Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Makin' and Mixin your own pop-up videos

I've been Mixin with the wrong crowd.

Now this is cool: a new online resource - Mixin - that let's you create your own pop-up videos and share them with your pals on your blog or Facebook.

The service is still in beta, but it's fun, fun, fun - as you can see by a sampling of the fine folks in the advertising major:


Monday, November 12, 2012

14 new words to put in your ladybinders

See number 6. 

1. Cleanspiracy - The alleged plot to clean one's house, as perceived by a hoarder. 

2. Croperly - To suitably improve framing. 

3. Documockumentary - Shooting a nonfictional motion picture about a satirical work presented in the style of a nonfictional motion picture. See number eight. 

4. Ficture - A photoshopped photo.

5. GingerPrince - Entitled, redheaded manchild. 

6. Ladybinders - Mitt's cover for holding loose ladypapers. 

7. Menote Address - An address ostensibly of great importance to everyone, but - in reality - only of importance to the person delivering it. Example: "In 1985, who could have foreseen that the world would change forever...for me?"

8. Mockudocumockumentary - Shooting a satirical work presented in the style of a nonfiction motion picture of a nonfictional motion picture about a satirical work presented in the style of a nonfictional motion picture. See number three. 

9. Refirement - The point where you stop employment to "spend more time with your family" to avoid being fired to do the same. 

10. Rememberies - A person's power to remember memories.  

11. Romoney - Lot's of money. Example: "I'm doing well, but I don't make Romoney."

12. Snarkasm - An especially bitter remark. 

13. Spincompetence - Having only the skills to make others believe that you have the necessary skills.

14. Thrilogy - A set of three, new Star Wars films that no one expected, for example.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

All hail the kings and queens of CreCommedy Nights '12


CreCommedy Nights '12 at Rumor's were a raging success as 32 of Red River College's funniest and bravest students took to the stage to perform stand-up comedy for the first time.

Special thanks to former students Cara Lytwyn and Dan Verville for sharing host and emcee duties, to CreComm students, grads, and friends who stopped by to watch and judge the big show, and to Rumor's for allowing us to crash the place.

People's choice awards

Our two panels of judges have spoken and selected these comics as our top six of the night:

1. Mark McAvoy
2. Mitch Kruse
3. Kate Slimmon
4. Amy Tuckett
5. Matt Williams
6. Megan Merasty

Each of these hilarious people earned a 17/20 or higher from the judging panel - a feat within itself.

See you in one year at Rumor's.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Find a job and build a portfolio using LiveBinders

Get a job, kid. And, while you're at it, put together an online portfolio.

I give you LiveBinders, a cool website and iPad app that lets you create online binders and combine them into a digital portfolio. 

Click on the embedded link, above, to see my magical creation - a compilation of job-search and resume tools, communication conferences, and articles to help you get outta school and become a productive member of society until Donald Trump fires you.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

How U.S. schools can and should curb violence

Note: I recently wrote this research paper for my Master's in Education program at Central Michigan University, which is why I focus on U.S. schools. However, many of the conclusions I draw are equally applicable to schools in Canada.

Given the shocking and recurring outbursts of violence committed by students inside U.S. schools and classrooms, is there anything that schools can do to identify and deal with serious threats?

In its documentary, “Cry For Help,” PBS Frontline (2009) estimates “the odds that a U.S. high school student will die in high school violence is one in a million.” The National Center For Education Statistics (2009) says that eight per cent of schools reported a student threatening physical attack during the 2009-10 school year. (P. 3)

As infrequent as these violent acts may be, they garner extensive media coverage in which we grapple with seemingly unanswerable questions: Why did it happen? Why didn't anyone see the warning signs? What can we do to stop it from happening again?

These questioned are echoed by the FBI in The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective (2000): “Why would a student bring a weapon to school and without any explicable reason open fire on fellow students and teachers? Are school shooters angry? Are they crazy? Is their motive revenge? Hatred for the victims? A hunger for attention?” (P. 1)

Those who try to answer these questions offer confusing or conflicting views. In his Oscar-winning film Bowling For Columbine (2002), Michael Moore reminds us of the possibilities set forth after the tragic killings at the school in Littleton, including heavy-metal music, movies, South Park, Satan, Marilyn Manson, the breakup of the family unit, and bowling (a tongue-in-cheek suggestion, given that the killers in the Columbine attack apparently went bowling the morning of the attacks).

Other films, like Elephant, We Need to Talk About Kevin, and The Class have grappled with the issue of school violence, and even pop songs, like the Boomtown Rats’ “I Don’t Like Mondays,” Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy,” and Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” (posted at the top of this post) chronicle possible motives.

As the media reports fade, we stop asking the questions, and the cycle continues amidst the fear that the same thing could happen again in any school, maybe one in our neighborhood. “How,” asks the Secret Service in its Threat Assessments in Schools guide (2002), “should school officials and other responsible adults respond?” (P. 4)

In the book Critical Issues in Education (2012), the authors don’t ask “how,” but "can schools deal effectively with violent or potentially violent students?" (Nelson, P. 334) One of the viewpoints outlined in the book is “the problem of school violence is beyond school control.” (Nelson, P. 340)
Indeed, the first thing one learns when embarking on research about this topic is, “there is no accurate or useful profile of attackers.” (Cullen, 2009, P. 322)

According to the Chicago Sun-Times (2000), “Some (attackers) lived with both parents in “an ideal, All-American family.” Some were children of divorce, or lived in foster homes. A few were loners, but most had close friends. Few had disciplinary records. Some had honor roll grades and were in Advanced Placement courses; some were failing. Few showed a change in friendships or interest in school.” (Dedman, P. 6)

Given this reality, how can any school predict, mitigate, or prevent violence in classrooms and schools?

That is what this blog post aims to find out.

The research

There’s an abundance of literature available on the topic of school violence. In an attempt to get to the heart of this issue and answer the question posed in my introduction, I’ve researched books, articles, documentaries, and reports from such notable entities as the FBI, the Secret Service, the U.S. Department of Education, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Center For Education Statistics, and the Report of Governor Bill Owens’ Columbine Review Commission.

It’s been a thought-provoking and worthwhile journey. In my research, I’ve found that – despite a belief to the contrary – there is a profile of the high-school attacker. And there is a consensus among government officials, police profilers, and psychologists about how teachers and school administrators can and should deal with this issue. The answers aren’t simple, but they’re there.

“These terrible shootings do not have to happen. They are not random. There are plenty of warning signs. In my opinion, every one of these occurrences which has happened could have been prevented,” says Frank Roberts, co-founder of the Institute for Violence Prevention and Applied Criminology, in “Cry For Help” (2009).

What would you do?

Perhaps most teachers have had a student in their class who has raised alarm bells, but none wants to respond with undue judgment or regret not responding to signals after it's too late.

The U.S. Secret Service has produced a number of reports on school violence. In its Threat Assessments in Schools report (2002), it asks, “What should happen when a student comes to attention for saying something or behaving in a manner that causes concern, as in the following instances?” (P. 3)

The list that follows should give any instructor pause:
  • "The kids are saying that Johnny told his friends not to go to the cafeteria at noon on Tuesday because something big and bad is going to happen.
  • “Marty, who has appeared withdrawn and irritable the past few weeks, handed in a story about a student putting a bomb in an empty school.
  • “Sandy brought bullets to school to show friends.
  • “Rafael, who got pushed around again after gym class, stormed out in tears, shouting "You’re all going to pay!"
  • “Casey, who was suspended last year for bringing a knife to school, left a "hit list" on his desk.
  • “Terry submitted an essay in which an assassin blew up the school, attacked the governor, and then killed himself.” (P. 3 to 4)
As a teacher, how would I respond to each of these instances? I have a responsibility to ensure my students are safe in the classroom, but also to avoid demonizing students who may be struggling for a variety of reasons.

What not to do

After most school shootings, school administrators across the U.S. customarily respond with so-called zero-tolerance policies – “meaning every idle threat (is) treated like a cocked gun.” (Cullen, 2009, P. 322) This approach doesn’t work.

