Letter to the Editor in Boston Globe

Toys are used to foster affection for McDonald's

JOANNA WEISS’S discussion on Happy Meals (“Happy Meals and Old Spice guy,’’ Op-ed, July 25), advertising, and parenting has some great insights, but misses one major element. While the ads are an important factor, the problem with Happy Meals is the toy itself. That’s not just an advertisement, it provides repeated engagement with the company (or more important, the unhealthy food) for the child and the parent, too. The toy is a focal point for imaginative play, reemergence in favorite stories, and a tactile object for a developing set of hands — all of which is branded with the McDonald’s logo in the child’s mind and thus creates a strong positive relationship between the child and the product (the unhealthy food, not the actual toy).

This seduction through association focused on children has been increasingly problematic, which is why other countries regulate advertisements directed toward children. Sure we can argue about parenting, educating the youth, etc., but these messages are mere drops in the bucket compared with all the other messages children get from such companies; hence why infants and toddlers can identify company logos before they can read.

Lance Eaton
Peabody 



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Moral Quandaries...from Outer Space


Poster for film, District 9 by Neill Blomkamp

This post from the NY Times posits some interesting (albeit not entirely new) ideas on the concept of human and potential-alien encounters.  The author, Robert Wright is drawing upon a quote of Stephen Hawking, the work of Peter Singer, and his own (which he promotes just below "too much" but it did evoke a scene from "The Critic" for me).  The discussion also seems to come in a year following two rather influential and powerful films impressed audiences throughout the world.  The first is District 9, directed by Neil Blomkamp.  Though the film was not as widespread, it was certainly well-received (made over $100 million) and had a compelling and intriguing premise about the types of aliens we might expect to encounter when they come here.  By contrast, there was Avatar, which of course, became the highest grossing film ever (until another film beats it…probably by James Cameron…probably in about 10 years).  Again, here we see an interaction between human and sentient alien life and the troubles of humans to be something other than what they’ve tended to be (though the disregard of non-sentient life in this film is also telling).

One element of the discussion is the debate about history:  Have we actually learned from it?  What are we to expect in the future when we encounter alien life or alien life encounters us?

What constitutes alien life?

If we encounter alien life, the first question that will challenge many of us is "what constitutes alien life?"  We may say that it seems obvious but for many, "alien life" will not mean much if it's single-celled organisms.  Many would not blink in acknowledging or bothering with deeper ponderings about these life-forms.  After all, the majority of us don't recognize them here, unless they're in our way.  The underlying assumption about "alien life" is that it's sentient.  Although even then, we would do well to consider in some ways the Prime Directive from Star Trek.  Although in this case, I don't mean it in regards to prevent sharing of technology but rather, to prevent interfering with their natural evolutionary growth.

Image from film, AvatarActually, I take that back.  That's a question that I don't even know how to come at it.  Do we interfere with any life that we can't actually communicate?  What gives us the right?  What's our larger goal in this?

Like Wright, this may sound like one big mind game, but it may someday have sincere consequences and speak to the kind of "Earthling" we will potentially be as we explore the universe.

This question of what will life look like comes to me from two different angles.  The first is insightful and challenging documentary, Earthlings where its opening sequence explains, that though humans assume (and so much of science fiction proves me right here) that "Earthlings" refers to humans; it actually refers to all life forms from Earth; and that's a lot of life forms.  Who will the aliens choose to engage with, should they come here first?  That also reminds me of the moment in Ishmael by Daniel Quinn when Ishmael points out that the first primordial creature to crawl out of the water, probably thought of himself as the big-cheese (or big fish?) because he was at the height of the evolutionary chain and in hindsight; he's not.  That is, as the current self-proclaimed head of the herd, we too think certain things are self-evident--like humans will be the species aliens choose to contact.  We base that on "civilization"; our ability to alter the physical earth to suit our needs.




But what if the aliens have other criteria?  What if they are looking for the most populous?  Then they might consider ants, plankton or beetles.  As JBS Haldane once quipped, “The Creator would appear as endowed with a passion for stars, on the one hand, and for beetles on the other…”  Or maybe, the aliens will look to plankton.  These are all what we consider lower-intelligent creatures but we presume that
1.  Aliens are looking for intelligence.
2.  That humans are intelligent in the ways that are important to aliens.
3. That the interaction/contact is how we perceive interactions on a human level; they might different significantly).

There’s lot of concern around how humans will act; regardless of the alien life we encounter.  On an individual level, we look at one another and hold one’s history as a means of understanding their present and future.  We are obsessed with each other’s history.  Whether it’s a job history when applying for a new job, your relationship history explained to a new partner, or a criminal history when it comes time to sentencing, we look at a person’s past as a barometer for future interactions.   So when it comes time to weigh in on the chances of positive human encounters with other life, we have to consider how the dominant human cultures have encountered other human cultures and even nonhuman cultures.  After all, if the alien species doesn’t have a recognizable face (meaning something we can register and process as a face), we’re apt to have trouble with accepting it on some level since our facial-recognition mechanisms are part of what allows for empathy.

