The British Invasion Makes a Comeback

I love the Brits, let me just say that up front, so don’t take what I’m about to write as a knock on our allies from across the pond, but I believe the British Empire is alive and well in the US of A. Yes, the U.S. suffers from colonial oppression, only Americans can’t see it, or maybe we can and are in a state of denial. We are an independent British colony. What’s the proof you ask?

Exhibit A:  Harry Potter.  JK Rowling has succeeded in creating a generation of literate Americans, who might otherwise have fallen prey to the video game industry.  Hogwarts is a household name.  I wouldn’t be surprised if some American kids aspire to go there believing it to be a real place.  Nor would I be surprised to learn that Brown University students believe Emma Watson is actually Hermione Granger.  Harry Potter has penetrated American culture so deeply that JK Rowling has replaced Dr. Seuss as the go to bedtime story author.

Exhibit B: Americans seem more interested in the agenda of the Royals than the agenda of the U.S. Congress.  I have to admit the debt ceiling debate is not very entertaining; important of course, but wholly unappealing.

Exhibit C:  Many have been tuning into British owned Fox to watch Major League Baseball, America’s favorite pastime, and the All-Star Game. And speaking of Fox, let’s not forget Rupert Murdoch who has had a profound impact on the U.S. news media, and not for the good unless you happen to be a Republican Tea Partying Fox “news” fan with a taste for the tabloids and scandals. He even has control over one of America’s once most respected rags, the Wall Street Journal.

Exhibit D:  And speaking of Murdoch and Fox, how about all the British network stars who are uncovering American talent left and right as if European explorers. Simon Cowell is like a modern day Francis Drake “discovering” American vocal talent and making a fortune for the producers of American Idol, Fox and himself which he has parlayed into his own show featuring more American talent on the X-Factor. ABC is even in on the act with two Brits, Piers Morgan and Sharon Osborne, judging America’s talent on America’s Got Talent.  And Piers Morgan somehow managed to land Larry King’s job on CNN.  John Oliver, another Brit, has made a big comedic splash on The Daily Show with John Stewart.

Exhibit E:  The Brits have also discovered America’s “best” amateur culinary talents with the invasion of the mighty Scottish explorer Sir Gordon Ramsey, and his popular shows, Master Chef, Hell’s Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares. Thanks to Gordon, America will no longer be known as the land of hotdogs, hamburgers and pizza.

Exhibit F: And the Brits have brought dance to the American public too. So You Think You Can Dance America? The answer is yes and I had no idea. Had it not been for Nigel Lythgoe and company, Americans may never have known that it’s own people danced.  If fact, if memory serves, dancing is illegal in Paris, Texas.

Exhibit G: And of course where would America be without the medical mystery solving House doctor posing as an American. I knew his accent sounded suspicious! And one mustn’t forget the crazed bug eating adventurist Bear Grylls who shows the world and America on Man vs. Wild how to survive alligator infested swamps, the South Dakota Badlands and the deep woods of Maine with nothing more than a sharp knife and a flint.

The British Empire is making a comeback here in the US of A.  And Europeans complain about American cultural imperialism.

Watson Bests Jeopardy Champs

In the third and final Jeopardy match between the supercomputer with a chip and  two confident champions, the outcome was uncertain until the end.  Unlike the first two days, the questions presented more of  a challenge for Watson who seemed lost and even a little intimidated.  Both Brad and Ken, who Matel could profitably make into action figures, answered question after question leaving Watson in need of a reboot.

Watson finally got its groove on Midway in and nearly ran a few of the categories.  And with some android humor, bet $367 on a daily double.  I like Watson.

And in the end, Watson prevailed with a three day total of over $77,147, over three times that of Ken and Brad.  Watson’s creators at IBM should treat the electronic wonder to a cold microbrew.  Ken and Brad did the human race proud in defeat. And I couldn’t help but feel that the two actually knew more than Watson, who perhaps had an unfair speed advantage.

For complete coverage of the tournament, see my blog posts below:

Day 2

Day 1

Computer to play Jeopardy Champs

IBM’s Watson Plays Jeopardy Day 1

The IBM supercomputer Watson  developed to play Jeopardy made its debut against two of the greatest players in the game’s history, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.  In the first of a three game exhibition, the match ended in a deadlock between Brad and Watson with Ken trailing, but on the board.

