Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Fears Awaken - Star Wars Anxiety Disorder, Episode VII

Have you felt it?  It’s only a couple of weeks now until it happens.  No, not Christmas, that comes every year.  I mean the premiere.  The Force Awakens.  Star Wars.

It’s a difficult time for a lot of fans.  We want to be excited, to think that this time, maybe, we won’t be disappointed, that we’ll finally see a Star Wars movie worthy of the name, of the legacy.  That will make us feel like the first one did.

And by ‘first one’, I don’t mean Episode I, I don’t even mean ‘Episode IV - A New Hope’, I mean ‘Star Wars’, just plain old 1977 Star Wars.  So yes, I’m on of those poor unfortunates for whom everything Star Wars lives in the shadow of the original.

I’m not alone - there’s a raft of us, thousands, millions.  We’re old enough to have seen the original in theatres, on the big screen.  To have had that moment of disbelief as the star destroyer swept into view in pursuit of Princess Leia.  To have been there when, for a generation, movies changed.

But we were also young enough for it to have been magic - actual magic.  That was a transformative moment for everyone who saw it, and it wasn’t just the movies, but the world that would never be the same.  For at that moment we learned that we could be dazzled, we could surrender ourselves to a story that was larger than us, larger than our world, in a universe where good was good and bad was bad.  It was easy to know who to cheer for, without guilt or hedging.

The original trilogy fulfilled the promise - Empire Strikes Back being widely tapped as the best of the three - and, other than some grumbling about the Ewoks, satisfied most fans.  It was a bit of a letdown, but not a surprise, when George Lucas confessed that he didn’t really have a trilogy of trilogies - nine movies in all - mapped out.  What was there, really, left to tell?

And then there were the prequels…

Episode I was rabidly anticipated, but left a large swath of fandom shaking their heads and sighing.  The franchise - for that’s what it had become - was tainted by unconvincing story-telling, suspect casting, and Lucas’s trademark clunky dialogue.  (Harrison Ford had the first and last word on the subject during the filming of Episode IV, when he told Lucas, “George, you can type this shit, but you can’t say it.”) 

Ever since, the release of another Star Wars movie has been an occasion for excitement, yes, but also anxiety - a desperate anticipation of what might be, or further disappointment.

The announcement of JJ Abrams as the director of Episode VII was certainly a mixed-emotion moment.  Yes, he is unquestionably a skilled, talented director, whose movies are always, at least visually, compelling.  There have been some mis-steps, of course - launching Lost without determining where it would land is perhaps the most egregious - and the off-hand way in which he ‘re-imagined’ the Star Trek universe - keeping many things from the series, but casually discarding others because….well, I’m not sure exactly why - does give cause for concern.

And that’s the root of a lot of the anxiety.  Yes, Han, and Chewie, and Luke, and Leia are back - that’s gotta be good, right? - though, I imagine they are a bridge to the new characters who will be called on to carry this trilogy.  But as he demonstrated with Star Trek, Abrams isn’t making his versions of these stories for the existing fan base.  He is - and I guess that’s his job - trying to  build a new audience for his movies.  And it might not be possible to please both.

To be fair, the trailers have looked terrific - adequate scale and scope, no lack of menace, and apparently the stakes are high.  But the trailers for The Phantom Menace looked pretty good too, and I remember being excited for its premiere.  The film itself - Darth Maul notwithstanding -didn’t live up to the promise, and the story we got was somehow less interesting than the story that had been suggested.

And maybe that’s the problem.  Perhaps the Star Wars we get can never be as awesome as the Star Wars we imagine.  Our expectations are so out-sized that nothing, and no director, can ever live up to the dream.  Every villain will always suffer by comparison with Darth Vader, seeming merely a pale imitation.  No one will ever equal the insouciant bravado of a young Han Solo.  No image will surpass that emerging star destroyer.

So, we’re forever cursed by our knowledge of what came before.  In 1977, it was all so new, and no one had made a film like Star Wars - with its unrepentant homage to the cinema serials of Lucas’s childhood - for a long time.  Now, we understand the cinematic language of the series, and its familiarity is both a strength and a weakness.  It’s comfortable, yes, but ‘comfort’ and ‘excitement’ are rarely compatible bedfellows.  (Remember how thrilling, how fresh The Fellowship of the Ring was?  Did you feel the same way with the first instalment of The Hobbit?)

