CHANGE IS GOOD

It’s been a few days but here it is: the complete and total relaunch of this blog. After following the advice of a few people and taking some much-needed suggestions, here it is – a blog that’s going to focus on shorter posts, a more irreverent tone and more interesting (at least to a broader audience) stuff. It’s all about guy’s stuff, or at least miscellany that seems to fascinate us. There’s plenty of lad mags out there, plenty of smarter men’s magazines out there, but are there a lot of men’s blogs? Yup, sure are. I’m just adding to the thousands of them. It’s also a work-in-progress as the weeks go by.

In the spirit of shorter posts, here’s a few worthy items today:

ISLA FISHER: Ms. Sacha Baron Cohen reportedly yelled out in a bar a few days back she’s pregnant (don’t ask me why this is leading the first post).

She’s about to have a big role in The Lookout which debuts today, but Esquire has this month a fawning tribute to Fisher in all her glory. Come on, Stage 5 Gloria is worthy of a leading post, yes?

MEN’S STYLE: Here’s the bottom line – most men need to know how to dress fairly well these days. Best book for rookies (and intermediates like me) is Russell Smith’s Men’s Style book. It will form the basis for a lot of stuff on here in the future.

HOME BREWERS: Ah, beer. You know what’s better than beer though? Home-brewed beer. I went with my pal John to a home brewing meet-up a month ago. Every kind of beer from hops-drenched beer (the most bitter of the bitter ales) to the sweet, sweet pale ales. Check their site out, it’s actually informative stuff.

GREG’S BLOG, V 2.0

Greetings,

Alright. Time to admit something about this blog. This blog’s page views are seriously on the decline. I’m pretty sure I know why. It’s kind of dull, isn’t it?

I don’t think this blog serves a vital purpose at the moment. It’s drifting. I know that. The template has become stale, the content seems all over the place and meanders aimlessly, the posts are long-winded. I’m sure a few people out there read the blog and its posts faithfully, but really, they’re too long to keep the average person’s attention online. Plus, the content, while I think it’s interesting, probably is boring to some. At least I can admit it, right?

So, it’s time to re-invent this thing. I’ve decided, right here and now, to ditch the old template again. Plus, starting after my trip to San Diego on Monday, I’m going to re-position this blog considerably. Shorter posts and more regular entries for one. Second, I’m going to stick to a theme and run with it. I think my focus on technology has been played out a bit, but I do have some original stuff to say.

Check back next week: new blog title, new look, new themes.

INTERNET: A KEY TO DEPRESSION?

Greetings,

You know what the leading cause of disability is in North America? Clinical depression. It’s also going to be the second-leading cause of disability around the world by the year 2020, says the World Health Organization. And it’s a condition on the rise in a big way.

Doesn’t that strike you as unsettling?

There’s a number of reasons why the number of depressed people has risen so dramatically in the past 50 years; as a society we’re evolving in our understanding of mental illness and thus reporting depression with greater accuracy and more frequently.

But while heredity and physiology play a role in risk factors associated with depressive behaviour, environment plays a big role too, if not the biggest one of all.

It’s easy to point out how our media ecology has such a huge role in triggering depressive tendencies in some people. Sensitive individuals, even those who consciously tell themselves and others how media images “don’t affect them” sublimate constructions of meaning into their unconscious selves. It’s hard to imagine anyone in this day and age not being affected in some way by media. Media is now the primary instrument of human interaction in the West, not an ancillary one, which begs a pressing point of discussion.

We’ve known for years how mass media constructs needs and wants. That’s not new. Cultural studies movements have since the days of Barthes shown how media creates artificial desire of physical properties, as well as how media has sometimes-toxic effects on people (everything from fast food to Transformers to eating disorders). But with the Internet, something’s changed. Have we reached the point now where the Internet is potentially screwing a lot of people up and isolating them to serious ill-effect? And if this is just the beginning of the Internet Age, could it conceivably get worse?

I know, this sounds like heresy coming from me. But it’s important to question the Internet not only as a medium but in its ideological default position.

To illustrate a point, I’m currently reading a new book by Benjamin Barber called Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole. Barber, for all you political studies peeps out there, wrote the eerily prescient Jihad vs. McWorld back in the mid 1990s.

