Monthly Archives: Jan 2015

Why I don’t like TED talks

I’ve only ever seen two TED talks that I liked. Here’s the first:

That’s one of my comedy heroes, Ryan North. He’s talking about what it’d be helpful to know if you ever got sent back in time for some reason. So it’s useless information, practically, but it’s an entertaining little talk. That said, I pretty much just adore everything North does without hesitation, so I’m not really being fair.

Second is this one:

I like this one because he’s literally just mocking all TED speakers. I don’t really know how they let him do that, but it’s pretty great. And when I watched this I realised something, I don’t really like TED at all.

It’s hard to place my finger on exactly why though. In theory I should be all for it. Bringing science to the masses in an engaging way can only be a good thing, right? As a pseudo-academic, I should be celebrating such a lively festival of ideas and discussion. But it just never quite sits right with me. Whenever I try to watch a TED talk, I usually switch off pretty quickly.

Maybe science is just too boring for me to get into? But how can that be the case when you’ve got Neil Degrasse Tyson on a stage showering you with wonders of our incredible universe? What’s the source of my disconnect?

But now, I think I’ve figured it out – and I’ll do my best to articulate it. Basically, I’m uncomfortable with a quasi-demagogic delivery of scientific ideas. Yes, that is a super pretentious sentence – so let’s break it down.

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TED is full of people like this. Individuals who are experts in their field coming along to tell you how EVERYTHING IS GOING TO CHANGE soon or EVERYTHING YOU THOUGHT YOU KNEW ISN’T ACTUALLY LIKE YOU THINK IT IS. TED talks are on hefty subjects like the future of the human race, or even the entire universe.

So you sit there, enticed by a video with a title such as “the wonderful and terrifying implications of computers that can learn” and then sit through about 20 minutes of lecture. Note the principle at work here, it’s pretty similar to clickbait article like Buzzfeed. The promise of something earth-shattering that draws you in to engage. But then the actual video itself is devoid of much real content. What you actually get is something along the lines of:

  1. A long-winded introduction of who the speaker is
  2. A long-winded explanation of what the speaker’s relation to the question at hand is
  3. A long-winded anecdote of a personal experience of the question at hand
  4. Some slides with some graphs on them
  5. A short history of what the subject and why this changes everything
  6. Some cursory remarks actually related to the question
  7. Lots of unsubstantiated conjecture
  8. Heavy use of rhetorical questions to imply depth
  9. LONG PAUSES AFTER EVERY SENTENCE SO YOU CAN DRINK IN THE SIGNIFICANCE OF WHAT WAS JUST SAID

Basically, it’s a bad way of taking in information. The emphasis at TED is on entertainment over real science, no matter how it tries to convey itself. The speakers are there to amaze and dazzle you, which real science actually makes very hard to do.

Here’s a tweet I just saw, which is sort of relevant to the point I’m trying to make here-

This is something I touched on in my Big Bang Theory post recently. I’m against the ‘popularisation’ of science insofar at that means it being dumbed down (in principle, I’m all for more people getting into science of course). As this tweet says, it’s become cool to be ‘into science’ (thanks, TBBT!) but the ‘science’ that people are getting into is just this weird meme-tastic thing that is like science’s odd cousin. Sure, the basis of the stuff is science but it’s not actual science.

Basically I’m highly sceptical of the possibility of a single individual to deliver a meaningful explanation of any scientific topic within twenty minutes. To even reach an elementary understanding of many scientific principles requires years of study. I didn’t do any science subjects beyond GCSE, so even A-Level knowledge is technically beyond me. Could someone explain these principles to me? Sure. Could they cover a single subject in twenty minutes whilst also being entertaining? I doubt it.

Plus some of the speakers just come across as highly arrogant and patronising. Like shut up already, Bill Gates.

I’m not writing off all TED talks though. I’m sure there are some great ones out there that cover very specific topics. But I don’t feel they’ll ever be able to do justice to real scientific work. The work that takes years of experimentation, research and peer review. The real changes in science come gradually, only a few breakthroughs are ever made overnight.

A twenty minute talk can’t change the world. Twenty years of hard, highly specialised work can.

I couldn’t end, though, without sharing this. It’s a talk by Matt Inman (of The Oatmeal fame). It’s the kind of talk I like. It’s very funny, doesn’t take itself at all seriously, and manages to even smuggle in a few thought-provoking points without ever being grandiose. (Note that this isn’t a TED talk).

What’s the deal with this Olay ad?

Part of my ongoing series of “what’s the deal with…?”s.

But seriously what is the deal with this Olay ad. I chanced upon it and it’s like totally the weirdest thing. Is this how they sell beauty products to women? It’s entirely bizarre.

