i’ve been thinking a lot about the way that the digital age has changed our world over the past 10-15 years and i’m slowly reaching the conclusion that not all of the progress that we have made has been for the better.
the digital age
i think the events around the Boston Marathon bombing started me on this line of thinking. after the fact, every news service on the planet went into high alert and strove to provide the facts as they learned them as rapidly as the mobile internet age has come to expect. the problem is that facts are difficult to discern and they take time and scrutiny to separate from conjecture and speculation. however, when freshness of news is measured in milliseconds rather than days, there’s just not enough time for the sifting of perspectives to gel into a consensus on the true unfolding of events, and what ends up being reported as news are abruptly presented single points of view that never tell a complete story. this leads to misrepresentation, mischaracterization and a panoply of pictures of history that are all biased and unsubstantiated, leaving us wondering what just happened… really.
consider how things used to be. mail used to take the form of words written on paper that were transported by mail carriers. it took time and demanded patience, but you knew where and how you would receive correspondence and you could compartmentalize those expectations and focus your attention on other activities. if you wanted to talk to someone far away, you walked over to your phone or a pay phone and you tried to connect to a phone number. if they didn’t pick up, that meant that they weren’t available and you had to try again later or try and resolve your problem with your own ingenuity. if you wanted to know what time it is, you looked at your watch or at a clock on the wall and were never distracted by the commercial that accompanied it or the stock ticker that appeared beneath it. and if you wanted to know what was happening in the world, you had to wait until the evening news or the morning paper to learn what journalists who had spent their whole day learning and prioritizing and researching had determined was a fair and honest description of the day’s events.
and now think about how things are today. my smart phone gives me instant access to the internet where i can get mail that was sent seconds ago from a business contact. it allows everyone who has my number to reach me everywhere i go all the time. i don’t wear a watch because it’s redundant – my phone always knows exactly what time it is, although looking at it is the same action as checking for text messages, so neither i nor the person i might be talking to knows for sure which is my real motive for checking. and if something happens anywhere in the world, no matter where i am, i type a few words into a search box and expect that what i read there will be true. that all sounds quite good, when i put it that way, right? that was the promise of technological convergence – that it would make accessing information easier and make me more efficient – putting everything at my fingertips all the time everywhere i go.
everything is everything
something that bothers me about this evolution of information is that convergence has made everything into everything. we used to have billboards for advertisements, thermometers to tell us the temperature, and newspapers to tell us the news. now, every single television, monitor, screen, phone and sign gives us all of those things all of the time. every news channel has sponsors, advertisements, and corporate interests to serve. no message can possibly demand our full attention because we receive dozens of noisy distractions that interrupt our train of thought from every direction all of the time. the subconscious sifting of ubiquitous messaging comes at a cognitive cost and quite frankly, even though i was raised in the MTV-ADHD era of communication, i find the whole enterprise simply exhausting.
nothing is excellent
when you reduce everything to ones and zeros, you bring all creations and thoughts that employ the medium to the same level. everything is a blog post or a tweet or a meme. i think that is why theatre and live music and performance art are so impactful by comparison – much as it has always been – because that is actual human experience. some of the greatest ideas and achievements of the modern age have been created in the digital medium, but how can we ever elevate them above the level of Psy’s “Gangnam Style” or Rebecca Black’s “Friday” video if they don’t get a billion hits? excellence has been replaced by viral consumption and that elevates only mediocrity and shock, and penalizes artistry.
i can’t feel anything
for all of the effort and money and billable hours that are spent on digital media, we still can’t find anything that is as truthful or enduring as the works of William Shakespeare – an obscure Elizabethan playwright in the middle of western history who reworked some classic stories for the popular culture of his time. my girlfriend and i went to a Stratford Festival kick-off event yesterday evening (not too coincidentally on the birthday of the Bard – April 23) that celebrated Shakespeare as a singular creative force in the classical sense, his populist and sensationalist works, and his broad cross-cultural and ahistorical appeal as a raconteur of the human condition. you cannot escape a Shakespeare play or sonnet without being moved by its emotion and its sublime beauty and craftsmanship (assuming you groove on iambic pentameter). in Shakespeare, unlike in the “Twilight” saga, you feel the passion of the artist and the genius of the author. the digital age simply doesn’t give you the time to internalize that kind of gravitas and i think that as a civilization, we suffer as a result.
i’ve come down pretty hard on the digital age, because i am one of the people who is a custodian of it. i work smack dab in the middle of the information industry and my current job title makes me imminently responsible for how that industry manifests progress and success. i wish that it was within my power to tell clients, “the way to send a message to your employees is to have a town-hall meeting where you gather everyone into a boardroom and deliver the message face-to-face.” But that simply isn’t an option. i wish that i could design solutions that if you want to communicate and collaborate more efficiently that you should all go into an empty meeting room and debate and evaluate all of the relevant issues in person. i wish that i could tell my friends that if you want objective news that you should read so-and-so’s editorial in the daily news. but alas, that time has gone, and i am not sure how to instil confidence in the media of the future. but i feel like there may be an opportunity there for the one who can solve this problem. i hope that i can be the kind of person who will work to make technology serve us better, rather than the other way around.
first of all, this post is not intended to be read by anyone but myself, even though i’ve made it available to everyone on the internet. you may read it (or try to read it) if you like, but i expect that it will be too long and boring for anyone other than myself, or my darling girlfriend who has been an immeasurable comfort, to bother with. but for me, one week ago i had a seemingly happy, healthy, beautiful, elderly pet and very suddenly she is gone. i have so many thoughts about gretel pechtol that i want to remember when this week is past and this is eulogy, biography and catharsis all rolled into one.