The book’s thesis is straightforward and damning: in the ubiquity of mass media (read: the Web) spreading messages of economic freedom, individualism and branding, western liberalism is being torn apart. On top of this, the young of today, the savviest consumers of modern media, are being trained through media messages to be hyper-aggressive consumers.

There’s a global message at work of complete and total subservience to market ideology now, which is slowly but surely creating an infantilized culture that threatens the very fabric of democracy itself. He even dares to make the bold point that radical Islam, while equally wrong-headed in its total rejection of modernity, has to, like the West, change and evolve to survive.

Anyway, back on point. Never before in the history of the West has something like the Internet been able to capture our collective imagination under the guise of individual participation in the broader media culture. But really, how much time does the average person spend online now in a given day (at least, those under the age of 35)? Too much – 26 hours a week on average for teenagers in September 2006 and rising.

Is it possible, given how much time we spend on our own now with the Internet and the consumerist, everyone-for-themselves individualism of 2007, one of the keys to a healthy, non-depressive outlook on life – offline social interaction, whether it is community service, clubs, even watching TV or listening to music together – is being destroyed? This is doing grave, grave damage to our mental health.

I don’t know if any of this makes sense. I do know, however, that two nations in particular provide that vital canary-in-the-coalmine perspective on what the Internet is actually doing to people and what the future might look like: Japan and South Korea.

Japan’s got, like a lot of developed nations, some serious social problems, not all of which are powered by the Internet mind you, but has one very distressing symptom of a much larger problem: online suicide pacts. These pacts are rising in numbers in Japan, fuelled largely by the social anomie that seems part and parcel of Japan’s hyper-consumerist culture.

On the other hand lies South Korea. A kind of mob mentality has emerged online in S.K. – the phenomenon of cyberviolence, where groups of people attack individuals based on posts to blogs, discussion forums, et al. People have used death threats and other criminal activity against people they know of online. Is this a sign of a society that’s taken use of the Web too far?

All of these conditions have one thing in common: social isolation and isolating behaviours generated through the Internet. Isolation leads to increased anxiety, low self-esteem and other contributing factors to depression. Welcome to the 21st century.

Maybe it’s time to re-examine the Web’s social utility and to consider its effects on the human mind. Because something’s very, very wrong here.

GOOD REASONS TO WATCH CBC-TV

Greetings,

Anyone watch CBC Television last night? I did, and boy it was… interesting (for two entirely asynchronous reasons, but more on that in a minute). It’s not often these days you can say CBC-TV’s programming, aside from their first-rate news and current affairs shows, has adjectives like “interesting” attached to it (sorry Little Mosque, but you ain’t got The Funny so much), so this was a good night!

First up was Canada’s Next Great Prime Minister, hosted by CBC-TV’s reigning Lord and Saviour (no really, the Rick Mercer Report is one of the network’s highest rated shows) Rick Mercer. The judges were no less a cornucopia of Canada’s recent Prime Ministers (sans John Turner and Jean Chrétien), such as Joe Clark, Brian Mulroney, Kim Campbell and Paul Martin. As bad as it sounds, the only thing these four have in common were ignominious conclusions to their political careers. Joe Clark is still the smartest man in the room. Kim Campbell is still razor-sharp smart and awesome. Paul Martin was, well, typical Paul Martin (really, how ornery is Martin nowadays?) and Mulroney… well, as bitter as most Canadians were at him when he left office, I think it’s reasonable at this stage in his post-Parliamentary career to give the man some respect.

He’ll never be completely redeemable, but looking back on it, he was way ahead of his time when it came to the environmental movement at the very least. But I digress.

So on top of this, we get four earnest, well-dressed, mostly male, young Canadians vying for the chance to be called Canada’s Next Great Prime Minister, along with lots of phat ca$h and a sweet internship with Magna International. Cue the violins!

Contestants get a bunch of interesting policy questions on the environment, national security threats, et al. It’s all very inspired stuff and credit goes to the four finalists for facing off against four ex-Prime Ministers, Mercer, an apathetic Canadian public and a young studio audience that probably couldn’t give two hoots about parliamentary democracy.

