(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘television

“Who is to say plutonium is more powerful than, say, rice?”*…

A mysterious illness killed princesses and sailors alike. Wellcome Collection/CC BY 4.0

In the late 19th century, a mysterious illness plagued the upper reaches of Japanese society…

In 1877, Japan’s Meiji Emperor watched his aunt, the princess Kazu, die of a common malady: kakke. If her condition was typical, her legs would have swollen, and her speech slowed. Numbness and paralysis might have come next, along with twitching and vomiting. Death often resulted from heart failure.

The emperor had suffered from this same ailment, on-and-off, his whole life. In response, he poured money into research on the illness. It was a matter of survival: for the emperor, his family, and Japan’s ruling class. While most diseases ravage the poor and vulnerable, kakke afflicted the wealthy and powerful, especially city dwellers. This curious fact gave kakke its other name: Edo wazurai, the affliction of Edo (Edo being the old name for Tokyo). But for centuries, the culprit of kakke went unnoticed: fine, polished, white rice…

The fascinating tale of kakke, and of the determined doctor who found a cure: “How Killer Rice Crippled Tokyo and the Japanese Navy,” in @atlasobscura.

* N.K. Jemisin

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As we opt for brown rice, we might recall that it was on this date in 1937 that Marcel Boulestin became the first “television chef” when he hosted the first episode of the first TV cooking show, the BBC’s Cook’s Night Out. A successful chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author, Boulestin helped popularize French cuisine in the English-speaking world (and was an important influence on Elizabeth David, and in turn, on Julia Child).

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“Although the world looks messy and chaotic, if you translate it into the world of numbers and shapes, patterns emerge and you start to understand why things are the way they are”*…

50 Sour Patch Kids (eXtreme brand)

Or in any case, you have some illuminating fun. Tim Urban decided to use Sour Patch Kids to explore scale…

This helps illustrate just how huge a number a trillion is. A trillion is important because it’s the largest number that comes up in day-to-day life. We come across a trillion mainly when it comes to the government and money, and it’s such a large number, a stack of a trillion tightly-packed Sour Patch Kids would cover a football field and be as high as a 30-story building.

Now we enter the realm of numbers that are normally impossible to conceptualize. Luckily, we have my idiotic Sour Patch Kids method to help.

Taking 1,000 of the football stadium-size trillion box above and arranging them in a 10 x 10 x 10 box with dimensions 1km x 1km x 1.5km, we now have 1 quadrillion Sour Patch Kids, covering most of Downtown Manhattan. A quadrillion is a thousand trillion, or a million billion, and written out, it’s 1,000,000,000,000,000.

For reference, I put the Empire State Building and the world’s tallest building, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, next to the box.

If you’re wondering, experts say that there are somewhere between one and ten quadrillion ants on Earth…

See all of the steps, illustrated, all the way to one nonillion, or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 Sour Patch Kids (which stretches about half the distance between the Earth and the moon, 384,400 km) at “What Does a Quadrillion Sour Patch Kids Look Like?“– part the “upsettingly large numbers” subset of the “Pointless Calculation” theme running through Wait But Why, from @waitbutwhy (Tim Urban).

Marcus du Sautoy

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As we count up, we might send motherly birthday greetings to Barbara Billingsley; she was born on this date in 1915. A film, television, voice, and stage actress, she is probably best remembered as June Cleaver in Leave it to Beaver (though her turn as “Jive Lady” in Airplane! is surely equally memorable).

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“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives”*…

On the history and impact of a seemingly simple service…

If I was to ask you what was the most important invention of the 20th century, you might mention the car, the television, the computer, or the internet. But there’s another invention that had such a huge impact on culture and society that people would organize their lives around it, and it drove the growth of multi-billion dollar industries. Despite this, most of us wouldn’t think of it as an invention at all, as it seems to have always just been there. So here’s a brief history of one of the most important overlooked inventions of modern times: the TV schedule…

The TV schedule organized the attention of millions of people at the same time, sharing the same experience, whether it was Richard Nixon sweating in a presidential debate, Neil Armstrong stepping foot onto the moon, or finding out who shot JR. These live, synchronous events created a kind of public sphere at a scale that had never been seen before, and we’re unlikely to see again. Sports are the only TV events that get close—on the list of most-watched US TV programs of all time, the only entries from the 2000s are Superbowls.

