Media Musings & Meditations

Observations and discussion about technology, culture and spirituality. As new technology developments and trends envelope the Internet and our "wired" culture we all need time to reflect and process the implications on our society, our relationships and our spiritual practices.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Real Potential

How do you raise 70 million dollars for humanitarian charities in one week? One answer is to present your appeal to American Idol viewers. Then get corporate sponsors to pay a donation every time viewer calls in a vote for their favorite singer. That’s exactly what the popular reality TV show American Idol did earlier this week. The special episode was part charity infomercial, part star-studded telethon and of course part talent show. In the end, it seemed to achieve its goal of raising millions for charity.

I have to admit I was a bit skeptical of all the hype Ryan Seacrest and company churned out leading up to the big show. It all seemed a bit contrived. I wondered how they were going to raise donations and exactly where the money would go. Call me crazy, but I just wasn’t buying the sincerity of Simon Cowl interacting with rural African children with all the warmth of a beauty queen waving from atop a parade float. In another clip, we see Simon Cowl amazed to see a food bank passing out groceries. He says something about never knowing such facilities existed in the U.S. I’m amazed that Simon lives such a sheltered, elite life that he is unaware of such things.

Okay so Simon, Paula, and Randy are not going to win me over by their “heart-warming” personal appeals. However, the simplicity of helping others by making a few phone calls is wonderfully attractive. In fact, during the extravaganza my wife, Julie, had a good suggestion. Instead of providing a toll-free number for Idol voters each week, give out a toll number. Millions of viewers could vote for their favorites, at a few cents per call, week after week and we quickly and easily generate millions for the needy. After all, Idol viewers are already willing to text in entries to weekly contests on the show for 99 cents per call.

Regardless of your opinion of reality TV, I think we can all agree that it would be brilliant to tap into the potential wealth that could be generated as viewers across the country vote for their favorite singers or dancers.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Mystery and Magic in the Machine

During WWII, when some sudden unexplained malfunction occurred in a US Air Force airplane the airmen would jokingly say that a gremlin caused it. There is even a 1940’s Bugs Bunny cartoon where Bugs has to match wits with this “all too real” mythological gremlin to keep his bomber from crashing. In fact it is one of the very few times when Bugs met his match.

I teach a number of software programs to college students. After observing class-after-class, of 20-25 students, I’ve seen all kinds of odd computer glitches and malfunctions, in both Windows and Mac machines. The software program that worked wonderfully the previous 50 times suddenly locks up. Worse yet, the tools and functions no longer work the way they used to causing unexpected effects on screen. I’m sure there is a technical explanation about the coincidental, simultaneously demand on RAM by two different programs, or something. Perhaps, if I knew exactly what was occurring there might be some mystical combination of quick keys that would solve the problem. But, as often as not, I don’t fully know what the exact problem is or the exact steps the caused it. My pragmatic answer, to the unexplained, is often to close and reopen the program -- which can miraculously puts everything’s back in order. In the most severe cases of machine malaise, such a horribly locked machine – my remedy might lead to restarting the monster. A freshly restarted system is like the dawning of a new day – one on which the computer works!

Okay, I’m not a technical geek, and computer experts are probably shaking their heads and making a tisking noises about now. When I talk to IT about my troubles, their recommendation is usually to upgrade my machine (get more gremlin stomping power). Interesting how even the new machines have their occasional hiccups, too! It’s almost like science and technology can explain and plan for everything up to a point… then the mystery begins. Why does the system suddenly choose the exact moment I have just about finished a special unsaved document – to inexplicably cough and lose my changes? Why the interface malfunction on April 12th that didn’t happen on the 11th and won’t happen on the 13th. I won’t call it magic, but it certainly is a mystery.

Sure technology is continually improving and better operating systems are coming. But I suspect that there will always be that 1% of unexplained, magic in the machine. Even the Star Trek talking computer occasionally has a glitch that risks the crew’s lives. Therefore, I staunchly reserve the right to my mystical rituals such as shutting down and restarting. And, I look longingly for the day when the computer will serve me, rather than the other way around. In the meantime, I’ve got a few magic tricks up my sleeve.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Head South for the Spring

I've just recently returned from the South By Southwest Interactive ( conference in Austin Texas. It was my first time (along with hundreds of other first-timers) Now that I've had a chance to reflect, I'd like to give a report.

