Thursday, December 30, 2010

Flash Fiction: Of All Possible Worlds

[Note: this story was written for the New Scientist 2010 competition Forgotten Futures, which asked entrants to write a very short story -- 350 words or fewer -- about how things might have worked out if some scientific event or discovery had turned out differently. My entry wasn't shortlisted, so I'm sharing it here.]

Hugh Everett III eased himself into the oversized leather chair, taking care not to spill his cognac. Outside, he could hear the laughter of his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, still loudly celebrating the 80th birthday of the Grand Old Man of Physics, as he had become known. The door opened quietly and his son Mark slipped inside, cradling the glass display case that held Hugh’s Nobel Prize medal. Mark reverently returned the medal, the centerpiece of the party, to its accustomed place on the bookcase.

Hugh gestured to the chair next to him where another glass of cognac waited, and Mark settled in next to his worlds-famous father.

“It’s ironic,” said Hugh, toasting the medal with his glass. “The press called me ‘the new Einstein’, and just like him, they gave me the Prize for my second-best work.” Few people outside the physics community realized that Everett’s Prize had been awarded for his audacious doctoral thesis that introduced the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, not his later quantum gravity insights that had led to the exploitation of Dark Energy, the basis of the peace and prosperity enjoyed by everybody on Earth, not to mention it’s colonies on Mars and Ganymede.

“I’ll tell you what else is ironic,” replied Mark with a mischievous smile. “If everything possible happens in some universe, then somewhere out there is a world where everything went as wrong as it possibly could. Imagine if nobody had paid attention to your thesis and you had abandoned physics. In that world you became bitter and disillusioned, turned to cigarettes and drink, and died long before your time, leaving a world still suffocating and sweltering in its own pollution.”

Hugh laughed warmly. “Mark, that story gets worse every time you tell it. Many Worlds requires everything possible to happen, but it doesn’t allow for the impossible.” He took another sip of cognac and pushed away the thought of a life and a world gone to ruin. What ever might be might be, he mused to himself, but whatever must be must be.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

The worst romantic comedy in recent movie history

Somebody recently referred to "Something's gotta give" in my hearing as "charming". Hence this rant...

The essence of any rom-com is an ill-matched couple, kept apart by some apparently insurmountable barrier, destined to somehow be together by the end of the movie. "Sleepless in Seattle": they live on opposite coasts. "You've got mail": opposing political beliefs. etc. Age, culture, distance, class, political beliefs, disapproving families: something has to keep the couple apart for ninety minutes before we can all go home happy.

"Something's gotta give" offers us the unique sight of a romantic comedy about a couple who are kept apart by... absolutely nothing.

Harry and Erica are two independent, financially stable people of similar age, both well-established in life and successful in their careers. Both are single and unencumbered. Circumstances force them to live in the same house. Erica has no obligations as her adult daughter is self-sufficient. Everybody approves of their relationship, including Erica's daughter (who might have been expected to object since she had previously dated Harry) and Erica's ex-husband, with whom she has such a comfortable relationship that he drops by for coffee. Even Harry's rival in love, Julian, simply smiles and gracefully steps aside when the moment comes, accepting that Harry and Erica should be together. There's not a shred of conflict or difficulty or incompatibility in this entire setup.

The only reason they're not a couple after the first five minutes? "He only dates younger women", the other characters repeatedly tell us, although this essential fact is something that the movie completely fails to show. We don't even get to see all of these alleged younger girlfriends until almost the end of the movie, and none of them is dignified with a name, let alone a personality, a story, or a motivation for dating him. We have to take the word of the other characters, sitting around a dinner table, that he is a desirable, eligible, notorious bachelor who was featured as such on the cover of a New York magazine. (I believe that "featured on a magazine cover" is what movies go for to illustrate that somebody or something is well-known when they can't afford the obligatory scene of Jay Leno telling jokes about their movie's subject: "How about that Harry Sanborn? His latest girlfriend is so young, he has to leave her outside when he goes into a bar!". Or perhaps there are some things that even Jay Leno won't do?) Oh, and there's also some business about her being too busy/vulnerable for a relationship, although again there's no reason offered for why.

