Saturday, November 30, 2013

Ten new words that cantt leave you defriendless

See number 10. (Photo from Global). 

1. Ad verb - Action words you only see or hear in ads, like "gangbusters."

2. Cantt Chart - A bar graph showing everything you won't accomplish by the deadline.

3. Crappens - Unplanned shit that comes into being.

4. Defriendless - Feeling vulnerable when a non-friend insults you and your friends do nothing.

5. Forbodinner - The creepy feeling that something bad is going to happen after a meal.

6. Phonbia - An irrational fear of any phone number you don't recognize on call display.

7. Pornmotions - Publicizing a film or video with "adult situations."

8. Premembrance Day - Remembering war veterans before Remembrance Day, to justify shopping on the day off.

9. Presearch - Procrastinating about undertaking a systematic investigation into something.

10. Saskatchcicles - The ice hanging from football players' Sasktesticles during the last Grey Cup.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The apologist's simple guide for defending Star Wars

Star Wars is now and forever, especially if your name is Kenton Larsen and your room looked like this photo in 1977.

As I'm wont to point out, I like to defend my love of the Star Wars movies in terms that everyone can understand:
"Star Wars is like sex: even when it's bad, it's still pretty good."
It's good for a laugh, but it doesn't do much against the taunts of those who would question Star Wars' mettle against Star Trek (the long flight to nowhere), Lord of the Rings (the long walk to nowhere), and Harry Potter (the wand-wanking boy wizard to nowhere).

At some point, these tasteless buffoons will pull out their trump card and say, "If you're so smart, what about those terrible Star Wars prequels with Jar Jar Binks, fart jokes, and Manakin Skywalker?"

This is where most Star Wars fans respond with a well-timed "Doh!," "fuck you!," or "Mortal Combat!"

Fear not, Obi-Wan: there is another way to defend Star Wars, and director J. J. Abrams will help me make it so, Number One.

Repeat after me:

  • Star Wars Episodes I to III are about childhood. 
  • Star Wars Episodes IV to VI are about adolescence. 
  • Star Wars Episodes VII to IX will be about adulthood.

The fart jokes, Jar Jar Binks, Manakin Skywalker, and long, boring discussions about trade routes? Why, that's how kids view the world. The plucky Rebellion against the evil Empire? Remind you of your teenage rebellion against the folks? Bingo!

The upcoming trilogy will be dark and substantive, because there's no way it can be about anything other than dying and passing along the torch to another generation, who will fight your battles all over again.

If my viewpoint is correct (and it is), this means we'll be back to childhood by Episode X. Bring hither the fart jokes!

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Revisiting the complete works of Lou Reed: 50 observations

Grandpa Reed has something to say to the troubled teens at Lollapalooza, 2009.

I love Lou, I really do.

Man, it bummed me out when I heard that Lou Reed died. One of my favorite musicians, the man exuded invincibility: "tough, acerbic, authentic, and uncompromising," I said on this blog after I made the trek to see him perform live in Chicago at Lollapalooza 2009.

Like a lot of Lou Reed fans, I got into the man's music after hearing Walk on the Wild Side - quite possibly the best hit song to beat the censor ("But she never lost her head, even when she was giving head..."). His album, Transformer, remains the easiest way to get into Reed's music: catchy tunes, glossy production, and David Bowie on background vocals - what's not to love?

For a lot of people, Lou Reed begins and ends here. It's too bad, because his life's work holds up to closer scrutiny. I know, because I've been spending the past week playing through his entire catalogue - from his work with the Velvet Underground to the end of his more-challenging solo stuff - and all you can really do is look upon his works, ye mighty, and despair.

Like the Who, Lou Reed is best experienced as an album artist; trying to compile the key tunes into a one-volume greatest-hits package inevitably falls short. For instance: do you include the challenging Coney Island Baby or the poppy Charley's Girl (from the same album)? Do you include the almost 11-minute concerto Street Hassle or the happy-go-lucky Real Good Time Together (also from the same album)?

It's quite possible to create a compilation that positions Lou as a pop artist, rock and roller, gender-rights activist, rapper, hipster, comedian, or drug addict. Instead of doing any of these things, I took notes as I played through the albums, which include these 50 highlights and observations (links open in YouTube):

