Why is most TV so lame?

I would expect from the names of TV channels like Discovery, The Learning Channel and History Channel that these would be educational, documentary, engaging, informative, deep, and rich with content. Silly me. I forgot that the mandate of most TV channels is to entertain the lowest common denominator, not to educate or engage.

Couch potatoWith shows like “Freaky Eaters” and “Extreme Couponing”, the “Learning” Channel is the bottom feeder in the TV IQ pond. Of the 30 bathetic shows in its current lineup, four are about baking with a fifth on cooking, five are about weddings, two are about tattoos, two are about the daily lives of short people, there’s one on “freaky’ eating habits, another on “strange” addictions, a show on the daily lives of polygamists, a show on coupons and bargain shopping (“Extreme Couponing” which turns a perfectly good and functional noun into a flaccid and silly verb), and others of similarly pointless and drearily shallow content.

A whole series dedicated to a family with 19 kids? Why not a whole series dedicated to the benefits of contraception in an increasingly resource-challenged world? But that would be educational and the “Learning” Channel stays as far from educational content as possible. You will learn more from reading a single stop sign than from any of the shows this network offers.

Swimming only slightly above TLC at the bottom of TV’s intellectual pond is the “Discovery” Channel, supposedly a channel about science and technology. That is, if you you think ghosts, goblins, haunted houses, UFOs and self-described “psychics” (aka scam artists) have anything to do with science. If you do, then you’re probably a creationist and should stop reading any further because I will likely annoy you and challenge your petty, superstitious mind.

The “Discovery” Chanel’s lineup is equally impotent as far as educational, insightful or even useful content goes. Shows like Junk Raider, Cash Cab, Auction Kings, Licence to Drill, Canada’s Worst Driver and biker shows lead the low calibre content this channel offers. These shows demean the viewer by suggesting we’re not important enough for producers to craft something better for our viewing.

To add insult to injury, The “Discovery” channel offers a slew of pseudoscience and foolish shows about ghosts, goblins, hauntings, spirits and other claptrap. Paranormal? Parapsychology? Ghost hunting? Self-described psychics? Absolutely the worst nonsense a channel allegedly dedicated to facts or science could broadcast. Why not weekly shows about phrenology? Astrology? Creationism? Angels? I suspect with such shows they have only begun to plumb the depths where intelligent, adult programming is but a mere whisper of a hope.

On one of their paranormal pages, Discovery claims, “Ouija boards have been used to communicate with the dead since the end of the 19th Century. ” Huh? Communicating with the dead stated as a fact? Sure, that’ll happen when the dead have active Facebook pages (around the same time the “Rapture” happens). Communicating with dead people is about as likely as communicating with Harry Potter through your Kindle. Very depressing that this sort of superstitious, puerile nonsense is encouraged by anyone in the 21st century, let alone a channel that purports to be about science. Discovery Channel is a prime example of the dumbing down of our society.

Yes, Discovery has a science show: Daily Planet, which was once rather good when Jay Ingram was co-host, but Ziya Tong is an airhead who reduces science to bouncy cuteness and fake jocularity. Science reduced to the level of a 10-year-old is not real science. It’s a mightily light counterweight to the considerable pseudoscience they broadcast.

Dumbing downThe idea that you can take a weak premise that could barely withstand a sound byte and turn it into a weekly series through bad production seems to have hit numerous networks simultaneously. We now suffer endless “reality” shows that give us insight about what their untalented amateur actors had for breakfast or their choice of footwear-du-jour. Enthralling, mesmerizing stuff, if your life is so completely useless that vacuous TV is the only thing between you and suicide.

Discovery and TLC have far too many of these weak “reality” TV shows that depend on bad camera work, poor acting, worse directing, amateur and wooden dialogue and sloppy editing to make it seem like they’re unscripted video slices of real life. Only the very gullible believe this: anyone with an IQ higher than his or her shoe size is aware they’re as phoney as a government promise to respect your pension.

And why do actors on so many “reality” shows depend on embarrassing or insulting each other as their main way of getting any attention? Why would anyone want to waste time watching actors being uncivil to one another?

