Saturday, October 31, 2015

On crayons - and what they teach us

‎"We could learn a lot from crayons: Some are sharp, some are pretty, some are dull, while others are bright, some have weird names, but they have all learned to live together in the same box."
Robert Fulghum

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Holding on for dear life

The scene: The parking lot behind the office. It's been raining apocalyptically for‎ the better part of the past 24 hours, and now the winds are beginning to pick up, too. The sky is a menacing shade of dark, steel-grey, and the ground is slick with puddles and widely scattered leaves.

As I step over to the driver's side door of my car, this single red leaf on the window catches my eye. I'm pretty sure the world has more than enough pictures of single red leaves, but I decide this moment needs to be remembered. Perhaps it's because a quick pause in the middle of an otherwise chaotic week is good for the soul. Or maybe I need a reminder of how lucky I am that I can still walk, drive, shoot, live, or otherwise do whatever I need to do.‎ Because so many others can't.

As I take the shot and tuck the phone back in my pocket, I realize I can't fully explain why I stopped in the first place. But not everything needs to be explained. 

Monday, October 26, 2015

Thematic Photographic 353 - Size Small

Say hello to my little friend
London, ON
August 2015
In retrospect, this probably wasn't the smartest thing I've ever done. (Bee? Sting much?) But it wasn't the first time I had thrown caution at least partially to the wind in pursuit of a shot, and I'm pretty sure I'll be at it again before long, too.

For the record, no one - human or bee - was harmed in the taking of this picture. I was challenged by the relatively low light, gusty winds that kept shifting things around, and the decidedly chaotic flying of the little guy you see here. It's a wonder I got anything at all, and I'm already looking forward to next spring to try again.

Your turn: This week's Thematic theme is size small. If you know how Thematic works, I'll say no more and let you get to work. If you're new to the Thematic thing, take a peek here to learn how it works. And if you want to reach out and give the little bee a (virtual) pat or two, I'm good with that, as well. Happy shooting!

Clickbait: Just say no to Justin Bieber

I had a fun interview this morning (video here) with Beverly Thomson on CTV's Canada AM about something we all run into in our online lives, even if we're not aware of it. It's called clickbait, and here's a rundown of everything you need to know about it.

What's clickbait? It's loosely defined as Web-based content that is designed to attract your attention through a catchy, provocative, shocking headline, and get you to click on it. Things like quality, accuracy or even truth aren’t normally part of the equation. The headlines give you just enough information to pique your curiosity, but not enough to finish the story, and they all seem to follow a particular structure:
  • You won't BELIEVE what Justin Bieber wore last night!!!
  • This kid went went to hug a giraffe. What happens next will blow your mind!!!
  • These 4 facts about eye gunk will change the way you look at life FOREVER!!!
  • Everyone laughed when she first walked on stage. But then she opened her mouth!!!
  • What this rescued beagle can do with a xylophone will make you cry!!!
So, of course, you’ve GOT to click through, otherwise you’ll NEVER KNOW how it ends! You simply CAN’T go on with your life without taking the bait, because human nature dictates we don’t want to feel deprived - especially when the solution, a click, is so simple.

What happens once you click on it? Rarely do you ever get what you hoped for. Most of the time, you click through, only to be greeted by a ton of popup ads and other annoying, sometimes nasty stuff. The pages are often designed as slide shows instead of all-in-one pages, which forces us to click through multiple pages. This drives page views up, and creates even more ways to serve up - and charge for - ads.

Clickbait is frequently inserted into social media streams, often worded and structured to look like legitimate news or entertainment content.

Since content quality has nothing to do with it, you often get dumped onto a popup-laden page, only to realize you’ve been “had”. Many clickbait victims thus spend very little time on the site - which is becoming an important metric in the legitimate web industry’s efforts to clean it up.

Why it exists: Clickbait is designed to serve up ads. It can even install adware on your computer or device, which then serves up MORE ads long after you’ve visited the site. It's all about revenue generation, not about quality content or building lasting advertiser/customer relationships.