1. Must-have albums
The Velvet Underground and Nico
New York
Songs for Drella

2. Avoid these albums at all costs
The Raven
Metal Machine Music

3. Rock!
Future Farmers of America

4. Can't get it out of my head
How do You Think it Feels

5. Not as depressing an album as they say

6. Best Lou singing vocal
Nobody But You

7. Best 80s new wave
No Money Down

8. Best song from a terrible album
Who am I? (from the Raven)

9. Best New York accent
I want to boogie "witchoo."

10. Best stab at having a hit
Satellite of Love

11. Worst stab at having a hit
The Original Wrapper

12. Best Andy Warhol quote on Songs For Drella (Warhol tribute album)
"I hate Lou, I really do..."

13. Argument for anxiety
Waves of Fear
Paranoia in Key of E

14. Worst Father's Day
My Old Man

15. Guest vocal
Bruce Springsteen's spoken-word monologue on Street Hassle

16. Transformation
Stephanie Says by the Velvet Underground becomes Caroline Says by Lou Reed

17. Funniest song about addiction
The Power of Positive Drinking

18. Scariest song about addiction

19. Least-convincing song about addiction
Egg Cream

20. Sound-alike alert
Warrior King
Future Farmers of America

21. Pixies rewrite

22. Worst strategic alliances
The Killers

23. S and M's greatest hits
Venus in Furs
The Gift
The Blue Mask

24. Walk on the Wild Side's unofficial sequel
Halloween Parade

25. Current-event songs
Good Evening, Mr. Waldheim
The Day John Kennedy Died
I Believe

26. Corporate rock
Don't Talk to me About Work
Future Farmers of America

27. Lou the gamer
My Red Joystick
Down at the Arcade
Video Violence

28. Don't let Steve sing
Steve Buscemi - Broadway Song

29. Early meth reference
Sally Can't Dance

30. Love songs
I Love You
I'll Be Your Mirror
Satellite of Love

31. Shoulda been a single
I'm So Free

32. Short and sweet
New York Telephone Conversation

33. Happy Lou
I Love You, Suzanne

34. Country life is rubbish

35. Formulaic Lou
I Remember You

36. New York landmark
"The Statue of Bigotry" in Dirty Blvd.

37. Man about town

38. Eulogy album
Magic and Loss

39. Religion

40. Let Moe Tucker sing
I'm Sticking With You
After Hours

41. Let Nico sing
Femme Fatale
I'll be Your Mirror
All Tomorrow's Parties

42. Let John Cale sing
Style it Takes

43. Velvet rock
What Goes On
White Light/White Heat
Sweet Jane
Rock and Roll

44. Provocative questions
"How do you think it feels to only make love by proxy?"
"What goes on in your mind?"

45. The Velvet Underground had fun?!
Temptation Inside Your Heart

46. Glockenspiel
Sunday Morning
Stephanie Says

47. Coo-coo or askew?
Andy's Chest versus Andy's Chest

48. Music video
No Money Down

49. Live
Jesus with Blind Boys of Alabama

50. What's your favorite Lou tune or album?
Post it in the comments before or on Twitter @kentonlarsen

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Igniting the Burning Schoolhouse of love

Burn, baby, burn!

When I was a kid, one truth was self-evident: every kid wished the school would burn down.

We weren't exactly roving bands of bloodthirsty teens; it was more that we viewed the building itself as a symbol of math, grammar, history, and other terrible things we'd no longer have to do if the place just went away.

Since it never did, we lived out our dreams every Victoria Day by begging our parents to buy us the Burning Schoolhouse: a piddly Roman candle placed in a cardboard, faux-brick schoolhouse. You'd light the candle ("the fireplace"), and it burst into flame as smoke poured out of the schoolhouse windows and the thing burned to the ground. What's not to love?

The whole presentation was pretty lame, so as kids watched it burn, they'd have to use their imaginations to fill in the blanks: "There goes the science lab! Better jump out the window, Mr. (teacher's name)! Guess we won't be having gym class on Monday!" As far as I know, no one ever said, "Oh, the humanity!"

Even better, it turns out that the Burning Schoolhouse is a Canadian invention and almost unknown outside of the country. According to the book, 1000 Questions About Canada, the Burning Schoolhouse was "devised and manufactured in the 1930s by Hands Fireworks Inc."

Sadly, the Burning Schoolhouse is no longer listed in the company's catalogue. Too bad, because now that I'm an adult teacher, one truth is self-evident...

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Using Dropbox in education: 50-million users can’t be wrong

Beware the Dropbox bogeyman.

Dropbox is an awesome technology tool that a number of teachers, support staff, and students are already using at my college, but that has not been officially introduced into the classroom or endorsed by the institution.

It's one of the reasons I believe that "work-approved" might be the most-dangerous two words in any workplace, including the educational environment.

My theory is that if “opinion leaders” (or “trust agents” in online parlance) adopt and use a piece of technology at work without being prompted, there’s probably something pretty useful going on there, in addition to a strong argument for considering a carefully planned approach to workplace (in my case: "classroom") integration.

In my discussions with staff, Dropbox comes up a lot. I use the app every day, love it, and have integrated it into my life so I can’t live without it. However, what intrigues me most about this innovation is that schools and other workplaces have been so slow to adopt it.

What is Dropbox?

Dropbox is a free web and mobile app tool that stores and syncs files, so you can access, update, and share them from home, work, or virtually anywhere using your laptop, desktop, smartphone, and tablet.

When you update documents, they sync across these devices, and Dropbox saves a copy to your laptop’s hard drive for backup. It has deeper implications in the classroom as a learning tool.

Writer Chris Murphy says:
“Dropbox is the embodiment of the consumerization of IT. It makes saving files online mindlessly simple. Want to give a bunch of people access to your 12-MB PowerPoint presentation without crushing their inboxes? Save it to Dropbox and give them access.”
Dropbox is part of the migration to cloud computing through services like Apple’s iCloud, Microsofts’s SkyDrive, and Box. What makes Dropbox special is its simple design, ease of use, famous investors (U2’s Bono and The Edge) and 50-million users (by its own estimate).
What’s the controversy?

Can 50 million users be wrong?

Many workplaces have a pathological fear of technology "housed on off-site servers" for reasons of privacy, performance, and security. The concern about online security isn’t without merit, as evidenced by recent cyber attacks against Twitter and the New York Times.

