Mystery Science Theater 3000 Could Only Have Happened When It Did

In a sense, of course, all things can only happen when they did. Still, it’s interesting to consider how much the circumstances that led to Mystery Science Theater 3000 existing. (These thoughts were triggered by coming across some DVD special features as I was curating my MST3K DVD collection.)

MST3K began when Minneapolis-local UHF station KTMA needed programming but had all but no budget.

That in itself is an interesting sentence to unpack, because a lot of younger people won’t know what a local TV station is, nor what UHF was. (It has been very interesting explaining this to my twelve year old son who has become a fan of MST3K.)

For those who don’t know, in the 1940s when television got started through the 1980s, TV was broadcast over radio waves. This meant that the station was a building with a tall tower, atop of which was a very powerful radio antenna (ranging from the kilowatts to the megawatts, depending on the station, its budget, and its radio license). A given station could reach, depending on geography and other factors, from a dozen miles to a few hundred miles. There were a few nationally broadcast channels; this meant that they sent their signal out to many stations throughout the country which would broadcast it over their radio transmitters simultaneously. (For a long time there were only three; ABC, NBC, and CBS.) Most TV channels were local, though, typically only viewable from a single city and its surrounding area.

The first radio spectrum allocated to television was higher frequency than that allocated to radio, which was in part a necessity because it needed far more bandwidth, which can only be found higher up in the spectrum. This was still all fairly low frequency, though, as the technology to easily transmit and receive at higher frequencies was harder to make and, in practice, out of reach. Early TVs could only receive these low-frequency channels, channels 2-13. Later on the technology to broadcast on higher channels came about and began to be incorporated into television sets. These channels (channels 14-83) were called UHF channels, for “ultra high frequency”. On early radio TVs these were received somewhat differently and were thus less convenient than the lower frequency channels. This coupled with the shorter propagation of high-frequency radio waves meant that UHF channels tended to have a smaller audience than the standard channels would get.

KTMA (which was the radio call-sign of the station broadcasting in the Minneapolis area on channel 23) began as a station for broadcasting local sporting events. This niche fits a UHF station fairly well since only people relatively close will care about local sporting events anyway. That said, it didn’t really work. (There were other things relating to subscription television that also didn’t work.) Thus around 1988 Jim Mallon was hired as the station director to try to make it viable. There were a few packages of movies that had been purchased to try to broadcast something but because they were the cheapest ones possible they were the worst movies available that no one else wanted.

To make KTMA financially viable, Jim Mallon needed to create some extremely cheap local programming that was at least better than the stuff they were licensing. Jim had roots in the local comedy scene and made contact with Joel Hodgeson. Joel had the idea for MST3K and KTMA having a vault of the worst movies available for license was a great fit. Joel also had contacts in the local comedy scene, and pulled in J. Elvis Weinstein and Trace Beaulieu to co-star with him. At this point all of the riffing was ad-libbed during the live broadcast. (Supposedly Trace and J. Elvis were making $25 a show.) The show was popular but not enough to save KTMA, which was heading into bankruptcy and canceled it. Joel thought that there was something to the show, though, and had enough material to put together a 4 minute pitch tape. He put this together because he’d heard that the newly forming Comedy Channel on cable TV desperately needed programming, and Joel happened to have worked with the president of the forming channel so had a contact and a path of trust.

(For those who don’t know, Cable TV largely replaced broadcast TV because it had much higher quality and, having vastly more bandwidth, it had far more channels on it. People would pay a subscription fee to their local cable TV provider to cover the cost of physically running cables out to everyone’s house. Cable Channels would broadcast their transmission over satellites which the local cable providers would receive on satellite dishes and distribute over physical cables. Adding channels didn’t require licensing radio spectrum and there weren’t issues of radio interference that caused visual and audio static.)

The Comedy Channel picked up the show; as (IIRC) Trace Beaulieu put it, they represented 90 minutes of inexpensive pre-packaged content to a network that rapidly had to create 24 hours of programming in a genre that is notoriously best when short. At first the network tried to interfere a bit, but it didn’t have time to interfere much and rapidly MST3K was popular, took care of itself, and was produced in the mid-west which was inconvenient to travel to so they mostly left it alone. (Things would change a little bit when they got canceled on the Comedy Channel and moved to the SciFi channel, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.)

