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Stuff [Jul. 11th, 2010|10:21 pm]
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As I mentioned in my last entry, I've been watching Babylon 5 lately. It's not a perfect show, but it has one big advantage: it's consistent and believable.

Contrast this with Doctor Who. Doctor Who is fun to watch, but if you think about it for more than two seconds you notice it's full of plot holes and contradictions. Things that cause time travel paradoxes that threaten to destroy the universe one episode go without a hitch the next. And the TARDIS, the sonic screwdriver, and the Doctor's biology gain completely different powers no one's ever alluded to depending on the situation. The aliens are hysterically unlikely, often without motives or believable science, the characters will do any old insane thing when it makes the plot slightly more interesting, and everything has either a self-destruct button or an easily findable secret weakness that it takes no efforts to defend against.

But I guess I'm not complaining. If the show was believable, the Doctor would have gotten killed the first time he decided to take on a massive superadvanced alien invasion force by walking right up to them openly with no weapons and no plan. And then they would have had to cancel the show, and then I would lose my chance to look at the pretty actress who plays Amy Pond.

So Doctor Who is not a complete loss. But then there are some shows that go completely beyond the pale of enjoyability, until they become nothing more than overwritten collections of tropes impossible to watch without groaning.

I think the worst offender here is the History Channel and all their programs on the so-called "World War II".

Let's start with the bad guys. Battalions of stormtroopers dressed in all black, check. Secret police, check. Determination to brutally kill everyone who doesn't look like them, check. Leader with a tiny villain mustache and a tendency to go into apopleptic rage when he doesn't get his way, check. All this from a country that was ordinary, believable, and dare I say it sometimes even sympathetic in previous seasons.

I wouldn't even mind the lack of originality if they weren't so heavy-handed about it. Apparently we're supposed to believe that in the middle of the war the Germans attacked their allies the Russians, starting an unwinnable conflict on two fronts, just to show how sneaky and untrustworthy they could be? And that they diverted all their resources to use in making ever bigger and scarier death camps, even in the middle of a huge war? Real people just aren't that evil. And that's not even counting the part where as soon as the plot requires it, they instantly forget about all the racism nonsense and become best buddies with the definitely non-Aryan Japanese.

Not that the good guys are much better. Their leader, Churchill, appeared in a grand total of one episode before, where he was a bumbling general who suffered an embarrassing defeat to the Ottomans of all people in the Battle of Gallipoli. Now, all of a sudden, he's not only Prime Minister, he's not only a brilliant military commander, he's not only the greatest orator of the twentieth century who can convince the British to keep going against all odds, he's also a natural wit who is able to pull out hilarious one-liners practically on demand. I know he's supposed to be the hero, but it's not realistic unless you keep the guy at least vaguely human.

So it's pretty standard "shining amazing good guys who can do no wrong" versus "evil legions of darkness bent on torture and genocide" stuff, totally ignoring the nuances and realities of politics. The actual strategy of the war is barely any better. Just to give one example, in the Battle of the Bulge, a vastly larger force of Germans surround a small Allied battalion and demand they surrender or be killed. The Allied general sends back a single-word reply: "Nuts!". The Germans attack, and, miraculously, the tiny Allied force holds them off long enough for reinforcements to arrive and turn the tide of battle. Whoever wrote this episode obviously had never been within a thousand miles of an actual military.

Probably the worst part was the ending. The British/German story arc gets boring, so they tie it up quickly, have the villain kill himself (on Walpurgisnacht of all days, not exactly subtle) and then totally switch gears to a battle between the Americans and the Japanese in the Pacific. Pretty much the same dichotomy - the Japanese kill, torture, perform medical experiments on prisoners, and frickin' play football with the heads of murdered children, and the Americans are led by a kindly old man in a wheelchair.

Anyway, they spend the whole season building up how the Japanese home islands are a fortress, and the Japanese will never surrender, and there's no way to take the Japanese home islands because they're invincible...and then they realize they totally can't have the Americans take the Japanese home islands so they have no way to wrap up the season.

So they invent a completely implausible superweapon that they've never mentioned until now. Apparently the Americans got some scientists together to invent it, only we never heard anything about it because it was "classified". In two years, the scientists manage to invent a weapon a thousand times more powerful than anything anyone's ever seen before - drawing from, of course, ancient mystical texts. Then they use the superweapon, blow up several Japanese cities easily, and the Japanese surrender. Convenient, isn't it?

...and then, in the entire rest of the show, over five or six different big wars, they never use the superweapon again. Seriously. They have this whole thing about a war in Vietnam that lasts decades and kills tens of thousands of people, and they never wonder if maybe they should consider using the frickin' unstoppable mystical superweapon that they won the last war with. At this point, you're starting to wonder if any of the show's writers have even watched the episodes the other writers made.