And since the movie provides no coherent explanation for why Harry collects notches in his headboard, we also get no explanation for what resistance he is trying to overcome nor why he chooses to change. At the start of the movie, he doesn't date women his own age; at the end of the movie, he does.

Even the title of the movie falls flat. "Something's gotta give" implies that both of them have deeply-held positions that are incompatible and that one of them will have to "give". Harry could accept that he should date women closer to his own age; or Erica could... I don't know, become a younger woman?

Once Erica and Harry have met, the rest of the movie is just marking time until it delivers its unearned and emotionally flat payoff and pairs them off. There's not a single moment in the entire film that rings true, emotionally or dramatically.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

NFL Season Media Guide

With dress rehearsals for the NFL season well underway, it's time for my guide for what to expect from the networks' NFL coverage:

  • Fox: The studio has been replaced by the high school jocks' lunchroom table. They are having much more fun than you are. Meanwhile, Joe Buck will talk in a bizarre singsong cadence about other programs coming up on Fox while a football game takes place in the background. 
  • CBS: Two middle-aged men in blazers, ties and slacks are mildly annoyed to have been dragged away from a very good Sunday lunch at their country club and are embarrassed to find themselves at a football game rather than a golf tournament. 
  • NFL Network: Two business travelers are killing time in the bar of a soulless chain hotel. They make polite but awkward conversation about the football game playing on the bar's TV set, even though neither of them really understands the game or cares about the teams involved. Everybody finishes the night even more depressed than when they started. 
  • ESPN: Three frat boys have broken into the broadcast booth and are making each other laugh with fart jokes. They have no idea the microphones are on. Meanwhile back in the ESPN studio, Chris Berman and a dozen other people would like to tell you how awesome ESPN is. 
  • NBC: Please don't interrupt. The adults are talking.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The oddness of Star Wars technology

I've observed in previous posts that the Star Wars saga would have been very different if the Rebel Alliance had access to e-mail or torrent so that they didn't need to drag those droids across the galaxy. (Also handrails...).

It struck me recently that this is actually one example of something much more general in the Star Wars universe. As far as I can recall, there is no new technology whatsoever in the entire "galaxy far, far away". Everything shown in the movies either existed on Earth at the time that Star Wars was made, or was a well-established element of other space operas. Space ships and lasers and blasters and flying cars and robots were more realistically rendered and executed better in Star Wars than they had even been before, but were far from new. And earthbound imagination shows up in the absence of technologies we take for granted, such as mobile phones, personal computers, or credit cards. The medical technology is also oddly primitive despite being administered by robots: how did nobody know in advance that Padme was carrying twins? What kind of prenatal care are they giving senators and queens out there?

The one original contribution of Lucas appears to be the lightsaber. Although there may be inspirations and echoes of some earlier story elements, the lightsaber as a complete, unified concept can, I think, be attributed to Lucas. He also imbued it with rich symbolic meaning in the original trilogy, rather than merely using it as a shiny prop. Lightsabers, and the duels they are used in, all mean something significant in Luke Skywalker's "hero's journey". (One of the tragedies of the prequel trilogy is that they somehow managed to make lightsaber duels dull by repetition.)

The other odd element of Star Wars technology is that Lucas appears to have been familiar with the fiction but not the science of science fiction. In other words, his script is littered with the vocabulary of existing sci-fi, but without any apparent understanding of established meanings. For example, robots are famously known as "droids", an apparent abbreviation of android. But as any sci-fi fan will tell you, an android is a robot designed to resemble a human being (and that resemblance is the jumping off point for rich explorations in the sci-fi literature of the nature of what it means to be human, whether an android can truly be alive, etc.). No droid in Star Wars looks remotely like a living creature of any species -- the closest perhaps is C3-PO, who at least is roughly human-shaped. Similarly, C3-PO's role is described as "human-cyborg relations"; a cyborg, of course, is a hybrid of a living creature enhanced with robotic technology, something that is never actually seen or even referred to ever again, raising the question of the need for a droid specializing in relations with them?