Murphy acknowledges this common fear and adds another issue to the pile: “transfer(ing) limits trying to upload from my iPad an enormous file containing video of an entire half of my daughter's soccer game.”

So, Dropbox isn’t perfect. However, the alternative – using an internal Dropbox system – is no walk in the park. At my college, students and instructors have a public “shared folder” and a private “secure folder,” which require separate passwords to access.

As anyone who’s worked with an internal IT system knows, this system is equally vulnerable to blackouts and security issues. As well, it’s impossible to access the internal system using mobile devices.

I, and Murphy, argue that the answer can’t be to provide “something inferior” or, even worse, “nothing at all” out of a fear of the worst-case scenario.
“IT needs to get excited about this trend,” says Murphy. “In the not-so-distant future, if not now, your employees will expect a "bring your own cloud"- BYOC - policy that mimics their consumer experience.” 
“Mobile devices will increase pressure to provide an easy way to move things created on a PC to a smartphone or tablet, and to share huge files without exceeding corporate inbox limits (or resorting to Gmail).”
Downloading and setting up Dropbox for yourself
  1. Visit
  2. Start a free account (you get two gigs to start, but you can quickly increase that amount by suggesting Dropbox to your friends).
  3. Run the installer.
  4. Double-click on the Dropbox icon in the pop-up box.
  5. A Dropbox widget appears on the top of your laptop’s menu screen. You can create folders in your Dropbox, and simply drag and drop files into the widget to save them.
  6. Download the Dropbox app to your smartphone or tablet. Sign in with the same account and – presto – you can access your files.

Downloading and setting up Dropbox in the classroom
  1. Visit
  2. Sign in using the account you created, above.
  3. Create folders for each of your classes or subjects.
  4. Click on any folder in the Dropbox and “invite to folder” using students’ emails. Once you’ve invited everyone, the folder is “shared.” Everyone can add, edit, and delete content. However, Dropbox has a “save” for folders deleted accidentally – you, the Dropbox owner, can “show deleted files” and restore them. If you don’t want students to be able to edit the files, you can upload PDFs.
  5. Finally, encourage students to download the Dropbox app on their smartphones and tablets.

In addition, you could provide each student with a Dropbox folder inside each class, so only you and that individual student could see it.

Integrating Dropbox into the classroom

Now that you’ve got it all set up, this is where the fun begins. You can use Dropbox to:

1. Share assignments and readings. 

Using Dropbox eliminates the need for you and your students to use external storage devices and easily share and collaborate on documents. This includes documents that are too large to send by email.

The great thing is that you can share the documents from “anywhere.” I’ve been known to remember to send my class an assignment or article on the bus ride home from school and – presto – off it goes from Dropbox and the comfort of Winnipeg Transit.

2. Backup important files.

Writer Julie Meloni says:
“If Blackboard or your Web-hosting provider goes down, where would your students turn? How long would it take you to recreate those systems? If your documents were also stored in a public folder in your (Dropbox) account, anyone could access them from any device (including mobile devices), and you would have a backup ready to transfer to another system.”
In addition, Dropbox saves your files to your computer’s hard drive, so even if the worst-case scenario happens (the app gets hacked or goes away) you’ll always have them.

3. Collect homework.

Dropbox provides each file with a time stamp, so you can tell what date and time it was delivered.

4. Evaluate students’ homework and portfolios.

As I mention earlier, teachers can create shared folders for each student, allowing them to submit private assignments and save collections of items, like portfolio pieces, without anyone but you and them seeing it. The teacher can open the assignments and make changes or comments.

5. Get students to have discussions and work collaboratively.

“Shared” and “public” folders allow you to get students to work in groups or publicly, as you require. You can also use Dropbox as a substitute for Google Docs and wikis: one student saves a document in the file folder, and another opens it and adds or amends content.

6. Be creative.

Teachers shouldn’t be limited by what they believe they can use this tool to do; by using it and being open to student suggestions, more uses will inevitably arise.

How Dropbox increases student motivation and achievement

I’ve recommended Dropbox to individual students who’ve asked about it. The great thing is that it takes very little training (if any) to figure out, and is so useful that students generally start using it by default and coming up with new ways to incorporate it into their day-to-day routines.

In addition, using Dropbox encourages students to use other great mobile apps – like Evernote, Documents (formerly Readdle Docs), GoodReader, Documents to Go, and hundreds more, which are compatible with the app.

I also believe that integrating Dropbox into the school environment goes hand in hand with starting an iPad school program and effectively using it in the classroom; consider Dropbox as the gateway to a larger world of iPad apps, cloud computing, and mobile technology.

Justo de Jorge Moreno (2012) of the University of Alcala in Madrid studied using “networking and Dropbox in blended learning by university students.”

The study (which suffers from a rocky translation to English) aimed to measure the “autonomous, collaborative, and proactive learning of students” as they correlate to online and face-to-face learning when these students use social networking and Dropbox.

The findings:
  • “The implementation of blended learning has a positive effect on in learning outcomes.” 
  • “Students with higher levels of learning are related to the increased use of resources…and more proactive in blended learning.”
  • “The implementation of blended learning has a positive effect on in learning outcomes (raising exam and work pass rates) in the subject.”
  • “The use of ICTs (information and communication technology standards) can help by allowing more interaction between students and the teacher and ultimately improve the necessary process of student learning.”
In another study, Eugene Geist (2011) examined “the practicality and efficacy of using tablet computers in the higher education classroom.”

