Early TV and Human Performance

"The luminous screen in the home carries fantastic authority," radio and TV historian Erik Barnouw writes. "Viewers everywhere tend to accept it as a window on the world... It has tended to displace or overwhelm other influences such as newspapers, school, church, grandpa, grandma. It has become the definer and transmitter of society's values." It's not just the camera passively transmitting visual and auditory data. The very invention of television required human performance.

This might explain why the earliest TV broadcasts, including experimental ones, featured theatrical productions rather than, say, nature shots or people just standing around and talking. The journey begins with WGY, a Schenectady, New York radio station with a long and important history. Although it's a Clear Channel station now, in 1903 (119 years ago) the station was a licensee of General Electric, who had contracted with inventors and researchers to develop high-frequency stations. A few years later, the station was also broadcasting television signals, as were experimenters around the world. By the 1930s, a limited amount and type of commercial programming was available.

Theatrical and cinematic performance were a driving force behind television content production. A 1928 article reads: On September 11, 1928, WGY, the first station to organize a dramatic group and present plays regularly to the radio audience, established itself also as the first station, anywhere, to broadcast an actual drama with the aid of television: transmitting images and voice simultaneously on separate radio channels . . . It was highly effective, and held the attention and interest of the rather critical audience as closely as if it had been the highest-priced dramatic hit on broadway."

That's the thing with TV–you need to be performing something, being active, creating a spectacle of some kind, in order to justify being telecast. Even the reality TV of the present time, seemingly showing non-actors in real life situations, is performative.

Another obvious performative subject matter for early television was sports. In 1937 the Wimbledon tennis tournament was broadcast on live television, announcers explaining the difficult nature of the project. In 1939, live baseball games were televised from Columbia University.

And then there was news. By the end of the 1930s, networks like NBC had started to simulcast some of their content on radio and television simultaneously. Keep in mind that TVs would not become household necessities for a few more years yet. But in 1940, famous news pioneer Lowell Thomas began simulcasting the news regularly, every weeknight. Initially, the telecast was only seen in New York City, on the WNBT channel. During the Second World War, production of television sets stopped, but the war itself became a subject of broadcasting for somewhat serendipitous reasons: RCA had been developing cameras for bombers to help remotely guided glide bombers reach their targets. The cameras didn't work very well that way, but the technology helped shape remote broadcasts from various war sites. And so war itself, already well-established as a spectacle, became a spectacle capable of reaching, and affecting, the masses. Television is about affect as well as effect.


UFOlogy: It's Weather Balloons All the Way Down

We're constantly being treated to new or newly reexamined evidence of UFOs–now called UAPs–and the Pentagon's commitment to taking them seriously has accompanied additional (contentious) evidence such as video and FOIA documents floating around the UFOlogy communities. An FBI memo purports to admit to the Roswell event really being an alien ship.

The FBI has since said the memo conveys secondhand accounts, but how do we know, the communities ask. Videos and photos, unverifiable by their social media audience, fly around the internet.

But it's weather balloons that are the silent, neutral enemy of the good UFO/UAP story. Weather balloons aren't hot air-powered, but rely on helium or hydrogen, and can go really really high–20 miles up–and can get really cold, like -95 C and -139 F. And they're white and shaped funny, particularly because they expand and contract and can thus manifest as different shapes at different times. These balloons carry instruments to measure air pressure, temperature, humidity, wind speed and more. Sometimes the balloons disintegrate or burst in their radically high altitude, and the instrument panels parachute to the ground. Other times, of course, the balloons themselves come down, and are perhaps confused with crashed spaceships.

Last week, in a town of 35,000 where my friend lives, a few people spotted a distinct speck of white in the sky, stationary, hanging. Some of them snapped imperfect pictures and took to social media asking if anyone knew what it was. Some, in their posts, preemptively said they suspected it was a weather balloon. It looked like two objects in the sky, one above the other. Soon, their suspicions were confirmed. I saw it too–it looked like two tiny white dots, untethered from each other but connected, floating perfectly still together. Of course, they are tethered together in real life.

Also tethered together: alleged flying saucer sightings and weather balloons as the unending official explanation. A google search of "UFOs" "weather balloon" yields 47,900 results. Roswell is an archetypal contact event, and its official explanation was a weather balloon. Eliav Chohen's 2021 piece "Hot air balloons and UFO’s: A history of mistaken identity" at the Seattle Ballooning site also discusses weather balloons, emphasizing that "balloons found themselves at the core of a never-ending mistaken identity crisis with unidentified flying objects." Toronto's North York Central Library Blog ran a post about 8 years ago with the wonderful title "UFO or Weather Balloon? Choose One," although there was no such quiz in the actual post. Instead, the author created a useful list of definitive books on Roswell, both sides of the cryptic debate on UFOs, and some meta-analysis on conspiracy theory. The inclusion of The Roswell Encyclopedia was my best takeaway. And it's still happening: According to Mental Floss, "In 2017, a large balloon from the Google company X crashed in Colombia. Farmers who observed the downed object smoking and leaking 'strange liquid' thought they were seeing a UFO."