“After Columbine, it really sucked beings a student in America,” says Michael Moore in Bowling For Columbine (2002), before recounting a long list of infractions for which students have been suspended, including: carrying nail clippers, pointing a chicken finger at a teacher, folding a piece of paper into the shape of a gun, having dyed hair, and not following the school dress code.

In the past, some students have been singled out for being loners or having eccentric character traits. However, “identifying outcasts as threats is not healthy. It demonizes innocent kids who are already struggling. Oddballs are not the problem. They do not fit the profile.” (Cullen, 2009, P. 322)

According to the FBI (2000), neither do “unusual or aberrant behaviors, interests, or hobbies.” (P. 4)
The biggest myth: shooters are normal people who just “snap.” In fact, “a staggering 93 per cent planned their attack in advance.” (Cullen, 2009, P. 323)

That attacks are planned means there is an opportunity for adults to intervene. “Schools and other community institutions do have the capacity - and the responsibility - to keep that potential from turning real.” (FBI, 2000, P. 4)

The FBI’s four-pronged assessment model

“The path toward violence is an evolutionary one, with signposts along the way.” (FBI, 2000, P. 7) But what are the signposts?

Here’s where it gets complicated. The FBI’s profile of a likely perpetrator of school violence includes a vast list of traits and behaviors, including: depression, manipulation, alienation, dehumanization, rigidity, low self-esteem, dehumanization of others, lack of empathy, an exaggerated sense of entitlement and need for attention, externalization of blame, anger-management problems, inappropriate humor, intolerance, threatening words and behaviors, a closed social group, and negative role models. (FBI, 2000, P. 16)

The only trait that’s a given: “100 per cent male.” (Cullen, 2009, P. 322)

It’s unlikely that any teacher could remember or identify these traits and the FBI recommends against even trying. A student who shows these signs is statistically most likely experiencing depression or mental illness with no plans to attack or hurt anyone.

“Moreover, the use of profiles carries a risk of over-identification,” the Secret Service says. “The great majority of students who fit any given profile will not actually pose a risk of targeted violence.” (2004, P. 34)

Instead, the FBI recommends a four-pronged assessment model based on:
  1. The student’s personality
  2. Family dynamics
  3. School dynamics and the student’s role within them
  4. Social dynamics.
Prong one – the student’s personality – involves all of the traits and behaviors listed above, and the best opportunity for intervention: advance confessions, or as the FBI calls them, “leakage.” (2000, P. 16)

“Eighty one per cent of shooters confided their intentions. More than half told at least two people (in advance).” (Cullen, 2009, P. 323)

The attackers usually tell other students and rarely adults, but – perhaps most shocking – these students do nothing to intervene in a misplaced code of silence, and occasionally egg on the would-be attacker into actually committing the crime.

“I told everyone what I was going to do,” said Evan Ramsey to the Chicago Sun-Times. (Dedman, 2004, P. 4). In 1997, Ramsey killed his principal and a student in Bethel, Alaska. He’d told so many students about what he’d planned to do, a crowd showed up to watch the attacks, one student with a camera.

Sometimes, the would-be attacker expresses his intent more subtly – in written work or art. Again, the FBI warns against overreacting to one such instance, which is often typical of teenage boys’ normal fascination with death and violence.

However, if the writing features “malice, brutality, and an unrepentant hero…concern should rise.” In addition, students who work the theme of violence into every assignment may be indicative of “repetition leading to obsession.” (Cullen, 2009, P. 323)

Most threats uttered by students are “melodramatic, vague, implied, implausible” and, therefore, idle. However, when threats are “direct and specific, identify a motive, and indicate work performed to carry it out,” the likelihood of an attack increases dramatically. (Cullen, 2009, P. 323)

In 98 per cent of school attacks, the Secret Services (2004) says, “the attackers had experienced or perceived some major loss prior to the attack, including a perceived failure or loss of status, loss of a loved one or of a significant relationship, including a romantic relationship.” In three-quarters of the attacks, “attackers felt bullied, persecuted, or injured” by others beforehand. (P. 23)

Although this pattern of planning while leaking information may be something teachers and parents would rather not think about or outright ignore, perhaps the greatest opportunity to stop violent acts is to look for warning signs along the way, listen to what students are talking about, and taking measures to breach the informal code of silence that pervades student culture.

Prong two – family life – is more problematic, as a teacher rarely has opportunity to see into the home life of his or her students. However, the most telling characteristics of a potentially violent student include a turbulent relationship with one’s family, an acceptance in the family of what other families would consider to be disturbing behavior, access to weapons, the student “ruling the roost” instead of the parents, and no limits or monitoring of TV or Internet. (FBI, 2000, P. 21)

Prong three – school dynamics – is something over which teachers and administrators have control. If the school tolerates disrespectful behavior, provides unsupervised access to computers, and has a culture of inequitable discipline, inflexibility, and a pecking order and code of silence among students, the odds of a school attack rise. (FBI, 2000, P. 22)

Prong four – social dynamics – relates to a student’s interactions with his peer group. If a student’s peer group shares his fascination with violence, uses drugs or alcohol, and has “easy and unmonitored access” to TV and a computer, the odds again rise. As well, the FBI warns about “the copycat effect,” which is “very common…after a shooting has occurred anywhere in the United States.” It recommends that teachers be more vigilant for as long as several months after a “heavily publicized” incident. (FBI, 2000, P. 23)

If a student demonstrates issues in the four prongs, as outlined above, the FBI recommends that the “threat should be taken more seriously and appropriate intervention by school authorities and/or law enforcement should be initiated as quickly as possible.” (2000, P. 11)

The FBI also warns against judging students based on just one of the above traits in isolation, using the criteria to evaluate a student who is having a “bad day” (as opposed to a pattern of behavior), or using it to diagnose someone suffering from depression or mental illness (if you’re unsure, the FBI recommends an evaluation from a mental health professional).

The FBI does not specifically recommend how to intervene, but suggests that each school should appoint one staff member as threat-assessment coordinator. That person’s job should be to oversee a team of administrators, counseling staff, law enforcement reps, and mental health professionals, who determine how to evaluate threats on a case-by-case basis (and appropriate responses to them).
It also notes that “expulsion” should not be mistaken for “intervention:”

“Expelling or suspending a student for making a threat must not be a substitute for careful threat assessment and a considered, consistent policy of intervention. Disciplinary action alone, unaccompanied by any effort to evaluate the threat or the student's intent, may actually exacerbate the danger - for example, if a student feels unfairly or arbitrarily treated and becomes even angrier and more bent on carrying out a violent act.” (FBI, 2000, P. 25)

What can schools do?

In addition to the FBI’s four-pronged threat-assessment approach discussed earlier, there is a number of other models set forth for how schools should deal with violent threats as an issue (predicting and preparing for the worst-case scenario) and a crisis.

The Safe Communities-Safe Schools Model

This model, as presented to Governor Bill Owen’s Columbine Commission (2000), revolves around the formation of a safe-school planning team made up of representatives from local businesses, the community, law enforcement, teachers, administration, clergy, and student reps (possibly – it depends on their age). (P. 102)
The team:
  • Conducts a site assessment, creates a safe schools plan, and reviews it once a year
  • Writes a school code of behavior for adults and students and communicates it to staff, students, and parents
  • Institutes a school support-team made up of administrators, counselors, mental health workers, and law enforcement. The team oversees a violence prevention program; its job is to AID, not punish students at risk
  • Writes a crisis plan and rehearses it (similar to fire drills). The plan’s job is to predict “the worst-case scenario” and outline roles and responsibilities (for administration, teachers, students, parents, workers, emergency response, and law enforcement) should the unthinkable happen. (P. 103 to 104)
The John Nicoletti Model

Psychologist John Nicoletti is a school-violence expert who testified before Governor Bill Owen’s Columbine Commission (2000) and wrote the book, “Violence Goes to School,” which outlines violence-prevention techniques for schools. (P. 104)

His plan also involves “the establishment of school policies directed at students, faculty, staff, and parents, which warn clearly that school administrators will act immediately in response to threats of violence.” (P. 105)