The research involved supplying iPads to “students in a senior-level teacher preparation class” for 10 weeks and encouraging students “to use them in the way that felt the most natural and beneficial.”

Of note is that the students not only found tablets useful for themselves, but also “beneficial in their clinical work in elementary school classrooms.” Among the reasons why:
  • “They allow children to explore independently. The intuitive interface allows children to manipulate objects in a natural way with little adult intervention.”
  • “They give children choice of the games and experiences. On a traditional laptop, an adult is often required to change programs or experiences.”
  • “They give the child control over their computer experience.”
  • “The experience is an active rather than passive experience. The touch screen interface allows for active interaction with the programs at a level not possible for young children on traditional computers.”
Geist’s conclusion is a call to arms for mobile technology and the app:
“The "app" will become the new way to deliver information quickly and efficiently. It is no longer just sufficient to have a webpage or to use a course management system such as Blackboard or Moodle. Students want to do everything on their phone or pad device rather than on a laptop or desktop computer. By 2025, we will have children that have grown up never knowing a time when they did not have mobile devices with instant access to information. We must be prepared.”
Dropbox is not just the tip of the iceberg for tablets and apps, but perhaps also the canary in the coalmine for traditional IT departments. While your IT department may be well-intentioned it’s, as Geist says, “fighting a losing battle” and missing the larger point: the technology is not only about “apps and mobile,” but changing one’s mindset about education altogether.

The reality is that there will always be privacy and security concerns around technology. While anyone is well advised to be vigilant when using online resources, there is little evidence to suggest that Dropbox is any worse than, say, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or Amazon – websites and apps that hundreds of millions of people use every day.

As Geist says, “Mobile technology is moving speedily forward whether teachers and university faculty like it or not.”

Schools not only need to keep up with this shift, but lead the way. Getting left behind is not an option.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Did Gilligan ever get off the island?

Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale:

When I was a kid, my favorite TV show was Gilligan's Island. As outlined in the abhorrent theme song above, the show was about the fate of the crew and passengers of the S.S. Minnow after the boat gets thrown off course by a freak storm and strands the crew and passengers on an "uncharted desert isle." Wacky hijinks ensue.

Campy and corny - think Lost: the Sitcom - most of the episodes are about our gang trying to get off the island, only to be sabotaged by the Minnow's first mate, Gilligan - the clumsy and misunderstood Jar Jar of his day.

Too young to understand the show's conceit, I was sucked into each episode with the possibility that this time, unlike every other episode, Gilligan and the gang would be rescued.

On one occasion, it seemed that rescue was unusually imminent (as Bullwinkle used to say: "This time for sure!"), but my mother interrupted with the bad news that it was time for me to go to school. In the pre-DVR world in which we were then imprisoned, she promised to watch the show and tell me what happened when I got home.

After the longest school day in history, I ran home and burst through the front door.
Me: "Mom - did they get off the island?"
Mom: "Did who get off the island?"
Me: "Gilligan - did he get rescued?"
Mom: "Uhhhh...yes, he did." 
I was floored. Of all the shows I missed, it was the one in which Gilligan got off the island?! I went to school the next day and spread the good news.

Years later, I saw a promo for a reunion movie called Rescue from Gilligan's Island. My eyes grew dim realizing that I'd been had: Gilligan and the gang had been stuck on the island all these years.

Reality collapsed around me much like it did to the characters in Inception, and I realized that it was really I who had been stuck on a desert island - a fool's paradise! - and that while I was watching Gilligan, I had inadvertently become Gilligan.

Will I ever get off the island?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

14 new words to help you be more like Anthony Weiner

See numbers 10, 11, 12 (photo from the Telegraph).

1. Anxiet - Stress-related weight loss.

2. Cheaple - Thrifty human beings.

3. Fatio - A paved, outdoor eating area.

4. Hacktics - Actions or strategies designed to cause chaos.

5. Hughway - The acting technique in which actors work out and grow sideburns.

6. Lakred - A large volume of holy water.

7. Lambinal - A mild person with a bad temper.

8. Massagony - The organized hatred of massage therapists.

9. Mentorly Ill - Getting a headache from having too many mentors.

10. Perpetweeter - A person who regularly commits wrongdoing on Twitter - like, oh, the guy pictured at the top of this post.

11. Perversevere - Continuing to behave in an objectionable way with no indication of success - like, oh, the guy pictured at the top of this post.

12. Selfishies - People who only share photographs of themselves online. Like, oh, aww, forget it.

13. Unitasker - A person who can only listen to music, talk on the phone, drive a car, OR do his or her homework.

14. Zooters - Generic name for any restaurant serving chicken wings within an establishment that also houses animals.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Wouldn't it be gross discovered the key to life?

Assiniboine Park from Wikimedia: keep your pants on, folks. 

From the mouths of babes.

Back in high school, I once drove through Assiniboine Park with some friends, and one of them - apropos of nothing - said, "Wouldn't it be gross if everyone in the park dropped their pants, and you were forced to smell their bumholes?"

After initially mocking him, we broke into discussion groups, hashed out the issue in detail and came to a consensus: it wouldn't be so bad if you wanted to do it, but if you were forced to do it, it would be awful.

