Thursday, October 20, 2016

Frequency 1.3: Chess Game Across Time

Frequency 1.3 continued to play the chess game across the time that provides the script for most time-travel stories, in the case of Frequency how a daughter in 2016 can work with her father in 1996 to save her mother from being a murdered, an event which itself happened when the daughter saved her father from the same fate, right after the connection in time had been established.

Going after the murderer - in this case, a serial killer - is a logical move on this chess board.  But in time travel, not only is time itself your ultimate opponent, but so is a perpetual lack of crucial information.  It's hard enough to know all the relevant factors - in the case of police work, identifying the correct suspects - but when you're doing this across time it gets even harder.

So if you're familiar with the playbooks of time travel, it's no big surprise that Raimy and Frank, after zooming in on and chasing the guy they were increasingly sure was the serial killer, across two episodes, discover that he's not.  But the payoff was nicely done, with the guy disappearing literally before Raimy's eyes, as he's hit by car as he's trying to run away from Frank in the past.

In a way, this is a good metaphor for Frequency and all good time travel: you can't run away from your fate.  This could be the theme of any powerful story, but in Frequency, the tension is heightened by our not knowing exactly what that fate is.   As I've said in reviews of earlier episodes, Frequency is a story not about major, world-changing events but about a family, a daughter and her father, and this makes it all the more appealing.

One more thing: here's my prediction for who the killer is:  I think it's Raimy's neighbor.  Not that he's done anything wrong, but there's something about the way he keeps popping up that's making me think he's up to no good.

See also Frequency 1.1: Closely Spun Gem ... Frequency 1.2: All About the Changes

                       more time travel

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

In Final Debate: Trump Says He Might Not Abide by Results of Presidential Election

It's pretty astonishing, even for Donald Trump.  He's said this in speeches to his supporters.  But to tens of millions of Americans watching the third debate, he flatly said he'll have to see what happens in our upcoming election - he'll have to see what happens - before he decides whether to abide by the results of that election.

As many political commentators have been saying, and as Steve Schmidt just said on MSNBC, that statement of non-support for the very essence of our democracy is "disqualifying".

Trump has said many awful and outrageous things.  But this is the worst.   This brutal, abusive person - who has verbally attacked immigrants, disabled people, women, and has physically attacked women, too - now has doubled down on this contempt for and abuse of our very electoral process.

It will be a real relief not to ever have to see or hear this spiritual ugliness ever again.  Trump will lose, but he and his supporters will keep pushing their poison.  But it will be a relief not to have to worry that somehow this monstrosity might, against all odds, get into the White House.

We'll have that satisfying moment in just a few weeks, when Hillary Clinton is elected our next President. Tonight, Trump gave yet another reason to fervently look forward to that night next month.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Steve Schmidt Moved To Tears on the 11th Hour on MSNBC

I don't think I've ever seen anything quite as moving and profound from a Republican commentator on television.

I first became aware of Steve Schmidt when he was campaign manager for John McCain's unsuccessful 2008 Republican campaign the U.S. Presidency. I didn't much care for Schmidt or his candidate, and even less for Sarah Palin, who would have become Vice President had Schmidt succeeded in his campaign.

Perhaps Schmidt has grown wiser.  It happens.  Perhaps Schmidt correctly sees that as, dangerous and out-of-her mind as Sarah Palin was, Donald Trump is 10 times or whatever big multiplier worse.

Schimdt recounted on the 11th Hour with Brian Williams the dignity of FDR on the White House lawn after Pearl Harbor.  He reminded us that Hitler didn't take power by force, but because democracy in Germany was weak.

Schmidt could barely contain himself, and neither could I.   His voice and the tears in eyes conveyed the threat that Donald Trump poses to our democratic process, conveyed the disgust and despair Schmidt feels when he compares Trump to any former American President.   The obscenity of his election would trash what not only FDR but every American President has struggled to uphold and preserve our democracy, and the respect upon which it is predicated, respect for the choice of the people as reflected in the votes they cast on Election Day.

One of the silver linings of Trump may the unity he has unintentionally brought forth among all Americans of rationality and good will, Republicans as well as Democrats.

I'm looking forward to seeing them work together together to build a better America, after the political illness that is Trump is defeated.

Timeless 1.3: Judith Campbell

Timeless 1.3 took an interesting turn tonight, bringing our team back to the time of JFK, but not to attempt to prevent his assassination.

