Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Carl Sagan and the Stuff of the Cosmos

Carl Sagan died 10 years ago last week - at the age of 62. He was best known as the voice that humanized science, talking about "billions and billions" of stars in the universe to Johnny Carson and the millions of people who watched the Tonight Show. Fortunately, this was at the dawn of videotaping, and you can see some of Sagan's work on YouTube, where he is as mesmerizing about the human place in the universe as ever.

In 1977, when Sagan was young and in his prime and I was even younger, I was appointed Book Editor of an obscure journal named et cetera. As a way of kicking off my tenure - which turned out to be brief (I've always found editing essentially boring) - I wrote to the people I considered the five greatest thinkers of the day. Sagan was one of them. (Should I tell you my other four choices? OK - Marshall McLuhan, Karl Popper, Arthur Koestler, and Noam Chomsky - for his theories of language, not his politics).

I wrote to each of the authors, told them they had made my Top 5 list and why, and asked them to say a few words about their work. To Sagan, I wrote that it was his work as a philosopher and a popularizer, not his work as a hard scientist, that made me admire him - in particular, his view that, because we come from the cosmos, when we look back out at the cosmos with our telescopes, we are but the stuff of the cosmos looking back at itself. I still find that view thrilling, today.

Happily for me, all five cutting edge thinkers responded with a few paragraphs, mainly thanking me for the honor, etc. But Sagan said something more: he said I shouldn't discount his work as a hard scientist, because that's what he was, and his philosophy and his appearances on television were all a part of that.

And that's stuck with me too. Because, whatever else Sagan may have intended by it, to me it said that, hey, going on the Tonight Show and talking with Johnny may be as much a part of a great cosmologist's work as analyzing the light received from the stars. There's no contradiction, in other words, between the pursuit of fame and the pursuit of knowledge.

And it does make sense, doesn't it? Carl Sagan was a star here on Earth, because of what he saw when he looked at the stars above. The stuff of the cosmos looking back at itself.

A few of Sagan's books:

Billions and Billions

The Dragons of Eden

Pale Blue Dot

And my podcast about Carl Sagan:

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

talkin' on the cell phone on Discovery

Cellphone by Paul LevinsonActually, I'll be talking about the cell phone - not on the cell phone - on a new Discovery Channel tv series this Wednesday, but I thought talkin' on had a better, ah, ring to it...

Here are the details:

This Wednesday, December 27, 1PM (Eastern Standard Time) on the Discovery Channel: The Inside Story of the Cell Phone, featuring me and a handful of who knows who much more knowledgeable experts.

Here's What I Know About It: I was taped for more than an hour last June (2006) at the Museum of Science in Flushing, Queens (New York City). It was an excellent interview - but you never know what will survive to the show and what will end up on the proverbial cutting room floor. The folks who produced this and interviewed me, though, seemed savvy.

The hour-long show is part of a new Discovery series, The Inside Story of ...

What I Especially Like About This Showing: It immediately follows The Inside Story of the iPod - this is bound to draw a lot of viewers (I think Steve Jobs will be interviewed on it)...

What I'm Not Too Thrilled About: 1 pm? Who in their right mind is watching television then? Well, I will, and hopefully you (or set your TiVo or VCR) ... and I'm sure the show will be rebroadcast (I'll tell you when I know).

All in All: I'm pleased the show will be on. As I wrote in my 2004 book, Cellphone: The Story of the World's Most Mobile Medium, and How It Has Transformed Everything, I think the cell phone is the most revolutionary medium we have going today. It's not only a vehicle of conversation - spoken and written - but it's giving us everything the web has to offer (tv, movies, radio, podcasts, blogs, websites, etc) and lets us take that with us, wherever we may happen to go. (Are any if you reading this on a device that fits in your hand? Let me know.) With every new month, there is less and less difference between cell phones, ipods, and little computers. I wrote a long time ago that, someday, anyone would be able to get any information that was ever created, from anywhere in the world, anytime ... and that day is almost here, courtesy of the cell phone.