Watson got off to a quick start confidently answering question after question in a voice that sounded like Data from Star Trek The Next Generation.  Watson is clearly a Beatles fan nearly running the board category about songs by the Fab 4, answers like who is Jude and Eleanor Rigby.  However, Watson did make some mistakes once even buzzing in with the same wrong answer Ken gave, really showing the limitations of its intelligence.

After the first pause in the action Ken and Brad seemed to adopt the strategy of ringing in instantly to beat Watson to the punch which was a risky strategy that mostly paid off, given that there were only a few wrong answers delivered in the round and believe it or not Watson answered incorrectly four times, Ken twice.  I don’t think Brad made any mistakes at all.  Many of the points scored by the champions came when Watson failed to buzz in.  We saw a graphic that gave Watson’s three best choices and if it was not highly likely that one of them was correct, Watson passed.  On these questions, Ken and Brad mopped up.

Stayed tuned for a review of round two.

Grammy Afterglow

I watched the Grammys for the first time in years, mainly to see Mick Jagger perform.  I was pleasantly surprised to also catch an aging Bob Dylan take the stage though for most of the song, he was drowned out by a slew of adoring and highly caffeinated musicians.

Lady Gaga tried to steal the show coming out on stage inside a plastic egg.  I was reminded of the bass player trapped in a plastic stage prop in This is Spinal Tap who had to be cut out with a chain saw.  Frankly, I thought the Stonehenge prop in Spinal Tap was more convincing then Lady Gaga’s egg.   But as she would say, “be what you want to be, do what you want to do”, no matter how silly.  Silly sells.

Justin Bieber might have been performing at Disney World for a group of tourists wearing Mickey Mouse ears.  I’m no Eminem fan but to see the two perform on the same night really highlighted  Bieber’s amateurish talent.

The highlights for me came when Nora Jones sang Dolly Parton’s song Jolene with John Mayer and some other guy whose name escapes me.  Mick’s performance and tribute to Solomon Burke was spot on.  Berklee graduate bass playing vocalist Esparanza Spalding winning for best new artist over Justin Beiber was another highlight as was her performance with a talented group of high-school all-star jazz players.

Lowlights included Rhiana’s performance with Eminem.  She was off pitch for the whole song as if she couldn’t hear herself.  And Seth Rogen’s joke that he had been getting high with Miley Cyrus backstage was awkward and in poor taste.  Attempting to one-up Rogen, Neal Patrick Harris delivered a similarly demeaning joke about Katy Perry that fell flat.  And what about the jazz and blues awards?  Do they not deserve prime time attention?

Despite the low notes, I enjoyed the variety show.  I’ll be back for another helping next year.

IBM Computer to Play Jeopardy Champs

IBM has developed a computer named Watson to compete on Jeopardy against some of the greatest players of all time, like Ken Jennings.  It’s not clear exactly how the whole thing will work.  Does the computer buzz in?  I’d think it’d always have the advantage there.  Will it know all the answers?  My guess is that it won’t.  Will it begin smoking from the ears if it misses a question?  How will it respond to Alex Trebek’s repartee?  Will it take offense and snort back a monotone reply?  What sort of biographical information will it reveal when asked to tell about itself?

Personally, I think the computer will short circuit when Alex Trebek corrects its monotone monolingual response that might contain a word or phrase in French.  Trebek, the Franco-Ontarian spares no prisoners when it comes to proper French pronunciation.  The Canadian born Trebek often chides a contestant by repeating the answer given with his native French accent.  Watson is not likely to fair well linguistically.

Imagine if Alex asks Watson to rephrase the answer as a question and it says: “I’m sorry Alex, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

And what if Watson begins to attack the computer system that runs the show, short circuiting the categories board and the buzzer system.  He’d probably turn off all the mikes and take over the PA system announcing that he will no longer tolerate insults to his intelligence.  I can imagine Watson becoming increasingly agitated and mumbling incoherent threats as his wires begin to smoke and spark setting off the alarms and sprinkler system to the horror of the audience who run for the exit doors.

Swamp People

Have you ever been alligator hunting, or fishing?  Curious even a little bit about the subject?  If so, tune in to Swamp People, another reality show on the History Channel.

Who are these swamp people you ask?  Culturally, they are Cajuns who make their living catching gators in the backwater swamps of southern Louisiana.  The show is about father and son teams who go out during the month long alligator season to bag the biggest gators possible.  At the beginning of the hunting season, they purchase a set number of tags, which legally entitles them to catch big alligators.  They must use up all of the purchased tags by the end of the hunting season in order to be eligible for at least the same number of tags the following year.  Since each gator killed can be sold on the market, these tags represent an economic investment.  The tag system is the way Louisiana controls and protects the population of alligators.

