Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Geezer in analysis

Stumbled upon this online gizmo called the Typealyzer that is designed to look at a blog and tell you what kind of fruitcake writes it.

Being an easy mark for this sort of thing, I immediately put GeezerOnline on the couch so Typealyzer could peer into its inner soul.

Typealyzer claims to analyze "how the language reflects our psychological type, and thus our motivations and interests." It says that each of us uses different personas at different moments, and what we write tells a lot about the particular social roles we adopt.

So apparently my type looks like this:
The logical and analytical type. [Sure, I guess, as long as it doesn't involve math or how to operate the microwave.]

They are especially attuned to difficult creative and intellectual challenges and always look for something more complex to dig into. [Actually, right now I'm digging into whether a bit of sour mix might enhance the Margarita, so right again!]

They are great at finding subtle connections between things and imagine far-reaching implications. [I find there's a subtle connection between my desire, nay need, to stay at the party and my imagining of the implications, which will include having to sleep on the couch in the den when I get home.]

They enjoy working with complex things using a lot of concepts and imaginative models of reality. [Right again! That's me. Definitely. My wife frequently tells me I have no concept of reality, whatsoever (her word).]

Since they are not very good at seeing and understanding the needs of other people, they might come across as arrogant, impatient and insensitive to people that need some time to understand what they are talking about. [Waddya mean "let's leave?" Geez, this party is just starting to roll!]

So, yeah, looks like this Typealyzer thing works pretty well.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The front page for everything

In 1995, I launched a website that has grown to become the most popular in a particular sector of Canadian society. My vision was that people would have our site open in their browers throughout the work day, checking it for solutions and ideas as they worked through their "to-do" lists.

Like most, our site structure was (and still is) hierarchical, enabling users to "drill down" from broad subject areas to specific articles, directories, etc. We spent a lot of time designing and organizing our home page because it was the way most people entered the site. Site search was pretty rudimentary, and that was OK because most people browsed anyway.

Over the years, our home page has gone through many iterations, and we still have discussions about ways to make it more attractive and functional. We introduced "bread crumbs" and other features to help users stay oriented during their sessions. Our site search technology is also better than ever.

But things are very different online than they were 14 years ago, and the biggest change has been Google. It has changed the way most of us interact with websites, even our most-visited favourites. When we have a question, our autoresponse is to key it into Google, which often returns pages from sites familiar to us, along with many that were not on our radar. We no longer enter those sites through the front door, but through millions of side doors. Of course, this has huge implications for website design.

This new way of finding what we want, in the deluge of information that threatens to drown us, was documented by David Weinberger in his book Everything is Miscellaneous. Weinberger's thesis is that, historically, we developed categories and hierarchies because they were necessary for finding things when we needed them. That was still the thinking in 1995 when we were designing our site.

The personal computer and online databases started the erosion, then Gopher, Archie, BBS's, usenet, and the web. But the search engine was the giant killer. It made all previous information-organizing structures seem cumbersome and restrictive.

Google has limitations. It doesn't measure the value of a particular item for the searcher. It doesn't evaluate the trustworthiness, reliability, integrity, or authority of the source. Nor does it rank the relevance of a set of returns. And it's a very long way from extracting meaning from disparate web pages, text, video, and audio files.

It's more of a chainsaw than a scalpel. But it's good enough to be the our first step for finding most of the answers we seek every day as we cope with real life. And it will get better.

There was value in the editor who decided what was worth publishing, and the librarian who decided how to categorize it, but we're not going back, are we?

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The trouble with Twitter

Let me say right up front that I like Twitter.

In fact, I may like it too damn much. It's the crack cocaine of the internet, the popular thing, addictive. It entices you with "followers." Superhuman levels of self-esteem and detachment are required for one to turn a blind eye to the growing (or falling) number of folks who are tuning in to one's "tweets."

I won't bore you with my bona fides, except to say that I have been online for almost 28 years, and have watched people (including myself) repeatedly chase after the latest new online idea. Twitter is but the latest of these, and there will be many more.

The debates and discussions now taking place with regard to Twitter mirror those of the early- and mid- 90s with regard to the internet itself --- Is it becoming too commercialized? Are there viable business models? Does it symbolize some profound social change? Will the whole thing collapse under its own weight? What role should it play in the communications and marketing strategies of organizations? Will Twitter itself become a money maker?

These, and many other, questions will be answered in due course.

Twitter is the local coffee shop of the 21st century, a place to socialize with friends and colleagues. A place to meet new people who share our interests. A place to exchange views on the passing scene, talk politics, refer a client, monitor public sentiment, share a bit of gossip or news. Lots of meaningless chatter and a few cogent remarks, all decaying instantly with the tick of the clock. That is its value, and its attraction.