Let’s just go through this line by line.

Skin. It’s so much a part of who we are.

Ok, skin is a big deal. It covers your whole body. It has a surface area of around two square metres, so there’s plenty of it too. But as a percentage of body weight it’s only actually around 16%. You’re actually mostly bones, meat and organs. Are they not more of a part of “who we are?”

Unless Katie Holmes is talking in a sense of personal identity (who we are), in which case she’s just plain wrong. If you were a describing someone would you say “He’s a lovely person, very polite, good sense of humour, he has skin…”? No, not unless you were a skin-fetishist or serial killer. Everyone has skin so it’s not a big deal.

Or maybe she’s trying to promote some kind of universality between humans (who we are). Like “we all have skin, right?” And yeah, I suppose you are right. But why bring that up? It’s basically a triviality. Like no people don’t have skin (as far as I know). No skin means you’re dead like instantly. So stop going on about skin already, yeah.

It’s what the world sees first.

What. When? In what situation? You can’t just throw “it’s what the world sees first” out there without any context.

Does she mean like it is the first thing each and every human being sees? Because I think that would be your mother’s face or something, not “skin.” It’s also a weird thing to say.

More likely, she’s implying that skin plays a large part in first impressions. But that’s not even true either. What you’re wearing, how you’re carrying yourself, your facial expression, these are things we notice. Again, you’re not going to think “oh he has skin, I’m interested!” are you? Besides, most people are wearing clothes most of the time so you can see like 10% of their skin at best, and that’s usually covered up with makeup anyway. C’mon Katie, you’re better than this.

It’s what I see every time I look in the mirror.

As opposed to what? What makes Katie think she’s so special that she has to say this? Does she think that every time non-Katie Holmes people look in a mirror they just see a screaming flesh-covered skull? No, we all see our faces and the skin on our faces. It’s really not that big of a deal.

So far, the script reads like it was written by a robot desperately trying to convince us all its human by making loads of human references that shoot way past the mark. “How about that skin eh guys? Gotta love having skin! Yep, definitely got real skin here – I’m a real human being and 100% not a robot!”

So I only use skin care I can trust.

This doesn’t really follow from her initial premises, but at least she’s coming round to making her point. Though I’m not sure what ‘trusting’ skin care entails. Like I wouldn’t trust a pot of moisturiser with my bank details. In fact, I don’t even use any skin care at all really (does post-shave balm count?). If she’s so paranoid about skin care I’d say just don’t use it. It’s not worth the risk.

Olay, the world’s #1

Number 1 what? Again, we need context. Say “The World’s #1 Skin Cream That I Trust To Put On My Skin That I Have Because I’m A Real Human And Definitely Not A Robot”.

I can just say this blog is the “world’s #1.” It’s the number one blog written by me (in my opinion), does that mean you should go out and buy pots of it? No, and you couldn’t even if you wanted to. So there.

Why settle for less than the best?

Plenty of reasons. The best is usually very expensive, and if there’s a cheaper alternative that does more or less the same job, I’ll take that instead. Sure, I could drink champagne – but it’s cheaper to just buy the usual bottle of cava every evening and get on with it.

There’s also value in things that are kind of lame. I have a fondness for the Sainsbury’s Basics range, from my uni days. They’re definitely less than the best in pretty much any category you can name, but they take me back. Don’t patronise me with your elitist nonsense, please.

Beauty’s so much more than skin deep.

We’re through the looking glass now. We have just lost cabin pressure. What the hell does this mean?

I get it, the old saying goes that beauty is only skin deep. But that’s not really helpful to bring up when you’re trying to flog SKIN BEAUTY PRODUCTS. It’s basically saying “you don’t need our product to be beautiful, but why not buy it anyway?” I’m pretty amazed they snuck this line in, to be honest. It completely undermines their entire enterprise.

It’s heart and soul deep.

So can I apply this skin care product to my heart and soul then? No? Then shut up already.

It’s an inner glow you feel

What.

and an outer glow you see.

I don’t know if I want a beauty product that will make me visibly ‘glow.’ That would make me stand out quite a bit, and that’s not really my thing. And I thought the outer appearances weren’t important? What is this incoherent mess.

Being your best beautiful.

Writing your worstest grammar.

That’s what never settling means.

No it doesn’t. Never settling means not ever adopting a restful or comfortable position, among other definitions. It definitely does not mean “being your best beautiful.”

What does it mean to you?

See above.

Olay. Your best beautiful.

