WHO’S FOR PLANET ZIGGY?

By Geoff Olson

Last December, scientists announced the discovery of an Earth-like world out beyond our solar system. A Harvard university astronomer who helped find the planet is seeking a better name than GJ 1214b, its clunky scientific designation. For a short time, Wired magazine solicited readers for suggestions, but I think we’ve had the right name since Monday.

‘Ziggy.’ Or ‘Stardust.’ Or ‘Ziggy Stardust.’

I say the ocean-covered planet, 1.5 times larger than ours, should be graced with one of the trippy nom de plumes of the late singer/songwriter David Bowie, who first rocketed to fame with his 1969 hit, Space Oddity.

In the early 70s, young Bowie convinced a few working class British musicians to don platform boots and put on eyeliner for live performances (they were sold when they found out how women went crazy for the look). Led by a scrawny extraterrestrial named Ziggy Stardust, the Spiders From Mars thunderously annotated Bowie’s themes of oddness, otherness, and alienation.

Bowie didn’t invent glam rock — that credit goes to Mark Bolan from T. Rex — but his introduction of high fashion and performance art gave some gravitas to glitz. He dropped Ziggy for a succession of androgynous fleshsuits: Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke, and the blonde dandy of his Let’s Dance phase. Trained in mime, Bowie was the first artist of the 20th century to actively play with the persona — Greek for “mask” — in a rock ‘n’ roll setting.

Even before his Ziggy period, the guy was doing some pretty outlandish things, like posing in a dress for the cover of his 1970 album, The Man Who Sold the World. Skating across gender boundaries in public was about the most alien thing you could at the time, short of boarding an actual flying saucer. The transgressive singer-songwriter became something of a patron saint to successive generations of kids who felt different, misunderstood, or left out — LGBTQ or otherwise. He forged a new kind of cool from a kiln of high strangeness.

The razor-thin performer was cast as an alien in Nicholas Roeg’s 1976 science fiction film, The Man Who Fell To Earth. He wrote a sequel of sorts to Space Oddity with the 1980 single Ashes to Ashes, and continued to touch on spacey themes through the remainder of his career.

Of course, none of this showmanship would have worked — or been all that interesting — without great music to back it up. Bowie was as much a musical as theatrical chameleon, shifting gears from acoustic folk to hard rock to Philly soul to electrofunk.

The only time I saw him perform, at the Plaza of Nations site in 1997, he looked like he was having the time of his life: a man playing (and playing with) the role of art rock’s elder statesman, relaxed in between reinventions.

He was known for his sense of humour. In a documentary on guitarist David Gilmour’s 2006 performance at the Royal Albert Hall, the youthful-looking singer tells the camera he first saw Pink Floyd with his parents when he was six. “I think he’s exaggerating the age a little bit,” Gilmour tells the camera. “Alright, I was ten,” the backstage guest responds with a grin.

The man certainly had his share of musical missteps (and his mannered singing was easily lampooned, as in the affectionate sendup “Bowie’s in Space” by the comedy troupe Flight of the Conchords). But consider this: few of us will read any given book more than once. We might look at a painting or sculpture with appreciation a few times before it becomes familiar territory. But most of us will listen to a chosen piece of music from certain performers over and over, for decades.

How many times have I heard Bowie’s mid-seventies anthem to escape, Heroes? Certainly dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times. Yet it still gives me goosebumps. (Walter Pater was right: “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.”)

The 69-year-old David Jones exited this world way too soon, just two days after the release of his album Blackstar. He had come full circle with the video for the title track, back to his youthful themes of surrealism and space.

Name the planet after the guy, already. We’ll even accept ‘Major Tom.’

The Vancouver Courier, Jan. 14

REQUIEM FOR A NOKIA SHORTY

Nokia Shorty.JPG
By Geoff Olson

As a preemptive New Years resolution, I recently ditched my 11-year old cell phone along with it’s bare bones, $30 monthly mobility plan.

The candybar-style “Nokia Shorty” is a lozenge-shaped mobile that predates flip phones. I had grown fond of its stupidity. The device’s archaic interface kept me from joining the hordes of tapping, swiping, smartphone owners who populate our streets, public transit, restaurants, schools, boardrooms, and dining rooms.

My dumb phone had a damnably tricky alphanumeric keypad, with 26 letters and ten numbers allocated to 12 keys. I found writing a text message was like drawing with an Etch-a-Sketch while wearing ski gloves. I kind of liked that limitation, since I’m an infomaniac at heart. Meaning I can get sucked into a flame war or clickbait vortex with the zeal of a multitasking tween with OCD.

Blogging, browsing, buying, texting, liking, lurking, and binge-watching “Narcos” is all fine by me. But I prefer to do it sitting in front of a laptop or tablet, not in motion toward an open manhole. For years, the app-free Nokia 2115i kept me from amusing myself to death in my leisure hours.

The battery charge lasted for days and the thing could take a real beating. I can’t remember how many times I dropped it on floors and pavement. Its front bracket and keypad would fly off merrily in all directions, but it was always a cinch to reassemble it.
Post-Snowden, many of us have learned how conversations on smart phones can be monitored remotely unless the battery is physically removed. But I was always more concerned with data mining from marketers, and in that department the Nokia’s shallow memory probably made for a disappointing dig.

A while back, some barista pronounced my Nokia as the sickest thing, like, totally ever. Too young to recall the twenty-five year arc of cell phones from brick-like to bite-sized and back again to widescreen smartphones, she may have thought I held the future in my hands, a la Mr. Spock with a Tricorder.

