Turn It Off

Are you feeling terrible about the state of the world? Do you become numb or depressed as shock after shock unreels before your horrified gaze, 24 hours a day, on multiple live “news” channels? Have you been feeling that way since, oh, at least December (or November, if you voted for Romney)?

It doesn’t matter what this week’s specific disaster is: you don’t need to know about it in the lurid detail that the TV news is so pantingly eager to provide.

Yes, it’s terrible, but things just as terrible happen all over the world, every day – many of them preventable or directly man-made, which (to my mind) makes them worse tragedies. But the fact that the news operations you watch can get camera crews to a particular scene, and that the suffering people at that scene look more or less like you, and speak the same language as you, makes it seem far more personal, overwhelming, and tragic. The news crews milk that for all it’s worth.

Remember that the “news” is not the product – your attention is. The aim of most TV news channels and newspapers is to hold your attention so that they can sell it to advertisers. Audience share, ratings – that’s all jargon for getting you to watch as long as they can, so that they have more advertising slots to sell.

So they pile on the drama. A real-life event becomes just one more reality show, in which your natural empathetic reaction to others’ suffering is played upon, over and over and over. That empathy, too, is served up to keep attention glued to the tube: “Tell me, ma’am, how did you feel when you saw it happening?” 

The solution is simple: turn it off. Unless you or someone you love is in the path of the hurricane or the building with the shooter, you are likely not affected. You can read the facts in a newspaper (preferably a non-hysterical one; personally, I recommend The Economist). If you want to express your empathy, do it in a useful way: donate what you can to a reputable charity that is actually doing something to help.

Then go about your day. Your feeling terrible about the state of the world is not helping the situation, and it’s certainly not helping you. But it sure keeps those advertising dollars flowing in.

Categorized as media

What I’m Reading: June 2007

^ above: The contents of my bedside table at the moment, mostly unfinished – does this indicate an inability to concentrate?

Shalimar the Clown, by Salman Rushdie – I like Rushdie, but am finding this one more wordy and obscure than I’m currently in the mood for.

A Season with Verona, by Tim Parks – This book, which I’ve actually now finished, is the second of Parks’ books I’ve read about life in Italy (the first wasItalian Neighbours). I was never interested in this book; it follows a season of the Hellas Verona football/soccer club, and I just don’t care about football outside the World Cup. But Ravil and Amanda lent it to me and recommended it, and it turns out that I loved it. Parks has managed to:

  • make me sympathize with, if not understand, the depth of fans’ feelings for their teams
  • explain some of the arcana of how the national football league and championships technically work
  • explain some of how these things really work – had I read this book earlier, last year’s corruption scandal would have come as absolutely no surprise
  • make a tense and exciting story out of the vicissitudes of a fairly ordinary small-town team – in part sheer luck: the year he chose to do this was full of cliff-hangers for this team

The Naked Truth, by Margaret Heffernan – I heard a presentation by the author over a year ago at the Professional Women’s Association of Milan. Bought the book and had it autographed, but haven’t managed to finish it yet. It seems to be about how women are still not treated equally to me in professional jobs, and therefore should help each other in the workplace.

Forbidden Cargo, by Rebecca K. Rowe – The author is a friend of friends, who gave me the book. (There’s a funny story about her getting into trouble with TSA carrying a box marked “Forbidden Cargo” through a security checkpoint.) The book itself is sci-fi and fairly interesting so far, though not as well written as I would like.

India Discovered, by John Keay – Fascinating account of how the British colonists uncovered India’s lost, ancient history (I’m sure they were joined by some Indians, but I haven’t reached that part of the story yet). Makes me want to go back and visit some sites I saw 25 years ago, and some I have yet to see at all.

Consciousness Explained, by Daniel Dennett – Interesting, but I’m finding it slower going than Breaking the Spell.

Gomorra – (in Italian) About organized crime (the Camorra) in Naples. Just barely got into it; it’s good, but bound to depress me. The author is of course under threat of death now.

Head First HTML, by Freeman & Freeman – This book is designed to be used more than read, with a pencil to write in answers on some pages, and exercises to be done on the computer. So I’m going about it all wrong, lying in bed reading it. But still managing to get something out of it. My eventual plan is to redesign my site (again) completely in CSS, but that’s probably a few years off.

Grazia – An Italian women’s magazine that I bought only because some of my blogger friends are in this issue.

New York Times Crosswords – This was my favorite relax-before-bedtime pastime, but, with middle-aged deterioration in my vision, I’m finding it increasingly hard to read the fine print. Damn!

Categorized as media

Things I’ve Found Online Worth Sharing

I am subscribed to about 125 blogs at the moment. (Must cut that down.) Many are for work: blogs about “new” television and “new” mediabroadband, Internet, Web 2.0general tech news, etc. Then there are a bunch which apply my work but I’d read anyway: on design, customer servicemarketinguser interactionusabilityhow to run a happy business. One of my favorites in this (or any) category is Creating Passionate Users. Kathy Sierra is my hero – I hope I get to meet her someday.

Some I read just for fun and for useful tips.

Some I read to learn about different cultures, such as Adventures of a Lipstick Wahhabi – written not nearly often enough by a young woman in Saudi Arabia. I don’t understand half of what she writes in Roman letters (let alone the portions in Arabic), but it’s a fascinating glimpse into a world I’d like to know more about. I found her via Hilaliya, a TCK Kuwaiti whom I discovered because he linked to my TCK pages, and through him I’ve found a community sharing their lives in the Middle East via blogs.