To anyone interested in web design or development, web graphics, software development or just Internet technologies and trends, in general, I would say this should be an event on your annual calendar. I would describe it as a time of:

  • learning (there were panel and lecture sessions),

  • networking (it was easy to meet and talk to people before and after the sessions - in the hallways, the tradeshow area and at free events),

  • problem-solving (talking to people with similar skills and interests frequently led to discussions about using new products and technologies or how to fix pesky problems with the same) and

  • fun (there was a spirit of fun, self-deprecating humor, industry-specific inside jokes, and even a comedian MC at the Website awards) among people within the Web Industry.

In addition to the regular daytime sessions at the convention, there were free, company-sponsored buffets, parties and events in the evenings around the downtown area. Other special highlights includes the Webby Awards pre-party, ceremony and after party, and a movie premiere.

If you would like to come check out South By Southwest Interactive next year, here are some suggestions/tips:

  • Periodically check out the event information and free podcasts at the SXSW website during the year.

  • Monitor websites of those who play prominently at SXSW, such as the people at A List Apart blog (and those they link to) during the year and especially leading up to the SXSW event each spring (March).

  • Register early for bigger discounts

  • Book your hotels early; better deals can be found outside of the downtown area.

  • Bring lots of business cards for networking.

  • If you are looking for a job, have resumes handy as well as the link to your portfolio.

  • Bring any technology questions or problems with you as you just may find the answers.

  • Bring your own bottled water with you each day.

Hope to see you next year at the South By Southwest Interactive!

Friday, May 26, 2006

Plug and Play

A few weeks ago I decided to get an RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feed reader so that I could link to my favorite news and technology websites and get the latest information updates forwarded to me.

My first step was to look for a free/open source version of the tool I wanted for Mac OSX. I found one that looked impressive from the icon, that resembled a Mozilla/Firefox product, right down to the description and interface. The only problem is that I couldn’t figure out how to get the thing working. The functions were not easy or intuitive. I even stooped to reading the instructions! (I know, I know…) Even then, no light of understanding came on. I finally decided, in frustration, that there must be an easier product out there somewhere on the Web.

After searching some more I found an open source RSS feed reader called Vienna. The difference was “like day and night.” Vienna was easy and intuitive. I was up and running in minutes with no instruction manuals or tutorials needed. It’s simple, not all that flashy, but I love it.

I know you’re overjoyed that I can now accumulate and read my RSS feeds, but the reason I tell this story is to illustrate what I believe will be the key to software success now and in the future -- “ease of use/ease of learning to use.”

Our society has grown impatient with the complex voodoo language of technology from the days of Microsoft’s DOS code and complicated setting changes. We want the friendly, easy to use technology of Star Trek instead. That’s why Apple continues to gain customers. They have embraced the idea of making technology components all “plug and play,” that is you shouldn’t have to learn new languages and incantations to get to consumer electronic devices to work together, they just plug together and work.

In the software arena, we don’t what to have to take a 12-week boot camp workshop to learn how to use our new software programs. We want to be able to get on and figure out how to at least get started right away. Technology and software change too frequently now for us to have to employ Herculean efforts to learn to use programs. The companies that understand this concept and make their products easier to use, and will, in my estimation, start passing by the big, complex software dinosaurs out there that haven’t got the point yet. I am looking forward to a simpler future!!

Monday, May 01, 2006

When does the learning stop?

In a little less than two weeks from now our university will be turning the class of 2006 loose on the world. Many students will rejoice the end of their studies, celebrating freedom from textbooks, classes and exercises (echoing the anthem-like refrain from Alice Cooper's School's Out - “Schools out for summer, schools out forever”).

But it won't be long after the confetti settles that these graduates will learn another great truth, that the learning never really stops. There's just a change of venue. For example, there are many lessons to be learned during the process of finding and starting a new job. Observation and study will help new hires learn how to fit in with the company culture and practices. As years unfold, the employee's continued advancement will parallel their acquiring of an unfolding curriculum of job skills.

In my area, web design and interactive media, we must constantly read, research and study to keep up with the latest software and hardware. Before we master most programs new ones replace them. Licensed professionals like doctors, lawyers, and CPA's, must, (with the regularity of migrating geese, of fish swimming upstream) go to classes & seminars to keep their credentials up-to-date. Learning continues the earning. One IT professional I know will, at any given moment, be studying for his next in an unending succession of technical certifications. Even our spiritual life requires study. As a Christian disciple (which means student) I'm called upon to learn about Jesus, adopt his teachings, and imitate him.

