Everything comes down to Anne of Green Gables

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Adapted from our recent He Said/She Said on TV, eh?

The Anne of Green Gables/Anne of Avonlea mini-series were the first Canadian productions to truly excite me as Canadian productions. Books I had loved, had literally read to death (the books’ death, not mine), were onscreen. My Canada was on screen. Not that I’d been to Prince Edward Island — that would come in the 1990s, when I included a pilgrimage to Green Gables and Lucy Maud Montgomery’s grave — but the world of my childhood was onscreen, and my county was named and pictured.

That was before I cared about the state of the Canadian industry or gave a thought to why it was important to have our own stories in the mix along with Hollywood productions. But I knew it was special to see something so personal to me finally appear on my TV. I can thank Anne for many things, first for offering me a kindred spirit in my childhood and finally for opening my eyes to the power of having my own culture reflected back at me.

Posted in Books, Canadian TV | 3 Comments

Flexing the civil discourse muscle

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I don’t know why this 2008 bodybuilding forum thread suddenly started circulating on Twitter the other day, but I’m so happy it did when I needed a laugh (though, warning: offensive insults throughout).

But after I wiped away the tears of laughter and the tears of recognition that humanity is doomed, I realized it was a perfect example of how not to communicate. You can be as right as rain — as right as, say, someone declaring there are 7 days in a week — and you can still basically lose the battle if you can’t get your message across in a way your listener can absorb.

Josh never did seem to get that working out every other day means working out 3-4 times a week, aka an average of 3.5 times a week — not 4-5 times a week, aka no good lord that’s so wrong.

We see this all the time. We do this all the time. Everything is polarized, from politics to our TV preferences. We often feel we have to state everything in extremes to cut through the information overload. Todd VanDerWerff, formerly of The AVClub, has noted that bad reviews get more hits than glowing reviews, but nuanced reviews in the middle get far less than either. What’s wrong with you if you don’t LOVE THE WIRE MORE THAN ANYTHING IN EXISTENCE? (Really – I’m asking.)

Our social media feeds are generally comfortable bubbles where people more or less agree with us. So when we encounter a contrary opinion or counter-factual argument it feels like everyone – and therefore The Truth – is on our side.

The result is we can be that extreme and don’t need to craft our arguments, because we’re not really trying to communicate anyway. We’re just trying to shout down dissent and demonstrate the secret handshake that allows entrance into the club of People Like Me.

Years ago at the Banff TV Festival I heard David Shore of House, Family Law, Due South, etc. talk about an exercise he used to make his writers do: to write a scene from the antagonist’s point of view, ensuring the opposing argument was well fleshed out. Not to use in the final script, but to ensure they weren’t writing straw men.

Sometimes you’re debating with someone who thinks there are 8 days in a week because the first day doesn’t count (I think that was Josh’s argument, anyway – it was a little hard to follow such wrongheaded wrongness). Sometimes you’re talking to someone who just wants to whip up the smug frenzy on a bodybuilding forum. Sometimes, though, as Shore pointed out, you’re talking to someone who has the same facts you do and has come to the opposite conclusion. Sometimes The Truth doesn’t pick a side.

Don’t worry, I’m not coming to the conclusion that the number of days in a week is up for debate. But it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that insulting someone isn’t the recipe for him to have – or admit to — the epiphany that his brain muscle wasn’t working so well when he wrote his original post about workout frequency. “Oh yeah, sorry, I get it now.” Not gonna happen after he’s been ridiculed.

And so often (hi Richard Dawkins) being a jerk is a recipe for even those who agree with you to wish they didn’t. I mean, I firmly believe a week has 7 days but when the R word was slung around freely I almost wished I could make the 8 day theory work.

These are known features of our weird brains: we select facts that support our opinion and reject those that don’t, and our opinions get even more entrenched the louder our opponents shout them down.

It takes a special kind of person who doubles down on his wrongness and posts a picture of a calendar to (dis)prove his wrongness. I like to think most people in Josh’s position would have at least at some point thought “oh yeah, duh” to themselves, created a new profile and slunk away. But the way most people responded to him gave him no face-saving out, no benefit of the doubt … which it turns out would have been an unearned benefit but still, starting from that place allows for more civility and more understanding.