The same odd dissonance applies to space travel technology. The terms "jump to lightspeed" and "jump to hyperspace" are used more or less interchangeably, often when speaking about the same vessel (ruling out the possibility that both technologies exist side by side). These are two completely unrelated technologies, about as different as "drive faster" and "take a shortcut" as ways to get to your destination sooner. Similarly, references to the speed of travel make no sense. At one point the Millenium Falcon, famously one of the fastest ships out there, is described as being capable of "point-five above lightspeed"; it's hard to imagine any reasonable interpretation of that term that wouldn't still leave you requiring years to travel between star systems. Amusingly, when the Millenium Falcon escapes (again) from capture by Darth Vader, a crew member comments a few seconds later that "if they've made the jump to lightspeed, they could be on the other side of the galaxy by now". In reality, at 1.5x the speed of light, it would take the Falcon about 5 minutes to travel the distance from the Earth to our Sun, and assuming the Star Wars galaxy is typical of the ones we know, tens of thousands of years to get to the other side!

There are many more such internal inconsistencies -- for instance, why do large spacecraft fight like naval battleships at sea, all oriented the same way up, while the small craft dodge and roll like fighters using wings in an atmosphere for lift? -- and this kind of "World War II in space" transplant is exactly what leads fans of serious Sci-Fi to dismiss Star Wars as "space opera".

The overall effect is of Lucas as somebody who knows all of the notes and none of the music.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Asking for Trouble

A crowded room full of preschoolers wearing hoods so they can't see. Supervised by an 800-year old goblin with a limp. And they're waving FREAKIN' LIGHTSABERS around. And at your kindergarten, you were in trouble if you ran with scissors.

Bonus: the goblin speaks backwards, slowly. "Cut each others arms off... you must not!"

Monday, August 02, 2010

Corporations deserve Second Amendment rights, too

A recent Supreme Court ruling here in the US overturned long-standing limits on corporate political spending on the basis that it was an unconstitutional limit on freedom of speech. So naturally, this got me thinking: if corporations are "persons" that have the First Amendment right of free speech, shouldn't they also have the Second Amendment right to bear arms? Trade wars would be much more interesting that way, as would takeover battles.

And the entire financial crisis might have turned out differently if there had been a right to arm Bear Stearns.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

I Write Like...

According to the website "I Write Like", my fiction is reminiscent of Cory Doctorow. And my non-fiction resembles H.P. Lovecraft.

In other words, my fiction should be given away for free, and my non-fiction is the weird and disturbing product of a warped imagination.

So, no surprises there.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

3D Movies are the new Quadraphonics

Some of us are old enough to remember the audio industry's brief and unsuccessful flirtation with four channel "quadraphonic" sound. With speakers arranged at four corners of the room, it could sound reasonably convincing, provided the listener sat in the center of the sound field and kept his head absolutely still. If you turned your head, the sound source had a tendency to "ping" from one location to another. It was a technology that was supposed to deliver surround sound; unfortunately it appeared to have been created by people who knew everything about audio electronics, but nothing about how people actually hear.

Similarly, 3D movie technologies appear to have been created by people who know everything about digital projection, but nothing about how people see. In fact, "3D" is a misnomer: what you're actually getting is "stereoscopy", like a Magic Eye picture or (if you're older) a View-Master. Consequently, the picture only truly looks "right" from one position, where the relative positions of the stereo images "make sense".

In reality, stereo image separation is only one cue of many that people use to infer depth, and most of the cues we rely on are already present in a 2D projection. If they weren't, we wouldn't be able to make sense of flat images such as photographs and paintings. We would perceive them merely as lines and blobs of color rather than as representations of the world. (This is especially true of images rendered on a surface whose geometry actually contradicts the image, for example a Greek soldier painted on the side of a vase.) Conversely, if stereoscopy were so critical to depth perception, there wouldn't be so many animals that sacrifice binocular vision for enhanced peripheral vision by having their eyes on the sides of their head.

The biggest problem with stereoscopy in the movies comes when the stereo cue is inconsistent with the many other cues such as motion parallax, depth of focus, or relative motion (unless you're sitting in the theater's sweet spot), as it often is with 3D movies. What you then get is a headache or, if you're really unlucky, motion sickness.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Word of the Day: Sarahpalindrome

Sarahpalindrome (n.): a political statement that makes as little sense backwards as forwards. Example: Sarah Palin's resignation speech as Governor of Alaska.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Mad Cons

Everybody is familiar with the fill-in-blanks game Mad Libs. Well, I've invented a new game called Mad Cons. There's only one sentence to fill in and it goes like this:

"I'm outraged that Obama did _______ with ________ when he should have __________ ."