This is quite a string of coincidences that could only really have happened when they did. There hasn’t really been another time when people would invest the sort of money into a TV station which needed programming like in the UHF days; enough to pay a bunch of people, not enough to pay them much. There hasn’t been the same sort of cache where talented people who dreamed of being on TV would work for peanuts because at least they were on TV. There is rarely that kind of money available to hire talented people who will work for peanuts with so little oversight. Even when you have something like this, it’s almost never the case that when the first one evanesces (as such things always will in this world) a second such opportunity, with a larger budget, shows up.

I don’t want to overstate my meaning; weird and unlikely things happen all the time. This one was just especially weird and unlikely, and extraordinarily a product of its time.

CD-ROM Was an Enormous Revolution

There was a time during the late 1980s and much of the 1990s when computers were tremendously exciting because they were getting better at an unbelievable pace. Though from an intentionally comedic perspective, the later portions of Weird Al’s parody song All About the Pentiums captures some of this spirit (link because they don’t allow embed).

You’ve gotta be the dumbest newbie I’ve ever seen
You’ve got white-out all over your screen
You think your Commodore 64 is really neato
What kinda chip you got in there, a Dorito?
You’re usin’ a 286? Don’t make me laugh
Your Windows boots up in what, a day and a half?
You could back up your whole hard drive on a floppy diskette
You’re the biggest joke on the Internet

And again, later:

My new computer’s got the clocks, it rocks
But it was obsolete before I opened the box
You say you’ve had your desktop for over a week?
Throw that junk away, man, it’s an antique
Your laptop is a month old? Well that’s great
If you could use a nice, heavy paperweight

When this song was written we had had about a decade of computers being approximately twice as fast every year, though I think that CD-ROM played a big part in this general sort of impression, too. To see what I mean, I want to run through a very brief history of processors.

In 1982, Intel released the 80286, more popularly called the 286. It was used in a variety of things at a variety of speeds, so for simplicity I’m going to focus on where I met it: the IBM PS/2. It had 1MB of RAM and the CPU ran at 10MHz.

The 286 was succeeded by the 386, though at the time it often took years for these things to work into consumer hardware. We had our 286-based PS2 in about 1988, while the 386 came out in 1995. We got a computer with a 386 somewhere around 1990. That ran at about 20MHz, and was faster at executing instructions even at the same clock speed. The 486 was released in 1990 and started at 25MHz in the computers available to us some time later. In 1992 the DX2 was launched, which was a 486 running at 50MHz. Shortly thereafter a version at 66MHz was launched. These were over twice as fast as the initial 486, since being on the same architecture the clock speed mostly tells you the performance.

In 1993 the DX4-100 as well as the next-generation Pentium were launched, and again performance lept up, somewhere around doubling. The Pentium Pro would follow in 1995 and the Pentium II in 1996. By the time of the Pentium II, not only was the architecture faster at the same clock speed, but clock speeds had reached up to 450MHz (lowest was 233MHz). The Pentium III was released in 1999, and would have clock speeds that, in the high-end models, reached up to 1.4GHz (the lowest was 400MHz). By now there were becoming issues with fetching data from RAM that meant that increased clock speeds didn’t linearly increase processing power, but the increased processing power around now was still almost beyond comprehension compared to what it was a mere ten years before.

However, it was still small compared to how big an improvement CD-ROMs were. To see this, we have to consider what (in a sense) they replaced: the floppy disk. While there were several formats of floppy disk, the dominant one in the mid to late 1980s was the 3.5″ floppy disk. Here’s a decent picture of them from Wikipedia:

By Victor Korniyenko – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10682229

(For those wondering about the name, the floppy disk was inside of the hard plastic case. The metal door slid to expose the floppy disk to the drive that read it.)

