Friday Free for all #51: Shows, knowledge, tribes, lifespan

The next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here, are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

This week’s random questions started out rather mundane, but then immediately took a deep turn into the philosophical.

What shows are you into?

It depends on whether we’re talking right now, long time, or all time.

Right now, although it just ended, I got way more into WandaVision than I ever thought I would. I’m not a big fan of comic book movies and have only seen a handful of MCU films. I don’t think I’ve seen any of the DC films at all and have no desire to.

The only recent comic book film I’ve liked — although it’s really a graphic novel film — was Watchmen, and the TV mini-series sequel was also amazing.

Anyway, I went into WandaVision only kind of knowing about Vision from Infinity War, and not really knowing about Wanda at all, but the style and TV sitcoms through the ages conceit pulled me in immediately. But maybe that’s why I was into it — it was not like a typical comic book movie at all, and yet was very much like a comic book.

I’m watching The Mandalorian since I’m a huge Star Wars fan but, honestly, near the latter third of the second season, it’s getting slow and very redundant. Mando wants a thing. Someone can get it for him, but he has to do some impossible mission first. He succeeds, and they either pay up or send him off to someone else. Lather, rinse, repeat. And Grogru is not cute. He’s annoying. But that’s probably the point.

Another series I’m currently into is a slightly older British comedy I just discovered thanks to Amazon Prime called Plebs. It’s set in Rome in 26 B.C.E. and revolves around the lives of three young roommates (well, two roommates and a slave) who’ve just moved to Rome to find fame, fortune, and nookie.

The three are Stylax (Joel Fry), Marcus (Tom Rosenthal), and Grumio (Ryan Sampson). Marcus has the hots for a neighbor, Cynthia (Sophie Colquhoun), while Stylax has the hots for everyone female. Grumio is probably asexual. It’s wonderfully anachronistic fun with a Reggae/Ska soundtrack, and each half-hour episode brilliantly weaves together the A and B stories so that the complications of one become the solutions to the other and vice versa.

Moving on to long-time fan brings us, of course, to Doctor Who. I’m principally a fan of the modern revival, having been with it from the beginning — and it’s hard to believe that was about sixteen years ago now. Damn.

I tend to be a fan of British shows and not American ones, so throw Red Dwarf, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, QI, Ab Fab and Are You Being Served? into the mix. The only American shows I can think of that I’ve really watched religiously are some Fox Sunday night animated series — The Simpsons (up to a point), Family Guy, American Dad, and Futurama. Sometimes King of the Hill but never Bob’s Burgers.

While I love Archer, Bob’s Burgers never grabbed me mainly because the aesthetic of it is just so visually unappealing and, dare I say, ugly.

As for live-action American broadcast TV, I’ll always be a fan of SNL through thick and thin, mainly because it’s always existed and even during those seasons it’s been more miss than hit, it’s still just an institution by this point. And it’s just Sofa King funny when it gets it right.

Besides, it’s only 12 years younger than Doctor Who.

Does knowledge have intrinsic value or does it need to have a practical use to have value?

I do believe that knowledge in itself does have intrinsic value, although it’s hard to imagine any bit of knowledge that doesn’t by definition have a practical use. If I tell you that stove burners are hot during and for a while after use and can burn you, you’ll automatically know not to put your hand on one, so there’s the practical use coming directly from the knowledge.

“The square root of 5 is approximately 2.236” might seem like just knowledge for its own sake, but if you ever run across a problem in geometry involving a dimension of 5 units on the side of any quadrilateral or triangle, or as the radius or diameter of a circle, this knowledge can come in handy as a practical shortcut to doing equations based on same.

Knowledge is sort of like DNA in that regard. You can gather it up on its own and store it, but when you need to unpack it, the practical use will reveal itself to have been there all along.

Was the agricultural revolution and the explosion of civilizations that came from it an overall good thing for humans or a negative? In other words, would it have been better or worse for people to stay in small tribes?

It was hands down absolutely a good thing. Tribalism overall is bad for humanity. It divides us into us and them groups, and it’s why the early history of humankind is full of one empire conquering and enslaving another because they worshipped different deities or spoke different languages.

Yes, those were post agricultural societies, but they were dragging traditions from the past with them, and they eventually moved on. For example, while Rome did conquer other territories, they did not do it seeking to destroy the culture. Rather, they would defeat a rival kingdom and make them this offer: “Join us, pay your taxes, and you get to be Roman citizens but keep your local culture and language.”

Kind of an enlightened form of conquer and control, really. Not ideal, but progressive for the time.

But if we had never developed agriculture and built cities, we would have remained wandering tribes battling directly over resources. And without the protection of cities, every tribal group would be wide open to attack by every other one.

