Wednesday, 28 April 2010

In the Land of the Blind...

This was a hard decision. I didn't at all want this blog to be autobiographical, but I've decided to go for it because only about 4 people are reading anyway... This time I've decided to write about the thing that probably most informs my world-view, literally and figuratively. And I know I talk about it a lot, so I thought maybe this would get it out of the way and maybe, just maybe, I wouldn't talk about it ever again...... It comes up nearly every day. Really, there isn't a day that it doesn't come up somehow. Sometimes it's just—I HAVE ONE EYE!—catching myself in the mirror and thinking, "weird, very very weird."

But something has changed and it has finally started to bother me. I'm not sure if it's because I'm getting older and even more insecure or if it's actually just occurring more frequently. Every second sitcom, stand-up comic, film, commercial, novel, and even a few songs use a wonky eye as a plot-point (even just a few days ago watching David Simon's fantastic new Treme and Demetri Martin right after that and Modern Family right after that, etc.). The pirate jokes or the psychopath or the stories about the kid who had too much fun on the rollercoaster and his eye fell out are everywhere. The creepy guy hitting on the leading lady? There isn't enough screen-time to establish proper creepy behaviour, so... hmm... I know! Let's just give him a wonky eye and that'll make the creepy point for us. Prince Charming (as I was once matter-of-factly informed) always has very pretty eyes. Marty Feldman, but without the intentional laughs, is always hovering nearby. I think it's a lazy device, but maybe people with eye issues are the only ones who notice??

Sometimes I notice someone notice and then I feel that I must work it in somehow, you know, to let people know that I noticed that they noticed and that I do indeed know there's something not quite right with my eyes, but (and here's the important bit) that's the ONLY thing that's wrong. I'm well-read and funny and insightful and empathetic and blah blah and I'm so insecure about all the assumptions that I assume people are making that I have to prove it all every time someone looks at me funny, which happens a lot these days, mostly because I've spent the last 5 years as a substitute high school teacher.

Obviously there there are people in the world that could have handled this better, and I hope (completely selfishly and probably illogically) that there are people who would have handled it much worse. And I wonder how my friends and acquaintances who say, "Who cares? It's just an eye," would handle it. They seem tough and unfazed by much at all, but would they be that way if they had a fake eye? Maybe. I have no idea...

People who know me well and like me tend to say that they don't even notice anymore, and while I appreciate that this might be true, it doesn't help matters because I'll always doubt it's completely true. I imagine it's akin to telling someone with an eating disorder that they're looking a bit thin... or fat. People who don't like me, most notably jerks on opposing soccer teams or lads in London classrooms, like to point out fairly often that they notice it.

But here is a good time to say that "matters" aren't that bad. It’s not like I’m actually half-blind. I don't think my issues compare to most problems really. I think I have probably the most innocuous handicap there is. It might be harder to live with a missing toe or maybe even mild asthma. Pretty much the only thing I can't do is watch 3D films (actually I’m not allowed to be a pilot, in the military, ride a motorcycle, or drive a bus, but I don’t want to do these things anyway... and I am a damn good driver) and I managed to convince someone to marry me, although she is quite a bit shorter than I am and I've often thought that maybe she can't quite see this high??

Basically, my eye is something that I think about more often than I thought I would at this point in my life. I'm probably wrong about this bit (and please correct me if you think I am!), but I just don't think people in wheelchairs or people missing hands or even people missing noses get the sideways-head-dog-curious-double-take, that "what's going on there?" look that I get at least once a week from students or people on the bus or people watching a band, etc. When the eyes are off, something else must be off.

The last bit on my mind at the moment is the winking thing. I'm technically winking all the time. My right eye doesn't close or move much at all. So, quite often, people think I am winking at them. And unfortunately it sometimes causes a certain type of person to wink "back" at me. When I was a PA in the film industry it happened about 20 times a day—film types are a winky lot. It also seems to increase the closer I get to Yaletown. Heaven help me if I'm ever near a hotel when there's a sales or self-help seminar on and getting front row seats at a comedy club is suicidal. Comedians LOVE me. Some people wink "back" at me many times over a period of weeks or months even. They obviously think I'm a very winky person and now it's way too late to say, "Actually I have a fake eye and I'm not winking at you," because they would probably feel horrible or embarrassed or something near one of those things that everyone loves to feel in a social setting. Ironically, I have not one wink in my personality.

