06/21/14

Fifty Years Ago


In mid-August, 1964, a modest-budget, British black-and-white comedy movie hit the theatres. And instantly exploded to being the most popular film of the year. It was the Richard Lester flick, A Hard Day’s Night, starring the young Beatles in their debut on the silver screen. It was a paradigm changer in so many ways.
Hard Day's Night

It was a madcap, faux-autobiographical/mockumentary story – a style of filmmaking not previously seen on the big screen – punctuated by the Beatles’ music, including several new songs not yet released on vinyl. They would soon be, though and the soundtrack album would rise to number four on the charts.

The whole thing cost about $500,000 to make, but netted $12 million. Professor Witney Seibold writes:

The film is most certainly a classic, not only capturing the energy and obsession and youthful humor of the band members themselves, but also displaying a new kind of New Wave filmmaking that was part musical, part comedy, and part documentary. A Hard Day’s Night is a great film… perhaps the best rock film ever made.

But of course the biggest result was to introduce the world to Beatlemania, then still a nascent movement about to become a cultural tsunami. If anyone before the film was unsure what it meant, what all the excitement was about, who these guys were, they didn’t have any uncertainty after watching it. The film not only showed the world what Beatlemania was,, it swept up everyone in its wake and drew us unprotesting into the madcap movement.

People in the audience laughed and wept and screamed along with the audience in the film. Teens in the USA, in Canada and elsewhere were united in a virtual onscreen world with the British teens shown in the movie. It internationalized us.

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06/19/14

The Food Babe and other nonsense


Food BabeShe’s been called the “Jenny McCarthy of food.” That’s not a compliment and should warn anyone with half a brain to beware of her. She’s a New Age wingnut helping turn the public from science to superstition.

She’s also been described as the “latest quack making a name for herself on the Internet by peddling pseudoscience” and a “meme terrorist.”

Meet “Food babe” Vani Hari. The latest darling of an increasingly lame and ill-educated national media that focuses on spectacle and controversy. She’s an attention-seeker who knows how to work the media and get coverage and ratchet herself to celebrity status through cunningly techniques.

Forbes magazine writer, Trevor Butterworth noted that her methods never get the headlines, only her allegations, and rebuttals and corrections often get ignored:

Unfortunately, this kind of clarification, where a blogger takes something commonplace and gives it a nefarious social media friendly twist to advance an agenda, did not make the Financial Times, Business Insider, USA Today, NBC News, and undoubtedly many more news stories that uncritically reported the Food Babe’s victory.

Cancer surgeon David Gorski wrote,

…her strategy is very transparent, but unfortunately it’s also very effective: Name a bunch of chemicals and count on the chemical illiteracy of your audience to result in fear at hearing their very names. However, if you have any background in chemistry, much of what Hari is doing is almost painfully transparent, a veritable insult to one’s intelligence and training.

The Independent Women’s Forum says of Hari:

The Food Babe has one clear mission: to scare moms so bad that they stop buying all that convenient and reasonably priced food they’ve grown to love and which makes their lives a little easier. Because progress is your enemy, ladies!
She’s not asking much…just that you do your best to act more like her: eat only food produced by raw, whole ingredients that you cook yourself. Oh, but wait, it can’t be just any whole ingredients; they have to be organic and non-GMO. The evidence she provides to her readers that this strategy will lead to a healthier life? Exactly nothing.

The Neurologica Blog says:

The Foodbabe… wants to replace careful analysis and evidence with, “Yuk, that sounds weird.” She feels this is a superior process to that used by world organizations that go through the bother of having experts review scientific evidence.

I first learned about Hari from Facebook posts warning about “dangerous” and “secret” ingredients in beer. Like fish bladders and antifreeze.

Woah, I said to myself. This ain’t right. These aren’t dangerous chemicals.