Best submission wins a prize: your very own talk show on Fox News.

Friday, June 18, 2010

NCAA Issues Sanctions Against Republican Party

In an unprecedented move, the NCAA announced today severe sanctions against the Republican Party. A four-year long investigation uncovered a pattern of systematic recruiting violations, illegal contacts with interns, and inappropriate financial inducements. "If you think that what Reggie Bush did was bad", said an NCAA spokesperson speaking on condition of anonymity, "You should see what we learned about George W. Bush". In a press statement in response to the announcement, the Republican Party immediately identified the anonymous spokesperson, published his home address, and urged reporters to investigate his background.

The NCAA announced an extensive list of sanctions against the GOP. Most significantly, the two National Election championships that the party won under Bush will be vacated and erased from the record. The NCAA has yet to decide whether to award those championships to the losing finalists, Al Gore and John Kerry, or to leave them vacant. The GOP will also forfeit numerous Senate and House victories in which Bush played a part.

Critics of the NCAA's actions point out that, as with previous sanctions issued by the organization, those chiefly responsible, including Bush, Dick Cheney, and Karl Rove, have moved on to lucrative new positions outside the organization and will be largely untouched by the punishment.

Three More Things That Make No Sense... the Star Wars universe.

1) Every planet in the galaxy has roughly the same gravity, regardless of the size or composition of the planet, so everybody can move around comfortably.

2) Every species in the galaxy can breathe the same atmosphere (with a couple of exceptions), which is also the same on every planet.

3) Apparently, there are fewer than 900,000 droids in the entire galaxy, serving billions of sentient beings. How do we know? Star Wars Episode I makes it clear that "R2-D2" is an individual designation, not a model number. And in the entire canon, every droid is named using the same pattern. There is no instance of a droid with a number larger than 9 in its designation. Other episodes confirm that "R2" is the model type. So even allowing for letters or numbers in the 2nd and 4th place, that allows for fewer than 1,000 of R2-type astromech that seems to be everywhere, including on-board every fighter before they run out of numbers.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Thoughts on the attempted Times Square car bomb

I'm sure we'll see this adapted in a future episode of Law & Order: SUV

/"In the city of New York, crimes against opposite-side parking are considered particularly heinous..."

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Vatican Identifies Real Cause of Sexual Abuse Scandals

Recent attempts to blame Jews, Freemasons and homosexuals for the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church having been roundly condemned by the outside world, the Vatican has announced that it has uncovered the true conspirators responsible. It turns out that the real perpetrators were the Gypsies, the mentally and physically disabled, and trade unionists, along with a few Jehovah's Witnesses.

Pope Benedict referred to his own traumatic wartime experiences in disavowing earlier comparisons to anti-semitism.

However, identifying those guilty of the sexual abuse may not be the end of the Vatican's troubles: there still remains the thorny question of why the church bureaucracy failed to act on the abuse for decades...

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The Religious Makeup of the Supreme Court

I heard a fascinating piece on NPR this morning: Justice Stevens may retire soon, and the two leading candidates to replace him are both Jewish (the third is Catholic). If this happens, the Supreme Court will be made up entirely of Catholics and Jews and, for the first time, have no Protestants.

NPR called discussion of this topic "radioactive", but nonetheless I'm going to advance a theory that should offend everybody equally. Catholics and Jews make good constitutional judges because they have a lifetime of practice in parsing the finest nuances of strict, elaborate, and often ambiguous regulations, looking for loopholes. Protestants, conversely, are more accustomed to applying barely-tenable interpretations that suit their purposes of the moment, or outright picking and choosing which strictures to follow and which to ignore.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Pope Retracts Comparison To Anti-Semitism

In his Easter Sunday address, the Pope unreservedly retracted the comparison that had been made by his personal preacher between vocal criticism of the Catholic Church for its failure to address sexual abuse and centuries of anti-semitism that culminated in the Holocaust.