This is actually more than interesting - it's unusual for a time travel series whose first two episodes saw our heroes attempting to stop big-time historical disasters, the Hindenburg explosion and the Abraham Lincoln assassination.  The team succeeds in the first, only to have the Hindenburg blow up anyway, a little later.  And the team refrains from attempting to stop the killing of Lincoln, concentrating instead of keeping Ulysses S. Grant from also being killed, which would have had serious consequences for subsequent history.

So even when they're on the scene to stop big historical catastrophes, Lucy, Wyatt, and Rufus end up doing something slightly different.   And this sets up the story for tonight's episode, in which they do something completely different from stopping a major disaster.

Indeed, it's so different, that it's not completely clear what exactly the team was trying to stop - not clear to the team, never clear to them, and tonight certainly not to the audience.  And when we finally find out - at the very end - that the purpose of Flynn's mission was to get an atomic weapon to a place in the dessert in the future, we still don't know why.

But that's ok - actually, it's good to have an uneven, edgy pace in a time travel series - and the focus on Judith Campbell, likely JFK's mistress in our reality, definitely in the episode, was actually refreshing, in contrast to seeing another JFK assassination story.  And the episode offered a significant note on the difficulty of changing the future from the past, with Wyatt's unsuccessful attempt to save his wife in the future by sending her a telegram from the past.   Lucy's future changes when she doesn't want it to change.  Wyatt's future stays the same when he tries to change it.  What's the deeper significance that?

I'll be watching for more clues next week.

See also Timeless 1.1: Threading the Needle ... Timeless 1.2: Small Change, Big Payoffs

                       more time travel

Monday, October 17, 2016

Westworld 1.3: Julian Jaynes and Arnold

An outstanding episode 1.3 tonight of Westworld, turning out to be one brilliantly philosophical ride of a series, as we would want a drama about artificial intelligence in android bodies to be.

We learn from Dr. Ford that Arnold, who co-created the androids with Ford, thought that the creations could achieve true sentience via a bicameral mental process, in which the two halves of the mind worked together - one talking to the other - to attain human consciousness.   This, as far as I know, is the first time this theory of Julian Jaynes - that our own human consciousness arose from bicameral minds - has ever been employed as a mechanism in a science fiction television series.

It's appeared in science fiction - including in one of my own novels, The Consciousness Plague - but not as an explanation for the design and emergence of artificial sentience.  Jaynes was a real person, by the way, whose book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of Bicameral Mind caused something of a stir when it was first published in 1976.   Jaynes argued that prior to the invention and adoption of the phonetic alphabet in the Middle East, human beings were not conscious in the way that we have been ever since and are today, but instead heard voices in their heads that told them what to do.   Those voices are now known in our history as the voices of the Biblical prophets, and they survive today in schizophrenics.

We studied Jaynes in the Media Ecology PhD Program at New York University under Neil Postman. I once asked Marshall McLuhan what he thought of Jaynes and he said it was "science fiction" - another prophetic observation of McLuhan, who talked about the global village decades before the Internet and social media.   I met Jaynes a few times - he was charming and erudite.  But I thought his theory foundered in Far Eastern cultures, which are conscious the way we Westerners are, but never had a phonetic alphabet.

But that's no reason Jaynes' theory couldn't be brought into Westworld, which was really on a philosophic roll tonight, also invoking Karl Popper's notion that learning proceeds via mistakes, as Bernard muses about life and intelligence.   Neither Jaynes nor Popper were mentioned by name, but the presence of their core concepts in Westworld makes it not just science fiction but philosophic fiction, an amalgam you don't get on the television screen every day.

Meanwhile, Dolores's story (very well played by Evan Rachel Wood) is progressing beautifully - in beautiful sorrow, apropos her name - and we see some monsters in the park, with unclear origins. Also, a host kills himself with a rock to the head - presumably to stop himself from hurting one of the programmers.

Westworld is a trip for the mind as well as the senses, and I'm all eyes and ears for more.

See also Westworld 1.1: Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick Served Up by Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Joy, and J. J. Abrams ... Westworld 1.2: Who Is the Man in Black?

more about Julian Jaynes

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Why Bob Dylan Deserved the Nobel Prize for Literature

With so much wrong and out of control in this world, it was a tonic indeed to learn that Bob Dylan is being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his lifetime of song writing.