I was a homebrew beer maker for a decade, and still make my own wine. Isinglass – made from fish bladders – has been used to clarify both for almost three centuries. Isinglass is a colourless, tasteless collagen – like gelatine – made from fish swim bladders. It is a flocculate, or fining agent, used at the end of the fermentation process to cause solids like yeast in the beer to settle on the bottle where they can be more easily removed removed, and allow the clear beer to be bottled. It’s approved for this use in dozens of countries. I used it myself many times over the last three decades.

It’s not harmful – centuries of use have shown that – and it’s no less a “natural” animal product than gelatin, since they are both made from collagen, or animal connecting tissue. Very little isinglass remains in the beer after its use. Vegans may object (I object to gelatin in yogurt since I don’t eat meat), but anyone who eats fish or meat won’t. Isinglass is also used to help wounds heal.

As the Smithsonian describes the process:

Isinglass, a gelatine-like substance made from the air-bladders or sounds of fish like the sturgeon is added to cask beers like Guinness to help any remaining yeast and solid particles settle out of the final product. As the finings pass through the beer, they attract themselves to particles in the fermented beer that create an unwanted “haziness” in the final product and form into a jelly-like mass that settles to the bottom of the cask. While beer left untouched will clear on its own, isinglass speeds up the process and doesn’t affect the final flavor of the beer once removed.

However, it is predominantly used by small and craft breweries making cask beers, not by the big companies which filter and pasteurize their high-volume beers (leading to the ubiquitous “fermented cardboard” flavour of most commercial beers). As Wikipedia tells us:

Non-cask beers that are destined for kegs, cans or bottles are often pasteurized and filtered. The yeast in these beers tends to settle to the bottom of the storage tank naturally, so the sediment from these beers can often be filtered without using isinglass. However, some breweries still use isinglass finings for non-cask beers, especially when attempting to repair bad batches.

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06/18/14

The Strange World of E-Writers


Pulp magazinesThere’s always been a place for amateur or new writers to present their efforts and hope to see print: publications where you could submit your work and hope the editors found it good enough to print in an upcoming issue. That’s how some famous writers got their start, in the pulp magazines of the 1930s and 40s: Robert Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Isaac Asimov and many more. But all of these depended on getting past the gatekeeper, someone like John Campbell: an editor who set standards – slim as they may sometimes be – and wrangled clumsy prose into shape for publication.

And then there have been self-publishing houses that can eschew the editor and simply print your book as you submit it – as long as you paid the bill to do so. This type of publishing house is still operating and plays an important role in getting many local and personal or family books into print. Many authors, frustrated at not being able to find a national publisher, has resorted to self-publishing. The wonderful book of local oral history, Butchers, Bakers and Building the Lakers used this method to get into print.*

Self-publishing runs the gamut from quality books like this to family genealogies, first novels and collections of atrociously sappy poems. It’s not simply self-printing: it’s self-editing, self-layout and self-design (unless you hire a professional to do it for you – there’s still a role for freelance editors and designers). Still, it has a respectable place in the history of publishing.

I remember in the 1950s and 60s there were ads in magazines for poetry books – submit your poem and an amount of money and you would get back a book of poems by aspiring writers like yourself, the printing paid for by the collective authors. No editor, just a compositor and printer. And usually awful stuff between the covers. But who cared about the rest if you saw your name in print?

Then came the internet and a new venue for self publishing: the website. And from that sprang the blog. But most of these efforts have been limited in scope and size. Almost no one reads a novel online, and would-be authors have had to either break their work into smaller parts or bundle it into a downloadable file for offline printing and reading. With the dwindling public attention span, it’s hard to get readers to stick around a website to read even something as long and rambling as these blog posts, let alone a whole book.

The Net also gave a boost to fan fiction because it allowed fans to collectivize and publish online. Like many other forms of writing, fan fiction has a long history. I remember many years ago, in the 70s, writing fantasy short stories in the world created by Fritz Leiber in his Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser series. Never saw print, mind you, but it’s interesting and entertaining to work within the universe created by another writer – and great practice for the wannabe novelist.