Years later, I'd discover that we'd not only cracked (Get it? Cracked? Awww, forget it.) the conundrum, but also come up with the key to school, work, and life.

My friend who initially posed the question is doing well in Toronto, where he does PR for the Canadian government. He says the job stinks, but it's not so bad if you want to do it.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Red Rose Tea figurines - the gateway to a life of crime and collecting

Steal me! From

Tea is a gateway drug. 

When I think back to what made me a collector of action figures, records, books, and assorted crap today, I can only blame one thing: Red Rose Tea figurines. 

Back in the 60s, 70s, and 80s these figurines (see hedgehog, above) came packed in every box of Red Rose Tea, one per box of 100 (or was it a million?) tea bags. So, as a kid, it was your task to drink as much caffeine as possible in order to "collect the whole set."

Red Rose Tea has a helpful history of the figurines on its website, in which we find out that they're from George Wade Pottery in Burslem, England, which first produced them for Red Rose Tea in 1967 (the year of the Lord, it being my birth year), and that they're actually called "Whimsies." How whimsical.

"Nearly all Red Rose Figurines, with the exception of the very first, have one significant feature: fine moulded parallel ridges on the underside of the base. It now seems to have become a "trademark" for all Wade "Whimsies" to follow, making them remarkable Red Rose collectibles." 
Whatever. All I cared about was getting all of them - a perfect example of sales driven by sales promotions, in this case a premium ("something free"). Kids are particularly susceptible to premiums, hence the free, plastic toy in the box of Frosted Flakes and the non-edible parts of the Happy Meal. Oh, yeah, that would be all of it. You get the idea.

I developed a serious tea habit. Before I knew it, I was hanging out at seedy, all-night tea dens, snorting tea powder off of the nostril-sized figurines, and waking up naked and confused next to zoo miniatures.

Even worse, on a neighborhood visit with my mother to her friend's place, I was so shocked to find she possessed one of the figurines I'd been looking for, I pocketed it. When I got home, the caffeine wore off and my conscience caught up with me. I admitted to my mother that I'd stolen the figurine, in the way that most five-year-old kids admit anything:
"Hey, mom, looked what fell into my pocket!" 
My mother, horrified at what I'd become, made me go back to her friend's place and apologize. To my surprise, the friend said, "Oh, that's OK: you can have it." So, I took it back home and gave it a place of prominence in my Whimsies display.

From that moment on, every time I looked at my figurines display, I remembered a valuable lesson: crime pays. Thanks, Red Rose Tea!

Friday, June 28, 2013

Mad Men vs. The Newsroom: 'tis truer to advertise than journalize

Are you there, Peggy? It's me, Don. From

WARNING: This article contains spoilers from the sixth season of Mad Men. 

I'd rather hang with Don Draper than Will McAvoy. Does that make me a bad person?

It's a question I've asked before and I'm considering again as we find ourselves in the one-week no man's land between the end of another awesome season of Mad Men and the beginning of what will probably be another shitty season of The Newsroom.

In theory, journalism is all about exposing the truth and advertising is all about hiding it - just ask any new TV reporter! - so we should probably identify more with a journalist doing God's work than an advertiser doing clients' work, right?

In practice, though, Mad Men's conflicted and imperfect Don Draper is so much more interesting and authentic than The Newsroom's self-righteous and -important windbag Will McAvoy, whose job is ostensibly to uncover the truth.

At its heart, the problem with The Newsroom is that it believes its own "self-righteous myth-making" (thank you Conrad Black). Like its characters, the show has its head so far up its own arse, it has no idea how dumb it actually is.

The series kicks off with anchorman McAvoy making a public declaration that America is not the greatest country on Earth (gasp!). After a three-week "vacation," he goes back to work and is shocked to discover that his new boss is his ex-girlfriend. Boing.

If it's lame that our hero's big moment of truth is just a setup for an equally big TV cliche, the series also asks us to believe that, among other things, a tell-it-like-it-is anchorman is OK dismissing seeing his girlfriend as a hallucination, a hardened war reporter doesn't know how email works, and young journalists not only read The Rock's tweets out loud to each other at parties, but the tweets actually foreshadow the news.

The Newsroom also isn't above chiding tabloid and online journalists at the same time it treats us to an episode about the Gabrielle Giffords shooting that actually ends with a Coldplay "Fix You" montage, as though the shocking news needs a big, fat cliche in order to make it more authentic.

What makes McAvoy (and the show) so unappealing is that he's the anchor dedicated to "the truth" while he believes his own lies; he not only fails to see that empty PR cliches wouldn't work if he didn't report them, but even embraces them himself. He's a quick-thinking, tough-talking smart guy who's dumb enough to get burned by a tabloid journalist.

Will: he ever learn?

Don Draper is the advertiser who proves my favorite line: "advertisers are more honest about their dishonesty." Mad Men season six was all about Draper losing his stomach for the lies he sells to others and himself in order to create the illusion of happiness.

Mad Men season six ends where The Newsroom season one begins: with our main character finally telling the truth. It's no accident that Draper spills his guts in a boardroom pitch with Hershey's: an iconic American product (or is it a religion?) coming face to face with the awful reality of day-to-day American life.

The truth doesn't set Draper free: America prefers the seeming authenticity he creates in boardrooms to the actual reality of his life. To his colleagues, Draper's "shit the bed" and they force him to take an undefined leave of absence that puts his career and marriage in question.

