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03 February 2006 — TRACKS MONKEYS WITH LASERS (15)

My anti-television zealotry is a matter of public record. I avoid the idiot box as much as possible. It will probably come as some surprise then to learn that I've found myself addicted to Beauty and the Geek, a "reality" show offering from the Warner Brothers network.

From time-to-time I find myself bored and listless. Every few months this leads to an hour or two of television flipping (a privilege for which I pay hundreds of dollars a year). That's right: only about four or five times a year will I sit down at the television and flip through to see what's on. This urge struck me on a Thursday night a few weeks ago, and I stumbled across the first episode of Beauty and the Geek. I've been watching ever since.

The premise is simple: eight Beauties and eight Geeks are brought together in a luxury mansion. The Geeks introduce themselves one-by-one to the Beauties. After each introduction, a Beauty picks a Geek as a partner, and the two spend some indeterminate amount of time (weeks? days? months?) living in the same room, teaching each other about their worlds. The Geeks teach the Beauties about computers, about history, about politics. The Beauties teach the Geeks about fashion, about dating, about confidence.

It's all very cheesy, and all so heavily edited that it's impossible to know what's really going on. As viewers, we can only base our reactions on the fractional footage the producers choose to show us. (And can I mention that I am not the J.D. Roth listed as one of the show's producers. I'm sure that's Mr. "Fun House", Mr. "Johnny Quest", my Hollywood counterpart, with whom I'm still dying to make contact. It would be hilarious.)

At first, Kris mocked the show even more than I did, but then something curious happened. I was watching an episode I'd had to download (because I'd forgotten it was on), and Kris stood behind me at the computer desk for twenty minutes, watching and commenting. Funny how that happened.

One of our favorite aspects of the show is how whenever a contestant's name is flashed on-screen, it is accompanied by an identifying tag. (And always the same identifying tag.) For example, whenever Sarah's name appears on-screen she is identified as a DENTAL HYGENIST. Wes has our favorite tag: TRACKS MONKEYS WITH LASERS.

The Beauties include:

  • Amanda (HAIRSTYLIST) — my favorite Beauty, easily the most attractive of the bunch. (Plus she was moderately intelligent.) Unfortunately, she was the first eliminated.
  • Brittany (COLLEGE STUDENT) — sweet and kind and all that, but man the show paints her as a dim bulb. ("There are types of screwdrivers?" "I like the parts of the books that have pictures.")
  • Cher (BEER SPOKESMODEL) — actually rather intelligent, if a little bossy. Of the two intelligence tests for the women so far, she's won both.
  • Danielle (COCKTAIL WAITRESS)
  • Jennipher (CAMP COUNSELOR) — looks like the most fun of all the women.
  • Sarah (DENTAL HYGENIST) — sort of a non-entity except that the show constantly shows her "nipping out" footage from the karaoke contest. (Which is fine by me.)
  • Thais (MODEL) — eliminated.
  • Tristin (COCKTAIL WAITRESS) — attractive enough, and not as dumb as her partner (Chris) makes her out to be, but lordy how she weeps. The tears never stop. Eliminated.

The Geeks include:

  • Brandon (ASSISTANT NEUROBIOLOGIST) — a complete cipher aside from his lousy fashion sense. Eliminated before any personality could show through.
  • Joe (SPEED CHESS CHAMPION)
  • Josh (MUSEUM CRITIC) — a thin matchstick of a man, Josh is a neurotic mess, like a hyper-attenuated Woody Allen.
  • Karl (DUNGEON MASTER) — a nice enough guy, but very geeky.
  • Ankur (M.I.T. GRADUATE)
  • Wes (TRACKS MONKEYS WITH LASERS) — what does that mean, exactly, "tracks monkeys with lasers"? We don't know, but we shout it every time it flashes on-screen. Even I have to admit that Wes' makeover was shockingly successful.
  • Tyson (RUBIK'S CUBE RECORD HOLDER) — a nice guy, and Kris' favorite. He brought multiple Rubik's Cubes to the show, and somehow managed to integrate them into a lot of scenes. Eliminated.
  • Chris (HAS ONLY KISSED ONE GIRL) — brainy and brash, but also a bully. His machinations from the get-go cause the rest of the house to gang up on him (and his unfortunate partner, Tristin) until he was finally eliminated.

Every week, the couples are presented with a challenge. In the first challenge, the Geeks had to perform karaoke (to Foreigner's "Hot Blooded") while the Beauties had to give an impromptu speech on political affairs (social security, pollution, etc.). In the second challenge, the Beauties had to set up a computer, download a song, and burn it to a CD, while the Geeks had to decorate a bedroom. The most recent challenge was team-based: each Beauty gave her Geek a makeover and prepared him for a round of speed dating.