Learning is linked to life itself. We could, like some try to resist and run away from all this study and learning. But I think the key is recognizing that learning is a part of our experience as humans. Rather than hide from it we should harness the opportunity to better our lives. That's why I recommend people seek out jobs doing what they love. Become committed to causes they feel deeply about. Acknowledge areas of our life where improvement can take place. The result is that when these endeavors require study we will tackle the task with passion and excitement like we pursue a hobby or favorite pastime.

My hope for the upcoming graduates is that they are blessed with a career and life that provides lifelong learning about subjects that excite them. And when will learning end? Not in this life!

Thursday, April 20, 2006

My Soundtrack

Some of my earliest memories are associated with music. I can remember riding in the car with my mom singing to the radio. Usually WABC, NY and the song was usually a Beatles song. In our house growing up Sunday afternoons Dad would put records on the HiFi, usually Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, or Show Tunes (my mom's favorites) and maybe an occasional classical album. Some I liked, some not so much.

Later on when I started earning money doing chores at home I bought an AM/FM Radio & Cassette Player (Sears brand, I think). And I would sit in my room listening to the classic rock station out of Albany or the off-beat college station at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. I would wait to hear my favorite songs and turn it up. But no station had just the right mix. Eventually, I went off to college at Ohio University where I got to DJ on my dorm station and came close to finding just the right mix for me at the time, combining rock, heavy metal, punk and new wave music. Of course I've taped my own combinations of songs and listened to a lot of radio but unlike Goldilocks from the fairy tale I never seemed to find one source that was “just right”. Even now, with Internet radio stations, computer “jukebox” programs, and a multitude of satellite radios stations, I haven't found the source that suits me best.

All this brings me back to an idea I had years ago, probably after reading some Science Fiction books or watching Star Trek. I began to imagine how great it would be if we had a soundtrack to our life like a movie. Of course, sometimes there would be silence and the rest of the time there would be just the right music to fit our mood and the situation. Sometimes in my daydream there might be some kind of button panel somewhere so we could adjust the mood or skip a song. As I watch technology advance, my crazy fantasy inches closer. I can easily see people in the future having some kind of credit card or Flash drive-sized device that they take with them everywhere and plug into the home stereo or computer or car audio which will play just the songs they like, when they like them. Perhaps one day there will even be a biological interface to enable our music device to read our emotions and mood. However, until then, I'm waiting and composing the score for my life soundtrack.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Reality TV Religion

What makes reality TV more “real” than standard Hollywood-produced shows? One element is religion. For decades, Hollywood has followed that old adage about not discussing religion and politics that in polite company. So the majority of TV shows (and movies for that matter) don’t show or talk about religion to any degree. On those rare occasions when there is a religious character, as media critic Michael Medved has pointed out, he or she is usually portrayed as a psycho, a prude or a hypocrite. So despite polls reported in national magazines that show a majority of Americans believe in God, the Hollywood media pretends that hardly anyone does.

I’m not for a moment saying that reality TV shows are religious or even all that wholesome. But what I am saying is that when we see real people reacting to situations and circumstances one of the factors that helps them cope and overcome is their religious faith. For those people who have a religious faith, that belief affects their behavior and decisions (just like it does for most Americans).

Let me just run down some of the examples of religion in reality TV: on last year’s Survivor one of the tribes had a morning “devotional/prayer” time together as a group, on various seasons of Big Brother we’ve seen house guests reading the Bible, praying or talking about their faith, various couples on the Amazing Race have discussed their faith and prayed about their circumstances. This year’s Apprentice has two Jewish people who observed the Jewish holidays during the show. Kayser on last year’s Big Brother practiced his Moslem faith. And this year’s American Idol featured Mandisa who, referencing Jesus, publicly forgave Simon for criticizing her weight.

As we watch these religiously oriented people in reality shows encounter the same challenges and situations that the non-religious people do, we see that their faith affects their thinking and decision-making. Generally the religious people want to be fair and kind, they don’t like being deceptive, they try not to dwell on the negative and they are usually optimistic about the future, they are more ready to forgive and encourage and even losing does not seem to defeat them. Reality TV doesn’t teach us that religious people always win, but it does deliver a message that people who take religion seriously tend to be good people, are nice to be around, are more likely to help and encourage you and they remind us that winning isn’t everything. Evidently, this is a message Hollywood does not want delivered. But that is one of the reasons I find many reality TV shows interesting, fresh and REAL.