Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Day Eleven : Jump Lola, Jump!

(As part of the Hackforge Summer Games Challenge, I'm trying to design a game with the theme of light and darkness by August 31st. This day 11 of the fourteen day challenge).

 I'm guilty of being a person who has read more books on game design than you know, actually designing games. And every book on game design has told me that the first step in designing games is .. to design games.

I think game design is something everyone can do. It's just like singing, drawing, and writing. Everyone can do it . But to do it well requires a lot of work and sustained concentrated effort to do it well. 

Mind you, I have no aspirations of becoming a professional game designer.  I'm designing games because I enjoy learning more about games and there's nothing like trying a craft yourself to really appreciate the art and the science that goes into it all.

I was telling a friend that I see my particular role in the Hackforge Summer Games Challenge as the person that lowers the bar and in doing so, hopefully lowers the threshold of what others might think is the minimum amount of effort and time in order to participate in game design.

What I am unable to commit to quality, I have endeavored to make up in quantity. I've already created a street game.  I've started on a Twine game - but I might not finish it because, oddly enough, I find that in order to be an entirely text based narrative game, there is a considerable amount of work that must go into the story in order to make the decisions presented to the player, as meaningful choices.

It was much easier to create my first video game, using MIT's Scratch:

Monday, August 26, 2013

Day Ten : A Work in Progress

(As part of the Hackforge Summer Games Challenge, I'm trying to design a game with the theme of light and darkness by August 31st. This day ten of the fourteen day challenge).

It's a work in progress.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Day 9 : Being a Student of Games

(As part of the Hackforge Summer Games Challenge, I'm trying to design a game with the theme of light and darkness by August 31st. This day nine of the fourteen day challenge).

I'm came back from vacation late this afternoon and so this evening I did mountains of laundry and other chores while listening to various game-related talks to keep me in the spirit of game-design.

I follow Jane McGonigal on Twitter and yesterday she retweeted this recommendation:

And I watched it - it being "Create New Genres" by Daniel Cook (no, not that Daniel Cook! The Daniel Cook who wrote that awesome essay about games as a life-long hobby). I almost didn't because I was underwhelmed by the beginning of this Game Developers talk from last year but I'm glad I stuck with it.  In fact, it gives a nice context to the Hackforge Summer Games Challenge.

Cook believes that there are three levels of game designers : apprentice (who copy), journeyman (who copy but extend and polish) and true game masters who invent. (This makes me feel better about my largely derivative attempts at game design. I'm a student! This is how I am learning).

Anyways,  Cook forgives students who copy games but he has no love for those companies ("clone factories) that simply grab another designers game mechanic and add different artwork. (This only seems to apply to video games. Around the 54 minute mark, Cook points out that board games have mostly unique mechanics that are rarely copied). I didn't realize this, but this practice occurs because games aren't really covered by patents because they are not 'useful inventions'.

I'm hoping to eventually spend some time working through the idea of games *becoming* the economy of the post-scarcity age but it must wait.

I was hoping to end this post with some related insights from the video that personally set me on the path of exploring the world-saving potential of games: Jane McGongial's 2008 talk at the New Yorker Festival of the Future. Unfortunately, that video is not working for me now.  So I will download Twine instead.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Day Eight: Cha

(As part of the Hackforge Summer Games Challenge, I'm trying to design a game with the theme of light and darkness by August 31st. This day eight of the fourteen day challenge).

Friday, August 23, 2013

Day Seven : Half-Moon

(As part of the Hackforge Summer Games Challenge, I'm trying to design a game with the theme of light and darkness by August 31st. This day seven of the fourteen day challenge).

I did find some time to work on my project today and I have three pages of sketches in my notebook to prove it.  The thing is, I have some ideas I'd like to work through in a narrative type game that really can't be well conveyed with any of the crude mechanics I might be able to manage to figure out in a video game platform (keeping in mind that I only have about a hour a day to spend on this project).  So I've decided that I have two goals for this project that probably should be split into two different games.

Cow Jump

I'm going to make a moon themed story game using Twine.

And I'm going to try to make a *very simple* mechanical video game just for the sake of doing one. I've been looking at the HTML5 game engines but haven't picked one out yet but I admit it's tempting to go with the platform that already has a community that's clearly interested in the same story I am.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Day Six : Rabbit Rabbit

(As part of the Hackforge Summer Games Challenge, I'm trying to design a game with the theme of light and darkness by August 31st. This day five of the fourteen day challenge).

Hopefully, I will find some time to sketch out some design mechanics and investigate html5 game engines tonight. Before I do so, though, I thought I write down some more moon-related ideas so I can get my self-imposed daily game design blogging challenge over with...


In the West, we sometimes make mention of a Man in the Moon, but really it's just something that people say and doesn't carry much resonance. Same thing with the whole idea of 'the moon is made of cheese.'  Other than being a comical premise in kids cartoon shows, again, it's not something that carries much cultural weight.

In Japan, Korea and China, it's understood that there's a rabbit in the moon instead. I have no idea to what extent this story has sway over Asian cultures, but I do know that this why Sailor Moon has a cat companion named Luna and has a nickname of Bunny

At the beginning of the month, I like to say 'rabbit rabbit' but evidently this has nothing to do with the rabbit in the moon. 


According to the Farmer's Almanac, the native peoples of North America generally named the full moons of the year as follows:

January : Wolf Moon
February : Snow Moon
March : Worm Moon
April : Pink Moon
May : Flower Moon
June : Strawberry Moon
July : Buck Moon 
August : Sturgeon Moon
September : Harvest Moon
October: Hunter's Moon
November : Beaver Moon
December : Cold Moon

And at one time, I meant to make my own moon names, but I never got beyond March, which I renamed, Pothole Moon.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Day Five: Gone Home to Make Games

(As part of the Hackforge Summer Games Challenge, I'm trying to design a game with the theme of light and darkness by August 31st. This day five of the fourteen day challenge).

I have to admit, what I really want to do is not work on my game(s) tonight.  What I really want to do is download Gone Home and play it all through the night.  I so very want to do this because I recently read this essay called Grunge, Grrrls and Video Games: Turning the dial for a more meaningful culture that personally resonated with me  and well, this The Gone Home video promo is the most riot grrrl style now video game I have ever seen. Add to the fact that I'm currently writing this from the bedroom of my parents house and feeling the effects of that sort of time-travel sickness that you get when you go back the home of your childhood, and well, I think you can see why I'd be all over this game right now.

But I'm not. I started looking at possible game engines I could use to make a game and it's clear to me that I've got a lot of work ahead of me if I want to make even a simple video game.  I will most likely work out some ideas on paper first and only then, try to make them come alive on screen.

