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Posts Tagged ‘film/tv’

On books and TV

20 October 2010 Comments off

Flickr CC-BY linnybinnypix

One of the numerous blogs I read, normally during my lunch break or while cooking dinner, is that of Seth Godin — marketing guru, entrepreneur, public figure and speaker, and populariser and coiner of the term permission marketing (better known in Internet circles as opt-in).

Most of his blog posts are short and to the point, and are normally of relevance well beyond the sphere of marketing. Hence me reading them, averse as I am to marketing in general.

His latest post really struck a chord with me, covering as it does the apparent correlation between book purchases and addiction to television (particularly banal types of reality TV):

Many people in the United States purchase one or fewer books every year.

Many of those people have seen every single episode of American Idol. There is clearly a correlation here.

Access to knowledge, for the first time in history, is largely unimpeded for the middle class. Without effort or expense, it’s possible to become informed if you choose. For less than your cable TV bill, you can buy and read an important book every week. Share the buying with six friends and it costs far less than coffee.

Or you can watch TV.

The thing is, watching TV has its benefits. It excuses you from the responsibility of having an informed opinion about things that matter. It gives you shallow opinions or false ‘facts’ that you can easily parrot to others that watch what you watch. It rarely unsettles our carefully self-induced calm and isolation from the world.

I recommend reading the whole post: Deliberately uninformed, relentlessly so [a rant]

Like Seth did not, I am not going to try to suggest that you do away with your television. It’s here to stay, in one form or another, and these days it has multiple roles as the display device of television, games console screen and home theatre display.

This is also because I’m rather fond of it myself — perhaps a little too fond. Some time ago I realised that I was getting home from work, switching the TV when I got in the door, and would sit and watch it until I went to bed.

So what?

Life’s not meant to be lived in front of a TV any more than it’s meant to be lived playing video games (also something I’m a little too fond of). There’s more to life than consumption of passive entertainment to fill in the time between work and sleep (or birth and death, perhaps). I am, of course, limiting the context of this post to the developed world.

We’ve never lived in an age where information has been more readily accessible (nor, paradoxically, in an age where we’ve trusted it less). We have the majority of the wealth of human knowledge no more than a few keystrokes and milliseconds away. Yet it’s been argued that we’re slowly developing a population who could never design something like the Internet: science and engineering uptake in schools and universities is dropping, literacy rates are dropping, people are losing the ability to write and communicate, and voluntary ignorance is increasingly prized above intelligence.

As Seth says, it’s not a new problem, but it got me wondering about how it affects my own life. In my own little microcosm, I realised that hours in front of a television was time not well spent. There’s never a shortage of interesting things to watch on TV, and you can’t watch it all. Not even all the stuff that specifically interests you (I could watch crime shows, science shows, documentaries and world cinema all day — and with satellite TV it’s possible to do that 24×7). And let’s not forget the cost of satellite or cable TV — many are on contracts that cost a small fortune, so we want our money’s worth, whatever that means.

Too much intellectually passive entertainment prevents me from doing the intellectually active things I very much enjoy, particularly reading and writing. From self-education in science, finance, skepticism, history and biographies to the escapism of well-written fiction and exploring different genres, I can read all day often with no sound in the house but for my cat gently snoring in the corner. Providing I keep the TV off. And as for being creative, it just doesn’t happen if I even look at the remote control — procrastination takes over and the small voice in my head always says that if I just watch this one show, it may give me some ideas on the story I’m writing. It lies. Not about the ideas, but that I’ll then get writing.

I self-experimented for some time by allowing myself to watch TV or play games until 9pm and then switch it off regardless of what was on (much easier with modern DVR systems such as Sky+), leaving the rest of the evening for creativity. While it did result it wonderful productivity, the downsides are that the time is limited and I quickly realised that once I got going, I couldn’t stop my brain. At all. Every time I tried it and got to bed at a normal time, I’d lay wide awake in bed until 3am or so, wrecking me the next day.

End result: I don’t read or write anywhere near as much as I’d like to, even though I usually read a chapter of a book in bed before switching off the light.

So how can one strike a balance between the passive couch-potato and the (often smug) “I don’t own a TV, actually!” people we all know? Pick nights of the week during which the TV stays off? Set a specific time in the evening at which the TV can be turned on or must be turned off? Something else?

I’m genuinely curious.