As in the Safe Communities model, a threat-assessment and/or violence management team oversees the policies, which should include an emergency plan, diagrams of the school, formulations of exit routes, locations of alarms, sprinklers, and utilities, phone numbers, and a school roster.
Nicoletti recommends that each school assemble a number of “emergency kits” and store them in different locations around the school. (P. 105)

The Secret Service Threat Assessment Model

The Secret Service has also written and distributed a Threat Assessment Guide (2002), which outlines a process that administrators, teachers, and law-enforcement officers can follow (investigation, evaluation, and threat management) to reduce threats and violence and maintain a safe school environment. It involves a two-pronged approach in which “threat assessment” coexists with “cultures and climates of safety, respect, and emotional support.” (P. 5)

This means that teachers and administrators pay attention to students and listen to their emotional and educational needs in order to reduce the number of formal threat assessments that need to be conducted. As Luke Woodham, a teen shooter who killed his mother and two classmates in Mississippi, advises in the Chicago Sun-Times (2000): “Pay attention.” (Dedman, P. 5)

The key goals in creating safe climates? Fostering a culture of respect, creating connections between adults and students, and breaking the code of silence. Easier said than done, of course, but the Secret Service guide (2002) provides a helpful checklist:
  • Assessment of the school’s emotional climate;
  • Emphasis on the importance of listening in schools;
  • Adoption of a strong, but caring stance against the code of silence;
  • Prevention of, and intervention in, bullying;
  • Involvement of all members of the school community in planning, creating, and sustaining a school culture of safety and respect;
  • Development of trusting relationships between each student and at least one adult at school; and
  • Creation of mechanisms for developing and sustaining safe school climates. (P. 69 to 72)
The threat management part of this process is to “evaluate knowable information” that comes to the attention of school authorities in (what should be) rare instances in which a student is believed to pose a risk to an individual or group. (Secret Service, 2002, P. 17)

So, how does a teacher deal with students of concern? According to the Secret Service (2002), you would bring the concern to a multidisciplinary threat team controlled by school authorities with law enforcement consultation or participation (the assessment process doesn’t exist to analyze the entire student body, but rather individual cases as they come to authorities’ attention).

The threat assessment team makes inquiries in these areas:
  1. The facts that drew attention to the student and the situation
  2. Information about the student
  3. Information about "attack-related" behaviors
  4. Motives
  5. The presumed target. (P. 48 to 51)
How the situation is managed will vary, though the Secret Service says it requires “substantial time and effort.” The goals are to control or contain the situation, protect potential targets, and provide support and guidance to help (not punish) the student, so he can deal successfully with his problems. (2002, P. 63)

“Threat assessments may be brief and limited, or extensive and complex. The facts of a situation, together with information developed about a student of concern, will determine the scope of the threat assessment process. Many situations can be understood and resolved after initial information gathering and evaluation.” (Secret Service, 2002. P. 43)


After conducting this research, it’s clear that one of the positions put forward in Nelson’s Critical Issues in Education “the problem of school violence is beyond school control” (Nelson, 2012, P. 340) is untenable.

Schools cannot ignore the threat of violence and, in fact, have an obligation to take every threat seriously. This is not in dispute in any of the literature I’ve read and, in fact, the only clear way we have to mitigate the possibility of it occurring in any school.

“A clear, vigorous response is essential for three reasons,” says the FBI. “First and most important, to make sure that students, teachers, and staff are safe; second, to assure that they will feel safe; and third, to assure that the person making the threat will be supervised and given the treatment that is appropriate and necessary to avoid future danger to others or himself. (FBI, 2000, P. 25)

All of these proposed solutions have these things in common:
  1. Working to maintain a culture of safety, respect, and openness at school.
  2. Instituting a violence-prevention program, safe-school guidelines, and an issues-management plan.
  3. Listening to students and being ready to help with emotional and educational issues as they arise.
  4. Community involvement and consultation with trained professionals who have a background in mental health, education, and law enforcement.
  5. Evaluating every threat that comes to the attention of authorities.
  6. Instituting a multidisciplinary team in each school.
  7. Sharing information between school and law-enforcement authorities.
(The issue of guns is beyond the scope of this research, however, more than a few sources say, “Gun control laws are necessary to keep deadly weapons away from emotionally volatile teens.” (Dedman, 2000, P. 17). In Bowling For Columbine (2002), Michael Moore suggests the larger issue is a country and culture that is hypocritical about guns and weapons, citing the proximity of weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin to Columbine school.)

Given that almost all violent school incidents are planned in advance, virtually every attacker speaks about his plans, and most attackers have already caused some degree of concern in another area of their lives, the implication is that schools can prevent at least some of these situations.

Certainly, every teacher can play his or her role in creating a culture of openness and in which he or she listens – really listens – to students and is ready to respond to their educational and emotional needs, backed by trained professionals.

It may take a lot of time and work, but it’s worth it.

  1. Bowling For Columbine. Dir. Michael Moore. Alliance Atlantis, 2002. DVD.
  2. Cry For Help.” Frontline. PBS. Boston. April 29, 2009. TV.
  3. Cullen, Dave. Columbine. New York: Twelve, 2009.
  4. Dedman, Bill. Deadly Lessons: School Shooters Tell Why. Chicago Sun-Times. October 15, 2000.
  5. FBI, U.S. Department of Justice. Critical Incidence Response Group. National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime. The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective, by Mary Ellen O’Toole. 2000.
  6. National Center For Education Statistics. Crime, Violence, Discipline, Safety in U.S. Public Schools: 2009 to 10. May 2011.
  7. Nelson, Jack L., Stuart Palonsky, Mary Rose McCarthy. Critical Issues in Education, Eighth Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012.
  8. The Report of Governor Bill Owens’ Columbine Review Commission. Hon. William H. Erickson, chairman. May 2001.
  9. U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education. The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States. July 2004.
  10. U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education. Threat Assessments in Schools. A Guide to Managing Threatening Situations and to Creating Safe School Climates. May 2002.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Explaining the cover: Ben Folds Five's the Sound of the Life of the Mind

What's up on the cover of Ben Folds Five’s new album, “The Sound of the Life of the Mind?”

The painting by Eric Joyner shows a robot in the depths of an ocean. In a parody of Rodin’s the Thinker, the robot sits on a rock and contemplates life as a school of fish swims by him, unnoticed.

Clearly, this painting is about the corporatization of American schools. The robot is the corporation (let's call him "BP") and the educational system is the ocean. The unnoticed school of fish is the unnoticed school of children, who swim around aimlessly as the corporation tries to figure its way out of an environment in which it has no business being.

"When will “the thinker” spring a leak?" To find out, keep staring at the painting.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

"What's wrong with the newspaper?"

I'm viewing this on an iPad = irony x 2. 

For the past couple of years, I've kicked off my ad and PR classes by showing the above photo, from The Story So Far: What We Know About the Business of Digital Journalism, a report by Columbia Journalism School (click here for the full PDF).

The photo features the Miami Herald building with a giant iPad ad on the side.

"Why is this photo ironic?" I ask.

Student: "The newspaper business is advertising the thing that helped destroy it."

Perhaps it's even more ironic that I'm showing it to them on an iPad plugged into a digital projector in a program that teaches journalism.

The report rubs salt in the wound:
"At the end of March 2001, the stock market valued the Herald's parent company, Knight-Ridder, at almost the same amount as Apple: $3.8 billion. Ten years later, Apple's valuation is more than $300 billion. And Knight-Ridder no longer exists as an independent company."
It's an old discussion, but it's a subject worth considering for students who want to work in journalism, many of whom are too young to know what "traditional media" means.

Layoffs lead to hate, hate leads to suffering

Last week, that discussion hit Winnipeg the way any discussion usually does: 10 years after it hits everywhere else. The catalyst was the Winnipeg Free Press laying off seven employees, who were widely perceived as "the young ones" primarily concerned with social media and the Winnipeg Free Press News Cafe, the paper's noble experiment selling scones and news under one roof.

Among the layoffs were some grads from the program in which I teach. One of them was among the first students I ever saw in a classroom. She was and is "an awesome kid," and was doing awesome things for her newspaper. That they got rid of her was an enormous surprise. That they laid people off was not.

