Unscripted Unreality TV

Years ago—I guess this was in 2003—I went to a high school reunion. While I was there, I talked for a while with an old classmate who had migrated out to Los Angeles to work in television production. He was an editor who specialized reality TV. He wasn’t especially proud of his genre, but it paid the bills.

He told me something that I remember very clearly. These shows were unbelievably cheap compared to what were then “regular” scripted shows. You needed fewer people and less time to make an episode, and on top of that, the ratings were great. Or at least, given how cheap they were, the ratings were plenty good. Here is what he said: over the coming years you’re going to see more and more and more of this stuff. They’re going to drive out other shows. The superheated economics of unscripted television generated an unstoppable geyser-like spew of shows.

I happened to see an article today about the smoking crater that is the cable business, and this chart caught my eye. My high school buddy’s prophecy was playing out brilliantly! Why pay writers when your audience will happily watch unpaid attention-seekers do the reality TV monkey dance?

Given where the industry is headed, you can’t really say that unscripted shows saved cable television, but it sure made the crash landing a lot softer.

Incidentally, my friend passed along a few other nuggets of wisdom. One is that people are so eager to be on these shows that they don’t read the contracts carefully (surprise!). And when they see the final cut of the show, they sometimes feel humiliated and want to sue somebody. But it’s too late. They learn that the contract they signed not only specified that they might look stupid, but that the editors would go out of their way to make them look stupid. It doesn’t always happen, but it’s there in the contract.

Which brings me to the last thing I learned that night. My editor friend told me, with all the footage he was given, he could tell any story he wanted. Want a love story? A bitter rivalry? A feel-good romp? It’s all there, given enough tape and a skilled editor. A reality show isn’t “scripted”, but it’s sure as hell edited to tell an entertaining story. That story may bear little relationship to what “actually happened,” whatever that means. But reality was never the point of reality TV, in the same sense that wrestling was never the point of TV wrestling. I’m paying you for something cheap and sweet. Reality need not apply.

Does Space Sickness Correlate with VR Sickness?

In keeping with my preferred late-adopter approach to life, I finally joined Team Roomba. Sure enough, giving iRobot ten years to work out the kinks before I buy means that I’m really liking how well it works. I shoulda bought one of these things ten years ago! Only I would’ve wanted the one that just came out this year…

Anyway, like a lot of The Quarantined, it’s been a big gadget-buying season here at Rambles Manor. So in addition to finally buying a robot that sucks, I also bought a video game that makes you throw up. And as the new owner of an Oculus Quest, I can tell you in all frankness that VR and a Roomba, much like alcohol and barbiturates, are a dangerous combination. Do not mix them, particularly after you’ve had a beer. But I digress.

I was never really itching to buy a VR rig, but my wife was interested in virtual 3d travel for her birthday, so that pushed me over the edge. One reason I hadn’t bought one already is that I’m prone to the kind of motion-sickness that gives VR a bad name. I didn’t want to spend several hundred dollars just to paint the carpet a new color. Even a new Roomba couldn’t clean that mess.

But I’ve been very impressed with the Quest, even though I’ve been doing the VR equivalent of going on the kiddie rides at low speed. My favorite thing so far surprised me: little looping 3D animations built with a Facebook VR tool called Quill. They’re charming. My new hero is Goro Fujita, master of the Quillustration. But I’ve also been skating a little closer to the edge, trying motion-based games and reading about VR sickness. And it got me thinking about space sickness, or as the astronauts prefer to call it, Space Adaptation Syndrome (insert three-letter acronym here).

One of the surprising things about space sickness is that it doesn’t correlate with typical motion sickness. That is to say, people who never get air sick, even though they fly high-performance jets for a living (that is, your typical astronaut), still have a 50-50 chance of getting space sick. It’s unpredictable, and nobody knows why. As you can imagine, it’s a real drag for your typical hot-shot space jock to be so humbled on their first flight. This is not the kind of thing that typically gets reported to the press corps, but it happens a lot.

