December 3, 2008

Marketing Prescription Drugs, American-Style

by Camila Perez Gabilondo

Advertisement is different in every country and a powerful force in today's society. A particular type of advertisement struck me the most after moving to the U.S. and consuming American television, newspapers and magazines. In my mind, medicine was never before trying to break its way into the consumer's mind in such an aggressive way, but in this country, prescription medicine is sold to us every day through the media as if it were a new kind of soda or a tasteful snack.

The array of prescription drugs with dangerous side effects that we are urged to consume day by day when getting our news or watching our favorite show is abundant and diverse. From sleeping pills and birth control to cervical cancer immunization, medical treatments which must be recommended and prescribed by a doctor are directly advertised to the consumer, as if we could make such decisions on our own.

Direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising of prescription drugs is very common in the U.S. and audiences are therefore accustomed to making important decisions about their health on their own, which some argue leads to an abuse of prescriptions drugs and a preference for expensive treatments, which, of course, benefits drug companies. Drugs are advertised as if they were as soft a remedy as Vic's vapor rub when they are indeed medical treatments that should not be administered without the control of a doctor.

The dangerous risks of these drugs have to be mentioned in advertisements, but this is done in a way that barely leaves an impression on the consumer: the possibility of suffering from such conditions as blood clots and heart attacks is briefly narrated at the end of the commercial in a light-hearted way. However, for a viewer who is not used to this, such as me, the side effects are what resonates the most and what deters me from paying attention to the product.

This leads us to wonder whether the American audience is subject to danger from the media. The success of these products shows that perhaps the audience is too gullible. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates these kinds of commercials, but it may not be enough. In a January 2003 survey report, the FDA estimated that 88 percent of patients who ask their doctors for a prescription drug by brand name don't actually have the symptoms that the drug treats. With more and more products out on the market and more money invested by drug companies in commercials, this number could go down. Therefore, the far-reaching power of advertisement should be controlled when it comes to such a serious matter as the consumer's health.

(Photo by Adamos Maximus of Mesa, AZ via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license. To see a satire from Saturday Night Live about such ads, especially those dealing with birth control, please check the video below.)









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December 2, 2008

Are Girl Talk's Sonic Mash-ups Illegal Music?

by Ali Golomb

One could ask, if the artist did not compose the lyrics or the beat, then how could it be considered their song? Girl Talk, the stage name for Gregg Gillis, makes this question a great deal more complicated to answer. Now on his third album, Night Ripper (originally released in 2006), Girl Talk compiles tracks on top of each other to create a new song. Pitchfork, an online music review site, talks about Girl Talk's way of trying to guess which song is next:
"Smash Your Head" glides into the siren keyboards of Lil Wayne's "Fireman" less than a minute in, then abruptly shifts into the crushingly dense riffs of Nirvana's "Scentless Apprentice" while Young Jeezy spits the familiar flames of "Soul Survivor," before it all tumbles into a Pharcyde-Elton John-Biggie somersault.

Many people think this is an illegal form of art, but I believe otherwise. Yes, Girl Talk is taking parts of songs from other artists, but he is engineering them in a specific way that is different from the artist's original intent. With the digital age, this is our generation's genre of music. It is still every bit as creative and innovative as the music of past generations, but its innovation lies with reconfiguring of past works rather than composing completely new lyrics or beats. While many artists' songs take inspiration from other artists; Girl Talk's inspiration is just more apparent.

(The photo of Gregg Gillis/Girl Talk is from the Wired Rave Awards in San Francisco in 2007; the photo is by matthew.hickey via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license. To see a mash-up video inspired by Girl Talk's "Overtime," please check below.)









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December 1, 2008

Milk Quenches Thirst for Social Commentary

by Jordan Coughenour

An epic portrayal of the man who first embodied the word "hope," Director Gus Van Sant's biopic Milk, following the late Castro Street politician who became the first openly gay man ever elected to public office, is easily one of the most socially important and impactful films to arise out of Hollywood studios in recent years, and an undeniable contender for multiple Oscar nominations this season. Van Sant (Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester) seems to have finally learned the essential skill of relinquishing complete control as a director, leading several of Milk's actors to execute masterfully unhindered performances, resulting in an engaging character study framed by the suddenly newly relevant gay civil rights movement in late 1970's San Francisco.

Milk's release date (although the film debuted in San Francisco on Oct. 28, before the fall elections, it did not go into limited national release until Nov. 26) tragically prevented the film from affecting the recent passing of California's Proposition 8. (For more on Prop. 8 please see: "California's Proposition 8 TV Ads" and "Proposition 8: Where's the Outrage?") That ballot initiative banned gay marriage in California. Moving in parallel, much of the movie deals with Harvey Milk's organization of protests against 1977's Proposition 6 in California, which would have fired homosexuals from teaching in the public school system. The film is one of the most effective framings of a social movement ever crafted; with screenwriter Dustin Lance Black working in an artful balance between historical fact, yet leaving spacious breathing room for the audience to follow the personal struggles of those involved in the gay civil rights battle of the time. One of the strongest of these decisions comes with Van Sant's frequent use of vintage newsreel footage and photographs to overlap the staged action; notably choosing not to cast an actor as the religious anti-homosexual warrior Anita Bryant, but rather to confine her presence to actual television interviews, leaving apt room for the film's central cast members to play.

