Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Value of Video

These days we can see for ourselves. Lets roll the tape.

Except, of course, there is no “tape,” which is one of the reasons video has become so common. When you can store data in temporary digital files in a re-writable medium, well, it's cheap to do. No tape to buy or consume. Let’s click the video.

An obvious impact of this new reality is the “body camera” solution some are pushing to try to reform policing in response to recent shootings. Maybe that would help.

And there is the Fall Faculty Series at Mount Mercy. If you missed a program, the staff at Busse Library has been recording the programs and is posting the videos on YouTube.

Here are links to the first two programs:

Sept. 7, “We are All Immigrants” by History Professor Allison McNeese.

Sept. 13, “The First Americans” by Criminal Justice Professor Deb Brydon.

At a later series event, I shot some video myself with my Nikon SLR. It was at Tuesday night’s music program in the Chapel of Mercy—not the full program, but I hope to use some audio for a Mercy Week slide show. We’ll see—editing time is at a premium for me right now.

The Fall Faculty Series at Mount Mercy, "Building Walls, Building Bridges: The U.S. as an Immigrant Nation" has been very successful so far. No TV coverage yet, but at least there is the library video. The next event is Sept. 29 when Mohammad Chaichian, a sociology professor, will speak about border walls, based on a book he wrote on that topic.

Please come--the events are free and public. You kind find them all here.

Anyway, while the spread of video and the capacity of almost any cell phone to record it gives us more eyes on the world, it’s important to recall that those eyes only see isolated snippets form one point of view, not necessarily a full picture.

For example, I have students that are required to attend cultural events, and one asked if she could instead just view the video. Well, no. It's not the same experience as being there. You see and hear better with your own senses, you can react and interact. So I am glad the library is recording these events, but YouTube is not yet "being there."

And video can be edited these days, so if you see it online, you still need to do a little investigating to ensure what you think you see is actually what’s there.

Still, video can be an interesting new tool. The other day I was watching a Monticello City Council meeting. I’m interested in monarch butterflies, and, promoted by a story in The Gazette about Monticello’s efforts to get a resident to remove milkweed, I’m hoping to spark some milkweed planting at Mount Mercy University, where I teach.

It was both odd and strange to be at my home office, sitting in front of a computer, on Vimeo, seeing a city council meeting in a nearby Iowa town. This will never be a high-rated show. One city council member in particular quickly got on my nerves. “So you’re not serious?” he asked the milkweed-planting resident when the council members plan to have the city plant milkweed instead of the resident wasn’t immediately accepted.

Blah. Sometimes video shows you irritating jerks you would rather not see nor hear. But maybe that is part of the value of video. I not only read about the meeting, I saw it myself.

And, for the record, a resident who has planted so much milkweed that his property is a recognized monarch migratory way stop is clearly “serious.” Sure, it would be good for the city of Monticello to plant milkweed, but why that has to be a quid pro quo to destroy a private  monarch way station is a bit beyond me.

Well. I reacted a bit emotionally to that meeting—because I saw it.

One more impact of video.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Space, the Final Frontier

Photo from the Smithsonian, where the TV model ship from the original TV series is displayed.
Man, who would have thought it? It’s been 50 years since 1966—50 years that the Starship Enterprise has been haunting our imaginations.

I am of the generation that grew up on the original Star Trek TV show. I haven’t followed all of the subsequent permutations since—I don’t know much about the newer TV shows which became popular long after my prime TV viewing years were over (I spent much more time in front of the TV as an 8-year-old boy than I ever did once I had boys and girls of my own).

And I am not exactly a “Trekkie.” I don’t worship the show. I found it enjoyable, and I did think Mr. Spock was pretty cool and I had an early boy crush on Lt. Uhura.

Smithsonian again, another view.

But the show did age in its three seasons, and got pretty bad in the final one. Even if it was entertaining, and did strive for some social commentary in the guise of science fiction, it wasn’t great literature or even great TV.

As Newton Minow said, TV in the 1960s was a vast wasteland. And he didn’t anticipate TVs expansion into cable and YouTube and Netflix, which makes it a 24-hour, 7-days a week, global mind mushing force.

Yes, I do think some TV is worth watching. But the act of watching TV is inherently mentally passive, and it’s a good idea for parents to come up with all kinds of alternatives to, and limits on, screen time if they care about their kids.

But, I digress. What can I say? I am of the TV generation, not always known for its sustained mental concentration.

Anyway, happy birthday to you, Star Trek. Your original cast is aging and passing on, but you did have a big cultural impact. At a contentious time, you represented a vision that there would be a future and that science and rational thinking might be part of it. You paved the way, in your own way, for Star Wars (which paved the way for you to become a movie franchise—media is indeed a strange world).