I had mentioned previously that I was thinking about a moon-influenced mechanic. On a lark, I looked up tide charts online which eventually led me to this lovely animation that illustrates how the earth's waters rise and fall based on the alignment of the moon and sun.  I'm sure it's possible to plug in the necessary equations to mimic this affect in a game engine is possible (like this lovely video that highlights the force of gravity) but it's probably not going to happen for me. Not at this rate.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Day Four : Star of the Wars or the Tiny Games People Play

So it's day Four of my two week 'Pretend to be a game designer' challenge and I haven't made much progress today because I spent most of my hours packing and driving most of my family up to see the grandparents. I'm having difficulty finding the time to make that epic game.

So today I will concentrate on a Tiny Game.

My kids have no trouble at all making little games to play.  One of their favourite games they love to play is played over a meal at the dinner table is this:


Player One bites/pretends to bite a cucumber or carrot or other piece of food and then shows it to Player Two and asks 'Broken or Not Broken'. Player Two guesses whether the food is whole or has been bitten in two. Player One reveals outcome. Repeat. And repeat.

And while I have had trouble getting started in my game design ambitions, my daughter has no trouble designing games out of anything in front of her:

Part One:


Part Two


But it isn't just little kids who delight in these Tiny Games.  Bigger kids do too. My sister's good friend went to Camp every summer and she seemed to know a million games for a million situations.  Here's one of the games I remember her telling me about.

(Um, it's another game that's played at the dinner table. Also: don't tell my kids about this game!)

Whenever someone at the dinner table yells COLOURS, everyone has to stick their tongue out. The person with the most different colours of food on their tongue wins.

And even bigger kids love these silly tiny games.  In fact, even adults.  For example, I am just one of 1226 adults who backed the Tiny Games Kickstarter because I just love the idea of "an app that gets you playing the perfect game with your friends: wherever you are, whoever you're with, whatever you're doing."

Before the lights are out, I will make a Tiny Game.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Day Three. There`s a moon in the sky called the moon

(As part of the Hackforge Summer Games Challenge, I'm trying to design a game with the theme of light and darkness by August 31st. This day three of the two week challenge).

So we went to the zoo today instead of designing games. It's night now. The day is almost over. In fact, it's really dark outside now and it's way past my bedtime.

And tomorrow is the full moon.

There are eight phases of the moon in Western culture:
  • New Moon
  • Waxing / Young / Crescent Moon
  • First Quarter
  • Waxing / Gibbous Moon
  • Full Moon
  • Waning / Gibbous Moon
  • Third / Last Quarter Moon
  • Waning / Old / Crescent Moon

I want to make a specialized deck of cards that involves waxing and waning shadows over the moon. If just to make a game that provides the opportunity to have moves such as TURN AROUND BRIGHT EYES and for someone to throw down their cards and shout 'TOTAL ECLIPSE OF THE HEART!' 

Also. I would nice to the moon as a sort of clock in a game.

Or in the game, each player has their own moon clock and there would be some dynamic that would allow players to have their moon clocks in sync with each other.

And I admit, when I first thought of this, I was thinking all about women's cycles but now I think it could be a neat power-up dynamic.  When moons are in sync, they would have more ... pull

I suspect there are lots of games with moon-related mechanics (even excluding the obvious ones that involve werewolves).  But I know of two games that make use of a moon dynamic. 
  1. Sword & Sworcery :: certain events can only occur when the moon is in a certain phase
  2. Kingdom of Loathing :: the two moons named Ronald and Grimace affect gameplay
I think this quotation explains why I want to make a game involving the moon so much...

“The moon does not fight. It attacks no one. It does not worry. It does not try to crush others. It keeps to its course, but by its very nature, it gently influences. What other body could pull an entire ocean from shore to shore? The moon is faithful to its nature and its power is never diminished.”

Deng Ming-Dao, Everyday Tao: Living with Balance and Harmony

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Lumos! A Wizard Battle Game

(As part of the Hackforge Summer Games Challenge, I'm trying to design a game with the theme of light and darkness by August 31st. This day two of the two week challenge).

In my neighbourhood of my childhood, there was a strange abundance of kids the same age of myself. From as long as I can remember right until grade six, we all played epic games of a variation of 'hide and go seek' called Buzz Off on the combined front and backyards of my house and of Matthew, my neighbour. Playing games of tag and hide and go seek and their variations make up some of my happiest memories as a kid. They contained moments of pure joy. No wonder I long to one day take part in the Come Out And Play Festival.

So, I've been meaning to create a "street game" for some time now. And since this is the two weeks to put vague dreams into action, this morning, I set aside some time put down something in words.

By mixing up some of the elements of games that already exist, I think I've got something to start with.

I have had for some time now, an interest in making some sort of Harry Potter wizard battle-like game. I think a group full of people, running around, pointing wands, and screaming spells and counter-spells at each other seems like delicious fun.  That's the *experience* I want folks to have.  But how to pull the mechanics together?

My breakthrough came when I was working through possibilities of games with the theme of light and darkness.  My line of thinking was very simple :: light --> flashlight --> flashlight tag! Yes! - running around in the dark *and* yelling spells and counter-spells at each other would make for an even more dangerously fun and spooky game.

Now how to work out the mechanics of the game?

Well, the biggest problem I would see with a spell-casting game is the issue of 'Han shot first'. We don't want players arguing who yelled their spell before the other, and so we need to have to rely on something else other than speed to decide the winner of a battle.

Here, I take my inspiration from the game Cruel 2 B Kind, designed by Jane McGonigal and Ian Bogost.  It's a game of 'benevolent assassination'.  Its rules are:

At the beginning of the game, you are assigned three secret weapons. To onlookers, they will seem like random acts of kindness. But to other players, the seemingly benevolent gestures are deadly maneuvers that will bring them to their knees. 
Some players will be slain by a serenade. Others will be killed by a compliment. You and your partner might be taken down by an innocent group cheer. 
You will be given no information about your targets. No names, no photos, nothing but the guarantee that they will remain within the outdoor game boundaries during the designated playing time. Anyone you encounter could be your target. The only way to find out is to attack them with your secret weapon. 
Watch out: The hunter is also the hunted. Other players have been assigned the same secret weapons, and they're coming to get you. Anything out of the ordinary you do to assassinate YOUR targets may reveal your own secret identity to the other players who want you dead. 
As targets are successfully assassinated, the dead players join forces with their killers to continue stalking the surviving players. The teams grow bigger and bigger until two final mobs of benevolent assassins descend upon each other for a spectacular, climactic kill. 
Will innocents be caught in the cross-fire? Oh, yes. But when your secret weapon is a random act of kindness, it’s only cruel to be kind to other players...

Cruel 2 B Kind makes use of RSP - the Rock Scissors Paper mechanic.

