Archive for the ‘Television’ Category

media and the election

Thursday, November 6th, 2008

After an election that was dominated by new media (blogs, youtube, twitter), the end turned out to demand the old media.

We watched the results come in on television, and our guests nearly rioted when at one point T revealed that we were actually ten minutes behind live thanks to TiVo and channel switching.  I had my laptop on, and occasionally looked over to check things like which counties had reported in the states that had only partial results, but the focus was definitely on the big screen. 

And then, yesterday, it seems like everyone wanted a newspaper, the dead tree kind, to hold in their hands and put away in the closet.  Papers all over the country sold out, and people were lined up waiting for the special editions to come out.

When I drained the battery on the car last week, I set off the anti-theft device on the audio system, so I can’t listen to the radio until we manage to get to a dealer.  Listening to the previous day’s podcast works ok for Planet Money and This American Life, less well for the more newsy shows.*

*It’s almost like having a TiVo for the radio.

A Nintendo in your purse?

Monday, October 27th, 2008

I understand that A-list bloggers are used to getting all sorts of schwag to review, but I’m far from that, so I was pretty surprised last month to check my inbox and discover that Nintendo was sending me a DS Lite and games to review.  It’s part of their campaign to market the DS to women, which also includes a promo where people who rent a high end purse can receive the use of DS at the same time.

I emailed the marketer back to say that I’d give it a try, but that their games would need to knock my socks off to justify the space in my purse.  Given that I can already play a number of games on my iPod touch, why would I want to carry something else around?  And indeed, none of the games they sent with it were as addictive to me as trism.

There’s no question that if you’re serious about playing games, the DS is still a better machine.  For one thing, its battery life far exceeds the iPod’s (which frankly stinks in game playing mode).  And it has two screens, and more than one button, which gives you a lot more options for controlling a game.  And it’s cheaper, and less breakable, and has a user-replaceable battery.  But for having something handy when I’m bored on the metro, or get stuck waiting on line somewhere, the iPod does just fine.

It also didn’t help their case that the selection of programs they sent was largely based on the assumption that women don’t actually want to play video games.*  So, they sent a yoga trainer (confusing controls for selecting programs, and no audio directions), a weight loss coach with a pedometer (great concept, clunky implementation), a crossword program (fine except that you had to solve a bunch of easy ones to get to the ones that were interesting), Brain Age 2 (clever), Carnival Games (a hit with my son), and a puzzle solving game (MillionHeir, which was pretty good).  And none of these shows off the capacity of the system half as well as the Pokemon game that my son has been busily playing since the minute I handed over the system.**

So, I’m dubious about this marketing push, even as I think they’ve got a pretty good product.  I just don’t see a lot of grown ups playing with a DS. Am I missing something?  Any of you play with one of these?

*This article quotes someone from Nintendo as saying that half of the DS systems sold last year belong to women.  Sorry, but I can only believe that if: a) "women" is defined to mean "female, regardless of age" or b) "belong" is defined to mean "purchased by" regardless of the primary user.  I know some women who play computer games,*** but 50 percent just isn’t plausible to me.

** D has been asking for a DS for a long time, and we told him that we wouldn’t buy him one, but he could save up for one. And he’s been dutifully saving his allowance for over a year.  So once I tried the system enough to write a fair review, I let him buy it from me for half price.  He knows that we still retain the right to put the system in time out if he misbehaves.

***For some interesting discussion on gender differences in online games, see Geeky Mom.

tough jobs

Friday, October 10th, 2008

I don’t know anyone except T and me who are watching America’s Toughest Jobs.  It seems to be drawing pretty low audiences.  But I’m enjoying it.  It’s a tough competition, without the random luck or bunching that drives me crazy on The Amazing Race, and it’s mostly just about the ability to do the job, without a whole lot of relationship drama.  (They’ve occasionally tried to make a story about why the contestants are doing this, but that’s been underwhelming.)

"Tough" jobs, in this context, mostly translates as physically demanding and/or dangerous.  Certainly today’s episode, logging, was brutally physical.  Since they’re putting untrained people into the jobs, they can’t require serious training, so no air traffic control here.  And as much as I’d love to see these folks dealing with a room full of toddlers, it’s not going to happen.

Interestingly, two of the final five contestants are women.  They’re very tough women, but they’re mostly not as strong as the men. Some of the men are complaining that the bosses are grading the women on a curve, but I don’t think that’s it — I think it’s that they’ve consistently shown hustle and good attitude, and the bosses give them credit for that.

