Saturday, June 30, 2007

Privacy and other internet lessons

For the first time since I started this blog some nine months ago, I’ve pulled a posting off the site. In it I had discussed changing the name of the Northwest Media Literacy Center to, well, something else.

The something else turned out to be a “pretty good name,” in the opinion of a “naming consultant” who wandered onto the posting after his search snagged one of my search engine tags. He suggested that we protect the proposed name by registering it before someone else did.

The problem is that our organization hasn’t agreed on the name, but the response from the naming consultant increased our interest in the name, and gave several of us pause.

I decided to go private with our seemingly valuable thinking about names. I deleted the post and its comments.

The experience with the naming posting is just the most recent to raise my awareness of the huge promise and troubling pitfalls of this medium.

I’ve had an Italian T-shirt merchant comment on a post, in Italian. His pitch to get you to his site was deleted. Interestingly enough, he too was responding to our proposed name.

Only a couple of other spammers have tried to lure Red Electric readers to commercial sites. They were likewise deleted. Alas, I'm certain that won't be the last of them.

The Red Electric’s site meter has provided interesting data. The site averages 40 visits a day. When I wrote about the Portland Timbers recently, visits shot up to 60. In fact, my choice of topic and resulting search tags drive up (or down) numbers of visits markedly.

I’m often surprised by the topics that attract the most attention. For instance, a post on the misuse of apostrophes was a magnet for grammarians far and wide. So if you want grammarians, tag a post, any post, “apostrophe.”

Attracting hordes is not my goal here, but responses provide insight into how audience surveys like the Nielsen ratings can drive media content. If TV producers and magazine editors feel even a nibble of interest, they’ll yank on the topic in hopes of landing a big audience — which, of course, drives up advertising rates.

Think Paris Hilton and the observation about her being famous for being famous. Or is it being famous for being cute or coy or sexy or incarcerated or rich or all of the above….

And no, I won’t tag this “Paris Hilton,” but it is tempting.

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Friday, June 29, 2007

Denial and "Lost"

One of the take-aways from Matt Stockton’s “Television and the Presentation of Reality” class at PCC was a mental note to myself to critically assess “Lost,” a TV series Matt recommended for its complex, involving plotlines.

It’s about marooned plane crash victims…and then some.

I started to watch the first episode (replete with the gore, confusion and mayhem at the crash site) but allowed myself to be distracted when the script came unhinged. A doctor describes his botched surgery in a monologue that compares his doomed patient’s spinal fluid to angel hair spaghetti.

I mean really.

I may get back to “Lost,” but right now, and for the indefinite future, I have better things to do.

Maybe it’s just where I am in life. Maybe multiple TV episodes are for the young and their seemingly endless lives. Or maybe they are for those who really don’t have anything better to do. That’s harsh, I know, but I’ll put it out there for consideration.

Thoughts like this take me to Robert Grudin’s magnificent book “Time and the Art of Living.” You can pretty much dip into it anywhere.

Here’s were I dipped today. It’s about how our failures to act are as important as our actions. The notion isn’t unrelated to the above.

“….time keeps nothing with as deadly care as the ledger of our omissions. This is nowhere as apparent as in our personal relationships. We lose what is valuable in these — love, joy, communality — less through conflict and tragedy than through long series of shadowy and often unconscious refusals. Withdrawing, forgetting, falling out of touch, ignoring or avoiding or withholding the unpretentious but essential details of friendship, destroy more relationships than death or anger and tend to isolate their perpetrators quite early in the solitary confinement of old age. To the Latin adage Qui tacit consentit (‘He who is silent consents’), we might add another, Qui non agit negat (‘He who does not act, denies’)”

To me, at this point in my life, watching episode after episode of “Lost” denies.

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Thursday, June 28, 2007

Learning communities vs. school inequity

I have two conflicting views about schools today. Well, I probably have a lot more than that, but two significant ones have emerged in the past few days.

