Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Big Brother 12

big-brother-poster I realize I’ve been posting up a storm lately (by my standards), and I apologize if what you like about this blog is how infrequent and therefore unobtrusive it is, but back in January when I reviewed Dead Set, I wrote:

(confession: I never miss Big Brother in the US, but in my half-hearted defense, the differences between the two shows make the US version much more of  a strategy game and much less of a schadenfruede party...I could say much more but maybe I'll save that for a post in the summer when the show returns).

Well…here it is summer and Big Brother 12 is premiering on Thursday.  I’ve actually been considering doing a weekly update sort of thing, but we’ll take that as it comes.  What I want to accomplish in this post is to give a brief overview of what about the show works for me, in part by contrasting the US version with its International cousins.

Season 1 and the International version:

In a sense, the second season of Big Brother US, when they introduced the Head of Household competitions, is the first real season of Big Brother US.  Season 1 (which aired in 2000, so we’re talking the very tip of the reality game show spear here) was formatted in the same way as the International versions that preceded it.

Ten contestants enter a house wired for 24-hour surveillance.  For the duration of the show, no news from the outside world reaches their ears (9/11 was a unique and understandable exception to this prohibition in season 2, particularly as one contestant’s cousin was killed in the attack). 

Each week, the contestants individually and secretly nominate two of their fellow houseguests.  They are not permitted to discuss their nominations (which would lead to strategizing and alliance-forming) with any other contestants.  The two contestants receiving the most nominations are placed “on the chopping block” to be voted on by the viewing public.  Whomever the public votes against leaves the house, and so on week after week.

This show format made Big Brother 1 a popularity contest par excellence.  The contestant whom the largest percentage of the voting audience wanted to win would invariably win.

What was somewhat interesting about this season was that the participants themselves didn’t really know what to make of what they were experiencing.  Survivor had also just recently commenced, so the closest analogue that they were likely familiar with would have been Real World, which had been in production since 1992.  But Real World was a very different show that emphasized conflict rather than competition.  What worked for participants of Real World translated strangely and haphazardly into the game show atmosphere of Big Brother 1.

The HOH and the rise of Will Kirby:

But then in Season 2 the producers (known as the TPTB, or The Powers that Be, in Big Brother online forum parlance), made the first and most significant of several format changes: they introduced the role of Head of Household.  Instead of secret nominations from each of the houseguests at the end of each week, at the beginning of week the show would hold a Head of Household (HOH) competition, the winner of which would have the sole responsibility for nomination.  Furthermore, instead of having the public vote on which of the two nominees would be evicted, the houseguests themselves (excluding the HOH and his or her two nominees) would cast a secret ballot to make that determination.

Let the strategizing and alliance-making begin, basically.

Also, Big Brother US is no longer purely a popularity contest; it is not at all the case that the character whom the audience most favors is guaranteed to win.  In fact, it is quite possible that the contestant whom the audience most despises might win, should his or her strategy prove superior.  Instead of being a show about popularity and humiliation, Big Brother grew to be about loyalty, betrayal, hubris, revenge, duplicity and paranoia (and popularity and humiliation).

Season 2 also saw the rise of Will Kirby, the young doctor from Florida who ended up taking home the prize (which was then and has remained a half a million dollars).  Will was so well-suited to the game, such an effortless liar with such a trustworthy face and such an intuitive grasp of group behavior that almost every self-styled “strategy player” to enter the Big Brother house since has been laboring under the anxiety of his influenceEveryone knew that Will was a liar, but no one ever thought that Will was lying to them.

BB8FloorPlan Season 8 and the Live Feed:

Season 8 was both a high-point in the show and kind of a low-point in my life.  CBS sells access to a 24-hour live internet feed, and in season 8 they were offering a free month of access as a promotion to get you hooked.  In season 9 I actually paid for a month of access.  I’m better now, but for a while there, I would wake up, turn on the feed, and mostly watch people sleep as I was preparing to teach my introduction to literary theory summer course each day.  Actually, because the house is on the west coast and I’m on the east coast, and because that Season 8’s houseguests liked to do their scheming really late into the night, chances were often good that a few of them were still up and talking as I was waking up.

It’s hard for me to defend a viewing practice that on the face of it looks so pathetic, but the best I can say is that there’s something about the pace of real life—it’s tediousness and monotony—that the edited, prime time version couldn’t hope to capture—that in fact the prime time version specifically omits.  If you can’t stand the work of Samuel Beckett, then I can’t expect you to understand, but if you can, then maybe you know what I’m talking about.  Malone have mercy on us both.


