Saturday, January 31, 2009

U.S. Policy: Can "Change" Be Anything But More of the Same?

One item which flew under the radar of the Saturday discussions of news pundits was yesterday's move by Obama to lift the ban on international abortion funding. Will U.S. law always mirror the ideology of the party in power? (Image: Wikipedia) The decision by President Obama to reverse this ban, which was created by Reagan (Republican) during his first term. The first President Bush (R) let it stand, but Clinton (Democrat) terminated the order in his first term. George W. Bush (R) reinstated it, and now Obama (D) has cancelled it again. What does all of this mean?

What this means, in my eyes, is that United States politics has very little stability. Major issues such as abortion and military or intelligence strategy and more recently gay marriage, "Don't ask, don't tell" or healthcare are dictated by the ideology of the ruling party. So can change mean anything but more of the same party-line legislation?

I'm not belittling Obama's message or his policy, but, in an infinitely cynical way, I am asking if it really matters. If Obama puts America back on par with the rest of the G8 world in terms of health care, schooling, equal rights, citizen freedom, and countless other measures, will it survive the next Republican president?

Here in Canada our policies remain much more stable. When the Conservatives came in (who I should point out are more and more like the Reform party), they did not reverse long-standing legislation on public healthcare, ban abortions, and stop funding public schools or even review recent decisions such as allowing gay marriage.

This has nothing to do with the status of the Conservatives as a minority government, but, I argue, it is a matter of tradition. In a country where you are not guaranteed a 4 year term, you must remain in line -- and that means that you must always be ready to answer to the electorate. I believe most citizens in the United States or Canada prefer stability, which makes it all the more odd that the flip-flopping laws in the U.S. don't raise more eyebrows.


Friday, January 30, 2009

Work. School. Sleep. No time for living?

I got to thinking, after a few conversations with friends over recent weeks, how little free time we all have. It seems university life is a trade-off between having fun and doing well. Is there time for both? Is this any different than work life? (Image: Clock from Apple System Preferences) It's midterm season and everyone is feeling it. "It" being the pressure to pull off passable marks without driving yourself so far up a tree of isolation that you can't come back down. Well, I shouldn't say "everyone." There are a privileged few who know how to balance both in perfect harmony.

I'm not one of those people, so, with a bit of envy, I have been pondering what they do that I don't. It seems to me that when I take a day off to relax, I don't really get to relax. If the people who can balance both are at one end of a scale, I would be at the other.

Well, maybe not the other end of the scale. I have no problem forgetting about the insane amount of school work and work-related tasks for sustained periods of time, but I struggle to not feel as though I've wasted a day after the fact. I think the main difference between those who can feel balanced and those who are more like me is the mindset that social life is equally important to school or work.

I'm not accusing myself or others of undervaluing a social life. What I am saying is that we can get the notion that 'school (or work) will make or break us' stuck in our head too readily. There is no reason that we have to pick one over the other. It may be easier to get an 80 if you shut down socially, but it would be a very empty term.

Finding the balance is important. It's an entirely individual thing. While first year is fun, I think it's safe to say that the vast majority of us were way off in our attempts to balance, or lack of attempts to balance. I know that I am a lot closer this year, and it's been more enjoyable on the whole. Carrying this balance forward will be important, because, from what I can tell, balancing work and life is no different.


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Do We Care About The Budget?

Today, the Conservative Party (of Canada) announced the details of its proposed budget. Parliament's vote on this bill will determine not only the fate of a deficit building plan, but also a vote on whether the current government will remain intact. (Image: CBC) This budget represents the tipping point for Canadian politics in two areas, as mentioned in my introduction: one area being the fate of Canada's profitability and the second being the fate of this government. I think it's important to consider these two aspects in order to weigh what is going on with this vote.

While Canada has been chipping away at its national debt for several years, this new budget puts Canada into the red for the first time since the mid-1990s. Canada has avoided falling into a deficit during hard economic times until this budget, so the question becomes what is different now and how could it have been avoided.

I can't help but wonder what type of effect lowering of the GST from 7% to 5% has had on this deficit budget. Perhaps a deficit could have been avoided or lessened if those measures had not been taken. Sure, it may have won the Conservatives a few votes to make this promise to lower the GST, but it's concerning to think that they picked getting elected over keeping the country profitable.

