Wednesday, 25 September 2019


Baby Steps in a Brave New World

For quite sometime, maybe a year, Ann and I had been kicking around the notion of revisiting our telecom-supplied TV package. We paid for a service that was underutilized, or more frequently, ignored. Last week we pulled the plug, or to be more precise, unscrewed the cable – although you don’t actually even do that anymore.

The household television I remember best whilst a nipper was a black-and-white portable in plastic housing that nestled on a metal stand. Dad got it second-hand but I cannot remember from whom. It replaced a hefty console model that displayed a lingering blue dot when turned off, the star in Star Trek. The pace of technological change was dizzying, vacuum tubes to solid state; next came colour and cable - American channels – local programming from three US border stations.

Our TV was always tucked down in the basement with the furnace and exposed pipes, out of the way amid an array of rummaged furniture. Watching it was not encouraged by my parents, there were always better, more productive things to be done like reading a book, more fun to be had outside. I did enjoy Batman, Rat Patrol and Gunsmoke. I loved watching Mission: Impossible with Dad. Some Sundays the entire family would watch The Ed Sullivan Show together; TV dinners on TV trays! My favourite show was (and still is) Combat! starring Vic Morrow and Rick Jason. My older brother used to get me out of bed and sneak me downstairs to the basement past our parents who were usually sitting in the living room to watch the World War II drama at ten o’clock Saturday nights. Mom sat in the corner blind spot on the left-hand side of the floral-patterned sofa and Dad, on the right, a veteran, always contrived to look the other way.

With apologies to a doughy and curiously smooth-skinned Don Johnson as Nash Bridges, the last network show that engaged me was Homicide: Life on the Street. Around that time the sitcom Friends was inexplicably popular and hell was the office the following morning: “Wasn’t Chandler hysterical!?” “Isn’t Phoebe such a ditz!?” I tried to engage my colleagues: “Wouldn’t you like to beat that whiny Ross to death with a Louisville Slugger?”

Oh! I don’t need TV when I’ve got T.Rex – David Bowie
That TV it just insults me freely – Iggy Pop
Fifty-seven channels and nothing on – Bruce Springsteen

The rules of engagement with the arts, entertainment industry, media and even advertising are based on a tacit covenant: In exchange for your attention and your money you will receive something positive in return, maybe important information, a welcome distraction, a reliable and competively priced product or possibly even transcendental bliss. Noble and ignoble providers alike frequently fail to deliver on their half of the bargain. Potential benefits are neither guaranteed nor covered by warranty; the small print can get awfully tiny – just click AGREE.

What is striking about the decline of traditional television is how a mass medium has been re-imagined as something much more personal, broadcast squeezed to narrowcast. As with any sea change there is no single factor; all I know for certain is that habitual viewers no longer watch the same show on the same channel at the same time anymore. Digital signals changed water cooler conversation forever.

In an effort to boost the quality of the content available in the TV room and reduce expenses, Ann and I purchased a Cupertino, CA device, fittingly about the dimensions of a Rubik’s Cube, for a modest amount. We now subscribe to just two streaming services. They should offer enough viewing options to see us out as television is a relatively unimportant facet of our lives. Meanwhile our monthly “cable” bill will shrink to a quarter of what it was.

Ann worried that I might miss the sports channels. Upon reviewing the past three years of my Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons I can calculate my sports couch time in minutes. Potential sports “app creep” on the Apple box is a non-starter, much like my entire athletic career. I told Ann, “If there’s some massively important game I absolutely must watch, we’ll go to a pub and share the experience with others. It’s more fun doing that, anyways.”

Finally, there is the happy law of unintended bonuses. I haven’t learned how to do this yet, but apparently I can run YouTube through our television now. What this means is that whenever the mood strikes me to re-fight World War II, I can watch as many episodes of Combat! as I want whenever I want. A few of the good old days have returned, future past, in a strange new guise.     
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Monday, 16 September 2019


Catch a Wave, Surf a Trend

Perhaps you recall that 90s marketing trend when everything on the shelf had to be clear: beer, cola, dish soap… That transparently insidious scheme went down the drain because consumers were more weirded out than intrigued by the unsubtle suggestion of processed purity. And dear me, it’s best not to speculate about what Kraft’s product research and development team was seriously contemplating synthesizing as see-through.

One of the great philosophical questions of human existence, right up there with the free will debate, is our role as the dominant species on the planet. Are we a part of nature or above it? Centuries of reasoned contemplation have of late been dumbed down, the age-old dilemma deked by treating pets as flesh and blood - family, while we also attempt to engineer our delicate extraction from atop the food chain because eating not only requires table manners now but an enlightened morality.