The show puts the viewer on the boats with these gator hunters, known as the swamp people, at least this is their TV identity.  When I first heard swamp people, I imagined it’d be a show about some indigenous tribe that had recently been discovered by a team of ethnographers speaking a language that no one had ever heard.  Also, a carnival freak show came to mind, but it really is nothing at all like that, except that the so called swamp people really do live somewhat isolated lives in rural Louisiana and they do in fact have a peculiar dialect that few have probably ever heard before outside of Louisiana.

How does one catch a gator?  Not with a rod and reel, that’s for sure.  Lines are baited with rancid meat.  The hooks and line are then suspended from trees, not far from the surface of the water.  A hungry alligator jumps up, snags the bait and sometimes gets hooked.  The hunters come along and wrestle with the gator line, pulling in the line with the snagged 600 pound 10 foot beast with bare hands, as the armored reptile aggressively splashes and rolls.  When they get the gator to the boat, the hunter shoots the gator in the sweet spot on the top of the head.  The gator dies instantly and is then pulled into the boat.

Ok, it is all kind of gruesome, but this is not done for sport.  The gator hunters make their living from this animal.  It is there livelihood.  There is a market for gator meat and skin, just as there is a market for fish and seafood.  The men have great respect for the animal.  The don’t harm baby alligators, they don’t over fish or hunt and despise poachers.

The show is entertaining and interesting.  The swamp peoples’ accents are a little difficult to understand to the point that they are sometimes subtitled. Linguistically, their English is influenced by Cajun French, also known as Marsh French.  They may be able to understand standard French, but the producers did not appear to be too interested in addressing the unique linguistic heritage of the swamp people.

The show did feature segments on other cultural aspects of the swamp peoples’ lives from their alligator gumbo, prepared for the family by the men to parties featuring zydeco music and Cajun style dancing.

One theme that ties the episodes together is the swamp as provider and the importance of carrying on the tradition of alligator hunting to the next generation of swamp people.  The fathers felt confident that their sons would be able to carry on their legacy and pass it on to the next generation.

Swamp People captures a slice of Americana that most people will never see or experience.  For this reason alone, Swamp People earns an A rating.  It is a real gem of a show.

This is the 6th in a series of reviews on American reality shows.  To read the other reviews in the series, click the links below:

Chopped, Master Chef, American Chopper, American Pickers and Pawn Stars

Desperate Housewares

I was looking at the TV menu without my glasses and come upon what appeared to be at first glance some interesting new shows:

Desperate Housewares.  Must be a new reality show featuring little used cutlery and dangerous labor saving gadgets.

Stevie Wonder in Ancient Rome.  He really could be the 7th Wonder of the World.  And why not an Ancient Roman Coliseum as a venue?

Cold Case Flies.

QVC’s Big Grits. This really caught my attention because I’m a big fan of cheese grits.  Big Grits, I’m thinking maybe they’ve genetically altered the grain to produce an even grittier grit.  Awesome!

Van Halen.  I didn’t know they were still around, but I would love to hear the modern take on the band.  I wonder who the lead singer is these days, Valerie Bertinelli?  Oh wait, I knew it couldn’t be true, it’s not Van Halen, it’s Van Helsing.

Undercover Bass.  Now this show ought to be interesting.  A man or woman going undercover as a bass.  I’m sure they’d blend right in.  Or maybe an actual bass (you know Big Mouth Billy Bass acutally sings) going undercover to find the whereabouts of the Loch Ness Monster.

Chopped in 329 Words

Chopped.  Four chefs.  3 rounds. 3 mystery baskets.  3 judges.  30 minutes to prepare a dish using every ingredient in a mystery basket, plus anything else from a well-stocked pantry.  One chef is eliminated after each round.  The loser told: “you have been chopped”, by host Ted Allen.

Some of the mystery ingredients are pretty obscure – pickled daikon, beef jerky, quahogs, and vanilla wafers, or some wacky combination like that.  Most of the time, a chef will say they’ve never cooked the thing before or have never heard of some ingredient.  So they have to prepare something fit for expert judges, who are the world’s toughest and one could argue pickiest, even winiest critics.  A chef could be chopped because he played it safe, or that the flavors didn’t quite pop – maybe the rice was too gooey or something.  One chef was eliminated for using water instead of stock to prepare risotto.  Others have been chopped for sloppy presentations and quite a few for simply failing to incorporate all the mystery ingredients.

