The silence of the Internet

This week the popular film site IMDb (the Internet Movie Database) closed its message boards. Apparently this was because commenting was “no longer providing a positive, useful experience for the vast majority of our more than 250 million monthly users worldwide.” I don’t know how true that is. I spent a lot of time reading those threads. Sure there was some trolling, but less than you might imagine, and a lot of the conversations were well informed and informative. Roger Ebert even used to quote from them in his later essays.

I’ve also heard that the message boards made less income from ads and were costing too much to run, which sound like more accurate reasons for shutting them down.

In any event, I’ll be very sad to see them go. A year ago I wrote a post about how large parts of the Internet were turning away from the model of an open forum by disallowing comments on news stories. A lot of the backlash has latched on to the figure of the villainous troll, and how anonymous haters spreading fake news and all the rest of it represent a clear and present danger to civil society. I’m not defending the trolls, but that seems like a massive exaggeration to me, and I suspect it’s just an excuse being used to stifle different points of view. I’ve certainly had comments I’ve made at various news sites deleted by moderators over the years, all of which were just expressions of political opinions (that is, non-obscene, non-personal, non-threatening). Sure there were silly posts on the IMDb boards, but I suspect what’s really happening here is that advertisers didn’t have any use for them and the site operators found them uncontrollable, so they had to go.

Is this the Internet 3.0 taking shape? I don’t like it.

Canada Post humour

I don’t think mail delivery is that boring a job. I’ve never done it, but it can’t be as bad as, say, working on a line in a factory. Even so, I guess mailmen do have to find ways to amuse themselves, just to get through a dull day.

As evidence, I present this:

Well played, Canada Post.

Well played, Canada Post.

As someone who reviews books, I get a lot of books in the mail. Some come in boxes. This box apparently just fit into the small parcel slot in my community mailbox. A very snug fit indeed. Getting it in couldn’t have been easy! Removal, of course, proved to be impossible, even with the use of a screwdriver and other tools. You can’t tell from the picture, but there’s  a lip over the edge of the parcel slot once the main mailbox door is closed, so there really was no way to retrieve the package.

I have to admit, I just laughed when I saw this. Of course, right next to the small parcel slot is the large parcel slot, which was empty (I shone a light in to check). Well played, Canada Post. Well played.

Why buy cold medicine?

I’ve had a cold for the past week. My nose has been so stuffed-up I can’t breathe through it at night, plus I’ve got a headache, sore throat, and I’m always sneezing

Because I rarely come into contact with other human beings, getting sick is something that doesn’t often happen to me. This cold is probably the first time I’ve been sick in over ten years. And it’s been so unpleasant I went to the store and bought some cold medicine.

I didn’t want to. Most colds just run their course and then go away after a week or two. But I wanted to feel like I was doing something because I was really miserable.

But there is no cure for the cold. As the old saw has it, we can put a man on the moon (we accomplished that one quite some time ago, actually), but we still can’t find a cure for the common cold. There are two reasons for this. In the first place, the common cold isn’t a single disease but a general name for over a hundred different viruses. In the second place, since it isn’t a very serious disease (that is, you don’t die from it) there is no financial incentive for drug companies to find a silver bullet.

Which isn’t to say that drug companies don’t make money out of selling cold remedies. They certainly do. The stuff I ended up buying sounded just right: Extra Strength Tylenol Sinus, for “sinus pain and pressure, sinus headache, and sinus congestion.” It cost $8 for 20 pills (12 daytime tablets and 8 nighttime tablets). I don’t know why I even bothered. I mean, I knew it wasn’t going to work because I know that nothing works. And it didn’t work. Three days later I hadn’t gotten any relief at all from any of the cold symptoms I had. None. In fact my cold got worse. I might as well have been eating Smarties.

I might also add that I couldn’t detect any difference between the daytime “non-drowsy” pills and the nighttime “lets you rest” variety. I was actually kind of looking forward to being knocked out by the latter. No such luck.

I don’t mean to pick on Tylenol. I mean, my mother swears by it. And I’m sure none of the other brand names would have done a bit better. But it makes you wonder. Seeing as we all know that there is no cure for the cold, how do such products remain on the market? I mean, they don’t even provide relief from cold symptoms. I still can’t breathe.

Maybe cold medications are like vitamins, most of which do absolutely no good at all unless you have an impossibly bad or deficient diet and you’re in need of some particular supplement.

Seeing as I still have this cold, I suppose I’ll just keep taking all these pills until they’re gone. But I know there’s no point.