Categories: media Tags: , , ,

You have to see Cosmos now, if not sooner

30 July 2010 Comments off

When I first visited the US in 2005, I couldn’t believe my luck when I saw the DVD box set of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage sitting on the shelf in Fry’s. It featured an introduction by Ann Druyan (Carl’s widow), where she discussed how much of the work was still accurate, an addendum after each episode to highlight changes in knowledge and understanding, and was going for US$100 (~£65). I grabbed it without a second thought.

I’d have happily paid twice that for this 13 hour masterpiece on DVD. I value it that much.

While idly paging through Amazon’s Recommendations to me at lunch time today, I saw a re-mastered version of this box set had been released to the UK market. And the price: under £16. That’s for a box set containing 5 DVDs and 780 minutes of one of the best scientific, philosophical, optimistic and future-thinking works of the 20th century.

If you don’t have it, do yourself a favour and buy it now: Cosmos DVD box set (Amazon UK).

And while you’re there, please give some thought to Wonders Of The Solar System on DVD format or Blu-ray format (Amazon UK; under £13 and under £16 respectively). In my opinion, Brian Cox is the worthy successor to Carl Sagan as a brilliant communicator of science, particularly astronomy. Even his sense of wonder and awe at the majesty of the universe is the same.

Watching either of them at work is inspiring.

Official disconnection notice

2 April 2010 Comments off

Meddling kids – mankind’s last hope

2 February 2010 Comments off

This is so good it deserves a post all to itself: Scooby Doo (the ultimate skeptic show that we’ve seen since we were kids) versus the zombie apocalypse!

Looks like Shaggy, Fred and Daphne didn’t make it… Velma and Scooby are going to have to clear up the mess themselves.

The Big Bang Theory

4 January 2010 Comments off

The Big Bang Theory - Season 1 DVDBeing the not-so-closeted nerd that I am, I spent some of New Year’s Eve formatting ebooks I own for my new Kindle and watching season 1 of The Big Bang Theory.

If you’ve not heard of The Big Bang Theory, it’s a sitcom about a group of professionally-successful but nerdy guys who haven’t outgrown their teenage game-playing, comic-consuming and socially-inept lifestyles. The main characters are Sheldon (neurotic former child genius who works as a theoretical physicist), housemate Leonard (also a former child genius who works as a experimental physicist), Rajesh (astrophysicist and female-induced mute), Howard (aerospace engineer and creepy wannabe ladies’ man), and Penny (waitress with the showbiz dream) . Penny is the pretty and “normal” neighbour to contrast the others, and is also the (not entirely unwanted, it seems) object of Leonard’s attentions.

You get the idea. It’s the Hollywood sitcom formula with a nerdy twist, but it really works.

Another part of the show that I like is the theme song by the Barenaked Ladies, who are probably best known for their song One Week. The theme to The Big Bang Theory is the best TV show theme I can recall as it suits the show so well, being itself funny, intelligent and actually related to the show (lyrics here):

Barenaked Ladies – The Big Bang Theory

If you’re on the lookout for an intelligent sitcom to get your teeth into, I recommend that you check out The Big Bang Theory. There aren’t many shows that have me laughing aloud every 2-3 minutes.

Or maybe I’m more of a nerd than I thought… ;)

Categories: art Tags: , ,

“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch…

15 October 2009 Comments off

…you must first invent the universe.” -Carl Sagan

The time between posts here is an unfortunate side-effect of having to study like mad for the archaeology course I’m doing that is rapidly coming to an end, and numerous projects I’m either doing or starting. Never enough time in the day — particularly when you have to work a day job and maintain a social life, too.

And I’m trying not to just fill the posts with random gibberish or “cool stuff wot I found on the internets” — unless you’re okay with that? (Seriously, please let me know).

So, doing just that I thought I’d take a moment to post something to do with my hero, Carl Sagan. YouTube is a wonderful medium not only for the inevitable popular (and normally copyright-infringing) snippets from popular films and TV shows, but also for historical pieces that are hard to get and for mashups and other creative exercises.

And this is one of the latter — a brilliant homage to Carl Sagan featuring none other than his brilliant British counterpart, Stephen W. Hawking:

Carl Sagan – A Glorious Dawn (feat. Stephen Hawking)

It’s just amazing, isn’t it? Maybe I’m just a big girl’s blouse, but I’m not ashamed to admit it brought a tear to my eye.

I can only convey my appreciation to the tribute’s creator, melodysheep, and recommend that you check  out his website, Colorpulse.

