Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Please Stay on the Line

Thank you for continuing to exist.
Your presence is very important to us.
Please don't let go of the line.

08 - Let Go The Line

Monday, April 23, 2007

If a Tree Falls

When I was in grade four my oldest sister had a friend who I thought was very nice. She was nicer to me than my sister anyway. One day I had nowhere to go so I tagged along with my sister to her friend's house. I remember thinking that this high school girl was so cool. She had her home's basement all to herself, played the electric guitar and had lots of cool records. That day she taught me how to play Smoke on the Water, which is still the only guitar bit I know how to play. I flipped through her vinyl records and saw artists like Lou Reed, Black Sabbath, and Led Zeppelin.

I got to one album that I simply had to pull out because the name of the artist was so amusing to a fourth grader like myself: Bruce Cockburn. She noticed that I was studying the the record front to back and thought I had some other interest in it beyond the name. I had to stop myself from giggling much like I did when while reading a physics book I came across the name of Klaus Fuchs.

When we got up to leave on that summer day, she handed me the Bruce Cockburn album and insisted that I accept it as a gift. After some resistance I obliged, took the record and made my way back home, flattered by the attention, wondering what to do with this uncool music and anxious to have a laugh with my friend down the street about the illicit name on the record. I did try listening to it a couple of times but it just didn't catch the imagination of a restless 10 year old.

Years later in high school I heard this artist again who is of course a legend in Canadian music. He had released music that seemed quite a bit cooler to me at that time. This was an era in which I often wore surplus military khakis as a fashion staple, and I got that through a confluence of influence from Cockburn and The Clash. I became conscious of political issues mainly through music and my first thoughts on the environment were probably guided by the music of artists like Cockburn (with a shout-out to The Nature of Things scientist David Suzuki).

Some people have been sounding alarms for decades and most people hardly took notice of them. It finally took the efforts of a cheated presidential candidate to bring the mainstream on board. Suzuki once described our situation by saying:

I feel like we're all sitting in a car heading at a brick wall at a hundred miles an hour and everybody in the car is debating about where they want to sit. OK, there are a few people in the car who are saying, "For god's sake, slow down and turn the car." Unfortunately, they're locked in the trunk.

Happy Earth Day

Monday, April 16, 2007

Care to Distance

When I was in University Peter Mansbridge came for a visit with a handful of campus student leaders. He explained to us how they decided the order in which the news was delivered. If an event has the potential to effect you immediately then it goes first. If it is distant geographically or culturally then it will go down the line and may not even make the cut unless it's enormous like a tsunami or massive earthquake. It seems to me that there is an inverse relationship of care to distance (geographically or culturally).

Then there is the editorial decision of whether or not to interrupt local programming to report a news item. Again, if the event is immediately endangering or has the potential to affect people close to us or is sufficiently large then we may be interrupted to be told about it. The mass murder in Virginia today was serious enough to interrupt the programming of the news channels but not of the standard TV channels - unless of course you happened to be in Virginia where it likely intruded on most local programming.

It was a horrific setting no doubt and the ramifications of the day's events will be felt by the families and friends of the victims for the rest of their lives. Far away on the other side of the world about a hundred people are killed in and around Baghdad every single day but over here it might only be mentioned in the middle pages of the newspaper with a paragraph indicating that "Baghdad Market Bomb Kills 130" Massive Tsunamis and earthquakes like the ones that originated in the Pacific and in Pakistan last year are reported but they are done so almost pruriently because of their freakish or record breaking natures. The fact that millions were left homeless to suffer the subsequent Pakistan winters was almost completely ignored by the western media. Perhaps they are too geographically or culturally distant from us.

Imagine the heartbreak and stress that the people in Virginia are feeling today or the people of Montreal after the shootings at l'Ecole polytechnique. Now imagine experiencing events like these everyday for several years running without interruption. This is the plight of the survivors who remain in war zones in which they or their families could become victims at any moment. We just don't seem to care as much about people in distant lands and cultures. We can't. We're just not programmed for that. We have a natural inclination to care first about our tribe or village. It might be overwhelming to extend that care to the whole world.

These days we have near instant access to information so we learn of these human disasters whether or not an editor chooses to inform us. At the same time the new media also makes it easier for us to find commonality with people of far away and distant cultures. Our tribes or villages are no longer just the people that are geographically near us. Our tribe now includes people of distant lands, religions and cultures and their value is more appreciated. As we come to live in an increasingly global village the suffering of our fellow villagers may become unbearable to us whether they live down the street or in Baghdad or in Darfur.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Shit Floats

It was 95 years ago today that the Titanic sank near the coast of Eastern Canada and 10 years ago this year that one of the most irritating movies of all time was floated into theatres.

Jack, you moron, let go of the girl's hand and find some flotsam to climb onto and Rose, you senile selfish twit, don't throw that priceless gem into the ocean. Sell it and use the money to save the lives of thousands of children.

