat with a representative instead of clicking a link after logging into your account. I began doing this while still Origin was still “preparing.” The representative, who was nice enough, followed his script to try to dissuade me from deleting my account and instead deactivate it. I persisted with deletion and after another 10 minutes, I was told that it would take some additional time to delete my account but I didn’t need to stay on the chat while this was done.
Finally, the representative asked me if I would like to share why I wanted to leave EA Origin. I told him this:
I simply don’t like having to login to a service to play a game–especially when logging in might involve downloading gigabytes of installation updates. I understand why EA and other game publishers do this, but I don’t want to have to do this. I should be able to launch the game that I want to play and just play it. So, I wanted to delete my account and give up on EA Origin and Star Wars Battlefront II. I’ll seek out those games that let me play them on my terms.
I am vociferously against the shift to enforced online-only gaming for games that have a single-player mode. Games should be able to be enjoyed locally without hindrance if there is a single-player mode built into the game as there is with Star Wars: Battlefront II. Of course, I understand the need to login to a service when the game is enjoyed in multiplayer mode, but not all players opt for this kind of game play experience. Some of us enjoy playing the various single-player experiences within the game.
I purchased the game when it was on sale, so I will consider the money that I spent on it already invested in the times that I was able to fly the Millennium Falcon through the blasted wrecks of space battles.
However, I will never purchase another single-player option game from EA or any other video game publisher that doesn’t give me a modicum of respect to enjoy the game on my terms–no logging into online services (if I’m not playing against others online, I don’t need to login) and no required updates (I should be able to choose how and when I update the software on my computer).
I encourage others to avoid these games and seek out those made by publishers who respect players who value single-player game experiences.
My article on the public debate between H. G. Wells and Sir Ernest Dunlop Swinton about who originated the idea of a motorized, armored weapons platform or tank, which first appeared in The Wellsian: The Journal of the H. G. Wells Society (no. 33, 2010, pp. 42-57) is now available as a reprint in Short Story Criticism, Volume 264 (edited by Catherine C. DiMercurio, Prod. Layman Poupard. Gale, Cengage, 2018, pp. 256-265).
N.B.: Gale’s Short Story Criticism series is an excellent resource for scholars and students to easily and quickly learn the discourse on a particular author’s short story oeuvre. These volumes collate scholarship from a wide variety of academic journals on the works of a particular author. For example, Short Story Criticism, Volume 264 includes three sections of collected articles for these writers: Mary Caponegro, Mahasweta Devi, and H. G. Wells. I believe that the series is a good addition to libraries serving the needs of English departments and literature programs, because it provides a wide array of research on its selected authors for convenient access to scholarship.
Recently, I had an opportunity to speak with colleagues about what Publishing Studies means to me. I edited my thoughts into the following note.
Publishing Studies: Theory and Praxis
Publishing Studies is an interdisciplinary field of study that encompasses rhetoric and composition, media studies, history of the book/newspaper/magazine/websites/etc., and practical skills including writing, editing, design, layout, production, marketing, business administration, etc. Publishing Studies programs prepare students for publishing industry careers.
Publishing Studies should be grounded in theory and praxis. Theory provides a foundation for understanding the field and its development. It gives ways of seeing and thinking about the process and purpose behind publishing. Theory helps one be a confident problem solver, an open-minded thinker, and a dynamic life-long learner who can adapt to changing work conditions and challenges. Balancing theory is practical skills. These skills are what help students build a portfolio, gain experience through internships and entry level positions, and obtain a job on their desired career path. Through their understanding of theory, students will understand that the skills they have when leaving a program will only go so far as the publishing industry changes. They can leverage their current skills to grow their skill set over time and be engaged members in their profession so that they know what new trends they should pay attention to and what new skills will keep them competitive in the job market.
Publishing Studies is founded on rhetoric and composition. Publishing is all about communicating particular ideas to a particular audience using a particular (production scale/mass communication) medium. Knowing audience, rhetorical techniques, modes of communication (WOVEN=written, oral, visual, electronic, and nonverbal), and the writing process are essential skills for anyone interested in the publishing industry. Furthermore, being a reflective practitioner–using journal writing and reflection–supports the acquisition, integration, and improvement of the use of rhetoric and composition principles in the work place. There is a lot of overlap in this regard (as well as in the tools employed in the publishing field mentioned below) with Technical Communication.
Media and materiality are really big components of Publishing Studies, because publishing is all about using mass communication media technologies to reach an audience. Important issues for Publishing Studies from a Media Studies perspective might include: the effect/affect of media on audiences, how does media change over time, how does media influence other media, what biases are built into particular media or how those media are used, and are there issues with particular media at scale (e.g., Facebook and Twitter’s role in Brexit and the 2016 US election). Aesthetics, design, layout, and UX are important, too, and they overlap (as do many aspects of theory) with practical skills.
