Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Dodging a bullet.

Winnebago Man is a documentary about the "Angriest RV Salesman" in the viral video. If you haven't seen the video itself, it's a series of outtakes from a Winnebago sales video, wherein the salesman keeps blowing his lines and swearing at the camera. It's pretty funny and apparently quite famous, although I'd never heard of it until the documentary came out.

The documentary relates what happens when someone decides to track down the angry RV salesman twenty years later to find out who he is and what happened to him. It has its flaws but at its best it's a reflection on how Youtube has, for better or worse, catapulted ordinary people in obscure videos to low-grade viral-video infamy, usually through video footage that catches them at a really bad, unguarded or ill-judged moment. We all have such moments and we always did; but video cameras used to be expensive and bulky, and opportunities for footage to reach wide audiences were pretty much limited to America's Funniest Home Videos. Under those circumstances, it took a real effort to humiliate yourself in front of millions of people.

It makes me grateful to have been born when I was, because most of my opportunities to embarrass myself on camera happened before the 'tube came along. There's a home movie of me that circulated among my family for years, from when I was about twelve, ripping off a George Carlin routine minus the swear words. Throughout my teenage years I conclusively disproved the existence of telekinesis, for if it were at all possible to effect action at a distance then every copy of that video would have been erased by my brainwaves of sheer will.

Later there was another incident where someone else's good sense or at least embarrassment probably saved the day. When I was nineteen, the summer before I went off to film school, I was playing with a video camera with some friends. We were using a very bright film lamp I had found at a garage sale, and one of my friends who had been interning at a TV station pointed out that you usually put some kind of diffuser over it. The video shows her demonstrating by putting the lamp under her t-shirt, whereupon her shirt catches fire. The scene explodes into Three Stooges chaos as I stare on, slack-jawed, painfully slow to understand what's happening.

Fortunately, Wendy wasn't hurt and the house is still standing as far as I know.

(In fairness, I was momentarily blinded by the brightness of the light and so I blame the giant phosphenes for my slowness on the uptake. But such is the unforgiving nature of video, which purges all context and leaves only the image. I don't video well in profile--I have kind of a pudgy face and a moronic hillbilly jawline--and with my mullet, ball cap and sleeveless wife-beater T-shirt, not to mention the glacial pace of my reaction, the video makes me look like one of the roobs in People of Wal-Mart.)

Wendy wisely kept the video and probably destroyed it. Today it would likely have ended up on Youtube, and if we were really unlucky it would have become an indestructible viral phenomenon, uncontrollable, undeletable, fifteen seconds of electromagnetic pee in the worldwide media pool.

Just about everyone born after 1980 has had the opportunity--the alignment of technology, youth and inability to grasp the idea of consequences or that someday you might be in a position to be taken seriously--to screw up their digital identity forever. For each of them, there's a chance that someday they'll be running for city council or receiving the Order of Canada and there it'll be: an old clip of the candidate punching a clown or molesting a dead pig head, taking them down in a burst of drive-by ridicule or worse.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Misguidance Counsellors, Part Two

So I'm wondering how to go about this series of posts on whether it's still a good idea to go to university.

I'll let you in on a bit of a secret: I am not a new-media kind of guy. I feel a certain affinity for old-school journalism and academic research papers and the professional standards typically associated with same: in particular doing extensive research, citing authoritative facts, and editing everything before you publish. It makes me kind of skittish about posting opinions that might turn out to be wrong.

But those are values that aren't particularly valued in the blogging realm. This medium seems to lend itself more to stream-of-consciousness, throwing out ideas as they come to you, and maybe going back and editing them out later. There is always the risk that if you say something foolish or factually incorrect, some anonymous commenter will rudely correct or berate you. However, since this is the internet, this is likely to happen even if you don't say anything foolish or factually incorrect. So I wouldn't lose any sleep over the possibility.

The other nice thing about it is that you've got a bunch of other people reading your drafts. Some of them will have useful things to say. In the ideal case, they end up doing all the work for you by posting comments that are way more insightful than anything you could come up with.

With that in mind... The university thing.

As a starting point, let me define what I mean by "going to university."

For the purposes of this discussion, I'm talking specifically about the conventional approach which high school seniors/Grade Twelves are encouraged to take by all the appropriate authorities. You start applying in your last year of high school. Once you've been accepted by one or more schools, you pick one and enroll officially as a full-time student the September after high school graduation. You take out student loans, pay your tuition, and supplement the cost of school and living expenses with part-time jobs (during the school year) and summer jobs (during the four-month breaks between school years.) Depending on the program you're in, you either choose your major field of study right up front, or else spend your first year sampling a bunch of different courses before deciding what to focus on. After four or five years of continuous study, you graduate around age 22 or 23 with a Bachelor's degree in your chosen field, whereupon you decide whether to go on to graduate school (e.g. a professional or academic Master's, or else a doctorate) or go straight into the workforce. In the latter case, it is presumed from the outset that that Bachelor's degree is both necessary and sufficient to secure a job that is lucrative enough to pay back the debts incurred in getting it. Then your life starts.

