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There’s an ongoing debate being broadcast and put in print across the entire country.  Two different teams presenting two different vantage points, pushing for (almost) the same thing.  Months ago, CTV launched http://www.savelocal.CTV.ca – a website designed to inform broadcast television consumers about the new “tv tax” that’s been put on the table as a means to help protect local stations from going belly up. It’s made strides with its point of view, stating that when the tax is imposed, cable and satellite service providers will just let it roll downhill onto the consumer’s doorstep – not an entirely unrealistic theory.  In fact, service providers have already voluntarily admitted the intent, being warm and up-front honest letting the good customer know the increase might equate to $5 – $10 on monthly bills.

Local-TV-MattersA sub-page of the website – http://localtvmatters.ca/the-facts – counters that honesty, suggesting that it’s impossible to even apply a projected range to the increase given that 1. the tax isn’t even approved for imposition and 2. negotiations would then take place. Also on that particular page is representation of other network logos, including those of Global, A and publicly owned CBC. And, that’s not the only private-sector arrangement CBC’s gotten involved with lately, they’ve also snuggled up with the National Post in a two way exchange. CBC’s evolved exceptionally well over the last year or so – especially with respect to diversifying programming and kicking up their overall aesthetic but its not clear how a public/private arrangement will effect things in the longer term.

To counteract the assertions major networks are making, a second website dealing with the issues, http://www.stopthetvtax.ca, was launched. Almost exactly mirroring the overall message of CTV-lead Local TV Matters, it takes some reading to realize who’s attacking who.  Both websites have a days, hours, minutes and seconds countdown, both are urging visitors to contact the CRTC and both are fighting the imposition of any tax at all.  What’s different is this website sets the stage for service providers to cry wolf and say they’re barely making a cent.  The main splash is riddled with myths that are busted by facts about the profitability of being a service provider, presented by the service providers.  Hmm.

StopTVTaxOne myth says that in actuality, providers would go broke just providing broadcast television and that they need to bundle it with other add ons and services to survive. There may be some truth to that, but something suggests that the bleeding profits from providing broadcast signals aren’t quite that dire. They’re business people, and business people don’t stick with businesses that are money losers, especially in an economic crunch (just watching Dragon’s Den will show that).  That being said, the bottom line is that both websites are pushing against having to pay the tax at all; well, at least that it shouldn’t be paid by the consumer.

The coalition behind Local TV Matters is saying local TV is necessary and their feedback is that people want it… this fee’s coming, (is also necessary) and providers are going to come after consumers, and they’re already ripping them off. Stop The TV Tax on the other hand is saying the tax isn’t even the right answer, that they have no choice but to pass it on if it was imposed and even say “Canada’s big networks want the CRTC to impose another new fee on your bill” – true, but the CRTC doesn’t impose the fee being on the bill, and that’s misleading.

In fact, the CRTC issued this statement:

Consumers should contact their service suppliers, as this increase is not required or regulated by the CRTC. The CRTC considers that these companies can absorb a contribution to the LPIF of this size and does not see any reason why these supplemental costs should be transferred to their subscribers.

The LPIF by the way is the Local Programming Improvement Fund (a separate fund altogether), which received an increased contribution back in 2008, who paid for that you might wonder? If the guess was that it was passed onto consumers through small bill increases; that’s correct. And, even with that increase, the CRTC recommended against the trickle down effect. Providers defend themselves by saying that they’re obligated by law to broadcast the currently ‘free-to-air’ local signals, and imply that if they have no choice but to broadcast, consumers have no choice but to pay.

Regardless, they should be legally obligated to broadcast those signals; it shouldn’t be optional to pick up the local signal. And, don’t forget that providers are already (willingly) shelling out “in excess of $300 million” a year to US broadcasters according to Local TV Matters. They also provide the tidbit that in the last five years, basic cable bills have gone up more then four times the cost of living.

It doesn’t take an analyst to prove that; a quick comparison of the bills coming into my house put broadcast providers comfortably at the top in terms of how much it eats into income, after shelter (which is expected to take the lion’s share).

So, until November 2 when decisions are made that will no doubt change quite a lot, it’s a matter of public opinion and you just have to decide what side of the line to stand on.

While this probably isn’t that ‘new’ a thing, it was something that I never even knew existed until a co-worker casually mentioned her past experience at FAO Schwarz when everyone was discussing the fact that Toys ‘R’ Us bought them out.  (And since the previously mentioned acquisition, Disney’s bought up Marvel for $4 billion and Kraft went after Cadbury, but failed despite a $16 billion bid – doorcrasher sales on various international brands in the wake of an economic downturn… but that’s off topic).

