April 2007

On media interviews

This whole fracas between Wired reporter Fred Vogelstein and bloggers Jason Calacanis and Dave Winer — the former prefers interviews by e-mail or recorded audio, the latter prefers to blog responses to media questions; both decline to be interviewed by phone — reminds me of what I learned both during my brief journalism career and when I was in media demand during DFL’s first season:

One, the reporter needs to talk to you much more than you need to talk to the reporter. It meant that as a reporter soliciting information from my small-town neighbours, I had to be on my best behaviour. It meant that they weren’t necessarily awed by the prospect of being in the paper (especially not the local weekly). It also meant that, when the shoe was on the other foot, once I reminded myself that I didn’t have to reply to every media inquiry (especially when it became clear that off-line media coverage had no impact on my traffic), I felt a good deal less put upon.

And two, the story the reporter is working on is not necessarily your story. It’s not a question of objectivity, simply that there’s a compelling story that’s driving the reporter (or at the very least her desk editor). That story may not match up with what you want to talk about, so your words may be put to unexpected purposes.

Reporters, in turn, need to realize that regardless of the “gotcha” implications of phone or in-person interviews (which is what has been getting most of the attention in this debate), any media interview is an inconvenience to the interviewee. An e-mail response may take as much time as a brief phone interview, but it’s much less emotionally and mentally taxing, and is minimally disruptive to a busy schedule. (Live interviews are the worst, even if it’s by phone and you don’t have to go into a studio.) That, more than anything else, is why I’d rather do things by e-mail than by phone or in person: it’s less work and stress.

Nikon D40 with an AF prime lens

I’m having fun doing something that the nikonistas on the message boards say is impossible. They say that new camera buyers should at all costs avoid the Nikon D40, the entry-level digital SLR which I happen to own, because it cannot autofocus with AF lenses. And “cannot autofocus,” to them, means “cannot use.” (The technical explanation is that the D40 lacks the autofocus motors that AF lenses rely upon, whereas AF-S lenses have their own motors.)

To which I say: horseshit. You can use AF lenses with a D40; the only thing you give up is autofocus. All the other electronic trickery an AF lens is capable of still works.

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Wireless network outages solved

A $20 phone has solved the wireless network problems I’ve been having for more than a year. After ruling out other possibilities (such as hardware or software problems), it turns out that our neighbour was using a 2.4-GHz wireless phone: every time she made a call, my computer — which is in a room next to her apartment — was cut off. (Jennifer’s stayed running, because it was far enough away from the interference; I’d thought that there might have been something wrong with my computer or the router’s range.) Our solution was to buy our neighbour a 900-MHz phone, which won’t interfere with the network: fortunately those are still available! Now I only have wireless router hiccups, fibre-optic cuts, DNS outages, and my web host’s variable reliability to drive me bonkers.

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Mahoney defeated by Duncan McMillan for Pontiac Liberal nomination

Despite earlier reports, Richard Mahoney may not have been “encouraged” to run in my riding, Pontiac, by Stéphane Dion. Either way, he won’t be the Liberal candidate here: he was defeated by local farmer Cindy Duncan McMillan at the federal Liberal nomination meeting yesterday. Ms. Duncan McMillan didn’t come out of nowhere: she’s long been active in Quebec farm organizations; I remember covering a local farmers’ meeting in September 2003 (it was about the beef crisis) at which she spoke in her capacity as president of the Quebec Farmers Association.

To be honest, I’m relieved that we have a local candidate rather than an urban parachute (or, as I put it when I heard the news, “urban sloppy seconds” — Mahoney had lost twice as the Liberal candidate in Ottawa Centre).

But Mahoney himself, while no doubt a fine candidate on his home turf, presented certain problems. I was very concerned when I read, in last week’s Pontiac Journal, that Mahoney was not only anglophone (not a problem), but unilingual — and despite the large English-speaking presence in this riding, it’s still three-quarters francophone. Only the folks around Shawville — which, for better or for worse, is essentially Diefenbaker country — would not care about that, and they’ll be voting Conservative. Additionally, the fact that he’s a cottager here would not necessarily endear him to the year-round residents.

