SHORT RANTS FOURTEEN

THE HISTORY CHANNEL

What has happened to the History Channel lately? They used to be a class act, but lately they've been airing a bunch of junk.

First we have "Digging for the Truth." At least two of the episodes, one on the lost ark and one on the holy grail are thin reiterations of old Nova specials. The crew goes to the same sites, interviews the same experts and follows the path blazed by the Nova shows. This in itself is a little cheap and lazy, but not really shameful.

The embarassing part is that the producers have hired a stooge to dress up like Indiana Jones and walk us through the sites. Not faulting him. He's just earning a paycheck. But then they show him going up hillsides and down paths with the shaky camera work trying to make his every step look fraught with peril, when in the previous specials we know he's traveling maintained paths in national parks and such. They're trying to create the impression that this crew is facing dangers and making discoveries. It's okay for a fictional account or a recreation, but to overlay real science with such obvious claptrap cheapens the science and scholarship beneath.

Perhaps the most telling example is when the host is taken into a medieval church in England he comments, "This is great, very Hollywood." The guide patiently corrects him, "No, it's real."

On another Nova rip-off the host waxes philosophical about how he feels he's really getting personally to know the man who was the frozen alpine ice mummy. Bonding, are we? Again these guys obscure and confuse the science with their emotional responses. Oprah handles all the stuff about your feelings. Maybe the Llifetime channel. You say you're Digging for the Truth. So stick to the facts.

The same bunch puts together an underwater series that does pretty much the same thing, retracing the steps of better shows and acting like that they are making the discoveries themselves.

In one early episode the Deepsea Detectives team is searching for the opening to a flooded cave in south Florida. The host says (I paraphrase), "We're going in search of the opening to the cave. We have to be careful. The jungle is very dense and we could get lost." The first point that needs to be made is the host is being taken directly to the opening by the elderly south Florida couple who discovered the opening years before, so while saying they are "going in search of" the opening isn't exactly lying, the phrase does create a false impression that they are going to discover it for the first time.

I suppose saying "the jungle is very dense" is a subjective judgement, and I've never seen that part of Florida first hand; but on camera it didn't look dense at all. In fact, one of the elderly guides had to go a bit out off her way to find a vine she could hack with her machete. Instead of trying to present facts, the show tries to create impressions, overplaying the danger and adventure at the expense of the history. Think about it. How dangerous is it really if two retired Florida Grandgeezers with a GPS are taking them there?

And to say one could get lost isn't exact lying either. I guess strictly speaking it's possible to become lost just about anywhere. So they're not really lying. They're trying to create an impression. A distorted impression that makes them look better, smarter, braver than they really are. Maybe they shouldn't be called Deepsea Detectives. Maybe they should be called Deepsea Lawyers.

There used to be a great discussion series called "History Versus Hollywood" in which scholars discussed movies which were made on historical subjects. One of the best was attatched to the movie "Midway." This movie was run again recently, but was attended by a shorter, less interesting discussion with a couple of less distinguished, okay, younger, experts. The history channel did this rather than run or excerpt the better discussion.

There's no need to go into detail about the proliferation of shows about UFOs or Nostradamus, or the Bible Code on the History Channel. It's pulp Sci Fi junk. The subject can be treated seriously, as the recent ABC special "Seeing is Believing" showed, but the History Channel has been pushing the sensational and silly. This stuff should be on the Sci Fi channel.

Then they showed a documentary on a recently found manuscript of Hitler's follow up to Mein Kampf.

Come on.

Are we expected to believe that a 300-plus page manuscript by Hitler has gone undiscovered or unexamined and intact all this time? Who in history has had his personal papers more closely examined? And as valuable as something like this would be to a museum or a collector, who would have kept in under wraps all these years? I might be persuaded that somebody had found a fragment of a book or a few notes for a book or a packet of orders or an outline or some letters or something like that, but this is just ridiculous and I'm not buying it. This might be a shill for a crooked auction house.

The History Channel is losing credibility with all this fare. They used to have some good stuff and some not so good. Nowadays it's just cheap copies of better stuff, more semblance than substance.

03/02/2005

WHY IS THERE WAL~MART?