And it allows us to "unfollow" with a mouse click the bores, nitpickers, and pushy salesmen.

But, it's easy to linger too long, to allow it to distract us, to become a time waster. I recognize that I am being seduced by it, and I think I see that happening to others, too.

So I am resolved to take a couple of daily coffee breaks at the Twitter cafe, and otherwise to leave it alone.

I need to re-engage with real life.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Hope

"Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow." --- Albert Einstein

Today, I offer you a creative and powerful little video on this theme.

(Please turn your speakers on.)



What do you think?

Friday, March 27, 2009

Who decides what is food?

I must admit that my gastronomical preferences are pretty mundane, although I have been known to order a Hawaiian pizza, and I'll pull off the road for fried clams anytime.

But I am amazed at some of the things considered to be food by other folks in the meatspace.

Pork is the source of a lot of this. People seem to delight in expressing their creativity with obscure pig parts.

To get started, how about Pickled Pork Rinds. Plain old fried pork rinds are a bit adventurous in my book, although I seem to remember reading somewhere that the first President Bush considered them a treat. In case you're wondering, pork rinds are the tough skin layer of pigs that remains after the meat has been removed. Pickling? I'm guessing that one day, after the chops and bacon and so on had been devoured, someone saw the hide just lying there and said "What the hey, let's pickle that and see whether Cletus will eat it." That's how food happens.

If you're bored with plain old
Boiled Pig's Feet, there are Pickled Pig Lips. No, this is not a new collagen treatment. Be sure to get the Cajun version.

And, staying with pigs for just one more moment, please consider Hog Head Cheese. To get started,
clean one large hog head by removing eyes, ears and brains. Saw it into 4 pieces. Put it in a large pot and boil until tender. Click for the rest of the details, if you must.

On the (loosely defined) beef side of things, you have tripe. This is made from
the first three chambers of a cow's stomach. Thorough washing is recommended.

The Scottish Haggis is a not-so-distant cousin of tripe, being a sheep's stomach stuffed with a variety of ingredients that includes sheep's heart, liver and kidney fat. Chasing it down with copious quantities of whisky is a prudent precaution.

Sorry Minnesota and Wisconsin, but Lutefisk makes our list. This is dried cod that has been soaked in a lye solution for several days, then boiled until it has the consistency of Jello.

You think Canada is just dulse and Nanaimo bars? You haven't tucked into a serving of Prairie Oysters, fried bull testicles served with sour cream and chives. Manly food indeed, usually served after the annual branding.

OK, let's kick it up a notch. How about Balut, a fertilized duck or chicken egg with a nearly-developed embryo inside? It is boiled and eaten in the shell with a pinch of salt.

Monkey brains, smoked bats, roasted maggots --- nothing is out of bounds for the imaginative carnivore.

Got a hankering for something sweet for desert? Chocolate covered insects and worms go well with an after-dinner brandy.

Hello, Pizza Hut?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Weird wonderful web

Sometimes we forget, as we check out the same humdrum mainstream sites day after day, that the web has always been a weird and wonderful place. So for those of you who don’t often venture down the back alleys of cyberspace, here are some stumbled-upon gems.
FileSwap.com where you can swap a file, any file, with someone you have never met, just because you can. You send one of your audio, video, pdf, or text files into cyberspace, and you get someone else’s file back.

• Grab a Remington and shave a Yeti at Shave My Yeti.

• Okay, I have no idea what this kaleidoscope of cats is all about.

• See the smoking monkey.

• Is your money having more fun than you? Go to Where’s George? to see where your $USD bills have been, or Where’s Willy? to track your Canadian currency.

and finally ...

• The Book of Numbers --- Well, it just is.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Is the advertising bubble bursting?

Did it peak when we began seeing advertising messages in the bottom of the hole as we retrieved our golf balls? Certainly, it was well underway when advertisements appeared over public urinals. I mean, what better times to sell someone something than when they just four-putted or when they're relieving themselves after a binge-drinking session.

A new study by IBM says that, with 60% of the population now using social networking tools like Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, and the zooming popularity of online music and video, advertisers need to wake up to a new way of doing things.

Specifically, the old approach of in-your-face-everywhere-all-the-time-despite-the-fact-you-detest-it (IYFEATTDTFYDI) advertising is heading the way of the cigar box guitar.

Customers are now looking for a dialogue, rather than just having companies shouting at them. Advertisers appear to be shocked. They liked the old way better.

But you can't just port the old ads over to the new media, so the more savvy among them are wising up to "permission-based advertising" and "interactive marketing," which is marketing-speak for pretending that they care about what you think, and want to chat with you about it.