Who are the other great American songwriters in the past few hundred years?  Stephen Foster wrote eternally beautiful songs, with haunting music and gossamer lyrics, in the 19th century.  Cole Porter was an unsurpassed master of wordplay in the first half of the 20th century.   Lennon & McCartney wrote a ton of incredibly catchy and some songs very profound of lyric and music a little later.

All of these songwriters occasionally reached heights that Bob Dylan attained over and over, many dozens of times, in the 1960s.  His protest songs, like "Masters of War," are just peerless.  His commentaries on the human condition, like "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," devastating and unforgettable. His love songs, like "Just Like A Woman," are right up there with the best of Romantic poetry - and for that matter, Shakespeare and the Greek poets, too.  And Dylan did this, countless times.

Someone asked me today if Dylan really deserved the award, since songs aren't books, and thus not really a form of literature.  But what is literature?  Words put together to tell a story - or exactly what Dylan did with his words in his songs.  And he molded those words, sculpted them and strung them together, mined their metaphoric depths and extended them to surprising, stunning, breathtaking places, in a way that only James Joyce in fiction, Marshall McLuhan in nonfiction, and few other soaring writers have done.

Dylan's songs would've been heard 10, 000 years from now, even without this Nobel Prize. But the Prize is a worthy recognition of this work.

Frequency 1.2: All About the Changes

The question whenever a TV series is made out of a movie is whether the series can continue to tell a riveting story, or a story much longer than the movie.  So far, as of its second episode on the CW tonight, Frequency is doing a very good job.

The essential theme of the movie is how changing the past to prevent something bad can work, but with the price of making other things bad.  In the first episode of the TV series, Raimy learns this lesson, twice.   She saves her father but her mother dies.  And, just for good measure, she loses her fiance in the bargain.

Tonight's episode serves us another unwanted consequence.   Raimy's mere investigation of the serial killer who murdered her mother in the new reality results in him moving away and out of Raimy's radar in 2016.   The specific way this happens is neat, and a good example of how little differences can lead to big changes in time travel.  Frank, urged on by Raimy from the future, goes to the home of the likely serial killer.  The very visit sets in motion a series of events that get him to leave, which in turn leaves Raimy with no suspect at hand in the future.

And the lesson brings home to Raimy something she already knew: that anything she does to change the past to improve the future could also make things worse in the future, too.  This puts Raimy in a difficult situation which makes for an appealing narrative: she has to weigh every single change she contemplates.   Grasping completely the contradictory indications of any change in time, because she remembers all the original and changed timelines,  makes Raimy (well played by Mad Men's Peyton List)  the perfect time-traveled character - and she's not even traveling, just sending information from the future to her father in the past.

At this point, it's clear that the consequences of what Raimy is doing, and for that matter her actions in every episode, are unpredictable - or exactly what we want to see on television.

See also Frequency 1.1: Closely Spun Gem

                       more time travel

Designated Survivor 1.4: "Michigan's on the Verge of Anarchy"

That's what President Kirkman says in Designated Survivor 1.4 - "Michigan's on the verge of anarchy" - and with that woman at the Pence rally yesterday calling for revolution if Trump doesn't win, does this powerful drama have relevance to what's actually going on in our country today, or what?

But it's a drama, not reality, so Kirkman and the fictional America in which he's Presidents face far worse problems, including a second resurrection, on the part of his trigger-happy General.

Kirkman, expertly played by Kiefer Sutherland, defuses both situations. He fires the general, and lures the errant, fascist Michigan Governor to Washington, where Kirkman arrests him.  Very satisfying.

The whole series is excellent, my favorite of so far of the new television season.   It has the fast pace, surprises, and fast change of characters of 24.   Indeed, I realized tonight that Designated Survivor takes place after an episode of 24 which never existed, in which Jack Bauer somehow just can't stop the terrorist catastrophe.   Designated Survivor has all the political intrigue and innuendo of 24, but taking place after the U. S. government is all but destroyed.  And yeah, who better than the man who played Jack to play the new President.

In our reality, 24 was set to debut when 9/11 intervened.   It was delayed, and its ending was retooled to make it more in jagged accord with our post 9/11 reality.  Jack's wife didn't survive that last episode of that kick-in-the-stomach first season of 24.

There was always a sense that all bets were off with 24, and the same raw narrative energy courses through Designed Survivor.  It won't be on next Wednesday, because of the third Presidential debate, but who knows if that will take place, and I'm looking forward to Designated Survivor returning in any case.

