Why I Still Watch M*A*S*H

Harry MorganThe news of Harry Morgan’s death at 96, back in 2011, saddened me. I’m at the age when it seems far too many icons of my youth are dying off. Not from some misspent life or accident; from old age. And the process accelerates as I age. I now understand why my grandparents and then parents read the newspaper obituaries. I haven’t quite succumbed to that, but I’m sure the day will come.

No, I’m not being morbid. Or maudlin. I have, I believe, a healthy attitude towards death. Death moves me, sometimes fascinates me (as our collective attitude towards it fascinates me), but it doesn’t frighten me. But when someone dies, it’s a row of dominoes that tumble. We’re all connected, even if only through the TV screen.

Morgan played Colonel Sherman Potter in the latter part of the long-running TV series, M*A*S*H. he brought to the show a maturity and a softer wit. I recall watching him as a harder character in the 1960s’ crime show, Dragnet. I preferred Colonel Potter.

I was reminded of his death only last week, through a Facebook re-post on the anniversary of his passing. That got me thinking about the show, about the era in which it was made, and how it affected me then and later. I dug out my DVDs so I could start watching the series again. (Susan struggles to watch Columbo, a contemporary show from that age that I recently acquired, but loves M*A*S*H).

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Houses of Cards

Francis UrquhartWhile there are parallels between them, there is no direct, simple comparison between the original, British mini series, House of Cards, and the American series of the same name. The latter, aired 13 years after the original, owes much of its first-season content to the BBC’s production, but it quickly went its own way. Like its contemporary, The Bridge, the American version took on a life of its own – and a very distinct, American character – and can’t be considered a simple adaptation. Both are excellent shows.

In part, the vast differences between American and British political systems compound the problem of comparison and understanding.

Canadians, on the other hand, will easily understand the machinations of the characters in the British show because our system is quite similar, but they are more opaque in the American version. From the outside, American politics seem designed to increase confrontation and partisanship. And political venality (it seems all American politicians and votes are for sale to the highest bidder…), but that’s not my point here. Americans might find the British version equally incomprehensible.

We finished watching season three of the American series recently and began to watch the British series again, after several years hiatus (it remains one of my favourite series). The latter is somewhat dated – aired before the internet and cell phones – but still well worth watching: the acting is superb. As are in most British series. But the cast in the American House of Cards is, for the most part, among the best I’ve seen in an American series (Kevin Spacey excels).

The British version has more humour, albeit dry, wry wit. It might be best described as either a political satire or dark comedy. I’m not sure everyone will appreciate its subtlety.

The American series has some of this in the first season, but less as it progresses. It’s more of a drama-cum-soap opera with less satire. Underwood speaks to the camera a lot more in the first season than in later ones. And that’s too bad because I think it adds to the viewer’s engagement.

The main characters – Francis Urquhart in the British (Ian Richardson), and Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) in the American – are very different in style and behaviour. Urquhart speaks more to the camera than Underwood, and offers more knowing, sly glances and smiles than his American counterpart. Underwood is far more about raw power; the underlying tongue-in-cheek attitude of the British politicians is absent.

The roles and the power associated with each leader is very different, too. Urquhart has to be more cunning than Underwood because his system is very different from the American. Underwood can sometimes batter his way through to success, where Urquhart has to squirm.

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Weaponized Aryan Jesus?

Not the real guyThe term “weaponized Jesus” comes from an article I read on politicsusa.com, from November 2013, titled “The Religious Right With Their Weaponized Jesus Are Not Christians.”  It’s worth a read, if you enjoy the political-religious debate.

I eventually traced the phrase back to a 2010 story in Mother Jones. It’s a good description of the way some fundamentalist Americans are taking their religion. But that’s not at issue right now. It’s the guy on the left of the movie still that I want to write about.

Someone on my Facebook stream recently posted the picture above and talked about how she loved the show. It shows a still short from a movie called “Son of God.” I hadn’t heard of the movie before this FB post, so I had to read more about it because I’m pretty sure that the hippie guy in the still doesn’t look anything like what a Middle-Eastern, radical Jewish preacher called Jesus* would have really looked like.

This guy looks a little too much like Russell Brand, or a younger Brad Pitt, and not quite enough like the Roman-era, Palestinian Jew he would have been. And where was his hat?

If you watch the trailer, you’ll see I’m right.  That might be one reason the movie got a one-star rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but there are many more. The movie, it turns out is a spin-off from the History Channel’s apparently successful Bible series (didn’t see it), but the film was apparently crafted from content edited out of the TV series. As it says on the IMDB site:

…there was a reason all of that footage was cut. If it wasn’t good enough for television, how can this possibly be good enough for the cinema? Well, it’s not. This movie is a bore. With an unnecessary 138 minute run-time, the film drags through dialogue delivered at a pace slow enough for the slothful to keep up. Even then the script isn’t interesting. The selections of the gospel that get quoted are mercilessly butchered. And that’s another thing, if not the most important criticism of a movie of this caliber — the filmmakers had no respect for the source material.

But this isn’t a movie review, per se, since I haven’t seen the film (nor have I seen Mel Gibson’s overly-violent Passion of the Christ, although from the stills I’ve seen, actor Jim Caviezel, playing the Jesus role looks like he, too, is miscast…). It’s about history, ideology and cultural prejudices.

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Internet TV and Roku

Roku streaming stickI picked up a ROKU streaming stick this weekend at the local Staples store to get access to some internet TV. The box advertises 500+ channels, while the boxes for the upscale models 2 and 3 offer 450+ and 1,000+, respectively.

However, the official webpage for Roku says you can get more than 1,800 channels in the US on these devices. The Canadian site suggests it’s closer to 1,000 – Canadians get shortchanged by this and similar services, it seems. But by my count on the screen, the actual number of possible “channels” tops 1,300.

Before you shout “woo hoo” and rush out to buy one, I suggest it’s not really close to that many, at least not channels you will want to subscribe to.

It also depends on your definition of a channel: i wouldn’t count more than 100 streaming applications like Plex, games (47) or screensavers (76) as channels, but Roku does.

As you will read below, it’s not whether you get 1,800, 1,000 or even 500 channels: it’s whether the channels are top quality, commercial programming like you get on your cable. Of that category, it’s maybe a dozen.

