On the shutdown: call out bullshit, then question your own.

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As you know by now the US government’s been held hostage by right-wing extremists. These people thought Romney was going to win in a landslide, so reality isn’t their forte. We should absolutely call them out on their bullshit, especially when the result of it is a government shutdown that’s going to cost the American people billions of dollars.

But while you do that, question what bullshit you might hold dear. Because there is some. All of our brains want, more than anything, to be told that we’re right. To be told that our ideas are legitimate, and that anyone who disagrees is immoral, misinformed or somehow inferior to our superior selves.

And we’ve all got personal internet bubbles set up. Facebook filters out people we don’t interact with, you only follow people you like on Twitter and even your Google searches are determined by what Google thinks you like. Our stupid brains love this, but reality becomes increasingly subjective as our filters grow to service them.

Again: only one party decided to use a basic government protocol to hold hostage a law passed years ago by a democratically elected congress and supported by a recently re-elected president. They absolutely deserve the blame here.

But the deeper problem is a cultural inability to agree on what is and isn’t true. This nonsense is only a symptom – albeit a batshit crazy one.

Who Are You? Thoughts On Identity

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Identity is a complex thing. People who know me know I’m from Canada, despite living in the USA now. People here, in Boulder, know me as the Canadian if they can’t remember my name.

When I go home, however, people call me the American. Live in any country other than your own long enough and this will happen to you – it’s basically inevitable. My identity – like yours – can’t be boiled down to a nation, a religion, a TV show or anything else.

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My Oma’s childhood home in Diever, Drenthe, The Netherlands

Last week I, and my family, visited the Netherlands. As I said: identity is complex, and that was true even before I moved to the USA. All my life my grandparents have spoken of The Netherlands as the proverbial Old Country. I grew up calling them Oma and Opa, and Dutch baked goods were always plentiful. The church we attended was full of other immigrant families much like ours, and as a kid it just all just seemed normal. At one point I actually thought all old people had a Dutch accent, because just about every old person I knew did.

I’m Canadian. I’m also, at this point, kind of American (though not if you check my passport). And while visiting The Netherlands, I also felt strangely at home.

Don’t get me wrong – there were ways in which it was foriegn. The language isn’t one I speak – beyond what three months of Rosetta Stone can do, anyway – and almost all the traffic signs I saw meant nothing to me. We didn’t know what a red X through a blue circle meant until checking Wikipedia at home (it means no stopping).

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But in other ways, however, I felt right at home. We visited my grandparent’s home town (Diever, in Drenthe) and almost all the last names we saw there were shared with people from home – an effect, I was told, of immigrants tending to cluster with people from their home towns. The baked goods, of course, were familiar – albeit much less stale than we were used to (seriously, Stroopwaffles are so much better than I thought as a kid…and I freaking loved them). And the general atmosphere was simply comfortable.

Identity is complex. I’m Canadian, I’m American, but my ancestry is entirely Dutch. I’m glad I took this trip, because now I know just a little more about what that means – and find myself wanting to know more.

Mom and Dad: thanks for flying us all out there. It was one of the best weeks Kathy and I have ever had, and I’m sure my siblings feel the same. I’ll do all I can to get more video out there in the weeks to come – I’ve got a lot of footage to sort through now.

Everyone else, I’m wondering: do you know where your family comes from? What does that mean to you? Comments, below: you know what to do.

Keep Your Stick On The Ice: 4 Hockey Idioms And What They Mean

The Hockey Game

Sports metaphors are all over the English language, especially in North America. Here in the USA, most everyone knows what means to strike out, for example, or to score a touchdown – and people use those phrases regardless of whether they actually enjoy the sport they’re from.

Being obsessed with hockey I make a mental note every time I hear an idiom from that sport. Like most sports idioms they’ve taken on a meaning of their own, often disconnected from the game that created them in the first place. With that in mind, here are those idioms in context – both in their sport and life in general.