On The Newsroom, the truth is as manufactured as a Hershey's Bar. On Mad Men, the truth has consequences. You want the truth, Will McAvoy? You can't handle the truth.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

How to find a job in the digital age: a website

I'm nearly done my master's degree, which means I'll be looking for work soon. Haw, haw.

As part of my book larnin', I've set up a WordPress website - How to Find a Job in the Digital Age - that functions as a job-finding/technology resource for second-year advertising and PR students looking to enter the industry and get a job after they graduate.

My primary goal is to have this online module build on my in-person classes so that students can make a better connection between coursework and finding a job, understand which digital tools they should be using in order to do so, and how they should integrate the online and physical worlds for the most-powerful presentation as possible when it’s time for an interview.

Have a look, and let me know what you think, but only if you think it's good, OK? OK!

Friday, June 7, 2013

When life gets you down, shout "Ray Charles!"

Ray Charles! No, for real. 

I can't remember the performer, and I can't find it online. Might've been Tom Jones.

But, in the early 80s, a musician performing on Late Night with David Letterman, shouted "Ray Charles" in the middle of a song, apropros of nothing (Note: years later, Taylor Hicks would shout "Soul Patrol" on American Idol to diminished returns).

Of course, Dave and Paul made light of it the next night and wondered aloud why more performers don't yell "Ray Charles" in the middle of songs.

A light went on in my teenage brain. "Why don't more people just yell Ray Charles in general?" I asked myself.

So, for the better part of a decade, I'd yell "Ray Charles" at concerts. In addition to just making you feel better when you do it, I discovered that different people react differently to the shout-out:

  • The first time I tried it was at Broadways, the former (and awesome) alternative bar in the Fort Garry Hotel. Canadian singer Dianne Heatherington was playing, and she said, "I love Ray Charles. And, you know, we should be playing some Ray Charles in our set." Success!
  • I shouted it again at Love and Rockets, and the normally sullen David J. perked up and played a couple of bass notes, which - I guess - was probably some bassline from a Ray Charles song that only he could recognize.  
  • Most artists would say something along the line of "Ray Charles is a musical genius" - sometimes with a little "you'd better not be making fun of him" edge for good measure. 
  • Jann Arden took the minimalist approach and said nothing. 

I wondered, "When I shout "Ray Charles," is it a tribute? Request? Ice breaker? Conversation starter? Joke? Comparison? Question? Dare? Bet? Challenge? Contest? Exhibition? Competition? Celebration?"

Of course, it was all of these things.

So, now when I'm in the classroom, at a bank, waiting for a light to change, or sitting in a darkened theatre during a quiet moment in the film, I yell, "Ray Charles!" and make the world a better place one shout-out at a time.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Five great and awful things about Coachella 2013

After years of complaining and threatening to leave Lollapalooza behind, this year I finally put my money where my mouth is and went to Coachella instead.

My beefs with Lolla are well documented in the above link, but it essentially comes down to too many people in an enclosed space and arseholes pushing and shoving their way to get as close to Mumford as they possibly can.

However, Lolla is in Chicago - I love Chicago and a bit of my heart broke thinking that I wouldn't see it this year. Coachella is in Palm Springs. I'd never been to Palm Springs, but anyplace that's good enough for Bob Hope and Dinah Shore can't be all bad, right?

So off I went with great music and great music conditions as my quest. My Coachella report: 

The Great

1. The music

Lest we forget, these festivals are all about the music. Basically, I just want to see some bands I love and/or have never seen before, and discover some I should love or have seen before. Easy!

You can't beef the Coachella line-up: a solid mix of bands from the present and days gone by.  

Sparks channeling Buster Brown. 

Lou Reed cancelled because of something about needing a new liver, but I'd seen him before at Lollapalooza and so many other bands made up for it.

Among my new discoveries are Japandroids, a great Canadian rock band that I didn't know was Canadian until they thanked all the Canadians, and Palma Violets - a kick-ass punky-pop band from England that I would gladly travel and pay to see again.

It was also awesome to see Lee Scratch Perry with a mirror on his crotch (so he could stop scratching?), the reunited Specials, and Paul McCartney's son, James, who is so humble, he makes his dad look like a fame-hungry bastard: dude just strummed his last song, walked away, turned around and managed a half-wave goodbye.

I also enjoyed Hot Chip (the best synth band in the world?), Yeah Yeah Yeahs (with the choir!), Franz Ferdinand (they've still got it!) and the Stone Roses, particularly Ian Brown's tambourine playing, which follows an interesting model: 1. Pick up two tambourines. 2. Hold both of your arms up in the air. 2. Keep them there forever.

The disappointments? Blur phoned it in, Rodriguez looked to be on death's door (he needed two people to walk him out, and didn't appear to be singing at times), and New Order - one of my all-time favorite bands who were actually upstaged by OMD and Sparks from the same era (more on that in a bit).

2. The weather

You leave Winnipeg and it's cold. You arrive in Palm Springs, and the airport has tents for a roof. Sweet. 

3. The accommodations and shuttle buses

I bought my Coachella tickets as part of one of its travel packages, which included accommodations at the Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort and Spa and shuttle bus passes to the concert. The hotel was awesome, the pool was more awesome, and the shuttle buses showed up on time and got us there in less than an hour (and one of the drivers was reluctant to say he was from Canada, and ruled out Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver. We a know a Winnipegger when we see one!).