Why, when I had dropped cable almost two years ago, would I want TV now, you ask… well, I primarily wanted to find a more convenient way to get Acorn TV (the source of many BBC programs). We already have Acorn on the iPad that hooks up through Apple TV but it’s not as comfy or convenient to use as a simple changer. Tapping at the iPad while watching is distracting and frankly, the iOS app is clumsy. It times out frequently, and drops the show, forcing you to restart then fast forward to the dropped location –  unless you keep tapping the screen now and then to wake it up.

I am thinking of subscribing to Netflix, too, and wanted the same easy and dependable access. Yes, I could always hook my laptop to the TV with an HDMI cable, but that’s not always convenient, either.

First a comment on the device and setup: simple, easy, well-made. The Roku interface is cleaner and easier to use than either Apple TV or the internet-ready apps built into our Sony Blu-ray player or TV. Setup takes a few minutes to get networked and authenticate the device online (an external computer connection is needed here). It took another minute to link it to my Acorn TV account. After that, it worked flawlessly.

The HDMI picture is, from what little we’ve seen, clear and crisp and if the original was also in hi-def. However, not everything is presented that way. Sound seems okay, but volume is inconsistent (some channels are way too loud, others are low).

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Sex, violence and TV shows

We just finished watching the third season of Game of Thrones on DVD this past weekend. Before that, we watched The White Queen, another DVD series (one season only, although it deserved more).

As we watched both, I found myself wondering why directors and producers felt the need to insert gratuitous – but apparently obligatory – explicit scenes of sex and violence that really had little to do with either plot or character development.

The same questions arose when I watched Deadwood, The Sopranos, First Blood and Boardwalk Empire. Personally, I found these explicit bits distracting, like commercials, because they drew attention away from the story and characters.

I had a notion that the writers ran out of ideas at these points and instead threw in a bit of sex or violence, hoping the audience wouldn’t notice the paucity of the writing.

Why do both need to be so graphic? Can’t the same effect be accomplished by suggestion, by clever camera indirection? Do we need spurting blood and genital closeups to make a scene seem real or effective? Can’t a good director or cinematographer convey these emotions through suggestion, shadow and impression?

Do we need to have full-frontal nudity to convey a sense of the erotic? Or has pornography dulled our senses to the point where anything less doesn’t capture our attention? Why do we need sex and violence instead of story? Because we, collectively, haven’t got the attention span of gnats and our emotions are reduced to biological urges?

Or is it a generational thing? Am I just being old fashioned and curmudgeonly? Maybe, but I’ll keep my reserve, thank you.

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The Hollow Crown

Wikipedia image
Richard II, the first English king of whom we have a real portrait, not just a stylized one.

I’ve watched three of the four productions in the 2012 TV series, The Hollow Crown, this past week, and am greatly impressed by the productions and the acting. Wonderful, rich stuff.

The series consists of the second Shakespeare tetralogy, the Henriad: Richard II; Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V, each roughly two hours long.  I expect to see the last remaining one this week. (N.B. A new production of the first tetralogy, The Hollow Crown II, is in the works this year).

There’s a bit of an irony in the tetralogy’s name: Henriad, because Henry doesn’t appear at all in Richard II: he is only mentioned in a offside mention by Henry Bolingbroke, his father and newly-crowned king, at the end of the play. He’s  a major but not the main character in Henry IV P1 and P2 – rather Prince Hal shares the stage with Falstaff, Hotspur,his father, and in Part 2, his brother John of Lancaster. Plus the various rebels have their time on stage. It isn’t until the final play that he comes into his own.

One can never get too much Shakespeare in one’s life, and this series feeds my need for film versions that of late has been sadly lacking.* Of course I read the plays frequently – at least one a year, as well as books about the plays and the Bard – but a good film production can be so much more powerful, more engaging. And who, really, doesn’t love Shakespeare?

Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is a part of an Englishman’s constitution. No doubt one is familiar with Shakespeare in a degree, from one’s earliest years. His celebrated passages are quoted by every body; they are in half the books we open and we all talk Shakespeare, use his similes, and describe with his descriptions.
Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, 1814

Every production of the Bard is, by necessity, both an interpretation and a compromise. Few of the plays fit comfortably within the time constraints imposed by TV (and dwindling viewer attention spans), so they are often abbreviated to fit the usual two-hour comfort zone for movies. That means some dialogue, some scenes, some subplots must be cut. Visual effects often replace dialogue or at least embellish a scene so less verbiage is needed, especially in action scenes.

And then there are the many ways a director chooses to portray the characters, the scenery, the secondary characters. Is the lead a villain or misunderstood hero? Was the line said in anger or in jest? Is it irony or ignorance? Is the audience expected to be sympathetic or angry at the character? Is the king strong or infirm? Is he bold or indecisive? Often the characters lend themselves to a range of portrayals.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Each production is in itself a work of art that has a unique relationship to Shakespeare. So it is with The Hollow Crown; the story of the beginning of the War of the Roses when the Plantagenets split into the competing houses of York and Lancaster, which vied for power and the throne.

At least that’s Shakespeare’s view and if modern historians disagree, his version at least makes for great drama. The result, however, is incontestably one of the greatest collections of Shakespeare on film.

If there is any flaw, it lies in the audio, which is sometimes less than clear, especially in crowd scenes (and the often thick accents – likely authentic to Shakespeare’s audience, but ahistorical for the era – may obfuscate some dialogue for the non-native viewer). Still, the stories are rich, the characters deep and well-fleshed, and the sets make the audience feel as if they were there, not in some stylized set pieces.

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Reading: A Canadian tragedy… or not?

World Reading Map
The map above might show the making of a serious tragedy for Western and especially Canadian culture. It indicates in colour which nations read the most. Yellow is the second lowest group. Canada is coloured yellow.

TV zombiesIn this survey, Canada ranks 10th – from the bottom! Twenty countries above us have populations which, on the average, read more per week than we do. That surprises and shocks me. And it disappoints me no end.

I’m not only a voracious reader, I’m passionate about books, language, reading and writing, and have been on the library board for 20 years actively helping it grow and develop. Is it a futile task?

I don’t believe so. In fact, I’ve seen the library grow more and more into a vital community resource in the past two decades. It has more users, more books and more reads than ever. That flies in the face of what the map suggests.

The map showed up on Facebook via Gizmodo, The stats come from the NOP World Culture Score (TM) Index (press release here). They’re scary – but are they accurate? They’re certainly not recent: the data were collected between December 2004 and February 2005.