I‘ll see the movie, of course.  I have to.  Like a junkie always hoping that the next hit will deliver the same great high as ‘the first time’, I’ll pay my ten or twelve dollars, and sink into my seat in the darkness, ready, willing to be swept away.  I still believe it’s possible.  I have to.

Obi-Wan said it best: “You must trust your feelings.”

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

My Cell-Phone, My Self

I’ve been recently dis-employed (‘re-structured’, they say, though I feel just the same), and I’m still adapting to the new routine, an absence of routine.  And I don’t really miss it: the commute, the meetings, the necessary but pointless on-line courses, the things that come with the job, but aren’t the job.  But I do miss my phone.

It was work-provided, and so work-returned on my exit.  An iPhone 6, white, with a gold metal back (I was working with the mining industry at the time it was ordered).  I liked it, the size, the weight, how it felt in my hand.  How it worked.

We do, of course, have another phone, another mobile.  We cut the land-line years ago, and the family phone - the house phone - is a near-identical iPhone 6.  I use it, sometimes.

But it’s not my phone.  Its settings, its contents, its apps, are a compromise, a neutral Switzerland intended to satisfy a variety of users: me, my wife, our kids.  It’s not appropriate for me to make it too much my own.  I’m not, after all, the one who carries it most.  So, while I’m not, from a communications standpoint, ‘cut off’, the fact remains: it’s not my phone.

Now, of course, I notice it’s absence.  Not like a missing limb; I’m not experiencing phantom buzzing in my shirt pocket, hearing its ringtone in an empty room.  There is a physical aspect of it, and it’s funny how quickly our phones (mere devices for communication) have become talismans, good luck charms, something vital to be checked for when we leave the house -  wallet, glasses, keys, phone.  There’s a reassurance, reaching into a pocket and knowing it’s there.

But no, it’s more than that.  I miss our … conversations.

Think about it: how much time do you spend interacting with your smartphone?  (One recent study suggests Americans are spending, on average 4.7 hours per day with them.)  A good phone, our loyal companion, tells us things (when we’re late for meetings), answers questions (where have we seen that actor before?), and entertains us (that one game you just can’t stop playing).  It advises when to bring an umbrella, or when to turn left, which new restaurants we should try and when we can see that movie.  It’s a best friend, the best of friends, who will help get you home from the airport, but never asks you to return the favour.

And the music - how I miss the music!  True, I haven’t actually lost any of it - it’s all there in iTunes, and available via my desktop computer.  But I don’t have any way to play it: with the phone’s capabilities, there was no reason to have an iPod or mp3 player.  Now, my only-recently-acquired armband sits on a dresser, unused and unwanted, as I make my silent way to the gym.  Like so many things, it didn’t seem really important until it was gone.

For these aren’t just phones, any more, are they, but our servants, assistants, concierges.  The access to banks and our money, to our friends and colleagues.  Where we go for news, sports, and weather; how we get reservations, how we get on planes.  They have become, as a result, a part of us, an object into which we can pour our personalities.  Just think what your phone’s cover or case says about you.

We’ve even lessened their role as a communicator.  Do you ever really answer a call any more if the number isn’t linked to a contact?  Do people even exist if they’re not in our address book?  That, more than ‘missing’ a call, is why (along with Caller ID) we have voicemail: to employ two levels of instant screening.  Greater, more constant access is actually making us less reachable: only those whose number I have can have me.

It’s incredible that the immediacy of a phone call has been replaced by texting.  To be fair, it does eliminate the need to dial, or wait for the other party to pick up, but how incredible that we’ve accepted typing over speaking.  Except, of course, that now we have voice-to-text apps.

But are we really just nothing more than the sum of our apps?  Merely a collection of circuits, copper, aluminum, glass and plastic?

I prefer - I want - to think not, that a smartphone is simply a tool, albeit a remarkable, adaptable, personalized one.