The third of this triad of sorry channels is History. How much “history” is really being presented in such mediocre shows as Pawn Kings? What’s In a Name (a restaurant show)? Canadian Pickers (the token tip of the hat to Canadian content by cloning the already pointless and drearily repetitive American Picker series). How about Hairy Bikers? The name alone just reeks of history, doesn’t it? Likes its stars, I suspect. Beast Legends – the zoological equivalent to paranormal claptrap. Outlaw Bikers – nothing like glorifying criminals on national TV.

To be fair, History Channel does live up to its name in several of its shows, although many of their documentaries seem aimed at 8-year-olds rather than adults, with repetitive segments that break big concepts into tiny bits so the average TV viewer can digest them, elementary-school vocabularies and flashy graphics that substitute for real content. It’s not the topic of these shows that annoys me, but rather the production and editing that makes them suitable for children of all ages, but not adults.

History Channel also has a lot of movies. Fiction. It doesn’t matter how good Saving Private Ryan is, or whether it is “based on” a true story, it is FICTION, not history. It belongs on a movie channel, not sloughed off on the public as “history.” Many of their movies make no pretense to anything more than mere entertainment. Surely there’s something better and more intelligent to show, even something historical in nature? Why not slot in a BBC docu-drama instead? Or would that be too intellectual for the average History Channel viewer?

Runners up for idiotic shows, channels that insult your intelligence or offer vapid superstition up as fact are, sadly, numerous. And these are just the so-called documentary channels. Animal Planet has shows about garbage like bigfoot, animal “hauntings” and hillbilly hand-fishing. The Military Channel ruins a rather good lineup with a moronic show on Nazis and UFOs (UFOs are in the same imaginary bestiary as ghosts, angels, psychics and bigfoot: unadulterated hokum. They don’t exist. period. If you actually believe in this crap, the TV networks have won: you’ve been successfully dumbed-down.)

Don’t even get me started on the too-numerous-to-mention coma-inducing shows on Discovery’s Fitness and Health channel or the drearily repetitive lineup we see on the Food Network (however, no ghosts or psychics, at least as far as I can tell).

The Biography Channel offers mind-numbing shows about “ghost” hunters, “psychic” kids and celebrity ghost stories. Travel and Escape TV – among its too-numerous cooking and kitchen shows – has the supercilious Ghost Adventure show where “Fearless ghost hunters investigate the scariest, most notoriously haunted places in the world…” It’s easy to be fearless when you’re confronted with something that doesn’t exist. I’m pretty fearless about entering Mordor, myself, which is as real as any ghost. But all those spooky camera effects surely have the dumbed-down couch potatoes quaking.

Along this theme are such annoyingly stupid shows as Medium, Most Haunted, Ghost Whisperer, Paranormal State, Ghost Hunters, A Haunting and others (A Haunting is described as “a chills-filled series, chronicling the terrifying true stories of the paranormal…” True stories about something that doesn’t exist? It’s a baldfaced lie.) I’m okay with dramas that don’t pretend to be nonfiction – ghost hunters and “psychics” comfortably belong in the same fictional category as vampires, werewolves, dragons, angels, Wily Coyote and Harry Potter. I rebel when such superstition and pseudoscience are passed off as “fact.” It discredits the entire channel and I refuse to partake in anything they offer.

TV like this is lame because we, the viewers, don’t protest more against the garbage, the claptrap, the intelligence-reducing and the superstitious nonsense that is being foisted upon us by unscrupulous TV producers and directors. I plan to drop my cable back to the basic level this week in protest of this garbage. I’ll still be able to get TVO and PBS which offer reasonable smart programming.

What’s wrong with SOPA and PIPA?

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9h2dF-IsH0I]Ever wonder what the fuss was about the “Stop Online Piracy Act” (SOPA) and the “Protect IP Act” (PIPA)? This video really explains it well. Both acts basically make everyone online guilty of piracy because we have the potential to steal simply by owning a computer connected to the Internet. It will be up to the user (you) to prove he or she is not doing it. As the speaker in the video says, the big media companies want consumers; not producers, not creators, and certainly not people sharing: just consuming what they are fed.