Here are the 30 countries, ranked by the number of hours people there read every week:

  1. India — 10 hours, 42 minutes
  2. Thailand — 9:24
  3. China — 8:00
  4. Philippines — 7:36
  5. Egypt — 7:30
  6. Czech Republic — 7:24
  7. Russia — 7:06
  8. Sweden — 6:54
  9. France — 6:54
  10. Hungary — 6:48
  11. Saudi Arabia — 6:48
  12. Hong Kong — 6:42
  13. Poland — 6:30
  14. Venezuela — 6:24
  15. South Africa — 6:18
  16. Australia — 6:18
  17. Indonesia — 6:00
  18. Argentina — 5:54
  19. Turkey — 5:54
  20. Spain — 5:48
  21. Canada — 5:48
  22. Germany — 5:42
  23. USA — 5:42
  24. Italy — 5:36
  25. Mexico — 5:30
  26. U.K. — 5:18
  27. Brazil — 5:12
  28. Taiwan — 5:00
  29. Japan — 4:06
  30. Korea — 3:06

Canada is listed well below the global average of 6.5 hours a week. Five-point-four-eight hours translates into a mere 49 minutes a day, on average. Are we losing our minds to TV?

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Anti-Intellectualism: The New Elitism

Anti-intellectualismThere’s a growing – and disturbing – trend in modern culture: anti-intellectual elitism. The dismissal of art, science, culture, philosophy, of rhetoric and debate, of literature and poetry, and their replacement by entertainment, spectacle, self-righteous self ignorance, and deliberate gullibility. These are usually followed by vituperative ridicule and angry caterwauling when anyone challenges the populist ideals or ideologies.

As if having a brain, as if having any aspirations to culture, to art, to learning – or worse, to science – was an evil, malicious thing that must be stomped upon. As if the literati were plotting world domination by quoting Shakespeare or Chaucer. Or Carl Sagan, Charles Darwin, Richard Dawkins.

“The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, oration to the Phi Beta Kappa Society Cambridge, August 31, 1837.

Anti-intellectualism isn’t new – Richard Hofstadter wrote about it in 1963 – but it has become highly visible on the internet where pseudoscience and conspiracy theories have developed unchallenged into popular anti-science and anti-rationalist countercultures, many followed and accepted by millions.

Hofstadter wrote,

Anti-intellectualism is a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it, and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life.

He warned in his book that intellectualism was “on the run” in America. It still is.*

Just look at the superstitious Jenny-McCarthyites who fear vaccinations with the same religious fervour medieval peasants feared black cats crossing their paths. Or the muddle-headed practitioners and followers of homeopathy. The chemtrail conspiracists. The anti-wind turbine and the anti-fluoride crowd. Any Scientologist. Or any religious fundamentalist. The list of true believers in the anti-intellectual crowd is huge.

Online technology didn’t create these mythologies, or the gullibility of their followers, but the internet is the great equalizer and the great popularizer. It’s not making us smarter; in fact, it may be dumbing down a lot of folks. That’s because anyone, anywhere, can have his or her say and there’s no way to easily discern the intellectual wheat from the. abundant chaff without doing some hard thinking and analysis.

Technology has created the sense of entitlement that every comment, every opinion is of equal value, regardless of the context and the person making that comment. It’s the ultimate democratizer. But it’s a democracy where communication is reduced to the lowest level: the instant, the brief and the angry retort.

Facebook and Twitter don’t have categories that identify posters as more relevant or more important than others. If the prime minister posts on Facebook, he doesn’t get a gold box around his post that says he’s in charge of the country. If Stephen Hawking weighs into a Facebook debate about the nature of the space-time continuum, he doesn’t get a special icon that lets people know he owns this conversation.***

All messages we post have the same weight, the same gravity. There’s nothing to identify any post as more informed, as factually correct or even relevant. So it becomes easy to derail a discussion by spurious claims and allegations, but innuendo, lies or simply confrontational language.

We’re all equally important on the internet. One person’s belief in magic, superstition or conspiracies gets the same opportunity to be heard and seen as those about science and empirical fact. In the online land of the blind, the one-eyed man has no special significance.

Facebook image

We’re creating a world of dummies. Angry dummies who feel they have the right, the authority and the need not only to comment on everything, but to make sure their voice is heard above the rest, and to drag down any opposing views through personal attacks, loud repetition and confrontation.

When they can’t respond with an intellectual counterargument – as is often the case – the anti-intellectuals respond with the ideology of their peer group (see the religious content of the message in the image taken from Facebook on the left) or ad hominem attacks. Name calling. Belittling and demeaning the opponent.

Bill Keller, writing in the New York Times, said,

The Web culture is simultaneously elitist and anti-authoritarian…

But it’s not an elitism of wisdom, education, experience or knowledge. The new elite are the angry posters, those who can shout loudest and more often, a clique of bullies and malcontents baying together like dogs cornering a fox. Too often it’s a combined elite of the anti-intellectuals and the conspiracy followers – not those who can voice the most cogent, most coherent response.

Together they ferment a rabid culture of anti-rationalism where every fact is suspect; every shadow holds a secret conspiracy. Rational thought is the enemy. Critical thinking is the devil’s tool.

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Ten Lessons Learned From the Petraeus Affair

Sex scandal cartoonAfter watching the recent, exaggerated – and sordid – upheaval over the story about an extramarital affair that the (now former) head of the CIA had with his biographer, I have come to several conclusions about America, sex, American media and publicity:

1. Americans, who bought millions of copies of “Fifty Shades of Grey“, a poorly-written, highly derivative, pornographic book, and then turned it into a national industry that includes home parties where BDSM equipment is sold to housewives, and dozens of spin-off blogs based on the book, are easily offended by “racy” emails between consenting adults.

2. Americans, who consume a vast quantity of online pornography, and who turned the porn industry from a back-alley business into a multi-billion-dollar business, are offended when real, consenting adults outside of the sex trade, have ordinary sex. And, of course, get caught.

3. Americans, who elevate mediocre and untalented stars, starlets (like Pam Anderson) and wannabes (“socialites” like Paris Hilton) to exalted popular status when they make an explicit video recording of themselves having sex and then ensure it gets broadcast all over the Internet for millions to view, are offended when consenting adults have sex and don’t make a sex tape for the public to watch.

4. Americans, who revel in graphic sex scenes and nudity in their TV shows (i.e. True Blood) and  have made entire TV series based on sex and adultery (i.e. Sex in the City), condemn extramarital sex between consenting adults as a “scandal” in their TV news and in other media. (When exactly is a news story a scandal? See here.)