I have more things to say, but in a few minutes I’m taking off for a few days, and I wanted to get this up before the live premiere airs.  So expect a few more ruminations as well as my thoughts on this season’s cast on Friday or Saturday.

BONUS: Mose Allison, “Big Brother”

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Eating Less Meat: It’s surprisingly easy to do.

Vegetables are delicious.  I bet it was the meat and dessert industry that started spreading the meme that kids had to eat their vegetables if they wanted dessert, as though it were a chore to eat vegetables.  And then kids started to believe it. 

After reading James McWilliams analysis of the rift between animal rights advocates and sustainable farming advocates on the subject of synthetic meat at the Atlantic, I thought I might write a bit of an update to the post I wrote way back in December about roughly the same subject. 

I concluded that post by confessing that I ate all the usual meats without much in the way of guilty feelings.  Since then I’ve pretty drastically reduced my meat intake.  My decision to change my diet was not based on animals’ capacity to think or suffer but because a little over two months ago a few friends of mine and I were discussing the carbon costs of our diets.  Heh… Just writing that makes me feel like such a caricature of a liberal yuppie.

But anyway, my friend was pointing to some research he had read about that suggested, persuasively to him, that given the carbon costs of industrial meat production, going vegetarian was one of the most effective ways for an individual to reduce his carbon footprint.  I don’t mean to evaluate that argument here, but you can read about it at New Scientist

thaistirfry Now, my friend is not a vegetarian, so it’s not like he was judging the rest of us, but partly because by this point in the evening we were already several beers in, I decided to call him on his mild hypocrisy.  I told him that if he went vegetarian, I would too, thus doubling the environmental impact of his dietary decision.

We made a few concessions on the spot to make the challenge realistic and decided it would last only 6 months (actually until November 5th, because it’s so easy to remember).  We were permitted fish for two meals a week, some other meat for one meal a week, but beef only once a month because it’s apparently the worst, environmentally speaking.  Other than that we would abide by a strict vegetarian (though not vegan…eggs and dairy are allowed) diet.

Since then, 2 months in, I’ve got to tell you, it has been surprisingly easy and I feel really healthy and good about it.  Here are some ways that my eating habits have changed (or not):

  • I order vegetarian meals in restaurants (easy)
  • I don’t eat fast food (a little tough at first, but there’s no way I’m wasting a precious beef credit on a Big Mac, now it’s easy)
  • I never realized how many hoagies I ate.  On average, I probably ate between 2 and 3 hoagies a week before.  Now I eat more peanut butter sandwiches, potato chips and fruit.  (moderately hard)
  • I eat tofu sometimes, like in a delicious stir-fry (easy)
  • I’ve been a recipe experimenter for a long time now, and if anything, contrary to what you might think considering that a vegetarian diet only reduces the number of ingredients I have to work with, my diet has grown more interesting, because instead of getting stuck in the old beefporkchickenpastabeefporkchickenfish rut, I’m trying all sorts of new recipes.  (fun and easy)
  • I’ve experienced no loss of energy; if anything, I feel less sluggish than I used to
  • I save money, especially on lunches, which I can then spend on expensive steaks once a month

So anyway, so far so good.  There’ve been only four or five minor slip-ups so far between my friend and I, and already I think we’re having a positive impact on the environment.  Just kidding, but seriously, significantly reducing the amount of meat I eat has been surprisingly easy for me and it’s delicious. 

There’s still four months ago, but I have a feeling that the eating habits I’m developing now will extend beyond Guy Fawkes’ day.

BONUS: Make this.  It’s easy, customizable, and you will like it.

Monday, July 5, 2010

“One long racking chronicle of change”* (in a good way): A Review of Schismatrix Plus

3742-1Title: Schismatrix Plus
Author: Bruce Sterling
Year: 1996, the collection published; 1982-1985, the novel and stories;
Rating: 3.5/5 levels of
prigoginic complexity
Cyberpunk, Sci-fi-losophy, New Space Opera
Back Cover:

In the last decade Bruce Sterling has emerged a pioneer of crucial, cutting-edge science fiction, his work lauded by critics and contemporaries alike.  Now for the first time in one volume comes every word Bruce Sterling has ever written on the world of the Schismatrix—where the Shaper revolutionaries struggle against the aristocratic Mechanists for ultimate control of mankind’s destiny.  Experience the classic full-length novel, Schismatrix, plus thousands of words of mindbending short fiction from a storytelling master in overdrive.  It’s tough.  It’s timeless.  It’s vintage Sterling.

Despite growing up as a fan of science fiction in the 1980’s and 90’s, I managed to avoid for the most part the science fiction of the 1980’s and 90’s.  My dad bought a lot of sci-fi in the decades before I was born, and my tendency was always to head out to the garage rather than the library when I needed something fun to read.

