Category: TV/Media

On The X-Files and stereotypes

Cult sci-fi shows, no matter how good they are, rarely elicit blog posts from me. The X-Flies episode Babylon though, which aired tonight in the UK, is different. It focussed on events after a terror attack in Texas, and it was decidedly controversial.

(Spoilers ahead)

For those who didn’t watch it (and are, for some reason, reading this) the show opened with a young Muslim man praying and going about his morning, before heading to pick up a friend (also male, young, and who spoke Arabic). They head to a building holding an art exhibition, and walk inside. The shot remains on the outside of the building momentarily, before the entire thing goes up in an explosion.

My immediate thought was that this would be a very interesting episode. Mulder and Scully would race to clear the names of our two Muslim victims, besmirched by a racist media who assumed they were suicide bombers. Over the course of the episode, they would find out how the ‘monster of the week’ – presumably with some kind of spontaneous combustion power – was responsible. There would be lots of opportunity to challenge stereotypes, and ultimately give a wholesome message, wrapped in the slightly quirky bundle fans have come to love.

I was sort of right.

There were plenty of stereotypes. The two Muslim guys weren’t falsely accused of being suicide bombers though, they actually were suicide bombers. And instead of a race to clear names, there was a race to find a ‘terror cell of dedicated Muslims’ somewhere in Texas, before more attacks were carried out. It was a plot that wouldn’t have looked out of place on Homeland – and I don’t mean that as a compliment.

Homeland, that is, if magic mushrooms were involved. The only way, it seemed, to find the terror cell was for Mulder to get high and have a literal religious experience (which in this case means line-dancing, mixed with Biblical re-enactments). Because, reasons.

The frustrating thing was, the overall aim seemed to be an intent to quash bad stereotypes. The racist characters were almost over the top enough to come across as ridiculous, and there were a few choice words from Scully and others that made for good lines. To cap it all off, in the closing minutes of the show Mulder and Scully have a semi-enlightened conversation that, it was clear, was meant to act as the ‘racism is bad, we should be looking to the root of the problem’ message.

It all missed the mark though.

Not only that, but the tone of the episode was all over the place. The seriousness of the issues of terror attacks and xenophobia, were heavily undercut by the comedic value of Mulder’s aforementioned trip, and the would-have-been-funny-in-any-other-episode inclusion of Agents ‘Miller’ and ‘Einstein’ – younger doppelgängers of Mulder and Scully. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a huge fan of the less serious episodes; the completely tongue-in-cheek and self-deprecating Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-Monster from a couple of weeks ago was my favourite episode in a long time. But that worked because the entirety of the episode was meant to be a light-hearted look at human nature. Babylon, by contrast, tried to add off-the-wall humour to an episode about a Muslim terrorist attack.

It’s a shame, really. The show spends so little time in the ‘real world’ that, on the occasions that it does so, it should really try harder to give a better quality of story. It was, as one tweeter put to me, a ‘wasted opportunity’. It’s not like this was the show’s first foray into story lines with a serious message. To varying degrees of conspicuousness, the writers over the years have put in themes of, amongst other things: environmentalism, humanitarianism, and gender equality. And that’s ignoring the general theme throughout that being open minded and accepting of ideas and values alien to you (if you’ll pardon the expression…) is objectively a good thing.

It’s always going to be difficult to write serious plot lines into an entertainment show – I understand that, and that they tried isn’t my issue. My problem is that everything about this episode screamed laziness, and when you’re tackling issues as charged and as weighty as racism, that is something you have absolutely no right to be.

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Some thoughts on The Apprentice

This year is the first in the 12 years of the BBC’s The Apprentice that I haven’t been watching. I’m not boycotting it or anything, but I have to say that I’m not missing it at all.

It’s weird because, on paper, it’s exactly my kind of show – a business competition; reality TV with an intellectual element. The Apprentice is also a show that I’m arrogant enough to think I would do well in, so there’s that element of yelling obnoxiously at the TV that you get with basically every TV Quiz show that isn’t University Challenge. I love that element of TV.

In fact, a few years ago there was a change to the format of The Apprentice that should have made it even more appealing. Instead of competing to win some obscure job deep in the unknown depths of an Amstrad subsidiary, contestants were gunning for the chance to win money and backing for their own start-up ventures.