The grand prize at the end will be the total annual salary of all the jobs they do.  The main thing that’s struck me is how *little* most of these jobs pay.  I don’t think any of the ones we’ve seen so far pay more than $45,000, and some of them (prospecting for gold) pay a lot less.  Life lesson: go to college — you can make a lot more money for a lot less work.  Or get a union job — although they didn’t say so, I’m sure the bridge maintenance work they did last week is unionized.  And it’s the best paying job so far — and probably the least real danger (yes, you’re very high, but you’re always clipped in).

At the end of the show, they tell you what the contestant who got kicked off that week is doing now. Almost all of them have changed their jobs since being on the show.  One of them did in fact get hired to drive a truck in Alaska.  Another is working in a national park.  So, I guess that’s another life lesson:  there’s a lot of options out there, and you don’t have to do the obvious ones.

Anyone else watching?

idle speculation

Thursday, September 25th, 2008

So, if McCain doesn’t show up for the debate tomorrow night, will they let Obama answer questions on his own for an hour and a half?  That would be awesome.

If I didn’t laugh, I’d have to cry

Thursday, September 4th, 2008

Via Becca at Not Quite Sure, Jon Stewart nailing people with their own words.

And Roger Simon on Why The Media Should Apologize.

I remember that around 9/11, people were saying that irony was going out of style.  But I don’t know how else we’re supposed to deal with this craziness.

Update:  Oh.  My.  God. I think I have to cry anyway.

watching the convention

Monday, August 25th, 2008

I’m watching the convention with half an ear.  For some reason, I can’t get my local PBS station at the moment, and the CNN coverage is driving me nuts — I’d rather listen to the speakers than to James Carville.  They’re saying that there’s not much happening that’s of interest to the television audience, but there’s no way to tell from their coverage, since they’re not actually letting anyone hear the speakers.

I’m enjoying reading the twitters from Bitch PhD, but am not sure they’re really adding to my understanding of the convention.

Ted Kennedy looks damn good under the circumstances.  He’s far less jowly than my image of him — don’t know if he’s lost weight or what.

I read the draft Democratic Party platform earlier today. In some ways platforms are always fairly meaningless documents — they’re written by committee, and include something for everyone, so they don’t tell you anything about what the real priorities will be when the rubber hits the road.  But, as laundry lists go, it’s a fine one.

I don’t have much to say about the choice of Biden as VP.  I don’t think he changes the dynamics of the race much.  He’s got good foreign policy credentials.  NPR this evening had a long piece about whether his support for the awful bankruptcy bill was because the credit card companies are major constituents or because they’re major donors.  I’m not sure the distinction is meaningful.  It’s the same problem as Schumer’s support of tax loopholes for hedge fundsFred at Stone Court says that Biden was particularly disrespectful to Elizabeth Warren during the debate.

The Republican candidate for Congress in this district just ran an ad that says he’s the one to support for "real change" in Washington.  Choke.

Michelle did a good job.    T. walked in during the "ice cream" part of the speech and we both went "awww…"  If you’ve already read Dreams from my Father, there’s not that much new in her description of Barack, though.

Gaak.  CNN has been going on about Carville’s complaints that there wasn’t enough "red meat" in the evening, but they just admitted that they didn’t cover Pelosi’s speech which did get people in the convention hall rared up.  Why?  Because they were talking with Carville!!

Advertising, PR, reviews and Avatar

Thursday, August 7th, 2008
Cecily’s posts about lousy PR pitches reminded me that I wanted to go over my advertising and review policies.

Advertising: I accept ads through BlogAds.  I accept most ads that are submitted.  I reject them if I can’t tell what they’re selling, or if I’m offended by either what they’re selling, or how they’re selling it.  The most common reason I reject ads is that I think they’re preying on parental fears.  If I’m really enthusiastic about the cause or the product, I might mention it in a post, but buying an ad doesn’t automatically get you a mention.

PR: I can’t think of a single case where I’ve chosen to interview someone based on a PR pitch.  I’m can pretty much guarantee that I’m not going to discuss your product on the basis of a press release.

Reviews: I always disclose if I’m being paid to do a review (e.g. through MotherTalk).  But I won’t do a review even for money unless I think it will be of some interest to my audience.  I know I don’t want to read reviews of cleaning products, and I assume you don’t either.  (Trust me, no one is offering me enough money to pretend that I like housework.)  I’m not going to spend my money on $60 layettes, and I’m not going to waste your time with reviews of them. 