the reason gretel came into my life was that i had one cat that i adopted with my then-fiancée and we were worried that he was bored when we were away at university. we went to the SPCA to pick out a cat for adoption. my fiancée knew that i had hoped to find a black cat because i briefly owned one years before, but when we saw gretel, we knew we found our girl. she is a torbi (which is a mashing of “tortoise-shell” coloured and “tabby” style markings) domestic short haired cat. her brown and black and gray and orange fur bristled with colour and texture. she was just a puff of a kitten and had enormous green eyes. i clearly remember thinking that she was the most beautiful creature that i had ever seen and i fell in love with her immediately. i originally wanted to name her ”aurora” because of the way her fur shimmered like the northern lights. but our boy cat’s name was “hans” – a play on the fact that he is polydactyl and his paws look like little hands. if we were to give little hans a sister, “gretel” seemed like a tested and true choice for a name. and so she became gretel pechtol and a card-carrying member of our family.
conventional wisdom says that care and patience should be employed when introducing a new cat into the domain of an existing cat. so we put hans in the bathroom and let gretel smell around the apartment and let them smell each other through the door. i think that we waited only a half-hour before seeing what would happen if we allowed them to get together in the same room. gretel was easily a third of the size of her enormous older brother… but she never backed down from him or his explorations and they seemed to bond right away. there’s an epic photo that i had of tiny-gretel digging in her heels, eyes up, as kooky-hans is up on his hind legs, front paws flailing, looking like goliath about to pounce on a little kitten david, but i can’t find it. for their whole lives, they would often snuggle together and sleep in the same spaces providing some of my favourite photo ops.
this is a short list of some of gretel’s favourite things:
licking margarine off of my toast
sleeping on my pillow
making the bed
laser pointers (thanks annie)
why do i love my cats so much? the short answer is that pets love their people (who love them properly) unconditionally and that bond can be as strong or stronger than bonds between humans. but i feel like there’s a little more to it in my case. both of my parents moved to canada alone, leaving their extended families behind. as an only child, i had no cousins or nephews or nieces or aunts or uncles less than 7,000km away. i was raised in a family bubble that insulated me from attachment outside of my parents, and i never felt any strong connection to my extended family like i’ve observed in my friends and acquaintances. we moved around from province to province when i was young and i guess that is how i learned to be nomadic and how not to nest. i left home on my 18th birthday and moved from apartment to apartment for almost a decade throughout university and my early career. before i had my cats, my home was edmonton because that was where my wife, my family and all my worldly possessions were. when i separated from my wife, i made the choice to relinquish all of our stuff, everything that had been “home”, in exchange for custody of the cats. my cats from that point on became my home and i found that i could go anywhere and do anything so long as i was near my cats. and i did. i travelled around the country, changed jobs, changed cities over and over, and so long as i could open a door and see hans and gretel, i was home.
we first moved to toronto in 2002 for a short time to live with some nice roommates. edmonton had become too full of associations and memories and i felt that it was time to expand my professional horizons and test my mettle in a larger arena. it was the first time my cats would be on a plane and i chose to give them a sedative so that they could sleep through the trip. when we arrived and i picked them up from the air cargo centre, they looked like zombie cats. i don’t know what happened on that flight (i shudder to think of baggage handlers tossing animal cages… it could happen, right?), or whether it was the sedative itself, but once i got the cats home they both immediately climbed up to the highest shelf that they could find and stayed there for three days straight. they may have come down for food and water while i was sleeping, but apart from that, they were spooked! after the third day, they finally came down and started exploring. at times like that, i was always relieved that they had one another with whom to go through stressful situations.
we flew back to edmonton in 2003, but without sedation. they recovered much much quicker this time, and subsequently, i never doped them for a trip. and more trips they did indeed have. i travelled to victoria, bc, with my cats for several months on an extended project. the suite i was in was quite grand so i felt like this was no real inconvenience to them. i reveled in our portability and was so grateful that i was able to explore new cities with them at my side (well, not literally at my side, but in my hotel room . when i decided to move back to toronto in early 2006, it was no hardship at all to pack them up and move all my stuff back east a second time.
in 2008, i embarked on a project of recording as many things as i could think of that would allow me to take time-lapse videos of my cats interfering with those activities. there was cooking, napping, making and decorating furniture, and my favourite, the bed-making video that stars gretel almost exclusively doing one of the things she liked most – chasing the linens while i was making the bed. i am so thankful that i made all those because i will never need to forget what kind of silliness we could get up to together.
in 2011, i left toronto for the final time to move back to edmonton to look after my parents. i opted to drive the cats with me in a big moving truck and have a cross-country excursion (especially since they had already had a round-trip flight to calgary for work in 2007, after which i swore they would not fly again). the trip takes four long days stuck in a cat carrier only a couple times bigger than the cat in it. both hans and gretel were such troopers though. they managed to hold their bladders the whole time they were in their carriers and when we got to each hotel room, they dutifully relieved themselves, rehydrated themselves and fed themselves, explored their new surroundings (most of which were smoking rooms because that’s what they give to pet owners), and came to bed with me. after a couple of days, they understood the routine and had become hardened travellers… which was extremely fortunate because we moved back to toronto six months later, but returned in my honda rather than a big truck.