A friend once told me that he thought a one-eyed politician would never get elected. I guess Gordon Brown has proved that at least partially wrong, but we'll know if it's really true after the 6th of May. I used to think about politics as an option and still do a bit in the delusional part of my brain, and while I worry that all the negative media representations of the wonky-eyed would do me some sort of harm in the polls, mostly I think politics disappoints me too much. I'll write more about that stuff and less about me from now on. Anyway, if you happen to be writing a script or a story of some sort, try to do it without a lazy one-eyed mention... and now that I think about it, cancer is a pretty lazy plot point too unless you write for a hospital drama...

Friday, 16 April 2010

music and the stupidest industry of all time

Selling music over the internet should have started about 10 years ago and it would have been one of the easiest things in the world to do. The failure of the recording industry to recognize MP3s and file sharing as a desirable method of consumption was one of the largest business oversights ever in a world that normally sees businesses adapt and innovate. A model often based on artificially high prices, synthetic, watered-down talent and profit at all costs was probably due for some trouble, but throw in the easy “shoplifting” (a comparison that the Recording Industry Association of America likes to make), the community feel of peer-to-peer networks, chat rooms, music blogs, etc. and the ability to find any song you have ever thought of owning is simply too much for old-school thinking to bear. While some studies have shown that downloading has not cut into major label profits as much as the industry would like us to believe, the cycle of threats and litigation continues. Whether these studies are accurate or not, the industry has alienated consumers and ignored powerful momentum-—always bad ideas in any type of business.

Claiming copyright infringement and clinging to “intellectual property,” however correct the industry might even be, will never stop songs from reaching hard drives. Here is yet another example where, no matter the moral position, foresight and understanding social evolution was required to keep up. Print publishing survived libraries and used book stores; film and television survived video tape. Music will survive downloading, and if for some economic reasons it is actually important that the largest companies remain successful, then they need to adapt to save embarrassment, legal fees, alienation and, yes, profit margins. The largest companies will survive only by the luck that they are already so large, but this dip in consumer relations and lack of market understanding ensures that many artists and most fans will continue to push against rather than with the RIAA and friends. These companies are still selling so much; why is there such a strong reluctance to adjust the model?

Societies will always create and consume art. Perhaps due to the prevalence of music in advertising, films and in public spaces, the large companies are the victims of their own designs. Music is everywhere, all the time, and people want even more of it. Had the large companies started selling singles online for 99 cents 10 years ago they might have higher profits today. They might have embraced the reach and variety that MP3s help promote; they might have increased their artist rosters. Instead, they are still fighting the inevitability of file sharing and they have dropped popular, selling artists in favour of maintaining only the biggest superstars. This line between “indie” and the superstar is necessary to ensure that the really large sales and dollars stay with the big RIAA companies. It is much more profitable for BMG when Britney Spears sells 10 million CDs than it is for 100 more diverse artists to sell 10 million CDs added together. Management, production, promotion and tour overhead for so many acts would be massive profit dents.

If variety and downloading were to become the uncontested norm there would be 1000s of smaller stars all competing for attention that the majors want to keep—the playing field between the indies and large labels would be much closer to level (I won’t use this metaphor too many more times). Mainstream radio and MTV would suffer with their narrow, repetitive play lists, which would lose them advertisers who are also mostly the larger companies. This all circles back to the main (although unspoken) goal of the RIAA which is to keep the biggest member companies large, rich and powerful; Stockholders will always outrank customers. While this might read like the back pages of Das Capital, it could be noted that nearly all of the talk from the RIAA side of things is about copyright, compensation, ownership, control, profit and very little of it is about art. (www.riaa.com) One of the biggest ironies in all of this is in the efforts of Sony and other related companies selling MP3 players long before anyone was honest about the future of the MP3.

Still doing the copyright dance and claiming protection for the artists who only get “20 cents on the dollar. If they are lucky” (a quote from somewhere that I’ve lost) the labels are completely ignoring that more fans come to the shows ready to sing along because of file sharing. Thankfully dozens of legal alternatives have arisen in the last few years, but in every case it is a smaller company noticing the writing on the wall first. Probably the majors like that numerous small companies have split the vote, so to speak, of the legal downloaders. This maintains the “King of the Castle” paradigm for the RIAA.