Instead, the debate started at Defcon 2. A simple “every second day is fine, and that means you’d be working out 3-4 times a week, not 4-5” would have sufficed to both answer the question and point out the So Not The Truth. In my happy fairytale land, Josh would have said “Thanks!” and Twitter would have had one less hilarity to pass around 6 years later.

It reminds me of another Banff TV Festival moment: when the Alberta Culture Minister denigrated Canadian television, and the Canadian television industry responded in a way that only those who already agreed with them would listen to. I wrote about it at the time, in Echo chambers and missed opportunities.

How often do we (aka People Like Me) rail against the stupidity of anti-vaccination proponents, climate change deniers or Rob Ford supporters? As long as we’re not talking to them, only preaching to the choir, it’s all fun and games and choral music. But what if we actually want to be heard?

Posted in Reflection | 2 Comments

This Was My Year That Was

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My online life, like most people’s, is an edited version of reality. Not in a conscious attempt to make myself appear in a certain way, but because some stories aren’t mine to tell and I generally don’t use social media as therapy. I feel like in a world where everything is the BEST and WORST and you WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT, people who don’t rend their garments and wail are perceived as not feeling as deeply. In a world where I like to divide people into Elinors and Mariannes — as in the Dashwood sisters in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility — I am an Elinor. In a world … uh oh. I recently saw Lake Bell’s movie In a World and now I can’t stop using that phrase.

The Facebook year is the year I can present publicly, and it hits the highs fairly accurately and blunts the lows fairly consistently. I like to post pictures from my travels, and I love to travel, and I had a good travel year. I didn’t take a lot of pictures of me on a couch trying to anesthetize my brain after a hard day, or trying to write my feelings out … unless the focal point is the inevitable cat curled on my lap. Only my hesitation of appearing like a crazy cat lady prevents me from posting more of those.

But looking back, it was an interesting year, in those highs and lows. I was in Russia for 6 weeks, Chicago to visit a friend and fall in love with Chagall, at 2 NASA Social events to hear from smart people doing cool things. I haven’t posted yet about Galapagos and mainland Ecuador, or the NASA Social for the Orion launch, or Christmas in Maui, because the rapid fire succession of trips have left me scrambling on the reentry to reality. But here’s to a 2015 full of more highs, more adventures, and an abundance of love and kindness for all of us.

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The annual not-a-ritual post

kids.jpgTwo years. I still struggle with whether I want to mark the anniversary of Steve’s death because the date itself — the first day of fall, the changing of a season — is not something I want to have power over me. I don’t like ritual for the sake of ritual. As Steve might have said, a year is only a year through the accident of our culture choosing the solar Gregorian calendar.

His birthday, the start of summer aka the anniversary of his diagnosis, the release of a movie he would have liked, the ridiculousness of certain people that would have made us laugh together in frustration, the launch of a rocket or the news of a scientific discovery that isn’t news or a discovery at all — it all makes me think of him as much as the anniversary of his death.

And yet it’s here and it’s been on my mind, and I think about how I dealt with it last year: to look forward to what I want to make of life in the next year. Maybe by default that becomes how I mark the occasion, updating my not-a-bucket list.

Looking back at last year, I did nothing about improving my Spanish but I did take some drawing and painting classes. I did find a yoga studio I like, and even go there sporadically. I am going to the Galapagos and mainland Ecuador in November — which should help as a crash course in Spanish — and have a possibility to go to Haida Gwaii next year. I write every day, though I can only count it as for pleasure every day if I consider the pleasure I get from being paid so I can go on exotic vacations. I have not taken a helicopter ride but I’ll carry that one forward as a “some day but I’m in no rush to pursue” item.

I also continued to nourish the parts of me that remind me of him, attending a NASA rocket launch, visiting a space shuttle at the California Science Center, rewatching movies or TV shows we saw together. Getting a tattoo he would have thought was nuts but maybe would have found touching, too. I got rid of people and things that sucked the life out of me, like my TV, eh? website, and brought it back when it got meaningful and fun again.

