Penelope Trunk says we need less travel – I say we need fewer after-school specials
August 25, 2009, 10:27 am
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I’m a big fan of Penelope Trunk’s blog – it’s insightful, sometimes racy (which is always fun) and it talks to 20-somethings like they’re thoughtful, intelligent people rather than a generation of spoiled, irresponsible, self-entitled laze-abouts.

Last week, Penelope posted this article about why travel is a waste of time. And I had a really odd reaction to it.

I don’t disagree with it – in fact, I think there’s merit in everything she says, though I personally really enjoy travel and find that you can get a lot out of it.

No, my odd reaction came specifically from item #4 in Trunk’s list, which essentially boils down to the idea that it is far more productive and rewarding to build an every-day life that is so fulfilling, you don’t need to get away from it to find satisfaction, which makes travel kind of pointless.

In a lot of ways, this makes perfect sense. Why only enjoy your life for two weeks out of the year when you could enjoy it year-round with a bit of self-knowledge and a very small dose of enterprise? But here’s where things got interesting for me – my gut reaction to that idea was crippling anxiety.

Then I thought to myself, what the hell? Why on Earth would the thought of self-knowledge and self-fulfilment cause anxiety, of all things? Why would the thought of figuring out what makes me happy, and then doing it, make me want to run screaming from my computer?

And I don’t think it’s just me that has trouble with that idea. I sometimes wonder – moreso after today – whether the 20-something identity crisis is more a product of anxiety than a lack of options. It’s not that we don’t know ourselves – it’s that we’re afraid to admit to ourselves what it is that we really want out of life and that anxiety makes it very difficult to move forward. But none of us has any idea where that anxiety comes from, let alone how to deal with it.

Fortunately, I have a theory – and it’s just one, and very unscientific, so do with it as you will. But here it is nonetheless.

All our lives we’ve been told “if you can dream it, you can do it! :D”

This is a nice thought. But it inspires people to take a very goal-oriented approach to happiness. In other words, it’s a way of thinking in which your only interaction with your potential happiness is to imagine some kind of end result.

Now, having the goal in mind is crucial, even essential, to success. But being so focussed on the goal that you lose sight of the process makes the gap between where you are and where you’re trying to get absolutely enormous. Not just enormous – insurmountable. And since nobody has been saying anything about the process – just about “Dreams!” and “Shooting for the Stars!” and all that nonsense, everybody is completely focussed on the finish line with no idea how to even get to the starting gate.

So this is where the anxiety comes from – we’ve all grown up dreaming about all the things we’re going to do when we grow up and now we’re suddenly in our 20s and in a position where we have to actually do something to make them happen. But nobody really knows what that something is. And that makes the gap between where we are and where we want to be so intimidating that many of us simply don’t bother. Instead, we get an unfulfilling 9-to-5 job and try to fill the gap with toys (sometimes literally, since much of the market for escapism right now is based on nostalgia for when we were kids in the ’80s, e.g., the new Transformers and GI Joe movies). Or alcohol. And we work and hate our lives and take two weeks vacation every year to try to get some fulfilment when what we need most is an honest examination of what we want and a practical look at what it takes to get there. And a serious reduction in this “If you can dream it, you can do it! :D” BS.

But I’m still going to travel. The world is neat.


Simon Cowell, Schmimon Cowell
June 9, 2009, 5:26 pm
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Stephen King wrote a book called On Writing that’s half auto-biography and half an advice piece for getting published as a fiction writer. One thing he says that’s always stuck with me is the fact that he got something like 200 rejection letters before someone finally decided to publish “Carrie” and he kept every single one of them. Apparently he found them motivating because they reminded him that at least he was doing everything he could to get his work out there.

I’ve always found this anecdote to be great motivation in the face of rejection (like now, for example, as I contemplate a rejection for one of my own recent submissions). I find it acts as kind of antidote to the nonsense myth that shows like American Idol or Britain’s Got Talent perpetuate, that finding an audience is a matter of having a ton of natural talent and just getting the chance to be discovered.


Sure, raw talent helps, it might even be a requirement, but the most important ingredient to artistic success as far as I’m concerned is hard work and persistence. There is no such thing as an overnight success and I feel like a lot of people waste a lot of time and angst sitting around waiting to be discovered because they’re not willing to go out and pound the pavement a little, as though if you have to work to convince people to listen to you, it mars the purity of your talent. Or something.

When you really dig into the stories of many people’s careers, I imagine you’ll find that success is mostly a lot of thankless effort punctuated by one big break that wouldn’t have happened without the afore-mentioned thankless effort.

Sure, getting published is about being at the right place at the right time, but the more places you are and the more time you spend there, the more likely it is you’ll stumble over that magic opportunity. And the more work you put in, the more of the little baby steps you’ll be able to take that will give you access to those spaces where people are more likely to get noticed. And nobody is going to drag you into those places, you really have to take it on yourself to find them and then wriggle your way in.

In other words, screw American Idol – hard work gets you noticed and real artists make their own luck. Your best friend when it comes to getting published isn’t Simon Cowell, it’s you.