It was great news, and entrepreneurs nationwide rejoiced. While there was a lot of speculation as to the ‘real’ reason for the shifting goalposts (most prominent perhaps, the lawsuit by a former Apprentice winner against Lord Sugar), Sugar’s outward reasoning was a strong one. He declared that he wanted to prove to everyone up and down the country that anyone can start a very successful business with a relatively small amount of money. It was, in his own way, a show of force for the enterprising community.

And herein lies my major gripe with the show. Its not that it has become a petty ratings driven hour of drivel. Its not that the show does a shocking job of portraying women in the workplace. And its not that the whole thing is now so formulaic you can predict the outcome from about 20 mins into the first episode.

The show inspires the next generation of entrepreneurs

No. While these are all damning indictments of the show, the issue I wanted to talk about is that the sum of money that people are competing for – the Holy Grail of proof that anyone can start a successful business regardless of circumstance – is £250,000.

Now I know that this, in the grand scheme of business – and certainly to someone like Lord Sugar – is in fact a relatively small sum of money. Its just that if the ‘new’ aim and direction of The Apprentice really was to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs to follow their passions, this seems a big number to jump for right out of the gate.

A counter argument I’ve heard to this train of thought is that the changing focus of the show isn’t to inspire more people to become entrepreneurs, but rather to encourage more people to see The Apprentice as an avenue to explore to that end. I’ll ignore the fact that, if true, this is a ridiculous aim, and instead focus on something else. Roughly the same number of people apply every year for a spot on The Apprentice as do for an undergraduate course at the University of Cambridge. Through the magic of statistics, you are therefore 600 times more likely to gain a place studying at arguably the most prestigious university in the world, than you are to become a contestant in any given year. 

The show acts as an education into the world of entrepreneurship

How about the fact that, just by watching it, you are getting to grips with business saavy that might otherwise escape you? 

On the face of it, this is perhaps not an entirely unreasonable claim. The show does place a focus on profit and loss, on the interactions and sales pitches of the contestants, and on the the ideas that they generate in relatively short spaces of time.

Again though, if this were the aim, The Apprentice falls laughably short. The show holds up these challenges as if they are the Gold Standard of business acumen. Every week they run a different challenge to see which team makes the most ‘profit’ from a task. Yet they utterly fail to take into consideration basic business such as fixed costs, staff time, etc.

Here, I know, I’m being incredibly pedantic. The point is to pit the two teams against each other, so if you assume all their fixed costs are the same it makes for easier viewing to just taking into account how the teams differ. I just think that in so doing you are missing a large chuck of the business mindset. 

Winning the challenges demonstrates the right skills

The biggest respect I ever had for Lord Sugar whilst watching The Apprentice was in one episode a few seasons back. I forget what the task was, but both teams did shockingly poor – it was the kind of thing that I was embarrassed to watch, and I had zero affiliation to anyone close to the programme. The norm is that the winning team every week gets a reward – a track day at Silverstone, a night making cocktails at some high end London club, etc. In this particular case, there was a winner for the task – or rather, one team did less poorly than the other. However, Sugar was so incensed with how badly everyone had done that no team got a reward.

I’ll skip over the fact that the entitled bunch reacted as if someone had shot their cat, and instead ask: why isn’t this the norm? Shouldn’t they have to fight for the prize? If the aim of The Apprentice really was to make better business people (let’s not forget that the show is aired by the BBC, whose mission statement is to “…inform, educate and entertain.” – so it isn’t totally out of the question), wouldn’t that make more sense?

Instead the show seems to reward arrogance and deceit, just as much as good business sense. I don’t mean to get all high-and-mighty, but all of the negative connotations we have about entrepreneurship and business, The Apprentice glorifies. And that’s totally fine – I love watching people have it out in the boardroom as much as the next person. But let’s not pretend we’re watching anything other than that. And let’s certainly not pretend that The Apprentice is doing anything good for the UK’s future and existing entrepreneurs.