And for the coming year? More of the same, I guess – make sure I keep trying to move forward, be the person I want to be, never filling the hole he’s left but filling the well inside me so the hole doesn’t take over. Being able to laugh at myself for making horrible mixed metaphors like that.

So what’s next: more travel, more learning, more connecting with people who get me to counteract what feels like shrinking world, more looking into whether I can make some of my “some day I’d like to…” dreams be more than just dreams, because of course there’s no guarantee there are many “some days” left.

And on that happy note, I’ll go mark this anniversary day by living the life I’ve built for myself. Today that means hanging out with my Little Sister and working on a freelance article whose deadline is coming up. And maybe tonight I’ll rewatch The Fifth Element and think of my big brother who first made me watch it, while knowing I don’t need that kind of ritual for him to be a part of my life.

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My other car is a train

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I got my drivers licence at 27. Bought my first (and only) car at 33. It’s safe to say I’m not a car person, though I think my little blue Toyota Echo hatchback is cute and pragmatic, and am quite fond of reliable Azulito in an anthropomorphized way.  He even doubled for the Psych Blueberry one episode. Which doesn’t mean I wouldn’t ditch him in a second if it were practical.

He’s 10 years old now and I’d started to think it might be prudent to consider a trade in before any major problems cropped up … until it occurred to me that maybe I just don’t need him or anyone like him anymore. I take the SkyTrain to work — it’s much more convenient and often faster than driving — and because I have the transit pass I use transit when it’s easy otherwise, too, like getting downtown without facing hordes of jaywalking pedestrians, one-way streets and expensive parking.

Unwilling to make the immediate leap to no car at all, I explored car sharing organizations. For the summer, every time I brought Azulito out, I’ve been considering how life would get more complicated if I were to give him up. I figured I’d use a car share to pick up my Little Sister and for some shopping trips and transit for yoga (assuming I actually go). No problem.

And then Azulita helpfully wouldn’t start one day when I was going to be lazy and take him to work, so I got to test the concept in practice. I had a Car2Go and Zipcar membership. It’s been a few weeks and I finally caved: I’m getting my car fixed tomorrow. The breaking point? The opportunity to go on a set visit in Aldergrove, with the option of a ride if I backtracked about an hour to go downtown from work first, or to get a Zipcar for the day … and I found I resented paying the daily charge when I actually only needed it for a few hours.

Because my biggest learning is that if your life extends outside Vancouver’s city boundaries — and I work in Surrey, fell in love with a yoga studio in Burnaby, and Big Sister events are sometimes far-flung — car share isn’t always convenient. Well, that and Smart Cars are fun little things but very clunky to drive.

I adore Car2Go for the right kind of trip: you can take them one-way, leave them, and pick up another one for the return trip if needed, only paying for the driving time ($14.99/hour, and both car shares include gas and insurance). There are always a couple parked on my block. But the zone where you can leave them doesn’t even encompass the entire city, and my Little Sister happens to live outside that zone.

Zipcar’s advertised rates are from $7.75/hour but the cars in walking distance from my home are over $12/hour, and there’s a small insurance fee per month or a very large deductible in case of damage that I didn’t see advertised before signing up. And again, because I’ll be in Surrey when I need a car, I’d need to pay for it starting from when I leave for work in the morning or backtrack nearly as long as I would to catch a ride.

I haven’t given up on the car share idea. I plan to continue using Car2Go for one way trips. I’m planning to check out Modo, whose rates seem more favourable than Zipcar and who have more cars closer to me (and are, incidentally, the car co-op I was going to sign up with before needing to buy a car for my job at the time). And I’m planning to get Azulito fixed so I can go to Aldergrove on Thursday and maybe a spontaneous trip to Trader Joe’s this weekend.

Azulito, I just can’t quit you. Yet.

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My own personal zombie story: TV, eh? comes back to life

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I’ve had a couple of conversations lately about the value of blogging, which is kind of hilarious given how little of it I’ve done lately. I just told a recent graduate in an information interview that blogging was a great way to hone her writing, explore what she’s interested in, and enter into a community around the topic.