Of course, one moment of clarity in the contest came courtesy of Belinda Stronach’s appearance at the show’s end. For the uninitiated, Canada’s Next Great Prime Minister is the TV offshoot of Magna’s old As Prime Minister essay contest. I’m not quite sure why the Prime Minister concept made the leap from essay to TV, but in some small way, it seems to work.

In the end, an inoffensive, hair-and-teeth gent named Joseph Lavoie won. He did all the things any successful political type in 2007 does well: he gave well-enunciated, fo-cus-ing on every-syl-a-ble answers, played to the cameras and gave vague, smart-sounding responses to admittedly-difficult questions. I doubt anyone of us could have done better, to be honest.

Next up was CBC’s Test The Nation – an I.Q. test to determine the final answers to that nagging question plaguing all Canadians far and wide… is Toronto mayor David Miller smarter than a tattoo artist?

I know, it’s been driving me nuts too…

Now in fairness to this show, it’s actually kind of a cool concept: play on the Internet Age’s self-defined egocentrism (bring on the online I.Q. tests!), bring a whole lot of people from disparate groups in to compete against each other and get average Canadians involved. Best part: it’s reasonably cheap to produce! It’s fun! It flies in the face of U.S. programming’s dumbing-down trend! It’s perfect!

The CBC brought out the Big Guns for this one. Brent Bambury, a resident CBC workhorse, and Wendy Mesley, one of the sharpest journalistic minds in Canada: this was a great combination. They both rock, especially Mesley, whom has gone through hell and back with her cancer treatments (and she still looks amazing!).

The actual I.Q. test is deceptively challenging: while most of the questions aren’t hard, the 30-second time clock lays the pressure down thick, given this is a TV show and there ain’t no time for stragglers.

All in all, good night for the CBC on Sunday – it’s proof positive you can produce good quality, entertaining programs cheaply and effectively, even in this difficult time for CBC-philes.

FIGHTING TO SAVE JOURNALISM

Greetings,

Reading Antonia Zerbisias’ column today – she’s easily one of the best journalists in Canada, bar none – nailed the crisis facing modern journalism in North America today. Here’s the conundrum:

We’ve known for years now that journalism is becoming a lot like the entertainment industry in terms of content, much to the detriment of democracy and the Fifth Estate keeping an eye on the powerful. For years since the Web’s debut, newspaper publishers have been getting more and more nervous about craigslist.org, declining ad sales and ubiquitous sources of information online. So the argument goes that technology, specifically the Internet, is powering forward the decline in newspaper sales.

But what if it is more about the shift towards more mindless puff pieces now threatening the business?

Consider this point first. Free commuter dailies were introduced by major newspaper chains as a win-win scenario; you give away something for commuters to read, given that most people will choose free over pay most days of the week, pick-up rate soars, advertisers get steady sources of eyeballs, publishers get steady sources of revenue, shareholders are happy. Everybody’s happy except journalists.

Why? Journalism may seem to outsiders as if it was easy to do and cheap, but that’s really ignorant. Journalism is a costly business in an economic model where margins keep thinning further and further.

Now let’s consider what fills up these free dailies. Some hard news, largely cannibalized from the broadsheet, a few decent columns but a whole lot of fluff, especially near the back of the publication, i.e. The Britney/Paris/Tara/Lindsay section. Trouble is this is where a lot of people go first. It’s mindless entertainment.

The argument here has a chicken-or-the-egg smell to it: do newspapers create demand for fluff pieces or do readers love the fluff? It’s probably a bit of both, but the effect on journalism is toxic – the more easily digestible, brain-dead gossip you put into the paper, the more readers will go after the diversions. It’s like eating chocolate everyday – it’s really bad for you everyday but would you turn it down if you got it? Probably not.

Shareholders, always trying to maximize value, will push whatever makes the most profit for them. This stuff keeps them in the black, but it’s only foregoing the inevitable: the more you push cheap or even free gossip-rag material, the more people will turn away from content mediums that support a corporate bottom-line, i.e. paid broadsheets. This forces more journalists out of the business, so more fluff is pushed on the public, and so on.