Frequently falling victim to bloated speeches and weepy plot lines, Sean Penn (All the King's Men, Mystic River) is at his strongest point in years as politician Milk. Penn delivers a vocally and physically nuanced performance worthy of serious Academy Award consideration. He joyfully captures the hope and fervor of Milk, acting without fear or imposition in his portrayal. Penn's finest moments are the quiet pauses between the rallies and addresses; where he shows Milk's constant battle between his love of operatic theatricality and inward soul searching in an oppressive world. Neither Penn nor Van Sant ever shies away from the uniquely sexual lifestyle of Milk and those around him. From the first moments, as the film begins on the eve of Milk's 40th birthday and primary encounter of lifelong love, Scott Smith, viewers can expect to be invaded by a barrage of sensual portrayals, none lacking in psychological connotation or amorous necessity. These men who revolved around Harvey throughout his life make for a notable supporting cast to Penn throughout the film. James Franco as Scott Smith shows fluidity and able passion in a performance as Milk's sensual yet wary boyfriend, acting as something of a guardian angel throughout the course of the movie. Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild, Speed Racer) is a peppy and energetic presence as the young activist Cleve Jones, who in the years after Milk's timeline concludes, went on to create the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Hirsch is completely unhinged and nearly lunatic in his portrayal. In many of the movie's darker moments, Hirsch is a continuous shock of lightning, pertaining well to one of the actual Milk's frequent calls to, "Never blend in." One of Milk's more notable strengths lies in Josh Brolin (W., No Country For Old Men). Brolin plays City Supervisor Dan White, the eventual assassin of Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. In making the wise decision to not leave White to the sidelines as a shadowy harbinger of death, Van Sant grants the audience a delicate view into the gradual formation of a bigot. Brolin's carefully constructed progression as a character should reap some possible benefits for Brolin come Oscar nomination time too. Though the basic subject matter of the film itself demands a liberal viewpoint, Van Sant uses White's arc to give the other side of the issue its due course of argumentation. It's nearly as much of a shock to a truly engaged audience member as it is to Milk himself when White does eventually pull a trigger on Moscone, igniting one of the country's most heart wrenching double homicides.

Given Harvey Milk's constant search for a stage and enough theatricality to keep the world enraptured, it's of considerable notation that Milk's core manages to be so subtle and pure. Past the grand narrative of a social movement, lies the heart of both the issue itself, as well as the basic grappling with humanity that ensures no matter what legal jurisdiction ensues, all men are still created equal. It's the intimate moments, such as when Milk and Smith enjoy a candlelight dinner with the pressure of political duty pervading the air, or when the previously aimless wanderer, Jones is handed his first bullhorn and enlisted to active duty just prior to Milk's death, ringing true to his signature speech-starter "My name is Harvey Milk, and I'm here to recruit you." You'll have a hard time walking out of the theatre without the need to pick up a picket sign and head into the streets yourself. Milk is, overall, a powerful testament that though over three decades have passed, the continuous struggle for equality continues in the gay community to this day.

(Editor's Note: This piece is also cross-posted on the iVoryTowerz blog.)

(Milk goes into full nationwide release in the U.S. on Dec. 5. The film is rated R. The promotional film poster is from Focus Features. To see a trailer for the film, please check below.)


















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November 28, 2008

Computers, the Internet & Desensitization

by Althea Avice de Guzman

He smiles slightly, that person across the street from you. He is holding a sign that says: I am going to kill myself. There is a crowd watching him take the pills from his pockets. Now, there is a general murmuring as he puts the pills in his mouth. Still no one moves. Some scream for him to stop, others are trying to call his bluff by encouraging him. Most just watch.

His body topples to the ground and twelve hours later, the police finally come. But it's too late. Countless witnesses were unable to stop a young man from committing suicide.

Your first reaction: Outrage; maybe incredulity that no one was willing to stop him.

It did not exactly happen this way, but the death of Abraham Biggs, Jr. only differed in that instead of looking across the street, people were looking at a computer screen while he committed suicide live on webcam. And people responded to his action just the same.

In psychology, there is such a thing as the bystander effect, where people diffuse responsibility away from themselves and unto others when they are in groups. One would think that the more people there are, the greater the chance of him being saved, but it seems the contrary is true. However, I hesitate to give people even that degree of credit and this leads me to ask whether or not being online has desensitized us to such acts.

In addition to diffusing responsibility to others, there is also the lack of accountability from being behind a computer screen. What is the difference between the virtual world and that of the real one? For example, you suddenly have more courage to talk to a person online that you would not have in person. That way, you are not confronted with social pressures or expectations and also there is an aspect of detachment that comes with it. It is an alternate social reality. Repeating this situation over and over again may encourage one to prefer interaction through the internet, in other words, taking the easy way out.

Therefore, does overexposure to the internet foster the loss of empathy and thus desensitize us? To some extent, I must admit I gave up some of my humanity while trying to be more aware. After reading countless headlines about tragedy and disaster, suddenly, the shock of something so terrible happening wore off. Not only was I reading them online, I was seeing them too, on YouTube. And the worst part of being aware? I couldn't relate.

Also, admittedly, a bit of my morality has been compromised. While my conscience would hesitate to steal a CD from the store, online, I never had a problem using Napster in its existence. The existence of those file-sharing sites and their widely-accepted use by all my peers led me to believe that the virtual music store was not like the real store at all. Now the guilt from downloading a song has subsided, and who knows what else my conscience will allow me to do online but not in real life.

At the end of the day, as soon as you walk into my room and sign online, you are no longer a part of the real world. That computer screen protects you from the consequences of reality, and maybe even from the guilt of watching someone die right in front of your eyes.

(Photo collage by kuddlyteddybear2004 of Ashtabula, OH via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)








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November 26, 2008

A Conscious Consumer: An Oxymoron?

by Melissa the Marinade Maker

From a tender age, we all have been told we are unique; we are individuals possessing special characteristics and skills not common to others in society. Although many refuse to define themselves as based upon consumer products, it is extremely difficult to enact a complete separation between products and who an individual "is." The blatant question is this: Is the individual simply a product? Many would argue no, as any human being with even a moderately functioning brain is able to distinguish themselves from the products they consume for the sake of daily life, yet others assert that society is very uncritical and lacks the proper analytical skills to create such a separation between the being and the product.