People get all bent out of shape at the hard-driving, expansive business strategies of the Wal~Mart organization. But if Wal~Mart vanished overnight, Target or Kmart or some new player would quickly assume the role of unstoppable retail juggernaut.

Wal~Mart isn't a unique business phenomenon. It's the supreme expression of the present retail paradigm -- the big store selling high volume at low margins. Giantism. Grocery stores are run that way these days. So are hobby stores. So are hardware stores. So are office supply stores. So are electronics stores.

Retail has been going this way for fifty years. Fifty years ago giant stores existed only in downtown areas of giant cities where large numbers of people could conveniently visit every day. That's how the giant store survives, by selling lots of stuff to lots of people.

You can't explain this to anybody born after 1970, but fifty years ago you didn't hop in the car and drive fifteen miles to the store just to get batteries for your radio. First, that would have seemed absurdly wasteful, and second, most families who had cars had only one car, and third, cars wore out quicker in the old days, so people were more thoughtful about putting wear on their cars. These days the warranty on a set of tires might be 50,000 miles. In 1960 you might have expected to put 5,000 miles on a set of tires, and a car with 50k miles on the odometer was ready to fall apart. Car owners rationed those miles and even sometimes walked to the store to preserve the wear and tear on the car. Crazy as it sounds, in every neighborhood there was a little store that sold little household items like pins and batteries and soap and buttons.

Under conditions like that Wal~Mart the way we know it today couldn't prosper. And in fact, fifty years ago Wall~Mart (Walton's Five and Dime) was one of those prosperous little stores.

So what is it about 21st Century that promotes the success of giant stores at the expense of little stores?

Everybody older than 16 has a car, and most of those cars are pickup trucks and SUV's. If you walk or take a bus to the store, your purchases are limited by what you can comfortably carry. If you've got a pickup or an SUV that's no longer a consideration, and the little store can now add a department selling larger items, bulk items, appliances.

It used to be that there was less processed food consumed. People made more frequent trips to the grocery store, often planning meals for a day or two and purchasing only the ingredients for those meals. People would buy pork chops this afternoon and cook them tonight. Tomorrow the Mrs. would walk to the corner store and come home with an armload of groceries for the next day.

Living like that is a rare luxury today, though at the time women felt the homemaker role terribly constraining. Imagine eating fresh food every day! So they fought to get out of the house and they won. Today double income is the norm and so is processed food, which is purchased in larger quantities at less frequent intervals and is carted home in the big standard American SUV.

So that's my guess as to why we have the giant retail stores -- universal access to large capacity haulage.

03/05/2005

WALKING STICKS

Every time I go hiking in the state parks I meet people who carry walking sticks. Kids love them and they've always got one that's big enough to encumber a grownup. Grownups have them, too, though not as often. Some walking sticks are improvised on the spot, found in the woods and broken to the right length to be discarded later or left at the trailhead at the end of the day. Some are nostalgic and hand-carved. Others are modern and synthetic. (Is Andy Rooney my real Daddy?) Some people carry two, like ski poles. I don't use a stick. They're extra weight. They're something extra swinging around for my feet to get tangled in. They're useless if you get off the trail, and they fill up your hands. In all my years of hiking I've never had occasion to wish that I had brought along a store-bought stick.

Of course what is wrong for me might be right for other people, and some people seem to think it's right enough to spend a couple hundred dollars on a pair of collapsible space-age polymer walking poles with grip tips and gore-tex bullet-proof lanyards.

If I'm to pay two hundred dollars for a damn stick, it had better do a magic trick right out of the Bible. It had better turn into a snake when I put it on the ground and back into a stick when I grab that snake by the head. It had better part the waters and tap dance, too, or I'm not bringing it along.

Sometimes when hiking I meet up with Forest Service personnel, timber company employees, Game and Fish officers and State Park people. These folks do a lot of walking in the woods as part of their jobs. If walking sticks were useful, they would use them. They don't. If walking sticks helped hikers carry heavier loads greater distances in shorter time with less fatigue, the military would use them. They don't. If you go into the woods with a matched pair of two-hundred-dollar graphite walking sticks, all you're doing is advertising that it's not all that hard to talk you out of two hundred dollars. And of course the guy who sold you those walking sticks also sold you a camelback hydration unit because you can't use a ten cent plastic water bottle when your hands are full.