Stop using that line. It’s not a good line. It’s a bad line. What copywriter came up with that and thought “yup, that’s good!” Did the creative manager for the campaign not proof it? Did nobody say “but that doesn’t make any sense?!” I get that the alliteration is kind of cool, but surely not at the cost of coherence.

Are Olay’s marketer’s really so cynical that they expect the women they’re advertising to to simply lap up any rubbish they’re fed without any question? That’s a sad state of affairs. We ought to recognise that women aren’t the braindead barbie dolls that this ad is targeting. We shouldn’t have Katie Holmes talking down to them with empty nonsense about inner and outer glows. All I’m getting from this is that they want to sell some skin cream but can’t think of any benefits to it because really it doesn’t make any difference.

Also pretty much nobody is using that lame #bestbeautiful hashtag apart from Olay themselves. So great job on making that one go viral, guys.

Seriously this makes me sad and angry. I am glowing, but with rage?

In my usual fashion, here’s how I’d write the ad myself:

Skin! We’ve all got it.

For some of us, it’s great. It’s nice and tight and clean and lovely. Yum!

But for others [cut to: face of Mother Theresa]….. *heavy sigh*

But even you ugly mugs can pretend that you’re beautiful too. Just whack loads of cream on your face at £10 a tube.

It’ll make you glow in the dark and stuff.

Pretend to be beautiful, even if you’re not. Olay! [said like the spanish olé for some reason]

That’d do the trick I reckon.

Get the cookywook look! [Fox Gloves]

Happy new year, friends!
I hope you’re having the best time EVER!!!!

New year new you, right?
My new year’s resolution?
To be more true to myself
🙂

It’s cold out, and you better wrap up warm, CUS HERE COMES THE

FASHION!!!!!!!!!!ooooooooooooooo^o.o^

That’s right, fashion with ten exclamation marks, fifteen new year o’s, and a little foxy face.
Why the foxy face, you ask? (I just LOVE your inquisitiveness!!!). Well, because of these….

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FOXGLOVES, yaaaaaaayyy!

[No, not like the plant, silly!!!]

Aren’t they just the cutest little things ever?
Here’s a pic of them on my actual real life arms:

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They’re a pretty good fit (though I wouldn’t use them for typing fashion blogs!). There’s no finger flap, but these aren’t mittens so it’s ok ^o.o^

Let’s talk about you now. Here it is…

How to get the cookywook look:

FOX MITTENS: Etsy (£16.96 + p&p)

This was my first ever Etsy purchase actually and it went really smoothly. They came from a lovely seller in Turkey, who kept in near constant communication throughout. She also sells an adorable fox hat too (among other things), which you should check out.

Thanks fox (oops, *for) reading!

STAY FOXY!!! LOVE YAAA ALL

XOXOX

Review: Dave Gorman vs. the Rest of the World

More of the same from Gorman. Which is a shame really, because I really wanted something good.

In this book, Dave Gorman travels around the UK meeting people and playing games. It’s standard Gorman fare then, travel + people + some vague ‘aim.’ But it doesn’t hold up to the others in my opinion, and generally feels like an all-round more muted experience.

For a start, there’s no real challenge to speak of. The beauty of Googlewhack / AYDG? was that it was a race against time to find/do something. In this, Gorman just randomly meets up with people to play games with them. There’s a subplot about his upcoming marriage, but there’s no significant interplay between the two. There’s nothing at stake, and reading about someone just meeting people in pubs turns out to not be that interesting.

It’s also confined just to the UK, which is a shame given the globetrotting-ness of the previous outings. Reading about Sheffield train station doesn’t quite have the appeal as his roadtrip across America.

The games themselves are fine, and quite interesting – even when they are just Monopoly and Guess Who. The people are supposed to be the real focus I guess, and Dave’s compassion for the people he meets is plain to read. Even the weird ones.

In all then, this felt liked a dumbed down version of his other work. It almost read like a newspaper weekly column, as opposed to a proper book-adventure. It even felt shorter. I didn’t hate it though, just found it rather average.

Rating: 3/5

My hot take on Russell Brand

Russell Brand! Remember him? I do.

I was scratching my head, trying to think up something new to write about. And I recalled that about three months ago it was all the rage to write a thought-piece about Russell Brand. Every blog, column and clickbait piece was in on it. And there I was just going on about Shrek or something.

So now that the smoke’s cleared, what’s the situation? Well, let’s start by going over the basics:

RB started off as a comedian (started off in the sense of his career as a celebrity, he did plenty before that). That took off pretty well, and then he became a general celebrity for a bit. Then he did the whole America thing and Katy Perry and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, etc. Now he’s back in Britain and basically trying to do politics.