The media have employed techniques, efficacious techniques, that have created a "consumer frenzy" in every possible venue of life. Newspapers, magazines, the radio, and lo and behold, television itself, have all been extremely effective and extremely profitable modes of consumer-mania. Debate has raged about the quantity of advertisements each individual is exposed to on a daily basis, some claim roughly 1,500, while others claim figures in the hundreds. The actual figure is irrelevant in that the bottom line remains that commercials have invaded every crevice of life, with commercials assertively advocating products ranging from savory, delectable chocolate to shampoo that renders impassioned screams in the shower. It is unarguable that the very function of a corporation is to generate revenue, utilizing the means necessary to ensure a sustainable market demographic. However, what is bothersome is that the individual is unable to venture for themselves and find a suitable product without it being portrayed as an absolute "must-have." The psychological implications of such advertising are ostensible: consumers passively expect to have everything presented to them, as opposed to being an informed and pro-active consumer. Rather than unconsciously absorbing all the advertisements being propelled, the consumer ought to make purchase decisions based upon individual discretion, as opposed to simply what the commercials tell them. Thus, the lack of personal opinion has resulted in commercials hindering a conscientious consumer.

Historically, commercials have played a vital role in the U.S. consumer market. The early to mid-20th century consisted of commercials that revolved around the suburban lifestyle, catered specifically for women to purchase the newest, most desirable kitchen and cleaning appliances. With the onset of the 1980s, commercials reached a newfound peak and horizontally diffused into all possible marketable venues, developing even further demographic specializations on a global scale. Specific examples are not needed because advertisements ranging for any possible product, be it peanut butter to car models, all create a must-have frenzy for that particular product.

For those of you still reading, this blogger asks that you be a conscious, analytical consumer, for the sake of your wallet and for the sake of your mental welfare. Yes the latest model of this or that may seem alluring and highly appealing. However, think for a moment if it is necessary, and if so, if you are making an evaluated decision. After all, a conscious consumer can make for a less manipulative market. Thank you.

(Graphic from radicalgraphics.org, which offers its material for free.)






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November 25, 2008

Men, the Media & Sexism

by Zack Huhn

You always hear complaints about how women have to deal with the stereotypical media roles that degrade how women are portrayed in society. Let’s discuss how men have to deal with the SAME stereotypes. Get over it — media glamorize being beautiful and powerful or important, regardless of sex. Many times, men often play one of a few stereotypical roles in media, which if the same reaction is taken to this as women, means they are expected to always act that way in everyday life. Be it the jock or the class clown, the superstar athlete or brave hero, this is obviously an impossible reality for almost any man to live up to. Be honest, how many shirtless, hairless, toned, athletic, tall, tan, intelligent, funny, interesting and entertaining male supermodels do you see walking around campus at American University every day? This nearly unattainable image affects men just as much, if not more than women; it affects our relationship opportunities, job opportunities, social circles and more. Men have to wonder: am I masculine enough, well enough dressed, tall enough, thin enough, muscular enough, athletic enough, smart enough, wealthy enough, funny enough, interesting enough, strong enough, caring enough, powerful enough — just like women. Are my teeth as white and straight as the guy in the commercial? Is my car as nice as his? Will people notice that my skin is slightly less than perfect? I work out, but I still have a little work to do. Will people understand? When we see images of women in swimsuits or underwear, we criticize. When we see images of men in swimwear or underwear, we don’t think twice. It’s ironic; the very girls complaining about the stereotypes they have to deal with are the same girls watching Gossip Girl and The Hills, reading Us Weekly and Cosmopolitan. Don’t get me wrong, I love that these shows encourage us to dress well and be hygienic. I’m not complaining about the images they portray, nor am saying one is wrong to complain; but we have to understand that men face the same media bias as women, and if people want to make a change, they have to stop supporting what they claim to be against through buying into the industry!

(The photo is from the Europa BSN Model Search competition in Irving, Texas from 2007; the photo is by SSCusp of Vancouver, WA via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)








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November 24, 2008

The Rise of Sports Media Networks

by Abdullah Faisal

What is a sports fan to do if they missed their favorite basketball team's game? After 1999, a fan could tune into NBA TV and watch highlights from that night of basketball games. The National Football League (NFL), National Basketball Association (NBA), and the National Hockey League (NHL) all have television networks broadcasting 24/7. The National Football League is by far the most profitable professional sports league in the United States. To tap into the profitable sports media industry, the NFL launched the NFL Network in 2003. The launch of the NFL Network continued a trend that NBA TV started in 1999. Sports leagues are creating and marketing their own networks and services to provide in-depth coverage to their fans and make a profit.

The creation of league-sponsored television networks and premium sports packages like DirecTV's NBA League Pass ™ and NFL Sunday Ticket ™ are a relatively new trend that benefits sports fans. These sports networks and packages benefit fans like me who live outside of their favorite team's market. I am a fan of the San Francisco Giants, San Francisco 49ers, and Golden State Warriors. Because I do not live in California, I cannot watch them play on a nightly basis. Before the creation of sports networks and packages, I would have to wait until there was a nationally televised game on the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN) or Turner Network Television (TNT). Now, I can subscribe to NBA League Pass and watch Warriors' games on my computer. And, if I happen to miss a game, I could watch extended highlight clips of that game on NBA TV. Watching your favorite team no matter where you are is revolutionary and sports leagues other than the NBA, NHL, and NFL realize that there is a lot of money to be made in the sports media industry.

Major League Baseball is currently the only major professional sports league in the United States without a network. However, that is going to change on January 1, 2009. The new MLB Network will be different from other sports networks because it is partly owned by cable and satellite companies. As a result, the MLB Network will reach the most households out of any of the other sports networks. On the other hand, the NFL Network is not owned by any media companies so distribution has been an issue. The NFL wants its channel to be offered in a basic cable package without any extra charges, but cable companies like Comcast refuse. As a result, the NFL Network is struggling to reach a large potential audience. Although sports networks like the NFL Network have had some issues, they are in high demand and will have a tremendous impact on how people watch sports and sports news.