Why do I say “dominant human cultures” instead of just human cultures?  It tends to reason that the dominant human cultures at a given time may also be the more likely to be sending forth people to other parts of the universe (although even then “dominant” might need some tweaking since it implies an all-arena dominance whereas we’re recognizing some countries/cultures dominate in certain ways: militarily, religiously/spiritually, scientifically, financially, etc.  There’s often overlap, but it doesn’t always mean one has dominance in all ways.

It’s a curious idea for sure; not expecting to have answers, just more questions.

QUESTIONS

For history students; what are some examples of more positive first encounters between different human cultures?  What about positive encounters between human/nonhuman species?

In what concrete ways have we learned from the past that might help us in positive future relationships with alien species (sentient or not)?

For my popular culture and monster students, what sense do you make out of all the alien-human movies, comics, books that have come forth in the last century?  How do you think they engage/help us with dealing with the potential encountering of alien life?  Do they help and in what possible ways? 



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YouTube Killed The Television Gods

2010 marks a major shift in viewing trends among Americans that will most likely grow worldwide by the end of the 2010s to be a more dominant market share of leisure time.  Apparently, 2010 marked the first year that more people prized their Internet over their television.  Beyond a doubt, I'm in this camp.  My television hasn't been hooked up to cable in over a year and I don't miss it a bit.  I watch movies from Netflix and the library on the television; or now that Netflix has expanded its services; I can watch their "Watch Instantly" selection on my television through the use of my Wii.

So why the shift?  Convenience is an obvious answer.  Why situate my life around the TV to catch the programs I want; when I can call them up at will online.  Sure, there are devices (VCRs in the old days; Tivo nowadays) that can do this, but in both cases they require additional contraptions, costs, and programming.

But another answer that speaks volumes about what's going on, comes from Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus.  The 3 Stooges video below taken from YouTube (side note:  my favorite 3 Stooges skit of all time; I remember almost crying in hysterical laughter the first time I saw it),  is not the same 3 Stooges video that I've seen at least 3-4 times on the 3 Stooges Marathon held annually on New Year’s Eve (and no--there's no commenting on that facet of my life).








Ok, let's take the obvious difference; the quality in this instance is by far less than what you would see on television.  Ok.  TV: 1.  Internet: 0.  Yet, the quality has the potential to improve or on other sites be better than somebody's home recording; so not all is lost.  The other difference is convenience.  Inevitably, people reading this watched (if they watched it) the clip at very different times with variations of hours, days, months, possibly years.  That's definitely a point for Internet.  To add to that, if you watch it to the end or are watching it on the YouTube site; when you get to the end, you get like-minded and relevant recommendations; something that rarely occurs on TV.  I get to the end of a show, and besides an onslaught of commercials, I'm hit with a show or range of shows that have no consequential relation to what I just saw.

But one of the cooler things to come out of video sites is the level of interactivity.  I can share them directly and indirectly.  I can email the link to a friend; whereas I would have to call a friend to tell them to turn on the TV "right now."  OR I can post them to various social networking sites as part of my social history for current and future connections to enjoy and appreciate (or groan as the case may be).  I can (as I did here) embed them into my blog and other areas and in doing so, have some control over the size, border, and other material.  I can bookmark it for continued enjoyment.  But the most interesting is that I can comment on it.  I can have a dialogue with others who have viewed this.  This makes viewing much less a singular event and more of a social event or also an engaging event.  Just like when friends sit around to watch a movie (maybe a la MST3K style), the comments section of these videos allow for a asynchronous discussion that is sometimes irrelevant but can also impart answers and information people are wondering about with regards to the video.

To come back to my name-dropping of Clay Shirky, whom I've used in other posts, I think this is why the Internet is gaining ground; convenience + meaning making/engagement.  TV for many has been a one-way relationship that though enjoyable still limiting and unfulfilling in many regards.  After all, many of us sit down to watch TV to "tune out" of the world.  To put our minds on hold which just doesn't sound like actual contentedness, but distraction.  This offers the option of engagement which for some can mean substantially more.

So what does this mean for culture at large?  The fact that it's risen so fast also speaks to an improvement of access for many people which can be attributed to the cheapening of electronics from cellphones to laptops.  The convenience, engagement, and yes, the cost factor, all play an important role in influencing such trends.  There’s also the interesting dynamic that so many people are becoming more engaged with their entertainment and one wonders what media engagement/entertainment will look like in the future.

QUESTIONS

In what ways have your entertainment consumption changed over the last 10 years?  Do you find yourself participating in blogs, chats, comment features, Facebook debates with relation to your entertainment?  What does this do for meaning-making and significance of the entertainment being discussed?

What are other levels of engagement and meaning-making that are found throughout the Internet with regards to our entertainment?  How do we bridge gaps between ourselves, that which we enjoy, and other people?