Professor Eric Clemons of The Wharton School writes that "Pushing a message at a potential customer when it has not been requested and when the consumer is in the midst of something else on the net, will fail..." His basic premise is "the internet is not replacing advertising but shattering it, and all the king’s horses, all the king’s men, and all the creative talent of Madison Avenue cannot put it together again."

Clemons thinks "We will seek the information we want, when we want it, from sources that we trust more than paid advertising." He says people don't trust advertising, don't want to view it, and don't need it now that independent rating sites are available for most products and services.

Oh well, sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don't. Please don't squeeze the Charmin on your way out.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Is the internet making us stupid?

Google this question and you'll find 1,240,000 pages. This is obviously one of the great issues of our time. Why isn't the House of Commons debating this in Question Period?

No, wait, forget that. Question Period is proof that the internet is making us stupid. Maybe Oprah could do a program on it instead.

Opinion is divided.

On a BBC blog, Professor David Nicholas of University College London thinks heavy internet use "leaves people unable to concentrate, learn and read books in the same way as previous generations," while Canadian researcher Don Tapscott claims it "enables people to exercise their brains to the full." In fact, Tapscott thinks "the digital generation are more curious, sophisticated and intelligent than their parents."

Professor Nicholas is concerned that younger web users lack the information assessment skills to make sense of the vast amount of information they take in, compared to those from the age of card catalogues and the Dewey Decimal System.

That resonated with me.

I mean, if you really wanted to research Alien versus Predator, or smoking Smarties, you'd hike over to the reference library, right?

Could it be that, as e-phobic of East LA says, "Stupid people are becoming smarter and smart people are becoming stupid," and does that mean that we will eventually all meet in the middle?

And what are the implications for the future of civilization?

Whew, my brain is really getting tired thinking about this stuff. Gotta go read my Tweets.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Wake up Florida, or see snowbirds fly elsewhere

Let's face it, Florida's real estate-driven economy is based on attracting retirees with warm winters and plenty of golf courses, and that has been a winning formula for several generations.

But now there is competition, serious competition, and Florida needs to wake up. Baby boomers are turning 60 at the rate of 10,000 per day, and those are just the American boomers. Among others, Canadians, Brits, Germans, Netherlanders, and Scandinavians add more thousands to the ranks of retirees looking for a place in the sun. I have personally played golf with members of all these nationalities this winter in Florida. All were checking out the state with an eye to buying a retirement home.

We bought a condo in Florida 21 years ago. We were far from being seniors back then, but we were planning ahead, and Florida was the obvious choice at that time.

Now there are plenty of alternatives available --- Costa Rica, Arizona, California, Utah, Texas, the Carolinas, Ecuador, Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua, Malta, Panama, Belize, south of France, Turks and Caicos, Victoria BC, and Ireland, to name but a few.

Frankly, if we were buying now, I'm not sure we would come to Florida. We haven't felt particularly appreciated --- letters to the op-ed page of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune have repeatedly groused over the years about how snowbirds add to traffic congestion, drive up home prices (those were the days), and otherwise clutter up the place. Some locals have been particularly unkind in their comments about Canadian visitors, suggesting they just stay home.

Florida's Homestead Exemption and Save Our Homes Amendment mean that snowbirds may pay several times as much in annual municipal taxes as the Floridian next door. In other words, snowbirds are treated as cash cows, subsidizing the reduced taxes paid by the natives, even though the former are in residence for only a few months and therefore are consuming just a fraction of the services used by full time residents, and none of some services like education.

And of course, despite their disproportionately high contribution to the revenues of their municipality, they have no vote and therefore no say about local matters that affect them. Nor does Tallahassee pay any attention whatsoever to the lobbying efforts of such organizations as the Canadian Snowbird Association.

If a snowbird sells his retirement home, U.S. income tax is payable on any gain realized on the sale. Finally, at death, U.S. federal estate tax will apply.

To add insult to injury, some golf courses charge higher greens fees to golfers who don't possess a Florida driver's license.

Not to mention that all of these costs, when translated into Canadian dollars, carry a hefty premium.

Costa Rica beckons.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Habitat adapts to recession

Habitat for Humanity, the charity that is famous for building affordable homes around the world, is finding that it's cheaper to buy than build in southwest Florida. And it's demolishing and renovating in Michigan.

According to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the housing glut has driven prices of foreclosed single family homes as low as $35,000 for a 2-bedroom, detached home in North Port FL, one of the hardest hit markets in the U.S. That is below 1985 prices.

