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.
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.
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.
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.
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):
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… ;)
…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:
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.
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 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.
- Season 1: Watch online (right menu) or buy the DVD
- Season 2: Watch online (right menu) or buy the DVD
- Season 3 premiere: Watch online
- Special Episodes: Watch online
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…