so at the time we settled back in toronto, gretel was the equivalent of 69 human years and hans was about 73. work started to take me to ottawa for four-day stretches and i had to get cat sitters to look after hans and gretel. it was the first time i had ever asked anyone other than myself to look after them, and i felt like i was reneging on my promise to always look after them. however, i knew that it was better than shlepping them back and forth with me, and they were in familiar surroundings and had one another for support. after the ottawa work ended, hans and gretel seemed just as they had always been – curious, affectionate, peaceful and playful. but then, neither of the cats had noticeably aged since reaching adulthood… even i can’t tell the age of my cats after their first years by looking at pictures of them, apart from the furniture around them – they simply did not seem to age. at least not on the outside.
this is what i wrote on facebook on april 9, 2013, about gretel’s sudden failing of health:
At 8:19pm, my veterinarian called me to let me know that Gretel’s acute pancreatitis and renal failure were not responding well to the treatments we were offering. She had only been noticeably ill since Saturday, coming to bed and sleeping on my chest at bedtime like she had so many times over the past 15 years. Trying to take care of her at home over the weekend, she was so weak and sad and afraid… I asked the doctor to please end her suffering as soon as possible. I was not there for the procedure, but she was spared minutes of agony. Some will think that she was only a cat. But to me she was a member of my family and I loved her and protected her from all harm in every way that I could. I will always miss you, my princess. xox
obviously, there was so much more to it than this.
friday night we went to sleep like any other night with gretel jumping up onto the bed and sleeping with me for a while until she went off to her chair to sleep. saturday morning i heard a row as the cats were chasing each other, which is not an unusual sound… they’ve been scrapping since the day they met after all . i washed up and went to work (yes, on saturday), and then came home and found gretel was not doing much other than sleeping on her chair. i wasn’t too worried about it, but saturday night she did not come to bed. in the morning, i noticed that she had hardly moved and i started to worry whether she had eaten or had anything to drink since saturday. worse, i noticed that she was having trouble walking, stumbling on her hind legs, which made me think perhaps she had some kind of injury due to her tussle with hans. gretel has always had a very light step and been a great jumper, so this was particularly distressing to watch.
i woke up at 5:30am monday morning to prepare to take gretel to the vet. i took gretel in her carrier to the veterinary clinic at 9am. she seemed sort of fine… walking around the examination room… jumping from the table… even during the examination, she didn’t appear to be in much discomfort. but she has always been so stoic. the vet took some blood for analysis and gave me some pain medication and something to enhance her appetite to try and induce her to eat. i was grateful and took my sad cat home.
when we got home, gretel started to appear much worse. she seemed to be in a half-sleep looking distant and vacant. for a couple of hours in the afternoon, it appeared like she was more active. but when i started tracking her activity, hoping that she would eat or drink, this is what it looked like:
2:33pm - Gretel goes to carrier from front bathroom
2:38pm - Gretel goes to the front bathroom from the carrier
2:47pm - Gretel goes to carrier from front bathroom
2:49pm - Gretel goes to the front bathroom from the carrier
2:54pm - Gretel goes to carrier from front bathroom
2:57pm - Gretel goes to the front bathroom from the carrier
2:58pm - Gretel goes to carrier from front bathroom
3:09pm - Gretel goes to the front bathroom from the carrier
3:10pm - Gretel goes to carrier from front bathroom
3:28pm - Gretel goes to the front bathroom from the carrier
3:37pm - Gretel goes to carrier from front bathroom
3:46pm - Gretel goes to the front bathroom from the carrier
3:51pm - Gretel goes to carrier from front bathroom
3:55pm - Gretel goes to the front bathroom from the carrier
4:03pm - Gretel goes to carrier from front bathroom
4:25pm - Gretel goes to the front bathroom from the carrier
4:31pm - Gretel goes to carrier from front bathroom
4:35pm - Gretel goes to the front bathroom from the carrier
4:43pm - Gretel goes to carrier from front bathroom
4:53pm - Gretel goes to the front bathroom from the carrier
4:58pm - Gretel goes to carrier from front bathroom
5:10pm - Gretel goes to the front bathroom from the carrier
5:14pm - Gretel goes to carrier from front bathroom
5:15pm - Gretel goes to the front bathroom from the carrier
5:18pm - Gretel goes to carrier from front bathroom
finally around 6 she seemed to settle in the carrier. no food or water. at bed time, i fetched her out and gave her pain meds and the second dose of the appetite medicine. she went to bed in the carrier and i went to bed unaccompanied. hans stayed out in the living room – he clearly understood better than i did that something was up. i am sure he smelled the fear and discomfort from gretel. even days later, he still doesn’t seem interested in wandering into the spaces gretel was.
and that brings me to tuesday. terrible tuesday. although i couldn’t be positive, i believe that gretel didn’t get up all night. i took her out to give her her medication and could see and smell how distressed she was. i decided that with the meds in her and all of her resting, i had done all that i could and decided to go to the office to await the results of her bloodwork. i didn’t hear anything until about 10:30am so i called to see if they had received the results yet. i spoke to the vet and he suggested that i bring gretel in immediately to be hooked up to an IV for fluids and pain meds and a feeding tube for nutrients. she was “a very sick cat” with elevated pancreatic and renal enzymes, indicative of pancreatitis. i immediately left work and took a cab home. i took gretel out of the carrier for one last hug and was terrified. she had thrown up a little on herself and smelled of terrible panic. i got a cloth of warm water and tried to tidy her up a bit… she had crusties all around her mouth, but short of giving her a bath, there was not much i could do for her. i boxed her up and drove her directly to the vet. they took her from me immediately and commenced her treatment. there was nothing left for me to do but leave and go back to work.