So, sure, we had growing pains during the transition, but ultimately we got past the “conquer everything that isn’t us” phase, and cities allowed us to live in safer, larger communities that prospered largely due to economy of scale.

That is, the more stuff you’re able to produce at once and the more people you can distribute it to right away, the cheaper it is per unit to make it. It’s the difference between a carpenter who might make one or two tables a week for specific customers, and so charges the equivalent of two or three days’ wages for each one, and a factory that makes thousands of tables a day to sell to thousands of customers a week, so can afford the machines and workers to bring the cost per table down to maybe two (hu)man-hours each, but also at a much lower hourly rate than the carpenter.

If we’d stayed with small tribes, humanity would have died out five thousand years ago. Of course, we need to move on to the next step desperately — and that is realizing that all human on Earth are part of one tribe only.

We may have different languages, and religions, and customs, but those are just window dressing. Underneath it all, we are one species sharing one planet, and we damn well need to start acting like it.

What we really need are no more borders and the sharing of resources equally around the planet. Think of it as the Roman system on a global scale. You get to be part of Community Earth as long as you pay your taxes, but you get to keep your local languages and customs.

And then everyone and the whole planet benefits.

How would humanity change if all humans’ life expectancy was significantly increased (let’s say to around 500 years)?

This is kind of a nice extension of the previous question, and it reminds me of what Timothy Leary referred to as the SMI2LE program for the future survival of the human race.

SMI2LE was his acronym for Space Migration, Intelligence Increase, and Life Extension, and it was how we were going to leave this Pale Blue Dot and conquer at least the solar system, if not the galaxy.

Ignoring Intelligence Increase for the moment, it’s clear that Space Migration really requires Life Extension. The alternatives are so-called “Generation Ships,” but those would be a very hard sell, because you’d be asking people to sign on, start and raise a family in space, and die knowing that their kids, grandkids, and five or six generations after that will only ever know life on that ship and die before reaching any kind of destination.

It also means somehow managing to support multiple generations and hence more and more people with finite resources on an artificially created world. And the more massive you make it in order to carry supplies or some form of sustainable ecosystem, the more difficult it is to accelerate it to the speeds you need to reach a destination within fewer than a dozen human lifetimes.

So if we did manage to extend the human lifespan to 500 years, we could streamline the process, creating smaller ships designed to carry crews of a couple hundred people instead of thousands or hundreds of thousands, then figure out how to induce sterility in those people until they reached their destination.

We’d also have to figure out how to keep them entertained, keeping in mind that we could only update their onboard data for so long before they were moving away too fast for it to be efficient anymore.

Remember — since we’re talking five hundred year lifespans, we probably have time to almost approach superluminal speeds, but when the ship is moving that fast, we add in a sort of time travel factor. At 99 percent the speed of light, one year in time on the ship would be equal to just over seven years on Earth.

If they hit that point halfway out, at about 250 years, then they’re suddenly going to have lifespans that are technically two millennia as far as Earth is concerned. But by that point, communication with home is impossible.

Well, not entirely. They can send the message, but chances are that the civilization that receives it will be so divorced from the origin that they won’t understand it, if a civilization exists at all.

That’s really one of the downsides of sending off those space pioneers for the long haul, really. We can watch them go for a long time, but then they vanish over the horizon and eventually are forgotten once we can no longer communicate with them.

That even applies if people down here live to be 500 years old, but the time between message and answer stretches to suddenly be weeks, then months, then years.

Not having the advantage of time dilation, the Earth-bound Methuselahs die out while their compatriots in space get another 1500 years. And, even then, there’s no guarantee that they will find either an inhabitable planet at their destination or sentient life with an advanced culture.

Okay, kind of depressing, but there’s this: Just over 500 years ago, our European ancestors grew a set and started exploring. It was dangerous. It took a long time. Lots of people died. But they discovered a new world.

Sure, they brought slaves, killed the natives, and were generally assholes, but the point is that they wouldn’t have known that the place existed if they hadn’t looked.

With a lifespan equivalent to someone having been born a generation or two after Columbus sailed off to rape the New world but surviving to today, we might actually have incentive to dare exploring the much wider and deeper oceans of space that surround our tiny planet in all directions.

The only enemies would be the harshness of space itself and boredom. But considering that it would only take a few petabytes to store all human knowledge and records to date and send it along, I really don’t think that boredom would be a problem.

Hell, it could become a long-form broadcast — pick a starting year about five hundred years before launch, then recap the news and events as known a day at a time, in real time. Fill out with literature, history, and whatever related to those events, ta-da. Instant history, instant education, which brings us back to I2 — intelligence increase.

With all of human knowledge and art readily at hand and so much time to fill, these ships would become flying universities with learning as an ongoing constant. Make them self-sustaining biospheres — which they’d have to be.