They jelled last night at a meeting five of us had with my Hillsdale neighbor, and now new school board member, Ruth Adkins.

The five of us are members of something called “the Coalition for Commercial-Free Schools.” The name pretty much says it all. We don’t think our schools should be exploited for marketing purposes, no matter how much corporations are willing to pay the strapped schools for exclusive access to our kids.

That said, my conflicting views don’t have anything directly to do with commercialism in the schools.

No, it’s an even bigger problem than that.

Ruth shared with us the Portland school district’s apparent interest in having schools and their communities work more closely together. That’s a move in the right direction.

For sometime I’ve argued that schools and their communities should be one — that we should consider our schools being wall-less. We should think of them as having permeable membranes, if you will. Kids, parents, grandparents, teachers, business owners, lawyers, carpenters, fire-fighters, housewives and househusbands — everybody — would flow through the school and through the community.

We would all teach each other.

And if you don’t think kids can teach you anything, I have a question for you: When was the last time you text-messaged?

So that’s one view: Communities and schools should be one. In essence, we shouldn’t have schools but community learning centers. Ideally, communities would BE learning centers, or more exactly, learning communities. (And that means striking up a new relationship with media and the time we spend with it — but don’t get me started….)

So here’s the conflict. Late last year I volunteered to read a few thousand community responses to the Mayor’s Visioning Project, VisionPDX. My assigned readings happened to be about schools. A major theme in the responses was that Portland suffers gross inequities between schools in different parts of the city. Our children simply aren’t being granted equal opportunity in the classroom.

Something has to be done about the problem. Unfortunately, I don’t see the solution in community learning centers, or learning communities. If anything, prosperous communities will have prosperous learning centers, and poor communities will have poor learning centers.

Indeed the inequities could become much worse under my proposed “permeable membrane” approach.

So as I talked this through with Ruth and the others Wednesday night, I invoked an idea I have floated about developing model Portland Town Centers, a model Hillsdale Town Center being one of them. The idea is to pair town centers (and communties) that are diverse. Lents and Hillsdale, for example.

How can we help each other? What can we learn from each other? I’ve even thought that measurements of success should yoke the progress of the paired communities. Unless both succeed, neither does.

Have I resolved my conflict about learning communities? Not really. At best, it is a hypothetical resolution to a hypothetical problem. Until we reshape our schools and our neighborhoods into learning communities with community learning centers, we won’t have the luxury of addressing this kind of problem.

Still, if the school district does indeed move ahead with linking schools and communities, it should do so in a way that ends educational inequity in Portland.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Escape from the Electronic Cave

“Television and the Presentation of Reality,” Philosophy 197, is a Portland Community College course being taught this summer by Matt Stockton, a young philosophy instructor well versed in contemporary media.

My friend Joan Rutkowski and I are both active in the media literacy movement so we went out to the Rock Creek PCC campus to meet Matt and to attend the first class.

Matt told the 16 or so students that the course is really was about media literacy.

The syllabus description lays out some of the dimensions of the subject. Electronic media, Matt writes, “has emerged as the most popular source of information concerning our perspectives of reality.” He notes that the 2000 census reported the average American spends nearly 1,600 hours a year watching television. That’s about 4.25 hours a day, or 29 percent of our waking hours.

Philosophy 197 looks like a great class. I came away from my visit with two or three new ideas, not the least of which is that our expectations shape (Matt actually said expectations “dictate”) our experience.

Of course, the media are all about shaping expectations — about appearance, about resolving conflict (usually violently), about the meaning of success (the one with the most toys wins), about time and its value, about entitlement, about knowledge and about what is “cool” or not “cool.”

More than shaping experience, media expectations shape our values, our decisions, our lives.

Matt put it another way too. We are born into a world with a gap between who (or what) we are and who (or what) we want to be. Media managers and advertisers happily fill that gap for their own purposes.

But this is a philosophy course and the first class wasn’t without its philosophy, in this case Plato’s Cave Analogy, which, when you reconsider it, is a pretty good description of our relationship with media.