Okay, that's a mouthful. Lots of stipulations and caveats. Could probably use some carriage returns. But it is, I think, a fair representation of what your parents, guidance counsellors and teachers expect of you as the default choice. It's the right way to go about doing things. Any deviation from this plan will be viewed as unusual at best, probably reckless or irresponsible, and at worst downright stupid.

Chew on that for a bit and I'll see you later.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Misguidance Counsellors, Part One

There's an old joke to the effect that if guidance counsellors knew anything about career moves, they wouldn't be guidance counsellors.

That's a bit harsh but like all jokes, there is a truth there, exaggerated to comic effect though it may be. Guidance counsellors give a lot of bad advice. In some respects they can't be blamed. At my high school of 2000 students, there were two guidance counsellors--which one you got depended on whether your last name started with A to M or N to Z. In a work year of 2000 hours, that meant each student got a total of two hours' attention from a guidance counsellor. Imagine being expected to shape someone's future in the time it takes to watch Avatar.

I'm thinking about this now for a few reasons.

First, this is the time of year that high school seniors are getting their university applications together. Fully a year before they start post-secondary education, they are expected to have a pretty firm idea of where they want to go and what they want to do. That's overwhelming enough.

But, secondly, they are getting most of their advice from Mature and Respectable Adults--not just guidance counsellors but parents, teachers and society at large--which is to say, pretty much by definition from people who made their own decisions in this regard under radically different circumstances.

Strictly speaking, that category includes me. Having gone to university in the very early 1990's, before the wholesale deregulation and de-capping of tuition, I faced a radically different cost-benefit analysis. For instance, my undergraduate tuition was about $1600 per year, about one-third what it would cost today. I was also insanely lucky. My parents paid the full cost of my undergraduate degree. Housing costs were dirt cheap, and preposterously so in Montreal where I went to school. Because everything went exactly right for me, I graduated with no debt, free to do whatever I wanted. Even so, many of my friends were not so lucky. Twenty years later, that kind of luck is even harder to come by.

The contrast between today's situation and that of someone in 1970 is even more extreme. Those people lived on a whole different planet, with a completely different atmosphere and everything.

So I'm writing this series of posts for any high schooler who is looking at going to university; who will almost certainly be getting a lot of unconditional encouragement to do so; and who in any case will not be in a position to properly evaluate their decision until after they're committed.

I'm not going to say university is a bad idea or that you shouldn't go. The case I'm going to make is that it's not that simple; that there are pros and cons; but that most of the advice you get will tend to overemphasize the arguments for, and discount the arguments against.

Take this series of posts as one opinion of many. Your parents etc. might disagree but if they do, they should be able to articulate why. Actually, that's the first lesson: critical thinking, and learning to distinguish between good advice and bad advice. Shit too often closely resembles shinola. Thinking is hard; start practicing. You still have a year.

To be continued.

Bibendum Lost

About five years ago, at a flea market in Paris I saw (but did not buy, stupid stupid stupid!) an old Michelin poster.

It’s from, I’m guessing, probably the late teens, and it’s an ad for some kind of rubber resistance-strap workout device. Apparently Michelin was at one time involved in the manufacture of various rubber products beyond tires.

It shows Bibendum, very jaunty and unconcerned—I think he’s even wearing a monocle—with his walking-stick hooked over his arm. And he’s simultaneously, effortlessly, punching and kicking a pair of very Gallic-looking muggers—kind of one fist going out sideways this way to hit one of them in the nose, the opposite leg striking out the other way to nail the other. Paf! Paf! A Belle Epoque Charles Atlas ad.

I have since scoured the Internet and better poster shops everywhere, looking for a copy of this. No one else is aware of its existence. I’m starting to think I imagined the whole thing.

If anyone can direct me towards a print of this poster or (failing that) proof of its existence, I will be very grateful and reassured of my own sanity.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

This Old House

I don't post a lot on this blog. If you're a fan, sorry about that. But I do write a lot of emails, carrying on a fairly interesting correspondence with various people. I suppose I could post my side of these conversations as blog posts--they might be interesting--but it kind of feels like cheating.

The other day I was talking to the Primate about House. I had indicated that I kind of like the show, although of course my ability to like or dislike it is severely limited by the fact that I don't have a TV and don't watch shows online. I've seen it a couple of times, though, and what I said I liked about it is that the main character is really smart and, despite a lot of pain and ugliness in his backstory and completely substandard social skills, remains basically on the side of the angels. Then I said

"In a world where smart people have to pretend to be pleasant, even to the point of avoiding stating unpleasant truths (even as stupid and dishonest people are freed from any obligation to be civil) seeing a fictional character who is both smart and blunt is refreshing. I wish it wasn't."

I guess this isn't really a new thought. "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity" said Yeats. Sort of the same thing.