This stored 1.44MB of data. Hence the Evil Overlord rule, “all important data will be padded to 1.45MB”—so the hero couldn’t copy the critical file onto a floppy drive and escape with it, as often happened in movies from a very specific time period. The 1.44MB 3.5” floppy disks were not overly expensive, but they were not super cheap and they were cumbersome. They also were not fast. It would take close to a minute to read all of the data on a floppy disk, though there was some variability. Software would come in boxes that had multiple floppy disks. Early games might be on three floppies, while later games might be on seven or eight. I remember the first time I played around with installing Linux, it took about twenty floppy disks.

Then some time around the later days of the 486 came the widespread availability of affordable, if still expensive, CD-ROM drives. These had a capacity of 650MB and a read speed of 150 Kilobytes per second, making them almost eight times faster than a floppy drive, but more importantly, they had the capacity to store as much data as 450 floppy drives. Hard drives of the day were often in the range of only 200 or 300 MB, so these amazing disks had as much capacity as two to three hard drives, which were the enormous storage vessels we had been copying floppy disks to in order to install software for years. It was an amazing revolution. Computers were getting faster, but doubling speeds at every 18 months (though it seemed faster at the time) by 1992 they were less than 100 times faster than they were in 1985. With the CD-ROM, we had something that could store over 400 times as much data in a portable format as the year before they were introduced. It was a revolution in what could be distributed with software. Games quickly began shipping with far more art, for more screens, and actual music. I remember getting a demo copy of the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica on a single CD, complete with pictures.

DVDs would come out in 1996, though those were movies that came out and it took a year or so for DVD-ROM to really start being used. They were a revolution in movies for various reasons I won’t get into here, but in computers they only represented an increase in storage, and the change was not nearly as great. A single-layer DVD could store 4.7GB and a dual-layer DVD could store 8.5GB. Taking the bigger of the two (which were common), that was thirteen times the capacity of a CD-ROM. That’s a big improvement, but nothing like the CD-ROM’s 450x improvement over the floppy disk. I think that DVD-ROM also made less of a splash because, while almost nothing fit on a single floppy disk, quite a large number of things fit on a single CD-ROM and even more things fit on two CD-ROMs, which were not much harder to package than a single one. Still, it was more than a ten-fold improvement in capacity.

(As a tangent, where we are on the s-curve of technology can be seen in Blu-Ray disks, which had capacities of 25GB and 50GB for single an dual-layer disks. This represents only a six-fold increase in storage capacity over DVDs.)

So while computers got faster, the explosion in storage, for a time, outpaced the explosion in speed. While we tend to forget how much of a revolution CD-ROM was in its day, I do think that it made a large contribution to the heady sense of technological improvement accelerating almost beyond comprehension.

Of course, these days, a two year old computer is still pretty new and quite capable. I’m buying a new laptop this summer to replace my five year old laptop, but only because I’m tired of the palm-detection not working and because I’d like a bit larger screen. It still has enough storage and is fast enough for what I want to use it for. It’s rare to bother with physical disks for data storage these days (except for buying movies), but while WiFi keeps getting faster, it’s hard to care, even for tech nerds like me, because it’s been plenty fast enough for everything everyone does with it for years now. WiFi 6 is cool and all, but the total amount of time it saves in a day is, perhaps, a few seconds.

This is, by the way, something that people who looked at pure technological capacity tended to miss, back when they expected unbridled growth to continue. Eventually, technology reaches a point where it can do most of what people want it to do, so the additional benefits of improved technology become smaller. At the same time, at some point improved technology becomes more expensive (typically after improvements are figuring out how to do what one is already doing better, and when they come from new, more difficult but now possible ways of doing what one is doing). At some point, the additional benefits aren’t worth the additional cost, and while the technical ability to improve technology exists, the money to do that improvement isn’t there. This is rarely a sudden stopping-point; more often it’s a gradual slowing down of improvements.

Too Funny To Not Share

Yesterday evening, a YouTube atheist whose channel is named “TheSkepTick” (he’s British or from some commonwealth country so he means a check mark, not a blood sucking insect) made a video about one of mine. (Specifically, about the first in the Stupid Things Atheists Say series.) Since his videos get several thousand views, this has result in hundreds of comments from angry atheists telling me how stupid I am, how I understand nothing, that I’m projecting, etc. etc. etc.

