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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

A Short History and Future of Watching Movies out of Theaters: Blockbuster, Netflix, and Everything Web

Movies began as a one-on-one experience here in the United States, in New York, with Edison's kinetoscopes. You put in a penny, bent over a console, turned the crank, and saw a little movie. The Brewster General Store on Route 6A on Cape Cod still has a kinetoscope - actually they acquired and refurbished an old one - in case you want to get a sense of what that felt like.

The Lumieres in Paris invented the theater, courtesy of celluloid that came from George Eastman. And the world was off and running with the unique social experience of going out to the movies. You sit with a group of complete strangers, in the dark - except for one or two people sitting next to you. You're a community for a few hours, and then it's gone. Well, maybe it's not unique. You get this in legitimate theaters and sports stadia. But, well, you get the picture.

But not as much as in public as in the last century. Big movie complexes still rakin 'em in, but the neighborhood theater is gone. Killed not so much by television, but by Blockbuster.

And now Blockbuster is facing the funereal music. There was an inch of snow on the ground tonight, north of New York City - who in their right mind wants to go out and return a tape? Netflix makes more sense. No wonder its business is booming.

But its years are numbered, too. In the end, if we can download a movie and watch with ease on a big wide screen, who wants to wait for the mail? It's not delivered on Sunday, anyway.

iTunes and Amazon and other pioneering if less legal outlets are already making inroads in Internet filmic delivery.

And so, we are headed back to the kinetoscope. Not in parlours, in our homes, but, hey, who's watching... It's easy and it's good. When it comes to movie delivery, nothing beats the speed of light.

Helpful links:

Blockbuster, Netflix, the Web?
listen to 3-minute podcast of this post

A Short History of the Movies (9th ed.), Gerald Mast & Bruce Kawin best history of the movies I know of

Brewster General Store
try the real kinetoscope for yourself, on rt 6A

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Monday, January 29, 2007

24 Season 6: hr 6: last 5 mins priceless, 1st 55 blah

Continuing with my reviews of 24 Season 6 - as close as I can make it to within 24 minutes of the end of the episode ... [contains spoilers]...

The last five minutes of tonight's 24, hour 6 were prime, even priceless. Jack's father is introduced, may be bad, but is revealed as being as duped by Jack's brother as everyone else in the family - except Jack, whose knowledge of the depth of his brother's evil is tantalizingly not clear at the moment. Jack seems to know something of what Graem could be capable of - but he couldn't know that Graem ordered David Palmer's assassination. Jack couldn't have known that and kept his composure tonight, in this tense, fast, family scene, bristling with possibilities...

But the rest of the hour - the first 55 minutes? - well, we've seen it all before, and maybe even more believably. I don't think Karen would have allowed herself to be bullied out of her job by Tom's blackmail - not without calling Bill first and working out all available strategies. And the Walid in prison bit was simply lame. It was not terribly believable in the first place that he would have been so fortunate to be locked up with terrorists responsible for the suitcase nukes. The revelation that the prisoners in question read about the "visitors" on the web was a nice touch, but not good enough to justify the time we spent with them.

24 has always been prone to such slow hours here and there. Start out strong, and then take a little time to regroup. That's what they made watching the whole season on DVD for - a weak hour or two doesn't matter when you can go right on to the next one, rather than having to wait a week.

But I'll survive. And though I'm sure Jack and his father will survive the presumed drive they're taking to their death (hey, didn't we see Jack in the coming attractions?), I'll be eagerly awaiting and watching with rapt attention next week anyway.

2.5 minute podcast of this review: Levinson news clips

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Rome Returns: Episode 3: The Exquisite Wheels of History

The wheels are inexorably turning in this third episode of Rome's return on HBO. Atia's on the brink of death by poison. (Atia of the Julii in HBO's Rome is only loosely based on the historical Atia Balba, so anything is possible - but our Atia's prospects do not look good.) Brutus, Cicero, and Antony are in downward spirals of one sort or another. Only Octavian, off stage and out of town, is looming more powerful with each episode.

You couldn't ask for anything more in the exquisite performances of Polly Walker (Atia), Tobias Menzies (Brutus), David Bamber (Cicero), and James Purefoy (Antony) in their roles. But tonight, for the first time in this second season of Rome, I found myself missing Ciaran Hinds' Caesar. He gave an irreplaceable center to the story - but what can you do, you can fool around with history only so much.

Meanwhile, in the fictional downstairs of the epic story, Vorenus and Pullo had one of their best nights of the entire series - meaning, for us, the viewers, the two split apart in a superbly rendered series of scenes. Kevin McKidd, especially, was extraordinary, given the transformation of his Vorenus from last year.

And he'll be due for a transformation again, when Pullo - played perfectly by Ray Stevenson - eventually reaches him with word that his children are alive...

I think we can assume that he will... But will that be in the last scene of the last episode of this series, or sooner? That is, soon enough to change whatever self-destructive course Vorenus is now undoubtedly on...

Simon Woods scored a victory tonight as the new Octavian. He had a difficult task - portray not just Octavian, but Caesar's heir as Max Pirkis had played him. And Simon Woods did it perfectly. He had the voice, the bearings, the mannerisms. And he bested Marc Antony.

Who was bloodied but clearly far from beaten. James Purefoy as Antony in a single scene practically stole the show tonight - as he has in the three previous episodes of Rome's second season on HBO.

And there was plenty of competition. The closing scene, in which Vorenus with Pullo's help finds his children brought tears to my eyes. It also was one of the best in the series - something I can keep saying just about every week.

And Atia, who escaped her poisoning by Servilia, had a powerful scene directing Timon to torture Servilia. There was lots of torture in this episode - those noble Romans had a taste for it.

And before I could let my breath out, the hour was over. The writing and acting and everything about Rome is so good, so powerful, that the months two millennia ago seem to fly by like seconds on the screen...

Rome - The Complete First Season

Rome: Music From the HBO Series

my latest novel: The Plot to Save Socrates

I, Claudius 1977 BBC-HBO series

Monday, January 22, 2007

24 Season 6: hr 5: Jack's Brother

Continuing with my reviews of 24 Season 6 - as close as I can make it to within 24 minutes of the end of the episode ... [contains spoilers]...

Whew! Talk about raising the ante! Last season on 24 we saw Jack deal with the President of the United States, who turned out to be one of the bad guys. Not the worst of the bad guys, but a conniving cooperator.

Tonight we found out an awful truth: the guy calling the shots for the bad guys last year, Graem, played by Paul McCrane, turns out to be ... Graem Bauer - Jack's brother. And Jack's father may also be involved.

We don't yet know the full connection between Jack's evil brother (not twin, they don't look much alike) and the nuke in the LA suburbs, but it's obviously substantial. Tonight's episode featured some brief but provocative references to the death of Jack's wife, Teri - the last time Jack and Graem saw each other was at her funeral - and the beginning of a glimpse into a part of Jack's life we did not know before.

Jack's father Phillip - played by James Cromwell - will make his appearance next week. My only regret is Donald Sutherland doesn't have the part.