I started this post by saying that I wasn’t intentionally boycotting The Apprentice, and then proceeded to take 800 words to argue how bad it is. I’m not actively taking a stand against the show, and I do recognise that it does represent some of the better television entertainment that exists (there’s a separate discussion to be had as to what that says about TV today…). And, of course, if you watch it I hope this series is a good one.

I guess my problem, ultimately, is that if the show needs to justify itself (and it does – every single show on the BBC does) it falls very far short.

All of that said, I might well tune in for the penultimate episode. While I stand by everything I’ve just said, the interviews do make for great television.

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Yes, Ebola is still a thing (or: On how sometimes big stories slip our minds)

There was fantastic news yesterday. A new Ebola vaccine has been trialled in Guinea with a 100% success rate.

I’m fairly sure though that a large number of people read that headline and (after saying ‘Great news!’) went, ‘Wait, we’re still worried about Ebola?’. Yes, we are. Just hours after the news (selectively) broke, two more cases of the virus were confirmed in Sierra Leone – not that you’d know it from reading the mainstream news.

I’m not judging, and I could be wrong – I hope I am. But it wouldn’t be the first once-global news story that has been relegated to the back of our mind. SARS is still something to be scared of, we still don’t know what officially happened to flight MH17, and we still haven’t caught Joseph Kony.

I’m not trying to be glib. We are, after all, busy people with many many things pulling at our attention. We can’t always concern ourselves with things happening 1000s of miles away. Can we? Should we?

News coverage is a fickle beast, but it’s not the only thing to blame (many moons ago I made a similar point about the media and terrorism). If every newspaper continually ran headlines about Ebola we’d stop buying them. The onus is on us as individuals to look into the things that interest us – just as a decade ago the onus was on us to buy the paper that most closely aligned with our views (and so would likely report on the things that we would want to read).

Yet even in the age of the information superhighway – where pretty much any piece of information in existence is a few clicks away, we still pay so little attention to what is going on in the world. Publications like Espresso from the Economist exist exactly because even people well-read enough to subscribe to a relatively high-brow publication still can’t be bothered to actually read it. The i paper from the Independent exists for pretty much the same reason. This despite the fact that there are plenty of incentives for us to read more. Countless studies equate how widely read an individual is to their intelligence (obviously), their open-mindedness to other viewpoints, and even their ability to empathise with other people.

For me, I try to read as widely as possible because I feel like I should; I don’t like being out of the loop with things. I don’t really watch sports, and when I’m down the pub and the chat switches to the Premier League I zone out. I’m ok with that, for the most part. But I can’t imagine feeling like that about everything.

It is difficult though. All this preaching from me, and even I hadn’t thought about Ebola for a while (also, there’s a reason that I know there are people out there who subscribe to the Economist and sometimes don’t read it). But how do I try and combat that? Well, I’m attracted to new shiny things and/or routine. A while back I had a job working at a tech festival, and I would spend an couple of hours every morning finding out about the latest advancements in the sector. It was a win-win for me, because I could a) read on the job and it count as being productive, and b) learned about a load of cool things. Even after that job, I try as much as I can to keep up to date with technology despite the tech festival gig being an unlikely repeat job for me.

To do this, I used to use Google Reader – its untimely death was a blow (I was a huge fan of RSS, and never really got into Digg or Reddit). Now though, I have adapted my own – admittedly convoluted – system. First thing in the morning I open up tabs of my usual news haunts and sources; everything from the BBC’s website, to Wired, to whatever Twitter hashtag I’m feeling at the time. An extension like Morning Coffee on Firefox, or Loadr on Chrome makes this very simple. I then go through and save headlines that catch my eye straight to Pocket without reading them. This stops me from falling down the rabbit hole of one particular topic at the expense of others, and also means that no matter what I’m doing I can read my news list on Pocket wherever I end up going that morning (I know we’re in the 21st Century, but I still swear by a service that syncs to my phone and lets me read things offline). Once I reckon I’ve combed every news source I’m likely to search, I close all the tabs and either reopen the Pocket application on my laptop, switch to a tablet and grab a cup of tea, or start reading on my mobile during my commute.

For the moment that seems to be working for me. Obviously there is still an element of self-selection that happens, but I like to think I’ve got a good list of news sources. For me, having some sort of system in place I think is important – though I recognise mine is perhaps unnecessarily complex. Though Google Reader is no more, there are other RSS readers around, and services such as Flipboard do a great job of displaying content.