"The comparison is entirely inappropriate," said the Pontiff. "What the Church is being subjected to is much more serious. A better comparison would be to the crucifixion of Christ."

P.S. If the Vatican is reading this: It's just satire. Please don't send Opus Dei operatives to assassinate me.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Decoding Engineers

What they say and what it means:

"It's hard, but doable" = "I've already done it, and I've been keeping it in my back pocket until I can get the most kudos for it"

"It's non-trivial" = "It's really hard, and I don't immediately see a way to approach it"

"It's distinctly non-trivial" = "It may require violating the laws of physics"

"It simply can't be done" = "I don't want to do it or talk about it. Since you have no way to know whether I'm telling the truth, this ends the discussion."

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Meetings, meetings, meetings

A business meeting is an ideal gas. It consists of a set of randomly moving, non-interacting particles.

And it expands to perfectly fill the space available on a calendar.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Dirty Harry vs. Rain Man

Dirty Harry: I know what you're thinking. "Did he fire six shots or only five?" Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself.

Raymond: Six. Definitely six.

Dirty Harry: Ah, crap.

Raymond: I'm an excellent driver.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Welcome to Socialist America

When I dropped my son at daycare this morning, there was a TSA flunky at the door demanding to see proof of health insurance before allowing us in. When I got home, I found a letter from Social Security informing me that I would qualify for full benefits at age 65 and death panel evaluation at 75. I felt so sick I called my doctor for an appointment, but the receptionist told me that all scheduling was now being done through my congressman's office -- and since my district elected a Republican, there would be no funds for healthcare here anyway.

Oh, wait -- none of that happened. It turns out that the Republican party have been lying their collective asses off all this time! Who knew?

Anyway, now that the Republican strategy of total stonewalling has failed and the old status quo is no longer an option, is there any chance that they will start behaving like a responsible opposition and actually engage in the process so that we can continue reform without having to buy off the Democratic congressmen most willing to play "chicken" with Pelosi? Or will they continue with their impersonation of a spoiled four year old holding his breath until he gets his way?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Star Wars Regrets

Greatest regrets of Star Wars characters. If I had any Photoshop chops there would be pictures to go with these, but I'm afraid you'll just have to use your imagination for the pictures that go with these quotes:

"Clones? Crap, I thought you said 'Send in the clowns'. What a mess..."

"You idiot. I said I needed a light saber, not a lifesaver!"

"You know, I think that actually those might have been the droids we were looking for..."

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Congratulations, America: you're a 19th century society.

I understand that people have different opinions on the best way to provide and pay for healthcare. I don't understand people pretending that the current system is OK. The US has, depending on what specific metric you choose, between the 30th and 40th best healthcare in the world, at twice the cost (as a fraction of GDP) of any other developed economy. On infant mortality, for instance, the US ranks on par with countries like Cuba, Poland and Slovakia.

In the US, if you're poor and sick you're pretty much screwed. If you lose your job and get sick, you're pretty much screwed. And if you're middle class and employed, you're still increasingly screwed. And yet, America is full of people who apparently think that because they personally are not unemployed or sick today, all is well.

We need to stop thinking about healthcare as "insurance" and treat it like education: something that a rich, modern, civilized country provides because it's better for all of us for each of us to be healthy. We should stop talking about the "public option" and instead talk about the "private option": as with education, everybody should be entitled to healthcare at a level appropriate to a large, wealthy country; and those who choose to spend their own money should be able to opt for private provision for whatever private reasons they may have.

Intriguingly, US healthcare is already like education. Unfortunately, it's like education in Victorian England. If you're rich, you can afford a tutor or a private school. If you're poor, you work in a mine or a factory, get sick, and die young. Congratulations, America: you're a 19th century society.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Making Music

A few weeks ago I started taking piano lessons. So far I'm enjoying it, although I have a lot of disadvantages to overcome. Most obviously, I have very small hands. And yes, it is absolutely true what they say about men with small hands: I have a very limited span, barely a fifth. I wish I had bigger hands so I could span an entire octave.