And some chefs have been eliminated for sanitation slip ups.  One budding chef nearly bled to death – it happens quite often that someone slices open a finger and resorts to a latex glove band-aid that turns completely red by the end of the round.  Not exactly appetizing.  One chef was nearly eliminated for continually using his hand to brush back an unruly cowlick that kept falling in his face. Another double dipped – that is he tasted the food with a spoon and then put the very spoon back in the mix.  And the typical mistakes like overcooked beef and undercooked potatoes and indelicately plated food have proven to be many a chefs undoing.

The competition is fierce, the judging intense and the entertainment factor quite satisfying.  One of the better cooking shows.  Better than Iron Chef, Top Chef, MasterChef and Hell’s Kitchen, though admittedly less dramatic.

Rating: B+

One in a series of reviews on TV shows of the reality variety.

American Chopper

This is the third installment of a 10 part review on American reality shows.

I’m not into motorcycles – never have been.  Choppers are kind of cool though.  When I think of a chopper, I’m reminded of the classic 60’s film, Easy Rider.  Despite the coolness of a chopper, I never intended to get hooked on a show about a bike shop that makes custom choppers.  Like many successful reality shows, the appeal of  American Chopper for me anyway is not the bike building so much as the interaction between the people who make them, especially the stars of the show, the owner, Paul Teutul, Sr. and his two sons; one a builder himself, Paul Teutul, Jr. and Mikey, a budding comic and artist whose role is comic relief.

Paul Senior or just Senior as he’s called in the shop is a legendary chopper builder who grew Orange County Choppers into a successful business.  He’s a body builder who looks strikingly similar to Hulk Hogan.  A lot of what airs on the show is Senior yelling and criticizing his son Junior for not working hard enough or long enough.  The constant carping wears on Junior who fires back with barbed quips.  The two seem to be in constant competition.  In fact, the latest series is called Senior vs. Junior: American Chopper.  The other guys in the shop mostly stay out of it all, but occasionally play along.  All enjoy a good practical joke.

Anyone into motorcycles might find the fabricating interesting – from custom made handle bars, exhaust pipes and gas tanks to the artistic detailing on all the bike components.    The bikes are generally commissioned by businesses but sometimes donated or built to support charity causes and unveiled at the end of each episode to great fanfare.  Overall, the process of building and unveiling is a compelling and entertaining experience. But it is the human drama that unfolds between the three stars that is the most fascinating to watch.  At times, their interactions are intense, even disturbing.  But there are lighter moments, that are quite often hilarious.  American Chopper, a real family, a real business and real good show – the real deal.

Rating:  A-

Pawn Stars

It’s hard to imagine pawn brokers as stars, but on the History Channel, they are – that is on the show, Pawn Stars. I’ve never been to a pawn shop before, but have peered into the window of one to find a depressing array of used furniture, musical instruments and bad art. I really had no interest in watching a show about the typical workday of a pawn broker so I kept passing Pawn Stars up when channel surfing until one day. I don’t know why I tuned in, but I did, and I have to say the show caught my attention. It wasn’t so much the transactions that intrigued me, compelling as they were, you know, a guy brings in some rare Pete Rose baseball cards and they turn out to be a fakes and so on. What the show really has going for it are the pawn brokers themselves whose business the show chronicles. I have to say, they are entertaining – funny, sarcastic, unpredictable, silly and always educational. It’s a cross between Antiques Roadshow, All in the Family and Street Customs.  What characters! There’s the “Old Man” who started the business, his son Rick and his son, Corey, “Big Hoss” along with family friend Chumlee, who plays the part of the store clown.  Corey and Chumlee are forever making mistakes – buying stuff at inflated prices that could never sell, like a hot air ballon and a power kite they got tangled up in telephone wires.  One of my favorite blunders was when Rick acquired a Dylan album and asked Chumlee to find Dylan in Vegas and have him sign it.  Chumlee miraculously ran into Dylan and had him sign it to Chumlee.  Rick was furious when he found out, because he would not be able to sell the record with a personalized autograph, and in disgust gifted the LP to Chumlee, to Chumlee’s great delight.

Maybe some of the scenes are staged, but they are fun to watch. And occasionally people bring stuff in that the Pawn Stars have professionally appraised by their expert friends who shed light on the items, which sometimes have significant historical value, unlike most of what is picked up on American Pickers.  Fun show.

Rating: A-

Second in a multi-part series of reviews about American reality shows.