The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Sunday, February 6, 2011
Current Affairs ... Science ...

I went over to the Radiolab web site not long ago as to listen to a few recent editions (since Radiolab is on the radio at odd times). About a year ago, I posted a review here about the Radiolab experience – a combination of brilliance and annoying presentation (too much time spent chuckling to jokes and puns that aren’t shared with the listener). The recent stuff is about the same; except that some of it lacks the quality science reporting that made Radiolab worth putting up with.

One short Radiolab piece focused on startling coincidences in people’s lives. And that was about it, other than a quasi-philosophical rumination based on an old Warner Bros cartoon (coyote versus roadrunner) as to whether you would prefer the universe to be against you or to totally ignore you. Maybe this was a hint that our minds have a propensity to make too much of our coincidences, and that coincidences don’t prove that the universe has a “meta-awareness” of us, that determines our luck and lot in life. But it this was left hanging, and no experts were brought out to talk about probabilities of life events or genetic propensities in our brains to seek patterns and trends, even when there are none. So,we get all of the Radiolab smarminess, but none of the hard scientific content. Radiolab-lite; oh, just what we need.

I regularly watch PBS’s Nova scienceNOW, a Radiolab-style version of the classic NOVA show hosted by astronomer Neil DeGrasse Tyson. And to be honest, Nova scienceNOW is getting more and more annoying too, in the Radiolab tradition. As to boost the entertainment content, they recently had Penn and Teller on, to help demonstrate how magicians use knowledge about people’s attention and brain processing to create amazing illusions. Penn and Teller on NOVA; ugh, not good. Actually, Penn Gillette on any show is not good (even though he seems a bit less unctuous as he ages).

Tyson is now doing more and more cute little “filler” pieces using costumes and scripted humor and cartoon blips. And his story correspondents (like Mo Rocca on the recent brain show, a political comedian who graduated from the Daily Show) keep getting less and less serious, throwing more tongue-in-cheek questions at experts and researchers when discussing the details of, say, a new laser sculpting device or a magnetic brain pulse inducer. The standards are going down at PBS; it seems like fewer and fewer serious NOVA’s are being made, being pushed aside by the magazine-article style NOW series. So: Radiolab and then Radiolab-lite, and now NOVA-lite. (Probably no coincidence that Robert Krulwich of Radiolab started NOVA scienceNOW and hosted its first season; and now Tyson obligingly slides down Krulwich’s tiny-attention-span path.)

And PBS has the nerve several times a year to demand payment (the dreaded “pledge campaigns”) and to make you feel like a schmucky freeloader if you don’t become a sponsoring member. With PBS’s new focus on diminishing attention spans, they are losing mine.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:36 pm      

  1. Jim, I agree with you. So many of the very good,”educational” programs, done in a most interesting way have somehow been “diluted” it seems to me. And it’s not only on the free PBS channels, which beg for money.

    Several cable channels (which are paid for) have gone the same way as the PBS programs have. E.g., the Discover Channel used to be truly a channel of discovering things. They had beautiful programs which were not only educational but also entertaining and interesting. Now, however, it sometimes seems the explosions of “Mythbusters” have taken over the entire channel. Yes, the Blue Planet programs were visually beautiful; but the narrative voice was another soporific.

    I was very interested in some programs on both the History Channel and the Travel Channel and various other cable channels. However, they were done in such a manner that they really conveyed very little information that caught one’s attention and obviously had not spent much on production values; again, I literally fell fast asleep while watching them. Well, at least they are good as a soporific.

    I find myself wondering: Do people in general really find such boring programs interesting? Or are these channels simply filling time and space on their TVwaves? It seems to me that the Discovery Channel is catering to the 14 year old boy (or maybe the 14 year old boy in men?) who loves to see things explode.

    At first I wonder if the whole thing is evidence of the sad educational level of young people today; my mantra for years has been: illiteracy is rampant in the land. But I wonder if maybe there is simply a change going on in how people will learn and be educated.

    Recently I heard that “nobody” writes cursive any more; “everybody” prints. What is one to make of that? Yes, I understand that smart phones are all about texting, and electronic books allow no room for writing in the margins of books. I wonder: Perhaps in 50 years the change in technology will cause a major difference in how the generations are educated and how education is passed on from generation to generation. But I can’t help but wonder if in the process of introducing such diluted materials education may suffer. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — February 8, 2011 @ 7:14 pm

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