I-tunes is Apple's effort to legitimate and culturally codify, or repossess the cool, as it were, of downloading. It is one of the first big business launches into the business of only downloading. I-Tunes has a community feel, it looks good and it has most of the songs that the kids are looking for. However it will still help maintain the indie/superstar line because of its front-page type charts, large company advertising and its place in the business community. For consumers there is no fear of the law and artists are compensated at near the normal industry rate. There are a number of other sites as well, and while this is a good start, the main problem is that they all charge about 99 cents per song. The artists, that the RIAA supposedly care so much about, still see very little of that money and of course people are still free to share the files once they have spent their 99 cents. Amazon.com and others are using the i nice enough idea that has customers can posting reviews on any recording in the data base, but this still limits the market to what Amazon, etc. carry.

Instead of finding creative solutions, the RIAA focuses efforts on putting out these copyright infringement fires, while other companies are creating what may well become the new industry standard: “the shareware model applied to music” (another old quote I’ve lost) The recording industry needed to foster the culture of sharing. They needed to offer good quality, virus-free files on easy to use, attractive websites with message boards and chat rooms for less than a dollar per song. That’s what they cost when we drive to the mall and get the shiny booklet. They needed to notice the millions of music fans meeting on-line sharing their views and reviews, and ultimately their music collections. They needed to explore the vibrant, new, young music culture that was emerging in this broadband world and add to it and fit around it in interesting and insightful ways that their promotional budgets could have easily supported. Music will always be about asking your friend is she has heard the new Morrissey song and then buying tickets to the show. The Internet has put the focus on the art and the artist and appreciation of music rather than the pockets of stockholders. If the industry could embrace this musical truth, they would maintain profitability and more importantly the tone of the recording industry could become a breath of fresh air. Things are moving on the legal side of the issue, but they are still a step behind the kids. And hurry up and get the new streaming radio type stuff into every country!

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Another note to The Guardian about education...

(Original article here.)

An excellent teacher in my education program led a great discussion on the (I'm sure very old) adage: "You can't fatten a pig by weighing it". Testing has become the most important bit. It should be the least, a sort of let's see what we've learned idea and nothing more. Tests let me ask, "do I have to cover this more or can we move on?"

I feel a terrible hypothetical analogy coming on:

Let's test all baristas in the world and rank the results in the papers. Let's give the baristas in the nice parts of towns fancy Italian machines and those magic beans that get crapped out by meerkats. Give the rest of the baristas, those in the areas with a higher %age of special needs and poor families, a rusty toaster and some muddy twigs. Give them all the same test: make a perfect cappuccino.

That's Sats in a massively convoluted and at least partially condescending nutshell. What have we tested? What will the results show? The potential of the children on a level playing field? The quality of the teachers on the same level field? Well, the field is not level; the tests are useless. Why do teachers seem to be the least trusted professionals in the UK? Trust them or train them better and then trust them. If education is SO important to be so heavily regulated and overseen, then actually fix it with more well-trained adults in the schools and smaller classes.

Kids only spend about 14% of their time in schools. Do people really want a significant percentage of that percentage spent on exam prep and exam writing so that we can erroneously say, "Teachers at Eton are better than teachers in Tower Hamlets"?

Monday, 5 April 2010

A letter to The Guardian on teachers using force in UK schools...

(Original article here.)

I twice replaced teachers who were beaten by students when working as a supply teacher in London. How do you think I would have done using force? That said, I often tugged on shirts and once or twice grabbed arms to stop fighting, which happened (seriously) daily in some of the schools... Teaching back in Canada is relatively effortless. It's a sad state of affairs there and nothing is being done to fix it in any real way.

It's all meetings and league tables and mock tests and course-work marking (and "not course-work" ignoring) and yelling at the top of lungs. There are simply not enough adults in the building to adequately control today's city kids. Classes are too big and respect is near zero. The kids deserve so much more than stressed, depressed, half-hearted efforts to just get through the day.

Paper-shuffling and random comments about teachers using force don't fix schools. Smaller classes and a well-trained assistant (possibly even a system of new teachers being an assistant before they progress) in every class would be a good start. Acknowledging that state schools are supposed to be good places to send kids and making them good rather than just mocking them for being crap all the time would be another good start.

Throw money at banks, relax regulations and let bankers do their jobs to fix the economy. Underfund schools, add red tape daily, tell teachers how to teach and suggest they use force to control their classes. Something is very wrong...