I’ve written about that before. I’ve written (sincerely yet tongue in cheek) about how blogging has changed my life. And now I’m realizing that even so, I’ve undervalued the connections I’ve made online. Literally.

I retired TV, eh? at the end of last year because after 7+ years I was tired. It was a hobby, I had other interests and opportunities, and it was starting to feel like a burden. Then TV Guide Canada went dark. The Canadian TV world lost two voices within half a year, and I acquired a partner who could not just help relieve much of the burden but help take the site up another level in terms of original, professional content as well as monetization — a word and work I hate.

While Greg looked into advertising, grants and sponsorship, I thought a crowdfunding campaign might be an easy way to help show potential funders that there was a supportive audience for the site, and a way to test the notion that people would pay for professional TV writing, even if not via a traditional model.

I had always felt appreciated in my time running the site (well, not always by everyone). I knew it was valued. I just didn’t know that value would have significant dollar figures attached.

I originally put $1,000 as our goal – enough to get us up and running, pay for expenses and our time, tide us over until we got some steady income. Then I thought I should dream big and put $2,500, allowing us a real head start with the ability to pay some professional contributors. Then I got spooked at the humiliation of failure —  and the increased Indiegogo fees if you don’t hit your goal — so I compromised at the posted goal of $1,500.

After 5 days and 3 stretch goals later we have over $14,000 in contributions, with 25 days left to go. We’re stretching to $20,000 now.

I posted to my social networks, Greg posted to his, and from there our stalwart supporters took over, drumming up donations from writers, producers, agents, directors, actors, guilds … anyone who makes a living in Canadian TV was encouraged (sometimes heckled) to donate. Dedicated Canadian TV fans have donated. This isn’t from our friends and family (though a few of them have donated too). This is from people who read the site, who miss the site, who want the site back.

I’m sincerely grateful and sincerely overwhelmed. Our little test balloon has turned into a rocketship, and I’m scrambling to keep up with it emotionally and logistically.

I don’t know how to begin to thank people. I mean, most of the donors get a perk but how do I convey what their support means, whether it’s financial or spreading the word or just cheering us on? It’s validation of my work for the last 8 years — we really raised $14,000 in 5 days and 8 years — plus Greg’s work over the last 15 years, plus the promise of what we can do together.

Which is a whole lot more, now. Our dreams are expanding with our Indiegogo totals, always with an eye to how to sustain what we start, how to keep the momentum without exhausting the crowdfunding model, how to seize the opportunities coming at us, how to make this business model work to support professional-quality Canadian TV coverage and have people paid fairly for their work.

All while stunned at the generous support from this community of people I’ve been lucky to be a part of for the last 8 years. All while working on it during gorgeous summer weekends and evenings, via cross-country email and Skype conversations. 

We have a plan. We have the passion. And we have a plethora of people whose support means more than a blog post could say.  Thanks everyone.

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We Have Liftoff: Watching the Earth Breathe from Space

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T-46 seconds.

We could hear the anticipation in the voices crackling over the loudspeaker broadcasting from the control room: a calm voice with its rapid-fire listing of each system, and before the last syllable ended a new eager voice would chime in with “go”.

All systems go for the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 launch … until T-46 when a failure in the water system made the voices grow somber. A 30 second launch window doesn’t give a lot of time to fix problems that aren’t found until 46 seconds before it begins, but the voices consulted their manual and started another checklist until time ran out and the crowd deflated.

“What does that mean?” we asked our Vandenberg Air Force Base guide for the day, Chief of Community Relations Larry Hill. “What’s a water system failure?”

He gestured helplessly. “I’m just a trumpet player from Albuquerque.”

He’s more than that, with 24 years of active service behind him, including, yes, playing trumpet in the Air Force Band. But no one had clear answers yet at the public viewing site where our NASA Social participants gathered for the 3 am launch on July 1. Bleary eyed, knowing we’d see little through the fog, knowing a scrub was a possibility but excited to be there, together — our little social media mission with our major access to what many – but not us — would consider a minor launch (as in, unmanned and orbiting Earth rather than sexier Mars).

