Road Trip: Washington DC

We’ll be driving up to New Hampshire at the beginning of July, but neither Ezra nor Martine have been on any long car trips in years. We decided it would be a good idea to try a moderately long trip before getting in the car for the week and a half drive up to NH (or, so it would seem). So, this past weekend we went to Washington DC.

The drive down on Friday night was somewhat challenging, complete with the requisite bathroom emergencies. Marla booked a hotel halfway between Dupont Circle and Farragut Square. We arrived long after bedtime, and put the car into valet parking until Sunday. Then, the kids stayed up way too late. Everyone was too excited to sleep, but ended up waking up too early as well.

Saturday, we got one-day Metro passes, and went wherever we wanted. Ezra was free, and Martine enjoyed being able to use her Metro pass herself. It turns out Race for the Cure was going on that morning, but the resulting crowds didn’t pose any problem. There’s something going on every weekend in DC, they pretty much have everything under control.

The plan was to go to Smithsonian museums on Saturday, so we started with the Air and Space museum before lunch. Martine was interested, but too tired to pay much attention. Ezra also liked what he saw, but will probably never remember any of it. Martine enjoyed a ride on the carousel on the Mall, and then everyone else went back to the hotel for a rest/nap time while I went out to Chinatown to find lunch.

The hotel was only a block or so from the National Geographic Explorer’s Hall museum type place, and they were having an exhibit with lion and leopard photography, so we went there first in the afternoon. There were some great photos, as well as the first video evidence ever of a pack of lions trying to take down an elephant. They wounded the elephant but didn’t kill it.

Next was the Museum of Natural History. Martine was a lot better after her food and rest time, and enjoyed the animals and fossils quite a bit. We stayed there for several hours, and of course couldn’t see everything in the time we had.

For dinner, we went to the Brickskeller, an early (ca. 1957) beer bar specializing in having as wide of a selection of good beers as possible. We chose not to stay in the Inn there because the reviews were not very good. The bar/restaurant was adequate, but I’m glad we have the Sharp Edge and D’s in Pittsburgh instead. On the walk back to the hotel we stopped at Tangysweet for frozen yogurt. I enjoyed the green tea flavor.

On Sunday, we settled the bill, got the car, and drove towards the zoo to find breakfast. It turns out we parked for free halfway between the zoo and the nearest metro stop, so we just left the car there and went to the zoo. We had a long, good day at the zoo, and the kids were satisfied enough that we had a good drive home as well.

Judging the weekend as a dry run for a longer car trip, I think it was a success. We have some ideas on how to make the trip to New Hampshire more manageable, and the kids have a bit of practice sitting still for too long.

As a weekend out with the family, it was basically fine, but I think we’d get more out of the experience if the kids were older. There’s far too much to do in a weekend, so it feels like no matter what we picked, there might have been something else better to do instead. But it’s folly to compare our actual experience with what might have happened if we chose to do something else. Instead, we’ll come back again some day.

Some things I’d like to do but didn’t:

(Stop back later for pitctures.)

Hunting for Gollum

If you haven’t seen this yet, it’s definitely worth watching: The Hunt for Gollum.

This is a 40 minute independent film, styled after the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s apparently based on one of Tolkein’s appendices, and tells the story of Aragorn’s hunt for Gollum, before he fell into the hands of the enemy and gave up the location of the One Ring.

This was made by fans, not for profit, indepentently, and on a very low budget. To be sure, it’s not the Lord of the Rings; but it’s a lot better than the Lord of the Rings would’be been 10 years earlier.

The New Television

Television sucks.

Well, not entirely: most television sucks.

But to paraphrase Sturgeon’s law: of course 90% of television is crap; 90% of everything is crap.