5. A sexual liaison between consenting adults can become headline news for weeks, even though it has no proven effect on national security, has no proven effect on the business of the state, is not a criminal matter – but is simply a private matter between the parties involved. Meanwhile, Americans avoid real news stories and have no idea what’s happening in the world. Few American media outlets seem either willing or able to rise above the tabloid-style headline. As Saskboy writes:

The American media is very primitive, which is why it avoids complex and important issues, and instead resorts to tabloid topics like sex scandals. While their country is embroiled in an unprovoked war in Iraq, occupies Afghanistan (along with Canada), and itches to bomb Iran for oil, they’re worried more about where the wiener Petraeus has been.

6. Sex is still a potent weapon for partisan battles in politics. Republicans will try to use anything they can to hurt the Democrats and especially president Obama, by blaming them for the scandal or worse – trying to impeach him.

Republicans have quickly shifted from licking their election defeat wounds to trying to tie the David Petraeus’ affair to Benghazi in order to impeach President Obama…

After losing elections, paranoid conspiracy theories are Republican comfort food used to soothe the fractured psyche of those who got a taste of what ‘Real America’ actually thinks of them. If anyone thought the GOP rank and file would learn any lessons from their latest defeat, think again.

7. Americans love sex scandal, and revel in making it into public entertainment. They will glorify the ‘scandal’ by turning a rather mediocre affair into a glitzy Hollywood drama to elevate the titillation level.

The hormone-charged hijinks have now spread to include military groupie and Tampa socialite, Jill Kelley, who blew the whistle on the marriage-breaking manoeuvres and the current warlord of the Afghan campaign, Gen. John Allen.

But who to cast in the leading roles? Here are our picks: Denzel Washington as President Barack Obama; William H. Macy as Petraeus; Demi Moore as Broadwell; Teri Hatcher as Kelley; Jack Nicholson as Gen. Allen; Vin Diesel as FBI Agent Frederick Humphries, and the Sopranos Steve Schirripa as Kelley’s cuckolded hubby, Scott Kelley.

8. The American government and media have screamed loudly about the exposure of their government documents to public scrutiny on Wikileaks, and demanded that the site’s owner, Julian Assange, be tried for treason. Yet the same media and government officials revel in exposing the sexual peccadilloes and personal lives of consenting adults caught in an affair.

9. Americans have always loved sexual scandal. As the Constitution Daily reports, this sort of event have captivated American audiences ever since the nation was first formed:

The current sex scandal involving the C.I.A., the F.B.I., the military, and possibly several private citizens isn’t the first in Washington, but it has some things in common with the huge scandal that hit Alexander Hamilton more than 200 years ago. The Maria Reynolds affair was the David Petraeus-Paula Broadwell-John Allen triangle of its day in the 1790s, with its admission of adultery, scandalous mail exchanges, and a high-profile resignation.

Political cartoon10. Nothing is ever secret online, no matter how you try to hide it. A nation that voluntarily and eagerly gives up its privacy online, and will post revealing details and even photos about its private life and body parts, is apparently shocked when private details of an affair between consenting adults are made public. Obviously had Petraeus posted the details and videos online, he would have become a media star.

It’s amusing that in late 2010, one political site was wondering aloud if sex scandal was dead as a political weapon or would hold media attention:

Perhaps in America the road to forgiveness is simply becoming shorter. Maybe, people are seeing what many in other countries have seen for years –the political sex scandal may change the conversation, but doesn’t by any means change the game.

However, as The Onion wrote satirically, this silliness may have opened some Americans’ eyes to some of the real news they’ve been avoiding while googling the salacious news about Petraeus:

WASHINGTON—As they scoured the Internet for more juicy details about former CIA director David Petraeus’ affair with biographer Paula Broadwell, Americans were reportedly horrified today upon learning that a protracted, bloody war involving U.S. forces is currently raging in the nation of Afghanistan. “Oh my God, this is terrible,” Allie Lipscomb, 29, said after accidentally stumbling on an article about the war while she tried to ascertain details about what specific sexual acts Petraeus and Broadwell might have engaged in. “According to this, 2,000 American troops have died, 18,000 have been wounded, and more than 20,000 civilians have been killed. Jesus Christ. And it’s been happening for, like, 11 years.” Sources confirmed that after reading a few paragraphs about the brutal war, the nation quickly became distracted by a headline about Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash’s alleged sexual abuse of a 16-year-old boy.

The long run? America’s attention span for real news – Gaza, Syria, the Fiscal Cliff, pollution, GMO foods, the environment, Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Congo, and on and on -.is that of a gnat’s. But a sex scandal appeals to American’s mixed-message attitudes about sex – part smut, part puritan, all agog – and will capture American audiences for weeks and weeks, at least until another scandal takes over the headlines.

PS. Here’s a fun infographic on adultery from the National Post.

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Work and time slip by unnoticed

Red Queen's RaceYou’d think being semi-retired (or as I call it, creatively unemployed) would give me more time to do the things I like to do, more time to be creative.

Nah. Things seem to intervene to prevent a focused approach on creativity these days. Not to mention that my Rogers internet crashed for a couple of days because their servers couldn’t keep my IP constant, so I was cast adrift from my virtual life and back into the depths of the printed work – poking through the mini-library upstairs.

Most of yesterday was spent cleaning and reloading files after my blueagaveforum.com site got hacked. Two hours wasted on the phone trying to get some advice from Norton tech service, which ended up with one of their techies resetting my browser setup, which required another 30-45 minutes of tinkering to get it working as I had before. Meanwhile I was searching through hundreds of PHP files for the source of the malicious code. At the end of the day I was back to where I had been last week.

The Red Queen’s Race: you run as fast as you can in order to stay in the same place.

On the plus side, I get to listen to a lot more CBC Radio during the day. That’s good and bad. Bad because I get distracted by some of CBC’s superb content and turn my attention to the radio and away from my writing. Some days I just have to shut it off to get anything done, although I try to hear at least the hourly news. Good because CBC always expands my horizons and often challenges my intellect (one day I’ll have to blog on how CBC is the acausal connecting principle that binds Canada, a bit like Jung’s synchronicity).

I should – or could, if I focused – be doing serious things like posting on my blog. Work on my next book for Municipal World. Working on my novel. Updating my websites. Researching, reading, walking the dog. Exercising. Practicing the ukulele. Working on my photography. Grooming the dog. Practicing the bass. Okay, painting the hallway, too.

Instead, time seems to get fragmented and I end up doing a bit of this, a bit of that, rather than doing any one thing. I sometimes start blog pieces or articles based on good ideas, but they slide away unfinished when I turn my attention to something else.