The stuff book sales are made of

Today I went to the Tenth Annual Friends of the Guelph Public Library Giant Used Book Sale.

These sales are both fun and a bit depressing. The size of the crowds was impressive, and surprising. The weather was bad and I went first thing in the morning the second day of the sale and the place was still packed with hundreds of people of all ages. This cheered me up a bit, as it was nice to see so much interest in these endless tables of paper bricks.

The depressing part is when you realize that the majority of these books aren’t going to be sold, and that many of them come from the estates of book lovers who have come and gone before us. Finding something to do with the books left behind by a deceased bibliophile is always a problem. Basically, nobody wants them. At one point they were the physical presence of someone’s intellectual biography, but with the passing of that intellect they are largely rubbish. I couldn’t help thinking that I should just have a proviso in my will to have my books burned along with me. I’d have them all buried with me, but that would take a pretty large mausoleum. I guess the best thing to do is to find some way to give them away before you go, but it’s hard to time these things perfectly and you’re still left with the problem of no one wanting them.

There were several tables set up for movies and music as well, including vinyl records and VHS tapes. To my amazement people were buying VHS tapes. I still have a VHS player in my basement, but I thought I was among the very few left. I mean, why would you still be using one? Is there that much out there on VHS that isn’t available in any other format?

There were a lot of DVDs but people weren’t buying them even for $1. DVDs never really become collectible, do they?

Top authors? Robert Ludlum. Lots of Robert Ludlum. Jean M. Auel. Pierre Berton. I don’t have any Ludlum or Auel on my bookshelves (though I used to have some Ludlum). I have almost all of Berton’s books. I grew up reading Pierre Berton and still love those volumes dearly. Every Christmas it seemed there was a new one out (he knew marketing), and the “latest Berton” was always a must-have gift. He may still be my favourite Canadian author. And this is where all that love will end up.

Everyday rudeness #3: Not flushing

Many years ago, in a first-year Introduction to Sociology course, I learned about “cultural universals.” These were the relatively rare social customs that every people in the world, at all times, have respected. Usually they were taboos grounded in some biological imperative. Incest, for example, isn’t good for evolution as it restricts the gene pool. Avoiding coming into contact with excrement, another universal, is basic hygiene, as it cuts down on the spread of disease.

Well, some people never got the memo. Have you had to use a public washroom lately? Why is it that roughly a third of all the toilets in any given public washroom are full of shit or piss? I’m willing to bet they aren’t broken. And yet what could be easier, or, one would have thought, more natural and automatic, than to flush after using them? I’m sure none of the people doing this would leave the toilets in their house full of feces. Why do they think it’s OK to do it in public? Is this the tragedy of the commons?

It’s not just something that happens in the washrooms in bus terminals either. I remember a few summers ago finding the same proportion of toilets in the local university’s library had been left filled. And the reason I’m writing this post is because just this week when I went to use the washroom at my gym, which is a fairly upscale establishment, I found someone had not only left the bowl filled with pee, but, for good measure, had left the seat down and pissed all over that as well.

Why? As I say, flushing should be automatic. Toilet training is a cultural universal, and you do it so many times every day you’d have to make a conscious effort not to flush. And yet many people, not a majority by any means but a lot, simply walk away. Are they marking their territory? Trying to be funny? Or just being rude?

Who is your friend?

Yesterday was, so I’m told, #FriendsDay on Facebook. I’m not sure what this means, in part because I’m not on Facebook but perhaps more because I’m finding it harder these days to conceptualize just what a “friend” is.

In the week leading up to Friends Day (or #FriendsDay, if you insist) there was a new study out from Oxford University that says that people who use social media — and in particular Facebook, with its handy tool for “friending” people — have no more friends offline than other people.

This isn’t surprising, though as always breaking down the numbers is complicated. At the heart of the problem is the very slippery label of friend.

The definition of friend varies widely between different cultures, meaning something different in America than in Europe, Africa, or Asia. Then there are degrees of friendship. The Oxford study speaks of the “hierarchically inclusive layers” of our personal social networks. The inner ring is the “support clique” of people who care about you, and which usually consists of around five “very close friends.” This is apparently a hard limit based on a combination of “cognitive constraint (the product of the relationship with neocortex size known as the social brain hypothesis) and a time constraint associated with the costs of servicing relationships.”

Outside of the support clique there is a “sympathy group” of maybe a dozen “close friends,” then a social network, then a larger number of acquaintances, and then maybe 1 500 or so faces that you may recognize but might not be able to put a name to.