The other issue is the choice of the rest of parliament as to whether this government will continue to exist or if this is the last straw for the Conservative minority. If it is the last straw they need to decide whether to form a coalition government led by the Liberals and NDP or whether to go to an election. I wish to make two points on the issue of a coalition.

The first is that it is entirely normal throughout the world for coalition governments to form. The reaction of some Canadians, inspired by Conservative advertising, to see this as undemocratic is extremely inaccurate. What is even more offensive to the intelligence of our citizens is the claims by the Conservative party that the coalition endorses the Quebec separation because the Bloc Quebecois supports the coalition. This is insulting because it was the Conservatives who used the Bloc to help topple the Liberals and set jn motion the Conservatives grab for power.

The second point I want to make about the coalition is that this group will bring stability for the remainder of a full-term. The government will not be toppled nor can it dissolve. This stability could bring the leadership needed to provide Canada with a steady set of goals and values moving forward. This could be invaluable.

So while the budget itself is important, it seems most of the debate surrounding it has nothing to do with the majority of its content, but more to do with the principles at stake. If there is to be a coalition government formed, I hope that they form that government soon and do not drag out the process. The looming threat of such a force is disruptive if there are no real plans to act.


Monday, January 26, 2009

McDonald's Likes Recessions

When I was reading the site of the ever-yellow Matt Drudge, I came across a very interesting story about McDonald's and the economic downturn. It seems that people are increasingly turning to McDonald's for food during these hard times. (Image: Wikipedia) Now this story in itself is interesting enough to justify a read, but there are some broader lessons here. Let's just look at this objectively. Economy is down, budgets are tight, so let's eat fast-food more. Weird, huh?

Call me crazy, but I would venture a guess that it's more economical and healthier to make food at home and take it with you for lunch than it is to get something from McDonald's. Sure they make cheap fast food, but they also are a business with surprisingly high margins. I see the draw of the low advertised price, but we can do better ourselves.

Even if we couldn't get our homemade lunch cheaper than a $3 meal, it would be a lot healthier. I don't want to come off as too hard on McDonald's here, because, while I think they make a terrible product, they are not nearly as evil as most companies of their size. Rarely do I hear a news story bashing McDonald's for anything besides the low health standards of their foods. Meanwhile, most corporations of their size are riddled with financial mishaps or labour controversies.

McDonald's is relatively good from the perspective of business ethics and financial stability — and that's important. I won't degrade McDonald's as a business. I also won't categorically say that I will never eat McDonald's foods; sometimes it just happens, during long road trips or late nights, that McDonald's is nearby. It's convenient, it's cheap, and it's addictive.

But the level of business McDonald's is receiving during this downturn is more than just a few new casual customers dropping in. This is an increase in the occasional visitors and in the frequent visitors. Going to McDonald's as a regular source of food is terribly unhealthy -- which I'm sure everyone knows. So why are people doing it?

I believe it comes down to the psychological aspect of the low advertised prices. It's convenient and it seems cheap. However, people need to be aware that there are other options. Even if it costs you $4 or even $5 to fill a lunchbox with a homemade meal compared to $2 or $3 to get a Big Mac Meal, I'm sure your homemade meal won't include 72% of your recommended daily fat intake.


Sunday, January 25, 2009

Popular News: Code for News to an Even Lower Standard

Ever since my first post on journalism, I've been noticing quite a few shady practices in mainstream news. Yesterday, when I wrote about yellow journalism, I noticed some even more weird patterns around the web. (Image: Screen capture of On the CNN website, I noticed a section called "Popular News" below the latest headlines. This news seems to be primarily soft-news or articles from the entertainment industry.

Now, I have nothing against entertainment or soft-news outright, however, I think a news organization like CNN should be prioritizing a bit better. From my observations, on a typical news day, CNN posts 10 headlines under "latest news" and post about 6 soft-news stories under the "popular news" portal page section or in the sections beside it.