Books are a special case where I worry more about myself than my audience — I think book reviews are often interesting, even when I have no intention of reading the book — but I’m not going to take one on unless I think I’m going to enjoy reading the book.  If you send me a book to review other than as part of a blog tour, I’ll try to get to it, but I don’t make promises.  If the book doesn’t interest me enough to finish it, you’re probably happier if I don’t review it anyway, right?

On that note, here’s T’s review of the final disk of Avatar:

Avatar, Book 3 Fire, Volume 4, concludes the long-running series.
For those (like myself) who have enjoyed it very much, that in itself
is a melancholy and somewhat frightening notion.  Sad, because we won’t
get to watch any more new episodes, and scary because they might well
screw up the ending.  It’s been done before, with works substantially
less ambitious than Avatar.  So if you’re intently searching out
reviews, you’re probably wondering:  Did they pull out a cheesy deus ex
machina to resolve everyone’s problems and make everything happy
sunshine land?

Well … yes and no.
They do not change the rules as regards the conflict we’ve seen
coming from day one:  The fight against the Firelord and his armies is
HARD.  Everyone pulls their weight, everyone puts their life on the
line, everyone makes sacrifices.  You get the matchups you expect and
require:  Aang vs. the Firelord, Zuko vs. his sister.  The loose plot
threads are tied up so neatly, and with such precision, that toward the
end I was able to predict the dialogue word for word on more than one
occasion, simply because there were only a few possible things left for
people to say to each other.  That’s not to say that it’s stilted or
trite … the stuff is heart-warming and incredibly powerful … just
that it proceeds with a powerful sense of dramatic and emotional
necessity.  As General Iroh puts it:  people are compelled to meet
their destinies, and they do so with the tools we’ve seen them honing
throughout the series.
But there’s another item that’s not so well addressed … because
the writers actually tacked on more ambition as the series was coming
to a close.  They opened up a can of worms I never thought they’d go
near:  the hard reality of fighting leading to violence and death.
It’s a kids show.  They’re allowed a pass on this subject … they
really are!  If they wanted to say "Aang is a wise, peaceful, loving
soul who would never hurt anyone, and who uses his avatar powers to
kick butt for justice" and leave it at that, they’re allowed.  So I was
impressed when an episode early in the disc ended with the following
Zuko:  Violence wasn’t the answer.
Aang:  It never is.
Zuko:  Then I have a question for you:  What are you going to do when you face my father?
I’d been expecting that the series would end with Aang defeating
the Firelord, who would then self-destruct in some fatal last attempt
to enact vengeance.  But it becomes clear that’s just not in the
cards.  If Ozai is defeated, he’ll want to live, in order to plan yet
more world-stomping mischief … and letting him live will ensure that
nobody ever has peace.  What’s a decent, caring person with the weight
of the world on their shoulders to do?
Aang’s attempts throughout the remaining episodes to answer this
question in a way he can live with create conflict in places I didn’t
expect it:  Particularly a serious and powerful conflict with the past
Avatars.  The series becomes once again, at the end, what it was at the
beginning:  A coming of age story.  Aang is torn between himself, the
needs of the world, the pressures of his friends, and the well-meaning
advice of the past Avatars who are the closest thing he has to parents.

In the end, the answer that he comes to is imperfect, and yeah
maybe something of a gimmick.  You can hear a lot of back and forth
about it on fansites if you go looking.  But you won’t hear it here:
The writers asked a question that, in the abstract, has no good
answer.  Heroic violence vs. respect for life … if they had an answer
that fit the bill in all times and all places, without resort to
gimmicks … well, that’d be great, but surprising.  As it is, I’m glad
just to have seen the question so well addressed. 

What I’m watching, listening to, reading

Tuesday, July 29th, 2008

I gave blood this afternoon and am feeling logy, so you get another bulleted post.