Then, use 3D printer manufacturing for food and all manner of implements and art, recycle everything over and over, and don’t forget that food waste can give you organic raw materials to make things like paint, glue, and so on.

Finally, accelerating at a constant 1G will slowly build up tremendous speeds. Meanwhile, everything toward the back of the ship becomes “down” and you have a semblance of gravity.

The tricky part is when you hit half way and begin to decelerate, but this just means that you have to have an “up” and “down” version of everything, because once you start decelerating at 1G, that means that suddenly the front of the shup becomes “down.”

Still, it’s probably better than no semblance of gravity at all, because over that many years, that’s not going to do any human any good. Wall-E had a lot of truth in that regard. People would lose bone and muscle mass and wind up with all kinds of problems from fluid constantly accumulating in their heads and faces.

Not a good look. And if you’re going to live to be 500 or more, the last thing you want to do is look anywhere near that old before maybe the last twenty years or so.

Fangry

I originally posted this article back in May of 2019, when the latest fan outrage erupted over a demand to “re-do” the final season of Game of Thrones, a year after the call to do the same for The Last Jedi. Well? Guess what? Plus ça change. Earlier this year, angry fands made similar demands for a re-cut of The Rise of Skywalker. So far, none of these do-overs have happened.

Until now.

Coming in 2021: the fan-demanded Zack Snyder cut of Justice League, and I can’t help but think the only reason that it’s happening is because of the industry being shut down due to COVID-19. Plenty of execs and post-production people with nothing but time on their hands, no new product, and certainly no blockbusters. The top-grossing film of the 2nd quarter, The Wretched, made $4,751,513 at the box office, a giant flop by any other standard.. Top film so far of the 3rd quarter is Unhinged, at a slightly better $14,121,709

But, to me, the craziest part about it is this first trailer for the recut. Now, if you’re a fan of Watchmen and saw the original and/or Snyder cuts of the first film, the song they used here is… well, an interesting choice, to say the least. Considering that the original Watchmen book was itself a parody of the original DC characters but playing on lesser-known knock-offs from a then (1984) defunct brand, it’s a weirdly interesting full circle.

But by all means, watch the trailer first, then read my article. You won’t regret either. I hope.


Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard about the petition started by fans demanding a re-do of Season 8 of Game of Thrones, and this may have given you a flashback to last year, when fans of Star Wars demanded the same thing in the same way for The Last Jedi. Hm. Oddly enough, that was Episode VIII, but I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.

Of course, there’s no chance in hell that any of this is going to happen. Personally, if I were one of the producers on the receiving end of that petition, my response would be, “Okay, sure. Season 8 cost $90 million. When I checked, 218,141 of you signed the petition. So if each of you sends us $412.56, we’ll do it.” (Note: I am not going to link to the petition at all, and the reasons why not should become obvious shortly.)

This is called “putting your money where your mouth is,” although I’m sure that many of these fans who are complaining are either torrenting the series illegally or sharing HBO to Go passwords with each other, which just makes it more infuriating.

As an artist, nothing galls me more than armchair quarterbacking from the fans. Note that this is different than critiquing. If a fan sees one of my plays or reads one of my books and says, “I really didn’t like how the story played out,” or “I couldn’t relate to the lead character,” or similar, than that is totally valid. But as soon as a fan (or a critic) gets into, “It should have ended like this,” or “I would have written it like that,” or “this character should have done this instead,” then you’ve gone over the line.

Note, though: Professional critics do not do this. That’s what sets them apart from angry fanboys.

Thanks to the internet, we’ve moved into this weird area where what used to be a consumer culture has morphed into a participatory culture. Sorry to go Wiki there, but those are probably the most accessible ways in to what are very abstract concepts involving economics, marketing, and politics.

There are good and bad sides to both, which I’ll get to in a moment, and while the latter has always been lurking in the background, it hasn’t become as prevalent until very recently. Again, not necessarily a bad thing, but it needs understanding and context to work.

So what do we mean by consumer and participatory? The short version is “buy stuff” vs. “give stuff.” A consumer culture focuses on getting people to spend money in the pursuit of having a better life in a capitalist economy. Its marketing mantra is, “Hey… you have problem A? Product X will solve it!” It is also aimed at large groups based on demographics in order to bring in the herd mentality. Keeping up with the Joneses writ large. “Everybody is doing it/has one!”

Ever wonder why people line up down the block at midnight in order to get the latest iPhone or gaming console on the day it comes out? It’s because they have been lured, hook, line, and sinker into consumer culture. But here’s the thing people miss, or used to miss because I think we’re becoming a bit more aware. Because demographics are very important to consumer culture, you are also a product. And if some corporation is giving you something for free — like Google, Facebook, Instagram, etc. — then you are the only product.