Categories: art Tags: , , , ,

The Guild: Do you wanna date my avatar?

5 September 2009 Comments off

Thought I’d take a short break from serious posts and bring to your attention something that I think is very clever and funny.

Some of you know that among my many interests is computer gaming — nearly always online with friends and mostly teamwork-oriented first-person shooters (FPS) — though I have quite a long history of trying out MMORPGs. Yes, it’s nerdy and has its pros and cons, but such games can be a fun escape from thinking, reality and seriousness every now and then. They’re not really much different from reading a book or watching a film, except you’re sharing the experience with other people and can manipulate and interact with the environment.

So imagine my nerdy delight when I discovered The Guild, brainchild of the talented and lovely Felicia Day, who is probably best known for her appearances in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Monk and Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. It was the recent release of a music video for The Guild — called Do You Wanna Date My Avatar? — that put me onto the show:

The Guild – Do You Wanna Date My Avatar

The video was directed by Joss Whedon — creator of Buffy, Dr Horrible, Angel, Dollhouse and the brilliant Firefly, and also a well known humanist. If you’re a gamer, particularly if you’re into MMORPGs of any kind and with a group of friends (group, guild, clan — whatever you call it), then I’m sure you’ll get as much of a kick out of it as I do.

The Guild is a web show about a MMORPG guild, who call themselves The Knights of the Good, who don’t know each other in real life but play together online regularly (just like your average gaming guild). It focuses upon Felicia’s character and her online and eventually real life interactions with her fellow “guildies.” It’s brilliant, it’s clever, and it deserves every acclaim that it has been receiving.

The Guild - Season 1The Guild - Season 2It has just started showing its 3rd season and is available to view online via Xbox LIVE Marketplace, as are the previous seasons — or you can even buy them on DVD.

I expect that Season 3 will eventually be viewable online as for the previous seasons, and presumably available for purchase as a DVD. Lastly, those in the US can watch them all here.

But in the meantime, enjoy…

Categories: games Tags: , ,

Differences of opinion that make you angry

6 July 2009 Comments off

There have been a couple of events over the last week that have given me cause to pause and reflect, and make for an interesting article.

Last week was the Henley Royal Regatta, one of the world’s best known rowing events, that plays merry hell with my daily commute through Henley-on-Thames. So for “regatta week” I take a different route through the equally beautiful Sonning-on-Thames, home of the infamous Uri Geller, over its weak bridge crossing the Thames. This bottleneck causes a queue (i.e. what other countries call a traffic jam) of a mile or so for a couple of hours twice a day. While sitting in this queue and listening to my podcasts, I typically use such time to reflect and enjoy the natural environment in which I’m temporarily stuck, and that includes observing the antics of the cars in front and behind (in my mirror).

On Thursday I noticed the driver of the car behind had that distinctly fundagelical look about him: immaculate goatee and hair, short-sleeved buttoned shirt, oversized car, mirror shades, and gleaming teeth and plastic smile (I’ve been to the US and I’m from Australia, so I know the archetype). I saw his attention fix on my Atheist Bus Campaign sticker (available online):

Atheist Bus Campaign car sticker

He leaned forward to peer at the large text and said a few words, then lifted his sunglasses to read the smaller text and I watched as his face started to go purple and he began gesticulating and shouting to nobody, and I honestly thought that he was going to get out of his car and have a go at me. But for the traffic inching forward shortly after, he may well have done. That would have been interesting.

Last night I watched a show on Channel 4 called Revelations: Muslim School, part 2 of an 8 part series on religion’s impact on the UK, covering the lives of two young schoolgirls in a Muslim faith school. Knowing most of my friends are unaware of what happens in a non-Christian faith school, I sent out a notification on Twitter. I recommend anyone watches it — particularly if you don’t know a great deal about “everyday Islam” in the UK, as it’s remarkably neutral for a British TV documentary, and I felt the children and people portrayed in the show were representative of British Muslims with its heavy Asian influence (post-colonial immigration, etc).

My tweet was noticed by a PhD student in Sheffield, Ruth, who invited me to participate in a post-screening discussion on a website forum. Aside from Ruth and me, those present seemed to consist of a fellow humanist, a non-practising (“default”) Christian, a man who began with “Open disclosure here: I’m a Southern Baptist, proud and true” (or along those lines), and one or two others who lurked. The 60-90 minutes that followed were quite interesting, and I was happy to participate to assist in PhD research, most of which involved answering questions about what we thought of the show, concepts within it, how it was presented, any perceptions of bias or preferences for or against its approach, how we’d like to see it done differently, etc.