I'm sure there's a story there, somewhere. But that's real life. And I'm enjoying this fiction far too much to far worry about it...

the 2 and 1/2 minute podcast of this review

Keith Olbermann, Jack Bauer, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Rome Returns: Episode 2: Every Scene Is Memorable

Continuing my review of Season 2 of Rome. Tonight, Episode 2. Possible spoilers, as always, for the fictional part.

I realized tonight one of the many things that distinguishes HBO's Rome from anything else on television: there's not a scene wasted, not a minute, not a conversation, that you're not delighted you saw and heard.

Tonight's episode - the second in Rome's return - was especially rich in such wonderful moments. Antony and Cleopatra (played by Lindsey Marshal) were superb. Just the right chemistry. Antony and Atia were great together, too. Vorenus and Pullo have now completed their role reversals - Pullo invokes the gods, Vorenus exults in their denial. And again Antony (the night belonged to James Purefoy) and Vorenus (with Pullo) had a priceless scene, in which Antony shows his understanding of at least a part of the human condition, and pulls Vorenus out of his downward spiral.

But the scene of scenes tonight was the confrontation between Antony and Octavian. Max Pirkis as Octavian more than held his own against a scalding performance by Purefoy. For the first time, we can truly believe that Octavian will triumph over Antony - not just because history tells us so, but because we can see it with our own eyes, in this unforgettable performance.

But that's getting a little ahead of ourselves. Tonight we must content ourselves with Octavian leaving the city - a bit battered, but the furthest thing from bowed.

And, oh yes, Vorenus' children are alive. I knew they would be. In fictional television land - which this part of the story of HBO's Rome is - people are never dead unless you see them dead beyond any possible revival. I'm glad - for Vorenus, and for us.

3-minute podcast of this review

Rome - The Complete First Season

I, Claudius 1977 BBC-HBO series

my latest novel: The Plot to Save Socrates

Miami Vice - pretty nice

I saw Miami Vice - the 2006 movie - on-demand last night. I had heard mostly bad things about it - including from a few people who walked out of the thearter where it was playing earlier this year, because they found it boring.

I liked it. Certainly not a great movie, but I liked it. For the same reasons I enjoyed the original Miami Vice tv series back in the 1980s. Smooth ambience, great seamless mix of images and music - the dialogue almost doesn't matter, any more than it does in a music video.

And the plot was pretty good, with a couple of medium-good suprises. So was the acting. Jamie Foxx's haircut was laughable, but his acting as Tubbs was fine. So was Colin Farrell as Crockett. Maybe not as good Don Johnson in that role - but I'm not 100% sure Don Johnson was as good as what I remember of him on tv, either.

And the movie had Ciarian Hinds - one of my favorite actors after his superb Julius Caesar in HBO's Rome - playing an FBI chief, replete with an Al Pacino look and accent.

John Ortiz was a fine villain, and Li Gong looked and sounded good as Crockett's lover.

One thing I missed - Edward James Olmos as the Lieutenant - he was spectacular in the original tv series, the quiet powerful glue that held the characters and the stories together.

But hey, I'll see him on Battlestar Galactica as Admiral Adama tonight, so I'm not complaining...

Useful links:

Miami Vice (Unrated Director's Cut)

Miami Vice - Season One original tv series

Friday, January 19, 2007

Lost: Keys to What's Really Going On

Lost Genres and Coincidences: Keys to What's Really Going On

-Written in the middle of Season 2, first posted near the end of Season 3, with updates through the finale of the series-

by Paul Levinson

We live in a golden age of genres. Crime, science fiction, romance in books. Much the same in movies, but add in comedy and drama. Television has all of the above, along with specialties like soap operas and hospital shows. Genres determine where books are shelved in bookstores, where and how wide movies open, at what times shows appear on television. Genres have rules which their plot lines must follow. Audiences expect them, and can become sorely disappointed when the rules are bent or broken. A mystery fan is likely to find no joy in the revelation that a murdered body in a room locked from the inside was in fact beamed in from outer space. Genres do not mix easily.

Yet Lost has become extraordinarily successful by mixing all kinds of genres, and breaking just about every rule and expectation.

To begin with, a castaway story is a great way to weave different genres into a narrative. A doctor, a con-man, a woman fleeing from the cops, a rock musician on the rocks. Each has a different back story. Chaucer made use of this in Canterbury Tales, and it has been a staple of story-telling ever since.

But Lost goes much further. Not only do the characters have different back stories, but the fundamental mechanisms and rules of these stories are very different. And in the most intriguing genre-blending of all, these back stories are becoming increasingly interrelated. Even though -- as the stories of people who presumably just happened to be seated together on a plane, as the stories of people who presumably first met each other as they boarded the fateful flight -- these back stories should have no connection at all.

A Fistful of Genres

Lost presents and develops for its own ends some of the classic genres of television:

The doc: The doctor TV-show more particularly - the brooding, handsome, dark-haired surgeon goes back at least as far as Ben Casey in the first half of the 1960s, and has continued more or less non-stop ever since. The surgeons in Grey's Anatomy are a current example. Jack could have easily stepped out of that show onto Oceanic Airlines Flight 815 until we learn that he had an earlier encounter in the stadium with Desmond of Dharma.

The con-man: Sawyer's not all that different from Maverick, though the late-1950s cardsharp was more of a gambler than an outright swindler, had a more obvious heart of gold, and none of Sawyer's rage. But the two have the same easy, irresistible charm, and look at the world in the same way: kids in the candy store of marks for the taking. Yeah, Sawyer's a classic con-man but what was he doing having a one-night stand with the woman who drew Hurley's lottery numbers? And what was Kate's mother doing serving coffee to Sawyer in that diner?

The Fugitive: Kate's of course our Richard Kimble, even though (so far) there is no one-armed man in Lost. But Kate's not guilty nonetheless, in any rational, decent court of opinion: the man she torched, who preyed on her mother and her, deserved to die. Her back story is one of the richest in the show - young love with a "Tell Laura I Love Her" tragic ending, abusive father, the law is after her. Kate's story could have been a great TV show, all on its own. But what's her loving stepfather doing back in Iraq at the end of the first Gulf War with Sayid?

Hey, hey, we're the Monkees: Well, Charlie and Driveshaft are not quite - they're more like Eddie and the Cruisers (movie not TV series) gone wrong - but his story still works in the genre of rock 'n' roll groups and their back stories on television, ranging from The Partridge Family on one end to, well, Driveshaft on Lost on the other. There was always more to these band stories than met the eye (and ear). The Monkees, the Partridge Family, even the cartoon Archies all had big hit records off of their shows, out in the real world, continuing a meta tradition, a breaking of the reality/fiction boundary, that went back to the 1950s with Ricky Nelson. "You All Everybody" has yet to make such an impact in the real world of music but it could, as far as I'm concerned. Like Kate's story, Charlie's could easily support its own series. On Lost, though, we find some disturbing details - such as, what was the number 815 doing as the copy machine model Charlie was trying to sell when the band was not playing?

