Wednesday, 21 April 2010

F@*& You Canadian Simulcast! I Wanna Watch Lost!!!

Last week, I read a fascinating article on Tech Crunch about how hundreds of thousands of Americans had pulled the plug on paid cable and satellite subscriptions and instead, were turning to alternative methods of viewing their favourite programs. The article reports that more than 800,000 people had opted to cease feeding the beasts of the mega cable-coms in 2009 and that number was expected to double by the end of this year. The rise of internet sites like Hulu, (not yet available north of the border) Netflix, broadcaster websites, or iTunes has shifted more individuals away from the big screen and placed them squarely in front of their computers.

Cord cutters don’t yet represent a serious threat to the $84 billion cable/satellite/telco TV access industry, which counts an estimated 101 million subscribers. But they are a leading indicator of the shift to TV viewing on the Web. The cord-cutters make up less than 3 percent of all full-episode viewing on the Web. The rest comes from people who are only beginning to watch occasionally online. An estimated 17 percent of the total weekly viewing audience watch at least one or two episodes of a full-length TV show online. Last year, that percentage was 12 percent, and next year it is forecast to grow to 21 percent.

While the trend is small and I seriously doubt if the big guys are quaking in their collective ivory towers just yet, it does show that a certain segment of the population is fed up with huge cable bills in exchange for crappy service and 500 channels that are never viewed.

While we Canadians don't have the myriad of online options available to us just yet, due to archaic content and funding models, I am certain that many of us are also looking for ways to break out of the monopolistic iron-grip of Ted's company and Ma Bell. The number of comments concerning uncaring and over-priced telecoms to forums like this one are growing exponentially each day, and complaints registered to the CRTC are usually answered with an automated form letter and promptly ignored. (I know this particular humiliation first hand!) For the last several months, we up here in the north have been caught squarely in the middle of a dirty and escalating war between big cable and local channels concerning fee for carriage. We have been bombarded with ads, jingles, and irritating rhetoric all the while knowing that whichever side prevails, it will most definitely cost us consumers more in fees. The greed of these multi-billion dollar enterprises knows no limits. But, believe it or not, the one thing that seems to irritate us the most is not skyrocketing fees or channels that carry nothing. The major complaint amongst Canadian viewers in simulcasting.

Simulcasting is an out-dated model by which the Canadian networks that purchase American programs are permitted to substitute their signal for the original, thus allowing local sponsorship of said shows. Canadian law allows for slightly more advertising per hour and, believe me they sell every permitted second. This practice usually causes strange edits and odd cuts. (like characters uttering half a thought before the commercial and the other half after!) But the absolute worst experience in simulcasting has to be when one Canadian network cuts into a station several minutes before they are supposed to and disrupts the beginnings or ends of major programs. Such was my LOST experience last evening.

Regular readers of this space know how I feel about LOST. It is without a doubt in my mind, the finest hour I have ever spent with TV. It is coming to a bittersweet end in 4 weeks, and as such every single minute of every single remaining program is absolutely sacrosanct to me. Last night, as I settled in to watch, the recap of last week's episode began on ABC. (These recaps are incredibly important for continuity.) Suddenly and without warning, CTV (our Canadian carrier of LOST) cut in for their simulcast. The problem was that American Idol (which tends to run over a few minutes every week on their feed from FOX) was still in progress. As CTV continued to show the end of Idol, we Losties were truly f@#*ed. There was no other station to turn to, and we missed the first 5 minutes of the show. I immediately received a tweet from Older Son that went straight to the heart of the matter. He spoke for many when he said "Once again I say, f@#* you Canadian simulcasting!!!!!" When CTV realized their error, they tried to fix it by cutting back to ABC, but the damage was already done. (My guess is that they were flooded by angry viewers threatening them with a one-way ticket to the island!) LOST is one of those truly unique shows that needs to be seen from beginning to end, and once again somebody got greedy at the Canadian network.