Habitat's typical costs for materials to build a 3-bedroom home are about $100,000, so it's picking up good deals in North Port, with prices ranging from $57,600 to $76,000. "We can't build houses this cheaply," said Michael Sollitto. "It's astounding, really."

Meanwhile, in Saginaw MI, it has an agreement with the city to demolish two vacant, dilapidated houses weekly for the next two years. This shrinking city has at least 800 vacant homes, so Habitat's Saginaw affiliate is leaning away from building new houses, and instead is fixing up old ones.

A great example of adapting to changing times.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

60% chance we avoid the abyss

Claiming that as many as 50 million people worldwide may lose their jobs in the current recession, The Economist points to countries where the risk is greatest that economic distress will foment social unrest.

"For the coming year or so 95 countries are judged to be at high risk of instability, compared with 35 in 2007. The most vulnerable states, such as Zimbabwe, suffer from a toxic combination of bad government and a free-falling economy," says the highly respected business newspaper on its website.

Unsurprisingly, Canada appears on the short list of countries unlikely to erupt socially, along with Greenland, Australia, the Scandinavian nations, and Japan.

Most South American and African countries have a High or Very High risk level. The U.S. is given a Moderate rating.

The Economist says there is a 60% probability that "government stimulus stabilises the global financial system and restores economic growth in leading developed markets in 2010." It recognizes that things could get a lot worse if stimulus fails, the U.S. dollar collapses, and deflation and sustained contraction lead to a multi-year, global depression.

The full report is available.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Nothing boaring about hog heaven

As some of you more worldly folk will know, the good people of Aberta, Canada, abhor the sight of a rat. But this is not about them.

This is about their neighbours in the province of Saskatchewan, who are developing a strong distaste for wild boar. "Livestock are terrified of them. Cows will run through brand-new fences, they're just terrified of them. Horses are the same way," says Kipling-area farmer Glen McMillan.

Production of the boars was once encouraged by the provincial government as a way of diversifying farm income. But now it's another example of a debacle produced by well-meaning people doing something that affronts Mother Nature. Some say the boars are running out of control because they have no natural predators other than the Siberian tiger, which is not found in Saskatchewan. Why is there never a Siberian tiger around when you need one?

Agriculture Minister Bob Bjornerud says he is considering a moratorium or a ban on the unwelcome guests.

Sure, when people fly.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Apologies for missing the sexting

Sorry, I just caught up with this. Apparently it is huge and has being going on for quite a while, so I'm not sure how I missed it, being at the cutting edge of social change and all.

It is sexting.

This refers to teenagers' habit of distributing nude self-portraits electronically by cell phone. Who knew? I have not been sexted, nor has anyone I know been sexted, or if they were they haven't mentioned it. Now that I think about it, I definitely do not want to be sexted by anyone I know. Let's hope senior citizens do not start sexting.

According to OnlineSecurityAuthority (OSA), "some prosecutors have begun charging teens who send and receive such images with child pornography and other serious felonies."

OSA says "In some cases, the photos are sent to harass other teens or to get attention. Other times, they're viewed as a high-tech way to flirt. Either way, law enforcement officials want it to stop, even if it means threatening to add 'sex offender' to a juvenile's confidential record."

Phillip Alpert found that out the hard way, according to the blog Cuban Revolution. In a fit of pique with his 16-year-old former girlfriend, Phil e-mailed naked photos of her to more than 70 people, including her parents, grandparents and teachers. His penalty --- 5 years of probation and registration as a sex offender.

That's it. Off to check my messages now.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Month one in the Twitterverse

One month ago, I signed up for this new thing called Twitter that allows anyone to say what's on her/his mind as long as it can be said in 140 characters or less.

At first it seemed to be just another useless timewaster. I "followed" a few of the online celebs that everyone else seemed to be following, and quickly "unfollowed" most of them when they filled my screen with tweets about taking a cab downtown, or cooking pasta, or putting the cat out. It's amazing how trivial the life of a celebrity can be. Where were the tweets about partying with Lindsay Lohan?

Anyway, it's a bit like whisky --- you have to stick with it for a while to acquire the taste.

I'm gradually picking up a few followers. Most seem to stick. They're a mixed assortment ranging from a university professor to an aspiring porn star. I follow most of them as long as they're not just huckstering a product. I figure it's a bit rude to just ignore a follower.

Like almost every social activity, some people are quite competitive about all this --- bragging about how many followers they have, where they rank on Twitterank, and such. Twitterank says it can "determine how worthy of a person you are in Twitterverse." My rank is 7.03 and I'm in the 22.06 percentile. I have no idea what that means, but everyone else I checked was way higher, so I guess I am not worthy.