It’s not really that we are our phones - no, it’s fairer to say our phones are us.  The aspects of ourselves that we implant in them, we share without losing.  The phone did not take those parts of me with it - I have them still, waiting to impart them to the next willing receptacle.

Maybe Space Grey next time?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A la recherche du langue perdu, or Pardon My French

I speak French.  Not fluently, but I can get by.  I've traveled to Quebec, and on more than one occasion to France.  I've never ended up in the wrong train station, accidentally ordered tripe, or inadvertently insulted a hotel clerk's mother.  (That one time, he had it coming.)  I will undoubtedly fumble a verb tense or two, and use a technically correct but insufficiently specific noun from time to time, but communication will, by and large, be accomplished.  As I said, I can get by.

I started learning French in Grade 5.  We were, I think, a fairly unilingual bunch embarking on our French lessons that September, but by the Christmas assembly (or auditorium, or show, or pageant - whatever they called it at your school), we were able to sing Christmas Carols en francais with an accent that would have won us admission to the choir at Notre Dame.

But that's the thing: we were singing with a French accent, and most likely a Parisian accent.  That's the French we learned.  Problem is, the French that most of us were - as Canadians - and still are most likely to encounter is that spoken by our Eastern neighbours, the good people of la belle province, Quebec.

Quebec French is, of course, still French, but it differs markedly from the modern version spoken in the old country.  That's not surprising when you consider that the ancestors of today's Quebecois generally left France some 300-400 years ago, and were cut off from direct contact when the British defeated the French at the Plains of Abraham.  In 1759.

Quebecers speak French the way Brazilians speak Portuguese, or Mexicans speak Spanish.  (Or Americans speak English, at least according to the English.)  Yes, it's the same basic language, but it has both retained what the home country would consider archaic pronunciations and forms, as well as added variations and vocabulary all its own.  Languages live, and evolve, and, particularly in isolation, become something quite different from what they started out as.  To learn one is not necessarily to learn the other, and when they meet, mutual comprehension cannot be taken for granted.

When I visit Quebec, the problem is always the same: I can quite easily make myself understood, but I am usually at a loss when hearing the reply.  It's not that they're using vocabulary that is unknown to me, but that they're speaking with an accent, and at a rate, that is unfamiliar: I would know what the words they're saying mean if I could just make out what words it is they are saying.  (I believe many English-speakers feel the same way when conversing with Australians.)  This is not the French we were instructed in.

Admittedly, practice plays a part.  I don't hear any French, let alone Quebec French, very often.  I don't have the discipline  - or time, for that matter - to watch Radio-Canada news broadcasts, or Montreal Canadiens games, and I don't vacation in Rimouski.  Familiarity may indeed breed contempt, but its absence engenders nothing but confusion.

Would matters stand differently if I had been exposed to the Quebecois version of the language in school?  I like to think it would.  An ear trained to the pronunciations, elisions, and contractions of French as she is spoke in the cafés, arenas, and offices of Sherbrooke, Val-d'Or, or Gaspé, couldn't help but have a better chance of deciphering, and quickly translating, even without recent practice.

I don't know how they teach French in our schools these days, but I hope that kids are being exposed to the domestic version.  George Bernard Shaw once said that Britain and America were two countries separated by the same language.  I hope we won't have to say the same thing about French in Canada.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

I Rode Alone

The Tour de France is finished for another year, and I confess I kept track of it again.  Why, I hear you ask, would anyone care about a bunch of skinny guys with big calves pedaling up the side of a mountain?  (This characterization is a gross over-simplification.  It is also accurate.)

Well, first of all, I have to admire the sheer physical effort involved.  The Tour, they say, is the equivalent of running a marathon.  Every day.  For 3 weeks.  It's mind-bogglingly demanding, and somewhat staggering that the human body is capable of it at all.  (OK, that does partially explain the sport's unfortunate, reprehensible and at times disgusting bouts of 'doping' - I mean, really, who takes blood out of their body to re-inject it at a later date?  I don't care what 'performance enhancement' it's supposed to provide, that's just creepy.  Probably leads to zombie-ism.)