I’ve no interest in watching the video, but I was mildly curious who TheSkepTick was since I’d never heard of the channel before, so I searched him up on YouTube. Then I looked at his About page. This is the part that’s too funny to not share.

A brand new channel, making Atheism & Skepticism more accessible to a wider audience. A lot of the atheist community, in my mind, sound REALLY smart, because of the huge words and fast paced rebuttals they use. It’s not all like that, you can be like me, not overly intelligent, and look at why people believe things, then question it, simply, yet effectively.

Pray for them, please.

It Is Not Certainty That Leads To Atrocities

In a talk with Jonathan Pageau, Jordan Peterson said that Sam Harris conflated the religious impulse with totalitarian certainty of the kind that led to atrocities. Peterson remarked, with dry humor, that this is not a very differentiated analysis. He’s right, but I think it’s also worth noting that even apart from that, it is not certainty which leads to atrocities. That’s a modern myth.

Got The Documents in the Case

I recently ordered a copy of The Documents in the Case and it arrived today. It’s going directly onto the bookshelf as I have no immediate interest in reading it. This is for several reasons. The main reason is that it is written in the form of a series of letters. That’s not necessarily bad, but it takes the right frame of mind to deal with as it has at best a resemblance to a narrative flow. It was done fairly well in the beginning of Busman’s Honeymoon, but that section was mercifully short.

The Documents in the Case was published in 1930, putting it between Strong Poison and Five Red Herrings. It was a collaboration with Robert Eustace, who provided the scientific knowledge, and is quite a departure from Lord Peter. Interestingly, Sayers had intended to kill off Lord Peter in Strong Poison, or rather to retire him and cease writing about him. She proved unable to do so, as she couldn’t get Harriet to agree to marry Lord Peter and when she humanized him for Harriet’s sake she found she made him interesting to her. She probably did not know that at the time that she wrote The Documents in the Case, though, which makes me wonder whether it was originally intended as a new direction, rather than a one-off experiment.

The Five Red Herrings was published the next year, in 1931, and is far and away my least favorite of the Lord Peter stories. Far from humanizing Lord Peter none of the characters in the book were human beings. Have His Carcase came the next year, 1932, and brings a far more human Lord Peter Wimsey, so this was not far off. I’d wonder if The Documents in the Case marked the beginning of Sayers considering a turn toward a more strictly puzzle-oriented type of mystery, except that she actually referred to it in her essay in Titles To Fame as a step in the right direction of making her detective novels more novels than detection.

I did read a page or two, out of curiosity, and came across something very interesting. The woman writing the first letter (after a brief cover letter to the attached documents giving us the barest sense of what’s going on) mentions that in England at the time (the letter is dated 9 September 1928) there were two million women more than men. Presumably this is related to World War 1, though looking it up only about a million men from the British Empire died in World War 1 (I say “only” in regard to the supposed surplus of women). If true, this would certainly go decent way to explaining the loosening of sexual morality at the time, though it had certainly been happening prior to the start of World War 1. I’ll have to look into this more to see whether it really was the case.

It’s Only a Paper Moon

There’s a fun old-timey song called It’s Only A Paper Moon. There’s a version of Erin McKeown which I really like:

According to Wikipedia it’s an old jazz standard which was written for a 1932 play, The Great Magoo. It was about a womanizer who fell hard for a Coney Island dance hall girl. She briefly becomes famous when a recording of her singing It’s Only A Paper Moon becomes famous on the radio. According to an L.A. Times review of the play, “both lovers are Olympic-caliber boozers who swan dive into the gutter at the least hint of a romantic reversal.” Apparently it only ran for eleven performances.

The song featured the next year in a movie called Take A Chance, then waned in popularity until it was covered by popular singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole in the WW2 era.

Here, by the way, is a 1933 recording of it:

I like Erin’s version better.

It’s got a very interesting theme, which is, roughly, levels of reality. This was something that came up in a discussion between Jordan Peterson, Jonathan Pageau, Bishop Barron, and a professor whose name escapes me at the moment. They were discussing religious experiences, and how everyone who has them (however they do) describes them as more real than everyday experience. It stands to reason that if a person truly encounters the divine, they will feel the world something of a shadow in comparison. What this song gets at, though, is that the same thing applies even within creation. Some things are just more real than others.