I'd say I'd wave hello to you on the show, but that would require a time machine ... I hope you like it, in any case, if you get a chance to see it.

Added in January, 2007 - and here's a 4-minute clip of my appearance on the show ...

Relevant links:

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Only Idiots Don't Watch Television...

"Only Idiots Don't Watch Television" was my original title for the following op-ed that I wrote for Newsday this past July, 2006. They changed it to the more dignified title you see below - taken from the next-to-last line of my op-ed - but that's ok, because I do indeed believe that we're seeing a new golden age of television (I say so in the op-ed) - indeed, I've taken to calling our era television's platinum age.

Because, if anything, television has gotten even better since the summer. The first half of the third season of Battlestar Galactica, just concluded last week, was the best science-fiction I've ever seen on television (or at least, the first part of it was - as good as the best Star Trek episodes, and better than most). The Wire concluded a low-key but outstanding season. Kidnapped, foolishly cancelled by NBC, just concluded last night on, and it was a superb series - intelligent, stylish, suspenseful. NBC does, at least, deserve credit for fielding it in the first place. Dexter, which I wrote about in a blog post here last week, is a marvelously unusual cop show. Brotherhood is an excellent new political drama. Sleeper Cell, which I also wrote about last week, offered an excellent second season. All three were on Showtime.

And in January, new seasons of Rome (on HBO) and 24 (on Fox) begin. I can hardly wait. In the meantime, as the cold winds of late December blow, here's another look at the view from this past summer...

TV's new golden age

Paul Levinson is professor and chairman of communication and media studies at Fordham University. His latest novel is "The Plot to Save Socrates."

July 23, 2006

It used to be called the "idiot box." Critics have been muttering for years that we're a nation of "videots," that television's been rotting our brains. But who are the idiots now?

People who saw "Rome" on HBO this fall? The opening credits alone were a masterpiece of music and animation. Or perhaps the video dopes are those who just finished watching the next-to-concluding season of "The Sopranos" or watched the past three seasons of "The Wire," or I forget how many seasons of "Da Ali G Show," all also on HBO, or the new "Battlestar Galactica" on the Sci-Fi Channel.

All of these shows have been lionized by critics. Tim Goodman of The San Francisco Chronicle called the acting in "The Wire" both "virtuoso" and "phenomenal." David Zurawik of The Baltimore Sun said of "The Sopranos": "If this isn't art, then neither is Mozart." The series won four Emmys in 2004 and has been nominated for many more. "Ali G" has been nominated dozens of times. "Rome" boasts Jonathan Stamp, former BBC executive producer for history and archaeology, as its history consultant. "Battlestar Galactica" has lifted science-fiction on television to a new level of political sophistiction, sensuality and style.

Awards in themselves are certainly no sure indication of quality. But, combined with the raves of critics and cinema-level writing, acting, and production, the achievements of this new age of television are unmistakable.

Who are the nitwits, now? People who saw or missed those shows?

It's not all cable - the networks have been enjoying a golden age, too. "Lost" on ABC and "24" on Fox are two prime examples - "24" led the pack in Emmy nominations announced earlier this month. And in all cases, the availability of these series on DVD, which allows the viewer to see multiple episodes of a series without commercial interruption, is fueling the new excellence of television.

But it's not entirely new, either. There have been great programs throughout TV's history, ranging from "Have Gun, Will Travel" to "Star Trek" to "All in the Family" to "Hill Street Blues" to "ER," to name just a representative sampling over the decades.

What's different now, though, are the wings of new media that, rather than flying away from television, are lifting it to new heights. Not only cable and DVDs, but iPODs, which offer downloadable episodes, are making television easier to watch - and better. Why better? Because when people were obligated to watch television on inflexible schedules dictated by the networks, many shows were pitched to the lowest common denominator. The cardinal rule of that first, now bygone, age of television was "thou shalt not offend or confuse." But when people can see television on their own schedules - whether via on-demand cable, DVD, TiVo or iPODs - television can take chances. It can hire topnotch character actors like Ciaran Hinds, who last year played a supporting role in Steven Spielberg's Oscar-nominated "Munich" and starred splendidly as Caesar in "Rome."

