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Staff Editorials

Public obsession with celebrity: Envy or the appeal of a human car wreck?

We’re obsessed with celebrities. Don’t deny it. We love seeing them on the red carpet, all glitz and glamour, but we also love following all the juicy gossip when they are caught up in deceit and scandal.

If you doubt this, consider the non-stop coverage of Amy Winehouse’s death? A lot of people were watching those reports on a celebrity more famous for partying than singing, and quite a few of us were discussing it as though she was someone we knew. People made comments like “no surprise that happened,” as though they knew personally about her lifestyle.

With tabloid magazines and online websites that boast daily circulations reaching into the multi-millions, it’s obvious we crave celebrity news. Britain’s The Sun sells almost 3 million papers daily, and Star Magazine’s weekly subscription reaches almost a million. Online sites like TMZ and dlisted offer daily banter focusing mainly on the messed-up lives of celebrities and their most recent photos – preferably without makeup and sitting on a beach somewhere with an ill-fitting bathing suit. The worse they look, the more highly paid the photographer.

But why do we crave junk food news on their personal lives? They’re only people who happen to be on television or the big screen. Maybe it’s because we perceive them as just like us––only better in some ways. They are richer, have better skin and hair. They are fashion icons embroiled in wild, sometimes scandalous  lifestyles – everything our alter egos may wish for. They have nannies to take care of their kids while they jet off to exotic locations to hang out on beaches or hit high-end casinos, where they gamble their fortunes with flash and frivolity.

Couldn’t we all be highly regarded as parents if we had an army of nannies and personal assistants?

We most likely will never achieve the status, fame, power and fortune of the likes of Brangelina (Angelina Jolie/Brad Pitt) or TomKat (Tom Cruise / Katie Holmes) but we watch them in the hopes that we’ll find similarities between us. We relate to celebrities that we see covered in newspapers, magazines and television shows. Often they become more familiar to us than friends and family. Could our closest peer group actually be the cast from a reality show?

Even those of us with celebrity worship syndrome (an obsessive-addictive disorder in which a person becomes overly involved with the details of a celebrity’s personal life) recognize that fame is not a cure-all. There are too many celebrities on shows like Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew. From former movie and television stars to sports legends and those of reality TV fame, people once iconic in our eyes we come to see as human with the same struggles we face.

Unfortunately, when things go bad for a celebrity, the millions at their disposal can lead to epic meltdowns and rampages. If you were as crazy as Charlie Sheen, would anybody but your spouse or work crew even notice?

Celebrities like Amy Winehouse, whose soulful voice was permanently lost to the world over the weekend likely due to drug and alcohol problems, can teach us life lessons. We mess up, try to clean up, and then mess up again. Sometimes rehab works, as in the life of Robert Downey, Jr. who worked for years to overcome drug addiction. Sometimes, as with Winehouse, it doesn’t work.

Life is an endless cycle of trying to do the right thing. And celebrities – those beautiful, rich, glamorous people we love to fantasize over – are really just like us. They emulate the good and bad in all of us on a larger scale.

Besides, total perfection is worse than off-putting – it’s boring. And no one wants to be boring.

 

Marketing violence to youngsters :Kids’ meals with a side of gunplay and a little torture thrown in

In 1985, Rambo: First Blood Part II was released. Body count: 69; Kill count per minute: 0.72; Torture scenes: 5.

rambo

As with any good Hollywood film, the marketing campaign for this sequel to one of America’s most well-known movies fired up months before the movie’s release.

But products designed to promote the movie were not geared toward adolescents older than 16, as the R rating might lead you to believe. Much of the merchandise was solicited to kids from pre-school age to middle school, toys such as the Rambo Electric Train and Battle Set; the Rambo Combat Rifle Target Game Set; grenades described as “soft and safe” (recommended for 5+); and Rambo Black Flack Bubble Gum, manufactured to look like shrapnel.

Using the Rambo toy campaign as a primary target, Siskel and Ebert addressed the issue of marketing violence to kids on their T.V. series “At the Movies” the same year Rambo II was released.

 

“It’s strange to look at this and realize,” Ebert said, “that the vocabulary for the responsible toy industry like ‘recommended for kids age five and up,’ and ‘these grenades are soft and safe,’ are being applied to instruments like these…and it’s interesting to see the most successful images of killing and maiming and warfare are now being recycled directly into a kind of Mr. T that kids can identify with.”

How many parents who purchased those products actually took their six-year-old to see Rambo mow down dozens of bad guys? We would guess very few.

Now, more than 20 years later, Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon is  in theatres, and one member of our staff is struggling with the same  issue. Like many young boys, her four-year-old son is obsessed with Transformers. He owns droves of the morphing action figures and has requested a Transformers themed birthday party in August.

He was originally introduced to the epic battle between Decepticons and Autobots via toy commercials but also through Burger King kids meals, which for boys recently included one of eight Transformers figurines.

The problem with the seemingly harmless plaything nestled alongside the kiddy fries and four-piece nuggets is that the film it promotes is rated PG-13, and the mother will not allow her four-year-old to go to the movie.