One of the great things about  the 'Rock-Scissors-Paper mechanic is that it's something that everyone already knows. And its used in places where you may not expect it. For example, the video-game Halo uses three layered RSP systems in its game (which is spoofed in this simple Scratch animation).

Using this dynamic, one player can beat another if they clearly got in the attack first. If the attacks are at the same time, then the rock scissors dynamic comes into play. So for my game, I might have three spells, all of which can defeat one other spell and be defeated with another:

  • Lumos : can be beaten by Nox ; beats Stupefy
  • Nox : can be beaten by Stupify ; beats Lumos
  • Stupefy : can be beaten by Lumos ; beats Nox

In Cruel 2 B Kind, if both players tie, they need to separate and cannot attack again for 30 seconds. In my house, my kids have a habit of counting too fast, so would make a rule that players need to count like this: ONE Salvio Hexa TWO Salvio Hexa THREE Salvio Hexa...

Personally, I'm tempted to make things a little bit more complicated and bring in a Rock-paper-scissors-lizard-spock dynamic.  Whether this admitted complication works or not probably will become clear with actual playtesting. 

Anyone interested?  Homenum Revelio!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Hackforge Summer Games Challenge :: Day One :: The Unbearable Lightness of Designing

For the next two weeks, I'm going to occupy my time trying to design games as I'm taking part in the Hackforge Summer Games.

The game may be of any medium - video, paper, street - but it must be created between between today and August 31st and it should somehow involve the theme : light and darkness.

I'm really too tired to make a proper start on the challenge tonight. But I did come up with these design concepts just before I had dinner (and that glass of wine that did me in). As an added bonus, I've added links to my inspirations.


The screen begins as completely white. Then slowly, it starts to resemble a  photo that was overexposed by too much flash. As time pases, the an image from this photo begins to take shape. If this image is of a door or other means of escape, you should click on it. But if the image is one of a horrible a monster, and you click on it before you realize this, it will eat you. Wait too long before clicking and you will be eaten by an monster. In other words, there's no way to escape the monster.

There is a bright and beckoning light bulb that pulls you, a bug, toward it like gravity. But once you are too close you become completely under it's pull and are set towards a collision with death. You must gather a swarm of others to become so large that the swarm itself will block out its light, but in doing so, you must keep yourself and others far enough away so as not fall under the light's deadly attraction.

You are in a bleak land without night. The glare of the sun (or is it a camera? An unblinking eye?) is relentless. Can you escape its gaze? You travel far and wide and try to escape the ever watching eye. Eventually you learn to distract it with spectacle / riot, and take advantage of its overwhelmed state to throw yourself into an unknown, abyss that leads to an underground passage. You are enveloped in dark and by gentle earthly sounds. You are finally able to sleep and dream the game to an end.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Adventures in Art Time!

Sometimes, when I would like my kids to do something, I don't ask them to do it. I do it myself.

This morning, I sat down and drew this sketch that I copied from this totally rhombus cover:

Then I left the table, with my pen and paper behind, and did something else on that lazy Sunday morning. And later that morning, I found this:

This trick doesn't always work. But it works many times when asking, offering or cajoling doesn't. Sometimes my meme seeding doesn't work on the first pass. Sometimes it takes time.

(I made this last week. My son made this a week later.)

And many times this trick doesn't work at all. But it works much more often than you might have guessed. It is a lesson that I find myself learning and re-learning over and over again: parenting is not lecturing.

*  *  * 

Here is my lecture on fanart and fanfic.

*  *  * 

A couple of weeks ago I was returning home from Toronto by train, and for four hours I was able to watch the screen of the laptop of a passenger that was sitting  in front of me, just across the aisle.  I had my own laptop screen to entertain me, but I have to admit that on more than one occasion I stole glances at what my fellow passenger was doing on her computer. Because beside doing normal young adult things like looking at Facebook and reading web comics online - she was doing awesome things. She made her own version of a Japanese wave pattern with a graphics program. She used a wacom tablet to take a photo of a woman and transform it into a surreal dark illustration of some sort of half-woman, half crow). She made beautiful things.

I watched her.  And then I realized that I wanted to do the same. 

* * * 

I didn't grow up with an affection for comics books, role-playing games, or science fiction and I don't really have a strong affection for those things now. I have never been to a con and I have never engaged in cosplay. I still feel a tinge weird when I go into a comic book shop. It's just not my tribe.

But - I am jealous of those communities. I am jealous that these 'interests and hobbies' have become large and strong enough to support its own ecosystem of economies and local businesses; large enough for media coverage and to have their own TV shows on local and national levels; and large enough to have an entire conference circuit that wraps around the world. 

And I admire these communities. And in particular, I admire how they lay a path for fans to become to move from being a consumer to conference organizer or from a fan to an artist. 

Here's an example. Adventure Time is a cartoon on The Cartoon Network that I am currently in love with.

Adventure Time is well known for it’s open relationship between staff and the fans. The official Adventure Time blog [6] shares official artwork, early drafts and storyboards before new episodes air. Some of the writers and animators are open to fan questions about the show, its development and its universe. They often reply to fans via Formspring accounts. [Knowyourmeme]

I love that these shows respond to fan art work with mutual admiration and even love. I love that the artists and the other creators who work on these shows are visible and public as themselves as artists. And it's really really interesting when the interactions between artists and the fanart changes the art altogether:

In 2010, just months after the premiere of Adventure Time on Cartoon Network, character designer Natasha Allegri designed gender-swapped versions of Finn and Jake called Fiona (now renamed Fionna) and Cake, a cat. (See also: Rule 63)
These versions of the protagonist resulted quite popular that many fans wanted more and made fanart that proved that.     
On December 29th, 2010, Natasha Allegri confirmed on her Tumblr[11] that an episode of Adventure Time starring Fionna and Cake was on the works. On September 5th, the episode titled “Fionna & Cake” premiered on Cartoon Network[12] scoring a total of 3.3 million viewers[13]. [Knowyourmeme]

There is a lot of Adventure Time fan art. 

I suspect that cartoonists don't mind young aspiring cartoonists trying to copy their work because that's probably how they started themselves as young artists. It's understood to many that when you start out as an artist that you learn the rules of your genre by copying your favourite things and making homages to your favourite heroes.

You copy the art that you love because you don't know how to make it.

Then, in time,  you make DeviantArt as you stretch your own skills  and ideas as you try to make your own contributions of work. In doing so, you develop your own style.  

I'm not there yet myself. I'm still in the copying stage. 

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Political interference is hazardous to your health

On Monday, Windsor City Council will be holding a special meeting that will discuss whether the city should continue fluoridating Windsor's water supply. I'm pleased to read that the Windsor Star's Saturday editorial board takes this stand on the matter:

We can only hope council makes an educated decision; one that considers the mountains of research done by trained professionals in this field. It must not be swayed by those who have neither the credentials nor the research to back up their argument.