And surely there’s a Star Trek episode in here somewhere. Imagine the Enterprise invaded time-warped back to Victorian-era England, with Ned Ludd and his followers breaking into the ship. Kirk and his crew stand paralyzed as the Luddites start busting up Scotty’s warp drive.

Suddenly a middle-aged Canadian media “content provider” from the 21st century appears holding an itsy-bitsy candybar mobile. He talks of a middle path, between uncritically embracing new technology and mindlessly rejecting it. After an awkward silence, Ned grabs the Nokia and stomps it into pieces, but the main body lies glowing and undamaged on the engine room floor. Convinced the device is the spawn of Satan, the leader and his gang flee the ship in terror.

In fact, me and my Nokia may have been as much ahead of the cultural curve as behind it – if we are to take celebrity as our yardstick. Flip phones are reportedly making a comeback among the glitterati, including Iggy Pop, Rhianna, and Vogue editor Anna Wintour. This isn’t just a retro fling with the past: older mobiles don’t make for appealing targets for hack attacks, unlike smart phones with their porous third-party apps and state-crowbarred back doors.

(Sales of smart phones are slowing: one tech firm projects a ten percent growth over the next year, down considerably from the 27 percent growth peak in 2014.)

Alas, eleven years is a geological epoch in tech time. The processor-free Nokia from 2004 was wearing thin with friends and family, who tired of my monosyllabic text responses and general inaccessibility. So after months of dithering I replaced my preCambrian precious with a Blackberry Bold 9990 model from 2011. With a data-free plan from Telus, I can phone and text more than I want or need to. But I can only receive and respond to emails through wifi networks. Fine by me.

So there you have it: on the cusp of the New Year, I have leapt from 2004 to 2011, mobility-wise. An additional five year jump would take me right to the present, but it ain’t gonna happen anytime soon. In fact, I’m hoping to stick with my defunct Blackberry until they put either it or me into the Smithsonian.

The Vancouver Courier, Dec. 31

HELL NO, BARBIE!

by Geoff Olson

She’s got a wasp-like waist, missile cone boobs, and a corona of blonde plastic hair. And she’s packing a microchip full of trouble, say critics who’ve painted “Hello Barbie” as the most disturbing Christmas gift of the year.

The doll is toymaker Mattel’s effort to rebrand their plastic role model for girls as a robotic confidant. She can learn from and respond to young owners through voice recognition technology.
Here’s how it works: after buying the doll, you (the parent) go online and set up an account using an email address. Your child can then press Hello Barbie’s belt buckle and begin to converse with her through the doll’s internal microphone. The child’s words are digitized and sent via home wifi to a remote server, which decodes the words and fires back an appropriate response for Hello Barbie to speak.

Fun!

But not so fun to critics who peg the doll as an hourglass-shaped snoop. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) has launched a “Hell No Barbie” campaign to sound the alarm over family privacy and security. But creepy as the doll may be it’s hardly an outlier; the partnering of children with invasive gadgetry is becoming the new normal.

cartoonDec17 copy.jpg
The Vancouver Courier, Dec. 17

Consider a recent survey of parents of young children in a lower class community in Philadelphia. The majority of the children younger than four own mobile devices, and the relationships start early. Before their first birthday, over 40 percent of the children have used a mobile device on a daily basis to play games, watch videos or fiddle with apps. “The percentage increased to 77 per cent in two-year-olds and plateaued after that,” according to a summary of the report on the CBC.

28 percent of the two-year-olds required no help to navigate a mobile media device, and an alarmingly high percentage of parents passed devices on to their kids to keep them calm in public places or to put them to sleep.

“I cringe when I see toddlers with their devices in Banyen books,” writes a friend by email. “And their parents are so proud of them! On the other hand, I see beautiful young children who’ve had limited exposure to TV and smart gadgets. The difference between the two groups is striking.”

People who worry about the rise of Artificial Intelligence “may say that they’ll never submit to the comfort and convenience of technologies that dehumanize them, but to be perfectly honest, I think that many of them have already acquiesced,” insists Joshau Krause from The Daily Sheeple.

Echoing Kraus and my friend, psychologist and author Sherry Turkle warns that prolonged exposure to mobile devices may compromise the ability of young people to socialize and learn empathy.

Hello Barbie’s cousins are so-called “smart appliances,” which are being engineered to digitally retrieve every last detail about our personal habits, up to and including what’s said behind closed doors. Some of this highly marketable info will be flowing out through home wifi and cable networks, and the rest through smart meters, those Trojan Horses for the “Internet of Things.”

Across the pond, Antony Walker of techUK warns that powers being proposed in the British government’s draft Investigatory Powers Bill may allow hacking into “smart toys.” Devices that “may sit in a child’s bedroom but are accessible” can be remotely turned into instruments of spycraft, he warns. “In theory, the manufacturer of those products could be the subject of a warrant to enable equipment interference with those devices.”

As for Hello Barbie, Mattel subdivision Toy Talk promise they won’t share your child’s voice-to-text info with third parties, with this proviso: “when we believe in good faith that we are lawfully authorized or required to do so or that doing so is reasonably necessary or appropriate to (a) comply with any law or legal processes or respond to lawful requests or legal authorities, including responding to lawful subpoenas, warrants, or court orders.”

In other words, with potential surveillance through consumer electronics extending to everything from televisions to dolls, we’re talking about a slope that’s beyond slippery. It’s a greased slide for hackers hailing from the state or the street. I just wonder many parents learning this will shrug and go, “oh well,” and how many will go, “Orwell”.

The Vancouver Courier, Dec. 17