Burger King is notorious for tying into films with PG-13 ratings, and they have rightly come under criticism in the past from parents and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood for promoting mature films to children between four and nine years old.

Why aren’t these movie and food partnerships handled more responsibly? Why not pick a theme where the kids who eat the meal can actually see the film––something age-appropriate like Cars 2 or Winnie the Pooh?

Film companies, the food industry and the toy industry show how irresponsible and thoughtless they are by pimping films and toys  ripe with images of war, violence and gore to our young children.

According to a report in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics published in 2006, children under eight are not mentally able to differentiate advertising from reality. Marketing departments for these industries disgracefully take advantage of our children’s cognitive immaturity to turn a profit.

To satiate her son, our staff member is pulling up old episodes of the original, animated Transformers on You Tube. These are still slightly violent but lack the sexual innuendo and sustained, intense fighting and brutality of the full length films.

Parents must make responsible decisions as they raise their children, but restaurants, their partners in the film industry and toy makers need to step to the moral plate and make better judgments when marketing to our children.

Why self checkout stinks

Essentially there are two kinds of people in this world: Those who will use the automated checkout at the grocery store and those who will not.

You’re either one who embraces the dehumanizing, sterile, uncaring bar code system or a person who delights in human interaction with a teenage cashier more interested in what the bag boy is texting than in figuring out if that thing in your cart is a plum or an over-ripe radish.

We who refuse to scan our own bar codes do so for personal reasons, one being that we hold an aversion, distrust, resentment or simple hatred of creeping technology. Admittedly this may stem from the fact we can’t successfully navigate the automated checkout matrix: “Please re-scan item.”

Automated systems debuted in 1992 in New York, and they are not simple machines. The CheckRobot model produced by IBM is one example of the technology behind these products. It features “self-learning software.”

The machines were programmed to bluff shoppers into typing information directly into their index whenever machines encounter a new bar code. When you scan an item the software has never seen before, the machine is smart enough to act like it can’t read the bar code information, and so it asks the customer to identify the product and the price and then adds that information to its memory. Of course, shoppers could add any price they wanted at that point, if they happen to be first with a new item. But that rarely happens, Wikipedia reports, because of shopper fear that the technology somehow already knows more than we do, and if we try to cheat it, we’ll be caught.

It’s more than just the beastly machines being smart, getting smarter, and still not working that enrages. It’s the whole concept. A snooty machine gives you commands to satisfy it and then tells you to bag your own groceries. That’s insulting. And it’s not only Luddites (those opposed to change) who resist the cold metallic presence of customer code scanners. A website that tracks what people hate about one particular national retailer records “Stupid self check-out lines” with 531 votes. Top complaint was how the store treats its workers (1,933 votes), but we bet store employees flooded that poll.

Economists are indecisive concerning the effect of replacing human clerks with soul-less machines. Apparently for every clerk position lost, scanners generate new jobs elsewhere––presumably repair positions for when some of us finally get fed up and resort to violence in the self-checkout lane. Currently 1 in 10 Americans work in retail in some facet, but a shift is already underway toward a lot of behind-the-scenes automation in warehouses and shipping sure to kill off more jobs but to create new ones as well.

Wikipedia projects 430,000 self checkout units will be in use by 2014. That’s 430,000 more machines that we can enter information into and 430,000 fewer opportunities to hear a human voice say “Have a good day” – even if only uttered through rote training.

In social terms, the shift from people to technology is well underway. At a rapid rate, we are replacing those people we used to interact with: gas station attendants; ticket agents; bookstore owners. Simultaneously we turn in droves to websites devoted solely to inane electronic banter among users termed “friends.” It’s a crazy world; anything can happen.

And while we find fewer opportunities to make awkward stabs at conversation with real people, our potential to read the dinner plans of someone we vaguely know is growing exponentially. Google is angling to move into the Facebook market this year. On-line its all about social interaction. In the real world its all about self checkout.

Surly, rushed, tired or fed-up, we’ll still take a human at the end of the checkout line any day.

 

A tragedy in one act: Money down the toilet bowl

By Angela Reinhardt, staff writer

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Toilets are ubiquitous. I’ve got one. You’ve got one. I would dare say your friends all have one.

They come in different shapes and styles to match our endless array of personalities. Some are utilitarian and perpetually grimy, taking a wholly unapologetic stance about their boorish purpose; others smell like sage and citrus potpourri, embellished with gold and shaped to look like a delicate seashell or flower; and yet others are modern, sleek and technologically advanced, with automated flushers and heated seats.

But when it comes right down to it, our porcelain pedestals all serve the same smelly purpose, and function more or less in the same way.

You flush, a little flap is pulled up by a chain and the tank drains into the bowl, sending the water (and all that other stuff) swirling down to the black abyss, out of our thoughts and en route to a sewage treatment facility somewhere or a septic tank in our own backyard.

The flap then closes and the tank dutifully fills back up for the next sitting.

But despite toilets being as common as, well, muck, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I know something more horrifying, something more awfully tragic about them than most people.

In an unfortunate turn of events in my own life, I have recently learned that in one month’s time, give or take a week, a leaky john can waste 160,000 gallons of water.