That's right: I have pianist envy.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Star Wars Again: Another thing that makes no sense

Obi Wan, to Anakin Skywalker: "Only a Sith deals in absolutes."

Really, Obi Wan? Are you absolutely certain about that?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Another Thought About Star Wars

I just watched Phantom Menace for the first time (you know something's wrong when your five-year old son points out the plot holes...) and the abiding thought I am left with is this:

In a galaxy advanced enough to have mastered interstellar travel, every spaceship apparently requires narrow walkways that cross over deep pits. And across all the thousands of populated planets and civilizations and sentient species... nobody has invented the "handrail".

Friday, March 12, 2010

Thought for the day: Web 2.0 and the death of the author

I'm currently reading Jaron Lanier's excellent "You Are Not A Gadget" and it provoked this thought:

In it's pernicious denial of the primacy of authorship and the value of an individual perspective in favor of the hive mind, Web 2.0 is to online social interaction as post-structuralism was to literary criticism -- except that Web 2.0 has impact far beyond the doctoral aspirations of post-graduate Eng Lit students.

Monday, March 08, 2010


I am not my Facebook page.

I am not my LinkedIn profile.

I am not my Amazon shopping history.

I am not my Google search results.

I have nothing to say that can be said in 140 characters.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

More Oxymorons

Fruit tea and herbal tea: It's only tea if it's made from the leaves of the, uh, tea plant. Those other things are "infusions". Also, they're disgusting.

Reality TV: Reality is what doesn't happen on TV. Nothing that happens when people know a camera is on them is "reality".

Reality TV Star: A double-oxymoron. Nobody whose claim to fame is that they appeared on a reality TV show is a "star". Unless you subscribe to the formula that a star is anybody who has appeared on TV by name; a superstar is anybody who has shaken hands with Ryan Seacrest; and a megastar is anybody who has refused to shake hands with Ryan Seacrest.

Drug Experience: You can take drugs, or you can have experiences, but not both at the same time. Something that happens entirely within the chemical balance of your brain is not an experience.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The most evil villain in a kids' movie?

This choice may surprise. For me it's "Mindy from the network" in Bolt. She only has two scenes. In the first, she warns the director and crew of Bolt's TV show that she will fire everybody in the room if the show loses "so much as half a rating point." In the second, she simulates concern and empathy while she pressures Penny into giving up the search for Bolt and working with a replacement dog, telling her that "people will lose their jobs. Good people, with families". The people that, a few days earlier, she was ready to fire over a tiny ratings slip.

The writers could easily have put those lines in the mouth of another character -- Penny's mother, her agent, or the director, for instance. But they chose to give them to Mindy, and in the process promoted her from being merely a ruthless and efficient executive to being someone who callously and coldly manipulates the emotions of a child while feigning concern, to get the commercial outcome she desires. That's a whole new kind of evil for a kids' movie villain.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Thoughts for the day

A problem shared is a problem halved

A confusion shared is a confusion squared

A secret is something only one person knows.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Is cable TV committing suicide?

Once upon a time, some cable TV networks had moderately interesting programming. Remember those days? These days, it seems like all of the specialty channels are charging over a cliff as fast as they can manage. Here's just a few of the channels I used to watch and now just skip over:

History Channel: Featuring an endless diet of 2012, Nostradamus, and other superstitious nonsense, it's only a matter of time before they rename it the Hysteria Channel. People used to mock them as The Hitler Channel for their constant diet of WWII footage. It turns out that, thanks to the new management, that was actually the editorial high-water mark for the channel.

SyFy: It used to be called SciFi. And it used to have things worth watching, as opposed to a stable of in-house actors rotating through the same formulaic "monster/alien/robot threatens earth" cheapie.

HGTV: Some of the home/yard improvement shows are still worthwhile. Not so much: room makeovers slapped together under arbitrary time constraints ("we'll transform this kitchen in just 2 days!") imposed purely to inject some fake tension into the proceedings. When I watch a "carpenter" build an entertainment center in an hour by end-nailing a few boards of MDF and rolling on a coat of paint, I have a pretty good sense of how crappy that thing will look about six weeks after the cameras have left. It's going to make your student dorm IKEA bookshelf look like an heirloom. The only good thing to say about HGTV these days is that at least the housing market crash put an end to those stupid get-rich-quick property flipping shows. It's also pretty amusing to watch those "we'll stage this house and get it sold!" shows where at the end the voiceover admits "It's been six weeks since the open house and we've had lots of traffic. Our sellers are just waiting for that perfect offer" (read: all that work, still no buyer.)