So, hats off to Cindy Duncan McMillan. Whether she stands a chance against Lawrence Cannon remains to be seen, but at least she won’t be carrying the baggage of either a parachute candidate or of the previous Liberal MP, who got into a mess of controversy over contracts awarded to his private company.


Speaking of crack, I’ve been spending too much time on Facebook lately. I’ve been on a number of social-networking sites; Facebook impresses me the most. Here’s why:

Design. Really, really clean user interface, responsive servers. Tribe was schizophrenic, MySpace a renowned mess. The only really poorly designed aspect: the groups. There’s something wrong, design-wise, if there can be more than a hundred Steve Irwin memorial groups, all with the same name and group icon, with fewer than five members each. Regional networks seem to be a problem with some of my friends, especially if they’re near, but not in, the appropriate network. I’m in rural Quebec, but I’m in the Ottawa network: it’s the nearest one. People in Gatineau should be in the Ottawa network. People near Toronto should be in the Toronto network unless they’re closer to Barrie, Hamilton or Kingston.

Privacy. Most social networks are binary: see everything or see nothing. Facebook is network-based: it’s a series of regional, school and work networks. You can control which networks see your full profile. You can control what information appears on your full profile. You can control which of your friends sees your full profile and which sees a “limited” profile.

People. I never had more than a handful of friends on other networks, most of whom I’d never met in person — or I’d signed them up to the service myself. This is the first network I’ve encountered where the network effect is in full force: when you sign up, you will find that many of your friends are already there. At the moment I have 43 friends, all of whom I’d at least exchanged e-mails a few times with, and all but two of whom I’ve previously met in person.

Friend management. Tribe has degrees of separation; in most other social-networking sites the friend feature is binary — you’re a friend, or you’re not — or graded (contact vs. friend or family on Flickr). Facebook asks how you know a person. That encourages — at least in me — a sort of social taxonomy. You end up trying to find — collect, really — friends from all aspects and periods of your life, and mark them up: this one I went to high school with, that one I was in a club with for a couple of years. Filling in your social timeline can get a little compulsive, but it has the happy effect of encouraging reconnections with people that, in my case, I haven’t seen in more than 15 years.

As for my Facebook profile, you won’t be able to see it unless you’re in the Ottawa network, or if we’ve added each other as friends.

Crack use explodes in Ottawa

Something’s happened in downtown Ottawa. When I lived there, from 1999 to 2003, its streets never struck me as particularly mean, but since I come from Winnipeg, where the streets are considerably meaner — I regularly parked outside crack houses when going to evening university classes — my perspective is, shall we say, jaded. But even I had to stop and wonder what the hell has gone wrong when I read this harrowing article in yesterday’s Globe and Mail: crack cocaine use has exploded in downtown Ottawa, with junkies begging like crazy to get the few dollars needed for their next hit. It’s to the point where even homeless advocates are advising people not to give money to panhandlers: it invariably gets spent on crack. (This takes me back to my time in Winnipeg, where I was hit up by panhandlers about half a dozen times a day, and I turned them down every time. Odds were, no matter how hungry or homeless they were, the money was going to be spent on solvents.) Crack is ugly shit.

The water snake succumbs

Northern Water Snake (2003) Some of you may be aware that I used to keep a Northern Water Snake. (Yes, I had a licence for her.) She was born in captivity, and was astonishingly handleable and even ate mice, so she was a breeze to keep. She was also an amazing asset at educational displays: most people around here are deathly afraid of water snakes, which at their most basic are simply big garter snakes adapted to a diet of aquatic animals (if water snakes are feisty when caught, so too are large garter snakes). So a tame water snake was very, very useful.

When I moved to Quebec in 2003, I couldn’t keep the snake — provincial law does not allow for the keeping of protected species by private individuals — so I passed her over to a friend, who promptly got a licence for her.

You can see where this is going, can’t you? The owner wrote to say that the water snake was found dead last night. She would have been seven years old, which is kind of young for a water snake, but not excessively so. She almost certainly was carrying the same heavy parasite load in her lungs that, you may recall, killed so many of my other garter snakes. (The culprit, you may remember, was live — or at least whole — fish that carried those parasites.) That she held out as long as she did says something about her — or her species’ — resistance to big internal worms: she was almost certainly the last or next-to-last snake that was fed the contaminated batch.