Watch This (and this)

Above the robe hook in our bathroom is a smudge on the wall, from all the times I have perched a book or magazine there while brushing my teeth. I’m forever finishing a book or a long article, and in addition to providing my input junkie fix, it is an interesting exercise in keeping shaking to a minimum.

Lately, my input obsession has become more specific. I have become a bit of a viewing junkie. With a DVR that stores movies and television programs for later enjoyment on the TV or a portable device, and a Netflix subscription that provides content on my TV, computer, or iPod Touch, I can spend every waking leisure moment watching something that interests me.

Besides the monthly outlay, what exactly is all of this convenience costing me?

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Anywhere, Unlimited

This is as much a confession as a rant, as much a catharsis as a condemnation.

Nobody got anywhere in the world by simply being content. -Louis L’Amour

In the United States we are dumbing ourselves down and fattening ourselves up by using too many things that offer unlimited use anywhere, any time. It has shaped our entertainment and social habits. Certainly, the individual is responsible for self-control, and besides children I’m not arguing that there are any victims here. I’m just making observations.

This all goes back to my (not original) belief that just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.

When video games first hit the scene, one had to go to an arcade and insert (someone’s) hard-earned money for each play. Only a relative few ever “finished” a game, and without exception, casual gamers and those regularly entering their initials on the high score lists had to leave when the place closed — if their money held out that long. They went home, and the game stood alone in a dark arcade while the players lived their lives.

Video games could be played at home, but the options were limited compared to today. For at least a decade home video game consoles lagged far behind the gameplay experience on standalone arcade machines. At that time, too, time playing video games at home had to be coordinated with the family’s TV viewing time. Home computers could play comparable games, but most home PC owners didn’t own an advanced gaming setup. Handheld games at that time were limited to primitive red LED displays and tinny speakers producing simple bleeps and bloops.

Now gamers can enjoy their favorite pasttime at any time, anywhere, with graphics and sound easily rivaling that found in the arcades. Playing one hour costs no more money than playing 24 hours. It’s not unusual to see a gamer start playing at 7 p.m. and continue into the wee hours of the morning. In some sad cases, even that time-frame would be considered restraint.

Like video game play, movie viewing at first required a trip outside the home and a price for each opportunity. Gradually, as technology improved, the movie-watching experience in large part migrated from the theater into the household. For decades, viewing movies on demand at home required paying for each movie either by purchasing or renting. Just like when movie theaters held a monopoly on the viewers’ options, paying attention to friends’ suggestions and critics’ reviews helped determine which films were worthy of shelling out the green. Sure, there were cable channels like HBO and Showtime available at a flat rate, but the viewer was limited to what was scheduled, and the stations increasingly moved toward airing original series.

At the advent of television and decades beyond, viewing was limited to the hours that the local stations were on the air. For many Americans, when the broadcast day ended, it was time for bed. In rural areas where cable TV was not available, this remained true until small, more affordable satellite dishes hit the scene and grabbed a significant share of the market.

Thanks to around-the-clock programming and Netflix, movie and TV viewing are not limited to any certain schedule, and the viewer can see what he or she chooses, without time limit, for a flat fee. Although VCR’s have been around for decades, the popularity of time-shifted viewing did not take off until the digital video recorder made it easier than setting an alarm clock. Although all of the above undoubtedly have been a boon to TV fans who do not work an 8-5 shift, that is not the crowd addressed here.

Talking on the telephone once required using a device tethered to a wall. Then it required only a base be attached, with the user free to roam about the home. Mobile phones, at first relegated to powerful boxes that rarely if ever could wander from a car’s lighter socket, took communications outside the home but still in or near a vehicle.

Now mobile phones (often lumped into the more specific category of cell phones) are ubiquitous, at first supplementing and now often replacing the old-fashioned land line. No matter where the user goes, he or she can communicate with people who are miles away just as easily as speaking to someone in the room — as long as the battery doesn’t run out. One can (and often does) ignore those in the immediate vicinity, sacrificing development of face-to-face social skills and making it simpler to avoid diversity.

Thanks to texting, however, one can be rude quietly and politely.

In all the aforementioned areas — gaming, TV, movies, communication — the size of the devices required has become so diminutive that it’s more convenient to carry them around than it is to lug a book or a newspaper. In addition, because they provide their own light source, they can be used anywhere, around the clock. Reading is becoming increasingly optional, too, as most of these devices also play video and audio.

We’re turning our society back to a time when only a select few could and needed to read and write, and the rest lapped up whatever was delivered to them.