Whatever method you use though, I think everyone should keep up not only with things that interest them – that’s the easy part – but also push yourself to pay attention to things you don’t necessarily relate to. Obviously one person can’t know everything that is happening at once, and nobody has the time to try. But you might surprise yourself how relevant a seemingly innocuous piece of information might become to you.

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On the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony

DISCLAIMER: I appear to be a lot more ‘gushy’ in this post than I initially intended. I was going to apologise, but have decided I shalln’t. Anything that Boris Johnson was involved in (however minimally) that didn’t end in total catastrophe is worthy, in my book, of a little pomp.

“It happens less that I’d like, but every now and again, I am so very, very proud to be British”

I tweeted that last night towards the end of the 2012 London Olympic Games Opening Ceremony (on a side note, how #2012LOGOC, or even just #LOGOC didn’t catch on is beyond me – everyone was writing #2012OlympicOpeningCermemony out every time. Madness…). It’s true, sometimes there are aspects of our culture that embaress me, and news stories that appear on global news channels that do make me worry about the state of our nation. Last night though, was definitely not one of those times. The opening ceremony to the Games did make me unashamedly proud to be British.

There is no doubt about it, Danny Boyle’s vision for LOGOC was phenomenal. Everything from the dipiction of the countryside, to the industrialisation, from the imagery of the suffrage movement, to the medley of music from the 60s to present day was so fantastically choreographed and executed. And inspired touches, such as the inclusion of NHS staff, and staff and patients of Great Ormond Street Hospital were incredible. And, as somewhat of a geek, the moment in the ceremony where Sir Tim Berners-Lee – inventor of the World Wide Web – tweeted to the world from the floor of the arena the message “This is for everyone”, was up there with one of my favourite moments.

And, as if all that – and the countless other incredible things that I’ve failed to mention – wasn’t enough, it had the Queen skydiving. I don’t think that can be reiterated enough times; our Olympic Opening Ceremony had our QUEEN take a helicopter ride with James Bond, before SKYDIVING INTO THE ARENA. The QUEEN, SKYDIVING.

I would love to have been in the meeting when that was suggested…

LOGOC Board Meeting:

“So we’ll get 007 to rock up to the Palace looking dapper in his finest tux to see HRH.”

“Oh good idea, and then we’ll get Helen Mirren can be all like ‘ah Mr Bond, I have a mission of utmost importance for you’ and he can run off and do something cool and daring and quintessentially British! Like a Steve McQueen style motorbike jump through the Olympic rings!”

“Umm, yea, that could work. I suppose… Couple of things though – firstly, big fan of Dame Helen’s work – a fantastic actress and a credit to the British Film industry” (murmurings of ascent) “Only thing is, I mean I hate to be a stickler for this only it is the Olympic Games. Wouldn’t it be better if it was actually the Queen?”

“…”

“And then she could get in a helicopter with Bond as her escort. Wouldn’t that be cool? James Bond – 007 – and the Queen, flying around in a helicopter!”

“Right… ok, but then what?”

“Well, she skydives out into the arena, obviously.”

That’s how it went in my head, anyway.

And there was just the right amount of humour too – having the QUEEN SKYDIVING simply on its own – whilst undeniably British in its humour – may have seemed a little lost. But throughout there were litterings of jokes – some subtle, and some slightly less so (like the QUEEN, SKYDIVING). Having Rowan Atkinson as Mr Bean ‘playing’ Chariots of Fire on a keyboard with the orchestra was a stroke of genius. Not just because it was hilarious, but because Mr Bean is such a world-reknowned figure. Hi unique brand of physical comedy transcends cultures and class in a way that some of the other jokes – nods to our culture and history – whilst undeniably patriotic, and no less amusing to us Brits, may well have been lost to others. And the inclusion of all cultures, after all, is the point of the Olympics.

At one point during the Ceremony, Aidan Burley, A Conservative MP for Cannock Chase, tweeted perhaps my favourite tweet of the entire proceedings:

Thank God the athletes have arrived! Now we can move on from leftie multi-cultural crap. Bring back red arrows, Shakespeare and the Stones!