(Note: For viewers at American University, NBA TV is Channel 33 on the campus television system and the NFL Network is Channel 81. More information on the dispute between the NFL and the cable companies is also available on the iVoryTowerz blog.)

















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November 21, 2008

Computer Dating: True Love or Technological Whims?

by Melissa the Marinade Maker

Millions of users on a monthly basis. Marriages and engagements come to fruition. And millions upon millions of net profits. Welcome to the world of online dating, where membership fees are minimal and the prospect of "true love" is unsurpassable.

To those of us unfamiliar with this seemingly enigmatic system, dating tips can be found en masse to help with navigation through the tangles of this lucrative expedition, thanks to media outlets found on the internet and television programs. A plethora of dating tip websites can be found to assist users from the most menial to complicated tasks, such as "choosing the right profile picture" to the posting of personal information. Some may find it humorous, and perhaps a tad pathetic, that an individual would turn to the realms of online dating, yet for those of society with chaotic schedules and incessant workloads, Match.com may serve as the sole outlet to the dating scene.

What makes online dating particularly interesting is that unlike the Stone Ages, in which two individuals would meet face-to-face and have conversations ranging from the weather to the stock market, members of dating services are able to scavenge through the thousands of profiles and pursue another on the basis of similarities. Members belong to a spectrum of all ages, financial statuses, religions, ethnic groups, and geographic locations. Thus, one is bound to find another with mutual interests and perhaps common identity linkages. Other beneficial aspects include a diverse and global membership, personality as opposed to physical features taking precedence, the safety of foraging through profiles in the confines of the home, and the ability to further relationships that conveniently revolve around one's schedule. Dating sites have also attempted to provide more innovative features, such as the use of instant messaging and extensive personal profiling, as well as the use of iovation to prevent online fraud vis-à-vis online dating.

Aside from the ubiquitous publicity dating sites have received online, television stations have realized the profitability of this market and have included advertisements for the most popular, and affluent, of sites. Daytime television in particular, has embraced the inclusion of dating advertisements, obviously in efforts of reach a certain demographic, particularly between the hours between noon and mid-afternoon. In addition, programs such as The Bachelor and Joe Millionaire have aggrandized the notion of finding "true love" with a "blind match." Regardless, the media have effectively tapped into a growing, prosperous market and they are reaping the benefits.

Skepticism of online dating obviously exists, and rightly so. Ostensibly, the first concern of online-daters pertains to truth; how truthful are members online? Common sense filtering between profiles certainly is a must, as is a careful solicitation of information with others of the same dating service. The question remains, however, if these sites are worthwhile. Aside from the well known Match.com, PerfectMatch, Yahoo!Personals, Chemistry, eHarmony.com, and Lavalife, at least 800 other dating services can be found on the internet. Essentially, the dating service is much like a filter, beginning with "generic sites" and trickling into the hundreds of "matchmaking services" available to computer users, worldwide.

Regardless of the rampant criticisms pertaining to online dating, the statistics are irrevocable. 20 million Americans visit at least one service on a monthly basis. About 120,000 marriages have resulted from such sites, and by 2008 online dating services expect to generate roughly $642 million in revenue. Thus, it is impossible to dispute the growing efficacy of online dating services, both domestically and internationally.

(Graphic by d70focus via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)








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November 19, 2008

Invisible Children: Exposing Humanitarian Needs

by Emily Norton

As has been said countless times before, we of the global North failed our brothers in the Rwandan genocide. Unwilling to let another African catastrophe slip by unnoticed, three boys documented their trip through Northern Uganda and ended up launching a life-changing NGO, Invisible Children Inc. A completely grassroots non-profit, it has succeeded in raising worldwide awareness and support (nearly 3.5 million dollars in the last year and a half) for the thousands displaced by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda. While it began as a rough documentary, the organization's mission statement now accounts for "improving the quality of life for war-affected children by providing access to quality education, enhanced learning environments, and innovative economic opportunities for the community." The crazy thing is, they are actually accomplishing this goal. However, it's not necessarily just their programs that are doing it, but rather the mass support and attention garnered f by their excellent Western world-friendly media.

It almost seems as though we've heard it all before; the mantra of "stories changing lives." So what happened in Rwanda? Television was not entirely devoid of those scenes of carnage, and yet the desired active response was not elicited.

Invisible Children points to an adage frequently repeated by my parents (usually to quell heated words between my sister and me): it's not what you say, but how you say it. Sometimes a good hook or carefully repeated image will carry a farther reaching impact than a briefly distressing scene or statistic. The Invisible Children organization has displayed genius at marketing and presenting their cause. Their website is filled with photos of the shining faces of the young, hip activists and Africans, big-band name benefit concerts, well-constructed YouTube-style videos, and interesting advertisements of hands-on simulation events that bring the tribulations of Africans to American soil. I personally was greatly affected by their "Global Night Commute" a nationwide event in which thousands walked miles to sleep in outdoor locations, symbolizing the Ugandan children who commuted to hospitals nightly to escape abduction into the army of child soldiers of the LRA.

This on-fire group has developed a humanitarian aid teen subculture, perpetuated by the first positive media-induced domino/bandwagon effect I've seen in a long time. Once you participate in one of their events, you become a member of the cause (and their very thorough and enlightening e-mail list!). Though it could be said that they are trying to manipulate an emotional response, I don't think they're duping anyone. Currently, they are actually offering followers the opportunity to go on site and see the effects of their fundraising and petitioning. With their flashy website and appeal to the belief that youth can "make a difference," Invisible Children Inc. has sparked an international compassion movement.

(The photo of three Ugandan boys in a diplacement camp is part of the promotional materials compiled by Invisible Children.)