What I found amusing was how the Baptist kept trying to steer to conversation into opinions on Muslims, reverting to familiar cultural and religious ad hominems. Invariably we’d ignore the attempt and continue with the conversation, but he persisted for the better part of an hour. He did contribute to the discussion occasionally, but seemed more intent on getting everyone to agree with his opinions on things like the hijab: to him it was extremism — until I reminded him that mainstream Christianity required female head-covering in church until quite recently.

However, in some ways he’s right. The furore over wearing hijab is indicative of a dangerous fundamentalism in Islam, where strict adherence to the letter of the Book is of paramount importance. But he wouldn’t have been able to see that this is essentially no different to dangerous Christian fundamentalism, with some sects becoming ultra-patriarchal, women not speaking in church (1 Corinthians 14:34-35) or covering heads (1 Corinthians 11), or wars and foreign policy decisions when such people become national leaders, etc. Both lead to literal interpretations and cherry-picking of the worst parts of their respective Books, and actively discourage inquiry, investigation and understanding, and advocating Bronze Age knowledge and practises in favour of current knowledge. And in the case of those two religions in particular, they’re replete with awful, violent acts.

For the rest of us, we may not all have agreed with each others’ opinions, but we were able to play together nicely. And that’s what makes for great discussion and debate: differing opinion and the maturity to respect another’s position.

Both of these recent events reminded me of Bertrand Russell’s essay An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish, and this paragraph from it in particular (emphasis mine):

If, like most of mankind, you have passionate convictions on many such matters, there are ways in which you can make yourself aware of your own bias. If an opinion contrary to your own makes you angry, that is a sign that you are subconsciously aware of having no good reason for thinking as you do. If some one maintains that two and two are five, or that Iceland is on the equator, you feel pity rather than anger, unless you know so little of arithmetic or geography that his opinion shakes your own contrary conviction. The most savage controversies are those about matters as to which there is no good evidence either way. Persecution is used in theology, not in arithmetic, because in arithmetic there is knowledge, but in theology there is only opinion. So whenever you find yourself getting angry about a difference of opinion, be on your guard; you will probably find, on examination, that your belief is going beyond what the evidence warrants.

Lastly, one of my company’s salespeople is a Pakistani-British Muslim who, despite being raised Muslim, has chosen to live pragmatically. He may go to mosque some Fridays for Jumu’ah, but all other aspects of at least his professional life are almost indistinguishable from any secular person (I’m not sure if he drinks alcohol or eats pork, nor is it any of my business): he doesn’t let his religion interfere with what he’s paid to do. For that he has my respect.

That’s why it surprised me this morning when he walked into the office and asked if the Peugeot in the carpark was mine, and then commented on the Atheist Bus Campaign sticker. I was pleased that he was able to joke about it, laughing how he’d “never be able to get away with that at the mosque on Fridays” and was non-confrontational about it despite much of the anti-atheist publicity and rhetoric that has flowed from self-appointed “religious authorities” since the Campaign started.

Only one of my fellow team members seems to dislike my take on religion, but then he’s the one who thinks life on earth was deliberately seeded by aliens as an experiment. So I’m crushed by his disfavour, as you might well imagine…

Unexpected Saturnian delight

9 March 2009 Comments off

Since my initial test use of the telescope last Thursday evening, the weather here has been… let’s call it sub-optimal. Aside from the usual rain and such one gets this time of year, the British Isles seem to get more than its fair share of high-level total blanket cloud cover. It’s so frequent and pervasive that I long ago began referring to it as “English blue”. I suspect it’s something to do with the Gulf Stream that also makes this little part of the world far warmer that it should otherwise be, and makes the west coasts of Ireland and Scotland quite verdant and… soggy. Swings and roundabouts, I suppose.

Yesterday afternoon I was visiting friends for Sunday lunch (how civilised!) and we were amused by the blustery weather and hail for much of the afternoon. So I was completely unprepared, when I finally left later that evening, to look up at a crystal clear sky with only minimal, fast-moving cirrus. I drove home liked an excited little boy, knowing I’d very soon be stargazing. Since my last viewing I’ve set the telescope up correctly, read the manuals, and have an idea of what I want to view this time. It was also a good time to test my back garden as a viewing platform – the street lighting at the front being prohibitive soon after night vision is gained.