I love this tweet for two reasons. Firstly, because immediately inspired a backlash that only the twittersphere could orchestrate – restoring my faith in our public. Secondly, I love how so incredibly and completely he misses the point of the Games. Some have jumped to his defence and said that he wasn’t lambasting multi-culturalism per-se, merely the inclusion of it in the Ceremony. But so what if he was? Like it or not, Britain is a multi-cultural country, and very few cities show it of as well as London. It continually amazes me that public figures, on such a transparently public arena, continue to be so monumentally stupid. (Burley did then go on to say that he meant the way multi-culturalism was handled “in the show” was what caused him to gripe, not the subject itself. But despite calls from many tweeters to clarify how he would have made it ‘better’ he has, so far, declined to stipulate)

(Also, on another side note, I love that – not hours after the incident – one could read about it on Wikipedia. Sir Tim’s creation never fails to let us down.)

There are so many things special about these Games. With 2 previous hostings, London has become the first city in the world to host the game 3 times. This is the first year that Team GB are fielding athletes in every field. This is the first Olympic Games with technology like HD-TV Freeze-frame.

But impressive as some of the statistics are, for me the most encouraging fact is this: these are the first Olympic games in history where every single country is allowing women to compete. If this doesn’t sound like a big deal, firstly read more – preferable high-brow stuff, maybe dip into some World News now and again. But also, remember that some countries still don’t allow women to vote, to go to school, or even to choose with who they are suppose to fall in love with. At a time when a great many eyes are focused on one place, something seemingly as simple as allowing women to take part in the Games is a huge deal. Yes its taken us 120 years worth of modern Games to get there, and no it isn’t going to suddenly fix all the problems of gender inequality in the world. But it is still a wonderous thing.

For me though, the highlight (no pun intended) of the whole event was the lighting of the Olympic cauldron. From Sir Steve Redgrave – the obvious man for the job (I’m assuming, of course, that David Tennant was not available) – running the leg leg into the stadium, to pass the flame on to the next generation of athletes – a beautifully moving act. And the lighting of the cauldron itself was nothing short of awe-inspiring. The elegance of the flames on their stems all rising up to become united was possibly some of the best symbolysm in any Games yet.

The tone of the Games and the character of the host nation is perhaps best expressed through the Opening Ceremony. For many, it is the lasting memory of the Games that they will keep – long after the names of the medallists have faded into that corner of the brain reserved for pub quizzes, and pre-Game worries about budgets and expenditure have ceased to matter. It is the Opening Ceremony that, in some ways, even outshines the very competition itself. And ours, the London 2012 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony – with its 10,000 volunteer stars, enough costumes that you could wear a different one everyday for 60 years, and the most spectacular fireworks display most of us will every see – our Opening Ceremony will certainly take something phenomenal to outshine it. Rio, here’s looking at you.

But first, let’s win some medals.

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On the subject of students

I was reading the comments section of the Times website on a story about the most recent student protests in London. The reason you haven’t heard about the thousands of students protesting against the hike in tuition fees is that no-one threw any fire extinguishers off of any buildings this time round and so, in lacking the ‘students are a bunch of half-witted, drunken, hoody wearing, rioters’ angle, the media doesn’t really give a crap.

The reason this warrants a post from me (after an age of silence) is that I’m sick of reading/hearing comments from people regarding students, their attitudes, and their general behaviour. I know that this is in no way the only generalisation that exists, and neither would it be right to consider it the worst, but it is the one that is pissing me off at this moment, and so you get to experience my venting for a while.

I’ll say this right off the bat: yes I am a student, yes I would consider myself on the left of the political spectrum, yes I am against the idea of raising the tuition fees to the degree that they have been in such a short space of time, and yes I do wear hooded garments. However, I am not by nature a violent person, I have attended protest marches but have never done so with the intent of causing property damage, I do on occasion go on nights out and I do get drunk but I do not get paralytic and violently throw up over police officers every night. And neither have I ever stolen a traffic cone, worn it on my head, and then subsequently decided it would look better on top of a lamppost.