at 1:30pm, the doctor called to let me know that her condition appeared to be worsening, and that they were easing off of her meds and feeding so as not to worsen her condition. all of this seemed very sensible and i agreed emphatically with the course of action.
finally, at 8:19pm, i received the four minute call that i described in the facebook post.
i wasn’t able to get back to the vet until wednesday afternoon. it was grey and cold and raining all day and when i got to the vet there was full-on downpour. gretel had been “in storage” since her euthanizing the night before, which meant that she was frozen solid. the aide brought her out in a thick, dark-blue blanket and placed her in an exam room and left me to say my farewells. i pulled back the blanket and gretel’s neck had been turned in an awful angle, but apart from that, and being completely solid, there was my little princess, as beautiful and peaceful as any time i had ever seen her sleeping. i stroked her beautiful, colourful fur. it shone and shimmered just like it did the very first day i saw her. i rubbed her brow like she always liked and i put my finger in the small of her frozen paw. i put my face to her side to smell the smell of gretel for the last time and give her our final kiss. i wrapped her back up in her blanket as tenderly as i could and then picked her up and held her for a long while. i apologized to her for failing to protect her from this… i’d promised her so many times over the years that i would always protect her and keep her safe, but in the end i had to give the word to end her life… such a terrible turn of events. but even in her last days, gretel made the choice so easy for me, by being so strong until she could no longer mask her pain, and then succumbing quickly so that there would be no hesitation in how to respond.
i’ve spent all of the time since my farewell getting used to the very new idea that my cat, who seemed just fine a week ago, who i have cherished and loved so very dearly for almost 15 years, is now gone and that i will never see her again. i’ve gone through all of my old photographs and all my digital ones. i’ve looked at our videos of her and remembered those moments and the feeling of having her near. the reality of it is sinking in as i write these words, but the sense of loss is so strong. i’ve never had relationships like the ones i’ve had with hans and gretel before, and i’ve never invested so much of my identity and will into anyone or anything like i have with them. it’s so hard to let someone like that go, but when i think of all the happiness and memories that she has given to me for all of these years, i feel only gratitude and joy at the thought of my little girl. i called her pookie. i called her princess. i called her my little one. but her name is gretel, and i will miss her until the end of my days.
It’s almost spring of 2013, and while It has never been easier in the history of man to accumulate as much personal biographical information and with simple mouse-clicks or screen-wipes, share that information with everyone in the world. I find myself wondering what has happened to social sharing? I don’t seem to have time to look over my twitter feed and see what the thought leaders I follow are thinking. Most of my friends have fallen away from Facebook and Instagram, except for a hard-boiled few who can’t get enough of Grumpy Cat memes (myself included). LinkedIn has value for networking and making announcements, but can it properly be called a community? I get a very real sense that social sharing has really hit its peak, or possibly begun to slide in relevance.
Of course, it’s not really social sharing nowadays, is it? What we do on the internet on sites like Facebook and Pinterest is curating an electronic persona – a selection of “likes” and attitudes that we hope will pass as a facsimile for how we want our peers to perceive us. We almost never share a weakness or a vice (unless it might be considered by our peers to be an admirable one) and due to the evolution of security permissions, even our audiences are carefully measured and manicured. It’s like we fill a large silo with thoughts and images and place it in the middle of a distant field that we only tell our closest friends how to find. It might be social in that our content is shared with a group, and it is sharing in that we offer that content without expectation of return, but it is very different than social sharing in a more traditional sense.
Consider walking down the street. I walk down the street in plain view of complete strangers in a totally unmoderated fashion. These strangers can observe me, my clothes, my accessories, my friends and my gestures and they may be influenced accordingly. They may like my jacket or they may take offence to something rude that I’ve said or they might admire that I picked up some litter and put it in the trash. In response, they might go and buy a similar jacket for themselves, may refrain from saying something unguarded like I did, or think twice before littering. I’m going to blithely refer this effect as “community”, only to set it apart from the kind of internet sharing that typically only begets more sharing on the social networks, but little other actual tangible results.
Ironically, the salvation of social sharing might come from corporations. Corporations, perhaps more than any other type of organization, have a deep need for exposing knowledge and ideas. Identifying knowledge and ideas are the lifeblood of invention and innovation. Sharing discoveries and expertise is critical to retaining capabilities in a changing workforce. Exposing policies and procedures is at the core of operational efficiency. Identifying aberrant behaviour or policies is an integral part of compliance and liability mitigation. Because of these requirements, corporations have been urgently striving to keep apace with the evolution of social networks in the world of individuals and doing their best to implement these solutions within their own organizations.
It is in the context of the corporate intranet that social sharing might have the most value. Social sharing on an intranet with tools like SharePoint 2013 or NewsGator can be amazingly transparent, shared equally by entry-level employees and the very top C-level executives. Visibility is high and the potential for impact and change is high. Even if social adoption achieves a modest 10-15% rate of adoption in an organization, that’s a substantial increase in transparency and potential responsiveness over systems like email or closed collaboration spaces. Opening a dialogue about operations, procedures or policies to the whole company promises greater potential for successful adaptation than historical mechanisms like small committees working in isolation from the corporate community by an order of magnitude. The manpower savings resulting from this kind of transparency alone justify the investment in internal social networks.