The Lost omnibus has several other passengers whose back stories sit comfortably in classic TV genres, until we're shown some incredible, inexplicable intersection between their and some other character's life. Locke is Ironside, until he inexplicably recovers his legs after the crash. But that bit of magic, faith-healing, mind over matter - a trait shared by Walt, who sees a polar bear in a comic book before the bear makes its appearance on the island - is by no means the most incredible facet of Locke in Lost. In our world, people do occasionally stand up and walk again, for no clear medical reason, after being confined to a wheel chair. But nowhere in our world would Locke and Hurley end up having the same boss, in two unrelated businesses, and then end up on the same plane that crashed -- well, perhaps that one coincidence could have happened, but not on the plane that also carried Jack and Shannon, whose father Jack chose not to operate on, and instead saved Sarah, which meant death for Shannon's father.

What's really going on in Lost?

Continuum of Coincidence

Not all coincidences are the same. Let's see if we can find some categories of coincidence, or inexplicable intertwining of characters (and events) in Lost:

Barely if at all coincidence: Jack and Ana Lucia having a drink at the airport in Australia before the plane takes off is barely a coincidence at all. Neither, really, is Sawyer and Jack's father drinking together at a bar in Australia, though that's certainly more of an unusual coincidence than Jack and Ana Lucia. But in the context of Lost, Australia is just a bigger plane. Meetings of previously unconnected characters Down Under may be unlikely, but certainly not inexplicable, and nowhere close to impossible by any rational standards. These are interesting, important encounters, not mainsprings of the show.[*PS8]

Inexplicable, incredible coincidences of which the characters are unaware: Most of the extraordinarily unlikely encounters mentioned above fall into this category. Sayid meeting Kate's stepfather in Baghdad in the Gulf War. Kate's mother serving Sawyer coffee. Jack not operating on Shannon's father.[*PS6]

These coincidences have at least three things in common.

(1) There is no way, in any rational universe, they could have occurred. Certainly not all of them. This means that, if the flashbacked stories are truthful depictions of what actually happened (more on this later), they must provide a key to what is actually happening in Lost. A trite purgatory scenario - the characters all died in the plane crash (or in some other way, or other ways), and are now congregated in a place in which all time and place, all past, present, and future, is mixed into one - could certainly account for such coincidences. But I refuse to believe Lost would stoop to such a solution.

(2) The majority of these coincidences, at least so far, seem to have happened to Jack and Kate[*PS4] (individually, not together). On the one hand, they are in the running for the two most central characters on the show (certainly Kate is the leading woman), so it's not all that surprising that the majority of inexplicable intertwinings would happen to them. On the other hand these concentrations of coincidence may have some deeper, larger meaning.

(3) The characters on this level of coincidence are not aware they happened -- that is, Sawyer doesn't know he was served by Kate's mother, Jack doesn't know that the patient who was not the beneficiary of his medical expertise was Shannon's father, etc. This facet of these coincidences is a significant motivator or lack of motivator for the affected characters on the island. They do not know the depth of the paradox and affront to conventional reality in which they are embroiled. The Others, the monsters, the wild animals - to the extent they are not directly tied to the back story coincidences - do not hold a candle to the sheer, attractive insanity of the coincidences. And while all the characters on the island know about The Others and the monsters, very few know about the inexplicable encounters in their own previous lives.

Inexplicable, incredible coincidences of which the characters are indeed aware: I can think of only two on the show. (Sawyer realizing he had met Jack's father would be an example of a character being aware but of a minor, not a mind-bending, coincidence.)[*PS2] Hurley and the numbers, off and on the island, would be one. Jack and Desmond would be two. Let's look more carefully at each.

(1) Hurley's numbers: They brought Hurley incredible bad luck before he got to the island - they of course brought him the money that bought the ticket to the plane that crashed but that's just a conventional magic story (another TV chestnut, going back, in happier days, to Bewitched). Not conventional in the slightest is Hurley discovering these numbers on the hatch, inside of which they must be typed into a computer to keep the hatch, island, whatever from doing who-knows-what, if anything.[*PS7] So far, he has kept this awful knowledge to himself, presumably interpreting it as just a ratcheting up of the awful curse under which he has fallen. But this knowledge separates Hurley from the rest of the castaways, and must play a crucial role in the resolution of the story - not just Hurley's, everyone's.[*PS1]

(2) Jack and Desmond: Locke believes in the need to enter the numbers into the Dharma computer; Jack does not. This is likely meaningful, insofar as Jack knows something even more inexplicable than anyone else on the island about Dharma, seeing as how Jack had met Desmond on the steps of the stadium in one of Jack's back stories - in fact, in the same episode as Jack sees Desmond again in the hatch, and Kate and Locke meet Desmond presumably for the first time. This incident is significantly different from all the other coincidences in at least two additional ways. (a) Jack sees Desmond, in the present, on the island, after the two have met in Jack's back story. This is unlike, for example, Sayid, who, having met Kate on the island, could have been dreaming that he met her stepfather in Baghdad; or Jack, who having met Shannon on the island, could have been dreaming that he decided not to operate on her father. In other words, where these and the other back stories are vulnerable to being interpreted as dreams (leaving aside the question of how Sayid would have known what Kate's stepfather looked like - but he could have dreamed a younger version of Kate in the photograph Kate's stepfather had in his hand - or how Jack could have known what Shannon's father looked like), Jack's encounter with Desmond is not. It cannot be any kind of dream. How, after all, could anyone dream up a person, or a relation to a person, they have not yet met? It could only be some kind of crazy - and very meaningful to the story - premonition. A premonition in which we clearly see someone we have not yet met. (b) Jack recognizes Desmond in the hatch, and says "You!" It is not clear if Kate heard this; Locke did, asks Jack what is going on, and Jack says he doesn't want to talk about it. So apparently Jack has not yet told anyone about his earlier encounter in the stadium with Desmond.[*PS3] Just as Hurley has not confided in anyone about the full meaning - to the extent that he knows it - of the numbers. But, unlike Hurley and the numbers, Jack has shouted a very important clue, which Locke or even Kate could pick up on at any time. This puts this coincidence in a category of its own in unraveling the mystery of Lost.[*PS5]

The above three categories of coincidences in Lost are rough cuts. There are subtleties in some of the inexplicable intersections which fit into none of the categories. For example, in what we might call a reciprocal coincidence category, we have Sayid's face appearing on the television screen in Kate's stepfather's office when she is visiting him, years after the two met in Iraq with Kate's stepfather taking out Kate's photograph. These kinds of coincidences deepen the texture and meaning of the show. The incredible lattice they weave is the greatest genre of all. And yet...

Relying as the incredible coincidences do on the back stories of the characters, we have to consider one other possibility regarding Lost and its genres:

Are the Flashbacks Lies?

Alfred Hitchcock -- a master of mystery, usually explicable, sometimes not, if ever there was one -- remarked to Francois Truffaut in their famous 1966 interview book (Hitchcock, by Francois Truffaut): "I did one thing in a picture I never should have done; I put in a flashback that was a lie." Truffaut replies, "Yes, and the French critics were particularly critical of that."

