Monthly Archives: September 2010

Technology Addiction

Inspired by the question of whether Facebook might be considered an addiction, I’ve cast an eye around our apartment (you can cast an eye around the whole thing at once) and identified other technologies that I am addicted to.  An addiction shall be defined as a technology that it’s possible to live without but without which I would be greatly impaired from functioning.  Turns out there are tons.

  • The internet.  It incorporates itself into every aspect of my life.  I would be unable to apply to grad schools without it.  One of my offline hobbies is drawing; when I was working on this picture, I read the description by lord Gacek online, browsed the internet for pictures and information about landsknechts and ancient Chinese armor, drew the sketch, scanned and uploaded it for lord Gacek to approve, inked it, and scanned and uploaded it again.  I would have been completely unable to draw that picture without the internet.
  • Word processors.  I haven’t hand-written a novel since college (pro tip: just because they’re writing stuff down doesn’t mean they’re paying attention) and all the serious ones were transcribed later.  I’m shackled to conveniences like being able to cut and paste to reorder passages, and the handy find/replace function for when I decide to change a name.
  • Cars.  Since the hour-and-a-half bus commute experiment was declared a failure, I’ve relied on our car to get me to LACMA.  Moving would have been outright impossible without our friend’s Ranchero.
  • Phones.  I hate them, but life is filled with so many logistics.  Besides, you have to put a phone number on things like job applications.
  • Watches.  Keeping track of how much time has passed has never been one of my mental skills.
  • Washers and dryers.  I’ve never washed clothes by hand or hung them to dry and I don’t think I’d be very good at it.
  • Refrigerators.  Planning meals around available food resources bought fresh and used before they spoil would be a fiasco for someone who can’t even get multiple dishes on the table at the same time.  I think it also helps if you have a root cellar.
  • Smoke detectors.  This is one I perhaps literally couldn’t live without; the miscellany of pans boiled dry probably would have been caught anyway with no casualties except the pan, but who knows?
  • Electric illumination.  I’m a night owl and, since hobbies like drawing require sufficient light and I’d probably kill myself messing around with kerosene and candles (assuming we’d already eliminated smoke detectors), I need electric light.
  • Lip gloss.  I’m a dry-lipped addict.
  • Stoves.  Did you know that native Californians cooked in baskets?  They were woven watertight and they could drop a hot stone in and boil water.  Yeah, I couldn’t do that.  Then again, given that we had a casualty (Jordan’s thumb) when making fry bread, maybe it’s just us and native American cooking.
  • Indoor heating.  After the windstorm of Christmas 2006, my parents’ house was without power for about a week and sank to a chilly 50 degrees.  It was a long week.
  • Running water.  I use a great deal of water, much more than I could carry even if there was a readily available source.
  • Plastic.  I own an unbelievable amount of plastic stuff.
  • Printing.  I love books.  Our apartment is full of them.  I’d never get along without a ready supply of reading material.
  • Pencils.  Writing with a stylus on a wax tablet would really crimp my style.
  • Soap.  ‘Nuff said.
  • Maps.  I don’t think I’d have much luck building a mental image of my surroundings without ever looking at a picture of them.
  • Processed foods.  I’m not talking Cheez-Wiz and frozen pizzas here, but I’ve got a kitchen full of dried herbs and milled flour, and I didn’t do any of that myself.  Even juice I only make by hand on special occasions.
  • Glass.  Before glassblowing was invented around Roman times, it was an astonishingly rare resource.  There’s almost as much of it around my place as there is plastic.
  • Written language.  The druids were right:  I have a hopeless memory.
  • Paved roads.  Thanks again, Romans.
  • The wheel.  You knew that was going to be on there, didn’t you?
  • Shoes.  Partly it’s the temperature down here in Pasadena, but I can’t even make it to the mailbox barefoot.  I’ll never be one of those Kenyan marathon runners.
  • Refined metals.  I could name natural resources all day.

There are or were people who have lived without every item on this list, but I couldn’t do without even one of them.  What do you say, is it time for a fast from all the technologies we’re addicted to?

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A Week without Social Media

I’m behind on everything because I’ve been moving, but I can’t possibly let Harrisburg University’s week-long social media blackout pass without a comment.