It’s exciting and slightly subversive to think that something like Facebook that so many companies sought to block from their networks over the past six or seven years could beget so powerful a tool for improving the feedback loop between workers and bosses in a corporate setting. This is definitely a space that makes me excited to be a part of the information technology industry.
since the explosion of the social networks, my blogging has taken a noticeable hit in performance. over the past few years, i’ve been content to receive 20-40 visits per day to my blog from the inertia of organic search results provided by google (and other search engines, if those can be considered to be relevant), but recently, i’ve noticed that even those sources of traffic have started to fail. it’s probably due to the fact that i have been averaging about three posts a year in the past three years. to the search-engine-universe, my blog is probably considered to be abandoned and stale.
i’ve considered the impact of social networking and microblogging here and here. but those were in times when i was still fairly actively contributing to my blog. over the past few years, i’ve demonstrated consistently that the effort required to sit and formulate a consistent thesis of a few hundred words has been too great. and maybe that’s the nature of the internet – to offer great potential and promise but then to become commercialized and consumerized and ultimately to be broken down into 140-character-long bites that are then bit.ly’d down to a dozen characters. or perhaps the internet has simply become a curated collection of instagrams to be shared and liked and not to be expanded with exposition. it seems that without this distillation of meaning into a stream of images, one could never possibly find the time to consume all of the sources of information that we want to consume on a daily basis.
well, i’ve been developing a lot of new interests recently, and i’ve begun working on a number of new projects. my need to pursue those interests and projects will require context and support from the internet community, so i suppose that it’s with a sense of self-serving that i’m going to try and resurrect my personal blog to serve as the central hub to these endeavours.
i launched prettynumbers.com last year, but haven’t invested as much energy into that as i would have liked. i’ll be working on resurrecting that blog as well. and recently, i’ve launched a new web application that i’m very excited about, the equivalator.com… there will probably be a blog there soon enough! and through all of that activity, there have been my normal observations and musings and outrages that i’ve been contemplating but simply not blogging about. i’m definitely looking forward to getting back to that.
so … i’m relaunching the site on WordPress, with all of its gooey-ooey tools for offline content-creating, in-browser authoring, and general customizing-goodness to try and get myself back into the internet publishing swing. come along if you like… for old time’s sake, or whenever you can. i think that if the global economy doesn’t collapse first, 2013 will be a very productive and interesting year.
I’m incredibly excited about this new project that I am kicking off – prettynumbers.com. For years, I’ve been interested in quantitative analysis and data visualization, but with the amount of available data constantly expanding via the internet and open data services, the need for dialogue and perspective in these areas has never been greater. It is my hope to use this blog to investigate the exciting (at least to uber-geeks) field of data visualization and to help showcase some of the cool examples that there are out there (because there aren’t enough of THOSE out there). Of course, the other reason for this blog is to motivate myself to generate my OWN visualizations and give them a place to live. I’ve got one that I’m working on, but it’s challenging work.
Anyway – check out the new blog. I’m having a blast doing it!
Gina Carano is changing everything that I believe about a great number of things. I’ve been wanting to write this post since last Tuesday when I first watched her in her Steven Soderbergh-directed debut film, Haywire. However, I’ve was too busy last week. So ironically, I’m started writing it from my local shawarma place while UFC on Fox was playing live from New Jersey.
MMA Fighters- Good; MMA- Bad
In spite of the fact that I studied martial arts for over five years, I have significant reservations about MMA as a professional sport. I sincerely acknowledge the athleticism, dedication and sheer nerve of these contestants. I also recognize that there is a market for this kind of gladiatorial entertainment that offers people who are truly gifted at it an opportunity to to express their abilities. Nevertheless, competitive fighting, especially where the permissiveness of the rules and refereeing encourage significantly harming one another, is simply barbaric to me and fills me with fear for the society that greedily consumes it.
So out of this ethically-dubious sport comes a woman who is the subject of my fascination. Gina was an exemplary athlete in high school and attended university to study psychology. After getting involved in Muay Thai kickboxing, she entered the fledgling world of professional female mixed martial arts. After a satisfying career, she was seen by director Soderbergh and he immediately was so impressed with her that he reached out to her to build a film project around her. You only have to watch her fight to be impressed with her ability.
So what makes her so compelling to me… and Steven Soderbergh… and the 214 thousand (yes, a decent-sized city’s worth of) other people? She’s attractive and photogenic, but one could argue that there are a lot of prettier women out there to look at. She’s a solid fighter, but there are better, more ruthless fighters, including the one that took her title from her. In her debut film, her acting is decent and up to the task that she is offered, working next to heavyweights like Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Michael Douglas and Antonio Banderas, but she’s no Meryl Streep (although she may as well be compared to the likes of say… Megan Fox).
So what is it? What is the Carano-factor? I was discussing the topic with a colleague of mine at work recently (typical water-cooler fare), and he helped me to really narrow down what it is that I like so much about Gina.
Do three things and do them well
There might be sweeter eye candy, harder fighters, and actresses better favoured by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but she’s the best woman I’ve ever seen who has all three things and does them all well. We forget in the day of Ripley, Sarah Connor, and Lara Croft (I’m intentionally leaving out whatshername from Underworld and the entire cast of Suckerpunch), that women were not traditionally considered viable action headliners.