Yes, I managed to write three books this past year (and get two published, the third still waiting), and have a fourth started, as well as 30,000 words into a novel. But I’ve slowed down quite a bit since

Wasting timeAt least I haven’t fallen into the trap of TV watching. I don’t play many computer games these days, either, and usually only in a desultory manner (computer games don’t seem to engage me like they did a while back, although I play a few rather lackluster games of Go and chess on the iPad now and then). Nor have I sunk to doodling, filling in crossword and sudoku puzzles or taking afternoon naps. Yet.

Maybe I need to schedule my time better. Set aside blocks to exercise, to write, to read… But then I get distracted by writing something pointless like this… *sigh*… back to work…

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Does product placement run the viewing experience?

Product placement in 24I was watching recent episodes of the BBC series, “Sherlock and Strike Back, this week, and towards the end of last night’s show, I wondered, again, why it was British TV shows were generally so much better than American TV.

Why did do most British dramas seem more realistic, the characters more believable, the sets less artificial? Yes, having a longer tradition of acting, script writing and production plays into it. A robust public broadcasting system that doesn’t have to cater to corporate tastes or duck sticky political issues is another reason. So does not catering to pop fashion trends and using actors and actresses who look like real people (a trend slow to come to fashion- and celebrity-obsessed American culture).

Perhaps, I thought, it’s also because every scene is not liberally peppered with product placement. British shows look more natural and less like set-piece advertising. Viewers are not as often distracted by what are often clumsy and obvious product positionings.

To be fair, in the past decade, American TV has improved remarkably thanks to well-written and well-acted series like The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, The Borgias, West Wing, The Newsroom, and 24. I’ve been impressed by many new series – I even liked the uneven, meandering and ultimately unsatisfying Lost (despite some intriguing threads, it failed to fulfill the promise of its first season).

Before The Sopranos, it was pretty much a given that British TV was light years ahead of similar American efforts. Acting, sets, and writing were generally far superior in the British shows. But that has changed and American TV programming – at least from producers like Showcase and HBO – has shown welcome improvement.

At the same time, the quality of American popular TV has fallen into the lightless abyss of self-described “reality” shows replete with thuggish, greedy garbage pickers, unwashed swamp dwellers with bad dentistry, barely literate truck drivers and bottom feeding, irrelevant Jersey-ites. That these have replaced such classic series as M*A*S*H and All in the Family merely underlines the paucity of creativity in American pop TV. And anything that was once launched as a documentary channel (Discovery, National Geographic, History) has descended into trivial silliness with trite, shallow lifestyle pap instead of meaningful content.*

American film, too, has continued its downward trend, riding the wave from grand spectaculars like Dr. Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia towards the trough of cookie-cutter CGI-driven action films, teen coming of age, predictably violent and ugly slasher flicks, and flaccid, tired comedy films. Yes, there are still good films being made – Avatar was brilliant, Michael Clayton was thoughtful and well-written. The Jane Austen Book Club was a thoughtful romantic comedy. But they are the exceptions, not the rule.

But I digress. I was writing about whether product placement has a role in how viewers appreciate a TV program or movie.

Before February, 2011, product placement was actually banned on British TV. That changed last year, although not without challenges:

The Church of England and doctors’ leaders have opposed the move, saying it could damage trust in broadcasters and promote unhealthy lifestyles.

Even so, there are significant, stringent restrictions on product placement:

Under Ofcom regulations, broadcasters must inform viewers by displaying the letter ‘P’ for three seconds at the start and end of a programme that contains product placement.
The telecoms regulator has said any placement must be editorially justified and not unduly prominent.
It will not be allowed in news, current affairs or children’s programmes – or for alcoholic drinks and foods high in salt, sugar and fat.
And it will continue to be banned for BBC shows.

Get that last one? Even when allowed on commercial channels, England’s public broadcaster will not be allowed to have such placements. Interesting.

Audi on Strike BackOn Strike Back (a Sky production), I noticed the make of the car in one scene – an Audi. And I noticed that the Mercedes Benz logo on a truck had been rather obviously and clumsily (to me) removed (leaving a circular hole in the rusty grill). The shot of the Audi from the front prominently displaying the logo on the grill was pretty blatant. Was this product placement or simply the use of an actual vehicle? The angle of the shots suggests to me the former. However, this page shows numerous, recognizable brands and logos on other vehicles used in the show, so it’s open to debate which were placements and which were simply used for realism.

But in Sherlock (a BBC production), I did not notice any particularly obvious product placements. I tried to see what sort of computer and phone Sherlock was using, but it wasn’t evident. Products appear as they would in real life – logos and brands might be seen, but are not a focal point of any shot. It takes some work to identify anything. But looking at the database of vehicles used in TV and film, I see several brands that are easily recognized. Sherlock should be free of paid product pacement, however, since it’s a BBC production, so one assumes they were used for realism, not profit.

I can’t say I can recall any product placement in my favourite British shows – Doc Martin, Darling Buds of May, Coupling, Downton Abby, Inspector Morse, All Creatures Great and Small, As Time Goes By, Blackadder, Fawlty Towers… so many I can’t recall all of the British shows I’ve watched. None ever struck me as commercial, however. In fact, many British shows actually provide the full 60 minutes per hour of programming – not the 40-odd minutes we get here – because they aren’t interrupted by advertising.

(Sidebar: On average, Canadians watch more than 25,000 TV commercials annually… and there are no limits on the amount of time a broadcaster in Canada can use for ads vs content.)

But does seeing a brand or model you know make a show more or less realistic? Is it realistic to show generic, unbranded products like computers or cars? Or does it contribute to a sense of distance from reality, a detachment from the story?

Product placement on American TVDoes it make the product more or less attractive to be seen on TV? I watched all eight seasons of 24 without once purchasing a Dell laptop. And despite the numerous placements of Apple computers in TV and film, I never bought one of their laptops. In fact, when I bought a new laptop last year, I didn’t look at either manufacturer – I chose one based on price, features and some online reviews. And the fact that the local seller had it on sale.

Although I don’t watch TV shows like the amateur hour contests shown in the image above**, the clumsy product placement of Coke cups doesn’t impress me. In fact, it makes me wonder if their votes are also for sale. Judges should be impartial and product placement in front of them is clearly a signal that impartiality is open to question. Seeing this would definitely affect my viewing experience negatively.

