Shamus Young had a good post about the history of the internet. It introduced me to a phrase I’d never heard before, describing when the internet came to be how it is now, full of trolls and imbeciles. It’s from someone named Dave Fischer, who said: “September 1993 will go down in net.history as the September that never ended.”

What did he mean by that? Young explains that prior to ’93:

September was a big deal for the internet back in those days. As you can imagine, etiquette was important in a world where there were no moderators and everyone was on the honor system. Every September a flood of college freshmen would be given internet access for the first time in their lives. Then they would blunder online and make a mess of things by posting things to the wrong place, or typing in all caps, or failing to read the FAQ…. So every September was this chaotic time where the net had to assimilate a few thousand newcomers all at once, and it usually took about a month for things to calm down again.

It’s funny to read about the internet as a civilized place where ideas could be discussed in a thoughtful manner.  I came later to the internet, so I feel like somebody in a post-apocalyptic setting reading about the lost Golden Age before the great collapse.

Still, there are pockets of intelligent discourse–I like to think of this blog as one of them. Shamus’s is another (although he manages that by banning any talk of religion or politics.) But it’s funny to think that there was a time when it wasn’t a problem trying to find sites where people could have discussions without sinking into a Topix-like morass of name-calling.

So, no doubt even non-gamers have heard the fuss about the new gaming consoles coming out this month.  It’s the first new console generation when I have had no desire to buy any of the new consoles.  Here’s why:

Now, graphics aren’t all that matters, and if there were a good launch title–say, a Fallout 4, made by Obsidian–on these consoles, I would likely get one.  But there isn’t. All there is is Madden and Call of Duty: Ghosts.   (So named, I assume,  because everyone is a ghost after all the apocalyptic world wars depicted in previous Calls of Duty.)

I am not seeing any reason to upgrade.

They want to deliver vast amounts of information over the Internet. And again, the Internet is not something that you just dump something on. It’s not a big truck. It’s a series of tubes. And if you don’t understand, those tubes can be filled and if they are filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line and it’s going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material, enormous amounts of material.–Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) June 28, 2006.

I’ve heard a lot over the past few weeks about how the government’s new health care site doesn’t work, how the rollout was “botched”, and so on.  What I haven’t heard–and I admit, I haven’t followed the story closely–is what actually is wrong with it.

So far, I have only found one concrete account with screenshots showing a problem definitively: Rob Nikolewski at the New Mexico Watchdog shows that the security question boxes don’t work. Besides that, the only thing I have heard is that “it’s slow”. Well, of course. Lots of people are using it. Glitches like this happen when launching something that will have a lot of users–look at some famous Massively-Multiplayer Online games, for example.

To me, it’s unfortunate that this happened, but its also far from unprecedented or even unexpected.  The Republicans are acting like it’s a massive scandal.  Personally, I think everyone is overreacting to it.  I wonder if, because many politicians tend to be less-than-web-savvy types, it seems like a bigger problem to them.

The internet has been making fun of super-rich Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones because of this picture of him using a flip phone at a game the other day.

I’m not usually one to defend Jerry Jones, mostly because his team has humiliated mine many times over the years.  But I also use a flip phone–it works well enough for making calls, so why shouldn’t I?  Actually, this is probably why Jerry Jones is so rich–by not paying extra for useless stuff, like a phone with lots of superfluous bells and whistles.

Then again, maybe not.

Anyway, I didn’t realize having a flip phone was so weird.  That makes feel extra cool for having one.  It’s probably because I don’t like to talk on the phone–I don’t use it much, so it’s not like I would want to spend a lot of money on it.

Despite the fact that I like history and I like movies,  I don’t think a lot about about the history of the movie industry.  But I was reading the other day about the 1964 movie The Fall of the Roman Empire, which I’d never even heard of, but sounds very interesting, as it has a very strong cast.  (Too bad Edward Gibbon didn’t get screenwriting credit.)

The film was a fairly bad box office failure, reminding me of another epic historical film that famously lost money: Cleopatra, which I blogged about here.  It wasn’t that people didn’t want to see Cleopatra; it was just that it was so expensive it couldn’t make back its massive cost.

It seems like “epic” movies were big in the 1960s, until they ran into bombs like Cleopatra, at which point the industry turned towards smaller, more “personal” movies, until George Lucas and Steven Spielberg came along and turned things back toward the epic scale.