And no, I'm not going to compare writing a blog to riding the Tour, as I can easily do this with a beer in my hand if I feel like it, whereas scaling Alpe d'Huez so encumbered is probably impossible, and certainly frowned on.

No, my connection with the Tour is much more personal: in the summer of 1991 I cycled over 2500 miles (roughly 4000km) in the Highlands of Scotland.

Now, I'm not comparing my achievement to theirs, by any means.  I could start and stop as I liked: to take a picture, eat a Mars bar, adjust a recalcitrant gear, or simply whimper at the rising road ahead.  I did not average nearly 40 kph (that's about 25 mph for imperialists) - on flat roads I ran between 15-17 mph, and a good average speed for me over a day was about 12.  True, I was riding a bicycle somewhat different from the microlight, carbon-fibred, skinny-tired, professionally tuned extravagances that a Tour rider sits astride - mine was a mountain bike, with big knobby tires, and it weighed about half what I do.  (Those who know me may say, "Well, that's not much", but that's not the point: consider the ratio of cyclist to bike.)  Additionally, I had my life's belongings strapped on the top - clothes, maps, food, and a full SLR camera with 2 lenses.  (Digression: I don't recommend long-distance cycling with an SLR camera: part-way through the journey, I found that all the little screws inside the lenses had vibrated free of their moorings, rendering them, and therefore the camera, useless.  Lesson learned.)  I was not followed by a team car ready to offer me water, food, medical attention, and, in a pinch, a replacement bicycle.  But then again, neither did I have to cycle over several 8000 ft. mountain passes.  (For the record, my greatest elevation was Scotland's highest road pass - just over 2000 feet on the Bealach na Ba.  If you ever try it, ride up the west side, and down the east.  Trust me.)

It was an extraordinary few months, and the challenge was not what I could accomplish compared to, say, a professional cyclist, but simply learning what I was capable of.  I rode over 70 miles in one day, with all my gear.  I hit 43 mph on a steep downhill (the Bealach na Ba, again), and one time entered a village exceeding the posted speed limit of 40 mph (I was not apprehended).  I survived a flat tire, a couple of stretched chains, and stereotypical Scottish weather that left me wet, literally from head to toe.  I avoided dogs, rabbits, sheep and Volvo drivers (notorious on Scottish roads for their seeming inability to perceive the presence of cyclists).

I learned that Scottish hills have innumerable 'false tops' (where it looks like you've reached a summit, only to discover that you really haven't); that on a rainy day, you can only get so wet - and once you are that wet, it can't get any worse; and that for some reason motorcycle riders think they and cyclists are part of the same clan.  (Because we both have just two wheels and are out in the elements?  Funny, but as they zip up the road past you, all you can think is that they'll be in the pub before you've finished the day's first climb.)

And I met some wonderful people (a couple of whom I have rediscovered, to my delight, on Facebook), including a few that I rode with for brief stretches, but never for more than a single day.  Overall, it was me, and the bike, and the road:  no one to rely on to get me where I was going other than myself, and no one to tell me where that somewhere was.  I stopped, quite literally, when I just didn't feel like riding anymore.

At the end of it all, there was no podium ceremony, no French models with bouquets of flowers, not even a yellow jersey.  I was left with a box full of photos, and a very different appreciation of what I can do when I'm really determined.  Which is why, every July, I'm always curious to see what the professionals can do when they are.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

I'm Not Following You

Call me a Luddite, but I admit it - I still don't get it.  Where is the appeal, the reason, the need for Twitter in the average person's life?

I'm not saying Twitter shouldn't exist (although, if it didn't, I'm convinced no one would be very greatly inconvenienced), but I remain blissfully unaware of its relevance even to 21st-century life.

Now, I can see how it could be useful in a few niche environments - for someone, say, in the news and/or journalism game (and let's not conflate the two), especially in these days of the subdivided 24-hour news cycle.  Everything's happening all at once, everywhere, and it does allow a fast, friendly means to get information out quickly and succinctly, and is even, apparently, a great method of organizing a revolution.  (It's also an equally fabulous medium for transmitting misinformation at the speed of light, since, let's face it, by the time your correction/retraction has been tweeted, the original item has gone around the world about 14 times, and is, by it's very ubiquity, "true".)