See also Designated Survivor: Jack Bauer Back in the White House ... Designated Survivor 1.2: Unflinching and Excellent

  terrorist squirrels and bombs in NYC


Wednesday, October 12, 2016

WikiLeaks As A Threat to Democracy

The current release via WikiLeaks of private emails from John Podesta, Chair of the 2016 Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, occasions another look at the difference between what Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden did - which I supported and applauded - and what Wikileaks is doing now, which I strongly oppose and condemn.

Here's why -

Ellsberg and Snowden are Americans, who released classified information about what our government was doing, information which both men had legal access to.   They of course violated the law, and the terms of their employment, by releasing this information, and we can debate whether these violations were warranted by the benefits of the releases to America and by extension the world. In my view, and the view of many others, Ellsberg strengthened our democracy by his actions, by showing the deception on which our instigation of the Vietnam War was based.  The benefits of Snowden's release of classified information are less clear, but I'd argue that they still fall on the side of benefitting our democracy, by providing inside information on how we conduct our foreign policy.

But note that in neither case was a break-in involved into someone's private property.  Both men had legal access to the information they released.  In contrast, the Podesta emails were obtained through hacking, or theft of Podesta's private property.  That makes the current Wikileaks release more akin to Nixon's Watergate break-in, than to what Ellsberg did with the Pentagon Papers.

Indeed, just as Watergate was intended to influence the Presidential election of 1972 - get Nixon re-elected - that's exactly what the Wikileaks release is now trying to do with our 2016 election.   The release of this information does not provide Americans with information about how our government operates, but rather about how people running campaigns talk about the campaigns.   I think Americans are entitled to know about how our government operates, in whatever ways that information is obtained.   In contrast, it's certainly interesting to see the inner workings of campaigns, but not via the mechanism of criminally hacking, and not when the hacking is designed not just to inform, but to damage a particular candidate.

And I haven't even addressed the likelihood - near certainty, actually - that the Russians were the ones who did the hacking.  If that's the case, then we have an aggressive foreign power attempting to tip the scales of our Presidential election.

But Wikileaks, whether the Russians are behind this or not, has moved from being a force for democracy to a danger to its existence, via their attempt to tamper with our election.

See also The Downfall of Julian Assange

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Timeless 1.2: Small Change, Big Payoffs

Time-travel stories in which infamous events of the past are the targets of change - such as assassinations that the time-travelers don't want to happen - have an especially tough row to hoe.   If the event is indeed changed, what will the new future world be, and how will the time-travelers fit back into it.   If the event is not changed, how can the story avoid an ending of futile frustration?

Timeless has so far come up with a pretty good solution.  Bad events as we know them - last week the Hindenburg disaster, tonight the Lincoln assassination - are just slightly changed.   They're not stopped, but the surrounding circumstances of the event are slightly changed - because, in both cases, so far, the time-travelers are in action on the scene.

The result is that the world in the future - our world, as we know it - stays the same as far as major events.  But little parts of it change, specifically the family and now the love-life of one of our major characters, Lucy.  At least, so far.

Fortunately for Lucy, we the audience, and the narrative, there's a character at time-travel central who's able to map out for Lucy exactly why the little changes in the past led to the big changes in her life.   This gives Lucy and us a better idea of what's going on.

But still unclear is the villain's agenda, and why he - Flynn - is so bent on making catastrophes of the past even worse.   I suspect, am hoping, that the reason has some personal connection to Lucy, known or unknown by Flynn, because that will an add even bigger dollop of tension to the contrary forces that are pushing her to change history, presumably for the better, but with who knows what effect on her personal life, and leaving the past as it was and she knows it and her life in the future to be.

A nice kettle of fast-moving, subtly visible fish in which to situate time-travel stories.

See also Timeless 1.1: Threading the Needle

                       more time travel

Monday, October 10, 2016

Hillary Clinton, Erving Goffman, and Josh Meyrowitz

Hillary Clinton has been receiving much criticism from Donald Trump and know-nothing Republicans about her statement, released in a recent round of Wikileaks, that she says different things, takes different positions, in her public and private remarks.

I say "know nothing" quite deliberately, because anyone who has any knowledge of sociology would know about Erving Goffman's Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, published way back in 1959, and its revelation that all human beings have public and private personas, which often are in disagreement with one another.  A waiter smiles at a difficult diner, takes the order, then curses him out when he places the order with the cook behind the counter.  This is human nature - and, in the case of the waiter and everyone else, it doesn't prevent the waiter from doing his job, or even get in the way of that.  To the contrary, it enables the waiter to be professional in his public sphere and do a better job.