At least that’s one way of breaking it down. Other studies use different labels and different criteria for seeing who fits in where. So when it was recently reported that 1 in 10 people in the UK say they have no close friends it wasn’t immediately clear what that meant. In a 2006 study out of Duke University and the University of Arizona, “Social Isolation in America,” the key variable for determing a close friend was someone you could “discuss important matters with.” These people make up a “core discussion network.” The results of that study were depressing:

Researchers . . . found that the number of people who said they had no one with whom to discuss such matters more than doubled [in the past two decades], to nearly 25 percent. The survey found that both family and non-family confidants dropped, with the loss greatest in non-family connections.

The study paints a picture of Americans’ social contacts as a “densely connected, close, homogeneous set of ties slowly closing in on itself, becoming smaller, more tightly interconnected, more focused on the very strong bonds of the nuclear family.”

That means fewer contacts created through clubs, neighbors and organizations outside the home — a phenomenon popularly known as “bowling alone,” from the 2000 book of the same title by Robert D. Putnam.

It’s these definitions of friendship that are so frustrating. People like to speak of “social capital” a lot these days, which suggests a fairly utilitarian view of friendship. Such friends are people who in some way add material value to one’s life. They are people who can do things for you; as, for example, take care of you during an illness, help you out financially, or provide a source of free on-demand labour. Still other definitions suggest more of a psychological symbiosis, a network of people we find to be good company, something that is beneficial in many ways to our physical and mental health. Then there are definitions that stress the importance of trust. A close friend is someone we can “tell everything” to. The friend here may be a therapist, sounding board, or mentor.

All of this makes talking about friendship very difficult. What does seem real is a general though perhaps slight erosion, at lest in the hyper-individualist West, of close social bonds, and their replacement with ersatz, even parody forms of friendship like the “BFF” (best friend forever) and the Facebook friend. These aren’t “real” friends but are made to seem as though they’re worth more in some nebulous form of virtual currency. I wonder if, when the bait-and-switch is complete, we’ll be able to remember what being a friend once meant, or be able to get back to an authentic sense of self.

All my childhood favourites

Along the way to a reading recently I wanted to stop in somewhere and pick up some Life Savers. I’ve been having cravings for Life Savers lately. In particular, “Wint-O-Green” Life Savers. Apparently this kind of Life Saver will spark in your mouth if you do something really stupid like bite down hard on them. I just like the taste.

I thought this would be easy. This only goes to show how old and out of touch I am. I first went to a Little Short Stop I passed on my way downtown. They had no Life Savers, only Certs and Menthos.

Then I tried a seedy variety store downtown. I mean, this place looked so run down I couldn’t believe it was open. They had a candy rack that had one — one! — roll of Life Savers. God knows how long it had been sitting there. Plus it was the multi-fruit flavours package. No deal.

I then went into the drug store in the mall. They had a big candy rack but no Life Savers were on display. The checkout lady then showed me the aisle where they had bags of Life Savers. Ridiculous! Apparently Life Savers don’t come in rolls any more. You buy them in these big bags, wherein each Life Saver is individually wrapped, like in those jars you see on the counter in front of the teller in your bank. If you still go to a bank. How environmental is that? There’s more packaging in one of those bags then there is candy.

By the way, did you know that a mere four Life Savers total 60 calories? That’s incredible! So a whole roll — and that’s not a lot of candy — has more calories than a Snickers bar! How is that possible? I mean, they’re really, really small.

Anyway, I didn’t want a bag of Life Savers, I wanted a roll. I did, however, get a bag of wine gums because they were half price and I was getting hungry for a sugar fix. Plus I really like wine gums.

My final stop was another variety store on the main drag. No Life Savers. I got into a conversation with the guy at the checkout. He told me that Life Savers aren’t popular any more. He said that people like something called Jolly Rogers candy better. At least I thought he said Jolly Rogers. Maybe he said Jolly Ranchers, or meant to say Jolly Ranchers. I’ve never heard of Jolly-anything candy before.

How depressing! Life Savers were a part of my childhood. Now they seem to be disappearing.

Then yesterday . . .

I was going to the bank just after lunch and stopped in to Dairy Queen for some dessert. Specifically, what I wanted was a dipped cone. A dipped caramel cone. This was another childhood favourite.

Did you know you can’t get a dipped caramel cone in Canada any more? The only flavour is chocolate! The cashier told me that lots of people ask for caramel but they only have that flavour in the U.S. now.

Whatever happened to the world I grew up in? The past doesn’t even want to sell me its stuff!