I do recall that Star Trek looked way cooler on a small black-and-white TV then it does today in reruns in full color. 1960s special effects featured lurid colors and awful sounds. But Star Trek was in an era long before CGI, and nobody loved it for the special effects.

Which is part of the point—at its best, Star Trek did have stories to tell. My favorite episode, “The Trouble with Tribbles” was rumination on population, development, diplomacy and witty writing.

Part of the appeal of the original show is that it touched two popular cultural currents of its time. During the late 1960s, the U.S. was deep in the space race with the USSR, and in 1966 we were closing in on the Moon. We did get there first in 1969. It 1966, the cold reaches of outer space were hot.

I think it’s a bit of a mistake that space is not still hot, by the way. If you elect me president, I promise NASA will be buried in cash. Basic science research overall would get lots of funding, and I believe it’s not a waste to shoot dollars into space—it’s a recognition that Gene Roddenberry was right. Space is the final frontier. And space helps us understand ourselves—the notion that we have to take more care of this planet is partly rooted in the “blue marble in the sky” sense that 1960s space exploration gave us—it’s a very, very big galaxy, there is no nearby other practical home for us, and  while we’re waiting to colonize any nearby rocks in the sky, we have to deal with the reality that for all of us, for almost all of the foreseeable future, there’s only one place we can live—planet Earth.

So, cultural touchstone one that Star Trek tied into is space and sense that looking out is important.

Thread two? Let us consider the ship itself, NCC 1701. Note that Captain Kirk in the opening credits pauses. “These are the voyages of the starship (pause) Enterprise.”

“Enterprise”—it's said with some oral emphasis. And that’s a name that meant something in the 1960s. Frankly, in American history, it still does.

US Navy photo: Enterprise, CV6.
The development of the aircraft carriers was partly a historic accident—the naval treaties that were settled after World War I to try to cap the runaway arms race that helped cause the war targeted the hunger the powers-that-wanted-to-be had for the giant leviathans of the sea invented by the British in 1906—the Dreadnought-class battleship and it’s smaller cousin, the battle cruiser.

In the US, some of the early aircraft carriers were built on the keels of battle cruisers that, by treaty, couldn’t be cruisers anymore. By the late 1930s, the Navy launched its sixth carrier—Enterprise. And as fate would have it, in World War II, that great American crusade, this Enterprise would play a pivotal role.

How did the World War II-era Enterprise become the “Lucky E” or “The Big E?” Why was it tied into the American WW II mythology of a mighty people waking up, discovering their power and banishing evil?

Well, consider: the escort to the Hornet that launched the Doolittle raid? Enterprise. One of two carriers that faced a task force of four Japanese carriers, and turned the whole tide of the Pacific war, at the key Battle of Midway? You know the name: Enterprise.

The Big E became the most-decorated warship in the history of the US Navy, so the word “Enterprise” was already almost holy when the ship was decommission in the late 1940s. And the myth lived on when that name was revived by the Navy in the 1950s.

One reason the U.S. Navy became and remains such a dominant global force is that the U.S. is the only country which has a large fleet of huge, fast, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. Now, I know that historic legacy is decidedly a mixed bag—money spent on carriers could be spent on useful things like science and space exploration or national healthcare or other worthwhile things that the government ought to do and does not, and projection of U.S. military might into the world post World War II has often been a dicey proposition with negative and unexpected consequences.

But, in the world of the 1960s, American global power, and our ability to counter the influence of our nemesis the USSR was partly dependent on our powerful Navy. Besides nuclear powered submarines, the reach and potential punch of the U.S. Navy came from long-range, super carriers.

US Navy photo of the latest Enterprise,
eighth ship and second carrier to bear that name.
 And the first of those big jumbo nuclear carriers was CVN 65, launched in the 1950s and a mainstay of American naval might until 2012. Yeah, you already know where we are going—when launched in the late 1950s, CVN 65 was named “Enterprise.”

So the name chosen for the ship in Star Trek tied that TV show to the glorious American crusade of the 1940s—which was still very much on our minds in the 1960s—and American patriotism in the here and now. It also suggested that legacy would continue in the far future.

The world of Star Trek won’t ever exist in exactly the way it was imagined in the 1960s. Then again, "Lord of the Rings" isn’t real, either. Frankly, there is no Maycomb, Alabama, and “Alice in Wonderland” is a book of lies.

That’s true of all fiction—it reflects not reality, but a particular vision of reality. And I think sometimes that vision can give us clarity and depth that mere reality can’t. The starship Enterprise was different from the aircraft carriers Enterprise. It wasn’t part of a gritty, complex reality.

But the starship did make us think about "someday." In my opinion, we should still want to go boldly where no humans have gone before.