As noted in a story in The Christian Science Monitor,

In short, critics say, Congress is looking for a 20th-century answer to a 21st-century challenge… The deeper problem… is that the music and film industries simply haven’t adapted quickly enough to the new realities of the online world, and are instead trying to use Congress to prop up outdated practices.

[youtube=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tzqMoOk9NWc”]“SOPA will prevent innovation in order to prevent piracy,” says Vince Leung, cofounder of the social media site, MentorMob.com. This has been a problem with every one of the US’s recent copyright changes and protection acts since the late Sonny Bono’s meddling. They protect the monetary investments of media corporations, while stifling the creative abilities of artists and producers. Artists and producers sharing content are not creating profit-making consumers for the corporations, so are a threat that must be stopped.

As a Canadian, I have no direct way to protest SOPA and PIPA, but both will have a huge impact on how I use the Net, what I produce, what I record, write, link, or share. Even if it’s legal in Canada to do so, my acts may become illegal in the USA and my site (or sites in Canada and elsewhere that I post on) may be punished for potentially breaking the laws of a foreign state even though I don’t reside or work there. I don’t actually have to break those laws, merely have the potential to do so. And it puts the onus on me to defend myself legally (in the USA, not in Canada), repair my reputation and restore my site if I am accused from afar.

[youtube=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JhwuXNv8fJM]But it gets crazier: if my site gets blocked, every site that has a link to my content – including Google and other search engines, or Facebook – gets blocked (guilt by association). Any site that sends me money or I use for sales or donations, has to block me, too. So even if what I did was not illegal in Canada, that act can take down dozens, maybe hundreds of other sites unless they shut me out. And I don’t have to actually have done anything illegal, either: all it needs is someone in the recording industry or other media firm to accuse me of doing it. The act says I can be shut down without proof or warning, and I can’t sue the company or companies for causing damage to my site or reputation even if I prove my innocence later.

So let’s say I find a fun video of a ukulele player doing a cover version of a popular song on YouTube. I post the video on this blog using the embed feature (as I’ve done here with these videos). Even though it’s only a link, and I’m not actually hosting the content – and I did not make or contribute to the video – by sharing it I could be accused of having copyright material on my site. YouTube becomes guilty, of course. Several other sites that take my RSS feeds become guilty. Google and Bing become guilty because I have an SEO package that provides links and keywords for search engines. Because I take donations, Paypal would be forced to cut off my account. My site – along with all these others could be removed from the DNS servers so you can’t find it by name. All this without prior warning or any other notice. I’d just wake up and find it had vanished when I typed in the name.

And what if I just post a text link to a site that has that video, and don’t embed it? Even though nothing shows on my site, I’m still guilty by association. Simply having a link makes me guilty and I can be blocked and even sued. I can even be sued if the other site has copyright material I don’t link to, and didn’t even know about. The link alone is sufficient to make me a criminal.

How Stalinist is that? Shy of actually having the secret police take me and my family away in the middle of the night, I can’t imagine anything as extreme or unjust as that.

[youtube=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EBy7yooz3MM”]The issue is a morass of themes: censorship, freedom of speech, copyright, liability, ownership of intellectual property, corporate lobbying and political control by one state over the Internet. What’s really scary is that the main people in charge of the debate are elderly American politicians whose appreciation, understanding and knowledge of how computers and the Net work is limited by their age and inexperience. My cat knows more about string theory than most of these politicians know about the Internet. Not to mention how vulnerable these politicians are to the lobbying efforts of the bills’ supporters (money always speaks loudly).

Whose problem is piracy? The companies’? or the government’s? Is it a private sector service problem or a public legal issue? Whose money should pay to fight it: company profits or your tax dollars? Whose rights are more important: the board of directors of the media corporations or the millions and millions of users who demand a change in the laws to recognize the new reality of the Net? None of this is resolved by these bills. The concepts of sharing, the trust economy, open source and open data, cooperative creativity, free expression, and independent artistry that underly the Net are simply being ignored in favour of a punitive approach.