One of the earliest, best examples of a bona fide fighter in action movies was pioneer martial artist Cynthia Rothrock. A five-time world karate champion, she was a master martial artist and brought authenticity and skill to the screen (although for the most part, she wound up in the worst sort of terrible gangster/cyborg/post-apocalypse kind of films known to man in the 80′s and early 90′s). But for all of her skill and sincerity in doing all of her own fighting and stunts, she wasn’t much of an actress and for lack of scripts or direction, was never able to really make an impression on audiences for anything other than her amazing flips, kicks and weapons work. So we have a great fighter, but a fairly lousy actress and in spite of tacky efforts to sexualize her, her looks didn’t exactly light up the screen (again, a testament to the terrible films in which she found herself).
So what about the pretty, decent acting action heroines? Let’s leave Sigourney Weaver out of this, since it’s fairly universally accepted that she is a brilliant woman, a breathtaking beauty and a gifted actress, capable of filling the most unbelievable scenarios with humanity and depth. That leaves us with the likes of Angelina Jolie, Ziyi Zhang, Carrie-Anne Moss, Kristen Kreuk, Uma Thurman, and a handful of others. These women are lovely to look at on the screen, but are they credible in a fight? They might scratch you with their bony elbows, but they all probably weigh-in at a cameragenic 100 – 120lbs, at most. In films, they are seen taking down 6’4″, 250lb adversaries with technical skill and speed, but in reality with that kind of weight differential, it’s incredibly unlikely that a direct confrontation between a combatant (female or male) and someone literally twice his or her size would end well for the underdog. Unless perhaps the underdog was armed with Thor’s hammer. At 5’8″ and a muscular 145lbs, Gina Carano has the stats of a male featherweight to lightweight fighter and if you’ve seen her kick or strike, you can see she has really credible power.
So what about other athletic women who are attractive and can kick serious ass… can they act? This question hardly warrants examination. Compared to other American Gladiator girls even in non-dramatic roles? Compared to say a Pamela Anderson or even very likeable and charming Zoë Bell? Gina is like the Katherine Hepburn of martial arts actresses.
Fighting and feminism
So what do we do with this Wonder Woman in film? How does her entry to the scene change the game, if it does at all? As a violent action-film, Haywire doesn’t pull any punches (so to speak). Carano’s character is the victim of an elaborate double-cross and everyone she meets is intent on savagely taking her down. She’s sucker-punched, attacked from behind full-force, and hunted by armed tac-teams. In just about any conceivable context, this would be considered glorified misogyny.
But the story doesn’t victimize her character for even a moment… the violence that is inflicted upon her (we are expected to conclude) is presented in direct proportion to the apparent threat that she presents as an opponent. I feel that this represents a very different type of female hero modality. Her assailants don’t scoff at her efforts to stand her ground because she is a girl as is often the attitude against action heroines. They do not react to her with brutality because they hate women or want to dominate her in particular – they do it because they fully expect her to respond as an equal opposing force. To Soderbergh’s credit, the violence doesn’t come across as patronizing or humiliating, but rather pragmatic and professional. I suppose that it’s somewhat ridiculous to conclude that it is respectful, since they are all out to kill her. But short of that, there is an acknowledgement that her character is a potential equal and needs to be dealt with accordingly. Carano’s real-life background and her authentic physicality sells the whole package with room to spare. So it looks to me like Carano has opened the door to an absurd sort of women’s equality in an arena traditionally considered the exclusive domain of men.
Does Carano’s character achieve this parity by sacrificing her intate femininity or by simply co-opting the masculine stance, thereby betraying her own feminism? I don’t think that’s quite right either. Carano’s character’s concerns are for her family and retribution for her own treatment and the treatment of those she (very briefly) cares about. Her final battle repudiates her prior mercenary choices that led her into the circumstances of the film and punctuates her otherness from the very masculine, single-minded warrior mentality. But you’ll have to see the film to debate me on that point.
Why I want to see a whole lot more of Gina
Soderbergh is a smart enough producer and director to make something other than a cheap 80′s chixploitation action flick and has made a new kind of action heroine who is as intimidating as a JCVD or Schwarzenegger, but in a much more feminine manner. With her winning look, undeniable physicality and affable disposition, I think Gina makes a great new kind of role model for the action genre that has long treated women a sex-objects or love-interest/hostages. She takes parts of some of the most iconic masculine heros like Indiana Jones, self-reliance, ingenuity, discipline and commitment, and embodies them in a feminine manner. I think that it will be interesting to see her career progress and evolve, hopefully expanding on her potential, rather than pigeon-holing her as a one-trick-pony. Even if it does, I’ll be grateful for the contribution that she’s made to the genre.
i’ve recently started a new project in Canada’s national capitol, Ottawa. i’ve had a long fascination with Ottawa because it is the home of some of Canada’s most historic and important institutions – Parliament, the Supreme Court and the National Gallery of Canada to name just a few. i used to watch the House of Commons Question Period on public television and felt that i could directly observe (if not quite participate in) the process of democracy shaping my world.
these days i have quite a different feeling than i did twenty-some years ago. each week that i’ve been here, i would walk down Wellington Street past Parliament and the Supreme Court and the National Archives and wonder how the world got this way. debates about constitutional reform seem like a thing of history. discussions about human rights and legal ethics are things that we engage in regarding other countries, but there appears to be so little attention paid to these matters here (at least in the popular press). maybe all of the really hard questions have been dealt with and we Canadians are just doing our best to keep our heads above water while the globe’s economic and political structures pitch and sway with dervish-like abandon.
i really don’t mean for this to seem disdainful or contemptuous. Canadians are fiercely proud of their incomparable good fortune – we have an abundance of everything that is scarce in the rest of the world combined with a degree of safety and security that is virtually unprecedented in the history of the world. i know that i am fiercely proud of this state of affairs – even as i worry that we are not as contemplative or vigilant a nation as i feel that we used to be.