Landismom posted recently about giving up cable.  It made me realize that I haven’t watched TV in months, not since the end of The Amazing Race and Heroes.  Here’s some of what I am watching, etc:

  • Right now, we’ve got Spiderman 3 playing.  Boy is it lousy.
  • This weekend, I finally got a chance to see 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days.   It’s painful, austere, brilliant, horrifying.  Watching it wasn’t exactly enjoyable, but it’s worth watching. 
  • I’ve been listening to the podcasts of This American Life.  This week’s episode, Switched at Birth, is truly haunting.  The women in question didn’t find out about the switch until they were in their 40s.  But what makes the story absolutely bizarre is that one of the mothers realized the switch right away, but didn’t do anything about it.  This could have been just a freakshow, but the interviewer has such empathy for everyone involved that it works.
  • I started reading Nixonland by Rick Perlstein, and got about 200 pages into it (it’s 600 pages long) when it needed to go back to the library.  One of the problems is that’s just too heavy to haul back and forth on the metro every day.  So I bought it in eReader format — I figure this will be a good test of whether reading books on the Touch is really something I’d do.

Updated: Meant to ask — what am I missing by not watching TV?  Anything I should be adding to the TiVO?  (I assume I’ll watch at least some of the Olympics.)


Sunday, May 25th, 2008

A few weeks ago, I got an email asking if I would be interested in receiving a copy of Avatar, Book 3, Volume 3.  I asked T if that was that show that he and the boys have been watching on netflix, and he said yes.  So I accepted the disk, and asked T to write the review.  As you’ll see, he’s effusive in his praise.  If you read this blog, you know that I’m not always that nice to folks who send me stuff to review, so this is the real deal.

The boys are now all caught up, so they’re eagerly awaiting the last 6 episodes, airing on Nick later this summer.


Avatar is that greatest of
rarities, a show that educates children in such a distracting and
entrancing way that they never even begin to suspect that they’re being

For those completely disconnected from the series, a brief summary:
Avatar takes place in a setting assembled piece-meal from elements of
chinese culture and legend, but assembled with quite western
sentiments.  It features four nations, each associated with one of the
classical four elements, and each gifted with people with the talent to
"bend" that element to their will.  As the introduction that rolls
before each show explains, all was in harmony until the fire nation
attacked.  The Avatar, a figure reincarnated into each new era, can
alone learn to control all four elements and bring balance back to the
land.  But he disappeared a century ago, right when he was needed
most.  The series follows the rediscovered young Avatar and both good
comrades and dire enemies.

Simple, yes?  Fantasy at its most formulaic:  A messianic figure
with wierd magic mojo, setting forth on a quest to win freedom for a
world oppressed by a faceless evil empire.

Yes, all that is there … but also in the best tradition of
fantasy, that’s not all there is.  Magic isn’t just a gimmick or a
tool, and bending isn’t just a weapon by another name (though it is
associated with various martial arts styles, and the action scenes that
are liberally sprinkled through the series are -stellar-).  The
elements and the cultures are intimately fused, and bending is both a
result of and the cause of those cultures distinctive virtues.  To
learn water-bending, you must master the ways of thinking that help
make you a good member of the water tribes, and so on.  It’s not about
power, it’s about personality.

The avatar starts the series already trained as an air bender, and
his personality is yielding, slippery, free and flighty.  He’s a kid
… a sweet, generous, fun-loving, irresponsible kid.  He is, without
question, possessed of a type of wisdom.  The thing is, he starts the
series possessed of only -one- kind of wisdom.  In order to reach his
destiny, face the Fire-Lord and restore peace and justice and all that
jazz, he needs to learn that there is more than one way of thinking,
more than one set of virtues, more than one path of wisdom.  He needs
to learn all four types of bending, which means learning four very
different ways of thinking.  When he studies earth-bending, the
intense, unyielding mirror of his own set of virtues, his teacher puts
it very clearly:  "No, you’re thinking like an air-bender!  There is no
different angle, no trickety-trick that’s going to move that rock.  If
you want to move it you have to face it head on!"

The concept that a full person should be able to bring a whole
catalog of different viewpoints to a problem is far too rare in
children’s television.  All too often it is exchanged for an easy "One
lesson, hammered home," formula which at best makes characters shallow
and unappealing, and at worst actually convinces children that a single
moral touchstone will be enough for everything life is going to throw
at them.  The messages may be good (in fact, they almost invariably
are) but by blanking out the rest of the moral universe in order to fit
into twenty-two minutes, such simple shows do children a disservice.

Quite simply, Avatar is the antidote to simple-minded kids action
shows.  It uses the conceit of bending to bring a broad range of
emotional and moral issues out of the shadows and examine them closely,
in terms that kids find understandable and interesting.  The show’s
characters make mistakes.  They have flaws … often grievous,
world-wrenching flaws, and those flaws cause terrible things to
happen.  Every last one of them earns a fair portion of guilt and
shame, but also a heaping helping of confidence and strength.  Again,
all of this tends to be a marked contrast from less nuanced children’s

Which brings me to the character who really shines in Book Three,
Volume Three … a character who, to my mind, is consistently the most
intriguing of the series:  Prince Zuko.

