Monday, February 22, 2016

Maybe the world isn't hellishy terrible after all?

Ethics cannot be quantified. It is perfectly reasonable to have two competing, yet perfectly valid assessments of the world today. You can see goodness in people saving a wounded dog, or rescuing children from a burning building, just as you can spit on humanity when hearing about slavery in Sudan or the starvation of farmers somewhere in North Korea (or somewhere in America, probably).

But when if you COULD measure morality. And what's more, what if you did and you found that the earth - and humans - were getting better every year. There was a famous philosopher (I've been googling for 10 minutes and can't recall which one) who said that man inexorably moves towards morality. And that eventually, all people will be rational.

It seems impossible to believe this with even a cursory glance at the world. Increasing inequality gap in the U.S. ISIS' latest horrific thing. Unaffordable tuition. Billionaires controlling our elections. Plastic in the oceans. Anti-Muslim sentiment exacerbating already terrible refugee crisis.

All bad things. But one thing that isn't bad is that, generally, people agree that they are bad.

To measure something, you need to have a baseline. So let's look back at baseline morality through most of history:
  • Slavery = common
  • Women = few rights, not represented in government, seen as property (see above for that too)
  • Children = Seen and not heard, beatings common. Work in the coal mine, kiddo.
  • Colonialism = common. Kill, kidnap or educate the "savages"
  • Legal protection = Just for white men and / or rich people. I don't mean that rich people had BETTER legal protections (which they still do), but that they had pretty much ALL of them.
  • Gays = Not tolerated.
  • Knowledge = Owned by the few
Nowadays, more and more of these offenses are becoming intolerable. There will always be spikes of fundamentalism, fascism, and other nasties, but there is immediate pressure to stop these trends. They are globally vilified. The standard of morality, overall, may be improving.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Nerd on Nerd hate must stop

Nerds and geeks need to chill out.

Even in my dorkiest days, my contentions about what was and was not authentically geeky had limits. No so geek blog Io9's recent "Reminder: The Big Bang Theory Is the Goddamned Worst," article. It's not enough for the nerds of the world that comic book sales are rebounding, Fantasy (Game of Thrones) and computer geekdown (Silicon Valley) are dominating HBO, and the are showing superhero ads during the SuperBowl. Three of them, in fact.
Instead of feeling satisfied with this victory, or beleaguered by the over-saturation, they instead cast stones at the super smash hit, claiming the show goes for the "easy jokes." For example, when discussing the intergenerational hit Saga, which looks at the beauty, horror and comical nature of parenting set in a fantasy-science background, the show rags on the fact that there are boobs on the cover.
I guess their take is, why not use a prime time sitcom to discuss, at length, the impressive literary and artistic merits of Saga, especially in the context of ever increasing powerful, dramatic stories in the comic medium, and how they are receiving attention from the mass media.
Blleeeccchhhhh. What a terrible idea. And a boring one, too. I think a boob joke, if it gets Saga into a conversation on TV, is superb. This is prime time television. It's already a miracle that TV's #1 show discusses quantum physics, Hulk hands and uses a 14th grade vocabulary. Are you really going to push the "You're not going far enough" thing?
I suppose perhaps, it does come back to the "us vs. them" tribalism thing that no one is immune to. I guess seeing someone purporting to be even a little like you, on TV, is reason enough for people to recoil and say "Nay!" Perhaps they want higher standards for their dopplegangers. Or they feel that something sacred and private has become public and profane. Maybe having more people fighting for the future of geek culture is better than having no one.
Let's just not get too carried away with the purism.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Outbaked by the Brits: Great British Bake Off review

My wife and I are avid consumers of U.S. competitive baking culture. And in case you're not, it is a wide field: Chopped, Top Chef, Worst Cook in America, Masterchef, Masterchef Jr., and my personal favorite, Kitchen Nightmares, to name a few.

Recently we had a chance to try something with a bit more crumpets - the Great British Bake Off (GBBO), where a dozen home chefs compete in a baking contest. The setup is exactly what you'd see in the U.S., but the execution is completely different. The more I watched, the more I realized they had outdone us again. And while I still can't tell if the difference is due to editing, production design or just a different crop of people, the end result is no less striking.
Here's what I mean:

It's non-competitive - One of the first thing I noticed is how nicely all the contestants treated each other. There was no scheming, no trash talking, no "I'm the best" bravado. Everyone seemed to genuinely get along, and want to excel on their own merits. Do U.S. producers encourage people to backstab each other to heighten the drama? Or are our British counterparts equally skilled and yet less cutthrough?

It's more honest - Many, many times in the U.S. they show people an incredibly challenging thing to bake or cook, and say "Ready, Set, Cook!" Somehow, all the chefs, even home cooks or kids, all seem to know how to do it without any instruction at all. This always smelled fishy to me. In The Great British Bakeoff, you see people consulting general instructions given to them by the producers on a few challenges. It's no less challenging because the instructions are either vague or don't help with time management, but it's clear how the show works. I appreciated that.

It's cheeky - With the exception of Alton Brown, more U.S. hosts are picked for their knowledge and not necessarily their warmth. But the GBBO splits its hosting duties in half. The shows hosts and voiceover-ers are Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, two delightful, funny and real actresses who aren't baking experts at all. They crack puns, steal licks from chocolate bowls and occasionally even help contestants in a bind. The actual judges,  Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood, are equal parts impressive and imposing.

It's about skill, not money - Why do most people compete on U.S. game shows? If you said anything but money, sit down. Yes, the fame of winning Top Chef and being on T.V. are important, but for most it's the big paycheck. Many shows remind people again and again of this. "Is this Crème Brulee worth $50,000?" Etc. But the GBBO has no prize money. None. The prize is to be named the winner, and that's it. To facilitate this, the show doesn't air over a period of back-to-back days like in the U.S. Instead, it's only filmed on THE WEEKENDS, allowing people to keep their jobs and routine! This simple fact was so extraordinary, I tipped my metaphorical hat to the television when it was revealed.

In short, all these pieces together create a competition that is more like a family cookoff. You don't want anyone to go home. Every contestant has something you like, even those with less skill. You learn more when the show is more honest. I'll prolly be catching the other seasons soon.