On first listen it sounds impossible, on par with suggesting that a camel did, in fact, pass through the eye of a needle, or that the Statue of Liberty shook the dirt off its feet and strolled away.

At first, I didn’t believe it either when my husband told me all those gallons flowed down the modest, unimposing commode in a rental property we own and that our water bill would be $1,200.

To put that staggering figure into perspective, 160,000 gallons is more water than the rainforest exhibit at Ripley’s Aquarium in Gatlinburg. It’s eight, in-ground home swimming pools and over 50,000 regular flushes with an older model toilet.

Our rental house is an older model, built around 1950, and the house has had costly leaks in the past because of bursting pipes, but never more than a few hundred dollars.

As landlords, we didn’t know the toilet was defunct until it was too late. We don’t live in the home and never go inside. Our tenant didn’t realize the gravity of leaving the commode hissing day in and day out, so he didn’t mention it.

Every five years the water department does offer write-offs for just such occasions. We had unfortunately used ours up four years ago.

After the reality of the situation began to sink in, I childishly began to daydream of being allowed to return the water to the department little by little from our own home’s well (1,000 gallons here, 2,000 gallons there) for the next decade.

I decided not to ask.

After speaking with a very nice and empathetic lady at the water department, we found our only option is to appear before the water board and request that our whale of a bill be split into a couple of payments.

In the meantime, in hopes of keeping others from going through the same swirling stinking mess, I thought a neighborly warning the least I could do.

Toilets may seem like unobtrusive members of the family, quietly tucked away in the corner, but if you neglect them, you may end up wasting more water, money and time than you could ever imagine possible.

Happy flushing.

 

No celebration of the Fourth?

Showmen benefactors, the Lions have reached for the stars, giving us a slew of days this year for celebrating our country's beginning instead of some ordinary celebration of the Fourth alone. With a host of fellow countians, we rejoice at this bacchanal of patriotic fervor. Boom it loud as a Sousa march. Lob it higher than a Roman candle. And in the rockets' red glare, we can only wonder that there was ever a time this time was not celebrated here.

It's true, you know. From the Civil War to World War II, the Fourth of July wasn't much celebrated in the South. There were reasons. We had lost a war seeking our own independence from the country the Fourth celebrates. In the aftermath, we did not so much return to our mother country kicking and screaming as we were made to stand outside it devastated, humbled.

For a time we endured occupation troops, a relatively brief but predictable imposition to be visited upon a conquered country. That ended with the political wind shift that brought an end to Reconstruction during the 1870s.

A more paralyzing hardship remained. The economic disparity between the conquered South and the rest of the nation persisted––and persisted by federal design well into the 20th century. Always an agrarian land, the war-havocked, industry-poor, postwar South became a colonial market for the capital-fat industrial North embracing its "Golden Age" in the late 1800s.

On average, desperate and poorly educated, Southern backs became exploited labor in mills, mines and quarries freshly capitalized from sources above the Mason-Dixon line.

They went to it willingly, these Southern workers, hungry for even a meager cash wage or company scrip, the regular pay that proved their narrow escape from the nearly cashless hand-to-mouth subsistence they had previously eked from the ground. With few choices, many Southerners continued to farm, as bound to the land as European peasants.

Sound feudal, medieval or Dickensian? It wasn't far removed. By federal design? Believe it. Until the 1930s, by federal regulation, railroad freight rates were stacked from Washington to serve industrialists of the North. A Southern manufacturer paid more to ship finished factory goods to market by rail than a Northern manufacturer did. The intent was to maintain the South as a consumer colony, to hinder it from becoming an able competitor.

True, with the end of Reconstruction, we ruled at the statehouse again––our opportunity to impose racial segregation with a heavy hand. The economic backwater of the nation, relegated to the back of the class, we became the schoolyard bully, pressing down on someone weaker to mask our own shame. And the South saw the heyday of the scoundrel politician, villains empowered by their ability to bait us on the race issue.

We needed a fixing. And by the grace of God, it found us.

First a great depression put all Americans in the same boat. Southerners were still at the back of the boat, but at last we were all together in our looking for a way up.

And there was this man Roosevelt. Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he later wore steel on his legs. He later wielded a wheelchair. And somehow he understood that even the poorest American black or white deserved dignity. He set about finding ways Americans could achieve that.

A great war helped him, creating many important jobs when they were needed, jobs that moneyed American workers and jobs vital to defeating imperial racism at both ends of the Earth. The South gained industrial opportunities as never before.

Many, many Southerners fought in that war, that most moral war of modern memory, fought it with their whole heart, with their life's blood. Southerners did their part, and the scapegrace cousin South was restored to the bosom of the national family.

It was along then that celebration of the Fourth returned to the South. Another two decades would pass before the nation would "rise up and live out its creed that all men are created equal." If reluctantly, the South went first in that. As that struggle unfolded, were there some Southern veterans of World War II ready to see the racism they fought overseas finally ended at home? There must have been.

This Fourth as our American banner moves down Main in the passing parade, many tiny hands waving tiny flags as they second that motion, remember those stars and stripes stand for more than the spirit of '76. They are the spirit of '45 and the spirit of '65 that made all of us Americans again––one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.