The Winnipeg Free Press then ran an opinion piece by one of my current students called, "What's wrong with the newspaper?"

I have no idea if the headline writer meant, "The writer is going to tell you what's wrong with the newspaper," "What's so bad about a newspaper?," or both. I asked my student how she perceives it, and she doesn't know either. Whatever the case, she's a convenient bogeyman for the newspaper industry to parade before its imagined audience of octogenarians: "Nooooo - not the young people on the Twitter!!"

The writing on the wall has been there for some time, so I was surprised when folks blamed "the kids," Twitter, and those greedy readers who refuse to pay for content. More irony: the debate was happening online.

(Read Free Press reporter Dan Lett's column: What did you think was going to happen).

The Elvis genie has left the barn

I hate to break it to ya, folks, but the horse has left the barn, the genie has left the bottle, and Elvis has left the building: we live in a digital world, and the old, traditional media model doesn't cut it anymore. You don't have to like it, but it's a fact: we're going digital and we're going there yesterday.

Like the Titanic slowly approaching the iceberg, we've seen no shortage of evidence that this is where our local newspapers are going (and other traditional-media journalism and media is right there with them).

There's also Newspaper Death Watch, which exists to mark the death of print and "the rebirth of journalism," and Wikipedia's "Future of Newspapers" entry. Adbusters wrote a story in 2007 with the optimistic headline, "The Death of Canadian Journalism."

I recall pulling out the latter article out on the first day of school in 2007 and joking, "You enroll in a course to be a journalist, and the entire profession dies - ain't life grand?" (It was, of course, only a joke).

I also wrote a blog post in 2009 in which I expressed frustration with the Free Press for choosing a Sunday tabloid format (On7!) over digital. I ended up getting an email from a Free Press reporter who was upset at my lack of belief in newspapers, but ultimately ended up agreeing with me that On7 was off in terms of the demographic it was trying to reach.

When the Free Press finally launched it's iPad app, it was also a dud. I wrote about it two years ago.  

What's up? Here's how the Columbia Journalism School report calls it in its conclusion: "Journalists just don't understand their business," says Randall Rothenberg, then-journalist and now-president of the Interactive Advertising Bureau.

The foot is on the other shoe

I do understand the frustration of the remaining staff at the Free Press. No one who has power and then loses it likes it. Just ask Saddam Hussein. Oh, yeah...

Rupert Murdoch weighs in on the issue in Mike Walsh's excellent book, Futuretainment:
"Power is moving away from the old elite in our industry - the editors, the chief executives, and let's face it, the proprietors. A generation of media consumers has arisen, demanding content delivered when they want it, how they want it, and very much as they want it."
Right on, Rupe.

For the longest time, the gatekeeper-controlled media had it good. They controlled the info, and we paid for it, because we had no other choice. It could put out anything and do reasonably well. Traditional media gave us Knight Rider, and we had no choice but to watch it. Years later, traditional media tried to give us Knight Rider again and we refused to watch it, because we had some choices.

For traditional media, it's been a struggle to find a profit model. You can't charge as much for ads online. Some newspapers have put up a paywall only to realize that "popularity" is as much a currency these days as currency. You want your audience to link to your content, rate it, debate it, embed it, pass it along, mash it up, and talk about it. A paywall stops this from happening.

The proletariat has seized the means of production (just as Karl Marx once predicted in the Facebook Manifesto!). The former gatekeeper is now dependent on a loud audience network. Futuretainment: "Your only hope of ensuring distribution is ensuring that consumers are motivated enough to do it for you."

The solutions

I've offered my own starting point to a solution, which no journalist likes to hear: Journalism could use a little PR right about now. Hint: if you blame your readers for embracing online media, we might as well shut down the paper now.

The report I link to, above, does as nice a job as any at chronicling what's up and what's to be done about it. Spoiler: the jury is out. However, as a famous former CreComm instructor once told me (1,000 times in a row): "The Chinese symbol for crisis is opportunity." At press time, China has not returned this reporter's calls. 

Regardless of where you stand on the issue, we can agree: the journalist of the future won't be a gatekeeper, but an inventor. The revolution starts now.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Do U.S. teacher unions support or subvert school reform?

What a difference a week makes. 

Last week, asked to choose a stance on teacher unions in the U.S., I wrote piece on the topic for my master's in education. Shortly thereafter, Chicago teachers went on strike. Yes, it must be the power of my writing that made them do it. Cough, cough. 

Here is the paper, edited for brevity, which I wrote in response to a chapter in the book Critical Issues in Education, which asks the question posed in the headline, and outlines the arguments for and against U.S. teacher unions as they relate to school reforms.  

As a member of the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union and a resident of the home of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, I’m predisposed to agree with my pal, Billy Bragg.

Be that as it may, I would be very reluctant to strike knowing that my students’ education and profession's reputation are hanging in the balance. There’s something very disheartening about a teacher walking the picket line while his or her students sit on the sidelines (as happy to have an extended vacation as they may be). Says the PR instructor: it’s bad PR.

The appearance of U.S. teacher unions goes back to the early days of the profession, when teaching was considered less a career than, in sociologist’s Willard Waller’s words, “a failure belt…the refuge of unmarriageable women and unsaleable men.” Like me!

Bad working conditions, detached administrators, and a negative perception of the profession sewed the seeds for early U.S. teacher unions. The National Education Association (NEA) formed in 1857 to advance “the profession of education” but was dominated by men and not as “concerned with the personal welfare of classroom teachers.”

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) formed in 1916 and “focused on improving economic aspect of teachers’ lives” and the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935 “changed the status of unions by recognizing that workers in private industry had the right to bargain collectively.” At the same time, some courts still considered unions to be “criminal conspiracies.”

“Collective bargaining changed the relationship between classroom teachers and administrators. It promised teachers more pay, better job security, and an audible voice in education.” Today, the NLRA covers private sector workers, the NEA and AFT are rivals for the same teacher base (together, their membership is comprised of 80 per cent of U.S. teachers), and teachers enjoy the promise (if not practice) of better “pay, job security, and an audible voice in education.”

The two positions:

Position 1: “Teacher unions are champions of teachers and school reform.”

The pro position is that unions “have had a positive effect on teachers’ working conditions” in terms of salaries, collective bargaining, status, job security, and to “prevent a teacher from getting fired solely for disagreeing with administrators.” It also maintains, “unions also have been good for students,” and cites Finland, the shining example of educational reform, as having “the highest student test scores” and “some of the strongest teacher unions in the world.”

 Position 2: “Teacher Unions Stand in the Way of School Reform.”

The against position raises the specter of “bad teachers” and “rubber rooms” and wonders, “why the nation has done almost nothing to get bad teachers out of the classroom?”

It also says that unions “have outlived their usefulness,” are for teachers and not students, are apologists for poor teaching and an obstacle for school reform” and agrees, while unions do lead to higher teacher pay, it’s at the expense of everything else (except maybe union dues). Instead of union representation, this side suggests the solution to school reform is “merit pay and quantifiable data.”

The anti-union position in the book makes much of the idea that unions protect bad teachers and don’t support great teachers. However, the reality is that teacher unions don’t just represent bad teachers, but also good ones.

Presumption of innocence wasn’t invented by a teacher union, nor was due process or right to a speedy trial. As much as we might like to rally behind a simplistic slogan, like “bad teachers should be fired and good teachers rewarded,” it’s sobering to remember that few people agree on what makes a teacher good or bad.

The article, Building a Better Teacher, from the NY Times Magazine, illustrates the struggle inherent in the pursuit:
"But what makes a good teacher? There have been many quests for the one essential trait, and they have all come up empty-handed. Among the factors that do not predict whether a teacher will succeed: a graduate-school degree, a high score on the SAT, an extroverted personality, politeness, confidence, warmth, enthusiasm and having passed the teacher-certification exam on the first try. When Bill Gates announced recently that his foundation was investing millions in a project to improve teaching quality in the United States, he added a rueful caveat. “Unfortunately, it seems the field doesn’t have a clear view of what characterizes good teaching.”
If the answer is, as the article suggests, “voodoo,” it’s unlikely we’ll be any closer to objectively defining good and bad teachers anytime soon. For the same reason, I also don’t believe that merit pay is a more reasonable way to solve the problem of school reform.