To human pop-up ads: my brain is programmed to fear you

Ahh, summer in Toronto. Patio furniture. Summer concert festivals. Buskers. I do love it here this time of year.

If there’s one thing that I don’t love about summer in the city, however, it’s those cheerful volunteers, usually teens or 20-somethings, who stand at street corners and along major downtown routes wearing fleece sweater vests, carrying black, logoed binders and asking you if you “have a second to talk about (insert cause here) today?”

They’re human pop-up ads. And they drive me nuts.

I actually struggle with my dislike for these people. After all, they’re only doing their jobs. Plus, they are uniformly pleasant and friendly and they are always working on behalf of causes that, on some level, I have no trouble supporting, such as AIDS research or the Hospital for Sick Children or the World Wildlife Fund.

And yet, it takes great force of will to stay civil as I pass them (sometimes several times a day), smile through my teeth and politely decline their request for a few moments of my time. I feel like I’m being a jerk about it, but something about them just bugs the crap out of me.

Fortunately, I think I’ve figured out what it is.

This street-corner strategy is a kind of opt-out marketing – the type that presumes your participation and that you have to actively avoid. It’s like the old model of television advertising, where advertisers could assume that if they put a commercial on a screen that you were already watching, your inertia would keep you glued to that screen and you would likely consume the message. Sure, you could opt-out by getting up and making a sandwich, but chances are you probably wouldn’t. If nothing else, there are three commercial breaks every half-hour and how many sandwiches can you really eat?

But now that so much of the media we consume is on the internet or on-demand or on DVD (which makes it easier to pick and choose what you watch and when – advertising or otherwise), I’m starting to feel like I should really only have to pay attention to ads if I damn well feel like it. So when something forces its way into my field of view, the way commercials used to interrupt my television watching, it comes as something of a shock. I almost feel like the ad is being rude, like it’s invading my personal space.

And since consuming media has become so much more personal in a lot of ways, that invasion just feels that much more…well, invasive.

I’m starting to wonder if these changes in the way media is consumed have rewired my brain to switch into a kind of mild, xenophobic fight-or-flight response whenever anything tries to force its way in uninvited. That would certainly explain why my immediate reaction to pop-up ads – human or online – is to either flee or tell the ad in no uncertain terms to go do terrible things to itself. I don’t do it most of the time – but I want to.

So there you go, all you cheerful volunteers with binders and sweater vests – I apologize for my rudeness, but I assure you, it’s not your fault. You’re doing good work, but you are a human pop-up ad and my brain has been pre-programmed to fear you. There’s nothing I can do.

Life Imitating Art
June 1, 2009, 12:34 am
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This weekend at a club I witnessed a real, live, spontaneous break-dance battle. Two strangers laid it all out on a dance floor, complete with semi-ironic chest thumping. I swear it looked exactly like something out of that Run DMC vs. Jason Nevins music video. It was awesome.

I love when the real world spontaneously does something that you usually only see in movies. It’s so much fun.

The Interesting Case of The Slip
May 19, 2009, 4:41 pm
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A couple of weeks ago, I went on a Nine Inch Nails bender and listened to nothing but NIN for about 10 days straight (it was largely thanks to this trailer for Terminator: Salvation, which is one of the better movie trailers I’ve seen in quite some time). Invariably, I wound up returning to NIN’s 2008 album The Slip. And I got to thinking how brilliant it is.

It’s not brilliant in terms of the music – personally, I much prefer The Fragile. But it is brilliant in terms of how well it embraces digital music distribution.

For one, it is distributed for free online under a creative commons license, which means that not only can anyone interested get a copy at no cost, they can do whatever they want with it – copy it, redistribute, use it in a podcast, remix it, sample it, WHATEVER.*

One problem I think some content producers have with internet distribution is that once you release something in the ether of the interwebs, you pretty much give up all control over it. You can’t stop someone from messing around with it and you can never, ever delete it. For people who still think that their content belongs to them once it’s been released to an audience, this is scary. NIN obviously has no trouble with it, which is nice to see.

Another neat thing about The Slip is how well it incorporates visual media into the digital release. If you’re listening to it on an iPod Touch, for example, each song is displayed with its own cover art and if you tap to click over to the alternate screen, you get an alternate piece of artwork with the lyrics superimposed over-top.

I think this was the first time I’d seen an album that so cohesively incorporates visual elements into the album experience and does so with such a sharp eye to the way that the album will be experienced through hand-held digital players (if anyone has examples of others, I’m interested to hear about them).

To me, this album represents a moment analagous to when learners of new languages go from composing in their maternal language and translating to the acquired one to thinking and composing entirely in the new language.

Up to now (or, I guess, May 2008 when The Slip came out), the approach to media on the internet seemed to be to put stuff online, but to continue to try to apply and enforce the old rules of distribution (e.g., by controlling redistribution based on copyright). As the RIAA can probably tell you, that wasn’t a huge success. The Slip is an example of someone fully embracing new media – or, if you will, finally thinking in the new language of digital distribution.

It’s a pretty neat development and I hope it continues.