I was pleasantly surprised by this editorial because I've been troubled at how many of the city's reporters had been adopting the language of our local anti-fluoride lobby group. Here's one simple example: the first line of "Despite WUC recommendation, fluoridation of water continues"

Almost a year after the Windsor Utilities Commission’s board voted to end fluoridation of the city’s drinking water, the additive long used to combat rotten teeth in kids — but described by critics as toxic — is still being mixed in with local tap water.

Well, not quite. Water fluoridation is done to prevent cavities in kids and adults. It's worth taking the time to understand that poor dental health damages the health and economic well being of the working poor far beyond what we in the middle class might remember as just the temporary annoyance of a cavity in a baby tooth. “Almost every time we asked interviewees what their first priority would be if the president established universal health coverage tomorrow,” Sered and Fernandopulle write, “the immediate answer was ‘my teeth.’ ”  A third of the population of Windsor does not have dental insurance.

Also, the use of the word "toxic" is used by fluoride critics to discredit the practice. And yes, fluoride has a degree of toxicity. And so does caffeine.  Drinking 80 cups of coffee can kill you. You need to drink more than a bathtub of water for the fluoride in Windsor's water supply just to have an effect. I'm not a toxicologist but I would go so far as to suggest that the amount of caffeine in our pee is more toxic than the fluoride in our water.

Word association is the modus operandi of the anti-fluoride lobbyists. They have crafted their message very carefully over the years and they have a small stockpile of phrases designed to generate maximum doubt to the listener. But scratch under the surface of their words and you see that their evidence is scant when compared to the overwhelming amount of research that supports the practice. Unfortunately, it's an exhausting process because arguing against fluoride seems to be a full-time job of this small but uncompromising lobby group. Who has the time to do the research against their tidal wave of counterfactuals?

And this is why we have health officials who work for us and for our public health. They have the expertise and the ability to read and understand the research to measure the pros and cons to this practice. They need to do their job as free from political interference as possible.

It's troubling to know that Eddie Francis, the mayor of city, as well as city councillors Bill Marra and Alan Halberstadt have already publicly stated that they are going against the advice of the Windsor-Essex Public Health Unit and will vote in favour of the removal of fluoride from our water. One has to wonder if the the vote has been influenced by already established bad feelings over the fact the Windsor-Essex Public Health Unit went against the City's wishes and budgeted for a 7% increase this year:

Francis, who is still seething over the health unit's failure to back the city's passionate position on issues like heart and lung disease during the border infrastructure fight with the province...

I'm hoping for the best on Monday but it would not surprise me if reason and cooler heads will not prevail in the theatre of politics.

And that worries me because I have a conspiracy theory of my own. The same zealous anti-fluoride activists who are working around our Public Health agencies actually have a larger mission in mind. This is the just first offensive of a local anti-vaccination brigade.

DeYong said the trend across North America has been municipal authorities recognizing that “they can’t play doctor and continue to give us medication without our consent."

I wish that these individuals were as committed to removing CO2 from our atmosphere as they are from something relatively harmless from our water.

[editorial note: I will not be accepting arguments for or against fluoridation in this post's comments. thanks]

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Get a real coffee maker

It's Christmas time and as I have small children, talk of gifts received (from Mom and Dad) and gifts to come (which will be opened once the aunt and uncle join us late tonight) falls steadily through the air, like the snow outside.

Well, that's an exaggeration. My children are excited, but it's to be expected. They generally only get new toys at Christmas and on their birthdays, so it would be odd if they weren't happy about the excuse for presents.

But for us adults, the matter of presents is more complicated. Most of us don't wait for birthdays and holidays to treat ourselves to the things we covet. And this makes the act of giving gifts an almost absurd exercise. We either need to guess what our loved ones want but don't know they want or purchase an something deemed too extravagant to buy for one's self.

This modern day dilemma is so pressing that I think there are entire products lines that exist just to fill this need. How else can we explain the sudden ubiquity of single-serving coffee makers.

Or as someone I follow on Twitter calls them, #landfill.

My husband owns a food store that grew out of a coffee stall and he has sold a great deal of coffee beans over the last ten years, and so, by osmosis alone, I do know a little bit about coffee brewing.  I know enough to know that the notion of better brewing by barcode is a pile of hooey.

This 3 minute video from America's Test Kitchen demonstrates why: the feature that contributes most to good coffee is a good heating element, and all the bells and whistles of most coffee makers feature are distractions from the fact that they all use the same tepid heating element.

So if you want to make good coffee at home, you can - like we did - invest in a Technivorm Moccamaster or - if you have more time than money, watch and learn how to make amazing coffee without a coffee maker at all.

But a caveat: we imagine our future selves blissed out of our minds each morning from Irish Cream barcode blended coffee (or the robost and complex Technivorm brewed coffee), but this is because we always forget (and this forgetting seems to take a year suspiciously enough) that material pleasure is something that we quickly acclimatize to.  I love my morning coffee but I will never love it as much as the first week with our new coffee maker.

I am coming round to a line of thinking that I was first introduced to by either Kevin Kelly or Bruce Sterling.  The problem at hand is not we care too much about material things - the problem in this disposable age is that we don't care enough about the things we buy.

There is no doubt in my mind that once those fragile single server coffee makers break, that those who were gifted them will not spend a dime to repair their machine - no matter how much love accompanied it - and, instead, they will bury it underground and wait for next Christmas to come around.  And that's an opportunity lost because something interesting and good happens when you start a long-term relationship with your everyday tools.

When our coffee maker suddenly started misbehaving, we took it to Windsor's Appliance Medic (whom I would recommend doing business with) and he marvelled at how easy it was to take apart, and how simple it was to diagnose and correct our problem (a sticky internal switch that came about because we had neglected to descale our coffee maker). It gave me the confidence to consider trying to fix the machine myself if we run into trouble again.

