#14 - Revealed At Last! What Killed the Dinosaurs! [TV]

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Ezra Lb.
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#14 - Revealed At Last! What Killed the Dinosaurs! [TV]

Postby Ezra Lb. » Thu May 12, 2005 3:17 pm

Revealed At Last! What Killed the Dinosaurs! And you don’t look so terrific yourself.

is the introduction to Harlan Ellison’s recently republished collection STRANGE WINE. It can also be found as a separate essay in SLEEPLESS NIGHTS IN THE PROCRUSTEAN BED. Perhaps elsewhere, although I’m not familiar with any specific source.

My post will not directly quote from it, but will mirror it and assume it. I thought it might be interesting to see where we are 30 years or so on. My posting will of necessity be somewhat personal, and while I lack HE’s style I hope you won’t hold that against me.

First some current events. For a discussion of the “CSI effect” see

http://news4colorado.com/siteSearch/loc ... 23936.html

And here is a DVD review in a recent Washington Post.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/co ... tml?sub=AR

I include it not to question the author’s judgment but because I find the unspoken assumptions behind his comparison between what he calls “audio only” recordings and DVDs to be quite contemporary and disturbing.

And now a statistic that I first read in a work by David Orr called “Verbicide” but that I’ve seen crop up in various sources. Right after World War II tests determined that the average 14 year old had a working vocabulary of about 25,000 words. Similar tests done in the mid-nineties revealed that the average 14 year old had a working vocabulary of about 10,000 words. Now what cultural/technological development might have taken place in the intervening fifty years to account for such a decrease? Well you know as well as I do what that was.

But my question is this, just which 15,000 words fell out of use?

Isn’t the worst thing about the nightmare world imagined by George Orwell in 1984 not the truncheon or the jackboot but the idea of Newspeak, a language designed so that concepts like freedom and liberty are simply inexpressible?

'How is the Dictionary getting on?' said Winston, raising his voice to overcome the noise.

'Slowly,' said Syme. 'I'm on the adjectives. It's fascinating.'

He had brightened up immediately at the mention of Newspeak…

'The Eleventh Edition is the definitive edition,' he said. 'We're getting the language into its final shape -- the shape it's going to have when nobody speaks anything else... You think, I dare say, that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We're destroying words -- scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We're cutting the language down to the bone...

Anybody remember that old short story turned into a Nebula award winning novel by Daniel Keyes called FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON? It’s about a mentally retarded man who is turned into a genius by a scientific experiment. The result is not permanent, and the book ends tragically as he records the slow dissolution of his intellect.

What haunts me is the feeling that this is what is happening to us as a culture.

Now I know I’m writing to a select audience. Many of you are artists yourselves, writers, film-makers, and teachers. You probably don’t watch TV 8 to 10 hours a day. I’m sure you still read and don’t feel of yourselves as deprived. And I won’t even argue that there aren’t any good shows on TV. Of course there are.

But you live in an isolated bubble, and it’s so easy to blind ourselves to the way most people in our culture live. We live in a society in which fully one third of the electorate believes that the earth was created in six days less than 10,000 years ago. In a society of 300 million people where a hardback book which sells 250,000 copies is a massive bestseller.

If I have the dates right I’m about the same age as Mr. Ellison when he wrote this piece. A man that age then would have been born before the advent of TV and so could still conceive of a world without it. But how many generations of people have grown up now with TV? If there was ever a war between print and video it sure didn’t last long and wasn’t much of a war. So the only valid response at this point must of necessity be a personal one.

I pulled the plug in 1998. Like many of you I wasn’t much of a TV viewer so I was astounded at the difference it made to me. Perhaps you can only have a real view of a phenomenon if you stand outside of it. The most obvious result was a noticeable increase in my attention span. And an increase in my ability to concentrate. In my ability to follow complex arguments and reasoning. I now average about three or four books a week. And I do have a life, a job, a girlfriend. There’s plenty of time to do what you want to do. (I hear this “I don’t have time to read” crap a lot. Bullshit. If you want to read you read. If you want to watch TV you watch. Don’t kid yourself.)

When I tell people this I usually get a couple of reactions. They go on the defensive and start up about how they don’t really watch that much, except for Oprah, and Survivor and American Idol and this and that… (In other words they feel guilty because they know down deep they’re wasting their time on garbage.) The other reaction is usually a question, what do you do for news/entertainment? This makes me laugh. As if watching a few seconds of footage of a smoking vehicle and figures gesticulating wildly and shouting in Arabic followed by a commentator solemnly assuring us that All is well helps us understand what is actually going on in Iraq. As if a “session” with a self-righteous prick like Dr Phil helps us understand our personal fears and motivations in the slightest. As if watching moron “reality” shows could be considered in any way “entertaining”.