The very speed which is one of Twitter's advantages is, ironically, one of its downfalls.  The daily (hourly, every other second) inundation of data which it permits also makes it difficult to cut through the noise to the significant facts.  There are some things which are better considered at leisure, and even blogs can be mulled over and digested in a quiet moment at the end of the day, not requiring the immediate attention which Twitter's endless squawking demands.

It seems to me, however, that Twitter is being not merely used by the general public, but touted as The Greatest Communication Medium Ever Invented.  (Umm, it's not.)  Companies are falling over themselves to develop 'social media' strategies, forgetting that the first rule of any communication should be, must be: know your audience.  For some, it makes perfect sense, but: if the people you're trying to talk to don't get their information from smartphones, why are you worried about whether or not your Tweets are attracting followers?

On the other hand, the Twitterati have rather painfully (and occasionally amusingly) illustrated that some people can't formulate a coherent thought even in as little as 140 characters.  What price can we put on the very public humiliation of egotistical celebrities, be they actors, sports figures, or politicians?

There's the strange distortion, too, for those who think that by following a movie star or baseball player (assuming it is them and not their personal assistant actually composing the Tweets) they are actually closer to that person, that they have a relationship with them, that they know them.  This borders on the creepy.  But it's not surprising, really, in a world where, in some fields of endeavour, people are brands.

Twittermania will, I suspect, blow up rather suddenly when a sizable proportion of the people currently using it realize that it's contributing, well, nothing, to their quality of life or business success, and that it has become, in fact, a medium that primarily feeds itself.  It won't disappear, but it will diminish until its scale reflects the population that actually enjoys a benefit from its existence.  Then, at least, we'll finally know what it's really good for - and it will be good for something.  It will not, however, be good for everything.

But, let's be clear: I don't care what you had for breakfast; I'm not particularly interested in where you are RIGHT NOW!; and I have never, under any circumstances, given even the smallest fraction of a damn about Ashton Kutcher.  Go where you will - but I'm not following.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

This Dangerous Planet

It has been, recently, a dangerous time to be a resident of planet Earth.  Two perils are abroad at the moment - one, natural, and the other, man-made.

If there is still anyone who hasn't seen the hypnotic, terrifying images of the tsunami wave invading Japan's shores, they must, truly, be living in a cave.  Once more, as if we needed any reminding, we have been shown how minuscule are our efforts to tame our wild planet.

Earthquakes, tsunamis, tornados, hurricanes, wildfires, droughts: they have been accosting the planet for as long as we have been here - since before we were here - and it makes little difference if you're modern man atop a high-rise, or a prehistoric cave-dweller.  Natural disasters are just that - natural.  They are an integral part of living here on Earth, and they don't discriminate between humans and any other animal.  When nature strikes, we are all helpless victims.

Unless we chose to relocate to safer lands, those far away from where the mighty plates that make up the surface of our planet meet - and we won't - it will ever be thus.  We make a cynical calculation - that the big one won't hit in our lifetime; that our neighbours may perish, but we will be spared - and build our homes, and factories, and powerplants atop the fault, or beneath the volcano, or in the midst of the floodplain.  It is a reflection of man's inspiring, maddening optimism - without it, could we as a species have survived this long?

At the other end of the spectrum, we have the horror that people visit upon each other.  Half a world away from Japan, the lunatic Gaddafi family are intent upon annihilating the portion of the Libyan populace that won't accept the continued brutal rule of daddy Muammar, and his comparably deranged, equally vicious offspring.  What's sad is that, as we gather around our television sets (or, more likely these days, computers and smartphones) to absorb the unreality that is northern Japan being swept bare by an unstoppable ocean, we have distanced ourselves from the all too human, all too preventable tragedy that is unfolding in Libya.  How is it that we can be so sympathetic to one group, randomly victimized by the planet's tectonic writhings, and yet so callous when others are deliberately, systematically exterminated by one of our fellow creatures?