Hitchcock is talking about his 1950 movie, Stage Fright, in which Jane Wyman plays a character who remembers a sequence of events in a flashback that is a fabrication. As Truffaut points out, she's not actually lying - the villain has actually lied to her, and she is remembering his lie, as if it were truth. But the effect on many audiences was the same: they felt they were being lied to, not by the bad guy, but by the guy who made the movie.

Hitchcock lamented, why can't we put a lie in a flashback? He certainly has a point. It's just narrative convention that says flashbacks are by and large recollections of what really happened to a character.

This convention has been stretched a few times since the 1950s, in movies like Fight Club, in which the lead character is deranged, or in any number of science fiction stories like Philip K. Dick's (who knows, maybe he was influenced in the 1950s by Stage Fright), in which the essence of the story is the manipulation of memories in ways of which their possessors are unaware.

This points, then, to a completely different kind of explanation for the mixing of genres and inexplicable coincidences in Lost. Both the genres and the coincidences are dependent upon the flashbacks. But what if the flashbacks are lies?

Any one of the characters could of course be lying to him or herself. Nothing even implausible about that. But interlocking flashbacks' reciprocal coincidences, like Sayid's and Kate's stepfather's, reduce the odds of people lying to themselves, as does the mere fact that so many characters are having implausible flashbacks which are lies. Unless something on the island is causing that to happen.

Dharma could certainly be the cause of that, in ways we cannot yet understand. Or perhaps the island itself - no purgatory, no island of lost dreams or souls, just a nasty meta-narrative island of lost truth in flashbacks.

In the end, even if Dharma or the island is causing the flashbacks to be fabricated, we are still left with the question of why they intersect in such bizarre ways. One answer to that is that the island may itself be a kind of novelist, a saucer on the water or embodied Chaucer of the Pacific, which not only causes the characters to fabricate their flashbacks, but weave them together in a way which makes one astonishingly intriguing story.

And this means that, whatever the ultimate explanation of genre blending and coincidence in Lost, it has achieved a level of story-telling like no other in television.


*PS 1: Libby's presence as a patient in Hurley's mental institution, revealed in the 4/5/06 episode, is an example of a coincidence of which Hurley might have been aware - he thinks Libby looks familiar when he first meets her on the island. This episode also adds fuel to the interpretation of the flashbacks as dreams or daydreams the characters are having on the island: the flashback of Libby in the institution appears in Hurley's story after the two have very significantly interacted on the island. Desmond's appearance in Jack's flashback before the two meet on the island thus remains unique, as of 4/5/06.  Note added April 15, 2010:  See also PS 12 below, and the Hurley-Libby intersection in Lost 6.12.

*PS 2: But Ana Lucia's brief unknowing encounter with Sawyer in the 5/3/06 episode as he was about to enter the bar in Australia where he would have a drink with Jack's father - not to mention Ana Lucia's long flashback encounter with Jack's father in that episode - would certainly be another example of a coincidence that defies any kind of rational explanation. Meanwhile, Ana Lucia's death in this episode, after she overcomes her cardinal flaw (a propensity to kill people who hurt her) is another piece of evidence in support of the unfortunate Purgatory explanation for everything that's going on in Lost.  Note added May 22, 2007:  Eko in Season 2 is of course aware of his brother Yemi having crashed earlier on the island - this would be an example of an inexplicable coincidence (Eko's crashing on the same remote island as did his brother) of which one of the parties, Eko, is all too aware.

*PS 3: Desmond figures in two other inexplicable coincidences - unlikely to the point of being all but impossible - in the superb finale to Season 2 on 5/24/06. (a) Libby gives Desmond the boat he will use to sail around the world. (b) Kelvin - the person Desmond takes over from in the hatch - turns out to be none than the CIA guy who recruited Sayid back in Iraq in the first Gulf War. And, actually, there may be a third coincidence involving Desmond, which could be significant: (c) How did Desmond's former girlfriend know that magnetic disturbances play a significant role on the island? Presumably, she was just searching for him, after he had failed to return from his around-the-world race. Is her rich father, whose company sponsored the race, also involved in Dharma? (Maybe this facet will turn out not to be a coincidence at all, in the third season.)

*PS 4: As of April 25, 2007: Jack also is crucial to the major inexplicable coincidence in the flashbacks in the 3rd season, so far: Jack's father is Claire's father. Kate figures in another, less crucial coincidence: she is helped by a woman whom Saywer swindled. (Locke's father showing up in the island could be another coincidence, but that remains to be seen.) And on May 2, 2007: Locke's father is indeed the centerpiece of what may be the crucial coincidence of all: he is also the con-man responsible for the deaths of Sawyer's parents - the guy Sawyer was looking to kill in Australia. And on May 16, 2007: Charlie saves Sayid's true love Nadia back in England, long before the 815 Flight, in the "Greatest Hits" epusode. (Nadia also figures in an inexplicable coincidence with Locke in an earlier episode.) And added on May 23, 2007: The Season 3 finale brilliantly pivoted from flashbacks to flashforwards - as I predicted last week. Will be interesting to see how the inexplicable coincidences play out in the stories of some of the characters after they leave the island (and try to rescue those who are still there)...

*PS 5: I believe the 5th episode of the 4th season - which aired in the U.S. on 28 February 2008 - provided an explanation for the Desmond-Jack meeting on the steps, prior to Jack crashing on the island. Desmond gets the power of time travel - or, his consciousness can travel to the past and the future - after he goes through an electromagnetic field in a helicopter leaving the island. Although Jack has no role in this part of the episode, clearly Desmond's power to communicate between future and past versions of himself could have given him knowledge of Jack, before either got to the island, which led Desmond to seek out Jack on the steps in the 1st episode of the 2nd season. Whether it explains the other inexplicable coincidences in the flashbacks remains to be seen - at least one of the characters in the flashback would need to have Desmond's powers - but that's certainly possible, given that these powers stem, to some extent, from travel to and from the island. See Lost 4.5: Desmond 1 and Desmond 2 for more...

*PS 6: Episode 11 of Season 4 - aired in the U.S. on 8 May 2008 - called our attention to a coincidence which had already been established in the first Ben flashback episode (Episode 20 of Season 3): Ben's and Locke's mothers have the same name, Emily. As of Episode 11, Season 4 on the island, neither man seems aware of this coincidence. I would say it's certainly not as extraordinary as some of the other coincidences - such as Jack and Desmond meeting on the steps of the stadium - but it does raise some interesting possibilities. Indeed, the appearance of Richard Alpbert as Locke's possible father in this episode made me think that Richard could be Locke's father as well, and the two Emilys are the same. (I know they were played by different actresses, and that Ben's mother died after Ben was born and Locke's mother was alive when Locke was an adult.... But with the immortal Richard involved, who knows what's possible. At very least, he might have some reason for impregnating women named Emily - or, even less extraordinary, for keeping an eye on women named Emily who bear sons who become leaders on the island, and develop some strange powers.)