So, as I sit here sipping a single malt, I'm thinking that I'll stick with Twitter for a while to see if it takes.

I'll twit you if things change.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Nothing to lose but their thrones

A decade ago, many of us hoped, that the internet would be an instrument for spreading freedom and democracy. We believed that citizens exposed to an international perspective and liberal ideas would put pressure for change on their autocratic leaders. We expected that they would also have a channel for communicating about these ideas with each other and with people beyond their own borders.

Regrettably, it didn't turn out that way.

"Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam have all transformed their Internet into an Intranet in order to prevent their population [sic] from accessing ‘undesirable’ online information,” says Reporters Without Borders.

Other techniques used by repressive regimes to scramble or jam online content include “orchestrating the posting of comments on popular websites or organising hacker attacks.”

In addition, chat rooms and personal eMail are often monitored, and expressing the wrong thoughts can bring a visit from the authorities.

It is difficult to be optimistic that this will change. Even China, which depends on the western democracies for its prosperity, has a policy called the Golden Shield that includes many of these methods, and the concept of a "Web political criminal." AsiaMedia says that, in China, "Publishing articles on the Internet can amount to 'committing an offense,' and 'radical views' may result in imprisonment."

Monday, March 16, 2009

Anybody you know?

Is it just me, or does this passage from Dinah Craik's The Little Lame Prince remind you of a certain politician?

"He did not mean to be cruel. If anybody had called him so, he would have
resented it extremely. He would have said that what he did was done entirely
for the good of the country. But he was a man who had always been accustomed to
consider himself first and foremost, believing that whatever he wanted was sure
to be right, and therefore he ought to have it. So he tried to get it, and got
it too, as people like him very often do. Whether they enjoy it when they have
it is another question."

Just wondering.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Can we have journalism without newspapers?

Okay, so here's the thing. Some of you know that I'm a big fan of good newspapers. I made a case for their survival right here in my Feb. 28/09 post.

But then a friend sent me a piece by Clay Shirky titled Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable. You might rightly ask "Who is Clay Shirky?" He is a self-described "producer, programmer, professor, designer, author, consultant" who thinks and writes about such things. All I can tell you is that Shirky makes a lot of sense. I commend the entire article to you if you care about the future of journalism and news media.

In fact, I think it contains a warning for any business, nonprofit organization, or other enterprise that thinks it is immune to social and technological changes.

The article's central proposition is best articulated by Shirky: "The competition-deflecting effects of printing cost got destroyed by the internet, where everyone pays for the infrastructure, and then everyone gets to use it. And when Wal-Mart, and the local Maytag dealer, and the law firm hiring a secretary, and that kid down the block selling his bike, were all able to use that infrastructure to get out of their old relationship with the publisher, they did."

It's clear that the economics of newspapering have been deteriorating for quite a while, and that newspapers have not found a viable, alternative, business model. Unfortunately, as I said in my earlier post, and as Shirky writes in his article, real journalism largely gets done by newspapers. I'm talking here about the investigative projects and local reporting for which there are no replacements.

When I ran Shirky's article by a respected (newspaper) journalist, she replied, correctly, "Musing is not reporting." There is a lot of musing going on (including this blog), but without reporting, there would be little to muse about.

Craigslist and Monster are the 21st century equivalent of the classifieds section of the newspaper. Newspapers are being cherry-picked apart by online services that do not have the cost burden of printing presses, circulation systems, and journalists.

Even if you eliminate the first two by moving online, you will still be uncompetitive because you must pay for the journalism --- the people and the enabling systems. The alternative is to publish wire service copy, add a couple of syndicated columnists, throw in some local sports scores, and put out a rag indistinguishable from any of a thousand others. That's the only thing available in many communities now.

That's the crux of the problem, not just for newspaper publishers, but for all of us, because we need journalists. We need them to keep politicians and baseball team owners on their toes, to investigate corporate shenanigans, to keep an eye on city hall, to tell us stories about the achievements and sufferings of our fellow citizens, to give us stuff to think about. Without them we will become unthinking know-nothings fed a diet of happy-happy, dumbed-down trivialities by News at Six.

Can we have journalism without newspapers? That is the question. If you hear the answer, please let me know.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Call of the web

The future of the web is .... wait for it ... the telephone.

So says Sir Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the world wide web, and director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) that guides the web's development. Speaking yesterday on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of his proposal for the web, he said mobile phones will form a key part of its future.

Berners-Lee thinks that "In developing countries it's going to be exciting because that is the only way that a lot of people will actually get to see the internet at all."

Happy birthday www

I'm sure that, two decades ago, not even Tim Berners-Lee could have foreseen all that the world wide web (a phrase he coined for his conception) would become by this day, its 2oth birthday.