Which is the greater threat to media companies: a few people sharing files online or the thousands of pirate companies in China and Asia making ripoff DVDs, CDs and other products that end up for sale in North America and Europe? So why aren’t the legislators taking aim at China to stem this practice? Why can’t they block Chinese goods from being imported into the USA, or slap high tariffs on them until the piracy is stopped? Do corporate interests in maintaining a good manufacturing relationship with China make it so profitable the USA can afford to ignore this problem?

[youtube=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4MDMKk6DbRw”]How would the USA react if another country passed a law that said any foreign site that mentioned Tianamen Square, Tibetan freedom or the Dalai Lama would be blocked? Oh wait, doesn’t China already do that? In fact, SOPA/PIPA as proposed are remarkably similar to existing Chinese, Syrian, Iranian and North Korean censorship of the Net.

Why has there been so little traditional media coverage of this issue and so little editorial condemnation compared to online commentary and protest? Could it be that the same media companies pushing for this bill are those that control the content of the media that gives us the news on TV, radio and in print?

The result from these bills will be more sales for Hollywood movies, but fewer social media tools or outlets for expression for independent artists, producers, political commentators, bloggers, musicians and filmmakers. They will force creativity to go underground to hidden places on the Net, just like witchcraft laws forced fledgling scientists, philosophers, herbalists and doctors to hide in the Dark Ages. These bills will kill the kind of social change we saw in the Arab Spring movement.

I’m not condoning illegal activity, but these inappropriate and undemocratic proposals presuppose guilt without any due process of law. If this is truly such a large-scale problem, then we need proper solutions that match the reality of the connected 21st century, not this leg-hold-and-stockade approach from the 20th.

Shooting someone is so much fun, as long as it’s just virtual

It’s hard to explain to non-gamers why computer games – especially multiplayer games – are so much fun (and not simply a waste of time). It’s not just the amazingly detailled virtual worlds that offer rich, destructible, 3D environments to explore and move within. It’s not just the visceral experience of role playing or the adrenaline rush of combat/flight/racing against other players. It’s not just the sense of wellbeing from puzzle solving, accomplishing difficult tasks, or finishing challenging quests.

Call of DutyIt’s all of those and more. To appreciate computer games you first have to like gaming: engaging in the challenge of pitting your wits and skills against an opponent, real or virtual. Electronic and face-to-face chess, solitaire, dominoes, or poker can fulfill that for many people. Others – like me – need a more fully-realized environment to entirely engage us.

You also have to appreciate the incredible complexity and processing power of a computer game: keeping track of dozens of other moving and firing players and/or AI units, plus missiles, bullets, trajectories, graphic effects like light, rain, smoke, cloud cover, shadows and bullet holes, free movement in a 3D environment, damage to players and the environment, ammunition loads, scores, all done in real time, updated and displayed in a constantly changing setting. Computer games are the most advanced and demanding software available.

You need a sense of imagination to immerse yourself into a computer game, to go from merely clicking the mouse or tapping keys in response to onscreen stimuli, and really become that worgen druid in battle with a night elf fighting for your life with enchanted staff and spells. It takes imagination to see yourself as a soldier in a desperate life-and-death battle in Paris or Tehran, as enemy soldiers and armour close in. It takes imagination to suspend your reality and pick up that sword to face the dragon.

Fortunately for me, I have a great imagination. It doesn’t hurt that I’ve been playing games ever since I can remember (chess was a serious passion in my 20s), and computer games since the late 1970s. In fact, I wrote the first regular magazine column ever that reviewed computer games exclusively (for Moves magazine in the early 1980s).

I can’t make the connection between video games and real violence any more than I can make the connection between fantasy novels and real life orcs. Perhaps it’s because I’m older than a lot of today’s players, but I think that most people recognize the separation between fact and fiction, except for Charlie Sheen and some of his fellow glitterati. Okay, Republican presidential candidates seem to have that problem, too.