A key problem with merit pay is “teacher quality cannot be measured solely by changes in student test scores.” Student performance can be a function of many things, including family environment. Would parents agree to be judged on their parenting skills based solely on their kids' test scores?

The other side of merit pay is the recent epidemic of teachers being caught raising their students' test scores. Further, it’s proven to be unsuccessful in other countries. "England ended its experiment with performance pay in the 1890s following public outcry over academic dishonesty and the negative effects of exams on students and teachers."

I believe that U.S. teacher unions and school reform aren’t mutually exclusive ideas and agree with the quote attributed to Albert Shanker: “It is as much the duty of the union to preserve public education as it is to negotiate a good contract.”

- All quotes from Nelson, Jack, Stuart Palonsky, and Mary Rose McCarthy, Critical Issues in Education, Eighth Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2013. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Is Lore the Facebook for education we've been waiting for?

Lore isn't the first website that's promised to combine Facebook with learning, but it might be the best-looking one.

Last year, I tried to use Edmodo, but after a grand total of two students took me up on my offer to join, I mostly used it to meet other teachers and crowdsource assignments.

Lore could be different: it looks pretty sweet, like Facebook meets Google+, and it promises a world in which it's easy for students to send messages, have conversations, submit assignments, and get back marks. Even better: it's free.

I've monkeyed around with it a bit today, and it seems to work quite well. The only issue is that it appears to take a very long time to upload an assignment or outline. The status bar keeps chugging away, and you never get a message that says, "It's uploaded."

That complaint aside, it would also be great if there was a mobile app to go with the website, but I assume it's on its way.

I'm going to give it a trial run this semester for students who are interested. So far, I've just got the course outlines up, but if enough people use this, we might be able to use it over the longer term. I'll give out "the codes" to join in class, and we'll take it from there.


And while you're at it, have a gander at Learnist, which could very well be the Pinterest of learning (and there's an app too).

The Big Question: where's the Twitter for learning? Oh, yeah, that would just be Twitter.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

How does Richardson's "Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts" hold up six years later?

Will Richardson talks the future of education on YouTube.

Will Richardson's excellent book "Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts (and other powerful Web tools for classrooms)" explains how teachers can integrate online media into their teaching to help students learn and be engaged - no small task, as any teacher knows.

(I recently read the book as part of my master's degree studies at Central Michigan University).

As someone who attempts to keep up with the latest digital media and technology, it's interesting to see where some of Richardson's suggestions have already been replaced by other online tools, and read his predictions in the context of where we're at today. Example: Richardson imagines a tablet, which we now know is called an iPad. And no one giggles when you say it.

That the book came out in 2006 (the third edition was published in 2010) shows how quickly technology has changed and is changing, and how nimble you have to be to incorporate it into the classroom and just know "what the hell is going on online" in everyday life.

Richardson begins the book with a discussion about Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web, who was recently honored at the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony (and flummoxed the NBC commentators, who suggested - not ironically - that viewers Google his name).

Berners-Lee's vision for technology is the Read-Write Web:
"Berners-Lee saw the potential to construct a vast "web" of linked information, built by people from around the globe, creating the ability to share not just data but personal talents in new and powerful ways." (Richardson, P. 1)
It's a theoretical idea championed by the public relations industry for years (in the industry, we call it "two-way symmetric" communication), but it took the Internet to make it come to life.

Richardson's resources

In the book, Richardson gives examples of how teachers can use the read-write Web to communicate, get and pass along information, create content, and encourage students to create content. Richardson's suggested classroom resources (in his order), and how they hold up:

1. Blogs

I've been a champion of blogging for years, though I admit that I arrived late to the party. But as soon as I started blogging, I made up for lost time.
"I will never forget the first time I posted my opinion, and the first time someone responded to it. There was something really powerful about so easily being able to share resources and ideas with a Web audience that was willing to share back what they thought about those ideas" (Richardson, P. 17). 

In Richardson's chapters on blogging, I particularly like his suggestion that teachers use blogs with other schools - in their neighborhood or around the world - to encourage discussion. It's an idea I hadn't considered.

For my students, the biggest blogging benefit is a chance to practice expressing themselves in writing in a public forum, which is something they'll be expected to do for their potential employers or clients.

I see every chance to write as a chance to get better. I recall Stephen King's advice in his excellent book, "On Writing":
"Practice is invaluable (and should feel good, really not like practice at all) and...honesty is indispensable" (King, P. 195). 
 Blogging checks both boxes.

The biggest downside to blogging, from a teacher's perspective, is that it's difficult to legislate students' blogging and commenting. It's the age-old problem: how do you teach (or encourage) passion?

The other issue: the complaint that "no one reads my blog, so why should I bother updating it?" The answer, of course: "You need to update your blog, so that people will read it."

2. Wikis

I've never used a wiki as a classroom tool, other than for the classes I'm taking myself.

So, I felt a little ashamed when I read Richardson's chapter on wikis and then came across this article on 50 Ways to use wikis for a more collaborative and interactive classroom. Ideas include "virtual field trips," "exam review," "fan clubs," data collection, "adventure story," "school tour," and "teacher collaboration."

Among Richardson's suggestions: creating an online classroom text, lesson plan exchange, or class Wikipedia.

The strengths and limitations of using a class wiki are apparent when you visit a class' shared wiki pages - the variety of fonts, colors, and formats (not to mention coding issues and broken links) can make for a disjointed read. In addition, the ability to edit and be edited can be a help and a hindrance. What if, for example, a well-meaning student edits a classmate's work, but makes an incorrect edit? And what if a student posts weak work, knowing that someone else will likely correct it?

Of course, if Wikipedia founders would have listened to these arguments, we'd be missing one of the key sites on the Web.
"No one person or even small group of people, could produce Wikipedia, as currently edits appear at a rate of around 400,000 a day. The extent to which this happens and to which it is successful is truly inspiring" (Richardson, P. 56 and 57).
3. RSS
"I think it's the one technology that you should start using today, right now, this minute. And tomorrow, you should teach your students to use it" (Richardson, P. 70 and 71).
The difference between what RSS readers used to be and what they are now is stunning. For instance, I now find Google Reader to be a difficult way to enjoy reading my favorite feeds. What's better? My heart goes to the Flipboard and Pulse mobile apps, which turn RSS feeds into very readable social magazines and news tickers, respectively.

The upside of this technology is enormous: the ability to "read more content from more sources in less time" (Richardson, P. 72). In this age of "too much information" that's the real trick. The downside of this technology is that you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make 'er drink; you may subscribe to the prescribed RSS feeds, but that doesn't mean you'll read them.

4. Twitter and social bookmarking

I tweet, therefore I am. And I hope that it makes up for my lack of work in the wiki world, because with Twitter, I'm all in.

The upside of using Twitter is enormous: I've used it for class discussions and networking (#journchat on Monday evenings is particularly good), for generating and testing comedy material, and to see what students are saying when I'm not around (har, har!).

I haven't yet used a social bookmarking tool in class, but I plan on introducing (website and app) this semester. Similar to Delicious and Instapaper ("read it later"), lets you publish online magazines by curating content (social bookmarking) on the topic of your choice.

The benefits, again, are collaboration and the ability to collect, curate, and share.

5. Flickr

Generally speaking, photo-sharing is easy and part and parcel of running a blog. Apart from reminding students to "post a photo with every blog post," I've never needed to make photo-sharing a separate assignment - it's happened organically.
"The easiest place for teachers and students to begin experimenting with creating and publishing content other than text is with digital photography, a technology that is becoming more and more accessible every day" (Richardson, P. 101).
Flickr is where Richardson and I part ways, although it's only fair to point out that his book came out before there was an Instagram and pretty great digital-phone photography led by the iPhone.

Instagram, of course, is the photo-sharing website that Facebook recently bought for a cool billion dollars. It has some advantages over Flickr: the ability from your mobile phone to very easily take and filter your photos, post them online instantly, and instantly share them with your friends on Instagram or other social networks.