Christmas (for most of us) is over and thoughts of the New Year have begun. So let's end this post with a resolution as suggested by Bruce Sterling:

Now, you can argue that you should economize and just buy cheap things, or try and de-materialize. Not be materialistic, and content yourself with things that are very cheap or very organic. 
That’s not the way forward. Economizing is not social. When you economize, you’re starving somebody else. Really. If you don’t give them money, they don’t have any money. And if they don’t offer you any money, you don’t get any money. That’s not a social flow, or even a sociable relationship. 
What you need to do is re-assess the objects in your space and time. And I’m going to explain to you how to do this.  
The king of objects, the monarch among objects are not fancy objects. They’re not high-tech objects, they’re not organic objects, they’re not biological objects, they’re everyday objects. Things that you’re with every day. 
Whatever is in your time most, what’s taking up most of your time, or in your space most. The stuff that’s closest to your skin, on your skin, inside your skin, in intimate areas. Space and time. That’s what’s going on, that’s where it’s at. That’s where it’s happening. 
Common everyday objects. You need to have the best possible common everyday objects. 
Number one, a bed. You’re spending a third of your life in the thing. You never take it seriously. Rich people have great beds. You should go out and get the best bed you can get. Money is no object. On a per hour rental basis, beds, super important. The sheets, the pillows, pretty high up there too. 
Every morning when you wake up you will thank me for this. 
I know you’re resisting it. It’s like: “Why? Why am I buying a fancy bed? It’s bad for me, I’m being taken outside of my comfort zone.” 
You live in the thing! Get rid of the wedding china! Get rid of the tuxedos! The exercise equipment you never use! The things you never touch! The heaps of things, the heaps of material objects in your closet and, God help you, your storage locker. Sell them all, buy a bed. Get a real bed. 
Get a chair.  
I shouldn’t have to tell people who work with computers to get a chair. No, they’d rather whine about their wrists blowing out, their spines blowing out. They wouldn’t come up with a chair that would cost them maybe fifteen cents an hour over the first amortizable period. The world is full of beautifully designed ergonomic chairs. Get a real damn chair! 
Sell the other chairs, the fancy chairs, the couch, the over-stuffed thing, your grandmother’s chair. Get rid of your grandmother’s chair, it was never properly built to begin with. 
Get rid of it. Get rid of it, if you don’t use it! If you haven’t touched it in a year, get rid of it immediately. Sell it, buy real things you really use. 

I agree. Get rid of the presents you don't use and get a real coffee maker.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

We need to talk about politics

I didn't watch the news yesterday. I watched the after-shocks of yesterday's horrific shooting in Newton, Connecticut in the reflections and reverberations from my circle of friends and of other people I follow online. There was an outpouring of grief - people were sick with grief - and then there came the anger and the fury - and it still comes in waves - the grief, the sickness, and the anger.  And between the grief, the sick, and the anger there too was politics. For myself, the only one - of whom I follow online - who asked for "no politics right now" was the local journalist, above - but I know it was a more common refrain for others.

Politics doesn't have a place in the media's blueprint for covering mass shootings. I have to agree with Roger Ebert: if we want look past the complicated issues of gun control and mental illness and instead turn a tragedy into an absurd Rorschach ink-blot test then I'm going to choose mainstream news programming for my scapegoat.

But I'm not really interested in scapegoats. I'm interested in making sure that this tragedy never happens again. That's why I think the time to politicize the matter of lack of gun control is right now.

Politicizing events is the norm. It's just not very well distributed across the political spectrum:

Norms change. Many Americans are now challenging the belief that gun ownership in the United States will be forever immune from the aftershocks of shooting rampages. But whether that this belief can be turned into better legislation will take more than a petition - it will take organization, effort and time.

But it is possible. Here's a remarkable story that shows us how:

In 1971, over 400 children died in cycling accidents in the Netherlands. This was a time - as explained in this short video and blog post - before the bike-friendly infrastructure was in place in Holland. And this continuing 'child-murder' drove the Dutch to the streets to protest the horrible situation and to 'Stop de kindermoord'. And it was these protests that helped the Dutch get organized and politicized and positioned to develop their coveted safe for children cycling infrastructure.

A child's death is an tragedy. A preventable child's death is an outrage. Preventing others from trying to save children's lives in order to preserve an intangible historical construct is the worst kind of politics.

The time to tighten gun control and to extend mental health support to everyone is now.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

As Canadian looking as possible (under the circumstances)

"The Bank of Canada said its policies are to avoid depicting any specific ethnic group in such designs." - Globe and Mail, August 17, 2012

My responses to this story came in waves that were short and choppy and just piled on to each other:
  • The notion that "whiteness is neutral" is a form of racism but it's largely not recognized as such  because there's no 'hate' involved.
  • The flip side of 'whiteness is normal' is that non-white is other.
  • To say that someone who "looks Asian" does not "look Canadian" is blatantly racist. Most Canadians know this and so they rationalize their racism in other ways. I wonder if those focus group participants who felt that having an Asian woman in a lab coat was problematic because it was stereotypical were concern trolls
  • Women are still are not a numbers that they should be in science, technology and engineering. So, for me, I think of the Asian female scientist as an aspirational image and not a stereotypical one
  • Most Asian women I know are not scientists
  • Still, I find stereotypical images more honest than anti-sterotypical images
  • I'm bewildered by people who seem to make no categorical difference between those who have recently immigrated to Canada and those who are the children and the children's children of immigrants to Canada. Yes, we look the same. But we are not the same. The erased Asian woman could have been a third generation Canadian.
  • Can a visible minority ever "represent" the majority?
  • If a visible minority can never represent the majority, they will be invisible. Forever.
  • In Toronto, the Asian woman was seen positively because those citizens feel their identity is multicultural and so they saw themselves in that Asian woman.
  • I love you Toronto.
  • I'm very glad that this story came to light because it allows us to have conversations about national identity and race. These stories are few and far between because Canadian don't tend to be open and honest about our ideas and feelings around race. The last story that I can remember that came closest was from a couple years ago was the story from Maclean's about how some universities (well, namely the University of Toronto) are seen as "too Asian."
  • The story came to light because the Canadian Press filed an Access to Information request.
  • If the Queen of England - a living, breathing, symbol unto herself, can be represented by Adrienne Clarkson, then I see no reason why a Canadian scientist can't be represented by an "Asian-looking" woman. (Also, Queen Elizabeth? Not Canadian!)
  • While I understand why the Bank of Canada held focus groups to get an understanding if their designs would be widely enjoyed by the Canadian public, I am disturbed that it chose to respond the way they did. Currency is, in essence, symbolism. Why would the Bank of Canada outsource the rationale to set a design standard to random Canadians? And when these random Canadians said racist things, why didn't they just ignore them?
  • When I read the comment from the person from Fredricton ("The person on it appears to be of Asian descent which doesn’t rep(resent) Canada. It is fairly ugly.”), I immediately thought of this passage from a book I'm reading by Richard Sennett called Together:

    "For much of my sociological life I've studied what our trade calls ressentiment, the feeling of ordinary people that the elite does not know much about their own problems first-hand, even though presuming to speak on their behalf. In the families of white, working-class Americans I studied in Boston, ressentiment appeared to cross class with race. The liberal elite identified with poor blacks but not with these white workers, many of whom were indeed racially prejudiced at the time.... in Europe, ressentiment appears particularly in attitudes of native workers to Islamic immigrants The elite seems on the side of the oppressed, but not on the side of the ordinary."
  • We will never know the real reason why the design was changed. If I was a conspiracy theorist, I would start ranting that the government is committed not to offend Quebec between and during Federal elections. Since I'm not, I will opt for the more boring theory that the Bank of Canada simply went with the most boring and least controversial design on hand. That's what focus groups are for: to create bland and inoffensive designs
  • To be Canadian is to be boring
  • That's why I'm glad I look like an Asian woman

Monday, May 21, 2012

LEGO Girl-FRIEND, let's talk

So LEGO's Friends - their new line of toys for girls continues to generate criticism from those shocked and dismayed that LEGO could engage in such stereotypical gendered play.