I'm not even going to get into the whole subplot about breaking a secret code (cleverly named "Enigma", because the writers couldn't spend more than two seconds thinking up a name for an enigmatic code), the giant superintelligent computer called Colossus (despite this being years before the transistor was even invented), the Soviet strongman whose name means "Man of Steel" in Russian (seriously, between calling the strongman "Man of Steel" and the Frenchman "de Gaulle", whoever came up with the names for this thing ought to be shot).

So yeah. Stay away from the History Channel. Unlike most of the other networks, they don't even try to make their stuff believable.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: hal_obrien
2010-07-12 07:05 pm (UTC)

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"Truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense."

Absolutely wrong. Truth always makes sense. Fiction has "sensiness."

The premise that truth doesn't make sense is really a premise that truth doesn't always match one's expectations. It's a sign of vanity La Rochefoucauld would be proud of that so many people then blame truth, rather than their expectations, for the dissonance.
[User Picture]From: xiphias
2010-07-12 07:11 pm (UTC)

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"Making sense" is a human experience. What you're calling "sensiness", (after "truthiness", I presume), is "making sense."

If something "makes sense", it means that it matches our human, subjective idea of what "should be". It IS about our expectations, rather than about objective truth.

Fiction must, in some manner, match our expectations about "what should be". Reality is under no such stricture.
[User Picture]From: hal_obrien
2010-07-12 07:47 pm (UTC)

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""Making sense" is a human experience."

A "human" experience, implying every human does it? Hm. How do you know? Who's your source? How do they know?

Kinsey, before he took up sex research, was an entomologist. His specialty was wasps. The collection he curated at Indiana University has over five million specimens. He was once asked what he could say about The Wasp. His reply: He hadn't really seen enough specimens to generalize.

I humbly suggest there is more variation among h. sap. than among wasps.

"What you're calling "sensiness", (after "truthiness", I presume), is "making sense.""

Yes on the "truthiness," but overall, again, I disagree, based on my sample of one. (I think I'm human. How would I falsify that? Hmm...)

Anyway. To me, "making sense," is asking, "What happened? How did it happen?" I try my level best to check "Why did it happen?" at the door. Not just because it's more the province of religion or philosophy than observation (though there is that), but because it leads to such bad results so much of the time.

One way of thinking of fiction is as training to have empathy for how others think. (I'm thinking here particularly of Rebecca Saxe's TED talk.) Still, the reason reality wins over expectations is that someone -- whether a person whose motivations you've guessed wrong or an uncaring universe whose properties you don't fully understand -- could well kill you when you ignore reality in favor of your expectations. For all that quoting the line from Galaxy Quest ("This episode was badly written!") might be amusing at that point, it doesn't make you any less dead.
[User Picture]From: xiphias
2010-07-12 08:11 pm (UTC)

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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sensemaking

Because "making sense" has a specific meaning, and it's about subjective reality.
[User Picture]From: hal_obrien
2010-07-12 08:42 pm (UTC)

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"Because "making sense" has a specific meaning, and it's about subjective reality."

Except it doesn't. At least, it's inconsistent.

As an example, one point from the article cited:

People favour plausibility over accuracy in accounts of events and contexts (Currie & Brown, 2003; Brown, 2005; Abolafia, 2010): "in an equivocal, postmodern world, infused with the politics of interpretation and conflicting interests and inhabited by people with multiple shifting identities, an obsession with accuracy seems fruitless, and not of much practical help, either" (Weick 1995: 61).


The article appears to emphasize contributions from Karl Weick as foundational -- he came up with the term, "sensemaking." Yet, from an interview Weick had with Wired in 1996:

Wired: You also say "discrediting" - purposely turning your back on what has worked in the past to avoid future traps - is a strategy for organizational survival and innovation.

Weick: Firefighters are most likely to get killed or injured in their 10th year on the job, when they think they've seen pretty much everything there is to see on the fires. They become less open to new information that would allow them to update their models. Discrediting tries to solve these problems of hubris or seeming infallibility.


Failing to "update one's models," in the face of reality, is exactly the kind of disconnect I'm talking about. And if there's something of more "practical help" than saving the lives of firefighters, not only to them but to society as a whole, I'd be interested to hear it.

It would be more persuasive to posit "sensemaking" has a specific meaning if the originator of the term used it specifically, and in a meaningful way.

Edited at 2010-07-12 08:45 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]From: hal_obrien
2010-07-12 09:05 pm (UTC)

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To be fair, I wish I knew his source for the firefighters quote. I haven't been able to find it directly on Google, Google Scholar, or Factiva, aside from people quoting this very passage.
[User Picture]From: houseboatonstyx
2010-07-14 04:32 am (UTC)

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Well, if it wasn't true, it should have been.