The particular that it discusses is romantic love, of course; that is, after all, the subject of about 99.8% of all popular songs. Still, it’s true as far as it goes, even if it doesn’t go very far. It goes quite a lot farther than the people who believe that sub-atomic particles are the ultimate reality go, though, and that’s the era that this song was written for.

The Evil Overlord List

If you’ve never encountered it, there is a very funny list of movie tropes which goes by the name Top 100 Things I’d Do If I Were Evil Overlord. If you’d like to read all 235 things on the list, it’s here.

Some of my favorites include:

The artifact which is the source of my power will not be kept on the Mountain of Despair beyond the River of Fire guarded by the Dragons of Eternity. It will be in my safe-deposit box. The same applies to the object which is my one weakness.

Another great one, though now dated:

Any data file of crucial importance will be padded to 1.45MB in size.

For those too young to get the joke, floppy disks were often used in movies of a certain era (before the internet) to transport crucial information in movies, such as the plans to a super-weapon or the evidence that a villain committed crimes. In the sorts of movies we’re talking about from this era, it was common for heroes to secretly get access to the villain’s computer and copy this information onto a floppy disk. The hard-cased 3.5″ floppy disks which were the most common for this purpose had a capacity of 1.44MB.

Another great is:

One of my advisors will be an average five-year-old child. Any flaws in my plan that he is able to spot will be corrected before implementation.

Though I think that my all-time favorite is:

I will not waste time making my enemy’s death look like an accident — I’m not accountable to anyone and my other enemies wouldn’t believe it.

I tend to paraphrase this one when quoting, though, to “I will not waste time making the hero’s death look like an accident. My friends won’t care and my enemies will not believe it anyway.”


This came to mind because twenty some-odd years ago I wrote a script that randomly picks one of the quotes to be the “evil overlord quote of the day” in my email signature, and yesterday someone else recognized it and commented on it, reminding me that I did it.

Jordan Peterson & Jonathan Pageau on The Problem of Perception

I came across a very interesting video which is a conversation between Jonathan Pageau and Jordan Peterson where they discuss the problem of perception—how it is possible to perceive objects.

After listening to it for the second time, I realized that they are discussing from a different angle a problem that I’ve presented to atheists and they’ve never understood. Instead of the problem of perceiving objects I tended to refer to it as the problem of defining human beings within a materialist framework, and the consequent problem that this has for morality.

The basic problem I would present is: how do you define a human being in terms of subatomic particles in such a way that it’s distinct from a corpse? If you can’t—and you certainly can’t—you can’t define what murder is, and if you can’t define what murder is, you can’t say why murder is wrong. The same problem applies to all other moral aspects; good luck defining fraud or theft or arson or trespassing with the intent to commit a crime with a firearm in terms of sub-atomic particles. It’s not just that if God is dead all things are permitted. If God is dead, no things are definable and consequently nothing can be forbidden.

What Jonathan and Jordan are discussing is the same thing, but from a more epistemological perspective. They actually started, more-or-less, with why there is no such thing as a general-purpose robot. There is no such thing as a general-purpose robot because in order to interact with things you need to be able to perceive things and distinguish them from their environment, and though it comes naturally to us when you look at what we’re doing in order to be able to build a robot to do it, it turns out that the perception of objects is inextricably linked with purpose. (E.g. whether it matters that the right hand side of the table is separable from the left-hand side depends on whether you want to put something on it or use it for firewood.) People tended to be so used to their purposes that they couldn’t imagine not having the same purposes, and thus assumed these purposes were fundamental and therefore universal, but when examined it turns out that this is just a failure of imagination. (In part, this is why it takes so many years to produce an adult human being, behaviorally speaking.)

It’s a very interesting conversation (despite being called a lecture for some reason), and I recommend watching it in full, more than once. They really get into some of the interesting consequences of how perception and purpose are inextricably linked from each other.