It used to be that the first and foremost complaint about simulcasting was our inability up here to view the Super Bowl commercials. The internet has certainly calmed that small irritant, but this abuse of power by the Canadian networks is holding the entire viewing country hostage. Honestly, if I wanted to watch Idol, I would. It seems to me that if they can't resolve their own programming issues (like wanting or needing to simulcast both shows back to back that don't run on traditional hourly schedules) they should allow the original feeds to remain in tact. The fee-for-carriage battle will suddenly seem like telecoms' last hurrah. Everybody will be watching on the internet.

Monday, 19 April 2010

I'm in the System

Given the myriad of travel horror stories that I have relayed over these past many years, I thought it prudent to show my pleasure when something in the travel industry actually works the way for which it was designed. After my last miserable experience attempting to navigate the layers of customs and security at Pearson International, I decided on the spot to apply for a wondrous little card that expedites travel for pre-approved individuals. As I sat seething and stewing in Terminal 1 waiting for the right to be herded, grilled, and frisked last February, I noticed that certain people were simply walking into the customs area, free from the cattle rearing tactics of Transport Canada employees. Not only that, one such employee was handing out information cards as to how we all could join the civilized in our pursuit of a somewhat less ulcer-inducing border cross. I eagerly pocketed said card with a promise to myself to check out the details when I was again free.

When The Husband joined me in the Southern Home a few weeks later, we jointly sat at our laptops and filled out the online form with the Department of Homeland Security. It sounded and felt quite ominous and frightening given the fact that certain U.S congressmen and senators have found their names on no-fly lists, and I was convinced that somewhere out there some jackass sharing my name had misbehaved in a manner unbecoming to the moniker. After an exhausting hour, during which I yelled mercilessly at The Husband for going too quickly in his form-filling and moving pages ahead of me before I was ready, we were ready to hit that all-important final SEND key and enter into the system. No longer could I claim anonymity with either government. I was being investigated. The ubiquitous background check was put into motion. I sincerely hoped that they wouldn't care about or discover that little incident of a few years back that caught me up in a web of a traffic traps, and ticketed me for driving in the carpool lane. I knew from the extensive literature doled out on both sides of the border that this was a zero-tolerance program, and any perceived infraction would find me back milling with the masses in the terminal. I hit the key, watched the forms disappear into cyberspace, and with them, a bit of my civil liberties vanished as well. I became a part of the system.

We waited with some anticipation for the confirmation that we had cleared the first hurdle. When the email arrived informing us that we had been conditionally approved and that the next step was a face-to-face at Pearson, we were actually thrilled. We were one step closer to possibly eliminating an hour or more from our trips. The Husband and I co-ordinated our schedules and had back-to-back appointments at the airport. After a thorough lecture from Transport Canada officials about the dangers of not declaring granola bars and apples, we were once again advised that this was a zero-tolerance program. (By the way-I jest about the food stuff, but these guys are deadly serious. If one travels with food and does not declare it under this program, the consequences are swift and severe. Out you go and no discussion!! I have decided that I would rather buy my gum and mints on the other side of security.) We then had our iris' scanned and our information rechecked. Another Transport Canada employee gave us a tutorial on how to use the automated machines, and checked to make certain that our iris' registered in the data base. Another short wait and we were finally ushered towards our final hurdle-a one on two with American Homeland Security. The young man was polite, but extraordinarily firm. He did all the talking and except for our occasional "deer-in the headlights" nods of understanding, we kept quiet. We were electronically fingerprinted and photographed, and finally informed that we would receive our confirmations and cards within 10 days. Utopia was ours.

I returned home to discover my confirmation email awaiting me. The Husband's was not quite so forthcoming. 10 days later, my card arrived in the mail as promised. No special delivery, no registered-just regular Canada Post, while The Husband still had not been approved. We joked that maybe they discovered that speeding ticket he failed to pay on a return trip from Indiana 30 years ago. Still, he wasn't happy at the prospect of re-starting the entire process, and I worried that we weren't going to be able to travel together. (I was not going to allow a little thing like his non-approval keep me from Nirvana! Separate flights might definitely be in our future.) Yesterday, he finally received his approval. The card will be arriving shortly.