In 1985, my friend and fellow Media Ecology New York University PhD graduate Josh Meyrowitz applied Goffman's analysis to politics in No Sense of Place, and demonstrated how front and back regions are the lifeblood of all successful politicians and leaders.   Again, human beings require the private space to think out and explicate their positions to themselves and their families and closest advisors, before bringing them out to the public.

This is what Hillary was referring to when she cited Lincoln's differing public and private positions when he was working to get the 13th Amendment and its abolition of slavery through  Congress. We already know that Hillary was familiar with media theorist Marshall McLuhan - see Gail Sheehy's 1999 Hillary's Choice and my own McLuhan in an Age of Social Media - and the timing would certainly have been right for her to have encountered Goffman's book in her Wellesley classes.

As in every other issue in this campaign, we have a choice between a knowledgable, serious thinker in Hillary Clinton verses an ignorant, lying bully in Donald Trump.

Westworld 1.2: Who Is the Man in Black?

As the second Presidential debate played out across lots of television tonight, the second episode of Westworld proceeded on HB0.   Actually, it's been available On Demand for about a week - as our own world becomes ever more like Westworld in our ability to control our fiction - but I just saw it in the past hour.

And it was an excellent hour, which furthered and honed a question which arose in the first episode last week: who is the Man in Black?

Only guests are supposed to survive deadly attacks from the android hosts, and the Man in Black is able to dish it out - kill posses and other congregations of bad guys, not to mention innocents who serve his goals - but he seems invulnerable to any shots that come his way, i.e., go right into him.   So that would make him a guest, right?

But he seems to be something more, or maybe other than a guest, would be a better description.  He's being watched by the technicians in Westworld, and they usually seem to focus more on the hosts than the guests.   And he talks about how long he's been pursuing his goals in Westworld, which raises the question, if he's a guest, can a guest stay in Westworld for decades like the Man in Black?

So to the extent that all of that throws a little doubt on whether he's guest, that shifts the pendulum back to his being a host, albeit a special kind of host who's invincible to other host bullets, and we're left with a choice of the Man in Black being either an unconventional host (invulnerable) or an unconventional guest (can stay in the amusement park for decades).

I've seen some wild theories batted about online about the Man in Black's identity (well played, by the way, by Ed Harris).   My favorite is that he's really the Gunslinger from the 1973 movie, played by Yule Brenner.   There is a resemblance, but that would mean he's been in the park, well ... do we know if there's any connection between the movie and the TV series, which could tell us if the series is taking place x number of years after the story in the movie?

Nah, I don't think the movie and TV series are connected in that way.  But even so, Westworld the series is continuing to raise provocative questions, and well on its way to being another winner for HBO.

See also Westworld 1.1: Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick Served Up by Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Joy, and J. J. Abrams



Sunday, October 9, 2016

Trump Does Better in Second Debate than in First, But Hillary Was More Presidential

Donald Trump did better in his second debate with Hillary Clinton than his first - a very low bar - but Clinton commanded the stage with her calm and rationality, and was more Presidential.

And you if look more carefully at the debate, it turns out Trump lied repeatedly - again.  He indeed voiced support for our Iraq War at the time, but repeated tonight that he did not.  He made the wild claim that our slain ambassador in Libya appealed for help "600 times" before he died.  He said Hillary Clinton was responsible for Obama not respecting the "red line" he drew in Syria, when in fact although Clinton was Secretary of State when Obama drew it, Kerry was Secretary of State when Obama did not enforce it. Trump and the truth continue to have the most fleeting of relationships.

And he was over the top lots of times, as when he said, incredibly, that he would put Hillary in jail if he were President - a statement that has been aptly decried by many as "banana republic" (no offense to the clothing chain).

Trump showed some style only once, at the end, when he said, in response to naming one thing he admired about Hillary Clinton, that she was a fighter.  She showed class, too, in her answer - that she admired the job he had done with his kids - and throughout her generally positive debate tonight, with fewer attacks on Trump than he rightly deserved.

Also worthy of praise were Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz, who easily were the best debate moderators so far, in this very contentious presidential season.