I don’t know about you, but regardless of what justifications are put forth, this has “curmudgeon” written all over it.  Not necessarily old curmudgeon–the originator in his forties–but a curmudgeon nonetheless: “I made do without Facebook when I was your age and so can you!”

It’s an experiment, says Eric Darr, the professor enforcing it.  A learning experience.  At the end, students will write reflective essays about the experience (I’m sure they’re delighted about that).  But it’s hard to believe it’s a lesson rather than a punishment, given that it’s forced.  Students don’t have the choice to participate.  To make it a shared experience, Darr says, and to avoid the confusion of students not participating trying to get a hold of students who are.  If only there was a sort of shared personal website where someone could alert friends and acquaintances that one was going to be offline for a week.

Darr, along with a lot of over-35s, thinks that young people are becoming addicted and need to learn how to cope without social media.  Hogwash, I say.  There will always be new technology and it will always displace old ways of doing things and lifestyles will always change as a consequence.  It’s always possible to wean oneself off these advances and, yes, it requires adjustment, but who cares?

Because the same logic could be applied to cell phones or regular phones or email or all computers or all typing devices or written language as a whole or cars or wheeled transportation in general or just about everything else.  We could go for a week without any of these.  There are even arguments to be made for doing so: the ancient Celts swore that writing ruined your memory.  We’re now addicted to writing and can’t remember a thing we didn’t make a note of.

When I was growing up in the days before e-commerce, my parents booked all our airline tickets over the phone.  By the time I started booking my own flights, online was the norm.  I remember realizing that I didn’t know how to book plane tickets over the phone–not that I expect it to be difficult; I’ve just never done it.  This was quickly followed by the realization that it didn’t matter: I knew the correct current procedure, and the phone method was just one of a thousand slightly obsolete ways of doing things, not particularly better or worse than any other possible way of booking plane tickets, not even interesting enough to be a trivia fact, let alone worth actually doing.

And life without social media isn’t even that different!  I could see how it could be beneficial, if nerdy, to maybe live like pioneers for a week, washing your clothes in a tub and all the rest, because you’d be forced to actually make drastic lifestyle changes.  But having to text or email your friend instead of IMing him?  Not that different.

Fact is, Darr would probably never think of having a week-long fast from telephones or cars.  The very idea would strike him as silly.  He grew up with these conveniences and he knows that they didn’t make his generation a bunch of indolent imbeciles.  But like many middle-aged people, he understands the technologies of his time, knows how to navigate life with their aid, and doesn’t quite see the benefit of this new stuff–though its downsides are clear enough to him.  Quite possibly he holds a lingering resentment against these newer, more convenient ways of doing things, since they weren’t available to him at that age.  It’s a common sentiment, hence the eternal narrative that the next generation is growing up lazy because they’ve never learned how to work*.

Remember, I don’t even use social media.  My last Facebook update was changing my status from “single” to “married.”  But plenty of generations of new technologies and conveniences have gone by without the world imploding in an ADD-generated singularity.  Life changes.  It’s not a threat, it’s not the enemy, and you might as well get used to it.

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*There are reasons to think that this might actually be happening, but they are social, not technological.  Hiring a maid is a lot more likely to make you lazy than buying a washing machine.

Picture from Failbook (yes, I changed the picture; this one just seemed so appropriate).

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My Love-Hate Relationship with Disney’s Hunchback

Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame came out in 1996, overshadowed by the previous year’s The Lion King and that same year’s Toy Story, and it has since languished as the unloved Disney’s 90’s Renaissance.  I was smack in the middle of its target audience at the time, yet I’ve only seen it once, maybe twice.  For me, like many other people, it’s a problematic movie.  It’s got some huge flaws, but in the end I’m cautiously approving of this movie, because it also handles many things well, including themes that you rarely see anywhere else in the animated canon.

Bad parts first.  Let’s get adaptation decay out of the way:  It’s a problem with all Disney movies.  Yes, it hits you hardest when you like the source material (I’ve always had a particular vendetta against Hercules), but the ending of Hunchback isn’t particularly more revisionist than the ending of, say, The Little Mermaid.  A Victor Hugo novel does have a canon, unlike a fairy tale, and probably deserves more respect as a medium, both factors that make its wanton abuse less tolerable.

