Sunday, March 28, 2010

What We're Watching on TV

Here are some of the things that we've been watching recently on TV.

The Big Bang Theory: What to say? Certainly the smartest comedy on TV. If you're a fan, geek, or nerd (or if you know & love fans, geeks, or nerds), you must watch this show. And if you don't fall into one of those categories, what are you doing reading our blog? The most recent episode, "The Pants Alternative," was hilarious. High point: Sheldon singing Tom Lehrer's Elements Song.

The Cleveland Show: Of the three shows in the Family Guy universe, this one is the weakest. It has its moments, and even at its worst it's a lot better than reality shows or (shudder) the evening news.

Family Guy: We don't care if it's written by manatees, it's a great show. Edgier and crazier than The Simpsons, not as tasteless as South Park, Family Guy has its ups and downs...but we wouldn't miss it.

FlashForward: Based on a Robert Sawyer book, this is one of several Lost wannabes that have sprung up lately. Unlike V, FlahForward has avoided too much Battlestar Galactica influence. It's nowhere near as compelling as Lost, and none of the characters have really grabbed us, but it's still worth watching.

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood: So far, this retelling of Fullmetal Alchemist seems pretty pointless. We understand that this time around they're following the manga much more closely than the original series did, so apparently things will be diverging from the original in some pretty major ways. So we're having faith and staying tuned.

In the Life: The monthly GLBT nonfiction show. Always worth watching.

Legend of the Seeker: We've never read the books, but boy is this a good show. The plots are sophisticated, the magic system is fresh and interesting, it looks great, and the acting is very fine. Each episode is reasonably self-contained, yet there's a definite larger story that progresses. If you're not watching Legend of the Seeker, you should be. The most recent episode, "Creator," makes a nice jumping-on point because it includes a lot of flashbacks that tell the story so far.

Lost: The best drama on TV today, bar none. I don't think we can say anything about Lost that others haven't already said. A long time ago we gave up trying to second-guess or figure it out: we decided to just go along for the ride. And what a great ride it is! Lost is destined to be a classic.

The Simpsons: Well into the 21st season, and it remains one of the funniest shows out there. The Simpsons is a cultural phenomenon; miss it at your peril.

Sons of Tucson: Didn't expect much from this one. It's by some of the folks who made Malcolm in the Middle, though, and it definitely has the sheer craziness that made Malcolm great. Usually it takes a while for new shows to settle in, but the second episode ("The Break-in") was really fun and zany. This looks like a worthy successor to Malcolm.

South Park: The fourteenth season is off to a bit of a rocky start. Still, for finger-on-the-pulse satire, there's nothing better on TV. South Park isn't for everybody (in fact, the show continues to carry a warning that it "should not be viewed by anyone"), especially people who are likely to get offended by...well, offensive language and situations. We're tempted to talk about the deeper meaning of the show, but the most recent episode ("The Tale of Scrotie McBoogerballs") pretty much ruined the fun of finding deeper meanings.

Space Ghost: The original 1966-68 Hanna-Barbera cartoon, not the weird Cartoon Network talk show parody. Boomerang has started showing Space Ghost, along with Dino-Boy. This was one of Don's favorite cartoons when he was a kid, and he's happy to see that it holds up about as well as other Hanna-Barbera cartoons of the period. It's no Jonny Quest, but it does have a super-powered hero, a cute boy (Jace), a monkey wearing clothes, and a kewl spaceship.

Star Wars: Clone Wars: Fun show. It's a kid's show, so there's some simplicity of plot and if you think too much about it, some things don't make sense. However, the show has the Star Wars look & feel down pat. There's action, humor, and good characterization. The computer-generated Anakin Skywalker is two dozen times as expressive as the real Hayden Christensen. The most recent episode, "Cat and Mouse," had two additional things going for it: A Republic Admiral who looked like John Cleese, and Bail Organa's holographic appeal: "Help us, General Kenobi. You're our only hope."

What We're Waiting For:

Some shows have been on hiatus, but will be starting up again soon. We're eagerly awaiting new episodes of Doctor Who, Nova, and Smallville.

What We're Not Waiting For:

Some other shows are coming back and we couldn't care less. The most notable are Stargate: Universe and V, both of which are way too influenced by the awful Battlestar Galactica.

What We're Avoiding:

Oh, my. What an enormous list. Reality shows, network and local news, sports on TV, most sitcoms, most programming on Syfy, etc. Reruns of King of the Hill still make us run screaming. We live in constant existential dread that we may accidentally see some of Caprica.

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Another Idiot From Virginia

A while ago Time Magazine ran an article debunking Jenny McCarthy's claim that vaccines cause autism. In response, they received (and printed) this letter:

TIME says "research conclusively shows that vaccines are safe for children." I recall my father, a biologist, insisting that science can prove falsity but never truth. As Albert Einstein said, "No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong."
James Pannabecker
Natural Bridge Station, VA

Hypothesis: Vaccines cause autism.

Science has proven that hypothesis false.

Q.E.D., E.M.D.W.

After all, James, science can prove falsity but never truth.