At its heart, Instagram is easier, more flexible, and faster than Flickr. Its biggest advantage, however, might be its "fun factor." Where Flickr is a photo storage site with sharing options, Instagram is all about sharing, liking, and commenting with storage as an afterthought.

The other big advantage is that Instagram is free with no maximum number of uploads (though it's not currently possible to upload whole photo albums). Flickr caps users at 200 photos and then asks them to upgrade to a premium account. Knowing that I could upload the same photos to Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook without charge, I decline to pay for Flickr's premium service.

6. Podcasting/screencasting/streaming
"The simple fact is that it has become much easier to create and consume multimedia as well as text and digital images" (Richardson, P. 112).
I'm grateful I had the chance to learn GarageBand this summer and to find out how easy it is to record a podcast. I'm at three and counting - and I'm looking forward to submitting it to iTunes in the near future, alongside my podcasting comedy heroes Adam Carolla, Bill Burr, Greg Proops, Marc Maron, and Joe Rogan.

I will put this knowledge to good use at school: my college's radio station recently discontinued its broadcast license, which means that podcasting is among the best options to replace it. It's unfortunate that students are no longer able to broadcast on traditional radio frequencies, but I'm optimistic that podcasting skills are more forward-looking, since you can no longer imagine an invisible audience listening; instead you've got download and streaming stats and "marketing" becomes the much-needed partner in crime.

The good news:
"About $100 and an Internet connection is all you need to start doing regular radio shows with your students" (Richardson, P. 115). 
It's probably cheaper now. I've recently downloaded the Ustream, viddy, and Bambuser apps, which allow anyone with a smartphone to live stream video.

Also underrepresented in the curriculum: screencasting. The downside of much of this technology is that it's becoming more and more necessary for everyone to own an iPhone and iPad. On a student budget, that is not always a possibility. I can't help but consider how great it would be if our program could provide each student with an iPad on the first day of school.
"Our ability to create and share multimedia in more and more transparent ways is only going to continue to expand...publishing to an audience can be a great motivator for students. Podcasting, videocasting, screencasting, TV are all great ways to get student content online" (Richardson, P. 129).
7. Facebook/Ning

My school is far from the only one that's afraid of Facebook. Be that as it may, I believe it's a teacher's duty to show "appropriate use," especially in a communications program.
"The key to...these sites for educators is to move beyond the friendship-based connections and really explore the potentials of the networked, interest-based learning that's possible within these frames" (Richardson, P. 132).
Among the benefits of Facebook are creating a strong online community, sharing information, and collaborating. However, if one's school doesn't allow it, what's the solution? Could it be Ning?

Before my class, I'd never heard of Ning. I was looking forward to experimenting with it, but you begin to be charged for using it after a 30-day trial. I'll pass: Edmodo is available for free. Like a Facebook for the classroom, I've found Edmodo do be very easy to use and a great way to meet other teachers. The issue is getting students used to using a site other than Facebook - Edmodo is even more of a ghost town than Google+.

Facebook is also good for classroom discussion purposes: What is Facebook's responsibility toward its users? Personal data? Is freedom of speech on Facebook a right? Should you buy when Facebook stocks finally drop to $6?

The ongoing multimedia revolution is mind-boggling and ubiquitous at once. To ignore this revolution in school is to miss out on an incredibly powerful range of communication tools that allow us to publish, consume, discuss, comment, and collaborate.

Students will be using "the new media" in the workplace when they graduate, and it may look very different than it does today. We owe it to ourselves and them to show them how to not only learn about the tools Richardson talks about in his book, but to be on the cusp of whatever replaces them.

Richardson's book is a good reality check for teachers considering incorporating online media into their classes and road map for how far we've already come.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

13 ways stand-up comedy ruins you for work

Work is funny, but not ha-ha funny.

On one hand, almost everything good that's ever happened to me at work happened because of stand-up comedy. The bottom line is that after trying to make people laugh onstage, everything else is a cinch.

On the other hand, work rewards a certain kind of person and stand-up comedy rewards a certain kind of person, and it's usually not the same person. When's the last time you saw a Fortune 500 CEO precede an important corporate announcement with a well-timed pratfall?

After I'd written most of this post, I caught this episode of Jerry Seinfeld's "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee" in which he bounces the same idea off of Joel Hodgson. The discussion:
Seinfeld: "The idea of bosses and employees is just hilarious to us. Why is that so funny?"
Hodgson: "We don't have to do it, right?"
Seinfeld: "It's such a typically human attempt to organize what's unorganizable. We just see the hopelessness of trying to organize human endeavor into a building."
I teach for a living, which means that I can use many of the same techniques that work in stand-up comedy in the classroom. However, when class is out and it's time for meetings and desk work, I have a vague burning in the back of my skull telling me that, in the words of Adam Carolla, I may not be Taco Bell material.

I blame stand-up. Here's why:

1. You get used to saying what's on your mind.

Comedy is about finding the truth. Where "objective journalism" aims for some semblance of the truth and rarely finds it, stand-up comedy always finds the truth, because it's all about what's true to you, balance be damned. The best stand-ups find the places where what's true to them isn't what's true to the audience, and try to bring the audience around to the same viewpoint. The best employees do the opposite.

2. You get used to saying it with colorful language.

As Spencer Tracy says in Inherit the Wind:
“I don’t swear just for the hell of it. Language is a poor enough means of communication. I think we should use all the words we’ve got. Besides, there are damn few words that anybody understands.”
Your boss hasn't read, watched, or heard of Inherit the Wind.

3. You get used to reacting without thinking. 
Ad client: "I hate your creative."
Ad copywriter: "I hate you."
Hilarious stuff in the club - not quite as hilarious in the boardroom.

4. You laugh at things that other people don't find funny.

Comedians find jokes everywhere, even at funerals. So imagine how funny life is at the workplace, where pet peeves grow into full-fledged battles that last longer than most wars. Trouble is, the folks embroiled in these antagonisms rarely see the humor. So the next time Martha blows a gasket when someone steals her stapler, have the decency to laugh behind her back.

5. If you're not talking, you're bored.

Comics have trouble watching other comics onstage because they feel in their heart of hearts they should be up there. At work, the boss always has the floor. To a stand-up comic, this is the equivalent of the comedian who owns the comedy club: he or she gets all of the stage time, even if the jokes are terrible.

6. If someone in a position of authority tells you what to do, your default setting is to do the opposite.

For "the boss/employee" structure to work, everyone has to agree that the boss is the boss and the employees' best course of action is to do what the boss says. In comedy, if someone tells you that a joke is off limits, that's the place your mind constantly goes. The feeling only goes away after you inevitably go there. I give you Kramer and Daniel Tosh.

7. You like attention. 

In comedy, you succeed by getting noticed. At work, you succeed by not getting noticed.

8. You build friendships with the same kind of people as you. 

Familiarity leads to contempt, contempt leads to anger, anger leads to misery, misery loves company.  So, you team up with those people and become more emboldened about the things that bug you. Before you know it, you're firing cannons, shooting pistols, and screaming, "Storm the Bastille!"

9. You become used to immediate gratification. 
  • Comedy: You write a joke, you tell it, and you get a laugh. Total time elapsed: one hour. 
  • Work: You write an ad, you get the client to approve it, you get legal to approve it, you buy space to run it, and it runs. Total time elapsed: one year.
10. Your body needs rest after just one hour's work.

Build the George Costanza bed under your desk today. 

11. You groan out loud when you hear a cliche.

Yesterday's "happy camper" is today's "awesome sauce." In comedy, you try to say things in a way that "a normal person" would never say them. Since work is full of normal people, you must regularly resist the urge to roll your eyes when someone inevitably goes there and someone else inevitably says, "Don't go there, girlfriend!" 

12. You'd rather deal with the awful truth than fanciful phoniness.

When someone is direct, you know where he or she stands right away. In comedy, you have to be direct or you'll lose your audience's attention. But when you're direct at work, people can actually understand what you're saying, and that can get you in trouble. This is why it's rare to have actual discourse in the workplace without a good helping of passive sentences and vagueries on the side.