In a similar vein, the original Dungeons and Dragons gamified a fantasy universe for players to both participate in and develop their own, personal story lines – some of which led to fan books and magazine stories.

Now, with the arrival of e-readers, those authors have a new platform, a new audience, and what a world it has spawned.

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06/17/14

Our 21st Century Library


Collingwood Public LibraryIn the 20-plus years I’ve been on the Collingwood Library board, I have watched the functions of the library and its role in the community evolve and change to keep pace with the needs and demands of its growing number of users. It’s been a remarkable, exciting journey.

Of all our civic institutions, I believe the library has best adapted to the new technologies and the changing community demographics.  In sheer numbers, it is our most popular, most well-used community facility.

And the library continues to grow in popularity as visits, uses and borrowing expands in leaps and bounds. From the Collingwood Public Library annual report for 2013, presented to Council on Monday night here are a few statistics:

  • 190,121 patron visits (up 6%);
  • 283,467 items borrowed (up 3%);
  • 7,580 e-books borrowed (up 44%);
  • 5,095 program participants (up 26%);
  • 10,663 uses of library computer workstations (up 13%);
  • 13,746 uses of library Wifi network (up 34%);
  • 159,150 visits to library website (up 52%).

Did you also know there are many free online courses available through the library’s website? All you need is your library card to take them. I signed up for Latin! Plus there are databases and online magazines you can read or use for research. And, of course, a large collection of movies on DVD, music on CD and even audiobooks you can check out.

All of this is good news for the community: it shows our library remains on the forefront of the technology wave; adapting and enhancing its services – thanks to terrific, dedicated staff and a supportive, active and engaged board. Plus the library has an excellent relationship with the town’s IT superb department to help make technical and technological decisions and upgrades easier and more efficient.*

The growing community use in all aspects and areas of the library show how prescient the 2003-06 council was in approving (albeit not unanimously**) a new, expanded, award-winning, LEEDS-gold-certified library – long overdue, too.*** According to Ministry standards, our library had outgrown its space around 1990. It took more than 15 years to get a new building with enough space to accommodate the town’s growing population and the library’s own collection.

A  modern library is not simply a warehouse for books – themselves often but wrongly portrayed as an aging technology in the era of the e-reader. It is the beating heart  of the community. As a page on the Southern Ontario Library Service (SOLS) says about the public library:

Today it is a cornerstone of the community that benefits everyone. Residents of all ages rely on their public library to provide what they need to face the future with the resilience that comes from new knowledge, information, skills, and abilities.

The literacy map for Collingwood is reasonably healthy. According to the Canadian Council on Learning, we’re doing better than much of the country, and the library is one of the main reasons scores have improved over the last several years. But we can’t relax our vigil and take it for granted.

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06/14/14

Why Term Limits Are a Bad Idea for Municipal Government


Term limitsLeo Longo wrote in three recent Municipal World articles (April, May, June, 2014) that it is time to consider setting term limits on municipal politicians.

I beg to disagree.

Is municipal democracy in such dire straits that it needs restrictions that no provincial or federal politician faces?

Are voters so ignorant and ill-informed that they need outsiders to guide their choices?

Applying arbitrary term limits goes against the grain of representational democracy, suggesting the arbitrator knows what is better for the electorate than the electors themselves; that democracy needs outside control because it cannot regulate itself.

What problem would such limits solve that are not already solved by the electorate, and by existing accountability laws? It is certainly not the panacea for voter malaise or low turnout.

Mr. Longo suggests the “status quo has produced many of the negative consequences…” but he fails to identify the negative consequences that occur under term-limit systems.

For example, Mexico has three-year terms and no-re-election policy. Every municipal government is entirely new, with no experienced politicians to help guide the city. The system has been widely criticized as ineffective because “Voters never have the opportunity to pass judgment on the record of their elected officials, so those officials see no incentive to having a record at all, good or bad.”* It is also said to “impede performance.”** I have seen its effects in some Mexican cities: a year of confusion getting to know the job, a year trying to get something done, then a year coasting to the end.