Despite the fact that CNN posts more real news than soft-news, the soft-news takes up as much if not more of the portal page's main section. This is a very odd decision in that CNN's brand relies on a tag line like "the most trusted name in news" when their website is increasingly dominated by fluff.

Much is said about the so-called "CNN-Effect" and how it has increased the amount of soft-news and editorialization due to the need to fill 24 hours. Though other news organizations have contributed to this problem, CNN was the root of the trend. Ironically, Fox News dedicates less space to soft-news entertainment stories -- called "Features and Faces" on their portal page.

As I mentioned earlier, I'm not against this type of news categorically, however there is a time and a place for it. Placing this type of news side-by-side with the hard-news of the day is an injustice for the implications of the serious news. It's also interesting to see how these news stories resemble advertisements rather than news articles. They seem to have a "hook" in their title while using buzz words.

Overall, I believe there needs to be a clear distinction between hard- and soft-news for the casual reader. The web blurs the line a lot more readily than television tends to. On TV there are usually different programs for different styles of news, but on the internet these stories can appear right beside each other. This lack of distinction, as well as the fact that these stories are increasingly prevalent, are where I take issue with soft-news. Again, as I have found with all matters of journalistic integrity, the need for responsibility is key to fixing the problem.


Saturday, January 24, 2009

Yellow Journalism and the Drudge-Effect

The topic of "Yellow Journalism" has been popping up in several of my classes recently. It got me thinking a lot about my own writing online, other sites that play into this style, and the CNN-FOX effect. (Image: Drudge Report Archives) As much as I hate to admit it, sensationalism is almost a necessity for online news sites. Whether bloggers or online journalists, all reporters who want to succeed in this saturated market have to resort to sensationalism. Yellow Journalism is certainly not a result of the internet, but it has found a new home online.

Online, no one has succeeded more with the yellow strategy than Matt Drudge. The Drudge Report claims to have more than 24 million visits over the last 24 hours and about 638 million over the past month. Drudge makes full use of his 1990s web design arsenal, including the Drudge Siren shown above, to pull his readers into his world.

Though Drudge's content more closely resembles an outright tabloid, the site has gained a stunning reader base, which rely on it for news. During the presidential election, Drudge's traffic beat the New York Times, and just barely finished behind Fox.

Though yellow journalism does not fulfill the needs of democracy for a reliable, educational press, millions of viewers flock to sensational news while snubbing actual news. At MacNN, it never ceases to amaze me that hugely important positive stories get only a fraction of the reader discussion that occurs with moderately important negative stories.

I've witnessed first hand how easy it is to sensationalize something bad. On the flip side of the coin, sensationalizing a good story often results in a public denouncement of the story as biased. The double standard of the readers makes yellow journalism even more complex and confusing. While everyone enjoys a pile on, a group hug is out of the question.

When it gets down to it, there are few ways to control a phenomenon like yellow journalism. The public craves the sensational and will abandon your site, newspaper, or television station if you don't deliver. At the same time that media consumption has reached an all-time high, so has public ignorance. Though that judgement is a matter of opinion, I stand by it. I think citizens will need to demand better for this to ever change -- after all, yellow journalism is a creation of public demand.


Friday, January 23, 2009

How Obama's win affects Canadian Politics

While reading the blog Laur Lore recently, I came across an interesting post about Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper following Obama's lead on key issues. (Image: CBC) As I mentioned in one of my earlier posts, I find it hard to fully understand how it must feel to have a genuinely inspiring political movement occurring in my country, as Americans have this election year. I did expect, however, exactly what is described over at Laur Lore -- that is Harper emulating Obama.

Most politicians are followers not leaders. Their goal is to get elected by appealing to the most broad base that they can. For most, this means that they choose to meet the status quo, not push a real agenda. Here in Canada, Stephen Harper may be the follower of the time, but I don't believe any of the leaders of the major parties would be any better in this regard.

During the Bush years, there were a few instances where Canadian politicians stood up to United States policy. The main example of which was Canada's refusal to dedicate combat troops to the Iraq invasion. Canada instead took up the slack in Afghanistan, so it's hard to argue that the Prime Minister then was standing up to Bush.