And it gets worse: Some clickbait also serves up spyware and malware. Hackers use the popularity of clickbait - and our willingness to follow up on anything that includes Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, Donald Trump or any of the Kardashians - to target potential victims by redirecting them to rogue websites that secretly install malevolent software in what’s often called a “drive-by” attack.

Who’s doing it? Some of the most popular websites today - including Buzzfeed, Upworthy and Diply - use clickbait tactics to drive traffic. These are the legit players. Plenty of other sketchy sites are doing the same thing, fighting for your attention and not always playing by the rules. Legit or not, advertisers follow traffic. And many of them don't much care how that traffic is generated.

What’s being done to rein it in? Facebook announced last year it’s taking steps to reduce the impact of clickbait. For starters, it’s tracking how long you spend on a site after you’ve clicked it from Facebook. Short visits are a clear sign of clickbait. Google also regularly updates its algorithms to prioritize legitimate content and reduce the possibility of being “fooled” by clickbait.

Is that enough? No. We shouldn't rely on the web giants to save us from ourselves. Ultimately, we're responsible for ourselves, and it’s up to us to recognize the signs and patterns of clickbait and break ourselves of the habit. The payoff is never what the headlines promise, and clicking on them can often expose us to unnecessary risk - like hacking and identity theft. It's time for all of us to smarten up.

Want to learn more? Here's the video of that Canada AM interview:

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Lessons from the other end of the leash

Hanging off the edge
London, ON
September 2015
It was well after midnight last night when I managed to rustle Frasier the Wonder Schnauzer out of his big comfy dog bed and out of the house for his nightly walk. The streets were quiet, and I could feel the wind blowing through the increasingly bare trees as he bolted out the door and bounced himself across the lawn. Even at the ripe old age of 9, he goes from snoring to puppy-like in no time at all: Another reason to love him.

I pulled the zipper of my jacket tight and silently thanked whoever invented the standup collar that acts like a neck warmer. Whether it's fashionable or not is irrelevant to me, especially at oh-dark-twenty. As much as I appreciate the in-between seasons where we're neither sweating ourselves into a puddle or shovelling the ourselves out of a deep snow drift, I simply hate that drafty feeling when you first step into the snap of a Canadian autumn night. So anything that keeps the miserable chill at bay is, by definition, a good thing.

We walked across the fallen, mashed-up and rather stinky crabapples, the crunchy leaves, the unmowed grass still slick from the day's rains. The sky overhead was painted with low-flying, uniformly grey clouds, and a smudge of the moon made itself known just beyond the tall trees across the street. Somewhere in the distance, a freight train blew its whistle, the sound carried all this way by the unusually strong winds. I love when that happens.

I followed the little guy as he followed his nose, relentlessly sniffing at whatever it is that dogs like to sniff before I finally pulled him away. Wash, rinse, repeat, as thousands of years of canine genetic massaging weren't about to be undone by my furtive yanks on his leash.

Without the interruptions of ringing phones or email or instant messaging, it was just me, him and a whole lot of nothing, and I'll admit it was a pretty comfortable place to be. I watched him stagger from one side of the sidewalk to the other as he discovered new things to sniff and explore.

I wondered if he was thinking about anything more involved than that next fire hydrant, tree or patch of grass. I mused about what goes through his mind on walks like these, and thanked the universe that he didn't have to worry about some of the nastier things that humans have to deal with, like drunk drivers plowing into pedestrians or racists who attack others simply because of their religion. I smiled to myself that, no, he had no clue, another blessing of being a dog.

Eventually, we made our way around the block and I found myself fiddling with the key as he stood patiently on the front step, staring intently at the door knob as he always does. I leaned down and gave him an extra rub behind the ears before opening the door and following his wiggling form inside. And as he disappeared around the corner and headed for his traditional post-walk visit to his water bowl, I wondered if he knew just how much I've come to enjoy these seemingly trivial nightly walks, and how I was already counting the hours until our next tour of the neighbourhood.