While I am thrilled to be using this program and I will do absolutely nothing to jeopardize my membership, there is a sense that some level of innocence is gone forever. I am now identifiable. My anonymity is but a memory. Is this the price I am willing to pay for expedience? I suppose so, but there is still something slightly unnerving about the fact that I, a truly law-abiding citizen, am sitting in the same data base with those less savoury. The world is a new place and I have become part of the system.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

We Should Know Better

My peaceful Shabbat was temporarily disturbed yesterday by the proliferation of an insidious rumour that was making its way around the North Jewish ghetto. A neighbourhood storekeeper was being unfairly, unjustly and FALSELY accused of behaviour that this community found reprehensible. I was first made aware of this rumour at shul yesterday morning, (believe it or not?) and by the time I returned home, my inbox was flooded with the same crappy bullshit sent to me by many misinformed individuals.  Whatever the origins of this mendacity, be they deliberate slander or simple misunderstanding, we as a community and a society in general should know better about the devastating effects of Lashon Hara. 

The prohibition against lashon hara can be traced to Leviticus 19:16 and is literally defined as the "evil tongue" or "evil speech". Leviticus states "Do not deal basely with members of your people. Do not profit by the blood of your neighbour: I am יהוה." It is interesting that this injunction against slander is found in the section of the Torah known as the Holiness Code-a codification of morality laws on which we should pattern our lives.

The rabbis were very concerned with the effects of speech. In Sotah 42a, the Talmud states that habitual speakers of lashon hara are not tolerated in God's presence. Further, Moses' sister Miriam is stricken with disease after gossiping about her brother and is made to reside outside of the camp until she is healed. (Numbers 12:1-16) Aaron, on whom she chooses to share her canards, is also punished. The rabbis note that speech can be an extremely powerful tool, but conversely an equally powerful weapon. They make mention that the universe is created through the divine speech of יהוה. "And God said 'Let there be light--and there was light'". (Genesis 1:3) Yet, the spoken word can inflict great damage. Of the 43 sins enumerated in the Al Cheit confession recited on Yom Kippur, 11 are sins committed through speech. The Talmud tells that the tongue is an instrument so dangerous that it must be kept hidden from view, behind two protective walls (the mouth and teeth) to prevent its misuse.

There are two major Halakhic works written on the subject of lashon hara, both by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan. Chafetz Chayim (Seeker/Desirer of Life), published in 1873 was the Rav's first book and it deals with the Biblical laws of gossip and slander. In 1876, he publish Sh'mirat HaLashon (Guarding of the Tongue) a philosophical discussion on the power of speech. Rabbi Kagan intuitively understood the seriousness of the subject and the lasting, damaging effects that words can inflict and he chose to dedicate his life's work to edifying the congregation. 

Several years ago, a neighbourhood restaurant was the victim of scurrilous lies and rumours. The effects of which saw tremendous loss of business, futile attempts to clear their reputation, and ultimately a complete shutdown that resulted in a lost livelihood. You might have thought we would have learned from that lesson, but apparently we are doomed to repeat our mistakes.

We live in an age where information is easily accessible, fast moving and can have extraordinary consequences. Knowledge is power, and those with power wield tremendous weapons. It would have served us better as a community if individuals receiving this email, would have stopped to question the source and done some research before spreading the lie like a wildfire. While the retractions have been issued and the mea culpas pronounced, the damage has been done and it has been extreme. Once the evil has been spewed, it is very difficult to put the proverbial genie back in the bottle. It is my fervent hope that this episode will at least have educated people on the power of the internet, and that every source must be scrupulously researched before the invectives are launched. It is too easy to hit the "Reply All" buttons on our computers. We all must assume responsibility for the evil tongue that is forever in our midst.

It is telling that Rabbi Kagan chose the title of his definitive work from the book of Psalms 34:12-15. "Come, children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of God. Who is the man that desires life; who loves days, that he may see goodness [during them]? Guard your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit; turn from evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it." May we all recall these words the next time an unsubstantiated rumour comes across our screens. May we all remember the power of our words, and may we all attempt to live better lives through more righteous behaviour.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Leftovers From the Seders

Another year of sederim has passed over (sorry for the atrocious pun!) and we can finally put the planning, recipe sourcing, haggadot searching, and family dynamics out of our minds until next spring. I must say that I was quite pleased with how both seders functioned. We had the gansa mishpacha (and then some!) gather together on the first night-all 43 of us!! Our second night was a smaller, but no less raucous group of family and close friends. As I sit here decompressing and attempting to rid my house of the lingering egg and fish odours, I thought that I might share a few random leftovers that came out of this seasons celebrations.