What is it with people from Virginia? Do their brains shut down after too much exposure to cured ham, sweet tea, and moonshine? Is idiocy their genetic heritage, because all the people with brains moved out long ago? Does overexposure to racism and narrow-minded religion cause idiocy? Or is it just that they're all descended from numerous bastard offspring of Jerry Falwell?

(Note: these are all hypotheses. Science can prove them false. Science is good at that.)

[Seriously, though, we have friends in Virginia, and I owe them an apology. One and all, I'm sorry you are stuck in Virginia.]

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Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Humans, Persons, and Others

Matthew Cornell raises a really interesting question: Are you still human when you're under general anesthesia? If self-awareness is what makes us human, then what are we when self-awareness is absent?

It's not just general anesthesia, either. What about dreamless sleep? What about the state of "flow," when one is so focused on a task that self-awareness vanishes?

Some of his commenters make a distinction (in legal terms) between "human" and "person." When unconscious, Matt is still human but is not a legal person -- indeed, the law specifies that a genuine person must make decisions for him. Similarly, the law recognizes a class of "persons" who are not human: corporations.

In the future, I can see the law recognizing other classes of nonhuman persons: cetaceans, perhaps, and/or other primates, artificial intelligences, or even sapient aliens.

Also, it seems to me that "personhood" is not simply a matter of self-awareness -- which is perhaps why I prefer the term "sapience." Self-awareness is one criterion, but there are others: intelligence, emotionality, autonomy, etc.

"Personhood" is a continuum, not on on/off switch. A rock (so far as we know) has none of these and is not a "person." A tree has more than a rock but not enough to be a "person." A hamster? Still not a person. A chimpanzee? Currently not a person, but that could change.

A human infant? Legally, not a full person...but has some of the aspects of "personhood." A severely mentally retarded human? Somewhat the same: human, but legally only partially a "person." A human fetus? A human embryo? Certainly both are less "persons" than an infant...but are they more "persons" than a chimp?

It occurs to me that a lot of the abortion debate rests on this human/person distinction. As usual in highly emotional arguments, both sides are using the same words to refer to different concepts. Would the debate be improved if everyone could agree on more precise language for words like "human," "person," and the like?

What about a human corpse? Still human, but not a person? What's the difference between a freshly-dead corpse and a human under general anesthesia? What if you rush the corpse to shock trauma and they resuscitate it? Do we have to get into questions of "potential" personhood?

And finally, isn't this whole thing just another form of the mind/body dichotomy? Is "human" the body and "person" the mind? Does your DNA make you human, but your brain makes you a person? But your DNA makes your brain, doesn't it? What about corporations -- they are persons, do they have minds? Do we need a new class for entities composed of more than one mind? (In Dance for the Ivory Madonna I riffed on the idea of the Superorganism as a multi-minded entity: there I posited that the Baby Boomers were an example of a Superorganism.)

I don't have answers to any of these questions...but they sure are fun to think about, aren't they?

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Saturday, January 02, 2010

Avatar in 3D

Last night we saw Avatar in 3D at the Cinemark Egyptian Theater at Arundel Mills Mall. Thomas was impressed. Don got motion sickness and had to leave the auditorium and go throw up.

I've found a lot of discussion online about the question of whether the stunning new 3D process used in Avatar is making people sick. The consensus seems to be that it's all hype, or that any momentary discomfort goes away when one gets accustomed to the process.

Not so.

I am easily subject ot motion sickness. I don't go on roller coasters or similar rides. reading in the car makes me queasy. After watching Avatar for about half an hour, I was sweating, had a headache, and felt sick to my stomach. I would have suspected low blood sugar, but I'd just had a meal. I tried taking the 3D glasses off and watching the movie without them, but that didn't make it any better. For a while I sat with my eyes closed, hoping the feeling would go away. But eventually I had to excuse myself and go to the rest room to vomit.

I sat on a bench outside the auditorium until the movie was over (it's 2 hours and 40 minutes long). My stomach wasn't settled; Thomas drove home and I went to bed.

Now, I have seen other 3D movie in theaters, and have never had any trouble before. None of them have been the "REAL D 3D" used in Avatar.

The theater staff was awesome in their complete disregard for my distress. After coming out of the rest room, I approached the nearest staffer and said, "Do many people get physically sick watching that movie?" The woman told me that she'd never heard of anyone getting sick, and she bustled off about her business. A little later, an official-looking guy in a suit walked by with a walkie-talkie blaring; I caught his eye and he said "Can I help you?"

I told him that I'd gotten sick watching Avatar in 3D. I said, "I've got a friend still in there, so I guess I'll sit here until it's over." He said, "Okay" and sauntered off.

Did anyone offer me a place to lie down (which I desperately needed)? No. Did anyone suggest a refund, or a comp ticket, or anything of the sort? No. Did anyone say "I'm sorry" or anything similar? No.

So here's what I've learned.

1. No more 3D movies.
2. No more Cinemark Egyptian Theater at Arundel Mills.
3. Next time, throw up in the middle of the hallway.

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