*PS 7: The 12th episode of the 4th Season - first broadcast in the U.S. on 15 May 2008 - brought us Hurley's numbers again, this time on the odometer of the red car his father repaired for him, in the flashforward back in civilization. So the numbers are not only all over the island, in the signal that brought Rousseau there (and Hurley, indirectly, by winning him the lottery after they were conveyed to him indirectly by someone who heard them in the transmission), but the numbers continue to play to Hurley in the flashforwards. I was glad to see that. My guess is we'll continue to be teased by the numbers, until their supremely inexplicable multiple appearances are explained in the end.

*PS 8: As an example of an even less unusual coincidence that is just a nice coincidence, with likely no deeper explanatory power: In the 1st episode of Season 5 - first broadcast in the U.S. on 21 January 2009 - we see Kate's car (with Aaron) entering a parking lot just as Hurley's car (with Sayed) is leaving. Since we already know that all four of these characters are in L.A. at this time, there is nothing inexplicable or extraordinary about this scene.

*PS 9: Jacob's visits to Kate, Sawyer, Locke, Jack, Sun & Jin, Sayid, Hurley in the two-hour finale (Episodes 16 & 17) of Season 5 (May 13, 2009 in the U.S.) provides a means by which these characters were connected to one another prior to their boarding Flight 815, and thus a possible explanation for the inexplicable coincidences: Jacob could have set them in motion.

*PS 10:  Ethan showing up as Claire's doctor in the Los Angeles (no plane crash) 2007 hospital is an example of the first prominent inexplicable coincidence in Season 6.  In this case, some difference between the Los Angeles and island realities could explain Ethan's presence in Los Angeles, but what is the likelihood that he would be Claire's doctor?  See Lost 6.3: Kate and Claire, Tenacious Details, and Dr. Arzt's Arse for more.

*PS 11:  Season 6 teems with more inexplicable intersections in alternate reality Los Angeles:  In 6.4, Locke meets Hurley in a parking lot; Hurley gives Lock a job at a temp agency owned by Hurley; where Locke's boss is Rose; Locke gets a job as a substitute teacher in a high school, where Ben is a history teacher; see Lost 6.4: Better LA, Wilder Island, Some Partial at Last for more.  In 6.5, Jack runs into Dogen at a music competition; see Lost 6.5: Jack's Family and Prester John's Speculum for more.  In 6.6, Sayid and Jack pass each other in a hospital corridor with neither being aware of the other (not such an inexplicable intersection, since Sayid is in the hospital to see his brother, hurt by loan sharks); Sayid later confronts and kills the loan shark enforcer, who is Keamy (pursuing his punishing trade across two realities, and a pretty strong coincidence); and Sayid discovers that Keamy had a prisoner, Jin (who, after all, in our original reality, was an enforcer his father-in-law's syndicate); see Lost 6.6: Sayid the Assassin in Both Realities for more.  In 6.7, Ben the history teacher not only intersects again with Locke the substitute, but is a colleague of Dr. Arzst (a science teacher), and a faculty adviser for Alex Rousseau;  see Lost 6.7: A Better Ben in Both Realities for more.  In 6.8, Sawyer using his name James Ford as a cop is partnered with Miles, has a one-night stand with Charlotte, encounters Charlie's brother trying to bail Charlie out of jail, and runs into Kate in an alley; see Lost 6:8: The Third Team for more.  In 6.10, Mikhail makes an appearance as an associate of the nefarious Keamy in LA; see Lost 6.10: Cloudy Sun for more.

*PS 12:  The intersections in alternate LA begin to become so prominent and significant to the unfolding story in  6.11 that they deserve their own footnote:  In 6.11, we're treated to a veritable feast of intersections, as Desmond runs into Hurley (at the airport), Claire (airport), Minkowski (airport), Widmore (whom Desmond works for, as Widmore's right-hand man), Charlie, Jack, Eloise (who is Widmore's wife), Daniel, and (of course) Penny;  and these intersections are at last more than hit-and-run pieces of amazement - they're finally beginning to propel the central story, which after 6.11 entails Desmond getting each of the characters in alternate-LA reality to recall the lives of their original selves on the island.  I see this as part of the merging or reunification of the two realities; see Lost 6.11: Reunion of Two Realities Begins.   In 6.12,  Desmond goes to see Hurley, to encourage Hurley to see Libby again (Hurley and Libby had met earlier in a restaurant); Desmond later drives up to Ben and Locke's school, and deliberately drives into Locke in his wheelchair; we also see Marvin Candle introducing Hurley at an awards ceremony.   The Libby-Hurley intersection in 6.12 is the first to explicitly connect to one of the great inexplicable coincidences in flashbacks in earlier seasons - Hurley and Libby in a mental institution, prior to their meeting on the island, in Season 2 - and suggests that this inexplicable coincidence in the flashback, and perhaps all of the others, relate to the parallel Los Angeles/island realities of Season 6.   Dr. Brooks appears in both Season 2 and 6 episodes with Hurley and Libby, as the doctor from the mental institution in which Hurley and Libby are variously patients.   See Lost 6.12:  Libby and Hurley and Cross-Reality Communication for more; see also PS 1 above.   In 6.13, Sun (shot several episodes ago) recognizes Locke (hit by Desmond in 6.12) as they're brought into the hospital on stretchers at the same time.   The intensity of the experience makes Sun recall her knowing Locke from her life in island reality.   Also in better alternate LA reality, officer Sawyer is enjoying his questioning of Kate.  He and partner Miles go off to nab Sayid - for the Keamy et al shootings - which they do.  Sayid says goodbye to Nadja.   Meanwhile, Des intercepts Claire before she goes to the adoption agency, and steers her to his lawyer's office - the lawyer being Elana.   Turns out this is actually a meeting to read Christian's will, so Jack shows up, too.  But he's called away, back to the hospital, to operate on Locke, the sight of whom may or may not put Jack back in touch with his island reality.  So we have one, maybe two, alternate LA intersections in 6.13 triggering recollections of the island reality; see Lost 6.13: Make Up, Break  Up, Everything Is Shake-up for more.   In 6.14, our people in better alternate LA reality begin to realize the oddity of running into people who were on the 815 flight.  Bernard, who intersects with Jack, says it's "pretty weird,"  and Jack's beginning to wonder about this, too.   Jack also sees Anthony Cooper (in bad shape, but still better than dead), Helen, and Claire.   And Jack brings Claire a music box that their father Christian left for her, and it plays "Catch a Falling Star" - Claire on the island was singing Catch a Falling Star earlier this season, so this would be a prime example of "leakage" between island and LA realities; see Lost 6.14: Jack's Tears for more.   The intersections in 6.16 mostly revolve around Ben:  he  gets beaten by Desmond, who may want to hit and run Locke in the wheelchair again, all for the purpose of putting these alternate reality people into touch with their true (in my view) island selves.  Then Alex and mother Danielle invite better Ben to dinner, where Danielle tells Ben that Alex almost looks at Ben as a father.  Elsewhere in better LA, Jack has a cut on his neck, an expression of the two realities coming together.   He intersects with Claire, Locke - and tells him "I think you're mistaking coincidence for fate," when Locke brings their intersection on the plane and now in LA to Jack's attention.  But Locke is right.  And with Des as the continuing spark plug of the intersections, we have Desmond in jail with Kate and Sayid, with Sawyer and Miles on hand as cops.  Kate almost sweet talks Sawyer into letting her go, but it's not necessary because Des has bribed Ana Lucia (with Hurley's money) to spring Kate and Sayid, and they all drive away in two cars (not Ana Lucia) as per Desmond's plan; see Penultimate Lost:  Coincidence for Fate for more.

