Tag Archives: opinion

A world without television

I have this romanticized notion of what the world might be like without television.  Part of this comes my reading of the Golden Age of science fiction, which is generally agreed to have taken place from 1939-1949 or so.  Part of it comes from when my Grandpa used to talk about what it was like growing up in New York City without television.  When I was younger, of course, I couldn’t dream of such a thing.  Now, the more television I watch, the more I try to imagine how the world would be different without it.

Let me be clear:  this is not meant as a diatribe against television, nor is it to say that all television is crap.  Theodore Sturgeon said 90% of science fiction is crud.  I think Sturgeon’s Law applies to any medium, including television.  But there is the other 10% that is worthwhile, and without the crud, we likely wouldn’t have the gems.  It is for these gems that I have a difficult time giving up on television entirely–something that I would really like to do.  I’ve never been a visually inclined person, nor a willingly passive receptacle.  Reading a book generally gives me much more enjoyment than watching television, or going to see a motion picture.  Nevertheless, there are television shows I’ve watched that have had a strong impact on me: M*A*S*H, NYPD Blue, and The West Wing to name a few.

Even so, more and more I find myself imagining how the world would be different without television.  Intuitively, I feel like it would be a better place, but I can’t really support this.  My imagination fails at the task.  I once tried to write a story about it and couldn’t do it.  I finally decided it was because given our technological developments and our natural progression, television is inevitable.  Still, I am envious–even jealous–of those people who lived in a world without television.

In such a world, the things I loved thrived.  Science fiction boomed during the 1940s and even into the 1950s when television was a new an unproven medium.  A youngster’s raw material came from books and magazines, and often these were science fiction books and magazines, or their first cousins, comic books.  Coming home from work, one didn’t have to wonder if there was anything to watch.  There was no anxiety over the next episode of American Idol, or the final season of LOST.  Of course, there was radio, but that was almost as participatory as reading.  With the rise of television in the 1950s came a decline in reading, in particular the short fiction markets.  Television was easier entertainment.  For one thing, you didn’t even have to know how to read!

Today, there is so much television and it is so tightly bound to our daily lives, that we have to play catch-up.  The DVR has replaced and improved upon the VCR.  We can now watch shows at our leisure.  We probably record much more than we used to, and many of us have backlogs of show to watch, to fill those nights of reruns.  I can remember the days before the Internet.  The Internet really took off in 1994 and it has changed our lives in a clear and dramatic way.  I sometimes long for those days before I found myself constantly checking email; and then blogs; and then Facebook and Twitter.  But I was never part of the generation before television.

Television seems to add a level of stress and anxiety that was absent in the pre-television days.  That’s not to say that stress and anxiety did not exist in the days after the stock market crash of 1929 or the dark days before World War II.  But television added a new kind of stress: to be in the know, you have to keep up with the programming.  There are social pressures that were absent in the days before television.  Perhaps some of those pressures existed in radio days, but the stations and programming are limited.  Today, I have access to something like 700 channels.  Sometimes I don’t even know where to begin.

If television didn’t exist, I feel like I might get more done.  I might spend more time with the family, engaged in activities that don’t involve staring passively at a screen.  I might read or write more.  I know there are people out there who eschew television completely, but their will power exceeds mine.  And besides, there are some things that I like about it.  But there are also things I really hate about it.

Television has evolved into a medium whose sole purpose is to sell products.  Advertising has taken over.  Even television news is merely a vehicle for selling products to the kind of people who would buy them.  As a mass media, it takes the path of least resistance and expense, which means it tends to dumb down its programming to the lowest common denominator.  Newspaper articles tend to do this, too, these days. But like television, newspapers are using copy to sell products.  Books, I think, are different.

Most books don’t contain blatant advertising.  Oh, sure, I own Ace paperbacks from the 1970s with cigarette ads stuck in the center.  But those are the exceptions.  Books tend not to have as wide an audience as television, but they are not "broadcast", they are, more often than not, "narrowcast".  We call this narrowcasting, "genre".  Because books don’t attempt to reach the widest possible audiences, they don’t have to be dumbed down.  Because the content is paid for by the readers, not advertisers, there is no undue influence of advertising (at least that I can see).  There is no noise and light pollution that comes from watching television.  (Ah, what would it be like to look out the window and not see scores of windows glowing in electric-blue light?)  I can’t sit in a room with a television running and read a book.  My attention and ability to multitask in such an environment is limited.  But I can sit in a room with others, when all are quietly reading.