Then there are the blogs I read to learn how different minds see the world.

When I want to shake my head sadly over the state of the world (which is quite often, lately), I go to Richard Dawkins’ site for links to articles about the world’s excesses in the name of religion.

I’m adding more and more Italian blogs to my list. I define as “Italian” blogsby Italians in Italian or in English (some use both), and blogs by foreigners inItaly.

Then there are blogs that advise me on how to make a living from blogging.

Recently I’ve started reading some very dangerous cooking blogs.

I don’t read all of these every day (even those that publish daily or even more often). One I do read as soon it’s published is Scott Adams’ Dilbert Blog. Adams is the author of the Dilbert cartoon (beloved by geeks like me, among others), but his blog is also consistently funny and/or thought-provoking. His mind doesn’t seem to work quite like most people’s, including most of his readers.


Steve van Rooy, a Woodstock alum (class of ’68) has started his own website with fascinating tales of growing up as a missionary kid in India and at Woodstock. Well-written and highly recommended!



Galacticast – A weekly videoblog of sci-fi spoofs and more – great fun!

Sita Sings the Blues

A charmingly-animated take on the Ramayana, the classic Indian epic, from the point of view of Sita, the long-suffering heroine.

Categorized as media

Fun in a Photography Studio

Family portraits have been on my mind because, during our January visit to my dad and Ruth, I received an unusual birthday gift: a photo session at Venture “New Generation Portraits,” a UK-based franchise with a new approach to the photo studio business. Dad and Ruth had had their portraits done a year ago, and had so much fun doing it that they gifted sessions to Ruth’s sister and brother-in-law, and now to me and Ross. I had seen Dad and Ruth’s pictures, and knew that we were in for something different from the usual stiffly-posed studio portrait.

Before we left the house, Ross did an excellent makeup job on me (as well as herself). I ordinarily never wear that much makeup – wouldn’t have time or patience to put it on every morning even if I knew how – but it looked great.

We were told to choose clothing that we felt comfortable and looked good in. There’s a dressing room at the studio and you can change as many times as you want during a session, but in the end we didn’t bother: we chose one outfit each and didn’t bring any extras (to the photographer’s surprise – she said girls usually bring lots of changes).

Once in the studio, the photographer (an energetic young woman named Lucy) asked us (and Ruth) questions about ourselves, our relationship (“are you cuddly?”), and what we wanted to get out of the session. We didn’t really know, mainly just wanted to see what it was like and have fun, and let Ross see how a (different kind of) professional portrait photographer works. I looked forward to having a nice photo of myself for a change: Ross rarely photographs badly, but I am not nearly so photogenic or comfortable in front of the camera.

The business end of the studio was a big white space with studio lights. We took our shoes off, then Lucy had us get physical: sitting on the floor and pushing our backs against each other, tickling, and combat-crawling on our elbows towards the camera (Ross won that race by miles, which isn’t surprising – that’s how she always crawled as a baby):

Lucy asked if we would dance, but Ross wouldn’t dream of dancing in front of her mother and a camera, and the music wasn’t sufficiently inspiring (we could and should have brought our own).

Lucy did things with the lighting: red, purple, and blue bounced off the wall behind us. We did some individual shots. For me, she set up the lights to halo my head from the back so you could get the full effect of my hair which, when it’s behaving the way my hairdresser intended, fluffs up like a dandelion – so we did one with me “tearing” my hair, which came out very funny.

The photo session took an energetic hour, and we knew we’d gotten some good shots. We had an appointment to come back two days later to see the results – Ruth had begged them to schedule it in quickly so we’d be in time to choose our photo before we headed back to Italy on Monday. They gave us a price list to study at home, which only confirmed what Ruth had already told me: all I can afford right now is the 8×10″ that comes with the gift voucher. Prices after that start at 169 pounds for a 5×7″! And go up well into the thousands for the poster-sized and multiple jobbies encased in lucite – which is clearly where Venture make their money.

So we knew we would have to choose only one picture. (For now: they keep the photos on file for two years, during which time you can always go back and order more prints, though I winced to hear that they store them on CDs, a medium with which I have long experience and very little trust.)

The photo viewing was an emotional experience, complete with a box of tissues ready to hand. Out of about 80 photos that had been shot, we looked at 40, projected onto a wall. In the first pass we were unusually ruthless and got it down to about 20, by discarding the ones in which either looked less than perfect.

None were standard studio portraits – all had been manipulated in some way with Photoshop, for example adjusting the colors to blue- or violet-toned black & white, or bleaching out features to emphasize the eyes (Ross complained that in one shot her nose almost disappeared). They were shot and/or rotated to unusual angles, and some were designed to be printed in a widescreen format.

I liked the combat crawl shot, with me far in the background as Ross lunges towards the camera. I felt it was symbolic of my supporting role in her life: I’m there to stand behind her, whatever she wants to do. But it wasn’t so great as a portrait of us both.

There was an outstanding model shot of Ross, but then, it’s easy to get outstanding shots of Ross.

Ross liked one in which I stand skeptically looking on while she jumps in the air, kicking up her heels. Again lots of fun and very symbolic, but it would be better as part of a tableau with one or two more serious shots.

The one we ended up with is shown at the top of this article.

(The intrusion in the lower left corner is a ceramic tile from Castelli that is propping up the picture on a bookshelf til we figure out where it will live permanently.)

Categorized as media