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Do Not Click Go

Laura Miller over at Salon.com has highlighted an interesting debate within the online writing community and that is where to put your links; within the text or at the end.  It’s an interesting debate with some discussion about the benefits and drawbacks for both the reader and the writer.  Without a doubt to a student, this may seem like one of those obtuse discussions that intellectuals get immersed in that seem to matter little.  And I suppose there’s some truth to that.   But given that we look to the Internet more and more for our news, information, research, etc, it’s a needed discussion.  It’s also a discussion that has had infinite traction within that old dinosaur medium:  print.

In composition courses and hopefully elsewhere, students are told about the importance of citing, the reasons for citing, and the ways to cite.  I certainly emphasize its importance in my courses.  For some, it’s important that you cite in a specific format:  APA, MLA, Chicago Style etc.  Some fields require a specific formatting style and others are more flexible.  Often, I’m more concerned with making sure you make clear indication of a source, and less concerned with the particular format (though some would have trouble with this stance too).

But with this discussion of intext or end-text citations is pretty familiar to myself and others who have found themselves knee deep in research.  The article is comparatively arguing the old debate of footnotes vs. endnotes.  Some citation formats dictate the use of one or the other.  I can even remember one of my mentors in grad school having this discussion and favoring footnotes because there was a sense of instant gratification and less interruption than flipping to the back the chapter or book.  I fall into the same camp in this regard.  The other important insight that she bestowed upon the class was to emphasize that such things as footnotes and endnotes are a place for sources to be listed, but also a way of extending the dialogue.  They can act as a dialogic commentary of additional information between writer and reader.   Again, I can hear the students groaning in response to this, but think of it akin to the director’s commentary on the DVD or even those deleted scenes—that’s what we’re talking about when it comes to footnotes and citations.  It’s say, “But wait!  There’s more!”

So while I’m sure different sites and writers will make a stance about one or the other, the more interesting element is that this is in part an extension of issues that already challenge print media.



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A Scanlating Darkly

Much like other industries, the comics world has been trying to crackdown on illegal digital copies of its work; with varying success.  More recently, Japanese and American publishers of manga have joined forces to create a coalition against some of the major agregators of what are commonly referred to "scanlations."     Unlike American comics, "scanlations" are scanned comics with added translations (often added by the person who is scanning or a community of manga readers/translators).  These have become popular enough (or the fear is that they will be) that the publishers are trying to crackdown on published and copyrighted works; particularly those that are in the process of being translated (or have been) and published in the US.

The discussion here isn't going to focus on the rights and wrongs of acquiring/offering digital content or profiting off things that aren't technically yours to begin with.  Rather, I think this situation is an interesting example of users laying claim to their cultural product and making it meet their own needs.  Similar to viewers writing into a TV show or even, people taking up fan-fiction; this seems to be a fan-based initiative that while is dubious because of the questions around digital content still exhibits a fan culture striving to provide more cultural capital for its participants.

The Economic Forces Behind Scanlating

The more interesting element--at least for this examination--is a subculture that is trying to meet a demand that the markets are not meeting.  That is the scanlators themselves have come into existence because the market itself was lacking. For a long time, translating was a tedious and cumbersome process that took time, money, and education.  And due to the temporal issues of the publishing industry, companies in the US, were slow to release material in relation to the demand.  Besides the issue of translating, there’s formatting (early manga in the US and even some current manga is publish in standard Western format which requires performing a new lay-out), marketing, and the mere fact that most publishers are limited to release a certain amount of books each month (that is, due to staffing, resources, avenues of release, and financial abilities of the readership, a company is restricted to somewhere between 6 to 20 or so books a month).  Compared to how much manga has been published and continues to be published monthly in Japan, publishers have only released a mere fraction of it and most of it, only what is perceived as commercially viable.

But the scanlators provided a much desirous opportunity for manga readers whom in my observations, tend to be voracious readers.  In fact, I see the trading and high consumption often associated with American comics in the 1930s-1950s, manifest in manga readers today.  It makes sense too since like those comics of yesteryear were not seen as “commodities” as they are perceived by many today, but rather, desired to be read.  Additionally, given that they are bound, there are more resilient and lend themselves to be, um, well, lent.

The scanlators in some ways remind me of the idea of around cognitive surplus that in years past might have been under-utilized before the Internet age or generated into other creative endeavors like fanzines.  They are using a variety of skills and resources afforded to them and building an international community focusing on their particular hobby; and though the legal issues and concerns and issues around that are still being sorted out, the means of active engagement seems rather impressive.  It shows that these people have not only an active role in their interest, but in proliferating that interest and helping others learn about it.  


QUESTIONS

Where else do we seen groups like the scanlators bridging the gap between production and consumption of a particular interest/hobby/activity/etc?

Besides financial, what other concerns might people have about individuals (read: nonprofessionals) performing this kind of work?  Is there something about it (or the arguments against doing it) that suggest other perceive threats by groups like the scanlators?

When we look at a finished “product” such as a scanlated manga series; whose is it?  The original artist/author?  The scanlator?  The reader?



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