As a result, Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix is one of the only “cyberpunk” novels I’ve ever read.  (Film and television is a different story, of course.  I’ve seen loads of movies that you’d characterize as cyberpunk and/or that were based on cyberpunk novels.)  On the other hand, Schismatrix and the other stories included in this volume don’t necessarily strike me as ordinary cases of the genre. 

Certainly, Schismatrix is a novel that explores the way that technology might dissolve political and social institutions as well as the “natural” cohesion of the human species, which is (according to Wikipedia) a common trope of cyberpunk works, yet whereas most examples of the genre take place on some dystopic, near-future earth, Sterling’s novel is set almost entirely in outer-space habitats over the 200 years between 2186 and 2386 (the life-span of its main protagonist, Abelard Lindsay). 

Furthermore, while it may be typical for cyberpunk authors to borrow stylistic cues from the detective and noir archives, Schismatrix seems, especially in the first third of the novel, to borrow heaviest from the swashbuckling adventure tales that informed the space opera sub-genre of sci-fi’s golden age (or, what may be more likely, Sterling is borrowing directly from that sub-genre).

Indeed, the plot of the first part of the novel, in which the hero, a young and rebellious aristocrat, is betrayed by his best friend, subsequently exiled from his homeland and stripped of his high status, and must rely only on his wits and charm to survive all manner of dangers ranging from assassins to space-pirates, reads almost like something out of The Count of Monte Cristo or Kidnapped. 

What all that swashbuckling serves as a vehicle for, however, is Sterling’s fantastic speculations about the various forms that human life and society may adopt as those forms, with the help of gene manipulation, surgery, drugs, and cybernetic prosthetics, grow ever less constrained by accident and ever more into the deliberate manifestations of our ideals. 

The two main “factions” of post-humans, mentioned in the back-cover blurb, are the Shapers and the Mechanists.  The Mechs accept the accidents of birth but accoutre their bodies with all manner of prosthetics, monitors, optic implants, seratonin drips, etc. to make up for and exceed any imagined lack.  The Shapers, on the other hand, aren’t so much born as made, having opted to make intelligence and planning rather than mechanical advantage their forte.  Designed from the gene up to be not only free of defects and beautiful but also super-intelligent, Shapers typically undergo rigorous training programs to develop their mental skills and ingest complex drug cocktails to enhance their senses and focus their minds.

The technologies employed by each of these factions are not incompatible with each other, of course, and most of Sterling’s characters operate outside of pure Shaper or pure Mechanist designations.  On the contrary, what keeps the two groups distinct and at each others throat throughout much of the novel is no more or less than ideology.  The Shapers, for example, in addition to their skill-acquisition programs, also endure ideological conditioning that prejudices them against the Mechanists.  They are made to view with disgust the flawed, stinking bodies of the “unplanned.”

But if there is one ideology described within the text that seems to rule them all then it must be the Posthumanism that Abelard Lindsay ultimately advocates.  Borrowing terminology (if not the actual science) of Ilya Prigogine’s theories of complex systems, Sterling characterizes Posthumanism as a schema that organizes existence not in terms of species, race, or function but in terms of complexity.  Specifically, the text describes four levels of complexity and speculates on a fifth.  The first is the simplicity of the primordial, pre-causal, pre-continuum universe.  The second level of complexity is Space-time.  The third is Life and the fourth is Intelligence. 

The political agenda of those in the novel who espouse posthumanism is to engender leaps to ever higher levels of complexity, hence their advocacy for such large-scale projects as terraforming Mars (thereby “catalyzing” the Third Prigoginic Leap from inert matter to amoebic life).


While Schismatrix and the other stories collected in this book are far from literary masterpieces, they are nevertheless imaginative and engaging works that I highly recommend, particularly to the reader who may be interested in the limits of humanity and the constraints of ideology, which are often one in the same.


* from p. 214:

The history of the Schismatrix was one long racking chronicle of change. The population had reached nine billion. Within the Ring Council, power had slipped from the narcotized hands of the Zen Serotonists. After forty years of their reign, new Shaper ideologues embraced the aggressive schemes of visionary Galacticism.