Your turn: Rituals that you've come to rely on. Please discuss.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Late night in the parking lot

Where news is made
London, ON
October 2015
If you're lucky enough to live in a nation where democracy is both valued and respected, every once in a while you're going to vote. Well, at least you SHOULD be voting.

And if you're a journalist, you may be lucky enough to witness the process from a front-row seat. Or even better, to actually BE a part of the process, by working in the field or in a newsroom, to tell the story as the ballots begin to be counted and fates begin to be determined.

I got lucky this past Monday, as I was part of the CTV London team that told the story of this extraordinary day. I actually started my day in this place before dawn, with a remote interview with Canada AM on what you could and could not do with a smartphone in a polling station (story/video here). After some meetings through the morning at the radio station, I came back to the TV studio after lunch to get ready for the evening's coverage.

Newsrooms are always special places to be, and that's especially true during a major news event like an election. Already-sharp professionals somehow find another gear and raise their game. Normal levels of deadline-driven tension are ratcheted even more tightly as everyone somehow juggles even more disparate elements than they typically do. To the uninitiated it may look chaotic. To the rest of us, it's an oddly compelling form of communications-tinged ballet. And it's so freaking cool to be right in the middle of it.

‎My role was to add some digital perspective to the evening's coverage. The mechanics were simple: track all social media activity in the region, pull out some resonant nuggets that reflected the prevailing themes of the night's events, and walk viewers through them. Simple in theory, harder in practice, and hellishly fun once things really started to roll.

I worked closely with the digital/editorial specialists, feeding baseline data from the ridings we were covering and preparing for the moment when the polls would close and the data barrage would begin. It wasn't just ridiculously fun. It felt incredibly good to be dialed so tightly into the team.

By the end of the evening, Canada had elected a new Liberal government led by Justin Trudeau, Stephen Harper and the Conservatives were relegated to a shadowy corner of the House of Commons, and our own region welcomed a mostly new crew of Members of Parliament. Closer to home, the CTV team had pulled off a tremendously complex series of newscasts and updates, built from lots of fast-moving parts spread across the region. And the folks around me made it look easy.

Needless to say, I was feeling pretty good about life as I said goodnight to this phenomenal group of people and headed into the clear, cool night. ‎Taking one simple picture of the brilliantly lit building seemed like an appropriate thing to do at that moment. Because it isn't so much about the picture as how I felt at that point in time.

Makes me wish we could have elections a little more often.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Dead leaves on the ground

Almost finished
London, ON
October 2015
Photos by Dahlia Levy. Click to enlarge.
As part of our most recent Thematic Photographic theme, we've been celebrating autumn's goodness all week long - head here if you've got your own autumn-themed pics to share. And after last week's walkabout with our daughter, I've had lots of goodness to stare at thanks to her very thoughtful approach to photography.

I've been reviewing her work and I keep coming back to the way she shoots the leaves that wouldn't normally qualify as perfect, or otherwise representative of the season's brilliant-color mantra.

Anyone who knows her already knows she has a very unique way of looking at the world. And as we headed out on this brilliantly sunny day, she didn't necessarily set out to capture the violent reds, blazing oranges and retina-searing yellows that screamed out from the trees above.

Rather, based on the pixels she brought back, she cast a far broader eye and, in the process, managed to tell an even more memorable story than one of simple colors. As we walked deeper into the hushed shadows of the valley, she looked for the leftovers, the stuff that got left behind, the things most of us wouldn't take the time to see. And she saw something - texture, tone, I don't even have words to describe it - that I can't even imagine capturing now, let alone when I was 18 and just figuring out my own way around a camera. Every time I look at her photos (the complete set is here) I feel the need to reach through the screen and touch the leaves.

She's got an eye, this kid, and I can't wait to see where else she chooses to take it.

Quick note: Due to the Canadian election (more here), I'll post the next Thematic theme on Tuesday evening, at 7 o'clock Eastern.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Getting ready for Election Day in Canada

Tomorrow's shaping up to be a big day here in the Great White North - whether you're a Blue Jays fan or not - as eligible voters head to the polls to cap off one of the most contentious federal election campaigns in Canadian history.