13. You know that none of it really matters, because one day you'll be dead.
Doctor: "You only have three days to live."
Patient: "I'm going straight to work, because every day feels like a year." 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

How to get a Winnipeg tree removed in 700 easy steps

"I think that I shall never see/ a poem ugly as a tree (services company)." - Joyce Kilmer.

A lovely, old elm tree in my backyard took a beating in the big typhoon that recently blew through Winnipeg. But little did I know that it was not the answer blowin' in the wind, but a question: where can I find a reputable tree services company in this town?

Day one: save the elm!

 "Oh no, there's a huge crack in the tree!" I said to my friend, the squirrel. With love for my tree on the brain, I called my friends at company #1 - the company that bands my trees. 

Its workers showed up promptly and promised to try to save the tree. Later that day, they called and said, "No, the tree is cracked in two places and has to go."

The other issue: the tree threatens my house on one side and hydro wires on the other, so an unplanned fall wouldn't be good either way.

About to go away on vacation, I accepted the diagnosis, we made a deal and with a heavy heart, I headed out knowing that when I came back, the tree would be gone. Sniff, sniff.

Day six: I hate you, company #1

Cue my cell phone ringing on vacation day five. It was company #1!

"Hi. A guy got injured when he removed a tree. Not yours. Huh-huh, huh-huh. And now I'm going on vacation for two weeks."

Like the student with the double-barreled excuse ("it rained and I had a toothache"), it had the ring of "I never really intended to do this job anyway."

After bidding the company a cold goodbye, I gave my dad and his partner a call and they called company #2 to provide a quote in my absence.

I can't complain about the speedy attention and expertise of company #2's representative, but the quote came in high, and the company wouldn't be able to handle the job for a week. I figured I'd get another quote when I got home, since it's always best to have three quotes.

Day 10: the tree whisperer

So, I called company #3. The rep agreed that the tree has to go, provided a quote that fell somewhere between the first two, spoke fondly of "a relationship with Manitoba Hydro," and promised to get on the tree "this Wednesday" and, barring that, removing the really, really cracked limb in advance. Deal!

Day 18: what the hell?

Somehow by the end of the very week he was to start the job, that promise became, "I'm not allowed to touch the tree without Manitoba Hydro. It's their delay."

The tree whisperer's earlier promises all but forgotten (by him), I called Manitoba Hydro. The representative told me that "a crew was out earlier today, but I can't see their report, because they've gone home for the day."

Meanwhile the tree had started to really crack and looked like it would soon come down on the house. So, I called back the tree whisperer. He wasn't happy, but he came out and tied up the tree, ostensibly so it won't fall on the house when it inevitably snaps. If the tree and I were fit to be tied when he arrived, perhaps we both felt a little more confident when he left.

Day 22

That was the last time I heard from the guy, begging the question: if a tree falls in your backyard, and there's no tree services company around to hear it, does it make a sound?

I'll let you know.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

I've unlocked my inner Bruce Hornsby on GarageBand

Me. From Wikimedia Commons. 

That's just the way it is.

I've been having a ball fooling around with GarageBand iPad app this summer, which makes music creation easier and more fun than anyone could have reasonably expected for $4.99.

Perhaps the best thing about the app is discovering what kind of musician you are: the instruments you prefer, the pitch, the beat, the mood, the style. As they say in the Rock of Ages musical: "the dreams you come in with may not be the dreams you leave with."

So, it's with great horror that I've realized that I'm no David Bowie or Iggy Pop, but Bruce Hornsby - the singer, pianist, and poodle-headed performer famous for his song, "The Way It Is."

My first instinct was to fight it, but instead I've decided to go with the flow by recording a 35-second tribute to the man called "Bruce Hornsby Rules."

You can download and play Bruce Hornsby Rules here if the Box widget doesn't appear below. Enjoy. Thank you. Good night.  

Monday, August 13, 2012

The literary allusions of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

It's been a rough month for my childhood cultural icons.

We've lost Donald J. Sobol (Encyclopedia Brown author), Celeste Holm (Tom Sawyer actor), Sherman Hemsley (George Jefferson himself) and now Mel Stuart, director of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory - one of the best kids' movies ever made (read my review on

The film's original screenplay was written by Roald Dahl and punched up by David Seltzer, who - according to Stuart in his behind-the-scenes book, Pure Imagination - enhanced the dialogue, added the Everlasting Gobstopper and the fizzy-lifting drink storylines, developed the Mr. Slugworth character, and changed Veruca Salt's punishment (in the book, she's attacked by squirrels).

Among the film's joys are its many literary references. It's unclear who inserted them into the screenplay, but they're not in Dahl's original book, which may mean it was Seltzer. Stuart says they're among his favorite parts of the film:
"Miracle of miracles most children had no trouble understanding and appreciating these references. If they didn't understand them the first time around, they caught up with them when they saw the film in later years."
When you start dissecting the dialogue, the film is as much a mashup as the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique. Unlike the Beastie Boys, Stuart confirms that the filmmakers got legal clearances for each of the lines, but "happily, most of them are from our good friend, William (public domain) Shakespeare."

One thing for sure: that Willy Wonka is a well-read guy. 

The literary allusions of Willy Wonka:

1. Shakespeare
  • "Where is fancy bred, in the heart or in the head?" (the Merchant of Venice) - when I was a kid, I thought it was "fancy bread." D'oh!
  • "So shines a good deed in a weary world." (the Merchant of Venice, though it's "naughty" world)
  • "Adieu, adieu, parting is such sweet sorrow." (Romeo and Juliet)
  • "Spring time, the only pretty ring time. When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding, sweet lovers love the spring." (As You Like It)
  • "Is it my soul that calls upon my name?" (Romeo and Juliet)
  • "Bubble cola, double cola, double bubble burp-a-cola -" (Macbeth - the "double toil and trouble" line from the witches)
2. Ogden Nash
  • "Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker." (Reflections on Ice-Breaking)
  •  "99...44...100 per cent pure." (99 44/100% Sweet Home)
3. Oscar Wilde
  • "The suspense is terrible. I hope it lasts." (The Importance of Being Earnest)
4. John Keats
  • "A thing of beauty is a joy forever." (Endymion: A Poetic Romance)
5. John Masefield
  • "All I ask is a tall ship and a star to sail her by." (Sea Fever)
6. Hilare Belloc
  • "Oh, you should never, never doubt what nobody is sure about." (The Microbe)
 7.  William Allingham
  • "Around the world and home again - that's the sailor's way." (Homeward Bound)
  • "Up the airy mountain, down the rushing glen, we dare not go a-hunting, for fear of little men." (The Fairies)
8. Neil Armstrong
  • "A small step for mankind, a giant step for us."
9. Thomas Edison
  • "Invention, my dear friends, is 93 per cent perspiration, six per cent electricity, four per cent evaporation, and two per cent butterscotch ripple."
10. Arthur O'Shaughnessy
  • "We are the music makers. We are the dreamers of dreams." (Ode)
11. Lewis Carroll
  • "You should open your mouth a little wider when you speak." (Through the Looking-Glass)
12. Horace (or was this updated by someone else?)
  • "A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men." (Carmina)
13. Samuel Taylor Coleridge
  • "Bubbles, bubbles everywhere, but not a drop to drink." (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner - that "water, water" line)
14. The Bible
  • "Across the desert lies the promised land."
  • "Swifter than eagles. Stronger than lions."
Any others?

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Grandpa Larsen yells at Lollapalooza 2012

Out here in the fields. I fight for my meals. I get my back into my...hey, stop shoving! 

It's official: I'm too old for Lollapalooza.

Lolla 2012 marked the fifth time I've attended Perry Farrell's music fest - the fourth time in Chicago, where it remains until at least 2018. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: it will likely be my last one, unless Kate Bush (last tour: 1979) decides to play there with a reunited XTC (last tour: 1982). 

My reports from festivals past:

1. A grouchy Lou Reed smiles upon Lollapalooza (2009)
2. I'm not so gaga for Lolla 2010
3. Lollapalooza turns 20, my sneakers die at two (2011)

Like Lolla 2010, this year's fest brought out the grouchy grandpa in me. It was hot, oversold at 300,000 people, and filthier than ever (don't believe the eco-friendly hype). And that was before the typhoon moved in on Saturday, temporarily suspending the festival and leaving it smelling like one, giant outhouse.

