Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Tuning Out?

People don't tune in weekly to shows anymore. It's the simple reality. As the networks reveal which shows are getting the axe and continue to spin more tried and trite reworks of past successes and spinoffs, it's clear that tv is not what it used to be. There was a time, and it wasn't quite that long ago, when people would tune in every week to one particular show. You couldn't move them from that couch on Monday between 7-8. You didn't even answer the phone. TV was kind of a big deal.

But people don't schedule their lives around tv much anymore. There's so much other stuff to do and On Demand as well as time shifting has made it possible for us to watch when we want to, rather than when it's on. Downloading and internet tv are also popular options. It's not just the time commitment that becomes the issue, but the choice.

Reality tv is ratings gold and for many reasons: it's cheap, gossip-worthy, and doesn't require a large emotional or neurological investment. Drama is often too involved and too, well, dramatic. Comedy is rarely funny. The threat of the axe also deters us from loving shows too much. And then there are the shows themselves.

Let's use the example of one of this year's most compelling dramas, Awake. Awake is a highly intelligent drama about an LA-based detective who loses his wife or son in an accident and is living 2 parallel realities in which each is alive. The 2 realities are so clearly separate that he has a different police partner and a different psychologist in each. The show's first few episodes were breathtakingly captivating. It made you tremble for more and wonder so hard that your brain hurt.

But here are the problems with the show:

It's almost too smart for its own good- Let's admit it. The premise is gimmicky and faulty because in order for the show to work, the premise has to work everytime, which means that the character can't ever commit to 1 reality. While this is compelling on the surface, it's utterly unrewarding to the viewer, because they will never get close to the 'truth'. The search for the truth is what keeps us interested in the show; but getting there will destroy the show, much in the same way that romantic tension keeps shows alive until the two main characters actually get together.

Grieving is a bad storyline- There's only so much grieving that viewers will watch before it overwhelms them. By not allowing the story to advance much beyond 'mom misses son' and 'son misses mom' while 'dad misses both', makes all the characters fall flat. An emotional connection is nearly impossible with either son or mother, made all the more complicated by the fact that the detective is not close to either. He is the absentee father, mostly at work on a case, rather than at home bonded to his family. His bonds with both seem superficial and only his grief for them seems real. It's not good viewing.

One of these things just doesn't belong- There are 2 stories competing for Detective Britton's attention right now, the grieving one in which he might become a grandparent or move, and the second much more interesting one of the police force's conspiracy to kill him. The problem is that they are almost incompatible. The news of the show's cancellation next season seems to have prompted the creators to concentrate on the police conspiracy, leaving both crash victims out of the storyline. The show, if it gets picked up again by an interested fanbase, will have to decide which it's going to be: family drama or police drama.

Which brings us back to the problems with tv. If a series is going to demand a high level of emotional investment and tolerance for non-answers from its viewers, at some point, it has to offer a reward. Remember LOST? Beyond two brilliant seasons, LOST was an epic disappointment, confusing viewers, story spinning out of control and finally losing all credibility with a cryptic and inane finale. Viewers don't want to ride that ride anymore.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Tax the Fat

The old motto used to be 'tax the rich.' It would be nice if that motto still stood. But a new motto appears to be taking its place, which is that of 'tax the fat.' The argument is much simpler to make to the public. There's an obesity problem in North America and this represents a serious pulic health issue, therefore, taxes should be imposed on the sale of fatty items, in the same vein as the taxes imposed on tobacco products and alcohol. But one look at the numbers on this issue makes it much less clear.

A study conducted in American middle schools indicated by the numbers that the increase in sales of fatty foods in schools did not result in an increase in obesity among the students. The results were so surprising to a team of scientists that they initially believed their results were wrong and delayed publication of their findings. It seems that other factors, such as neighbourhoods and home life, may be a bigger contributor to shaping eating habits and healthy attitudes.

Similar research supports this notion. What happens in the home and the attitudes towards one's health and body may be more important than the availability of junk food. Research also points to the fact that messaging is ineffective within the home if it's not supported by action; 'do as I say and not as I do' has never been a good parenting model. Just as education is often affected by parents (those with higher degrees are more likely to have children with higher degrees), health is also learned and best learned through real life examples.