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November 18, 2008

Cyber-Attacks Threaten the IMF & National Security

by Anthony Bouselli

In our present financial crisis, any security breaches and penetrations into international organizations, especially monetary organizations, cause rippling effects which can further plunge the world into economic chaos. This month, cyber-attacks were launched against the International Monetary Fund (IMF), based in Washington, D.C., which provides emergency loans and financial planning to economically troubled nations. Spyware had successfully been integrated into the IMF's computer networks causing the organization to take its computer systems offline for days to remedy the problem.

Each day the economic situation worsens as the world's leaders struggle to cope and clean up the mess. In the present crisis, no financial organization can afford not to be able to be running at full capacity. These attacks, though not directly damaging, resulted in adding chaos in an already troubled time. In the real world, time is money — and each day the IMF was down cost the world big.

The IMF was not the only financial organization attacked in the past few weeks. For more than a year the World Bank has undergone repeated attacks; the World Bank holds some of the most sensitive financial data collected from most of the nations in the world. The repeated attacks upon the World Bank create a sense of unease in present times. No one knows what information has been stolen and what the end result will be, but hackers gained access to the high security treasury server. The World Bank's treasury server manages more than $75 billion in assets for itself and other nations. As many as forty of the bank's servers containing contract negotiation data were also hacked. Any disruption in a financial institution is not only espionage but a terrorist activity. Although the attacks on the World Bank have not resulted in a shut down and system wide purge like that involving the IMF, the attacks have been monitored. The IP addresses from two of the attacks originated in China.

China, a growing country with an exploding economy, craves natural resources like an addict. Many of China's raw materials are imported from primary product harvesting, third world countries under the tutelage of the international financial institutions. By hacking these organizations, the Chinese can monitor who will be giving loans to whom and what the measures of those loans will be.

Chinese hackers not only attacked financial institutions, but this November they attacked the White House computers as well hacking into unclassified e-mails. Foreign hackers have also attacked the e-mail servers of the campaign offices for President-elect Barak Obama and Sen. John McCain; the FBI claims that the attacks are to understand policies enabling the hacking country to negotiate with the new president in the future. Spokespersons for the Obama campaign claimed that the attacks originated either from hackers in China or Russia.

The internet provides the greatest challenge to the U.S. Defense Department. Constantly, a cat-and-mouse game of espionage, the goal of internet security is to stay ahead of the enemy and defend against tactics not yet tried. No computer system is an impervious fortress in the interconnected World Wide Web.

Especially today, during the financial crisis, the world cannot afford these crippling attacks as experienced at the IMF.

(The photo shows security guards outside the headquarters of the International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C. in 2006, as they anticipate a protest; the photo is courtesy of Matthew Bradley, under a Creative Commons license via Flickr.)
















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November 17, 2008

The Media & Body Image

by Anna Waterfield

The phenomenon of the media has always held a strong power over society since the beginning of its existence. From newspapers to television to advertisements to movies to radio to magazines to the internet, in today's world it has become virtually impossible to stray from the mainstream. While the mass media can be used for advocacy, enrichment, education, information, and entertainment, they are also capable of influencing the way we think in a negative fashion.

Thanks to the media, we are constantly bombarded with a series of images, most of which portray beautiful, happy, thin people. Seeing these people on a daily basis has the effect of pounding a standard body image into one's head.

Even though obesity is a growing problem in America, with the percentage of people who are considered overweight or obese due to their body mass index rising from 28% in 1980 to 64% in 2000, the models and actors we see every day do not reflect this progression. In fact, twenty-five years ago the average model weighed 8% less than the average American woman; now, the average model weighs almost 25% less than the average American woman. Basically, the average woman is getting fatter as the average model is getting skinnier, all while women and men across the country are being told to love themselves and their bodies as they are. These contradictory messages only serve to increase instances of things like low self-esteem and eating disorders.

So why do the media buy into this idea of a standard body image? The answer is largely economical. When consumers are convinced that they have to wear a certain size of clothes or have certain facial features in order to be at the so-called "normal," then they are more likely to purchase diet aids or cosmetic products in order to attain these goals. Therefore, cosmetic and diet industries are more likely to thrive.

Advertisements for these and other products also employ a standard body image in order to appeal to consumers. Ads on television and the internet, in magazines, or even on billboards frequently feature a thin, beautiful model wearing or using a certain product. When consumers see these people, they get tricked into thinking that if they wear the right clothes or eat the right foods then they too will be thin and desirable like the model in the ad.

There have been attempts to reform the perception of thin being beautiful. Unfortunately, many have failed. At Milan's Fashion Week, models were required to maintain a Body Mass Index within the healthy range (18+) to participate, but this spawned an outcry from models who said that their "natural" body weight could not be helped and designers who felt that their artistic creativity was being imposed upon.

n 2004, Dove launched its more successful "Campaign for Real Beauty," choosing to feature everyday women in their ads as opposed to models in an effort to widen the definition and discussion of beauty and thus make women feel more beautiful every day.

n terms of their weight, Americans need to find the right balance (no pun intended): not striving to be unhealthily thin, but not allowing for high rates of obesity either. In order for the image of health to become the new ideal body image, the media need to begin to promote it. Encouraging the media to follow the Dove company's example and present a greater variety of body types, with depictions of real people and more positive messages about self-image, will not completely eliminate the potential for eating disorders in the United States; however, the pressure individuals feel to conform to a certain body type will surely be decreased. If healthy men and women who celebrate their differences are portrayed more frequently in the media, then we will have a healthier country both physically and mentally.

(Photo by Christi Nielsen of Los Angeles, CA via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)









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November 15, 2008

The Hologram: Media Miracle or Cheap Trick?

by Dan Sweeney

On election night, November 4th, a media phenomenon occurred that I did not think I would ever see in my lifetime. On CNN, the network beamed in correspondent Jessica Yellin to their studio for an interview about the crowds gathering in Grant Park in Chicago to see Barack Obama. My jaw literally dropped when I saw this and I thought there was no way that this could be happening right now. In a sense, I was correct.