What Toleration Will Tolerate

As Edward Feser has observed, classical liberalism is all about toleration, but in the end, the only thing it will tolerate is itself. It is a bit of a long argument, but the short version is that the Paradox of Tolerance means that liberalism needs to be intolerant of whatever will threaten its toleration, and that turns out to be, approximately, everything else.

Classical liberalism, as it morphed into contemporary liberalism—more often called “progressivism” or “woke”, though none of these are well-defined terms—has increasingly discovered what it can tolerate and what it can’t. It can tolerate fornication, divorce, adultery (with a few qualifications), drug abuse, all manner of sex-like acts which have no relationship of any kind to procreation, and quite a few other things, though it cannot tolerate slavery, rape, or murder (if the victim has been born more than a few minutes ago). It can tolerate telling other people how to be happy as long as they have asked and the answer is a generally acceptable one.

If one casts one’s eye over the things that modern liberalism will tolerate, there are clearly no principles involved. People occasionally make an attempt at “as long as it doesn’t harm anyone” but abortion clearly harms people. (It’s no answer to say “but we define the victims as not people” since the victims of slavery were defined as not-people too, and liberals don’t excuse that for a second.) Divorce harms people, though some liberals do try to get around this via pretending that it doesn’t. Adultery obviously harms people. For that matter drug abuse clearly harms the one abusing the drugs, but the principle is generally “so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone but the person doing it”. Something that points in the right direction, I think, is that liberals who live in low-crime areas are often tolerant of crime, even including violent crime. This is especially true of white liberals and black-on-black crime. And that last part, I think, gives it away.

Modern liberalism tolerates whatever does not inconvenience the liberal. I don’t mean that liberals are inconsistent and suspend their principles whenever they are personally inconvenienced. I mean that this is their principle, to the degree that they have a principle. Many of them do not even pretend to have principles anymore; at best they have slogans which everyone recognizes that they don’t mean literally or figuratively. They do not pretend to aim for a common good; rather their entire criteria for what can be tolerated is “what does it matter if it doesn’t hurt you?” These purely selfish individuals do need to negotiate with each other because no man is an island, so they must cooperate in banning things that the people they need demand be banned; they are particularly willing to do this if they have no interest in doing the things their allies want banned. All of this makes sense as long as you realize that their principle is unenlightened short-term self interest.

I can’t stress enough that I am not accusing contemporary liberals of being hypocrites. My whole point is that they are not hypocrites.

In Towels, Bigger is Usually Better

For people who have a large amount of surface area relative to normal, such as tall people, fully drying off after getting one’s whole body wet (such as in a shower) can be a little challenging, since towels become less absorbent the more water that they hold. One solution to this is to get towels with more capacity to hold water, such as plusher towels. The problem there is that plush towels are not always absorbent. Some I’ve come across seem to be nearly water repellent.

One solution is to look to very high end towels, such as those made of bamboo rayon (rayon is basically a chemically spun cellulose fiber, so it’s what you might call a quasi-natural fiber). They’re soft and absorbent, but hard to find and expensive.

Then I discovered that the solution is to stop buying bath towels and to start buying “bath sheets”. They’re just big towels, but have a different name for some reason. These “bath sheets”, which I’ve bought and regularly use and like, measure 70 inches long by 35 inches wide, and they have plenty of capacity to hold water simply because they’re much larger, despite having an entirely ordinary amount of plushiness and absorbency. Ordinary “bath towels” tend to be around 54×30, which is only two thirds the surface area of the “bath sheet”. Put the other way, the “bath sheet” has 50% more surface area than the “bath towel”. That’s a lot of extra water it can hold while still feeling dry to the touch and thus drying one off quickly.

As a bonus, it’s also much easier to securely wrap a “bath sheet” around one’s waste even if one’s waste circumference doesn’t qualify one to be an underwear model.

I share this because it took me years to figure out that what I want are decent bath sheets instead of expensive, fancy towels, so I hope I can save you years to figure that out too. Unless you, dear reader, are on the smaller side, in which case “bath towels” probably serve you admirably, and this is only useful knowledge for giving gifts to those in your life who have more trouble getting things from tight places and fitting into airplane seats and the like.