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. It might well be thriving.

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.