Does product placement spoil or interrupt the viewing experience for others? While I say yes it does if it’s blatant enough to be noticed, according to one poll on YouGov most viewers don’t notice:

Product Placement Doesn’t Spoil Viewing, Claims the Public
Of those surveyed by YouGov in July 2011, 59% said they did not have a negative experience of product placement and claimed that it made no difference to their viewing experience. 33% of those polled disagreed that product placement advertising negatively impacts the integrity of a TV programme.
The poll also showed that young audiences, aged 18 to 34, were the most likely to form a positive impression of product placement, with 25% of those aged 18 to 24 stating their brand perception would become more positive if seen in a UK TV Programme.
So despite it being early days for product placement on UK TV, these positive reactions show it could prove very lucrative for brand advertisers.

But people are aware of product placement, says another poll:

A YouGov poll, taken at the end of February 2011 shortly after the decision was made, found that over one third of respondents had no idea what product placement was. However another poll, taken in July 2011, found that nearly three quarters of respondents (72%) knew what product placement was, with nearly half (46%) stating that real brands placed in TV programmes can make them seem more realistic.
Since February 2011, there have been less than 20 examples of product placement advertising in UK TV programmes. However, despite a slow start, the product placement market in the UK is estimated to be worth up to £120m in the next five years. Adele Gritten, head of media consulting at YouGov, said: “There appears to be a gradual acceptance taking place as people see product placement more and more. We’re all consumers of brands, and as long as placements aren’t too overt, it’s very realistic for us to experience the same household brands in the programmes we watch.”

Ofcom's product placement logoOf course the actual number of people surveyed in either poll isn’t mentioned in these news pieces, so one can’t give a lot of credence to the reports until those numbers are produced. After all, 59% of six people is irrelevant.

The other question this issue raises is about how blase consumers have become to advertising: have we been numbed by so many ads that product placement is invisible to the average viewer? In which case, those megabucks being spent on product placement are being wasted and advertisers need a new venue. Maybe even a new paradigm.

So does product placement make a difference? I don’t know. I do know that my own perspectives and prejudices will affect how I see a product or brand in any context. Just like if I see someone smoking on TV or in a film, it causes me to disassociate from the story and make a mental judgment of the character. If I see someone sipping a soda, I do the same (both negatively affect my viewing experience). But seeing a blender brand? Or a washer brand? It doesn’t affect me. I probably don’t notice it unless the placement is clumsy and too obvious. See a guitar brand? A ukulele brand? A tequila brand or anything else I might have some interest in? I might pay more attention, but it doesn’t sway my consumer soul one way or the other. At least consciously.