Keep Your Stick On The Ice

Many people don’t even realize this is a hockey phrase – they know it only as Red Green’s life-affirming sign off. But anyone who’s ever played hockey has heard this a lot: it’s a favorite of coaches, dads and even teammates. Visit any rink, in any small town, and you’ll hear it multiple times: “Keep your stick on the ice!”

The idea here is simple: when playing hockey you never know when the puck might come your way, so you should be ready for it at all times. Keeping your stick on the ice means you can shoot at a moments notice, important when you’re on the receiving end of a lucky bounce or a great pass.

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Hockey’s a fast game, so it’s important to always be ready – where your stick is when the puck comes could easily be the difference between a win and a loss. So “keep your stick on the ice” is advice every young hockey player needs to hear.

But there’s a reason Green ends his show with this phrase, even though he rarely mentions hockey itself. You never know when an opportunity is going to come up, so you might as well be ready all the time just in case.

Keep Your Head Up

It’s easy – in hockey as well as life – to only focus on one thing. In hockey this means looking down at the puck while you skate, and doing has disastrous consequences.

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“Keep your head up” is another common phrase in small-town rinks, and for good reason: if you’re looking down at the puck, instead of up at the play, you’re going to get blindsided eventually. You’ll probably even get hurt. There’s a lot going on at once on the ice, so it’s important to learn to handle the puck by feel so you can use your eyes to keep track of the other players on the ice – fail to do that and you’ll end up on your ass.

Tunnel vision is dangerous in any context: if you’re only paying attention to one thing you can bet some other thing is going to eventually sneak up on you. Keep your head up.

Skate To Where The Puck Is Going To Be

This one’s just basic physics: both you and the puck are quickly moving around on the ice, so if you constantly skate toward where the puck is right now you’ll probably never be near it. Don’t skate to where the puck is: skate to where the puck is going to be.

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Of course, this isn’t unique to hockey: anyone who’s played the classic arcade game Space Invaders can understand the meaning easily. In that game the aliens move quickly, so you need to aim not at where they are but where they will be by the time your bullet gets there.

Whatever the context, this phrase is a good reminder that the world changes. If you’re always chasing, and never anticipating, you’ll find it hard to achieve much of anything.

Drop The Gloves

Everyone’s heard this one, even if they’ve never watched hockey in their life: drop the gloves. When hockey players are about to fight they first drop their gloves. It’s a declaration of intent, a signal that you want to fight.

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There’s nothing too deep here: it’s just people hitting the crap out of each other to make a point, commonly to inspire their team. Sometimes, in order to rally people, you need to do something that has absolutely nothing to do with the goal at hand. To win a moral victory. It’s silly, but it works.

What Did I Miss?

This list isn’t suppose to be complete, so let me know what other common hockey idioms are out there in the broader culture, and what they mean to you. I’m looking forward to hearing from you.

I’m So Angry At The NHL That I’ll Watch Every Freaking Game

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Hockey’s back! To most of you this sentence means nothing, but for this Canadian living in Colorado it means life is more worth living than it was two weeks ago.

I shouldn’t watch. The season was delayed – and an outdoor game between my two favorite teams cancelled – because millionaires and billionaires couldn’t decide how to properly distribute my money. The last thing I should do after such an inexcusable event is watch NHL hockey, because it tells the owners and players I’ll keep watching no matter what stupid crap they do.

But….but….

I will keep watching hockey no matter what stupid crap they do. I’m stuck in an abusive relationship, but at least I admit it. That’s something, right?

Anyway…hockey’s back! So excited. I gave the league 50 of my dollars so I can watch every game. Tip: use the XBMC Gamecenter plugin and you can bypass every blackout, and get a better interface for watching to boot. HD picture, occasional buffering, no cable required.

Anyway, I hate myself for supporting the league. And am so happy the game is back. And angry. And happy.

Whatever.

Resolutions are arbitrary. I hope they work.

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This is supposed to be my year. All of December I’ve been thinking about how I’m going to hit the ground running in 2013, how I’m going to finally accomplish all the things I want to do. I’m going to make videos regularly, actually write things for Technophilia in advance and I’m going to do more of the sorts of things I need to if I want a long-term career in journalism.