Look, I would've like to have seen Hillary Clinton lacerate Trump on the stage tonight, but I'm more than content to wait for election night in November for that to happen, and Hillary did a good job in making that more likely tonight.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Frequency (TV) 1.1: Closely Spun Gem

We live in an age in which time-travel is on all kinds of television in all kinds of ways - 11.23.63 from the Stephen King novel on Hulu, 12 Monkeys from the 1995 movie on the Syfy Channel, Outlander from the best-selling book series now a Starz television series,  a brand new time travel series Timeless on NBC, and now another TV series, Frequency, made from the 2000 movie, on the CW.

Can all of these series be good?  Well, you're asking the wrong person.  I'm inclined to really like anything with time travel - short story, novel, movie, TV series.  Hey, over half the stories and novels I've written are time-travel tales.

Still, I have some standards.   Frequency was a gem of a movie.  The simplest kind of time travel - information, in the form of a ham radio connection, bridging the past and the future, or the future and the past, depending on which way you looked at it, set in a gritty NYC cop story, and featuring the love between father and son.  But nothing is ever even remotely simple when time travel is afoot, and Frequency did a great job of navigating the paradoxes of changing the past and building them - or expertly juggling them - into an memorable story.   In fact, the movie is so good that I rank it among the top 10 or even 5 best time-travel movies ever made.

This is what the new television series is up against.  And, you know what?  I just watched the first episode and think it succeeds admirably.  Like the movie, the TV series is a closely spun gem.   A family is a stake - this time a father and daughter - not the world, and their struggle to change the past to avoid personal calamity without triggering new calamity promises to be ever bit as riveting and tender and just plain appealing as the movie.

I'll be here with reviews every week.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Most Traditional of Traditional Media Lead in 2016 Presidential Campaign Reporting

The New York Times publication of Donald Trump's 1995 tax return a few days ago underlines the heroic work that the most traditional of traditional media - the paper press, and its reflection online - has been doing in the U. S. 2016 Presidential campaign.

The actual tax returns were of course dropped off in a reporter's mailbox at the Times, so it didn't take much work to retrieve them.  But it took acumen and shoe leather to track down the retired accountant in Florida who prepared the tax returns, and confirm that they were the real thing.  Even the excellent New York Daily News tabloid couldn't do that - the returns were left in their mailbox, too, but they lacked the depth and reach of a classic full-throttle newspaper like The New York Times and its reporting team of David Barstow, Susanne Craig, Russ Buettner, and Megan Twohey.

Over at Newsweek, one of the two historical titans (with Time magazine) of news magazines, Kurt Eichenwald has published top-notch investigative reporting on Trump's overseas business entanglements and his dealings with Cuba in violation of the US embargo.   These stories were so important that Rachel Maddow at MSNBC previewed each of them on her show the night before their publication in Newsweek, providing a rare occasion in which the traditional paper press not Twitter served as the primary source of a cable news hour.

Meanwhile, David Fahrenthold at the Washington Post has been publishing stories for months that expose the truth of the Trump "charitable" Foundation, and the way it has been used in unethical and illegal ways to suit and further Trump's interests.    A course could be offered at any university about investigative reporting based just on Fahrenthold's relentless pursuit of this story.

I've been saying for years now that traditional print media have had their day, and certainly are not now what they once were.  Newsweek even paused its print edition for a little over a year, and the readership of The New York Times and the Washington Post has plummeted since their heydays.  But after the reporting they've provided in the past months, I'll make no mistake about it:  even in their diminished form, traditional print journalism has been providing unique and extraordinary service to our democracy.

Timeless 1.1: Threading the Needle

Hey, it's not easy to do time-travel, even pretty well, without being trite, too easy, on the one hand, or original and true to the intensity of paradox to the point of incomprehensibility, on the other.  If your characters are traveling to the past, do you allow them to change it?  If so, with what consequences for the present - what consequences that allow the travelers to go to the past in the first place, to change what their change of history has now already changed?  And, if nothing changes, or not much, you better make the story of how this happened still riveting enough to make it worth the viewing or the read.

Timeless, which debuted on NBC on tonight, threaded this needle pretty well.  The only arbitrary aspect of the set-up to make it all work, and keep the characters on track, was the stipulation that you can't travel back into a time in which you're alive, lest you run into yourself and cause all kinds of havoc in the time-space fabric.  This is a standard ploy - I've used it in some of my own stories - and I think every story is allowed at least one arbitrary convention, as long as the rest works on the tightrope.