Incumbents are often said to have an advantage, as Mr. Longo notes. Some of this comes from name recognition: but for that to be true, you have to get your name in the community.This is only done by being active at the table and outside. Inactive or lazy politicians don’t get that.

Nor do those at odds with the media, despite their record or experience.

Is this an “unfair ‘tilted’ playing field” as he suggests? I don’t believe so. Sometimes that name recognition can work against a politician, too.

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06/13/14

When good people do bad things in groups


Mob MentalityThe headline is taken from a piece on Science Daily on a study about how groups change personal behaviour and morality. The study is reported on the MIT website. I’ve seen that change myself, many times over the years, and most recently locally. The study adds intelligence on the neurology of how such group activity changed people.

The report itself is called “Reduced self-referential neural response during intergroup competition predicts competitor harm,” which of course would have most people’s eyes glazing over. But the authors of the report start by asking a salient question:

Why do interactions become more hostile when social relations shift from “me versus you” to “us versus them”? 

Why, indeed? Why do people who seem rational and even friendly individually become angry bullies in a group?The authors themselves offer a hypothesis:

One possibility is that acting with a group can reduce spontaneous self-referential processing in the moral domain and, in turn, facilitate competitor harm. We tested this hypothesis in an fMRI experiment in which (i) participants performed a competitive task once alone and once with a group; (ii) spontaneous self-referential processing during competition was indexed unobtrusively by activation in an independently localized region of the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) associated with self-reference; and (iii) we assessed participants’ willingness to harm competitors versus teammates. As predicted, participants who showed reduced mPFC activation in response to descriptions of their own moral behaviors while competing in a group were more willing to harm competitors. These results suggest that intergroup competition (above and beyond inter-personal competition) can reduce self-referential processing of moral information, enabling harmful behaviors towards members of a competitive group.

That’s fairly technical and likely not eyebrow-raising for us non-techies. Is this relevant to you and me, to our neighbours and friends and our daily lives? Yes, and very much so.

It means that our personal moral compass may not work, may be disabled when we interact in groups that identify an us-them dichotomy, or see outsiders as competitors. It explains why groups can become uncivil, nasty, aggressive, even violent although their individual members may not be.

It also suggests that to break away from group dominance, one needs to become introspective about our own values and ethics, and one must work hard to recover that moral compass.

We only need read the stories of the brave but estranged family members the late Fred Phelps, leader of the hate-filled Westboro Baptist Church, who broke away from his control. Twenty-three-year-old Zach Phelps-Roper broke from the church recently, and spoke to the Topeka Capital-Journal about his decision:

Empathy and unconditional love, he said, are the keys to solving the world’s problems — a lesson he has learned contrasting his time inside the WBC compound and the past nearly 11 weeks outside it.
“I feel like I have unconditional love for every person around the world,” Phelps-Roper said Friday. “The Westboro Baptist Church sees things differently than I do now.”
The church he grew up in was too busy pointing out problems to look for solutions, he said. He has been able to spend the past two months investigating the second part of that equation.
His conclusion: “Most problems come from a lack of understanding of how we affect other people and things around us. I feel like I have found the holy grail, the overarching solution to solving all of our society’s problems, and I want to learn more. I want to do more.”

What is interesting to me is that Zach, although he broke from the abusive church and its leader, and rediscovered his own moral compass, he also retains considerable religious faith – even a fundamentalist view I would have expected him to abandon. So one can break free of a group’s dominance yet retain shared core beliefs., just behave differently – more normally, more civilly.

That was eye-opening. It certainly isn’t the experience of all Westboro members who have freed themselves of its grip (read this piece about another family member’s struggle; Libby Phelps-Alvarez), although most have said in the interviews I’ve read they are kinder, gentler, more empathetic and humane since leaving the church. I expect most people who break free of any group’s control feel that way.

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