For nearly a century, a simple list, based around the hours of the day, structured the daily habits of millions of people, shaped the careers of politicians and celebrities, and powered a multi-billion dollar advertising industry. As we spend less time watching live TV, and more time on digital platforms, that power is now passing from the TV schedule to another way of organising our attention—algorithmic streams

Entertainment, technology, and shared experiences: “The TV Schedule Edition,” from Why Is This Interesting? (@WhyInteresting), by Matt Locke (@matlock).

(Image above: source)

* Annie Dillard

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As we tune in, we might recall that it was on this date in 1980 that Magnum, P. I. premiered on CBS; consistently highly-rated and the recipient of numerous Emmy and Golden Globe nominations and awards, it ran until 1988, and made a star of its lead, Tom Selleck.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

December 11, 2021 at 1:00 am

“H as in How in the World Are We Going to Escape?”*…

A treatise on the the letter “H,” on the occasion of its becoming an arbiter of class in the later 19th century…

In George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (1913), which inspired the musical My Fair Lady, a fictional linguist describes a phonetic endemic: missed employment opportunities due to the connotations of a person’s accent. Addressing the “many thousands of men and women who have sloughed off their native dialects and acquired a new tongue”, the professor insists that “the thing has to be done scientifically, or the last state of the aspirant may be worse than the first”. Shaw’s wit shows through in the near homonym: aspirations of social mobility, in this period, often included pronunciationary emulation — the breathy aitch sounds of aspirated consonants.

Alfred Leach, who Steven Connor, in Beyond Words, calls one of the “doughiest defenders of the h”, believed that English’s aspirated aitch (or rather, haitch) signaled a direct inheritance from Classical antiquity. In the pronounced h of words like “herb” — notably lacking from American English — he heard the “spiritus asper” of Hellenism. Leach was writing in a period when linguists began reflecting on the shifting history of aspirates and the role they played in indicating status, class, and education. These traits continue into our present day. The historian of language Henry Hitchings, whose own name is uncannily reminiscent of Shaw’s Henry Higgins, argues that the pronunciation of this letter is “still a significant shibboleth”, and quotes Leach’s contemporary, Oxford scholar Henry Sweet, who called it “an almost infallible test of education and refinement”.

Why so much huffing about the letter H? Throughout the nineteenth century, this aspirated sound was on the rise. At the end of the previous century, Received Pronunciation (RP) became known as the accent of aristocracy, leading to aspirational elocution guides like Poor Letter H (1854). While words like “hotel” had once been pronounced in the French style (oh-tell), English speakers had begun to exhale audibly, as if yawning at the continued Norman influence on British tongues. Leach led the charge against “English Grammarians” who “conspired to withhold from us the means of propitiating this demon Aspirate”. In The Letter H, he ridicules those he calls “H-droppers”, speakers whose phonetic errors seem to snowball: “lost H’s have a knack of turning up in wrong places, when they return at all”. Leach is prone to hyperbole — “the early aspirative labours of a converted H-dropper give birth to monstrosities” — and sneers at Cockney speech: “Horkney hoysters, ‘amshire ‘am, and ‘am and heggs”…

More, from Hunter Dukes (@hunterdukes) in @PublicDomainRev: “Aspirated Aspirations: Alfred Leach’s The Letter H (1880)

(image above: source)

* Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler), The Hostile Hospital

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As we ponder pronunciation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1961 that Coronation Street premiered in ITV in the UK. It holds the Guinness World Record for longest running soap opera.

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“Horror is a universal language; we’re all afraid”*…

The Exorcist

It’s that time of year again…

Why do so many people voluntarily seek out entertainment that is designed to shock and scare them? What do they get out of it? A thrill, a jolt to the nervous system – or is there something deeper going on?

