Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Remote Area Medical

A huge truck rolls up and, with military precision, people start unloading equipment for a mobile medical clinic.  Outside, hundreds of people have been waiting hours in the hopes of scoring a ticket that entitles them to medical, dental and/or vision care.  The people are mostly poor, living in a struggling economy.  Somewhere in a developing country?  Nope.  This scene is taking place in the hills of Appalachia, just outside Knoxville Tennessee. 

Stan Brock

Remote Area Medical started when founder Stan Brock lived with Indian tribes in the Amazon and was horrified by their isolation from good medical care. He started Remote Area Medical in 1985 to address their needs.  However, as the organization has recognized the needs in the US, it has evolved to spend 60% of its time delivering health services to Americans who don't have access.

The film raises many questions.  How can the richest country in the world leave so many behind in terms of healthcare?  The filmmakers deliberately avoid politicizing the issues.  "That would have been a different film", they say.  It might also have alienated people on whom RAM depends for support.  In the Q&A, we were told that these people, staunch Republicans all, complain "Why can't we get rid of this Obamacare and get something in place like the Canadian system?", failing to see a connection between their voting patterns and health care issues in the US.

It seemed to me that there was room for creativity in attempting some preventative health education in these locations.  The people waiting in the parking, often camping overnight, were often sitting in pretty spiffy big pick-up trucks and SUVs.  Perhaps allocating some of their scarce money to a healthier lifestyle might have a huge payoff.  As we saw people streaming by whose only acquaintance with dental care was getting teeth pulled (and there were gory shots of piles of rotted, bleeding teeth from the day's work), I couldn't help wondering if adding an educational element to RAM's activities might have a huge payback.  Some creative education techniques, mandatory before you entered for treatment, might lead to better dental hygiene.  It might also have some impact on the woman who received news about a spot on her lung by lighting up a comforting cigarette.

It was a sad movie for a Canadian.  It should be a shocking movie for any American.

15 Reasons to Live

A chance encounter with an old acquaintance who had created a list of 15 reasons to live - such as love, solitude, art, individuality, humour, friendship, intoxication, praise, home, and work - inspired Alan Zweig to film short stories illustrating these themes.  A Montreal man who set out to walk around the world and his loving wife who gave him the room to do that.  The woman who fell in love with a lighthouse and then with the lighthouse keeper, and yearns to return as the museum keeper now that it's no longer operational.  Howard Engel, the Canadian author whose stroke makes it very difficult for him to read, but allows him to keep writing.

These short stories are more developed than the vignettes in The Garden of Eden.  The movie is thoroughly delightful.


Visionary or villain?  Idealist or thief?  You decide how to classify Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker after watching Downloaded, a film about the founding of Napster, its supersonic growth, and equally meteoric fall after legal attacks about copyright infringement.

In 1999, when Napster was founded, there weren't many people who 'got' the Internet, much less a peer-to-peer file sharing service.   Most people thought Napster actually hosted the music, rather than hosting a directory of where the music was and effecting an introduction between someone who was willing to share an MP3 recording and someone who wanted it.  (Actually one judge seemed to understand this completely, but he was involved in a case accusing Napster of piracy that Napster lost anyway.)  So were they fostering pirates, or were they launching a visionary new way of forming communities on the Web.

There was a definite 'he said, she said' feeling about the movie.  The record executives said Napster people were totally unwilling to negotiate.  The Napster people accused the record companies of exactly the same intransigence.  Personally, I find Napster's claims easier to believe, because they had no business model unless they figured out a way to charge and share the revenue with the record companies.  Thomas Middelhoff at Bertelsman actually got it and did a deal with Napster, but was unable to bring along the rest of the record labels and lost $50M in the end.

Ultimately this is a sad movie, as Shawn Fanning created something technically momentous (independent of what you think of the legal niceties) and had it crushed by more powerful players.   Both Fanning and Parker have gone on to other ventures that have made them rich, but there was a definite wistfulness as they talked about those early days.  As one audience member asked the director in the Q&A, are they rich but sad?

Shorts at Hot Docs

Hot Docs screens some delightful shorts at the Festival.  There have been good ones over the years, but this year, I've particularly enjoyed the ones I've seen.

Like a Breath
This just might be my favourite short ever at Hot Docs.  A young woman alternates between performing wonderful modern dance and taking a cornucopia of pills and injections for her cystic fibrosis.  The sound track consists of her laboured breathing.  This 5 minute film really grabbed me.