Napoleon's Last BattlesQuick segue. I started playing board wargames in the early 1970s, playing battle simulations like Avalon Hill’s Blitzkreig, Panzer Blitz and SPI’s Barbarossa and Napoleon at War. I played paper simulations of pretty much every major battle in history, from the ancient Middle East to futuristic invasions of North America or the USSR. Some were strategic scale, whole armies in a single counter; some were tactical, each piece a single vehicle. Along the way I read a lot of military history, debated the advantage of horsepower-to-weight ratios and argued shell sizes and penetration values, and the advantage of the square over the column formation with fellow enthusiasts. I knew the battlefields of Kursk, Waterloo and Arnhem intimately, if only from a paper-map perspective. I actually still have several of those games today, albeit no one locally to play them with. Anyone want to spend an afternoon over Napoleon’s Last Battles quad?

I like operational and strategic levels of play rather than tactical, but when I played board games, I’d play just about any level, any era, any style. I even became a published game reviewer in the board game industry, as well as a sometime beta-tester.

My preference in wargames and simulations has always been for realism over playability. I appreciate the attention to detail, even if it makes the game somewhat more complicated and duller. The balance between the two was always a struggle in paper games, but since computers, playability and realism have been able to combine better in one package because the sense of realism can be heightened through the visual and 3D elements.

Combat Mission: Barbarossa to BerlinFor a long time, my favourite wargames were the Battlefront Combat Mission series. Graphics were mediocre, but the play was excellent and the programs took realistic, historical data into consideration in the many algorithms that calculated fire, line of sight, morale, casualties and movement speed. The system is best payed against another opponent, but the AI of the games offered a good challenge. I really liked the WWII series, but didn’t get interested in the modern line.

The CM series was very chess-like in its approach, not a real-time game, but rather turn-based. It was rather cerebral. It discouraged casual players, though, because it required thought on many levels, planning, and an appreciation of terrain, goals, morale, command control, line of sight and coordinated attacks. The AI was competent, although human opponents are always craftier and less predictable.

Then I got distracted with the shooters: Call of Duty, the Battlefield series, Red Orchestra, Bad Company, Operation Flashpoint and others. The latter two franchises tried to put some realism into the game: the rest are basically games with a patina of realism painted on to make them seem more than just mindless mouse clicking and killing dumber-than-stumps enemy AI characters. Still, it was fun to slog through the rubble of Stalingrad, crawl the jungles of Viet Nam, and shiver (virtually) on the snowy slopes of the Andes in the action process of gameplay.

Shooters are fun, but generally thin on realism. You’re in them for the action, not the effectiveness of the simulation of bullet penetration or ballistic trajectories. The AI in most shooters is somewhere between “stump” and “George Bush”, so don’t expect a lot of challenges. The usual method of balancing computer skills against human players in shooters is to throw in lots of AI, rather than making smarter AI. But to waste an hour, shooters are lots of fun.

World of TanksThe latest game I’ve been playing is World of Tanks. Like it’s name, it’s about tanks. Fighting tanks. No infantry, no supply, no generals or even captains. Just tanks shooting other tanks or capturing the enemy base. Doesn’t get much simpler than that. One side wins by eliminating all the enemy tanks or capturing the enemy base. Period.

Yet behind the simple gameplay lies a complex system for calculating real-time ballistics, movement, penetration, speed, damage, visibility and accuracy. In WOT, there are dozens of factors that affect your play, including the very obvious terrain: the gun calibre, type of ammunition, crew training and experience, engine horsepower, radio range, turret height, rate of fire, track traverse speed and amount and location of any damage sustained. There’s a deep tech tree for researching and advancing from basic, starter vehicles to more advanced and more powerful units, fueled by experience points gained while playing (and winning).

Fortunately for most players, you only have to to move, sight and fire. Controls are simple. The software takes care of the rest. That encourages a lot of players whose main goal is to waste away a few hours racing around and shooting, with less attention to strategy and tactics than a gnat has to Hegel. And don’t get me started on team play. A typical game sees a handful of “Rambos” race forward to attack, get destroyed, who then spend the remainder of the time sending whining messages to others complaining about their cautious gameplay. Luckily for the rest of us who like to think, games only last 10 mins or so.