Despite my general opinions, not all television shows are horrible, even though most of them are. But even if you find a show which is a good match for your preferences, television as a medium has some severe problems:

  1. excessive advertisements
  2. time restrictions of the broadcast model: you watch when they broadcast it
  3. poor broadcast quality of analog TV
  4. requirement for a cable subscription to watch certain shows
  5. serialization: new episodes are only available once per week

For many people, Tivo and other DVR’s solve the first two problems adequately: they allow for both time shifting, and skipping ads. But they don’t solve problems with either broadcast quality or cable subscriptions. Tivo is not the new television.

I enjoy digital broadcast TV slightly more than analog, but in reality I think it’s irrelevant. Like Blu-Ray, it’s too little, too late, and possibly even solving the wrong problem. Digital TV solves problem #3, but basically nothing else; this only mattered for people who didn’t already have digital cable anyway. Digital broadcast is also not the new television.

For a long time, our solution to all of these problems has been Netflix. We borrowed the TV series we wanted to watch, after they had already hit DVD. We watched episodes when we wanted, and as many as we wanted, without commercials. But then, we ran out of episodes we wanted to watch on DVD. In terms of content and delivery, DVD’s are roughly equivalent to the 1980’s technology of VHS tapes of TV shows; they are definitely not the new television.

For watching an ongoing series, our next obvious step was the Internet. Individual channels, including cable channels such as the Sci-Fi channel, put their broadcast shows on the Internet a day or a week after their broadcast date. Web sites such as Hulu aggregate various shows and stream all of them from a central location. This allowed us to watch episodes whenever we wanted, long before they became available on DVD, while avoiding most (but not all) of the commercials. But this is just a new distribution channel for shows which are produced in long-entrenched Hollywood tradition. The Internet is a necessary afterthought, but not the primary distribution mechansim. This is very close to the new television, but not quite.

The new television isn’t television at all: you don’t need television, to create a good video production. Broadcast and cable television are expensive broadcast media. They pay for content to be created, but they don’t create content. Often, they stifle others’ creative efforts in the name of the bottom line, because national network broadcast is a very expensive part of allowing a show to succeed.

As a broadcast medium, the Internet is enough by itself: television is not required. The Internet is a much cheaper broadcast channel, and its cost is proportional to its audience. The proportional cost to broadcast, combined with inexpensive Internet marketing, can allow shows to succeed even if they have a small audience. Allowing a show to cater to a smaller audience allows it to follow its creative vision more closely, instead of trying to appeal to a “least common denominator” audience.

In some ways, Youtube is the new television: it certainly replaces “America’s Funniest Home Videos” without any problem. But it is, by all accounts, quite amateur and unpredictable in its production qualities.

There are other Internet-only productions, which have met with various degrees of success. These are the New Television.

Video podcasts have already had success as Internet-only video talk shows, but this is not what I think of when I consider high quality television shows. I think of fictional drama or comedy, well written and well produced. I will admit that currently, the best Internet productions are aimed at an audience which is geekier than average. But geeks are early adopters. Other less geeky shows will follow in the footsteps of the geek, and take the limelight they desire (but that the geeks do not).

If you want to witness the future of television, I have a few recommendations:

  • Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is a musical produced by Joss Whedon, who became famous for the television shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly. It was produced with a low budget during the Hollywood writer’s strike, and released directly to the Internet.
  • The Guild is an ongoing serial show based on the trials and tribulations of a guild of online video gamers. The show just finished its second season, and the episodes range anywhere from 3 to 10 minutes in length. This points out another problem with Old Television: “43 minutes plus 17 minutes of commercials” is an extremely limiting format. There’s no reason, from the perspective of a show’s creator, why every episode must have the same length with commercials in the same location. That restriction is imposed by the broadcaster, not the content creator.
  • Escape from City-17 is an online short (hopefully, a series) inspired by the video game Half-Life. It is notable for having an extremely small budget, while using video effects which surpass anything available on network television 10-20 years ago.

Eventually, calling shows like these “Internet TV” will seem as quaint and anachronistic as using an icon of a floppy disk for the “save” function, or using an icon of an envelope to signify “e-mail.” In the end, The New Television isn’t television at all, and that is what makes it new.