It’s plagued with the standard Disney complement of annoying sidekicks (though Frollo, thankfully, lacks 0ne); the most that can be said for the gargoyles is that they’re stuck in the cathedral and, therefore, long stretches of movie go by without them.

Oh, and the moral of the story is that you can’t get the girl if you’re ugly.

So Hunchback doesn’t suffer from a lot of problems, it suffers from one absolutely horrendous problem.  Nigh unforgivable.  It makes one long for the trite messages about being yourself or even the empty froth of the movies where everyone gets what they want and no one learns anything.  It’s just such an ugly thing to do, particularly in a canon where the lead guy always gets the girl–always (the only other exception is Pocahontas, in a feeble concession to historical accuracy)*.  There’s a direct-to-video sequel where Quasimodo does end up getting the girl–a different girl–but that’s too little, too late.  This movie would need to have a huge volume of pluses to cancel out that one minus.

As it turns out, it does.

First off, it’s part of the Disney Renaissance, so the music is good and the visuals beautiful.    The songs aren’t as catchy as, say, The Lion King, but the music goes together well into a holistic soundtrack with themes that repeat and mix, more like a proper musical than other Disney films, where unrelated songs pop up at even intervals.  I prefer the Hunchback approach.  Its songs also carry a lot of complex emotional content, ranging from wistfulness to the fear of damnation.  The latter song, “Hellfire,” is one of the film’s moments of astounding success.  More on that later.

The whole movie is wonderfully dark and un-Disneyish.  It squeaked by with a G rating, Disney having learned their lesson about PG animated films from their previous foray into darker fare, The Black Cauldron, but it contains enough injuries (yes, Phoebus has the cleanest arrow wound ever, but you do actually see the arrow sticking out of him), “damn”s and “Hell”s (used in the religious sense) and implied sexual content that one wonders if the MPAA was really paying attention.  This isn’t for everyone, but it’s a distinct and refreshing break from Disney’s standard mode of operation.

The lead trio is…unfortunate.  One immediately wants to hate Phoebus for being the handsome love interest added because Quasimodo doesn’t fit the bill, and if he were a standard Knight in Shining Armor, you would indeed hate him.  But he isn’t.  He’s a snarker.  He gets loads of one-liners, starting with the wonderful “Look at that disgusting display.”  “Yes, sir!” exchange.  His position as a soldier in an unjust city puts him in constant conflict between what he’s told to do and what he knows he should do, giving him more depth than many Disney protagonists and making his heroic moments that much more heroic**.  If Quasimodo were not part of the picture, I’d rank Phoebus as one of the most likeable Disney lead guys.  It would take an exceptionally good character to overcome the fact that he was just added as a love interest–but Phoebus is an exceptionally good character.

But he isn’t the character that makes the movie.  As with many Disney movies, that honor goes to the villain.  But Frollo is a unique Disney villain, motivated by sanctimonious pride–and lust.  Not love, lust.  It’s oblique, of course, but unmistakable.  Which brings us back to his song, “Hellfire,” wherein he tries to maintain his self-image as a righteous man, which is challenged by his feelings for Esmeralda:  “Like fire, hellfire, this fire in my skin/This burning desire is turning me to sin.”  He tries to place the blame on her for seducing him, but can’t shake the fear (enhanced by a background chorus of ominous Latin mea culpas) that his soul is in danger.  The song ends with a despairing “God have mercy on her.  God have mercy on me,” accompanied by the kyrie eleison.

The weakness of this film is in its themes, but even those are not without redeeming value.  The intended theme of the movie–that what makes someone a man or a monster is his actions, not his appearance–is well delivered and comes as a refreshing change from the underlying trend of Beauty Equals Goodness found so often in movies (remember, even the Beast from Beauty and the Beast is rewarded in the end by becoming a handsome prince).

Even better handled is the church.  Churches and religion are conspicuously, if understandably, absent from Disney movies as a whole, but this one tackles the topic head-on, diving straight into the conflicts surrounding religion in a surprisingly nuanced and non-anvilicious way.  The church isn’t, as often happens, the villain: Frollo is now a judge, and the priest is an unequivocally positive, if often powerless, character who urges Esmeralda to rely on God when she feels that no one can help her.  God gets directly mentioned in Esmeralda’s subsequent prayer, which contrasts her desire to help the powerless with other’s wishes for wealth and power (a refreshing change from the standard Disney song about the hero’s own desires).  Overall, the church is presented as a good institution that can be abused.  Many more serious movies have handled the topic far less gracefully.