I think “epic” movies–think movies with ornate sets and large crowds–became prohibitively expensive to make, so they turned away from them in the ’70s.  Then the advent of CGI made it possible for the genre to be resurrected.  Look at the Wikipedia article on historical epic films, and take note of the dates:

Examples of historical epics include Intolerance (1916), Gone with the Wind (1939), The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Cleopatra (1963), Doctor Zhivago (1965), Barry Lyndon (1975), Gandhi (1982), Braveheart (1995), Titanic (1997), Joan of Arc (1999), Gladiator (2000), Troy (2004), Alexander (2004), Kingdom of Heaven (2005), and Les Misérables (2012).

Now, the “new” epics are not as really the same as the “old” epics–it’s hard to put your finger on exactly how, but there is a feeling of unreality about the new CGI based movies.  They lack “grittiness”–a term normally associated with the non-epics made in the 1970s, but which applies to the macro scale as well.

“Capriccio Romano”, by Bernardo Bellotto. 1740s. Image via Wikipedia.

It can be done–one reason I think the Star Wars prequels are better than people give them credit for is that they do a better job emulating the “feel” of the bygone epic films than most other modern epics do.  George Lucas may be over-reliant on CGI, and he may have done more than anyone else to usher in the era of cheap epics, but he himself knows what he’s doing when it comes to CGI effects.   This could just be because Lucas (and Spielberg) are old enough to remember the era of the original epic movie era, and so can understand them enough to imitate them expertly.

But now that CGI is so prevalent, and makes epics so easy (relatively speaking) it makes all epics too overdone, too focused upon spectacle, and loses the deeper meaning.  I believe that some historians feel the same thing happened to cause the decline of Rome.   “Bread and circuses” indeed…

Last week, I watched an episode of the old TV series Sherlock Holmes, starring Jeremy Brett.  It was “The Adventure of the Naval Treaty“, in which Holmes’s client is a secretary who was copying a top-secret treaty, which gets stolen from his desk when he leaves his office for a moment.

I started thinking about the new “Sherlock” series and wondering how they could adapt the story to the modern day if they wanted to. In the age of word processing software and copiers, there’s no need for clerks to sit around copying lengthy documents for hours.  Conan Doyle’s story simply could not occur in the present day.

Then, a few nights later, I saw an episode of the show Bewitched.  In it, the witch puts a spell on household objects to make them respond to voice commands, e.g. windows opening and closing by simply saying a command.  When they made that show in the ’60s, that must have seemed fantastic; now it’s eminently doable.

I’ve often seen Cold War spy thrillers where a big problem is finding a phone quickly, before something serious happens.  Again, nowadays that’s obsolete–cell phones eliminate that problem.

It’s funny to think of how people in those days wrote these stories, probably never thinking that there would be technology that would one day make the whole scenario they had constructed obsolete.  It doesn’t make the story any less enjoyable, of course, but it just gives you an idea of how much technology has changed.  Makes you wonder what people will look at in our modern films and television programs  and think “if they just had…”

eurobrat posted an interesting observation about electronic communication and how the experience of using it must differ for introverts and extroverts.  It’s interesting because I also consider myself an introvert, but I don’t really like electronic communication via email, instant messaging or even blog comments that much.  Mostly because I always worry when I’m not communicating face to face that what I say might be misinterpreted and accidentally cause offense.

In my experience, it seems like blogging is largely done by introverts and Facebook is used by extroverts. But eurobrat points out that even Facebook  must not be adequate for those who really like getting out and interacting with people.  I guess that’s true, now that I think about it. Probably all the people on Facebook are just using it as a stopgap measure between interactions with their friends.  It’s a complement, not a substitute.

P.M. Prescott’s comment on this post reminded me of an issue I’ve wanted to write about on here for a while: TV commercials.  Are they worth it?

I almost always mute commercials when they come on, unless they’re for something I am already interested in.  I can’t think of any time in my life when I’ve decided to buy something just because I saw a commercial for it.  I generally research any major purchases first.

And then there are the commercials for small things, like soft drinks.  Maybe other people are different, but I don’t see those commercials and go “well, I’ve just got to go buy a [X soft drink] right now.”  My soft drink purchase decisions are made purely on the basis of what’s most convenient; I don’t care about brands enough to spend extra time hunting down a particular drink.