Food Network: Anthony Bourdain already said most of what needed to be said about Food Network's decline into the celebration of mediocrity so I just need to add: what is the deal with all the competitions? Whether people are racing against the clock or competing against each other, like HGTV the artificial deadlines are imposed purely to create the illusion of drama. Food doesn't need that. Food is not theater.

Maybe we're coming to the end of an era, and single-subject channels are dying as a species. Meanwhile, the broadcast networks have become a wasteland of so-called "reality" programming interleaved with CSI knock-offs and Law & Order spin-offs. The only broadcast show I regret missing is the brilliant (in every sense) and under-appreciated "Better Off Ted".

So what does that leave? Well, for me it's basically USA Network: White Collar, Burn Notice, and re-runs of NCIS. Not exactly brain food, but still better than what's on elsewhere.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Do over?

This is the kind of thought that occurs to you when you realize that you have hit the midpoint of a reasonable expectation of your life span (or the 2/3rds point if family history is any guide...).

If you could have your life to date over again (without any foreknowledge once you start over, of course) or you could have the remainder of your life, whatever that might turn out to be, which would you choose? Certainty or uncertainty?

Saturday, January 09, 2010

The culture of inconsequence

I'm not a video game player myself (because I suck, not out of some misplaced snobbery) but I am astonished at the time, effort, and concerted study people put into mastering games. The combination of fast reactions, physical dexterity, and mental acuity demanded by the best games is really quite impressive.

And it struck me, what would happen if the people who devote so much effort to games were to redirect themselves to something less virtual and more, well, consequential? What if everybody who has mastered Gears of War instead, say, mastered a musical instrument?

And games are not the only difficult, demanding, challenging yet ultimately pointless activity with which we fill our time. Why do people choose to learn Klingon when for the same effort they could learn Spanish? Why do they memorize the fictional history and participants of the Clone Wars rather than the Hundred Years' War?

This willingness to work hard to acquire fictional skills and knowledge seems to me to be a quite different phenomenon than our willingness to passively absorb celebrity culture and "reality" TV. People actually devote real effort and study to memorizing the history of Middle Earth. It's not easy to catalog the continuity of sentient species across the Star Trek franchise, or to reconcile the continuity conflicts between Star Wars media, even though in the end none of this matters in any way at all and could be -- indeed, often is -- swept away at the whim of the next movie's director.

My suspicion is that we prefer these fictional bodies of knowledge for two reasons. One, they are finite. A game can be won; the history of the Federation can be definitively cataloged; everything that can conceivably be known about Middle Earth is written down in a handful of books. These universes are, unlike the messy, blurry, shifty, vague, real world, comfortingly definite. And two, nothing that happens in them has any lasting effect: unlike the real world, which sorely lacks an Undo command or a Rewind button, at the end of a game, you can always hit the reset button.

It seems that we've become people who prefer to lead lives without consequences.

Friday, January 08, 2010

New Years Resolutions (again)

My resolution: to answer all questions using only answers from the Magic 8 Ball:

● As I see it, yes
● It is certain
● It is decidedly so
● Most likely
● Outlook good
● Signs point to yes
● Without a doubt
● Yes
● Yes - definitely
● You may rely on it
● Reply hazy, try again
● Ask again later
● Better not tell you now
● Cannot predict now
● Concentrate and ask again
● Don't count on it
● My reply is no
● My sources say no
● Outlook not so good
● Very doubtful

Friday, January 01, 2010

New Year's Resolutions for the new decade

Here are my resolutions for the next decade. I offer no attempt to explain these other than in their own words: poetry must either speak for itself, or not at all.

1. I will take the road less traveled (Frost, paraphrased)

2. O for ten years, that I may overwhelm/Myself in poesy; so I may do the deed/That my own soul has to itself decreed (Keats)

3. We must love one another and die. (Auden)