*PS 13:  And in the series finale:  Most of our major characters come together in the church at the end - Sayid and Shannon, Sawyer and Juliet, Hurley and Libby, Desmond and Penny, Locke, Sun and Jin, Charlie and Claire, Rose and Bernard, Jack and Kate, Christian - for these are the people who have been most important to Jack's life on the island.  Alternate LA is revealed as a purgatory, and the church congregation is ready for the next step.   In view of this, the inexplicable coincidences in the flashbacks can now be seen as in some sense connected to Jack's take on his life.  They provided keys to understanding what was really going on in Lost, after all - even though the meaning of these keys did not become clearly visible until the very end.  Q.E.D.   See The End of Lost for more.

Useful links:

The End of Lost:  Preliminary Thoughts: Jack's Story
The End of Lost 2: Further Thoughts: Missed Opportunities

Preliminary Predictions for Lost Finale

also: Lost New Questions (arising from the Season 3 finale): 1. How Far in the Future? ... 2. Who's in the Coffin? ... 3. Who's Kate Waiting For? ... 4. Who Is Naomi's Boss? ... 5. Is Mikhail Immortal? ... 6. What Constitutes Reliable Evidence? ... 7. Are the Flashforwards Desmond's Flashes?

and Lost and Alias: Now Something Else in Common

reviews of some of the Spring 2007 (3rd season, 2nd part) episodes of Lost: Lost ... Recovering ... Desmond Deja Vu ... Lost: Lost ... Lost ... finding itself ... Jack and Locke reverse roles ... Canterbury, Decameron Tale Tonight ... Kate, black smoke, Juliet ... Lost: Back in Business and Balance ... The Woman Who Fell from the Sky ... Words from the Woman Who Fell ... Coincidence is King ... Dharma, Hostiles, and Survivors ... Charlie, Underwater Babes, and Finale Predictions! ... Season 3 Finale: Flashforwards...

reviews of 4th season: 1. Lost's Back Full Paradoxical Blast 4.1 ... 4.2: Five Flashbacks and Three Rational Explanations ... 4.3: Thirty Minutes and Big Ben ... 4.4: Kate and ... ... 4.5 Desmond 1 and Desmond 2 ... 4.6 The True Nature of Ben ... 4.7 Flash Both Ways ... 4.8 Michael and Alex ... 4.9 Daughters, Rules, and Some Truth about Ben ... 4.10 Almost a Dream Come True ... 4.11 Unlocking Locke ... 4.12 Hurley's Numbers on the Dashboard ... Lost Season 4 Finale: Six or More Thoughts Plus One


2. More Thoughts On Lost 4.1: Those Who Went with Hurley and Those Who Stayed with Jack and Two More Points about Lost 4.1

reviews of 5th Season: Lost Returns in 5 Dimensions and 5.3: The Loops, The Bomb ... 5.4: A Saving Skip Back in Time ... 5.5 Two Time Loops and Mind Benders ... 5.6 A Lot of Questions ... 5.7 Bentham and Ben ... 5.8 True Love Ways ... 5.9 Two Times and a Baby ... 5.10 The Impossible Cannot Happen ... 5.11 Clockwork Perfect Time Travel ... 5.12: Ben v. Charles, and Locke' Slave ... 5.13: Lost Meets Star Wars and the Sixth Sense ... The Problem with Baby Aaron and the Return of the Oceanic Six ... 5.14: Eloise, Daniel, and Obsession Trumping Paradox ... 5.15: Moral Compasses in Motion ... Season Five Finale: Jacob and Locke

and The Richard-Locke Compass Time Travel Loop

reviews of 6th Season: Lost Season Six Double Premiere ... Three Questions Arising from the Lost Season Six Premiere: Linkage Between Two Realities,  Dead Bodies Inhabited, Who/What Survived H-Blast? ... Lost 6.3:  Kate and Claire, Tenacious Details, and Dr. Arzt's Arse at the Airport ... Lost 6.4:  Better LA, Wilder Island, Some Partial Answers at Last ... Lost 6.5: Jack's Family and Prester John's Speculum ... Lost 6.6: Sayid the Assassin in Both Realities ... Lost 6.7: A Better Ben in Both Realities ... Lost 6.8: The Third Team ... Lost 6.9: Richard's Story ... Lost 6.10: Cloudy Sun ... Lost 6.11: Reunion of Two Realities Begins ... Lost 6.12: Libby and Hurley and Cross-Reality Communication ... Lost 6.13: Make-Up, Break-Up, Everything is Shake-Up ... Lost 6.14: Jack's Tears ... Lost 6.15: Jacob and Esau/MIB ... Penultimate Lost:  Coincidence for Fate

"As a genre-bending blend of police procedural and science fiction, The Silk Code delivers on its promises." -- Gerald Jonas, The New York Times Book Review

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Olbermann's suspension of rationality about 24

I said I would post a review of 24 here once a week, within 24 minutes of the conclusion of each episode. But I just had to come by and respond to the bizarre diatribe Keith Olbermann directed at 24 on his MSNBC Countdown show last night. I had heard about it, but just got a chance to see it.

I have to say that I have rarely seen as ignorant and misleading an analysis of television and propaganda - and I say this as someone who teaches and has published books on this subject. Olbermann claims that the nuclear explosion at the end of Episode 4 of 24, the suicide bombings at the beginning and throughout, and indeed all of 24, is an attempt of Fox to push the Bush administration's agenda of scaring the American people about terrorism.

I'm no friend of the Bush administration, but the absurdity of Olbermann's charge has nothing to do with what the Bush administration wants or does not want of the American people, so I won't even bother to address that issue. Nor do I need to discuss the relationship of Fox News or Fox Entertainment with the Bush administration, because that, too, is irrelevant to the vacuity of Olbermann's claim.

What is relevant is something Samuel Taylor Coleridge talked about in his Biographia Literaria nearly 200 years ago. Exploring how and why people enjoy poetry, Coleridge said it operates on a "willing suspension of disbelief" - that is, people pretend that what they are reading in a poem is real, even though they know full well it is fiction. The genius of Coleridge's insight is that, of course, all media of fiction operate this way.