So VR sickness made me wonder about space sickness. Could the kind of vestibular disruption you experience with VR actually be somehow similar to what you experience in zero-g? If you have strong “VR legs,” are you likely to adapt well to space station shuffleboard? After all, in both cases what you see corresponds only weakly to what your middle ear is telling you, at least according to years of earthbound experience. And it’s clear that both of these are very different from flying a jet at high speed. So that’s my hypothesis, and I want to know if there’s any evidence for it: VR legs and space legs are a matched set. If it’s true, it would give us an useful way to predict who’ll get sick in space, and also perhaps help them prepare for the ups and downs, or rather not-ups and not-downs, of floating lunch. Which makes me wonder… if there’s no up in space, you can’t really upchuck. So do you just chuck?

Incidentally, in my research I learned that way back in 1985 Senator Jake Garn was taken along as a VIP guest astronaut on Space Shuttle mission STS-51. Sounds like a fun gig, except that his space sickness during that mission was so profound, so comprehensive and incapacitating, that it set the bar for all future astronauts. “One garn” is now (unofficially) considered at NASA to be the absolute worst possible case of Space Adaptation Syndrome. Most people only experience no more than 0.1 garns for a few days.

So perhaps if a milli-Helen is the amount of beauty required to launch a single ship, then maybe a centigarn is the amount of space sickness required to blow a single chunk.

The Sadness of the Hobby Telescope

The hobby telescope is one of the saddest purchases a person can make. It’s even more pathetic than the NordicTrack ski machine that no one ever uses. Telescopes look cool, and after you’ve seen a few Hubble Space Telescope pictures, you think to yourself: Oh man, I’d like to cook up a few shots like that.

The Hubble can do this. You will never ever do this.

But you’re dreaming. You don’t want to own a telescope. You want to be the kind of person who owns a telescope. You want to talk knowledgeably at parties about owning a telescope. Actually owning a telescope kind of sucks. Here’s the thing about a hobby telescope.

  1. If it’s cheap, it’s terrible. If it’s expensive, it’s… expensive.
  2. If it’s small, the image is terrible. If it’s big, it’s so heavy and awkward that you’ll never take it out. It will suck up half your garage and stare at you every day, mocking you.
  3. Getting good images means staying up late or waking up early, driving someplace inconvenient, and then standing around in frigid darkness for long stretches of time. If you don’t like doing any of these things, owning a telescope won’t change that.
  4. You will be amazed to learn that even finding the thing you want to take a picture of is hard.
  5. Even when everything’s in place and the view is lined up, it’s going to cramp your neck to get into the right position to view the object.
  6. And the ultimate insult: the image you see is likely to be a small smudge of light.

So there you have it. You stay up late. You drive to a dark location. You get the object in your scope. You look at it. And you think: all for this little smudge? More to the point, for every conceivable thing you can look at, somebody else has already taken a picture that is impossibly better than you will ever capture. Stars don’t change that much, it turns out. Somebody else already took a better picture of the Eiffel Tower than you, and they sure as hell took a better picture of the Triangulum Galaxy than you.

I am confident you’ll soon be taking quality pictures like this.

Here is the key point about stargazing of any kind: It’s not a visual activity. It’s a cerebral activity. If it genuinely makes your heart sing to look at a smudge of light and say “Wow! That’s it! That’s the lenticular galaxy M84!” then you may be the right person to buy a telescope after all. If it doesn’t, then hey, I know a quick way to save yourself $1600.

But for all my gloom, there are some exciting new developments in this market for us mere mortals. I was impressed with this review of the Unistellar eVscope (which was originally a Kickstarter project). I don’t own one, so don’t take this for a review. But the eVscope makes some smart choices for your typical lazy wannabe astrophotographer. First of all, this is not a telescope so much as a camera attachment for your phone. So it avoids the neck-cramping nonsense of wedging yourself behind an eyepiece. It’s not too big, so you might actually take it outside every now and again. It helps you find things automatically. And most of all, it’s got modern software that will assemble an image that’s much better than your eye can see. How? By taking many pictures in rapid succession and then combining them into one superior image. Finally, it can automatically participate in data-gathering campaigns for honest-to-goodness scientists. You get to feel useful instead of just cold and bored!

Like a lot of things these days, software is what’s making all the difference. The old hobby telescope market is trying to graft modern software onto an ancient chassis. It’s an uphill struggle. This new model starts with the software and builds up from there. As such, they’ve been able to banish the major headaches and user-experience flaws of hobby telescopes.

Hmm… maybe it’s time to sell my old NordicTrack and make room for something new.