The first episode features our characters trying to do something about the Hindenburg disaster, presumably to stop it from exploding after its transAtlantic journey in New Jersey, in 1937.  In a well-spun story that keeps you sufficiently off-kilter, something does stop the explosion - another time-traveler bent on doing far more damage to America in history by blowing up the Hindenburg on its return voyage to Germany, and with it some people to America's upcoming Second World War effort.

The good guys - actually three, an agent, a scientist, and an historian (Lucy, played by Abigail Spencer, who was so good in Rectify) - do manage to save the important people on the return voyage, but not the Hindenburg, which explodes anyway, for other reasons.  A nice bow to the resilience of history to change.

There's personal loss as a result of the time travel, especially vexing to our heroes, since, again they can't travel back to a time in their own lifetimes. This rolls an excellent counterpoint to our central stories - stopping this or that major calamity, or maybe making sure it happens - the deeper personal goal of bringing back what was lost, either as a result of the time travel or for other reasons.

So we have the makings of a good series here, and I'm looking forward to more.   There are some paradoxes that are not addressed or explained away by standard moves - such as the time travelers having recollections of what they changed (hey, that's a second arbitrary construct) - but it's impossible to do time travel without them, and at least they're mentioned or otherwise indicated in Timeless, rather than ignored.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Four Rudy Giuliani's on Twitter

I saw this earlier today on Meet the Press, and meant to write about it.

Rudy Giuliani is being interviewed by Chuck Todd, who cites a tweet from Giuliani.

Giuliani says that tweet wasn't by me - that there are four accounts impersonating him on Twitter. Todd says ok, drops the question, and moves on to something else.

What's going on?

Well, if you look for Giuliani on Twitter, you'll indeed find four accounts - actually, more than four - none of which have the coveted blue check mark, which indicates that the account was verified in some arcane way by Twitter.  Donald Trump's account has the check - and that's how we know that @realDonaldTrump  is really Donald Trump and @realDoneldTrump  is not.

I'm too lazy to paste the four bogus Giuliani accounts here - you can easily find them yourself - but, since indeed none have verifying check marks, I'll buy that none are really Giuliani.  But this begs the question of: why doesn't Giuliani get his own, real verified account?

Chuck Todd, as he often does, failed to follow up when Giuliani denounced the tweet as not his.   So we're left guessing why Giuliani doesn't have a check mark.   Is he on Twitter by some other name? Did Twitter not deign to give Giuliani a check mark?  (Hey, it happens - I don't have check mark on my @PaulLev account either.)

But whatever the reason, the result led to a signal moment in television news today, when the flagship Sunday news show of them all - Meet the Press debuted on NBC in 1947 - had to withdraw a question to a guest because it was about a tweet that in fact the guest didn't make, even though there are four accounts on Twitter tweeting under the guest's name.

More evidence for what I've said in McLuhan in an Age of Social Media about Twitter having toppled television as the cutting edge medium for delivery of news, and everyone other than the people on television knowing this.

Westworld 1.1: Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick Served Up by Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Joy and J. J. Abrams

If you're talking about AI science fiction - robots or androids programmed to convincingly think and act like humans, or almost like humans, or more than humans - you've got to start with Isaac Asimov and his three laws of robotics:  (1) a robot can never harm a human being, or, through inaction, allow injury to befall a human, (2) a robot must follow all orders given to it by a human, except if such orders conflict with the first law, and (3) a robot should always act to preserve its own existence, except when following this third law would conflict with the first two.  Thus, a robot ordered by a human to dismantle itself must follow that order, unless the robot knows that the human giving such as order was set to commit suicide, a suicide which the robot not dismantled could prevent.  (This is not an exact quotation of Asimov's presentation of the three laws, but my own statement of them, with explanatory example.)

Now, Asimov was a fiction writer, a story teller, and one of the best all-time writers at that.  So, the only reason why he formulated the three laws was to provide the foundation of an exciting story in which, for some reason, the laws were broken.  A human is found murdered in a locked room, with a robot standing by, with blood on its arm, which indicates that the arm bludgeoned the human.  What happened?

Asimov didn't deal that much with the tricky nature of consciousness and sentience, but Philip K. Dick did, in a series of short stories and novels that stretched to the limits our understanding of how we understand sentience, and often put those stories in the brains of androids, as in Blade Runner.   Indeed, more movies and television shows have been made from Philip K. Dick's work than any other author, and most of them have been superb and pathbreaking.

So, when I say that Westworld, based on its first episode, is a combination of Asimov and Dick, served up by Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Joy, and J. J. Abrams, that's high praise indeed.