Does Olbermann really think that, even if Fox were doing the Bush administration's bidding, and this went down to the creators of 24, that the American people would be unable to distinguish this fiction from our reality? Does Olbermann think that any Americans would have derived any enjoyment whatsoever from a nuke going off near Los Angeles, if they thought for a moment that this was likely, or anything other than a remotely possible danger?

Like so many others who speak to us from their media soap boxes, Olbermann is so eager to make provocative points that he leaves common sense and a basic respect for human rationality behind him.

Surely, fiction can be influential - just as a media commentator can. But by and large, as Jefferson and most of our founding fathers saw very clearly, people can separate truth from fiction. We can tell when we're watching a work of fiction, and when a media commentator is stretching to make a ridiculous point - which, if taken at its word, is in effect calling for a de facto censorship of a television program.

This puts Olbermann in the same class of media commentators as those on the fanatical, far right. Congratulations, Keith.

I'm off to teach an evening class - I'll have a podcast up about this later tonight.

Useful links:

Memo to Olbermann: Are You Going after Rome?

Memo II to Olbermann: Did You See Jack Bauer's Concern About Militant VP?

Keith Olbermann, Jack Bauer, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge 30-minute podcast

Levinson news clips 3-minute podcast

Biographia Literaria: Biographical Sketches of my Literary Life & Opinions Coleridge's masterpiece

Olbermann's diatribe can't guarantee how long it will be up at this MSNBC site

24 - Season 6 Premiere (First 4 Episodes)

Monday, January 15, 2007

24 Season 6: hrs 3-4: punches and promises

This is part of an ongoing review of the new season of 24 - I'll watch it in real time on Fox TV, and then post a review with 24 minutes of the show's completion. Expect spoilers.

Well, I was talking about punches in the stomach last night, and 24 just delivered two of them, in the last five minutes of Hour 4: Jack killed Curtis, to prevent him from killing Assad, who is cooperating. And ... a nuclear bomb finally went off in Los Angeles, mushroom cloud and all.

We have seen Jack kill a good guy before on behalf of a greater cause, but Curtis was more than a good guy. He was a brother in arms. And the fact that this happened so early in the day - rather than near or at the end - suggests that this will by no means be the worst ethical quandary Jack will find himself in. 24 continues to ply that seemingly straightforward but always difficult utilitarian principle that the good of the many must outweigh the good of the few.

And then the atom bomb. Sooner or later, we had to see one actually explode in Los Angeles. No story line can continually threaten us with that, and never follow through - not if it wants to maintain its credibility.

And 24 is, if nothing else and by no means perfect in this respect, credible like no other show in television history in following through with its implications and punches.

I'm glad I have a week to catch my breath.

No I'm not, I'd watch the whole rest of the season right now if I could... even though I said above that I intended to watch it in real time...

See you here same time, next week.

Listen to a podcast of this review: Levinson news clips

Rome Returns: Episode 1: Powerful Complement to Shakespeare

I'll be reviewing each episode of the second season of Rome on HBO. I'll try to resist giving away anything about the fictitious elements, and the rest, as they say, is history...

Rome returned to HBO tonight. The first hour was as vivid and powerful as the best shows last season, perfect in its portrayal of political conniving and jockeying in the aftermath of Caesar's murder, and appropriately grim in the fictional account of Vorenus and the destruction of his family.

First let me mention what I missed. No "friends, Romans, and countrymen" oration by Mark Antony, just as there was no "et tu, Brutus" from Caesar last year. The reason, no doubt, is that that's all Shakespeare, not history, and HBO's Rome is sticking to whatever more or less accepted history we know, plus its own - excellent - embellishments. Still, Shakespeare has become close enough to a real history, an expected history, that I missed the oration - and especially so given the fine performance that James Purefoy gives as Antony. You can practically feel him itching to give the great speech. (This is also due to the fine writing - what we do hear this Antony say in Rome.)

I also missed seeing more of Atia, played ever temptingly by Polly Walker.

But Max Pirkis as young Octavian commanded every scene he was in, and David Bamber was infuriatingly deceitful as Cicero (though, as an admirer of the real Cicero's writing, I'm hoping that the sliminess of this Cicero is artistic license.)

And the story of Lucius Vorenus, played just right by Kevin McKidd, was heart-rending. If the creators of HBO's Rome left behind the inventions of Shakespeare, they're offering a gripping story of the underside of Rome that we haven't quite seen before.

All wrapped up in a package of marvelous opening credits, with a libretto delivered by news reader Ian McNeice that makes me wish we had a little more of that - and less news anchor and newspaper - in our own world...

3-minute podcast of this review

Rome - The Complete First Season

Rome: Music From the HBO Series

I, Claudius 1977 BBC-HBO series

my latest novel: The Plot to Save Socrates

Sunday, January 14, 2007

24 Season 6: hrs 1-2: Thought and Adrenalin

This will be an ongoing review of the new season of 24 - I'll watch it in real time on Fox TV, and then post a review with 24 minutes of the show's completion. Expect spoilers.

I don't think any beginning could be as good as last year's 24 opener, in which President David Palmer and Michelle were killed.

This season's beginning didn't quite have that punch, but it made up for it with excellent characterization of Jack, released from two years of torture in a Chinese prison.

We've seen Jack coming back from the dead before - from heroin addiction, the loss of his wife, and equally traumatic interludes. But this resurrection was handled with more subtlety than usual. Jack's feeling that he just can't do it anymore - just can't operate as an effective CTU agent - is just brewing below the surface, in a way that doesn't quite impair Jack's capacity to save the hour...

There are some powerful plot twists along with this. David Palmer's brother Wayne is now President, Buchanan and Karen are married, the terrorist our government is after is really trying to bring peace...

One aspect I wasn't too thrilled with: the Arab family next door in the suburbs, who may or may not be terrorist. We've seen this before.

But a superb two-hour start, nonetheless - which I would rate as at very least a close second to last year's, and in some ways, because of its replacement of some of the punches in the stomach with subtlety, perhaps even as good.

High praise from me, because I think 24 is one of the best shows now, and to have ever been, on television.

Listen to a podcast of this review: Levinson news clips

Friday, January 12, 2007

What On Earth Are They Doing to Poor Pluto?

Not the newest story in the world, but, hey, things move slowly in astronomical time, right?

I'll be doing a podcast tomorrow on the demotion of Pluto to dwarf-planet status - happened this past summer. Michael Burstein, head of the Pluto Is A Planet organization, will be my guest.

Here's the background, in case you were on vacation this summer:

Pluto was discovered and named as a planet in our solar system in 1930. This past August, the International Astronomical Union voted that it wasn't really a planet. A variety of controversial reasons were brought into play: Pluto's moon is about as big as Pluto (ok - so make it a double planet - why strip it of planetary status?); Pluto's not that big in any case, so if Pluto's a planet, we might have to say a big asteroid or two is also a planet (ok - so what would be the problem in expanding our solar system to 12 planets?); well, you get the picture.

This might seem a bit arcane, but I think it actually gets at the problem of experts I discussed last week in my post about Digg: Who decides what is news? Who decides what is a planet? Who decides if a dog is really the same species as a wolf?