Maybe the world would be better without television.  We have farmed off a lot of our information to television.  Would we be better informed citizens if television did not exist?  Certainly newspapers, or the Internet equivalents would have to be of better quality than they are now (and perhaps they wouldn’t be dying off).  Would we be a more literate society?  Would we be able to engage in public debate in a more meaningful way if every time we had something to say, we didn’t have to fuse our position down to soundbites made ubiquitous by television?Would we have better control of our spending if we weren’t bombarded by 20 minutes worth of unnecessary products for every hour of television we watched?  I can recall even as a youngster watching Saturday morning cartoons, saying to my parents, "I want that!  I want that!" to every toy I saw advertised.  ("I want, I want, I want!" I can hear my folks’ voice echoing in return even now.)

There is an argument to be made for television pushing boundaries–race, sex, sexual orientation–to a wide audience that might not otherwise be reached by books.  (Think "after-school" specials.)  These arguments are certainly not to be denied.  All in the Family led the pack in this respect.

Perhaps it is simply that television is too big.  In most instances, I’m left feeling empty in a way that does not occur when I read a book, even a bad one.  For one thing, with books, in most cases, it is still possible to engage the author.  Write an author a letter (or send them an email) telling them how you enjoyed their book, or how you disagree with something, and chances are you’ll get a response from the author.  That is not true of television.  Often times we don’t know who the writers are, simply because writers of television programs are not highlighted in the way a writer of a book is.  Then, too, because it is a mass-medium, the actors, directors, and producers get so much mail they probably have no ability to respond in a meaningful way.  I don’t know about other genres, but I know that within the world of written science fiction, there seems to be an open dialog between most readers and writers.  There are conventions that serve this very purpose.

I realize that I am in the minority on this.  I realize that what I am doing is nothing more than casting back a nostalgic eye, seeing greener pastures behind me.  Television is here to stay and is constantly evolving.  Most of what comes out of it is crap, but there will always be gems among the junk.  But I can’t help looking back and wondering: are we really better off?  And more than anything else, wondering what it would be like living in 2010 with all our modern conveniences–except television.  It’s not a fair game, I realize that.  But I dream of it nonetheless.

Homeopath-etic

Great opinion piece by Martin Robbins in the January 30 New Scientist, "Overdosing on nothing", which takes an intelligent, rational approach to the problem of homeopathy.  I agree with the argument put forth, which I think can be condensed to 3 salient points:

  1. The "logic" of homeopathic remedies is severely flawed.
  2. Double-blind studies of homeopathic remedies show they are no more effective than placebo.
  3. There is a danger in perpetuating the idea that homeopath is equivalent to modern medicine, especially when people delay seeking appropriate treatment.

Steroids, Baseball, Due Process and Skepticism

With the infamous Mitchell Report leaked yesterday and released today, I have a few comments to make on the whole matter of steroid use in baseball and how it has been handled. Keep in mind that I did not read the entire 409 page report.

You’d have to be a complete moron to deny the fact of steroid use in baseball. It’s obvious that its been going on because random testing has caught a few people here and there. You’d have to be an equally complete moron to think that no one on the list of players contained in the Mitchell Report used steroids. However, I also think that you have to be pretty short-sighted (I won’t say moronic here, although it’s really what I mean) to take this report and all of the media spin behind it at face value. A modicum of skepticism is required.

I have problems with the whole investigation

Holidays

I grow increasingly oblivious to holidays. It’s hard to miss some of them–Christmas for instance–since there are signs of them everywhere. I look out my office window and see the massive (but nonetheless fake) Christmas tree in the mall food court below. There are lights hanging all around, and of course, Santa Claus and his Personal Digital Photographers are about (although, returning from the gym this morning, there was a sign on Santa’s chair that said he was off feeding his reindeer and that he’d be back soon).

It’s much easier to miss others–Hanukkha and Easter are two that are easy for me to miss. If it wasn’t for reminders from rubysnina and others yesterday, I probably would have forgotten about Hanukkah completely. I’m the same way with Easter. Of course, unlike Christmas or St. Patrick’s Day, Hanukkah and Easter are based on the lunar calendar and therefore don’t fall on the same day of the year, year-in and year-out. Like Easter, the first night of Hanukkah can fluctuate quite a bit, coming as early as November 28, as it will in 2013, or as late as December 26, as it did in 2005. I blame the lunar calendar for my forgetfulness.