Prince Zuko is the much-abused son of that most abusive villain of
the series, the Fire-Lord … heir to the guy behind, well, pretty much
everything evil going on in the world.  Zuko is there with us from the
very first episode, banished by his father until such time as he
returns with the captured Avatar.  He is, it seems very much, the bad
guy: a remorseless, driven young man who will stop at *nothing* to
regain his honor by hunting, hounding and attacking the heroes of the

And yet ….

The series portrays his qualities clearly:  His constant, explosive
anger, his unyielding determination, his restless pride, his devilish
cunning.  He’s got all the tools a good villain needs.  And, bit by
bit, we learn that these are virtues too.  He is passionate, driven,
clever, brave.  He starts the series trying to be a good boy, to follow
the course his father set, and as his life becomes worse and worse (the
heroes always slipping from his grasp, his failures accumulating and
poisoning his life further) he slowly grows into a desire to be a good

In this collection he sloughs off the destiny that his father would
shape him into, and sets out on his own path.  It is the turning point
that the series has been leading to for years, and it is
-magnificent-.  It is only natural that this should lead him to ally
with his former enemies … and only natural that such an alliance
should be hard on everyone involved.

The series has my young son asking some big questions:  What does it
mean to have done bad things, and want to make it right?  How much can
you look to other people for guidance, and how much do you need to do
all alone?  Can you offer forgiveness and trust to one who has harmed
you deeply, without denying your own hurt?  Can you withhold that
chance at redemption, without destroying a piece of yourself?

The trope of bending has a lot to do with getting these questions
across to children.  Does my son understand how very hard, how very
important the confrontation between Zuko and his abusive father was?  I
don’t know, though I suspect not.  But he understands that the
Fire-Lord levelled a fire-bending attack that would easily have
-destroyed- the younger Zuko, and that because of his experiences the
young prince was able not only to survive the attack but turn it back
against its source.  My son literally screamed in surprise and
satisfaction when it happened.  He grabbed me and shook me, saying "Did
you see that?  Did you SEE?  He reflected it, just like his uncle
showed him!" 

If my son doesn’t see through the symbolism to the deeper human
drama, I’m not really sure it matters.  That is the power of symbolism,
after all … the lesson that adversity and the support of those you
love will strengthen you is the same whether you see that it can help
you survive a harsh word, or survive a magic-woo-woo burst of lightning
and flame.

And if, as in the case of Avatar, the two lessons are seamlessly
paired … well, maybe that’s building a bridge to teach young children
to resonate with the symbols in stories all around them.

Or maybe it’s just keeping them entertained with spectacular drama,
while it subtly acquaints them with some of the hardest questions in
life.  I’m fine with that too.


Television and ads

Tuesday, October 16th, 2007

After some hesitation, I’ve accepted the blogad that you’ll see on the side of this post, from something called the Smart Television Alliance.  According to their website, it’s a coalition of nonprofits "united by a shared commitment to improving what our nation’s children see on television." That sounds like a decent goal.  So why the hesitation?

Well, the site does have some useful information, although I think they’re out of their minds in suggesting that Harry Potter might be appropriate for the 3-6 year old crowd.  But my main concern is that the site is also an ad in disguise, for TiVo, which is sponsoring the alliance.  I generally dislike ads that are pretending to be something else.  But, that said, I do believe that TiVo is a terrific tool for parents who want to control what their kids watch, and have so said so repeatedly on this site in the past.  It lets us zap out commercials, it lets us show kid-friendly fare at times of our choice, and it lets us save the kid-inappropriate stuff for when they’re safe in bed.

Coming from our little ad-free world, it was a real shock to be visiting my parents Columbus Day weekend and to encounter all the commercials in the baseball games.  (Although merseydotes says it’s better than the football games.)  Since D doesn’t see commercials all the time, he was fascinated by them.  I kept on reminding him that they were ads by asking him what they were selling.  (Best answer, in response to a Marine recruiting ad, "uh… war?")

In related news, I just got a copy of Lisa Guernsey’s new book on tv and kids, Into the Minds of Babes.  Review coming when I get a chance.