History of the Book/Newspaper/Magazine/Website/Etc
Perhaps under the umbrella of Media Studies, the History of the Book and other produced media such as newspapers, magazines, websites, social media, and others, are key to a fundamental understanding of Publishing Studies. The field encompasses many different forms of mass communication technologies, and the intertwined histories of these media provide a useful context for how we are at this particular moment in publishing history while also revealing how the history of publishing is not a Whig historical progression, but in fact, contains many interesting dead ends and forgotten technologies whose time might not have been right but contained some aspects that were useful and might deserve revisiting in the present. Layered in these histories are issues of labor, capital, production technologies, world historical events, and societal movements, all of which have influenced the development of the publishing history.
Praxis is tempered by theory. Theory is made meaningful by praxis. The two support one another and enrich one’s experience of the publishing field in a way that helps propel students toward dynamic careers instead of cookie-cutter jobs. Publishing careers include writing, editing, design, layout, printing, IT, programming, procurement, representation, marketing, fact checking, research, and business administration. All of these rely on a basic set of writing, communication, and interpersonal skills, and each branches off into a discrete set of current (but always changing) skills involving knowledge-based work (e.g., planning, research, summarizing, extrapolating, etc.) and tool-based work (e.g., Adobe Creative Suite, Microsoft Office, CMS, etc.). Each career path’s set of widely accepted skills (i.e., those skills that employers are looking for in employees) are those that should be researched and taught by faculty. Besides their course work, students can learn more about these through trade publications and books, mentors, and internships.
I began this new LEGO MOC (my own creation) project while reading Michael Brooke’s The Concrete Wave: The History of Skateboarding (1999) and after assembling my Mike McGill re-issued skateboard.
Some ideas from skateboarding culture inspired this project. First, there’s the tension between Thrasher’s “Skate and Destroy” and Transworld Skateboarding’s “Skate and Create.” The former appearing in the December 1982 issue and the latter appearing in response in its first issue in May/June 1983. When I first skated, I didn’t know about this difference of ethos, but I can say that I was drawn to reading Transworld Skateboarding more so than Thrasher. Transworld’s ethos of making something from the act of skateboarding fits well with my own attitude of doing good in the world through teaching and making (as opposed to wrapping the act of destruction into an aggressive skating attitude–understanding, of course, there is a certain amount of hyperbole in this motto and more back story worth investigating–see the interview by Adam Creagan with Craig Stecyk in Thrasher March 2010, pp. 80-81, and Konstatin Butz’s Grinding California, pp. 73).
Second, many skaters talk about riding as an act of self-expression, creativity, and doing. While the act of skating is ephemeral, skaters build analogies between the sport and other creative endeavors such as writing, playing, painting, expression, and language. For example: Rodney Mullen writes, “[Skateboarding] has been the arena where I could stake my claim, the play where I would contribute my verse, and even the pen with which I write” (qtd. in Brookle 11). Chris Long writes, “‘How glad I am that I skateboard’ . . . finding my own lines and creating my own ways of playing” (qtd. in Brooke 173). Darrel Delgado writes, “Skateboarding in a pool is like being a painter, and every new pool is a blank canvas and you are the artist. Every artist has a different approach and every pool is different, which keeps the intrigue alive. You can go wherever your mind and the transitions will let you go” (qtd. in Brooke 135). Mike Valleley writes about finding skateboarding, “I got an identity and something productive. It was creative, physical activity and I used my entire being to do it” (qtd. in Brooke 137). Tony Alva writes, “Just do something that’s in tune with an individual type of expression. I think that’s what’s so important about skateboarding” (qtd. in Brooke 175). Dave Hackett writes, “Pure and simple, [skateboarding is] a healthy, radical art form. . . . Skateboarding utilizes the every-expanding environment of steel, concrete, plaster, or wood as its canvas. . . . The skater becomes one with his board, while the board in turn translates the language of the terrain” (qtd. in Brooke 176). On these points, I think skateboarding and LEGO building overlap–in both cases, skateboarding and making, the fulfilling goal is creative and imaginative expression through a given medium–the former being the assemblage of body, skateboard, and terrain, and the latter being the assemblage of builder and brick.
I wanted to combine different aspects of skateboarding into a single model. I grew up with street skating, because there weren’t any local skate parks (though, I have discovered in my research that there was a skate park in Brunswick in the late-1970s called Nova Skate Park–more on that in a future post). But, I always wanted to skate vert and pipes, so I thought about combining what I knew with what I wanted to learn.
I got the idea for the ramp’s vert and transition design from LEGO 60200 Capital City set, which has one component that is a combined skateboard ramp/wall climb/basketball court. It uses dark grey inverted arches for the transition, which I agreed was the best choice of brick–albeit in tan color to emulate the color of wood–for the ramp that I had in mind.