So it turns out, FAO Schwarz in New York has a whole section of the sales floor that’s devoted to making your very own Muppet!  The Whatnot Workshop has all kinds of different stations that allow people to mix and match different eyes, ears, noses – right down to accessories – to create a mixmatched customized Muppet that looks, works and feels like the real thing, as if Jim Henson himself had created a new character.

There used to be both an online and in-store Whatnot experience but since the May 2009 acquisition, the online platform has been scrapped and is in redevelopment.  So, for now the only way to get your own Muppet is to boot down to NYC as it’s an exclusive feature that thankfully Toys ‘R’ Us has no intentions of dropping.  The store will remain an FAO Schwarz as well, good considering its icon status for children everywhere and the fact that it’s been immortalized in films ‘o plenty.

In total there’s choice between three body types, 12 eyes, 12 noses, 13 hairstyles and 14 costumes (including The Statue of Liberty and a baseball uniform resembling that of the New York Yankees).  Check out the photos below to see the real deal!

Yesterday’s Earth Day installment of Ellen featured a very eco-friendly set of gifts for lucky viewers and audience members.  Everything from bikes to blow dryers.  But there was one particular product that completely stood out from the rest and everyone should own one (of course, though I say this, I do not yet own one myself).  But, the concept is fantastic at least!

Go Green - Rusk

Go Green - Rusk

The giveaways started and truthfully I barely remember the first ‘smaller’ items that were dealt out.  The first one that really caught attention was a new combo from Rusk.  The hair care mega line has gone eco-conscious with a new Go Green line that has launched with a hair dryer and straightener.  What’s so special about a hair dryer?  This one uses up 26% less energy but still has the same fast airflow and intense heat people know, trust and expect from Rusk.  Plus, it’s made entirely out of recycled materials and the printing is even done in a soy-based ink.  Same goes for the straightener, minus the hot air blowing of course.  But for the straightener, it heats up in seconds (reducing usage time) and has a 10 minute hibernation feature if you’re the type to neglect turned on plugged in things (though this would be a scary practice and isn’t recommended).  The heating plates themselves also have a petroleum free coating on them so they’ll last nice and long without being harmful during the production process.

Activeion

Activeion

The real star of the give away though was a product called Activeion.  Like Red Bull, this is a single UPC brand, but like Red Bull, this product has serious potential.  Imagine never, ever ever, needing to buy another cleaning product.  Ever.  Now, imagine replacing all your cleaning products with water.  Activeion makes it possible.  It basically looks like a regular squirty bottle on steroids, made from a polycarbonate blend which will last ages.  The water reservoir part can hold up to 500ml of water and there is a eco-friendly long lasting rechargeable battery in the base to make it all work.  The battery charges the regular tap water slightly and specialized nozzle that is attached transforms the charged water by passing it through an ion exchange to create an oxygen-rich mixture of positive and negative nano-bubbles.  Now when you spray using the press and hold button (no trigger fatigue) the activated water will attract dirt like a magnet and lifts it from any surface, enabling it to be easily wiped away.  Not only would you want one of these things at home, but imagine the long-term, not to mention eco-friendly, cost savings that it would take care of for restaurants, airports, universities, schools and the list goes on.  This little guy will set you back by $299.99 though, but it’s an investment and really, you’d pay that for a good vacuum.

Biosphere Bakeware

Biosphere Bakeware

While we’re talking about interesting enviro-products, another company called Biosphere Industries launched a line of compostable baking ware in December.  It’s been slowly getting out into the marketplace mostly being used commercially, but their website does allow you to order samples for a fairly reasonable price ($3.25 – $8.99).  These have a multi-year long shelf life which is surprising but will biodegrade in 40 days outside.  They can be used in ovens (up to 420ºF) and microwaves safely and can also be frozen and still not go soggy.  Discovering this cool new way to bake was as a result of flipping through a Packaging Digest magazine which also had a couple of other neat new products that will pop up on shelves in the near future.

New Kelloggs Box

New Kelloggs Box

From environment saving to space saving, Kellogg’s is introducing a shorter fatter cereal box for 2009.  It’s only available in some test markets for now, but this change is probably one of the most monumental to the world of cereal in a very long time.  The previous items highlighted have been primarily sold with the ‘green’ approach, but that’s not to say the environment is less of a concern here.  This shorter stubbier box uses 8% less material then its processor.  The test phase will likely run for six months or so before this space saving alternative becomes globally available – pending consumer support.