Product placement may be good business for marketing companies and good revenue for film and TV producers (look up the value of product placement in the ad-dense James Bond flicks). But I question whether they have significant impact on consumers today, aside from distracting us from the storyline.My advice: look for ways to engage the viewers, not simply try to seduce them.

~~~~~
* Looking at today’s listings (your local lineup may be different), I see the following depressingly craptastic shows scheduled for Saturday evening viewing (this partial list doesn’t include the paid programming and infomercials like “Hair Loss News: More Hair in as Little as 4 to 6 Weeks: running on Fox): Storage Wars, Showbiz Moms & Dads, The Real Housewives of New York City, Pick a Puppy, The Great Food Truck Race, Pawnathon Canada, Canadian Pickers, Pawn Stars, The Real Housewives of New Jersey, Paranormal Witness, Parking Wars, Love It or List It, Dumbest Stuff on Wheels, Keasha’s Perfect Dress, Impractical Jokers, 1 girl 5 gays, SugarStars, Billy the Exterminator, 30 Seconds to Fame, Cheaters, Punk’d, Buy Herself, World’s Worst Tenants, Cash Cab, Tabatha Takes Over, Celebrity Style Story, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Anna & Kristina’s Grocery Bag, Rescue Mediums, Party Mamas, Caught on Camera, Baby First Club, Marriage Under Construction, Swamp Wars, Styleography, Style by Jury, Oh So Cosmo, Fashion Hunters, The Hunks, Playboy’s Coeds and others – more than 800 TV channels and half this drek is repeated over and over, not only on channels, but back to back in time slots.
Thank the gods for CBC, TVO and PBS, which still continue to give us content. Unfortunately, we cannot get BBC America on Canadian networks – we are instead forced to get the generally unwatchable and crass BBC Canada which mostly replays Mike Holmes and HGTV shows, surrounded by dreary “reality” restaurant shows: Jamie’s Meals in Minutes, Restaurant Makeover, Jamie’s Food Escapes, Food Inspectors, Kitchen Nightmares, and so on. BBC Canada is an embarrassment.
** My ability to withstand TV commercials grows less every year. By the second ad, I’ve started to fidget, check the Blackberry for email. By the third I’m surfing to other channels looking for content. At the fourth, I’ve muted the TV and am playing the ukulele parked beside the sofa. More than that, and I’ve lost interest in the program entirely, and have either changed channels, or picked up a book.
We don’t watch a lot of commercial TV for the simple reason of the increasingly longer ad clusters. I will buy a season of a recommended show on DVD, and watch it without ads, however. I would consider a PVR to record shows only if it could edit out the ads and save the result to a DVD or USB drive. As I understand it, the PVRs available from Rogers do not have these necessary features.

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The Decline of Information Quality

Huff Post 01I’ve been troubled the last year or so by the increasing amount of trivial crap that is being presented on media sites as news, rather than what it really is: shallow gossip, pseudoscience, trivia, anecdote, voyeurism and personal experience.

As titillating as some glitterati’s wardrobe malfunction might be, it is not front page news. In fact, it isn’t worthy of the description news even when relegated to a more appropriate location, buried deep inside the site. Gossip belongs with the horoscope, cartoons and word-search puzzles.

Nor is a cute animal in some anthropomorphic posture news. Kitten and bunny wrestling? Why is there a front page link to such inane pap? But there is was on the HuffPost.

Who a “reality” TV star marries, what she ate, the condition of her dress or how much cleavage she shows is not only not news, it is not important in any sense of the word. It is an insult to the readers’ intelligence to put it on the front page.

Huff Post 02It is, in the dietary sense, empty intellectual calories. It seems to fill a space, but it is empty, void of content, just wasting bandwidth. Like doughnuts, soda pop and candy bars, it fills without fulfilling. It provides no cerebral nutrition. In short, it is material for the hard of thinking.

I never thought I’d say this, but there are actually TV shows with more intelligence than this crap. Not, of course, many; some BBC, TVO, PBS and CBC shows – not the American Picker, Swamp People or Jersey Shores nonsense, mind you. Both History and Discovery channels have become broadcasters of excremental trivia, dropping documentary for mediocrity.

There is, of course, a place for gossip about the haberdashery and sex lives of the glitterati. Supermarkets have racks of such irrelevant tabloids for those who thrive in the shallows of the intellectual pond. But it does not belong on the front page of an allegedly national or international media publication (like the Huffington Post).

National PostNot that the HuffPost is alone in dumbing down its content for a less discriminatory, less intellectual audience, although it is arguably the worst, with more pure crap on its front page than any other news site I visited.

The National Post has a section called “arts” in which it places front page trivial pap about Lindsay Lohan in a car accident, a legal dispute between two actors and an “open letter from Elvis Presley.” Gossip and minor events in the lives of actors is not news and it isn’t anything to do with the arts. Car accidents may be entertainment for some twisted souls, but the majority does not see them as having any cultural or artistic merit.

Canoe 02Canoe, the Quebecor home site, opens with some minor news pieces, but uses a media player to move you quickly to trivia categories like showbiz, movies (why this is not in showbiz is a mystery), swimsuits (an entire category of stories!) and “tearjerkers” where dumbing down is elevated to a new standard. The front page has stories about garage sales and movie trivia. The main news story today is “Man killed in B.C. goft cart crash.” Yes, it says “goft” cart, not golf cart. You have to actually hunt for real news like the latest massacre in Syria.

None of this reduces my impression of Quebecor as the bottom of the intellectual barrel in the Canadian media industry, of course. Just reinforces it. My overall attitude is that QMI is the only news agency that makes the trashy Fox network look moderate, and the old News of The World look relevant.

Toronto Sun 02The Sun newspaper is, well, just what I expected from a newspaper that has more about sports, gossip and sex than it has news or anything important. I’ve never had a high opinion of the Sun ever since it started, mostly because of its uber-right editorial stand. But unlike most traditional media, it hasn’t gone downhill in its content. Of course, it hasn’t improved, either. The Toronto Sun’s website features several irrelevant front page “celebrity gossip” pieces, and more sports than news. Sports may be important to some, but it isn’t news and should not push out real stories.

Huffpost is, unlike the NatPost or the Sun, mainly a news aggregator, so it pulls stories from other sources, and doesn’t create much of its own (blogs are opinions, not news). In that, it can’t be blamed for the quality of the items, but simply for the choice. Similar aggregator sites like National Newswatch and Bourque exist, with varying amounts of crap pretending to be news. Midway down the National Newswatch page is a story in the “E-zone” (for e-diot?) is a fluff piece with the headline, “Stop everything: Selena Gomez is talking about Justin Bieber while wearing a bra,” followed by links to other, similar pap. To be fair, though, the site has a greater news-to-crap ratio than the HuffPost. Bourque sticks to the headlines and pushes the fluff way down to the bottom.

I’ve heard the argument that the media only provides what people want. That’s nonsense and one of the bulwarks the increasingly right wing, ideologically-fixed media depends on to continue its war on intellectuals and non-right thinkers. Media provides either what it THINKs the public wants, or what it thinks the public SHOULD want.

No one wakes up in the morning thinking they want to get more stupid. Media corporations provide this trivia not to meet demand, but to create it. Ideologues don’t want informed, intelligent consumers. Informed people make better choices than uninformed ones and are not as likely to follow the script. The right’s entire argument about Medicare in the US has been phrased in terms that make it a hate crime to reason, to think critically and to question the “authority” of the right’s pundits who decry providing public medical services instead of holding people hostage for basic medical care.

Information diabetes. That’s what the right-leaning media has, and wants us all to contract through an obesity of irrelevancy. To be fair, there are well-informed people on the right, but not as many as there are on the left. That’s because of the basic difference in how each political stripe sees information. The left sees it as something to share and exchange. The right sees it as proprietary, private and secret.

A recent Gallup poll highlighted the effect of dumbing down media with tripe: only 15% of Americans believe in the evolution, but 46% believe in some form of creationism. That would not happen with a better-informed public. People are not usually intentionally so stupid, but there are those in power who intentionally try to make people stupid. Rather pointedly, the vast majority of creationists also side with the right, while those on the side of science and fact are mostly on the left.

Dumbing down is done through the media by replacing content with fluff, by pushing pseudoscience and superstition, gossip and salaciousness to the front page instead of science and research, or instead of hard news and empirical data.

Who will pay attention to climate change, the oil sands, or the civil war in Syria when the front page has voyeuristic shots of some almost-dressed starlet showing cleavage, or something salacious about a TV wannabe with a childish name like Snookie? Who will turn to images of civilians being shot or streams awash in toxic oil spills, when you can look at a star in a bathing suit? Thinking people, of course will, but the point of this dumbing down is to hide the real content under a torrent of irrelevant pap, deep enough that the average person – with an attention span conditioned by TV watching to be shorter than a gnat’s – won’t bother looking that deep.