Running Man Nebula (image from NRAO)

Running Man Nebula (image from NRAO)

On the mental list tonight was Betelgeuse, Rigel, Orion Nebula (M42), Horsehead Nebula (IC434), Aldebaran, Sirius, Procyon, Pleiades (M45), Andromeda Galaxy (M31), Saturn and the Moon. There were a few more I’d have liked to see, but the Moon was far too bright.

With the 2 eyepieces and Barlow, I had 60-273X magnification available to me. Neither Rigel nor Sirius were visible, as the former had set below my roofline to the west and the latter hadn’t risen above the valley wall to my south, but Betelgeuse, Aldebaran and Procyon came up nicely. Though even at 273X they were just slightly brighter lights, with the exception of Betelgeuse and Aldebaran whose redness became nicely visible. The Pleiades were also very nice.

When I setup to view the Orion Nebula, because of the inversion of the image I didn’t realise at first that I was actually viewing the Running Man Nebula (NGC1977) but was very impressed with the 5 bright stars I could see against the cloudy background. I think it is more impressive than the Orion Nebula when view through a telescope.

The reason is that it appears black and white to the eye, as there’s something about the colours being indiscernible in real-time over those distances, whereas a camera’s long exposure can pick up the colours. I’d read about this, but it’s the first time I’d experienced it. I also think it was the first nebula I’d ever seen, as I don’t recall ever seeing one when I did astronomy as a child.

Flame Nebula (image from AstroCruise)

Flame Nebula (image from AstroCruise)

Next was an attempt to view the Horsehead Nebula, but I couldn’t remember exactly where it sat relation to Alnitak. So instead of viewing it, I ended up viewing the lovely Flame Nebula (NGC2024). Again, it was in black and white, so my mind’s eye filled in the colour gaps, and it was most impressive.

Then there was the Moon, and again it took my breath away. It was almost full, but there was enough shadow left to allow me to focus on the craters at the shadow’s edge and observe them in relief against the background. It was amazing to see. And when I added the 11mm eyepiece with 2X Barlow, I was able to see a very high level of detail. Smaller impact craters were easy to examine, and each Sea took up the entire view.

Tonight I was determined to view Saturn, as I missed it last week. For those of you familiar with the fantastic but now-departed TV series Firefly, you’ll know the camera technique of showing a dot in the distance, then there’s like a “click zoom” which shows the identifiable object at a distance, then another “click zoom” and it will be closeup (in the show it’s typically used in space scenes outside the ship). That’s exactly what it was like viewing Saturn. To the naked eye and when lining it up in finder-scope it was just a bright ‘star’, then viewing with a 25mm eyepiece it ‘clicked’ as a tiny but clearly identifiable yellow/biege planet with a –strikethrough– line of flattened rings, and then with a 5.5mm eyepiece (11mm with Barlow) it was much bigger and breathtaking. It just sat there, quietly inspiring awe.

And much to my surprise, I was able to identify 3 of its moons: Tethys, Titan, and Iapetus. I was initially unsure of Tethys and Iapetus, but a check of Starry Night and online confirmed it was.

Lastly, I planned to have a look at the Andromeda Galaxy, but at exactly the wrong moment my neighbours decided it was their bedtime, so switched on every light on their top floor which – when combined with the British dislike for closed curtains – meant that my back garden (the lawn part is raised) was completely flooded with bright white light for about 30 minutes. This, along with the almost full Moon, washed out my night vision – it was time to call it a night.

Even packing up under such circumstances, I was extremely happy with the night’s viewing. I’d seen most of what I’d intended, and had replaced some of the desired objects with other ones, and I’d had good opportunity to practice my constellation identification.

I’ll not pretend that I didn’t have some help, and that came in the form of the brilliant GoSkyWatch planetarium software for the iPhone. Not only does it look great, but it has an excellent database of objects and is extremely easy to use. And its “night mode” ensures that your night vision doesn’t suffer (my only niggle is that the searching and setting screens are still full brightness black/white), making it easy to use during your stargazing activity. I find this easier to see and more convenient that a planisphere, as with that I’d need to juggle the red torch, too. The software is worth every penny of its £5.99 (US$9.99) price tag.

A great evening, in all. And as the title says, both Saturn and the opportunity to view at all was an unexpected delight. Can’t wait until next time!

Categories: science Tags: , ,