The definitive response to the matter, I think, is Thinking Brickly's The LEGO Gender Gap: A Historical Perspective who convinced me that LEGO Friends isn't the first or the worst way LEGO has tried to appeal to girls.  Still, the debate seems to be missing some important considerations... which is why I am writing this.

LEGO Friends have breasts. Just like girls.

Much of the original uproar about the LEGO Friends line is that the mini-figures have breasts. To be honest, I didn't even notice that they have breasts because the LEGO figures are supposed to look like older girls and, as such, they have as normal-looking breasts as you can expect LEGO minifigures to be. We're not talking about Barbie-like endowments, here, we're talking about normal breasts. And breasts are normal.

I'd have a lot more respect from those who are outraged that LEGO Friends have breasts if these same folks were also upset that Superheroes are ridiculously muscle-y creatures designed to act as male power fantasies

Children's play is already gendered

It doesn't happen to all kids and it doesn't happen at all ages, but there are phases in a child's development when kids are completely caught up in "gendered play" (otherwise known as the 'I'm not playing with that! That's a girl's toy!" phase). For example, earlier this morning my 4 year old daughter and I played a game of I can do that! and she refused to play cards featuring Nick and would only play cards featuring Sally (or The Cat in the Hat instead).

I suspect that this pre-school developmental stage might be less about gender and more about self-identity and group identity. But what is quite obvious is that this phase is very much being exploited by companies that are trying to sell a small spectrum of toys to a large population. That being said, there are still some very strong societal pressures that re-enforce the idea to boys that the worse thing that you can be in the world is a girl which sucks - no argument, there.

The girls are alright. Let them play

I'm a little disturbed by the line of thinking that says it's okay for girls to play with "boy's toys" but it's not okay for girls to play with "girls toys".  Case in point, the cover story of the June 2012 issue of WIRED is "How to be a Geek Dad" with a sub-heading of "How to NOT raise a princess". 

If boys are allowed to play in un-realistic fantasy worlds of comic book heroes, ninjas, star wars, cowboys or what-have you, why can't girls play in the fantasy worlds that they would like to inhabit? In other words, why can't girls be princesses?

Personally, I don't encourage princess play with my daughter (she's gets enough of it through her friends at daycare) But I don't discourage it either. What I do instead is try to expose her to lots of different storyworlds that she can imagine herself in and see what she takes to.

Besides, I suspect that playing Princess and playing Barbie is just a very specific form of dress-up for girls. At least it seems to be for my four year old:
Me: What's your favourite part about playing princesses?
Anna: It's just the clothes.
Me: Do you play with princes? With dragons?
Anna: It's just the clothes. 

Girls that imagine themselves - through dolls or other toys - older and in beautiful dresses and high-heels - are just imagining themselves in a more powerful state (although in my more cynical moments, I wonder if the reason why so many girls wish to be princesses because it's the only female job that has status). As a woman who personally feels vulnerable when wearing high heels and dresses, I'm actually quite sympathetic to this kind of play. I'd hope my daughter feels more confident than I did as a girl.

LEGO, to its credit, knew better to stay away from Princesses for it's LEGO Friends line and designed sets in "reality". A reality that girls might like: a beauty salon, pet grooming, fashion design, and musical stage (yes, there's also a invention workshop but this set is clearly an example of overcompensation as a means to achieve gender equity and racial harmony).

Still, the princesses are coming to LEGO and unfortunately, they are coming to the DUPLO line - the one place where LEGO had less-emphasised gender play done right and this news makes me more angry and disappointed in LEGO than their Friends line.

There are differences in the genders but they are small and should be made smaller

All the other LEGO sets (Star Wars, ninjas, underwater explorers, pirates, space aliens) are marketed as boy's toys and it's really very unfortunate that the mini-figs in these sets are almost all male.

I'm not saying all of this because I'm ultimately concerned that girls and their poor numbers in science and technology (that's another series of posts which boils down to this idea: the worlds of science and technology has to change more than girls have to change). I'm saying all of this this because I'm ultimately concerned with the failure to imagine a world where women and men find ways to work and play together and this is a massive failure of imagination from a company that is supposed to be at the forefront of imagination.

Don't tell me it can't be done. I just watched three seasons of a kids show that had lots of strong females who kick butt *and* smooch strong males. So where is my LEGO Appa?

If you don't have the time and effort to read the entirety of Thinking Brickly's lengthy history of gender and LEGO, just skip to the end to read his recommendations. This mom got it right and I'm going to follow her lead.

Why I bought LEGO Friends for my daughter

My daughter has an older brother and we already have a lot of LEGO in the house that she sometimes plays with and I didn't see much harm in buying Friends. Now all the pieces of her two sets are integrated with the larger mass of LEGOs in our house.

I like LEGO because it's open ended play. Sometimes my son plays with his LEGO Star Wars sets and re-enacts those stories. Sometimes he makes up his own stories. Sometimes he takes apart the sets and builds things. Sometimes his sister does it too and sometimes they even build together.

I don't expect toy companies to build the toys we need - just the toys that a large market will buy.  And I've been to enough girl birthday parties to see that girls aren't getting a wide spectrum of experiences through their toys. They get princess coloring books and sticker books and sets that allow them to make their own jewellery.  I've noticed that the girls never get games as gifts and that's where I've decided to try to influence their worlds.
I'm somewhat hopeful that forces like Kickstarter and small-production lines can bring about new lines of toys that are better for girls *and* boys.

But I'm not too wrapped up in toys to be honest. Toys are traditionally scaled down and safer version of real-world tools.  Kids mimic the world around them and I think the best way that I can prepare them for a world that I can scarcely imagine is to have them see me and work with me in building a better future with the tools and the toys we have.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A statement of belief towards a future way of life that is sustainable

Our current way of life is not sustainable. We know this. What we don't know - or perhaps more accurately - what we can't agree on - is what should be the shape of the future we should be working for.

I'm not a utopian but I think that without a vision of an alternative future that we  want to fight for, it will be difficult to determine whether we are getting closer to it or closer to the looming Dark Mountain.

The only sustainable country in the world is Cuba.