At the end of each episode, the challenge winners pick two couples to head to the Elimination Room where they are asked questions. The losing couple is kicked off the show. (Kris is certain that the Elimination Room is rigged.)

Dumb, yes, but entertaining. I'm going to grant myself this vice. There's only a few weeks left of it, anyhow.



"I wonder what my geek quality would be," I said as we got in bed last night. I was thinking something along the lines of WEBLOGGING FOR FIVE YEARS.

"That's easy," mumbled Kris. "LACKS SELF-DISCIPLINE."



I took the "How Geeky Are You?" quiz on the show's official web site. I scored a "You're Very Geeky", of course.


Sabino and I had a brief discussion about downloading television shows yesterday. We were singing our regular chorus of praise for Seinfeld (he owns all the DVDs; I want to borrow them). He told me how much he loves The Office: "They don't even have to say anything and I'm laughing." Sabino is excited by his new DVR. "We can pause a show to put the kids to bed and come back to finish it later!" I told him that I have the same thing, essentially, because I download the shows off the internet. "But isn't that illegal?" he asked. I tried to convince him it was something of a legal grey area, but he didn't seem to buy it.

Look at it this way: I would not be watching Beauty and the Geek right now if I hadn't been able to download the two episodes I missed. I wouldn't watch The Office or Battlestar Galactica unless I could download the episodes I missed. (In fact, I haven't watched any of the second season of Battlestar, but I plan to catch up in a single marathon session soon.) But because I can download these missed episodes, I continue to watch. And when I watch I write up long weblog entries like this, entries that are essentially free advertisements. For this a television network is going to sue me? If they do, they're insane.

On this day at foldedspace.org

2007This Day Would Have Been Enough   In which I have a strange day, but it's all fulfilled by some time at the roller-skating rink.

2005The Great Conversation   ln which I argue the greater your familiarity with the classics, the richer your everyday reading experience.

2004Yakima 2004   In which we spend a wonderful weekend in Yakima with the Gingerich family.

2003Iris   In which we join Joel and Aimee for an Iris Dement concert.


Comments
On 03 February 2006 (08:13 AM), mac said:

I have two questions.

1) Is downloading 5 TV Shows/week much better than watching them live on the "idiot box"?

2) How does one download episodes of their favorite show and does it lead to increased spyware on your computer? I know you're a mac guy and there isn't much spyware, but for PC users, is it more dangerous?


On 03 February 2006 (08:26 AM), Amanda said:

I got sucked into Beauty & the Geek this season, too. I always chuckle when your name flashes on the screen.


On 03 February 2006 (08:45 AM), Kris said:

For the record, I wasn't mumbling.


On 03 February 2006 (08:52 AM), jenefer said:

I don't think that LACKS SELF DISCIPLINE is a geek trait at all. That is a normal trait. People who HAVE discipline are the geeks of the world in the organizational field.


On 03 February 2006 (09:05 AM), J.D. said:

Kris said: For the record, I wasn't mumbling.

This is true. However, I chose to alter reality for John's benefit. He is amused that I always write that Kris is mumbling. (Yes, I really did intentionally write that Kris mumbled for John's sake.)


On 03 February 2006 (09:06 AM), J.D. said:

Mac asks some interesting questions. I'll take the easy, technical question first:

How does one download episodes of their favorite show and does it lead to increased spyware on your computer? I know you're a mac guy and there isn't much spyware, but for PC users, is it more dangerous?

I use BitTorrent. BitTorrent is a distributed file-sharing tool. In plain English, this means that a file is "seeded" to the BitTorrent network. A few people download it. As they download, they're also forced to share the burden of uploading, so that all the bandwidth usage is, in theory, spread evenly among all users. BitTorrent has caught on in a big way, and is used by plenty of big software companies for legal software distribution. (For example, Blizzard uses BitTorrent to distribute patches for World of Warcarft.)

BitTorrent is not, in and of itself, dangerous. To use it, you download a BitTorrent client (or tool). This client is a small program that connects to other users to process the downloads/uploads. On the Macintosh it is not accompanied with any spyware are malware of any sort. I'm not sure about on the PC though I suspect it's safe there, too. The official FAQ certainly seems to suggest that this is so. In the back of my mind, something tells me this is an open source project (or something similar), which would pretty much preclude any sort of vicious stuff.