The next consideration was how large a model to make. I knew that I would have to purchase the inverted arch bricks for the ramp, so I looked for a seller with a good price and selection of elements that would help me realize the idea crystalizing in my mind. Alphabrix, a seller with great feedback had 20 tan, inverted arch bricks, which would let me build a 10-stud wide ramp. I figured that its length should be at least double its width, if not more. Ultimately, I settled on a 10-stud wide ramp with a 28 stud length including both tables. This allowed two studs on either side of the ramp for stairs if I went with an overall length of 32 studs for the model. Since I opted for a 32 stud length, I figured that a 16 stud width for the overall model would be enough to add a street skating scene in the model’s foreground.
After receiving the Bricklink parts and sorting out some necessary elements from my collection, I built the vert ramp first. Even though this would occupy the rear part of the model, it would dominate the model and be its focus. I wanted to get it right. I thought about how I would build a real one. I wanted a steel foundation that would be elevated off the ground. The ramp and tables would be made out of wood. As a new ramp, I wanted to give it a little bit of style with alternating color–light and dark tan tiles emulating different sheets of plywood. On the right side, I wanted a sloping launch that divided two drops on the front and back–this was a ramp design that I saw many years ago that gave the skaters a divided coping for new trick opportunities.
With the vert ramp complete, I turned my attention to the base and its foregrounded street skating area comprising 6 studs by 32 studs. The bottom of the base are dark grey plates supporting a circumference of Technic bricks and filled in with 2 x 4 bricks. I covered the surface mostly with tan 4 x 6 plates. I built up a curb with 1 x 4 and 1 x 6 bright yellow plates covered with the same colored tiles. Within that area, I filled in with a single layer of light grey tiles–some with single studs and the rest without to allow placement of obstacles like barrels and trash cans, which can be skated around or ollied over. Finally, I put concrete cones down to support the ramp behind the street skate area.
Finally, I combined the vert ramp with the base and its street skate area. I used yellow, dark blue, and orange tiles to skirt the Technic bricks around the base. The vert ramp’s coping permits posing of skaters doing hand plants. In the foreground, I added a stereo (probably playing an eclectic mix of They Might Be Giants, The Beastie Boys, and Technotronic) and snacks including pizza and cookies (shredding fuel).
Usually, it takes me several days to weeks to complete a build like this, which I have chronicled on other blog posts. However, I built this model in a single evening. I think my mind had been working on the project while I waited for the needed bricks to arrive in the mail. Even though I wasn’t haptically manipulating the bricks in my hands, I was daydreaming and imagining how to put the model together at odd times between placing the brick order and receiving them in the mail.
While imagining myself shredding on my completed LEGO skateboarding model and thinking about picking up my McGill deck to hit the streets with, I’m reminded of the Kevin J. Thatcher’s first editorial in the January 1981 issue of Thrasher: “The average individual was never properly exposed to the unlimited possibilities of a platform with four wheels under it–a simple basic mechanical device which serves as an energy-efficient mode of transportation, a basis for a valid sporting activity, and as a vehicle for aggressive expression. . . . Thrashing is finding something and taking it to the ultimate limit–not dwelling on it, but using it to the fullest and moving on. Skateboarding has not yet reached its maximum potential, and who can say what the limits are? To find out–Grab that board!” (6). Grab that board, grab that LEGO brick, grab that camera, grab whatever it is that you can express yourself with, because that is the thing with which you can leave your mark on the world.
Brooke, Michael. The Concrete Wave: The History of Skateboarding. Warrick Publishing, 1999.
Butz, Konstatin. Grinding California: Culture and Corporeality in American Skate Punk. Transcript Verlag, 2012.
Creagan, Adam. “Skate and Destroy: The Stecyk Scrawl Lives On.” Thrasher, March 2010, pp. 80-81.
Lowboy. “Skate and Destroy, or Multiple Choices (Something to Offend Everyone).” Thrasher, December 1982, pp. 24-29.
Thatcher, Kevin J. “Talking Ed.” Thrasher, January 1981, pp. 6.
Tracker Peggy (Peggy Cozens). “Skate and Create.” Transworld Skateboarding, May/June 1983, pp. 13-15.
Our little cat Miao Miao passed away on December 26, 2018 after a battle with cancer. She was 13 years and 8 months old. Y rescued Miao after her mother had abandoned her when she was only a few weeks old in 2005. She was sick and small, but Y nursed her back to health and adopted her as part of her family. I came to know Miao beginning in 2008, after I met Y at Kent State. Soon, I became a part of the family, too. Miao was strong willed but also very loving. When we had guests over, she was an enthusiastic host. She brightened our days, which now seem diminished without her around. Even though Miao never really took to our younger cat Mose, we can tell that he grieves in his own way for her, too. She will be dearly missed.