What a ride it has been, from those early days as a medium for exchanges between academics at a few universities, through Marc Andreesen's creation of Mosaic, the first widely used browser. Remember those agonizingly slow and fragile dial-up connections, and the heated debate about whether commercial sites should be permitted?

In February, Netcraft identified 215,675,903 web sites, up by 30 million from January as a large swack of Chinese sites appeared.

There is now an entire generation of people who have been born and grew up in the wired world, and they will shape it in ways we can not conceive. What will the next 20 bring?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Can magnetized crocodiles get home?

Among the stranger stories to come this way is the news that magnets are being taped to crocodiles in south Florida.

Turns out the crocs have a kind of primitive but powerful navigation system that lets them follow the earth's magnetic fields to get home.

Okay, here's the background. The American crocodile was close to extinction, but it is making a comeback in Florida, to the point where it is now just "threatened." While it was away, a lot of houses, condos and golf courses were built, so home is now some snowbird's backyard, or a shopping centre parking lot.

Which means it is scaring the heck out of Marsha from Indiana who desires no truck with toothy carnivores. She then calls the cops, who call the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, which relocates it (the croc, not Marsha) to somewhere less confrontational.

The hope is that the magnets will mess up its homing instinct so it doesn't make it back to Marsha's backyard. This apparently worked in Mexico.

And, oh yeah, if you find one stuck to the underside of your Buick, you'll know why.

Whither Canadian TV?

Konrad von Finckenstein, chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) says Canada's television business model is broken.

That means an audience that is abandoning the CBC, CTV and Global for specialty channels, pay-per-view, YouTube, Hulu, Apple TV, Veoh, and an exploding list of alternatives. Plus a recession in which sponsors' ad budgets are shrinking. In November, CTV cut 105 staff in Toronto, including my personal favourite, entertainment reporter Jacintha Wesselingh (sigh).

When I heard that von Finckenstein was considering more regulation, my initial reaction was "Here we go again --- more disastrous meddling by bureaucrats."

Then I read an article by the Globe and Mail's Konrad Yakabuski that said the private conventional networks spent $767-million on imported programming in 2008, compared with $616-million on Canadian-made productions. But it gets worse --- strip out news and sports and they spent only $86-million on Canadian dramatic productions like Corner Gas and Little Mosque on the Prairie, compared with $515-million on imported dramas like Grey's Anatomy and House.

Mr. von Finckenstein apparently doesn't see that as a formula for success, and he may have a point. He has suggested requiring networks to match dollars spent on Canadian programming with those spent on imported shows. That would also dovetail nicely with a presumed "more cancon" objective. But it all comes perilously close to making television an instrument of the state, doesn't it? Please tell me I'm not having a Fox News moment.

The networks are addicted to the high grade stuff coming in from south of the border, and withdrawal would be nasty. Viewers with alternatives would likely turn elsewhere to find their favourites. Then there is the the question of adequate supply from domestic producers.

Sticky business. Canadian Idol fans stay tuned.

Massive change brings opportunities

Overdosed on bad news? Recession got you down? Worried about losing your job, or your business? Is that what's bothering you, friend?

Buck up boyo. Relief can be here in a flash. When big changes happen, as we're seeing right now, big opportunities reveal themselves to the truly entrepreneurial.

But only if you're looking. Look for these:

1. Solutions for new problems.
Big societal shifts translate into problems for people and organizations, problems they didn't have before. Maybe problems that nobody has had in living memory. Identify those problems and come up with viable solutions.

Child daycare is an historical example. Once upon a time there was babysitting. This was the domestic equivalent of being a warden in the county jail. But as families discovered that both parents needed to work to achieve the American dream, and that little Johnny and Janie needed mental stimulation beyond staring at soap operas on TV, the daycare industry emerged to solve that new problem.

MyUS.com
is a more recent example, driven by the skyrocketing popularity of online shopping. Plenty of U.S. vendors wanted to sell their wares on the internet, but did not want to deal with the shipping and payment problems involved with serving foreign buyers. Eric Baird came up with a solution and built a $26 million company.

2. New solutions for old problems.
Problems that we've seen before come around again, but the ways they were handled in the past are no longer adequate, socially acceptable, environmentally friendly, etc. Find the 21st century solutions.

Outplacement services are a classic example from history. When a serious recession hit in 1981, companies had to dump employees in huge numbers. Many of those people had 15 - 25 years of faithful service. Unlike today, companies in that day were expected to reward loyalty with a job for life (Yes, children, it was a magical time). Outplacement/relocation services had been around for a few years, but were mostly reserved for CEOs and V-Ps. Now they became standard procedure when companies terminated middle managers, professionals, even sales reps and admin staffers. It wasn't socially acceptable for a "good corporate citizen" to do otherwise. If you couldn't offer a lifetime position, at least you could get the worker some letdown counselling and help with a job search. Entrepreneurs rushed to fill the need and an industry was born.