According to CNN, the cable news network used 35 cameras to circle Yellin and film her, well, all 220 degrees of her. She stood inside a large circular room with green screens all around her and the cameras captured all of her movements blocking out other background factors. When she appeared it looked like she was from some science-fiction film, complete with the hazy blue outline. The technology comes from an Israeli company, SportVU. It looked like she was actually in the studio with Wolf Blitzer and he talked to her like he could actually see her. However, this was not the case. The cameras circling Yellin were synchronized with the cameras in New York to make it appear like she was actually there. Yellin could see Blitzer from a television at the front of the room where her live remote report originated. CNN has not discussed the technology much further.

Various technology savvy critics denounced this so-called "hologram" as nothing more than a cheap trick. It was not a real hologram because: it did not actually photograph her in the complete 360 degrees; Yellin's "hologram" not actually present in the studio with Blitzer, and there was no way for Yellin, inside the so-called "hologram" to see Blitzer without the aid of a television. Some criticized CNN because they superimposed Yellin's enhanced image on the picture of Blitzer in the studio, and called it a hologram although such green-screen technology to superimpose images has been widely used in television since the 1970s. In other words, there is still a ways to go before we have anything like a Star Wars' Princess Leia-type of hologram. CNN projects that it will take about ten to twenty years for their "holograms" to reach near that level. Although, the "holograms" on election night had their flaws, they set the foundation for future hologram production.

The benefits of possible hologram technology are huge. First, news has something cool to draw in more viewers and possibly tempting young people to watch it. Interviews can be given with a more intimate setting. according to CNN, by cutting out all the background of the one interviewed. People can have a more personable conversation without having to look at a television or just hear their voice on the telephone. If holograms are successful in the news industry, they could spread to other industries as well. In stores a pre-recorded holograms could appear and tell you about the day's sales, instead of having it listed on a sign. This makes shopping a more pleasant and friendly event.

I never thought I would have seen a hologram in my life, even if some say it was not a real hologram technically. Hopefully, as this technology evolves over the next few decades, it will become more commonplace. Needless to say, although present holograms have their flaws, it was really cool to see that on election night.

(Photo by zephyrbunny of Seattle, WA via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)











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November 14, 2008

Facebook: The Impersonal Means of Communication

by Alissa Scheller

I sign onto Facebook almost every single time I’m using my computer. As I’m writing this, I have my Facebook homepage open on my desktop. It’s how I keep in touch with my friends from home, it’s how I hear about events I want to go to, and quite frankly, it’s just a really good way to put off doing anything productive.

Facebook, the popular social networking web site, was created by Mark Zuckerberg in 2004. It was initially limited to college students, but currently can be used by anyone with an e-mail address who chooses to sign up. Users can join networks corresponding to their school, workplace or area, add friends, join groups, add a multitude of soc-called “applications” (ranging from “Which character on Buffy the Vampire Slayer are you?” to so-called charitable “causes” that the user supports) and “facechat” with their friends.

The web site, which has more than 120 million active users worldwide, has played a significant role in the transformation of communication. Over the past few years, we’ve see the emergence of Web 2.0, a new way of using the internet that encourages interconnectivity and interactivity. Users can now actively participate in media, in the forms of blogs, comments on news stories, or on social networking web sites like Facebook.

This change in communication can be seen even in the conversations of my peers and I. We talk about who “friended” us on Facebook, who changed their ever-important relationship status, and who wrote what on whose wall. Another slightly creepy aspect of Facebook is the knowledge that every single one of your friends — your oldest and dearest as well as that kid who sits across the room from you in math class — can see every picture you add, every comment you write and every person you’re friends with.

Facebook has certainly been a major player in changing how we communicate with other people. That is to say, impersonally. With the advent of new communication technology, people have become more and more interconnected — I can communicate with my friends and family across the country almost immediately, at any time I want — however, the cost of instant communication is that it is almost entirely impersonal. Entire relationships can be had without seeing someone’s face or even hearing their voice.

So, Facebook has succeeded, in my opinion, in helping me stay in touch with my friends, but in a completely impersonal way. But, for all my complaining about how totally dehumanizing Facebook really is, what am I going to go do after I finish writing this? Well, I’m probably going to go check Facebook.

(Cartoon by Geek&Poke of Hamburg, Germany via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)







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November 13, 2008

Are Newspapers Headed to Extinction?

by Chef LC

Every morning my father wakes up, puts on his robe, makes himself a cup of coffee, and goes to our front porch (depending on the aim of the newspaper boy) to retrieve the morning paper. He sits down at the kitchen table and begins reading the daily news. The crumpling and turning of the large and sprawling paper is a comforting sound during breakfast time. It's hard to imagine his morning routine any differently but as online newspapers are gaining popularity, the old paper alternative may be on its way to extinction.

The internet has 24-hour coverage that is easily accessible through a computer, not to mention that many online newspapers are free. These sites have provided a new breeding ground for advertisers. The switch from newspaper ads to online ads is causing a large plunge in profits for several companies. Advertisers are reducing the number of their print ads because it's costly compared to the rather cheap online advertisements. Although this transition is good for advertisers it unfortunately aids in newspaper's revenue downfall. The newspaper industry is resorting to lay-offs and spending reductions. Time Inc., the home of TIME magazine, People, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated cut 600 jobs and began to reorganize its staff. Gannett, the biggest newspaper publisher in America, announced that it would lay off 10 percent of its work force (about 3,000 people.) The Tribune Company said that it would lower the number of workers in the Los Angeles Times newsroom by about 75 people. And that's just to name a few.

With new and younger generations more inclined to go online for their news sources, paper news may begin to fade quickly. The online news has a greater audience already because it's free and easily accessible. But sadly, most of newspaper's revenues come from the print production, a base that continues shrinking every day. These revenues help pay for the news that we are able to read. What will happen if newspapers cannot afford to pay reporters? The country may not be informed about world events; that's a scary thought.