For human rights and geopolitical reasons, we can't hold Cuba as a model to us to emulate and follow. That's why Costa Rica is generally held up as a viable vision instead.

But I think that the average Canadian is still going to have a hard time understanding what a more 'Costa Rican' future would look like. At best, I think Canadians associate Costa Rica with ecotourism - and that's about it.

I think there is another model future that Canadians can understand and it's one that will not only emulate - it's one that they can emulate with enthusiasm.

I know this because many Canadians already do this two weeks a year.

It became clear to me a couple years ago. Friends of ours had won a charity auction for a time-share of a large cottage in Northern Michigan and they invited my family and another to spend time with them for a better part of a week. It was an ideal cottage experience. Surrounded by trees and bird-song. Visits to beaches and nature reserves. Board and card games. Reading and radio. Conversation. Trips to farmer's markets and roadside stands. Communal meals. Beer with lunch. Wine with dinner. Friends and family.

Let me be clear that I don't think that actual cottage life is sustainable. Evidence overwhelming backs up the once controversial statement that "the city is the most environmentally benign form of human settlement."

But the cottage lifestyle is worth pursing - as is the cottage aesthetic. At the cottage, ordinary people have no problem buying biodegradable soap and taking  care so as not to upset the capacity of the septic tank. Second-hand unmatched furniture is the norm. Family photographs and local crafts line the wall. Bookshelves of books that are worn from sharing. Houses have names. Places have history.

Urban cottage living would be an understandably Canadian response to our global problems.

So please join with me in my new battle cry: "In the cul de sac, a lake!"

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Vacation as Reset Button plus 30 Days of TED

I think I have bookmarked this amazing article about the importance of setting up a proper space that will compel you to do the work that you are meaning to do.

I can't find this article because I have too many unorganized bookmarks and such stored temporarily for later reading and proper adding into my digital library. Except I never make time to revisit these things later.

I have two weeks staycation coming up and part of me wants to use that time as a great reset button where I take the space and time to make my space and time more conducive to spending time in my space.

But I'm not going to tackle this challenge on then. My resolve is not to make work when I'm supposed to be at rest. I'm not allowed to start any projects during my vacation. It will be a time to break my regular habits so after I my break I can slowly rebuild my days and in time, myself. I will read books. I will play games. I will let my mind wander.

Within the last week, I've stumbled upon two outlines how to establish good habits through 30 day challenges: this TED video by Matt Cutts and this much better post IMHO by Scott Young. I'm trying to start my first 30 day challenge with an easy win. I'm resolving to watch at least 2 TED Talks a day so eventually, I will have seen them all.

Now I've read conflicting information whether announcing your intentions makes one more likely or less likely to fulfill your goals so I'm not sure whether I should document my reviews for each TED Talk I see so as a compromise I'm going to opt out of the mandatory reviews for the moment. I'm going to keep it simple with one habit at a time.

My ultimate goal is to build a life that is more like vacation.

Monday, May 16, 2011

What are the technologies of the heart

I am hesitant in writing this. This is a post that will contain the words : heart, care, and compassion. As Krista Tippett says in her TED Talk, the term "compassion" is typically reserved for the saintly or the sappy. 

I watched Krista's TED talk yesterday along with a couple others. I always meant to watch all the TED Talks and I have tried to make it a habit. But what inevitably happens is that I start watching two or three a day, and then shortly thereafter, I get TooTooBusy and so I stop so I can attend to the work of my life. But then, after weeks of work, I feel empty and that I'm neglecting some part of my being and I so force myself to watch a couple TED Talks. Sometimes they inspire and resonate. Sometimes they make me feel sick with fear.

So, yesterday I saw Krista's talk about compassion and her plea for us to pay attention to "the technologies of compassion." And I started making a list in my head of possible technologies of compassion:
  • stories
  • the human touch (massage, hugs, hand-holding)
  • yoga
  • conversation
  • play
  • hospitality
  • gift giving
  • singing and music
  • art 
  • dance
  • free time
  • travel, pilgrimage
  • helping someone 
  • being helped
The next TED Talk I saw could not have fit any more closely to Krista's. It is His Holiness the Karmapa's The technology of the heart. I have to admit, I haven't finished watching his talk because his story of being whisked away from his family at age 7 to become a spiritual leader of Tibet struck me and sat with me. On my drive to work this morning, I re-wrote his story in my head as an anti-princess story that went like this...

And yesterday's third TED Talk I saw Eli Pariser's Beware online "filter bubbles". Eli makes a convincing case that as flawed as mass media is and was, at least the editors involved would nominally present "vegetable information" about wars and famines and other bad things that we don't want to see but we know we should whereas new technologies from Google and Facebook don't even pretend to have a moral centre.

And now, just now, the reason why I'm writing this post, I just read a great post by David Weinberger on Ethan Zuckman and the importance of serendipity and being cosmopolitan. And David, I think does a wonderful job of challenging Zuckman's notion that by introducing cosmopolitan elements (using libraries, geocaching, and other novelties) into our media diet that we, privileged North Americans, can come to care for Others Elsewhere.

But David does believe that we can be brought to care. And he uses TED Talks as an example.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

WIRED is dead. Long live the Internet

WIRED magazine is dead to me. I'm sure you stopped subscribing years ago when the CEOs started pushing the cyberpunks off its covers but, like the fool I am,  I kept up my subscription through those grim years of profiles of corporate rebels.

I started reading WIRED magazine in1996. Coincidentally, that's the last time there has been a woman who was not a model or an actress woman on its cover.

The embarrassing rash of boobies that have recently graced the cover of WIRED is the reason I've decided to become the straw that I'm slam-dunking on the camel's back. The refusal to dedicate a cover story to a woman has been a long-recognized problem but what I find particularly distressing is how current WIRED editor Chris Anderson takes no responsibility for perpetuating this imbalance. According to his comment to Cindy's Open Letter to WIRED, Anderson thinks that there is not a single woman in this world (who is not in the entertainment industry) who could sell WIRED Magazine, so its not his fault.

Isn't it convenient that according to WIRED Magazine technology can and will revolutionize everything single aspect of our lives... except the privilege of white men?

So "forget you" WIRED Magazine. If I can't sell your cover, I won't buy it either.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

5 books, group selection, depression, suffering, and games

One of my favourite websites of late is FiveBooks. The premise of the site is simple: Every day an eminent writer, thinker, commentator, politician, academic chooses five books on their specialist subject.  It's a simple project done well and well worth reading.

In July, I read Jonathan Haidt's five book selections on Happiness and I ever since I've been expanding the connections that he's made into a wider frame of reference to include some thoughts I've been having about games.