The fact that many of us had travelled a great distance to attend the pre-launch event and dragged ourselves out of bed to the viewing site in the middle of the night didn’t seem to enter into the decision. We’d even eaten the lucky peanuts and sung a few bars of “The Final Countdown.”

It was later explained as a problem with the Vandenberg launch pad, not the NASA satellite itself or United Launch Alliance’s Delta II rocket that would send it into orbit (US space travel is a cooperative effort between NASA, the air force, and private industry): “The system provides sound suppression to dampen acoustic waves at liftoff and protects a launch pad flame duct.” Right, of course.

“Better a good scrub than a bad launch,” said Stephanie Smith, one of our NASA guides and one of the brains behind NASA’s social media accounts, including Mars Curiosity Rover. And indeed, the disappointment of OCO-2’s one-day delay (it successfully launched 24 hours later) was nothing compared to the devastation of OCO-1’s crash into the ocean shortly after launch in 2009.

A small number of our group – those with more flexible itineraries — stayed for the next day’s liftoff and saw not even the promised red glow through the heavy fog. But we all cheered that launch success, and the continuing news that OCO-2 is operating as expected so far.

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It’s personal

This is our mission too, now. Faced with a disinterested media, budget cuts and questionable political support, NASA has turned to Twitter in particular to build an army of social media advocates. Their NASA Social events gather select social media users to get a crash course on a particular mission or project and maybe to witness a launch first-hand (preferably with no crash included).

The day leading up to that early morning, we had been given incredible access to the people behind the machines, from the mission scientists and engineers to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. They were human beings to us now, and we felt their disappointment more keenly than our own.

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When Project Architect Randy Pollock started on the original Orbiting Carbon Observatory project – the one that made a bottom-of-the-ocean synchronous orbit — his son was in kindergarten; now he’s an intern at NASA JPL. That’s’ 13 years of Pollock’s life invested in a mission that was lucky to get a second chance. I suppose more important than our need to see the rocket’s red glare was their need to have a long-awaited success.

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At the launch pad site we asked questions of NASA Administrator Bolden, who boldly stated that we’ll send humans to Mars by 2030, and encouraged us to share our excitement about our OCO-2 experience widely. The undercurrent, of course, is that future missions are in jeopardy due to current funding cuts.

One measure of our enthusiasm (apart from the number of selfies taken with the rocket) was our eagerness to see the launch from a prime vantage point. One of our group asked what would happen if we witnessed it from this very spot, metres away. Before enumerating the disastrous physical effects of standing too close, former shuttle astronaut Bolden said “I’ve never been this close before. Well actually I have; I’ve been on it.”

When pressed at the social media briefing earlier in the day what one message they’d like to convey, the OCO-2 team said “Science is fun.” They aren’t just words to NASA – they instill a spirit of fun and awe into their social media advocacy.

All that and a purpose too

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OCO-2’s mission isn’t to prove climate change, nor to prove the human contribution to greenhouse gases. NASA’s earth scientists have moved on and call those questions a false debate. Scientists are able to accurately measure the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – the key driver of climate change — both today and in the past, and see our impact.

“Climate change is real. Period. We have all the data to show it’s happening; we don’t have all the data to know how to address it,” said Annmarie Eldering, OCO-2’s Deputy Project Scientist.

OCO-2 will gather that data about where all the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere comes from and how the various natural “sinks” – oceans and forests – absorb and later release carbon back into the atmosphere. Eldering knows more data won’t convince skeptics, but believes the more we understand and can measure, the more informed our actions and policies can be.

When people found out I was going to see a rocket launch, a common question was “NASAs still does that?” With the demise of the shuttle and the US ability to send man into space, the media and public’s attention has wandered.

Seeing a satellite-bearing rocket head into space, meeting the people who made it happen, and knowing the importance of the mission and the consequences of failure — both in launch and in societal acceptance of climate change — made it personal all right. I’ll be cheering OCO-2 on as it makes its way into its orbit and starts collecting and transmitting its crucial data.

Originally published on Because Geeks

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