As Johnson writes in The Information Diet, there’s no such thing as information overload; it’s more like an imbalance of information quality. The good data is in shorter supply than the dreck. In the same manner, obese people get that way not necessarily because of the quantity of food they consume; rather it’s the result of the quality of the food-like substances they eat.

Newspapers aren’t alone, of course; it started with TV. Channels like Discover and History promised content only to quickly become broadcasters of unbelievably stupid and anti-intellectual content. Just a look at the crap that TV dishes out daily can give anyone with an IQ over 80 a headache: Natural Born Dealers, Canada’s Worst Driver, Cash Cab, Believe It or Not, Storage Wars, Cake Boss, What Not to Wear, Pawn Stars, Canadian Pickers, Jersey Shore… just a few of literally hundreds of TV shows meant to dumb down the audience and keep people in an uninformed stupor. There are so many truly inexorably bad TV shows like these that I can’t even begin to list them all, let alone comment on how bad TV has become. I’ll have to leave that for another post.

But is there a cure for information obesity? Yes: focus, stop wasting time on crap, turn off the TV, exercise your mind and go back to reading books.

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What happened to the video business?

Rogers Video storeIn the early to mid 1990s, Collingwood had three independent video outlets. Then it had two and one franchise (Rogers). Several variety stores also had a small video rental business. Then the independents closed and another franchise (Blockbuster) moved in. Now the two corporations are gone and there is no place in town to rent videos. I am deeply disappointed.

What happened to the video rental business? Was it so unprofitable?

Or is it just a plan by Rogers to increase revenue through it’s “on demand” service? Or to drive customers to Netflix and get more revenue from their overuse of their parsimonious Internet bandwidth cap?

In my limited experience with the service, Rogers’ “on demand” is slow, clumsy and prone to interruption and stuttering. I was not impressed – I used it once, tried to use it twice more without success (it timed out both attempts), and never returned.

I haven’t tried Netflix, yet, but it seems it’s the only way we’re going to be able to watch current films. However, I’ve had mixed reviews from people I know who have the service – the list of films available is slim compared to what the video stores offered. We like to watch foreign films and independent films. I’ve been told Netflix doesn’t offer many (if any) of those, just the rather predictable Hollywood stuff.

We watch more movies than TV shows, mostly because most commercial TV is dreck. And that’s being kind.

With the exceptions of some BBC UK, HBO and AMC dramas, and a few odds and ends on CBC, PBS and TVO, the usual run of TV swamp people, ice road truckers, home hunters, so-called survivors, dancers, drivers, psychic frauds, junk store scavengers, restaurant remakes and pseudo-ghost hunters is simply junk food for the hard of thinking. Even the BBC Canada channel on Canadian TV is an unflattering, watered-down version of the excellent BBC America – which has dramas and mysteries and other series. BBC Canada is mostly a cultural wasteland: an embarrassing melange of tedious and repetitive kitchen and home “reality” shows.

Having no video rental outlet really limits our options for movie watching. I won’t pay for the cable movie channel because I already pay a lot more for cable than it’s worth. I would dump it back to basic cable except that we like to watch TCM. Rogers doesn’t offer any reasonable solutions for our quandary, just increasingly expensive packages. I could happily subscribe to about a dozen channels max, without any of the extra crap we never watch. But that sort of customer-friendly service isn’t available.

It irks me to pay for crappy and customer-hostile channels that repeat the same show over and over (like AMC showing the same tired movie twice in an evening and then again several times during the week). Or the number of channels showing the same thing, just with different channel numbers. Or the number of sports and music channels we will never, ever watch. Or the number that repeat shows from the 80s and 90s usually putting several of them back to back. We’re paying for hundreds of channels and we watch no more than six or seven most weeks.

I didn’t mind so much when we could rent movies, but when that’s no longer an option and we have to watch what’s on the box at any time, we get to see how really dismal, how intellectually arid, and how culturally shallow most TV is.

We can always buy videos, of course, but the two major outlets left that sell videos are probably about the lowest on the ladder for range of choices: Wal Mart and Zellers. Besides, who wants to pay $25-$30 for a B flick? After you’ve watched it, what do you do with it?

More and more, I feel we are being driven to dump cable TV altogether, and start using the Net for our entertainment.

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Having a purpose strengthens your brain

Cartoon StockA story in Science Daily caught my eye recently. It was titled, “Greater Purpose in Life May Protect Against Harmful Changes in the Brain Associated With Alzheimer’s Disease.” That suggested a different approach to brain ailments than what I’ve usually read. Most are medical or surgical. This one is philosophical.

I’m not one for either self-help or New Age palaver. Most of it strikes me as unmitigated pap that borders on the religious. It’s like the gazillions of diet books and websites. I’m not sure which would rake in the millions faster: to form a new religion or a new diet plan.So when I see something about a “purpose-driven life” I tend to shy away in case it involves angels, spirit guides, auras, ghosts or ten people you’ll meet in heaven. Or hell.

But when someone in the science community comments that purpose has more use than filling one’s days or creating fodder for self-help gurus, that it may have medical and biological implications, then I perk up and listen.

“Our study showed that people who reported greater purpose in life exhibited better cognition than those with less purpose in life even as plaques and tangles accumulated in their brains,” said Patricia A. Boyle, PhD.
“These findings suggest that purpose in life protects against the harmful effects of plaques and tangles on memory and other thinking abilities. This is encouraging and suggests that engaging in meaningful and purposeful activities promotes cognitive health in old age.”

In other words, as I read it: purpose makes you think better. Well, council watchers may want to debate that issue.

I know people today, including many people younger than I am, who don’t read to exercise their brains, don’t play interactive games (like chess, go, bridge), don’t do anything creative as a hobby (like write, play music, garden, take photographs). They work, they watch TV, they sleep. TV – a passive device programmed by media giants who want to control your life and consumer habits – is their main source of information, entertainment, opinion and education. What sort of purpose in life does watching TV fulfill?

By the terms of this study, they’re dementia patients in the making. Anyone who wastes hours of their life watching such dreck as “Survivor” or “American pickers” probably won’t notice the onslaught of dementia…

Boyle and her colleagues from the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center studied 246 participants from the Rush Memory and Aging Project who did not have dementia and who subsequently died and underwent brain autopsy. Participants received an annual clinical evaluation for up to approximately 10 years, which included detailed cognitive testing and neurological exams.
Participants also answered questions about purpose in life, the degree to which one derives meaning from life’s experiences and is focused and intentional. Brain plaques and tangles were quantified after death. The authors then examined whether purpose in life slowed the rate of cognitive decline even as older persons accumulated plaques and tangles.

What the study suggests is that doing something creative or goal-oriented that requires some effort to start, develop and complete a project helps stave off some of the physiological problems that are seen in Alzheimer’s and other senility-related ailments. Obviously TV watching isn’t goal-oriented.

The study didn’t look at or correlate other studies that have shown how reading stimulates brain activity and also helps ward off dementia and senility. Which is unfortunate, because I believe the two have an obvious relationship. Reading is probably the most powerful activity you can do to keep your brain active and engaged.

The start, I suggest, to developing goals and purpose, is to turn off the TV. The next step is to find something creative to do. Build a deck. Plan a garden. Paint a room. Write a blog. Take photographs. Learn a new word or a new language. Play a game of chess or backgammon. Do a jigsaw puzzle. Play a musical instrument (or learn one). Train your dog to do a trick. Better yet, train your cat.

Do something active, something with a goal, a focus. It doesn’t have to be very big, or exciting or momentous. As long as you get off the couch and away from the TV.

At the very least, read a book. Books will give you ideas, goals, will inspire you, tease your imagination and make you smarter, wiser, more cultured and better looking (okay, maybe not the last one). Books will serve you much better than TV ever will. You don’t have to give up TV for good; just share your time with things that make you smarter, better, wiser, more educated, more intelligent and less prone to dementia than TV.

Just lay off the self-help books. Once you wean yourself from the TV you’ll probably find that tour life has a lot of purpose and meaning and you won’t need the self-help gurus.

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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.

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