It seems like a non-sequitur, but it’s not really. I’m an big fan of Rusty (if cookywook didn’t make that clear) and have been for a long time. I remember even back when he did his old radio shows with Matt Morgan, he’d frequently go off on one about love and the inevitable revolution. So at the very least we can’t say he’s being opportunistic or inconsistent, he’s had some sort of political leaning from the get-go.

Unfortunately, Russell’s entrance into politics happened at pretty much the same time as that other chap, Nigel Farage. And the fate of the two has become somewhat interwoven. Both figures are new on the scene, and trying to shake things up. They’re like the punk rock to the rock’n’roll politics as usual that we’re otherwise used to. They talk different to what them other guys’n’gals talk like. Farage is a smoking, beer-drinking lad who’s not afraid to ‘say it like it is.’ And Russell’s a famously promiscuous ex-drug addict, who’s not afraid to ‘say it like it is, using several thousand syllables to do so.’

And yeah Farage sucks. But let’s not tar Russell with the same brush, eh? I think he’s got far more going for him than most people give him credit for.

Remember that first Paxman interview where Brand wooed the interviewer with an effable charm?

Here, Russell comes across really well in my opinion. He’s charming, he’s funny, and making some good points.

But around this time the criticism of Brand begun. Being a bit different comes at a cost, it seems. Much was made of the fact that Russell Brand proudly declared that he didn’t vote. Says Paxman: I’m saying that if you can’t be arsed to vote, why should we be asked to listen to your political point of view? But I get it, if you don’t believe in a system it’s nonsense to continue to participate in it. (Though I’m a believer in social change through democratic means, myself). The point is, Russell’s position isn’t the incoherent mess that people made out.

And what of the fact that Russell didn’t have a positive alternative to suggest beyond the vague idea of a revolution? Well, that doesn’t make his criticisms of the system any less valid. Look at any comment column, it’s mostly just criticism of what the Government is doing. What’s the positive story being put forward there? There doesn’t need to be one.

Meanwhile the political parties are trying to put forward their own ideas, but they’re weak as hell. Everything on offer is a carbon copy of everything else. Cameron, Clegg, Miliband – they’re all boring nerds! Brand at least has a clear view, he stands for something. What does Clegg stand for? Caving in on tuition fees?

And people have a go at Russell for using lots of big words, as if that’s a bad thing. From the video: Well, I don’t get my authority from this preexisting paradigm, which is quite narrow and only serves a few people. Using the word “paradigm” doesn’t make your argument bad. It’s a word that has a meaning and Russell is using it in the correct sense. I haven’t yet found a case of Brand speaking where I haven’t been able to understand his point because of the words he’s used. In fact, I find him rather eloquent and at the very least a welcome relief from the tired mantras of the main parties. “Hard working British families” anyone? I’ll take fanciness over that any day.

Well, this has been a bit unstructured really. But I think I’ve made a good stab at my feelings. I like Russell Brand and think he’s a force to be welcomed in politics. Even if you disagree with every word he says – and feel free – you can’t deny that he’s something different to everyone else, and plurality is what the whole thing is supposed to be about. Democracy without a real difference between the choices on offer isn’t really democracy at all. Without it, you get an apathetic voting public (check) and the rise of fringe extremism (double check).

If anything, we need more Russell Brands. I volunteer myself.

The Big Bang Theory is the worst TV show ever made

Just when you thought my hot takes couldn’t get any more topical… BOOM! (Or should I say… BANG!?).

I hinted before that I don’t think much of TBBT (The Big Bang Theory), and I’d like to take some time explore why that actually is. Also I’m super self-indulgent and this is my blog so you can shut up.

I’m sure everyone knows what TBBT is, but just for the sake of completeness, here’s a summary: it’s about nerds. Yup, that’s it. Hilarity ensues. Because lol nerds right.

Despite this being a dumb premise, it’s insanely popular. Wanna guess the average viewing figures for the most recently aired series? 19.9 million. Yup, almost 20m people think the show is the greatest. And it just… isn’t.

Yet it’s a staple of many people’s lives. I see it on every other Facebook profile I look at (along with the ubiquitous Family Guy *shudder*), and it’s rare to ever find someone who shares my opinion. It’s shown over and over again on e4 and I even have a housemate who will happily watch it on repeat forever.

I did however manage to find one article on Salon.com that shared my reservations. Written by Emily Gould, here’s a choice quote:

Most of the show’s humor revolves around characters saying layperson-incomprehensible things that have to do with science, but in the middle of ordinary situations, like “well that’s like the difference between a photon and a neutron!” This could work well, I think, once or twice. This show has been on the air since 2007.