Thing is, how can media companies make it work? The old ways can’t be supported anyone in a culture of free content online. But the new ways seem to be slowly destroying the whole purpose of corporate media anyway. The free commuter daily concept only really works in an environment where the parent company is awash in revenue streams that have a long-term base of support; name one media outlet in Canada nowadays that have these kinds of funds?

A LAMENT FOR KEATON AND NET FOGEY

*sigh*… Annie Hall, why don’t they make movies like that anymore?

Greetings,

In the pantheon of great American actors, there’s one actor who has made an indelible impact on representations of feminity over the course of two decades. That actor’s name? Diane Keaton.

Ms. Keaton used to be one of the finest film actors in America. The Godfather I and II? Annie Hall? Reds? All immaculate works of cinema, all Oscar winners – all featuring Keaton doing near-flawless work, right in her prime.

So here’s a question: what the hell happened?

Diane Keaton has become code now for “aging Boomer who can’t let go” in Hollywood parlance. She’s done a string of really crappy movies in a row now, not the least of which was the risible Something’s Gotta Give and the cliché-drenched Because I Said So.

What gives, Diane? Are roles for older women in Hollywood really that bad that you’re taking whatever they’re throwing at you now? Do you need the money that bad?

In all fairness, Diane’s not the only Boomer actor whom has fallen prey to the culture of FX-driven, linguistically-challenged filmmaking that’s dominating Hollywood now. Take Robert De Niro – a former living monolith of American cinema doing films like Meet The Fockers and playing second-fiddle to Dakota Fanning in schlock like Hide And Seek. Sure, Fockers was funny, but wasn’t this the same guy who was robbed of an Oscar nomination for Heat only 12 years ago?

It just doesn’t make sense. Why are these actors still making all these films when their reputations are firmly ensconced as Cinematic Royalty and they have plenty of money in the bank (or, at least, we’d hope they would, but they did become megastars in the 70’s, so you never know)? Doing these films as often as they do still either seems like hubris run amok or, more unsettlingly, a real dearth of roles to give to screen legends. Unless you can pull it off with self-knowing, cheeseball-like behaviour (i.e. Dustin Hoffman in aforementioned Fockers) or play strongly against type to comedic effect (i.e. Barbara Streisand in Fockers, again!), you’re toast.

Who knows – in any case, none of those excuses relieves Keaton for doing Because I Said So. Nothing. I don’t care if it has a former-singer-turned-actress, the mom from Gilmore Girls and Piper Perabo (a rock-solid incentive to see a movie normally) in it – what were you all thinking?

GOT PRIVACY?: Here’s a really great article on the generation gap and the nature of privacy online nowadays. It’s an exceptional piece, very detailed. Still, at age 29, am I truly over-the-hill when it comes to the Internet? I’ve been online since 1994 (yes, I’m a nerd, but does that surprise you?) and seen a bazillion changes. I remember when… oh God, I really am turning into an old fogey online.

WHY UNIVERSITY… AND WITHER SECOND LIFE

Greetings,

It’s been a crazy last couple of days. I’m largely functioning on coffee and naps at the moment.

WHY UNIVERSITY: My old colleagues at CBC Radio’s The Sunday Edition had a piece on today about what’s gone wrong with universities in Canada. It dealt with the divide between the goals of universities and the actual outcomes of a university degree. Canada has a huge number of adults with undergraduate degrees (although we’re way behind the U.S. in the number of people with graduate degrees, but that’s for later), but why are so many people going into university when they really shouldn’t be there?

I know, this already has a tinge of elitism attached, but bear with me for a moment.

Consider this: why do people go to university? To be educated? Get a job? Both? This is a good point to start from, for it does illustrate a fundamental problem at the heart of universities in Canada: the reasons why universities exist at all is no longer clear. The effects of this dissonance between theory and reality are pernicious enough nowadays to warrant asking some hard questions about people’s motives in going to get largely dime-a-dozen undergraduate degrees. This really boils down to a difficult question: why are so many people who really shouldn’t be at university still going there?

First, let’s look at one very big reason for universities being adrift in purpose these days – the generation gap.