Horror movies come in various forms, which can be divided into two main subgenres: supernatural ones (think of wailing ghosts, rotting zombies or mind-shattering abominations from forbidden dimensions), and the more psychological (your masked-serial-killers and giant-reptiles varieties). Common to them all is that they aim to evoke negative emotions, such as fear, anxiety, disgust and dread. They also tend to be enormously popular. According to a survey my colleagues and I conducted a few years ago, more than half of US respondents – about 55 per cent – say they enjoy ‘scary media’, including movies such as The Exorcist (1973), books such as King’s Salem’s Lot (1975) and video games such as Amnesia: The Dark Descent (2010).

What’s more, people who say they enjoy scary media really mean it. We also asked our respondents how frightening they wanted their horror to be. It might sound like a weird thing to ask – like asking how funny they want their comedies to be – but we wanted to test an old Freudian idea that the negative emotions elicited by the genre are unfortunate byproducts; a price that audiences are willing to pay in order to watch movies that allow them to confront their own repressed desires in monstrous disguise. But that’s not what we found. About 80 per cent of our respondents said they wanted their horror entertainment to be in the moderate-to-highly frightening range. By contrast, a measly 3.9 per cent said that they prefer horror that’s not scary at all.

So, fear and the other negative emotions are central to the appeal of horror, a fact not lost on the creators of horror entertainment. Surely you’ve seen movie trailers claiming to be ‘The scariest movie of all time!’ or promising to make you sleep with the lights on for weeks afterwards. More inventively, the US filmmaker William Castle once took out life insurance on his audience. If any audience member died from fear as they watched his movie Macabre (1958), their bereaved ones would receive $1,000 from Lloyd’s of London. (Nobody did die. But the gimmick surely drew more horror hounds to the picture.)

Unsurprisingly, given their appeal, horror movies are big business. In 2019, 40 new horror movies were released in North America, grossing more than $800 million in the domestic theatrical market alone. Likewise, the US haunted attractions industry is growing steadily, in 2019 generating up to $500 million in ticket sales. The following year, 2020, naturally saw lower numbers, but even in that year of COVID-19 lockdowns and empty movie theatres, horror movies broke all previous records in terms of market share. That development continued into 2021, with the horror genre now accounting for almost 20 per cent of the market share at the US box office. Evidently, people want scary entertainment, even when you’d think the real world was scary enough.

Despite the broad appeal of the horror genre, it is haunted by bias and prejudice. Many people, apparently, think that horror movies are dumb, dangerous or both – artistically unsophisticated, morally corrosive, and psychologically harmful, with a dubious appeal primarily for maladjusted teenage boys. But what does the science say?

Firstly, horror is not a particularly male genre. While boys and men are slightly more likely than girls and women to say that they enjoy horror, the difference is much smaller than many people seem to think. In our aforementioned survey, when we asked to what extent respondents agree with the statement ‘I tend to enjoy horror media’, on a scale from 1 to 5, men averaged at 3.50, whereas women averaged at 3.29.

Secondly, horror movies are not only watched by teenagers. Yes, the movies are often marketed to that audience, and the appetite for horror does seem to peak in late adolescence, but it doesn’t emerge out of the blue the day that kids turn 13, and it doesn’t disappear in older people either. An ongoing research project of ours is finding that the desire to derive pleasure from fear is evident even in toddlers, who universally enjoy mildly scary activities, such as chase play and hide-and-seek. Even old folks seem to enjoy the occasional thrill provided by mildly frightening media such as crime shows. The British crime drama Midsomer Murders (1997-) always seemed to me like light horror for seniors, with its eerie theremin theme tune and the inexplicably abundant, often startlingly grisly murders in the otherwise peaceful fictional Midsomer County.

Thirdly, there is no evidence that horror fans are particularly maladjusted, depraved or unempathetic. When my colleagues and I looked into the personality profile of horror fans, we found that they are about as conscientious, agreeable and emotionally stable as the average person, while also scoring higher than average on openness to experience (meaning that they enjoy intellectual stimulation and adventure). It’s true they do tend to score fairly highly on sensation seeking, which suggests that they tend to be easily bored and on the lookout for excitement. Maladjusted or depraved, though? Nope, no evidence.