I already voted at an advance poll last week because, in addition to wanting to beat the rush, I wanted to clear my schedule. I've got a lot on the go tomorrow, and I'm pleased as punch to share what's in store.

First, I'll be up bright and early Monday to lead off Canada AM's coverage of the big day. I'll be speaking live on-air at 6 a.m. 7:30 a.m. Eastern to help explain what we can and can't do with smartphones while we're in the polling station, and why election-day rules are having difficulty keeping pace with mobile technology. Social media is rewriting how campaigns play out, and we'll take a closer look at how we need to govern ourselves when we cast a ballot.

Later on, I'll be heading over to the CTV London newsroom where I'll be joining anchor Tara Overholt and the news team in our evening coverage. I'll have segments during the 6pm and 11pm newscasts, and we'll be cutting in throughout the evening to see what's going on in London-and-region ridings as polls approach closing and the votes are counted. I'll be tracking the social media activity from all of our target ridings, and will be pulling notable postings from the stream and walking viewers through them.

Tuesday morning, I'll be live on-air with Mike Stubbs on NewsTalk 1290 CJBK here in London to review the evening's festivities and examine the role that tech played.

It promises to be an eventful day for everyone, and I feel privileged to have a front-row seat to what promises to be an historic day for our country. Once you've cast your ballot - if you're Canadian, you are going to vote, right? - I hope you'll have a chance to tune in or connect online. Should be fun!

Your turn: If you're in the region, what online election resources - URLs, hashtags, accounts, etc. - are you keeping an eye on?

More online resources:

Saturday, October 17, 2015

On da Vinci's philosophy of life

"Life is pretty simple: You do some stuff. Most fails. Some works. You do more of what works. If it works big, others quickly copy it. Then you do something else. The trick is the doing something else."

Leonardo da Vinci

Where the color is always temporary

‎I took this picture just about a week ago as a test shot during my autumn walkabout with my daughter, and already the scene no longer exists as it did in this shot. These trees stand guard over the entrance to the valley, just beside a major arterial road not far from our house. Every year they turn spectacular shades of color, and every year we make the trek here to capture them in the moment.

Since my daughter and I were here a mere seven days ago, most of these leaves have fallen to the ground. Some still cling defiantly to the branches as the first snow of the season falls from the steel-grey sky, leaving little more than forlorn bare branches to sway in the damp breeze.

It is its own beauty, more muted than the pixels you see here, and it serves as a stark reminder to grab the chance while we still can. Because things change quickly in once-verdant valleys and everywhere else, and do-overs never seem to be part of the equation. Looks like a return trip to capture whatever it looks like now is in order.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

On the real value of time

‎"The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it."
Henry David Thoreau

Monday, October 12, 2015

Thematic Photographic 352 - Autumn

A rest among the leaves
London, ON
October 2015
Photo by Dahlia Levy
As the Northern Hemisphere of our giant ball of rock celebrates autumn, trees further away from the equator are turning all sorts of colors and dropping their leaves like mad in preparation for the winter to come.

It's an annual dance, but one that still manages to find unique steps, tunes and nuances along the way. So when our daughter and I headed into the woods for a closer look - see here for more - it was a given that we'd return with a story that read a little differently than it had in past years. This shoe-selfie (is there even such a thing) is just one snippet from our adventure.

Now I want to see what you can come up with, as well.

Your turn:  I'm pretty sure you already know how this works. But just in case you don't, here's the short version: post a pic that supports this week's theme - autumn - to your blog or website. Leave a comment here letting everyone know where to find it. Visit other participants, then repeat through the week. More details available here. Thematic  is a non-competitive activity that lets us stretch our photographic boundaries a bit. I can't wait to see what seasonal goodness gets shared along the way!