And I pretty much agree 100%. The two main sources of humour on the show are 1) Sheldon’s awkwardness, and 2) the nerds saying science things. For now, I’ll focus just on (2) – the science.

It’s great that there’s a show on TV that celebrates science. However, it does so in the lamest and most unoriginal way possible: making fun of nerds. Here’s a transcript from the pilot episode:

PENNY
Um, me, okay, I’m Sagittarius, which probably tells you way more than you need to know.
SHELDON
Yes, it tells us that you participate in the mass cultural delusion that the Sun’s apparent position relative to arbitrarily defined constellations and the time of your birth somehow effects your personality.
PENNY
Participate in the what?

The problem is that Sheldon has a perfectly valid point. Astrology is stupid and anyone who believes in it is stupid. But the joke here isn’t that Penny is stupid (though sadly her main role in the show is to be an dumb, attractive blonde – c’mon guys, seriously?), it’s that Sheldon is a massive nerd.

My point is that while the show could be great as a platform for helping educate people and breaking down illogical things people do, it chooses to do so via a character who is the butt of his own jokes. So we simply perpetuate the idea that intelligence is a bad thing, to be treated with scorn. The same people who are laughing at Sheldon are likely those who believe in astrology themselves. All they’re getting out of this is a confirmation of their own prejudice. It’s entirely anti-progressive.

It also feeds into a sad cheapening of science in popular culture. Of course, we should be doing everything we can to promote science in popular culture, but there’s right and wrong ways of doing it.

The worst example I can think of for this is stuff like those terrible Facebook pages about how much people “love science.” Example –

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Firstly, that isn’t really science – it’s mathematics. That’s nitpicking I know, but it’s still annoying. Secondly, the word “EPIC” basically can’t be used in any serious context by anyone anymore. And thirdly, this kind of #content reduces science to fun facts, cool pictures, and – at its worst – mere clickbait. Science isn’t all flashy and attractive people making things explode, it’s laborious, methodological repetition and experimentation. There’s nothing sexy about the scientific method and a great deal of science is really not that interesting to the layperson.

Today’s headline story on the famous science journal Science? “Mosquito genomes:
Multiple Anopheles mosquito genome sequences reveal extreme levels of mixing.” I wonder how many likes that got on Facebook.

What does this have to do with TBBT though? Well, it’s my concern that we’re missing the point of science, and TBBT reveals the actual views of the majority. People aren’t really interested in science, they like cool stuff they can share with their friends. Sheldon is a glimpse into what it might actually be like to come face-to-face with science proper and we simply laugh at him.

But that’s just an aside really to my main point: the show just isn’t that funny.

There’s a number of criticisms I’d like to make of the show, so I’ll just jump right in. To begin with, the characters are one-dimensional and not interesting. We’ve already covered how Sheldon is just a mouthpiece for awkward science talk and Penny is there to push back the cause of feminism. There’s also Raj, who’s there to let the writers get away with vaguely racist material from time to time. Sigh.

And they’re just written badly. One of my favourite things to watch is footage on Youtube of TBBT with the laugh track removed.

I mean, how terrible is that? The dialogue is clumsy and awkward and simply doesn’t work without the laugh track. I know of course the point is they’d be reacting to the live studio audience so it’s not an entirely fair point. But I do think that the show just isn’t anywhere near as funny as the hysterical audience makes it out to be.

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It’s the same problem I have with Friends. Watching it, I’ll laugh maybe once an episode. Yet the studio audience are killing themselves over every line. Who are these people? What’s wrong with them? Likewise, my sister will sit glued to the screen for ages, with barely a smile crossing her face – yet will swear it’s the funniest show ever. It seems far too simplistic to argue that the presence of the laugh track helps convince idiots that the show is funny when it isn’t – but there does seem to be some truth to it.

It’s also pretty lazy with how it approaches things, with most of the usual sitcom tropes playing out without all that much variation. Really the comparison to Friends is best, since it’s almost a carbon copy even in terms of sets and things. It’s a dull sitcom that isn’t really offering anything new or at all interesting.

But is “the worst show ever made” really fair, Richard? That doesn’t seem to exactly follow from your above criticisms.

Well, I’m obviously being a bit hyperbolic, but that’s simply because I hate the show so goddamn much. Of course there will be shows that are worse simply on a technical level, or maybe even on a taste level (looking at you, Mrs Browns Boys!). But for the crime of doing a great disservice to science and stigmatising awkward nerds everywhere, I’m sticking with my label of worst show ever made.

Please stop watching it. It’s just bad.

Bazinga!

[is the lamest catchphrase ever, by the way]

EDIT: This is very much appropriate.