It’s clear and obvious to anyone who takes to the time to really look, what TV has done to our culture, our politics, our sense of what is possible. That’s why I made this personal choice. I simply cannot mix the consciousness of TV watching and reading. If you think you can, fine, but I suspect you’re fooling yourselves. Of course you don’t have to take my word for it now do you?

Neuroscientists have come to the rather astounding conclusion that our ability to conceptualize grammar and our capacity for language are hard-wired into our brains. Part of the architecture. From the point of view of your brain it doesn’t matter whether it’s Mandarin or Farsi or Provencal. The cup is already there ready to be filled. Language is part of what makes us human.

How can something which diminishes our capacity for language be good for us?

Mr. Ellison’s original essay was not just an attack on TV but also a celebration of the power of imagination. So I ask again, what words have we lost? What ideas and visions are now beyond us because we can’t imagine them because we don’t have the words?

Wim Wenders, in his movie Until the End of the World, has his writer/protagonist ask what I consider to be one of the most important questions facing us in our culture.

What is the cure for the disease of images?

His answer is a classic. Stories. Like Croatoan, or Hitler Painter Roses or Seeing.

What Mr. Ellison calls Strange Wine. Imagination.
“We must not always talk in the marketplace,” Hester Prynne said, “of what happens to us in the forest.”
-Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

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Postby akojen » Fri May 13, 2005 9:25 pm

Man, Ezra, I can't think of a thing to add to your argument. You pretty much nailed it for me. True, I listed my television-watching habits elsewhere, but I must admit that the station I tune in most is the Blues music channel. I cannot work in silence. So I'm still attached to the Box.

I read about the "CSI effect" earlier. It's a nice example of the "Bonanza" story in Harlan's essay. If they believe it, it must be real. Sadly, this is affecting more than one misguided person's life. There's so much at stake, and basing your beliefs on a television show is just frightening.

If you want to find out which words have vanished or been altered beyond understanding, try chatting online with a teenager. Holy christ. Wrdz xcap me.

To put REVEALED AT LAST! in a personal context, this was probably the first thing I ever read that made me feel like I wasn't alone in the world. I was the little reading/writing freak way back then, and I couldn't hold a conversation about the latest shows or bands or ANYTHING hip. When I read this essay, I felt like someone understood me. Imagination WAS important. Television was stupid. My parents were right to limit my exposure. I was the kid that adults liked and treated equally, which separated me even more from my "peers." And I was just fine with that.

The worst thing about the nervous breakdown I had a few years ago was this: I was unable to read or write for two years. Couldn't focus on anything. Imagine THAT.


p.s. - It seems that most of the bright, imaginative people I know (not counting the folks here) are not breeding. Is this a trend? Is the general level of intelligence dropping through attrition?

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Postby Jan » Sun May 15, 2005 10:37 am

I think we could have looong debates about tv, I'll make it short and concentrate not on television, nor on what others have written here, but on Harlan's essay. While I agree that television is a bad habit a lot of people have, and I’m a supporter of Harlan’s stance, I’m not a big fan of this weakly written, one-sided and hardly original essay/introduction. Harlan, who is fascinated by the unusual and alarming, while looking for things to defend and be passionate about, quite often tends to focus on particular incidents using them as illustrations for and indications of bigger problems while not providing the reader with enough information about the incidents to permit them to form their own opinions and/or to erase all our doubts. (I'm saying this in the present tense, although the CITY ON THE EDGE intro, which indicated that Harlan has remained much the same as far as essay writing is concerned, was published nine years ago.)

I'm not saying his opinions are misguided, I would just wish he would present them better. An example would be the rapist telling the boy to go watch tv. We don’t know what went on within the boy, but the suggestion here is that he was so transfixed with what he saw on the box that he didn’t hear his mother scream and didn’t care. Of course he could also have been afraid, what about that?

Harlan reports a number of other incidents as well and seemingly (perhaps he know more than he reports?) draws quick conclusions that fit in with his general argument, thereby weakening (at least for the intelligent reader) what he’s trying to say. I can point to vital pieces of information missing every time. Are we really expected to draw the conclusion, like Harlan, that 98% of the population (in 1978) falls deeper and deeper into illiteracy just because book sales were down? (Which have been up ever since.) Libraries and newspapers apparently don’t exist, nor do parants and friends we all borrow books from.

Harlan didn't differentiate in any way between program types and seemed to regard tv as absolutely useless to everyone ("the act of watching tv, per se, is mind-crushing" - total nonsense). I also think that for more impact, the focus should have been on Harlan and his readers and not on stupid and nutty people who do not represent the majority and about whose actions Harlan has only limited and/or second-hand information. Thus, the reader is permitted to read the essay as an essay about nutty people instead of seeing a problem that concerns him/her as well as Harlan (who always admits he watches television).