Puzzling Behaviour

While spending time with some recent first-time parents I've noticed that on several occasions the parent would praise their child by saying something like "wow, you're so smart" and then immediately stop themselves in mid stride and change the praise to something like "wow, you did a good job". They were making sure to praise the effort and not the child.

My friend Michael linked me over to this interesting article about the talent myth by Malcolm Gladwell. It's mainly about business but it got me thinking about my childhood. Research has found that children who are praised for their intelligence instead of their efforts soon become reluctant to tackle difficult tasks and begin slacking off. This observation hit home for me.

I was an immigrant kid who was thrown into grade one after the school year had already begun. I so quickly learned to read and write this completely alien language that I was paraded around like a trophy. They also determined that I might be a math prodigy so in grade two I was sent off to the grade four class during math lessons. The head-swelling praise began there.

By the time I was in middle school and in the "gifted" program I was so full of myself that I was well on my way to becoming a dysfunctional underachiever. Most schoolwork came easy to me but if some task required real work I would dismiss it or completely ignore it. I started spending more time in the Principle's office or at home than I did in the classroom. I always passed with decent grades but only with the least amount of effort that I could expend. If people saw me working hard at anything then they might start to doubt my talents.

Later when the Rubiks Cube became a huge fad in the eighties I got my hands on one and played around with it for a few minutes. I was surprised to find that I couldn't immediately solve it and so rather than work at it I avoided it completely. I guess I was afraid that if I tried and failed then it would completely shatter my self-image, so I never really tried. I pretended not to care about that silly cube until the fad finally faded away. To this day I have never really tried to solve the cube. It's been my dirty little secret and it's bothered me ever since. I'm glad to finally get it off my chest (sorry, the skeletons in my closet are lame like that). I now realize that effort and determination are as crucial or more crucial than innate talents. Maybe those parents are onto something. I think I'll find a cube and solve it.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Somethin Bout Yo Bidness

I don't watch a lot of TV but I do appreciate a quality show when I see it. Is it worth sorting through all of the mind-numbing, soul-crushing content on TV to find these little gems? No, it certainly is not. So I've devised a new strategy: Wait until the TV season ends, see where all the buzz is, then watch the whole season on DVD (or torrent download).

I've just finished watching 4 seasons of The Wire within a span of a week. This goes some way in explaining the dearth of blog postings lately. HBO is probably the best outlet for quality TV programming and The Wire had me hooked. It follows the inner city life of Baltimore, intertwining the efforts of drug dealers, the police who pursue them and the politicians who enable them and are enriched by them.

The series is generally praised for it's realistic storytelling and deep character development but I want to point out something else I noticed while watching The Wire. The character Stringer Bell is a crime boss and second in command to Avon Barksdale. Stringer is a highly intelligent man who spends his spare time pursuing a college business education. He attends macroeconomics classes and applies his higher learning to the operation of their criminal enterprise. Avon is very much like the CEO of their organization while Stringer is the Chief Operating Officer. When Avon is locked up Stringer starts applying business processes more and more to their operations. Some very humorous exchanges take place in a gathering which is essentially structured like a corporate board meeting, complete with a chairman that recognizes gang members before they are allowed to speak.

It is made abundantly clear that efficient business practices can be grafted effectively onto the operation of a criminal organization. Moving product is moving product, whether they are widgets or packets of heroin or cocaine. The landscape is the same and includes activities like the sourcing of inventory, making distribution agreements, dealing with the competition, and motivating and reprimanding employees. We see the mentoring of junior runners by the more senior corner boys, how supply problems are solved through partnership agreements, and how to maximize profit by expanding marketing territories. The entrepreneurial and managerial spirit pervades crime dramas like The Wire as well as that other HBO hit series The Sopranos to such an extent that we might consider it to be America's essential social principle.

Stringer does so well in applying business practices to his criminal organization that he begins to make "legitimate" investments by buying up large stretches of real estate and going into property development. Poor Stringer gets blocked and ripped off by city hall permit overlords, general contractors and a slick State Senator. He discovers that these guys might be better criminals than he is a businessman. So the lesson is that not only are business processes effectively applied to criminal activities but that business activities and criminal activities are really one and the same.

The players on the corners always refer to the game in which they're engaged. An acquiring CEO might ask the head of a takeover target not to take it personally since "it's just business". Likewise when Omar robs the drug dealers of their stash he often says "it just part of the game n!&&@h". A disadvantaged environment doesn't crush the American spirit. On the contrary, the corner kids are inspired by the same ambition that drives a private school kid to become a CEO or a Senator. The criminals are just working with the hand that was dealt to them. In a strange way we come to respect them no less and perhaps more than the politicians on the show since they seem be braver and have a stronger code of ethics. Whether it's corporate business or slinging crack on the corner, the game is the same, so we hate the game but not the playah.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Being and Playing

Everyone's been guilty of exaggerating, misrepresenting or outright lying when it comes to description. I have known very few people who in their humility choose to underplay their assets. Most tend to overplay certain attributes, emphasize others, and completely fail to mention still others. If you've ever looked through Toronto real estate listings you might be left with the impression that everything west of Dufferin St. is "within steps of High Park". That is of course a true statement for any property. The question is how many steps: one hundred or one million?

