Upcoming Events and Talks

I'm attending BarCamp Vancouver 2010

There are some excit­ing days ahead, and I’ve been spend­ing a lot of time get­ting pre­pared. First of all, in less than a week, Bar­Camp Van­cou­ver 2010 takes place on Novem­ber 19th-20th at the new loca­tion of the Wal­dorf Hotel, just to the East of down­town. It’s a unique venue, com­plete with the city’s most spec­tac­u­lar vin­tage 1950s Tiki bar and it’s recent­ly been ren­o­vat­ed and is ready to host events. I’ve put togeth­er a pre­sen­ta­tion and demo called: Play­ing with Future Tele­vi­sion, What I learned Mess­ing Around with Plex 0.9. I’m a huge fan (per­haps even a fanat­ic) of this free soft­ware that turns any Mac (Intel only) into a Media Cen­ter. Built orig­i­nal­ly from the XBMC (XBox Media Cen­ter) project, but now an inde­pen­dent ini­tia­tive, Plex includes a gor­geous (and skinnable/customizable) TV inter­face (that like Apple’s own Front Row, works with a remote), an omniv­o­rous video play­er that can han­dle most of the video for­mats I’ve ever come across, iTunes and iPho­to con­nec­tiv­i­ty out of the box, plu­g­ins that add the abil­i­ty to stream media from all sorts of places: YouTube, Shout­cast, Hulu and Pan­do­ra if you’re in the US — although I have found a sneaky workaround — Apple Movie Trail­ers, MSNBC, and again, if you’re in the US, Net­flix. (That last ser­vice ought to work in Cana­da as well, because we now get Netflix…sort of, but the US plu­g­in won’t work in Cana­da, and the com­pa­ny has not offered any sup­port for devel­op­ers try­ing to use their API in Cana­da, despite the cries of protest from the small but vocal group of Cana­di­an Plex users and devel­op­ers.) So that’s my con­tri­bu­tion, and I’m also look­ing for­ward to pre­sen­ta­tions by Kris Krug on iPhone pho­tog­ra­phy and John Biehler and Duane Storey on Arduino.

But Wait, There’s More…

Vancouver WordPress Meetup Group LogoA few days after Bar­Camp, I’ll be doing anoth­er pre­sen­ta­tion, on a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent top­ic. It’s enti­tled “User Expe­ri­ence Design for Word­Press Web Sites: Does Your Blog Design Sup­port Your Con­tent?”, and I’ll be pre­sent­ing it at the Novem­ber meet­ing of The Van­cou­ver Word­Press Meet­up Group at The Net­work Hub, a co-work­ing space in down­town Van­cou­ver. I’ve been doing a ton of research and work on this pre­sen­ta­tion, so I’m look­ing for­ward to giv­ing it. The atten­dance so far is com­plete­ly full, with a wait­ing list of over 16 peo­ple as I write this. Wow.

Joe Wong Slays 'em at the Annual RTCA Dinner

Pres­i­dent Oba­ma made the news for doing some standup the oth­er night at the Annu­al Radio and Tele­vi­sion Cor­re­spon­dents’ Din­ner in Wash­ing­ton, DC, but I think the real news was some­one else on the pro­gram. I’d nev­er seen this come­di­an before,  but I was absolute­ly blown away by how fun­ny he was and how good his tim­ing and deliv­ery were. If this is any indi­ca­tion of his tal­ent, I hope we’ll be see­ing more of Joe Wong:

I also hope he tours Cana­da soon. How about a dou­ble bill with Rus­sell Peters?

All the Emotions Fit To Broadcast

Pam and I still try and keep our eyes on the US, at least through the media that we get here in Cana­da, and there’s plen­ty of it, despite Can­con. So we have our TiVO set to record the evening news­casts of ABC, NBC and CBS. We also record the Van­cou­ver CBC report. We don’t watch all of that record­ed news each and every night; we usu­al­ly pick one of those 3 or 4 and try and move around a lot (actu­al­ly, we’ve recent­ly stopped record­ing ABC as Pam felt that Diane Sawyer was such a dis­ap­point­ment as a News Anchor that she can’t bear to watch that news­cast).
Maybe it has just crept in over time, per­haps it’s because I’m becom­ing more of an out­sider and view­ing media more as an observ­er, but I’ve noticed a change in the way news is report­ed in the US in the evening. There seems to a small and small­er por­tion of the news­cast devot­ed to facts and more and more involv­ing emo­tion. Near­ly every sto­ry is about con­flict or a strug­gle, a cri­sis or a tragedy. Even the sto­ries that are com­plex and affect many dif­fer­ent things end up con­cen­trat­ing on one per­son about to lose their job (as the cov­er­age of that dis­as­trous and com­plex oil spill off the Louisiana Gulf Coast did) or search out the vio­lent edge of con­flict, (as the cov­er­age of the also dis­as­trous Ari­zona Immi­gra­tion Law).  In these cas­es, it’s clear that they are try­ing to per­son­al­ize the prob­lem or sim­ply make it more dra­mat­ic. This isn’t just mil­lions of gal­lons of oil head­ing for the coast, it’s a Port­ly Shrimp Farmer about to lose his liveli­hood, it isn’t just a new law about to take in effect in the Ari­zona State Leg­is­la­ture, but a vio­lent clash between immi­grants and police.