The fest wasn't without its thrills. The best band of the festival, Florence + the Machine, was dynamite. I have the band's first album, but that didn't prepare me for the performance, which was funny, engaging, upbeat, and riveting. Should the band one day visit Winnipeg, I'll be first in line to buy tickets.

I also credit the festival for introducing me to my new, favorite band, Chicago's JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound. Purveyors of funky and retro R and B, and featuring one charismatic lead singer, the band was full of delights and surprises, like this awesome cover of Wilco's "I am Trying to Break Your Heart:"

Sadly, two great bands does not a festival make. At the top of my list of disappointments is one of my favorite bands on record, Iceland's Sigur Rós. The band played a set so mellow, its members might have very well evaporated from the stage before it was all over. Maybe they did: by then I was lulled into a heat- and music-induced trance.

The festival's rock bottom had to be the Black Sabbath reunion (its only performance in North America). Anyone who says it was great (Rolling Stone?!) is either on heavy drugs or a corporate shill. The only way to describe it is "sad."

The band opened its show with a seven-minute video of its greatest hits, which ultimately only served to be a depressing comparison between then and now. Within moments of the band taking the stage, you had to wonder if the show should have been called off on compassionate grounds. Ozzy Osbourne looked sick, thin, and sweaty, and he huffed and puffed his way though the songs.

The rest of my beefs:

1. Wristbands

Anyone over 15 who wears a wristband is, in the parlance of Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson, a wanker. I joined the wanker ranks with my Lolla three-day wristband, which can't be removed for the duration of the fest no matter how damp, smelly, and diseased it becomes.

2. Overselling

Each year, Lollapalooza increases its possible attendance by ostensibly creating more space. Technically speaking, this is true. However, the areas around the stages are always exactly the same size. This means that every year more people are being crammed into the same-sized concert space. For the first time in my Lolla-going history, the crowd felt like a dangerous place to be. The band playing at the time: M83.

3. Trash

There's lots of it. It's all over the place. It's gross. It smells. The Lolla brochure: "Explore the green scene at Lollapalooza!" If you're looking for it, it's under the garbage.

4. The kids

Drunk, high, obnoxious, gabby, texty, fist-fighting fence jumpers and booze smugglers, all. Parents: you've done a terrible job. 

5. The heat

It was 38 to 40 degrees each day. The line-ups at the free water stations are longer than the line-ups at the autograph tents. A glass of lemonade costs $8. Each person is allowed to bring in but one bottle of water. I'm thirsty just thinking about it.

6. The stages

It's hard to see bands at outdoor festivals at the best of times, but why are the Lolla stages big, enclosed boxes? The video screens also look like 90s technology (especially after recently seeing the Roger Waters tour) and are almost invisible in daylight. An upgrade is long overdue.


These things aside, Lollapalooza 2012 was totally awesome. Especially the part where I left the festival for the last time, cut off my wristband, and headed off to Portillo's for a hotdog and ice-cold beer - always a guaranteed way to calm Grandpa Larsen's ire. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Client-Agency Relationship on Educreations

Have you told your ad agency lately that you love it?

Today I tested the Educreations' screencasting app on iPad with the client-agency relationship (oops, sorry, I called it "Educreation" in the lesson).

Like ShowMe, this app lets you make and watch lessons to teach, inspire, and entertain. The two apps are very similar, but I'd give ShowMe a slight edge for its eraser icon (a bit easier to understand than the squiggly undo line on Educreations).

The source material (the stages of the client-agency relationship) are as they're defined by: Arens, William, Contemporary Advertising Ninth Edition, McGraw-Hill Irwin, 2004.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

How to improve bad customer service - on ShowMe

I'll ShowYou, bad customer service!

I've been testing ShowMe - an awesome iPad app and website that lets you screencast (teach!) or watch screencasting (learn) for educational, entertaining, and inspiring presentations. Like mine!

In this ShowMe presentation, I come back to one of my favorite topics - how to improve bad customer service at the drugstore and beyond.

I've somehow resisted the urge to name the worst offender in the screencast, but you and I both know it's _ _ _ _ _ _  _ _ _ _. Hint: the customer service is the minus in the plus.

I'm quite certain that this isn't what Bob Dylan had in mind when he sang, "The first one now will later be last..." but you can ask him when he plays Winnipeg in the fall.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Good and bad interview advice from the 80s

I ran across a stack of folded, stapled papers the other day.

Usually, they'd be unpaid parking tickets and requests to appear in court, but I was surprised to find that they're typed (on a typewriter!) "interview preparation" notes.

I'm not sure if my father gave them to me, I attended a seminar at some point (they're subtitled "Session IV"), or I typed them out in my sleep, but I found the advice to be surprisingly:
  • Good - the notes remind us of some of the in-person basics we may forget in a world that's gone all in on online.
  • Bad - some of the advice is so obvious, you can imagine a bumpkin hitting himself in the head and saying, "Gawwww-leee!" upon hearing it.
Unfortunately, the sheets aren't credited. If they're yours, I'd be happy to give you credit and return them for a gigantic finder'' fee.

This list is summarized from the handouts. When there's a second line, these comments are my own. 

Good advice:

1. Employers hire to make money, save money or save time. The applicant's ability to contribute to all of these basic needs is a major factor.
Remember: it's not about you, it's about the employer. 

2. Research the job. Know products and services, key people, industry issues and legislation, profitability and the company's prospects.
If you have an interview at a radio station: LISTEN to the radio station beforehand. 

3. Dress appropriately.

4. Speak clearly.
Is it just me, or are young men these days mumbling their way through life?

5. Arrive early.
If you're not 10 minutes early, you're late. 

6. Be confident.
But not arrogant. 

7. Ask questions.
My trick: bring a list, so you don't forget anything. 

8. Be truthful.

9. Thank the interviewer at the end of the interview.
Consider dropping off a thank-you card. 

10. Smile.

11. Sit up straight.

12. Let the interviewer lead the discussion.

13. Look at the interviewer.

14. Sell your qualifications rather than your need for the job.

15. Don't criticize former employees or workers.

16. Don't tell jokes.
But show a personality and a pulse!

17. Don't be a self-centered know-it-all.

Some of the questionable advice:

1. Visit the Better Business Bureau.
In person?

2. Know the name of the person you're going to meet at the interview.
"I'm supposed to meet with some dude or something."

3. Don't walk in with a lit cigarette.
Walk in with an unlit cigarette.

4. Say the interviewer's name at least twice during the interview.
"So, Alan, I hope that I get the job, Alan."

5. Leave when the interview is finished.
"I'll just sit here until you've come to a decision."

6. Call back.
"Are you ready to hire me yet?"

7. Show your eagerness by your walk.
Watch Benny Hill for inspiration. 

8. Give all the information requested, even if you think it's too personal.

9. Display documents only when more facts are requested.
"You say you were incarcerated for five years. How do we know this is true?"

10. Be yourself.
Unless you're a jerk. 

11. Make a written note of time, date, place when asked to call or return for another interview.
Naw, just try to remember it. 

12. Remove your hat.
But leave the monocle right where it is.

12. Don't sit unless you've been invited to do so.

13. Don't call yourself "Mr." or "Miss."
"Mr. Larsen would like a job. I'm Mr. Larsen."

14. Don't walk in as if you were on a Sunday afternoon stroll.
Unless the interview takes place on a Sunday afternoon.

15. Don't shake hands like a dead fish.
Shake hands like a live fish.

16. Don't appear with the smell of liquor on your breath.
 Cover the smell with mints.

17. Don't squint - wear glasses if you need them.
"Who said that?"

18. Don't apply for a job when you have an unpleasant cold.
Apply when it's more pleasant. 

19. Don't wear lodge emblems, political buttons, or insignia.
"We know you're a fan of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, but the shirts have to go."

20. Don't wear sunglasses during the interview.
"Mr. Nicholson, we've decided to hire someone else."