Once you have BitTorrent, you need to find a site that directs you to "torrents", the bits of information about which files available for download. I use TorrentSpy. This site is safe for my Mac, but I don't know about for a PC. (I suspect it's fine.)

Note: I never download software, movies, or music with BitTorrent. I only download television programs. Why is this any better morally? My thinking is that these shows are available free over-the-air already, and I could record them if I had a PVR, so my usage is fair. Plus, as I've mentioned above, I'm a vocal advocate of the shows I watch. I mean, come on: how many of you have borrowed our Arrested Development DVDs? Kris and I have probably hooked at least twenty people on that show. That never would have happened if I hadn't previewed it via a BitTorrent download.

Now for the more difficult philosophical question:

Is downloading five TV Shows/week much better than watching them live on the "idiot box"?

This is something that Jenn and I have argued about a lot.

The short answer is: watching downloaded shows is probably not much better than watching them on broadcast television.

I did a large research paper in college on the effects of television. It seemed clear to me then, and it seems clear to me now, that television is such a strong negative influence, especially in children, that its consumption ought to be limited. (I go so far as to say that children ought not be allowed to watch it at all except on special occasions. Though Jenn does not believe me, I would not own a television if I had children. My kids could watch TV at their friends' houses, but they wouldn't watch it in ours.)

Essentially, there are hundreds (thousands?) of studies that demonstrate the negative effects of television on the individual, on the family, and on society as a whole. I'm unaware of any study that demonstrates a positive effect. That's not to say that all television is without merit, or that television should be outlawed. I recommend no home-based viewing for children, limited home-based viewing for teenagers, and responsible home-based viewing for adults.

If you can stomach the hyperbole, you might read The Plug-In Drug by Marie Winn or Jerry Mander's Four Arguments For the Elimination of Television (The latter explores television as a poor mediator of experience; television as a way to influence audiences' perceptions en masse; the "dumbing-down" effects of TV on the human being; and the inherent biases of television and how they limit real information flow.) Though these books may seem hysterical at times, their basic premises are difficult to contradict, and the research that they cite is credible.

So, if the short answer is "watching downloads is probably not much better than watching broadcast television", then what is the long answer? The long answer is: there are some important differences between watching downloaded programs (or programs on DVD, or movies (in the theater on DVD), for that matter).

In general, watching downloaded programs (or DVDs or movies) is less objectionable than watching broadcast television because:

  • The viewer is exposed to fewer advertisements. Make no mistake about it: the primary purpose of television (and radio) as it exists today is to sell products via advertising. The studios and the stations all want to make money. How do they make money? Via advertising. You may think you're not influenced by advertising, but you're wrong. There's a reason companies are willing to pay millions of dollars to pitch their products on television. That reason is: it works. When you download programs to view them at your convenience, you are bypassing this major evil. (Note that PVRs also allow you to bypass advertising, or they used to. I hear that now broadcasters are finding creative ways to make advertising impressions anyhow.)
  • The viewer is less likely to be sucked into watching more. When you watch a show on DVD, or you watch a movie, or you watch a show you've downloaded to your computer, the program has a finite length. When it's over, it's over. When you watch a program on broadcast television, the amusement never ends. There's always something on later. And if you don't want to watch that program, there are 150 others from which to choose. It is easy to get sucked into perpetual television viewing. I am shocked by how many people come home, turn on the television, and then leave it on til bedtime. You can't do this with a downloaded episode of Battlestar Galactica. When it's over, it's over. Sure, you might be able to watch another one if you've downloaded multiples, but still: there's finite time and space involved.
  • The viewer has more control over the viewing experience. With broadcast television, the viewer must sit in front of the television at a designated time in order to watch a program in real-time. With a downloaded program (or a show on DVD), the viewer selects when to watch an episode, where to watch it, and whether or not to skip any boring or objectionable material. The viewer is in control with downloaded material in a way she is not in control with broadcast television.
Given time, I'm sure I could articulate other reasons (rationalizations?) that viewing downloaded programs is not wholly identical to viewing broadcast television. Sure, much of the process is still the same (especially they physiological and psychological processes), but enough of it is different, enough of it is better that if a person is going to watch television programs, he ought to do it via PVR, DVD, or download.

As a side note: it might seem hypocritical that as such an outspoken critic of television I have one (no, two!) in the house. To that I must confess I am only human. If Kris would agree, I'd gladly purge the house of the TV. She won't agree, though, and so I do watch from time-to-time. I watch in moderation, however, and I'm very particular about the shows I spend my time on. (That's why it's so bizarre that I've been sucked into Beauty and the Geek.)