World of TanksSince WOT doesn’t have the respawn feature in most shooters, once you’re dead you don’t come back until the game ends. You can quit, but you lose any experience points the team may garner. You just have to wait until the match is finished. Dying early means waiting longer.

Sides are randomly collected from players waiting in the game queue, selected only by tier, so the sides are relatively balanced (tier 2 players may have tier 1 and 3 in the game, tier 3 may have 2 to 5, and so on). You get points for spotting, damaging (not merely hitting) and destroying a tank, as well as winning the match. friendly fire (killing your own teammates) costs you points.

All of the vehicles are from the WW2 era (early 1930s-late 40s). It’s a bit disconcerting seeing German panzers on the same team as Soviet T34s, but the selection process ignores nationality. There are only a few maps for the basic levels (tier 1 and 2), but a lot more get added as you progress. The maps are a reasonable size for 30 tanks (15 per side), and richly varied: Arctic, fjords, European towns, marshes, mines, towns, plains and more. The maps have a nice, European-theatre WW2 feel.

WOT is a nice balance: fun, easy, but with rich historical data and context. It’s only spoiled by the idiots who want to play it like their Xbox or PSP shooters. Success lies with using cover, careful, coordinated advances, skilled defence and teamwork. That requires more than the average gamer’s attention span, however, so most games are a mix of thoughtful, cautious players and idiots who leave their base and fellow players undefended to run ahead. Ah well, at least it’s just a game. And it’s free. So I shouldn’t complain too much. I can always fire up my chess program if I want something more cerebral. And it’s got me away from my World of Warcraft druids and worgens…

Scientists reveal favourite theories

Charles DarwinOne hundred and ninety two scientists contributed more than 128,000 words in answer to The Edge’s question, “What is your favourite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?”

You have to admire that question. They didn’t ask, “What is your favourite theory?” or “What is your favourite scientific puzzle?” Neither did they confine it to any particular field. As noted in the Edge:

“Scientists’ greatest pleasure comes from theories that derive the solution to some deep puzzle from a small set of simple principles in a surprising way … answers may embrace scientific thinking in the broadest sense: as the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything, including other fields of inquiry such as philosophy, mathematics, economics, history, political theory, literary theory, or the human spirit. The only requirement is that some simple and non-obvious idea explain some diverse and complicated set of phenomena.

A breathtakingly clever question. And the responses are as luminous as they are eclectic. It is a testament to the wide, and eyes-wide-open, vision of science.

As the National Post noted in its story, Darwin’s explanation of evolution by natural selection, and Einstein’s explanation of time and space by general relativity, were the two most often mentioned. But the range of ideas presented is too rich to really limit it to just these two.

Many of the ideas suggested in the responses came to me as breathtakingly new and visionary. Some I had read about in books and magazines, although I don’t profess to truly understand them (string theory, for example). However, even as a layperson, I can appreciate why they highlighted Darwin’s realization of the mechanics of evolution (it basically created modern biological sciences) and Einstein’s realization (it created modern physics).

For me, Darwin’s explanation has always held a sort of charm. I suspect it’s because I first wrestled my way through his book around the precocious age of 12 or 13 (with intermissions to devour Tom Swift Jr and Andre Norton novels). It’s true that I understood little of it, and required the help of some other books borrowed from our local library to explain its broad scope in terms more appropriate for a pre-teen school kid. And it’s further true that my efforts to reread it since then have suffered from less attentiveness than I apparently had back then. But I still am in awe of its beauty and clarity and am slowly rereading it, in small bites.

As evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, wrote about Darwin’s ideas in his submission, “Never in the field of human comprehension were so many facts explained by assuming so few.” But, fascinatingly, that was a mere sidebar to his submission. Dawkins chose to write not about Darwin, but about his great-grandson’s work in neurobiology. And at the end, he poses a challenge to genetic science. A delightful read – both Dawkins and all the responses.