This film was a hilarious 17-minute romp through waste ground near Glasgow, following 'doo men' the dedicated, intense men who fly pigeons for sport.  The idea is to have your hen attract a rival's doo, the male, to your doocot, and then pull a net trap over the doo to capture him.  In an area with high unemployment, it's a cheap sport for people with lots of time on their hands.  Almost as hilarious as the antics of the 'doo men' was the need for subtitles for the thick Glaswegian accent - even with the subtitles there, I sometimes found it hard to separate out the words.  (For more information on 'doo fleein' see this report in the Scotsman.)

Yellow Sticky Notes
8 minutes.  15 sticky notes.  15 to-do lists.  15 animators.   What a great idea!  And what a rich variety of animations of their to-do lists, mixing practicality and whimsy.

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Garden of Eden

The Garden of Eden is a lovely collection of vignettes about the regulars who frequent the so-called Garden of Eden at Sakhne, a lovely spring-fed lake in Israel.  The stories are mostly poignant stories of loss: the rueful divorced man who swims every day to fill the lonely hours between work and bedtime; the wistful Arab with a wife he 'gets along with OK'who gave up too easily on his relationship with the love of his life, a Jewish girl; the ticket-taker who wonders why she took 33 years to leave her abusive husband; the man who still struggles with guilt that he survived a war that killed his brother and best friend.

A charming movie.  I had the good fortune to meet interesting people in line, one of whom had lived near Sakhne and had been there.  He said it was a lovely as it looked in the film.  Now I want to go there too.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Expedition to the End of the World

Climate change opens a passage into a previously inaccessible fjord in Greenland and a diverse group of scientists and artists voyage there to study the animals, search for archeological remains, take samples of the permafrost, and muse on the meaning of life.  I loved the mix of science and art, and the humour and irony so seldom seen in a scientific documentary.

Did it ultimately work?  The scenery was breathtaking - rugged and imposing - while the philosophizing was opaque, at least to me and one of the other characters in the movie.  I think this would have been better at 60 minutes than it was at 90 minutes.

Before the Revolution

The Israelis are showing the film Raid on Entebbe on the outside wall of their embassy in Tehran, and Iranians are watching from the rooftops and balconies, weeping at the death of an Israeli commando and three Israeli hostages and cheering at the ultimate defeat of the Arab hijackers.  Really?  Iranians cheering Israelis?  The movie opens with this story told by a former security guard at the Israeli embassy.  Startling to say the least.

Before the Revolution told a story I'd never heard before, of the close relationship between Iran and Israel during the Shah's reign.  Israel sought a friendship with a neighbour in a region where they felt they could use all the friends they could get.  Iran provided Israel with oil and Israel 'provided Iran with everything else', but especially weapons and infrastructure.

The Israeli community included a variety of people.  Mossad officers who had helped guide the creation of the Iranian secret police and intelligence service were there to co-ordinate intelligence and to hobnob with Iran's powerful generals.  The rest were mostly there to build Iranian infrastructure, to live a highly privileged life in Tehran and to salt away money for their return to Israel.

Director Dan Shadur grew up in Tehran and weaves in family videos and reminiscences to give us a picture of the charmed life of Israelis in Iran, until they ignominiously fled after the return of Khomeni.  As one man put it, it really rankled to have to accept American help for that escape.

Before the Revolution once again underlined the risks of consorting with despots.  You may regret the hands those weapons fall into!

This was another good movie.  Well worth seeing.

Which Way is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington

Tim Hetherington was a tall, lanky man with a craggy handsome face, a winning smile and an uncanny capacity for connecting with people.  A photojournalist who covered conflict zones, his main goal was to connect with people he was photographing.  He felt you had to be more than a photographer, you had to be a participant.

His initial foray was covering the revolution in Liberia, capturing in action the young men whose sole uniform consisted of rust-coloured T-shirts with their cause identified on the front.  And he was hooked - not so much on the process of shooting pictures of the weapons and the gore - but on trying to understand the young men involved.

Although his sympathies tended to lie with underdog rebels, he spent a year with an American platoon deployed in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan.  This period solidified his conviction that war created a common bond among men unmatched in the rest of their lives.  His friend and colleague Jim Brabazon remarked in the Q&A following the film that as long as there are young men yearning for such a bond, there will always be the raw material for creating wars.