If horror movies do not attract the maladjusted and the depraved, do they then create psychotic monsters? One might think so, judging from the moral panics that have surrounded the horror genre throughout its recent history, from Victorian-era concern over ‘penny dreadfuls’ – sensationalist, often spooky or grisly stories sold in cheap (one-penny) instalments – to modern-day media meltdowns over slasher movies…

There is no substantial evidence to support that concern – audiences know that what they are watching is fiction. The psychological effects of violent media are still discussed by scholars and scientists, but the ‘monkey see, monkey do’ model of media psychology has been severely criticised on methodological and empirical grounds, and now seems to have been abandoned by most experts. In fact, one recent study covering the period 1960-2012 in the US found that, as movie violence went up, real-world violence actually went down.

A taste for horror is natural and should not be seen as pathological. Kids who are attracted to monster comics such as Tales from the Crypt (1950-55) and The Walking Dead (2003-19) are perfectly normal, as are teenagers who love slasher movies or adults who enjoy haunted attractions. That taste makes good sense from an evolutionary perspective. People evolved to be curious about danger, and they use stories to learn about the world and themselves. Horror stories specifically allow them to imaginatively simulate worst-case scenarios and teach them about the dark sides of the world, and about the dark spectrum of their own emotional lives…

Horror movies… can function as inoculation against the stresses and terrors of the world. They help us improve our coping skills, and they might function as a kind of enjoyable exposure therapy. There is also some preliminary evidence to suggest that people who suffer from anxiety disorders can find comfort in horror movies, presumably because these movies allow them to experience negative emotions in controlled and controllable doses, practise regulation strategies, and ultimately build resilience.

In addition to those psychological benefits, there might be social benefits of watching horror movies. Consider how scientists of religion have puzzled over the prevalence of painful religious rituals. Why do people fire-walk and pierce themselves with sharp objects in religious contexts? Apparently, one major function is that such psychologically and/or physically painful behaviours strengthen group identity and make group members more altruistic toward each other. You go through a painful experience together, which reinforces group bonds. It’s a similar story for horror entertainment…

Horror movies have gotten a bad rap, but watching them has surprisingly wholesome effects: “Fear not,” from Mathias Clasen (@MathiasClasen), director of the Recreational Fear Lab (@RecFearLab) at Aarhus University in Denmark.

* “Horror is a universal language; we’re all afraid. We’re born afraid, we’re all afraid of things: death, disfigurement, loss of a loved one. Everything that I’m afraid of, you’re afraid of and vice versa. So everybody feels fear and suspense. We were little kids once and so it’s taking that basic human condition and emotion and just f*cking with it and playing with it. You can invent new horrors.” – John Carpenter (in a 2015 interview with Interview Magazine)

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As we shiver, we might send bracing birthday greetings to Robert Alphonse Picardo; he was born on this date in 1953. An actor probably most widely known known for his roles as Dr. Dick Richards on ABC’s China Beach; the Emergency Medical Hologram (EMH), also known as The Doctor, on Star Trek: Voyager; the Cowboy in Innerspace, Coach Cutlip on The Wonder Years (for which he received an Emmy nomination); and as Richard Woolsey in the Stargate television franchise.

But Picardo also has a distinguished resume in horror, having starred in The Howling (1981), Legend (1985), Munchies (1987), Bate’s Motel (1987), 976-EVIL (1988), Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990), Matinee (1993), Tales from the Crypt (episode: “Till Death Do We Part”), Masters of Horror (episode: “Homecoming”), Sensored (2009), Monsterwolf (2010), Supernatural (episode: “Clap Your Hands If You Believe”), Trail of Blood (2011), Don’t Blink (2014), and Mansion of Blood (2015).

Picardo serves as a Planetary Society Board Member and host of The Planetary Post.

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