The lesson here may be that if children are going to do better, their parents must do better. It is up to them to provide good healthy habits. Their children are not the 'victims' of slick marketing by food companies. Health is all about choices and while education can go a certain way, as well as limited access, it is ultimately up to us to decide what we consume or don't consume. A 20% tax on junk food won't stop determined midnight hamburger runs. Taxation on tobacco is generally ineffective in curbing smoking; it will be much the same for pop and chips.

Junk food alone is not the enemy of good health. It's attitudes and lifestyle choice. By showing people the benefits of a healthy, active lifestyle, people will be more inclined to improve themselves rather than through taxation and shaming. The benefits are numerous: improved sleep, strength, stamina, increased energy levels, better concentration, boosted ego and just looking great in clothes.

If the government wants more effective policies for public health than taxation, it need look no further than simple and cost-effective solutions. Bring gym class back to schools. Bring back the milk program for children. Let nutritionists into the schools with Canada's Health Guide. Build more community centres with active programming like dance classes and basketball. Subsidize local farming. It could all be so simple.

A Job's a Job?

The Canadian government, in the midst of massive cuts to federal programs and layoffs of the public service, is introducing changes to its Employment Insurance policies which would force those who are on EI to take jobs that they may otherwise refuse. The government is attempting to re-define the rights of workers on EI; the rights of the productive, middle-income earners who turn the national economy, freshly released from their secure, steady employment by the same government looking to make efficiencies. This basically means that the government has cut the economy off at its knees by taking employment away from the most consistent sources of consumer revenue; average Canadians.

Instead, these well-educated and experienced workers will be asked to fill regional labour gaps in jobs that they would refuse based on their high skill set, low wages or unacceptable working conditions. The Finance Minister has stated that a job is a job and that people should do what needs to be done, using his own example of driving cabs and refereeing hockey to get by in his youth.

While it's refreshing to see people acknowledge that all forms of employment are respectable, it glosses over the fact that it's not always acceptable. Young professionals who are not eligible for early retirement packages are being squeezed out of their positions so that the government can save millions on what it considers public service ineffiencies. Among these savings are pensions and benefits for workers, the kind of security that only the public service offers in exchange for office work.

The days of the plum jobs are gone, with no benefits or security to speak of. That much has been made clear through this round of cuts and with the general feeling around the world, with fragile economies and austerity measures. While this may be a simple fact of life, is it really a better option to force people into jobs that they don't want?

Forget the fact that these jobs are often sweaty, uncomfortable, physically taxing, exhausting and don't even begin to pay the bills. There's a reason they are hard to fill. Filling in labour gaps with forced employees is never a good business model. Production and morale levels will be low; logic states that return on investment will be low as a result. This measure will hurt instead of help the current labour market by filling it with bitter overqualified workers who can no longer afford their mortgages.

And let's not forget another essential point: forced labour is, by definition, slavery. Government-mandated participation in the labour market of its choice is coming pretty close to that mark.

Monday, May 14, 2012

This time, it's personal

A Canada Post Corporation employee has been relieved of their duties as a sorter due to some angry and derogatory comments made about the management of her organization on Facebook. The Union is appealing the decision on the basis that the employee should not have been fired suddenly due to her years of service with the organization, while the members of management affected have each taken a leave of absence to deal with the stress and trauma of being called out online. The employee is unrepentant, stating that it was management who drove her to make the comments because of the toxic work environment that they had created.

While most of us know that Facebook is a public social media service which is readily accessible to all, we also know that it can and will be held against us. Whether it's friendly blackmail of you at that party where you've had a few too many or the bad stuff that you say about your ex, the stuff on the internet is free game and you must be careful what you post.

The case of this woman is pretty clear. She abused her management through social networking and her rants were public. She wrote herself a one way ticket out of her job and pleading ignorance will not do her any good, especially to a tech-savvy young generation of people who know the pitfalls and joys of cyberculture all too well. But it does raise an interesting and important question: just how do you divide the line between your personal and your private life? Your life online is more public than you think, and it's not just reputations that can get stained, but jobs can get lost too.