Now every morning I wake up, make myself some tea, open my computer and click on my home page, The New York Times, where I read the daily news. Yes, my father's classic way of reading the newspaper and my millennial generation's routine do differ, but in the end we are both informing ourselves about the world — but this may not continue. This online, free convenience may not last long as papers have to cut back on reporters and spending because of the downfall in newspaper sales. Something has to be fixed. The news is a key way for people to inform themselves about world situations and events. If journalists can no longer work for pay, then America will become less and less knowledgeable about the news. The original newspapers need to figure out how to re-work and re-vamp their paper sales and make them appealing again to younger audiences. And besides, just imagine all those poor, jobless newspaper boys!

(Editor's Note: This piece is also cross-posted on the iVoryTowerz blog.)

(The photo is by Cultural Savage of Portland, OR via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)











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November 12, 2008

Computer Games & the Pirates

by Charlie Wilcox

Most people know about the trouble in the music industry today with people pirating and illegally downloading songs for free, with no money going to the artist or the record company. But what is lesser known yet is equally important is the pirating of computer games. The pirating and illegal downloading of computer games costs the developers billions of dollars each year and is a major problem facing the industry.

Computer game pirating is this widespread for many reasons. The main reason is that with the internet, it is easy for someone to get hold of a computer game for free from a piracy web site. In addition, with the growing general knowledge of computers and programming among young people, more users have the ability to pirate games on their own: The ability to merely access a pirate site and download a way to get around the copy protection on a game

The second reason why illegal downloading of computer games is common is that many games usually do not have much replayability. This means that those who buy most games will most often play through the game once, then shelve the game and move on. The low replayability of most games may cause gamers to think that the games they buy are not worth the fifty or sixty dollars that they would pay were they to buy the game legally. One way companies can fix this is by focusing more on innovation in the core gameplay of their games and less on making pretty graphics that draw people into buying their games. The major offenders of the graphics over gameplay thought process are sports games. Every year new sports games are being sold that merely update the roster for the new season, and perhaps enhance the graphics slightly. These games add almost nothing to the actual gameplay, yet charge a full price tag for the game every year. If companies make games that are worth playing for more than a few hours and make true innovations in the ways one can play the game, then people would be more willing to buy them instead of downloading them illegally.

Another reason people will pirate games is sometimes the methods that developers will use to stop people from pirating their games. With piracy of computer games so rampant, developers say, they need to keep creating and using more effective ways to stop the illegal use of their games. However, this often only works to encourage piracy of their games. This is because the pirated version of a game uses methods to get around or not include the copy-protection devices, while those who legally buy the game have to deal with the measures which are often very inconvenient for the average user.

The prime example of this is the recent backlash over games that use DRM, or digital rights management, software. This software has been reported to cause issues with some computers and has created outrage because a user may not be able to play the game after upgrading their computer. This has caused great outrage among the gaming community, with some going so far as to pirate a game purely because of the DRM software on the game. It has become so widespread that the popular web comic, xkcd, has included the subject as a focus of one of its comics. The use of DRM in some games has also led to many gamers boycotting games that include DRM software and even pirating games purely because of this. This was especially strong in the recent release of Spore, which caused many users to lodge complaints with the manufacturer Electronic Arts. In turn, many sites popular among gamers claim complaints among those playing Spore about DRM are encouraging those users help those involved with game piracy. The issue grew to such an extent that it even caught the eye of newspapers such as The Washington Post.

Overall, piracy in the computer gaming industry is a major problem, but much of it comes from the developers and not the pirates. People do not want to buy something that they do not believe will be worth their money, and will often use other channels to get it. In addition, gaming companies are pushing their customers towards piracy by attaching copy-protection software that is annoying and inconvenient at best, and infringing and harmful at worst, while not addressing the real issue of releasing games that their customers do not want to pay the price that retailers are charging.

The major gaming companies need to get back to the basics of operating a business and use that time-honored principle: The customer is always right.

(The photo is from fffleisch at morgueFile.)










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November 11, 2008

Changing the World of Warcraft

by Brian Chang

This Thursday, the World … of Warcraft will change forever. That's right, on November 13th, the latest addition to the World of Warcraft (WoW) series, The Wrath of the Lich King is expected to be released. With more subscribers than the entire population of Portugal at more than 11 million, World of Warcraft's latest change is causing excitement to mount for the new expansion pack. Furthermore, some speculate that subscriptions will increase further with the release of The Wrath of the Lich King.

This Mass Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) seems to garner such a wide audience because it provides an alternate reality and virtual, social environment for gamers. In many ways, Warcraft presents striking similarities to our own world. There is customization of characters that allows for individual identities similar to the real world, there are voting procedures, auctions, and a common currency, the Gold. But Warcraft's huge success seems to lie not in its comparable parallels to our universe, but in its distinct differences from reality. Warcraft players, upon logging on, are immediately immersed in Azeroth, a diverse realm of magic and mysticism populated by rival factions of humans, elves, and orcs.

There are several advantages in playing the online game. Warcraft allows for a social environment through which gamers can chat and build relationships with other gamers. Critical skills such as teamwork and cooperation are encouraged under the guild (specialized team) centered missions and tasks.

However, the enchantment and fascination for World of Warcraft has given rise to an addictive brand of Warcraft subculture. Starting with the $15 monthly membership fee that allows only payers to be part of this exclusive community, this near obsession with the game series has resulted in the culmination of countless fan pages, forums, shirts, novels, and toys. Avid Warcraft fans even utilize game jargon such as "tank," and "undead," terms that have very foreign implications to those outside the community.