In the past year, I have downloaded: 27 episodes of Battlestar Galactica, 2 episodes of Beauty and the Geek, 13 episodes of the new Doctor Who (a show that hasn't even been broadcast in the US yet), 7 episodes of Arrested Development season three (which I will purchase on DVD when it is released), 20 episodes of the US version of The Office, and 6 episodes of the BBC's Extras. (I've also downloaded the BBC mini-series of Dickens' Bleak House.) So, I've downloaded 75 episodes in about 52 weeks, but have only watched about half of these shows. I wouldn't watch any of them if I couldn't downlaod them.

Whew.

Time to make some boxes!


On 03 February 2006 (11:18 AM), John said:

It's a good thing I'm sick today. If I'd read this in the office, people would've wondered what all the snorting was about!


On 03 February 2006 (12:21 PM), Rich R said:

Though Jenn does not believe me, I would not own a television if I had children.

My kids watch very little television. They do however watch DVDs (not a lot of viewing, mind you). If you had kids, you would want a TV. There are times when it is a necessary evil.

For instance, the kids get up at 6:45 am on Saturday morning and you have a hangover...

You are about to loose your mind while you finish making dinner after a rough day at the office...

Trust me. There are moments when having a TV is a must.


On 03 February 2006 (12:48 PM), J.D. said:

Rich, you have a good point, and I must admit that there have been times that I've resorted to television as babysitter, too, and I don't even have kids! However, I think the same objectives can be accomplished with a DVD and a laptop computer. Again, as I explained earlier, viewing programs this way doesn't alleviate all of the psychological/physiological effects, but it does give one greater control!


On 03 February 2006 (04:34 PM), Betsy said:

I have to say one word re. television control: TiVo. You get all of the benefits you describe in your rationale for BitTorrenting - yet you don't have to go in search of the things you want - instead, they come to you.

It's also eminently useful for kid-television - they can watch Blues Clues (insert other acceptable programming) while you make dinner; you're not out the cost of an individual DVD to do so.

(I could go on and on and on about the wonders and joys of TiVo; I'll stop here, though...)


Finally - my 12-year-old son is also totally addicted to Beauty & The Geek. I have, thus far, resisted the temptation to watch with him...


On 03 February 2006 (07:20 PM), Jenn said:

I have to sing the praises of TiVo also. I hear about a show on OPB that sounds interesting (Bleak House) and a few minutes later I have the whole series ready to be recorded.

The kids have gone through several phases - Magic School Bus, Berenstain Bears, Angelina Ballerina - and I can set up a season pass for those shows in no time. Renting or purchasing children's videos is something we have stopped doing.

My kids are limited to one show a day and this is rarely an issue. For the record Jd, not intentionally, portrays me as a mother who lets her children watch TV all day long. Truly I just don't see a difference between a DVD shown on a TV and an episode of Sesame Street. Especially a "TiVoed" episode that does not bleed into another show but actually ends in one hour's time. I think TiVo is far better than a VCR, DVD or BitTorret.

Now let me find those studies that say that students learn difficult concepts better by watching a video. Imagine reading about open heart surgery in a textbook versus watching it on the Discovery Channel with the commentary of the surgeon followed by a live interview. This is where education is headed. It is amazing. With that said I read five chapters of the Long Winter to my kids today. It is all about a balance.

I met a teacher recently who said the kids,7-15 year olds, in her neighborhood have gone crazy over making their own videos. Las year on 4th of July one of the dad's mad an imovie of the neighborhood party. Now the kids go to his house after school every day to make their own show - they write, direct, and produce it all. My point, our kids should have as much experience producing as they do consuming.


On 03 February 2006 (09:08 PM), DENTAL HYGIENIST said:

Hey CORRECTS PEOPLES GRAMMAR,

You mispelled 'hygienist', twice. Just thought you needed to know that.


On 03 February 2006 (10:05 PM), TINKERS WITH SPEAKERS said:

Oops... looks like we misspelled 'misspelled' up there... that's kind of ironic, eh?


On 05 February 2006 (12:27 AM), OBSESSED WITH TRAINS said:

Hi Uncle JD and Aunt Kris! Thomas the Tank Engine is the best show on TV!


On 06 February 2006 (09:03 PM), Tait said:

You said "Note: I never download software, movies, or music with BitTorrent. I only download television programs. Why is this any better morally? My thinking is that these shows are available free over-the-air already, and I could record them if I had a PVR, so my usage is fair."

Yes, however: movies are available over the air (satellite PPV, HBO, etc), music is available over the air (satellite, radio, etc) - you could record those, too - so by that argument, I suppose getting these items over the Internet (remember Napster) would be fine?