When it gets down to it, Harper is about the same as any other politician. I am not defending him by any means, as I can hardly stand him, but I am saying that it's not that odd for Canadian politicians to follow a United States President's lead.

In the case of Barack Obama, more than just Canadian leaders are seeking to emulate his policies in an effort to catapult themselves through his success. In fact, even countries with rocky relations with United States under Bush, such as Cuba and Venezuela, are beginning to warm to Obama and embrace the "hope" message.

Hopefully political leaders, here in Canada and around the world, choose not to only emulate Obama's methods, but also to embrace his message in a genuine way.


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Viability of Writing Serious Emails

Many emails are business or brief notes, but sometimes we can find ourselves writing and writing. In some ways, the writing of long-winded or generally revealing letters as not transfered from snail mail to electronic mail -- but is this changing? (Image: Screen capture of Apple Mail) It has been my personal experience that a thoughtful email can transcend the negative connotations of having discussions online. Many of the issues people have with online communications revolves around the fleeting attention of both parties to the discussion -- but when thought and care enter the equation, does email rival tried-and-true forms of communication?

Now, I may be a bit biased, being someone who works online, but I believe that it can. Email is not inherently less personal than written letters, unless you argue that the hand written aspect is important. I personally see handwriting as a hinderance to thinking because it is linear and needs something like whiteout to become non-linear -- and that white out will often cause the receiver to wonder why something was changed.

When writing an email, or any other text on a computer, among other advantages, you have freedom to delete or change words and go back to a previous section in order to add a sentence. I believe a well crafted email or digital text is often far more complete in the sense that the writer has freedom to arrange their thoughts, the way they want, as their thoughts evolve.

In my opinion, if done right, emails can even be effective as a push-off point to start solving problems. It's effective because you can simply put your position out there while you ask to talk about it. With email you have the time to think over what you want to say, but the piece-of-mind that it will reach the recipient a few seconds after you press "send."

Keeping in touch via email is a reality for some of my friendships, specifically with friends who have gone to different universities. In some ways it seems to me like there is a level of openness in email that is hard to reach as quickly in person, on the phone, or on instant messengers. When you're writing a serious email, the big difference it provides is the pre-mentioned ability to sit there and think your point through. That really lets you get your thoughts out right and encourages you to talk as much as you want.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Self-Censorship Beyond Traditional Media

Ever since watching OUTFOXED: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism, I've been thinking about how much self-censorhsip occurs in the media -- especially online. Having witnessed some first hand, I have some experience with the tricky issue. Before I was Assistant Publisher at MacNN and for its associated sites, I wrote the news on a day-to-day basis. In writing news, I had moments where I censored my own writing, sometimes unprovoked.

As a website our revenue depends on our advertisers. Knowing this, I was always mindful in some ways not to unnecessarily run down our partners. Especially when writing about Apple, who I believe is our biggest advertiser, I avoided saying too many harsh things.

Now, in my case, I didn't avoid reporting negative news about Apple, but I avoided pushing the envelope when doing so. Negative stories often draw the most page views for us, so they often draw the most comments; in these comments I, and almost every writer since, received criticism for refusing to 'take it to Apple' for obvious mistakes.

As Assistant Publisher I have an inside look at many online practices. While MacNN and other sites I am involved with do not accept bribes for reviews, many websites receive free products or additional advertising offers in exchange for favourable reviews. Our reviews department requires disclosure about any deals or products received, but many do not.

It is a clear trend though that few reviewers around the internet give ratings less than 50% unless the product does not work at all. I would say that it is a safe bet that this is the case because these reviewers want to assure that they are given more deals in the future. These reviewers work in active self-censorship in order to achieve personal gains, which should be very concerning.

To say that there will ever be a truly free medium without pressures is naive to some extent, but I believe full disclosure is the best step to take. The internet is very unregulated right now and my site operators have an anything goes mentality. There is no way for regulation to occur without violating the promise of internet neutrality, so it requires good will on the part of many. Hopefully more websites choose to do this.