Furthermore, Harlan often displays a slight lack of understanding for ordinary children or young people who simply haven’t reached an age yet where they can appreciate good music and Shakespeare and who can deal with rapists. The suggestion is that the situation must be worsening because young people are so and so. That may be true, but better evidence would be nice.

We shouldn't condemn television per se or tv viewers like ourselves, instead we should specifically speak out or act against stupidity on television, protect our children against it, while being careful not to condemn the intelligence and decency which is also there. If we accept that tv is mind-crushing per se and act accordingly, we're not supporting positive programming efforts or the people who make them. If you expect all tv to be to be bad, you will fail to see good things it provides. Will the fact that Harlan claims that lack of imagination killed the dinosaurs make me prohibit my (future) kids from watching, learning from and enjoying Sesame Street? Am I going to stop enjoying Monty Python, or not make use of serious tv journalism?

Still, despite all that, I agree with the general thrust of the text (today one would definitely have to include the internet in the argument), and it works well as an introduction because it tells about the role Ellison sees himself in and as what he would like to see the book. It also works as an essay about books as opposed to against television.


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Postby Subey2 » Tue May 17, 2005 9:02 am

I have to disagree with everything everyone has said. If I go too tangential, then beat me with a stick.

You misunderstand culture, and its intent. It would take me many many pages to go into detail, so i'll be brief, and hope I can communicate my intent.

I'll illustrate with music.

If you took a representative sample of 18 year old's musical tastes, a simplified distribution would look something like this.

Group A 65% mostly like current music
i.e. Outkast, Green Day
Group B 25% Like mostly current music and 1 generation older music
i.e. Green Day (current) and Nirvana (foundation for Green Day)
Group C 10% Like mostly older music
i.e. The Beatles (foundation for Nirvana; obviously several generations removed)

This illustrates cultures M.O. Culture explores a space, then uses that as the foundation to explore the next one.

Culture isn't judging The Beatles as not having merit, that's not really cultures concern. A generation has already lived with the beatles, millions have already spent countless hours in their bedrooms spinning Sgt. Pepper.

Culture closes that page in its history and redirects it attention to the next space... and the next space and the next space.

Video is the new media. Text is the old one. Culture wants readers of books as much as it wants beatles fans. It doesn't mean that books aren't wonderful. All it means is that culture is very busy exploring all that it means to be a culture that watches a lot of TV. It has had thousands of years exploring the space that is created with words (spoken or written).

You can turn off your TV, and sit atop a comfy horse comfortable in your superior ability to resist the glass teat, but you are the ones missing out on what it means to be alive today.

Were you immersed in the season of Survivor where Ulong lost every immunity challenge? I was. Did you watch John Dalton cry because his Grandmother had died? I did.

Were you immersed in the season of the Amazing Race where Rob and Amber came in second? I was.

Are you going to watch Rob and Amber get married on TV? I will. And the very next day I will e-mail my friend in Toronto and discuss what we thought of it. She might argue that its crass and cheap to get married on TV, and she may be right...

But its not about right or wrong, its about the exploration, and all the new things you find along the way.
-Now Playing- Roll - Women and Men (Ayumi Hamasaki Vocal MultiPass)

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Postby akojen » Tue May 17, 2005 9:14 am

Subey2: Please see the topic in Pop Culture defending the Glass Teat. I think you might find it interesting.
"Now give me some inner peace or I'll mop the floor with ya!" -- Homer Simpson

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Musings of a Deadman

Postby Steve Evil » Tue May 17, 2005 4:50 pm

Subey Subey, Subey, the answer is No, no no, and no. And oddly enough, I don't feel even remotely deprived. If that's being alive in the modern world is all about (sitting in front of a screen?), then I'm quite happily dead. Then again, I've always been a Dead Man.

Strange Wine was the first Harlan Ellison book I read, and I daresay it changed my life. It was an extraordinary moment when I realized how important books and imagination and words really were, and how how useless television culture really was. All that time I spent flicking channels watching random movements. What could I have done with that time? Reading, writing, fucking, or playing the bass. Learning German or history. Gone! Down the meory hole! And life is so short.

THough I do see Jan's point. . .

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Re: Musings of a Deadman

Postby akojen » Tue May 17, 2005 7:07 pm

Steve Evil wrote:All that time I spent flicking channels watching random movements. What could I have done with that time?

Damn that Doctor Snuggles!

::doctor snuggles, he's there waiting for youuuuuu...::


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Steve Evil
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Re: Musings of a Deadman

Postby Steve Evil » Wed May 18, 2005 12:30 pm

akojen wrote:Damn that Doctor Snuggles!

::doctor snuggles, he's there waiting for youuuuuu...::

Snuggles! Rickety Rick, Winnie Vinnegerbottle, Woogie, Ms. Nettles and Mattilda! Willie the terrible fox and Charlie Rat!