In the 1960s, finding good, stable employment for young people was a much less complicated affair; it was possible, upon graduation even from high school, to find a reasonably good job (if not an extremely well-paying one, but I digress). Universities, however, were completely different – they served a small minority of the population. There were four main purposes to going to university back then. One, you were going to earn a degree that would allow you, as it does now, to enter the professional class, whether it was as a lawyer, doctor, architect, whatever it may be. Second, you were there to earn a degree that would allow you instant access to lucrative jobs that didn’t require a graduate degree, i.e. engineering. Third, a B.A. in those days was valuable enough to garner a significant amount of attention on the job market as a whole, thus increasing your value as a prospective employee based on your knowledge base and critical thinking skills. Or, you were on the academic tenure track, which, while as challenging as it is today, had a lot more jobs available for teaching and research positions than in 2007.

The effect of this trend is two-fold, at least in Ontario. While no one could have foreseen how short-lived the explosive, double-digit economic growth really was for Ontario back then, successive provincial governments, awash in public money, started building more universities. A lot more universities. This was all predicated on an economic growth curve rooted in a time when globalization didn’t exist as a neo-liberal policy platform or outsourcing jobs offshore, so you can’t really blame those governments for not anticipating what was coming.

The second problem here was heightened expectations on part of Boomers; university obviously paid off for them, so why not for their children?

So here we are in 2007, a very unsettled time for universities in Canada and the U.S.

Enrollment in universities is sky-high now with a lot of people who have no business being there. The once-coveted Bachelor of Arts degree is now so commonplace it’s hardly even worthy of discussion for some jobs. I don’t care if this labels me a snob, but it’s true.

Want proof? A survey published in this month’s Adbusters demonstrates one immutable fact. In 1970, 79 per cent of university entrants said their goal in life was to develop “a meaningful philosophy of life.” In 2005, 75 per cent defined their life’s objective as “being very well off financially.”

Those figures highlight one fundamental truth at the core of this debate. The purpose of people going to university, by and large, has shifted from educating individuals to working not only for one’s own ends in the guise of collective societal benefit towards pure individualist fulfillment. It’s not a good change.

Herein lies the rub. Baby Boomer parents, based on their own, mostly outdated ideas on university life, are pushing a lot of their kids into schools for unexplained reasons. Most kids going into school likely don’t even know why they’re there, unless they’re in a strictly professional track like engineering. They’ve just had it hammered into their heads for so long that university is the one-way ticket to prosperity that mom and dad earned. Going to get an arts degree but you’ve got no idea where to go afterwards? Well, there’s always law school or business school afterwards, but it will cost you a lot more than even the $10,000+ per year mom and dad are forking out for you to attend school when you probably wanted to go and work in a trade in the first place. Where’s the logic or sense in this situation?

I’ve known a lot of people who definitely should have gone to university – whether they had no idea what they wanted to do or simply fit into the academic environment, it made sense for them. But I’ve also met far too many people whom have had no good or compelling reason to be in university; they went only because it was a) expected of them because their parents went to university, b) it was assumed it would lead to good job prospects down the road, although that rarely happens now without family connections to good jobs or more post-graduate community college or high-cost graduate programs, which kind of defeats the purpose of going to get an undergraduate degree in the first place, or c) they were never there to really study in the first place and really just wanted to hang out with friends all the time (and their parents were wealthy enough to make that scenario happen).

Fact is, Ontario needs tradespeople more than university graduates right now. One wonders how much better off my generation – the most overeducated and underemployed generation in Canadian history – would have been if people were encouraged from the time entering high school to not focus on universities as the be all and end all of education and to show how great and useful it is to be a plumber or electrician, jobs that are in huge demand and serve intensely vital services in society.

I know this comes across as elitist and opposite to the romanticized notion of education working towards a better, more democratic society, but that’s not reality. A lot of people rarely consider those notions now when choosing a school. That’s unfortunate but true.

Alright, enough of that…

SECOND LIFE: The Star had a great article today on Second Life’s emerging problems. Like MySpace, Second Life’s getting overrun now by some offline-world issues, including the growing corporate presence in-world. One wonders where the avatar-based environment is headed considering competition for SL is coming.