All told, the whole vacation is about $1,200 a person - not bad at all, though you need at least two people to get the deal. 

4. The public art

This deserves a special shout-out from number 5, because the public art at Coachella really is super-cool, except for that one, giant snail on wheels that kept showing up in front of stages and pushing people out of the way.

For instance, here's the Coachella Power Station: if you look closely, you can see hippos working feverishly to make it all happen.

There's more where that comes from, and it's all pretty darn lovely and impressive. 

5. The festival grounds

Not as cramped or oversold as Lolla. However, you are in the middle of the desert and have to contend with...oh, I'll just get to the awful. 

The Awful

1. The whooping cough o'sand/no shade

In the middle of the desert, you inhale a vast amount of sand even when you don't know you're doing it. So, about halfway through the first day you start coughing, and by the end of the third day, you have black lung.

Shade is hard to come by at Lollapalooza, but it's non-existent at Coachella. Irony of ironies: every Canadian in the place prayed for snow.

2. The sound spillage

Probably the biggest problem at Coachella is that the stages are too close together, and you can hear sound from one when you're watching a band at another.

I once complained about the sound from Soundgarden spilling over Arcade Fire at Lollapalooza, but that was nothing compared to the sound spillage at Coachella. You can't escape it. I was frankly surprised that more artists didn't beef about it from the stage, so it was left to Bernard Sumner from New Order to carry the torch for pissed-off artists and fans everywhere.

Implying that the music coming from the other stage was 1. Too loud and 2. Bad, he and the band did their best to play through their set, but you could tell it was a struggle. At the end, Sumner said, "I hope Coachella will have us back" - so maybe that's the deal: don't complain, and we'll have you back.

The festival is on a massive site, so why the tents are so close together and artists like, say, Rodriguez, have to compete with 1,000 bpm coming from the dance tent, is beyond me. 

3. The tiny music tents

If there's 100,000 people at Coachella, and New Order is a top-billed band playing at the end of the night, then why is it playing a tent that holds about 1,000 people? Recipe for disaster...

4. The pushing and shoving

Like Lollapalooza, no one plants themselves in front of a stage and waits to see their favorite band anymore. No, they wait till the last minute and shove their way to the front. The worst offenders: two girls who crawled their way to the front for Rodriguez, and the Patton Oswalt-looking dude who shoved and farted his way to the front of New Order, and then expected everyone around him to be happy to see him. Totally lame.

You try to stop someone from cutting in, and guess who gets called "arsehole?" Nice. 

5. The food

It's not as good as Lollapalooza (hint: Lolla is in Chicago). As well, you're in the middle of the desert, can't bring anything into the festival with you, and there's no nearby competition, which means it costs $30 for a milkshake (yeah, I'm exaggerating, but it's totally expensive).


So, the two festivals are similar for reasons good and bad. However, I did come face-to-face with Paris Hilton at Coachella, so I have to give it a slight edge over Lolla for that alone.

See you next year, Coachella. We'll always have Paris!

Friday, May 31, 2013

The hackiest ways to get laffs at a comedy club

Nothing hacky here. Move along. 

By now, everyone knows about my completely rational war on the word "unique" in ads.

It's not just that the word is lame, it's that it's "hack" - the word people "in the know" use to describe writing that's dull, unoriginal, done to death, or stupid.

If you really want to get into hacky hunting ground, though, advertising has nothing on stand-up comedy, where comedians pepper their speech with hack phrases like "hacky hunting ground" when they see other comedians perform hack material onstage, hack-on-hack style.

Here, then, is a collection of the hackiest ways to make an audience laugh at a comedy club:

1. "In other news..."

"California had more power blackouts yesterday. In other news, Roseanne microwaved some nachos."

Stand up isn't the fake news, and even if it was: this structure is hack hack hacky sack.

2. "I'm here all night."

Said after you realize a joke bombed, it will take the awkward silence and magnify it a zillionfold. Or, the audience will laugh, at which point you'll realize the joke that originally didn't get a laugh actually might've been a keeper.

3. Birthdays/anniversaries/out-of-town guests

What better way to tell the crowd, "I have no more material" than by going to it for "found" material, which may remain missing in action. "You're from Saskatchewan? Watch out, folks, if the Coco Puffs turn brown, he'll burn you for witchcraft."

I once said, "Would anyone here like to tell a joke?" which is worse. But, seriously, would you like to tell a joke?

4. The 50/50 rule

Here's another one I did myself, ad nauseam. Sorry. "I'm half (blank) and half (blank), which means (blank)."

5. "That's my time."

You have no ending to your act, so you cry, "That's my time" and run off to a smattering of applause. Instead, try ending with a hilarious joke and run off to laughter.

6. The differences between men and women

"The toilet seat. Am I right, ladies?"

7. Penis/masturbation material

Every year, I get two or three male students in comedy-writing class who think they have incredibly original material on their penis and how they like to masturbate. They don't.

8. Car jokes

"I drive a (blank), which is (country of origin) for crap." e.g. Toyota, Japanese. Mix and match for best results.

9. Local material

"What are you guys from Transcona? That's six bus transfers!"

Reminds me of the time a young Russell Peters came to Rumors and did material about Etobicoke. Ahhh...those were the days!