In 2013 I will finally become the person I want to be.

Bullshit. I drove home from Michigan on Saturday, slept the better part of Sunday and today, one week into my resolutions, I’m freaking out. I have a nasty cold that made it impossible to write Monday Tuesday and most of Thursday, meaning most the things I want to accomplish this week aren’t even started. I spent most of yesterday feeling just tired enough to not write, and now I’ve got a giftbasket full of deadlines that are starting to go bad.

We do this to ourselves every year: pretend that an arbitrary point in the calendar means something, that switching from one year to another is more meaningful than switching from one day to another, from one hour to another or from one second to the next. It’s not, but we’re humans and humans will assign meaning to anything.

Look at the Mayan calendar. Here we have a system for measuring time used by a civilization that disappeared long ago, and enough people interpreted the transition from one era to another as meaning the end of the world that there was panic. Actual Mayan descendants didn’t care in the slightest, because they actually understood the calendar, but that didn’t matter: all across Europe people we’re freaking out about earth ending, because humans assign enough value to time to believe that the end of a man-made calendar can influence reality itself.

The truth is that time is a construct we created to give the world meaning, to track things that otherwise just happen. Days are pretty consistent but years are so bothersome for us to measure that we’ve devised a complex system of leap days, leap years and even the occasionally leap second just to keep everything in balance. It’s a different time for me right now than it is for James, because we’ve set a number of imaginary lines that determine what time it is where. Time varies depending on space.

There are no time zones in China – it’s the same time in Beijing as it is in Tibet. The Chinese citizens I’ve talked to about this think it’s a great idea, but almost all of them lived on the east coast and probably never had to deal with getting up at 3 every morning because that’s when it’s light outside. Reality doesn’t care what time we say it is, just like reality doesn’t care what year it now is.

So when I tell myself I’m going to do something in 2013, I’m fooling myself on some level. I’m pretending that an arbitrary point in a man-made system can somehow shape my destiny, can somehow make me more likely to do the things I already know I need to do.

Will it? Probably not. But I’ve got to try something, right?

America’s other national religion

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Americans lined up outside stores last week for deals on technology ranging from tablets to TVs. Many spent all of Thanksgiving, a day intended for reflection on the many blessings we already have, camping outside Best Buy to get a good deal on a laptop.

Black Friday, that national holiday celebrating consumerism in America, is ironically placed one day after Thanksgiving. We’re thankful for the things we have, briefly, right before we run to the store in order to trample other Americans to get a deal on an iPad.

And now Black Friday is actually invading Thanksgiving: some stores opened during the day itself, meaning you could start shopping before you’ve even digested your turkey.

I know many of you who will read this aren’t American, or even Western. You’re from India, or China, or Mars. But all of you are familiar with the idea that Christmas is becoming too commercial. It’s a cliche that transcends borders, thanks in no small part to Snoopy and Charlie Brown.

The talk is that America is a Christian nation, but it’s not the complete reality. We have a second major religion, which I’ll get to later.

For now lets talk about the universe. Some night this week I want you to hold a tennis ball in front of your face and look at the night sky. That ball is blocking light, however feint, from thousands of galaxies further away than you can contemplate. All of those galaxies contain hundreds of billions of stars, many of which have planets orbiting around them.

And that’s just the one’s we’ve managed to see.

If the odds of life arising spontaneously are one in a trillion, your tennis ball covers up more than enough galaxies for it to happen multiple times.

I point this because some of us believe that a single entity created all of this, and is in control of it. That’s power beyond contemplation, and it might sound silly, but it’s what some of us in the West believe.

Some of us also believe that, two thousand years ago, this entity became human. That he was born an infant and had a relatively normal childhood in Roman-controlled Palestine.

Weird, right? But it gets even better: we believe that entity, while human, gave up the things most of us value most: wealth and power. He lived without possessions, preferring to travel light. And when people tried to make him king he turned them down.