Good movie or bad movie?  It’s complicated.  The flaws are egregious, but there are great successes as well.  The movie’s ability to inspire this much discussion at all is a mark in its favor, separating it from a lot of vacuous Disney films and pushing it into “worth seeing” territory.  I think the good outweighs the bad.  The movie is strong aesthetically, character-wise, and even thematically.  But, if you watch it, you can decide for yourself how it measures up.

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*You may recognize Quasimodo, Esmeralda, and Phoebus as a Luke-Leia-Han trio, but that illustrates the problem: When the lancer gets the girl instead of the lead, it’s because there’s a serious problem with the lead getting her.

**Jordan and I decided that Phoebus is neutral good, willing to obey the system or defy it depending on which he sees as right.

All images belong to Disney; the screen captures were taken by me.

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Why

Fred Clark of Slacktivist wants to know why anyone would have written the virus on his computer.

Is it from boredom? Because that’s just nuts. The world is a vast and glorious place. Your hometown, however small it may be, contains more secrets and mysteries and wonders than you will ever have time to explore. Your local library contains more life-changing, luminous books than you will ever have time to read. All five seasons of The Wire are out on DVD. You haven’t seen even half of the AFI’s 100 Greatest Movies. There’s a Habitat work site within a short drive of wherever you are. And a food pantry, a farmer’s market and all manner of shelters and clinics and tutoring programs in need of volunteers. There are streams, highways and creatures awaiting adoption. Your elderly neighbor could use a hand with a few chores. And if you’re anywhere near my latitude, then there’s garlic and kale and lettuce to be planted and weeded and tended.

“Why?” he asks in all the naïveté of his comfortable suburban middle-aged middle-class existence.  One can hear the house and the wife and the kids and the dog emanating from his tone.  One can imagine him waking up bright and cheerful, hopping out of bed, and announcing to whichever of them was closest, “There are so many great things to do today!  Where shall we begin?”

It’s odd: Fred Clark is usually so good at plumbing people’s motivations.  He often looks at petty or hateful actions and presents his conjectures as to why anyone would behave that way.  But in this case he’s drawing a blank.  Allow me, then, to explain.

Books, movies, and television are all very well, but an existence spent solely consuming them is a dim half-existence.  Humans are creators.  We must contribute.  If we do not, our lives will always be empty.

Clark is full of suggestions on how to contribute.  Let’s begin at the bottom.  Gardens go in yards, which come with houses, which belong to people with money.  So scratch that off the list, along with all the things that need to be adopted.

As for the rest, someone as marketable as Clark perhaps needs to be enlightened about the phenomenon of rejection.  Strange to say, even if you are offering to do whatever is needed for no pay, people can and will find the deal unacceptable (or will turn you down in favor of one of the dozen others offering the same deal).  The homeless shelter, the tutoring program, Habitat for Humanity: All of them will turn you down.  Even the old lady desperately wants help—but not your help.

My particular salvation is art.  I’m a tolerable illustrator and, as long as I don’t charge anything, I can generate a steady stream of requests from people who are not tolerable illustrators, and even some who are.  But there are plenty of people out there who lack any opportunity to contribute, even for free.  What ever they do, whatever they want to do, runs in circles pent up from an indifferent world.

And yet we must contribute.

It’s amazing how quickly your view of something can change.  An institution perhaps once seemed admirable, something you’d long to be a part of, but once they make it clear that you are worthless in their eyes, their value tends to take a downturn in your eyes.  Soon the world itself seems to scorn you and you, in turn, scorn it.  If they won’t accept your contributions, honestly meant and contributed through legitimate means, you’ll force something on them whether they like it or not.  The consequences for them are irrelevant; did they show any concern for you?

There you have it: Vandalism, including Clark’s virus.  The illegitimate contribution of those who were not allowed to make a legitimate contribution.  Everyone will give something back.  It’s in our nature.

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Image from Wikimedia Commons.

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