Monday, January 19, 2009

OUTFOXED: Blurring Commentary With Fact

After viewing OUTFOXED: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism, I realized how accurate its title is. The film sought not only to show the problems with FOX News Channel and its network, but also to prove how effective the format of FOX can be (Image: Video Screen capture) When making documentary films there's a fine line between dramatizing fact and pushing it too far. In spite of my immense disgust with Fox News Channel (FNC) and its affiliates, I can't help but feel somewhat annoyed with the film's approach to the issue.

In an effort to prove its point regarding the power of FNC's format, I believe OUTFOXED took the Fox news format and turned it against Fox. The rapid-fire cuts and overlapping rants from commentators created the confusion and overflow of information that creates the bewildering Fox-effect. There were also obvious moments where the documentary filtered information; one specifically obvious moment was when a narrator was skipping sentences that minimized the effect of the film's argument while reading internal FNC memos.

Beyond the format of the film, the fact that it was sponsored by and The Center for American Progress, two politically involved progressive groups, raises question marks about its legitimacy. While I fully agree with the film's assessment of FNC, OUTFOXED's did nothing for its case by seeking the sponsorships of these groups and mainly interviewing former FOX employees who were potentially motivated by anger.

I am well aware that this film is about Fox and the problems with the network, but I don't think OUTFOXED's target audience, primarily left-wing viewers, would not know Fox's problems already. I believe, especially due to the involvement of FAIR and Media Matters for America, the film should have also spoke of the problems with the left-leaning Fox imitators including MSNBC (which is problematic, as funny as it is).

I don't want to imply that I disagree with the message of the film, but I believe that a film arguing for objectivity in the media should make an effort to appear objective. While it may gain laughs from those such as myself in the short term, it misses an opportunity to raise some serious issues about the media in general.


Sunday, January 18, 2009

Blogosphere or Jim Bob's, how will we be viewed in history?

It's hard to pin down what qualifies as culture today. No matter what form it takes, be it a night club or a web page, it's contribution is usually isolated. (Image: Jim Bob Ray's) Culture seems to be getting less and less centralized; sporadic contributions from various sources are not adding up to much of anything. Though history often views the past through the lens of romanticism, there seems to be a stark difference in the culture of today in comparison to eras past.

Never before in history has such a large portion of the population had the ability to publish their voices directly to the masses. Until recently, closed distribution methods ranging from the printing press to television have limited direct access to the general population. Only the rich or famous could voice their thoughts on an unfiltered public stage. The internet changed this.

Adding more voices to the general discourse of society has not been all good. While it is great to include more voices for the sake of democracy, the result so far has been a scattered mess of opinions. This will no doubt make the challenge of future historians all the more complicated, while giving them a great wealth of knowledge to work with.

With all the knowledge they will have access to, how will our culture be reflected upon? Is there even a culture to be examined? Now, I wouldn't go so far as to say that we have no culture, but culture as we know it today is quite different than the cultures of previous eras.

There's a big difference between pre-capitalist eras' producing of cultural works to secure a bare necessity life and today's lavish lifestyle for a few cultural producers creating content from a specific mold. Today, few cultural artifacts enter the mainstream of our culture without being conformed to a clearly defined set of values and specifications. When culture is an industry, there is less creativity and fewer published perspectives. Economics dictate what is allowed and what is rejected to remain in obscurity.

Culture is more than entertainment, of course, but the same problems exist throughout our culture beyond entertainment media. The fellowship among citizens is diminished. People have started to live their lives in a bubble with only their personal interests at heart. Communal experience is a rare occurrence, even when people get together in droves. Nightclubs certainly are not about a shared experience.

Perhaps what got me thinking about this recently were events such as those which I described in my last posting or the Obama Inauguration Celebration concert. Even watching them from a far, through a television no less, the sense of a shared experience is present. The crowd seems to be sharing the experience together with a common purpose that I can feel connected to. It's something that is noticeably missing in culture today.

So while I don't doubt that there are these moments of shared experience, it is ironically missing in a culture where people often imitate a select few celebrities. So how will we be viewed in history? Perhaps I'm being optimistic, but I am hoping that this era of disconnect and dehumanization is going to be short lived. I'm hoping that we'll find a culture in the true sense of the word.


Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Meaning of a Train Ride

Today Barack Obama went on a train ride from Philadelphia to Washington, but why? Was it a symbol of unification or an unnecessary security risk? (Image: HuffingtonPost) Today when watching U.S. President Elect Barack Obama make his "whistle-stop" train ride to the United States capital, the first thing I noticed, as I'm sure anyone else would, was the people standing in the frigid cold at the locations of the slow-rolls and speeches. It's always surprising to see how many people show up for these events, let alone in the freezing cold of days like today.

The dedication of thousands of people for merely a glimpse of a train carrying the president elect, or a waving Obama if they're lucky, is stunning. It made me wonder why this was happening and why nothing like it is happening in Canada. The former is a very interesting question that has a whole range of possible answers. I believe it had a lot to do with what he represents.

Barack Obama represents many different things to people, but I think what most people have in common is the view that he is a symbol of hope. It sounds corny to some extent, but, beyond the rhetoric, Obama has transcended the politics that we have all been exposed to. He floats over the bickering and seems to react to situations like a normal person would.

Now using the words "normal person" is a bit tricky. I simply mean that he doesn't think about political positioning first, instead he seems to do what he thinks is right. Speaking as a Canadian, I've never experienced a connection to a politician in the way that I have while watching Obama over the last year and a half. Here, politicians seem to be dry and incapable of inspiring the electorate, not to mention inspire themselves.

Watching the American campaign has inspired a sense of yearning in me for a similar figure in Canada, but there are no signs of anything of the sort. To have a political leader represent hope to so many people is truly inspiring. Watching him make his way to the place where he will govern from for the next 4 years was historic. Even as a Canadian I can understand and respect the appeal of being part of that moment. My only wish is that this country experiences it soon as well, but for now I feel inspired to see the transformation in the States.


Friday, January 16, 2009

What is Canadian? What is American? Let's talk politics.

Is it the Canadian flag? What else makes us a unique group? Are we just Americans? (Image: Rarwriter).
This question came up recently in one of my classes and started my thinking on the topic. Though my first objection may be that grouping people like this examination requires is nearly impossible, I will ignore that problem to discuss what makes up the Canadian identity. On a basic level, we are very much like Americans because we share much of the same cultural content. We, for the most part, watch the same television shows, news, movies, and listen to the same music. Despite this, there is still a difference in public opinion on many issues between the two countries. To examine the Canadian identity, it may be necessary to compare it directly to the American identity.

As mentioned in another recent class, there is a difference in how Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms handles free speech compared to how America's First Amendment does. I personally believe that Canada tends to define freedom of expression as being conditional on whether it infringes on the freedoms others are granted. After doing a bit of research, I found that my opinion was validated by legal interpretations. This definition of freedom of expression is, of course, in contrast to the often stated American belief that they can say whatever they want, regardless of what it is they are saying.

Now that small example sheds little light on this discussion, but it may suggest the trend in the bigger differences between the two countries. The proclaimed notion of absolute freedom in the United States could cause its citizens to feel a sense of uniqueness and superiority -- which is certainly a sentiment many foreign people project onto American travellers they encounter. To state that it's anything other than a projected stereotype is wrong in most cases; the vast majority of Americans are no different than Canadians, and vice versa of course.

So then why does America generally value military power and private enterprise while Canada tends to value public services and corporate responsibility? I believe the differences in perspective have a lot to do with established politics in both countries that have been entrenched since their formation -- entrenched in the words of their founding documents. Canada split from the British Commonwealth peacefully, where as the United States did so militaristically. Perhaps then the differences can be described as merely the side effects of political decisions that have affected the teaching of generations of citizens. Otherwise it seems we are very much the same in that we are all people with the same potential.

There is no way to have this discussion in a non-idealistic way. Many would insist that there is more to the difference than that which has been called political, but I would say that politics is all that nations have to define them. Politics determines education, foreign relations, and many other things that influence how citizens view the world and their country.

Thus, I will stress the importance of political involvement and continue to argue with everyone who insists that voting one way or another doesn't matter. It matters very much and it is our responsibility as citizens. We determine our national identity because it is never fixed. The only way to ensure the accuracy of the identity is to be educated about the issues and take part. If we don't do that, we leave our national identity in the hands of others.