10. References more than five years old

"You went to med school? Who are you - Dr. Kildare?"

11. "I get paid for this, people."

Positioning yourself as a professional comedian and creative genius to the unwashed masses in the audience means you're neither.

12. "I remember my first drink too."

And any of the million stock lines designed to deal with drunk folk.

13. Mimicking sign language.

Because it's great to tell your audience that it must be deaf and/or stupid to not love your comedy.

14. "Jaws of life"

Put in the punchline of any medical joke, "jaws of life" shows the crowd that you're not just a great comedian, but that you also might know a thing or two about medicine.

15. Mawkish applause appeals

Encouraging the audience to applaud at the end of your set because a) you have or have had an illness b) you have a relative with an illness c) we're all stuck on this crazy rock together, and it's good we can get together to have a laugh d) at your last show, the crowd gave you a standing ovation.

16. Racial jokes

Making fun of your own race: hilarious. Making fun of other races: racist.

17. Impressions

"Thank you. That was Sean Connery, everyone."

18. Stealing material. 

It's not sharing, it's copyright infringement and plagiarism. Oh, sorry: that's my time!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Choose your communication major based on the car that goes with it

1. Journalism

2. Advertising

3. Media Production

4. PR

What car do you think a PR person should be driving? Imagine it here: 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Eleven new words to burn into your mind like a pair of cheek-a-boo shorts

See number three, below. 

1. Anticipointment - Getting ready to feel displeasure.

2. Attractual - Good looking as verified by science.

3. Cheek-a-boo - The hot, new shorts that were sweeping Coachella, if by "sweeping" you mean one person.

4. Nap Trap - The ongoing act of intending to "take a short snooze" before embarking on work, then waking up fully clothed, confused, and still sleepy the next day.

5. Nerdistry - The art of being boringly studious and up to date on all matters related to science fiction.

6. Refreshtivities - The vigorous consumption of beverages.

7. Someone-elsie - A photo of someone other than yourself.

8. Printernet - The stack of papers on your seasoned colleague's desk consisting of the entire Web in printed form.

9. Twerk - Person who tweets on behalf of his or her employer.

10. Writers' Blog - The inability to update your blog, because you're too busy writing other stuff.

11. Youngcle - Your father or mother's brother who is younger than you.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Implementing two kinds of e-portfolios in advertising class (and where the blog posts have gone)

Where have all the blogposts gone? Good question, mom.

I knew I'd been busy with a mountain of freelance work, marking, class preparation and the master's degree when my mom asked me how come "the place she used to go to read my stories" now no longer has any stories. You know how moms love their stories!

Unable to post top-secret client work, or lame representations of marking and class preparation, I'm instead posting this screencast I just did for one of my master's classes. It talks about implementing two different kinds of e-portfolios - original and curation - in the ad major, which is something we'll actually do next year in a more meaningful way than we did this year.

Enjoy, mom. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Eleven new words to fill your muggle

See number 7. Has nothing to do with Harry Potter. 

1. Appservescence - The tendency of awesome apps to rise to the top of the app store.

2. Cinnamom - Mothers who know the secret ingredient to every great dessert.

3. Deeprest - The way to overcome depression.

4. Diss Stress - The way to overcome stress.

5. Fulfilling Station - A self-actualization facility.

6. Hamnesia - Eating a great pork roast and forgetting about it.

7. Muggle - See photo, above.

8. Obamatoba - What we'd call our province if Obama had bought it, as suggested in the New York Times (see paragraph 12).

9. Strawb - A straw for smoothies.

10. TOFT - Too Obscure For Twitter. Example: "What's this about Carole Pope stepping down?"

11. Twaffic - Twitter traffic reports.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Unique solutions for your advertising-cliché needs

Hello ad clichés, my old friends. I've come to talk with you again. 

My war on advertising clichés has been hard fought and lost over the past decade, yet I soldier on even while knowing, inevitably, the day I retire from work will be filled with gifts emblazoned with the word "unique," as though my hatred of the word was some personal foible and not the war on creativity and humanity itself that I know it to be. 

This year, I provided to students a handy list of the words, phrases, and constructions to avoid when creating an ad. I challenge them, you, and the population of planet Earth - nay: the Universe - to never use any of these again in advertising or life. 

See you at the unique retirement party!
  1. Unique
  2. Solutions
  3. Something for everyone
  4. From (blank) to (blank), we have it all
  5. Whether you want (blank) or (blank)…
  6. A wide variety of...
  7. We are dedicated to...
  8. We believe...
  9. We aim to... 
  10. No matter the occasion...
  11. For all your (blank) needs.
  12. We provide you...
  13. We offer you...
  14. We cater to...
  15. (Blank)…since 1980; Since 1980, we’ve been...
  16. We are proud to...; Proud providers of...
  17. (Blank) is located in (blank)
  18. Can be found
  19. We promote...
  20. For people from all walks of life

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The 69 important online articles I read later on Instapaper in 2012

It's easy to tell the best or most-important online articles of the year: they're the ones I saved on Instapaper

Do yourself a favor and join the site, download the app, and start reading stuff later like Larsen does. Soon you too will be referring to yourself in the third person, losing your hair, and compiling your favorite online reads list on a year-end blog post. It's just that damn addictive. 

Education and teaching

Advertising and PR