On freedom, popularity, and #elxn42

"My definition of a free society is a society where it is safe to be unpopular."
Adlai E. Stevenson Jr.
I find this quote rather timely given the fact that we're a week away from one of the most contentious federal elections in Canadian history. Although we're known as a rather peaceful, morally stable, always polite nation, the longer-than-normal 11-week campaign has exposed cracks in the Canuck facade that reveal a less-than-pretty cauldron of dissent under the normally placid surface.

At least that's what the European op-eds suggest. Whatever.

We voted in the advance polls today. I'm working in the newsroom next Monday - more on that in an upcoming entry - so it made sense to take care of the voting stuff early. Our daughter came along, as one month to the day after turning 18 she was able to cast her first-ever ballot. Proud moment? You betcha.

Lots of folks won't be popular after the final ballot is counted seven days from now. Lots of nastiness will continue to circulate in Canadian political circles, and the impact of this political process will doubtless imprint itself well into the future.

Which is why this matters as much as it does. And why, despite the exposure of our un-Canadian warts to a global audience, I'd rather be here than anywhere else. Popularity is overrated, anyway.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Taking pictures with our daughter

Light among the shadows
London, ON
October 2015
Photo by Dahlia Levy
I took a walk with our daughter yesterday. The two of us have evolved something of a tradition, where every autumn we grab our cameras and take a walk on the path network near our house. She takes my DSLR, while I scaff my wife's camera for the umpteenth time.

All week long, we were watching the trees in the neighborhood slowly start to turn various shades of yellow, orange, red and everything in between, and by yesterday morning it was pretty clear it was shaping up to be the perfect day for a walkabout.

As we've done in past years, I hung back and watched our no-longer-little lady work. Like her mom, she sees the world through an artist's lens, painstakingly thinking about a scene before deciding how she wishes to tell its story. The deeper into the forested shadows we walked, the happier she got at the things we were seeing.

Dahlia didn't need to ask me how to shoot in this rather challenging environment of burned-out sun, deep shadows, backlit vistas and reflective water - she's well beyond her years when it comes to flipping the camera to manual and bending it, and light, to her will. Instead, the conversation flowed easily between the technical gotchas of dynamic range and the difficulties in picking from a seemingly limitless number of composition possibilities.

As you can imagine, spending a good chunk of a sunny Saturday afternoon with her wandering the color-flecked woods in search of optical goodness was, in a word, wonderful. I could have easily hung out with her until the sun went below the horizon, but as it was dinner beckoned. So we tossed the cameras back on our shoulders and headed for home.

The pic up there is one of my faves of hers because it was one of the unexpected ones. It wasn't about brilliant colors or dramatic vistas. Instead, it was a simple, almost touchable view of fallen leaves lit by a single shaft of sunlight, seemingly impossible to expose properly, yet she made it look easy. It frightens me, in a good way, how she turns thought into visual reality. Again, just like her mom.

The full set is stored here on Flickr. I think there's at least one more shoot in us - perhaps a post-color one - before the snow begins to fall. I'm already counting the days.

Your turn: What are you thankful for? Why?

Friday, October 09, 2015

Time to color outside the lines

Today isn't just a Friday. It's a Friday before a long weekend. Which makes it a little more special than usual. Every day is special, of course. We're here, which by definition makes the day worthy of being cherished. But being at the threshold of a little extended quiet and togetherness time raises things to a somewhat higher level.

Which brings us to this can filled with less-than-perfect crayons. They remind us to take the time to scribble on the paper tablecloth. To take the time to doodle. To take the time to wonder about stuff. To take the time, period.

I haven't been doing enough of that lately‎. Life has been delightfully busy, packed with crazy new adventures and challenges. But I haven't been picking up the crayons. Or the pen. Or the camera. I haven't been connecting with my inner muse, the storytelling gene that lets me take a timeout from life so that I can simply reflect on it.

In short, I've lost track of my little can of jumbled, imperfect, beloved crayons.

Time to get back to base principles.

More to come...

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

On enthusiasm and greatness

‎"Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm."
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Or passion. Or drive. Or...?