Colgate Clear Tube

Colgate Clear Tube

The last new innovative approach to an already familiar product that to put under the spotlight is from Colgate.  Not particularly eco-conscious or space saving, there is a neat convenience factor.  One of the most annoying things in the world for just about everyone is the fact that you have no idea where the toothpaste is in the tube or how much is left once it’s past a certain point.  A packaging company called Sealed Air has developed a new completely clear tube for the Colgate line of products!  One more of life’s little frustrations all taken care of!

Conversations by the water cooler at work usually tend to revolve around the previous night’s tv line-up or the latest headlines – depending on where you work.  Even at my office, those are formidable topics at any given moment.  But, one afternoon last week the topic up for discussion was memorable Family Guy one-liners which some how evolved into sound effects used in television shows and movies.  Interestingly enough, we were all on the same page before the first example was even thrown out – we all were about to reference those crazy sound effects that you think you hear in just about every single thing you’ve ever seen.  The one I’d noticed and triggered the next phase of conversation with was that female voice you hear on a police radio as the squad car pulls up to scene X.  Then someone mentioned the Star Wars scream (as he referenced) it, so out of curiosity, we turned to Google so that we could bring what we were referencing to life (and also just to confirm that we weren’t a. crazy and b. hearing things).

Turns out, that Star Wars scream is actually called the Wilhelm scream and sure enough – we weren’t crazy.  The search revealed that not only was it used multiple times; it was used so often that people have enough material to compile two and a half to four minute long montages!  Films like Sin City, Batman, Lord of the Rings, Team America, Toy Story, Kill Bill and to bring it full circle, even Family Guy has paid tribute to the Wilhelm scream.

So where did the name come from?  To find out, you need to go back to the 1950’s.  The first film, of the now 140 which use the effect, was made in 1951 and was called Distant Drums, which eventually saw a number of soldiers get attacked by an alligator slinking around in the murky everglade waters.  A total of six screams were recorded after the scene to be cut in later, under the recording title “man getting bit by an alligator, and he screams.”  Ultimately, it would be the fifth of the six recorded that would be used in that part, though takes four and six, along with a repeat of five were used earlier in the same movie.

The Wilhelm’s fame came along with Ben Burtt who was the sound designer for the Star Wars films.  Burtt re-discovered the sound effect mislabelled as, “Man being eaten by alligator,” and decided it was perfect for how a Stormtrooper would sound falling off a ledge in Star Wars IV: A New Hope.  For the sake of reference, it was renamed the Wilhelm scream after Private Wilhelm, who was a character in 1953’s The Charge at Feather River.  But that still doesn’t answer who’s voice it is.

Burtt took it a step further to find out and after going through papers at Warner Brothers, was able to determine that it likely belonged to singer/actor Sheb Wooley who had an uncredited role in Distant Drums but was also called back in a small group of actors to record a series of vocal additions during post-production.

Bird's Nest Soup

Bird's Nest Soup

Later this same day, over some celebratory cake for a colleague, the conversation turned to rare delicacies that were really ‘bizarre’ (not the disgusting delicacies – everyone talks about those).  One of the folks in our office happens to have an Asian background being originally from Hong Kong and a long time ago, enlightened me about Bird’s Nest soup.  So, this is what I decided to offer up to the group during this conversation.  This soup has been made for 400 years and what’s a bit bizarre about it, besides its name?  The fact that it’s actually made from a bird’s nest!  The swiftlet to be exact.  They’re mostly collected throughout Thailand from White-nest and Black-nest swiftlets who live in caves and can generate a nest in 35 days.  The highest destination markets for these nests are Hong Kong and the United States where a kilogram of the white nest would go for about $2,000.00 USD and the red-blood nest would be about $10,000.00 USD.  Per serving, that translates to $30.00 – $100.00 a bowl!

Swiftlet Nesting House, Thailand

Swiftlet Nesting House, Thailand

The industry has become so huge that concrete nesting houses have been built to give more venues for the birds to make the valuable nests in.  While it’s appearance looks somewhat like a prison, investigating the species of bird revealed that they’re not the least bit endangered.  The soup is said to have health benefits as well that include aiding digestion, raising libido, improving voice, alleviating asthma, and improving overall focus and immune support.

From screams to soup, there’s a lot more that you can talk about with your coworkers now around the water cooler besides the most recent episode of your favourite primetime show.

But, if these two items aren’t good enough conversation starters, you could combine them.  How does that make sense?  Check out this bird that has the vocal range to mimic everything around it.  It’s called the Lyre Bird, and this clip was around the office following the swiftlet / bird’s nest soup discussion as another ‘interesting bird’.  The debate is still continuing at work as to whether or not the chainsaw stretches the truth too far beyond belief, but I think this bird’s legit and awesome either way!