I can’t help check off the scenes we will no doubt see as if I’m play­ing a drink­ing game:

  • Some­one cry­ing or break­ing down dur­ing a speech or inter­view.
  • Some­one look­ing into the cam­era and say­ing how they don’t know what they’ll do now.
  • Some­one declar­ing that ‘It’s all in God’s hands, now.’
  • A group of peo­ple fight­ing or run­ning.
  • Some­one declar­ing that some­thing was ‘A Mir­a­cle!’
  • Peo­ple hug­ging, or an adult lift­ing a child in their arms.
  • A gov­ern­ment offi­cial being grilled in a meet­ing room or besieged in front of a build­ing by an angry mob (to be sure, that was more often seen last sum­mer)
  • A crim­i­nal of some sort walk­ing try­ing to hide their face with either some papers or a hood.
  • A short and chop­pi­ly edit­ed inter­view with a per­son who is quirky and ‘Mak­ing a Dif­fer­ence’ — as a cou­ple of the net­works call them out.*
  • (Add your own stock sit­u­a­tion or dra­mat­ic excla­ma­tion.)

My friends and I used to joke back when I was going to school in Cincin­nati that the evening news they always showed the same still snap­shot of a car in a ditch in Nor­wood (a still snap­shot? Hey, it was the ear­ly 80s, OK?), even if it was a dif­fer­ent acci­dent some­where else — they all looked the same. Now, every­thing is the same; it’s con­flict, it’s emo­tion­al, it’s extreme and some­how a deity is involved.

What’s going on now, is that because news is part of the bud­get for the net­works that involves enter­tain­ment, by gol­ly, it bet­ter be enter­tain­ing. I’d like to know the exact amount of oil that is gush­ing out, what that num­ber means in terms of envi­ron­men­tal dam­age, how long it takes for oil to get from the ocean floor to the sur­face. I want to know the specifics of what the new law in Ari­zona will deal with some­one wrong­ly accused of being an immi­grant; Can they sue? Can an employ­er fire a work­er for miss­ing work because of being picked up for false charges? I don’t know these things, how­ev­er, and I’m not like­ly to learn them from the Evening News­cast.

I can see why most peo­ple are get­ting their news through the Inter­net these days, as the TV news has shrunk­en into a drama­ti­za­tion of the events of the day, done in broad strokes with an empha­sis on the sim­plest rep­e­ti­tious images and scenes. The net­works have decid­ed that their audi­ences want their news a dumb­ed down as pos­si­ble. There is no point in pro­vid­ing much in the way of facts. And that’s for the net­works. Cable News, like Fox… I won’t even go there. (CNN’s also slip­ping into pro­pa­gan­da-laced sto­ries as well. I can only assume this is because their rat­ings have been so bad that they are emu­lat­ing Fox. )

Rather than com­plain about the way the news is pre­sent­ed, most view­ers either take it at face val­ue and aren’t aware of what’s miss­ing, or they are adapt­ing, by mov­ing to the Web.  I’n fact, I’m pre­dict­ing that there will even­tu­al­ly be an iPad app for delv­ing into facts (on an Inter­net site) dur­ing the broad­cast. The main facts of the news will be in someone’s lap, while they see the dra­ma on the big­ger screen.

Per­haps we’ll some­day see the kind of news­cast that they sim­u­lat­ed in the future depict­ed by the movie Star­ship Troop­ers, where each set of State Pro­pa­gan­da fas­cist slo­gans is fol­lowed by a screen that looks like a but­ton and a voiceover that asks: ‘Would you like to know more?’


*I must con­fess that I’m get­ting real­ly to loathe these ‘human inter­est’ pieces, because they are always cut and pre­sent­ed the same way and try so hard to appeal. Har­ry Smith, who some­times is a guest Anchor on CBS is one of the worst offend­ers in this regard. Near­ly every­thing he does smacks of that ‘human inter­est’ trea­cle.