It's hard to maintain such a fiction since the person will eventually walk through the house and realize the number of sole-wearing steps required to walk to High Park. The hope is that in seeing the house they will find other aspects to fall in love with and decide to buy anyway. Online dating services are similarly structured. You might lie a little about your height, weight or age just to get in the door hoping that they'll be unable to resist your ample other charms once they meet you in "real life". But is a digital layer even required for this approach? Consider how people behave when meeting someone in a bar. What kind of creativity have you seen on display?

But what if your created persona is never meant to transfer back to the real world? Services like Second Life allow people to create avatars completely from scratch. You can give them appearances, skills, possessions that may or may not have anything to do with your own first life attributes. No one needs ever to discover these shortcomings nor find them to be relevant. Digital technology makes it much easier to maintain such a fictional persona but is not necessarily required. You can create your own fictional persona in meat-space without ever having to turn on a computer. You can pretend you're an experimental electronic musician from Europe, complete with an unidentifiable mid-continent accent (as I once did at a university party) or you can go much deeper and create a character named Borat and then document his exploits on film, as Sacha Baron Cohen did.

Borat is the world famous Kazakhi journalist created by Cohen. It is an avatar that Cohen wears and plays within our first life world, albeit a stylized version of our world (cinematic space). It is interesting that a first life person named Mahir Cagri has mused about suing Cohen for ripping off his persona which was briefly famous in 1999. People familiar with both characters have noted the striking similarities. The truly interesting thing about it is that Cagri's persona is not a deliberate conscious creation like Cohen's is. The character that came to be know as that "I Kiss You guy" is not a put-on; it is Cagri himself. It will be difficult to litigate someone for ripping off such a persona because it will be said that this persona was not a creation at all and therefore not protected by creative copyrights.

Cagri is in the odd position that his case would be stronger if he wasn't being himself but merely playing himself. There is something amiss here. I can argue that we are the creators and puppet-masters of several avatars or personae that we control all the time. It may be the bat-winged hunchback vampire that you play in Second Life, or the hardworking cubicle-dweller that you play at work or the good citizen that you play on the neighbourhood committee, but these can all be seen to be avatars created by you to control within different environments. We have always had these powers and there is a fine line, if any, between being and playing.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

My friend Jesse was just on TVO as a guest of Steve Paikin's Agenda. They had another guest from San Francisco named Justin who has been living with a camera on his ear for the last 16 days. He never takes it off as it captures every moment of his life and streams it onto the Internet. While watching the show I also logged onto and saw the inside of the studio from his perspective.

As I write this posting, another window is open and streaming video of what Justin is seeing as he walks around San Francisco after having left the studio. Before he left he visited the bathroom and yes he kept it streaming although he did aim his camera away as he did his business. Justin is using a technology by Ustream that makes it easy and affordable for almost anyone to stream their lives online. I am betting we will see more of this. A youtube-like service will be required for people to access the most popular streaming lives.

Years ago I was quoted saying that "in the next economy media will be as ubiquitous as water". We are nearly there. People like Justin are serving up their lives and billions of fans will soon be drinking it up.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Thanks for the Mammaries

Children make all kinds of mumbling noises when they begin to exercise their burgeoning verbal skills. One of the first sounds they make is the one that indicates that they would like to be fed. The Greek mamme is an observed form of baby-talk similar to the Sanskrit ma which came over time to take on the meaning of mother in many human languages.

The gland that secretes milk is called the mammary because this is what the baby is hoping to score when it makes that sound. In vocalizing a need or hunger the babies of the ancients like babies today blurted out a sound that came somewhat naturally to them. Perhaps this is analogous to how the baby bird knows how to chirp in a certain way when it's hungry.

Human languages are open source, they ebb and flow and evolve in a complex swirl of positive and negative feedback loops played out in myriad ways. Several languages have a word that sounds like meh-meh that could mean breasts or baby food depending on the context and there are variations on that word that morph into words like num-num which may be a novel transformation of mama.

Some think that all of our languages are variations and extensions of only a handful of naturally occurring exclamations that over time evolved into the thousands of languages that have been spoken throughout history. One linguist thought that all of language derived from only four syllables: sal, ber, yon, and rosh. The variables and assumptions required are far too numerous and complex for us to confidently make such assertions but there is some intuitive truth to the notion that the animal chirps of our ancestors with the power of some very extensive collaboration allowed us to develop our human languages which are so wonderfully rich that they have the power to address themselves.