Hetherington and his colleague Sebastian Junger's film Restrepo was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2010.  Hetherington traded in his combat gear for a tux and walked through a surreal Hollywood with his fantastically beautiful girlfriend.

Despite making a decision to give up the risky life of the conflict journalist, he was irresistibly drawn to Libya to cover the revolution there.  In footage taken in a jeep with other journalist comrades, Tim is heard to ask "Which way is the front line from here?", and this becomes the title of the elegy Junger films in honour of his friend. but sadly lost his life after a piece of shrapnel pierced his femoral artery.  Tim's life could have been saved if one of the journalists of rebels with him had been trained how to deal with such trauma, and in his memory, Junger has started a not-for-profit called RISC - Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues.

In the Q&A, there was discussion about the increase of young untrained freelancers going to conflict zones, and a reference to the fact that major media companies are not buying photos from freelancers.  Brabazon bristled at the idea that this might be because of ethical values of the media.  He pointed out that they'd always buy a great photo after the fact, but didn't want to 'commission' it beforehand, in order to avoid any issues of liability, or the cost of insuring the photojournalist.

This was a very good film indeed and I highly recommend it.  And Restrepo is now very high on my list of 'must see' films too.

Hot Docs 2013

Hot Docs is here once more.  205 films in 10 days.  Alas I can't see them all.  About 2,000 people from more than 50 countries.  Very exciting.

Reviews to follow soon.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Blondes

Quick.  How many blonde jokes can you think of?  The blonde joke has always struck me as being misogynistic. You never hear jokes about blonde men, do you?

What if the blonde put-down become more vicious because a virus emerges that only targets blondes and turns them into frenzied predators who attack random victims?
 That's the premise of The Blondes.

Hazel Hayes is a Canadian post graduate student who has just moved to New York to continue her studies in aesthetology and write her thesis, an essay on 'what women look like and what we think they look like'.   She witnesses the first Blonde Fury attack at a New York subway stop, before it's been identified as an epidemic.

About the same time, she discovers she is pregnant as a result of her affair with her thesis supervisor.  Dealing with her unplanned pregnancy in the midst of a full-blown epidemic is challenging.  Her return to Canada is thwarted as an incident of Blonde Fury closes the airport in New York and sparks quarantines at the Canadian border for blondes entering Canada.

The book examines attitudes towards women, relationships, a woman's view of her pregnancy and many other big themes.  The different themes and plot lines reinforce each other, significantly enriching the narrative.

I had a couple of niggles with the book - the unnecessary improbability that the virus attacked dyed blondes and the fact that dying your blonde hair protected from the virus, and the lack of explanation of how Hazel's conversation with her unborn child found its way to paper.  For some reason, these niggles bothered me throughout the book

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Coursera's Signature Track

When disruptive innovations arrive in an industry, people often judge their impact by what they see at that initial entry point.  However, those innovations undergo constant improvements, taking them on a trajectory far beyond their industry entry point.

One of the objections to MOOCs is the fact students can't get a validated certification of what they've learned in the course.  Coursera has already taken steps toward remedying that.  There is now a Signature Track which allows you to get certification that you have successfully passed the course.

For the course I'm just starting, Healthcare Innovation and Entrepreneurship, I have just received a message offering me the option to take a Signature Track, which will get me certification.  Coursera will validate that I am who I say I am in two ways - through video identification as I sit in front of my computer, and by verifying my identity by matching up to my typing pattern.  For this I would pay $69, although I'm given a early-bird discount to $39 for this new feature.  Taking the course without credit is still free.

Coursera has moved swiftly along the path of sustaining innovation.  Those venture capitalists who invested in Coursera are going to start seeing revenue!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Higher Education at the Crossroads

Last night on TVO's always-intelligent The Agenda with Steve Paikin, there was a very interesting discussion of higher education.  Many people are convinced that higher education is in for a huge disruption, enabled by new digital learning technologies that not only allow many people to experience education and do it in a cost-effective way, but arguably improve the learning experience on several measures by allowing it to be personalized and self-paced.

The Agenda's panel of intelligent, articulate folks from Ontario post-secondary institutions weren't buying it.  They fervently felt that online education was very much a sustaining innovation that could improve the existing institutions.  Only the participant from Athabasca University, a flexible online post-secondary institution, saw the possibility of online education displacing existing institutions.  (I'm oversimplifying here).  Most were creatively looking at how they could exploit the technology to improve their existing offerings - like some University of Toronto approaches that 'flip the classroom'.  But most gave off an air of relative complacency, especially the participant from a community college.