The new creed had spread slowly. It was born in the interstellar embassies, where ambassadors broke human limits in their struggle to grasp alien ways of life. Now the Galacticist prophets stood ready to abandon humanity entirely, to achieve a Galactic consciousness where mere loyalty to species was obsolete.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Like the Da Vinci Code (but without the Stupid Puzzles): a Review of The Dead Man’s Brother

cover_big Title: The Dead Man’s Brother
Author: Roger Zelazny
Year: 2009 (written ~1971)
Rating: 2/5 phallic machetes
Categories: Unchallenging Thriller, Male Fantasy
Back Cover:

Once an art smuggler, now a respectable art dealer, Ovid Wiley awoke to find his former partner stabbed to death on his gallery floor.  That was strange enough—but when a CIA agent showed up to spring him from NYPD custody, things got a lot stranger.

Now the CIA is offering to clear up the murder charge, but only in return for a favor: They want Ovid to fly to Vatican City and trace the trail of a renegade priest who has gone missing with millions in church funds. What’s the connection? The priest’s lover, a woman Ovid knew in his smuggling days…

When I was about 13 years old, I found a collection of short stories in the library of the Catholic school I attended that contained something that you could almost consider a sex scene.  The collection was Unicorn Variations and the thrill of juvenile transgression it engendered—that sweet, hot blush of shame that only the lapsed Catholic could ever understand—seems to have transformed me into a Zelazny fan for life.  So when I heard that a previously undiscovered Zelazny manuscript, unpublished for close to 40 years, was going to see a posthumous printing thanks to the excellent Hard Case Crime series, there was never any doubt that I was going to read it.  You could hardly even call it a choice…more of a compulsion.  A wicked sin I was helpless to resist.

Zelazny won 6 Hugo Awards and 3 Nebula Awards for his science-fiction, and as far as I’m concerned, he deserved them all.  But early on in my enjoyment of his work, it had become obvious to me that there were almost two Zelaznys.  There was the experimental Zelazny, the student of literature, who used his novellas and novels to explore themes like mortality, will, and our relationship to myth and story, who tested the limits of his genre and helped to define the New Wave of American sci-fi in the late 60’s and early 70’s, AND THEN there was the indulgent, five-finger-exercise Zelazny, who (imaginatively, at least) articulated the rambling adventure fantasies of 13 year old boys.

The Dead Man’s Brother, though it was allegedly penned shortly after such masterpieces as Lord of Light and Isle of the Dead, was regrettably written by that latter, lesser Zelazny who vomited up such guilty pleasures as Damnation Alley and a good portion of The Amber Chronicles

While Zelazny often made a point to walk the line between sci-fi and fantasy, The Dead Man’s Brother is the only published crime novel he ever wrote.  I’m not sure if I hope there are more undiscovered crime novel manuscripts or not.  I’d read them, of course.  The problems with the novel, however, do not stem from any lack of familiarity or facility with the genre.  In some respects, Zelazny’s writing style is extremely well-suited to crime.  His heroes have always been a bit hard-boiled.  They’re often noir-ish, selfish smartasses who won’t hesitate to deliver a cheap shot if given the chance.  They’re often motivated by revenge when it does not conflict with self-preservation. 

The problem with the novel is that there isn’t anything to it except the selfish smartass.  The plot (which consists of the hero tracking down, under duress from a blackmailing CIA agent, a renegade priest who has disappeared deep into the Brazilian jungle with loads of Vatican cash) moves along quickly enough but without any real development.  The hero is the same at the end as he was at the beginning.  No literary experimentation.  No genre deconstruction.  No intellective engagement.  None of the characteristics that identify a novel as Zelazny operating at his peak, and at about 250 pages, especially for a slow reader like myself, you could hardly categorize The Dead Man’s Brother as a quick read.

So read it if you’re a fan of the author or a 13 year old boy, but otherwise you should probably steer clear.

NB I’m not making any excuses for the retro cover art painted by Chuck Pyle for Hard Case Crime, though.  That’s unconditionally awesome.

Goal: Post more reviews (like at least one a week).

the-road-to-success In my post yesterday, I mentioned that I had a number of reviews to type up, and what I meant by that was that I read a lot of novels and watch a lot of movies and tv--(those are basically some of the main things I do and in my more despairing moments it seems to me that the supreme good of my education has been merely that I have learned how to be entertained)--and I’ve been thinking about posting reviews of what I read and watch more regularly, both to help me develop better habits of reflection and also because it seems to me that a blog should provide some kind of service.  While I confess to having fairly narrow interests and some unusual tastes, I think that the reader who might share those interests and tastes to even a small extent might also appreciate my suggestions and recommendations.

I considered having something like “movie monday,” or “tv tuesday,” but I’m not quite ready for that kind of regularity.  If I can manage two non-quote blog posts a week on anything I’ll be happy.  What I will do in the interest of conformity is see if I can’t devise some categories (Thinkers, Fun Reads, etc.) and some kind of rating system.  We’ll play it by ear.