All the people with matched modern polymer poles have something else in common. They all wear sunglasses and smell like a combination of lip balm, sunscreen and DEET.

(P.S. Now that I'm done ridiculing people who are trying to enjoy the outdoors, I should admit that when I first started hiking in earnest I myself bought my share of useless and expensive stuff from outffitters.)

03/08/2005

THE REPUBLICANS ARE AT IT AGAIN

The soldiers in Guard and Reserve Units serving in Iraq have had to interrupt their careers and take extended leaves from their jobs and lose income to fulfill their military obligations. Families with payments are being put into a tougher bind by the extended absence of the primary wage earner.

Now the Republicans want to make it harder for individuals to declare bankruptcy. If the activation of your unit makes you unable to pay your debts, the big financial institutions, who contribute heavily to the Republicans, will still be able to get at you.

That seems ironically ungrateful of the big financial institutions, given that those soldiers are fighting a war that started with an attack on the city that headquarters so many of those institutions. Some of those soldiers are avenging an attack against the very banks that are planning to foreclose on them.

Let me guess... "unintended consequences?" Right.

AND SPEAKING OF THE WAR AND MONEY

Two years ago, the American army siezed control of the second largest oil reserves in the world. Since then the price of gas at the American pump has doubled. The cost of a barrel of irony topped $54 today.

03/11/2005

MASSIVE SPONTANEOUS DEMONSTRATIONS ON TV

I've been noticing this for about the last twenty years or so. In some far flung corner of the world there's a massive spontaneous demonstration shown on the news. Of course these "spontaneous" demonstrators carry a hundred thousand identical flags and large placards of their views machine lettered in english, even if the demonstrators don't speak english. I saw this in the Lebanon demonstration today, in the Hesbollah demonstration that preceeded it, in the Ukraine demonstrations and going back as far as you care to go. Maybe some of the people showed up on the spur of the moment, but somebody coordinates the gear for these things.

03/14/2005

THE HISTORY CHANNEL AGAIN

I just watched the History Channel's program on the Coronado expedition. The thing was shot on location in the desert Southwest, where I'm sure there's no shortage of unemployed hispanic actors. In California alone there are probably thousands of reasonably well trained, educated and experienced hispanic actors ready to show up for work on any given day.

And yet it seems none of them were quite right for the roles of Spanish Soldier, Spanish Priest, Spanish Conquistador, Spanish Nobleman or evennnnnnnn SPANIARD. The entire Coronado expedition was represented by white guy actors.

I can understand a production might not want to spend the money to bring in enough authentic Frenchmen to reenact, say, the LaSalle expedition; but there are flocks of hispanic actors right on the doorstep of the location where the thing was filmed. The exclusion of the obvious choice makes the absurdity seem that much more deliberate. Maybe this production was used to return favors. A lot of times public absurdities are the result of favors.

I remember once seeing an old Charles Bronson movie. One character was a reporter named O'Malley who had an under five. The actor did a passable job given the disadvantage of being very very Jewish-looking. It looked like somebody called in a favor and didn't even go to the trouble of changing the character's name to fit the actor. But I digress.

The History Channel did a similar thing with one of the episodes of their "Breaking Vegas" series. The story revolved around a mostly Irish-American team of card counters. While all of the actual tem members were pretty obviously ethnicaly Irish in their onscreen interviews, none of the actors looked Irish, sounded Irish or had Irish sounding names. Same deal as with the Hispanic actors. It's like the History Channel is deliberately trying not to cast Irishmen as Irishmen or Hispanics as Hispanics. If they're this cheap and careless with their casting, I have to suspect they also cheap and careless with the facts.

So there's one more "huh?" for the formerly great History Channel. They got rid of Edward Herrmann and things got cheap. It's like student films over there these days. They really don't care any more.

(NOTE ADDED 3/30/2005) Subsequent episodes of the History Channel series "Conquest of America" are yards better than the first. While my comments on the Coronado episode are still valid, the high quality of the rest of the series causes me to soften my criticism. I once again have hope for this outfit.

OLD MONEY KNOWS THINGS

Rich people get what they want, and if they want something to not happen, that thing tends not to happen.

There are no fast food restaurants in Pulaski Heights. There's no discount store in Pulaski Heights.

RTJ -- 3/28/2005


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