The IAU vote was apparently rife with political infighting. So while we might want to place our faith in experts, a vote by a group of wrangling scientists somehow seems not the way to go with this. I suppose that's an improvement over past procedures, in which new discoveries were named by monarchs, or on their behalves, but maybe in this our age of easy computer access a better way of proceeding would be discuss it for a year or so - that is, everyone discuss it - and then put it to a vote of the world.

Let science explain, people decide. (Hmm... almost sounds like a familiar cable news slogan, there...)

But this isn't a dispute about a medical procedure, or application of a new technology of transportation. It's a debate about definitions. Why not let humanity decide?

Useful links:

Is Pluto a Planet?: A Historical Journey through the Solar System good historical background

http://www.plutoisaplanet.org/ lots of info, including details on Feb 4, Save Pluto Day

listen to the podcast

Not Snakes, The Chronology Protection Case, On A Plane - To Antarctica

No, not snakes on a plane- maybe better (I hope) - but I thought I'd to tell you this true little story...

At about 6:10 pm on Monday , I logged on to Podcast Pickle - a nice board etc for podcasters - and saw a note: Broadcasting Your Podcast at the South Pole...

The gist: This is the busy, populated season in Antarctica - meaning, about 4000 people live there, many scientists, from 27 different countries. But the Internet connection is slow (hmm... I wonder if they have the same provider I do, a little north of NYC...) But the Internet in parts of Antarctica is not much good for transmitting even just audio material.

So - an organization called Polar Radio was arranging to send some CDs down to Antarctica - on a plane leaving Cape Town, South Africa on January 11. Any CDs of any podcasts, music, anything would be gratefully received.

It was now about 6:14pm in New York, give or take a few seconds, and the date was January 8. I call UPS. Yep, they ship to Cape Town. A CD can get to Cape Town by January 11 - they can't guarantee the exact time. They do offer that I would have to get the package into their system by 6:30pm... or in 14 minutes...

It's now 6:16pm. I don't have time to make CD copies of my podcasts - I almost don't have time for anything. But I make a copy of my radioplay - The Chronology Protection Case - the one performed live at the Museum of TV and Radio in NYC in September 2002, nominated for an Edgar by the Mystery Writers of America, etc. (Yeah, I always have a copy handy, you never know when a Hollywood producer may come calling...)

It's past 6:21 now, but I scribble a note, feverishly put the CD in a UPS package ... and I get it into their hands by 6:30!

But now part 2 of the fun begins. I see, by tracking, that my package makes it to Germany, pretty fast. But there it sits - a long day - why? - until it gets put on a plane to Cape Town.

I get confirmation of delivery: January 11, 11:48am, local Cape Town time. But did it make the plane? (de plane, de plane...)

And late last night, I got a thank you e-mail: the CD arrived just in time. (Que scene from Casablanca ... someone runs up to Rick with a package by the plane...)

And so ... I'm very happy about this. I'm not quite sure why. Well, yes am I am. Antarctica, I think, is about the closest you can get to being on another planet on this Earth. So my Chronology Protection Case will soon be heard in Antarctica. And, then ... who knows ... maybe next year, the Space Station, next decade Mars, then 'round Alpha Centauri ... the cosmic is the limit-

Wait a minute - I hope, in my rush, that I put the right CD into that package ... no, I'm sure I did... seriously... I think ... no, I'm sure...

Useful links:

Polar Radio: http://www.radioqualia.net

The Chronology Protection Case radio play: http://odeo.com/audio/4008363/view (hey, it's free) - or look for the little player about half-way down on the panel on the right

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Digg and Wikipedia: Further Adventures in Gate-Opening

The latest stop in my world-wide-web tour of new media without gatekeepers brings me to . . . Digg.com - where readers not editors decide what is in the headlines, what makes the front page - because there are no editors.

First, the basics: You, anyone, can become a user or participant on Digg, as easily as you can on MySpace, gmail, Yahoo, and the rest. Once you have an account on Digg, you can submit a story - that is, list on Digg an already existing story, from some online venue, any online venue, a blog, a newspaper online, whatever, as long as it has a URL. (But not MySpace - at least not today - as I'll explain below.) Most of the stories are about some aspect of news - entertainment, business, tech, etc - and Digg also has listings for videos and podcasts.

But listing is just the beginning, and by no means the most revolutionary aspect of Digg. Because once listed, a story can be "dugg" by any other members of Digg - who also have the option of "burying" a story (which also can be just ignored, too). The more net diggs a story has, the higher it gets in the rankings. And the highest ranked stories make the front page, where they can be seen and ranked by everyone who logs on to Digg.

Newly entered stories get put in a high profile upcoming category, where they'll sink or swim - get buried or get too few diggs to make the front page, which of course happens to most stories.

Users also can comment on stories, and these comments can themselves be dugg or buried (but buried comments are still viewable - requiring just a click to come back from the grave).

Now, if this system seems Wikipedian to you, I'd agree. What Wiki is to encyclopedias, Digg is to news media - in both cases, the reader has replaced the expert editor. The aggregate of humanity, rather than the professional few, are calling the shots. There are some differences. Wiki is even more open to the unidentified masses - anyone can edit on Wikipedia, you don't need an account. And, of course, befitting an encyclopedia, the best articles live forever in equi-accessibility on Wiki - which also doesn't put new articles up for a vote, unless someone sees a problem with them. On Digg, articles sooner or later fall in the listings, out of sight and out of mind of most readers.

But the similarities are impressive, considering that Digg and Wiki are, after all, two very different systems. Digg, like Wiki, is constantly embroiled in the struggle between Light and Darkness - between vandals and builders - that is also the daily tableau on Wikipedia. A Digg vandal, for example, would be someone who puts up links to the same bogus article, with cleverly different URLs. Or a vandal with a couple of hundred friends on Digg can make a lame article very popular. People who want to "game" the system have lots of opportunities.

And, just as Wikipedians can sometimes remove worthwhile articles in an attempt to keep the encyclopedia up to often blurry standards (such as "neutral point of view"), Digg can keep certain items out of its system, whatever their quality. I just noticed today, for example, that MySpace blogs - any URL with the blog.myspace.com prefix - is not allowed listing, because some entry or entries with that prefix were "reported" (meaning, accused of being part of some gaming or vandalism).

But as I do with Wikipedia, I think the pros far outweigh the cons on Digg, precisely because the system gets imput from everyone, not just the pros. In the old media system, Walter Cronkite used to end his CBS Evening Newscast with the words "and that's the way it was..." But the truth is, that kind of news cast did and still does reflect the way that a tiny group of editors think you should think that it was ... That would have been a lot to admit, at the end of a newscast.

The New York Times still says you're getting "all the news that's fit to print" when you read the paper. But the truth is you're getting all the news that a small group of editors deemed fit to print. Doesn't parse very well, either.

Digg, whatever its flaws, is a valuable alternative to that kind of pretension.

Have a look for yourself - www.digg.com

Expanded podcast with some additional points: diGGin' Round