TV can now cater to more individual tastes. Its programs must still live or die based on their rating shares, but the pie is now split so many ways that a smaller piece can go a lot further than in decades past.

Like books and movies, TV can now take real risks to achieve excellence. It can try a prime-time show on polygamy, such as HBO's "Big Love," or a sitcom about a suburban school mom who sells marijuana, like Showtime's "Weeds."

Back in the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan applied the term "rear-view mirror" to help explain our perception of new media. He meant that we see new technology through lenses ground in the past. The automobile was first called "the horseless carriage" and radio "the wireless" before they broke free of their pasts, attained names in their own right and claimed their destiny.

How many people who still think TV is only for dullards and laggards are seeing it through a rear-view mirror, looking at it backward, focused on network domination and stick-figure characterization? Was that what Harper's editor Thomas de Zengotita had in mind when he called cable TV - along with the Internet and DVDs - a "vast goo of meaningless stimulation"? Maybe TV needs a new name.

But, by television or any other name, the much-maligned tube is finally achieving its potential not only to entertain but inspire.

It used to be thought that watching television distracted us from more noble intellectual pursuits like reading. But, to the contrary, it seems that an intellect charged by any medium is all the more hungry for new adventures of the mind. Literacy is on the rise. The National Assessment of Adult Literacy found an 8 percent increase in reading abilities in the past decade. "Harry Potter" and "The Da Vinci Code" are happening in this new golden age of television. Its rising tide will likely be lifting many more boats to come.

Relevant links:

The Plot to Save Socrates
"challenging fun" - Entertainment Weekly "a Da Vinci-esque thriller" - New York Daily News "Sierra Waters is sexy as hell" - curled up with a good book

Thursday, December 14, 2006

first place to Dexter

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[Updated December 17, 2006, after Season 1 finale.]

Dexter concluded on Showtime this weekend. I think it is easily the best new show on cable or network this season.

Nothing else is easy about the show, and that is what makes it so powerful and appealing. Dexter works for the Miami police. His specialty is bloodwork. He's a master at his job. That's because he really loves his work. And he gives the people of Florida a little something extra: he moonlights as a serial killer of sociopaths and psychopaths.

We have seen serial killers and vigilante killers before, but none mixed into the puzzle that is Dexter, played to subtle and intricate perfection by Michael C. Hall, who received a much-deserved Golden Globe nomination for his acting on the show. On the one hand, it's hard to identify with a character who gets such satisfaction from killing people and cutting them up - even if they are bad people. On the other hand, there is almost a lovable, irresistible quality about Dexter. He has a gentleness, and his cool detachment from life often makes him a perfect gentlemen, and even an oddly considerate and protective boyfriend.

This first season had lots of good trimmings. Excellent cop details and intra-squad rivalries. Deep background on what makes Dexter tick, including a father who recognized Dexter's problem, and taught him how to sublimate his urges into something that is at least helpful to society. And a great evil adversary, in a serial killer who is Dexter's equal or better in his craft, but has none of Dexter's redeeming qualities. The finale wrapped it all up just as we might have hoped in a story that excels in double-edged swords and deeply amibiguous heroes. Evil was dispatched, heroes were confirmed, yet we shudder for their future even as we breathe a ragged sigh of relief. Season 2 in 2007 should be some piece of work.

Showtime is really starting to give HBO a run for its money in the original drama niche. Brotherhood, which Dexter replaced on Showtime, was far and away the best drama on tv in the Summer and early Fall. Sleeper Cell just finished a fine week-long season of intense television on Showtime a few hours ago.

All part of our platinum age of television.

5-minute podcast of this review

See also my preview review of Dexter, Season Two: Dexter's Back!

Monday, December 11, 2006

Wide Awake for Sleeper Cell

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[updated Dec 17 with finale of Season 2; what follows gives away plot details]

Just finished watching the complete 8-hour new season of Sleeper Cell on Showtime - pretty much all in one sitting.