But not only did the most powerful being in the universe scorn power and comfort for himself; he questioned the morality of having it. He said it was easier for a camel to walk through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to go to heaven, and told the rich without ambiguity to sell everything they own and give it to the poor.

We killed him, the story goes. Humanity couldn’t let someone say things like that, so we killed him.

Anyway, this is the month that entity was born in human form, some believe. And we celebrate the birthday of this man, who could have had everything but instead lived simply, by buying shit we don’t need and giving it to people who probably don’t want it.

Because like I said, there’s a second national religion in America: consumerism.

Christianity, in its early days, took over pagan festivals and turned them into Christian holidays. The winter solstice became Christmas, easter displaced a fertility festival. Consumerism is doing the same thing today and most people don’t notice.

So this year, during December, try to do something good. Help the poor. Give money to worthwhile causes. Make our planet better, because you really don’t need another tablet.

Originally part of Technophilia 46: Sexiest Man Alive 

Going green. Literally.

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I’m not a graphic designer. I can throw a bunch of stuff together and make something that looks halfway decent, but  don’t think of that as design.

I try to notice good design when I see it, though, and in this age of history it’s all over the place. Not everywhere, mind you – there will always be people with no use for designers, who think they can throw something together using Microsoft’s word art and save themselves some money. But it seems like designers have far more work now than they did 20 years ago, because aesthetics matter in this age.

Even if you’re a small business, a poorly designed sign drives away customers. Having an appealing logo matters much like having an appealing name  – both are abstract representations of an actual thing, and as such influence people’s perception of the thing itself.

Big companies realize this, and as such use their logo to change people’s perception about them. Think of BP. Here’s a company that makes billions extracting carbon from the ground to sell to consumers, who in turn burn it. If global warming is real they – and their customers, which is all of us – profit by causing the environment harm. But we’d rather not believe that.

BP realized this, so they went green. Literally. They changed their logo to a green and yellow flower. To look at that logo you’d think BP exclusively made windmills, solar panels and kittens who adorably gather static electricity.

Most of us know, on some level, that our fossil-fuel-based lifestyle is unsustainable. Even if we don’t destroy the environment – which we probably will – at some point we will run out of oil. That’s just the reality of any finite resource.

So when we see BP’s flower logo we trust it. It’s not conscious, but something about that logo makes us think BP has a plan, that they’ll eventually move on from oil so we don’t need to worry about anything.

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico did that logo some damage, but BP sticks with it. It’s on screen during commercials about their efforts to help people in the gulf, commercials that feature windmills and fishing boats and animals not drenched in oil.

It’s cheaper to buy the perception of caring than it is to actually care, but that’s not my point. My point is that design is powerful, and it is. Take it seriously, and think about it critically.

Why Louis C.K. doesn’t let fans take pictures of him.

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Are you having actual experiences? Or do you do things simply for the sake of recording and sharing them? It may seem like a silly question, but it’s worth thinking about.

This week comedian Louis C.K. did an iama (“I Am A…”), which is essentialy an intrview with the Reddit hivemind. Reddit loves Louis, so the results were wonderful, but I want to talk about one comment in particular. Louis only recently rose to national prominence, and is now regularly recognized on the streets of New York City where he lives. When a Redditor asked Louis how he feels about this, Louis explained why fans wanting pictures with him made him enjoy meeting them less, at least until he stopped doing pictures with them.

“Every person on the planet now has a camera,” said Louis, “so it sometimes happens that up to 20 people in one day or more want me to pose with them for a picture that they can put it on Facebook. That’s a lot. Also I don’t like doing it. It makes me feel weird.”

He didn’t always mind connecting with fans. In fact, he used to love it: “I remembered that when it was earlier in my career, when someone would say something like, once or twice day, I really liked it and felt genuine interest in them and gratitude”.

So Louis adapted a new policy. “I refuse to ever take a picture with anyone,” he said. “I just say no. I don’t do that. But I shake their hand and I talk to them for a bit. Because I like that. I can tell this disappoints people for a second but as we talk they feel okay about it.”