Some say that commercials work subliminally.  Well, maybe.  But how effective can the ads be when they produce no noticeable change in my behavior?  Even if it’s subliminal, I would notice that I suddenly had a desire to go out and buy particular things.

Especially interesting to me are political ads. (With which we are about to be deluged, incidentally)  Is anybody really going to vote based on what a TV ad said?  I just assume that all political ads are telling half-truths at best, and so I tune them out automatically.

Given all that, I have to think that companies are overpaying for ads.  The return on it can’t be that much, can it?   I think a company gets more benefit from announcing at the beginning of a program that they are sponsoring the whole thing without commercial interruption than they do from advertising during it.  Because, in general, commercials annoy the viewer who is just trying to watch something.

Kamilla Berdin mentioned a study by Gerbner on how TV News impacts how people view the world.  Well, I wanted to find out about that, so I searched, and couldn’t find the actual study, but did find the articles on “Mean World Syndrome” and “Cultivation Theory“.  MWS is George Gerbner‘s idea that people who watch television a lot view the world as more hostile than it is.

I can believe it.  I occasionally watch my local news, and the two main takeaways are:

  • There are people all over the place committing heinous crimes
  • Sports.

Crime and sports seem to be the big-ticket items on local news.  The National news, on the other hand, is focused mostly on politics, health issues and foreign relations.  The major points here are:

  • Republicans and Democrats hate one another.
  • There are many diseases and/or foods that will kill you.
  • People in other countries hate one another and, usually, us.

I have been taught from a young age to view everything with a critical eye, so I like to believe that I’m capable of realizing this isn’t an accurate picture of the whole world; just the serious bits of it.  But still, if you had a steady diet of this, you’d think we were living in the world of A Clockwork Orange.  How telling is it that the least angry and life-threatening stories in all are about sport, which is basically a proxy for war?

That’s just the news, which is supposedly what the really well-informed people watch.  Then there are tons of both real and fictional cop shows where people commit bizarre and horrible crimes, just to really drive home the point.  And that’s just the over-the-air television.  I don’t get cable, but I don’t get the impression most of the programming on there is geared more towards thoughtful, civilized thinkers.  I could be wrong.

I remember there was an early “Dilbert” comic where Dogbert starts a “Good News” news network. Ironically, I think this is pretty much what segments like the “Making a Difference” bit on NBC News  are trying to do.  But they come at the end, after we have already been visited by the crime-ridden hellscape that the news presents.

People always ask: “why don’t they report good news”?  Well, there are a few reasons:

  1. It’s almost never urgent  I don’t need to hear about the people who had a nice day,  I need to hear if a gang war is breaking out.
  2. It’s boring.  A part of us is entranced by lurid and violent stuff.
  3. When you factor in the first two reasons, what do you think gets more viewership?

Finally: sometimes, good news does get reported.  The end of wars, for example, tends to get lots of attention, though you could argue that’s not good news, merely the cessation of bad news.

But what about the effect TV has on people?  Does it do what it did to Faye Dunaway’s character in Network?  (Yes, I am aware of the irony in using an analogy from a movie to talk about this.)   But how could you avoid concluding from TV that the world is a horrible place you should minimize contact with? It seems to me that the only options are (a) assume most of what they say on TV is a lie, which is dangerous because you might become a 9/11 truther or something if you do that, OR (b) not watch it, and run the risk of not being “up” on current events.

Lastly, of course, there is the internet; which should allow you to customize your news.  The only problem with that is TV news problem 2, above, which leads us back to where we started.

Turns out, these people had it right: tablets are the way to go. Image via Wikipedia

I don’t see what’s so great about this Microsoft Surface thing.  Then again, I said the same thing about the iPad when it came out.  But I got one for Christmas this past year, and I now love it.  But for the most part, I can’t see what new features this brings to the tablet.

The only advantage I can see for the Surface is that it has the touch-type keyboard.  That isn’t important to me, as I don’t touch-type, but I can see how that would be a big feature to people who can.  But any small advantage that may offer over the iPad seems negated by the cheesy-looking user interface of the Surface, plus the problem of it being rather late to the tablet party.