You’ll recall that Plato describes a situation in which a group of people is confined from birth in a cave so that all they can see are shadows cast on a wall. (Think, very big screen but no cable fee.) The shadows are what the prisoners understand to be reality. One day a member of the group escapes only to find that the shadows, far from being reality, are really images made by a person standing in front of a fire and manipulating the shadows. Any escapee who leaves the cave and its manipulated images will find a “new” “true” reality.

Through understanding, discussion and critical thinking, the students in Phl 197 may be on the verge of their own escape.

That is what media literacy is all about.

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Monday, June 25, 2007

Gratitude for George Orwell on his birthday

The Writer’s Almanac, written by Garrison Keillor, has a tribute to George Orwell today, his birthday. He was born in 1903 as Eric Blair.

His success writing under the pen name George Orwell led him to use it in his everyday life as well.

I’m amazed that so few young people today have heard of, let alone read, Orwell. Those who have usually know him only for “Animal Farm” and, of course, “1984.”

Rarely will a student have read Orwell’s stirring essays, such as “Shooting an Elephant,” “A Hanging,” or “Why I Write.”

My hope is that one day schools and colleges will teach Orwell as routinely as they do Shakespeare.

It may have been Orwell who first welded my attention to the inhumanity of grotesque income disparities, a topic I repeatedly write about here.

Orwell called for a tax policy that would limit income inequity to no more than ten to one. Today it is in the thousands in parts of our economy. CEOs frequently make 500 or 600 times as much as their lowest paid workers.

In “The Lion and the Unicorn,” Orwell wrote, “A man with £3 a week and a man with £1500 a year can feel themselves fellow creatures, which the Duke of Westminster and the sleepers on the Embankment benches cannot.”

Near the end of his essay “Why I write,” Orwell shared with his readers a desire to write another novel after a seven-year hiatus. Of his expectations for the novel, he wrote, “It is bound to be a failure, every book is a failure, but I know with some clarity what kind of book I want to write.”

His clarity of purpose, and clarity of prose, ensured that the book itself would prove him wrong.

The book was “1984.” Far from being a failure, it became a frightening classic, a warning that rings as loudly today as it did when it was published in the summer of 1949, a mere six months before Orwell died at the age of 46.

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Sunday, June 24, 2007

Northwest CEOs get richer

This just in: It's tough when you are only making a few million a year. That's why you need that double-digit percentage pay raise.

Meanwhile, as chief executive, you flat-line the pay of your work force — the folks who make it happen for you.

Makes all kinds of sense. Right?

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Plugs in the news?

We know how advertisers, concerned that TV viewers are TiVo-ing past commercials, have bought unavoidable "product placements" in programs themselves.

There's some sleaze to that to be sure, just as sold naming rights force us to utter commercial inanities like PGE Park or the Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival.

But what to make of what's going down in this front page story in Sunday's New York Times about George Bush's relationship with Mexican immigrants in Texas?

First, a little context. The story notes that the president, relatively liberal on the issue of amnesty for illegal immigrants, has met strong opposition from many of his Texas Republican backers. That has created strains, as described in this troubling sentence:

"It is visible on a grand scale, with ... this state's two Republican United States senators, Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn, breaking with Mr. Bush on immigration in recent months after having followed his lead with Rolex reliability for most of his term."

"With Rolex reliability"?


Where did that little plug come from? Was someone asleep on the copy desk? Will the reporter, Jim Rutenberg, be getting a check, or a Rolex, in the mail? Is the Times cutting story placement deals with Rolex and others "sponsors"?

What can we expect next?

Is the president in Allstate-worthy good hands?

Is his policy as American as a Chevy Silverado?

In short, is business at the Times so bad that it is selling paid sponsorships in its news stories?

I don't think so, but at a time when media seem desperately willing to sell just about anything to the highest bidder, product name dropping in news stories does more than simply raise this reader's brows.

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