*As noted in this review

Protesting is making it worse
May 14, 2009, 9:39 pm
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I’ve never been a fan of the public demonstration as a medium. Very few people who organize them seem to really know how to use them effectively. There are rare examples of public demonstrations that have resulted in real social change – most, though, tend to be more alienating than inspiring.

The recent protests by members of Toronto’s Tamil community are seriously running the risk of falling into the former category. Despite the evidence suggesting that these protests may be accomplishing their short-term goals (Canadian politicians are finally starting to discuss the situation in public forums), you have to wonder if they’re going to make any contribution to the peaceful, long-term resolution of the conflict in Sri Lanka or if they’re simply going to cause frustration and resentment among the people of Toronto and Canadians generally.

Here’s why.

The prevailing concern in a protest such as the ones in Toronto is getting attention. Their purpose is to get as many people as possible to hear a particular message, thus giving the message maximum impact.

The problem is that for all protesters’ skill in getting people to pay attention to them, a huge number seem completely clueless when it comes to the articulation of their actual position.

There seems to be a common assumption among protesters – including the ones in Toronto – that the truth of one’s position will speak for itself, if only you can shout it loudly enough. But the truth never speaks for itself, no matter how loud it is. “Truth” has to be sold, and there are ways to sell an audience on a position that are effective and there are ways that are not. The most effective ways involve making clear, cogent statements, taking into account the particular qualities of an audience that would likely lead them to accept or reject a given position.

Far from being clear or cogent, however, protests tend to boil down sophisticated positions about murky political situations into catchy slogans and hand-scrawled signs, both typically fewer than 10 words long (see slide #6 on this page for examples of the kinds of slogans being used in the Toronto protests). Without the application of considerable amounts of care and skill, protests almost inherently reduce complex messages to absurd oversimplifications, which are rarely all that convincing.

Many demonstrators attempt to compensate for this deficiency in their medium by using powerful, attention-grabbing language and imagery. The Toronto Tamil protests, for example, have thrown about willy-nilly comparisons to the Holocaust and the Rwandan disaster of the mid-90s, as well as that international button word, Genocide.

Unfortunately, concrete information to justify these analogies is not easy to come by at a protest (or, as I’ve found, even if someone does a bit of independant research at home). It may be that the comparisons are reasonable but without essential, contextualizing information, phrases such as “Canada aid pays for genocide” come off as meaningless hyperbole.

The result of all of these rhetorical missteps is that the protest’s message becomes reduced to a series of trite and easily ignorable sound bites that leave its audience more annoyed by the inconvenience the protest has caused than moved by its message. If a message isn’t compelling, people just don’t listen, no matter how loudly you are shouting it at them. Then they tend to get annoyed that you are shouting at them. And your communication strategy falls flat.

It’s likely, then, that the Toronto protests have done nothing to advance the Tamil cause in the long run. Even where official acknowledgment of the disaster suggests that the protest’s message is getting across, reception of the message remains mixed. Dalton McGuinty provides an example of this when he reminds us of the world’s responsibility to end violence and strife, but adds that “there’s a right way and a wrong way to protest” .

A very unscientific study of the interwebs* suggests that this mixed opinion is shared by many other Canadians, who are still very concerned about the tactics used by the protesters and the importing of Sri Lankan politics to Canada, even if some are starting to acknowledge that the violence in Sri Lanka has got to stop.

So have the protests contributed to an imminent ceasefire in Sri Lanka? It’s possible. And let us all hope so.
But have they garnered support for an independant Tamil state or changed the perception of the LTTE? Not likely.

In the end, it looks like these protests have been more successful in alienating Torontonians than in gaining large amounts of sustained sympathy and support. And these are two things that Sri Lankan Tamils desperately need if they are going to be party to a peaceful resolution of the conflict and not just the losing side in a bloody civil war.

*i.e., a quick survey of newspaper comment boards and Facebook groups which reveals very little support in Canada for the LTTE – the idea that the ethnic tensions should be left out of Canada is still a very prominent theme on message boards, and Facebook groups in support of the LTTE are few and sparsely populated. In fact, as I write this, I’ve just been invited to join one called “STOP THE TAMIL PROTEST IN TORONTO” –

May 14, 2009, 2:04 am
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This blog is about exactly what the subtitle says it’s about – life and the media. Every aspect of life – your career, your values, your political views, your free time, even your circle of friends – are all constructed by various communications media from TV to movies to the internet. By understanding these things we understand ourselves.

Now of course, trying to fully understand the nature of life and society is a little ambitious for a blog. But talking about language, comics, film, music, writing, and the interwebz is endlessly entertaining, and even occasionally enlightening. So that’s what we’re going to do.

My name is Ian and I’m a twenty-something living in Toronto. I have a day job in marketing and I’m slowly working on building a freelance writing career and getting published as a fiction writer. I’ve been a cartoonist (and read comics incessantly) and a musician/song writer and I think way too much about movies and the media. All of these experiences are where I’ll be getting the source material for this blog. That and living in Toronto. Toronto’s an interesting place, I don’t mind telling you.

So there you go – consider yourself oriented. Welcome aboard, it should be a good ride – either way, off we go.