I say these things because it seems to me that a vast portion of people are under the impression that, as a student, I must obviously be doing all of these things. Obviously, this is completely the case. I was in fact handed out a bingo sheet at the start of the semester with things like ‘kick a policeman in the face’ and ‘urinate on a national monument’ and ‘drink your body weight in vodka at least 4 times a week’, with the proviso that, if I do not complete all of the items on the sheet, I will be kicked off my course.

Obviously.

Comments about how students are conning tax payers into subsidising ‘3 years of binge drinking and traffic cone theft to end up with a worthless degree’ are not only pityingly obtuse, they are clearly made by people who have never had to go through life as a student. Others bemoan the idea that we, the ‘unwashed, unshaven rabble’ are allowed to exercise our right to peaceful protest – because what we are protesting for isn’t the notion that everyone should have an equal right to education regardless of wealth, but that we want free education because we want ‘the right to have a few years in the student union bar at the tax payers expense whilst “studying” for some soft degree.’

I’ll tell you something, life as a student is hard. Let’s take the finance angle for starters. Our student loans – the ‘free money’ that we so ungratefully receive from the tax payers – is in no way enough money to live off of. We get money that goes straight to the university to pay for our tuition, and we also get an allowance (means tested) to pay for any expenses that we occur as a result of our studies – for example: rent, food, books/paper/pens etc. My maintenance allowance is not enough money to cover all of these things. In fact, I receive just enough money to cover my rent for the semester. I don’t say this out of pity or anything of the sort. I’m saying it to illustrate a point. Those select few students who make the headlines for having drunk so much alcohol that they assault police officers and snort coma-inducing amounts of cocaine? They didn’t use tax payers’ money to do that. I can’t even use tax payers’ money to buy food. So either they are getting drunk on their own money (either that they have spent the summer earning, or borrowed from the bank of mum and dad), or I need to find out who these people’s landlords are and move house. And then still not eat. Or buy books for my course.

And on the subject of course work, anyone who thinks getting a degree is a walk in the park is welcome to sit in on my lectures with me and try to write a dissertation. It should be easy as its only Politics and Economics – you know, one of those ‘soft’ degrees that requires no effort.

I take 4 modules a term, each with 2 – 3 contact hours a week, totalling between 8 and 12 hours a week where I need to be on campus (it varies because I have tutorials and seminars every other week). Admittedly, even 12 hours isn’t a huge demand. But in addition to the lectures, to stay on top of the course material the university recommends that students do between 8 and 10 hours a week of reading/writing/worksheets per module. So that means I have to put in between 40 and 52 hours a week. And that’s just to stay afloat – if you actually want to do well you need to be doing more than that. Now, to put that into perspective: by law adult workers cannot be forced to work more than 48 hours a week on average. A standard ‘9 – 5’ job, by definition, requires 40 hours a week in the office. So to anyone sat at their desks complaining that all we students do is sleep-in and watch daytime TV, we have to put in on average the same number of hours you do. Minimum. Of course there are those who do spend longer in bed than others, and some who are able to discuss the complexities of yesterday’s Jeremy Kyle with just a little too much detail. But you know what? They don’t tend to do too well when it comes to being assessed.

At no point yet have I made reference to any of the extra-curricular things that students are able to do. I wasn’t going to mention this point, because I know there are plenty of people in the ‘real world’ that also give up their time freely to do great things. Nevertheless, as the point of this rant is to prove students are more than disaffected, lazy, unproductive drains on society, I thought it worth saying a few lines about. I’m referring to societies that enable students to make a difference to their environment and surroundings. Organisations such as SIFE, RAG, AIESEC et al are all notable societies that exist to try and make a positive change to the world, and can only do so because students give up their free time to take part in them. Of course, not all students take part in such things, in the same way that not everyone thinks students are a worthless rabble of alcoholics. I do think though that a significant number of people are involved in worthy extra-curricular activities that it was worth at least a brief mention.

Of course, I know that not everyone thinks like the people who comment on the news. I also know that reading the comments section of news websites is the worst way to form an opinion of collective, and actually is a great way of getting even more aggravated about a particular subject. But it was annoying me, and we all need a cathartic rant once in a while, don’t we?

Until next time.

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