Fox News Has No Shame (as Usual)

When Gov­er­nor Mark San­ford made his tear­ful Press Con­fer­ence announc­ing that he had secret­ly left the US to vis­it the woman he was hav­ing an affair with in Buenos Aires (and left his wife and sons over Father’s Day — Classy move, dude), Fox News decid­ed that this was rea­son enough to switch his par­ty affil­i­a­tion for him (notice the ‘D’ next to his name):

Mark Sanford Now a Democrat?

Mark San­ford Now a Demo­c­rat?

They lat­er cor­rect­ed it, but not after leav­ing this lie up a good long time.

Nice try.

Update: Appar­ent­ly, they (Fox, that is) have indeed been at this a long time.

Snowbound with George on Christmas Eve

Our Patio with the most Snow we’ve ever seen on it

Our patio with the most snow we’ve ever seen on it

You always assume that things will turn out as planned, but some­times they don’t. Pam and I had all but packed our suit­cas­es ear­li­er in the week for a trip to vis­it with my broth­er and his fam­i­ly in Seat­tle, as well as my par­ents, who were going to be vis­it­ing from Bal­ti­more. Moth­er Nature had oth­er ideas.

The fact that Cana­da is enjoy­ing the first coast-to-coast ‘White Christ­mas’ in 40 years is not lost on me, and it is pret­ty out there. Pam and I had a nice time walk­ing in the first of the snow­storms, and it looks like storm num­ber three, which start­ed last night, will dump near­ly as much on us.

The car is not ready to dri­ve on these kinds of roads. We don’t have any snow tires, as we don’t dri­ve that much to begin with and nei­ther of us use it to get to a work­place (unlike the days when I was work­ing in Burn­a­by for IBM). Snow tires are not usu­al­ly need­ed here.

So, here we are, like hiber­nat­ing bears in our cave, look­ing out at the snow. Well, not exact­ly like bears in one key respect: Hiber­nat­ing bears don’t eat, and I’ve been cook­ing like crazy. I roast­ed a chick­en stuffed with herbs and lemon (an old Jamie Oliv­er recipe that I’ve com­mit­ted to mem­o­ry), and yes­ter­day did a large pot roast with car­rots, parsnips, turnips and pota­toes.  This after­noon I baked a tray of oat­meal muffins (after also bak­ing a bunch of cook­ies ear­li­er in the week). We’ve also got some steaks in the freez­er, and since Granville Mar­ket is closed for the next 2 days, we’ll prob­a­bly eat those as well, along with some of oth­er food in our larder, which we stuffed full just in case the weath­er did get worse.

The oth­er thing I did, which I do near­ly every year, was watch Frank Capra’s movie “It’s a Won­der­ful Life”.  For me, it tran­scends movie mak­ing to become a piece of art, the same way that some Nor­man Rock­well illus­tra­tions do. I keep find­ing new details in it, the way you do with any great piece of sto­ry­telling or music. There’s always some lit­tle motif or pas­sage here or there that after the 10th hearing/viewing you sud­den­ly real­ize is referred to or echoed in some oth­er place. Capra’s film also has a lot more res­o­nance now, when the news reports from the States ear­li­er in the evening eeri­ly echoed (or pre­saged?) the talk in the movie of peo­ple being fore­closed on their homes because of not being able to pay mort­gages, runs on banks and acts of char­i­ty. How many peo­ple might be, this evening, need­ing to draw upon char­i­ty for the first time in their lives, the way that George Bai­ley had to?

I noticed that a week or so again, Wen­dell Jamieson of The New York Times wrote a fas­ci­nat­ing reassess­ment of the film, and actu­al­ly found it to be essen­tial­ly a big fat lie, some­thing that he first sus­pect­ed when he was shown the film at school when he was 15 year’s old:

It’s a Won­der­ful Life” is a ter­ri­fy­ing, asphyx­i­at­ing sto­ry about grow­ing up and relin­quish­ing your dreams, of see­ing your father dri­ven to the grave before his time, of liv­ing among bit­ter, small-mind­ed peo­ple. It is a sto­ry of being trapped, of com­pro­mis­ing, of watch­ing oth­ers move ahead and away, of becom­ing so filled with rage that you ver­bal­ly abuse your chil­dren, their teacher and your oppres­sive­ly per­fect wife. It is also a night­mare account of an end­less home ren­o­va­tion.