  • Kosher for Passover chocolate? Really? Now what is up with that? I suppose that for those of you strict adherents to the nareshkeit that is kitniyot, there is this thing about added corn syrup, but if one looks at the ingredients of really good and well-made chocolate, it consists of nothing more than pure and natural ingredients. Do a little research people and stop buying that shit that tastes like grainy cardboard mixed with paste. Chocolate is not on the banned substances list. Let's allow this holiday the taste of decent cocoa.
  • I think that we need a moratorium on certain conversations at the seder table. Twin Son's Oldest is a very enthusiastic and excited paramedic-in-waiting, and was chomping at the bit to regale us with anecdotes about sucking chest wounds and bleeders that could not be contained. Unless a hemangioma pericytoma was one of the 10 plagues, I really don't need a working definition of it until after the food has cleared the table.
  • There is never enough red wine at our seder table, so my suggestion to those providing the nectar of the gods for the celebration is to simply refrain from purchasing the chardonnay. White wine simply does not have that pesach cache. It certainly didn't help that on the second evening, the six young people at the table downed 4 bottles of Merlot and Cabernet before we even poured for the third cup. Apparently they took that "full-cup" directive very seriously. And while I am on the subject, there is Kosher for Passover wine that doesn't taste like animal piss. South American wines from both Chile and Argentina do pass the taste test. The LCBO here in Ontario had a wonderful selection this year, so please stop telling me that all kosher wine is only for the slothing peon.
  • Vegetarian eating and pesach eating aren't mutually exclusive after all. Thank you to all who provided me with wonderful recipes that went over big at both the seders and for the aftermath. I was particularly enamoured with the carrot-cashew loaf that a friend sent, (Oh my God-it is ambrosia!!) and a roasted beet casserole that I have decided will become a seder staple if I can procure enough pairs of rubber gloves necessary to prepare the dish to avoid the blood red-stained hands. (I could have painted many of your doorposts with my fingertips!) I also learned a great deal about vegetarian cooking this season and how the addition of matzah meal makes everything take on the density of a medicine ball. I made lovely sweet and sour veggie meatballs for the first night, but the necessary addition of matzah meal instead of panko gave them the texture of Titleist number 1s. If it does that to the food, just imagine what it is doing to your digestive tract.
  • We had an interesting phenomenon occur at both of our seders this year. There were no children under B'nai Mitzvah age either evening. This strange occurrence was a first for me. It resulted in a re-thinking of some of the "kidification" of the seder and the removal of some of the more juvenile components. Dr. Seuss readings went the way of the dodo, and the plague bags and finger puppets went into storage. They were replaced with discussions of social justice, food initiatives, the injustice of scotch prohibitions, and of course, kitniyot. The Cousin/Sister has been relentless (as in-making my ears bleed!!) in her nagging about my re-involvement in a restructuring of the haggadah, and I did add and subtract a few things here and there. It resulted in a much more adult experience, but that doesn't mean it wasn't fun. I do believe (and this is strictly my opinion, so don't feel the need to re-do your own sederim if you are not so inclined) that one of the primary functions of the holiday is to challenge our children and to increase our own knowledge from year to year. It cannot remain static and based solely in tradition. It must organically evolve, as we all do annually. If your children have moved into young adulthood, the cute little gimmicks should be shelved and new ideas need to be fostered. Don't despair. The kids will return to the table one day, and so will the colouring books and frog toys.
There is probably much more to discuss, but I open it up to all of you. Please feel free to share your Passover experiences in the comment sections of this blog. Any and all are welcome. I would love to hear what others out there are experiencing and feeling.

Hope you enjoy the new look of the blog. It is still a work in progress and I hope that more changes will be coming in the next few weeks and months.

Chag Sameach to all who observe and to all who will be celebrating Easter this weekend-Happy Holidays.