Get going. Now!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Property crimes in cyberspace

Cyber-squatting, the registration of a domain name with the intent of selling it to the legitimate owner, is just extortion by another name.

This practice rose by 18% in 2008, to 1,722,133 reported incidents, according to MarkMonitor, and of course there are many more that go unreported. My own company has frequently been a victim of cyber-squatting, and its close cousin false association --- the registration of a domain name similar to that of a popular website in order to direct unsuspecting users to bogus or offensive pages.

Then there is misdirection, the trick of including a popular site's name in metatags (invisible headers for a web page), or in visible text, in order to send search engine traffic to the offender's own web site instead of the site the searcher is seeking.

These sites are often nothing more than a collection of Google AdSense ads. Google policing of this appears largely ineffectual, as these sites persist for months and years. When we challenge them, they typically just flip us the digital bird. They know that most organizations have neither the time nor the budget to pursue legal remedies, so the internet continues to be the modern day equivalent of the wild west.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Is cyberspace just an echo chamber?

So, what with all this twitting and blogging and forums and chatrooms and social networking and e-learning, cyberspace must be a huge petri dish of original thought. I mean, with all that intelligence hooked up and sharing, debating, brainstorming, this is the idea generator of our time, right?

Not according to Kalle Lasn,
Adbusters’ founder and editor-in-chief. In an interview on the Adbusters blog , he says "I see a lot of frenetic activity in cyberspace, but a lot of it is like the postmodern hall of mirrors. It’s just people sending email messages to each other, hand on the mouse, and you think that you’ve done something great if you get some big idea here and send an email to your friend, and pass it on, and you think you have made some sort of a big thing for the day. I don’t actually see too many really new ideas coming out of cyberspace yet. I see a lot of new ideas still coming out of philosophers, musicians, thinkers, sociologists, a few economists. I think that the big ideas are still coming out in the traditional way, and then they start to reverberate within cyberspace. They are amplified there in cyberspace."

Too harsh? I'd like to hear some arguments to the contrary.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

A union movement renaissance?

Will a prolonged depression give rise to renewed growth in organized labour, as occurred in the dirty thirties? Does the internet provide a release valve for workers' frustration, or is it more likely to be a tool for bringing them together in common cause?

John Atlas, writing at EverydayCitizen.com thinks "neither the Internet activists nor for that matter, the groups funded by the billionaires of the left like George Soros, or today's union and environmental organizations are likely to provide the kind of energy, passion, certainty and unity of ... the auto, mine and other workers of the 30s."

Certainly that was a period of huge change. FDR used the union movement to put pressure on elected representatives who were resisting his New Deal initiatives. The movement grew, and became a major force through the 40s, 50s, and 60s. But its back was broken by the time Reagan faced down the air traffic controllers in 1981.

The final nail in the coffin was driven by individual affluence. With big houses, high salaries, and jobs plentiful, who needed unions? They were viewed in most quarters as anachronistic, reactionary drags on free enterprise and its promise of a glorious future for all.

But massive job losses are potentially destabilizing, and hunger is highly motivating. Backs to the wall, people will look for ways to express their anger and frustration, and come together to exercise the power of the collective.

It would be a major mindshift for a generation of knowledge workers to identify with their opposite numbers in the "old economy" of manufacturing and mining who have always formed the core of organized labour, but desperation breeds strange bedfellows.

If the recession becomes a prolonged depression, will legions of the Silicon Valley and Wall Street unemployed man the barricades, and storm the head offices of Apple and Microsoft? Perhaps not, but they will undoubtedly use their blogs and Facebook accounts to similar ends.

What was the labour movement in its heyday but social networking employed in the service of social change?

Friday, March 6, 2009

The great reset

The "long depression" of 1873, the "great depression" of 1929, and the current financial meltdown --- all are resets of the economy, according to influential "thought leader" Richard Florida, speaking to George Stroumboulopoulos on CBC's The Hour this week.

When the dust has settled, Florida says New York, Chicago, and Toronto will be among the winners. Phoenix and Las Vegas will be losers. Others, like Detroit and Windsor, will have to reinvent themselves.

One of his keys to being a winner is economic diversity, and particularly the presence of industries based on the "creative class", which is Florida-speak for knowledge workers. In his view, that means moving away from an economy based on manufacturing.