And it's not just the jobs we have, but future employment as well. Apparently, more and more employers are checking their prospective employees on Facebook and Twitter as well as other social media sites. While they cannot force the employee to give them access, they can search and view pages that may belong to you and are not intended for professional purposes.

So how much of our online profile is fair game? Is it fair for prospective employees to check on intangible qualities, like my recreational preferences or the fact that I might have a cute dog? Will employers see an opportunity to peak into the lives of their employees and check if they're family-oriented or listen to rap music? Will it allow them to discriminate based on lifestyle choices?

The honest answer is that it will. The follow up question is whether or not it should. Your social media profile should not factor into a decision about your employability or your character. Employees should not be obligated to disclose their social media information to their employer or 'Friend' them.

And on the flipside? Less may be more when it comes to your online footprint with social media.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Oh the Humanities!

There is a lot of talk about the Quebec university students who are protesting the proposed tuition hikes. A lot of the talk has centered around the violence committed by protesters, who have mostly been revealed as anarchists taking advantage of an opportunity for chaos, rather than students protesting for a cause. Other discussions have centered around the basic economics of the issue which have broken down the proposed changes to somewhere around a few hundred dollars or roughly $6 a day. The attention has grown to international levels and has sparked debates on everything from education rights, social justice, Quebec, Quebec vs Canada, violence, police, and politics.

In Canada, it's safe to say that the majority of people believe the following: violence is wrong, Quebec is unique, some students are passive social justice advocates, the changes to the tuition rates are a question of economics but some people want to fight on principle. Fair enough.

What isn't safe to say is that either side is justified in judging each other. On the one hand, the Quebec students may be out of touch with the fiscal reality and the larger social context of what's happening in the world outside of Quebec. They may be kicking up a lot of proverbial dust for very little benefit when that time could be better used to find employment to make up the difference in their already low education rates. On the other hand, they have a right to feel that education is a social justice issue and to fight for the principle of keeping education affordable and accessible to all. A few dollars today may mean a few thousand dollars tomorrow. Point well taken.

But there is something unsettling about the way the students are being criticized over what appears to be an issue of dollars and cents. Out of touch? Maybe. Too passionate to see that their cause is tiny? Probably also true. Movement to protest out of proportion to the possible outcome? Yes.

This statement, however, does not fall into the category of appropriate criticism(Margaret Wente, Globe and Mail, Quebec University students are in for a shock):

"The truth is, the education they’re getting is overpriced at any cost. The protesters do not include accounting, science and engineering students, who have better things to do than hurl projectiles at police. They’re the sociology, anthropology, philosophy, arts, and victim-studies students, whose degrees are increasingly worthless in a world that increasingly demands hard skills. The world will not be kind to them. They’re the baristas of tomorrow and they don’t even know it, because the adults in their lives have sheltered them and encouraged their mass flight from reality."

First, not all protestor are hurling projectiles at police. Some of them are marching peacefully in the streets and shouting slogans. Not illegal by any means and not something to be reproached. Second, the blatant attack on the social sciences and humanities is just offensive. Worthless? Who uses a word like worthless to describe education which is supposed to be a pillar of civilization, one of those things that separates us from gorillas? As a 'journalist', most people are taught to be sensitive to language, as the use of words has an enormous effect on people. 'Worthless' should not be used lightly.

It's also hard to surmise from this article with my small minded humanities based brain what a hard skill is. It is likely that hard skill and tangible outcome go together, much like engineers make machines and science people make cures and stuff like that. What a slap in the face to the thousands of people who dedicate their lives to exploring fundamental questions of existence, society and humans in general. The pursuit of meaning may be outdated to some, but if that question gets perenially lost in the pursuit of more practical things like gadgets, not only will we understand less about what we do, but we will understand a lot less about why we do it.

I get that the students are out of touch, probably expect too much and are probably fighting for very little. I get that it may seem ridiculous to some people. Wente doesn't mince her words and am I against that? Hell no! But the mean-spirited notion that there are people out there with worthless degrees just because they prefer thought and reflection to numbers and machines is wrong. The day that we lose those people is the day we become the numbers and machines. The notion has already made some of us insensitive.