Holy Cow!  Believe it or not, his opin­ion of the film’s mes­sages actu­al­ly gets harsh­er still:

Many are pulling the movie out of the archives late­ly because of its pre­science on the per­ils of trust­ing bankers. I’ve found, after repeat­ed view­ings, that the film turns upside down and inside out, and some glar­ing — and often fun­ny — flaws become appar­ent. These flaws have some­how deep­ened my affec­tion for it over the years. Take the extend­ed sequence in which George Bai­ley (James Stew­art), hav­ing repeat­ed­ly tried and failed to escape Bed­ford Falls, N.Y., sees what it would be like had he nev­er been born. The bucol­ic small town is replaced by a smoky, night­club-filled, boo­gie-woo­gie-dri­ven haven for show­girls and gam­blers, who spill rau­cous­ly out into the crowd­ed side­walks on Christ­mas Eve. It’s been renamed Pot­tersville, after the vil­lain­ous Mr. Pot­ter, Lionel Barrymore’s schem­ing financier.

Here’s the thing about Pot­tersville that struck me when I was 15: It looks like much more fun than stul­ti­fy­ing Bed­ford Falls — the women are hot, the music swings, and the fun times go on all night. If any­thing, Pot­tersville cap­tures just the type of excite­ment George had long been seek­ing.

Not only is Pot­tersville cool­er and more fun than Bed­ford Falls, it also would have had a much, much stronger future. Think about it: In one scene George helps bring man­u­fac­tur­ing to Bed­ford Falls. But since the era of “It’s a Won­der­ful Life” man­u­fac­tur­ing in upstate New York has suf­fered ter­ri­bly.

On the oth­er hand, Pot­tersville, with its night­clubs and gam­bling halls, would almost cer­tain­ly be in much bet­ter finan­cial shape today. The gam­bling halls would be thriv­ing and a great social expe­ri­ence instead of the cae­sars casi­no slot at EasyMobileCasino.com we have now.

I checked my the­o­ry with the oft-quot­ed Mitchell L. Moss, a pro­fes­sor of urban pol­i­cy at New York Uni­ver­si­ty, and he agreed, point­ing out that, of all the upstate coun­ties, the only one that has seen growth in recent years has been Sarato­ga.

The rea­son is that it is a resort, and it has built an econ­o­my around that,” he said. “Mean­while the great indus­tri­al cities have declined ter­rif­i­cal­ly. Look at Con­necti­cut: where is the growth? It’s in casi­nos; they are con­stant­ly expand­ing.”

In New York, Mr. Moss added, Gov. David A. Pater­son “is under enor­mous pres­sure to allow gam­bling upstate because of the eco­nom­ic prob­lems.”

We ease up on our lot of cul­tur­al behav­iors in a depres­sion,” he said.

What a grim thought: Had George Bai­ley nev­er been born, the peo­ple in his town might very well be bet­ter off today.

Well, I’m not sure that the raunchy Vegas-like Pot­tersville is any bet­ter than the Biff Tannen’s alter­nate Uni­verse town of Hill Val­ley (which doesn’t get a rename, despite the sim­i­lar biz­zaro treat­ment) in Back to the Future II.  I’ll bet that a few choice grotesque zooms on the land­scape of Pot­tersville would have hor­ri­fied the rest of us as much as it did George Bai­ley rather than thrill him that that his town was less bor­ing with him not in it. Capra per­haps didn’t want to hit us over the head with the mes­sage, so it didn’t escape the 15-year old Mr. Jamieson’s cyn­i­cism.

Any­way, apt or not, I still find it a great piece of sto­ry­telling, even if it teach­es us all the wrong things. Jamieson is not alone in his dis­dain for the film. Besides the fact that the movie was con­sid­ered a finan­cial flop (too expen­sive to make, didn’t make back what it cost), Charles Affron on filmreference.com says:

The impe­tus and struc­ture of It’s a Won­der­ful Life recall the famil­iar mod­el of Capra’s pre-war suc­cess­es. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Wash­ing­ton and Meet John Doe. In each of these films, the hero rep­re­sents a civic ide­al and is opposed by the forces of cor­rup­tion. His iden­ti­ty, at some point mis­per­ceived, is final­ly acclaimed by the com­mu­ni­ty at large. The pat­tern receives per­haps its dark­est treat­ment in It’s a Won­der­ful Life. The film’s con­ven­tions and dra­mat­ic con­ceits are mis­lead­ing. An idyl­lic rep­re­sen­ta­tion of small-town Amer­i­ca, a guardian angel named Clarence and a Christ­mas Eve apoth­e­o­sis seem to jus­ti­fy the film’s peren­ni­al screen­ings dur­ing the hol­i­day sea­son. These are the signs of the ingen­u­ous opti­mism for which Capra is so often reproached. Yet they func­tion in the same way “hap­py end­ings” do in Moliere, where the arti­fice of per­fect res­o­lu­tion is in iron­ic dis­pro­por­tion to the real­i­ties of human nature at the core of the plays.

Maybe I should have just watched Rudolph the Red Nosed Rein­deer instead.