While acknowledging a terrible situation for many people, he calls it "a necessary correction in the way we see ourselves," similar to the lessons learned by people in the depression of the 1930s. He hopes that "at the end of this, we have something better."

See the interview at http://tinyurl.com/ct4kyx

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Pffflllaaaaaaaaaattt

Trevor Cox, Professor of Acoustics at Salford University in Manchester, England, can usually be found doing important, complicated acoustic research stuff.

But, right now, he's looking into whoopie cushions.

To support UK charity Comic Relief, Cox is running an online experiment that gives everyone the opportunity to rate the sounds of various whoopie cushions. Have a go yourself at Sounds Funny.

Smackdowns, bitch slaps, and other debating tactics

It's brutal out there, particularly if you're putting yourself or your ideas forward, or if you just wear the wrong dress to the Oscars. Assassins lurk in the bushes, waiting to attack, just for sport.

A putdown mentality is taking over, writes Judith Timson in the Globe and Mail, as readers post schoolyard taunts on media websites and elsewhere. She thinks "the basic unwillingness even to engage in civil disagreement over real ideas is growing at a disturbing rate."

And then there's "viral ridicule" --- Rick Mercer's 2000 campaign to change Stockwell Day's first name to Doris, and Tina Fey's lampoon of Sarah Palin are classic examples.

Of course Mercer and Fey have little in common with the semi-literate offerings of the blogosphere boobs. Still, people do pile on until fragile egos are bruised and public images are in tatters.

American author David Denby writes that there is “an enormous audience that enjoys cruelty as a blood sport.”

Maybe Timson and Denby are onto something. I certainly find it hard to watch the attack dog tactics of some talk show hosts. In fact, I don't know why anyone would agree to be a guest on those shows, given the certainty that they will be shouted down and verbally abused.

All of this is further evidence of the coarsening and polarization of public discourse, trends that have accelerated in recent years. Surely one who employs these thuggish tactics is unlikely to change any minds, and is only strutting around for the benefit of his posse.

But, getting back to the original premise, Timson gives us the answer --- the democratizing effect of the internet. She concludes, "It's a free-for-all. Under the guise of anonymity, and with the ease of clicking “send,” anyone can have at anyone."

Yep.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Make friends, get rich

"It's widely accepted that friendships are invaluable to the soul but few of us were aware that they could also boost the bank account," writes the BBC's Tom Geoghegan.

"
A study of 10,000 US students over a period of 35 years suggests the wealthiest people are those that had the most friends at school. Each extra schoolfriend added 2% to the salary," he writes.

Apparently people have, on average, 150 friends. Typically there is an inner circle of five, plus 10 more who belong to your "central group."

Much more fascinating stuff about friendship in this BBC News Magazine article.

Cookie fraud teaches Girl Scouts a life lesson

From the disgusting slimeballs department comes this news story from Bremerton WA where four people are in jail after buying cookies from Girl Scouts with counterfeit $20 bills.

Troop leader K.C. Gettings went to a bank Saturday to get change and was told she had two counterfeit $20 bills. She then found an additional $60 worth of fake bills in the cookie receipts for a total loss of $100.That's 25 boxes of cookies.

An 18-year old woman turned in her partners in crime after being spotted dumping a box of counterfeit bills into a dumpster.

“We're going to teach the girls about fraud, about the criminals and things that are going on. They're going to get a fraud badge and we’re also going to do a tour of the police station,” said Gettings.

Monday, March 2, 2009

On the differences between men and women

If a woman has to choose between catching a fly ball and saving an infant's life, she will choose to save the infant's life without even considering if there are men on base.
Dave Barry

Sunday, March 1, 2009

When will the recession be over?

The New York Times asked 10 experts for their opinions on the day's most topical question. Well, maybe second most topical to "Will Vernon Wells' hamstring be ready for Opening Day?" Click for the economists' full answers. For news on Wells, click here.

A sampling:

• Nouriel Roubini sees the possibility of an "L" shaped growth curve extending through 2011.

• James Grant says today's low prices are the market's own stimulus, but refuses to guess when markets might head up again.

• Stephen S. Roach warns that a "false dawn" created by government stimulus may be followed by more darkness as consumers' "new frugality" extends the recession to late 2010 or early 2011.

• A. Michael Spence thinks that, if we get quick, coordinated global intervention by governments, we might get through this by the end of 2010. If not, it will be worse than that.

• William Poole thinks we might see the end in the second half of this year if government avoids "misguided" and "heavy-handed" intervention that impedes the "self-correcting nature of markets."

• Niall Ferguson sees something less steep than, but just as prolonged as, the Great Depression. He says that might mean two more years of contraction, followed by two more lean years.