Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category
February 2, 2013 | Reviews
Punxsutawney Phil has spring in his step. The vermin emerged from his lair, didn’t see its shadow, wasn’t picked off by coyotes and didn’t otherwise disappoint the thousands watching in the unfortunately named burg of Gobbler’s Knob, PA.
One of our favorite movies of all time is the splendid Groundhog Day (for our least favorite, see Batman & Robin and the case we made that it’s the worst film of all time).
In the existential comedy Bill Murray wakes up one day to live the same life over and over -the conceit of the film expertly safeguarded by a snowstorm, preventing him from easily going anywhere more interesting (Pittsburgh is a 90-minute drive, NYC four and a half hours and it’s safe to assume that anywhere would be more interesting than a town whose primary tourist draw is something that looks like it escaped from one of the nation’s finer cosmetics labs.)
Of course, living the same day over and over isn’t a problem if you’re in Tokyo or London, where one could “sure as heckfire” be swallowed up in fun hedonistic pursuits and lost in the crowd with fewer chance encounters with (one would hope), “Ned…Ned Ryerson!!”
Murray’s character grows increasing weary of small town existence after bedding all the eligible women (not many as it turns out – you’d be better off marooned in Vegas or LA). As in the modern vampire trope, immortality soon becomes wearisome as Murray’s Phil Connors experiences the in toto hell of small town living – knowing absolutely everything about everyone instead of merely more than you’d want to. He soon becomes perfectly adapted to his environment – as philosopher John Gray put it, “What could be more dreary than the perfection of mankind? The idea of progress is only the longing for immortality…”
Even a dream realized of no longer having to work, becomes a nightmare from which escape is impossible.
A line from the present Pennsylvania Groundhog Day celebration can be drawn to to Candlemas Day, an ancient festival marking the midpoint of winter, halfway between the shortest day and the spring equinox. In Germany, it was said that “For as the sun shines on Candlemas Day, so far will the snow swirl until May. For as the snow blows on Candlemas Day, so far will the sun shine before May.”
Germans brought their folklore (if not their animal – a hedgehog) to Pennsylvania and now, cities great and small have something furry whose prognostications could shame even the most shameless cold-reading “psychics” (as a point of interest, when the St Louis Zoo ran out of groundhogs, they conscripted a potbellied pig named Bacon, who sounds delicious and probably was, to cover the 96 forecast).
Other cultures have similar rituals. In Thailand and Cambodia, the Royal Plowing Ceremony involves hitching “sacred” oxen to a wooden plow and furrowing ceremonial ground while seeds are sown and the animals are given offerings of rice, corn, and strangely, rice whiskey. Depending on the chosen repast, astrologers predict whether the upcoming growing season will be a prosperous one and which of their livestock will have to 12-hoof it.
Of course, the equivalent call for an early spring would be met with indifference in two countries with damn-near perfect climates (at least to anyone hunkering down in an Ontario February, where it’s possible to freeze to death making a run for smokes).
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November 12, 2012 | Reviews
By Giles Slade
*** (out of 5)
Confession: I read this book on the subway. Yes, I engaged in that most solitary of activities, reading, in order not to be bothered on my commute. Missing out on the “simple satisfaction of well-stocked bookshelves”, in deference to the author, I also returned the book to the library, after self-checking it out with little diminution in pleasure I couldn’t ascribe to the content.
Every few years, technophobe fulminations grace the market – arguments not too different in form Neil Postman’s portents and adopting the language of conspiracy theorists: forces at work about which the public is oblivious, whether it’s adding girth, eroding civic discourse, democracy, attention spans…
Technology and Isolation
In The Big Disconnect Giles Slade rolls a ball down a lane not unlike Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (I’m part of a monthly journalist community meet-up group, organized on Facebook, which previously would’ve been organized by smoke signals or not at all), chronicling how technology has become a surrogate for human interaction, isolating us as a result. In the movie Surrogates, people live by proxy through remotely-controlled androids (years in the future, there’s still no cure for Bruce Willis’ male pattern baldness though) and perhaps we’ll soon develop robotic companions who are smarter than us, wittier conversationalists and perhaps even more trustworthy as well (unless they learn to cheat on us with other attractive robots).
Slade warns we are putting more of our trust in machines as the complexity of our lives increases – a “trend toward eliminating human interactions for reasons of speed, efficiency, cost”…we have machines tally our votes, act as conduits for our socializing, do much of our commerce online trusting faceless banks and retailers (the irony of being victims of “identity theft”, when our identity is reduced to an alphanumeric is pointed out). As he puts it, “Buying Christmas presents…from a neighborhood merchant I know well is a very different experience from typing my credit card info [online]”.
As he points out, we even have machines “write credible and substantially cheaper-to-produce sports stories eliminating the need for human sports reporters.” (Has he read much of what passes for sports writing?)
The dissolution of trust in one another is “ground zero for our contemporary isolation” a symptom of which is “a marked increase in serial killings in the United States after the mid-century” (Never mind that violent crime and murder rates are on the decline in the US and UK).
The development of the modern metropolis has reconfigured trust as well, as cities have shot skyward with the advent of cheap structural steel, becoming less connected to specific physical landscapes, with concomitant detachments with our neighbors with whom we often “avert eye contact should you check the mail at the same time”, says comedian Doug Stanhope.
Slade frequently cites Jane Jacobs (a creature of her time as many urbanists will tell you) while more Americans are flocking to cities now than a decade ago. If we’re becoming more alienated from one another, we’re certainly more masochistic about it. Slade opines there are “fewer brick-and-mortar sites to meet people face-to-face”, news to me as I write this from a coffee shop, which have proliferated seemingly everywhere.
A laundry list of oxytocin-releasers are drawn up – the so-called “trusting hormone” – whether it’s mom’s trusting voice, singing, back-rubs, social capital studies, begging the question of whether more trust is necessarily a good thing even if it feels good to have someone trust you.
Slade looks at Smartphone coupon apps and the Sony Walkman’s development in 1979, that oft-mentioned isolationist alternative to human interactive despite the fact that the bulk of users are traveling/jogging solo, not listening to modern MP3 exemplars at the expense of seatmates / interlocutors. We “navigate the rugged and uneven urban landscapes between our islands of social acceptance” all the while still enjoying music in groups, maybe not in the kitchen with a washboard and a slide whistle, nor among dozens of our fellow workers in the factories and in the fields, but at concerts.
We are urged to get back to nature (or at least the romanticized view of it held by Thoreau, quoted at the book’s outset) and away from the tech gadgets we literally love, according to fMRI data showing increased insular cortical activity associated with both loving compassion and, as it turns out, iPhones.
Digital devices are post-modern “time wasters”, “not intrinsically bad…rather, technological inventions contribute to human isolation through excessive and unconscious use.” Have things gotten so miserable since the gutter ball beer league disbanded?