The UN Security Council has just voted for a no-fly zone in Libya, but the details of its implementation are sketchy, at best.  The military advises it will take at least a week to make it effective, but how that will help the citizens of Benghazi - the rebel stronghold in eastern Libya that is now surrounded by Gaddafi's loyalist forces - is unclear.  I hope it's not too late to prevent Gaddafi re-establishing his iron grip on the country, but it's too soon to celebrate.

It's strange: no one argues that Gaddafi is not a lunatic; no one suggests that his actions are anything less than barbaric, and criminal.  And yet.

And yet there is a willingness to stand by, to do nothing.  I realize that there are many people who, for legitimate if debatable reasons, are uncomfortable putting their military at risk in a foreign country, where we have, arguably, no national interest, and where a successful rebellion would result in the replacement of a lunatic dictatorship with - what exactly?  And yet.

A national interest we may not have, but a humanitarian one - indeed, a human one - we surely do.  Intervention, even of limited scope, is not without risk, and it is not without consequences - some of which, it must be acknowledged, we may come to regret.   But if we allow the opportunity to rid the world of one of its tyrants to pass, for how long, and to what cost, will we regret that?

I'm not, as a rule, a utopian. I will never live to see a world in which the ground never shakes, harsh winds never blow, and waters never rise.  These realities are with us for as long as we inhabit this blue orb.  But I would one day like to see a world where we offer succour to those imperiled by nature's fury, and more than mere words to people attempting to free themselves from the indiscriminate brutality of their unelected, unaccountable rulers.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Art Show: What should we expect?

Had a pleasant afternoon wandering the Art Gallery of Ontario's spacious digs on Dundas St. in Toronto recently.  The purpose of the visit was to see a special exhibit entitled, "Maharaja: The Splendour of India's Royal Courts".  It presents art, clothing, furniture, jewellery and other objects from 1700 - 1947, when India was ruled by, or at least influenced by, many (many) local princes.  (Well, they were kings before the British came, but that's for another day.)

There were a lot of beautiful pieces, and a lot of detailed information.  What there wasn't was a story: no narrative thread that tied the whole thing together, and made it more than the sum of its parts.

After touring through room after room of artwork (including some truly beautiful paintings) and objects (the custom Rolls Royce Phantom II is truly automobile as work of art), I was no closer to understanding why I was looking at these pieces.  They were lovely, in and of themselves - fine.  But what did it mean - in the context of India's cultural history, for one thing, and India's political history, for another?  There were a lot of facts, but no synthesis.  No "so what?".

OK, it's an art gallery, and shouldn't a consideration of art be objective?  To give a story, or 'thesis' to the exhibit would submit it to the subjective interpretation of the exhibit producers - and maybe they've got it wrong.

But, isn't art inherently subjective?  Doesn't every work leave itself open to interpretation by the viewer, allowing diverse audiences to draw very different conclusions?  Subjectivity is such an integral part of art that having it play a role in the exhibit's design and presentation seems, if anything, to be entirely in keeping with the spirit and values of an art gallery.  Besides, the decision of what to put in an exhibit - and consequently what to leave out - so completely introduces the idea of subjectivity to the proceedings that any further objection must be dismissed.  Exhibits are subjective.

So why isn't anyone making these exhibits sit up and talk - really driving home an idea or concept that goes beyond the small story each individual piece tells, and instead painting a broader canvas, daring to tell us something we don't already know.

This wasn't the first time I've noticed this.  Last year, I took in the touring show on Tutankhamun's Egypt, also at AGO.  There was a similar absence of direction in that exhibit - it too lacked a climax to the presentation.

The King Tut display was not, of course, an AGO production, but brought in lock, stock and sarcophagus from an outside company.  Which only suggests that this is an attitude that pervades the art world far beyond the neutral-tinged walls of AGO.

And that's a real shame.  There's a lot that these paintings, sketches, clothes, and other artifacts have to tell us, not just about their time and place of their origin, but about human beings - and therefore today's society too.  I just wish that the curators, art historians, and (doubtless) business-people who bring these exhibits to the public would stop playing it safe, and instead encourage those stories to reveal themselves to museum-goers of the 21st Century.