But the truth is, as I get older, holidays mean less to me in terms of celebrations and more as days off work. We get all kinds of holidays off that we really have no business getting off, if you ask me. Take President’s Day. We get that day off. I’m not sure I see the purpose. President’s Day was originally designed to honor two of our Presidents, Washington and Lincoln. Later, the rest were thrown into the mix as an afterthought, I guess. Strangely, we don’t get Mothers or Fathers Day off. And yet, our mother and father tend to have a much greater impact on our lives than any President. This is surprising since the Fifth Commandment says “Honor thy mother and father” (this might be the fourth commandment if you are Roman Catholic). Nowhere does the Bible say “Honor thy President”. I checked. And yet, we honor our Presidents with a day off of work and not our parents.

Some holidays seems silly to me. New Year’s Day, for instance. Why do we need a day off work to celebrate a new year? Besides, for thousands of years of human history, the “new year” began in the spring, with the planting of crops. It wasn’t until just before the Christian era that New Year’s day was moved to January first (thanks to the Romans).

We get time off work for Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Television news programs and newspapers are always showing pictures of aging veterans gathered to remember their fallen brothers and sisters. I never seem to run into these people. Most people I know look at Memorial Day and Veterans Day as three-day weekends, time for quick getaways or sleeping in. There is a degree of nobility to the sentiment of these days, but if you ask me, the men and women who have died in service of their country would not want their loved ones gloomily ruminating over what might have been. The best “thank you” these men and women could get for their sacrifice is for their friends and loved ones to take advantage of their defended freedoms, be that by putting in an honest day of work, or spending a three-day weekend in the Bahamas.

We get time off for Labor Day, an ironic name for a holiday designed to give the working man a day without labor. Then there’s Columbus Day, Thanksgiving and the day after Thanksgiving (where we are thankful for having a day off dedicated entirely to shopping). Colonial Pilgrims are rolling over in their graves!

It’s hard to forget holidays like Christmas, or Independence Day, both of which I enjoy for purely secular reasons. Most other holidays, however, fall below my radar, I’m afraid. And when they do come to my attention, I grow highly suspect of their value. When you are too arbitrary with your holiday designations, they begin to lose their meaning as a holiday and instead become nothing more than a day off to plan a three-day weekend. Still, the official holidays that we have here in the U.S., numerous though they seem, are nothing compared to the vast array of holidays they have in other parts of the world, Europe, for instance. European countries have been established much longer than the U.S. and have had more time to build up the traditions that surround their holidays. Does that mean as time goes on, we’ll be adding to our collection of days off work?

Forgetting holidays has its downside and you can guess what that is. It is the social equivalent of forgetting an birthday or anniversary. It is virtually impossible (for me, anyway) to keep track of which holidays are important to which of my friends and family. Still, there is always the lingering feeling of guilt when I forget a holiday that it seems I shouldn’t have forgotten, regardless of how oblivious I am or how dubious the holiday seems to me. More often than not, holidays serve as markers to more important occasions. Several of my friends have birthdays around Christmas, for instance. Mothers Day serves as a reminder that Mothers Birthday is a few weeks away.

My favorite month of the year is August. Aside from it being the heart of summer, there are no holidays in August to distract me. Doesn’t that seem strange. Every other month of the year has some significant holiday (they may not all be worthy of time off, but they are still considered significant). But not August. Someone should look into that.

Let me close what I suspect will be a controversial post by saying Happy Hanukkah to all those who celebrate it. I’m sorry it fell below my radar. I guess that’s what happens when you schedule a holiday on the phases of the moon. 🙂

A good excuse to be disillusioned

As my Grandpa would say, Oh boy!

What is a planet: problems with the current definition

Yesterday, while eating lunch, I got around to reading the article in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN “What Is A Planet”, by Steven Soter. The article tries to address the rationale for the new definition of a planet, and why Pluto no longer meets that definition.

I can’t say that I disagree with the definition as presented. The definition is based more or less on the orbital characteristics of a body, how much it sweeps clean of it’s surroundings, and the ratio of the body’s mass as compared to the total mass of all other objects in its orbital zone. These are fairly measurable things and seem to support the categorization as it has been made.

I do have some problems with the definition, however, one scientific, the other semantic.

Read why I think the new definition has problems