 The latest trend is alternative protein, ersatz meat promoted as plant-based. Traditional meat packers are retooling. Not-meat pie-in-the-sky stock offerings are being issued. Fast food chains are hawking bloodless substitutes in sandwiches and on pizzas. These sniffy new ethics aren’t torture so much as not-tourtiere. Ironically, this modern marketing phenomenon of plant-based consumables might have legs, be sustainable.

Confirmation comes from a reliable though unlikely source. Last week’s Economist reported that illicit drug manufacturers in Afghanistan are now producing plant-based methamphetamine. Hashish and heroin are so old school. The magic in meth is something seductive called pseudoephedrine. It’s the stuff that makes asthma inhalers and cough medicines effective. It’s also a key ingredient for rogue chemists who believe crack isn’t the be all and end all, too expensive and just not addictive enough; consequently various authorities try to control the availability of the drug. Pseudoephedrine occurs naturally in the leaves of ephedra bushes, a plant particularly suited to thrive in the high altitude of Afghanistan’s western desert. So far the new plant-based meth method has been nothing but economic blue skies for a black market. Manufacturing costs have been halved and farmers have profited as the price of their ephedra crops has tripled.

An organized crime ring isn’t any different from a legitimate private or public firm. The syndicate will have an org chart denoting the executive and employees. There is no escaping accountants or lawyers. A reliable supply chain and shipping product to market are universal logistical challenges whatever the shade of the economic endeavor. Industry trends, innovations and potential efficiencies are worthy of study; quality control, and prices set with what the market will bear whilst keeping under-cutting competitors in mind are crucial. Dons and warlords are not media buyers and so the traditional advertising metric of gross ratings points (GRPs) is meaningless. Still, there is always the avenue of word-of-mouth or “buzz” in ad jargon.        
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Friday, 6 September 2019


There’s Nothing You and I Can’t Do

Just drop the writ and I’ll meld with you. Canadians know that a general election will be held October 21st. Canadians also know that the current Liberal government must ask the electorate to exercise its democratic privilege and obligation in polling stations by September 15th.

While everything always sparkles on paper or by tacit convention, western democracies are tricky constructs. A country’s welfare is in the palm of a partisan party that exists to achieve power and keep it; the party’s interests must ultimately sublimate that of the nation-state it controls. Fair enough. And here in this hemisphere voters play along because we grasp on some level that the courage and nobility required of a leader to do the right thing on behalf of a country whatever the cost to their own or their party’s fortunes is beyond the bounds of reality as we understand it.

The best way to distort our perception of reality remains propaganda and advertising, twin avenues of persuasion. Following the misty, rainy days of summer the national political machine is whirring again, sanding off corrosion and oiling rusty spots. In lieu of comprehensive platforms, Canada’s four major political parties and the lunatic fringe have announced their respective campaign slogans. In a perfect world a party’s slogan should encompass its philosophy and allude to its intentions, no easy task in a society possessing the collective attention span and critical thinking capacity of a social media gadfly.    

Choose Forward: I like the Liberals’ short, snappy call to progressive action even if their past four years in power has been an ineffectual, stalled escalator of one step up and two steps back.

It’s time for you to get ahead: Whoa, pay attention to auto-correct! This is an especially clunky phrase given that Canada’s unemployment rate has blissfully cratered into a 40-year nadir. However, outside forces, as Albertans and stock market players have learned, can change everything. The Conservatives’ traditional “me first” ethos is readily apparent.

In it for you: In what? What am I in for? The old joke about the New Democrats was that the party had all the answers but didn’t know or understand the questions.

Not left. Not right. Forward together: Three terse phrases constitute something of a Green epiphany. Planetary circumstances have nudged the former eco-radicals to the banks of the centrist mainstream. This could be mistaken for a Liberal Party slogan.

Strong and free: The political right has endured as many schisms and sects as the Protestant church. Splinter groups form because traditional Tories are just too damn moderate and tolerant. The People’s Party of Canada is a populist fringe faction whose leader (thankfully) finished second in the Conservative Party’s leadership race. National anthems are necessarily nationalistic and generally martial and so the dog whistle with this slogan is the missing line that everybody knows. The PPC is anti-immigration and denies the existence of climate change. I suspect the party’s vision of “the True North” is awfully white and awfully warm. 

The 2019 federal campaign is shaping up to be one of the most depressing and desultory elections in living memory. The leadership roster reminds me of a once-great hockey team with “problems in the room” and few fans in the arena. Canadians must remember to cast their vote for the best candidate in their particular riding. Happy trails.   

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