But before I get into games, I want to highlight a particular passage from Jonathan's Haidti's interview where he casually drops some ideas that are largely heretical to current evolutionary thinking

The reason I have found this book so wise is that I am interested in the possibility that human beings are products of group level selection. That’s the idea that we evolved in part by groups competing with other groups. I’ve come to believe that we have a variety of mechanisms in our minds that allow us to temporarily become like bees in a hive, and these experiences of collective merger are among our most prized and important experiences.

I was first introduced to the idea of group selection by Harold Bloom's book, Global Brain:  The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century. Bloom is not a scientist but an uninhibited free-thinker and I found his ideas fascinating and the lens of group selection a powerful one (while reserving judgment of whether such thinking is 'correct' or not). For example, he asks us to consider depression as a biological 'self-destruct mechanism' that can be triggered when an individual does not have strong ties to family or friends.

Now obviously this is a very powerful and dangerous idea and I think all of us know someone in our own circle of family and friends who have suffered from depression despite having strong social ties to people who love them. But I mention this concept only because I have recently read two different accounts of how the force of depression can be pushed back by encouraging the depressed person to become more social.  The first was this article in the Guardian that gives a brief summary of the book The Depression Cure: The Six-Step Programme to Beat Depression Without Drugs.

The second example is the account of Jane McGonigal's battle with a concussion that also included a bout of depression. In order to save herself from thoughts of suicide, Jane created a game called Superbetter for herself *and* her caretakers. The game worked.

There are several other ties between Jane McGonigal and some of her games and Jonathan's Haidti's book picks on happiness, with most obvious being the common interest in positive psychology. But to me, the most significant connection is that both researchers address the changing of mind to address human suffering: see Jonathan's book pick of the Dhammapada  and Jane's cookie-rolling manifesto : "When we're playing games, we're not suffering.".

In short, it's got me thinking along these lines: is the transformation that removes the drudgery of work in a game, similar to Buddhist transformation that removes suffering from pain?

I think I can find five books that suggests this is so. I've got two so far: The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia by Bernard Suits and Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. Let me know if you know other ones.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

This blog has moved

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Monday, January 18, 2010

A Jubilee for Haiti

I did not know that, in 2009, Canada "forgave" Haiti for $2.3 million in debt. I haven't done the research to see if Haiti owes any money to Canada still.

Haiti owes many countries millions of dollars from its long legacy of colonialism and dictatorship. And while million of people around the world are giving their money to the country, the IMF is instead increasing Haiti's existing loan program by $100 million to help it recover from the earthquake.

There is legislation being considered in the United States that would forgive Haiti of its debt so it can finally face a future unburdened by its past.

I so hope it catches interest and passes. I don't want to wait until 2051 for a Jubilee.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Friday, January 01, 2010

Your first mission

On December 30th, 2009, for the second time in as many years, Stephen Harper has asked the Governor General to prorogue parliament. Like last time, he will certainly get what he's asking for, forsaking his responsibility to be accountable to his employers, us Canadians citizens.

What can we do? Ask your MP to attend parliament anyways. What can we do? Ask your MP to attend parliament anyways. Think it can't be done? Check this out:

from Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Flooding the scriptorium

I haven't been reading much as of late. Perhaps this is why when I happened to pick up two magazines from my towering unread magazine stack and randomly pick an article from each and find that both pieces are dedicated to the commoditification of text - well, then, its feels like what I've read is destined to be something worth sharing.

The first article is The Answer Factory from the November issue of WIRED. Its a profile of a company that cranks out HowTo articles and videos in pursuit of profit via Google ads. The magnitude and scope of the crap that they produce is breathtaking.

The second article is not available in its entirety online. Its Rebecca Mead, The Publishing World, “The Gossip Mill,” The New Yorker, October 19, 2009, p. 62 and it profiles another company that churns out words for coin as well, but these words form stories that are group- and ghost-written for the young adult market.

Thanks to these articles, I now believe that there is nothing inherently lovely about words.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Death of newspapers cliche is perpetuated. By me.

I try to avoid cliché in my intermittent blog writings but sometimes I can’t help myself. And that’s why today’s topic is the death of the newspaper. And since I have already given into cliché once, why not do it again? Let’s start with a personal anecdote!

I grew up in a house that had, at a minimum, two newspapers delivered every day of the week. And until recently, I lived in the house that was the same: one local paper and one national paper. But then I found I couldn’t keep up with it all so I dropped my daily subscription to The Globe and Mail to Saturdays only. And then last week, I canceled my subscription to The Windsor Star.

Now there are a number of reasons why I canceled both my newspaper subscriptions. There’s part of me that would like to present the long list of my complaints and outline the necessary actions required to win me back over as a reader. But this is where the cliché must end.

Instead, I would like to bring to your attention to two essays that I have recently stumbled upon that better illuminate the scary predicament that newspapers find themselves in. The first is from a piece entitled, Old Media Blues.

Journalism is not being brought low by excess supply of content; it's being steadily eroded by insufficient demand for advertising pages. For most of history, most publications lost money, or at best broke even, on their subscription base, which just about paid for the cost of printing and distributing the papers. Advertising was what paid the bills. To be sure, some of that advertising is migrating to blogs and similar new media. But most of it is simply being siphoned out of journalism altogether. Craigslist ate the classified ads. eHarmony stole the personals. Google took those tiny ads for weird products. And Macy's can email its own damn customers to announce a sale.

Don’t believe it? Look at this photo:

Just a sample of the ad flyers I'm missing

After I stopped subscribing to The Windsor Star, I started receiving a massive batch of advertising fliers on Friday afternoon. I have a feeling that subscriptions of the paper have plunged due to the city's recent economic woes. (Local CUPE union members have also canceled their subscriptions to protest the paper's coverage of the current 'work stoppage'). Has it gotten so bad that the paper is continuing to deliver fliers for free in order to keep their advertising rates up? Evidently it has.

What’s particularly sad is the paper’s own pitch to subscribe to their paper. “Love sports? Love movies? Then you’ll love the newspaper!” -- which in our case, is stuffed with crappy wire copy coverage on these subjects from other CanWest newspapers. Are these newspaper folks stupid? Don’t they know that folks can just get on the Internet and have access to some of the best written coverage of every sport, entertainment genre, and niche interest? Well no, says Michael Nielsen. Newspaper folks aren’t stupid and they aren’t evil either. The newspaper industry is just stuck in an organizational architecture that doesn't allow for disruptive change.

Part of me feels badly about dropping my newspaper subscriptions on account that I really do believe in the societal importance of good journalism. But, as I have mentioned before, The Windsor Star is a bloated mass of advertising and bland wirecopy, peppered with bizarre right-wing syndicated columnists.

Each day there are only about ten items of local reporting and local opinion and that's what I want to read.

And the irony is that I find that I can find and read this local material much easier by following my local paper using Twitter.