21 April, 2007

The road home from ECCAD 2007

Long rant ahead. You should probably skip to the next post.

I attended ECCAD 2007 this year. (ECCAD=East Coast Computer Algebra Day) I seem to go during odd years. The first year I attended was 2001. It was held at Florida State University that year, and I took a walk from the campus to the Florida Supreme Court building, where so much of the litigation over the 2000 presidential election had taken place the year before. Now I doubt I'd even think of going there.

I started this entry at Atlanta's airport. Originally I wanted to write about the conference, but I had also been struggling to debug a computer program so I could run some tests on... well, that doesn't matter.

The authorities of Atlanta's airport have gone out of their way to prevent you from having any serious thought while waiting for your airplane. The best aspect to not watching television at home is that you to miss out on the stultification of contemporary society. Every now and then while sitting at the gate, the TV would break my concentration with something so positively stupid that I could do no more than lower my forehead onto my hand and shake my head in bewilderment, chuckling quietly. It's as if I've stepped into a completely different world.

The worst aspect of it is that they were blasting CNN. Now, CNN cannot be hell, because CNN does employ Jeannie Moos, and her stories are superb. Put her aside, and it's an immense waste of time.

CNN takes a disturbing number of commercial breaks, all of which are raucous. They do what commercials are supposed to do: they get your attention. I remember reading once that companies don't even care if you hate the commercial; what matters is that you remember its name. They often don't even care if you never learn their product; when later you see the product and recognize the brand name, that suffices. This explains an awful lot of clothing commercials, for example.

The Cartoon Network commercials were the worst: loud, raucous, and pointless. In one, a bunch of people sang about some stupid giant ape, who made stupid remarks in reply, including his desire to order a giant ape-sized banana pudding, or something to that effect. Another of their commercials featured cartoon characters dancing to some Gorillaz-sounding theme.

Amtrak's commercials were almost as bad, if only because I've suffered Amtrak so much. I tried and I tried to like them and take up their cause publicly. I really do like train travel, and in my book there is no more relaxing way to travel. But Amtrak nevers ceases its relentless search to discover new ways to abuse their customers. I could understand stranding an entire train in southern Virginia for 3 hours while we waited for a replacement for the broken engine car. The conductors tried to help, but weren't able to do much. One fellow who was talking on a cell phone started crying that they'd left us out there in the boondocks, and it was the Blair Witch Project all over again. The entire coach laughed at his remark, which upset him all the more.

Anyway, my loyalty ended after Amtrak decided they had to ruin my family's train trips, in particular my wife's and mother's sleeper car reservations for the move to Mississippi. They repeatedly fail to credit my Amtrak Rewards card, and their customer service policy hinders you from obtaining your credits.

So, I gave up. As far as I'm concerned, Amtrak is yet another monopoly that desperately needs to be broken up.

Even CNN's commercials appall me with their contradictions. I was trying to ignore Howard Kurtz' questioning the wisdom of NBC's decision to show the videotape mailed to them by a recent and notorious murderer. During the commercial breaks, CNN aired advertisements that one of their reporters was going to give a story tonight that would tell you all about the killer's troubled mind, etc. ad nauseam.

Even if it were quiet, I'd be bewildered. The journalists were asking each other whether NBC and other channels should have done something different in playing the killer's videotape. I already pointed out what struck me as a contradiction with the commercials. I don't recall anyone actually asking the question, How could we have known that this would have angered so many people? Maybe they did. Even if they didn't ask it aloud, it was the basic thrust of Kurtz's thinking (or so I thought). I have a simple answer: the media could have polled ordinary people instead of talking to each other. Normally the media falls over themselves to take polls about how government policy should work; I can't imagine why they wouldn't have done so here.

Anyone, if this rant were to have a point, and it doesn't really, but if it did, it wouldn't be a new one, but simply this: The raw, unfiltered information of "the 24-hour news cycle" is useless and probably counterproductive. It's no different from any other field that relies on information. For example, in my research I generate millions of polynomials that satisfy certain criteria. The polynomials by themselves present a bewildering array of information which I cannot comment on. I need to organize them, analyze them, digest them, and only then do I usually obtain any useful information. News is certainly different from mathematics, but not in terms of the need to organize, analyze, and digest information before being able to get an idea of the truth.

It's silly to play a five-minute story six to twelve times an hour for the next twenty-four hours, let alone the next 168 hours or more. There isn't enough information; all the networks do is repeat the same information over and over and over. The lack of substance feeds people's uncertainties and their insecurities; the short attention span contributes to the spread of misinformation.

I've heard educators observe that students often remember best the first and last things they learn in any class. Sadly, the final news story on many things these days usually comes out longer after people have heard their last from the new channels, and is often played out in fora where people won't read them.

This by itself would be cause enough for grief, but the news channels compound this with an endless parade of talking heads who spout all manner of loudmouthed opinions. Due to the lack of real information, these folks are eventually wrong most of the time. I don't know why anyone considers these people experts whose opinions are worth considering; a real expert would wait until there was sufficient information before he opened his mouth.

So, I like weblogs and all, and I like the new public square they afford for ill-informed idiots like myself to make public what fools we are. And I don't deny that the news channels have every right to create and publish these low-information stories.

I just wish that people wouldn't take this so seriously. Remember the proverb,

Where words are many, sin is not wanting,
but he who restrains his lips does well.
Note that tonight's entry has an abundance words. What does that tell you?

End of rant...

1 comment:

Clemens said...

The only time I watch CNN, or more likely Fox, is when I am at the Y, pedaling the stationary bike parked right in front of the TV screen. Then I go home, make sure our TV is off, and read a book. Or play with the computer. Or my dog. Or gaze off into space.