however, my ruminations do make me feel that it is important to speak up against something like SOPA. SOPA has the power to destabilize the very internet – the thing that pays my salary and gives me freedom to access information in a way that i can directly control. the internet has broken my dependence on mass media for ideas and information, and has empowered me to draw my own conclusions on what the world is and where it is heading by allowing me to find a contemplative and vigilant community that cares about issues of concern, rather than the biased concerns of populist media conglomerates susceptible to corporate interests. while SOPA is not directly about quashing the democratic voice of the people of the world, it has the power to censure and constrain it, and that is why i think that it is harmful. the thin edge of the wedge. the edge of the slippery slope.
there are altogether too many fronts on which our modern society is on the brink. therefore, i feel that it is not too much trouble for me to participate in what might be the largest online protest in the history of online to voice my concern. i hope that during this week, you will think about this issue and do what you can to express your concern in what way you can as well.
in preparations for (yet another) cross-country move, i was at my parents’ house rearranging some stuff i had there for storage. most of the stuff was college textbooks and other heavy items that i didn’t want to move before. the problem with books is that they are so heavy, and unless you are constantly rereading them, you can exert an awful lot of effort and cost trucking them back and forth with you everywhere you go. even moving within the same city, a single box of books can easily weigh 40kg and piss you off by the tenth or twentieth box. that is why i came up with the moving rule of buying digital versions of whatever book i needed from hereonin.
but then i found my box of records from my childhood in the garage. the albums and singles had been lingering in the garage for well over a decade, continuously visited by rain and snow and thaw and cold and mold and mice. i brought the box to my apartment and surveyed the damage. the cardboard of most of the covers had become warped and soiled for the most part, but the vinyl seems to be fine. looking over the curious and antiquated media brought back all kinds of memories and recollections from my past for which i was frankly unprepared.
i have 46.2 days worth of continuous music in my iTunes library. 13,441 items which would fit on approximately 1,344 albums. but the emotional impact of leafing through that collection, compared to the 40 – 50 albums in my crusty cardboard box, was a fraction of that amount. even with coverflow. so i wonder what young people who grew up with purely digital media will have to look forward to 20 – 30 years from now. will they scroll through a window of files in a directory and think, “wow, i remember when i listened to these downloads over and over on my iPod nano” and smile inside?
to me, the issue is not one of audio quality or convenience or availability, but of quality of experience. there is something inherently ritualistic about pulling out a great big 12″ square record album, looking at the big high-definition printed cover art/photography, reading the cleverly designed liner notes, placing the disc on the turntable and setting the needle to the record that is lost in the replacement task of double-clicking a file or a song title in a playlist.
or how about movies? i used to go to the cinema all the time, as recently as a few years ago. now, i can almost barely be bothered to go and see the climax of the Harry Potter series on the big screen. again, the ritual of taking the bus to the theatre, buying a ticket, getting a bag of popcorn, and struggling to find the best available seat, has been replaced by shlumping onto the couch and renting “Hanna” online from iTunes on demand. I can stop the film, go to the bathroom, write and email, make dinner, go to work, and come back to the film, totally breaking its demand for the suspension of disbelief. how can that possibly do justice to the artist’s vision?
the same goes for books. i used to revere books and care about them dearly, personalizing them ever so carefully with annotations and dogears only where absolutely necessary or critical – because books, unlike eBooks, have no “undo” feature, and a page once folded, can never be made smooth again. so how is it that i’ve come full circle and sold and abandoned so many cherished books in favour of their back-lit imposters?
i even have digital versions of my entire “Sandman” comic book collection, now sitting in the dank crawlspace between my parents’ main floor and basement. i only read “Wired” magazine on my iPad, although i used to buy every issue from the very first issue that was ever printed religiously. i haven’t had a newspaper subscription since the internet began.
i’ve come to enjoy the consumption of every type of medium digitally – i depend on it with my lifestyle and workload. but now that i have given myself completely to the digital age, i have to look back and wonder just what the heck i’ve been reading/listening to/watching/loving in that entire time. it’s a completely unfathomable mystery to me now, because all i can see is a stack of perpetually inadequate storage devices on my desk that hold the three terabytes of data that represents my life for the past 15 years.
i need a better way to appreciate and reminisce about the things i’ve experienced than what the current digital experience allows me. maybe Facebook timeline will help with that – LOL!
ps. i fear that this post indicates the completion of my transformation into an emo-hipster. sigh.
today at Facebook’s F8 developers conference, Mark Zuckerberg made one of the smartest plays with Facebook since adding the Like button to everything on the web – he announced Timeline. Timeline allows Facebook users to view their Facebook contributions from the beginning of their accounts, and earlier, on a clever and attractive timeline – like a patchwork autobiography. Timeline isn’t an amazingly novel idea (i mean, even i had the idea a year ago) but it is one that i truly believe can add at least another 2 – 5 years to social networking’s reign as a supreme technology and i will explain why.
this summer saw reports of declines in use in social networking sites with the term “Facebook fatigue” being coined and endorsed by CNN. this is pretty understandable. apart from sharing photos of pets and newborns, and less noble pursuits like stalking and snooping on friends or friends-of-friends, the novelty of Facebook as a social sharing medium has grown a little thin. we can only poke a friend so many times before it gets old. Facebook’s most valuable commercial enterprise apart from ads is online gaming, which again while entertaining, offers no substantive value to the end user. the only other real value Facebook has is allowing friends to share content that they’ve liked on other sites with other friends, but there are so many vehicles to achieve the same thing, Facebook hardly has much of an edge on that (apart from its ever-increasing user base). so how can Facebook be made relevant and valuable to users after they graduate high school/depart university, etc.?
