05/18/12

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.

05/12/12

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.

01/28/12

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.