It is safe to say that Warcraft for many of the 11 million gamers has become something more than just a hobby, or social computer game. With its worldwide distribution and reasonable price tag of $49.99, Warcraft has become a craving source of addiction, comparable to porn, gambling, and drugs. I compare the MMORPG to the likes of porn and drugs with reason. Warcraft is probably one of the few publicized games in which there have been reports of players selling their updated virtual characters and items for real cash. Yes, that's in dollars, not Gold. In addition, there have been incidents of death related to the Warcraft series. In South Korea in 2005, a man visited an internet cafe for a marathon gaming session with World of Warcraft and Starcraft. He didn't sleep or eat for at least 50 hours and he died of fatigue and exhaustion. Last year, in a similar incident, Chinese authorities reported a 26-year-old teacher collapsed and died after spending 15 days mostly playing online games. Although the authorities did not specify what games had bewitched the teacher before his death. Satirical media outlets such as Onion News and Southpark have humorously criticized the addiction that has become too synonymous with the online game.

Aside from the near extreme cases with Warcraft addiction, obsession with Warcraft has been responsible for the disruption of people's families, jobs, social and even physical health. Even though Warcraft provides a temporary social outlet for human interaction, gamers' heavy dependence on the MMORPG displaces them from the reality of our world, not Azeroth. With the release of The Wrath of the Lich King, we can only foresee the ongoing damage Warcraft will continue to impose on its growing number of subscribers.

(Screenshot from the World of Warcraft by srp6685 via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license. To see a trailer for The Wrath of the Lich King expansion pack for World of Warcraft, please check below.)










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November 10, 2008

Korea: Kim Jong-Il & his Hermit Kingdom

by Althea Avice de Guzman

In North Korea, foreign influence is prohibited. Media are barred. There are few televisions sets and limited uses for radio and the internet. Outside influence is so minimal, it seems as though the country alone exists in the world. And incredulously enough, the people's beliefs reflect just that: North Korea is the Garden of Eden while everyone else must be living contemptuously.
It is an inconceivable concept for Americans. The images we receive from that part of the world are emaciated children picking at the muddied grounds for any scrap of food. North Korean defectors are returned from China only to be executed. Human rights organizations have rallied for the United States' government to have an active role in intervening when such clear violations are being made to the human rights of North Korean citizens.

This is where American compassion can be misconstrued for arrogance because the real problem is that North Koreans do not believe there is anything wrong with their way of life. Why? Because it is the only thing they have ever known. Yes, they may acknowledge that difficulty exists, especially with the famine that continues even today, but it must be endured for the ultimate fate of the country.

If Freddy Krueger ever wore Mao's suit, it would be Kim Jong-Il, stalking the nightmare that George Orwell dreamt in his novel, 1984. Yet while Orwell dreamed of a government's pervasive control by totalitarianism, Kim Jong-Il takes it even further by establishing a theocracy, where he is God. The North Korean Constitution is essentially the Bible that is taught upon entering school, where its principles must be reflected in each class, from Russian to biology. As detestable as it may be, one must be in awe of such a perfect system of indoctrination.

In Orwell's novel, the government controls every aspect of a citizen's life, and it is no different in the reality that Kim has created: every citizen is his disciple, a fate borne from the womb. It is no surprise that for the past sixty years, there has been no documented sedition, no protests, coups or strikes. After all, a citizen is but a common believer who cannot possibly rebel against God.

All of this is possible because outside influence is not allowed and what modest media that exists in the country are controlled by the government as a means of intensifying indoctrination with propaganda reflecting the principles of Kim's Bible. Only 55 out of every 1,000 citizens even own a TV set and television only shows programs that the government approves of having patriotic principles, glorifying the leader. Reports are saturated with Kim's actions and ideals and thus do not have any room to report hardship. Even if any foreign media outlet could be accessed, there is a severe punishment for paying it any mind. Also, it seems that if ever the internet had a boundary, it would be found in North Korea. Such measures to limit media outlets like television, radio and the internet are easy because the country cannot afford any development in technology that even compares to the standard of living found in the West. All the money is invested in Kim's military ambitions including nuclear advancement.

Hence, the first step to be taken in aiding North Koreans is not through direct negotiations with the leader. There is some merit in the rest of the world criticizing America for its interference in other nations' sovereignty over their citizens. We may have good intentions, but what we need to realize is that the rest of the world has not been as privileged to know a better fate. The media saturation in this country allows for the proliferation of ideals in liberty and individualism; other countries are not so lucky.

So, where do we begin? Well, reading George Orwell doesn't hurt.

(The photo shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il meeting with troops; the photo was released by the North Korean Central News Agency in August, 2008, and is in the public domain.)







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November 9, 2008

Obama, Pakistan & the Media

by Ali Golomb

The media are a public service, and they are supposed to report unbiased information through raising tough questions. The New York Times' Stephen Dubner reported that 67.8% of all daily newspapers, 98.4% of college newspapers, and 100% of alternative weekly newspapers endorsed Barack Obama for the presidency. Because the majority of the media supported Obama, they failed to ask follow up and vital questions that were left unanswered during his candidacy. Even though I myself am a Democrat and an Obama supporter, I see how the media presented Obama as a knight in shinning armor who will save the American people.

One of the ways the media failed was that they did not ask President-elect Obama to go more in depth with his foreign policy plans. Obama argued the war in Iraq has distorted U.S. foreign policy. Obama said he would withdraw troops from Iraq, and focus instead on Pakistan. However, the media failed to question Obama further. Obama said that if Pakistan does not comply, he will consider taking action. The media played down the fact that Pakistan's government does not support terrorism, and Obama is giving another sovereign nation an ultimatum — adhere to our policies or else we will take action against your nation. President George W. Bush has this same attitude with Iraq.

Even though I too would like to be assured that our nation is going to be safe, the American people do not need the media to continue to glorify politicians. Rather, the American people need the media to raise difficult questions, and demand difficult answers because we cannot trust the government totally; we need the media to serve as a watchdog. We saw what happened when we did not raise difficult questions out of fear: American involvement in an unpopular war in Iraq that the majority of the public opposes.

(Political graphic from StrangePolitics, a website that offers copyright-free political material.)











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