By themselves these technologies are amazing. The internet and the ease of connecting to it have helped ensure that one can always find like-minded individuals or those with differing beliefs. Revolutions in the real world have been started on the internet. More choices in entertainment have all but eliminated “appointment TV” viewing, and gamers can get many more hours of enjoyment from a $50 game than the same amount of money would provide in an arcade, often without sacrificing the social context.

The capitalist system requires consumerism to survive, and today’s devices do an impeccable job of supporting that by delivering both paid and ad-supported content. What made America and Americans great, however, was not sitting still and consuming, but moving and creating — also vital components of a successful capitalist economy.

All of this convenience requires we use our eyes and our ears, but not necessarily our minds or bodies. Watching a story, with all the characters’ appearances and scenery decided for us, has become as easy and as portable as reading and using our imaginations. This has contributed to the creation of a culture that encourages complacency — a trait that leads to laziness. In the end, if we cannot control ourselves, we will become dumber and more isolated — easy targets for rising nations.

Super 8 Almost Super

I went to see Super 8 with a good friend. It was expertly crafted and, well, felt a lot like E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial.

Without spoiling the movie, I can’t tell why it reminded me of E.T.. I can say that it had a Stand By Me feel, because it was a throwback to another era — before mobile phones and the internet, but different because it was set in a time when I was about the same age as the main protagonists. The mere fun of feeling I could have been right there with them ruined much chance of my reflecting subjectively on the film’s other elements.

So, it’s a good thing I’m not a film critic.

More than the major thrust of the story, I was engaged by the children’s filmmaking techniques. Need to add authenticity to a scene interviewing a general? Just cleverly position your players in front of a spot where the military are hard at work. There is another great example that any explanation would spoil, so I will refrain.

Prior to seeing the movie, I heard J.J. Abrams in a radio interview. He said that he modeled much of the character development around his friends and himself back when they made their own films. This definitely shows, and helps explain why it was the part that worked best for me. “Write what you know” always is a good foundation.

The rest of the action plays well despite a lack of groundbreaking story, but sometimes comes off as a ragbag of Independence Day, District 9, and, frankly, lots of other sci-fi movies. Oops, did that give away too much?

I left the theater wishing that Abrams had instead made a smaller movie, going more deeply into the children’s lives. I’m a sucker for a polished sci-fi flick, but not when it sacrifices an original, character-driven story for warmed-over plot.

Super 8 is fun, loud, and at points moving. Although it is very close to being a family film, I would not show it to my 8-year-old, but it would give him a glimpse of what things were like when I was that age.

Hallmark Can’t Have It

Ah, Father’s Day. Some treat it with disdain, lumping it in with so-called “Hallmark holidays,” those disingenuous occasions foisted upon us by greeting card companies. I can understand how some would feel that way, and in some ways I do, too. We don’t need someone to tell us when to appreciate certain people in our lives, and we certainly don’t want to send a card if we don’t mean it.

I don’t see the problem with giving extra attention to a person we already treasure. I’ve decided to give a detailed account of my Father’s Day 2011 experience, to help uncover whether it’s a Hallmark holiday or something more.

I rolled over several times, sleeping only in short bursts beyond 6 a.m. We had decided to stop shouting across the house, so I grabbed my phone from the nightstand and texted my wife. “Please send Benjamin in here.”

Shortly, the bedroom door opened. “Happy Father’s Day!” Benjamin said, almost singing it.

He walked over to the bed, wearing a Star Wars clone trooper costume he had used two or three Halloweens ago. I reached out both arms for a hug. “I can’t lean over,” he said. “There’s a rip in the butt of my costume and I don’t want to make it bigger.” He made a half turn. “See the tape?”

(click any pic to enlarge)

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Canada: The Shots That Time Forgot (Part 2)

(Also see the first Canada : The Shots That Time Forgot)

I left this out of my post-trip posts because I thought it warranted an entry all its own. It made a big impression on me and left me with a big question.

There’s a sport in Canada, created by a Canadian, played only in Canada. Since 1909 it has been putting a different spin on a sport that has been marginalized in the United States.

I’m talking about five-pin bowling, a less strenuous but not easier form of the 10-pin game seen elsewhere. The ball is substantially smaller and lighter than in traditional bowling, and the pins are smaller and spaced farther apart.

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I approached the ball return, which looked exactly like any other, and chose one of the marbled balls. There were no holes for my fingers, and this was just as well since my large knuckles rarely allow me to properly grasp a full-size bowling ball unless I choose one that’s far too heavy for me. My geeky arms immediately thanked me for traveling to Canada. So much lighter was their burden, they barely noticed.

I looked down the lane at the five paltry pins, downright dainty little things. This was going to be easy. I didn’t know the top score possible in this adorable game, but I surely would approach if not reach it.

(click any pic to enlarge)

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