Facebook has discovered that the information that we Facebook users have been loading it full of over the past years has personal, historical value to its users. i stopped keeping a diary when i turned 15, and now that i am… older than 15, i am finding it harder and harder to keep track of the things that i’ve been doing and have done. So when i get the opportunity to look back at the past 3-4 years that i’ve spent injecting Facebook with status updates, wall photos, relationship updates, random profanity, and other sundry posts and messages, i find that i’ve got for myself a pretty sweet little autobiography that i can use with to-the-second certainty to identify exactly what i was doing/thinking/eating/drinking/liking at that point when i was updating Facebook. it’s as if all of those fleeting and extemporaneous thoughts that I had in-the-moment to be released and forgotten ever after, were gathered up and marvelled at as a mosaic-tiled narrative.
“ok – so what?” you are probably thinking to yourself. who cares that my Facebook content is now ordered chronologically? well, for me anyway, and apparently the geers at Facebook agree, it makes Facebook a valuable tool to ME as opposed to my network and i can now choose to contribute to it because i want to extend the narrative that i have been creating for the past four years and improve its quality and fidelity, especially now that the tool is much better designed to do it. i am no longer motivated to update my status because i want my community to be aware of what i am doing – i am motivated to update my status because i want FUTURE ME, of my future wife, or future children or whoever to be aware of what i WAS DOING at this point in history.
and Facebook went one very clever step farther. with its Open Graph API, launch partners are able to add their apps to the timeline from day one, so that your Spotify data can feed a part of the history, or what you were watching on Netflix. Zuckerberg demonstrated integration with Nike Plus, which i have also been using forever – and having that data integrated makes Timeline even more authoritative. the potential is really vast.
obviously, there are significant challenges to be faced by Facebook Timeline. people are already concerned with how much control they have over their private information and the permissions they can give to others to view their content. Timeline seems to be a way of getting users to pour even MORE personal information than they would normally place on Facebook – even going so far as to prompt users to add photos, videos, and notes about their own birth, or other significant life events. i’m not sure how much even i like that idea, and i love the idea of Timeline tremendously.
privacy and security concerns notwithstanding, evolving social networking and sharing into a personal micro-history generator is simply brilliant. so many of the young generation’s best moments have already been captured online in social sites so when they turn on Timeline, their autobiographies will be so much more robust than my generation’s, and so much more meaningful. i have a hard time believing that any of us will be able to see the reflection of our personal histories presented in a slick new interface and quickly turn away from it… at least not without thinking twice.
on my first full day back, i went back to the neighbourhood where i lived between the ages of 10-18, capilano, to see how things had changed while i was gone. it was pretty dismaying. the mall where I used to go for our weekly shopping was virtually abandoned with only a handful of tenants and dozens of empty, locked shops. there were two liquor stores, a Wal-mart and a Winners. the old municipal library where i would go on weekends to read Superman and Charlie Brown anthologies was gone. also gone were the independent butchers and art shops that i remember visiting in my youth.
i went to a KFC to have a snack before heading back to the apartment, and i overheard the familiar sounds of Edmonton-conversations… fringey counter-culture punks repeating stories of being wrongfully assaulted by the cops and waiting for their out-of-court settlement paydays. what was new were the stories of roving gangs of Somalis and other groups who had all come here during the boom, and with the boom at low ebb, they’ve turned to rather disorganized crime. everyone had stories of their iPods stolen, being mugged for their wallets, jacking somebody’s iPhone… curious that low-life’s don’t seem to feel inclined to tell stories of BlackBerry-related crimes.
what was most strange to me was how familiar all of this really was. i’ve had these people as friends at various points in my life… why wouldn’t i? this was(is) what people in Edmonton were(are) like. here, no one cares or discriminates if you have an accent or not, if your educated or not, wealthy or poor, clean or dirty, sober or stoned, well-spoken or gutter-talking. and that’s when it hit me. i had felt so sorry for myself to have to be surrounded by such wretched small-life people, but it dawned on me that i was the one who had become small. i had become small-minded about people and toronto helped me with that.
part of my problem is that i didn’t realize how insulated i had become in my little toronto bubble, probably because i had done such a great job of surrounding myself with my very favourite things. i had always been harshly critical of select people in toronto for being closed-minded and judgmental (well, where hedonism wasn’t involved), so it has been hard for me to face just how much of that had rubbed off onto me. here i am, strolling around a city where, in spite of growing up here, i am basically a stranger, but full of prejudice and disdain for people i’ve never even seen before. why? because edmontonians don’t all wear fashion labels or stay in perfect physical condition, or use reusable shopping bags, or have not quit smoking yet. because they aren’t torontonian? i’m not torontonian!!!
this has been a hard transition… much much harder that i had anticipated. it’s also hard to see the value of something that you are doing where the immediate costs are so high, the rate of change is so high, and the benefit is something so intangible like future moments with your family. i’ve spent hours crying, laughing out loud, gritting my teeth, shouting at the road, panicking over my decision, and i am sure that a more mature and settled person would just go with the fact that they had moved and live with it. but i, being the emotional nuclear reaction that i am, am having a hard time just going with it. i’ll figure it out. i usually do. but it will take time.
i’ll post some stories about the drive across the country as soon as i can. it was an amazing trip.