Photo credit: NASA/Goddard/BARREL/Brett Anderson


State Laws on Crypto Campaign Money

My friend says that the recent crash in crypto is the result of its being treated too much as a hot commodity and not enough as a tool of liberation. "It was never meant to be just another financial choice," she says, "not just a scam like an interest rate swap or easy money like gold and silver. Mark my words, scammer crypto will crash every time."

But there's at least one application of cryptocurrency that may have a direct relationship with public service, if on the dirtier side of it: campaign finance. The crypto-campaign-contribution scene is not consistent — some states explicitly allow it, others explicitly do not, and still others have no explicit allowance or prohibition, and others have limits (typically $100). Still, in both high profile and more local campaigns, candidates are accepting donations in cryptocurrency

The "youthful" orientation of the crypto crowd, whether the age numbers verify this or not, is one focus of media attention around these donations. Another common argument is that cryptocurrencies create easier "access" and efficiency of delivery. After all, a crypto exchange is just between the two parties, where a traditional exchange requires that transactions clear through banks or other financial institutions. 

Surely this makes cryptocurrency an attractive method of quickly (and perhaps discretely) contributing, right? "Well, but it's not just the laws or the ease of exchange or even the alleged freedom from government oversight" my friend insists. "It's the ethos. It's the CRYPTO ETHOS." 

Of crypto ethos, decentralized finance pioneer Andre Cronje has said: "I have long been vocal on my disdain of crypto culture, and my love for crypto ethos. Reading that might sound weird, but crypto ethos is concept like self-sovereign rights, self custody, self empowerment. Crypto culture is concepts like wealth, entitlement, enrichment, and ego." My friend finds the use of cryptocurrency to finance campaigns romantic. She sees it as a "noble pursuit" rather than just a means of moving wealth. 

Of course, the problem is that noble or not, crypto isn't doing well. Bitcoin has dropped 52 percent in value this year. The popular currency Coinbase laid off 18% of its workforce recently. Writing for MarketWatch, Kenneth Rogoff said that the sudden rise in interest rates surprised crypto players who had grown used to flat rates. And the temptation not to regulate crypto is strong, but so is the evidence that unregulated crypto is helping a lot of criminals become better at hiding their illegal transactions, particularly in developing countries. For whatever reasons, people are bailing out of these markets quickly. The "spent output profit ratio" used to track profit levels of digital currencies, is at its lowest level in a year. Which raises the question of whether crypto money in elections is actually worth investing in the first place. 

But enter the final boss: Recently, billionaire Democrat Sam Bankman-Fried says he could spend $1 billion or more in the 2024 election, which would easily make him the biggest-ever political donor in a single election. Bankman-Fried, at only 30 years old, is founder of FTX, a cryptocurrency exchange. He called the billion dollar figure a “soft ceiling” that could increase "if former President Donald Trump runs again."  Like many his age, Bankman-Fried really dislikes Trump. Of course, with that kind of wealth, a billionaire could probably make campaign contributions in pennies, baseball cards, or sandwich coupons and someone would do the conversion for them.


Cooperation and Deception in the Hail HYDRA Game

Cooperative board and card games have come a long way, and the idea of collaboration is almost normal in gaming now. Marvel's Hail HYDRA Board Game is collaborative, but with a twist — there are traitors in the midst. Everyone is supposed to be on team S.H.I.E.L.D., but one or two of you may be double-agents, and a lot of the game is devoted to figuring out who. In the meantime, the team of agents is defending New York City from various supervillains. Ultimately the team wants to defeat Red Skull, retrieve a cosmic cube, and declare victory. 

One board game review site says the game is "fast-paced, raucous and great fun" Up to eight people can play; these reviewers recommend six. There were five of us playing, which I think was adequate, and I'm not sure how the quantity relates directly to the enjoyment, but I can certainly see how 4 or fewer would be too few. 

All the dynamics of human communication and deception-based game theory were at work when my friends and I played the game. The game was full of fluid and unnecessary paranoia. I played Captain America and everyone accused me of being a fascist and therefore being the HYDRA agent. They could not shake this belief for several turns as the actual agents either accused me or remained evasive. At one point in the game we're supposed to vote people out of a round if we suspect they are HYDRA. Because Captain America gets an extra vote, I was able to force a tie and nobody got thrown out. Despite this altruistic act, everyone continued to suspect I was HYDRA. And, because I was voted out of the final round, I was unable to help fight the two HYDRA agents, one of whom I had consistently and repeatedly identified. It was frustrating, but then vindicating when everyone learned it wasn't me. 

On the good side, the game is pretty accessible and the processes easy to learn. On the other hand, this accessibility is partly a result of the game being very mechanical and somewhat predictable, even as a deception game. At least when we played it, there was very little strategy involved. We all played attack cards and if the positive point value of our cumulative card total outnumbered that of the villains we faced, we won, which was almost all the time even with only five players. The superheroes have one or two unique traits that augment things like voting power, but there's not a lot of incentive to get to know your character. 

For genuine collaboration, there are probably better games. I recommend the cooperative games of the TESA Collective, including Strike! and Space Cats Fight Fascism. These games are more difficult to win, require cooperative communication and mutual planning, and don't double-burden the players with beating the bad guys and sniffing out internal traitors. But for those who dig the latter, Hail HYDRA has a fun, superhero-oriented flavor and lots of pretty evil villains to fight.  

image by Flickr user Patrik Kristian