That in itself is extraordinary and indicative of one of the new ways of seeing a television series - as a long movie of eight hours (or, in the case of 24, of 24 hours - which you usually need two or three sessions of viewing to see).

Showtime deserves credit for putting the whole series up On-Demand right away. This certainly beats waiting for the regular showing to be over before you can see the whole series - which in the case of Sleeper Cell would have been eight days, as this series is being shown daily - or waiting for the DVD, which of course means you have to wait much longer.

The series itself had some excellent moments - and three outstanding episodes - the third, the seventh, and the eighth, if you'd like to know. They had some jolting twists, and one major, very interesting and original innovation in the pacing - a thoughtful and provocative departure from what you would expect of a finale.

Indeed, the story for this season could well have ended with Episode 7 - the single best episode - which featured the determent of the major terrorist plot (a dirty radioactive bomb in the Hollywood Bowl), but the success of another (suicide bomber in Las Vegas), as well as the heroic death of Gail, Darwyn's love. This was one of the more breathtaking episodes I've seen on television.

But Sleeper Cell continued with Episode 8, which was really a coda to the first seven episodes. Darwyn and Farik have a final but inconclusive confrontation overseas - which felt for all the world like Darwyn confronting Osama. And if this episode wasn't quite as strong as Episode 7, Sleeper Cell nonetheless deserves praise for going there, and ending this season with a thoughtful portrait of the eternal, never-ending contest between good and evil.

The acting was fine - Michael Ealy put in a strong performance as Darwyn the undercover agent, and Odeh Fehr was powerful and chilling as Farik the terrorist leader - same as in the first season. There were a few soft episodes in the middle - meaning, they could have been cut or reduced with no real harm to the story - but all in all the story was gripping on a variety of social and personal levels.

Highly recommended - especially in this usually lean time for worthwhile tv viewing.

Listen to the podcast of this review at Levinson news clips

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Deja well worth Vu

The only thing not close to perfect about Deja Vu is its name. The movie isn't at all about the pyschological feeling of deja vu. It is, at first, about some very interesting surveillance technology, and for that reason the name makes good enough sense. But it is most profoundly about time travel, pure and simple (or maybe: pure and complicated), which has little do with deja vu, and it gets very high marks for respecting the complexity of the paradox of attempting go back into the past to prevent something bad from happening.

That's paradoxical, because if you succeed, you will have eliminated the very motive that you had for going back into the past in the first place.

Denzel Washington plays the hero with his customary cool and power. Paula Patton is sensitive and compelling as the heroine. Current New Orleans - post-Katrina - makes an excellent location, and the movie worked it into the action with just the right eye for detail.
Most satisfying for me - as a long-time fan of science fiction movies - was the way plot built from hi-tech wizardry that just might be actually possible today to techniques that could actually have an impact on the past to ....

Well, this is where I'll stop, so I don't give anything away. But suffice to say that, in order for a time travel story to work, very clear rules of engagment - in terms of what is possible with the given technology - need to be posted, and then respected. And the plot should be sprinkled with a clue here and there, so we can look back and say, ah yes, with the wisdom of hindsight, that's what was actually going on... Deja Vu does almost of this very well (and, when it doesn't, it gives plausible explanations).

The movie was so good, I'll want to view it again...

XXXXXXXXX S P O I L E R S Below - Don't Read On Unless You've Seen the Movie

Here's my explanation (of course, the right one) for what happens in the end: First, the movie begins with DenzelOne. He is one who investigates the explosion, looks into Claire's murder, etc. When he finally travels two hours back in time near the end of the movie, he creates a universe in which there are two of him: DenzelOne, who travelled back in time; and DenzelTwo, who hasn't traveled, and is living his life as a ATF investigator two hours before the action in the movie begins. DenzelOne dies in the car in the water. DenzelTwo comes to investigate the explosion that almost but did not happen, and will live happily ever with Claire (who does not die in this universe).