An actual conversation. An actual experience. To me, that’s better than a photo.

Not so long ago, if you wanted to take pictures, you had to conciously decide to carry a camera with you. Not anymore. Everyone carries their cell phones everywhere, and all of them have built-in cameras.

So we take pictures constantly, creating an entire genre of photos we didn’t have a word for just ten years ago: the Facebook photo. It’s a quick snap of yourself and your friends, with a touch of where you are in the background, taken primarily to document the fact that you hung out with a given friend.

These photos can be fun, but they can also take away from actually enjoying a given moment.

In 2006 I wrote about how technology was starting to intrude on real moments, in real life. Some friends and I, during a trip to the St. Louis, stumbled upon a view of the World Series from the top story of a parking garage. It was amazing, but when I turned to my friends to talk to them about it I was interupted by cell phones. Everyone was on the phone, asking if their friends and famailes were watching the game and explaining that they were watching the game from a parking garage. I couldn’t share the moment with them, because they were sharing it with someone else.

People pay more attention to their phones now than I could have imagined way back in 2006. What you pay attention to matters, however, so I”m going to ask again: are you having actual experiences? Or do you do things simply for the sake of recording and sharing them?

Think about it. Sure: you can look at photos and videos whenever you want, but actual experiences only happen once.

Let Me Pay For TV Online – An Open Letter

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Game of Thrones is quickly becoming the most pirated series of all time. I was contemplating why this might be, and ended up arranging my thoughts in the following open letter.

Hi. My name’s Justin Pot, and I’m one of those “young viewers” you talk about during your meetings. I know, I know: it’s hard to think of us as individual humans with freewill instead of as statistics that determine your corporate fate, but stick with me for a moment.

I like watching some of the shows you guys put out. Community, Parks and Rec, Mad Men and Game of Thrones are among my favorites, and all add something valuable to the Zeitgeist of popular culture and bring happiness into my life.

Here’s my point: I have never, and likely will never will, pay for a cable subscription. I might be willing to pay for a few TV channels or TV shows on an al le carte basis, but you are never going to persuade me to pay for a cable subscription that includes channels I’ll never watch. Put simply: I want to pay for the content I’ll actually watch and not subsidize crappy channels or reality shows.

I know what you’re thinking: “Well, you’d never be willing to pay for any content under any circumstance, you pirate.” To which I say: yarr. Also: you’re wrong. I donate hundreds to public radio every year, something I’m not even remotely required to do. And I’d be happy to pay for access to my favorite TV shows.

You make that hard. I can’t buy any episodes from season 2 of Game of Thrones in any form right now, and online streaming is limited to those who already pay for cable. HBO: you don’t even offer an online-only option.

So here’s the deal: offer your shows on an al le carte, subscription basis and I’ll happily pay to watch them, particularly if there are no commercials.

This is usually the point where people threaten to pirate the shows unless media companies give them the deal they’re looking for. Judging by how frequently shows like Mad Men and Game of Thrones are pirated, many people make this argument.

I don’t think I have to. The truth is, if I no longer had a way to access any of your shows, my life would go on. There is plenty of free, high-quality entertainment that is in all honesty probably better for me intellectually than your content. Public radio, high quality YouTube channels like Crash Course and Ze Frank, and Ted, just to name a few. Plus I can, you know, go outside, read a book or take part in an actual conversation.

My point is this: television used to demand most of the free time of Americans. It doesn’t any longer. Piracy isn’t the primary reason for that. Social networks, gaming and online video are all eating into the time we’d previously spend mindlessly watching your content. Last year millions decided cable was no longer worth paying for. Pulling your shows from the Internet is going to change that: it’s going to make your shows irrelevant.

Piracy is not your primary enemy: the shear amount of choice we all have is. If you’re not going to make it easy for me to access your content, I’m not going to bother. I love TV, but not enough to pay for a service I don’t need.