As for the idea that Paikin floated about whether we needed to have more co-operation between universities and community colleges, there were some platitudes, but true feelings emerged when there was a bun fight about whether university or college graduates experience higher employment placements.

Interesting program.

I am in the midst of teaching my Managing Innovation course to MBA students at Queen's and their final project is to come up with a great innovation in the post-secondary education field.  I'm dying to hear what approach they'll take.  Will they go for a sustaining innovation that sticks to the existing business model but makes it much better (either through introducing online learning or some other approach completely) or will they jump into disruption with both feet and seek to overturn the existing system?  Will they look at the total population, or focus in on some segment of the market (perhaps business education, since that's what they've involved in themselves)?  I'm open to all approaches, and I can't wait to hear what they have to say.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Nuclear Explosions 1945-1998

Look here for a dynamic data visualization that is a real eye opener.  It tracks the nuclear explosions that have taken place, and the countries that set them off, between 1945 and 1998.  Be patient at the beginning of the animation, when explosions are rare; things soon pick up alarmingly.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Highway Driving in Canada

I've previously written about highway driving in India, and highway driving in America.  Time for highway driving in Canada.

After an enjoyable two months in Arizona, we've returned to Canada.  Most of our children and grandchildren are in the Toronto area and a raft of good friends and we couldn't wait to see them all again.  Skype is only so good!

Rushing along the highway, back in the land where everyone drives substantially over the speed limit, unlike in the US, we were watching the kilometers click away.  Driving in kilometers is so much more satisfying than miles - they melt away so quickly.

After a couple of months in whitebread Arizona suburbs, we started to notice the demographic diversity of Canada, just by looking at the drivers of the cars.  Welcome to the cultural mosaic that is Canada.

We were eager to re-engage with all things Canadian.  The iPod was pouring out Gordon Lightfoot:  all his great hits, starting with The Canadian Railroad Trilogy.   Could you be more Canadian than that?

Hearing Lightfoot sing Carefree Highway reminded us of Arizona, where we stayed close to Carefree and often crossed Carefree Highway.

Our other Canadian celebration was to treat ourselves to a Tim Hortons iced cappuccino.  Well, actually, we jumped the gun a bit on that one and had an iced cap just before crossing the border from Michigan.  Those Tim Hortons outlets just ooze over the border.

Children, grandchildren, friends, kilometers, diversity, Lightfoot, Tim Hortons.  And, oh yes, our own mattress.   The joys of Canada.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Rest Stop That Refreshes Your Brain

Highway rest stops are usually designed to give drivers a short rest, a place to stretch their legs and take care of other biological necessities.

Driving home to Toronto, we stopped at a marvellous rest stop in Iowa that also refreshed the mind.  Somebody had their creative hat on when they designed this lovely place.

Just outside Iowa City, this rest stop celebrated the Iowa Writers' Workshop of the University of Iowa.  Founded in 1936, the Iowa Writers' Workshop was the first such creative writing locus in the US.  This rest stop had a large statue of an old fashioned pen nib, and script over the walls.

The inside was even more interesting.  There was a stock ticker style digital display showing quotes from authors related to the Iowa Writers Workshop, or to Iowa.  The walls were engraved with authors' names, and there was a quote from Kerouac on the floor.  What a pleasure to contemplate some of the quotes during your road break.

Outside, the picnic areas were sheltered by metal sheets, with more quotes cut out.  Topping it all off were wood-carved lettering indicating the washrooms.
Worth a trip to Iowa?  Maybe not.  But definitely worth a stop even if you don't need one.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Nudging - A Practical Guide

Thaler and Sunstein's book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness gave new meaning to the word nudge.  Nudging people towards making better choices for themselves has proved to be very effective in many situations.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which I reviewed in a previous post.

Now Kim Ly, Nina Mazar, Min Zhao and Dilip Soman, of the Rotman School of Management at University of Toronto have published A Practitioner's Guide to Nudging (available free online here).  It categorizes the types of nudges one can choose from, gives some great examples of where nudges have worked, and provided a step-by-step process for figuring out the best nudge in a given situation.

I'm also looking forward to an upcoming talk by Sunstein at Rotman on April 29.