I take it all back, teevee is wonderfull!

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Teat Treats

Postby Rob Ewen » Wed May 18, 2005 3:39 pm

Harlan's essay argues that watching TV per se is the malaise - yet he himself has continued to do so (I know he's a fan of Sifl and Olly!). There is nothing wrong in watching TV - but it needs to be carefully balanced. The secret is moderation.

Watching TV for ten hours a day is excessive. We can all argue that the content of those ten hours is crucial - whether it be a stream of reality programmes like BIG BROTHER and CELEBRITY NAVEL GAZING, or HBO nuggets like CARNIVALE, DEADWOOD and OZ - but in the end it has prevented you from pursuing another activity. Many's the time I've been reading a book and thinking 'I'm missing THE SIMPSONS right now!', or I'm watching CITIZEN KANE and thinking 'That car's not going to wash itself'. Life should consist of as much plate-spinning as possible. It just depends on how much time each plate gets.

Any argument which condemns one activity in favour of another (e.g. the TV/reading debate) can only lead to the detriment of both.

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Postby Steve Evil » Thu May 19, 2005 12:48 pm

I am such a hypocrite. No sooner to I post here when what do I do? Go watch tv of course! I won't try and justify that it was good tv. I'll only admit that I'm as susceptible as anyone to its hypnotic images. . .

I think you got it right Rob. Try and get in as many plates as you can.

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tool time

Postby Neal Johnson » Fri May 27, 2005 10:19 am

I've always understood that Harlan has no problem with
any tool so long as it is properly utilized.

Television, the Internet, microwave ovens (microwave
ovens?!) can do nothing TO us that we do not allow
them to do. These tools all have their useful
functions. We should use the tools, not the reverse.

Harlan is not being a hypocrite when he watches
television, and neither am I, and neither are you. We
do understand that if it were not for television we
would not have [i]The Glass Teat[i] and [i]The Other Glass
Teat.[i] Turning off the tv does not necessarily make us
"better". In fact, I believe that in this age our
lives are cheapened if we are not active television
viewers. On the other hand, we waste our time if we regularly
spend even a very few idle hours flattened out on the

If I were a good critical thinker I would use this
space to quote Marshall McLuhan, but I can't hardly
fathom what the guy is saying. However, I have looked
at his books and I can tell you that he had something
important to say about all of this. McLuhan's works
are particularly timely, I think. Pick up a copy of
[i]The Gutenberg Galaxy[i] to read what Marshall had
to say about electronic media back in the dark
pre-Internet days.

I think I may have spelled Gutenberg wrong and I am
not sure if I should have capitalized Internet.


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Postby David Loftus » Fri May 27, 2005 11:11 am

> I think I may have spelled Gutenberg wrong and I am
> not sure if I should have capitalized Internet.

Without looking them up, I'm fairly certain you got 'em both right, Neal.

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Postby Subey2 » Sun May 29, 2005 8:15 am

The Video Age as Evolver

The Flintstones was an adult television show that ran friday nights at 8:30. Think about how "sophisticated" it is. In its interpretation of the world, and everything in it.

Now flintstones gets moved to daytime. Where kids watch it daily.

Those kids grow up on a diet of the flintstones tv. So when they are adults, the flintstones are no longer "sophisticated" enough to consume. They need The Simpsons. The sophistication of a simpson episode is evolutionary compare wtih The Flintstones

Then the simpsons get sent off to afternoon syndication. Where the kids watch it everyday again. And when they grow up its not "sophisticated" enough for them, so they watch The Family Guy.

TV eats itself. Passing on the world the previous generation can handle to the younger one.

Culture's ultimate trojan horse is the cartoon sitcom.

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Postby akojen » Sun May 29, 2005 9:42 am

Okay, we're way off topic here, but "Family Guy" is in NO way more sophisticated than "The Simpsons," even in its current "crap, we're really running short of ideas" phase. FG's idea of edgy is fart jokes and killing people. Coooool.

But again, I think we've moved past the topic of discussion. Perhaps bringing this up in the Pop Culture forum would make it more interesting.


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Postby Yelena Virago » Sun May 29, 2005 1:13 pm

Subey2: Re: The Video Age as Evolver

Agreed, but the same can be said for books. (Science fiction in particular.) After all, the generation that grew up on Heinlein ended up reading New Wave, the generation that grew up on New Wave (us) ended up reading cyberpunk, and now Neuromancer is taught in most "progressive" HS Eng. Lit. classes.

The only question that remains, for both television AND literature (SF in particular), is why today's generation isn't getting something progressively BETTER than what we had, it only seems to be getting media and literature which are progressively WORSE.

Witness, TeeVee gives us "reality programming" that seems to exist solely to promulgate the culture of Social Darwinism, and literature (SF/F at least) gives us Harry Potter.


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