Documentaries are made to tell stories, to make a point or at least get some thoughts going about one.  What moved Barbara Doran to write and direct her most recent film was the story of a woman named Susan.  At only 31 years old, Susan took her own life and left only a note.  The note wasn’t written to her loved ones, it was written to a video lottery terminal, telling it she had to let it go.  Doran described reading the note as “chilling” when she eventually got the opportunity.  “I knew nothing, I’d seen [VLT’s] in bars and they seemed innocent.  I had no idea of how many tragic stories there were until starting this project.”

John Dunsworth in Playing The Machines

John Dunsworth in Playing The Machines

The film is called Playing The Machines and it tells a number of tragic stories about Canadians who become helpless to the addictions of VLT’s.  Another belongs to Sherry Rhino of Halifax, NS who was left behind after her husband set fire to their car with himself inside, unable to bare the pressure of addiction, despite counselling.  But the film does more then simply attempting to shock its viewers with heartbreaking tragedy.  Real research and commentary is fluid throughout the piece and what was jarring is the fact that in Alberta, the revenues generated from VLT’s actually outweighs those from the oil industry.

According to a publication called The Walrus, 8 of 10 provinces are still allowing 90,000 or so VLT’s to be operated throughout the county and Newfoundland and Labrador was amongst the first five provinces to let them in during the early 1990s.  In this province, $72 million a year is generated from VLT’s and lotto and 62% of people contributing to that are considered problem gamblers.

As for the ongoing public awareness campaigns, Doran says she’s “happy they’re doing it but the problem isn’t the player, it’s the machine.  You press the button and its all decided by a computer chip, what’s on the screen is just animation.  On average for every $30,000.00 pumped in there’s a $500.00 payout and you don’t even remember the money, you remember the win.”

There doesn’t seem to be consensus on what the addictive quality is, but the documentary actually slows down the animation that plays on a VLT’s screen to reveal how the jackpot icons closely align for split seconds to create what’s called a near-miss effect.  It would explain why engaging the machine is important to get the player.  In fact, the documentary features John Dunsworth from The Trailer Park Boys who is a reformed gambler himself and at one point where he is sharing a story in front of a VLT, he goes through the motions and does everything but push the button.

Dunsworth has become one of the country’s biggest advocates for the issue, being most vocal within his home province of Nova Scotia.  Doran came across his efforts in her research and called him up to see if he’d be interested in speaking to her for the film.  They’d initially considered him as host but opted instead to insert him more organically and he became part of the project’s team.

That team includes some other well established veterans such as Nigel Markham as the Director of Photography, Chris Darlington as the Editor, a score by Duane Andrews and producer Rob Blackie.  Harvey Hyslop was behind the sound along with Paul Steffler who did the mix.   The film opens with a brilliantly executed title graphic animation as well which is the work of Peter Evans.

Playing the Machines takes a deeply passionate look at a very compelling issue.  Doran’s work on this film is important and relevant, and perhaps efficiently direct.  The film will be broadcast nationally on CBC Newsworld’s The Lens, March 24th 2009 at 10:00pm ET or 11:30pm here in Newfoundland.

Simpsons in Ireland!

Simpsons in Ireland!

While I can’t claim to be a die-hard Simpsons fan, the old faithful show is always on whenever it’s needed to fill a half hour in prime time between other shows. It’s always light (in an adult humour sort of way) and funny – reliable. I do admit that I have gotten into the habit of setting my PVR to record the newest Fox cartoon family lineup every Sunday now, collecting the latest from Family Guy, American Dad and The Simpsons. But – this week, that new episode which will air on Sunday March 22, 2009 will actually be almost 5 days stale, sort of.

For the first time in the 20 year history of The Simpsons, the new episode will air in a region of the world other then North America first and on a network other then Fox. Sky1 in Ireland has the prestigious right to air this weeks brand new Simpsons episode before anyone else. That’s because the Simpsons family has packed up and headed to Ireland for a St. Patrick’s Day special that will be memorable, without question.

In an episode titled, In The Name of the Grandfather, Homer and Grandpa take off to the green isle and visit landmarks like the Guinness brewery and Grafton Street. The episode will also feature special voice appearances by Belfast-born actor Kenneth Branagh (Valkyrie), Oscar winners Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova (Once).

Executive producers of the show, Al Jean and James L Brooks as well as Nancy Cartwright who is the voice of Bart and many others, are traveling to Ireland specifically for a special screening of the episode. The only things that they’ll reveal about the plot for the episode are that Homer and Grandpa attempt to buy a pub, but it may not exactly work out in their best interests.

Whatever happens to the Simpsons this St. Patrick’s day, it is clearly evident that even they cannot escape the world’s desire to be Irish for a day!

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makin’ sense of it all

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