The HBO series goes so far beyond the 1973 movie, which was very enjoyable but much less sophisticated, that the new series could have been titled differently and that would have been fine. The androids in the Westworld and related amusement parks begin to malfunction in the movie, killing the guests, but the emphasis is on the action, rather than the metaphysics of the androids.   In the HBO show, this ratio is reversed, and the first episode sets up all kinds of reasons for what may be happening - androids who want to break out of their dream, i.e., programming.

Among the most interesting is the possibility that repeated "builds" or programming sets may be leaking into one another, with the result that the oldest androids might be experiencing an unintended synergistic mixing of programming with unforeseen consequences.   And, to be clear, by oldest I don't mean the androids that look oldest, but the androids that are oldest, as in  having been created first.  In other words, in the series, beauty's only skin deep in all kinds of ways - or maybe it isn't only skin deep in more ways than we can or can't imagine.

I'm not going to review the action all that much in this series.  But I'll be here with metaphysic disquisitions whenever I can.



Saturday, October 1, 2016

Designated Survivor 1.2: Unflinching and Excellent

A powerful episode 1.2 of Designated Survivor with the past Wednesday, with jolting references to what's going on in our own reality off-screen, and President Kirkman even saying "dammit!" in Jack Bauer voice at one point.

But, look, I'm going to stop making snide references to 24, because, as great as that series was, Designated Survivor is its own show, and so far a very good one, deserving assessment in its own right.

Given the world in which we live, you don't have to look far to find something on our news which mirrors through cracked glass what we're seeing in Designated Survivor.  The train crash in Hoboken this week is apparently not the work of terrorism, but the mangled station and train brought forth all the feelings we still carry with us about 9/11.

Kirkman going down to site of the attack in Washington, the ruins of the Capitol building, taking the bullhorn, making like George W. Bush at Ground Zero after September 11, was very well done.  The whole backdrop of the destroyed Capitol is one of the most effective, haunting scenes I've ever seen on television.  It kicks you in the gut every time you see it.

The attack on innocent Muslims in Michigan, ordered by its Republican governor, also kicks you in the gut, and is obviously but convincing a reference to what could happen in our country if Donald Trump and his ilk get into power.   Kudos for Designated Survivor for not flinching away from this issue.

We still don't know who set the bombs, but the likelihood that an un-exploded bomb was deliberately left there to point investigators in the wrong - Islamic - direction continues to percolate, and supports the sense I had in the first episode that the perpetrators are domestic.  Designated Survivor is now much-watch television for me, and I'm looking forward to more next Wednesday.

See also Designated Survivor: Jack Bauer Back in the White House

  terrorist squirrels and bombs in NYC


Thursday, September 29, 2016

Why It's Hoboken Terminal not Hoboken Station

Amidst all the concern about the train crash in Hoboken Terminal today, and relief that only one life was taken, and thoughts for that family and the people and families of those who were injured, the question arose of why the train was said to have crashed into Hoboken Terminal not Hoboken Station.

Well, that's what the Hoboken train structure is called, and the reason is that when it was first constructed a century ago it was a terminus, literally the end of the line, a place were trains completed their runs, and went no further, except to turn around and go back the way they came.  In such a Victorian and Edwardian world, it made sense to call these facilities terminals rather than stations, where in contrast to terminals the train stopped but continued its journey in the same direction.

Grand Central Terminal is named terminal for the same historical reasons, even though it is often called Grand Central Station, which itself has become a metaphor for bustling with activity.   But train buffs know it should be Grand Central Terminal, and bristle when it's called otherwise. I was once sternly told by an assistant editor that I needed to change Grand Central Station to Grand Central Terminal in one of my novels. I complied and learned.

Of course, neither Grand Central nor Hoboken are true terminals these days, and have not been for years.   When you're on the New York City Subway system and your train pulls into Grand Central, you'll pulling into a station not a terminal, and your train doesn't turn around but instead continues on its way.  Same for the PATH trains in Hoboken.

But it's still charming and quaint to continue to call these places terminals, and I'm all for it.   Yet ... names and physical structures are not the same, and though we can enjoy the old-fashioned name, we want our equipment and  to be as new and crisply functional as possible.

As engineers look for the cause of the crash, and our thoughts continue for the full recovery of the survivors, we should also give a thought to improving the infrastructure of the rail system in this country.  We deserve better tracks and trains to take in and out of these "terminals".