Participatory culture is one in which people do not just buy, watch, or read the products, but in which they give input and feedback, and the rise of the internet and social media has pushed this to the forefront. Ever commented on a post by one of your favorite brands on how they could make it better? Ever snarked an elected official for whom you’re a constituent? Ever blasted a movie, show, or sketch in a mass media corporation’s website? Congratulations! That’s participatory culture.

As I mentioned above, it’s not new. In the days before the internet, people could always write letters to newspapers, legislators, corporations, and studios. The only difference then was that it was a bit harder — physically creating the message, whether with pen and paper or typewriter, then putting it in an envelope, looking up the address via dead tree media, taking the thing to a post office, putting a stamp on it, and dropping it off.

Phew. That’s some hard work. Now? Fire up Twitter, drop an @ and some text, click send, done.

And, again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’ve had more direct responses from my own elected officials to my social media comments than I ever did back in the days of mail of the E or snail variety only. The mail responses were always form letters with the subtext of, “Yeah, we get this a lot, we don’t care, here’s some boilerplate.” Social media doesn’t allow for that because it becomes too obvious.

But where participatory culture goes too far is when the fans turn it into possessory culture. Again, this isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s only become more common because being a participant and not just a consumer has become so much easier.

Here’s the anecdotal part. I’ve spent a lot of my working career in the entertainment industry, particularly film and television, and a lot of that dealing directly or indirectly with fans. And one thing that I can say for certain is that people who aren’t in the industry — termed “non-pro” by the trades and often called “muggles” by us — don’t have a clue about how it all works.

If you don’t know what “the trades” are, then you probably fall into the muggle category. Although it’s really a dying term, it refers to the magazines that covered the industry (“the trade”) from the inside, and which were read voraciously every day — principally Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and Billboard.

But I do digress.

In college, I interned for a game show production company, and one of my jobs was reading and properly directing fan mail, or replying to it with one of a dozen form letters they had printed out en masse, because yes, the questions or complaints were so predictable. One of the big recurring themes was the mistaken belief that the host of the game show personally wrote, directed, edited, and selected contestants for the entire thing. Yeah, no. Unless the host was an executive producer (and the only example that comes to mind is Alex Trebek, for whom I almost worked), then the only thing the host did was show up for the taping day, when they would do five half-hour shows back to back.

And so… I would read endless letters with sob stories begging the host to cast them, or complaints about wanting them to fire one or another guest celebrities, or, ridiculously often, outright requests for money because reasons (always from red states, too), prefiguring GoFundMe by a decade or two.

A lot of these letters also revealed how racist a lot of Americans were then (and still are) and yes, the response to that crap was one of our most sent-out form letters.

This pattern continued though, on into the days of the internet and email. When I worked on Melrose Place, we would constantly get emails telling the stars of the show things like, “I hated what you did to (character) in that episode. Why are you such a bitch?” or “Why don’t you change this story line? I hate it.”

Really? Really.

Gosh. I guess I never realized that scripted TV had so damn much improv going on. Yes, that was irony. And here’s a fun fact: While a lot of it may seem like it’s improv, SNL is actually not, and doing improv there is the quickest way to never get invited back.

At least those comments were much easier to respond to. “Thank you, but Heather Locklear does not actually write her parts, she only performs them. We will pass your concerns on to the producers.” (Which we never did, because, why?)

Still… misguided but fine. And even things like fan fiction are okay, because they aren’t trying to change canon so much as honor it — although it can sometimes spin off the rails, with Fifty Shades of Gray being the ur-example of a fangirl turning a Twilight fanfic into a super dumpster fire of bad writing and terrible movies and still somehow making a fortune off of it — the perfect storm of participatory culture turning around to bite the ass of consumer culture. I’m not sure whether that’s good or bad, but if anybody did this to my work, I’d probably want to punch them in the throat.

Of course, there are always textual poachers, who approach fanfic from a slightly different angle. Their aim isn’t to make their own fortune off of rewriting stuff. Rather, it’s to, well, as a quote from the book Textual Poachers says, “Fan fiction is a way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of owned by the folk.”

So that’s perfectly fine. If you’re not happy with how Star Wars or Game of Thrones turned out, then write your own damn version yourself. Do it on your own time and at your own expense, and enjoy. But the second you’d deign to try to demand that any other artist should change their work to make you happy, then you have lost any right whatsoever to complain about it.

castle-rock-misery-stephen-king

Don’t be Annie Wilkes. Stephen King knew that.

See how that works? Or should I start a petition demanding that the other petition be worded differently? Yeah. I don’t think that would go over so well with the whiny fanboys either.

The perception of art is completely subjective while the creation thereof is completely under the artist’s control. If you don’t like it, don’t look at it, don’t watch it, don’t buy it. But, most of all, don’t tell the artist how they should have done it. Period. Full stop.

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